Necessary Lies By Richard Edgar

Candle-ends
Shelley Carpenter


Necessary Lies by Richard Edgar

Necessary Lies (2018) by Richard Edgar is a timely LGBTQ novel that addresses the allusion in the title concerning a global lack of diversity and acceptance. The novel is told mostly in dialogue form with shifting first person characters in a constant and purposeful panoramic flashback structure. It also holds an interesting posse of quirky characters that Edgar calls “the misfits” who are high school outliers from back in the day that evolve collectively into the modern day protagonists in the story.

The premise of Necessary Lies is biological. It is a science fiction fantasy that dabbles with the ethics of genetic parenting. It leads the reader deeper down a muddy and somewhat murky rabbit hole to the 1990s and early 2000s popular culture known for its discrimination and uncivil behavior toward a specific group of people living nontraditional lives: the LGBTQ population (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning).

One of the main characters, Sarah, speaks to this when she says, “We are a family of secrets, we tell the truth except when we don’t.”

The story begins in 2014 and indeed reflects this idea. Edgar dangles a mystery at the beginning and cleverly uses a teenage character, Miranda, to share her gay parents’ stories as well as her own thoughts on the subject of being different. Miranda says, “Sure, we were the only gay people in the school, and that was so weird that nobody knew what to say to us, so pretty much nobody said anything.”

It was a time when there were few if any ungendered public bathrooms in the U.S. and people were just beginning to ask the question: What are your pronouns? And coming out wouldn’t get you killed although it might still get you beat up or fired. There are moments of dialogue that grapple with the inequity and cruelty of being an outlier and other moments when the prose is so clearly in the character’s head in a stream of consciousness style of writing of inner dialogue which is the main voice for several characters. Edgar hits it out of the park.

The character Sarah has another great quote that is repeated in the story several times: “Work hard, do your homework, cheat a little when you have to.” It is more than a cute tag line but a credo that these characters live by.

Other characters walk the gender line. Sarah’s wife, Lia, comments about a seven-year-old boy named Doug who has a playdate with their daughter, Susie:

I try to do what transpeople ask, I mean, some of my best friends… Aaaand that sounded horrible. I have to say I was devoutly hoping this was a phase Susie would grow out of for our convenience more than for anything in her own psyche. And for Doug, well boys who want to be girls get the snot beat out of them, more often than not. Which is sad, but if he’s really transgendered and knows it at age seven, it’s a hard life he has cut out for him. I hope his family is supportive.

Among the many misfit characters is Mo, a transgender person who I think is one of the best written characters in the novel. Mo talks about herself and her trans friend, Cris, in a funny and sad, down-to-earth way:

Cris and I are kind of like peas in a pod, except we’re complete opposites. When we were in high school, Cris was a girl and I was a boy. Then I was a man for a while. Now I’m a woman. Is Marine a gender? I was that for a while, too. Now, I’m a vet. Cris gave up on femininity, and I think that if men and women can’t understand each other, M2F and F2M transpeople have even less chance. But Cris is more F2X or something. Anything not female, he says. Not male either, she says.

The shifting points of view indeed give Necessary Lies a real panoramic viewpoint as each character reveals something more. And by the way, Mo turns out to be a major player. Edgar’s story is a coming of age and coming out story wrapped up in a great big multicultural rainbow ribbon. The characters come and go quite literally and return with a vengeance in a showdown worthy of old Hollywood.

*

Richard Edgar is a scientist living in Boston, writing a variety of speculative fiction. He got his start, writing under the pseudonym Ana George, in the writing contests right here at Toasted Cheese. He hung around long enough to be drafted as an editor, under the handle Broker and he is still hosting weekly writing chats and writing articles on the craft of writing. In 2003 he became interested in writing longer fiction, and got involved in National Novel Writing Month, where the goal was to write a fifty thousand-word novel in its entirety within the month of November. After multiple attempts, some successful, a few readable stories emerged, including the recently published Necessary Lies.

pencil

Shelley Carpenter is TC’s Reviews Editor. Email: harpspeed[at]toasted-cheese.com

The Summer of My Discontent

A Midsummer Tale ~ First Place
Ana George


All the students turn out for these seminars; it’s a way the faculty have of exhibiting the instruments of torture to future victims. The day arrived when it was my turn to present. Mike had done his thesis seminar the previous semester, but he was kind enough on this big day of mine to pull his nose out his thesis, and come watch.

