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From Here You Can See the Sunquists
By Richard Wadholm

Originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine


All that summer the Sunquists debated a trip to La Jetée.

Mr. Sunquist said that summer was the time to go. The tourists would be off to Kleege's Beach, where the hotels were new and no one worried about slipping back and forth in time as they walked down the beach. The Sunquists would have La Jetée to themselves.

Mrs. Sunquist was plainly uneasy about La Jetée. She would not say why. The Sunquists were travelers, after all. Cosmopolitans. They savored a difficult aesthetic experience.

She spoke only of their neighbors, the Dales, who had spent a month in Nepal. "They seemed so happy," she said. "They had their own sherpas. They rode in a cart up to Annapurna, pulled by a team of yetis."

Mr. Sunquist wondered at her reluctance. Was she worried for the baby? He knew she was nervous. Mrs. Sunquist had the sort of nerves that only a mid-life pregnancy can bring on. But women had babies in La Jetée all the time. Some women spent their entire pregnancies there. Mr. Sunquist proposed nothing more than a week—a farewell to the city of their youth. What could that hurt?

He plied his wife with nostalgia. He reminded her of their first meeting, in the galleries along Gull Street. Mr. Sunquist had purchased mangoes at Sonny's Seafood Chowder Bar and shown her how to eat them with salt and cayenne pepper.

He smiled as Mrs. Sunquist twisted her lips to taste the sweetness of the fruit, the heat of the red pepper. This was one of their quiet and indelible memories together. Mr. Sunquist knew it.

"We can go back and see it, just exactly as it was," he told her.

"Nothing is ever exactly as it was," she said.

"In La Jetée it is," he said. This was not an article of faith on his part. In La Jetée it was a simple fact.

"What about us? Will we be the same?"

"We will be what we've always been," he promised her. "You'll see."

* * *

It was in the nature of the world that their last journey to La Jetée should begin sweetly. Just as the hours of canyon roads had become unendurable, something shimmered in the air, a change of light or air pressure. The road took a turn and they found themselves at the bottom of the cliff road, looking out at the city of their youth.

Mrs. Sunquist had been quiet these last two hours. Now, she could not help smiling. "It's still the most beautiful place we ever lived," she said.

La Jetée glowed under the slanted light of evening, as vivid as a fever dream. Every little outbuilding and café—a rich, ridiculous red. Every boat-repair a bitter aqua, a harsh viridian.

Melancholy limned the moment. The Sunquists had agreed that this would be their last trip to La Jetée. The baby was coming. They both had experienced things in La Jetée that no one needed to grow up with, Mr. Sunquist had said so himself. That had been an easy decision in their kitchen. As he drank in his last vista of La Jetée, Mr. Sunquist would have taken it back.

"Do you remember that time at Lola's Bookstore," Mr. Sunquist asked his wife, "when Piecziznski, the chess master, challenged nineteen of his own iterations to speed tournaments?"

"And he beat twelve of them?" She laughed at the image. "And played the other seven to draws..."

"—And then he killed himself, because twelve of the nineteen were older versions of himself, and he could see how his powers would decline!" The Sunquists shook their heads; this was a favorite memory of theirs. Something they had always planned to get back to see again.

"Do you think we can find that?" she asked.

Mr. Sunquist nodded down the road. The La Jetée of last summer had passed into the expanding time signatures of the Present City. He thought he recognized it, floating against the horizon, spectral and over bright. Or maybe he saw some other iteration, realized by other Sunquists on other summer jaunts.

"He's there," Mr. Sunquist said. "I know that. We need a Feynman diagram to orient ourselves, that's all." He knew a kiosk in the hotel district, they could get one there.

Just off the frontage road, they passed the skeleton of a new luxury hotel, half-built and abandoned. It rose from behind its screen of construction siding like the rusted gantries of some failed cosmodrome. A faded sign promised completion in the spring. It did not mention the year.

Mr. Sunquist winced a little as they drove by. So many friends had gone in with him on this investment. They should have known, he told himself. Vacation real estate can be so risky.

