The clocks were set to central daylight time on the day I was born. The clock on the microwave next to the stove where my dad was boiling water for pasta read four and some minutes when, from the living room, my mom said, I think we need to go to the hospital. She and my dad got in the car with no bags, none of the Sunday newspapers they’d spent the afternoon reading, and drove east toward Lake Shore Drive, which they’d take south to Michael Reese Hospital.
There are seven clocks in my one-bedroom apartment, two that tick loudly, two that don’t tick, and three digital ones, all set to slightly different times not on purpose but because achieving such widespread accuracy is tough when you’re twisting hands on faces with no numbers and constantly resetting the one digital clock that runs slow because it’s meant to be connected to DC power.
I was born on Memorial Day weekend, a Sunday. Chicago was clear and warm, perfect for barbecues.
I started wearing a watch as soon as I could tell time. My first watch’s hands had tiny blue faces and names and a story from Swatch: Flik goes quick and Flak stays back. More than two decades later, I worry about time both near and far: how long it’ll take me to walk to my afternoon meeting, how long it’ll take me to fall in love with a yet-unmet man, how long it’ll be before I and this man who doesn’t exist get married. Every time another friend posts a photo on Facebook with her fiancé, her hand on his shoulder so you can see the diamond in iPhone flash, the panic bubbles. My current boyfriend, whom I don’t suspect I’ll marry, tells me I misuse “jealousy” and “envy.”
Sun fell through the windows of the maroon Volkswagen Golf onto my mom, reclined as far as her seat would allow. She was upright enough to see, just before the entrance to the Drive, that traffic was nearly stopped until at least Navy Pier, and upright enough to also see, in the sideview mirror, a canine-unit police cruiser a few cars away. My dad got out to talk to the police. My wife is in labor, he said to the canine-unit man. Follow me closely, the man said. They weaved through the dense traffic all the way south, where they exited, headed briefly west, and reached the hospital, two months early. My mom found the nearest wheelchair and sat in it.
If being late is a sign of self-involvement, then being early should be a sign of selflessness. But it’s not. It too is a kind of self-involvement, a deliberate refusal to measure accurately—and show up on time—because of the egotistical notion that your presence—you being somewhere—is so important that it’s best to err on the side of early.
I used to set my watches early, not to trick myself into being on time, as the chronically late may do, but to have the feeling, any time I looked at my wrist, that I was already early.
Taped in my dad’s baby book are a lock of brown hair, the first tooth he lost. In it are Wisconsin-cursive lists of birthday presents and friends and milestones: walking, talking, adding, bike-riding—each with a date, and every year with a set of height and weight numbers, an upward trajectory that ended at 13 years old. How much can time hold? How much can data tell us? I do not know how large 13-year-old boys should be, so my dad’s 63 inches and 103 pounds are unremarkable—or, rather, remarkable not for their content but for their specificity, for the fact that they exist at all.
In the hospital my mom told the nurse she hadn’t yet gone to Lamaze classes, she didn’t know what she was doing. The nurse told her to pick something physical to focus her gaze on, so my mom looked out the sixth-floor east-facing window and found in the turquoise wide-waled lake a sailboat to stare at. But then it was late-spring evening, and the sailboat disappeared into the reflective black of night over water, and there was no more looking and there was no more waiting: I was born.
So began my fraught relationship with the clock, that device to set and measure against, to check and deny and obsess over, that metaphor for money so weakly stripped of its nonfigurative roots. Always afraid of being late, I started young being early—to the school bus stop right in front of my house, to turn in homework and dotted-line handwriting exercises in kindergarten, where my teacher suggested I would have more luck closing the space between the spine of the lowercase h and its hump if I stopped rushing. But I couldn’t: There was always time to run out of, and the space remained.
I didn’t cry at first. Why isn’t she making any noise? my mom asked. No one answered. They whisked me away. It wasn’t until the next morning that they let my mom hold me.
“If being late is a sign of self-involvement, then being early should be a sign of selflessness. But it’s not.”
My mom holds my anxieties: You will have enough time to get everything done, she says, because you always do. Have you ever turned something in late? she asks, and I don’t have to tell her no—all I have to do is look down in defeat, beaten again by my own habits.
From the start I was measured in time: born two months early, crying five minutes late.
