The 88-inch Cyclotron by Arthur Lorenz

Michael swallowed the last of his lemonade and tipped his glass back until the ice rattled against his teeth. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said, “I don’t think we should see each other anymore.” Christina glanced up from her record albums on the floor across from him. “What?”

“It’s just that…I don’t know.” They had only gone out for the three months since high school ended, but all at once the finished basement of knotty pine and red shag carpet didn’t have any air in it. “I guess I just feel kind of claustrophobic.”

“I thought we were happy,” Christina said, tearing up.

“Yeah, I guess I thought so too.”

“Is there somebody else?”

“No. There’s no one. I just feel like there’s more, I mean, out there. It’s like I’m missing something.”

Christina took off her wire-framed glasses and folded them carefully. She crawled over, on her hands and knees, put a hand up on the back of Michael’s neck, kissed him, and pulled him down on top of her into the deep shag. A disco bass beat pounded through the ceiling from her big sister’s turntable upstairs as they made out.

Michael stopped and pulled away from her open mouth.

“What is it?”

“I can’t do this. I’m sorry.”

Christina looked as if she’d been slapped.

“I’ve got to go,” he said, and got up.

And then he was out of her house and walking into the wind. Dogs barked at his stranger smell. He pulled his collar tight against the heavy drops of an August rainstorm.

He was done.

He was done with this town and he was done with the entire state of Connecticut. He wasn’t going to daydream his life anymore, he was going to New York to live it.

He was done with Christina too. There was no way she was going to go with him, and even if she did, there was no way he was going to be serious about her.

But the rest of the walk home, he was haunted by the tart sweet taste of her, how she laughed at him with her dark eyes, and the way her soft breasts pressed into him when he held her tight. He fought not to run back to her.

A week later he really did go to New York and crashed on the wide blackened floorboards of a friend’s apartment on the Lower East Side. It was the summer of 1982 and a million degrees with no air conditioning. Michael spent his first evenings in the city lying on the floor with all the windows flung open, dripping sweat, and listening to a sax player blow out his melancholy drift up from the apartment below him.

He got a job as a messenger for a film editor who cut cigarette commercials for the Latin American market. “Venga al sabor! Venga al mundo del Marlboro!” boomed in his head as he loped across midtown Manhattan with big film canisters under both arms. He wore black cords, black Italian referee shoes, and black plastic sunglasses to cover his bloodshot eyes from late night parties where no one had any fun.

He distracted himself with a mob of people who swarmed clubs like Danceteria, Save the Robots, the Pyramid, and A7. He swirled in the eddy of their wake like a piece of styrofoam caught behind a social motorboat going nowhere fast, except maybe some random bedroom, or couch, or floor.

Sheila, a friend of a friend, fooled around with him in the graffiti scarred bathroom of CBGBs one night. “Just remember,” she said, “this is as far as it goes,” and re-buttoned her top.

“Of course. I understand,” Michael said and drank enough gin and tonics to be sick for three days. They repeated this ritual half a dozen times before her parents disappeared her to the Midwest for rehab from a secret cocaine habit.

The only place he felt halfway whole was in a dark theater that played old foreign movies, but the movies always came to a bad end, and Michael staggered outside afterward, punch drunk and yawning, back into his real life, alone in the crowds of New York.

The holidays were the worst, staring at the old cracked plaster walls with the ghosts and no one and nothing. Once, he called his mom who reassured him that her life was so much better without him.

“Is there any chance I could come home?” he asked.  “I mean, just for a few days.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. Now’s really not a good time, dear heart,” she said, and disconnected the phone with a quiet click.

Sometimes he even dialed Christina’s number from a payphone, but hung it up as soon as she answered, chickenshit that he was. One day he called and a polite recording told him, “The number you have reached is no longer in service at this time. If you believe you have reached this recording in error, please hang…”

Michael threw himself into the production side of the low-budget movie business after that, which went twelve hours a day, six days a week, so there was no time left to think.

He dated several women, had a few brief relationships, and even lived with a spiky haired makeup girl named Bonnie for a winter and a spring, but she left him for someone who really cared about her. “I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for,” she said after packing a last cosmetic case and hefting it to the door.

“But I thought I had,” Michael said.

