Might Have Been Ch. 01byIroniclaconic©
Author's Note: I first published Might Have Been here almost two years ago. While it was one of the top-ranked stories on the site at the time, I didn't feel it was what it should be. I had published each chapter as I completed it, preventing me from setting up themes and conflicts when they occurred to me while writing later chapters. I therefore pulled it down for a complete polish. This version meets my vision -- it is more complex, befitting an attempt to turn it into a full novel. For those of you who loved the story the first time, I suggest a re-read. For those new to the story of Lance the multiverse-explorer, and the eight women from his past who rock his world, I hope you enjoy the ride.
He's just a hero
In a long line of heroes
Looking for something
Attractive to save
– Liz Phair, Soap Star Joe
October 19, 2011
“Shut that fucking thing off!” Tasha used her pillow as a goose feather taco shell, protecting herself against the sound of an electric guitar impersonating an air-raid siren.
An alarm set for the same time every day for five years eventually turns redundant. I had been awake for five minutes, watching her sleep – mentally tracing the outline of her spine through her satin camisole, pondering the futility of nestling my morning wood against her ass. I had allowed the alarm to sound by choice – part in punishment, part in hope for birthday sex, knowing full well my twin goals were in conflict.
My phone continued to serenade us with the alarm. All your dreams are made – when you're chained to the mirror and the razor blade. The Gallagher brothers were referring to cocaine addiction, but the lyrics meant otherwise to me.
Tasha flailed her leg in protest against the unrelenting aural assault. “Lance!”
My pathetic gesture of passive aggression now acknowledged, I retrieved my phone from the nightstand and negated the alarm.
“God, that's obnoxious! When are you going to change it?” Tasha hadn't opened her eyes yet. She had been complaining ever since I set Morning Glory as the alarm clock ringtone.
I didn't answer, having resolved to keep the song until we next had sex – a compromise between my frustration and libido. Tasha curled up into a ball and tried to return to sleep. Does she not remember, or is she pretending not to remember? It could be either – she had a gift for both selective amnesia and bravura thespianship. Deciding it didn't matter, I rose from bed with a sigh to perform my morning rituals. Today would be just another day, and the prospect was a knife through the ribs.
Tasha shuffled out to the kitchen thirty minutes later, wearing her blue knee-length kimono, and a pair of fuzzy panda slippers. The pandas stared up her robe obscenely as she walked. The quirkiness of the slippers, and the sensual flesh-hugging of the kimono, reminded me why I still loved her.
She inspected the refrigerator, judged its contents, and found them wanting. “You forgot to pick up more milk last night,” Tasha said, knowing by instinct I was having a positive thought needing banishment. Her voice dripped disappointment, telling me she expected nothing more or less from me.
“You forgot to tell me we were out,” I replied.
Tasha rolled her eyes and huffed as she sat down at the table, placing the Arts and Entertainment section of the Chicago Tribune over the birthday card I had received yesterday from my parents. I had left the card out on purpose, as a not-so-subtle reminder.
My long slow burn of resentment continued. Tasha knew, and intended to ignore the day. The last two times we had sex were on my last two birthdays, but she was spurning the chance for a trifecta. I regretfully eyed the smooth olive skin on her legs and ankles. Her right heel had fallen out of its panda slipper, and she bounced it absent-mindedly while she read, causing the panda to appreciatively hump her foot. It mocked me with its linty eyes. More than you will get today, asshole.
Tasha was always naked under her kimono, and I remembered the texture and slope of every forbidden curve. I suppressed the desire to stand her up and undo the sash – caressing each teacup breast prior to bending her over the couch and taking her the way she used to love, but I knew the likely responses.
I'm not in the mood.
You'll be late for work.
Quit mauling me!
My stomach is upset.
Pathetic as I was, I needed to jealously guard the few shreds of dignity I had left. I resolved to just leave for work.
Instead, I found myself standing behind her, kissing her neck and running my hands down her sides.
Tasha did a full-body flinch and dismissed me with a mere “ugh”.
I inhaled one last whiff of her hair, and muttered a goodbye, earning nothing from her but silence. The apartment door needed a good slam anyway, I decided, and I took my self-loathing with me to vent frustration on Chicago's rush-hour traffic.
