The easiest way to learn from your mistakes is to make it so that they never happened in the first place.
First date. A girl that just so happens to be my best friend. She looks beautiful, sitting across the white-clothed table in a sundress, her cheeks glowing in the light of the restaurant. But that alone makes me nervous in and of itself, so much so that I already had to redo a couple of lines which I’d stuttered the first time.
I should clarify. When I say, “redo,” I don’t mean simply repeating a sentence over again. I mean literally redoing them.
“You look lovely tonight,” I tell her for the third time, but she only hears it as the first. She smiles and blushes, looking down—a much different and better reaction than the confused look she gave me the first two attempts. A feeling of relief rushes through me.
I have a stutter, but no one knows. I have unlimited attempts to say what I want to say as smoothly as I want it to come across. It’s hard to explain, but easy to do. I simply will it, and time reverses, and I have another chance to speak. I’ve been this way as long as I can remember, cursed with a speech impediment and gifted with time control.
I’m nervous tonight, and that makes me falter over more words than usual. It takes me five times to tell the waiter our order. But I want this night to be perfect, for her. Nothing can go wrong.
When I asked Sarah out for the first time last night, it took me thirteen attempts. But finally I spat it out, clear and seamless as she’d ever heard me speak. She grinned and accepted, knowing nothing of the sheer effort it had taken me. But that’s precisely how I want it.
The restaurant. We finish our food. The first time, I clumsily knocked over a glass of soda onto the table, but there was no trace of the stain on the pristine tablecloth now, because it never happened. I made it never happen. Sarah is sweet and caring and beautiful and patient, and the fluttering feeling in my stomach never ceases when I’m with her.
Dessert. Paying the check. Now we are just talking. “So, John,” she says, pushing the last bite of chocolate cake around the plate with her fork. “How long have you liked me, then?”
“I’ve liked you ever since you sang for the class in seventh grade choir,” I say.
“No way!” She hides her face, giggling. “That was so long ago. I’d almost forgotten we were in the same class.”
“I’ll never forget that day. Your face was so red, but you sang so beautifully, and I’ve had my eye on you since then.”
“Well, gosh,” she says. “I must have been really blind, then.” She gazes at me, the smile fading from her lips but not her eyes.
Seven attempts. That’s how many times I had to redo this conversation.
Things are going so well. I did not expect this date to go so well. Things can only go up from here. Maybe I’ll kiss her cheek when I drop her off for the evening. Maybe she’ll kiss me back. Maybe I’ll magically stop stuttering, maybe I won’t have to keep redoing our conversations, maybe nothing bad will happen—
Crash. Before I know it, a tray of food comes toppling down all over me, and spaghetti and pasta sauce splatter my white shirt. The waiter profusely apologizes for tripping, feebly attempting to pick up the overturned bowls and plates from my lap.
“I am so, so sorry sir, please forgive me, I’ll help clean everything up!” he says.
“It’s okay, I—”
I choke. The words won’t come out. This is expected; my impediment is worsened by shocks and surprises like this. I close my eyes, imagining the moment right before the accident.
When I open my eyes a second later, the waiter is dabbing at the soup on my shirt with a cloth. More wait staff has come around the table to help clean up. Sarah is staring at me with wide, surprised eyes.
“Are you okay?” Sarah asks.
“Yes, I’m— I’ll be— I just— I—”
Sarah is giving me that look she always gives me when I stutter in my first few attempts of speaking; head tilted slightly to the side, brows furrowed, eyes indecipherable.
Nothing is changing. Why is nothing changing? Why is she looking at me like that?
“Do you need some water?”
“Y— Yes,” I get out, as she holds her glass out to me. But the glass starts spilling in my shaking hands, wetting my already stained shirt.
“What is going on?”
“I don’t— I don’t know wh— what—”
“Why are you stuttering? What’s wrong with you?”
My worst nightmare, coming true. “Sarah, I— I can exp— exp— explain—”
“Explain what?!” She sounds angry, but she looks so concerned.
