Might Have Been Ch. 02byIroniclaconic©
Come as you are, as you were
As I want you to be
As a friend, as a friend
As an old enemy
-- Nirvana, Come As You Are
October 20, 2001
Sunrise hit my bedroom window, scattering light into every dark corner of the room, symbolizing rebirth and the hope of a new day.
I flipped the blinds. Rebirth and hope could go fuck themselves.
I lay on my back and surveyed my room in the dim light, noting the juxtaposition of the foreign and familiar. Matrix and Fellowship of the Ring one-sheets decorated my walls, along with a poster of Green Day I had purchased at a concert in St. Paul. My bookshelf displayed cyberpunk, hard science fiction, Tolkien, George R. R. Martin books, and the whimsy of Douglas Adams and Christopher Moore. I had another shelf that paid tribute to my youthful fascination with romantic quests and heroes -- a fascination I had never really outgrown -- Grimm's Fairy Tales, Howard Pyle's Merry Adventures of Robin Hood, Bullfinch's Mythology, the Iliad, 1001 Arabian Nights, and Le Morte D'Arthur. I noticed The Divine Comedy and The Odyssey on my bedside, with the presence of bookmarks implying readings in progress. I nodded approvingly. Aside from the Piers Anthony novels contaminating the second shelf, I had good taste as a teenager.
All this was familiar, but it was not my room any more. I was not my eighteen-year old self. My literary tastes had expanded -- these shelves held no Vonnegut, Garcia-Marquez, Franzen, or Nabokov. The resident of this bedroom had been studying precalculus, with dreams of becoming one of the world's top physicists. I was in a dead-end job. He had been cocky and clever, while I doubted everything about myself except my own mediocrity. He had no responsibilities. I had Tasha.
I didn't belong here. Amy had shown me that. My fantasies were shit, just the masturbatory escapist yearnings of a doomed man, inextricably bound to an amazing, flawed woman who needed him. I belonged with Tasha, who was my reward and punishment for being the man I was.
The resonance array stared at me from my night stand like an accusing eye, remonstrating me for my continued presence. I had been thinking of the night of my eighteenth birthday, and a bad decision I had made, when the accident happened. That wasn't a coincidence. The array had somehow "brought" me to a universe that matched the quantum event I had been pondering. Game, set, and match to Team Everett.
The accident, however, had not caused my body to leap from one universe to another. I was twenty-eight, but my physique in this universe was the one I had when I was eighteen -- lean, with swimmer's muscles. At the time of the accident I had been wearing different clothes, and had been carrying a phone I probably could have now sold back to Samsung for ten figures.
My consciousness had somehow directed the resonance array and made the jump independent of my body. Quantum Leap nonsense like this didn't jibe with any known theories of physics -- the mind wasn't supposed to control anything, except the nervous system, but I was a scientist. If indisputable facts don't fit the theories, you need new theories. Perhaps my consciousness was brought to a space-time topology that matched my thought patterns. That made as much sense as anything.
Proof of that hypothesis would be difficult, but it didn't necessarily matter. If I wanted to make it home to Tasha, theory was less important than mechanics. I glanced at my copy of The Odyssey and pictured Tasha as Penelope, patiently waiting for me in our apartment. I needed to get home to her and focused my mind on the task.
The resonance array had two electrical contacts embedded in its annular casing. The array ran off twelve volt power, and I had a few matching power supplies in my closet. I thought of one of Professor Pugachev's maxims, recited in that Slavic-tinged, clipped English of his -- to understand experiment, you must repeat. I began to work.
Obsessing over mistakes was a long-standing habit of mine while performing routine tasks, so my mind turned once more to Amy as I rigged up the array for my attempt to transport myself home. Why had Amy snubbed me? She had no obligation to follow the course of my personal fantasies, but the abrupt change in behavior from her -- pivoting in minutes from reverence to rejection -- demanded an answer. What had I screwed up this time?
Using wire-strippers, I snipped off the existing plug on the power supply from my dad's old IBM Thinkpad. 3.5 amps should be enough, I hoped. I separated and bared the two wires, and used electrical tape to connect them to the matching contacts on the array. Ugly, but it should work.
