Auld Lang Syne

There was this girl and, oh, what a girl! I don’t mean that in any whoa-babe-any-man-would-be-glad-to-have-you-in-his-blanket sense of the term. I mean I liked her a lot for who she was and who she was turning out to be, and I would have been glad to hitch my horse to the same wagon and cross any prairie you chose with the gal—warts, babies, dust and all.

Her name is irrelevant, but she needs one for this story, so I’ll call her Serena. Nah. Too sexy. It wasn’t about sex with us. It was about personality. How about Marie, like Marie Curie? The girl wasn’t French (or Polish) on either side, but Marie will do.

Her name was Marie. I was in Music. She was in Physics. We were both third years. She was two years younger than me, but I’d been slow earning tuition, shifting from pillar to post to smoke stack and grubbing up spare change from the sidewalks in between, so it worked out that we were the same age academically, despite my head start at the clinic.

We were the same age academically, but, like they say, girls develop faster than boys, and she had the head start head wise. She was just smarter. A lot smarter. Although, like she’d say when I’d mope about it— feeling dumb, not jealous—there are different kinds of smarts. You’ve got your A+-and-breaking-through-the-roof smarts, like she had, and you’ve got your don’t-know-much-but-sure-can-do smarts, like she figured I had, though she didn’t put it quite that insultingly. I was never much good at the stuff she breezed through, but then she couldn’t patch a song together to save two lives and the planet. That’s why, in the end, I got rich and famous, in a local sort of way, and she disappeared down some back alley with a PhD in particle physics or something—and without a blip on any radar screen I kept an eye on.

Obviously, something happened in between our being an item and her disappearing from the map. Well, maybe it’s not so obvious to you, but the way we cared about each other, she would never have gone off like that if we’d still been together. I guess I’d better explain at least that much a little further.

Hmmm. Put it like this. Graduation came and I was all set for Nashville or L.A. That’s a figure of speech, of course. These days you don’t have to go anywhere in particular to make it in entertainment, you’ve just got to have the right connections, as in Internet connections, and I don’t just mean electronic ones, either. But that’s all by the by.

I was ready to start a career.  Things were lined up. I had that much luck in those days. Came to the test. I held my breath. She chose her door and she walked through it. I’m not the kind of guy to beg. I didn’t try to make her mine.

All right, I’m quoting. Another songwriter. Good friend of mine. Not so successful in the chart-topping sense of the term, but good at it, for all that. A sort of songwriter’s songwriter. We all love his stuff, but the public don’t buy it—literally.

Anyway, like my friend says, faint heart, fair maiden, maybe I should have been meaner, forced her to love me with some kiss, but I believe, deep down she knew just what she wanted—and there’s no tragedy in this.

I brought up the possibility of a permanent union. She thought about it for all of three seconds—more in the way of phrasing her reply than of considering it, I suppose—and told me she liked me a lot, but she liked physics better, though she put it more gently, if not flatteringly, than that. I got the drift and thereafter we drifted apart. Like most lost lovers, I kept up on the last known object of my affection for quite some time. About three years in this case. She was racing through her MSc like a rat through a rice paper maze. About a year before she got her second degree, I got married to a girl I’d been seeing for about six months. We both just knew it was right and decided to get on with it.

My friend’s got another song about that sort of thing, something about one girl chasing a dream over the hills and out of his life, not letting him give what she needed to live, and his letting another girl him give what he needed to live and help him build a dream on a hill.

Marie had been a big deal to me, so I never really got over her in the way you get over a cold or a defeat at the hoops. My wife was right for me, but not perfect for me, and I still felt at times that if I only could have netted the love of my life, life would be a bit happier, maybe a lot happier, more fulfilling and less stressful. If you’re married, you either netted the love of your life and have no idea what I’m complaining about, or you know exactly what I’m complaining about. We’ll come back to that later.

News of her actually getting her MSc and PhD came to me like ants walking the grapevine. I’d managed to suppress any feelings I had for the lost love in deference to the found love, and Marie had slipped from my thoughts like a kite off a string. My friend’s got a great line about that one: I’ve really gotta hand it to ya, ya really bit the hand that flew ya. Trouble was, of course, I was still holding the string.

