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from After Naomi


“I don’t know,” said Sentara, smiling around. “I think we could do a lot worse than Phil as guardian. Let him be CEO of the Nexus again, with both our houses behind him.” She finished her smile on Phil.

Everyone else was smiling at Phil too. He felt a whole lot of love. He wasn’t sure he wanted it anymore. He sat for a moment, then slowly stood up. He picked up his cup, and everyone else grabbed theirs, ready for a toast, but all Phil did was take a tiny sip.

“I have to say I’m flattered,” he said. “But to be quite honest, I’m not absolutely sure I wish to be guardian anymore.” He smiled around at them as their faces registered or hid various levels of confusion or consternation. “Well,” he added after another moment, “if you’ll pardon me, I do need to use the restroom. It’s in the same place, right?”

“Phil,” said Alexi, “the building is made of stone. Yes, it’s in the same place.”

“All right, then. I’ll be right back, barring the Turks breaking in.” He turned and went down the spiral stairs while everyone else held their comments until he was out of earshot.

 

Phil went down the spiral stair and stopped before the steel door. He moved a dilapidated tapestry on the outside wall of the spiral, and behind it was a nice little bathroom with a sort of airplane toilet and a little steel sink. He raised his eyebrows, smiled at himself in the mirror and addressed himself to his business. Phil being Phil, it was impossible to watch himself pee without thinking of the joke about the Pope not wanting to look down on the unemployed. The unemployed. Very funny.

Ah, the adoration Naomi had once showered on that member of the unemployed class. Mister Happy, indeed. Lefty. Tricky Dick. Ah, the fun they used to have. He pictured her undressing him a hundred times, a hundred thousand times, him undressing her a hundred thousand times. “A hundred years to adore each breast. And but ten thousand to the rest.” It used to be that such thoughts would stop him peeing and make it rather difficult to get his pants back on. Apparently that was off as well: he finished up, gave a couple of shakes and restored normality.

The toilet flushed regular water, not airplane blue. The sink’s hot water was hot right away. The soap came from a dispenser: it was pink, creamy and a little shiny. Alexios had come to Maine in 1996 or so and liked the rest area bathrooms.

Phil decided on a whim that he would like to delay his return to the Council of Elrond long enough for a little chat with himself in the mirror. How was he, anyway? Long time no see.

Phil Postman, graduate of Messalonskee, appearing fortyish with brown hair and a touch of grey, thin not because of his workout habits or his magical appearance spells but because he had always been able to eat a pizza with extra cheese and then burn it off just existing. Drove young Naomi crazy. But soon, of course, they could both look however they wanted to.

She hated appearance spells—but the Youth quality of time warrior rings she could live with. She liked to be thirty, a bit older than the popular average among her kind. Joy, twenty‑seven; Sentara, maybe twenty‑three; Rachel, oh, who knows, twenty-two? A surprising number liked seventeen. The time techs tended to go a little older, so George also showed a touch of grey. In all his meetings with time warriors, Phil only knew two who were near his taste: Arnulf Shmoke, who looked a lanky and slightly flabby fifty, and consistently fooled the unwary, and Jacky Danielle, who stuck to forty‑five and wore it like the plain black shirt and pants she also stuck to. Youth was just a conceit of the young; Phil had better things to do with his face.

But that face. It looked so absolutely ordinary, with a slightly large nose. But what it had seen. What had seen it. In that little room off the stairway, he was surrounded by other days. The centuries with Naomi flashed out in every direction. She even looked over his shoulder in the mirror: that sweet, sweet smile, that tender gaze, those guilt trip eyes. Later, that mix of anger and indifference, that glance full of blades, that pose both aloof and self‑absorbed, full of fire yet frosty, full of pride yet skeptical.

What did she know. What did she know of skepticism. She hated his skepticism, his tendency to question the obvious assumption. She wanted a bias toward action, she wanted to be right and move on it, she wanted to shoot first and not answer a bunch of stupid questions. What. A. Dope. He was sure of it now. Naomi was wrong in as many ways as she could possibly be. She was the smartest person he had ever known well, but, to borrow Joy’s phrase, George’s favorite phrase, she really couldn’t find her own ass with both hands.

Because it’s not simple, Hermione. It’s not. You’re right, but you’re so wrong. You don’t get it, do you. And you never will, because one thing Phil knew for certain, perhaps the only thing he knew for certain, was that he would never win an argument with her. It wasn’t so bad when he was wrong and she was right—as usual. It was very bad when she was wrong and he was right. Then, arguing with her was like hammering a nail that was already bending. It was like loosening a screw the wrong direction. That look on her face would freeze, she would raise her voice and find a dozen insults, “you would think that, Phil, wouldn’t you,” and “that’s rich, coming from you.” And you could only hope it wasn’t too late to just walk away.

Naomi had changed, and everyone knew it, and now Phil thought about his life with her, he saw that she was due for a change.

Phil’s old mom, having gotten to know Naomi on their once a week drop‑ins to the early twenty‑first century, had nailed her toward the end with the observation that Naomi simply didn’t want to live in Phil’s shadow. Phil had thought this a bit of motherly aggrandizement: he was a guardian, darn it, and she made herself a time warrior; how could she be in his shadow? But it started to make sense. It wasn’t what it looked like to Phil, or Mom, or Johnny or anyone else.

