The Doctor looks stunned, or annoyed. Actually, he’s probably sad. He’s about to die. A bright yellow light emanates from his body, and there is a shift, and he’s dead. He’s definitely dead. Someone new is here to take his place.
My Dad used to tell me a story about time and the radio, about a man who’d get on the air and say, “At the tone, the time will be four o’clock. QUACK.” I’d sit there and listen to my father tell the story: “At the tone, the time will be four o’clock. QUACK.”
The Doctor wakes up and feels his face. He has just regenerated, a funny side effect of the kind of alien that he is. It’s unclear how many times he can do this, because the series changes its mind sometimes, and the Doctor is after all a rule-breaker and a thief, but it does seem like this can’t go on forever. Except it can, because I can go back to the beginning and watch the episodes all over again.
We define ourselves against others, name them and sort them and come back to know ourselves a little better. Sometimes the difference is so stark you can play this game with the person you used to be.
Except it can’t, because way back when, the BBC decided that no one would ever want to re-watch Doctor Who, and burned the film reels to make room for the storage of more film reels. Some old episodes survived only in audio form, some not at all. I have watched a clip of a door closing over and over while the audio plays, because whoever put together the fragments of episode decided the audience couldn’t just watch a still frame for twenty minutes. But that was all they had.
On the fifth anniversary of the storm, April 27 falls again on a Wednesday. As though time were so neat. Since that time I have divided time into before and after, recognizing that there are multiple befores and afters, that to divide time is impossible.
There’s a running joke about the Doctor’s ship, the TARDIS, which stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space: the uninitiated step through its doors, thinking they’re walking into a space the size of a closet, the interior of a police box for public calls. They walk in, they see the vast interior, and they walk out. They walk a circle around the police box, mouths open, and they say, “But—it’s bigger on the inside!” And we groan, because we knew it was coming, that sentence we’ve heard so many times before.
Television lets you see things at a distance, bringing you close to something far away. Or holding you back so that you can get a good look. I will spend much of this time trying not to tell you that I lived through an EF4 tornado that killed 64 people and left a scar over a mile wide. Just from touching the ground.
In the incinerator, the reels emit a bright yellow light, or maybe the flames supply the light, but either way there is a light, and the reels pause before melting, and maybe the light through the film projects William Hartnell’s version of the Doctor onto the wall of the incinerator, but then he’s gone. He’s not somebody else.
At this point, I have been writing this essay for several years. In using the expression “at this point,” I am drawing your attention to the idea that time can be measured.
Some days I need the Doctor. There’s a rhythm to the screen, an ironing-out of time and space into useful and navigable pathways—but even the Doctor misses somebody, and even the Doctor can’t fix it. When he destroyed his own planet, it got wiped out of time and space. Thus began a new series. Thus regenerated the Doctor as his film reels burned.
If I name myself an imposter, I give myself authority in the act. Right?
My grandfather was a doctor, the kind that made house calls, and when my Dad got his doctorate, he says, he got confused when people called him Dr. Kochman. “That’s my Dad,” he says he said. I get frustrated when my students call me Mrs. Kochman—my mother kept her own name. That’s nobody, I think.
In my baby photos I look exactly like my father, and I wonder what else I have inherited.
When the Doctor regenerates, he wakes up a little lost. He couldn’t really keep that body, that dead thing, but it was his and now it’s gone. His nose is a little jauntier, and he looks younger—even though he’s hundreds of years old, and even the TARDIS has had a facelift. This morning is a new morning. David Tennant’s eyes flicker behind Matt Smith’s as he stumbles around in his new body, which has always been his.
It feels like you’ve been scraped out and the pressure of your skin points inward. It feels like the closest thing to nothing, I think. It feels like wearing your own face as a mask, your liver, your lungs, even. It is difficult to breathe in a manner other than shallow.
The TARDIS itself is blue, “TARDIS blue.” It’s almost a cobalt, but the paint has a bit of a black tint, serious but not too serious, or maybe the other way around. This is the doorway to all of time and space, but we travel in time and space every day of our lives, so these doors denote something very different. There is structure here, and control, and a different kind of space than the one we live with, the doors to everything, to safety.
I used to dream about tidal waves, and now I dream about funnel clouds. I am always terrified, hiding, and the dream never ends until the storm has passed and left me behind, untouched.
