Future Cat

Maggie found a way to make time go forward. But what she really wanted was a way to look back.

Photo: Kathan Adhyaru/Getty Images
Photo: Kathan Adhyaru/Getty Images
Photo: Kathan Adhyaru/Getty Images

The wine ager had arrived unceremoniously in a big flat box a few days earlier, along with her grocery delivery. Before Maggie read the instructions, she’d completely forgotten what it was and why it had come. It was the shape and size of an old record, with a groove going through the middle the width of a man’s wrist. A shiny button glowed warm and pink from the rim. When pressed, a word popped up in cartoonish letters.

AGE, it read.

Maggie slid a bottle of wine into the groove and pressed the button. Nothing happened. She poured a glass of the wine, raised it to her lips, and took a sip. It tasted fine, she thought. Feeling more experimental, she put her basil plant on the plate, pressed the pink button, and watched the leaves shrivel and the stalks go limp. The tiny cactus from the room was more or less unaffected.

At the wine shop downstairs, she picked out a bottle of 2016 Château Margaux cabernet sauvignon said to improve with time. At home she popped it open, poured two ounces or so into a wineglass, placed the bottle into the groove, and pressed the button. It did change the flavor somewhat, the aftertaste of berries lingering in her mouth. The color might have coated her glass longer when she swirled it, but other than that she couldn’t really tell the difference.

When the advertisement for this Wine Ager appeared on her computer screen, she couldn’t control herself and clicked “buy” right away. She’d recently purged out-of-date iPods, iPads, a VHS rewinder shaped like a Corvette, and a jiggling adhesive mask that was supposed to work out her face. She already had a robot vacuum, a neck massager, an air purifier, a humidifier, and a dehumidifier. What was one more impulsive appliance purchase?

She had been expecting a state-of-the-art high-tech gadget, but the thing in front of her looked more like something someone’s mother might pull out of the attic in order to display pomegranates, scented candles, or gourds.

The first living thing Maggie aged to death was a garden snail she peeled off the sidewalk. Her finger hovered over the button before she pressed it. The snail’s shell withered away in seconds, turning foul and brown. Then, before she could inspect it, her cat, a black and white rescue named Small Cow, jumped up and knocked the remains under the refrigerator. He tilted his head up at her, eyeing her suspiciously.

“Come here, you,” she said while noisily shaking the bag of dried duck organs that gave her magical powers over him. Last summer Maggie had heard Small Cow meowing pitifully in the rain behind a dumpster. She’d brought him home, cleaned the gunk from his eyes, and picked out his fleas by hand in the sink. Still, the callous and unsentimental animal barely acknowledged her without taking bribes. He gently nudged her arm with his head and she rubbed his furry face with a pink heart for a nose until a bird flew by. Small Cow went over to the window, got up on his hind legs, and looked outside, like a toddler.

“The box says that it allows you to enjoy young wines without waiting years for them to mature,” she told her husband, Greg, over the phone.

“What does?” In the last year Greg had been promoted from product engineer to executive VP in charge of development. Company profits were booming, and the new responsibilities cluttered his brain. “Sorry, what were you talking about again? Wine?”

“My new Wine Ager,” Maggie replied. “It just came in the mail today. I have no idea how it works, but it’s definitely doing something.”

Greg made his usual sound indicating for her to go on.

“Let me read the description to you, okay?” she asked, shifting the phone from one ear to the other so that she could read the box. “ ‘The Wine Ager ™ is made of a patented metal alloy that creates its own electrical field. This field travels continuously between the plate and the individual bottle of wine, interacting with molecules to speed up the chemical reaction of aging. Our special metal alloy acts as a catalyst to drive the aging process without adding any substances to the wine itself while substantially changing its taste and character.’ ”

She paused. “Are you listening to me?”

“Yeah,” said Greg. “Taste. Character. You bought this thing that takes shitty wine, whacks it with electricity, and, boom, it’s better tasting. I got it.”

“Not necessarily better tasting,” said Maggie, “just older tasting. It makes the wine older than, well, I guess it depends on how many times you press the button actually.” She put a bag of rock-hard avocados on it. “Actually, it’s really sending the wine into the future,” she said, then repeated it for emphasis: “The future.”

“Anyway …” said Greg after a long pause, “what kind of underwear are you wearing?”

She rolled her eyes even though he couldn’t see her. Greg’s important deadline was to launch a new networking app called Chicken Tinder.