“She thinks,” his mom had said, his mom who almost alone among their non‑magical relations knew he was a guardian and knew, more or less, what a time warrior did for a living, “that she needs to jump high enough to clear your shadow, and she thinks if she ever does it she’ll swim free in the sky and swing on the stars.” But time warriors don’t swing on the stars, they brawl among them. And guardians don’t swim free, they hunker.

Naomi wanted to soar. She tried everything, often a decade at a time: she’d tried teaching magic, she’d tried guardianship, she’d even had a shot at the healing arts and taken some time tech classes. Oh yes. She had tried falling in love with a black man. And a time tech, and a sea captain, all the same guy. But then she committed herself to family. She had a son and raised him till he went off to time tech school. Interesting, that. Then she went on her time warrior task. And won her ring. Phil, meanwhile, did one thing and did it better and better the longer he kept at it. Of course any idiot knew that was how it really worked. You chose a road and you kept on it. You didn’t keep switching roads, not if you wanted to get anywhere.

But Naomi wasn’t just any idiot. She wasn’t interested in roads. Roads didn’t go across the sky. So she kept jumping from one road to another, hoping that the next one would lead her to the stars, and blaming Phil if it didn’t. It kept happening, so to her, Phil’s sins, far from being forgiven, kept piling up. She hated his infidelity, of course, as rightly she should, as she hated her own temptations. But his answer was to hew tightly to the strait and narrow. And that was just one more horror to her.

Had she now gone over to the Rangers? Did she think they had the shiny stairway of a road that would take her to the sky? Was she buying the bleeping stairway to heaven?

Ozone Ranger. He couldn’t make himself believe it. But that was just his heart. “Follow your heart,” people said, “and live without regret.” What absolute bullshit. He had followed his heart and that had caused him to do things that only a cad would not regret. But that was so long ago now he could not, honestly, believe it even mattered. It wasn’t that nothing mattered. It was that what mattered was what was before him, not what lay a century behind, for him or for her.

He sighed and smiled at himself again, shy as if he was just forgiving someone. No, he thought, I don’t want her anymore. She’s free. And so am I.

And with that, Phil put out the magic light and went out and up the spiral stair.

 

Phil climbed the stairs, feeling about twenty years younger. He paused just before the top came into view. There was a little window, almost an arrow slit, and he peered out: still raining on the Black Sea. Somewhere over there was the Russian steppe, not Russian yet of course. Somewhere over there was the Mongol realm, and somewhere way back in there, the plague bacillus was holed up, hunkered down, evolving into something worse than usual, something that would kill a quarter of Europe and doom the Byzantine Empire. All just history, really. Alexi would be gone long before it came here, off to be the time warrior he deserved to be.

Maybe Phil could talk Alexi into taking over the guardianship. Phil could go for TW! Yeah. Funny.

He took a step up. He could hear them in the room already, chatting and laughing. Troy was making a joke. Sentara was saying something about it, and Joy and Rachel were joining in. Ashlee’s infectious giggle filled the high end. He could imagine George and John and Alexi smiling and looking at each other and keeping quiet among these beautiful, powerful women.

Out there, normal people, norms. Muggles, forsooth. The world was full of them. In here, time warriors, time techs, time travelers—even Troy was that, by now, even if he went back to his job and tended bar in Maine for the rest of his natural. Ashlee: well, it was obvious she would never be normal again.

Sentara had said something like, “Some time back” or “some time ago.” She couldn’t very well say “last week” or “yesterday afternoon.” Yesterday afternoon she hadn’t even been here. She would not have existed at that time in any place in this universe. Phil and Naomi, when Johnny was a child, had at least created a semblance of a sequential life, returning to rural Maine to let him grow up sort of right. This past week, er, this past few, ah, whatever, should have completely discombobulated Phil, but it hadn’t. He was done for, temporally. He would never be normal again. He sighed and climbed all but one of the remaining steps.

And there they were. Sentara, then Ashlee and George and Rachel, then the rest, turned to look at him, smiles on their faces. He smiled back. He had a tear in his eye: he didn’t want to try saying anything. He wiped the tear, making no effort to hide it.

They were his people. They were his friends, even Joy, even Sentara. He appreciated them. They meant more to him than anything in the world, any treasure, any fine meal, any lovely house, any good outcome to history. He could never, ever express to them how much they meant to him. No, that wasn’t true. He knew one way.

Phil stepped up and into the room. He smiled around again, then took up his cup. “Here’s to all of you,” he said, and he downed it before anyone could respond.


Can you tell this was written in the months after my divorce? After Naomi is flawed; it needs a lot of fixing if it’s ever to be presented as finished. But it’s a chronicle, almost a graph, of my mental state bouncing back from the catastrophe. At first, Phil is feckless, and still plagued by lust and attraction for his ex, Naomi, and beyond her, basically for every other person who happens to have a vagina. By this point, 2/3 of the way through, Phil is finally done. The scene starts with him rejecting his friends; it ends with him coming back and accepting them, and the lovelorn life ahead of him. And the same thing, basically, happened to me.

And that is why After Naomi is important to me: it’s a reminder that, for trying to get at complex emotions and the true nature of a troubled relationship, fantasy and sci fi may actually be better and more accurate than realistic fiction. It simply opens up a much wider range of possible references and analogies, and, besides, would you rather read about a flawed guy going through a messy divorce from his understandably out-of-patience ex-lover, as set in a middle-class suburb where they are both English professors at a small liberal arts school in the Chicago area, or would you rather have them with wands in their hands and magic spells on their lips, jumping from ancient Sumeria to Roman Marseilles to 1950s Harlem?

Thoughts?

Paul

 

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