Matt Smith is the youngest actor to play the Doctor, twenty-seven when he got the job. William Hartnell, the first Doctor, was fifty-five, the oldest actor. The Doctor gets younger rather than older, while the rest of us humans have no choice but to spin along with time. It’s spinning right now.
It is unnameable. The disaster. The word means nothing. It is the space between myself and the word that is active.
I am reluctant to focus on my own depression. In revising, I have inserted more of my own experience. Do I seem different now?
The only TV show I’ve ever known Dad to watch, these days, is 24. He watches it a few episodes at a time, from recordings on DVDs, one hour at a time in the life of secret agent Jack Bauer, because that is the show’s conceit. Each episode takes place in real time. Each season lasts 24 hours. It creates a mirror of time and experience, my father watching 24 hours of his life go by in a trade with Jack Bauer, an even trade, a fair and equal experience.
Does this essay have a timeline? Will I create a paradox if I cross it?
The Doctor can’t travel alone. He lacks humanity. He needs a calm voice beside him, or several calm voices to remind him not to be brutal, that it’s okay to be a trickster and sarcastic, but not to push others away.
On several couches across space and time, my stomach collapses against my spine. There are too many sorrows for my stomach, which is where I try to contain them, and I make room for grief by not eating. Sometimes my grief is space and time. Sometimes it’s an empty classroom during lunch period. Sometimes it is my face pressed to the television. I am burning and I flicker against the wall, my little-girl-self and the skin I stretched into, all the places I took her and left her.
You can’t really get young again if you travel with the Doctor. You can’t start over. Even while you move through time, it has a hold on you, and you lose the things you were always going to lose.
My bedroom door was red when I was young, a bright beacon and a warning. Closed off against the rest of space. My parents decided to get rid of the color, but it took too many coats of white paint, and for years I couldn’t close the door properly, a shower of chipped paint every time I tried. I closed my eyes at night and dreamed of a dark wave crushing me against the surface of the earth.
I’m a pretty bad fan, a hanger-on. My Doctors have been the most recent incarnations, the third reboot of the series, starting with the ninth Doctor. I had to give up on watching older episodes because I couldn’t take the bits and pieces that were left, but also because those Doctors just weren’t the right ones. They exist in the time before the homeland was destroyed, before he’s a drifter, before it’s time driving him forward, not space. In the old episodes he looks like an old man, and in the new episodes he is an old man.
I am reluctant to talk about my own disasters, because I am uneasy in claiming them. Perhaps they did happen to somebody else. I walk the cursor across the screen, drag the dividing line back and forth over this image of Tuscaloosa, see all the forest disappear and become a scar of dirt and debris.
In the episode “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the Doctor is cloned, his DNA rearranged. Is this how regeneration works, when the Doctor does it to himself? A rearrangement of cells?
In several hospital rooms, a yellow current rides through my grandfather’s body, and there’s a shift, and he’s dead. Again. One more time. Someone new is here to take his place.
If the Doctor doesn’t move through linear time, who’s the old man? Which Doctor is the copy, and which the original? Are they all piled up on top of each other inside the current incarnation? Or does the Doctor leave himself behind every time, a pile of shed skin and yellowed baby teeth?
A small stack of blue plates used to live in my parents’ kitchen cabinets, pretty and sleek, different from the rest of the scratched glass dinnerware. I asked my mother about them once, and she told me about the woman my father almost married. When he left behind that possible future, he took himself out of time. I imagine him slumped against a couch somewhere, feeling his stomach sag against his spine because there is nothing to fill the time with but pressing up against a body—yours, you guess, why not.
“Do you live here?” The National Guardsman leaned forward in silhouette. No, we didn’t—we had walked to Forest Lake in the closest thing to work boots to help our friend pack what clothes were not covered in glass, to break up the tree that had fallen on her house. The air was full of fiberglass. We took a break and walked away, to stretch our legs but also because we wanted to see the damage. We wanted to see what had been done. What had been undone. I stood in front of a concrete slab that led to the hollowed-out footprint of a house, and to the left another, and to the right another, and a dirty white dress on the ground, and a small toy animal, and shards of wood, and the lake low, and the lake studded with shards of wood. “People’ve been coming here to gawk,” he said, “so if you don’t live here, you better move along.”