“The big beige ones.”

“Why? Just to torment me?” he asked. Being promoted had also made Greg very horny. Maggie guessed it came with the territory of feeling so important so much of the time.

“I’d say they are vaguely medical,” she added. “The kind of practical undergarments suitable for someone who is writing something that will probably turn out to be shit.”

“You put too much pressure on yourself,” Greg said. “What you do is hard. You should go outside, enjoy the nice weather for me.”

His tone was so gentle. She wanted to put her eye socket against his shoulder. She didn’t know what made her feel worse, when he used to ask about her work or that now he assumed that it was not going anywhere.

Maggie hung up the phone and pressed the button next to the avocados but didn’t bother to see what happened to them.

Spring had finally arrived. It was impossible to judge the emotional repercussions of such a long succession of dreary days on Bay Area inhabitants. But it was over. The days were warm enough that her daffodils, no longer frozen, were able to express themselves. At the bakeries down in the Mission, people shamelessly stuffed their faces with fresh strawberry pies. Grown men were taking bites of each other’s brownies. Girls stood outside wiggling their winter butts this way and that.

Maggie knew this even though she spent most days inside her apartment, avoiding this mysterious elusive “work” that she called her “book.” Ever since she quit her job last fall to focus on it, every attempt at writing made her feel like an imposter. She would rather do anything else. She wanted to eat the pages so they wouldn’t exist anymore. Therefore the Wine Ager presented itself as an irresistible distraction. She couldn’t seem to leave the damn thing alone. Her brain refused to stop coming up with more things that would benefit from a few extra years to reach peak goodness.

A bottle of soy vinegar went from five years to fifteen in front of her eyes, and licking a drop off the tip of her finger, she could picture its new journey through ceramic urns in the sun. As she watched the contents go from thin and flat to thick, viscous, and velvety in its bottle, it occurred to her to try it with a sad jar of pickled cabbage. Within seconds, the leaves bubbled with frenzied fermentation, becoming as ripe and pungent as anything her grandmother could have dug out of her cellar.

There were even a few debut novels on her bookshelf she’d put off finishing. With a few rounds on the Wine Ager, she found one novel’s narrative tone less grating, as the teenage characters conveyed much-needed self-awareness and wisdom far beyond their years. In another, a central character matured out of the storyline altogether, divorcing her abusive husband and running away to Antigua with a childhood fisherman friend.

Certainly the last thing Maggie wanted was to be two years older than she was, or two months, or two days. She was keenly aware of timelines, expiration dates of food, the shelf life of flowering plants, and the appropriateness of behavior at any given age.

When she first started writing in earnest, she’d been a completely different person. Back in college, she had won writing contests and been bestowed with such titles as “emerging” and “promising.”

It was during that boom of minor achievements that she met a chain-smoking dreamboat named Maxi in the student bar where he was playing electric guitar with his hands and a keyboard with his foot. He was an international student from Moscow with a Cyrillic tattoo across his broad emaciated chest. Plenty of girls already knew what it meant: until we meet again.

Just standing next to Maxi made her feel more like an artist. He struck everyone as a person who can derive all his pleasure from music, as if nothing else, not even what time it was, ever mattered. He taught Maggie how to play the Miles Davis improvisations on the piano, using her stories to write top-line lyrics to melodies. He would pick her up and run around the supermarket with her on his back, singing their song at the top of his lungs. He promised to send the arrangements to the best bands in the country. He made her picture those songs being pop hits in somewhere unexpected. Finland. Jakarta. Japan. When he talked like that, swinging his arms against her cooking pans turned into cymbals, she believed him. Those days they were transcendent, made innocent and immortal with—it seemed so obvious now—all the time they still had in front of them.

She would have been willing to spend the next five years feeling like an artist just standing beside him. She would have followed him from one state to another, hopping from artist residency to colony, drinking cheap Polish vodka, and taking it out on each other in taxis. Because when they talked about the things they loved, it always felt like singing. They made up on people’s stoops and kissed in a way that made people call the police. They owned nothing but each other, and that was what they fought over. Who needed to sleep more? Who was busier? Whose career would be more important for the greater world? Which one of them would be the bigger monster?

