Time Will Tell

Read an excerpt
The Fiddlehead
If you met me, you wouldn’t think I’m the sort to own a Cartier watch. My clothes, my car, the vacations I take, don’t exactly harmonize with my timepiece of choice. Here’s the thing, though: my watch is a whole lot older than my possessions. Purchased decades ago, when I was still figuring things out, before my overall style settled comfortably into unpretentious — or as a friend describes me, “If Gertrude Stein teamed with Oscar Madison to give you a make-over, you’d look a lot like you.”

I didn’t buy it as status symbol. I’m a huge fan of all things low maintenance. Non-stick frying pans, self-cleaning ovens, multi-vitamins, shampooand- conditioners-in-one. This watch operates on “perpetual motion”. There’s no battery. That’s why I bought it.

Back when I was in advertising, we called this sort of reflexive rationalizing of an otherwise expensive or unnecessary purchase “permission to believe.” Permission to believe is what causes someone who’s already dropping a bundle of cash on a Mercedes to offer up: “It had a great safety rating.” It makes someone spring big for a pair of John Varvatos boots: “They last forever!

The beauty of the Cartier watch is that its operation is contingent upon my perpetual motion. This translates into two “permission to believe” rationales in one watch! Off my agenda flew time squandered purchasing and installing batteries. It takes roughly an hour to travel to a reputable jeweler, wait while they change a watch battery, and travel back home. Watch batteries, on average, need changing once a year. So, over the next 50 to 70 years of projected watch wearing, I’d gain almost three free days — a gratis long weekend — where I can really accomplish things. For instance, I have long dreamt of visiting Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s iconic house, situated deep in rural Pennsylvania, but could never carve the time to travel there and back. Did you know it takes longer to travel from New York to the LA than it does to Iceland? And yet, I can never justify the hop skip and a flight time to check out its legendary volcanoes, glaciers, and fjords. Then there’s Anna Karenena. I keep promising myself I’ll get to it . . . By eliminating watch batteries from my future, a universe of experiences became attainable. And the nature of my perpetual watch requiring me to function as its battery, means my watch promotes daily exercise. The health benefits associated with my increased physical activity could extend my life by years or even decades. The watch was a nod towards teleportation. It was a Fit-Bit before the invention of Fit-Bits.

This is why, about thirty years ago, I thought it prudent to pay $800 for my Cartier wristwatch. Adjusting for 2020 inflation, that’s a hair under $2000 today. I was earning $300/week at the time, writing ads for Tide Detergent, Cascade Dishwasher powder, and Ivory Liquid soap. I had been given a $5,000 bonus a few months earlier for writing a successful Ivory Liquid jingle promising, “A little bit in your sink does more than you think” and spent part of the bonus on a two-week backpacking trip in France. You know how all kinds of seemingly impossible things appear completely viable when you change scenery? As I wandered through second-hand bookshops in Paris, for the first time I seriously fantasized myself a writer beyond jingles and slogans. In café after café I realized that daily croissants and wine with lunch was something sorely absent from normal life. While I made my way through Monet’s “Water Lillies” at Musee de l’Orangerie, I simply couldn’t shake from my consciousness les vantages formidables (as they say in France) of strapping something requiring “perpetual motion” to my left wrist. Also, by buying the watch in its country of origin during a favorable exchange rate, I was paying $800 in France for a watch that would cost $1200 in the States. I was practically manufacturing money with my transcontinental acquisition.

The physical transaction became a seminal memory: a moment of unfettered joy in a small Cartier shop around the corner from the train station in Nice. My salesperson wore Givenchy and smelled heavily of Guerlain. I sported Nikes and Jean Naté after-bath splash. She could not have been more lovely as she buffed, boxed, and presented me with my new watch, each gesture an intimate moment she created between us. Even the “box” became a seductive entity unto itself. A sturdy presence of heavy red leather, it sealed securely with satin snaps and was adorned with hand-painted gold borders. Inside it contained sensual velvet pillows flanking a heavy safety strap, (a seat belt for my new watch), which snugly secured it in place.

