Alex Epstein
translated from the Hebrew by Becka Mara McKay

On Small Betrayals: Prologue

Before the dream ended he finally found himself lying in a dark hotel room in a different city, cold as the distance. His insomnia gives him no peace, as sometimes happens when he sleeps away from home. So is he sentenced, all night, to read—there are, of course, worse nightmares than that. He reaches his hand over the back of the woman sleeping beside him. He gropes around for the reading lamp. A moment before he flips the switch, he is alarmed by the thought that she—he was suddenly confused and in his heart he called her by his wife’s name—will wake up because of the light. And so, with the terrifying expectation that here, at any minute, she’ll find out—actually, which one of them?—that he is reading a different book than the book he got in bed with, he woke up.



The privilege between therapist and patient is not the same, of course, as the clear one-way relationship (outwardly) between an author and a character. But I must honor the profession of A., and keep the name he gave her, Hannah. Even when he began to describe their first meeting, he admitted that he himself entertains the idea of adding some small, harmless inventions to these events. Smoking, for example: she was pleased when he told her it wouldn’t bother him if she lit a cigarette. "If time travel is possible," he said. "we’d always be meeting time travelers."

"You’re quoting Stephen Hawking," she said, "I know who that is." She asked in embarrassment if she should lie on the couch. "So there are still movies in the distant future," he remarked with a smile, and said that it didn’t matter to him. Hannah remained seated. Her face was pleasant, a bit long; her brown hair was pulled back with a barrette.

"Everyone is hiding something," she said quietly, "I could have escaped to any time I wanted. But I chose to come here, to this time. To you." She had a slight accent, he wasn’t able to identify its origin.

"Let’s say that I accept what you are claiming," A. countered. "But why me?"

"Because I read about my test case in your book," she replied and rested her gaze on the books to the right of the door—from one of the shelves jutted a stack of record albums he’d found a few years ago, when he was cleaning out his parents’ house—"a book you haven’t written yet."

"When will I write it?" He rose from his chair and walked to the curtained window. He remembered that when he went out to meet her in the waiting room she’d quickly removed her sunglasses. He noticed a thin scar above her right eyebrow.

"In four years," she answered. "You will treat me for two years and then I’ll return home."

"If you’ve already read all of this," he said, returning to his desk, "If you know how I’ll treat you…" He inserted a cassette into a tape recorder and pushed the record button, "then tell me how I shall begin."

She puffed on her cigarette and was quiet for a moment, and then said, "From the beginning. I was born in 2303. My parents had a house outside the city. At the age of eight…" Hannah came back every week, exactly at the agreed-upon hour, for two years. In the winter of 2004 she called him the day before her appointment and said that she was going away for a few months.

These days A. is writing a book on his treatment method. He tells me that the writing is progressing nicely, but he’s gotten to the chapter about the case of the woman who claimed that her grief was from the future, and now he has total writer’s block. He even blames his writing problems on his insufficient knowledge of modern physics.

"Did you know that this isn’t such an outlandish idea, time travel," he points out, "Even according to Einstein, if we travel close to the speed of light it’s possible to get to the future. And there are other serious physicists who have proposed models for time machines with which it would be possible to reach the past." On the Internet he read about a machine proposed by the mathematician Kurt Gödel: Its unique quality is that it can indeed allow returning to the past, but only to a time later than the moment when it is assembled.

"I didn’t understand the equations," he says, "but it’s clear that because the window of time you can travel to is limited here, Hannah must have used a different method. Unless someone already built this time machine several years ago, but hasn’t told us." All of this has made him think about theory in a field a bit closer to his own. Even if time travel were possible, he claims, travelers from the future would dream here only dreams that they already dreamed in the original time from which they came. Perhaps the soul cannot travel so far. Of course, he admits that this is not truly connected to his treatment of Hannah.

I suggest that he simply set aside this chapter for the time being and in the meantime continue writing the rest of the book. But A. says that he promised his publisher he’d turn in the manuscript at the end of November; it’s September already, and the holidays are coming—the time of year when patients from the past tend to come back. So he is flooded with work. It seems he’ll have to give up on her story.