Then a whole year passed after graduation. Instead of applying for academic fellowships and Ph.D. programs, Maxi convinced her to go with him to an artist residency his poet friend had told him about, on an island without electricity or plumbing that two outdoorsy bros bought off of Craigslist. Huddled together besides a perpetually dying fire, they put lyrics to songs he composed and told each other stories about their families, comparing upbringings in their different communist countries, and that was when Maggie realized how truly impractical both of them were, each in their own way. When she left after three weeks, on a wooden dingy with a UTI, Maxi chose to stay there alone, happily making analog samples of magpies and birds or whatever.

“Do you have a plan?” she asked him as they said goodbye. “Any plan at all?”

“It’s not at the top of my priorities right now,” he said. “Whatever is supposed to happen will happen.”

She watched him scraping dried mud off his shoe with a stick for a minute before saying, “So you think I’m just going to take care of everything for you?”

“No,” he said quickly, not looking up at her. “I wouldn’t expect you to do that.”

When Maxi’s visa expired during his trip home to visit family in Chelyabinsk, he was banned from reentering the country. He asked her to take care when shipping his guitars. Maggie entered an MFA program in the Midwest, but this time she earned very few distinctions. After that, she got realistic about her prospects. She began following a strict set of behaviors, avoiding carbohydrates, dark liquor, and tobacco products. She moved back to San Francisco, where she got a job writing content at a ride-sharing start-up in order to pay off her student loans. The job was boring and made her feel underappreciated, but somehow that gave her a higher opinion of herself, like she had been wronged by a stupid world.

Greg approached her at a networking event. She accidentally slept with him after too many unusually complicated cocktails and then he bought her an iPhone for her birthday. She was charmed by how caring he was toward his younger sisters. Early on during their dating he’d said, “If this doesn’t work out, I’ll be your older brother,” and she surprised them both by bursting into tears. She had to keep going out with him after that so as not to be rude, and before she knew it two years had gone by and he asked her to marry him.

She said she would think about it. Technically, she was still thinking about it.

None of which would explain why, shortly after making herself lunch, she aged her cat. Not a minute after the idea popped up in her head, she found herself hoisting his tubby body onto the dining table.

“Don’t move, Small Cow,” she said, scooping his tail onto the plate.

Before he could dart away, she pressed the age button. Immediately she regretted it. The process itself didn’t seem to inflict physical pain, at least not that she could see. Small Cow hacked and coughed a couple of times, but then he stepped off the plate and sat on his haunches, looking dazed.

For the first time he didn’t seem all that excited about the duck organs. In fact, he choked on some imaginary mouthful and went to drink from a bowl that wasn’t there. Afterward, he misjudged the circumference of the Lucite coffee table, leaned too far forward, and fell off the edge.

The rest of the afternoon Maggie followed him around as he bumped into the carefully curated objects in the living room. She tried to anticipate his movements by repositioning planters and table lamps in his way. The bronze water bowl and food dish were nudged over to new spots beside the ceramic herb planter and to the right of the sofa.

His automatic feeder sounded, but instead of shooting over to scarf down his food in a ghostly blur, Small Cow didn’t even seem to notice. It was as if he’d finally gotten over the indignity of his heritage, of having once been a wild thing.

“Greg lets me have a cat even though he’s allergic and we had to get a bunch of air purifiers,” Maggie remembered bragging to Maxi, the only time she got to see him again. It was he who reached out first. He sent her a message from an unknown number, asking if she was safe. Earthquakes and wildfires, much like terrorist attacks, have the unintended effect of bringing old lovers out of the woodwork. It had been awkward when they met up in front of the restaurant, not knowing where to put their faces when they hugged.

The woman who ended up taking care of Maxi’s visa situation was called Samantha, a serene, teenage-looking girl according to the picture he showed Maggie on his cellphone. Maxi tapped his fingers at his screen, talked about Sam, “Sammy,” who had grown up on a soybean farm in Virginia but had been working as a concierge at a hotel in Colorado. The hotel was associated with an artist residency and it was while immersed in the scenic mountain splendor of the West that they first met. He inundated Maggie on the details of the elaborate salads Sammy made for lunch and the twins she was growing in her belly.

“She’s such a sweet person. She’s planning on running a kindergarten from our living room,” he said, holding up another photo.

“Greg and I could have but we chose not to,” Maggie said, her mouth around a chewed-up straw. “You know, if we did, we would have already.”

She never told Greg about seeing Maxi again. She kept meaning to bring it up casually, but never did. Now three whole months had passed and it would seem suspect. She did tell her friend Bobbi, during one of their “writing dates” at a Starbucks disguised as a neighborhood bistro. Bobbi had just started an online business and cut her hair into a blob and started applying her makeup cynically.