I put the watch on my wrist. And even though weight and space are a premium when backpacking, I couldn’t bring myself to discard the box. Instead I carried it in my knapsack throughout the rest of my trip, flew home with it, and kept it in my first apartment, an odd paperweight holding down nothing in particular.

It turned out to be a blessing I kept that box. Hidden beneath its velvet pillows, like a dormant treasure map, lay the maintenance record for my watch. During the purchase, my enchanting saleswoman had explained how there was a careful maintenance protocol that must be followed and documented. As with a fine motor car, this was necessary to keep the watch working as it was intended to work, and to keep Cartier’s warranty of free lifetime service in effect. She explained all this to me in French. I remember how mesmerizing her beautiful words were, how quick I nodded sincerely throughout, captivated and understanding almost nothing.

Only after I read the maintenance book (its instructions in French, Italian, German, English, and Japanese) did I understood the rigorous amount of maintenance my watch required to remain low maintenance. A “scheduled annual cleaning of the insides and a polishing of the outside” was in order, and this would be covered under the lifetime warranty, rendering it free of charge. After precisely one year I took my watch into the Cartier store on 5th Avenue in New York City.

By this time, the watch’s perpetual motion and mine were intertwined. I wore it while training for mini marathons, racing against its second hand in sprints, checking it constantly while logging weekly mileage around the Central Park reservoir. My lifelong sleep position of choice: on my back, arms akimbo bookending my ears, hands palm-up just above the top of my head, turned my watch’s nearly imperceptible ticking into my soothing nightly lullaby. So, of course I panicked when the Cartier maintenance representative told me it would be two weeks for the cleaning due to “enormous back-ups.” This representative was a far cry from my enchanting salesperson in Nice. He wore a pinstripe suit where each stripe just missed the other at the seams, like a line of square dancers all failing to re-connect following a do-si-do. He had a spray of dandruff on both his shoulders (yet only one lapel), and he wreaked of Old Spice. I hated leaving my watch with him: I was depositing a first-time camper with a dubious camp counselor. But abiding by Cartier’s rules meant I had no choice.

For two weeks I went watch-less in New York. My weekly running mileage dwindled; my splits sputtered. Dark under-eye circles broadcast my mounting sleeplessness. In that pre-cell phone era, I attempted gaging the sun’s position in the sky in order to reach meetings and appointments on time.

A week later, a Cartier representative called to inform me that when they sent my watch to France to be cleaned, the technicians there had determined that the sapphire stone attached to the winder was cracked and required replacing, so that the watch would be with them for an additional week. I was impressed and a little jealous that my watch had returned to France without me; I had always considered it our special place. I was told the cost for the replacement sapphire would be $200. A quarter of my watch’s original price! This seemed in violation of Cartier’s “free maintenance” program. I asked the representative to leave the existing sapphire cracked, as I didn’t care and hadn’t even noticed. The representative explained that “Cartier doesn’t do that.” When I suggested they just remove it, as the sapphire is decorous and non-essential to the watch, I was told, “Cartier doesn’t do that either.” I could not choose to retain a cracked or missing sapphire on my own watch. I would need to agree to the replacement if I wanted Cartier to remain caretakers throughout the lifetime warranty. So, I acquiesced. What choice did I have? My $800 watch now cost me $1,000.

Three weeks later, I spent my lunch hour at Cartier on 5th Avenue and forked over $200 for my “free yearly cleaning.” This was the 1980’s, when $200 got you a cab ride from midtown Manhattan to the Hamptons and back. The new sapphire fell off the winder sometime within the next few months, I never knew where or when. I never had Cartier clean my watch again.

The first time my Cartier watch stopped working was about 10 years later. Not too bad, I figured. Owning my watch had cost me a mere $100 a year. Once I ceased having it cleaned, a decade of reasonable timekeeping ensued without incident, thanks in part to the utter perpetual motion of my 20’s. It lost five minutes here and there, but I put it on in the morning and took it off at night. In between, it provided a decent approximation of the correct hour. Then it stopped. No amount of shaking it, or tossing it from one hand to the other, or holding it tight to my body and speed-pirouetting in sweat socks on my apartment’s parquet floors would jar its perpetual motion. A visor of perspiration settled across my forehead, as I pulled my neck from side to side eliciting crackling reminiscent of a plastic water bottle being squeezed.