The regular seminar supervisor seemed to be out of town, which was probably just as well, because he had other ideas on my topic, and I was happy to not deal with them that day. The stand-in was a woman, unusual in a physics department, so of course I knew who she was, though we hadn’t had direct dealings before.

There I stood, explaining all my favorite ideas, carefully separating mine from everyone else’s, quoting chapter and verse from the literature. Professor Maxwell was asking pointed questions, making very useful suggestions; I found myself wishing I had a pocket to put my pen in, but alas, the dress I was wearing had nothing of the sort.

Part way through it occurred to me Mike wasn’t listening to what I was saying; perhaps his mind was on his own thesis, or some other personal problem. But his eyes were on me, which made me feel delightfully sexy. Which was a distraction; this was not the time. Glancing around the rest of the (almost all male) grad student ranks, most of them were also looking at my hair, or my legs. Oh well. There were a few worthwhile things said, so the purpose was served; there were new things to think about as I proceeded to write this stuff up. I learned things not only about my topic, but also about giving presentations, what to wear, how to act, and so forth, if you want to be listened to. Or if you don’t really want to be listened to, for that matter.

*

Walking home that evening in May, I could see Mike’s mind was somewhere else. We greeted Steve, a classmate, and I had the odd experience of seeing us, for a moment, from his point of view. Here’s a nice gal, one of just a few in the department, who’s picked out an unexceptional guy: not the best dressed, not the hunkiest, not the smartest, though good enough in all those ways. Envy was what was written on Steve’s face, seeing Mike with me. Mike had picked that up, too, and seemed an inch or two taller as we walked on. He’s already too tall, in my opinion.

“Marry me,” he said, in the half-light of the evening.

I’d been completely comfortable there in the bedroom until that moment.

“Um…” I propped myself up on an elbow, pawed my hair out of my eyes, and looked at him; he was eagerly, timidly, awaiting my response. It was abundantly clear that whatever I said next would change the course of both of our lives.

Suddenly my nudity, which had been a casual pleasure, took on an air of ultimate importance. I sat up, let my hair cover my face, found my dress, and put it on. I sat down in the chair opposite the bed, knees together, arms folded. A gentle head motion opened the curtain of my hair, and let him see my face. I could see he was concerned, alarmed even. A lump of mortal dread had settled into my stomach.

“No, Mike, I can’t,” I told him. “I need more than this. It’s pleasant, sure, sharing stuff with you. But there’s no passion.”

“Sure there is,” he said, eyes on the shadowy triangle at my hem, his naked lust stirring again. “I love you, Renée.”

I crossed my legs. “Do you?” I asked. “I don’t think I understand what you mean when you say that.”

This kind of took him aback; he couldn’t explain, but couldn’t let it go, either. “I do, though,” he muttered.

“That’s just it, you see? You don’t even know if I have any passion for you or not. As Stan Rogers put it:

Make love to your woman
at ten fifty-three.

You’re snoozed out, and I’m staring at the ceiling, wondering if that’s all there is.”

“Hmmph,” he said, covering himself with the sheet.

*

“Why so sad?” asked the woman on the next bar stool.

Oh, my. It was Professor Maxwell. I groped for a napkin to dry my face, and watched her watching me toss my long hair out of my lap, over a shoulder, arrange my dress, cross my legs. I cleared my throat, and turned to her.

“Call me Max,” she said. “I liked your presentation.”

And my composure gave way again.

I’m not sure now much of the story I managed to tell her, or how much she was able to gather from between my sobs, even if I did tell it.

At length, she was holding me, murmuring in my ear, “Come to my place. We’ll talk tomorrow when you’re more yourself.”

*

Morning. Max is apparently not a morning person. The mop of hair on her pillow was disarranged and not nearly as black as it had seemed under artificial light in the bar the night before, or at a distance in the lecture hall.

