Erase and Rewind
Louisa discovered she could reverse time on a dim suburban street, forty-eight minutes after the end of the assault.
It happened by accident: she stepped in dog shit. The shit squished over her soles of her sandals, and wrapped around her naked feet and between her toes. She stopped walking and screamed breathlessly into the night.
If it hadn't been so dark, she could have avoided the shit. If she'd been watching, if she'd been paying attention, if she hadn't been staring at the stoplights three blocks ahead, wondering if they seemed so bright because of the marijuana she'd smoked hours before or because of the gelatinous tears stuck on her corneas like contact lenses, if none of those things, she probably would have seen the shit and she probably would have avoided it.
Louisa thought about all of this, when she realized she was walking backwards. She felt her foot step into the imprint she'd left in the shit, toe-heel, and then lift, dry, and step back again onto clean concrete. She looked down and her feet stopped moving. She was standing directly behind the shit, which was now—miraculously—intact.
A string of complicated and contradicting emotions exploded within her, like a child had tipped over a tin of bouncy balls into her gut. She had stepped in dog shit, and she had reversed it. How was this possible?
Or had it even happened? The memory blurred at the edges. She remembered remembering that she had stepped in dog shit, but she couldn't recall the sensation.
No. She had reversed it. She must have. She'd been so sure a minute ago.
Louisa pulled her cell phone out of her purse and checked the time. 12:33am.
She closed her eyes and thought back.
Her eyes opened. She couldn't move. She stared at the dog shit for what felt like a long time, and then, automatically, she began to walk backwards. After a block she forced herself to break the trance again. She checked the time. 12:24am. She waited until the four became a five before lifting her chin. Already, she could barely remember the block ahead.
She not only could rewind, Louisa realized. She could erase.
The ball of sadness within her burst and spread like lava. It grew out from her gut down into the dull pain between her legs and up her torso where it seared her heart, then wound its way through her limbs. The weight of it was unbearable. It threatened to drown all other feelings.
She closed her eyes and thought back.
Louisa had only looked back once after she left Nick's house, at exactly 11:59pm.
When her head began to turn, she felt a sharp sense of relief. In horror movies, the mounting tension before the audience sees the monster is always more terrifying than the monster itself. Louisa watched a lot of horror movies.
It was just an ordinary student house. Faded blue paint chipped and fell on the un-mowed lawn. Empty forties of liquor littered the living room windowsill. Automatically, her head tilted away from her shoulder and her gaze returned to the ground. She continued to step back towards her destination. Small tears rolled up her face and into her eyes.
Back, back, she silently repeated.
Three things to know about Louisa:
1. A couple years ago, inspired by celebrities like Beyoncé and Emma Watson, Louisa and the group of girls she befriended in her first year of university began to identify as feminists. That Christmas, they all exchanged copies of The Feminine Mystique, The Beauty Myth, Bad Feminist, and autobiographies by famous comediennes like Tina Fey. Ever the diligent student, Louisa took to the Internet to learn as much about the different movements as possible. She quickly realized that not only was she impossibly ignorant, but the more she learned, the more ignorant she felt. She found some of the more extreme—a word she would only use in her head—content difficult to relate to. Consequently, while she identified as a feminist and dedicated hours each week to reading articles, think-pieces, essays, and books by feminist writers, Louisa had never written a single Internet comment, tweet, or Facebook post on the subject of feminism and preferred to hold her tongue in conversations that touched on feminist politics—or politics in general. Not because she was afraid of a right-wing backlash (although she was, a little), but because she was afraid of getting feminism wrong—like her idols, Beyoncé, Emma Watson, and Tina Fey all had in some way or the other, according to the Internet.
2. Louisa lost her virginity at seventeen to her high school boyfriend. This was something she neither regretted, nor recalled with any sort of particular fondness. She has since slept with two other people, both boyfriends she'd been dating for at least three months. She liked to joke that her relative “prudishness” was a result of “recessive Catholic DNA.” (Louisa was a math major, and hadn't studied biology since tenth grade). No one in Louisa's family believed in God or went to church—other than for weddings and funerals—but seven of her eight great-grandparents had been devout. However, the secret truth was that Louisa was a bit of prude because she was a bit of a romantic, which was just one of the many traits that made Louisa suspect she was absolutely useless at feminism.