I sped to Cartier on 5th Avenue. This time I stood in line at the repair counter in the back of the store. After an hour, it was my turn to speak to a sympathetic, albeit sweating older gentleman wearing a monocle and balancing atop a high narrow stool seemingly stolen from the set of a Charles Dickens’ movie. I described the problem and my failed efforts solving it (omitting the sweat sock speed-pirouette). The man removed his monocle, breathed on it, wiped it front and back on his shirt sleeve and replaced it. He shook my watch three times, hard, then scrutinized the watch face for any signs of life. He repeated the exercise again and again — three shakes each time. Eventually, satisfied that there was no jolting my watch back into service, the man began to fill out a repair form akin in length and comprehensiveness to first-time doctor visit forms. When he reached a section he couldn’t answer, he would remove his monocle, look up at me, and ask a question.

“When exactly did you first notice trouble with your watch?”

“Did you try creative methods of solving your watch troubles before coming to the store?”

“Do you have friends with similar watches who have experienced similar problems?”

I didn’t really know whether Cartier would be able to fix my watch, but the scope of his questioning had me wondering if this man moonlighted as a couple’s counselor.

When the paperwork was all filled out, the monocled gent gestured for me to initial in three spots and sign on a bottom line. Then, after signing his own name, he folded the document into equal rectangular segments. Lighting a deep red candle, he then dribbled a small amount of crimson wax atop the folded document and slammed down the large signet ring he wore on his middle left finger with stool-shaking, monocle-displacing force, thereby affixing the official Cartier coat of arms into the wax while simultaneously sealing the document. Pairing my watch with the sealed document, he wrapped both in a velvet bag. He triple-knotted the bag’s suede tie strings, blew a whistle, and waited, making such intense eye contact with the ceiling that I assumed he was praying.

Within moments a wiry young man, garbed in a bright red jumpsuit reminiscent of a tightrope walker’s, appeared, carrying a sparkling silver tray like the ones used to deliver martinis. The tray glinted magically as the man halted in front of us, as if stardust accented his arrival. As the repair supervisor set the velvet bag on the tray, both men locked eyes and nodded knowingly to one another. Then the wiry young man in the red jumpsuit hastened away with the gait of a startled bunny.

Three weeks later, I’m at my desk trying to invent a tag line for Grampers, (a diaper designed for aging adults from the same company that makes Pampers.) I’m writing down sentences like “For when taking a leak takes on new meaning” and “Not sure you’ll make it to the restroom? We have you covered!” I’m writing quickly, and crossing out just as quickly, when my phone rings. I pick up as a woman’s voice, without awaiting my “Hello” instructs, “Hold a moment please for a Cartier supervisor.” I obey, until another woman’s voice comes on and asks me for personal information like my mother’s maiden name and date of birth so I can prove, in fact, I’m the owner of the Cartier watch she wishes to discuss. I point out that as she called me, it was likely I wasn’t an imposter posing as the owner. After accurately describing the shape of the fragmented scar on my left knee, (the result of stitches from a bicycle accident when I was 12), as “a map of The Maldives”, we were both satisfied that I was the owner of the Cartier. “I am afraid I have some bad news,” the woman said. The watch’s three weeks at Cartier’s repair service in New York had been in vain. The watch was going to have to be shipped back to France for Cartier’s master watchmaker to examine it. I was to approve the roundtrip cost, which would be $57 or $115, depending on the speed I wanted it shipped. I felt like I was choosing coach over business class for a trusted friend behind their back when I approved the $57 shipping option. Still, I had owned the watch for over a decade. Even with this added shipping, my watch had only cost me $1057 — $105.70 a year.