I got up as gently as possible, to let her sleep on. In the kitchen, I found a coffee grinder, a hundred irrelevant tools and supplies, followed, in the last possible place I could think of, filters. There were beans in the freezer, so I put on some water and made coffee. The grinder was frighteningly loud in the silent house. I took advantage of the wait to do something about my hair.

I brought two mugs back to the bedroom, setting one on the bed stand a foot from her comatose nose, and took the other to sit in the easy chair across the room, to read and watch her come around.

When she finally stirred, I smiled at her, made some noises with my feet, and slurped at my coffee to let her know I was still there.

“Renee. How nice, having someone bring me coffee before I’m even awake,” she said.

“A small token of my esteem,” I replied. “Thanks so much for last night.”

She merely smiled. She crawled out of bed and into the robe I held for her. I inhaled her essence as I wrapped her in the fabric and my arms. She giggled. “Breakfast first,” she said.

The cat, Joe, seeing Max in the kitchen, came around, presumably wanting food.

But even more than food, he seemed interested in sniffing my toes and fingers as we sat eating. I stroked his neck.

“He seems very affectionate for a cat,” I remarked.

“Seems that way, yeah,” said Max, “but it’s all a big ruse. I think it translates as something like Ooo, here’s a human that does not yet belong to another cat. Must mark.

I laughed, which disturbed Joe. He went to investigate the contents of his bowl with an air of proper feline nonchalance.

*

“So…” ventured Max. “Tell me about yourself, where you are in life, where you’re going.”

It was a tall order.

“I’ve been with Mike for a year now, no, almost two. It seemed the thing to do; all my college friends were getting married, settling down, breeding rug rats. So I started letting my hair down, just to see, and Mike is what happened. He made me laugh; he was fun to be around. So we started sharing meals, study sessions, nights, weekends, a bed, a few dreams, an address. Not much passion, but hey, I’m a rational girl; I think I’m more comfortable without. Just kind of drifted together.”

Max grunted in assent from time to time. “But…?” she prompted when I stopped talking.

“Well, when he started talking about forever, it scared the hell out of me. I mean, is this all there is? Eventually we’ll be done with grad school, one way or another, sure. But his idea of life is sleep, sex, eat, work, eat, sex, sleep. No time anymore for amusing each other. No time for dreaming together.” My lip quivered and my voice stopped. Max went out of focus.

“C’mere,” she said, putting fingers into my hair, wrapping an arm around my waist. She danced me around the room while I got myself together again.

Clearing my throat, I asked the obvious question. “So does this, last night, mean…?”

“It means whatever you want it to mean,” said Max. “I don’t think who you love has much to do with identities or categories or any of that. I am who I am. You are who you are. If we can share something special for a while, why ask for more?”

I relaxed for a while, with that idea burrowing around under my skin. It seemed so obvious, so true, there in Max’s parlor in the warm light of midmorning. But it had seemed so alien, so forbidden, so enticing, in the dim light at the bar the previous evening. And so confusing in the night. But Max had a way of waving her hand and cutting through all the clouds of hype, of fluff, that society has wrapped around our intimacies. Perhaps it boils down to one thing: Max knows who she is, and what she wants. And, wonder of wonders, what she wanted seemed to be me. What could I do but go with it?

Perhaps the wildest thing is that this attitude seems to be contagious.

*

And so, I left him.

Max and I went to the apartment when Mike was at work, sorted through all the stuff, packed it in boxes and the back of our cars. I hate moving, always, unequivocally. But especially when there’s an emotional monkey-wrench in the process.

Max let me put my stuff in her extra bedroom, at least until I found a place of my own. We were exhausted by the end of the day, stiff and sweaty, so she introduced me to the extra large bathtub in her upstairs bathroom. Unlike the typical euphemism, this was actually a room for baths. The tub was huge: big enough to lie flat in, let your hair down, let it float free. Or, as Max demonstrated with a grin, to accommodate a friend.

“Better?” asked Max, over a nice steaming mug of herbal tea. She’d been asking that a lot lately. I guess I hadn’t realized just how spirit-snuffing my life had become.

“Much. Thanks sooo much, Max, for everything, but most of all for reminding me I can go for whatever I want; it’s ok to know what I want.”

