A young man stops time whenever things get rough
by Rich Larson
Cesar is splayed on his stomach across the gleaming white kitchen tiles of El Pimpi’s Seafood Bistro, peering at the cockroach that is about to wreak havoc. Up close he can see the striations on its folded wings, count the spiky hairs on its rear legs, even spot a bit of his reflection in its slick yellowish-black exoskeleton.
“I’ve been doing some trig, Kenny,” he tells the cockroach. “Some angles and stuff. I fear for you. Devon wears size thirteen, and he’s, well, he’s right there.”
Cesar rolls over onto his back, tucking his hands under his head to look up at Devon the server, whose eyes are bulging with surprise and whose foot is lifted into the air, ready to stomp. The sole is worn mostly smooth, with a sliver of bright green chewing gum wedged into the remaining tread.
The tray he was carrying is now connected to only two fingertips. The glass pitcher of water is past the point of no return, already adrift in the air, its contents sloshing out in a frozen parabola of droplets.
Micha the line cook, twisting at the waist in response to Devon’s shout, is going to get it full in the face. Hopefully it doesn’t make her slip with the knife, which is poised over a bright orange bell-pepper but is also perilously close to her index finger.
Of course, none of this has to happen right away. Cesar can simply keep things as they are, how he has for at least a month, a month of wandering through this little restaurant. His own personal museum display: Commercial Seafood in the 21st Century. He could write the guidebook by this point.
Cesar scoots onto his knees, then stands up, brushing off his pants. “Doesn’t look good for you, Kenny,” he says. “But at least you’re safe for now.”
The restaurant windows show a permanent evening, but it feels like breakfast time, so he heads to the freezer and cracks open a pail of dark chocolate gelato.
n n n
The second time Cesar intentionally stopped time, he was nine years old and in the Calgary airport. He and his dad and his older sister, Chelo, heading for a fresh start.
He remembers there was so much going on, so many things he wanted to look at: the little room full of flashing arcade games, the wobbling fountain with coins scattered in its pool, the businesswoman rushing for her flight with her wheeled suitcase flying behind her, the tall greeter with a big, leathery cowboy hat, the planes rumbling along the tarmac outside.
He just wanted it all to stop, so he’d have time to see everything.
And it did. It stopped.
At first it was terrifying, throwing him back into his nightmares; he saw floating shards of glass and twisted metal all around him. But this time, he could move. So he tugged free from his dad’s frozen hand, and the fear subsided. Instead he felt sheer wonder.
He spent a whole sunny afternoon running wild through the airport, picking change out of the fountain to feed the arcade, raiding the vending machines for Twix and Oh Henry! bars, taking an actual captain’s hat to wear while he sat in the kiddie airplane ride.
When he found his way back to his dad and sister, he was still half-convinced he was dreaming. Both of them were standing in place. That was the first time Cesar remembers taking a really long look at them: his dad frowning down at his phone because he was trying to find their boarding passes, his sister buried in the book with the ugly clown on the front that she’d bought with her own money.
Chelo was always reading. She would go days at a time hardly speaking to anybody, hardly lifting her head out of her book. Once Cesar whined and begged for her to stop reading and play with him long enough that their dad plucked the book out of her hands and tossed it across the room. But even then Chelo didn’t really play with him. She just handed him Lego blocks one at a time, her eyes puffy red, glaring over at their dad, and it wasn’t fun at all.
Their dad was always frowning, either because he was busy with something or because his bad back was flaring up. Cesar only saw him smiling in old photos. As Cesar looked at him now, the unease that had been rising inside him like cold black water spilled over the edge.
This wasn’t the first time things had paused. He had tried to explain it once to his dad, and once to the therapist his dad said later was a fucking waste of money. The therapist had told him adrenaline can slow things down so much they seem to stop completely.
But this was something else. Cesar put his shaking hand back in his dad’s. He exhaled. Unpause.
Just like that, everything started moving again. Neither of them asked where he’d been, though Chelo asked later about the jangling coins weighing down his pockets.
From then on, he paused whenever he wanted. It didn’t take long for him to realize most people couldn’t do what he did. They were all being carried along at the same speed all the time, with no way of stopping. That’s why things fell on them, or they couldn’t think of the right answer in class, or they never suddenly had new objects in their hands or pockets. That was why his mom hadn’t saved herself.