But Mr. Sunquist had no time to indulge regret. His mind was on the row of orchid houses that had been dug under in the hotel's wake. Where was that paella kitchen where he had taught Mrs. Sunquist how to eat mangoes? Or the hotel where they had hidden themselves away from the heat on those breathless August days when the sky was blue-black with unspent rain? A less romantic man would have surrendered these places to the iterations of memory. Mr. Sunquist surrendered nothing.

Twenty-five years up the highway would be the Hotel Mozambique, just as it had been at the height of its renown. During the hot weekends of August, the Sunquists had allowed themselves little vacations from their basement apartment on Four o'Clock Street. The Hotel Mozambique had been their destination. Mr. Sunquist remembered the room they had asked for. Number 219 looked out on the black-bottom pool and the ocean across the road.

Here also would be Sonny's Bar, and the night he had proposed marriage to Melanie Everett. This was one of Mrs. Sunquist's favorite moments.

They would get their room at the Mozambique, he decided. From there, they would find the night of their proposal. But something about their Feynman was corrupted. Or maybe Mrs. Sunquist wasn't reading it properly. Whatever, the Sunquists found themselves retracing a patch of highway twenty-five years up the road. Just as their navigating turned quarrelsome, Mrs. Sunquist sighted a blue-and-white beachcomber bicycle racked up alongside the Ciriquito Street pier.

She pointed into the haze of decoherence that muffled the world beyond the road. In that instant, a moment coalesced before them.

Mr. Sunquist found himself in a narrow parking strip looking down on a gentrified waterfront. Sailboats in slips, cafés with sun decks. Temporal observatories offered "Views of Parallel Worlds!" and, "The Chance to See the Life You Might Have Led!" All for two dollars.

Sonny's Bar nestled into the crook where the Ciriquito Street Pier met the beach. Like every other building on the beach, Sonny's Bar showed its backside to the landlubbers' world. A sign had been painted above the dumpsters, reminding all the old neighborhood that Sonny had been serving them in this same location "Since most of you were underage."

"I don't see my truck," Mr. Sunquist said. "Are you sure this is the night?"

"You called me from your office and said to meet you here," Mrs. Sunquist said. "I do not make a habit of bicycling to bars. This is the night you proposed."

"Maybe we pulled off the highway a few minutes early." Mr. Sunquist offered. He suggested they wait for him inside the bar, just to be sure.

The interior was designed in one of those inverted situations from the turn of some century. The patrons clambered together on a large round cushion the color and texture of boxing gloves. Three bartenders hovered over a counter that encircled them.

TV monitors were placed to catch the eye at every angle. In this age, Sonny's fancied itself a sports bar. But Sonny himself? He liked novellas, Mexican soap operas. Two different ones were playing simultaneously as the Sunquists walked in. A regular was complaining that the World Cup was on, Brazil versus Russia. Sonny was laughing and nodding, paying the man no particular mind. His eyes were neither on the man nor on the screens.

Like everyone else in the room, Sonny watched the girl in the sundress and sandals. She sat on the quiet side of a circular cushion, away from most of the television screens. She read Justine (the one by Lawrence Durrell, not Marquis de Sade), and nudged a glass of chardonnay around by the stem. Maybe it was something about seeing across twenty-five years in the space of a single room, but Mr. Sunquist imagined the girl in a singular light. Maybe it was simply that everyone else seemed to dim by comparison.

The Sunquists found chairs in an alcove beneath one of the television screens. They had a view of the bar from here, and the television to distract anyone who looked their way.

A waiter asked what they were having. Mrs. Sunquist asked for iced tea. ("Ice tea," she snickered. "This kills me.")

Mr. Sunquist liked a scotch-and-soda, but not here. As he looked across the bar, he recognized iterations of himself and his wife from other summers, all drinking scotch-and-sodas. He did not wish to be known by the sort of drink he ordered. He ordered a glass of merlot.

Mrs. Sunquist put a hand on his arm. "You know I was furious at you for leaving me alone in a bar," she said. A phone call had kept Mr. Sunquist from leaving, some warehouse on Gull Street wanting to be an artists' loft.

Mrs. Sunquist did not seem furious; she was smiling at her younger reflection. The girl on the couch didn't look furious. She looked like a stranded angel, patiently waiting on gravity's demise.