It was a shock to read on the Net one day that the laboratory where I’d heard she was working had exploded like a week-old beaker of pineapple and milk. It was a private lab, so the government secrecy that descended on the incident was understandably suspicious and more than one citizen, myself in the bunch, did more than a little digging through various files to get some picture of what had happened. A few real hackers may have turned up satisfactory results, but all I turned up was the fact that Marie was listed among the missing. This meant that she’d been in the thick of the explosion and that no evidence of her existence had been found in the wreckage.

My wife wondered what was wrong with me for weeks. I ate and slept and all, but that old empty hole ached like my leg had been torn off.  Maybe it was turning forty-one and realizing that most of the rest of my life was pretty well set, with a wife and kids already in the basket and no hope of a major change in direction without a major upheaval in all of our lives, but Marie’s disappearance and probable death hit me like the moment in that poem where a man confronts Death about frightening his gardener and Death says, “Old men mistake my meaning. I came for his master. You, I presume, are he.”

Marie was too young to die, too full of promise and achievement, with so much left to give and get. I knew her. I knew she’d been making the most of her gifts and opportunities, like I was. Whatever she’d been working on must have been something really astounding, something that might change the world, like the discovery of radiation. So much ahead, so much behind, and she goes out with her fingers burned—burned so badly the clean up crew didn’t scrape up any of her on the scene, nothing that a sneeze or a hangnail couldn’t explain.

I pined quietly for a while. Half a year, maybe. I wasn’t keeping track. And I wasn’t lying around with the curtains drawn, either. I had a life. I had a family. Life went on. After a month or so of obvious mourning over something, I pulled myself together, inside and out, and forged ahead in the old way, setting goals and achieving them, raking in the dough, making an even bigger name for myself and looking after my family. I’d never really stopped any of that, anyway. I’d been like a kid poking at his dinner and eating under threat, but I’d stayed at the table and downed my greens.

So, like I say, I was getting over it. You have to get over these things. When you turn sixty and the kid you played hockey with croaks halfway up the stairs with his heart pounding like a gunnery, you fall back a step, but you keep climbing those very same stairs and wondering which step you’re going to collapse on. That’s the way it goes. You get over things, but you remember them. You grieve, but you go on.

That’s when Marie showed up.

It wasn’t in a grocery store and she hadn’t married her an architect. She hadn’t aged, either. Sure, she was older than I remembered her, but she hadn’t continued to age past what I quickly calculated was about the point she would have aged to when the lab popped open.

It was in a park. All right, it was on campus. I’d taken time away from work and family, a habit of mine since a near breakdown about eight years into my career, and I was walking around the old campus, reliving my education and the associated social life, including Marie. Yeah, and I was speculating about what might have been.

So I’m strolling along, reminiscing, speculating, letting time fall away like water after a shower and up she walks to me like the day we met. We’d met at a dance and she’d come right up and asked me onto the floor. Apparently we’d actually spoken before that, but my first impression of her was from that dance.

So up she walks and says, “I thought I might find you here.” Originality of expression was never her trademark. Hearing those or any words from someone who should have been dead and deleted was strange enough, but then she adds, as a sort of aside that I probably wasn’t supposed to hear, “But then the question was never where, but when.” Weird.

I really didn’t have much to say at that juncture. I mean, what would you have said? Between thinking she shouldn’t even be dust in the wind by now and suspecting she was just some trick of a really bright Tequila sunrise, psychological if not alcoholic, I couldn’t think of anything pertinent or appropriate.

She chimes in with, “Surprised to see me?”

I’d always hated that about her. Short, sweet, to the point and about as original as dandruff. But then she made up for it with her little asides, like the one I just quoted. The mystery balanced out the cliché.

Like the time I was hemming and hawing about getting involved with her, a month or two after that dance, and she said, “Cease wringing of your hands and let me wring your heart.” I didn’t get it and I couldn’t place the reference. She had to tell me. Even then, I felt like there was some underlying or alternative meaning to the words as she’d used them. Certainly the meaning I thought I was supposed to perceive wasn’t the one intended by the Bard.

“You’d better sit down,” she says.

I sat on the grass, cross-legged, just like the old days between classes, in those five-minute intervals of life between fifty-minute intervals of instruction in arts we only use to sustain life.