Cesar knew, from a young age, with a deep certainty, that he shouldn’t tell anyone how different things were for him—they would think it was cheating. And they would wonder why he had let his mom die.
It would have to be his secret.
n n n
Cesar sets the chocolate-smeared spoon back down on the tabletop, looking out into the same muggy evening he has for weeks, facing away from the booth he avoids. He has never stopped time for this long before. He imagines the frozen people all around the world, the arguments arrested mid-sentence, the fingers caught on their way to triggers, the cars stuck milliseconds from fatal crashes.
In a way, he is a hero every time he pauses. He is saving countless lives, fending off not only death, but entropy too. Keeping erosion at bay, halting pollution and stalling climate change, staving off the heat death of the entire universe. There can be no catastrophes. No disasters. This way everything is preserved, even if he’s the only one to see it.
“What do you think, Hank?” he asks the man across from him. He knows his name because he went through his wallet. Hank Renwick, forty-eight years old, eating steamed mussels with an expression of mild suspicion on his face. “I’m sort of a hero, right? No heart attack for you. No sneaker for Kenny the cockroach. Nothing bad can happen if nothing happens.”
Hank says nothing back. Cesar wipes his spoon clean on a napkin, then leans over and hangs it carefully off Hank’s nose.
n n n
Cesar used his little secret to make people like him. The simplest way was to steal things for them: pry answer-sheets out of teachers’ frozen fingers, slip a stack of bills from the Superstore checkout before the cashier’s drawer slid shut, wander through a convenience store diorama and come out with slushies and chocolate bars for everyone.
It was easy to make sure there were always neighborhood kids laughing and talking around him, to make up for his house being so quiet and angry.
What Cesar liked most was impressing people. At first he did sleight-of-hand tricks, coin tricks, card tricks. He didn’t bother to learn how the real tricks worked. All he had to do was stop time and rearrange the deck or hide the coin. Then, as he got more ambitious, he did bigger stunts. Making things disappear and reappear in impossible locations. Reading minds. Winning a dozen coin tosses in a row, no matter whose coin was used. Some of the kids in his school swore he was magic, actually magic, which Cesar liked a lot.
By the time he was in the ninth grade, he was as popular as anybody. He could always get smokes and liquor for basement parties, with no need to ask Chelo, who had her own ways of getting them. He always wore the best sneakers. Always had the clever comebacks. And any older kids who razzed him at the start of the year for being short or having a lot of pockmarks fell victim to a hard and fast succession of pranks.
Becky VanderPlas wasn’t impressed, not even a bit. She and her dad had moved from Ontario, but before that they were from Holland, and Becky still had an accent that put big fluttery moths in Cesar’s stomach. She was a little taller than him, significantly smarter, and she had gleaming blonde hair that she usually kept tucked up under a baseball cap. Like him, she hadn’t had a mom for a long, long time.
They were in the same English class, so he changed the teacher’s seating plan to make sure they were both in the back corner, where it was easiest to talk. Cesar loved hearing her talk. She had been all over Europe as a little kid, and she wanted to go back, she said, and then all around the world. She had big plans. Cesar thought she was the most perfect person possible.
After a week of asking her for a pen and duelling her back and forth in a competitive tic-tac-toe series, he made her a bet. If he could guess five coin flips in a row, she had to buy him a dark chocolate ice cream cone from Marble Slab. He had it all planned out. He would buy her one back, then from the Marble Slab it was a short walk down to Muskoseepi Park, and there was a wooden bridge there that seemed like a great place to kiss someone.
At the end of class, while the teacher was writing homework on the board, he let her flip the coin. Each time it landed he would freeze things, pluck it gently out of her hand, check and return it. But he noticed that her bright blue eyes, rather than getting wider each time, were narrowing.
“It’s a fifty percent chance I get it,” he said, grinning at her before the final toss.
“But you guessing right five times in a row is one in thirty-two,” she said. “Because it’s one in two to the power of five.”
“No math allowed in English class,” he said.
She flipped the coin one last time. As she caught it and slapped it onto her wrist, where Cesar could see a soft blue vein he’d never noticed before, he froze things. It was tails. But when he told her as much, she shook her head.
“It is,” he insisted. “Look.”
“I’m not going to look,” she said. “You’re cheating. I can tell from your face. You always know what it’s going to be. It isn’t even exciting for you.”
“How could I cheat?” Cesar demanded.
