Might Have Been Ch. 08: ConclusionbyIroniclaconic©
I'm on a roll, I'm on a roll
This time, I feel my luck could change
Kill me Sarah, kill me again with love
It's gonna be a glorious day
-- Radiohead, Lucky
New York - August 25, 2012
Central Park moved past at a five mile per hour pace. I played my game of Pekingese Slalom, dodging dogs, their leashes, and owners. My feet padded through the park, with Green Day's Basket Case as my personal soundtrack.
I enjoyed running. I dropped twenty pounds in the past ten months, and am back in fighting trim. New York is a better place to run than Chicago. Central Park is an island of green surrounded by a sea of skyscrapers. I don't forget where I am, and that this is where I want to be.
The sights and sounds of New York lack the emotional baggage of Chicago. The city Sandburg called the "hog butcher for the world" can take its big shoulders and go fuck itself. Here, I am not constantly reminded of the things I would prefer to forget, but can instead remember only what I choose.
Batavia, Illinois - October 19, 2011
The world dissolved into my project room at Fermilab.
The floor was hard against my back. I blinked twice and stood, still clutching the resonance array in my hands -- one of which had a painful electrical burn.
"Lance! Are you alright?"
I looked for the voice and saw Dr. Nguyen at the door, striding toward me with concern on his face. "Yes. I... uh... just found a gap in the safety procedures and shocked myself. I'm fine."
His concern didn't disappear. "Very good. Very good. Was the experiment damaged?"
"I haven't checked, but I can't see why it would be. I was just getting ready to run the final diagnostic of the software."
"Don't let me get in your way." He had spent two years of his life on this experiment, and tomorrow was the day it would start, so I didn't blame him for staying until we were certain nothing was damaged. In fact, given how much of his blood and sweat he poured into this, I was touched he only asked about the experiment once he knew I was alright. Nice guy.
Certain the power was off this time, I placed the array where it belonged in the containment unit. I also made a quick modification to the software to automatically cut power to the array when its hatch was open, to prevent my accident from occurring to anyone else.
Everything checked out. "We're ready for tomorrow."
Professor Nguyen had been concealing his concern, and an expression of vast relief rolled across his face. "Oh, thank God. How about your accident? How do we prevent that from happening to anyone else?"
"I already took care of it."
He nodded, and pulled up a chair. "I already knew about your smarts and work ethic, and you show initiative as well. So what's the deal with you? The rumor around the building is that you had a lot of talent, but lacked the ambition to get your doctorate."
I had heard the same rumors before, but hadn't disputed them. "It wasn't lack of ambition. I had some personal problems, which took some time to resolve. I'm planning to re-apply for some schools for next fall."
"Good. Science will be better for it. If you need a recommendation letter, let me know. Now go home. It's late."
I took his advice and left work.
Sitting in my car in the parking lot, I sent Tasha a text. Worked late. Too tired for the drive. Crashing in a hotel.
Tasha liked living and working downtown, so I had a long reverse-commute out to Batavia every work day. She would be asleep and wouldn't see the text until tomorrow morning. Tomorrow was Thursday. I had to work, but she was on a late shift. If things went as planned I could leave work early, and wouldn't even see Tasha until she returned home around ten at night.
I checked into the nearest Super 8, and slept like a baby.
New York -- August 25, 2012
I finished my run through Central Park, and returned to my new apartment, only two blocks away from Columbia on the Upper West Side.
A few boxes were still strewn throughout the apartment, left over from yesterday. My books were all neatly on the shelf, and my computer and wireless were hooked up, but most of my clothes and personal items sat in boxes or suitcases. I grimaced at my own skewed priorities as I headed to the shower.
The rest of my gear would have to wait a little longer. I had other plans today.
Chicago -- October 20, 2011
My stuff was already packed and in the car, and I waited for Tasha to return. The clocks ticked slowly, allowing ample time to imagine worst-case scenarios, which made for a long evening. This wouldn't be the dress-rehearsal, but the opening night of a one-performance show.
Would she cry and beg? If so, I was certain I could resist her, as I already resisted her a universe away. Would she hurt herself or threaten suicide? If that happened, my plan was to leave immediately and call 9-1-1. Knowing my response, however, didn't diminish the dread shredding my abdomen.
