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a watch can die but once

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-:-

Prologue

Watch meets the real world in a suburban home with garish blue wallpaper, a fireplace that’s never lit, and two glasses of champagne. It blinks blearily from the light shining through the shades but keeps time as it was always meant to do.

“It’s a Bulova,” a woman says softly from a couple feet away. Soft hands lift it from its box. Those hands, shaking a little, belong to a sloe-eyed girl. Watch tries not to be nervous. Will she like me? The girl examines the birthmark on the watch: “With Love, From Mother.” Watch tries not to feel self-conscious.

“It’s perfect,” says the girl. Watch feels its quartz crystal swell (not literally, of course; the mechanism of the Bulova Precisionist relies on the integrity of that quartz crystal).

The woman helps fix the watch onto the girl’s wrist, both of their eyes shining and tender. The girl chuckles; the woman giggles. Watch nestles onto the girl’s wrist and knows it can never fall off — it’s home.

“Things are beginning to happen,” marvels the woman, her voice full of hope for the future.

 

watch box

with love from mother

beth alma 1 beth alma 2

-:-

meet the bracelet

Once upon the state of Ohio in the year 1967, there was a silver bracelet named Bracelet and a golden wristwatch named Watch.

They first meet on opposite sides of a lecture hall with fluted walls, wood-paneled seats, and white fluorescent lights that cast ghastly glows on college students clad in sweater vests and flatter no chess player in photographs. What better place for an infatuation at first sight?

Bracelet’s boy enters through the doorway of the college lecture hall, and this wristwatch is so stunning Bracelet momentarily forgets how to speak, briefly gets its chains tangled in a knot that it desperately tries to shake out.

Bracelet tries to recollect its thoughts — it’s never had a moment of weakness like this, and it certainly won’t now. It’s just another accessory. Bracelet tries to calculate whether the watch is an heirloom or a good luck charm or something else. It’s young, still new, with a couple fingerprint smudges. Most likely, Bracelet thinks, the owner never removes it, but she does fidget with it as a nervous habit.

As the boy strides confidently into the auditorium in Ohio, Bracelet hears the boy’s pulse in his wrist pick up pace, feels its own heart (does it even have a heart?) start to race as the boy’s right wrist just barely brushes a brilliantly redheaded girl’s left wrist.

The watch is ticking coolly, unflappably, but as Bracelet approaches, it spies the curiosity on the watch’s face. Bracelet prays to the patron saint of bracelets it’s not still tangled.

Hello. And Bracelet breathes a sigh of relief that its voice didn’t crack, the pressure still intense in its chest.

Hello. The watch smiles warmly, so so easily.

 

b2 1

God, just move a bit closer, Bracelet silently begs the boy. He leans closer to whisper in the girl’s ear, “You should see the places they play in the Soviet Union.”

“I’m planning on it.”

“You’ll have to get past me first.” His voice is low, deep, challenging.

She doesn’t pause for a beat in her reply. “I’m planning on that, too.”

As the girl walks away, the boy stares for a second longer than necessary. Watch glances back, See you around.

See you around, thinks Bracelet.

b2 2

 

-:-

What follows are glimpses, frustratingly fleeting — the girl’s hands tend to conceal the watch within crossed arms or behind her back. Bracelet hopes it’s not staring and is relieved it doesn’t have a heart, or else it’d be stopping every time it catches the Watch staring back.

One night in the Student Union, Bracelet shakes with excitement when he sees the girl armed with a coffee mug, though her coat covers her wrists.

bracelet ohio 1

bracelet ohio 2

The girl walks over and Watch peeks out. Hi, you.

Bracelet tries not to blush. Hi.

I can do polite chitchat, the Bracelet thinks. I can. Instead of small talk, or anything resembling polite chitchat, the Bracelet asks Do you like to dance? and gestures toward the chessboard.

In affirmation, the watch slips into the seat, and, although speed chess doesn’t lend itself to physical touch, it’s still the best night it’s ever had. When the girl plays, the watch laughs, and Bracelet wants to hear it again, and then again, and then again. Watch’s bezel gleams under the lights of the student union, the links of its band twisting gracefully around the girl’s wrist, and Bracelet can feel the air getting hotter and hotter, not just from the crowd.

speed chess 1

speed chess 2

Despite dancing over the board in speed chess, they still can’t touch. Afterward, their almost touches are enough to drive any accessory insane — is this something that happens frequently to accessories? Bracelet wonders and curses that there are no parents he can ask, no “birds and the bees” talk that can distill this simply. It’s had flirtations here and there with other jewelry, noncommittal, of course. There’ve been sparse conversations about similar concepts, but Bracelet had never thought such feelings were anything but fairytale.

almost touch

One time, they almost collide on a park bench. Hey, you. Watch’s voice startles the Bracelet. Why does your boy have a feather in his hat?