“No clue,” she said. “Buy your own ice cream.”
Something boiled over inside Cesar right then. The anger that his dad sculpted into small smooth shapes, and his sister wore like spiny skin, showed up as a tidal wave. He knew Chelo and his dad wouldn’t love him, couldn’t love him, but everyone else was supposed to.
He froze things and ran. First to the small gym to get a baseball bat, then out into the parking lot. He destroyed the first car he saw, smashing in the headlights, shattering the windows, swinging over and over even after he jarred his shoulder hitting the hubcap.
Then he started sobbing, because it looked too much like their old family car must have after the crash. For a long time he lay on the pebbly tarmac and breathed in, out. Circling birds were frozen in the suspended clouds above him.
He dried his eyes and went back to his seat, stapling a careless smile to his face.
n n n
Cesar is lapping water out of the air, sticking out his tongue to snag the droplets extending from Devon’s pitcher. He has never stopped time for this long before. He wonders, idly, if there might be a sort of limit. If he might be depleting some internal battery in his gut that lets him put reality on hold. If there is a limit, he shouldn’t be here in the restaurant. He should be making the most of this frozen world.
But just as he can’t quite bring himself to start things up again, he can’t quite bring himself to leave either. Instead he goes back to the dining floor, this time sliding in at a table next to a couple on a date. Their names are Jack and Kristine. He decided a while ago that the date’s not going so well. They both look nervous: he has dark pit stains; she’s halfway through shredding a paper napkin to pieces.
He thinks he knows exactly what they’re feeling. There is a unique sort of fear that centers on the opening mouth of a person across from you. The void of possibility where neurons have fired and thoughts have coalesced, but the words are still locked away in their throat. For most people, that moment is brief, so brief it goes almost unnoticed.
Cesar can make that moment last an eternity.
“Just cut him loose, Kristine,” he advises. “There’s still a photo of his ex in his wallet, for Christ’s sake.”
He could almost swear Kristine’s head nods in response. He’s been at this too long.
n n n
Cesar tried every trick in the book to make Becky want him, including the not-trying trick, but nothing worked and by the twelfth grade he had other problems. His dad got a diagnosis, pancreatic cancer, and he explained it all so calmly Cesar didn’t realize it was a big deal until he found him passed out on the living room floor, right under the spinning ceiling fan, shadows marching over his face.
Cesar felt so guilty. He could steal cash from a register without feeling a thing, but now he knew that each time he’d stopped time, the spiky lump of mutated cells in his dad’s gut had been frozen in place, and each time he’d unstopped it, he’d let it start growing again. Knowing this made him feel like he’d given the cancer permission, over and over, to eat his dad up from the inside. It made him remember the backseat of the car.
He had more time than anybody, but now his dad had no time at all. If the chemo had started back when that knot of cells was tiny, it might have saved him, but now all it did was turn him into a scarecrow, turn his face gaunt and hollow and his wristbones into doorknobs. He was always exhausted. Cesar’s sister put university on hold to take care of him, and Cesar promised her, with his eyes rubbed raw-red, that he would take care of the bills.
He did it at a racetrack, one of the shady ones that hadn’t gone fully digital for betting. It took a few tries to figure out a system. Fill out a betting slip for any old horse, wagering the limit, cash down from a series of small robberies. Sit and watch the race, freeze things a millisecond after the winner was confirmed, go back into the office and replace his betting slip with a more accurate version.
The first time he made it all work, the first time he won really big, it was such a thrill he was almost tempted to tell his sister what he’d done. But she nipped it in the bud. She took the reusable grocery bag full of cash and shook her head at him.
“I don’t want to know,” she said. “Dad doesn’t need to know either.”
Money could only do so much, and a year later their father was on his deathbed. Cesar spent a whole restless day roaming through the frozen hospital, fleeing the tableau of his dad’s room, where his dad was lying with his face a horrible wax grimace, where his sister was caught mid-sob. He had the horrible suspicion that they had grown closer over the past year, that they had somehow connected to each other in a way Cesar had never done with either of them. He had spent most of his time trying to stay out of the house.
If his mom had still been around, maybe she could have shown him how. Maybe she could have shown all of them how.
Now Cesar looked into a dozen hospital rooms with a dozen dramas playing out to the same conclusion. He wandered up and down the halls, sometimes clutching his head, sometimes screaming with nobody able to hear it.