Tasha finally returned just before ten. She immediately noticed the changed appearance of the apartment, but her expression was one of curiosity, not anxiety.
I told her our relationship had run its course. I wasn't happy, and was moving out immediately.
She sighed. "It's probably for the best."
That was the one reaction I hadn't expected. I had stayed with her several years longer than had been good for me, under the belief she needed me. She had said so many times.
When had been the last time? The last serious meltdown had been almost three years ago. I had been strenuously avoiding conflict since then. Was there anything more recent? I drew a blank. Was it a ploy? Was she pretending to not care in order to draw me back? I didn't think so. Tasha was not that kind of manipulator.
We talked for an hour, mostly over material things. I hadn't packed any items that we had purchased together, or any of the gifts I had given her, but she didn't want some of them. We stowed them into two more boxes, for which I said I would return at a later date.
Tasha was relieved when I told her I would pay my half of the rent through the end of our lease in December. She didn't think she would be able to keep the apartment on her own, and she didn't want a roommate. The extra time would allow her to find something cheaper and smaller.
I didn't offer to help her move when the time came.
Tasha's lack of reaction perplexed me. Where was the tantrum? Where was the threat of suicide?
My inner optimist wondered if I had saved her after all. My reliability over the years had provided the stability she needed, and she could now stand on her own.
The cynical part of me believed she let me go without a fight because I had nothing more to give her. I had sacrificed everything. Why would a spider care if a dry husk of a fly happens to fall out of its web?
Neither interpretation was completely satisfying. This had been hard for me because I still loved her. I was leaving because she was killing me, but I still cared deeply about her. Maybe that wasn't the case with her -- maybe Tasha no longer loved me -- maybe she knew all I had sacrificed for her, and hadn't had the heart to end it herself. If so, the intent of staying with me wasn't cruel, even if the effect was. If I had known her reaction would be this mild, I could have ended it years earlier.
If... if...if. Fuck it. I was done with regret and second-guessing.
I held her in my arms one last time, and gave her a kiss on the forehead. I wished her well, and meant it.
New York -- August 25, 2012
My destination was two miles south. I worked my way there slowly, walking down Columbus. I stopped by Bernstein Brothers and picked up bagels, cream cheese, and two cups of coffee. Saturday mornings in Manhattan were comparatively relaxed, with the hustle-bustle of work life replaced by the slightly relaxed urgency of Manhattanite leisure. I enjoyed my walk.
I expected to feel the tightening screw of anxiety as I approached, but instead I felt anticipation, curiosity, and hope. Having made better time than I planned, I loitered outside for two minutes until the clock on my phone read 8:18 AM. I walked toward the building and reached the front door just as an elderly man left it -- successfully skirting the security system, which had been my goal -- the better to enhance the surprise.
Heading up the stairs, one flight, two, down the hall to apartment 3C, I breathed deep and knocked on the door -- two firm taps.
"I'll be right there," said a woman's voice from inside.
She had kissed me once, several universes away, but in this one I had wronged her, and she was one of the most formidable creatures I had ever met. My heart was in my throat as she opened the door.
San Francisco -- March 10, 2012
Zoe was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen -- an absolute angel. I held her gently in my arms for another minute, lost in the trust and love I saw in her eyes.
She opened her lips, as if to speak deep philosophical truths to me, but instead spat milk on my shirt.
Dave accepted her back while I cleaned up. "Getting puked on is a badge of honor for an honorary uncle." He threw a burp cloth over his own shoulder and held his daughter against his chest. She was three months old.
"I hope she honors you even more than she just did me." We were already falling back into old patterns.
Dave's wife Colby had ducked out to get dinner. I wasn't sure if the question I wanted to ask was one I should ask in her presence, so I saw this as a good opportunity.
"I've lost touch with a lot of people over the past six years," I said.
"You haven't heard of Facebook?"
"Not everyone is on it, and some of them don't post their situation."
"Who in particular?"
"The Exquisite Sarah."
Dave nodded, unsurprised. "She broke my heart, you know."
He held up his daughter, and kissed her on the cheek. "Best thing she ever did."