When I was a kid I used to read the books I loved all the way to the end, turn right around and read them back through from the beginning. When they were over, I didn’t want to let them go. I dreaded the ending, the closing of the book, the erasure of all that experience and the realization that it never happened to me.
My Grandpa the doctor used to dose himself with antidepressants. My Grandpa the doctor hid his life away and after he died, my father went searching in all the hidden corners of all the safety deposit boxes and returned with only scraps. My Grandpa the doctor was a tall man. My Grandpa the doctor knew the buzz of electricity through his brain, twice, and met himself many times. That’s how I imagine it happens, you and yourself coming to terms with each other, getting to know each other a little better.
Less than a month after the tornado outbreak in Alabama, another one came through Missouri and hit the town of Joplin. I was at the airport, surrounded by televisions, all panning over the destroyed town. The screens divided their time between footage of the active storm, which made me feel sick, and footage of the aftermath, which felt familiar. I say, or somebody said to me once, or perhaps the newscasters said—all tornado debris looks the same.
Do I have a right to tell these stories? He’s my father. These were my bedtime stories. Tell the one again where you fell down the stairs. Tell me the one about the fish in the bathtub. I already knew what happened to the fish, but I just wanted to hear him tell it to me again.
This is the way we categorize our lives: when I was a kid, as though time has something to do with who I am not. As though I am not now a kid and ever will be, as though I have never been somebody else other than myself.
At the end of the Time War, the Doctor destroyed everyone he ever loved, a blank place, a black hole, and he lives in the orbit of that decision. The pit is hungry and it collapses in on itself much like my stomach.
My Dad used to watch the Doctor in the sixties, when those old episodes played only once—old episodes, as though television can age. He’s never watched the reboot, never met my Doctor. He must have lived so many hours of the Doctor’s life that are now gone, never to be played again, so many hours of his own. I wonder if those hours are the same hours, if television can manipulate time and space to the extent that my father has been the Doctor and I have been the Doctor and we have both been regenerated by the experience.
What is real time, anyway? I teach a creative writing class and I explain that the project of our semester is obsession. I’d like my students to figure out where they always return, what they can’t leave behind, and to sink into it. I tell them that they will move forward and create new work by repeating themselves.
To earn the title of doctor, you have to prove yourself in school. Know what you’re talking about. Be an expert, not a quack. The Doctor, our Doctor, my Doctor, the one who goes by no other name? He named himself.
In the library hallway, I watch the tornado approach on my laptop. The power goes out and my browser goes blank, I hear a large boom and feel the building shake with impact, and then everyone is standing to go home. Afterward, I am told, there was no boom, and there was no impact. The library was not in the path of the storm. I was safe. I was untouched. I lost a few minutes. Across town, people wearing bicycle helmets lie in the street with their necks snapped. Four years later, police will find a woman, missing since the storm, living a new life in Florida.
My Dad the doctor has a life that continues without me. Every day he goes to work and keeps secrets, crosses the moat with the plastic flamingo and enters a building that is much bigger past the visitors-only area, where I swing my legs back and forth under my green tutu and eat stale pretzel sticks with the guards. I always ask him the same question when he comes home for dinner: “Did you save the world today?” He answers: “It’s still here, isn’t it?”
Eventually, humans will figure out the science behind time travel and it will become a reality, says Doctor Who. But until then, says the Doctor, several times from different mouths, “Time travel has always been possible in dreams.”
I used to get frustrated when my students called me Mrs. Kochman.. That’s nobody, I thought, forgetting my own grandmother. She’s one of five little girls standing in a row, all dark eyes and dark, smooth bobs, rounded jawlines, a dress with neat buttons down the front.
In the chiropractor’s office, I lie on my stomach in the dark. Four electrodes on my back collapse my sense of myself. With each pulse of electricity one shoulder blade rises, then the other, then the first one, then the second one. It hurts because I told the technician to keep turning the dial, because she can’t feel what I feel and doesn’t know my limits. The current is different for everybody, she tells me. My shoulder rises and I feel it sharply, like I want to.
When a town full of writers is hit by a tornado, many of them will write about it. These things recur, are not originals: the smell of pine and natural gas, the sound of chainsaws and helicopters, the scattering of intimate belongings.
