On Sundays, I help my son time travel. I place him in a cardboard box, a contraption of recycled parts. Aluminum foil antennas stick out from the top and the words “Time Travel Machine” drip down the side in runny red paint that accidentally stained the carpet. My son, Vincent, is a chubby-cheeked rascal, too cute for his own good. Wisps of hair have grown from his scalp in ragged curls, and he perpetually wears a manic grin. He looks fried, like lightning has struck him. There’s voltage in the way he runs about the apartment, climbing every piece of furniture just to test how they feel, the wondrous bounce of a couch cushion, the smooth shine of the wooden coffee table.
“Dad dad dad dad dad.” He pokes my foot. He has donned his protective gear, cereal boxes duct-taped together into armor and an oversized bicycle helmet with colorful buttons glued to the top. Today is a special day for time travel. In about two hours, at 5:32 p.m., he turns four. He’s too excited to wait. I pick him up by the armpits and plop him into the open box. He pretends to click his seatbelt.
I grin, closing the top of the box. “Let’s go to the future.”
I fast-forward time by setting all of the clocks to 5:32 p.m., accounting for the seconds that pass as I move between them. The box begins to vibrate. Vincent likes aggressive turbulence, so I always fear the box will tip over.
“Five, four, three, two… take off,” I call over my shoulder.
He cheers from inside the box, his voice shaking along with his body, “UrrrrhhhhhhhhaaaaAAAHHHHHHH!”
I try to hide my laughter. As the Time Travel Machine rumbles and groans, zooming through seconds, minutes, hours, I think about how far in the future I would travel. Maybe I would travel to midnight, when his mom finally returns from working overtime at the nursing home. She will hang her keys on the hook by the front door and avoid a kiss on the cheek. She will rouse Vincent gently from sleep. She had promised him that she would always let him know when she came home. He will murmur, “Mommy,” and immediately start to snore. She will say, “Happy birthday, sleepy baby,” and that will be enough for her.
Maybe I would travel to a month from now. Vincent will tell people, “I am four years and one month old,” to people who ask about his age. He will start kindergarten, and I will be able to interview for a second job. I wonder if his mom’s daily routine will remain the same. If she will wake up at 6:00 a.m., head to her morning shift at Foodland, then head to her night shift, where she spoons soup into the drooping mouths of lonely elderly. I wonder if she will look at me and still think, This is worth it.
“CRRRAAAsshhhhhhh,” Vincent yells. The landing is big, magnificent. The box jerks to a stop. My son has finally landed in the future.
I hear sound effects coming from the box, the click of the off-switch, the shutter of the engines. While he tinkers with his controls, I pull out a small chocolate cake from the fridge. I stick candles into the top and light them one by one.
When he emerges from the box, I walk towards him with the cake.
I sing “Happy Birthday.”
“Happy birthday dear… VINCENT!” He jumps out of the box, pumping his fist in the air. He sings along despite the fact that it is his birthday.
I laugh, “Happy birthday to you.”
He blows out all of the candles in one quick puff, running around the apartment in celebration. I place the cake back in the fridge. I will light the candles again when it is actually 5:32 p.m., then again when his mom comes home. I watch him. I am in awe at my son. Another year passes by and this invigorates him, fills him with energy.
I wonder what his mom makes of his birthday. Is this a milestone for her? Is this just a reminder of her sad state, four years of strain on her tattered body? How often does she think about how we were too young for this, how we feel so old now? At the very least, Vincent is alive. We have kept him fed and housed for this long. I hope his mom is proud.
“Dad?” He hugs my leg. “Should we go back now?”
I pick him up to cradle in my arms. He is too big to hold like a baby, but he giggles when I rock him from side to side. I don’t know what to answer, so I don’t speak. I want to stay here with him, at 5:45 p.m. I want to escape the present for just a little longer.