This is a love story about time travel. It is not a romance.
Emily and I are sitting in the parking lot of Mercy High School in grey uniform kilts, stabbing at a pint of Ben & Jerry’s with inadequate plastic spoons.
Our hands emerge smeared in frozen gore.
“Casualties of war.” We laugh and keep stabbing.
A friend of mine once called me “a pathological intimate friend.” She’s a close friend—close enough that she can describe my friendship style as “pathological” without me getting in a huff about it. The friends I have tend to be close ones, and I don’t seek out romantic partners. The asexual/aromantic community calls these relationships “queerplatonic.” Anne of Green Gables called them “kindred spirits.”
Emily and I have been kindred spirits since our sophomore year of high school. She’s an open-hearted empath whom people instantly like—the “Diana,” if you will, if Diana were also a comic genius. She nicknamed all our Catholic school friends after the Seven Deadly Sins. (Hi, I’m Wrath.) She once described trying to source a hookup from her Proven Douchebags list as “scrounging for change in the couch cushions.” She recently texted: “I didn’t realize my roommate was home today. She came out of her room right as I was loudly singing ‘I’m on the edge . . . of straightness’ to the tune of ‘I’m on the edge of glory.’” Her Bitmoji game is peerless.
I once told her “all I wanna do is cook you meals and bring you wine.” By “once” I mean “last week,” and also “more than once.” I am one hundred percent the Anne.
“Circle, Triangle, Square.”
We’re driving westward through the Mojave Desert. Approximately our 900th round of the game Banish, Fuck, or Marry, and we’ve already cycled through our exes, our friends’ partners, our heroes and villains.
“What else could you even fuck???”
Marry circle, banish square.
Emily and I have remained close through college in different states, my three years in Peace Corps, our grad programs, multiple artistic collaborations, and a doomed attempt to start new lives together in Los Angeles.
Earlier this year, we shot a webseries, Beck & Clem, “a feminist comedy about time travel.” In the show, Clem (played by Emily) arrives from circa the 1500s-ish and Beck, a twenty-first-century woman played by me, delights in showing her the modern wonders of feminism, sexual freedom, plague cure, and Thin Mints.
CLEM: Beck instructs me. She teaches me of this century’s speech and courtship rituals and how to use the glimmer-coffin. BECK: Computer, Clem. CLEM: She encourages me to celebrate the obsolescence of my church, habits, and way of life. BECK: Booooo, the Past! Team Future! CLEM: Also, everything is Teams.
It’s a comedy about “online dating.” (Surely the first thing you’d do if you met a time traveler is sign her up for OkCupid?) But beneath the jokes about fedoras and vibrators is a story of two women with radically different worldviews. It is about women for whom romance is a thought experiment, and for whom morality is deeply important.
Crying against the wall with a bottle of three-dollar wine. It’s cinematically pathetic. I realize, as I’m doing it, that I’m performing wallowing. But it doesn’t feel like performance. It feels real. It feels really bad. She told me she wasn’t happy in LA and she’s going home. Home is not here with me.
In the first episode of B&C, a traumatized Clem makes wary assessment of her new surroundings. Beck, oblivious, chirps: “She’s gonna love it here!”
Emily and I had decided to move to LA after finishing our MFA programs (mine in playwriting and hers in acting) on the vague promises of “it’s warm” and “TV is there.” We had dreams of what Emily called “möbius coattails.” I’d write things and she’d be in them and we’d circle each other’s talents to infinity and glory. It would fulfill the promise we made years ago, when Emily invented a future production company we’d establish named “Arrogance is Bliss.”
Okay, truth: I gave LA the hard sell. “We decided” is a stretch. I wanted to do it, and I didn’t want to do it alone.
In the summer of 2016, we packed our lives into Em’s Mazda 6 and Banish/Fuck/Married our way west. The road trip was as idyllic as the reality was not. My first month in LA with Emily was an ever-widening stress gorge. Our housing fell through (multiple times). We got bedbugs. My dad had a heart attack. Plus, parking tickets. We consumed many cups of wine, hot from the trunk of the car, on the sidewalk outside of laundromats.
The months after she left were worse.
The thing about being a pathologically intimate friend on the aromantic spectrum is that when your dear friend goes away—despite her assurances that it’s not about you; that you’ll still make art together—it hits you like a breakup. I’d never had a real breakup before. Real: the romantic kind, the kind that counts.
