My chronically late mother, who set her bedroom alarm clock 10 minutes ahead and her car clock 8 minutes the same direction in a futile attempt to both leave and arrive on time, seemed to have a penchant for imperfect timekeeping: Though the bedroom and car displays were, she could argue, incorrect on purpose, she never bothered to sync the clocks on our kitchen appliances. Whenever I set foot in the room, two sets of LED numbers blinked at me incompatibly.
The microwave would flash red numbers that were four minutes ahead of the oven’s green ones directly below it. I don’t know how the four-minute gap had happened, but it had been that way for as long as I could remember.
I imagine it occurred at the very beginning of the kitchen’s existence as my parents installed appliances in their overalls and paint-splattered shirts. There’s a picture of my little sister, less than a year old, grinning and holding a red sock amidst the rubble of sheets and tape on the floor tiles. I picture my exhausted parents fiddling with too many new buttons, trying to find “mode” or “time” and instead setting “timer” for two minutes, not 2:00 in the afternoon as intended. They walk away. The beep of the alarm calls them back.
The syncopated clocks made the kitchen a mysterious room to me. There was no doubt in my mind that at one point the clocks had been identical, and in some twist of magic or faulty battery or gravitational pull, one had simply moved faster than the other. Milliseconds so. Hardly enough for the naked eye to notice, but cumulatively enough that four minutes would eventually go by over the course of a decade.
Once I started wearing my own digital watch, I sat and timed each clock to see if the microwave had its own sense of seconds. I held three one-minute-long trials for each appliance, hitting the button on my wrist to start my stopwatch the moment the clock changed. Alas, they appeared to each take a minute to count a minute.
For a while, the time discrepancy was merely a nuisance, but it started to bother me more when I began conducting my nightly checks. In the fourth grade, you see, we had an assembly in which the fire chief, while leaning all-knowingly against the overhead projector, explained that we would, at some point in each of our lives, be in a fire. And that we may not come out alive. I took it upon myself to eliminate what I determined to be the cause of danger—inconsistency—all around our first floor. With routine, fires had no time to start. Thieves had no room to break in.
Doors, locked. Stovetop, off. The kitchen was a vortex with both these elements to account for—and more, with the microwave and oven at odds. I became convinced that if I did not address all three, a rip in the time-space continuum—or worse yet, a fire—might erupt. So, long before I ever used the oven to cook, I resolved to alleviate my worries by matching the clocks down to the second.
But the task wasn’t simple—which was the true time? Did it make more sense to catch up the oven, adding three minutes to its ticker? Or should I have slowed down time for the microwave (which, after all, clearly had some to spare) by jamming my fingers against the up-and-down arrows? Which was a fabrication; which was the truth?
Either way, it seemed impossible for me to match them up precisely to the millisecond I so sought. I couldn’t possibly possess that power. Where would the time even go?
Resolute, I decided to take action on the evening of spring daylight saving time, when I was certain the clocks would right themselves, by themselves, an hour forward to keep up with our rotations around the sun. All the imagined games of my childhood couldn’t measure up to this moment: bare-socked on the linoleum floor, in post-bedtime darkness, staring at the towering monstrosity that was the oven-microwave duo. Only moments ago, I was merely awake. Now, I was unstuck, with one foot on either side of a grout line.
I knew I had only moments to adjust the oven so it could finally match the microwave. Together, they would read 12:59 for 60 seconds before blinking into the future. I fiddled with the buttons, bringing the oven closer to the time I had determined was truth with every tap of my finger. When it read 12:58, I paused and let it wait for the microwave—now behind—to catch up.
With a final jam of my pointer finger, I let the oven go. Microwave and oven were one at last, 12:59 and four seconds, five seconds, six seconds. So it went—the numbers could hardly settle in place before being uprooted once again. From there, I counted up toward 60, to the moment in which the clocks would leap forward together, like a reverse New Year’s. I stood and gazed straight ahead. I waited to watch time happen around me.