tagSci-Fi & FantasyMight Have Been Ch. 05

Might Have Been Ch. 05


Twist and shape on the winding twine
Around the spindle winds
Wish again, four times again
Four wishes deep into the well
There's a price to pay for a wish to come true
Trade a small piece of your life

-- Bob Mould, Wishing Well

September 1, 2002

"Buy a girl a drink?" Sarah repeated, holding out a paper bag with a bottle in it.

I took the bag, and shook it. The bottle was half empty. I sniffed and handed it back to her. "The lady will have a Jack Daniels."

Sarah took a swig, and returned it to me. "And the gentleman will have the same."

I sat down on the hood of her car next to her, and took a long pull. I detested hard liquor, but if ever a week was going to drive me to it, this was it. "I hate to break it to you, but the pool is closed on account of lightning."

Sarah guffawed. "Really. I walked up to the door, and from what I could hear, the pool was closed on account of sex."

I shrugged.

"I heard you were working with the Toothsome Twosome this weekend. Which one? Amber? I always thought you crushed on her."

I gave an apologetic palms-up gesture.

"Sidney?" She frowned at that. "I always suspected she was gay, but I could be wrong."

"Not telling."

"Sidney AND Amber?"

I laughed.

"You fucking dog." She was just fishing, but was annoyed I wouldn't tell her.

I changed the subject. "You would get arrested trying to swim wearing a bottle of Jack, so my guess is you came here for conversation."

"I need a friend." She didn't sound drunk. Either the bottle wasn't full when she got it, or she had drunk it very rapidly, and it hadn't hit yet.

"Dave stopped by earlier. I think he could use a friend too."

She flinched. "I broke his heart, and I feel like shit."

"So why did you break his heart?"

I saw her jaw tighten and then relax. "Long distance relationships don't work. I watched a dozen couples try, in last year's class. They all pretended they could make it work, with visits and holiday hookups, but everything fell apart. It's wrong for a good relationship to die by mutual self-deceit."

"You prefer a mercy killing?" I asked. Sarah just studied her shoes, so I continued. "We were over this yesterday. Dave offered to move to New York." I tried to keep that from sounding like an accusation, but I don't think it worked.

Sarah's eyes drooped in sadness. "No, he didn't."

What? "He told me he did, and you seemed to agree yesterday."

"That wasn't Dave."

Where was she going with this? "It sure looked like him -- black curly hair, skinny and pale."

"That was a pod person. My Dave has dreams of being a computer programmer, and isn't so pussy-whipped he will drop his dream and follow some shiksa to New York."

"You dumped him for his own good?"

Sarah's face collapsed from defiance into disappointed sorrow. "I thought you would understand, Lance. It's why I was so upset at you yesterday."

"Why would I understand?"

"Your dream is beautiful and real. You're brilliant and were accepted at one of the top physics programs in the country. You're going to rock the world someday -- hopefully not by blowing it up." She narrowed her eyes and gave me her stern-babysitter look, then relaxed it. "Your dreams are too important for you to give them up."

"Love is more important." I knew whereof I spoke.

"Like fuck it is." Sarah looked like she had just swallowed a bug.

"Come on, Sarah, without love --"

She put her hands over her ears. "Don't you quote song lyrics at me. I saw that scene in Moulin Rouge!"

"Doesn't make it less true."

"Lance, there are six billion people on this planet. If there is only one other person in the world who is your perfect match, what's the chance you will ever find her?" She didn't wait for me to answer. "It doesn't happen. There are millions of people who would make us happy. Love is a roulette wheel, where each time you choose whether this one is good enough, or whether to spin again." I detected the lack of sincerity in her voice. "If you both agree it's good enough, you call it true love, or destiny, and get married." Her voice was choking now, and she was fighting off tears. "So I just spin the wheel again, no matter how much it hurts, and eventually I'll get a good number again."

"You sound like you're trying to convince yourself."

"Lance the math geek. Lance the future physicist. Lance the logician with the big brain. Is there anything logically wrong with what I just said?"

"Logic and love are different universes, and logic isn't enough. If logic were our only method, we might all kill ourselves to minimize entropy. Logic can't tell you what makes life worth living."