Was I missing something about Amy's behavior? I liked puzzles, and I hadn't tried to crack this one. What was the solution? If Amy wouldn't deign to explain, my best bet was Sarah, who had arranged the evening. It wouldn't surprise me if Sarah was at the root of the whole thing, playing some deep game. Maybe she just liked inflicting heartache, as she herself had done with Dave.
I made a snap decision and stashed the array in my underwear drawer. The clock showed 8:09 AM. Sarah should be up by now. I dressed and headed down for the garage.
Oh God, Mom. "Um... hey." She was so much younger than when I saw her last. I felt a pang in my heart at such an abrupt display of how fast my parents were aging. I didn't see them nearly enough anymore. Monroe was a six hour drive from Chicago, and they didn't get along with Tasha, even though they tried harder than anyone, except me. I kissed her on the cheek.
She smiled at my unexpected display of affection. "Did you have a good time last night?" She was reading Agatha Christie's Murder of Roger Ackroyd, while sitting at the kitchen table. Dad must be out golfing.
How had I answered prying questions like that? I had been a straight-A student and drank rarely enough that I never got caught, so they had me on a long leash. "Yes, we went to Mankato to see the new Denzel Washington movie."
"You got home late."
"And you're going out again already?"
"I'm meeting Sarah for breakfast. Mind if I use the car?" I opened the door to the garage.
My mother assented, but her eyebrows furrowed slightly. She regarded me over the frames of her reading glasses, and her smile was a little sad. "Don't grow up too fast, son."
I winced as I shut the door.
Sarah was wearing a vintage black Siouxie and The Banshees concert t-shirt, camouflage pants, and Kermit The Frog earrings. She regarded me with her half smile, which broadened as I told my story. I stayed vague on what Amy and I had done in the woods, but when I described my confusion over Amy's callous dismissal on her front porch, Sarah laughed.
It was bad enough having to buy the Ice Queen breakfast, but there was no call for this. "Laughing at a man in the throes of heartbreak can lead to getting stuck with the check and walking home."
Sarah's brow furrowed into a stern expression, and she raised her palm in a mockery of a threat. "Self pity gets you bitch-slapped. You've been warned." She propped her elbows on the table and rested her porcelain face in her hands. "Broken-hearted? You barely acknowledged her existence before last night." Sarah cocked her head, watching me as she would a cute puppy in a pet store window. "You're the sweetest guy."
Further mockery? "Is that the problem? She wants me to be an asshole?" Memories of how Sarah treated Dave were stoking my temper to near-boiling.
Sarah reached across the table and patted me on the hand. "I knew Amy wanted some quality time with you, and it was your birthday, so I went along, and now you're making me feel guilty for setting you up. It didn't occur to me you would fall for her. You two barely have anything in common."
"That's not true. We both like old movies."
Sarah scrunched her face in skepticism. "Like what?"
"She saw the old Capra film, Arsenic and Old Lace."
"Mrs. Jorgenson showed it in English last year, after it was selected as the school play. Everyone in the class watched it."
Sarah helped me. "You both love romances, only you get yours from the Brothers Grimm instead of Harlequin. That is the full extent of your common ground. She's religious. You said you were a pagan, last I checked."
Sarah conceded the point. "All the books she reads are at an eighth grade reading level, or lower. Aren't you reading Dante, and it's not assigned for any class?"
"Yes, but that isn't true about her. She likes Shakespeare. She saw Hamlet."
"Yes, dear, because Ethan Hawke was in it."
That hurt. "No way."
"She has a dozen photos of him in her locker. Lance, sweetie, why do you think you didn't get an argument last night about seeing a depressing film about police corruption?"
"Fuck." Damn him. First Uma, now Amy...
Sarah paused, as if considering her words carefully. "I also thought you knew she was a slut." She watched for my reaction.
Our waitress only now arrived with our drinks. Her slow delivery of my orange juice had wrecked the opportunity for the perfect spit-take. I gaped at Sarah instead.
"This is what Amy does, Lance. I love her like the neurotic little sister I never had, but the lady is a tramp."
The waitress set two glasses of orange juice on our table and saw that as an opening. "My sister's a tramp too!"
Sarah flashed a grin of mischief. "Can you please write down her phone number for Lance here? She sounds like his type."
The waitress was apologetic to me. "She's thirty-five, honey."
Amy had unceremoniously dumped me last night, but I didn't like hearing her honor sullied. "Explain," I demanded, after the waitress left.