I looked at the girl in his arms, the smile on his face, and at his nicely furnished house, with its state of the art Alienware gaming rig, home theater, and the various Game of the Year, and Designer of the Year software awards lining his shelves, all of them for a steampunk MMO that had won rave reviews two years ago. I had just met Colby for the first time, and liked her tremendously. She was the type of highly organized, upbeat field marshal that Dave needed to keep him focused, and he was madly in love with her.
"Best thing she ever did," I agreed.
Dave stood, taking on an air of self-importance. "Thou seekest Sarah," he stated, sounding like a quest giver in his newest medieval adventure game.
"It is so."
"Knowest thou where she resideth?"
"The great wizard Google hath told me."
"Havest thou a plan?"
"Hast, numbnuts, hast."
"Hast thou a Cunning Plan, asswipe?"
"It begin...eth with thee."
Dave nodded. The conspiracy had begun.
"Last, and most significant," he asked with an aura of solemnity I didn't think was part of his act, "art thou worthy?"
I thought about that one. "I'm working on it."
New York -- August 25, 2012
Step One: Surprise Sarah at her apartment with breakfast.
"Oh my God, Lance!" Sarah threw her arms around me. She was dressed, but had that fresh-out-of-the-shower look. Her black hair was damp and smelled of residual shampoo.
I hadn't been sure she would recognize me, or what her welcome would be if she did. "Careful, you will squish breakfast." I briefly regretted picking up the coffee and bagels, as they prevented me from returning her hug.
Sarah released me. "You brought me breakfast! It's like you read my mind. I was just going to get a bagel and coffee."
"I was in the neighborhood..."
Sarah rolled her eyes, but it was benign. "Come in, come in!" She motioned me into her apartment, still excited. She performed what she called her "happy dance", where she held her arms in a boxing stance and ran in place, rapidly bouncing from foot to foot. She was wearing red shorts, and a tight black tank top displaying a Banksy silkscreen -- a doctor applying a stethoscope to "I ♥ NY". Sarah had always had a nice figure, but now she had the efficient and sinuous physique of a professional dancer.
Her apartment was a reflection of her. A Matisse Jazz print was prominent over her sofa. There was a black and white photograph of an athletic young man who looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn't place him until I noticed the photo was next to a movie poster of It's Always Fair Weather. (It looked like an original -- Sarah was doing well.)
"Michael Kidd?" I asked, feeling lucky -- the only two choreographers I knew were him and Bob Fosse.
She nodded, impressed. "You must still watch a lot of movies."
"That's one of my favorites," I said, pointing to the poster. "An eidetic Cyd Charisse dancing in the gym, Gene Kelly on roller skates, the trashcan lid dance, what's not to like?" I set out the bagels and handed her a cup of coffee -- skim milk, no sugar.
She took a sip, and smiled. "Perfect."
"I just moved in yesterday. I figured if I didn't see you first thing after moving to Manhattan, and you heard about it, you would track me down and kick my ass."
Sarah's generous red lips parted in a half-smile. "You figured right." She then raised her eyebrows. "You moved here?" Was that a sparkle of hope? Or apprehension?
"I live on 110th Street."
I watched her do the geography in her head before she spoke. "A little bird told me you might be coming. And you can sit down, you know."
We both sat at the table. Sarah angled away from me, showing a profile and a slightly cool shoulder.
"I wondered why you weren't too surprised, and Dave isn't a bird."
"He sure sang like a canary."
"What did he say?"
Sarah spread a small amount of cream cheese on a wheat bagel, and spoke in a casual tone. "You were in a horrible six-year relationship, had some sort of epiphany that had something to do with me, and you finally dumped the bitch. You were waiting to hear back from Columbia and Stanford about grad school. Despite not contacting me in ten years after writing a nasty message, you were planning on wooing me." She was carefully watching my reaction. "Same old, same old."
"That fucking bastard," I said without malice. I paused, then asked, "He said 'woo'?"
"Our dear Dave always had one foot in the Nineteenth Century. It's probably good for you he warned me. I was furious when he first told me, but I had some time to think about it."
"That's why I asked him to tell you."
Sarah's eyes widened at the revelation.
"I'm glad you two are talking again," I added.
"Me too." She frowned, still processing the knowledge I was obviously enacting a plan.
