Might Have Been Ch. 07byIroniclaconic©
Author's Note: Warning, for those of you who care not a jot for chapter order. Do not start reading this story with this chapter. If you haven't been reading our witty romp so far, this chapter will confuse the bejesus out of you, and may cause seizures, hiccups, and necrolepsy. No that last isn't a typo - you may indeed experience random moments of death. Don't say I didn't tell you.
And I loved you when our love was blessed
And I love you now there's nothing left
But sorrow and a sense of overtime
-- Leonard Cohen, Closing Time
February 16, 2006
The sun over Chicago is consumptive -- winter white and coughing up a bloody sky as it dies. I didn't remember if I had observed the sunset the first time I lived this day, but no matter -- I would have noticed the pretty over the pestilent.
She arrives with the dusk, and the sense of deja vu becomes overwhelming. The settled scents of Colombian dark roast are disturbed by the breeze from the door, and the aroma bounces through the air like motes of dust. I glance up from my laptop, ceasing work on my thesis, and see her enter once more -- an echo from memory and time.
Truly beautiful women turn the world unreal. My peripheral vision vanishes in a swirl of vertigo, taking the coffee shop with it. All I can see is her. Dark, braided hair sweeps past her shoulders, exposing a face that speaks of cross-cultural romance and international migration -- high cheekbones and full lips -- a slight frame and almond eyes hinting of Southeast Asia -- the olive skin of the Mediterranean -- the blue eyes of a Norman princess.
I divine new meanings with every glance at her face. Her countenance is a canvas on which her troubles paint dolorous masterpieces. Her blue eyes aren't framed by whites, but reds. Her nose is raw, and her bottom lip seems to quiver with every breath.
A heavy feeling of suffocation makes me realize I have forgotten to take my own breath since she walked in. How can she still affect me so?
Her form is concealed by a long dark coat, but she is slender, wearing stylish boots and jeans that adhere to her skin. She is a woman hiding behind herself -- fearful of exposure but having nothing as a shield except her own beauty. Our eyes lock as she scans the shop. I see no recognition from her, and I hide my own.
I am instantly conscious of my appearance. I remember the same reaction nearly six years ago in my own timeline. I had appreciated choosing my olive turtleneck and leather bomber jacket. I hadn't shaved in a couple days out of laziness, but with the clothes I could pass as casually rugged rather than scruffy. This time I just felt scruffy.
Following my memory, I don't break eye contact, and give a slight nod. A pained smile flickers on her face. It isn't an invitation, but embarrassment. She turns to the barista and orders tea -- her voice laden with pathos.
She sits on the couch at the opposite end of the shop -- she is here to forget rather than contemplate her troubles. I can see what she is reading -- Beowulf is on the table in front of her, and John Gardner's Grendel is in her hands. I wonder which English Lit class had assigned this particular paper.
Every few minutes, she pauses her reading to stifle tears, embodying an angel in misery. I have never seen a damsel more distressed.
Even now, knowing this is just the tip of an iceberg of despair, every protective instinct tells me I should save her -- to ask her what is wrong -- convince her by word and deed to have faith in men, but I respect her implicit request for privacy and don't talk to her. I am an actor playing the part of myself, and I didn't speak to her the first time I lived this day.
Shortly before six I leave for my night class.
It is the first time I ever saw Tasha.
I despair at my reaction to her. The last few subjective years should be a vaccine. How can re-living my first sight of her still feel like I am truly seeing her for the first time? If she still has this effect on me, my cause is lost. I grasp the resonance array inside the pocket of my coat, finding the battery pack. Because the pack is self-contained and attached to the array, it comes with me when I use the array to jump. I am now free from the need of continually finding a new power supply.
Remembering the smell of cinnamon, and picturing the cover of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow, I grasp the array and jump.
February 23, 2006
We are in the coffee shop again, exactly one week after I first saw her. I am here most weekdays in the late afternoon, killing time between classes, but I haven't seen her again until today. This time she carries Gravity's Rainbow. She is pouring artificial sweetener into a tea that smells of cinnamon. She doesn't seem as troubled as she was the previous week.
I am in line behind her, getting a refill of my own black coffee. I can recall our first conversation from memory, and decide to embrace full method acting, trying to re-live every emotion I experienced the first time. It should be easy. "I noticed last week you had Gardner. This week it's Pynchon. Is there a class on postmodern American fiction?"