Sarah squinted her eyes and pondered. "Did she pull her move on you? Where she pretends to come at the moment of entry?"
My thin lips and red face answered her question.
Sarah nodded in understanding. "She's proud of that one. Amy moons over some cute guy while dressing like the Queen of Frump. The more he ignores her, the more she wants him, until she wears what she calls her 'sex clothes' and seduces him. Then she feels ashamed until she finds another guy. Her dad won't let her have a boyfriend, so it's cheap defiance, and she gets to screw around. She's kind of fucked up, and will stay that way until she learns to control or embrace her wanton ways." Sarah considered. "Resolving her overcontrolling-daddy issues wouldn't hurt either. At least that's what I told her when she dropped two bits in the cup at my Lucy-booth." She shrugged.
"You told her that?"
"Just Wednesday, and once or twice each week before that. Everyone at school seems to know of her slatternly behavior. She has quite the reputation."
Everyone at school... "You know I never gossip."
Sarah arched an eyebrow and pointed her finger at me sternly, as if I had just confessed to shoplifting. "This is why you should." She was a notorious gossip herself, but never seemed to be wrong. "What makes a slut a slut is that they don't settle on one guy. Amy's a nice girl, and can be a fantastic date if you want her to be what she is. Most guys she chases have no problem with her being who she is. I say again, you are such a sweetie." She smiled at me. "You just need to use that brilliant noggin of yours for something more ambitious than self-deception."
It all made sense, of course. I had been willfully blind. Amy had initiated every sordid act last night. She had been on the pill, and in retrospect had clearly been an experienced lover, not a fumbling virgin. Her last infuriating comment, about me being a better lover when I got more experience, should have been an obvious clue to her own sexual history. If I hadn't felt insulted, I would have noticed. I should have noticed anyway.
I may not be as smart as everyone once thought, but I'm smarter than this. "I feel used," I complained.
Sarah tsked in sympathy, while reaching over to pat my hand again. Her other hand reached into her purse and retrieved something. She opened my hand, pressed a small plastic package into my palm, and closed my fingers around it portentously, as if bestowing an important gift.
"What's this?" I asked.
"I know how much of a method actor you are, dear. If you're going to play the role of the whiny bitch, you will want to experience wearing one of these. It's a maxi pad. "
I threw it back at her, but there was no anger in it.
Sarah smiled disarmingly. "You really don't want to make me regret arranging for a hot date like Amy, do you? I'm sincerely sorry you misunderstood the situation, but never in a million years did I think it would hurt you. In fact, Dave had to convince me it would work."
"You're blaming Dave?"
She looked annoyed at the implication. "I thought you were so uninterested in Amy, you would ignore her, even if she threw her clothes off and started humping your leg." She made some what-do-I-know gestures. "I obviously didn't know you as well as Dave did, and I apologize, but you can't over-react and pretend she was the woman of your dreams."
My anger dissipated. Sarah had made her point. She had been gifting me an easy lay for my birthday, and couldn't know I was going to blow the chance, obsess over it for ten years, and find a way to time travel back to 2001 for another shot. The unrealistic expectations had all been mine. I felt less heartbroken, but more pathetic, as I realized how badly I misread Amy. I used to pride myself on my brains, but this was one more piece of evidence I was just another dumbass convinced every woman in the world wanted him.
Why was I so drawn to the belief of Amy as an innocent? I was afraid I knew. "Did you ever read the Devil's Dictionary?" I asked.
Sarah's lips pursed in puzzlement. "Just the bits assigned in English last year. Ambrose Pierce?"
"Bierce, yeah. I liked it, and read the whole thing. I even wrote some definitions of my own, of which my favorite was: virginity -- a seemingly harmless beast, that must in truth be the most deadly, as men hunt it for the sole purpose of destroying it."
Sarah snorted her orange juice up her nose, and she re-composed herself with a napkin. "Not just men, you now realize?" Her smile was broad.
I had meant something else, but her interpretation reflected better on me, so I let it stand.
Our food arrived. Sarah ate her fruit salad and watched me across the table with a gleam in her eye and a smirk on her face. I was reminded why I loved her once. Her face and moods were so animated. She was a consummate actress, faking the emotions to hide the ice within.
"So, are you gonna dish?" she asked.
I was confused. I glanced down at my breakfast burrito and chorizo. "You want to try my sausage?"