“Where is this going?” Bobbi interrupted five minutes after Maggie got started. “You didn’t, like, have sex with him, did you?”

“What? No. It wasn’t like that.”

Bobbi stuck her neck out across the table. “So …”

“I can’t stop thinking about him,” said Maggie. “What if he’s the love of my life?”

“Maxi? That emaciated homeless-looking guy?” Bobbi laughed. “Greg is a million times better for you. He’s so positive and seems genuinely supportive of your work.”

“Don’t you think he’s supportive of my work because he’s too dumb to understand that it’s garbage?”

“I can’t listen to this anymore,” Bobbi said, putting up a hand in front of her face and closing her eyes. “This is just a form of procrastination.”

“I know, I know,” said Maggie, and returned her eyes to her computer. They were sitting there at that unreasonably small table with both their laptops at angles, trying not to spill coffee on their laps. Perhaps this was why most of their friends from college had stopped even pretending to write. They spent their energies pretending to be creative consultants and cultural influencers and other cooler-sounding things. Maxi and Bobbi might have had a fling way back when. Maggie vaguely recalls, or this could be her imagination, once seeing them make out at a party. So it could have been for a myriad of reasons why Bobbi always asserted that Maxi was nothing special.

Perhaps sensing Maggie’s skeptical expression. Bobbi abruptly looked up from her typing and said, “Look, it was a million years ago and you were both idiots. Just let it go.”

At around five o’clock that night, Greg asked her to meet him for a quick bite at one of those old-school French restaurants in Pac Heights that was definitely not cool anymore, judging by the color scheme and how courteous the older waiter was when he interrupted them to take their order.

“You feel like eating?” Greg asked, a rhetorical question to which the answer was clearly no. It was six o’clock. Maggie had two glasses of wine waiting for him and hadn’t eaten anything but a fistful of quinoa all day.

No, no. She shook her head agreeably. She wasn’t expecting an actual dinner, of course not. No, they’d get a drink before he returned to the office to prepare for an important investor meeting the following morning.

“Sorry, one more email,” Greg said, not looking up from his phone as he explained that the cofounders were debating changing directions on the game itself. “They’ve got this sick interface, but they can’t decide if Chicken Tinder is going to be about doing dares or matchmaking for people with chickens.”

While Greg typed on his phone, Maggie talked about her adventures with the Wine Ager. She described in detail the pear rotting from the inside out, the wilting of the basil plant, and even the snail, only leaving out the part about her cat living in another dimension.

“So what you’re saying is that it’s really a time machine,” he said.

“Yes!” she cried. “But it’s only capable of moving in one direction. Forward.”

“That’s too bad, huh,” he added, one hand on her thigh and the other signing for the check in the air.

“Is that all you’re going to say? Don’t you want to use it?” she asked.

Greg laughed. He tugged his coat over his shoulders, ready to leave as soon as the check came. “No way. Look at me. I don’t have any time as it is!”

If she could make time go backward instead of forward, she would have rewound it to that autumn evening that had felt too short. That night with Maxi, when they talked until the restaurant turned up their lights. Maxi had come close enough to kiss her goodbye, how she marveled and panicked, as if a girl who had been hibernating inside her had just woken up. Even when they were in the deep of it, their skin still touching, her mind had been full of questions, racing ahead. Why had it taken him so long to find her again? And also, where would they live? How could they afford to buy all the crap she was addicted to buying now?

Then it was Maxi who put a stop to it. “Whoa. What are you doing, Mags?”

He was pulling his face away from hers so that a short stack of chins gathered at the top of his neck.

“I can’t do this,” he said urgently, as if her lips contained a contagious disease, “I haven’t even been granted conditional status yet!”

He touched her left earlobe with his thumb and forefinger and she nearly passed out with yearning. “You’re funny, Maggie,” he said. “I never know what you want from me.”

How long had she been sitting there, touching her earlobe, staring vacantly at the old waiter before he asked her politely if she needed anything else. She shook her head. Pretending as if she knew where she was going, Maggie slid off the chair, walked past the other diners, and made a sharp left at the door against the light of the oncoming cars. By the time she turned the corner onto her tree-lined street, she felt absurd and sad.

Maggie stormed up the stairs, slammed her front door, kicked off her shoes in the foyer, and studied her face in the hallway mirror. Her eyes welled up painfully. Maybe it was just a kind of allergy for women of all ages whose bodies could not stand that relentless coming coming coming of spring.

