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The New York Times

Far From Home, a Safe Space in Time

For now, I live 12 hours in the future, where nothing can harm the ones I love.

By Lauren DePino

Ms. DePino is a freelance writer.

Johor Bahru, MALAYSIA — I wake and part the curtains to a postcard view of metallic blue. Every morning, the predawn sky and the Strait of Johor, which stretches between me and Singapore, are the same slate color. If I could escape time, I imagine it would look like this.

My fiancé kisses me goodbye. I FaceTime my parents, who are 12 hours behind me in Philadelphia. Daylight saving time ends for them this weekend; as they fall back another hour, in Johor, 101 miles from the Equator, time and I will remain the same.

My mother tells me she’s just had dinner. She can’t believe I’m starting my day while hers is winding down. I turn my camera around and give her a glimpse of the future: a glitter of citrine, the swell of early light. After the sun ascends the horizon, I say “I love you” and “good night.”

My fiancé, a cinematographer, travels for work, and since I work remotely as a writer, I travel with him. For this job, we’re spending three months in Southeast Asia, 10,000 miles from family and friends.

Since I first heard my mother say, “I don’t believe in linear time,” when someone asked her age, I’ve not stopped questioning the convention of forward motion. In the physical world, time is what clocks tell you. But here, the expanse of unfamiliar terrain — the difference in hours between my loved ones and me — evokes a fantastical realm, and reminds me of one of the poetic ruminationson time in one of my favorite books, Alan Lightman’s novel “Einstein’s Dreams.” 

Before I found Lightman’s book, I looked for any works that might deem time unreal. I read fragments of a long prose poem written by Parmenides, who is known as the first philosopher who questioned the reality of time, followed by “Timaeus,” the dialogue in which Plato defines time as a “moving image of eternity.” But it was “Einstein’s Dreams” — essentially a series of thought experiments — that inspired me to imagine my own. 

I used to carry my copy of the novel with me, even when I wasn’t reading it. It is only fitting that I lost the book to a drummer I dated in my late 20s, who had impeccable timing with music, but not with relationships. I bought another copy years later, but someone stole it from my fiancé’s car. The thief took only that; not our phone chargers, our toll money or “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

Once my jet lag faded in Malaysia, I felt an immense sense of relief. The anxiety that I always carry around was finally lifting.

While I’m not afraid of dying, I’m terrified of losing the people I love. Eventually, death will separate them from me, and I have no idea how or when. None of us do. If we abide by objective time, we are temporary passengers on a bizarre machine that does not care about our driving urge to love the people we love longer than forever. It moves how it moves. Love feels eternal, yet we, in this bodily form, at least, are finite. It doesn’t add up.

But here in Johor — 12 or more hours ahead of the people I want to protect from death — I’m disassociated from the threat of their permanent departure. Our temporal discrepancy is a buffer between us and the truth.

The way our staggered microcosms of time and space play out, my people are at home on the East Coast of the United States, safe in their beds, while I’m going about my daily routine in Southeast Asia. I don’t have to worry about their getting into a car accident, because they’re under the covers sleeping. I don’t have to fear they’ll fall and injure their heads, because they’re not upright and walking. Conversely, when they’re awake and animated, out in the dangerous world, sleep numbs my anxiety.

Also, I’m ahead of the people I love in time. If time occurs the way I perceive it, I live in a reality that exists before theirs, where nothing unfortunate can touch them. Here in Malaysia, I venture into the amorphous future before they do. A tragic event will not befall them as long as I’m ahead of it. Death can never catch up.

The other night over FaceTime, my 6-year-old nephew asked why it was dark where I was in Malaysia and light where he was in the United States. I said to imagine a giant flashlight shining down on earth. I told him it takes a day for our planet to rotate, a year to revolve. “The light can’t touch everything at once,” I said. 

I’m well aware that my theory is a strategy, that in my attempt to shirk time and prevent death from robbing me of my loved ones, I am merely deceiving myself. And of course, I realize that all this does not protect my fiancé, here in the same time zone. I’d protect him myself, but it’s not easy when he’s out in the Malaysian jungle shooting a movie, texting me that there are four men with shotguns and machetes to defend him and his crew from snakes, leopards and boars. He sends me a photo of a baby king cobra they caught, trapped in a water bottle, its eyes lidless, its mouth agape. Not today, snake, not today.

I know there is no trick or tool that will shield anyone I love, not with my hands, nor with time’s. So I wait up, I wait up late for my fiancé to return to our temporary apartment, our shared temporal space. It gets so late that it’s peak of day for my parents. As we FaceTime, I watch the light from yesterday’s sun drift toward the screen. It reaches and forms a protective sash across my mother’s chest, like spectral armor. Like time’s seatbelt; holding her still, locking us in.

Albert Einstein, the inspiration for Alan Lightman’s book of fables, believed in the endlessness of the cosmos. He wrote a famous letteras a eulogy to the grieving family of his dear friend Michele Besso. Einstein wrote it not knowing that a month later he himself would die. In it, he says what I feel, or what I want to be true — I can no longer tell the difference between the two:

“Now he’s gone slightly ahead of me again, leaving this strange world. That doesn’t mean anything. For us believing physicists this separation between past, present and future has the value of mere illusion, however tenacious.”

A different translation from the German does not call the illusion “mere.” Instead, it is “an admittedly tenacious illusion.”

I’ll buy into time when I have to; that I must. But in the meantime, I’ll continue to hope and imagine we will always have one another, no matter how delusional and tenacious it may seem.

It is late in Malaysia, and eventually, I sleep. In the middle of the night I feel my fiancé’s arm drape over my waist. For the moment, we’re safe.

When we wake, the sun is high and the sky is azure and gray again.

If time is superficial and energy timeless, the sun in front of me, that same light that I see, it has already touched the people I love. It touches them now. It touches them forever.

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