"Ha! You wish."
I needed to stop feeding her easy lines.
Sarah leaned forward and put her elbows on the table, resting her face in a cradle formed by the backs of her folded hands. She wriggled her ass in her seat, making an exaggerated display of getting comfortable. She grinned at me, raised her eyebrows twice in rapid succession, and asked, "I mean, how was she?"
Amy. "A gentleman doesn't kiss and tell."
"I'll keep that in mind if I see one, dear. How was she?"
This was an old argument between us. "You think insulting me is going to convince me to feed your jones for gossip?"
She switched expressions, from conspiratorial gossip-hound to lost-puppy-in-a-storm. She tilted her head down and to the side, so she could look up at me, and she bared her white teeth in a fake smile. "Pleeeeease..."
She batted her eyelashes. "Yes I am. How was she?"
I grinned, despite the grudge I was trying to bear on Dave's behalf. I had forgotten how much fun Sarah could be when it suited her purpose. She knew exactly how to wheedle information without causing anger. No wonder her gossip was usually correct. I decided to raise the ante. "Come on, I don't ask how it is with you and Dave."
She re-raised. "Oh, Dave is a generous lover. Last night, he spent a full five minutes using his tongue --"
"That isn't what I meant!" Sarah had no concept of sexual privacy. I knew that once, but had forgotten.
Sarah leaned back and did a sitting victory dance, hula-ing in place with arms over her head.
I went all-in. "Why are you asking, anyway? You already know, you scamp. I heard you in the bushes last night."
That stopped her dancing. She leaned forward, took a swig of her orange juice, and said nothing -- her porcelain face as unreadable as a china doll's.
"I don't believe it, I shut you up," I gloated, and did my own booty-dance of verbal victory.
Sarah showed a hint of a smile. "Guilty as charged." She didn't act it.
"How long were you watching?"
She was quiet for a few seconds, as if calculating how to respond. "Well, dear, imagine having just gotten comfortable after finding a good place to relieve yourself, with your skirt hiked up and underwear down around your knees." She composed her face, emulating blissful contentment, which was abruptly broken by a shock of surprise. "Suddenly, a castrated flute starts screaming three feet from your ear!"
The couple at the next table silently reproached me for my seismic laughter.
Sarah lowered her voice to a confessional whisper. "I would have wet myself if I hadn't already been peeing."
"You were right behind the tree," I said in disbelief.
"I was so surprised, I almost jumped in the air far enough to make it a threesome."
"All for the best. I don't think Amy swings that way."
"So I looked around frantically to see what was going on. Maybe I was about to be attacked by a wounded bobcat. I should have figured it out faster, and left discretely, but then I saw her screwing you."
"And once you realized your mistake, you did the polite thing and left immediately." If she took the bait and lied, I had her.
Sarah's mouth twitched and her lips pursed. She squirmed in her seat and studied the pattern on the tablecloth. "Not immediately, no."
Dammit, she was confessing the whole thing. "What, you stayed and watched?"
"I didn't realize you had a voyeur fetish." I rarely had the chance to tease her.
"Neither did I. It wasn't just that, though. I wasn't sure how to leave without you hearing me."
"So how long did you stay?"
"I was definitely there for your own triumphant... ahem... arrival." She nodded to me and winked with exaggerated appreciation. "I walked away when she started screaming again, thinking her impersonation of a tortured howler monkey would cover my retreat, but I tripped on a stump."
"You vixen, you."
She bounced her head in embarrassed agreement. "It was really hot." She averted her eyes, and I noticed her porcelain cheeks had a flush of rose in them. She was blushing. I never, ever, recalled seeing Sarah blush. I was suddenly conscious of the texture of her skin and every rise and fall of her chest as she breathed. I wanted to know more. "You lied about the poison ivy."
"Yes." She spoke reluctantly now.
"You wanted me to know you were there."
She paused before answering. Her blush deepened. "Maybe," she whispered.
Another pause, longer this time. She ran her hand across her face and sat up, meeting eye contact again. "Do you always know why you do things?"
She was quoting one of Gabriel Byrne's last lines in Miller's Crossing, a film I recalled seeing with Dave and Sarah, when we went on a Coen Brothers kick. I considered her words, remembered who she was, and determined she was just playing a mind game, keeping me on her hook so she would have someone else's heart to break in case Dave got wise.