You’re 19 when a man offers you the only thing you’ve ever wanted: you can travel wherever you want, to whatever time you want. All you have to do is leave your family behind and never see them again.
You’re 19 and this is an easy decision. You board his ship without saying goodbye, and there you go.
You’re 21 when you end up in Los Angeles during the seventies. Everyone is long hair and long pants and long blouses. Everyone is always sniffling. Everyone is always asking you where you’re from.
“I’m from here,” you lie. You always say you’re from here. From there. From nowhere. Are any of them really lies?
Your life is one party after the next, the hours blending so seamlessly you can’t tell how you got from one loft to the next apartment. It’s seamless the way cigarette smoke disappears into the air. The way bubbles burst. The way leaves flutter down from the trees in everywhere else but LA.
You’re 21 and you’re thinking of where to go next, because too many people in this city remind you of your best friend, with his Coke bottle glasses and bellbottoms. And too many people like the same movies as your little brother. And too many people eat exactly like your mom: not enough. But for now there’s another party, and the one after that.
You’re 24 and you’ve had enough of excess for now. You’re on the buttes of Mongolia riding with nomads and they don’t even care that you look nothing like them. You’re barely eating and you’re incredibly thin.
You’ve never looked better.
Every day is the same. You listen to the hooves of the horse below you, you pull on your fur coat and it itches your skin. You attempt to learn Mongolian. As you watch one of your fellow nomads hack a cow to death, the guts and blood spilling out onto the dirt, you begin to wonder if this life is really for you.
It will not stop you from eating the cow later. Or enjoying it.
You’re 29 and you love gladiator fights. Especially when your mouth is full of bread. You’ve considered learning how to be one, but your arms are too thin to hold a broadsword, so you just wait after the shows to meet the gladiators. They enjoy your company—sometimes a little too much.
You like wearing white robes, like the way they contrast against your little tan sandals. You don’t like the dirt and the shit, of which Rome has plenty. But for now, you are content in the arms of gladiators. You even like the rust stains on their palms, which transfer onto your skin.
You’re 35. You never thought you’d be 35—as a kid, you couldn’t imagine past 13.
But here you are, and you’re 35. You’re not even sure where you are. Maybe Amsterdam in the '90s. Or Austria in the 2000s. Or Croatia, any time. You can’t understand the letters on the signs all around you, can’t even begin to guess at the pronunciation.
All you know is this: it’s damn cold, everyone is beautiful, and you are 35.
You’re 36 and you’re feeding grapes to the maharaja. It is not much of a career. You’ve never had much of a career. Sometimes when you drop the red grapes into his mouth he pretends to bite you. Sometimes he really does bite you, and your fingers get covered in spittle and tiny red marks.
The last time he bites you, you slap him on his right cheek and go tearing out of the palace, a thousand arrows whizzing towards your body. Not one of them lands.
You’re 42. You’re tired. You’re in Paris in the 1920s, and you can’t believe that you’ve never been there before. That it never occurred to you.
You go out looking for the Lost Generation and it’s true—they’re lost, and you can’t find them. And even then, they want to hang out with the young kids, not you.
You eat pastries and drink wine and practice what you would’ve said to Hemingway. You would’ve kept it short and sweet. You would’ve been his muse. But it’s too bad, because you didn’t get to Paris until you were 42.
You’re 49 and it’s just a few days away from your 50th birthday. You’re spending it with some friends you’ve managed to make in Morocco. You don’t all speak the same language, unless loneliness counts, and even then you’re fluent where they are not.
This is where you’ve been the longest. You didn’t mean for it to work out that way—you always saw yourself in New York or Istanbul or Pest. But you wanted friends for your 50th birthday, so here you are.
On your 50th birthday, you make yourself a cake. Buttercream and your mother’s strawberry compote. But they don’t have buttercream in Morocco, or your mother’s strawberry compote, so instead you don’t make yourself a cake at all. Instead you drink mint tea.
You go out dancing with your friends and they spin you around and tell you happy birthday in broken English. You kiss a man, and wonder how many you’ve kissed. You wonder what it would be like to put them all in a room together and have them meet, talk to each other in Norwegian and Mongolian and Swahili. What would they make of a Brooklyn accent?
When the party is over, and it’s over too soon, you head home alone to your apartment. You climb into bed and you fall asleep almost instantly, but not before deciding to head to Panama City first thing the next day.
You’re 60 and in London and feeling very thankful for universal healthcare.
You fell one day in your apartment and one of the girls who lives next door brought you to the hospital, sat with you as they hooked an IV to your arm and lied to the doctor, telling him she was your daughter.
No one visits you except the girl and her girlfriend. They are both young and pretty and slim, and you would’ve been proud to have either one of them as your daughter. But they are not your daughters, even though they sit and laugh with you and bring you hot cups of coffee that don’t taste like piss.
When you’re discharged from the hospital you’re too embarrassed to tell them thank you because no one, not a single person, visited you in all that time except for them. It will be one of the things you most regret later.
You’re 71 and life is grand in China. They respect their elders, after all. You eat the things no other foreigners your age will eat and know the things that only locals know: the history and the best restaurants and where to go to get duck so aged they fall to the ground in the window displays, the muscles in their necks too rotten. Those places. You know it because people have told you over the years and time periods and different countries. You’ve collected enough knowledge to write a book or an almanac or an encyclopedia—not just about duck, but about everything.
But there is no time to be writing books. There is still Singapore, the 1700s and ancient Greece.
You’re 85. You bought an electric scooter and now you’re one of those old people who runs over feet. You no longer apologize for doing that. The streets seem different at this level—a little less interesting and a lot less friendly. You don’t feel much like traveling anymore. You don’t feel like doing anything anymore.
You’re no longer sure what time period you’re in, what city. It doesn’t matter. All cities look the same. All times are the same. All people are the same.
Your body, brain, and bones are tired and something deep inside you tells you you’ll never feel well-rested until you lay in your childhood bed, hear that little music box you used to own play “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and hear your mom snoring in her rocking chair.
But those things are gone. They’re in a year you don’t even remember and they belong to a person you’re not sure ever existed.
You’re 100 now. You have lived hundreds of lives, cried millions of tears, seen billions of stars, and you have realized that everyone on earth is the same, and yet the only people on earth you want to see are your mom, dad, sister, and brother.
The man from when you were 19 comes back and he asks how you liked your life. Did you enjoy the mountains and oceans and cocktails and lips and breezes? Did you go where you wanted, see what you needed, did you make the right decision?
You are 100 and he is unchanged: the same ageless, smooth face. You tell him it was worth it, that you’d make the decision all over again, but that you miss your family sometimes. All the time, really.
“Do they miss me?” you ask. You’re not even sure if the words came out, if you even said them at all.
“Yes,” he says. “They missed you terribly.”
For some reason, this satisfies you. When you die just a few days later, your life flashes back before your eyes. But you do not see Japan, China, Argentina, the Philippines, Liberia, California or anything like that. You see your family flashing again and again. You see your third birthday party and old swing set. Your brother and sister playing in the inflatable pool. Your mom and dad sitting on the loveseat during Christmas.
You would not have it any other way. That was your life, after all, wasn’t it? Everything else was just extra and extra and extra.
You are 19 and you do not know it, nor do you ever find out, but your family watched you leave from their windows. They bore you no ill will, and they hope it all worked out.
Ashley Burnett (@AshleyDBurnett) is a magazine editor living in California. Her work has also appeared on The Toast, Wyvern Lit and Necessary Fiction.
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