Princeton was the only school I applied to, and it rejected me. Then I had to put in a late application to K.U.; that was a guaranteed acceptance. I didn't want to go to college in the town I was from, but I would have to. My mother had been right: being good at what I liked, and having good test scores, hadn't been enough. But I was stubborn. I was going to Princeton anyway. I applied during my freshman year and was turned down again. Then my proof of the prime number theorem was published, and I sent the journal along with my third application. The proof was something new: a combination of analytic and elementary techniques. I was more than accepted. I was given a scholarship. And I'd gotten in on my own terms.
Attending Princeton was like the first time I drove on the highway. I was accustomed to thirty miles an hour, not sixty. But panic wasn't all I felt. Princeton charmed me: old, and famous, and beautiful, and more mathematicians than I could ever pick the brains of. I was exhilarated, and determined not to be intimidated. I had a lot to master, and not much time. I made a two-year plan and posted it above my desk.
I posted inspirational quotes there, too: "Mathematics is the surest path to immortality." (Erdos) And: "The world of pure reason knows no compromise, no practical limitations, no barrier to the creative activity embodying in splendid edifices the passionate aspiration after the perfect from which all great work springs." (Russell) And: "It is still an unending source of surprise for me how a few scribbles on a blackboard or a piece of paper can change the course of human affairs" (Ulam). I was determined to be the author of at least one of those scribbles. All I had to do was exert myself.
I kept a record of the problems I had trouble with, and how I got unstuck, but that only avoided repeated mistakes. I needed to be sharper from the start, so I found study partners. It wasn't difficult, because the math department was largely male. The few undergraduate girls dressed like the boys, but I wore sweaters and slacks. The boys were always hitting on me. That was good; they could help me. I was careful to choose only the best, so I wouldn't waste my time helping them. But even geeks know when they're being used, and they didn't stick around. There were always replacements. The supply was endless, even after I earned a reputation for being a user. Every new boy thought he would be the one to get me. Every one of them was wrong. For starters, not one of them dressed well.
My second semester I was filling a gap, auditing a class in discrete mathematics. The teaching assistant was named Samuel. I thought he was the most beautiful man I'd ever seen. It was a cool day but he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt. The tendons and veins in his forearms showed, making a beautiful tracery there, and on the backs of his long hands.
He didn't say a word, simply walked in, picked up the chalk, and drew a dense grid of lines on the green slate. He marked two points and turned to the class and said,
"Give me an algorithm to get from one point to the other without any trig and without any real numbers. Nothing but arithmetic and integers. Move only on the lines."
I wanted to impress him, so I raised my hand before I even had the answer. I had a glimmer, and I knew I could solve it.
"Yes." He pointed at me.
I said, "Trivially, any path will always be the same length if you move in the correct directions on the x and y axes and don't go outside the rectangle defined by the start and end points. But I assume you're asking for an algorithm that approximates a straight line." I was delaying while I thought the problem over. The answer came when I finished talking.
"Correct." He held out the chalk to me.
I ignored it. "Then figure the delta x and the delta y. Define a movement value equal to the larger number and move in that direction one step. Subtract the number that represents the other axis. Continue to move in the original direction, subtracting until the result is zero or less. Then move along the other axis and add the original amount back in. Move horizontally or vertically according to whether the value is positive or negative. Iterate until you reach the destination." I said, "This would be a good algorithm for a simulation that needed its computational intensity reduced. Also, I don't think it generalizes to a coordinate system with more than two axes, or polar coordinates." I was throwing in everything I could think of, trying to impress him.
"Prove the validity in the Cartesian plane, then."
It was scarcely worth the effort, but I took the chalk and wrote a ten-line proof on the board.
"You've seen this problem before," he said.
"No." I put the chalk back in the tray instead of in his outstretched hand. My palm was sweaty, and I didn't want him to feel it.
I watched him the rest of the hour, thinking that he was beautiful: more than six feet tall, heavy glossy black hair, long eyelashes, liquid dark eyes, smooth olive skin. I couldn't concentrate on what he was saying, only on him. I wondered what his ethnicity was -- his features had a Caucasian sharpness, but his skin color was halfway to Indian, or Middle Eastern, though smoother than theirs generally are. He had no facial hair or five-o'clock shadow. He slouched when he moved. Everything about him was interesting, but contradictory. His accent was like none I'd ever heard. His speech was soft, but when he wrote on the board he was forceful, twice breaking the chalk. There was an urgent need there, a motivation to capture the truth, the real and incontrovertible truth, like my own. He pressed hard, and erasures didn't clear the board; faint traces of writing remained.
