The Time Machine

By Gina Kelly

By Reyna Eisenstark

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a concert in a bookstore in Hudson, New York, when some hipster put his nearly empty pint glass right on the bookshelf next to him. (This is a bookstore so hip that it has live music and serves beer.) And noticing the glass’s precarious placement next to the James Joyce books (of all things!), I waited a few minutes until I could no longer stand it and then grabbed the glass and put it on my table. A guy closer to my age than the hipster’s sitting near me immediately said, “Thank you! That was bothering me too!” And then, “Are you a Virgo?” What I said was no, but what I thought a few days later (when I accused my own ten-year-old daughter of being a Virgo) is that what I am is  … a grown-up.

This realization had been a long time coming.

Just a few years ago, when I was forty years old and my twelve-year marriage had completely unraveled, I dated a guy who was ten years younger than me. It started out as you might expect, but it turned out that we had many things in common: favorite authors, movies, music. Remarkably, we even shared a love of certain television shows, ones that he had watched in reruns growing up and I had watched in real time.

One of the thrills of dating a thirty-year-old was living the life of a thirty-year-old, but as a forty-year-old. On the weekends, while my daughters were with their father, I would step back into another world. My young boyfriend and I would go to parties at his friends’ houses. Sometimes that meant sitting around a fire pit in a backyard, smoking way too much weed, and watching a girl dressed in a cape spinning around in a hula hoop, and sometimes it meant sitting on a zebra-print couch, in a black light-lit room decorated with black light posters, again smoking way too much weed, and wondering briefly why I had ever left my dorm. Going out with friends meant first going to someone’s house and getting sufficiently drunk before heading out into the world. Going out period actually meant staying out until two a.m. and sleeping until noon the next day.

I had done all of these things before. And in actuality it had been many years before. Somehow all these people I met in their late twenties and early thirties were living a kind of delayed life, the one I had gone through in my early- to mid-twenties until I ended up settling down with the man I eventually married, and we went to, for example, readings at the 92nd Street Y. But here they were in their extended youth, with their comic book hero costume parties, and my young boyfriend firmly in favor of staying that way for as long as possible.

And here I was, astonishingly getting to do the whole thing all over again. “You’ve found a time machine!” exclaimed my friend Susan when I told her about my weekend life. And that’s just what it felt like. A time machine that actually worked the way it was supposed to instead of the way it works in nearly all science fiction shows, with devastating results. Because honestly who wouldn’t want to return to the hedonistic days of their youth but without all that youthful insecurity and doubt? For a while there, I will admit, it really was thrilling.

I was always the oldest person wherever we went. Strangely, it didn’t bother me at all. I sometimes found myself an amused observer, smiling to myself with some inner knowledge that I knew it would take these people years to figure out. Although there were times when I saw girls, say, dressed in shorts with tights, a look I could no longer pull off, and the realization that they were just at the beginning of something made me feel envious. I was getting to experience youth, it was true, and there were times, dancing at some club in the way early hours of the morning, that I felt truly alive as I hadn’t in years, but I would have never done these things at forty were it not for my young boyfriend. And that was when I realized that my actual youth was truly over.

I liked to imagine that my boyfriend’s friends saw me as a cool, possibly striking, older woman, but I honestly have no idea. When I was about twenty-two, a friend of mine was dating (and eventually living with) a thirty-year-old woman. A bunch of us would go over to their apartment and the only thing that struck me were the lines on his girlfriend’s face, something that I hadn’t really ever noticed on anyone before. She looked older, but we all got along just fine. This seemed to be the way things went with my young boyfriend’s friends, too.

Things went on like this for about a year, but my relationship with my young boyfriend evolved into nights at his apartment cooking together and then watching a movie or some TV show like Mad Men, which was perfectly fine with me. It turned out that my young boyfriend, lost, trying to get his career started, was going through a kind of depression, but it also meant that I wasn’t staggering around exhausted at one a.m., dying to leave the bar and just get to sleep.

And then one night when I came over, wearing an old blue hoodie and expecting a night of homemade dinner and TV as usual, my young boyfriend mentioned going to a party and I actually protested. We hadn’t gone out into the real world in a long time, and I found that I had preferred it that way. But I agreed to go along.