If there aren’t songs about your pain, does it make a sound?
Time travel is easy to do under the palms when your heart aches. Strap in the machine and zip back to the Grand Canyon, where you watched the sunrise before your first night in the new city. Fly to that first time you spent the night at her house, tenth grade, and you summarized in excruciating detail the entirety of Les Misérables, and she did not murder you. And most importantly, set the dial to the Future: See it through the glass of your machine, and know, even though you can’t touch it yet, that a year from now you will be clinking glasses and revising jokes on the floor of her apartment after ten hours of shooting, and you will both be warm as it snows. Know that you have ended friendships before, but not this one, damn it; this is not a matter of heartbreak or betrayal—this is only a matter of time.
photo courtesy of the author
We weren’t fighting or anything. LA wasn’t for her, and that was that. The thing I feared most was that one of my stray feelings—I’m Wrath, you’ll recall—might get loose and lacerate us both. So instead there was mostly . . . silence. For our own protection, I believed.
If the sins were updated for the twenty-first century, I might be redubbed Righteous Avoidance.
It was weird. It was gross. I drank my trunk wine alone. I didn’t know what else to do.
Now, before you read the section below, travel through time to circa “Adele Just Released ‘Hello’” in the era of “Woman Crying Alone on the Los Angeles Sidewalk.” This will give you a handle on the emotional subtext of the following emails. Approximately one year after we set out for LA:
Aug 29 2016 SUBJECT: GOOD MORNING HERE’S A WEBSERIES I think I drunk-texted you about this! But here is an actual draft/sketch of ten webisodes of the two-lady comedy re: time travel.
If you DON’T want to do this I'll just add it to my screenfolio and shop it around or whatever I’m supposed to be doing. If you DO I will save it for you.
(Translation: I think I’m getting over the thing it took me awhile to get over and as an offering of good faith here is my blood-soaked still-beating heart.)
Aug 31 2016 RE: GOOD MORNING HERE’S A WEBSERIES
I am all about this. When are you in Detroit next?
Translation: Bitch, it’s about fucking time.
(Emily would never say that. Sorry, Em.)
Point is: She didn’t hesitate. We had talked, of course, before this, but for me it was a turning point. The time-suspended limbo of our friendship broke, and we could move again.
I’d written the entire script with Emily in mind from the beginning. I told her I imagined us performing together, but would be totally cool with being replaced by a more competent and attractive actor. “No,” she insisted. “It has to be you.”
Part of me feels self-conscious and weird admitting that this webseries was a very important and vulnerable creation, a source of renewal and healing, something that nourished me as an artist and friend. Maybe it’s because you’re not supposed to care that much about your aromantic partners. Cool that you did this project together, but chill, please? That kind of intensity and weighted gesture is reserved for romance, the True Drama—not the everyday matters of art and friendship.
Also, “art” might be a little lofty for a bunch of jokes about sex and colonialism.
And this is Emily, your most reliable pal, not like, your lover lost at sea. Calm all the way down.
In other words, it was a total Anne Shirley move.
How much importance is seemly to place on our work and friends? How big a feeling are we allowed to feel for things that are not global calamities, or men?
CLEM: In my time, we prized kindred love betwixt women. Perhaps you would be happier in my time. BECK: Shut your stupid face. CLEM: Perhaps . . . BECK: No. No. The Past was the fucking worst. CLEM: Our every crop was “organic” and no man beseeched us shear our nether-fleece. BECK: Stop. CLEM: You say you are open-minded and yet . . . BECK: LALALALALALA. Fuck the Past!
In the summer of 2016, writing a story about how the past was NOT great felt like a middle finger to the premise of MAGA. After Emily read the script, we reached out to some friends of ours in Detroit who ran a socially conscious production company, Three Lyons Creative. Our preliminary production meeting was scheduled for November 9, 2016.
That was a weird day to claim that the present was better than the past.
Like everything that felt good before November 2016, our webseries scheme now felt dissonant and pointless and inadequate. It’s not that Beck & Clem didn’t have a political perspective, but a fascist coup had taken place. Showing a displaced Puritan how to operate a vibrator wasn’t the revolution we needed.
production photo courtesy of the author
Emily and I talked about this a lot. (A fascist coup will quickly evaporate the lingering ghost-feelings that haunt your friendship and reaffirm your most trusted alliances.) Her character, Clem, travels from the frontlines of the American colonial conquest. Beck, despite her progressive intentions, has inherited the fruits of that violence; her life is predicated on the destruction she condemns. Their desire for moral rightness, their need for virtue, falls apart under historical scrutiny.