After a week he accosted me when the hour was over. He sat with his rear end half on the desk, one foot on the floor and the other dangling in the air. He looked past me.
"Why are you taking this class?"
"I haven't had any discrete math."
"You should be taking more advanced subjects."
What a nerve. "I'm taking three hours of 300-level math," I said, "six of 400-level, and three of 500-level. Plus seven hours of non-math. I'm only auditing yours."
He glanced at my face and away, and folded his arms across his stomach. He didn't speak for perhaps five seconds. Then he said, "You could learn this from a book."
"The class keeps me on a schedule. I do the homework. I'll take the tests, if you let me. That way I know I'll learn the subject."
"All right, then," he said. He unparked himself from the desk. "You can take the tests. I'll even grade them. I've never met anyone this serious."
I thought about him on my way to the next class. Samuel. He didn't go by "Sam". He seemed clean, not just soap-and-water, but crisp. His shirt and trousers were pressed and his shoes were polished. His hair was well cut. His watch was a Movado with a black crocodile strap. So first, he had good taste. And second, there didn't seem to be anything attached to him; he came to class coatless and carrying not a single piece of paper or a book, not even the text. I imagined him living in a bare apartment with shiny hardwood floors. No car. A bicycle in the corner of the big room. A studio in an old warehouse. Vast empty space. Everything reduced to the lowest common denominator, so he could manage and comprehend it at a glance.
I'd never pursued anyone. Quite the opposite -- I'd brushed off my suitors. I didn't know how to be the aggressor. Melody could have given me some pointers: she was usually chasing someone. But she was in California, and we didn't know her phone or address.
I didn't want him to know that I had a crush on him, so I didn't attend the other class he taught. After I overheard him arranging to meet a friend at a certain coffeehouse I started studying there, but never saw him.
I was trying to solve every problem in the text. One had me stumped, and I used it as a pretext. I suggested we meet at the same coffeehouse I'd heard him mention.
I was early, but he was already there, reading a book. He looked the way he always did: unhurried. I sat in the chair across the table.
"Have you read any of these?" he asked. He held the book so I could see the front cover. One of the Brother Cadfael mysteries.
"No, but my mother likes them."
"Do you read fiction?" he asked. His accent was delicious. I would have liked it in a bowl, with whipped cream on top.
"What's the problem?"
"I don't understand it."
"Any of them."
"I doubt that. You're doing very well."
"Oh. I thought you were asking about fiction."
He smiled. What teeth! I'd never seen them so close. He said, "No. The problem in the book."
I opened the text and showed him.
He glanced at it and said, "Look at problems 4 and 9."
He was right. I'd already solved them, and this one would yield to the same techniques. My face felt hot.
"Don't be embarrassed. We all miss the obvious now and then. Even the most gifted."
"Where did you grow up?" I wanted to retract the question, because he didn't answer. "I mean your accent," I said. "I can't place it. I'm good with accents, but I've never heard one like yours."
"Well, there's some Scots. Glasgow?"
"Very good. Glasgow it is."
"And some New Zealand? Or Australia?"
He raised both eyebrows. "I'm impressed. New Zealand."
"But there's something else. Somewhere I can't fix."
"You grew up in all those places?"
"Born in Glasgow. Childhood there and Wellington. Youth near Frankfurt."
"My father was a troubleshooter. He specialized in improving certain manufacturing processes. We went wherever they paid him the most. Which was generally an obscene amount of money. He was extremely good at what he did."
"What school did you go to?"
"M.I.T. I thought I wanted to be an engineer, like my father. I hated it."
"So you did math instead?"
"For the same reason you're doing it."
It was my turn to smile. We had some common ground now. "Solving puzzles," I said.
"And all you need is paper and pencil. No messy labs."
"Yes," he said, with a grimace. "All that manual stuff -- putting things together, centrifuging."
"I managed to avoid biology."
A guitarist was hooking up his instrument to an amp on the stage. He strummed a chord and said "testing" into the microphone.
Samuel said, "The music nights. That's what's wrong with this place." He looked at the guitarist, then turned to me. "Do you need anything else?"
"More time," I wanted to say, but didn't. "No."
"I'll be going, then." He stood.
"Can you give me a ride?"
"Can you see me home?" I gestured at the gloom outside the window.
He didn't talk, and I didn't have anything to say, until we passed a diner. "I'm hungry," I said. "Are you?" I couldn't take him to the Street. I'd transferred in as a junior, so I didn't belong to an eating club.
"Yes, but here?" he asked, looking dismayed.
This was unfamiliar territory. I was supposed to be the picky one. I was supposed to make the decisions. I always had, but somehow he'd taken the initiative.
"I shouldn't do this," he said, "but there's a place I know."