Reverse-commuting offers little challenge or entertainment, and my imagination is my only carpool buddy on my drive to Batavia. For the thousandth time, I lived the fantasy of leaving Tasha. I say everything currently unsaid, and pack my bags. That part is easy. The true fantasy is her acceptance – that she doesn't respond with anguish and the threat of pills or slashed wrists. An alternate, darker, fantasy is that when she threatens, I don’t care.
All your dreams are made...
In truth, my stomach churned at the thought of losing her. She needed me, and God-help-me I loved her. I had promised I wouldn't leave. I was better than all the other men in her life, and would honor that promise. She was testing me, seeking proof my love was unconditional, and could be relied upon. Eventually, she would gain confidence and feel the security she needed, and we could be a normal couple.
That is what I had been telling myself for five years, but I was less convinced every additional morning I pulled away from the cold lover in my warm bed.
The dreams of heroism that had once driven me, now reminded me of my failure. I was a poor substitute for a savior, but I was all she had. Abandonment wasn’t the answer. As futile as it might be, I had no choice but to try, finding whatever proof or sacrifice necessary to bring back the magic of our first six months. Five years of trying, and the solution eluded me, and the only proof I had found was that I wasn't as brilliant as everyone used to think I was.
Memory and fantasy were my only comfort – escapist templates, where I made better decisions, and avoided my current trap. These fantasies were my secret occupation during idle times – my only moments where I was the person I once thought I was. Sometimes my fantasy was Tasha herself – the Tasha with whom I fell in love. She was free of Black Moods and hate, loving and wanting me as she once did, but that fantasy also reminded me of how much I had failed her. To my shame, other women were easier to imagine. I told myself this was not a betrayal of Tasha – I accepted my disappointing, monkish existence, and I took responsibility for my own choices – but there was no harm in pretending.
Infrequently, I fantasized about a failed relationship made right – Heather and I were better together, or Amara had been willing to cut her apron strings – but the memory of failure and bitter breakups made those fantasies more painful than pleasing.
My favorite fantasies were women I never dated, but almost did – where time unfolds otherwise. I rewrite my life’s history with a better plot, hot sex, and a happy-ever-after. I notice the flirting, say the right words, or take a chance that only made sense in hindsight. At idle moments, such as my commute, I escape to them – my Might-Have-Beens – who have the perfection of potential.
Some days it was a random barista, or pretty pedestrian, who happened to smile when she glanced at me. Usually it was a woman I knew well, like Amber, or Courtney. Not today – today was my birthday, and as I drove west on I-88, I thought of Amy, innocence, and an unseasonably warm Midwestern autumn night.
Monroe was a corn-and-soybeans farming community an hour south of Minneapolis. Growing up, the town was a giant playground – we could play tag in cornfields or fish for walleye in the lake – but as I hit my teen years, the town shrank to the size of a small room, inhabited by me and my two close friends – Dave and Sarah. Fortunately, they made the small room feel less a prison cell, and more a studio apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
Dave had been my best friend since kindergarten, when we recited whole scenes from the Star Wars movies while we were supposed to be napping. He was the only kid in school who could pace me academically.
Our friendly competition forced excellence. In sixth grade, Dave discovered that memorizing logarithmic tables would let him do complex arithmetic in his head, and I rose to the challenge, until I was faster than he was. Later, I read about Eratosthenes's calculation of the circumference of the earth, and the two of us recreated the twenty-three-hundred-year-old experiment on subsequent summer solstices with two yardsticks, a level, a watch, and the odometer on my indulgent father's Taurus. Our final calculations were off by only a couple percent. During our sophomore year, Dave wrote a computer dating program that matched students based on their answers to questions. I hacked it to ensure all the girls I liked had my name appear in their top five.
We each had an artistic flare – Dave loved to draw, and I loved to write. We created our own line of embarrassingly-bad comic books in third grade. In middle school, Dave would storyboard my movie scripts prior to us shooting them at the local parks, using his mom’s Sony 8mm camcorder.
Then came The Exquisite Sarah.