3. At this time, there were 423 photographs chronicling Louisa's experimentations with alcohol, marijuana, and—just one time, at a deadmau5 concert—ecstasy, which were available online through her and her friends' various social media profiles. Eleven of those pictures were taken within the last four hours.
Louisa stepped backwards up the three porch steps. Her hand shot back, and the door swung open to meet her palm.
She'd rushed out of the house, and now she rushed back into it, winding her way through the foyer and up the staircase, to his bedroom door, and inside.
Nick sat upright in bed, the fly of his jeans open, his body twisted towards the open window. He was shirtless, and the slight paunch of his stomach peeked over his Simpsons boxers. He leaned outside and inhaled clouds of smoke. Each time he lifted the joint to his lips, it burned bright and lengthened like Pinocchio's nose.
They both started speaking. Their voices were guttural, haunting. Louisa imagined conspiracy theorists listening for Satanic messages in their reverse-dialect. She couldn't understand a word, and when she tried to remember what had been said the first time they'd lived this scene, she started mentally humming the lyrics to Baby, It's Cold Outside, which, for whatever reason, she found so perversely hysterical she started to giggle or maybe vomit, and Nick and his bedroom froze, then trembled.
“Ha, you're so stoned,” Nick said. “Seriously, just crash here.”
Shit. Louisa focussed and Nick repeated the words in reverse.
She dropped her purse on the desk, shrugged off her cardigan, and kneeled to fiddle with the straps of her sandals. Her hands and vision shook—she was getting drunker and higher with each receding minute. She heard Nick flick the lighter and return the joint to the small tupperware he kept in his bedside table. She stood and pulled down her underwear, and returned them to where they had been lost in the sheets. She sat on the bed and waited. Then, in a single movement, she hinged down until she lay on the bed with her arms over her head.
The secret to rewinding, Louisa was pretty sure, was passivity. She would continue to rewind as long as she allowed her body to move as it had before. The second she told it to do something different—something off-script—time would start to march forward.
Nick hovered above her. One hand clamped over her wrists, the other pinned down her left shoulder. His face was triumphant. As the look faded and he pressed down into her, Louisa unopened her eyes and reminded herself that this soon would be erased.
Close to the beginning, Louisa said something that sounded a bit like own. Own, she said. Then again, softer: own.
It took her a moment to flip the sounds. A weird sense of vindication washed through her.
She knew she'd told him she didn't want to have sex when she’d agreed to go home with him, back in the bar.
With a nudge at her ribs, he’d bet her he could change her mind.
She laughed. “Oh, like you're that good?”
He grinned. Nick had a soft face, and a pair of dimples that made him seem gentle and a little goofy. He'd delivered the warning like a joke and Louisa had ribbed back, oblivious to the punchline.
Until now, she hadn't been able to remember if she said no after that.
You fucking asshole, she thought.
Each thrust was more painful than the one before it, until at last he pulled out for good and the wound was healed.
Falling out of sleep was like floating to the surface of a deep lake.
The day before, after Louisa rewound to the point of sobriety, a complication occurred to her: if she didn't remember Nick was a threat a few minutes after time began to move forward again, how was she supposed to make sure it didn't happen again?
She could write herself a note before her memory started to fade, but would she believe it? And even if she did, they still spent three hours per week in a classroom together, and they were technically “seeing each other”, even if it had only been eight days. She'd have to drop the class. She'd have to text him that they were breaking up. This struck sober Louisa as both wildly inconvenient and potentially dangerous. So she'd kept rewinding, through to the morning until her cell phone alarm went off, and then it was Friday night and she was slowly drifting to the surface of consciousness.