Powerless again. He could keep his dad alive, but he couldn’t even speak with him. The chances for that were gone, wasted. All he could do was delay the inevitable. Even so, when he finally let things start up again, it felt like he was killing him.
Becky sent him her condolences a week later. Cesar typed and deleted about a hundred replies, but in the end he sent nothing back.
n n n
It feels like afternoon, so Cesar is getting drunk. Every time he stops time, there are a million gleaming glass doors thrown open on a million different possibilities. Every time he starts it again, they slam shut. For everyone in the entire world. His little vices help him care less about that. He’s working his way through the beer fridge and he’s already raided the back office for coke. The only problem is it makes him want to talk to people, and there’s nobody to talk back to him.
After a long piss in the restaurant bathroom, he stares into the streaky mirror and wonders how old he really is. His reflection and his birthdate say that he’s twenty-four, but with all the times he’s hit pause, he must be at least a year older than that, and he feels decades older. His face has started to swell, ruddy with smashed capillaries, overgrown with wiry beard. Too much eating and drinking and snorting and smoking.
There are people in the restaurant to talk back to him, but he has to talk to them first.
“Looking good, asshole,” he says to the mirror.
He pumps sanitizer onto his hands and then heads for the liquor shelf.
n n n
Cesar didn’t bother finishing school. After attending his father’s funeral, with the long droning sermon and the pneumatics that stalled twice trying to lower the casket, after standing over that big gaping hole that people were throwing roses into, for some reason—like that might fill it up—Cesar ran. He felt like he understood now: time was voracious. Time was an animal at his heels.
At everyone’s heels, but only he was forced to turn back and see it there, over and over, count the teeth in its maw. He read about the history of timekeeping on a transatlantic flight. He read about the psychology of time perception on a tour of Southeast Asia. It took him months to work through the dense coffee-stained book. Becky, who still messaged every so often to comment on his travels, would have read it in a week and explained it far better. But he finished the book, and it reinforced his suspicions.
The cruellest trick time played was its seeming acceleration: how those childhood summers lasted forever, but each successive summer represented a smaller proportional slice of overall lifespan, and so felt shorter. Eventually the years blurred by like a whirl of dead leaves. He would wake up old one day, and it was going to feel like no years had passed at all.
The only preventative measure, the only way to keep things from blurring, was salience: new experiences, new places, new people. So he ran all around the world, taking frozen snapshots of flour-soft beaches in Cadiz, the towering Frauenkirche in Munich, swooping yellow cable cars in Medellin. He wandered through rooftop parties in Dubai and the underground kind in Budapest.
He could go where he wanted and buy what he wanted. Money was easy to come by, and the few times men in suits or police uniforms came looking for him, he hit pause and vanished from under their noses. He sent messages to his sister every so often, along with funds for her tuition, but one day she stopped accepting the transfers and not long after that the messages tailed off.
She still saw him when he came home to visit, but she had a kid on her hip and a new house and no hint of a smile for him. She told him she didn’t want to get mixed up in whatever illegal shit he was doing.
“For Dad’s chemo, that was one thing,” she said. “I don’t want your money.”
Cesar didn’t know what else to give her. He told her he was sorry about leaving with no good-bye, leaving her to deal with all the aftermath. She finally smiled then, the fake kind of smile, and said it was fine. He told her it was great she was making a family.
“Mom would have liked that,” he said.
“You don’t even remember her,” she said. “Do you?”
Cesar didn’t know what to say, so he held her kid until he started crying, then left, going to the most expensive hotel he could find and tapping out a message on his phone while the concierge checked him in. He was on his third gin and tonic when Becky got to the bar. It caught him off-guard—he hadn’t really expected her to show up.
“The mystery man finally comes back,” she said, setting her bag on the counter and pulling up a screeching stool. “Are you a drug lord now, or something?”
Cesar stopped time just to look at her. The slice of blonde hair catching sunshine from the skylight, the curve of her lips, the camber of her back. He briefly considered slipping away to get a coffee, sober up a bit, so as not to blow the whole thing. But he also wanted to hear her voice more than he wanted anything else in the world right then.
If she just said the right thing, and he said the right thing back, everything would be okay.
“Yeah,” Cesar said. “Bath salts, mostly. Mostly bath salts.”