The Old Man Who Invented the Time Machine

He has some naïve paintings that his father painted, which are more precious to him than all the books on physics and mathematics that disappointed him many times in the past. I don’t think this story will be about these paintings. His sons didn’t get along here and returned to St. Petersburg; coincidentally or not, the name of his granddaughter, Alex, is identical to my name… according to the photos she is taller than her mother by a head. She is studying, he told me proudly, pharmaceutical science at a university in Moscow. A few months ago, when he was ill—a mild flu, but of course at his age it’s advisable to be wary of complications—he asked if I would check his mailbox; perhaps she had sent him a letter.

When he found out that apart from his electric bill I threw away all of the junk mail that was crowding his mailbox—takeout menus from neighborhood restaurants, mostly—he smiled slightly and quickly hid his disappointment; then he admitted, with a much wider smile, that sometimes he keeps a few of these flyers.

In Russia, so he told me, he worked in a classified military facility; but in the nineties, like so many others, he didn’t have trouble getting an emigration visa: he’d already retired in the mid-eighties. And so he completed his independent research on time travel later, in Israel. His major discovery—if I understood correctly—is that time is compressed and chaotic in equal measure. To go back—the future, he said, never interested him—one must be accurate to the last detail.

When he told me about his work he admitted that for my sake he simplified everything down to a "popular" level—"For example," he said after I told him that I was a writer—"imagine that one night you dream that you’ve been given the chance to change one word in one sonnet that was written at the end of the thirteenth century. It would be impossible to know exactly how many people had already read this sonnet in the six hundred or so years that have passed since then, how it has already influenced their lives, or—and this complicates the matter more—didn’t influence them at all… this is inconceivably complicated, and this is only a sonnet, and a single word, or a single image, and don’t forget, only a dream…

"And now try to imagine a boy of six or seven, maybe in Marseilles, in the fifteenth century, chasing a butterfly… will he catch it? You undoubtedly say, what’s the difference, there are a billion butterflies like this one, but how can we know whether a flutter of this butterfly’s wings won’t in the end set off a storm in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, where at the time three caravels are sailing from a small port in Andalusia, on their way to India, and they would have to turn westward, to the new India…"

These days the old inventor of the time machine lives in a small apartment on a leafy street in Tel Aviv. With his pension he buys a few fruits and vegetables, and sends them to the year 1942, to a Leningrad under siege, to a young, dark-eyed woman who will one day be his wife.


The Detective Who Falls Asleep at Crime Scenes


A bedroom is a metaphor for a puzzle without a clue.


The detective who falls asleep at crime scenes takes a second sleeping pill and pages through his notebook: A few days ago he discovered a book in this room—in the middle a page was folded at the corner. The detective makes sure that the book is still lying on the dresser beside the bed. (A little groggy, he lights a cigarette, sits down on the bed and tries to understand whose side of the bed this really is: the man’s or the woman’s. He lies down, tosses from side to side, sniffs the sheets—he remembers that a previous time he was deceived by the lilac fragrance of the fabric softener—and again cannot reach an unequivocal conclusion. I shouldn’t have smoked here, thinks the detective, or they were so exhausted they simply fell asleep on each other’s side. Embarrassed, he decides to give up this secondary mystery, quickly twisting away from the middle of the bed toward the side with the dresser and glancing at the profile of the book.) And here, exactly as he had hoped from the beginning—the page marked with a folded corner is now found at a distance of one or two chapters from the back cover. It seems to him that the greater the effect of the pill, with almost every breath, the dimmer the room’s light; any minute his eyelids are going to collapse.


If so, thinks the detective before he falls asleep, it appears that I will decipher this mystery without leaving the room.


The Story as Another Perfect Crime

His motive remained a mystery. At his sentencing he refused to express remorse, and even the series of character witnesses assembled by his defense attorney couldn’t sweeten the judgment decreed on the author: life imprisonment. Nevertheless, in light of his good behavior in prison, no more than a year had passed and the warden permitted him to keep a computer and a printer in his cell. (The other prisoners used his services to write letters to lovers and to the president.)


On Small Betrayals: Epilogue

After he removed from his nose the burden of the reading glasses he’d fallen asleep wearing the night before, the memory of the dream was erased from his consciousness. ("I dreamed something strange again last night," he said to his wife, "but I can’t remember the details." His wife glanced briefly at the book that was lying on the dresser on her side of the bed. She blushed a little and didn’t say a word.)




From Lunar Savings Time. Copyright © 2011. Published by Clockroot Books: Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.