It must have been past midnight, the cafés below her apartment were quiet. Picking up her purse, she walked into the living room where Small Cow seemed to be waiting for her at his perch by the window. Maggie scooped him up as he mashed his smirking face against her arm.

There had been another Small Cow once, a black-and-white fur ball whose name, spoken in the language she grew up speaking, was less cumbersome. She wanted nothing more than to forget that kitten, that language, all those times, but, alas, nostalgia does not care for the suffering it inflicts.

She still remembered the morning at the courthouse when one of Maxi’s friends married another person’s girlfriend so they could give each other citizenship. Afterward Maggie and Maxi had gone hand in hand to the same immigration lawyer’s office. The lawyer leaned in and looked meaningfully at Maggie, explaining the paperwork and interview process, step by step, month by month, year by year, until she could transmit her citizenship to him like a disease.

She shook her head as if to dispel those memories, still pure and aching, and Small Cow scrambled away from her. She didn’t have the confidence, the wisdom, to be sure of her decisions. Her past had not yet reconfigured into something she could understand, reordered in a way she could accept.

So there was really no choice. Maggie retrieved the Wine Ager from her collection of useful small appliances in the living room and plugged it in. She tied her hair into a high ponytail and laid her head, left ear down, on the center of the plate. With her eyes closed, she pressed the age button. She pressed it again and again. The life of a memory, how long would it take for her to be able to live with it? How much faster could she speed through slow-churning time and grow up?

Through chambers and tunnels she went, in chilly darkness. A terrible headache lit up her eyes, followed by nausea and her hands going numb. Cold sweats passed through her, but then she relaxed into a meditative state, as if she were watching a fire.

How she would have loved to take the time to taste her next meal with Greg. It would begin with baked eggs in tomato sauce over a slice of five-seed home-baked bread with a sprinkle of sesame seeds, served in a blue dish with white flecks. But then time speeds forward to dinner, and her hair grows a streak of white. Bobbi opens an online store that sells Korean face lotion and becomes a sensational success. Maxi moves to the Pacific Northwest with his wife and children without telling her, and her longing for him falls from her heart like rotten fruit. The dish now is black and the waiter who brings it to Maggie is older than her father, who grows sick and passes away suddenly before her. And at his funeral Maggie notices that beside Greg sits a woman who turns and looks right back into her own eyes. Different possibilities rise to the surface, people revealing themselves to her and then moving to the peripheral darkness.

It was obvious to her that Greg had married her and had done so quickly not just because he liked the way she looked but also because he wanted to look after her. He was a bighearted boy from a broken family. He wanted to provide the gift of a comfortable life, a gift that not many people have to give, and he gave it to her.

As the years moved forward, Maggie’s world shifted in an irretrievable way. She was grasping for something in the deep recess of a large cave, traveling through the inner world of her mind, feeling the essence of time and its possibilities. She was awakened to each new truth, which always corresponded to something that she already knew.

How could Maggie possibly have explained it without sounding heartless? Her own parents had spent most of their lives trying to become citizens of this country. She witnessed the years her father wasted working at fast-food restaurants in order to keep earning that useless degree for his student visa. Those months her mother worked as a nanny, nearly for free, for a lawyer’s family simply because she needed him to apply for a green card. She knew there was always a price to be paid, higher than anyone ever anticipates. Maggie didn’t want to go through any of it again for anyone. Not even for Maxi. She couldn’t bear the thought of getting back in that line.

A thousand sunrises and sunsets carry her along the edge of time. As she tumbles further from the age of infinite trajectories, from the outrages of her childhood, from birth. That haunted autumn evening becomes last autumn, the autumn before, and the autumn before that. Stop, Maggie blurts out. Knowing then that she doesn’t want to live through the hard moments anymore. She just wants to live! But she is still floating, dazed like a child swept away by a big wave while playing in the surf. Battered from all sides, choking down seawater, arms reaching again and again for the light. She thinks she can hear life calling for her then, like a phone ringing under a pillow. Sooner or later, the present will catch up to her. She will emerge hurled back onto the shore, spitting out sand, crying, shivering and grateful to be alive.

Reprinted from HOME REMEDIES: Stories by Xuan Juliana Wang. Copyright © 2019 by Xuan Wang Inc. Published by Hogarth, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

Future Cat