She laughed, and it was like helium all through his body.
n n n
Cesar is on the kitchen floor again, this time with a half glass of white rum and Sprite bobbing up and down on his chest. He is wondering, not for the first time, what would happen if he were to die while everything was paused. Would it start up again? He pictures it: Micha and Devon’s horror at the cockroach will be displaced by horror at a corpse on the floor. The booth he avoids will hear shrieks from the kitchen. The health inspector will be beside himself.
Or will the diorama hold? Would his last act be to end time itself?
Hard to think about. Cesar claws his hand along the cold floor tiles. He tells himself that he must do this; he was always going to do this.
n n n
When the blinds shredded sunlight onto Cesar’s face and woke him, Becky was already showered and dressed, just jamming her second shoe on. He felt a dim confusion, a sharp hangover. He remembered she was working at the airport now.
“I’ll give you a lift,” he said.
“You rented a car for while you’re here?” She straightened up. “Thought you were never going to get your license.”
“I mean, I’ll get you a cab,” Cesar specified.
“Sure,” she said. “This was fun.”
“Then I’ll move back here,” Cesar said—the words leapt off his stupid tongue before he could stop them.
She winced, and he stopped time then, paced a frantic circle around the room, trying to come up with the exact right way to deflect it, to pass it off as a joke. But she’d already seen the look on his face, and he’d already seen the one on hers.
“Just fun,” she said, when things unfroze.
“Yeah,” Cesar said, his eyes rubbed pink. “I’m going to share that cab. To the airport.”
He couldn’t help trying again, when they pulled up to Departures. He told her that she could pick anywhere in the world, and they could leave right then, the two of them. In the movies people always said things like that at airports and it always worked.
“I’ve got my own thing,” she said. “My own plans. It was a good night, though. A good little moment. Like a snapshot. Did you ever read Faust back in twelfth grade?”
Cesar shook his head. An hour later he was boarding for Beirut. He reminded himself that Becky wasn’t new, and that he needed new. He needed salience.
But in the next few months, the blur came for him anyway. He started to forget where he’d been and where he had yet to go. He saw too many sunsets and too many mountaintops and too many fucking cathedrals. He was adrift, like a jellyfish or some other spineless thing.
He held out as long as he could.
n n n
Cesar picks Kenny the cockroach up off the floor, cradling him in his palm, stroking his exoskeleton with one fingertip.
“Dubist so schön,” he whispers, mangling the pronunciation. He sets the insect down in the back-alley trash pile. Next he takes Micha’s knife gently out of her grip and lays it down a foot away on the countertop, just in case the residual reflex snaps her hand in the wrong direction. He takes Devon’s spilling pitcher off the tray so the glass won’t shatter.
Then he goes to the booth where Becky and his sister are both waiting. His sister’s eyebrows are raised; Becky’s are furrowed. There’s a flash-frozen web of neurons in their heads, halted partway through processing his confessions. When he unfreezes things, he won’t have a secret anymore. They’ll know the truth, and they’ll have questions.
His sister will ask about all the times he disappeared and reappeared as a kid, but eventually she’ll ask about the accident. He was five, she was seven. Their parents up front, their mom quizzing their dad about the radio show to keep him awake. A patch of black ice on the road.
He stopped time, for the very first time, during the rollover. He remembers screaming and screaming and thumping his hands on the booster seat, unable to look away from the suspended droplets of blood leaving his mom’s open mouth, the shocked-wide whites of her eyes. Cesar has never been able to prevent the things that really matter. Only delay them. He’ll have to tell her the truth: that he was small and scared and didn’t know what to do, so he did nothing.
Becky will have her own questions, and he wants to tell her the truth, too. Tell her how long he spent calculating each reply in the hotel bar and how many frozen hours he spent watching her asleep beside him, memorizing her face and body. She might think he did other things too. She might think he’s a lunatic, or a monster, but hopefully before she leaves he can tell her he read most of Faust.
He’ll tell her he remembers what she said about the good little moments, the moments that are so good they ache, and you want them to stay forever but you can’t make them. He can tell her it’s taken him a quarter century to figure out that the impermanence is what makes them so good.
Cesar is preventing a million disasters and a million moments of happiness. It’s time to let them go. Time to share them with the only two people he’s still connected to, no matter how tenuously.
He smells like alcohol and his face is streaky with tears, but they’ve seen him looking worse. He settles into the booth across from his two dinner guests.