Out of the Loop

by | Aug 15, 2023 | Fiction

OUT OF THE LOOP by Brigid Cawley

Plenty of theories have been floated suggesting patterns in who it happens to or when it happens. We’ve all seen people claiming it’s more likely to happen to men, or on a weekday, or after a bungled first date. But ultimately it could be anyone, at any time. So the question becomes: 

If your spouse, or friend, or child experiences a time loop, are you prepared to support them once they’re out?

–Viola Albertson, “Out of the Loop? How to help your loved one adjust to post-loop living.”

 

Oscar’s in a daze again, so Helen gently clears her throat before speaking. 

“We’re bringing that?”

He looks at her with surprise as they walk to the car, following her gaze to the bottle of red wine in his hands.

“Of course,” he replies. “We’re celebrating, aren’t we?”

“Of course,” she echoes.

Helen should be happier for Oscar for getting out of his time loop. She’s really, truly trying to match his enthusiasm for it being Tuesday. But from her perspective, yesterday was Monday and now it is Tuesday. The sun set and it rose. 

This isn’t to imply that she doesn’t believe time loops are real. She’s not one of those. And she has no doubt that her husband looped; his ecstatic reaction to today’s date would have been hard to fake, and he’s always been a terrible liar. It’s just that this is their nicest bottle of wine, a gift from her parents, and they had been saving it for a special occasion.

“And we have to do this dinner tonight? Maybe we could reschedule for next week, once you’re more … settled.” Helen pauses with her hand on the car door, hoping that Oscar might agree with her and they won’t have a reason to open it.

“No way,” says Oscar cheerfully. “Grant and I promised each other that if we ever got out of our loop we would celebrate right away with an amazing dinner with our wives.” 

“Right.” Helen dutifully hides her disappointment. “What’s his wife’s name?”

Oscar sighs happily. “Isn’t the sunset amazing? It’s so different from the one yesterday. I feel so lucky to have a whole life of different sunsets ahead of me.”

Helen softens as she watches Oscar climb into the car. She had always wished he would be more observant, dreamt of him waxing poetic about something like the sunset. So Oscar’s time loop has brought them a few awkward moments. There have been miscommunications, confusion, the sink thing. But isn’t it worth it for a husband who will talk about the sky?

 

1. Exhibits aggressive behavior towards alarm clocks.

–Abigail Edwin, “10 Telltale Signs Your Partner is in a Time Loop”

 

The first thing Oscar did when he woke up this morning, before even opening his eyes, was throw his alarm clock across the room. The first thing Helen did in response was shout “What is your problem?” Which was, in hindsight, insensitive of her. In her defense, he had interrupted her focus while she was trying to put on a necklace with a very finicky clasp. In his defense, he hadn’t yet realized it was Tuesday and that he was free from the time loop, and so was very emotional about the concept of waking up. 

It had taken a long, confused conversation for Oscar to figure out that he was out of his loop. It had taken even longer for Helen to figure out that he had been in one in the first place. It ended with Oscar jumping around the room, shouting, “It’s over! It’s over!” 

Helen, trying to keep up, had cheered “Okay!”

Oscar had lifted her into the air and spun her around like a prop in a musical, each of them laughing for different reasons, until he suddenly put her down. “I have to call Grant!”

Helen had to catch her breath. “Who?”

Now, as they walk up the path to an unfamiliar house, Oscar takes Helen’s hand in his and squeezes it tight. She feels a swell of affection for her husband and, ashamed of how negative she’s been today, decides to turn her attitude around for this dinner.

Helen is feeling confident about this resolution until Grant, the man Oscar had befriended while in a loop together, opens the front door to reveal a deafening voice and a blindingly yellow suit.

“We’ve actually met before,” Grant booms when Helen reaches out to shake his hand.

Helen smiles blankly. “Sorry?”

“You and Grant have met,” explains Oscar. “On one of my days in the loop, I brought you over here.”

“Oh. That’s funny. It’s funny that I can’t remember that.”

“It probably seems totally insane to you,” says Oscar as they follow Grant into the dining room.

“Insane!” Grant echoes loudly.

Oscar makes a sweeping motion with his arms. “But welcome to my life for the past six months! Or, to you, two days.” He chuckles and shakes his head, then looks at Helen expectantly.

“Yeah, I can’t imagine,” she says.

 

After sitting alone in the room for five minutes, participants were asked how long they believed they had been waiting. Members of the control group guessed they had waited 3-10 minutes, the average response being 5.9 minutes. The experimental group, composed of people who had recently experienced a time loop, reported waiting 5-45 minutes, with an average response of 28.7 minutes.

–David Kaley, “Chronoception and Prefrontal Cortex Activity Among Time Loop Cases”

 

Grant’s wife, whose name Helen still doesn’t know, hasn’t emerged from the kitchen. Helen itches to ask if she needs a hand, but Grant insists she sit, insists they open up the bottle of wine she and Oscar brought. She flinches when Oscar rips the seal off. 