It was on the way to the party that I had a revelation, the kind of thing that could only come to a forty-something grown-up: I did not care what anyone thought of me. I was going to go to this party and if no one liked me, it completely didn’t matter. I didn’t even have to talk to anyone if I didn’t want to! Who cared! Thus freed from the usual party anxiety, I had a rather enjoyable time, snacking on the plentiful Trader Joe party snacks, drinking beer, and standing in the corner of the kitchen in my hoodie, observing the young people around me with a permanent smirk on my face. At a certain point, my young boyfriend tried to include me in the conversation he was having with some couple, and I made just the slightest effort at being friendly. But mostly I just didn’t care.

I realized that I no longer envied these young people, with their whole lives ahead of them. I realized that they would be making the same decisions I had: they would marry or not, they would have children or not, and every decision they made would make them regret others they did not make. They were just at the beginning of this stage and I was, I realized thrillingly, relieved to be on the other side. As a seventy-year-old woman once said to me, “We are all young for the same amount of time.”

So let’s leave that party for now and return to the empty pint glass. One way to think about it is this: a twenty-something puts the glass on the bookshelf (next to the James Joyce books, for chrissakes!) and turns away from it without a second glance. The thirty-something sees the glass, feels worried and perhaps a little responsible, but ultimately turns away and hopes for the best. The forty-something sees the glass, and having seen dozens of nearly empty pint glasses spill or crash, grabs it from the bookshelf and sets it down. The glass is no longer precarious. It is exactly where it should be.


REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her essays at

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So Happy Together

By Gina Kelly

By Jennifer Niesslein

We met in the dim basement of a fraternity. The fraternity—we can’t remember which now, any one of those old columned houses lining Rugby Road—pumped music loud and we had to shout in each other’s ears to be heard. We were refilling our red Solo cups from the keg of cheap beer when we first yelled to each other. We were dressed alike, in tee-shirts and denim shorts. We joked later that we found each other because we were the two people who looked as if they shouldn’t be there, vaguely alternative kids in a sea of khakis and L.L. Bean.

We were nineteen years old. It’s funny to think that we danced that night—Hey, show this person your least impressive skill! We went outside to talk and stood close to each other. We didn’t want the night to end so we piled in with the others in Kathy’s little Honda; we slept in the same room that night, one of us in the bed, the other on the futon. From that night on, we were inseparable.

We both lost weight that first year. We woke each morning giddy that something good would happen that day: we would see each other. Of course, in the first few weeks, we were both a little cautious, consumed with a heady mix of romance and doubt. Was it completely reciprocal? Would we run out of things to talk about? Would some terrible, deal-breaking flaw reveal itself?

There was a certain kiss that tamped the doubts down. We were walking from a party, holding hands during the few blocks it would take us to get to the convenience store. We were going to buy a pack of cigarettes. We stopped and turned toward each other, savoring those seconds when our mouths were near but hadn’t yet made contact, the salty scent of our faces, the delicious nerves. We kissed. After that, we threw out caution. We took a sort of ownership of each other’s bodies, a jumble of legs and arms and mouths and love.


On the university grounds, there was another couple that looked like us, her tall and with a sheet of long hair, him taller with a mop of curls. They broke up before graduation, but we wondered if they got the same sort of comments we did. A mentally ill woman—the one who did somersaults on the pedestrian mall—told us that we were going to make beautiful children; strangers we’d just met would remark on how well matched we were. Our chemistry seemed like a force field.

We twined our lives together. We stood together outside the hospital room door and heard the first cries of our oldest nephew after his birth. We took cheap vacations to places like off-season Chincoteague, using our last ten in cash to cross the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. We stayed up late waiting for the other to get off shift waiting tables or tending bar. One summer day, we skipped work to go hiking at Sugar Hollow. It was a ways out of town and we drove with the windows open and the music pouring from the speakers. We found an easy sun-dappled trail that led through some streams, and we walked the gentle incline, bumping into each other just as an excuse to touch skin. We took pictures of each other posing on a rock that lay just beneath the surface of the water, an optical illusion of levitation.

That’s how we felt about each other: we walked on water.


We grew up to be the people we are now, shape-shifting together, holding hands like the Wonder Twins. We were the engineering major and the English major, morphing into the trumpet player and the local journalist, turning into the chemical engineer and the aspiring short-story writer. We became husband and wife, father and mother, good cop and bad cop, fly fisherman and Scrabble addict, quality assurance engineer and business owner.