Dave had read The Iliad and was taken with Homer's use of epithets, such as “Swift-Footed Achilles”. He had a name for almost everyone in school. Some of his sobriquets, like “Dwayne The Impaler”, and “Sumbeech Carl”, were never spoken aloud in their subject's presence. Others, like “Scott the Hoople”, and “Red Madison”, were adopted school-wide. It was therefore no surprise that when Dave found a girlfriend, he gifted her with a Homeric epithet as well. The nom d'amour was always spoken as if it were her proper name, as in, “I'm watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer with The Exquisite Sarah tonight,” or “The Exquisite Sarah, would you please pass the ketchup?”
At the time, I was so convinced Sarah exceeded her appellation that I missed my chance with Amy. I was in love with Sarah, and thought Dave the luckiest bastard alive.
My obsession with Sarah was a mistake – her breakup with Dave the summer after graduation had revealed her flaws. The film Out of the Past has a scene where one character is lusting after a femme fatale, and Robert Mitchum describes the object of desire as “awfully cold around the heart”. That was Sarah. Film noir dialogue excelled at describing lethality – “blue steel”, “a cookie full of arsenic” – and after I graduated from high school, I could never hear such descriptions without thinking of Sarah. After she devastated Dave, and I saw how she would have destroyed me, I counted myself fortunate, but neither of us had seen our danger until too late. You had to dig deep into the tundra of Sarah's soul to find the ice.
The Brothers Grimm described Snow White as having skin white as snow, lips red as blood, and hair black as ebony wood. The first time I saw Sarah, she was a goth Snow White with bad hair. She had a china doll complexion, preferred cat eye spectacles, and wore too much mascara. Framing her face was a frizzy coal-black mane that spoke of a lost battle with a frayed power cord. While she favored a goth look, there was always part of her ensemble that was discordantly cheerful – one day it was a Hello Kitty purse, the next it was rainbow earrings, or a vintage ABBA concert shirt – none of which most goths would be caught undead wearing.
Halfway through our freshman year, and after her parents' divorce, Sarah had moved into our school district. She made a strong impression quickly, as she rebelled against any high school convention she could find. I first noticed her, a week after her transfer, when she was tormented in the hallway by Sumbeech Carl, who was a starting lineman on our varsity football team, even as a freshman. Carl mocked her clothes, and questioned her sexuality.
She inspected him as if he were a new species of dung beetle. Sidney – a short redhead with an acne problem – happened to pass, and Sarah captured her in a tight embrace. “Mock us not, for we know the true passion of forbidden love. And no, you cannot watch.”
Sidney shrieked and fled down the hall. Sarah condescendingly patted Carl on the cheek, and left him slack-jawed. I was stuffed in a locker for the mistake of not muffling my laughter.
Most of her antics that year were less amusing. Sarah had disciplinary problems, and I often saw her in detention for cutting classes to catch a smoke, or for mouthing off to a teacher. She was the prime suspect by the police in a trashcan fire that risked exploding the chemistry lab. She was headed down a bad road, and I was therefore surprised when I saw her name on the tryout list for Guys and Dolls, the spring musical. I was even more shocked when they gave her a part.
All three of us were in the chorus. Dave and I loved the acting and writing, and continued to speak Damon Runyon-style dialogue through most of the summer. Sarah was different. She was captured by choreography. She eventually would collect artistic skills the same way I collected knowledge, but Sarah always came back to her true love – dance. That summer, she signed up for jazz dance lessons in Rochester, and was transformed.
By our junior year, her makeover was complete. The discipline problems vanished, and she was competing on the honor roll. She maintained her rebellious streak, but she chose her targets better. She would still mock the authority figures who displeased her, but they were never quite sure they were being mocked, such as when she told the English teacher that his literary selections were “daringly conventional”.
Her physical evolution was just as profound. Contacts replaced her cat-eye frames, better revealing her blue eyes. Her previously unruly hair – now tamed by conditioner – became a black fractal wave cascading down her shoulders. Her goth-lite clothes stayed dark, but seemed to shrink, better displaying her new terpsichorean physique. Ratty flannel vanished in favor of snug shirts that exposed her midriff – flaunting a navel pierced with a red ruby, color-coordinated to match her favorite lipstick. She still wore too much mascara – giving her a hint of darkness, or cosmetic incompetence, depending who you asked. She had even learned Taekwondo – a school was next to her dance studio in Rochester, and she coordinated the lessons.