“Or whom,” said Max, with that show me all your teeth giggling grin of hers. She had a way of short-circuiting my rationalizations, my explanations.

“Or whom,” I agreed. With which Max, all 5 foot nothing of her, scrunched into my lap, and kissed me.

“I don’t usually seduce my professors,” I apologized, when I had possession of all my mouth parts again.

“Bah. I’m not your professor. I’m just the old dyke who works down the hall,” she laughed. “And stop apologizing. I want this, you want this, enough said, yes?”

“Sorry,” I started, then stopped myself, chuckling. “Yes. Enough said.”

Halfway down the mug of tea, it was cool enough to begin to taste the essence. “Max?” I asked.

“Mmm?” she murmured, contentedly.

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what? You’re safe here.”

“I know that. It’s just that I’ve been such a creature of habit; drifting from one thing to the next. I don’t want this to be a drift. I want to do this because I want to do this.” I thought for a moment, replaying that in my head. “I’m not sure that came out right… Am I making any kind of sense?”

“Absolutely. Let me set you up with sheets and stuff in your own room. Then there’s no pressure; we can be roommates if we want, or whatever else suits our mutual fancy.”

I thanked her.

“But Renée? You’ll have to talk to me, tell me about how you’re feeling about stuff, OK?”

*

One day I came home after a long wrangle with a problem and an argument with my advisor to find Max sitting on the couch, staring into space.

“What’s up?” I asked her, dropping my backpack next to the door of the Gloaming Room, where we often sat to watch the sunset.

She stirred, looked up. I could see there were tears in her eyes, but there was a smile on her face as well. “Come sit,” she said.

She showed me a letter, written on the letterhead of another university, instantly recognizable. “We are pleased to announce,” it announced, “our acceptance of your application for a sabbatical among us here.” I didn’t read the rest.

A cold hand contracted around my heart. We were just getting to know each other, just getting past the stage of always bumping into each other in the kitchen.

“So…?” I asked, looking into her eyes.

She took my hand, intertwined our fingers, gripped it with her other hand as well, and held the resulting fist in her lap, squeezing gently. “I applied for this last winter, before I even knew you existed,” she explained. “I’m sorry, I’m glad, I don’t know that to feel.”

“Go,” I told her. When her eyebrow went up, I nodded into her eyes. “I’ll miss you, of course, more than anything. But this is such a great thing, getting away from here, learning new things from different people…” I trailed off. A lump was forming in my throat.

“Thanks,” she said, “I’ve picked a good one, I see.” A tear formed in her eye, slid down her cheek, and dripped from her chin onto our clasped hands. The sun had set; the room grew dark.

I kissed her eyes, one, two, one again. Disengaging our hands, I knelt between her knees, put hands on her shoulders, pulled her close, and kissed her full on the lips. She was smiling as I released her.

“Thanks,” she murmured again, with another sniffle. “About the house,” she said. “You need a place to stay, since your lease with Mike is expiring; I need someone to house-sit. Would you?”

“Oh, yes,” I agreed. An ideal situation for a grad student: it was either a garret someplace or a nice house on Faculty Row. It would have been better, of course, with Max in it.

So here I am. Alone, happy to be alone. Holding on to Max’s principles, roughly summarized as Know what you want and Don’t settle for anything less. And ready to spit in the eye of a society that doesn’t understand alone-ness. One little replay of the flash in Max’s eye when things weren’t going her way is enough to remind me of that. And of her love, and what we shared for a while.

pencil

Ana George is a scientist living near Boston, who writes a little on the side. Two previous stories by this author have appeared in Toasted-Cheese. She also enjoys hiking, singing antique music, arguing philosophy, and taking care of her yard in the suburbs. She loves feedback, and can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.

What Does We Want Mean

Best of the Boards
Ana George


I was drinking coffee when he first came up to me. “I’m Rob,” he said.

Extending my free hand, I said, “Renée. I’ve seen you around here, I think.”

“Yeah, this coffee hour is nice. Mid-morning is the perfect time. I get into the day’s musing, charge up on caffeine, and the day is more productive.” He chuckled. “Well, usually.” Unlike most men, he seemed to look only at my face, or away somewhere.