One night while my watch was in France, a friend unstrapped the watch from his wrist and gifted it to me. We had been out drinking, and I had admired the watch’s unusual design. My friend was one of the many people at the time enamored with a new plastic Swiss watch, called “Swatch”, that came in varied looks and colors, was water and shock proof, and cost $30. My friend insisted I take the watch because he had others; it was part of the trend, they were so inexpensive that people bought multiples, and gave them away. The watch was so light, I felt a helium balloon had been tied to my wrist. It had a simple black and white graphic. I didn’t think twice about wearing it on the subway or leaving it in an un-locked locker at the gym. I liked how it screamed “Not worth the effort of mugging me for it!”

But I suffered pangs of guilt while wearing this watch if I spotted a Cartier timepiece on someone’s wrist. I believe in a connective theory of the universe: trees form communities capable of communication, microscopic particles at great distances inexplicably react to one another’s movements, musical notes correspond to mathematics that correspond to planetary pull. I feared some tattle-tale Cartier timepiece would get word to my Cartier watch that I was cheating with some cheap model from Switzerland while my longterm faithful timekeeper was overseas under the knife.

Eventually things cooled between the Swatch and me. Its band began to constrict, the face weathered, the battery gave out. When I finally recognized Cartier’s number appear on the caller I.D. of my phone, I answered immediately, breathlessly, desperately. “Yes? Yes? I’m here!” “Please come to Cartier at your earliest convenience and retrieve your timepiece” said an unfamiliar voice. Never before had a complete stranger’s words accelerated my heartbeat. Slamming my apartment door behind me, not indulging the elevator its climb to the 11th floor, I took the emergency stairs three at a clip, in a downward spiraling blur, to my lobby and ran the eight blocks from where I lived to where I imagined my watch anxiously anticipating my arrival. So excited was I for the impending reunion, I didn’t immediately grasp what next happened.

I was met at the repair counter by a young woman wearing a red cashmere dress. It was the kind of cashmere that beckons you to pet it, and yet all I wanted to touch was my watch. The woman handed me a slip of paper — a receipt, then waited a couple beats while I examined it. The receipt had the shipping fee I had previously approved, but in the line marked “repair cost” were double zeros, then a decimal point followed by another double zero. Now the woman spoke, revealing the lightest of French accents. “Voila, as you can see there is no charge at all for the repair of your timepiece!” She said, as if delivering exciting news, before continuing. “Your situation is what we call ‘un-fixable by Cartier’” With that, she handed me official stamped paperwork as testament. “Wait, so you’re giving me back my watch and it’s broken?” I asked, adding, “Shall I take it elsewhere? Another repair shop you could recommend perhaps?” Biting the edge of her lower lip, the woman adjusted her own watch on her wrist — a timepiece happily ticking away — and answered. “Well, bien sur, it is possible to visit another establishment . . . but please be aware this will forever forfeit your lifetime warranty with Cartier.” “What good is my lifetime warranty on a watch that doesn’t work?” I said, my voice slightly higher than it had been. The representative pursed her lips and then withdrew them entirely within her mouth, like a child mimicking a toothless old woman and then repeated this action twice more, I realized she was on the brink of hyper-ventilating.     “A lifetime warranty from Cartier is a valuable thing not to be taken lightly!” She said before depositing a brown-paper-wrapped box in my hands, turning away from me, and rushing off.

Stunned, I stared down at what she’d handed me. My watch showed visible evidence of a great adventure — Le Grande Tour. The paper wrapping was completely covered with French and American customs stamps and colorful postage. The words Avec Précaution, in navy blue fountain pen ink, inscribed all six sides. Honoring the beauty of this noble casing, I slowly peeled the tape away at its edges, gingerly releasing the seams, but leaving intact all markings. I recognized my watch from the lack of sapphire on the winder and the decade of un-polished patina. I knew the poor thing had been pronounced dead, but I eagerly slid it onto my wrist, pressing the clasp, comforted by its familiar click closed. Then something odd happened: the second hand moved. I thought it mere final gasp of life, an involuntary exhale, an aberration. It wasn’t. The hand kept moving. The watch kept working. All the way back to my office, on my way home that night, throughout a dinner plan I could barely focus on, my watch kept time. It still kept time the following morning. And many mornings thereafter. After a decade with me in New York, it seemed my watch just needed an all-expense-paid European vacation. Who could argue with that?

