You Can See the Sunquists
A few minutes further up the road awaited the Hotel Mozambique they had known as youngsters. White stucco bungalows crowded protectively around a medium-sized black-bottom pool. The pool looked out the open end of the courtyard toward the sea.
Mr. Sunquist got them the room they always asked for, looking out through the top of a date palm toward Mer Noire.
Mrs. Sunquist pushed open the window. A blood-warm breeze came in off the bay, sour with brine, pungent with road tar from the asphalt bike paths just beyond the courtyard.
"What was the name of that soap opera they filmed down the beach?" Mrs. Sunquist eased herself into the corner of the sill, hugging herself in the dreamy light that spilled through the palms just beyond.
"Indigo Something," Mr. Sunquist recalled. "Shades of Indigo, I think."
"They filmed right outside my window for six months when I lived with Bobby Shelbourne. The next year, the production company followed their expanding time signature up the beach and filmed the actors playing opposite their own earlier iterations. You remember that?"
Mr. Sunquist said he did. This was a lieMr. Sunquist had no money for television when he was youngbut all lies are sweet in La Jetée in August.
Mrs. Sunquist smiled at him, knowing and unconcerned. She led him by the hand to the bed. They made love in the cool shade of the whitewashed roomsweetly, awkwardly, stopping to see if everything was all right with the baby.
Later, as the heat of the day enveloped them, Mr. Sunquist pressed his arm around Mrs. Sunquist's shoulders and drew her close. They had not slept this way since they were newlyweds. Her hair had the soapy smell of newborn babies. The scent of it followed him into his dreams.
Here was Melanie Everett, the girl that would be his wife. He remembered her all golden under the sun, bashful but hardly uncertain. She had perfected this fascination that goes with being the second-prettiest girl at every party. Boys became aware of her in stages, the way they became aware of the first hit pop tune of the summer.
Forthright kids like Bob Shelbourne were always going to get around to Melanie Everett, right after they investigated the fulsome charms of Jenn LeMel, or the Maynard sisters. Shy kids always thought of her beauty as their secret. Being shy, they assumed their secret safe.
Lying beside her now, Mr. Sunquist dreamed not of his wife, but of his friendsthe things they would tell each other. What did they think when they heard Melanie Everett had gone home with him? His had been an epic battle, as pure as a fairy tale. A rival had been vanquished. A maiden won. Being a man living at a certain moment in history, he had learned to savor these stories. Nothing is more vivid than a moment re-lived, he would say. Not even the moment itself.
* * *
The heat of the day had broken when Mr. Sunquist shook off the last of his dreams. The breeze had shifted around to come in from the south, from the future side of the bay. Mrs. Sunquist said she could lie beneath the billowing curtains all night long. Perhaps Mrs. Sunquist still had doubts. If so, Mr. Sunquist hardly heard. He was planning their road trip.
He asked Mrs. Sunquist if she remembered the first time they made love.
"Of course I do." As indignant as she could manage.
"We had to take a blanket out to Mourning Shoals because your boyfriend was setting up your apartment for a surprise birthday party. You remember? And the fog rolled in so we almost couldn't find the truck, and then we got back an hour and a half after the party started?"
Mrs. Sunquist laughed, embarrassed. She remembered.
"You know," Mr. Sunquist said, "that's one place you and I have never gone back to."
"Oh, William. No!"
"It's a birthday party. It would be easy to slip in. And we had such a time that night."
Mrs. Sunquist touched his cheek. "You remember everything so perfectly," she said.
Something in her tone struck Mr. Sunquist odd, so that he smiled and frowned at the same time. Perhaps his wife had not enjoyed the scene in the bar as he expected. Time for something frivolous, he decided. Piecziznski, the chess master, perhaps. Or maybe they could see Shades of Indigo filming up at the old Harbinger Hotel.
He didn't tell her what he planned. He thought to surprise her. He expected that she might even mention these places herself, but the scene in the bar had left Mrs. Sunquist in some reverie of her own.
Seven miles up the highway, and as many years further back, Mr. Sunquist found a neighborhood he recognized. Lola's Bookstore was just up the street in a bus barn it shared with an equity waiver theater. If someone could give them the local date and time, they would pin down the moment of their arrival.
The Sunquists discovered a young couple hiding among the shadows of Ciriquito Street. Mr. Sunquist called to them. The boy glanced back at him what? The girl turned around to see what he was looking at. The Sunquists realized they were looking at themselves.