She acts uncomfortable, wary of pick-up attempts, but I made a point of appealing to her brain, and she meets my eyes. "Not really," she says in a lilting soprano, "it's just for fun."
I am intrigued. Not many people can slog through Pynchon and consider it fun. "I tried Crying of Lot 49 last summer. I heard Pynchon was a physicist, and wanted to see what his book would be like."
She is still uncomfortable, but follows up. "You could have chosen Carl Sagan, David Brin, or a dozen others. Why Pynchon?" Her voice has a hint of a southern accent. Either she grew up there, and moved early in life, or she is trying to train it out of her voice.
I am impressed that off the top of her head, she could name other physicist-authors. "Pynchon has literary cred, and is supposedly on the shortlist for a Nobel Prize. I wanted to experience art created by a scientist."
"Why's that?" She is genuinely curious now.
"Brain of a physics geek, soul of an artist." I point to my head and chest in turn.
She looks at me fully for the first time, and her lips part in a wide grin. I am dazzled -- it's like the sun appearing after a storm.
I nod to her, and return to my chair. I am a connoisseur of intelligent, beautiful women. They are too smart to fall for lines, and are suspicious of most approaches by men -- viewing them as clumsy attempts to get in their pants. They seek a rare breed themselves, and the trick is to convince them you are someone who will challenge them, and not be threatened by them. This is my move -- pique a woman's interest, and then withdraw. It lowers their defenses, and leaves them wanting more contact.
She sits in a chair across from me, and removes her coat, offering a better appraisal of her form. A dark blue sweater brings out her eyes. She is thin-boned and appears delicate, but has nice curves.
We make eye contact more often, as she reads her book and I work on my laptop. We don't say anything more, until it's time to leave for my class. I pack up my computer, give her a smile, and say, "See you next week," certain she will be here again.
She seems taken aback by my presumption, but she is also smiling. She likes me, and hopes to see me again.
I leave the coffee shop, round the corner, and take a deep breath. It's harder than I thought. I am losing myself. The best person to provide an antidote to Tasha, is Tasha herself. I grasp the array, and choose a new destination.
March 6, 2009
It's the night Watchmen opens, almost three years into our relationship. It was one of my favorite books, and I have been anticipating the movie for a year. I am planning to see it with several friends from work. Tasha wants to come with us.
"I don't think you will like it," I say.
"You like it. We usually like the same things."
"You don't have tolerance for violence. It's going to be violent."
"All comic books are violent. Wham! Pow!"
"This isn't Adam West as Batman. It's rated R for a reason."
"Please? I don't want to be alone tonight."
"You walked out of The Dark Knight because of the violence. If you go, you aren't walking out on this."
She agrees, and I take her with me.
Tasha makes it halfway through the movie. Dr. Manhattan has the ability to see time non-linearly, with every moment of his life happening simultaneously. He reflects on that life through a series of flashbacks, including shots of carnage in Vietnam.
That's it for Tasha. "Lance, I can't watch this any more. It's horrible," she whispers.
"I warned you."
"We need to leave."
I knew this would happen. "Wait for me in the lobby, or duck into another film. Text me which one and I'll find you."
"The whole point of tonight was for us to do something together."
No, I don't say, the point of tonight was for me to see this movie with friends who will actually like it. "I want to finish watching it."
She is insistent. "Lance, please take me out of the theater." She is no longer whispering, speaking in a normal voice.
Patrons glare, and we get several shushes.
If I don't follow her, she will make a scene and we will be kicked out anyway. I am defeated, and I know it. I make excuses to my friends, who act uncomfortable, and I escort Tasha out of the theater.
She claims she is too tired for sex when we get home. I have sacrificed so much that all I have left is a mere movie, and it isn't nearly enough for her.
March 2, 2006
It's exactly one week after our second meeting -- three years prior to the incident at the theater. I am back in the coffee shop. I have flirted with the barista over the previous year. She likes me but has a boyfriend, and has sometimes helped me approach female customers. She nods to me as Tasha enters.
Tasha smiles when she sees me, sits down, and pulls out a book. This time, she is reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It's one of my favorites. I tell her so.