In elementary school, being late was called being tardy. You could rack up tardies. Or you could have a pathological problem with the risk of being on time, not even tardy, and dash out the door each morning with the weight of worry in your mouth, and every morning, you, which is to say I, could and would tell my dad, who walked me to school, that it was his fault we were going to be late, only to tell him, when we rounded the last corner and saw the black asphalt and backstop and the tan brick school building I wouldn’t need to be in for another 15 minutes, that I was sorry, only to do it all again the next day.
Time segments, time builds up.
If being early is being ahead of time, then being early is dwelling in emptiness.
At the airport my dad always used to a buy a newspaper or go to the bathroom right as the plane was about to board. My mom would get upset. I learned to imitate her, and then I learned to be upset on my own. But I didn’t learn to get as nervous at airports as she does. I’m comfortable with an hour buffer: enough time to wait in unexpectedly long lines and still get a snack but not so much time that my butt will go numb from sitting on hard terminal chairs. The one time I almost missed a flight, I got to the gate as people were boarding. I’d convinced the TSA agents to let me cut to the front of the security line only to have my bag searched by hand. They’d found the weathered brick, harvested from my parents’ backyard, that I intended to use as a bookend. We can’t let you bring this on, the man told me. I know you wouldn’t, but you could hit someone with it, he explained. Maybe I wanted to check it? No, I said, I do not want to check my brick—you can keep it. He placed it in a bin below the conveyor belt, and I dashed off to my gate, weaving around rolled suitcases and beeping electric carts, very on time if the place weren’t an airport, where an on-time passenger is considered late and an on-time flight is considered early.
Outside a bar in Barcelona, a man asked my friends and me if any of us had a lighter. We were standing in a circle under a cloud of smoke that rose to a curlicued metal balcony above. A friend handed over a red Bic. The man said thanks, asked if we had the time, and we all turned to each other as he cupped his hand around his cigarette; I could hear his lips against the filter. Eventually the gazes fell on me, the only one with a watch. I thrust my wrist forward and showed him the round white face, unwilling to attempt the math: In Catalan, time is a matter of addition and subtraction. If it’s 1:34, it’s two quarters of two, plus four. Time crumbles and builds around convenient numbers, those upright-minute-hand times on which we agree to meet because they seem less arbitrary than the numbers not divisible by five or ten. Catalan time hovers around itself, as if focusing, the calculations drawing nearer to the exact number, dancing like moths aiming for the light. Telling time in Catalan is like telling time with a watch purposely set wrong: You set it that way because you think the math will be too cumbersome and the purposely wrong time will have its intended effect; you stop looking at clocks in Barcelona, hoping you can live with the relaxed attitude of a place where dinner doesn’t happen till long after the sun has set and the banks close at lunchtime. But the math becomes easier, then it becomes a habit, and the time of everything shifts but remains time, which is, if anything, exact.
If I know I’ll always be early, then why don’t I always leave late? The future has an end.
A friend and I have been wondering about the passage of time and tall buildings: Does time pass more slowly or more quickly for a person on the top floor? We keep not looking up the answer online. We trace orbits through the air between us with both hands, our elbows the center points around which planets spin.
Lately I’ve been waking up early, by which I mean before my alarm. The red minutes taunt me, pale against the easing morning. I’m either afraid I won’t wake up when it goes off or I’m operating according to a slightly faulty internal clock, one so programmed by years of punctuality-induced anxiety it won’t let even the start of the day arrive on time. When I do make it till the alarm, I’m pleased: I’m not impatient for the day to start, but I’m impatient for the night to end. Or I’m impatient to get the next thing started, because the next thing is often all I think about.
Time zones were standardized for railroads. Without common clocks, distance would strand people in time and send trains crashing into one another. Now, getting to the train early means shivering under the heat lamps or shivering in the dripping tunnel, men around me I don’t trust, space to maintain.
If I don’t get married in the next year, then my clock will diverge from my parents’—I won’t get married at the age they did. And if I don’t get married in the next year, then what. Then I’ll fantasize even more about time travel, even more about men, about being younger so the deadline is further away, so the ticking time can keep ticking until—
to match the story, but not all of it. Not the bedrest months, not the months of not being pregnant but wanting to be, not the dead-too-early parents. But the marriage—I wouldn’t mind that.
I still have to say in my head a fake TV promo—“Eight, seven central”—to remember which way the time zones move.