She reaches for my hand and I let her take it. I want to see if she feels as real as she looks. She does. Her hands are cool, like the first time she touched me, in almost this way, first just a touch, then a caress, then all the blood-pounding pressure of a bond. And that was pretty much as far as it went with us back then, except for the odd little kiss. But it was enough. I was hers for life if she had only been willing to take me that long. I’d have given up anything but my personality for her. Like I say, though, with us it was personality.

This time she just holds my hand, our thumbs interlocked, her other hand covering the back of mine. I don’t remember giving her my hand. I think she just took it. I kept thinking, “This is an important moment. We need this moment. Geez, I hope nobody’s hiding in the bushes with a camera.”

She looks at me. She looks at the grass. She looks at the stars, just visible through the lights of the walks. She breathes deeply once and starts in.

“I can’t give you all the details,” she says. “They’re all secret, anyway, and you wouldn’t understand them. It all comes down to a choice.”

I look at her and wait.

She sighs. It’s like old times and it’s like some really trite flick. But so are a lot of moments. This one counts somehow. It really counts, and I don’t want to spoil it for either of us, not with some stupid question, not with some vengeful rebuke, not with some cliché of my own and not with the fact that I’m married and have children and that being noticed holding hands on the grass by even one fan or detractor could ruin my marriage and dent my career.

She sighs. “All right, but just enough to help you get the point.” She shakes her head. Her blonde locks swirl. She hasn’t changed her hair at all, or she’s craftily redone it in her old style.

“It’s like this. I was involved, heavily involved, in an experiment. All right, I designed and led it. The experiment was concerned with time. That’s putting it simply. ‘Space-time’ is a little more exact, but little more. Even that moniker doesn’t begin to suggest the way things are put together in the universe.

 “The universe,” she went on, more to herself than to me, “isn’t just lumpy. It’s loopy.”

She laughed. I’d always loved that laugh, a cross between a dog barking happily when its master comes home and a fox chuckling slyly when it sees how to open the coop.

I gave her my best wry squint, the kind where one eyebrow goes down and the other up and your mouth twitches lightly to one side. She called that look my wry squint. I gave it to her a lot in the old days, when she tried to explain physics to me. Some of it sounded pretty far out and far fetched.

“What matters for the moment, this moment, is the loops. Basically, if you can enter space-time in the right way, you can move around in it at will. Well, nearly at will. There are limits to what we’ve managed to do or figure out how to do, and there are probably limits on what we’ll be able to do. Suffice it to say that we can skip around in time. That’s why I’m here instead of dead. The experiment worked beautifully, better and more powerfully than expected, but just as beautifully as if we’d designed it that way. Except for the casualties, of course.”

She smiled. I shuddered. A smile didn’t seem the appropriate facial expression for a discussion of casualties in a laboratory explosion that tore apart lives on both sides of the veil.

She laughed again.

“I’m laughing,” she said, “because we can change all that. We can go back and redo it at a lower energy, under safer conditions. We can put everything back together. We can go back. The only question is how far back.”

I swallowed. I felt something coming, the drop of a guillotine or the announcement of winning numbers.

She looked right into me, although she couldn’t see a thing.

“We can go back as far as we want. We can go ahead, too, but for most of us what matters is the past. Everyone’s thinking about something they’d change, something they’d do differently, some decision they’d alter. I’ve thought of mine.”

I was sweating like a fly at just that moment when it realizes it’s stuck to a web and something nasty is about to come and make things worse. Strange way to feel when the love of your life is telling you all she needs is a nod to back up the music and play it right this time.

“We have choices about choices, too,” she went on. “We can go back as visitors. That’s what we call it. We can replace ourselves in the past, keep all our memories of the times between, but erase the events themselves. Or we can just rewind and try again. Or we can go back a little further, drop off instructions for ourselves, and then fast forward, to increase our chances of getting it right. Or we can create alternate realities. We can stay the same in this version, but create another version with a change. Of course, in this version we’ll have no idea of what it’s like for us in other versions—unless we visit those versions. I suppose we could even switch with ourselves, try different versions, swap realities.”

If I went back at all, I would want to forget. I might gain the world, so to speak, but I would lose a family, colleagues, a career. I might win it all back with interest, like Job, but it would hurt to lose any of it. If I went back at all, I would go back once. And I would leave no instructions. I would make the same choices, I was sure. She was the one who’d taken the wrong road. She’d chosen her door and she’d walked through it.