Mr. Sunquist knew immediately where they were. Somehow, they had stumbled onto Melanie Everett's twentieth birthday party. This was the night she had ended her relationship with her boyfriend. The night she had gone home with him.
Bill Sunquist and Melanie Everett stood in the shadow of a large real-estate sign. The sign showed an artist's rendering of tennis courts, a condominium, a hotel complex.
The Ciriquito Street pier, where fishing boats still headed into the sun each morning, that was to be subsumed into a two-hundred-slip marina. Bill Sunquist noticed none of this. The sign was nothing to him but cover. He had Melanie under his left arm and they were studying the beachfront apartment she shared with Bobby Shelbourne, the man who promised to love her, "no matter how much she disappointed him."
They were talking. The Sunquists were too far away to hear the words. No matter, the Sunquists had remembered this story to each other till they could mouth the words. Bill Sunquist and Melanie Everett had parked along Kleege's Beach and spent the afternoon under the tarp in the back of Bill Sunquist's two-ton army surplus lorry. Now she was late to her own birthday party. Late, and sunburned and sweaty and very guilty.
Mr. Sunquist thought of Piecziznski, the chess master. Well, they were here now. Whatever he had intended could wait until after. Mrs. Sunquist smiled, though she plainly was embarrassed. "William, I don't know about this."
"What are you worried about? You know how it turns out."
"I don't want to see this."
"You were asking if you were beautiful." He nodded toward their younger reflections. "Look at how young we are in this place."
"It's a world of ghosts," Mrs. Sunquist said to the car window. "I don't care how young they are."
Mr. Sunquist did not blame his wife for being negative. He ascribed her unease to Bobby Shelbourne's oppressive aura. Understandable, certainly. Bobby Shelbourne was a vegetarian and pathological spoilsport, one of those people who savored his slights. No wonder Mrs. Sunquist quailed at the memory of this night. He studied the girl standing under the real-estate sign. Look at how frantic she is to make her story, he thought.
"The only way out is through," he told Mrs. Sunquist. And then: "Don't be scared." It was the sort of patronizing admonishment a six-year-old uses on a younger sibling.
Mrs. Sunquist pursed her lips with a moment's thought; then she nodded at an open curb down the block.
They pulled up in front of a shaded courtyard between two bungalows. Bill and Melanie had disappeared. Mr. Sunquist heard whispers and laughter though a screen of rust-colored bougainvillea. Up ahead was the ocean, and a small yard inside a rusted fence that separated the apartment from the beach. He heard flapping above his head. A banner cut from bed sheets stretched between a pair of upstairs windows. It read: HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MELANIE. I LOVE YOU.
Mrs. Sunquist paused when she saw the painted bed sheet. "Really," she said. "Let's not do this." Just for a moment, she glanced back the way they had come. She might have been gauging her chances of making the street.
"Don't tell me you feel guilty." Mr. Sunquist hooted. "Guilty for Bobby Shelbourne! Oh, wouldn't he love that."
"There's not enough people for us to slip in. Someone will recognize us. They'll know we came from down the beach."
Indeed, a young man with mild blue eyes had been stationed at the top of the stair to guard against crashers.
For one moment, Mr. Sunquist cringed as Roger Swann nodded down at them. He thought of the humiliation Roger had suffered in Sonny'swondered if he might have to answer for it. But no, that bar scene was seven years in Roger Swann's future. Swann gave them only a look of rueful curiosity. He nodded toward the next bungalow over, where he imagined they had come from. He asked if they were here to complain about the noise.
Mr. Sunquist was thinking up a suitable lie when Melanie Everett stepped out onto the landing.
She had this nervous laugh as a kid, which was odd. Watching her, Mr. Sunquist suddenly realized that Melanie herself was not nervous at all. The laugh was for the benefit of whomever she spoke to. It worked to spectacular effect.
Suddenly, Roger Swann was over his terror of pretty girls. He leaned forward to hear her as she asked him something under the music. Smiling, he answered.
Mrs. Sunquist took her husband by the wrist. "You know what he's telling me?" Even now the boy's words affected her. "He's telling me how Bobby's been waiting for me since 4:00, and then he tells me he himself has been waiting for me all his life."
"Aww." Mr. Sunquist gave her a look of arch sentimentality. Together, they went, "Aww," loud enough to attract the gaze of the kids on the stair. He thought that Melanie regarded them with some look of secret humor. Who knew what she was really thinking. Mr. Sunquist imagined pretty girls used this look when they could think of nothing to say.