Bracelet looks up, confused. When did he get a feather in his hat? Slightly dazed, it turns back to the watch, glinting in the sun. Your girl’s headscarf is cool. I think it has feathers, too.

It seems fortuitous. Birds of a feather, or something like that.

Finally, after five days of skirting around each other, Bracelet watches its boy resign his first game all week. From across the board, Watch winks at the Bracelet. Can I buy you a drink?

Bracelet smirks back. I know a bar downtown.

-:-

Watch isn’t sure how it ended up in a Volkswagen Beetle, wind hitting its face as it leans out the window. Bracelet is focused on steering the wheel carefully. Watch knows better than to distract it.

On an empty stretch, Bracelet clears its throat. Hey, do you have the time?

I do, says the watch.

Can you tell me? Bracelet prods.

Watch pauses and makes an offer. I’ll tell you the time if you tell me a story.

I’ll tell you a story if you tell me the time, Bracelet replies. Watch sneaks a glance at Bracelet and is relieved to see its smirk.

Okay. It’s almost sunset.

Bracelet looks puzzled. Do all watches know that?

No, just Bulovas. If the watch had hair, it would toss it carelessly, a little smugly. Give me a story, and I’ll be more specific.

The bracelet laughs, a light jangling of chainlinks, and the watch decides the sound is really nice.

-:-

When Watch arrives, takes in the scruffy apartment, it feels the bracelet’s eyes watching steadily, while its own eyes droop steadily.

I think it’s time to sleep, yawns Watch. Good night.

Sleep tight, says the Bracelet.

What commences for the next three weeks is nothing short of — no other adjective for it — intense.

During every waking hour, the two accessories dance, but it’s slower this time, choreographed waltzes. They practice steps, tracing the board so no corner is unexplored. There’s still a distance between them, but Watch notices Bracelet’s clasp always sits on the soft underside of the boy’s wrist, notices the way vibrations move nimbly through the chains. Bracelet spots the engraving on Watch’s underside. They never leave their owners’ wrists.

Watch also learns all the ways the boy's apartment hums with life — the light fixtures flicker, passing along stories that the connected wires pick up from around the building. The books chant their analyses and flex their annotations like tattoos. In the corners, the cushions jabber amiably. The floor has a story for every scuff mark, while the coffee pot presides judiciously from the kitchen.

In other words, it feels welcome, almost welcome enough it can ignore something unfamiliar in its case, a twisting in its tuning fork.

Watch is a quartz watch, its tuning fork oscillating at a frequency eight times faster than other quartz watches of its kind, so it is eight times more precise than them, too. Perfection — perfection is essential. It has no time for that which could compromise function.

And yet, every time Watch dances with Bracelet, every time it notices that the boy loves his bracelet like the girl loves her watch, it feels a different kind of electrical current shooting through its crystal.

-:-

Over dinner, Watch asks curiously, A second for your thoughts?

Bracelet lobs a question back. Where are you from?

Watch returns, Does it matter?

I’ll tell you about my childhood if you tell me about yours. Like, what model are you, anyway?

The watch peers curiously — are all bracelets this earnest? It’s never met many other pieces of jewelry before — everything else in the house has always been silent, especially after the girl’s mother died. All of the girl’s mother’s jewelry is now in a box that Watch has never been privy to. The girl doesn’t touch most of her mother’s things.

The watch answers the softball question. American Girl K.

The bracelet blows a low whistle. Is there an American Girl L?

Breathing a laugh, the watch asks, What about you?

The bracelet looks contemplative. I used to be part of a set of five — but my clasp is a little finicky. Got donated, Benny found me in a pawn shop, and I’ve been here ever since. He’s always been okay with my clasp, never takes it off.

That might make you older than I am.

Huh, is all the bracelet can respond.

Watch picks up on the edge in Bracelet’s thoughts. Does it ever scare you, getting older?

What do you fear?

Repetition, being the same. Every 12 hours, I reset. Watch’s voice drifts to voice something else pressing on its mind. I measure solar days, which are 24 hours. But one rotation of the Earth is actually a sidereal day: 23 hours, 56 minutes. Inherently, I’m imperfect.

Why would you be expected to quantify that which is impossible?