At the wedding of the first of my friends to get married, standing at the front of the church in a blue bridesmaid dress and gold heels, hair in an updo that required 25 bobby pins, I wondered what the audience saw when they looked at me.
Yes, I realized, life goes by faster at the top of a building, like at the peak of a panic.
As a kid I’d get to school early, judo practice early, I’d finish standardized tests and reading assignments early, but I wouldn’t, it turns out, finish math tests early. Sitting on a metal chair, plastic desk prone to hand-squeaking holding the stapled exam, sometimes I wouldn’t finish at all. I’d be so nervous about running out of time that I’d run out of time. The sound of pencils, frantic tapped bursts and hurried erasing like fabric rubbed against itself, the four sure lines of a boxed answer like someone announcing “I got it right”—it would all hold me unwriting at that desk, facing so much unlined white paper to be filled in so little time until that time was up.
“My first phrase was ‘not a baby, a girl.’ Already I was defining myself in terms of time, on a timeline on which each moment of now passes inexorably from the future into the past.”
Time runs like colors, like tights. Time crawls and time passes—not away, in euphemistic death, but by, like passing by a storefront.
Now I yearn for extra time in life, that boring existential desire of a person who has the luxury of worrying about meeting self-imposed life-stage deadlines.
Why, when a friend was waiting to be picked up at the airport by two dude friends, was she not mad when they showed up 45 minutes later than promised? Why, she asked me, did she tell them it was fine when, had the friends been women, she would’ve been pissed? We blame it on societal expectations, she said. That’s like blaming pain on a bruise: Where did the bruise come from?
A woman needs only to say “I’m late” in a certain tone of voice to convey either fear or hope.
My computer calendar now offers to remind me of an event when I need to leave for it. But that’s much too late: I might not be dressed yet, I might not have decided whether I’m going to walk or take the train. It’s too late because the time at which I need to leave is already too late to leave to be early.
The night I was born, while my mom was in labor, my dad called my grandfather to ask him to take the dog out. Right after, my mom’s doctor showed up, in white pants and a pastel blouse, arriving straight from a Memorial Day barbecue. She hadn’t had time to change.
Because I was born early, there was, until I was eight months old, no place for me on the growth charts. I’d jumped the gun so much that I couldn’t even be counted, and everyone else couldn’t be my context. It was as if I existed in a vacuum in which time was absolute and I was never even early (or late) because there was no one else to show up.
Being late is needing an excuse: I was stuck on the train, the train never came, I spilled a bottle of lotion, I forgot my umbrella. The excuse can be real or fake—it matters only for the one saying it, not the excuser. The trouble comes when a real excuse was in the repository of fake ones, and the late person feels like she’s wasting it when she has to use it as truth.
I was stuck at the hospital for 25 days. When my parents took me home, I came with a beige apnea monitor the size of a picnic basket. For three months, an alarm would sound if I stopped breathing or if the wires disconnected. Every day no alarm, the same data, and time was passing, and my parents were growing tired of the testing at home and the testing at the hospital and finally, they said, Enough.
Even then you were early, my mom told me once. She meant impatient.
My first phrase was “not a baby, a girl.” Already I was defining myself in terms of time, on a timeline on which each moment of now passes inexorably from the future into the past, per Aristotle: “Whenever we notice the before and after, then we say that there is time.”
My mom did not worry about me being born early. She wonders now why she didn’t worry more.
It can be too early to tell, too late to make a difference. It can be too early in the morning, too late at night. It can be an early surprise or a late change, an early predictor or a late adjustment.
It can be early days, like when I first embarked on the project of being late more often. I’d sometimes succeed in showing up at the college dining hall after whomever I was meeting, but mostly I’d fail and would still get there first, ticking away time by doing the student-newspaper crossword.
My Sunday paper arrives late Saturday night, and whenever I come home to it and reach down to pick up the puckered blue bag, I like to think I’m time-traveling. But then I feel older, and I remember I’m supposed to be worried about meeting the deadlines of growing up.
For the past week my computer has been unable to open the “Time” Wikipedia page. It spends a few seconds frantically loading and reloading the site before it gives up and goes gray, telling me an error has occurred.
The only rule is time, but really the only rule is expectations.
From Beyond Measure. Used with permission of Sarabande Books. Copyright © 2018 by Rachel Arndt.