From the novel in progress, a nerds love story (John captains a tech company; Mary is a career FBI agent.)
Two days later they sit opposite each other at a table centered in a private room of a steakhouse in San Francisco. Mary’s copy of the menu lists no prices. It also offers no choices, only a list of what’s coming. A little moth of anxiety flutters in her chest as she briefly considers the ethics of accepting this kind of meal. The fluttering only increases as the waiter opens a bottle of Cristal and pours starlight into a pair of flutes.
“To old flames,” says John, raising his glass.
"Old friendships,” says Mary. They touch glasses and sip, each studying the other.
The amuse bouche is a barely-seared bay scallop floating in a mint-pea puree in a tiny crystal boat.
“Do you eat like this all the time?” asks Mary.
“Only when I feel like it. I still have a soft spot for SpaghettiOs.”
“Oh God, I remember. Room temperature. Straight from the can.”
As he considers the distance between then and now, a crooked smile deepens a dimple on one side of his face. His brow remains fixed. College, he muses. For Mary it had been one calculated leg of the race that was her career plan. For him it had been life, or something like it. Unsuited for a regular job in industry, he had racked up degrees in math and computer science until there were no more degrees to be racked. Then he took the post-doc. He didn't need much money to live on, but he needed more than his paltry fellowship paid. So he worked as a math tutor on the side.
He still carries a vivid memory of Mary walking through the door looking for help with calculus. John had named the shared workspace—Post-Doc Shit Hole or P-DiSH for short—during his first week there, and the name had stuck. It was a site of deeply coded chaos. At least two monitors for every person, all crammed into cubicles, and all running programs of one sort or another, often independently of their operators. Stacks of faded printouts with raggedy dot-matrix edges—some with scribblings, circled chunks of code, crimson curses—covered all the horizontal surfaces, becoming new surfaces for brown-scaled coffee mugs and greasy pizza boxes. A digitally animated landfill. A Petri dish growing cultures of code on brain agar. And into it walks Mary Fordham like a jaguar into a monkey house. All the monkeys freeze in fear and fascination.
“John Butterfield?” It's more of a summons than a question.
She was a model tutee. Most struggling math students came to him looking for just enough light to keep them from failing a course. Mary Fordham was in no danger of failing. Her problem, as she explained it, was that the calc wasn’t completely intuitive. She wanted to own it. She let him know that anything short of top marks in the class would be unacceptable. It was a new kind of challenge and a welcome one, made even more attractive by the package it came in. He could look at her for hours. Forever. Over the course of the three weeks leading up to her first exam he explained calculus to her in a way he didn’t even know he understood himself. As a dance through a parallel universe. She got it. And then she got him. She grokked him.
After she aced her first exam she came by the P-DiSH with an ice-cold bottle of dry prosecco and two paper cups. His cubicle had become an island of near neatness in the bog. She noticed.
“It’s a beautiful day,” she said. “C’mon.”
She led him to a patch of sunshine among oak trees in a campus park, uncaged the cork from the bottle, and let it fly. Half an hour later, the bottle lying on its side with the nested cups, he too was lying down, on his back, trying to count the shades of green layered in the leaves. From her position propped on an elbow she rose just enough to swing a leg over his torso and straddle him, settling her weight against his hip bones and her hands on his shoulders. She studied his face from that vantage, and somewhere midway between her hips and her hands his heart was morphing into something new. She lowered herself into a kiss that began like sable strokes from a paintbrush and deepened gradually into an expression of acute hunger.
“Do you live alone?” she asked.
He privately thanked his mother for raising him to keep a tidy and tasteful living space.