Emily and I also desire virtue, and we desire, deeply, to be seen as virtuous. If it doesn’t always help to know this about ourselves, it does aid collaboration to know about each other. We could more honestly navigate among our values, our egos, and our characters. In friendship and webseries and fascist coups taking over your country, you need people in your corner who care, excessively, about doing the right thing.
For several months before we moved to LA, I’d repeatedly ask Emily: “This won’t ruin our friendship, will it?”
“I wish you’d stop saying that.”
We shot the entire series in Detroit over a snowy week in March. It was a shoestring budget funded entirely by an Indiegogo campaign. Emily offered her apartment up as our set, and we raided the thrift store (and each other’s closets) for costumes. No other actors appear in Season One; as I promised on our crowdfunding page, “no men get to talk.”
One night, my mom drove over to Emily’s apartment to donate a bunch of wine left over from the holidays. We unloaded the bottles from the trunk of her car. Some of this was for “props,” and the rest for late at night, when the rest of the crew had gone home. Emily and I would sprawl in her kitchen, going over the jokes, talking about everything, and drinking the trunk wine.
We were home.
Friendship is itself a form of time travel. Some are preserved in the past, and when we meet it’s not so much visiting each other as it is slipping into our old selves. This year I exchanged holiday letters with a friend like this—a person I don’t text, or call, or prioritize on my visits home. But there’s a place in time we can always find each other, and when we do it’s effortless. It’s a friendship that doesn’t travel, but her letter made me happy and warm.
It’s different, and more difficult, to time-travel with another person. You’re not in the same machine, after all, but in a vessel of your own, hoping that as it tesseracts between galaxies, your car or plane or Greyhound will pass close enough to hers that you can still reach out and clasp hands across the stars.
Or maybe across a table, loaded with wine-stained glasses and arrogant, blissful dreams.
BECK: I’ll have an Old Fashioned, and the lady will have a glass of Chardonnay. CLEM: Thank you. BECK: [MAKES LOUD BZZZZ NOISE] Nope! Correct response is “Fuck you, dude, I can order for myself.” Don’t fuck around with this “the lady” shit. People order for themselves. CLEM: You said you wouldn’t trick me. BECK: Yeah, but— CLEM: You promised you wouldn’t trick me, yet here you are . . . BECK: Clem— CLEM: . . . and what are you doing?
I like to write about people with deep convictions. Then I like to confront them with an immovable contradiction to those beliefs, and see what happens. This probably explains why I tend to recognize myself in my own villains and antiheroes. “You have strong opinions,” people say to me. It’s usually not a compliment.
When Emily left LA, it did not ruin our friendship, but it did, for a time, break my heart. I was angry at her for giving up on The Dream, but deep down, I was angrier with myself for pretending that it hadn’t always been My Dream from the beginning.
Beck is bossy, pushy, needy. She’s a know-it-all and an idealist. She’s me. Beck & Clem is funny as hell, and there are no tearful conversations about Friendship. But it closed a wound and altered the course of time. Emily had never abandoned the dream, not as it had been conceived those years ago at Mercy High. She returned me to that origin, where möbius coattails let both of us fly, instead of one dragging the other along. And that made room for a different future than I’d been prepared to imagine.
photo courtesy of the author
In the end, the webseries we made is not about how the Present is Good and the Past was Bad. It’s a case for having convictions and for challenging them—for finding a friend who cares as intensely about doing the right thing as you do. The friendship is warped, at first, by Beck’s desire to shape Clem’s beliefs in her image. But they find each other at the same point in time, and can see in the other a vision of who they might have been, in another world, and who they could still become. The friendship endures because they share a need to look at themselves and the world, and to ask: Am I doing what is right?
It is a love story about time travel. It is not a romance.
It’s useful to imagine, sometimes, who we’d be if we were born in another time, in a different world. Emily and I once posited that we were mirror images of “the person we’d each be in a world without patriarchy”—she might feel free to express anger; I could relax enough to be kind. We have, over many years and cities and continents and imaginative leaps into other realms, looked to each other for ethical guidance, and for solace, and for a reflection of the better selves we can’t quite be yet, but can see through the glass.