Her expression shifts. Something has dawned on her. “It’s okay… It’s okay. Let’s go, John, come on.” She grabs my hand, pulling me out of the restaurant. She must sense something is terribly wrong based on the arrant panic on my face. Panic…an emotion she’s never seen on me, an emotion I never let myself show her. Because every time I ever panic, I start over and fix it. Not this time.
Sarah leads me to my car parked at the side of the building. It’s dark and we are alone. We don’t go in the car but stand outside it on the passenger side. She is looking at me with a baffled expression, probably noting the frantic skirting of my eyes.
I’ve lost control. No matter how hard I think about it, I can’t go back. I try to close my eyes and think to a different moment, to when we first walked in the restaurant, to when I picked her up at her house. Hell, I even try to think about going back to a moment from hours ago, something I avoid doing except in emergencies because it nullifies all the painstakingly tedious attempts I’d already redone.
Nothing works. I’m still here, standing outside beside my bewildered best-friend-slash-date, food staining my shirt and pants, a thousand words swelling in my brain like a swarm of bees, words I know I’ll never be able to get out.
“John…” She squeezes my hands with her own, tight. “What happened?”
I look around, willing the words out that will never come. “I— I— I st—”
“John.” She’s grabbed my jaw, forcing me to look down at her. Her eyes plead to mine. “Look at me. It’s okay. Take a breath… It’s okay, John. Just breathe…”
I do, and my heart rate starts to go down. She releases her grip with her hands, but not with her eyes.
“Are you good to talk?”
“It’s okay if you’re not.”
“I am,” I say. Now that I’ve calmed down, it’ll be a lot easier…but not perfect.
She exhales a long breath. It’s silent between us for a while. A dog barks from a yard, a police siren sounds in the distance, cars whir by the adjacent freeway. “I’ve never heard you stutter before.”
I think long and hard about my words before speaking them. “I know… I know you haven’t.”
“What changed?” she asks softly.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I w—wish I could tell you.”
I see her jaw working. “But I don’t understand why…”
“I’ve been hiding it,” I say. “Th—This whole time.”
“I understand that, John.” She’s curt, but not harsh. “I’m saying I don’t understand how you hid it. Or why you would hide it.”
She doesn’t understand? How am I supposed to make her understand why I hide my impediment, why I go back in time after every mistake to redo the moment? How am I supposed to express to her the truth, that years and years of living with my time-control ability have rendered me unable to accept my own mistakes and imperfections? How am I going to tell her exactly how happy she makes me feel, how beautiful she is to me? How could I possibly express how after years of knowing her, of watching her laugh and smile through life with the brilliance of the sun, I could never settle for being anything less than perfect for her?
She must have seen this flash through my eyes, because she holds my face again. “It’s okay. You can trust me. You can tell me anything. Will you tell me? Talk as slowly as you need to. I want to know.”
I panic, but Sarah is sincere. A thought crosses my mind: if there’s anyone out there that would be patient enough to listen to me stutter out a paragraph without trials of rehearsal, it would be Sarah.
I take a deep breath before starting, and because I don’t have a choice, I tell her everything.
By the end, she has tears in her eyes. She’s looking away from me, and I can’t tell for sure, but I know how hurt she must be. How horrible she must find me now that she knows that I control my own destiny. How much she must hate me for manipulating her, by steering our conversations my own way.
“I’m sorry, Sarah,” I say, because it’s all I can. “I’m so sorry.”
And at that moment, she turns toward me, bringing her glassy eyes to meet mine, and I immediately register that the tears do not hold the anger I’d suspected. Instead, they show solicitude. And as she holds my hands and smiles at me, it dawns on me that I’ll never have to keep another secret from Sarah ever again. She’s accepted me for who I am. I don’t realize what’s happening until her hands lace behind my neck and she presses her soft lips to mine.
My heart explodes. I close my eyes and lean closer to her.
There’s a familiar whirring noise in my ears, and all of a sudden I feel weightless, my body wrenched from the stability of the ground for all but a single heartbeat before the reality of the world comes back to me.
A single heartbeat. I open my eyes. The dimly-lit restaurant, the white-clothed table, jazz music in the background. My shirt, dry and unstained. And Sarah, smiling gently, pushing the last bite of chocolate cake around the plate with her fork.
“So, John. How long have you liked me, then?”