Accuracy is essential. Without accuracy, what am I? The watch pauses, knowing the moment’s become too heavy. It tries to turn the question back to the bracelet — what do you fear?

Time, says the bracelet. If a watch’s hands could swivel, it would in surprise. It lives for time.

The bracelet continues. I've seen Fossils that you know a chess player plunged into debt in order to afford, macrame bracelets from summer camps, even an anklet that was on a wrist instead of a leg. But what amazes me are the heirlooms — the ones passed through multiple generations. You see the effects of longevity on an accessory: kindly rings, pins that wish they could just fall off their jackets, necklaces that have survived for decades with no plans of stopping for decades more.

Do you want to live that long? Watch asks, unsure of what Bracelet is trying to say.

I think so? I don’t know what else I could be. Bracelet hesitates. I’m not sure whether a broken clasp means I’ll be tossed out and replaced. I can’t be perfect, but not the way you’re imperfect. You work exactly as a watch is designed to be; I’m flawed merchandise.

Watch pauses, feeling the weight of the Bracelet’s words. They’re not bitter, just said for the sake of being said. Maybe because tonight seems to be a night for honesty, the kind that only feels comfortable settling in the absence of sunlight, the watch asks, Do you think I’m pretty?

It’s shocking how fast the Bracelet answers, yes. It coughs before adding, you’re also not a bad dancer.

Watch blushes. Neither are you.

As the girl and the boy discard their takeout containers and clean up to set up the chessboard for another game, Bracelet asks, Want another dance?

-:-

afterglow

Something changes in the fourth week: a dance across the board, even faster than the one in Ohio, some finger snaps, and the world tilts sideways when the boy asks, “Do you still like my hair?”

During the dance, the Bracelet had flashed a grin, blatantly flirtatious. Are you even necessary when the blitz clock is right here?

Watch had rolled its eyes, its second hand possibly skipping a tick. Don’t insult me.

An hour later, in the aftermath, as it presses against the boy’s ribs, the watch speaks Hello.

Hello, says the bracelet, as it skims across the girl’s arms to lift them around the boy’s neck, as the boy’s hands move to her face to cup her cheek. Bracelet observes how their lips fasten to each other, like with enough pressure they’d never come apart. The girl is grinning; the boy looks ragged, almost broken, nothing but insatiable desire left on his mind, his eyes shut as his mouth moves against hers, as he smothers his body to hers against the bedroom doorframe. Bracelet almost feels like it’s intruding on this intimate moment between its owner and a girl; it turns to try to catch Watch’s attention. Watch is determinedly focusing at the floor, but one glimpse later, it’s game over, and neither can stop staring at the other. Around them, the boy’s hand swings to seize the girl’s into the bedroom, and Bracelet almost swears at the electricity rushing through every link in its chain that touches Watch, the warmth coursing from Watch to Bracelet and back again.

The girl’s and the boy’s clothes are shed piece by frantic piece — Bracelet is almost scared that it will be removed as well, but it stays.

The night passes like a blur, and Bracelet and Watch find themselves resting on the mattress, light bouncing off each other in something hauntingly beautiful.

You know, I was warned to stay away from silver jewelry, muses Watch. I’m pretty sure it’s a thing that gold and silver clash.

I was warned that gold watches only harangue me about being on time, laughs Bracelet.

Watch scoffs, As if you aren’t some acolyte of a blitz clock.

Bracelet rolls its links and is pleased at how Watch seems mesmerized by the movement. Please, blitz clocks are boring, no stamina. I just like to dance.

And you need the squares as a training guide?

Mock-offended at the implication it requires an external guide to keep step, Bracelet says, Are all watches as impertinent as you are?

Ask out the blitz clock, you can let me know.

Bracelet prepares a retort, but then they hear a huff, “Good night, Benny.” Watch disappears out of Bracelet’s line of sight for the night, but not before Bracelet hears Watch whisper wish you were sleeping with me.

Me, too, thinks Bracelet.

-:-

Here’s the problem with being two accessories for two different people: sometimes, one owner flies to Paris and never comes back. From the calendar on which the boy scrawls his notes, it’s been months now, and Bracelet isn’t sure what it’s going to do with itself.

You miss her? tease the books.

If only you could write her a letter, swoon the necklaces, It’d be so romantic.

Be patient, the coffee pot advises, good things come to those who wait.

Not helpful, grumbles Bracelet, who tries to pretend that he has never hated being an inanimate object more.

One time, the boy hits his hand against a wall in frustration, and one link comes loose.