A few years later the face became unglued. I know it sounds catastrophic, but the watch otherwise continued functioning well. The numbers rotated randomly. The 6 would be in the 8 position, the 12 would visit where the 4 should be. The numbers were all Roman Numerals, though, so small children and some adults didn’t notice. Personally, I didn’t mind this quirk. On the contrary, my watch had always been an individual, and I took pride in it continuing to surprise.

More years passed. My watch functioned fine with its mad spinning face, until it began stopping — not always, but sometimes. The stoppages appeared random, though I tried to make sense of them. I wondered if these were my watch’s silent protest: was it trying to tell me something? It stopped one weekend I spent at my office working. Another time it stopped during a dinner party I had dreaded attending. Was my watch pinpointing specific instances I was wasting time?

I suspected a trip to Paris was in order. For both of us. Instead, my watch and I grabbed a one-hour flight to Montreal. There, I walked cobblestoned streets, drank good Bordeaux, ate croissants, spoke whatever French I could still summon. All the while I wore my watch with the crazy spinning face, the watch that didn’t work. When someone stopped me to inquire “Quelle heure est-il” I would shrug my best French shrug and offer “Je ne sais pas.”

After returning from Montreal, (not in this exact sequence), I said goodbye to corporate life, ended a brief first marriage, gave birth to a son, bought a house and moved to the countryside. I stopped wearing my watch. It spent the bulk of its days in a kitchen drawer, hanging around with silverhandled pruning shears given me by a former boss who had a knack with roses, crumpled bits of foreign currency, my son’s emergency pacifier. The location wasn’t a graveyard like some kitchen drawers, but more of a special occasion go-to spot with a sentimental bent. I used the pruning shears to cut the Montauk daisies that bloomed once a year in a ring around my dogwood tree. The currency was not a testament to where I’d been, but a promise towards future travel. The pacifier was so tiny it didn’t look like it could plug a thimble, let alone my baby’s widening mouth that had grown agile at forming words.

Occasionally I’d grab the watch and try to surprise it into life. I’d put it on and wear it while engaging in some strenuous activity — pushing my son high and hard in his tree swing, hitting a few hundred golf balls into the woods while he napped. But for the next eight years it never ticked so much as five seconds. My Cartier watch became merely an expensive bracelet that ran counter to my perpetual motion, not because of it.

One day I wore my non-working watch while shopping in one of those electronics and jewelry combo stores in Times Square, the kind that have big signs saying “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” even though they are not. I was looking at small digital cameras when the guy behind the counter noticed my watch. “How much you want for that?” he asked. I explained that my watch wasn’t for sale, and also didn’t work. “Let my guy in the back take a look.” He extended an open palm towards my left wrist. “He’s a genius with mechanisms,” he continued, not retracting his outstretched hand.

I have long had a funny habit of trusting people who lie for a living when they happen to be telling the truth. I took off my watch and handed it over. Ten minutes later I had my watch back. The face didn’t spin, it was set to the correct time. And it was working. Apparently, the part of the watch which holds the face in place had fallen off and lodged within the mechanism, first slowing, then eventually stopping it from turning. The genius guy in the back had easily identified the problem and fixed it. I was thrilled. I asked the guy behind the counter what I owed him. With the distracted air of a bartender tallying up two Diet Cokes, he said, “Give me forty dollars.”

Not including my trip to Montreal, my Cartier watch has now cost me $1,097, which, as of my most recent birthday, comes out to roughly $31.50 a year. Some years my watch has been low-maintenance, and some years it hasn’t. It has kept time, more or less, for the majority of seconds, minutes, and hours I have owned it. And while I’m no longer covered under Cartier’s lifetime warranty, the place that’s “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS” is still open seven-days-a-week, with no foreseeable plans to close.