Grant glances at the closed door to the kitchen with a look of poorly disguised irritation. “Dinner will be worth the wait, I guarantee it,” he says, then adds with a wink, “Especially after she made the same thing for dinner every day yesterday.”

Oscar starts to laugh before catching Helen’s eye. He coughs.  

 

looper (n.) informal: someone who is currently in a time loop or has recently been in a time loop. First known use in 2019.

–Merriam-Webster Dictionary

 

The kitchen door slams open. A small woman in a cocktail dress stands in the doorway, brushing hair out of her face. Her eyes fall immediately on Helen. Before Helen can speak, the woman says, “Could you?” and jerks her head toward the kitchen behind her.

Helen nearly falls out of her seat in her rush to stand up. She knew she should have offered to help earlier. She tries to think of something to say that would subtly yet decisively place the blame on Grant but can’t come up with something fast enough.

The kitchen is hot and cluttered and full of steam. The woman yanks open a window, saying, “Always have to do this. Our fire alarm is alarmist. Could you grab a couple things?”

Helen picks up the nearest thing on the counter, an oven-hot dish of green beans that burns her fingertips. She winces. Tonight’s accumulation of reasons to wince feels so insurmountable it makes her wince even more. She needs a drink. She needs to be polite.

Helen says, “It’s so great to meet you! It’ll probably be nice to talk to someone else who understands the whole looping-husband thing. I’m Helen, by the way.”

In a few seamless movements the woman sweeps up four plates of steak and potatoes, balancing them on wiry arms and fingers. “I used to be a waitress,” she says, then adds, “Tess.”

When Helen follows Tess back into the dining room, she finds Grant pouring himself another glass of wine. She tries to catch Oscar’s eye to give him a knowing wink or eyeroll before noticing he is also on his second glass in five minutes.

Grant claps his hands at the arrival of the food. “This looks amazing,” he says, reaching out to touch Tess’ cheek and missing as she turns away.

Oscar is saying, “How nice is it to not have it rain at four-oh-three?”

Grant lets out a bellowing laugh, making Helen jump. “I got so sick of that damn four-oh-three rain. I nearly cried today when it was all clear skies.”

“I ran outside when I realized the time!” Oscar grins, already sawing at his steak. “I was so excited to experience not-rain.”

Helen resists the urge to point out that she and Oscar had been mid-conversation this afternoon when he had abruptly sprinted outside, whooping and laughing at an empty sky. It was part of a new trend of bizarre moments with Oscar since his time loop, like the thing with the milk, or the sink. Interactions that have felt disconcerting for reasons she can’t quite put her finger on. 

Take the milk, for example.

At one point this afternoon Helen said something about the milk in the fridge expiring and Oscar stared at her as if she were speaking an alien language. “You just never said that yesterday,” he explained. “I’m so used to you saying the same things over and over!” When he said this Helen felt an amorphous yet intense unease but forced herself to discard the feeling as she silently poured the milk down the drain.

 

I can usually tell when someone is looping because they never look at the menu and they’re always either a really good or really bad tipper lollll

–@leilaaaaa, on Twitter

 

The dinner’s conversation continues on the same way it began. Oscar and Grant exchange inside jokes referencing things like radio broadcasts and a minor traffic accident they witnessed dozens of times. It is, in Helen’s opinion, an extraordinarily boring conversation. She chimes in feebly here and there, but spends more of her time observing Tess, who, incredibly, hasn’t spoken a word since they left the kitchen.

While Tess and Helen’s first glasses of wine sit untouched, Grant takes a long sip from his third and smiles broadly. “Oscar, man, this is better than ever.”

Oscar jerks his head up and stares at Grant. He gives a tiny shake of his head, which Grant doesn’t notice but Helen does.

Grant blithely continues, “Seriously. I think the loop dulls your taste buds or something.”

“Wine wasn’t as good in the loop?” asks Helen.

“Not just any wine. This wine. I mean, it was good then too, but it’s better knowing that I’m drinking it as a free man.”

Helen turns to Oscar. “You drank our best wine during the loop? We were saving it for a special occasion.”

“Isn’t getting trapped in a time loop a special occasion?” Grant contributes with a chuckle.

“But—”

Oscar cuts in. “And in a way I didn’t, right? It was all undone. So it doesn’t matter.”

Helen hesitates. “Yeah. I guess not.”

“Yeah,” confirms Oscar.

Everyone is quiet for a while. Helen can hear the ticking of a clock one room over. She contemplates the food in front of her. She knows it is growing cold, and that she is expected to eat, but can’t bring herself to take a bite.

Finally, surprising everyone, Tess is the one to break the silence. Leaning back in her seat, she coolly says, “There are worse things your husband could have done.”

Grant immediately tips his head back to stare at the ceiling, sighing laboriously. “Theresa,” he groans. “We have guests, so let’s not right now.”

Helen searches Oscar’s face for some hint of what is happening, but he is staring intently at his plate.

Tess continues evenly. “My husband slept with another woman during his time loop.”

Helen chokes on her water. She looks back and forth between Grant and Tess, who glare wordlessly at each other for a few agonizing moments.