Roger got a peck on the cheek for his sweetness. Melanie disappeared into the party without a backward glance, but that was enough for Roger Swann. The Sunquists were forgotten. He slicked the thinning wedge of hair back from his forehead. He followed after her; the Sunquists trailed a short distance behind.
One thing Mr. Sunquist remembered about Bobby Shelbourne's apartment, it was dangerous to show too much interest in any bit of ornament.
Bobby Shelbourne lived in a museum of Melmac ice cream dishes, mismatched kitchen chairs, and determinedly outdated electronic entertainment gear. Every one with a little story on where it had been found, and how much it was really worth to some mythical dealer in garage sale lamps, or kitchen formica, or digital video downloaders.
A whir-sound passed by overhead. A scale model of the Hindenburg was making stately passage from the living room to the kitchen. Normally, Bobby would be following it around, pointing out the hand-painted swastika on the tail rudder. But the mood had gone out of him today.
He saw Melanie and his pale blue eyes went all weepy and proud. His pouty lip grew heavier than it was already. If Bobby had promised to forgive Melanie no matter what, he had not promised to make it easy. He would not even acknowledge Melanie till she took his arm and made him face her.
Someone put on music, too loud to hear her speak. No matter, Mr. Sunquist could tell by her rueful demeanor that she was making her story.
What was it he and Melanie had decided? Yes, he remembered nowMelanie had gone down the T-Line Highway to visit the iterations of her own childhood. The Feynman diagram in her glove compartment contained too many streets between there and here that had yet to be built. She'd gotten confused coming back.
Mr. Sunquist spotted himself over by the kitchen door, watching. Melanie had asked Bill to stay away while she tried to explain things to her boyfriend. Of course there was no way Bill Sunquist would do thatlet her explain things to her boyfriend? So they might smooth things out? Melanie had been naive to think he would.
It hardly mattered; Bobby Shelbourne saw him over Melanie's head. Shelbourne smiled.
"It's you, isn't it." His eyes were luminous with anger.
Bill made no attempt to deny it. He smiled his most irritating smirk, motioned to Shelbourne in that silent gesture every young man knowsback of the hands up, fingers cupping palms in ironic invitation: Come on then. Come get some.
Melanie pulled him back by the arm, and for one moment Bobby Shelbourne let her. The pause was so brief that Billy Sunquist had barely noticed. Twenty-five years older, Mr. Sunquist grinned: Look how he glances around for a way out!
"You were never no street brawler, Bobby." Slipping into a voice he had not spoken in since he was a vain young man. "You were never nothing like what I was." Even now, Mr. Sunquist lived for these moments. Anymore, the stakes would be infinitely higher than a broken nose. But that desperate calculation remained eternal: Pride? Or survival?
Melanie saw her chance to wedge between them. The two boys clenched each other tight against her. Mr. Sunquist remembered the collision between his belly and her skinny rib cage. He remembered the sound she made as the breath went out of her.
Billy Sunquist might have reached for her. He always told himself that he would have, if only Bobby had not started in the way he did.
"Look at her," Bobby hissed. "Now you've done it. Now you've hurt her." Nobody put Billy Sunquist on the defensive.
Bill Sunquist took a hunk of genuine 100% Rayon bowling shirt and laughed in Bobby Shelbourne's face. Nice try. All these years away, Mr. Sunquist still felt Bobby Shelbourne's cheekbones beneath his knuckles. The two of them waltzed around till they fell back against the formica tabletop, slamming the blender and liquor and ice onto the floor.
Melanie wasn't really so damaged. Mr. Sunquist found her, easing herself back against the refrigerator. Her shirt was soaked watery green from a half-bottle of Midori, but she seemed all right.
Roger Swann had come over to help her up, but she had more than pity on her mind. She took his elbow and pointed toward the mess in the kitchen.
Like any young man of experience, he knew the risks of stepping into someone else's fight. He thumbed the side of his mouth in an expression of unease. But Melanie had this unassailable sense of mission when the chips were down. It animated her. It swept up everyone around her. Roger found his resolve; together, they waded in. Each grabbed an elbow, or a shoulder, and yanked backward.
Bill Sunquist had Bobby Shelbourne's face against the refrigerator. Mr. Sunquist dimly remembered the conversation between them, something about eating the refrigerator's door handle. Oh well.
The next moments came vivid, but in flashes, like snapshots: A hand on his arm. A face coming in at him. He remembered placating words, but his blood was up. He swung back his left hand and connected solidly with hard bone, right at somebody's hairline. The face went away.