I nodded agreement. “Caffeine and a bit of warmth. It usually seems to be chillier in here than I counted on. Hence today’s sweater, even though it’s not that cold out.” My hair, which I wear very long, was under my sweater; perhaps he’d decided to approach me because he found me less intimidating with my hair out of sight or something. I’ve given up trying to guess. We were talking, and that was enough for the moment.

He nodded, checked out the sweater, and the woman inside. “Indoor weather is often very different from what’s outside,” he agreed. I found something arousing about the way he reached out with his eyes.

*

Over the next few weeks we met at coffee a few times each week. I could see him check me out from across the room, and, what with being a statistician, I noticed a correlation. When I was wearing something feminine, or had my hair down, he would usually stay on the far side of the crowd, sneaking glances at me between the knots of conversation. If I was wearing something loose and shapeless and had my hair braided or under a sweater or something, he was all chitchat.

A week or two later on a chilly morning, Rob and I were chatting again. The fickle spring weather had turned a bit too cold for my long skirt, sandaled feet, and tie-dyed T-shirt. So the warmth of my cup was delightful, pressed into the crook of my elbow, tight up against a breast, steaming. But whenever I moved, a lock of my (somewhat uncharacteristically) loose hair kept trying to take a dip.

“Hold this,” I told him, handing him my coffee.

I started braiding my hair, combing it with open-fingered hands, lifting both arms over my head, which pulled my shirt against my breasts. My hair is curly enough to stay braided without a fastener; this also seemed to fascinate Rob, being yet one more physical thing about my person he could caress with his eyes.

I dropped the braid down my back, out of trouble, pulled my shirt down to resume its habit of hanging loosely about me, and put out a hand for my coffee.

He spluttered a bit, handed me both his mug and mine, and went into a paroxysm of coughing.

On the third try, he managed a weak, “Sorry. I don’t know what came over me.”

“Well, actually I do,” he continued, after clearing his throat again. Raising his eyes to mine, he continued, “Sometimes you’re just sooo attractive, I can’t resist.”

“So don’t,” I said, with a smile.

His eyebrow crooked. “Don’t…?”

“Resist.”

“Didn’t want to be impolite,” he murmured.

“Politeness and, um, whatever-comes-after-friendship aren’t actually compatible ideas,” I told him.

“True. Would you…” he hesitated.

I smiled, and nodded almost imperceptibly.

“Dinner?” he finished, omitting the verb.

*

Usually when I’m cooking for myself my hair’s braided, out of the way. Tonight Rob’s presence called for exceptions to most of my customs and household rules, so I was moving carefully around the kitchen. I handed him a corkscrew to use with the bottle he’d brought. The stereo was playing the Vivaldi Gloria. He hummed along, until my notice made him self-conscious.

He stood in the doorway for the last few minutes of the preparation, watching. The chitchat subsided. I looked at him through the lock of hair that had fallen into my face.

“I’d like to photograph you, just like this,” he said.

And so it was that, after dinner, I learned a bit of what visually oriented people (read: men) see in a woman’s appearance. He had some lights in the trunk of his car; he seems to free-lance as a photographer in his spare time. “Something non-academic,” he explained.

One particularly nice picture was taken from two feet off the floor, with a toddler’s-eye-view of my bookshelves in the background. He had me crouching frog-like on the floor, bare toes just peeking from beneath my long skirt, hair everywhere. In printing it, he’s pushed the color or played with the light or something, so one stunningly green eye was visible through streaks of a lock, contrasting with the color of the wine I was holding by the stem in pale hand. The nose and chin seem almost disembodied. He had clicked the shutter from his position sitting cross-legged on the floor, just as I was deciding whether it would be OK to check out his crotch. So what’s visible of my face has a look at once puzzled, calculating, and lusty.

He printed it out full-page size and framed it for me. I have it still, these years later, as a reminder of what he taught me about life, friendship, attraction, and, well, lust, actually.

“I am enjoying this,” I told Rob, as he reloaded his camera. “I mean, I usually don’t go in for being photographed; it’s a little too, I dunno, intimate? Not quite… Maybe narcissistic? Exhibitionist? But you seem to know what you’re doing. You’ve put me very much at ease, tonight.”