Soon, she defined, rather than defied, the socially acceptable – the scandal at the art exhibition our junior year, her martial arts-inspired cheer-leading choreography, and her antics at the Halloween Dance. In many respects, she ruled the school. She didn't, however, have a boyfriend.
Sarah scared the bejesus out of most men. The bottom of Lake Monroe was rumored to be the graveyard of prospective suitors who failed to meet her expectations. Few had the courage to test the rumors.
Dave and Sarah took art together, and were paired on a project in December of 2000. They quickly bonded over a mutual contempt for most studio art produced since World War I, with particular revulsion for Duchamp, Kandinsky, and Warhol. They differed over the nature of the failure. I had joined them in the cafeteria while they were in mid-debate – the first time Sarah ever lunched with us.
Dave possessed throwback Victorian aesthetics, and decried the loss of representationalism. Sarah detested “the focus on form and irony over emotionally-meaningful content”. They debated the cause of artistic morbidity and irrelevance, in the self-important and affected way that only young artists can. I let it continue for a while, and then asked if they weren’t saying the same thing.
Sarah’s eyes opened wide in delight. “Darling!” She hugged Dave, and exaggeratedly pecked him on the cheek.
Dave was equally theatrical. “Let us never fight again! I pledge my love undying!” Dave would talk that way – he would ask random women to run away with him to Paris, where they could dance nude on the banks of the Seine. A glint in his eye, and an inoffensive smile, usually saved him from being kneed in the groin. However, I could tell by the blush in his cheeks that this was different, and noticed Sarah didn't catch the lack of irony in his words.
The two of them threw around ideas for their art project. Sarah wanted it meaningful. Dave argued it should be political and environmental, then he stopped short, and looked at me. “Your protest idea. It’s winter now.”
“I'd forgotten about that,” I said.
“What protest idea?” Sarah asked.
“A Cunning Plan,” Dave explained. (We had borrowed the term from Blackadder, but aspired to better success.) “Last spring, Lance had an argument with Courtney in Chemistry, over global warming. Courtney being Courtney, she denied the whole thing. Then last summer, we were reading Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, and Lance had the idea for a practical joke we would leave in Courtney’s front yard.” Dave gave her the details.
Sarah’s eyes sparkled. “I'm in. I always wanted to do guerrilla art.”
I was skeptical. It was too much work, and for me the concept was usually more fun than the execution. “Using Courtney’s front lawn for an art project? You won’t have a chance to get it graded. Courtney will destroy it seconds after she sees it.”
“I was thinking a diorama,” Dave suggested. “We could turn it in for class.”
Sarah was aghast. “A diorama? What are you, in fourth grade? This is no longer for art class. We can create our own project for that. I just want to do this, and I want to do it in front of the school. Life size.”
Dave was sold. “When?”
“Now. Tonight,” she said.
They both turned to me.
This sounded much better than a practical joke with Courtney as the only audience, and executing one of my Cunning Plans had the appeal of novelty. I nodded agreement, and the conspiracy was formed.
Sarah quickly sketched out a task list with assignments and a timeline, and she fetched tagboard and brushes. Dave picked up lumber and paint. I brought the carrots, charcoal, and empty milk jugs. We met in Dave’s basement to paint the signs, and fill the jugs with warm water, then arrived at the school late, after the last activity bus had left.
We sculpted our wintry army until well past midnight, then fitted them for battle with our signs, only taking two breaks for hot cocoa from Sarah's thermos, and another break for a snowball fight. The longer we worked, the more alive I felt. I had ideas like this protest all the time, discarding them as fast as I created them. I had performed experiments as a kid, but had lately thrived in an imaginative world, where brilliance was in the concept, not the creation. I had discovered the thrill in the reality that lay beyond the idea and its shadow.
Sarah and I worked on the sixth snowman, a burly soul whom Sarah had crafted into a recognizable likeness of Vice Principal Murphy – her nemesis for all things controversially artistic. I looked at Sarah, and realized she was the one to make this happen. Dave and I never followed through on our ideas. She had somehow provided the push. I smiled at her across a carrot nose. She winked at me, and I loved her, not knowing the wink was just in fun.