"Why do you like it?" She marks the spot in her book, and closes it. I take it as a sign she welcomes a conversation.
"People are too passive in their approach to life. Billy Pilgrim is 'unstuck in time', and knows exactly how his entire life will unfold. Yet he changes nothing, even a bad marriage and his own murder. Vonnegut satirizes useless fatalism while remaining entertaining and clever. It's impressive."
She purses her lips, and screws up her face in a cute way. She is thinking. "I don't believe it's a satire. Vonnegut is expressing his own feeling of impotence in watching the destruction of Dresden during World War II. If you can't stop that, why stop anything? He's laughing at the darkness so he doesn't cry."
I sense no likely agreement. "I think we need Kurt Vonnegut here to settle the argument."
"Oh! Like in Annie Hall--"
"--Where Woody Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere to win an argument." We are already completing each other's sentences.
"Exactly! I love that film!"
"Me too. It's not nearly as good as Annie Hall, but there is this wonderful scene in Back to School where Rodney Dangerfield hires Vonnegut to write a paper for him about the meaning of Vonnegut's work, and the paper gets an F from the teacher, who accuses him of plagiarism and adds 'whoever did write this doesn't know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut'. I sometimes wake up from nightmares where this is true." I smile mischievously. "In my nightmare, I ask Vonnegut what his books mean. He tells me he has no clue -- that he was just high when he wrote them."
"'So it goes.'" She smiles as she quotes Billy Pilgrim, passively accepting another of life's horrors.
It's rare I meet someone who can intelligently discuss my favorite books, and even more rare the person is a stylish beauty. She is quicker on her feet than anyone I have met since Sarah, and she shares my interests more than Sarah did.
"Have you ever read Tropic of Cancer?" she asks.
"Shh, keep your voice down."
She is puzzled. "Why?"
"I'm as open-minded as they come, but most people object to discussing pornography in public."
"He's not porn!" She is smart enough to tell I am winding her up.
I feign confusion. "I could be wrong -- those were the only parts of the book that were readable. If he isn't porn, I'll have to throw my copy away."
"You just like a traditional narrative."
"Stream of consciousness can engage the mind, but only a story can engage the soul."
She protests, and our conversation spirals off from there. I am enraptured. We talk books, philosophy, music, history, science, movies. She has a higher tolerance for bad movies than I do, loving romantic comedies.
I express mock dismay that anyone with mostly-impeccable taste would enjoy Must Like Dogs.
"I guess I shouldn't tell you that Twilight is a guilty pleasure." She has the good manners to look sheepish.
I put my hands to my face, and open my mouth in a silent scream.
"Are you imitating Edvard Munch, or Macauley Culkin?" she asks.
"Culkin was actually Munch's model for The Scream. Culkin was trying to hit on this beautiful, brilliant woman, but then he discovered she loved Twilight. Witnessing the expression on his face, Munch said, 'this is the face of true despair', and pulled out his palette."
She raises her eyebrows while she laughs. I have confessed to what we both know to be true, that I am trying to pick her up, but I am doing so in a way that evokes confidence and humor. In response, she touches my hand.
"But in appreciation of your honesty," I say, "I'll confess a love of Kung Fu movies."
"I think Jet Li is hot, and I have most of his on DVD."
"What's your favorite?"
"Once Upon a Time in China."
I toast her taste with my drink.
"The lemniscate," she says, peering down at my notebook.
There is an infinity symbol doodled in the upper right corner, amidst my failed attempt to draw Escher stairs during a boring lecture last week on noncommutative geometry. "Not many people know it's called that," I say. She impresses me again.
She traces the curve with her finger. "I love symbols. Do you know its history?"
"I think it's based on the ouroboros -- the snake eating it's own tail, representing infinity as an endless, recursive cycle."
She is also impressed. "That's one explanation, but no one really knows. It was first used by a Seventeenth Century mathematician. It's probably derived from the Greek symbol for Omega -- the end of the alphabet."
"You ever heard of John Nash? The guy from A Beautiful Mind?"
"So he's stark, raving mad, right? There's a story that during a lecture, a student asked him to define infinity. Nash started drawing a line on the chalkboard, continued it on the walls of the room until he hit the door, then exited into the hallway and never came back to class the rest of the semester."
She covers her mouth as she laughs.