“I realize it’s sudden and momentous for you,” she added. “You don’t have to decide right now. Think about it. We can agree on a time, any time you like, and a place, too, this time. Any place.”

She looked at our hands.

“You realize, don’t you, that we could have made any changes we wanted without consulting anyone? I could have had you just because I wanted you. I could have had any version or combination of versions. I could have left you alone in this version and created another, or I could have had you all to myself. It’s giddying, this kind of power. But we’re scientists, me and the others. We live by a code. Of course, any little change we make might mean a big change for somebody, perhaps for millions, though they will never know it. That troubles us, but having the power, we feel we must use it. We cannot help the losses, but they will be painless losses. And there were will be gains. Some things will happen exactly as they already have, I guess. Others will happen differently. Some situations will improve. Some will deteriorate, too, I suppose. It can drive you half mad if you think about it too far. The thing is nobody will know the difference except, perhaps, us.”

I, too, looked at our hands. I wanted her. There was no doubt. This new power she claimed to have was frightening, but I trusted her to use it well. I knew her. I knew she would not use it to harm or to interfere.

Now it was me with two doors to choose from. I was better off than the guy who had a lady or a tiger to greet him and was taking directions from a jealous girlfriend who knew which door was which. I was a winner either way. But a loser, too. To regain the love of my life, I would have to give up the life I had loved.

I looked up.

“I can choose now, once and for all,” I told her.

She paled. I brushed her hair away from her eyes. A hackneyed gesture, but a classic and appropriate to the occasion, if not to a married man and his ex-girlfriend.

“I loved you, Marie. I still do. Sometimes I still cry over you. I cried back then, long and bitter. You broke my heart in thirteen places. You came into my life without invitation and you walked out the moment I asked you to stay. I should have hated you for that. I kind of did. I kind of do. But I loved who you were and who you were becoming. [I know I used that line earlier in this account, but it bears repeating.] I wanted you with me forever, but I didn’t want to change you. You felt that staying with me, being my wife, bearing my children would have changed you in a way you couldn’t have borne. I could see that then and I see it now. Now you say you were wrong. I guess you think you could do all that for me and still be you. Maybe you could.

“The thing is, Marie, it’s not just about what might have been. It’s also about what is. And it’s not just about events. It’s about relationships. Yeah, you could erase all that and none the wiser, including me, if I chose, but I couldn’t live with myself for even that instant in between if I betrayed the relationships I’ve gained for the relationships I’ve lost. You chose not to marry. You chose to be, it turns out, a great physicist whose work, it appears, will change the world—heck, change reality.

“But that’s just it. What is reality? For most of us it’s more than just the way things work. It’s what things mean. My family, my wife and children, the family I gained because I lost you, mean more to me than you do, because my wife had a choice, too, and she chose me. Our children come from that choice. And my children and my wife are as much a part of me now as that hand you’re holding or the voice I’m speaking with. If you took me back without them, you would destroy me, kill me, though I might never know it and, heaven knows, the sun and moon wouldn’t care.

“I would have been happy with you. I’m sure of it. Happier than I am. But it’s not about my happiness anymore, because I’m no longer just me. I’m part of a family, a family I chose. Can you understand that? I hope you can, because that’s my decision and those are my reasons.

“If you wanted, you could create an alternate reality, I know, one in which I went back with you. You could leave me alone in this reality and create another one. You could force me to go back. I realize that. But that other me would also be destroyed, because he would feel the same as I do, and because he also would be part of a family.

“No, Marie. You made a choice. Live with it.”

I stood up, freeing my hand. She sat there limply for a moment, then looked up and smiled, a weak, wet smile, but a smile, a good omen.

“I was right to come back for you,” she said. My heart sank like a rock in a lava flow. She was going to do it anyway, code or no code. “You’re still the man I loved.”

With that, she vanished. Looped out, I guess, or whatever they call it.

There’s a refrain to that first song of my friend’s. It goes: I figure everyone has some idea of truth, truth as it touches his own life. There’s nothing left to do but cry, now, and turn away from you.

I turned and cried, just like before. Then I went home.

(c) 2006 Mark Penny

First love wants you back. Time is no object.
Science fiction
Short (1001 to 7,500 words)
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