Time Capsule

No one in the girl’s family ever says “I love you” because too much love invites bad luck. They don’t kiss, they don’t hug, and they don’t hold hands unless the girl is crossing the road. “So how do you know if they love you?” asks a fourth grade blondie whose mum draws love hearts on her recess bananas. “Because they don’t leave me outside to starve,” the girl says. She suspects there is more to it than that, but she doesn’t have the words for it. How does she explain that her parents’ love is simply a fact, like the air or the sky or the cranky fat ladies who work at the school canteen? It is not the kind love that appears on bananas, she wants to say. She hasn’t yet learned the word “unconditional,” so she reaches for the next best thing: “You’d die without it.”

***

The girl’s school is about to celebrate its sesquicentennial, which the girl learns means 150th birthday. To mark the occasion, it is putting together a time capsule from the class of 2000, to be unearthed in 2050. The girl’s teacher starts a unit on “Making Memories.” He explains to his fourth graders that a time capsule is a way to hide things today to be rediscovered years into the future. He explains that people do it so they can be surprised by how much things have changed, or to remember things that may soon be forgotten. Which is why, he says, it is so important to make memories, so you will have something to put into the time capsule.

Later that week, at the “Making Memories”-themed show-and-tell, the girl brings a roll of Lifesavers from Woolies. “We went to the shops this weekend,” she says to her class as they sit at her feet. “My dad got me this.” The blondies snicker and one-up the girl with smooth rocks, sea shells, and a jar of sand they picked up from Bondi Beach, a weekend at The Entrance, and a camping trip in the Blue Mountains. They talk about waterfalls and walking trails. They talk about their dads starting campfires and telling ghost stories. They start their spiels with “This weekend, we made memories by…” The girl knows they are trying to make her feel weird and envious, but it doesn’t work. She knows she doesn’t want to poop in a hole in the woods — not now, not ever.

Still, the blondies push it after show-and-tell. While everyone is writing summaries of the memories they made that week, the freckliest blondie leans over the girl’s desk and tells her that her Lifesavers show-and-tell was boring. “How will you make memories if you don’t ever do anything?”

The girl wants to say that she makes plenty of memories. She remembers the aisles of Woolies, the colorful stacks of lollies and Twisties and pizza-flavored Shapes. She remembers counting the vertebrae on the roll of Lifesavers and calculating their value. She remembers her dad nodding — the green light for her to add her one treat to the shopping cart. She says, “We do heaps of stuff.” The blondie waits for her to say what. The girl returns to her summary, pretending the blondie isn’t there any more.

***

The girl’s dad once spent eight months camping. He said everyone at the campsite, which was on an island in Malaysia, had head lice, and they had to poop in the sand and wash their butts with sea water, and the people who ran the camp wouldn’t let him leave, and his hair grew so long that his head became the shape of a mushroom, like he was a member of like The Beatles. He said the mosquitoes ate him to death, except he didn’t die, obviously.

The girl doesn’t like that story because she is allergic to mozzie bites and thinking about it gives her the phantom itches.

The girl likes hearing her dad tell a story from ten years later, after he arrived in Australia, about how he used to stare at a microwave as it warmed a meat pie; how it was his first time seeing one of those machines; how the spinning plate and the glowing light and the pie in the center — getting hotter and hotter with a soggying top and chewy bottom — fascinated him. He’d stand in front of it in the factory break room and stare until a co-worker, a grown man blondie, said, “Don’t stare at that, mate! You’ll ruin y’er eyes!”

The girl likes that part of the story best because the man called her dad a “mate” in an endearing way and wanted something nice for him, for his eyes to not be ruined. It’s her favorite story.

The girl’s dad is spare with his stories, so she stretches out the ones he does tell, like bubblegum. She is imaginative, but not when it comes to her parents. It’s too weird for her to think of them as anything other than what they are. She does not imagine that they were ever children, does not imagine that they ever did show-and-tell, does not imagine that they played games or opened birthday presents or did any imagining themselves. She does not imagine that they dreamt. But the meat pie story is good.

At the following week’s show-and-tell, the teacher wants the class to talk about memories that were created before they were born. He tells them to share stories about their parents, from before they became parents. The blondies bring in photo albums. The freckliest has photos of her dad as a baby, then as a toddler, then as a fourth grader. He looks just like her, but in boy-form. “He almost made the Australian cricket team,” she says. “But he had to stop because he hurt his knee, but he’s still really good and coaches Little Athletics now.”

The girl feels confident that she can one-up the blondie because cricket is the most boring thing in the world, and her own story has communists. She tells the story her dad once told her, about how, when he was in his 20s, the Viet Cong soldiers took his home. The girl tells the class that the Viet Cong were jealous of people who owned houses. So they came in the night with guns, and her dad left Vietnam with nothing. The girl feels proud as she tells this story, because her family owned enough to make communists jealous.

The class is silent. The blondies flick through their photo albums, ignoring the girl. The teacher tells the girl she did a good job and asks the class if they have any questions. A boy named Dragan raises his hand.

“Wait, so did your dad die or something?”

“What? No.”

The teacher calls up the next person.

***

The girl has no photos of her dad from when he lived in Vietnam. But he appears in later photos: on the steps of the Sydney Opera House, at his own wedding, holding the girl as a newborn in hospital, outside the first home he buys — a fibro two-bedroom that blends in with the neighboring public housing.