I changed subjects. "What have you been up to, Sarah?"
She leaned forward with a beatific smile on her face. "I love my job! I was a good dancer, but I was never going to make a career out of that alone. It turns out I'm awesome at choreography."
"You always have been. What are you working on?"
"There is a musical version of Jaws opening this winter on Broadway. I'm an assistant choreographer. On Monday, I'm supposed to present some ideas for Sheriff Brody's big dance with the shark." She gestured over to a desk, where I saw what looked like sheet music, only marked with boxes containing stick figures and symbols.
"He dances with the shark?"
"It's symbolic and artsy, you know, for the critics." Her eyes raised to the heavens at the ridiculousness of her task. "Or at least it's written that way. Get this! The musical number is called We're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat!"
"Of course it is."
"I think I can make it less preposterous than it sounds."
"What, make it ironic?"
"I don't think it's fair to your material to make fun of it, but I think it can work if we play up humor as a defense against fear."
"That's what I do." She was getting excited again, and I couldn't help but share her enthusiasm.
"Have they cast the shark yet?" I was joking. It would surely be mechanical, or played by a team of stagehands.
"Nathan Lane," she said.
I love Broadway. "I'll be there opening night."
"Please do!" She had turned to face me now, obviously warming to my presence.
I sipped my coffee for dramatic effect, before confessing, "I missed you, Sarah."
She pursed her lips and arched an eyebrow, saying nothing for a moment. "Lance, you were one of my best friends, and were always talented with words. You used that talent to hurt me worse than I have ever been hurt by someone I viewed as a friend, and then you ignored me for ten years." There wasn't as much malice in her voice as there could have been. It had the feel of rehearsal. "What should I make of you saying now that you missed me?"
"I'm trying to reconnect with the people who I cast aside, and you were at the top of my list."
"After Dave," she corrected sweetly.
"No, you were ahead of Dave."
"You talked to him months ago."
Sarah was on high alert for bullshit, and I wanted her no other way. "Yes, and you seem to know the reason I talked to him." I left unspoken another reason, that I wanted Dave's permission before I made a play for Sarah. Yes, he was married and hadn't dated her for ten years, but guys could be weird about such things.
"Ah, yes," Sarah said, "the wooing thing. When you changed the subject, I assumed it made you uncomfortable."
"No, it just wasn't the right time. Now it is. Does it make you uncomfortable?"
Her smile was wary. "I haven't decided yet."
She raised an eyebrow. "That girlfriend of yours really did a number on your head. The Lance I knew would have been offended I didn't view him as a gift from God."
"Was I really such an arrogant bastard?"
"More of a son-of-a-bitch than a bastard, but we loved you for it."
"Ha! No, I have my mojo back. I just understand why you would be cautious about a guy recovering from a six-year dysfunctional relationship -- particularly one who hasn't said a word to you since writing a despicably insulting email you in no way deserved."
She blinked rapidly at that and looked away, but not before I noticed her eyes had misted.
The mist was gone when she looked back at me again. "What's your Cunning Plan?"
"Plan?" I removed all sincerity from my smile of innocence.
"If you knew I would be cautious, you concocted one of your Cunning Plans."
"I have learned a lot about improvisation."
"As a fallback for when your plans go tits-up."
I laughed. Ten years, and she still knew me. "Yes, I have a Cunning Plan."
She rested her face in her hands, blue eyes wide open, preparing to listen. "Spill."
"The groundwork was having Dave act as my herald, which I thought would initially piss you off, but then intrigue you. Now we're onto the plan itself. Step One was to surprise you at your apartment by bringing you bagels and coffee for breakfast. Step Two is to convince you I have my shit together and am worth the effort. Step Three: seduce you. Step Four: have wild sex with you on that couch, and then again in your bedroom..." I checked the time on my phone. "...All by ten o'clock this morning." I was Babe Ruth in the 1932 World Series, calling my home run shot. I couldn't guarantee it would work, but I was fucking certain she would want to witness the attempt.
Sarah's jaw dropped with a mix of offense and delight. "Maybe I was wrong, and you are still an arrogant son-of-a-bitch."
I took a bite of my bagel. "Maybe. You said a few minutes ago that you used to love me for that. I don't think you were entirely joking."