"Which is living your dream. You need to learn to use that wonderful noggin of yours for something better than self-deception. Didn't you tell me last year that atomic particles are really little threads?"

Strings, not threads, I mentally corrected, or at least that was the prevailing theory.

Sarah took my silence for assent. "I thought about that a lot this summer. The Greeks thought The Fates wove the threads of your life, and it's true, but it's really just random. Fate is just another name for the result of your quarkum physics."

Quarkum? "Everything is quantum physics, Sarah, but that's no excuse for throwing love away when you find it."

She grabbed the front of my shirt, and I saw a glint of the fury that had hit me yesterday. "I'm not throwing it away! This is what I've been telling myself all day to avoid curling up and sobbing on the floor!" Her anger collapsed into despair. "I hoped you would understand."

I thought more about Tasha, about what I had done for her. "Then let Dave come with you, or move to Madison with him. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices for love."

She shook her head. "Not like that. Giving up my dream for Dave, or asking him to give up his -- that's as bad as murder. Dave needs someone who will share his dream, not steal it. So do I. You didn't know me before I started dancing. My parents had just divorced, and nothing made sense until I danced. It's who I am. I can't give it up, any more than I can give up breathing. I love Dave too much to steal his dreams, and he thought... you thought..." She trailed off.

"...that you didn't love him," I finished for her. Her eyes closed and her jaw tightened. "I was wrong," I added.

She flashed a wan smile. "That's the first time I ever heard you admit that. You've no idea how much that means. Thank you."

"Why is it important for you that I understand this?"

Sarah hesitated, but when the words came, her tone was pleading, and her eyes were wide and beseeching, staring into mine. "What if I'm wrong? What if I'm so high maintenance, demanding, and, and... bitchy...?"

"Sarah, you aren't high maintenance or demanding."

She punched me in the arm at my omission. "What if there really is only one person... or--" She peered down at her shoes. "And I was lucky enough to meet him young. What if I blew it? What if I made the wrong choice?" She also seemed to be contradicting herself.

"You think you'll be regretting this, is that it?"

She glanced at me sharply. "You aren't listening, and I don't like regrets."

I didn't believe that. "John Greenleaf Whittier had a quote I'm sure you've heard, 'For all sad words of tongue and pen / The saddest are these, It might have been.' You don't have any what-ifs?"

Sarah chewed her lip. "Don't you think those words are meant more about how you should approach the future, rather than the past? It's a waste of time pondering things I can't change. People who regret decisions in the past are really regretting the present. It makes more sense to cut the middleman, and just change the present."

What did she think I was trying to tell her? "So let Dave move to New York to be with you."

"You aren't listening!" She was slurring her words, and her face was composed in the vacant expression of the inebriated.

"This is where I'm right, and you made a mistake. If you find the right person, you fight like hell to make it work. You don't give up just because they move a thousand miles away, or are sick, or won't..." I couldn't complete the thought. "Love is too rare and precious."

Sarah suddenly stood on the hood of her car, holding her Jack Daniels in one hand, and her defiance in the other. "Love isn't enough!" she yelled, demanding to be heard by a naive universe.

I caught her as she fell down.

From the direction of the pool, a faint female voice could be heard responding, "Speak for yourself!"

Sarah was holding on to me for stability, and lifted her head off my shoulder to peer quizzically in the direction of the voice, which I recognized as Sidney's. After a few seconds, Sarah gave up and laid her head on my chest.

I had my own thoughts on the matter. "Love is everything, Sarah."

She studied her bottle of whiskey. "Fucking booze. It provokes the desire, but takes away the performance." She contemptuously threw the bottle onto the grass. It lay there, spilling its contents out to be drunk by the lush grass next to her car.

Did she just quote Macbeth at me? That line was about sex. "Sarah, what are you saying?"

She wouldn't meet my eyes. "I don't know. I wish... I wish..." She trailed off, teetering in a vertigo of whiskey and confusion.

"What do you wish, Sarah?" I had to adjust my grip on her to prevent her from toppling onto the gravel, pulling her closer.