Bracelet catches sight of itself in the mirror, thinks of a watch that seeks flawlessness in everything.  Well, another imperfection to add to my list.

-:-

Crash goes the girl against the coffee table, “Venusplaying in the background.

Crack goes the watch, a hairline fracture through its screen, followed by pieces of once-immaculate glass on the floor.

Watch has never encountered this kind of problem before: it can’t tell whether it’s ticking, whether time is passing.

Is a broken watch still a watch? It doesn’t feel like it.

It can’t see a thing, but it feels the creeping anxiety of being imperfect. What else is there for a watch, if not perfect time-keeping? What else could it be?

Its dial is now exposed — the numbers can erode, ink slipping into nothing. Something as simple as a speck of dirt can block its hands from ticking like they should.

Watch remembers Bracelet — calling it pretty, calling it a strong dancer. It misses Bracelet, dearly, and thinks, if only that Watch, who’d mourned something as immutable as the rotation of the Earth, had some idea of how much worse things would get. Would Bracelet still look at it the same way? Watch doesn’t want to imagine the answer.

As it’s strapped back onto the girl’s wrist, Watch distantly hears her mutter “fuck” and thinks, same.

But what else can it do but soldier up and stagger on?

broken watch beth mourns her watch

-:-

When the door to the apartment opens, Bracelet feels the tremor in his boy’s voice like an earthquake. The Bracelet wonders if it’s ever trembled this much on a word like “Hello,” especially to...well, it doesn’t think much about long-gone objects from its past.

“You’re wearing a new robe,” a girl — the girl — blurts out. Her voice triggers a memory and two questions: how is she here? Is Watch here? The bracelet cranes its metaphorical neck for the accessory that should be on her wrist.

Watch, once so eager to say hello, to greet a whole apartment of strangers, is nowhere to be seen. It’s stuffed inside the girl’s coat pocket, protected against the winter cold.

The girl pulls her hands out of her coat pocket, and Bracelet realizes why Watch had hidden. Oh, no, its screen is cracked. Its hands have stopped moving.

Hello, says Bracelet, fighting to keep the shock out of its voice.

Hi, says Watch hoarsely. I missed you.

Though still worried, Bracelet can’t help but smile with something like relief belied by hurt. You never came back.

Watch says softly, Life came up. And suddenly, the world feels too small, their time together too precious to waste on small talk, but the words still get caught in Watch’s metaphorical throat. Do you still…?

Bracelet wants to nudge Watch, because what a silly question — of course it still feels the same way it always has for Watch.

Instead of asking that, however, Watch tries again, Do you still fear time?

Bracelet’s smile becomes something wistful. I think I’m already wearing its effects. This is time, and there’s nothing I can do except luxuriate in it.

I don’t even know what time is anymore. Its hands seem to droop from sadness.

Bracelet tries to push everything it knows about empathy into its voice. Your girl still wears you. You could still be an heirloom.

Watch looks away. I don’t know what I want to be anymore. Do you still want to be passed down?

Do I want any more of people? Of the world? I don’t know if I can say one way or the other. I’m just glad you’re here.

What will you do if your boy ever decides to throw you away?

Figure out where you are, and find my way to you.

And then what would you do?

I’d ask you to dance. Speaking of — do you still want to…?

I do.

Bracelet and Watch dance as the boy and the girl start their first game in a long time, and it’s just like the first night in Ohio. They’re maybe a little more fragile, but their feelings seem to have only grown over time.

In the afterglow, they stay quiet for a moment, and they hear the boy reach out to examine the girl’s wrist. “Your watch is broken.”

“Your bracelet was always broken,” points out the girl. The boy shrugs and pulls her closer.

Bracelet whispers, See? They don’t blame the other for their imperfections.

The boy looks at his bracelet and twists it on his wrist. The girl fidgets with her watch — carefully, so as not to break it more. The girl says, “We can always fix them.”

Watch whispers back, But this doesn't change the fact that perfection is still a better state than imperfection.

The girl says, “The engraving is still intact.”

The boy says, “I know.”

Watch realizes what Bracelet is saying — they’ll be okay, and so will you.

In the years that follow, Bracelet and Watch collect more damage, more scuff marks and fingerprints. Eventually, the bracelet’s clasp is replaced, the link mended with a screwdriver and some tongs by one of the girl’s friends. The watch is sent to a watchmaker repair shop, which replaces the glass and twists the crown so it relearns the time.

Like all things in the world, they’re broken and mended and polished again.