“We both know that’s not true.” She gave him a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the head, and walked out the door. After the water glass of bourbon, and waking up with his forehead pressed against the cold tile of the bathroom floor, Michael had to admit that maybe he hadn’t really loved her, at least not the way that she deserved.

Michael escaped the East Coast like a bloody driver staggering away from a car wreck.

He tried to produce movies in Los Angeles, and continued his search for the thing that he was missing. He stayed in rented houses and went to breakfast, lunch, and dinner meetings where people promised each other dreams in exchange for money, sex, or other, bigger dreams. “I really want to work with you,” some shockingly beautiful actress with frosted blonde hair, ice blue eyes, and glistening teeth, said to him as she reached across the table to squeeze his hand. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

But by the end of the meeting, when it became clear that Michael had no real capital, it was, “Call me,” in that unfocused, not paying attention, I’ve already moved on, kind of way.

Michael drove past happy couples in ranch style houses who barbecued, went on picnics, walked dogs, and lived ordinary lives. He knew that when they went home at night they had each other to hold onto.

His hair turned gray and, one by one, migrated from the top of his head down to and out of his ears. He borrowed money from every friend and relative he could find, and sank it into film projects that fell apart over, and over, and over again.

No one returned his phone calls. His bank account went into negative numbers. His furniture got repossessed along with his car.

And then, at last, he found himself seated on the floor in a dark empty living room of a house in the Hollywood Hills holding a notice that told him by moonlight that the sheriff was coming in the morning to kick his sorry ass out into the street.

It was all over. There was only one thing left to do–one last piece of business.

He picked up a nickel-plated revolver, put the muzzle into his mouth, closed his eyes, and held his breath. The barrel of the gun clacked against his teeth.

“I thought we were happy,” Christina said from far back in Michael’s memory.

He pulled the gun out of his mouth. “Yeah. Maybe we were,” he said out loud to the empty room. He looked at the gun and raised it to his temple. It felt cold.

He saw Christina’s brown eyes tear up.

He put the gun down again. He picked up his cell phone. Service had been cut off the day before. “Useless.”  He threw it into the corner, where it cracked into pieces.

He got up, shoved the gun in his pocket, and went out the door. His last twelve bucks burned in his wallet and he figured that if he got some liquor into him, maybe he’d have the guts to pull the trigger.

He walked down the winding road to the bottom. No cars had the decency to cut him down on the blind curves.

There was an old man bar down on Sunset. It was one of those naugahyde and wood paneled jobs populated by serious drunks over fifty. Michael had always told himself he’d never get caught dead in a place like this, so now it made sense to go in.

He sat down on a red bar stool repaired with duct tape and threw back a shot of house tequila that burned all the way down.

A man who looked like a hoot owl in a stained lab coat that barely contained his stomach walked in the bar and sat down next to him. “Hey Ben,” he said to the bartender, who brought over a vodka-and-something-or-other that he had waiting for him.

“I’ve sorted it out,” the hoot owl man said to Michael, after a heavy slug. “I’ve unified it. I’ve come up with a theory of quantum gravitation. Do you know what that means?”

“No.”

“I’ve found a way to link the theory of general relativity to quantum mechanics. I’ve developed a unified theory of physics.”

“Goody for you,” Michael said, not giving a rat’s ass.

The man extended his hand. “Professor Wagstaff, at your service, or you can call me Rufus T. Firefly, or Captain Spaulding, if you prefer.”

Michael grunted, but shook his hand.

“I’ve found a way to access a timelike curve. It’s a closed loop.”  Professor Wagstaff, or whatever his name was, went on for a long time in a form of techno-babble that was far beyond Michael’s ability, or desire, to follow. And then the man said, “I can send an object back to an earlier position in the curve. I can send a person… I can send you, bucko, back in time,” and he poked Michael in the chest, which turned him on his bar stool.

“Me?”

“It’s risky,” the man said. “Haven’t tried it on anything living.”

Michael, who had been ready to turn his cerebellum into three-bean salad, said, “I’ve got no problem with risk.”

“You want to try it?”

“What about all of those, you know, paradoxes?  You know, I kill Grandpa, and then I can’t be born to kill Grandpa.”

