The Big Question
In the year 2029 some things will be different than they are now. Many cars will run on a fuel not yet developed and most will have an unusual shape. However most cars produced by Ford that year will still look like traditional automobiles and the CEO of Audi will have assured the world that an Audi will always look like an Audi.
A new health food will be dominating grocery stores and restaurants but millions of families will still be eating meat and potatoes or beans and rice every night.
Clothing will be entering a new phase by then too, but when a man dresses for an intimate dinner with his love interest he will still be wearing his best dark business suit and a plain colored tie.
So as 68-year-old Norbert Adams studied his image in the full-length mirror of the luxury suite of Manhattan's latest Skyrise hotel he noted the resemblance to his appearance in countless photos from the past 50 years. He'd just been sorting through all the old family albums in preparation to have them upgraded into holographic images. This incredible new invention allows a person to walk into his position, or any other, in a photo of the past and see the setting in three dimensions as he did at the time it was taken. Norbert was bypassing the added optional feature of adding effects to simulate the sounds and smells of the event. That was too creepy for his old-fashioned taste.
In almost every photo he saw he wore a similar suit and tie. They started with high school prom and continued through graduations, weddings, christenings, funerals and even a bar-mitvah he had attended over the years. There was one difference this time. His smile was genuine.
For most of his life the smiles with relatives, business clients and casual friends were forced. His life had featured almost continuous failures personal and business. All that had suddenly changed five years ago.
After too many business failures to count he took one more project, buying a foundering sporting goods store. Norbert figured he could keep the store slightly profitable and sell it about now for a modest profit to afford a comfortable retirement and a bit of pride at the end of his career of disaster.
Instead he was persuaded by a salesman to purchase exclusive retail rights to products connected to the new sport of wingball, then worked with the company to create additional products, an iconic mascot now being developed in every form of media and accessories and action figures.
Including online sales the company was growing by leaps and bounds, though Norbert had now opened only four additional sales outlets in very strategic places.
His latest business strategy might allow him to ease his way into luxurious retirement in a few years, and he might retire even sooner if he could spend that retirement in the loving arms of Cecile. He thought deeply about how blissful that might be as he again studied the engagement ring.
It was a simple 14 carat band with a solitaire stone. It looked almost exactly like the one he'd bought for.....
No, Norbert wouldn't think of that now. He was resolved not to think of anything from more than five years ago. Since buying that sporting goods store he was a new man. All things from the past belonged to a different person and he could have them. Norbert might be wrinkled and gray, but he was five years old in every way that mattered.
Cecile was the perfect woman to spend his last years with. She was 56, a widow with no children. She was British and well-educated, had never held a job but housewife to a businessman who peaked at about the level of wealth Norbert had now attained. One of their houses could be a summer home, but they might spend whole seasons on the Riviera, Waikiki or other idyllic locations.
If she would only say yes tonight.
In 2029 when a woman prepared for an intimate evening with her latest love interest she will still don a little black dress, so Cecile studied her collection. She had eight of them. She couldn't consider the one she wore after her husband's funeral. That left seven. She tried the oldest first. She'd worn it so many times to social event starting at 17. She even was wearing it the night her late husband...
No, she couldn't think of that tonight. That left six.
There was one more that appeared before her marriage-age 22 fresh from Eton-and that too had to be disqualified. That left five.
Cecile first struggled to think whether any of the remaining five was associated with any memories she shouldn't think of tonight. A few were associated with events that took place during her marriage, but nothing attached to a difficult memory. The one she wore on New Year's Eve 1999, celebrated first on the Aleutian Islands then 22 hours later in Hawaii looked like a good choice, but it was a tad too tight now. Her weight had barely increased in 30 years, fluctuating in the 130s instead of the 120s, but a few things had shifted since then and she suddenly recalled that dress was chosen to accentuate her figure so she could compete with the other beauties sure to be present.
In any case her choice was now limited to four little black dresses.
The littlest was a minidress bought in her early 40s (the end of her workout phase). It was against the traditional values she'd grown up with for a woman past 50 to expose her thighs in public. As she compared her present thighs to those in photos from 15 years earlier, she decided to stick with tradition. That left three.
Cecile was widowed in 2019, almost 10 years earlier. At first she thought she'd never even date again, but when persuaded to start looking a few years later her lack dress of choice was cut low and paired with a pushup bra to make that her most conspicuous feature. It drew the worst type of men and she soon dismissed it but she'd known Norbert for months now and he was not like them. He could handle the dress and tonight they might make love at last. That had to be the reason he not only scheduled dinner but a room in the hotel. He'd never spoken to her of his background, but if there was one true gentleman left alive, he was the man.
As she studied herself in the full-length mirror, she realized her best feature was no longer what it had been just a few years ago. That left two.
The choice was hard. One was almost worthy of being called a gown, reaching almost to the floor with a slit that topped just below the knee. It had short sleeves, but almost to the elbow so the bit of flab in the upper arm was hard to nice. It reached down in a v-neck that stopped at the top of the cleavage.
The other was knee-length, long-sleeved and up to the neck. It was stiff and formal, with only white trim and buttons. It would be hard to remove if...
She decided she wanted to remove her dress quickly tonight and if Norbert wasn't going to be aggressive she might be. She was not expecting a proposal, but if that aspect of their relationship was resolved the proposal in the future would deserve an immediate answer.
She wore the gown.
The dinner was not much different than they might have ordered decades earlier: steak, potatoes with grave and vegetables with red wine. They sipped the wine and chatted of art, opera, fashion and literature. When they both declined dessert Nobert cleared his throat.
"I think this is a special evening." he began.
"I think so too" Cecile said, moving her right hand slowly to the v-neck to expose more cleavage.
Norbert slid his right hand slowly across the white tablecloth like a magician, then pulled back to reveal the ring, safely in its case.
Neither said a word for a minute. To Cecile it was a minute, to Norbert, an eternity.
Cecile was not one for mysteries.
"Is this...a proposal?
Norbert gulped. He'd hoped he wouldn't need to say anything, at least not until after some unambiguous form of yes.
"Yes, and I took steps to assure a perfect fit."
Cecile noted his comment, but was not ready for that tonight, not with a man whose life, more than five years past at least, was undocumented.
Not wishing to say no prematurely, or yes either, she stalled by asking about his past: family, childhood, children, connections.
Norbert stumbled and stammered, trying to avoid each painful memory, leaving an evasive path of answers that, Cecile reasoned, must be obscuring some dark secrets.
Growing restless with his answers she tried one more. "How is it that you've never been married?"
That was the most painful question she could have asked. He didn't want to think about any past relationship. (There were five worth noting.) Unable to find an answer, unwilling to tell any of the stories he summarized in two words.
Cecile was not going to marry a man who couldn't answer simple questions. This wasn't a court martial. Saying no tonight would not mean he couldn't try again after providing some answers. It didn't even mean they couldn't end the night in passion if he would accept a delay.
So when she lifted her purse and stood up, it was only to let him cool off. Her hotel was nearby. He knew how to find it.
She kissed him on his left temple and whispered to call her when he had some real answers, not realizing how even that act was like a spear in Norbert's side.
Norbert gulped down the remaining wine, and hers too, breaking his personal record for alcohol intake in one sitting (about 18 ounces).
As nearly drunk as he could ever remember being Norbert returned to his room, removed his jacket and tie and opened his suitcase. There, among the underwear was the pistol. He'd never fired a gun in his life, never held a pistol until it became an offering at his store, but now he loaded the gun for the first time and prepared for the one shot that couldn't miss.
A flash of blinding light filled the room suddenly.