The girl likes to open the family albums and look at pictures of herself as a baby. She thinks it’s funny that she was ever so small, so chubby, because she is now mostly elbows and knees and she thinks her knuckles are too big for her spider hands. There is one photo where the girl wears a maroon onesie. She stands in the front yard of the fibro house where they no longer live. She stands very tall for a toddler, back so straight she is moments from falling backwards. Her dad crouches next to her, holds out a finger, which she grabs. “I held you up,” her dad says whenever she gets to this photo. “You were about to fall over, and I held you up.”

The only other story she remembers him telling her in full was when his finger got caught in one of the machines in the metal factory. He rode in an ambulance for the first time. The doctors saved his finger, but now it has a bulbous tip, like he is E.T. He said he got workers comp, which was how they were able to move into a better house, made of brick.

Sometimes, when the girl hears a fragment of a new story, one she’s never heard before, she prods her dad to tell the full thing. She is not good at prodding, though. Her strategy is to make a face, to show him that she is listening. She hopes he will pick up that she cares, that she wants to know more. He doesn’t say more.

So the girl collects fragments and, on those occasions, allows herself to fill in the rest. She hears that her dad used to smoke cigarettes, but quit once she was born. He never said he quit for her, but she allows herself to imagine that he did. Sometimes, she thinks he exhausted his love for her then, used it all to quit smoking, is now rationing what’s left of it for later, because when she was eight and asked him to limit himself to one beer at a cousin’s birthday party, he nodded at her and kept drinking, and he drank until he swayed, until her aunts and uncles stared, until her mum, embarrassed and hurt, asked him, “Do you even remember your own name?” and he smiled and nodded, just as he’d smiled and nodded at the girl. She tries to not imagine too much because it makes her insides feel heavy.

***

A week before the sesquicentennial, the teacher asks the students to bring in objects for the time capsule, which will be buried by the school flag. The blondies pool their friendship books and friendship bracelets. The girl contributes five Pokémon cards, the ones no one wants. The teacher looks at their collective offering, purses his lips, and says it might be best if everyone writes a letter to their future selves instead.

The girl has nothing to say to her future self. She tries, “Hi, how are you?” and “Did you get married?”

The girl thinks on her assignment and realizes that in fifty years she will be sixty. She shudders. In fifty years, her dad will be more than a hundred years-old. She worries, all of a sudden. And now she can’t stop worrying.

That’s when she gets an idea. She has seen her teacher write things on the back of his hand so he doesn’t forget them. So the girl fetches the last of her Hello Kitty parchment, the kind she saves for special occasions, for birthday notes to friends, and she writes. She writes all the stories she knows, in cursive, with a purple gel pen: pooping on the beach, microwaving the pie, he held her up, a finger like E.T. She describes Sunday shopping — a roll of Lifesavers one week, Blue Ribbon ice-cream the next. She fans them to make sure the ink dries. She clips the stories together with a Keroppi paper clip, folds them in half, and places them in a strawberry-scented envelope. She seals the envelope in a Ziploc sandwich bag.

The girl feels extra stressed while the envelope sits on her bookshelf, because her dad keeps moving it when he dusts her shelves. He dusts every day, and she is worried he will open it, or mistake it for junk and throw it out. The girl would hide it, but she often forgets the things she hides. So in the week leading up to the sesquicentennial she develops a habit: She brushes the Ziploc bag with her fingers every time she leaves her bedroom, and says good night to it before she falls asleep.

***

At the ceremony for the sesquicentennial, the girl’s teacher gathers everyone’s letters and ties them together with a chunky rubber band. He puts them in a plastic shopping bag — the full extent of waterproofing — which makes the girl feel smart for double-sealing. She sees that some of the blondies have soaked their envelopes in tea to make them look old, like they’ve already been in a time capsule for fifty years.

A boy from the choir sings the national anthem as the flag is hoisted up a pole by sixth graders. They try to time the movement of the flag to the song. It goes up too slowly at first, and then very fast at the end when they realize they only have five seconds of song remaining to get the flag to the top.

Teachers from each class begin dropping objects into the concrete hole in the ground. The girl sees a plush toy Pikachu. She sees half a volume of Encyclopedia Britannica, A to K, because the whole thing wouldn’t fit. She sees a rugby trophy and a cricket ball. Then she sees her teacher carrying the Woolies shopping bag. He looks out at the audience, at his class of fourth graders, raises the shopping bag as if in dedication to them, and drops it into the time capsule.

When the sixth graders push the cement cover over the hole in the ground, sealing her dad’s stories for the future, the girl wonders what will happen if he tells her new stories. She decides she will have to build another time capsule, for backup.

While she’s at it, the girl decides to start a time capsule for herself. She will dig two holes somewhere, line them with concrete. They will each have one-way slots for her to keep adding things, but no one will be able to take anything out until the future. And she will leave instructions inside the time capsules, so when they are unearthed fifty years from now, the people of the future will read everything, remember, and know to bury them again, for another fifty years, and fifty years after that, and fifty years after that, and then no one will ever forget the girl, her dad, and the stories between them.

First published in the Minnesota Review Fall 2019