“Well, I’ve been taking pictures and selling them for 15 years; I guess I know my way around the camera by now,” he said, not looking up from his work. ” There. Besides, if I may say so, you’re really photogenic, and the expressions on your face are just astonishing; but they come and go so quickly. A quick trigger finger is a must in the business of taking pictures of people.”

And somewhere in the second roll he got the other really good picture of me. I was trying to make up my mind how the evening should progress after he ran out of film; looking at him; watching him play with his equipment; wondering if I wanted him to stay or not. And there I am in the picture, slouched on the couch, hair falling down like a waterfall onto the floor; feet up, the long skirt misarranged. An elbow underneath me, my figure visible in the light and shadows as my clothes crumpled in places where they were empty. And with a gleam in my eye which is certainly not an “on the street” kind of expression, but is enigmatic enough that I hope he couldn’t read my musings.

“I remember, in school in the late 60s, when we girls started wearing skirts like this. It was an era of miniskirts, and a time of dress codes. The rules said if you’re female you wear a skirt to school (do they ever try to enforce that any more?) and the length shall be at the knee, plus or minus two inches. I don’t think anybody in my whole sophomore class ever wore such a thing to school. Most wore minis, because that’s what was in. So some of us uncool, rebellious types decided to go the other way, and wear long skirts. Very practical, really; I could never understand the appeal of minis (unless you’re being blatant about trying to seduce some guy; I never got into that either, and that’s another story).” I was babbling, trying to get the idea that he was ogling me with his machine out of my head; trying to look more or less natural.

“And tie-dyed shirts, when somebody figured out how to do that. Some were really stunning. One nice thing about them is that they’re loud enough to act as dazzle camouflage. It’s almost impossible to see the detailed shape of something painted in wild colors.”

“Um, unless…” he said.

“Well, yeah,” I admitted, following his gaze. This particular shirt was a pale blue with a bright orange sun-burst neatly surrounding my left breast.

Snap!

went the camera shutter. Oh, great. Now he’d have a photograph of me, looking at my own breast.

“Can I ask you something?” I asked him.

“You just did,” he answered, very predictably, grinning. “Sure.”

“Um,” I stammered, coming right down to the point. “How much film do you have left?”

“Three more shots. But I don’t think that’s what you were going to ask.”

“I want… I mean, I’d like… Er, harrumph. Women are supposed to be more aware of conversational gambits and moods than men are; here I’m flustered, and you just sit there, smiling.”

“Take your time. You’re very cute when you’re flustered,” said Rob.

I sat up, ran fingers through my hair to get it out of my face (Snap!), glared reproachfully at him (Snap!), and then had to laugh (Snap!). Counting three shots, I crawled over to him, with hair dragging on the floor, and took his camera from his hand.

“Lens cap?” I demanded.

He produced it, affixed it to the lens. I carefully placed the infernal ogle-machine, eye down, on the couch.

Then crawling ever closer to him, I kissed him, kept advancing, and he tumbled over on his back with me on top of him.

“Wow,” he said, coming up for air.

“Is that a good wow or a bad wow?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

“A really good wow. I had no idea,” he bumbled. “I mean, well, I don’t know what I mean.”

So I kissed him again. Then I took his hand, stood up, and led him to the staircase. There we’d be able to kiss standing up, using the stairs to negate his eight-inch height advantage. And, in due course, the staircase might lead to other things.

Just at this moment, the stereo finished a disk of Bach, and, much to my horror, Tori Amos from the next room sang, “Look, I’m standing naked before you, don’t you want more than my sex?” It seems I’d left some, ahem, controversial music in the nether regions of my CD magazine. The ambiguity of the song seemed to feed into our situation. He smiled.

He was not taking hints. It seemed time for something direct. “In about ten minutes…” I started, then hesitated. I’d chickened out several times already, so this time I decided to plunge right ahead. “…I’m going upstairs to get naked and finish what you started, what with fondling me with your camera. If you’d like to join me…?”

He visibly shook, as if I’d hit him. He looked at me, red-faced.

His mouth opened, and then closed, and then opened again. “Another time, for sure,” he said. “I’m just starting to get to know you, and I’d like it to be perfect.”