The word over can help you describe the way you go forward, restart, over and over, or the way you move through space, or the way you end. I’ve been told I have a problem with prepositions, possibly because I am drawn to space and time.
The people in the town liked hearing the man on the radio say the same words, every hour on the hour. They found satisfaction in reiteration. They were not afraid of time moving forward, because it was the same piece of time, marked by the same familiar voice. We live even though we know we will die.
“The first time someone called me Dr. [Whatever], I told them, ‘That’s not me! That’s my father!’” is something that many people have said, and found themselves funny.
How trite, I am told, is collective pain. Trying to take what doesn’t belong to you. This, too, is part of that pain—that it shouldn’t belong to you.
I spend a lot of time worrying, while earning my degree, about the words that I use, their melodrama, the way I pile on my commas, my sentimental clauses. I spend my time anxiously, thinking about the way that time spends me.
In the episode “The Doctor’s Daughter,” the Doctor finds himself with an adult daughter—a clone, technically, but one whose DNA has been rearranged. He meets himself. He is no longer unique in the universe. We hope that things might be different.
The nightmare is not the storm itself. It is that I appear to be just fine, standing over a concrete slab that used to be a driveway, leading to the foundation of a house that is surrounded by the foundations of other houses, all scooped out and scattered. It is that I am whole and untouched, picking debris out of the fields that used to be neighborhoods. The air smelled of gas and pine, and I took showers by candle light.
Late at night in my parents’ kitchen, he and I talk about imposter syndrome. Everyone knows that depression runs in families, but no one knows why, so we just keep doing it, and even this, I think, I’m doing wrong.
I got to know the Doctor because I needed something stable. The place where I lived had just been turned over, as if by trowel, by an EF4 tornado. Storms that are rated using the EF system are designated based on damage after the fact, factoring only the damage that exists in the three-dimensional plane. I spent my days handling donation calls and my nights with the Doctor.
The man on the radio took a vacation once, and the station went through a series of replacements, all wrong. Snake: “At the tone, the time will be four o’clock. SSSS.” Cat: “At the tone, the time will be four o’clock. MEE-OW.” Cow: “At the tone, the time will be four o’clock. MOO.” None contained the succinct snap of time. And the man never took a vacation from his employment again.
The tornado opened a door in me that I hadn’t opened in years. When I was a kid and I rode horses in the summer, my dehydrated veins would hold their integrity in the heat until I dismounted. When my feet touched the ground the screen of my vision went grainy and yellowed, old, dried out, and I felt the emptiness of my body pressing down as though an external force. It was like that. In the months after the storm, I couldn’t close that door, so I opened one to a place where I was not.
When my dad was a kid, he fell down some concrete stairs. He hit the back of his head, where the hair has always been thin. I say “always” because this applies to my own experience of time.
The nightmare is not the storm. The nightmare is that the storm has passed, and I remain intact. The damage that exists on the three-dimensional plane. I am not intact, am not my body whole and walking, unbelievable, on vacation from my painful employment.
To reiterate oneself is such a drag. To sit in a slow system churning outside of time.
I don’t live there anymore, and if time divides me, then I’m not even that person anymore. But if I continue to relive it, if I maintain my sense of panic, then maybe I won’t be an imposter. If I am affected, then I will deserve it. My bad dreams have never felt like a return to safety, but instead a return to panic, to the missing minutes that happened in between.
The doors opening and closing in blue, that negative space. The story outside. That yawning portal.
It came through and we knew it was coming, though the sky was blue and bright in our faces. It followed the highways, like the storms usually do. When it was over we were still there, and remain there, crouched behind those doors.
Laura Kochman is originally from New Jersey, but currently lives, writes, and feeds her cat in Philadelphia. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama, where she was the poetry editor for Black Warrior Review. Her work is found or forthcoming in Gigantic Sequins, Quarterly West, The Atlas Review, Sink Review, TYPO, Tarpaulin Sky Magazine, and others. Her chapbook, Future Skirt, was released from dancing girl press in the fall of 2013, and her first poetry full-length, The Bone and the Body, was released from BatCat Press in the spring of 2015.
On Weather is a series published on Sundays. See submission guidelines here.