The Realized Romantic
Fall 2004, Page Springs Cellars, Arizona
It would be pretty easy to classify me as a hopeless romantic. And back then, back when Licia/Lightningirl and I met, I would have agreed with you. Ashley’s abrupt departure years earlier had stalled both my professional life and my romantic life, but I was still the same romantic fool I always was—with the scars to prove it.
But now, from the perspective of where I sit today? Nope, not in the least.
Am I a romantic? Yes, guilty as charged. But I am no longer hopeless. Actually, it’s really an annoying term isn’t it? Hopeless Romantic. It describes the person who constantly seeks love but never achieves it. I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a hopeful romantic. Charging in time and again to let love (or the mere hope of love) kick your teeth in, seems to require hope.
So back then, I was actually a hopeful romantic. Now? Having been in a relationship with the same woman for several decades and still being in love? I am a realized romantic. Not that love doesn’t still kick my teeth in (metaphorically speaking, of course). It does. And it does it regularly. Sorry to break the news to all you romantics that are still hopeful—love, she’s a tough mistress.
Anyway, back at the winery nestled in the Verde Valley when we had our first kiss, back when our lips first met, back when a mere pressing of her flesh against mine could rock me to my soul, back when that phone call had interrupted the most perfect second date—I was crestfallen. I was having the time of my life and now some damn world-threatening emergency was interfering.
Licia, who no one would ever describe as a romantic (hopeless, hopeful, or otherwise), saw it on my face. I was still sitting at the picnic table after she had gathered our wine glasses and empty wine bottle, folded the red and white checkered tablecloth, and had taken it all ten paces towards the winery. She realized I wasn’t walking with her, turned around, and said, “It’s okay, Nik. We’ll have more time. I promise.”
She walked back and set the basket down. A romantic she may not be, but she was always perceptive.
“It was perfect… This was perfect,” I said, looking around us at the creek below, the vines above, the beautiful blue sky, and the oddly warm fall day.
Her brown eyes narrowed as she took a slow breath and let it out, pulling her silky black hair back into a ponytail. “Look. Let’s not give it up yet. They want us both down at Palo Verde, right?” I nodded. We had been summoned back to my home base—Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station west of Phoenix. “So we’ll ride together. That will give us another two hours.” She ended the sentence with a dazzling smile, her hand resting on mine jolting me with a trickle of energy as our bodies did their thing.
My doldrums vanquished, I grabbed the basket and started running towards the large white building that housed the wine cellar below and the tasting room above. “Race you!” I shouted as I ran past her.
We stood in the dirt parking lot of the winery, the rolling desert hills of Arizona’s wine country rising up around us. We were looking at our cars. Mine was a beat-up 1990 Ford Focus that was a faded blue that might have been pretty before the Arizona sun bleached it out, and at this point might look decent if I washed it more than once every two years. Hers was a 2002 four-wheel-drive Toyota pickup. It was a shiny black, clean as could be, and beautiful.
We both stood there looking from car to truck to car. She was really being kind. It was obvious we should take the truck. But since we were still, officially, on a date, I kind of thought I should drive. She knew this, I knew this, but I just stood there, my mind mush as I tried to figure out a graceful way through this. Sure, the world might be ending any moment and we had been summoned by the powers that be. Sure, I knew that, but there I stood, my head going from left to right trying to find a way to preserve my dignity.
And this may be old fashioned, this desire to drive my date, but hey, what can I say? I’m kind of like that.
“Nik…” she began, “we’re kind of in a hurry.”
“Right,” I said, my head still going from left to right and back. “That sure is a nice truck.”
It made sense. I was paid a janitor’s salary, and she was a linewoman for the local electricity provider, APS. I lived at home; she lived alone. It made sense, there was a reason her vehicle was much nicer than mine. Except for the dirty part, of course—I just hate to wash cars (and make beds), the effort doesn’t yield results long enough to seem worth it to me.
Licia brought her hand to my shoulder and the tingle there jiggled my brain enough for something to occur to me. “We’re in a hurry, right?” I asked.
“Well, then, we better take your truck. I am almost out of gas, and we definitely don’t have time to stop.”
“We definitely don’t,” she said, her voice suitably serious.