“I understand. I’d like that too. And I respect your attitude. A lot.”

Silence. For a bit too long. I started to babble.

“I don’t usually proposition my colleagues,” I said, “Heck, I usually don’t even date my colleagues. But for you I figured I’d make an exception. But not one of those if I make an exception for you I’d have to do it for everyone kinds of exceptions.”

“We wouldn’t want that,” he said. I loved him, just there in that moment, for helping to ease my embarrassment.

“No, we wouldn’t want that,” I agreed. ” You know, what with desires being such private things, I’ve never been able to understand what We Want could ever mean,” I told him. “Sorry if I’ve been too forward.”

“Don’t be sorry. I like your explicitness. I know where we’re going now; I just don’t know how long it’ll take me to catch up with you.” He smiled. “There will come a time when it will be clear what We Want.”

He collected his gear. We kissed at the door as he left. I sat down on the bottom step, shaking, unfilled, wondering.

pencil

“What Does We Want Mean?” was originally posted at Perpetual Passion, Toasted Cheese’s romance writing forum. Ana can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.

How Long Is The Night?

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Ana George


“OK, this one’s interesting,” I said. I was reading the personals section of the funky metro area newspaper, over coffee.

“What?” said Beth, looking up from her book. “Oh, you’re reading the personals again? They’re so boring and repetitive.”

“Not this time. Listen: “GWF seeks companion for longest night of the year. I want to ponder deep questions such as why that night has neither the latest sunrise nor the earliest sunset. Bring your books and your computer.

“…with the usual drop-box e-mail address.”

“Hmmm… sounds like someone right out of your neighborhood, Laurie,” said Beth. “You going to answer?”

“Um, gulp, yeah, I guess I should.” I was feeling a little stampeded by the suddenness, the reality, of the concept of actually responding to one of these ads.

“It’s not exactly my idea of a fun time,” said Beth. “I mean, I’m kind of a math phobe and all, but doing calculations all night with, what, a date? Why? Can’t she think of anything better to do?”

“I don’t know,” I mused, “It sounds kind of interesting. At least we wouldn’t have to think of a topic for small talk. I hate small talk. What should I write in my answer?”

“That’s your problem. I’m off to give my American Lit final.”

*

“Jen?” I asked, disbelieving. Entering the restaurant, looking around for a woman alone, I saw her unmistakable mane from behind: voluminous, curly, black shot through with enough silver to betoken wisdom. “I’d recognize that hair anywhere.”

“Laurie.” She turned her head. “I should have known you’d turn out to be somebody I know.” We’d been having lunch once a month or so since we’d met, when the male colleagues in our two departments had sentenced us to simultaneous terms in the Faculty Senate. Two academic spinsters in science and math departments dominated by men; it seemed a natural friendship.

The out of town blind date thing was so stereotyped as to be laughable. In a way it was nice to share the experience with someone I knew pretty well, if only for the reassurance that I’m not the only one who does this sort of thing.

“Loved your ad,” I remarked, over dessert.

“Most of them–both the ads and the respondents–are just sooo boring. I figured that mathematophobia would weed out the airheads, most of the goths, and the riotgrrrls.”

“And bring your fellow faculty members out of the, er, woodwork,” I said, narrowly avoiding the most obvious cliche.

“Besides,” said Jen, “a relationship should be based on shared interests and experiences, not just those three letter acronyms at the beginning of a personals ad.” I had to agree.

She looked into my eyes for a long moment. Many thoughts and feelings were almost expressed by the twitches of the tiny muscles around her eyes, but ultimately I learned all I needed to know from her words, and her touch. “Come to my place,” she said, pushing her hand across the table, interlocking our fingers.

“Ooo,” I said, coyly. “Interdigitating on the first date.”

She laughed. “And more, I hope.”

“The idea I have is to calculate the time of sunrise between now and morning,” she explained.

“Sounds like fun,” I said. “The extra hours we have tonight may allow for other things,” I said, raising an eyebrow.

“Depends,” she said, smiling.

*

Her place. The house was cold and dark. The bedroom was large, built onto the back of an otherwise unremarkable house. Rather than turn up the thermostat, she stoked the wood stove, and knelt in earnest attention on the hearth before it, nurturing the flame until it was self-sustaining.