Louisa had always prided herself on being a rational, pragmatic person. Like many people, she had little to no control over her emotions when she drank, but now she folded them up and tucked them into the analytical creases of her left brain. She wondered, as she turned and tossed to the faint backwards soundtrack of her roommate watching Grey's Anatomy, if it would have been better to not rewind, and just deal with the events of that night. She pushed the thought out of her mind. The fact was, the idea of going to the police or telling anyone what happened had terrified her so much she'd decided it was better to relive this terrible thing if it meant she wouldn't have to deal with the emotional and physical consequences. It had been a decision made through the lens of tequila, marijuana, and a high level of distress, but Louisa suspected she would have made the exact same call dead sober.
Three problems with Louisa's story (three reasons not to go to the police):
1. When Nick pulled down her underwear, she laughed and said, “Hey! Don't do that!” but did not physically try to stop him. She knew this because he said, “You're not stopping me.” She then continued to not stop him because his pants were on anyway, and the situation was awkward, and for reasons she would never understand, Louisa did not interpret the removal of her underwear as threatening. She was still trying to figure out how to politely tell him she wanted her underwear back when it became too late. This could be interpreted as consent.
2. She did not realize that Nick had unzipped his own fly until he was already inside of her. He entered her so quickly and without warning, it hurt like hell, and Louisa gasped in pain. She was still thinking about how much it fucking hurt when Nick asked her, already thrusting, whether or not she was on the pill. She answered reflexively: “Yeah.” This could be interpreted as consent.
3. Although Louisa did say “no” a total of three times and tried to push Nick off of her, there was a chance, she supposed, that he neither heard nor felt her try to fight him off on account of the fact that Louisa was very drunk, very stoned, and had roughly the upper-arm strength of a hamster. She stopped fighting after a few minutes and let it happen. After about fifteen minutes, desperate for the whole fucking thing to just be over, she pretended to moan and lifted her neck to gently bite his ear, which was something that had made her last boyfriend come immediately. It had ended a minute later, and recalling that, Louisa could not figure out if the intense feeling of relief she'd had when he pulled out equalled the intense feelings of guilt and shame she had about the goddamn ear-nibble, like she had betrayed herself, betrayed feminism, and betrayed society by becoming just another data point supporting the fucking theory that a woman's no is just a yes that needs a little encouragement. This could be interpreted as consent.
Louisa was not the sort of person who believed that everything happens for a reason. The human brain is designed to identify patterns and order, and where little to none exists, impose it. Louisa found the concept of destiny and the people who believed in it to be terribly boring and terribly depressing.
The rational thing to do, Louisa decided, would be to erase the whole fucking relationship.
The secret to reversing time, Louisa quickly realized, was to separate mind and body. She pictured her “mental” self as a tiny homunculus, spinning on its haunches in the back of her brain while her “physical” self, her body, followed the choreography being unwritten from her life thread. As long as her mental self didn't order her physical self to do anything, time would continue to passively march backwards. For the most part, Louisa tried not to think about what her physical self was doing at all.
She started creating elaborate fantasies to pass the hours. Many of them involved horrible and/or violent things happening to Nick. When she got bored or creeped out by the fantasies, she tried to solve complicated probability questions in her head.
On other occasions, Louisa would calculate the fraction of hours she had rewound, and how much further she had to go. As her physical self brushed tangles into her hair on Thursday night and typed away inane chat messages to Nick, she followed her eyes when they darted up to the clock in the top-right corner of her laptop and after a couple of quick calculations realized, with a slight thrill, that she was already a fifth of the way there.
Louisa and Nick had met on the second day of the September semester in a 12:30pm astronomy seminar they were both taking as an easy elective. This meant that they had known each other for 252 hours when Louisa began to rewind time.
They had spent most of Wednesday afternoon in a local coffee bar, picking away at their respective formulas. The sunset back-lit Nick. The electric candle on the table between them cast light up on his face at a sharp angle that splintered when it hit his thick-framed glasses, leaving two long shadows over his eyebrows that reminded Louisa of a cartoon villain.