We both stood there for a few more breaths. I am not sure why. Maybe we were both afraid of what it meant. Man and Woman on a second date kiss for the first time. Man is the romantic one, Woman is the practical one. Emergency strikes and Man and Woman must think and act fast. They both get into Woman’s superior vehicle and ride off to save the day.
I was just not sure it was the right precedent to set so early in a relationship. Nevertheless, we got in, her driving, and went down Page Springs Road towards Cornville, heading towards I-17 and Phoenix.
We hadn’t gone very far when there was a ringing from her glove compartment. “It’s the batphone,” Licia said with a smile, “you better get it.”
Batphone? What was she talking about? I, of course, understood the reference. On the old Batman TV show, Commissioner Gordon had this special red phone that Batman called him on in emergencies.
I opened the glove compartment and there was a black satellite phone. Circa 2004, they were still pretty big. Licia must have seen the puzzled look on my face because she said, “You don’t have one of those? It’s military spec, encrypted, secure.”
I was still puzzled but answered the phone, “Hello.” Seems kind of lame, huh? Here I am answering the equivalent of the batphone and that is all I come up with. Hello—lame.
“Who is this?” the gravelly voice on the phone said. “This phone is government property and should be in the possession of Licia Lopez. Who is this?”
The voice sounded familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. After my lame greeting, I wasn’t about to comply. “Who is this?” I said, my lightning wit clearly on the fritz.
“This is Colonel Williams of the United States Army. State your name now or there will be consequences.”
“Oh. Hi, Colonel Williams. This is Nik, Nik Nichols.”
“Nichols? What are you doing with Ms. Lopez’s phone?”
“We were together when the call came in and decided to head down to Palo Verde together.”
“Oh… Um…” the older man stuttered. “What… What were you two doing together?”
I didn’t particularly like the question. Wasn’t the world ending or something? Hadn’t we received an urgent call? “Um… drinking wine, Colonel.”
“What? Really? You and Ms. Lopez?”
Now I was getting angry. “Yes sir, me and Ms. Lopez were enjoying an alcoholic beverage together. Isn’t there an urgent matter to attend to?”
“Yes… Well… We’ll talk about this later.” His voice resumed its normal authoritative baritone as he continued. “Put this on speaker since you’re both there.”
I did as ordered.
“Ms. Lopez, Mr. Nichols, we have a bit of an emergency. The situation has escalated since we called you in, and we need you on site ASAP.”
“Yes, sir,” Licia said. “Can you fill us in on the nature of the situation?”
“It’s Toxicwasteman,” Colonel Williams said. I saw Licia tense up and her knuckles go white on the steering wheel. “He’s escaped the Florence prison and commandeered a semi full of chemicals and got himself reactivated.” Just like electricity enables Licia to turn into Lightningirl and radiation lets me turn into Neutrinoman, Tom Tyree needs toxic substances to turn him into Toxicwasteman.
“I hate that guy,” Licia said through gritted teeth. “I just hate that guy.”
“We caught up with him,” Williams continued, “but he’s taken some hostages in a little place called Green Valley, south of Tucson. There’s a standoff. He says he will release them if he gets to talk to Neutrinoman.”
“What? Me?” I asked, shocked.
“Yes, Nik. You. Something is wrong with him. He’s been babbling about aliens and the threat from Arcturus. The media is going to be there soon, and we can’t have him scaring people.”
I was shocked. The colonel seemed more worried about him talking to the media than if he killed the hostages. And why would Toxicwasteman want to talk to me? And what, or where, the hell is Arcturus?
Back then I was clueless. Now, we all know that Arcturus is a star, the brightest star in the Boötes constellation, and the home system of the Arcturian Alliance.
“Licia,” he continued, “you know Toxicwasteman better than anyone, I—”
“Well I should,” Licia said, “I am the one who put him in that prison. How the hell did he get out?”
“Don’t know, but we are investigating. As I was saying, I want both of you on site ASAP. It’s a diner called Big Al’s right off of I-19 south of Tucson on the way to Nogales. What is your location now?”
“We are on Cornville Road a few miles west of I-17,” Licia said.
“Okay. Nik, what are your energy levels like?”
“Not so great, sir,” I said. “I haven’t been in the reactor for about a week.”
“Here’s what we’re going to do,” Colonel Williams said as he laid out his plan.