We can see our flaws now, both in ourselves and each other. On the eve of our thirteenth wedding anniversary, a strong thunderstorm blew into town. A huge limb fell off our maple, hitting the yard with such force that it stuck into the earth at a forty-five degree angle. Worse, the city sewage line backed up into our basement.

We spent most of the night on the phone, calling the city and the sort of companies that clean up murder scenes. It was certainly grisly down there, the pipe in the recesses near the hot water heater spewing whole neighborhoods’ worth of filth. We rolled a dampened towel and placed it under the basement door so the smell wouldn’t permeate the rest of the house.

The next day, the city came to clear the wreckage and the cleaning company came back to scour. We lost nearly everything in the basement. We were tired and both missing work to deal with this minor catastrophe. After everyone left, we sighed, assessing our lost belongings—the antique chest that held sports equipment, a basket of laundry, the bright ceramic flowerpots bought on a long-ago Mother’s Day. Our Christmas tree and ornaments, including every one that our son had ever made and the Lenox china one of two doves, bearing in gold script “First Christmas Together 1991.”

“Did you at least save the ornament—our ornament?” one asked the other.

“No—the whole box was disgusting.”

Exhausted, we snapped then, reverting to type: one of us irritated and pragmatic, the other seething and sentimental. We didn’t speak for the rest of the day, not so much as a punishment but to avoid saying something that we couldn’t unsay. We took a nap; we came to our senses by dinnertime. It was our anniversary, for God’s sake. We had each other, even if our keepsakes, as we’d later put it, went down with the shit.


It’s been so many years, we might be the kind of people that some refer to as “smug marrieds.” We don’t know. Every partnership, it seems to us, is a locked box, knowable only to the people in it. We don’t feel smug. We feel grateful for the constant accrual of all these minutes together—the winks across a crowded room, the ass grab in the kitchen, the phone call from home, the car sex on a (whoops, not quite) deserted road, the arm to cling to at the funeral, the mispronunciations of words that our son made when he was little.

Last year, we turned forty. It sounds odd to say, but we don’t know what the other looks like anymore. We have too many associations—love, passion, comfort—to see one another with any degree of objectivity.

For people like us, forty is when you start to realize that you’re out of big beginnings. Unless something unexpected happens (or you force it to happen), there will be no new romances, no new weddings, no more of your own babies to nuzzle. You know very well that you’re not going to relocate.

Couples around us have started to break apart, tender bands of skin on their ring fingers, new apartment keys in their key chains. Even in the very best of circumstances—amicable, mutually decided, no kids—we find it sad for them, something with such a hopeful beginning coming to a close. No matter how much better off our friends wind up being—and they are, they always are, at least emotionally—there is pain.

On a more self-involved level, though, these break-ups remind us of something every couple loses sight of: that it only takes one of you to develop an itch for something new, and there is nothing at all that the other can do about it. It’s the lesson we learn from our newly single friends, over and over. We try hard to lose sight of the lesson for the sake of ourselves. As someone wise once said, “You gotta have faith, faith, faith.”


We got married on the grounds of a sprawling bed and breakfast, just beyond the koi pond. It had sprinkled earlier in the day, but by the time the pianist struck up “Here Comes the Bride,” the sky was clear and warm. We were twenty-four and wrote our own vows. The ceremony itself lasted all of five minutes.

It was a lovely beginning, but essentially it was just a party in celebration of us.

In novels and in jazz, the big squishy middle is where all of the interesting stuff happens. In our story, this is where we are now.

We don’t know which events will seem important years down the road, but we’re living the details right now. In 2013, in our big, messy house, our son practices his clarinet. Our Boston terrier mix is still alive, goofy as ever. We haven’t used a babysitter in a long while, and we usually go out to eat on Saturdays, just the two of us; weirdly, our son despises eating out. We laugh ourselves silly over a random lyric we hear on the radio. We eat lunch together most days in the TV room and finish off with a piece of chocolate. One day in February, you come home from work with Chinese food for us, and I ask you, my valentine, to read this, and you do.

This essay originally appeared on The Nervous Breakdown, which is an excellent site you should check out.


JENNIFER NIESSLEIN is the founder and editor of Full Grown People. Her website is