“That’s not how it works. You go back into your own body at some point in your own time line, and from then on any consequence of your actions become self-consistent.”

“But what if I went back in time, found you, and ended your life before you met me?”

“Man, you’re giving me a headache. Trust me, that can’t happen because it would be outside of the closed loop curve you traveled on.”

“Okay,” Michael said. “Where do I sign up?”

“The nearest 88-inch K=140 sector focused cyclotron,” the professor replied. “In the hills above the UC Berkeley campus.”

Professor Wagstaff drove them up the I-5 in an old brown Ramblermostly held together by body filler. Michael figured that the experiment would probably kill him anyway, so he tossed the gun out the window on a desolate stretch of highway somewhere around Coalinga.

It was about three a.m. when they parked the car in the Berkeley Hills, climbed three chain link fences, avoided the guard in the gate house, slunk across the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories campus, punched in a stolen security code, and then another stolen security code, and then broke into the Berkeley Accelerator Space Effects facility with surprising ease.

The 88-inch cyclotron was round and mostly orange. Professor Wagstaff made adjustments to the knobs and switches in the control room. A sphere of tubes and canisters rippled with black cables and purple conduits. “We need to get the gamma bombardment just right to rotate the nuclei fast enough to make the jump. Hand me that yellow plasma tube,” the professor said to Michael. “We’ve got to work fast before the grad students recover from their hangovers.”

Before he knew it, Michael was covered head to foot with black metal foil, strapped with silver tape, and soaking in a vat of electrolytes.

“Bite down on this,” the professor said and shoved a rubber bite plate between Michael’s teeth. “There’s one thing. If this works, I want you to let me know. Find me at the exact time and location where we met. Are you ready?”

Michael nodded. Professor Wagstaff threw a big switch. The machine roared to life. The room spun faster and faster. Michael got hit in the back of the head with a quantum gravitational baseball bat. Everything went black.

“I thought we were happy,” Christina said, this time for real.

Michael grabbed her and pulled her to him. “We are happy. We are,” he said, and soon all of their clothes were off and bundled half caught around their ankles tangled on the floor right there in the basement, on the red shag carpet, the disco bass beat bouncing through the ceiling, and Michael looked down at her, his teenage pulse pounding in his veins, and laughed and thought he was going crazy but looked at her again and no, there she was, the real Christina, alive and eighteen, and in his arms, and no he wasn’t going crazy, no he wasn’t, but maybe he was, but she was moving against him, and her eyes flickering back and her mouth opening and all at once and everything and always and he was alive and really alive and…

“Are you okay?” she asked, leaning up on her elbows.

“My God, I love you,” he blurted out, but he meant it more than anything and now it was Christina’s turn to arch her eyebrows and stare.

And then she said, “I love you too,” and wrapped her arms and her legs and her everything around him and smiled her smile and Michael’s heart opened.

And they stayed together and lived in the sleepy Connecticut town where they both had been born.

There was a pregnancy scare, and they got married, even though the miscarriage came one week after. Michael was happy. Christina said she was happy too, but a part of her disappeared with the lost child.

They moved into a little white clapboard Cape Cod house. Michael got his accounting degree, passed his certification, and became a CPA. Christina never went to college. She wanted to be a stay-at-home mom, but stay-at-home moms need kids, and soon after another miscarriage, and another one, and then another one, it became clear that Christina would never have children of her own, so she got a job at the A&P.

But still they went on and every day that Michael woke up next to her he pinched himself and thanked Professor Wagstaff, or maybe God, for giving him another chance.

A few white strands showed up in Christina’s hair and lines formed around her eyes and mouth. Michael was still overwhelmed with goose-bumpy fluttery feelings when he saw her asleep, her wild hair spread out on the pillow beside him. Christina claimed Michael only saw her younger self when he looked at her, and maybe there was some truth to that, but it didn’t matter to him.

And then the anniversary of his trip through time crept up on him. He had always intended to keep his promise to Professor Wagstaff. It was the least he could do. He booked the flight for Christina and himself with the unlikely excuse of a Los Angeles vacation.

“Why are you so happy all the time?” she asked on the plane.

Michael shrugged his shoulders and paged through a magazine. The Sudoku puzzle was already filled out. “I don’t know. I just am.”