Bill Sunquist turned back for Bobby Shelbourne only to find that Melanie had got between them. The fight was over.
He called to her. He nodded toward the door, Let's go. But Melanie was angry, she ignored him.
Shelbourne fixed his eyes on her. Even as his friends moved him off to the far side of the kitchen, he spoke to her. Bobby asked if she'd been hurt, was there anything he could do?
"You know I always took care of you," Bobby Shelbourne called to her. "I may not be exciting, but I'm always there."
Oh, he was good. Anyone else would have blasphemed and threatened.
Melanie looked big-eyed and stricken. This was the moment she had chewed her knuckles over all the way from Kleege's Beach. Bill Sunquist, too. By the look on his face, he might have swallowed an ice tray. He was a street kid, after all. Smooth talk was not where he excelled.
Melanie wavered. She started to raise her hands the way she did when she was miserable and all out of words.
But here was Roger Swann, leaning forward with his hand to his forehead. Blood was seeping through his fingers and plopping in the wet muck. He wobbled on his knees and Melanie took him. Bobby's appeals to her conscience would have to wait.
Bobby smiled, sure. "You're doing the right thing," he told her. "Take care of Roger. We'll talk later. When you have a minute."
Mr. Sunquist had not seen this side of Melanie since they were married. She could be magnificent, couldn't she? He marveled: Bobby Shelbourne is two months from buying up this whole block of apartments for his daddy's marina project, look at how he stammers before her.
His wife felt the weight of his consideration. For one moment she was the girl she had been. Self-possessed and certain. Perhaps she knew what he was thinking. She would have said something to him, but Melanie Everett came this way. Roger Swann bumped along in her wake. Mr. and Mrs. Sunquist stood up to make room for him on the couch.
She was saying something under her breath, half to Roger, half to herself: "Limo." It was Bill Sunquist's street name. "Limo, Limo, Limo," she saideventually winding up with, "Damn him." Melanie tipped Roger's head back. She squinted against the bad party light. The blood was starting to roll down his nose. She dipped a kitchen towel in the punch bowl and dabbed it off.
"It was just a wild punch." Roger's hand came up, a gesture of indifference. "He hit me left-handed anyway. Probably doesn't even know he did it."
"Him and those stupid rings he wears. He's been dying to use them on someone."
Roger was silent for a few dabs. Mr. Sunquist could see him working his way up to something. "You really have to go with him?"
For one moment, Melanie looked up at the Sunquists with this exasperated grimace you explain it for him. Mr. Sunquist felt his wife's fingers clutch his, stricken. But it was an illusion. Melanie's look was intended for anyone within earshotanyone who knew what it was to be the second-prettiest girl at every party. For one night, she had her pick between princes. How could she explain to the nicest kid in the room what this meant?
"I'm going home with Limo." She squeezed Roger's blood into the punch bowl. "I really am."
Roger Swann shook his head, whatever. "We'll see each other again," he said.
Mr. Sunquist nudged Mrs. Sunquist. He raised his chin at the boy. "Sonny's Bar," he whispered in her ear. "This is what he was thinking when he saw you alone in Sonny's Bar."
He laughed so loud that both the people on the couch turned back in curiosity. He didn't care. He waved them back to their conversation. "This is too good," he hissed.
Mrs. Sunquist was supposed to laugh along at times like this. She bit her lip and looked down at her shoes. "How do you do it?" She sounded breathless; she might have been amazed. "I see the time passing and it makes me so weary. And you just keep getting angrier. Don't you ever feel any pity? Or regret?"
He put out his hands; he smiled. He figured there had to be a joke in here somewhere. "We are what we've always been. Isn't that enough?" It was the only explanation he could think of.
"Poor Roger," she said.
To himself, he thought, Somebody has to lose.
Did she know what he was thinking? Suddenly, she had this look on her face, still and deliberate and calm. It was the face he recognized from the taxi drivers who came to pick him up from bars. Whatever she saw in his eyes only made her sigh.
"Time for us to go," Mrs. Sunquist said.
"We haven't seen the end yet. Remember? I sweep out of the crowd and pick you up, and Bobby Shelbourne"
"You know what happens. You take me home with you. We spend the next twenty-five years coming back to see it all again. I have something I want to remember."
Here was a phrase Mr. Sunquist would think back on: I have something I want to remember.
In all the years he had come back to La Jetée, Mr. Sunquist had never felt the need to remember anything. Memories were for people who didn't come to La Jetée. Memories were for the ones Mr. Sunquist imagined in his audience.
* * *
Part 2 Part 3