Sarah turned into my movement, and astonished me with the softest and most delicate kiss I had ever received, as if my mouth were brushed by whiskey-scented rose petals. Sarah intimidated most men, yet here in my arms she was suddenly the most vulnerable, feminine woman in the world. Her tender tongue met mine and departed, leaving the flavor of Jack Daniels and regret as a farewell. She put her head on my chest, gazing down at my bare feet. "You have cute toes."

"Thank you?"

She regained her focus. "Wishes are impossible, or we would do them instead of wishing them. I don't like those threads of yours. I wish to unwind Fate."

After a few seconds to recover from the shock of being kissed, I shrugged her off. I had low tolerance for drunks, and she was turning into an annoying rambler. "Sarah, how drunk are you? Are you hitting on me when the corpse of your last relationship isn't even cold?"

Her eyes were unfocused. "Don't be stupid. Chicago isn't much closer than Madison."

"Then what?" I snapped.

Sarah sat up, and held her head as she got dizzy. "You and Dave are my best friends. I fucked it up with him. I don't think he'll ever forgive me, but I don't want to lose you as well. And I know you always wanted... wondered..." She glanced at me for confirmation.

Instead, she saw only the stern face I save for drunks and misbehaving children. I once wanted her, and wondered if we could have been together if she hadn't dated and destroyed my best friend, but it was too late for that now.

Becoming incoherent, she recited, "O body swayed to music, O brightening glance..."

"Sarah?" I recognized that line -- Cummings.

She blinked and regained some focus. "You're so clever -- you figure it out. You can't..." She closed her eyes again and nestled her head on my chest.

"Figure out what?" I didn't think I understood her. I leaned closer, but all I got was more nonsense.

"...know the dancer from the dance."

As she passed out, I realized my mistake. It was Yeats, not Cummings.


I dropped Sarah off at her mom's house, and carried her into the house. Her mom was out, so I laid Sarah in her bed, left a note on the table indicating where their car could be found, and drove home to determine my next step.

The more I thought about my conversation with Sarah, the more frustrated I became. She had succeeded in making me feel sorry for her, even though she was breaking Dave's heart. Several subjective days ago, I had been sure Sarah was the ice queen, killing her relationship with Dave because she no longer needed him. She insisted she loved him, and I now believed her.

Sarah had been the best actress in our school, but couldn't have acted that well while drunk. I knew how she handled her booze. She was the worst kind of drunk -- an honest one. If she drank enough alcohol, her executive brain functions shut down and she committed the horrible social blunder of telling people what she thought of them. I had gotten off easy this time. The previous summer, after she drank a six pack of Schell's, she informed me I was the most arrogant son-of-a-bitch she had ever met, and that I didn't look nearly as sexy wearing an earring as I thought I did. (I wasn't arrogant enough to keep the earring.) While the alcohol may have induced Sarah to divulge more than she intended, she meant every word.

In vino veritas.

No, she wasn't lying, she was just wrong. I knew it. The only way I could stand looking at myself in the mirror each morning was by believing my sacrifices for Tasha were worth it. This wasn't just some rationalization of mine -- I had known Sarah was wrong nine years ago. A couple weeks after college had started, Sarah sent me a friendly e-mail asking how things were going. The timing couldn't have been worse.

Dave's mom had called me the previous week, asking me to visit Madison to check on her son. She was worried. Dave had been ditching his classes and drinking himself to oblivion most nights. While that would have been typical behavior for most first-year college students, it wasn't normal for Dave. I caught a bus and surprised him in his dorm.

I gave him the standard cure for heartbreak -- coffee, the disparagement of the opposite sex, and pep talk platitudes about the quantity of gilled vertebrates in the ocean. Because this was Dave, I ended up getting a lecture on how there weren't enough fish in the sea because of poor fisheries management by the major economic powers.

After two days of this, and the forced distraction of a Monty Python festival at the Union, he seemed coherent, and I left. Sarah's e-mail was in my box the day after I returned.

My response was a spleen-venter, recounting what I had been through the previous weekend. I described every emotional wound she had inflicted, in excruciating detail. I questioned whether Dave would ever really recover. I laid calumnies upon her soul, or lack thereof. Every ounce of outraged disillusionment I could muster was set in prose, and I ended with a request she not contact me again.

She never did.

I had even been in New York the entire summer of 2005, and never even looked up her number or address.