“You’re easy: sex, food, sleep, and someone to hold onto at night is all it takes,” she said. “I don’t think it really matters who it is.”

“I couldn’t be happy with anyone else.”

“How do you know?  You haven’t been with anyone else since high school.”

“Well, that’s not entirely true.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s hard to explain.”

“Have you been having an affair?”

“No. I’m not having an affair, and I haven’t ‘technically’ slept with anyone since we met.”

“What‘s ‘technically’?”

And then Michael told her the whole unlikely thing: his life without her, his dark night of the soul, and his chance meeting with Professor Wagstaff.

At first she looked at him as if he were bat shit crazy, but then her expression changed, and she got quiet. “If you’re telling the truth, and I’m not saying that you are, because that’s just insane, was it worth it?  Was it worth living out what might have been?”

Michael couldn’t stop the grin that spread across his face.

“You’re not bored of me and our life together?” she asked.

“Never,” he said and leaned over and kissed her.

They landed at LAX and drove a rental car straight to the bar on Sunset. Michael had seltzer water. Christina, somewhat subdued, sipped the house red.

The door opened and the physicist with the stained lab coat came in. “Hey Ben,” he said to the bartender and sat down next to them. The bar man brought his drink.

“Excuse me,” Michael said to the Professor. “I know you don’t know me, but I know you’re working with, um, what-did-you-call-it, um, timelike curves.”

The man grabbed Michael’s arm. “Did Torres put you up to this?  What do you know?”

“No, no,” Michael said and wriggled free. “You sent me back in time.”

The physicist blinked at Michael.

“You sent me back to my youth, and now I’m back here.”

“I did?” the Professor asked.

“Yes.”

“And it worked?”

“Yes.”

“It really worked?”

“Yes.”

The physicist leaped in the air and hooted.

Soon there were fresh drinks all around and Michael told the Professor all about his travel backward and his second life with Christina. “You changed our lives,” he said to the professor. Michael’s fingers found Christina’s under the bar and wrapped them together and he glanced at her. She was looking down into her drink. “You gave us a chance at real happiness,” he said.

The professor raised his glass. “I’m so glad.”

“Me, too.” Michael tipped his own glass back until the ice rattled against his teeth. Christina was right next to him so close he could feel the warmth of her.

“I want to see it,” Christina said, suddenly, out of nowhere.

The hairs stood up on the back of Michael’s neck. “What did you say?”

“I want to see it work. The machine,” she said. “For me.”

Michael looked at her as if for the first time. It was hard to breathe. “But I thought, I mean, why would you?”

But he knew. He had known all along, for years, but never wanted to put words to it, because then it couldn’t change, or go away, or be so goddamned real.

Christina put a hand on his shoulder. “Oh, Michael.”

Hours later, after a long, painful journey north, Christina was covered in black foil, strapped with silver tape, and up to her neck in electrolytes.

“I love you, Christina,” Michael said. “I love you more than anything.”

“I know, Michael,” she said. “I love you too.”

Michael kissed her, and she kissed him back, and then she pulled away. His hands shook as he slid the rubber bite plate into her mouth.

“I thought we were happy,” Christina said, back at eighteen, back in the basement with red shag, back where it all began. She dried her eyes and stood up. “But I need to see if there’s more to life, that there’s something I’m missing. I don’t want to just daydream my life, I want to live it.”  She kissed Michael good-bye and guided him out the door.

He stumbled down the street in the storm and wandered beneath the heavy trees; rain poured down his collar, high tops squelched through puddles, hands shoved deep down into the bottom of his pockets, shoulders hunched against the wind.

He shook and gasped and sobbed and didn’t know why and couldn’t stop and sobbed and sobbed  and sobbed and water flooded past him down the cramped street and carried dead leaves, and empty bottles, and broken shoelaces, and matchbooks, candy wrappers, newspaper, cellophane, rushing, turning, floating, falling away into the gray on gray darkness ahead.

“I thought we were happy,” he said to no one at all.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________

After a screenwriting career in Hollywood, love transformed Arthur into a San Franciscan, where he currently writes a mix of science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and lives with his lovely wife and an imaginary cat named Philip. (He’s not supposed to talk about the cat.) He can be found at http://www.artlorenz.com.

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