"Right about now, I was giving you five more minutes to walk through the door."

"You were very tolerant with me, Mrs. S."

But it wasn't tolerance that had kept her in her seat for an hour.

He wore a suit and tie, but badly. They were not what he was used to. He was not yet thirty, yet his scalp already showed through the down at the top of his head. A last bit of baby fat lent his eyes a squint when he smiled.

Mr. and Mrs. Sunquist hushed each other as the little man asked to sit. "He was very polite," Mrs. Sunquist recalled.

"He was scared of you," Mr. Sunquist chuckled. "Look how bald he's become in just a few years." Mr. Sunquist remembered the little man from their old neighborhood. He didn't remember the name. But the young man had existed at the periphery of Bobby Shelbourne's crew, Mr. Sunquist remembered that.

The Sunquists stifled giggles; Melanie let him buy her a glass of wine, though a glass stood half full at her elbow. She smiled at him as he fumbled at his introduction: Roger J. Swann, from a local desk of one of the international banks in Kleege's Beach. He never mentioned the old bungalows they had all shared on the beach, or the parties at Sonny's and at Bobby Shelbourne's apartment. He seemed happy in his role as stranger. In the presence of Melanie Everett, he might have been happy with anything.

The story as the Sunquists retold it to each other over the years had this desperate little man crawling into Melanie's lap. In fact, Swann never looked down at her open décolletage. His eyes were glued to her face. Every smile she made brought one in return. Her jokes made him laugh, and cover his mouth with his palm.

Melanie Everett asked him about himself. (Surely, she was being wicked!) Roger Swann was awed by her consideration. He grew flustered. He might have gone.

Melanie had this thing she did, this nervous laugh, as if she were the one, needed reassurance. Swann happily reassured her.

He told her about his work. Roger Swann was a programmer for the bank. "More like a game warden," he confided. "The programs do their own programming anymore. I just make sure they remember who they're working for."

Melanie laughed and put her hand up to her mouth. Roger Swann did the same. His eyes squinted down to little black points of happiness and moist shine.

Mr. Sunquist remembered Roger Swann. What a perfect foil he had been. He had missed his chance with Melanie at her twentieth birthday party. Look at him now—Mr. Sunquist could see the romantic fantasies fill his mind. "Enjoy it while you can," he chuckled.

One of the bartenders swung up the counter to let someone through. It was Bill Sunquist. He looked sheepish at first. He saw the clock above the bar and lowered his head and sighed. Then he saw the fervent little banker paying for Melanie's wine. This wicked leer kinked up the corner of his mouth.

Roger Swann never looked up, but Melanie did. Melanie said not a word as Bill Sunquist pushed by the two of them to take a seat on her left. Roger Swann was explaining the intricacies of Darwinian programming strategies. She seemed perfectly content to listen.

Mr. Sunquist remembered looking across at Melanie as Swann continued on about his work— Are you looking for a job? What? That's when he saw the amusement in her eyes. What a hoot this would be!

Bill Sunquist had a low boredom tolerance. There was only so much arbitrage trading and Darwinian software business to put up with before the joke ran out. Just for fun, he leaned across Roger's lap to argue with the waiter over the provenance of a gram of hashish.

"A spicy aroma of ginger," he read off the thumb-sized packet. "Redolent with earth musk and cardamom." Bill Sunquist opened it up for the maitre d' to smell. "Would you describe that as 'redolent with earth musk and cardamom'?"

The waiter looked at him long, a patronizing half-smile at the corner of his mouth. "We have a fine roan from Lebanon, with the elusive sweetness of late-harvest Riesling. Would you care to try that?"

"For my friend here." Mr. Sunquist remembered smiling down on Roger Swann. "For my friend." He remembered Roger Swann smiling back, confused and helpful and friendly as a pup. Bill Sunquist nodded across at Melanie. "Are you ready, Mi Amor? To Grandmother's house we go."

A priceless moment—Roger Swann turns his hopeful gaze back to Melanie. But Melanie is already moving past Bill for the open side of the bar.