Recalling how I had felt then, the anger of the righteous blazed defiantly in my gut.

You're so clever -- you figure it out.

I was more clever than she knew -- that there was nothing to figure out. Sarah was never a might-have-been. There had never been a chance, and I didn't want one. I had now lived through her torture of Dave a second time, and didn't trust her. She was wrong.

Sitting up from my bed, I glanced back at my bookshelf. It had changed since the fall, with the addition of a crop of science books. I remembered that when I had decided on Chicago for college, I started early, reading books written by the more esteemed members of the faculty.

Chicago. If I wanted to put Sarah out of my mind, and continue chronologically, Chicago was the obvious choice, but there weren't many missed opportunities there. I had played the field, not having much luck finding a woman who was sufficiently interesting, only finding women to keep me busy. In my first year alone, I had dated a dozen women despite the workload Professor Pugachev dumped on me.

No be idiot, Lance. Professor Pugachev's favorite insult popped unbidden into my head. There was his textbook, sitting on my shelf: Quantum Concepts, Methods and Theories. The title just tripped off the tongue. I felt a surge of remembered anger, which fit perfectly into my current mood. I knew I was really still angry at Sarah, but Professor Pugachev would be a worthy substitute target, and I knew the where, when, and whom of my next destination.


Professor Pugachev was my first adviser in the Physics Department at the University of Chicago. He had an international reputation, which is one of the reasons I had bought his textbook. He was supposed to mentor me, help me select courses, and guide my academic career. The University had scooped him out of the old Soviet Union, and I had been thrilled when I found out he was my adviser. On paper, he was a dream.

Off paper, he was an asshole.

Late in my first year, I won a part-time job doing IT work on a Fermilab project, which was housed on campus. My programming background was exactly what they wanted to create their simulations, and I knew networks, allowing them to avoid dependence on the University's sluggish IT department. Pugachev had earmarked that position for one of his favorite students, and he never forgave me for "going behind his back". The great man was big on hierarchy and pecking order. I had broken one of his rules, and the fact that he had never told me the rule was irrelevant.

After that, he had tried to make my life hell on campus and around the lab -- giving me bad advice about courses, badmouthing me to other professors, and trying to make me seem like a screw-up at work. One of his favorite tactics was to ask for the wrong item (or database query, or file), and then publicly excoriate me when I gave him exactly what he had requested, insisting he had asked for something different. Despite his efforts, I managed to impress the other faculty to the point where he did no permanent damage to me -- in fact my working twice as hard to overcome Pugachev's sabotage is part of what impressed them. Pugachev evidently did this every year to one of the more promising students, and his peers considered the position of Pugachev's whipping boy to be an academic reference. I switched mentors after my second year, and was glad to see the back of him.

Years later, I still felt lingering resentment. I saw a nice way to kill two birds with one stone, taking revenge on my old adversary while making a play for one of my few missed opportunities in college -- Pugachev's wife, Irina.

Pugachev had an ageless appearance, with gray hair and a goatee that could have meant he was anywhere between forty and seventy, but he had married a trophy wife in Kiev just before emigrating to the US. Irina was much younger -- in her mid-thirties -- and was the subject of salacious gossip. I didn't trust rumors, particularly when it came to attractive women, but the scuttlebutt circling around her was consistent and pervasive -- that Pugachev couldn't keep her satisfied, and as a result she had slept with half the professors in the college, and most of the administrators.

Every single male graduate student claimed to have slept with her at some point, which is why I distrusted the rumors -- half those guys couldn't get laid by their own palms, never mind someone as attractive as Irina. Many of the claims about her were just braggadocio between physics geeks.

Still, I suspected they weren't all lies, because I had seen Pugachev rise to the bait on several occasions where Irina was concerned. Most notably, one of the other professors made a reference to seeing her at a Chicago Symphony performance of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Pugachev had acted very suspicious, grilling his colleague about her companion -- what he looked like, when this was, and what she had been wearing. He tried to be nonchalant about it, but his jealousy was obvious.

Irina was well-liked among the students and staff. She was witty, flirtatious, beautiful, and far too good for Professor Pugachev. They had a beauty-and-the-beast relationship normally reserved for rock stars, actors, and billionaires.

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