"It's apocryphal, and probably not true," I caution.
"Who cares! It's a good story."
Our entire conversation bounces from topic to topic like Tigger on meth, but I never lose her. She is testing me -- as I am testing her -- dropping art and cultural references in a dance of aesthetics, wit, and memory. How quick are you? Would we enjoy watching the same movies or plays and discussing them afterward? Would you be boring after two months, like almost every other person I try to date? Can you keep up with me? We are probing each other for weaknesses, finding none.
I am delighted. I have never felt a connection like this with anyone. She has a fierce, passionate curiosity about anything and everything. She drinks information, digests it, and it becomes part of her. She is the smartest woman I have ever encountered, and our tastes and senses of humor are uncannily alike. I don't always agree with her, but that's part of the fun.
What makes it more amazing is that my feelings are reflected in her. I have never seen a woman so captivated by me. Her eyes are aglow as she hangs on my every word, laughs at my best jokes, and groans at my worst ones. She is giggling and blushing like a girl half her age. I can tell that when we finally part, she will be calling her best friends and raving about this incredible guy she met.
I feel scared and drunk. I know, with perfect certainty, that I have found The One. I am convinced I could gaze into her eyes for the rest of my life. I could talk to her forever. I could make love to her through eternity, and I long to prove it. I am falling in love with her before I know her name.
The realization stops me, and I interrupt. "I have been having this amazing conversation for the past two hours, and we haven't even been introduced."
She smiles so broadly I can count her teeth. The contrast from the sadness two weeks ago is striking, and I bask in the knowledge that I am the reason for the change in her mood. She realizes she hasn't answered my question, and composes herself. "Natasha."
I purse my lips, trying not to say what I am thinking.
She rolls her eyes and laughs. "Say it," she invites.
"I recognize the look. You're thinking of Rocky and Bullwinkle."
Her head shakes, evincing mock disappointment.
"I plead innocent," I insist.
Skepticism surfs across her eyebrows. "Uh huh. Your name is?"
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Lance."
"You as well."
"Don't you have class, Lance?"
"I decided to ditch it half-way through your defense of Henry Miller. Any woman with that strong an opinion on pornography is worth cutting a class on quantum chromodynamics. Quarks can wait."
"He's not porn, you goof." Tasha is strangely pleased. I see it now, but didn't see it then. As soon as I told her I was cutting class, a flush of arousal courses through her, settling finally in her cheeks. She takes sacrifice as a love offering -- the only kind she accepts. Ditching class for her is the first of many mortgages I will take out on my soul.
She says she has to leave, but is reluctant to do so.
I throw caution aside. "I need to thank you for the most wonderful conversation of my life. Have dinner with me tomorrow. Friday."
This woman, so beautiful and exotic she could be gracing the cover of Vogue, looks like a little girl receiving a live unicorn as a gift on Christmas morning. "Oh, that would be nice," she says.
We arrange a time. She turns to leave, then impulsively spins and kisses me on the cheek. Laughing and shaking her head in disbelief at her girlish actions, she heads to the door, looking back at almost every step. As she stands in the doorway, I use the line that has been trying to burst out of me since she told me her name. "After dinner..."
"After dinner, Nastasha, we must keel Moose and Squirrel."
She palms her face, but I see her smile. "Call me Tasha. See you tomorrow."
The door shuts.
I glance around me. The other people in the coffee shop haven't existed for the last two hours. They suddenly appear, and I see a dozen of them, all watching me, most with bemused smiles. The barista's eyes are shining. She just saw a couple fall in love over drinks she served and takes pride in her role. Two guys are glaring with naked envy. Suck it, bitches. I raise my hands over my head and proclaim, "I am a Golden God!" The barista claps, and a couple patrons join in. I bow.
Living the moment again is like a drug, getting me re-addicted to Tasha.
I decide I need detox, and jump.
December 19, 2008
It's two-and-a-half years further in the future, and I am watching my Memento DVD when Dave calls. He is in town, and he wants to meet for drinks during a layover. He has important news, he says. Last year, Dave took a job with a gaming company in California, and is one of the lead designers on a new MMO. He has been dating one of his coworkers, he says. He wants me to meet her, and I suspect he wants to announce his engagement. I suggest an Indian restaurant near the airport.