Grant finally lets out a mean, forced laugh. He shakes his head. “Oh man, I am so sorry for being honest with you about that. I guess you just want me to lie to you about everything?” Tess is silent, but Grant turns to face Helen now, as if she were the one deserving an explanation. He takes a bite of his roll, chews, then says, “It’s part of the learning experience in the loop, that sort of thing. Everyone does it. And now I’ve learned how to be honest.”

“You also said the loop taught you to be yourself.” Tess speaks with frightening clarity, each word sharpened to a point. “And now you’re wearing a yellow. Fucking. Suit.”

“This is who I am!” shouts Grant, stretching his arms wide. 

“Exactly,” Tess hisses.

With this, she drops her napkin next to her untouched plate, stands, and walks out the front door, slamming it crisply behind her.

“Oh, wonderful hosting, dear!” Grant yells at the closed door.

 

My boyfriend met me in a loop,
Found me each time he lived that day.
Tried again and again to ask me out,
‘Till he figured out the right way.
How many times did he have to try?
One… two… three… four…

–Popular jump rope rhyme

 

Speechless, Helen instinctively looks to Oscar. He raises his eyebrows at her and presses his lips together in an almost-smile. Helen narrows her eyes. She knows his facial expressions better than her own. He looks relieved. He looks like he has been let off the hook for something. But now, watching her, Oscar’s face falls. He knows what her expressions mean, too.

“Helen?” Oscar asks cautiously. “Helen, you know I didn’t do anything like that, right?” 

She nods slightly. “No, yeah.”

“Good.” He smiles.

“Although… you did drink the wine.”

Oscar’s face reddens. “Yeah, sure, but that’s wine. Not cheating on you. One doesn’t mean the other.”

Grant announces, evidently unaware of Oscar and Helen’s conversation, “She’ll be back soon, she just needs to take a minute to collect herself.”

Oscar continues, “And, you know, I didn’t just drink it myself, or with Grant. I shared it with you one day. One time in the loop I planned this whole romantic day with you. We ate dinner on a beach and shared the wine, it was beautiful. We did a lot of stuff like that. All the time. Me and you.”

Helen is silent. Her gaze keeps drifting back to the door.

“Helen, hey,” says Oscar indignantly. “You believe me, right? I wouldn’t make that up.”

He’s always been a terrible liar.

 

A lot of people ask me if my husband loved me more after he went through a time loop. My answer to that is: after the loop he loved me differently. And anyone who has been married for fifteen years will know that that’s a miracle in itself!

–Viola Albertson, on Good Morning Today

 

Yesterday, Monday, Helen hadn’t known that Oscar was in a time loop. He didn’t bother telling her then, possibly because he had explained it to her many times before, and he was out of the house for most of the day (supposedly at work). So it’s only now, in hindsight, that some moments from yesterday gain clarity. Like the sink thing. It was the morning, and she was filling a glass of water at the sink. Oscar had stepped up next to her, stuck his own glass under the tap above hers, filled it, then walked away without saying a word. She wonders now how that moment must have seemed to him, deep in a time loop. She wonders if, after seeing one’s wife turn on a faucet in the exact same way at the exact same time so many mornings, one can think of her as anything more than a machine that turns on faucets.

“How many times did you live yesterday?” Helen asks now. “How many days in the loop?”

Oscar blinks, thrown. “I lost count, but around two hundred.”

“Two hundred times.” Helen nods slowly. “What was I wearing?”

He pales. “What?”

“What was I wearing yesterday? You know, the day you lived for half a year, when we went on all those romantic adventures? What did I have on?”

“Come on, you really need to ask me this?”

She doesn’t respond. 

Oscar begins to stammer, “Look, it’s hard to describe because I was so used to it… Those pants, right? With the…what shirt was it…it was like a…”

Helen isn’t really listening anymore. She knows she doesn’t need to. Instead, she stares at the door Tess had left through. It seems to vibrate with the kinetic energy of her exit. 

“Okay, come on, just—just look at me, Helen. Helen?”

She finds Tess in the front yard, smoking a cigarette in misting rain. 

Tess looks over her shoulder at Helen. “It’s raining. They’re gonna lose it.” 

Helen doesn’t say anything as she comes to stand by Tess’s side.

“I’m going to leave him.”

“You are?” Helen is struck by her own interest in these strangers. She doesn’t even know their last names, yet they feel familiar.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time,” says Tess.

“But now you’re sure.”

Tess nods. “I don’t think the loop was meant to teach them anything. I think it was meant to show us something.”

She holds a cigarette out to Helen, who hesitates, then accepts.

“So, that’s what I’m going to do,” says Tess, giving Helen a light. “What about you?”

Helen blows smoke into the cold air. She hasn’t had a cigarette in ages, certainly not since she’s been married. It’s a nice change.


Photo used and adapted under public domain.

About The Author

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Brigid Cawley was raised in Los Angeles and currently lives in Somerville, Massachusetts, where she teaches preschool by day and writes by night. She has been published in the Wilderness House Literary Review.