In the half light I could see her bookcase against the far wall. The windows were dark, looking out onto unbroken snow in the back yard. The rye grass was beautiful, with dried seed heads silver in the winter, six feet tall.

“Wa-i-lat-pu,” I murmured.

“What?” asked Jen.

“Place of the rye grass, in some northwestern Indian language. It’s the name of an old mission in Idaho or somewhere,” I explained.

“Nice,” she said. “Wine?”

On the other side of the bed, there was, believe it or not, a whiteboard. In the bedroom. I laughed.

“Hey, I do some of my best work here. A glass of wine, a whiteboard, and thou,” she said, drawing me into her arms. She kissed me once, twice, in a way that told me that someone Jen kisses stays kissed. A thrill shuddered through my body.

*

“So there are two effects to worry about. One for each of us. The earth’s not in a circular orbit, so this time of year, when we’re closest to the sun, the sun moves across the sky a little faster. The day of closest approach to the sun is January 2nd.”

“Let’s see… the average per day is about 24 hours divided by 365 days…” I mumbled for a while, doing arithmetic. “Four minutes and change. Oh, yeah, I remember being told that the earth rotates in 23 hours and 56 minutes.”

“Relative to the stars, yes.” said Jen. “We should look up the precise number, but you’ve got the idea.”

“OK, so what we’re worried about is the fact that the sun is not a good clock, because it doesn’t lose exactly 4 minutes per day (or whatever the number is).”

“Exactly. For two reasons–the earth’s orbit is elliptical, and it’s rotating around an axis tilted relative to the orbit plane. So when the sun is far from the equator (in the south, tonight), it gets more degrees of longitude per day even if it were moving at a constant speed around the orbit.”

“Ah. Spherical trig. I can do spherical trig,” I said, going over to the whiteboard and drawing a large circle.

*

As the room warmed, we had shed layers of our winter clothing, and Jen turned on the electric fans, one blowing on the wood stove, and also the ceiling fan. It felt good, capturing the radiant heat from the stove on bare skin, and turning slowly around as I wrote cosines on the whiteboard.

I glanced over at Jen, slouched comfortably in her overstuffed chair. Her left foot was tucked under her, and a large book was perched in the crook of her knee. Her right leg was draped over the chair’s arm, with a clipboard balanced against her thigh. It made sense to keep her feet up off the chilly floor. She held a smaller book in her left hand, and by turns wrote equations, sipped wine, and managed her hair with the other hand.

“I see you work this way a lot,” I chuckled.

She considered her situation–nude, in a nest of books and papers, alone with a good friend, past midnight in the wood stove’s warm flickering glow. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” she laughed.

“Sure it does,” I said. Walking over to her, I took each book in turn, laid it face down on the carpet, and pulling her up out of the chair, took her to bed.

*

“So where were we?” asked Jen, going back to her books. “I have an equation for my part, but I’ll need a computer to solve it.” Getting up, she wandered into another room and returned with a laptop. She returned for chords, a mouse, and other accessories.

“You give me the ecliptic longitude of the sun, and I’ll convert it to the time correction. Add that to the clock time (after taking account of the fact that we don’t live in the middle of our time zone), and we should have the time of sunrise. Before sunrise. It’s always so much better to make the predictions before the fact…”

We finished the calculation about four o’clock, which left three and a half hours or so. We set the alarm to ring five minutes before our predicted sunrise time.

“If you put your head here, the sun will shine in through that window right in your eye,” said Jen, placing a pillow for me. It was nice, for once, having someone warm to snuggle with on a winter night.

As it turns out, we neglected a couple of things in our calculations: the sun is a disc, rather than a point, and the earth’s atmosphere bends the sun’s rays, allowing us to see over the horizon a bit. So the alarm went off after the sun rose on our new relationship, dazzling our eyes.

You live, and you learn. The living is more important.

pencil

Ana George lives in the suburbs of Boston, and enjoys hiking, astronomy, reading, making music, and living alone, in addition to writing the occasional story. She works as a scientist (as you’ll notice, reading the story). Ana can be reached at ana54writes[at]yahoo.com.