She caught a glimpse of the time on the face of her cell phone when her hand lifted it from the table and turned it towards Nick. 7:47pm.
Seventy-six hours and forty-three minutes down, she thought, as her body smiled and warmed in response to a kiss Nick was about to remove from her nose. Three-tenths of the way there.
It was here, at the 175th hour of their relationship, that Louisa first considered whether her crush on Nick could grow into something more. She found him charming, smart, and cute, but there was something off-putting, like she felt an overwhelming need to impress him and because of that she couldn't quite get comfortable, and she wasn't sure whether that was because she liked him so much or because she didn't like him nearly as much as she thought she did. She remembered the conversation leading up to this thought so perfectly she could hear the words even as they were spoken in reverse.
Nick: You're adorable.
Louisa (laughing): I don't know! I thought it was funny that I thought it!
Nick: Why'd you say it then?
Louisa: That didn't even sound clever in my head.
Nick (laughing): You should be.
Louisa (laughing): I'm sorry.
Nick: Nope, shut it down. That's the worst.
Louisa (air-quoting): Like, “Nick”-name.
Nick: I think it's cute. Could be a nickname for me.
Louisa: Oh no, that's terrible. Shybrows.
Nick: My sha-brows? Shybrows?
Louisa: With your evil shadow-brows.
Nick (taking the phone): I look downright sinister.
Louisa (laughing): Oh my god.
Nick (deep voice): Calm yourself, Iago!
Louisa: Look! This is why I was laughing. Your eyebrows. You look like freaking Jafar.
She pulled back the phone and framed Nick in the screen. At 7:39pm, her finger tapped the circle at the bottom and erased the picture forever. Seventy-six hours and fifty-one minutes down. 175 hours and nine minutes to go.
Louisa took pleasure in imagining a pie chart slowly disappear, one degree at a time.
Louisa’s three theories of time reversal:
1. Erased time took approximately two to four minutes to eclipse and disappear completely after a rewind was stopped and time began to move forward again. Louisa was uncertain whether the rewound memories atrophied at a steady rate or exponentially—in which case, perhaps the faintest outline of the memories could linger on well past the four-minute mark.
2. Regardless of whether it was steady or exponential, decay time was most likely affected by both the amount of focus Louisa put into trying to retain the memories, and by the number and degree of distractions available when she stopped rewinding.
3. Louisa has always been able to reverse time, but she keeps forgetting about her power because of Theory #1. She suspected this because she had a hard time recalling any things she'd done that she'd consider to be “big” mistakes. Perhaps she was not such a rational, pragmatic person after all. Perhaps she was just a regular, illogical person blessed with the power to rewind and redo every fuck-up. Maybe tons of terrible things had happened to her—car crashes, bad grades, fights with friends, injuries, sexual assaults, and other troubles—and she'd just erased them all.
It took 104 hours of rewinding before it occurred to Louisa she might not actually forget anything that had happened to her. She had been pretty confident her memory would be erased, but now while she remembered remembering something about dog shit, she wasn’t entirely sure what it had to do with time reversal. And the more she thought about that night, the more she wondered whether any memory loss could have been the result of all the booze and weed she'd consumed. In which case, all three of her theories were likely wrong.
Louisa had no idea what the psychological effects of remembering everything would be, and she didn't want to find out. She was doing this because she believed she would forget everything, and the doubts caused her a great deal of anxiety so she dismissed them as irrational and dangerous and she suppressed them. For the first time, Louisa thought she understood faith.
With one hour until the start of astronomy class, Louisa calculated she had reached the halfway point: only 121 hours left to rewind.
Under their desks, her knee tilted against Nick's. She pulled a note out of her purse and unfolded it to reveal a Mickey Mouse-esque doodle of a molecule, with the words Hey Copper-Titanium, I have my ion you written in a speech bubble above his head.
Below the speech bubble, in her writing, a question mark.
Below that, in Nick's writing, CuTi, also a reference to your hair.