Looking on from the darkness of their alcove, Mr. Sunquist could not help an ornery cackle. Ohh, he was terrible in those days!

They shook hands like gentlemen, give them that. Such was his commitment to sportsmanship that Roger Swann would have shaken Melanie's hand as well, but something made her turn away at the last moment. She stumbled into Bill, pushed past him blindly for the door.

Mr. Sunquist had to bite his fist to keep from laughing at the ridiculous tableau—Roger Swann, staring after them with three half-empty wine glasses on the bar and a look in his eyes like crushed violets.

Mrs. Sunquist squeezed his arm the way she always did when she was trying to make him behave. Oh, but her eyes shone. Even before she said it, he knew she must be exulting in their perversity.

He might have skipped the proposal at this point. He had no need to fight the crush of other Sunquists, all hurrying out to see the same thing. He had seen what he wanted. Only courtesy made him remind his wife why they had come here in the first place.

"Right out there on the porch," he told her, "I'm proposing marriage to you."

Mrs. Sunquist had her eyes on Roger Swann. He had to nudge her for attention. "You still want to see this, don't you?" She laughed then, like she always did. She assured him that she was all right, as if he had asked.

They had managed to snag a prime parking spot from the clutches of their own grasping iterations. From here, the Sunquists looked on as Bill Sunquist dug in his coat pocket and came up with something small, wrapped in velvet and chintz.

Even now, Mr. Sunquist remembered the moment. He remembered the way Melanie drew her hands to her face, and looked from his hands to his face as if to catch him in a lie. He remembered the feel of her fingers in his palm as she took the box, the little breath as she opened it and turned the ring toward the light.

Mr. Sunquist tried to remember what was going through the mind of the young man on the porch. Maddeningly, all he could think of was Roger Swann. People like that, you humiliate them and they think they can win you over. Any minute, he had expected the door to open and a myopic smile to appear beneath the wall sconce.

The realization made him anxious for something to say. "We look like we're very much in love." In truth, Mr. Sunquist had no idea what people in love were supposed to look like.

"I hate to tell you what I was really thinking." Mrs. Sunquist gave a glance over her shoulder. There was another couple in a car just a few spaces down. She leaned forward so they would not hear what she had to say. "I had just downed a glass-and-a-half of cheap white wine and all I could think about was finding someplace to pee."

"And, of course, you couldn't go back in the bar—"

"Roger Swann was in there."

Mr. Sunquist found himself roaring. Mrs. Sunquist hushed him; she was a shy person by nature, and people might be listening. That made him laugh even harder.

The couple in the next car turned to see what was funny, but he didn't care. He knew these people well enough, he had nothing to prove to them.

They would be a couple in their thirties. They would be having a conversation very much like this one. A little breathless, the woman hints to her husband how these past fifteen years are as much a product of bladder control as love.

Perhaps she intends a joke. Perhaps an insult. Things are not so good between the man and the woman at this point in their marriage. The woman realizes this too late, and starts to back up and stammer.

To himself, the man thinks...

"Romance is one of those things that doesn't really work as a first-hand experience. Why we come back here every year, I imagine."

"What?" Mrs. Sunquist looked up at him. "You must have heard that somewhere."

It was not an especially generous thought, Mr. Sunquist realized. He was a little surprised he had said it out loud. More surprised how much he believed it to be true.

"We should move on," he said. "Let these kids have their privacy."

She put a hand to his wrist as he reached for the touch pad. "One more minute," she whispered. "They're almost done." She stared so intently that Mr. Sunquist wondered what she was looking at. Her head tilted to her right, and her mouth gaped in little-girl awe.

"I was a beauty in my day, wasn't I?" She smiled a little, as if to make a joke, but she could not hide the shine on her eyes.

It must be the baby, he thought. The baby makes her sentimental. A half-dozen things came to mind. All had the antiseptic cheer of a get-well card. He squeezed her hand. "Steady-on, old girl. Let's not break the mood here."

Mrs. Sunquist nodded. Of course, of course. Suddenly she was laughing again. She waved all his worried looks aside. Perhaps she had been having him on after all.

* * *

Part 1  Part 2  Part 3