His hand slipped under hers and he pulled the note back to his desk. She watched as letter by letter, the last sentence disappeared under the nib of his pen, and to her surprise and frustration, she felt more than just a little sad.
Louisa fell out of sleep to the glow of her laptop. Her eyes fluttered for twenty or so minutes after they opened fully and Louisa recalled, with annoyance, that she'd fallen asleep while creeping Nick's Facebook page and had left her laptop open to a picture from the summer of 2007—Nick playing road hockey with friends. They would have been about twelve, but Louisa thought they looked a little younger in the photo. She rolled onto her stomach and her hands fell on the keyboard and touchpad. She started to scroll through his pictures, back to 2016. She clicked the chat tab just as Nick's final night! vanished.
As they deleted their conversation line-by-line, dread slowly built in Louisa like a hunger pang.
Louisa: Break-ups are the worst.
Nick: Haha yeah. I lived there before she moved in though.
Louisa: At least you got custody of the house.
Nick: Yeah, totally.
Louisa: Still sucks, though.
Nick: It doesn't matter. No one believed her anyway, and later she admitted she was lying because she was pissed about the break up.
Nick: Just stupid stuff. Stuff that wasn't true.
Louisa: What did she say??
Louisa: Oh man.
Nick: It's cool. She actually lived here with me and everyone, but we were fighting a lot and kept breaking up and getting back together. When we broke up the last time and she moved out, she shit talked me and was basically like I hate you so it was kind of brutal.
Louisa: (Sorry if that was super inappropriate, you don't have to answer)
Louisa: What happened?
Nick: No :-(
Louisa: Oh yeah? Civil?
Nick: Civility is good. Haha. Yeah I just broke up with someone too.
Louisa: Don't be. I broke up with him. It was pretty civil, actually.
Nick: Oh that sucks. I'm sorry.
Louisa: Well, I actually just broke up with someone and we were together two years and friends before that, so no.
Nick: Date-dates? “Date” dates.
Nick: Do you not go on date dates often?
Nick: Haha what?
Three things Louisa realized as she watched the conversation disappear:
1. She was pretty sure she knew what Nick's ex-girlfriend had said about him.
2. Nick honestly did not think he had done anything wrong to his ex-girlfriend, which meant that he honestly had not thought he had done anything wrong to Louisa, which meant that:
3. He would do it again.
Louisa wanted to disappear. She wanted to fold herself in half, fold herself in half again, then again and again and again and again and again and again until she disappeared completely, which wasn't mathematically possible, but she didn't give a shit. The homunculus in the back of her skull could no longer ignore her body. The homunculus felt seasick from walking backwards all the time. The homunculus was having a nervous breakdown.
Louisa couldn't understand a word she or Nick said as they wound backwards along the seawall, but she hated the way she never took her eyes off of him. It was sunny out, but his pupils were dilated, and she suspected hers were as well. Their eyes couldn't get enough of each other. Many of Louisa's revenge fantasies involved Nick confessing his love so she could break his heart, and now, in the back of her own mind as she observed their second date unwind, she wondered whether that meant she still believed he cared for her, or, worse, she still secretly wanted him to. It was an illness. She was sick. Her physical self was a mess of clichés, of butterflies in the stomach, heartbeats in her neck and wrists, a natural bending towards him as though opposite poles of a magnet braided through their spines. This stupid, unobservant body that failed to protect her, and the stupid, selfish person inside who would unravel 252 hours just to protect herself, and only herself, from the inconvenience of trauma, victim-blaming, the morning after pill, and an STI test. Louisa had read about what happened to girls who asked for justice. She didn't want to be one of those girls.
On camping trips her family had taken when she was a child, her father liked to joke about bears. You don't have to be fast to run from a bear, he'd say. You just gotta be faster than the guy next to you. Nick was the common denominator. If she removed herself from the equation, it didn't mean Nick would no longer be able to date or date-rape. It just meant that he would happen to somebody else, like he had already happened to somebody else. What sort of activist, what sort of feminist was she, if she was only fighting for herself? Perhaps, Louisa thought, activism is inherently selfish—born from the desire for things to be better for you and people like you. But she immediately realized this was overly simplistic, this was wrong. And anyway, she had never been an activist because she had never been active. She was a consumer of activism, she was risk-adverse to the point of inertia, too scared to do much more than occasionally hit the “like” button on Facebook. The sort of person who liked to think she was against bad things—like racism and rape culture and homophobia and all the other -isms and -phobias—but deep down all she meant was that she was against bad things happening to her.
And now, there was nothing Louisa could do. There was no going to the police, there was no reaching out to the ex-girlfriend to help her and support her, there was no telling the world what he did. The thing never happened.
In seventy-four hours they wouldn't even know each other.
Friday. The first date. Nick had suggested a nicer restaurant—in the twenty-to-thirty-dollar range. Louisa was surprised when she woke up that night to discover she was tipsy, and had been pretty tipsy for most of their date.
She descended the staircase to the foyer of her building, all the way back to their first kiss. She was flooded with warmth when they started, and as they rewound the kiss back to its inception, she grew colder and colder. He released her at the beginning of the kiss almost as quickly as she'd fallen into his arms at the end.
Louisa nodded and smiled and agreed to the date and then Nick asked her for it. As he retreated through the crowd of the student union building, Louisa caught a glimpse of a clock above the Starbucks. 2:48pm. Twenty-six hours and eighteen minutes left. Approximately nine-tenths down, one-tenth to go.
The guilt was iron in her lungs but the rewind was done, she reminded herself, again and again. She wasn't about to relive the relationship so he could assault her again, for a third fucking time, just so she could report it. Besides, she didn't realize, she didn't know. She was allowed to protect herself. The rewind was done—she couldn't undo it so she had to make the best of the decision. And she couldn't wait to forget that she'd ever made it.
Ninety minutes to go.
Only one ... 168th ... left. The pie chart was a sliver.
Before Louisa and Nick exchanged contact information, they agreed to trade class notes so as to minimize the amount of work each person was doing for their shared “blow-off” class. Before this, they exchanged names and majors. Nick, chemistry-slash-pre-med. Louisa, math with a minor in statistics. They shook hands. Then it was the end of class and the adjunct began to speak.
Louisa counted the number of times she turned her head to admire Nick's profile during this first astronomy class. Forty-six times.
Five minutes left.
She gathered her things and stood. Her body flung itself backwards up the aisle and through the doors. She'd been late because her bus was late and had sat next to Nick because it was a free aisle seat near the back. It's funny, Louisa thought, how random it was. She still didn't believe in fate.
Outside the classroom, Louisa ordered her body to stop.
Time froze, then trembled. Then the people in the hallway were walking forwards instead of backwards. Louisa focussed. You are dropping astronomy. You are dropping astronomy. Nick is dangerous and you are dropping astronomy. She pulled a pen out of her bag and wrote on her hand, drop astronomy.
A dark-haired girl brushed past her and held open the door. “You going in?”
“This is astronomy, right? You going in?”
Louisa’s head felt thick and heavy and muted. Like she had a terrible cold and couldn't form a straight thought. “No,” she said. “I'm not. I heard this class is terrible.”
“Oh, shit, really? I heard it was an easy A.”
This girl was really pretty. Louisa felt nauseated. She needed to lie down. She needed to drop this class and sign up for another.
She had to help.
“Don't sit at the back.”
“Don't sit at the back. Um. I heard the prof has a quiet voice, you won't be able to hear him.”
“Oh,” the girl said. “Okay.”
The girl slid inside the classroom and let the door swing shut behind her.
Louisa turned and walked away.
Meghan Bell is the publisher and graphic designer for Room magazine, and an MFA student in Creative Writing at UBC. Her fiction has been published in Joyland and The Impressment Gang, and other writing has appeared in The Feathertale Review, the Victoria Film Festival, and theatre festivals in BC and Ontario.