We walked to his house and took his car, an old Morgan, not a spot of rust on it, the leather seats in perfect condition, immaculate inside and out. Not what I'd expected.
Even his driving was unhurried, but he continually drifted out of his lane. Maybe it was the right-hand drive; the car was English, inappropriate for American roads, with the wrong-side steering. Though since he owned the car he should have been used to it.
"I don't drive much," he said. "I'm making you nervous, aren't I?"
"Oh, no. You're fine."
"No I'm not. You're pressing your hands against the dash."
I'd been pressing a foot against the floor, too. I folded my hands in my lap and brought my feet in closer.
"I'm a rotten driver," he said. "Do you want to take the wheel?"
I didn't say anything.
"I'd like it better if you did," he said. "I hate driving."
So I drove and he navigated. He was as good at that as he was bad at driving. He told me which lane to get in, and how far the next turn was, and how the sign would read, and what the interchange would look like. But I had trouble with the wheel being on the wrong side. I had to watch carefully to stay in the lane, or I would have drifted off the pavement.
I'd been driving for fifteen minutes and he hadn't said a word, except to give occasional directions. We were heading toward Philadelphia. I said, "My mother's a Quaker, but I've never been to Philadelphia."
"I'm surprised. Arch Street should be your -- 'Mecca' isn't quite the right word, is it?"
"I'm not a Quaker. I don't go to Meeting."
"Sitting in silence is a waste of time."
He made a brief humming noise.
The detached quality that had intrigued me was making me nervous now.
He stared out his window. "Turn right at the next exit, about half a mile." The two-lane road brought us into a little town. Samuel said, "Go through the stoplight and park in the middle of the next block, on the right."
I stopped outside a storefront. A sign in the window said Genoa in italic.
"A friend of mine owns this. Do you like northern Italian cooking?"
"It's one of my favorites," I said. I'd never had it.
The room was small: six tables, each with four chairs. He ordered wine without looking at the list. When the waitress had gone, I leaned toward him and whispered, "I won't be twenty-one until June."
"Then we'll have to approximate. Your delta can be neglected."
What a groaner. Coming from anyone else I would at least have ignored such a weak joke, and more likely commented that what was being neglected was any originality, humor, and meaning -- and then left. Instead, I nearly asked what type of delta he meant, but it was too soon for that kind of innuendo. I laughed, to flatter him.
The food was astonishing: fresh ingredients, attractive presentation, interesting combinations of flavors and textures and temperatures. Seven small courses, imaginative and careful. They'd thought of everything.
I had the sea bass with clam sauce. By the end of the meal all worries and upset had been banished to some remote domain where they would never trouble me again. Samuel called for the check and paid with a platinum card. I caught a glimpse of the total. Three figures, but he gave the slip of paper only a quick glance before he signed.
"Thank you," I said. "That was the best meal I've ever eaten." This time I was sincere.
"Yes. I'd come here more often, except I'd have to drive."
We became lovers that summer. He waited for the end of the semester, so he wouldn't be my teacher and get in trouble with the University for violating the prohibition on student-teacher sex. I was commuting to my classes from New York. I was staying with my father and using his car for transportation. Samuel invited me to dinner at his house. "I'll cook," he said.
I would have eaten a Big Mac if that was his plan. I told my father I planned to spend the weekend with a friend and he said not to worry: "Keep the car." I packed an overnight bag and stowed it in the trunk. I'd gone on the pill little more than a month before, and my breasts were still tender. I worried that they'd hurt when Samuel touched them.
Samuel met me at the door, moments after I rang the bell. The house was clean, the lights low, candles on the table, faint smells of incense and food.
"Right on time," he said, grasped my wrist, and kissed me on the cheek. It was the first time he'd touched me.
I knew what was coming, although some of the details were vague. I wanted to have sex with him, but I was a virgin. I thought I had to sleep with him, sex was part of being together. I wasn't sure I'd like it. It was offputting: comical and messy. I'd watched a porn movie once, and it had seemed gross. I knew my mother and Wyatt enjoyed sex because I'd listened outside their door. Her cries were weirdly thrilling and disturbing. I envied her. I'd always wondered what it would be like, to be with Wyatt that way, and might even have tried, but he never looked at any woman but my mother. She was incredibly lucky.
The food Samuel served reminded me of Genoa, and I said so, and asked, "You cooked this? Really?"
"Actually, no. My friend catered it."
There was a dissonance between the perfect food (mine was sea bass -- he'd remembered what I'd ordered at the restaurant), the wine (a private reserve with a cork label), the well-kept house, the well-groomed man, the pleasant odors; there was dissonance between all these and my turmoil. I finished my food, and most of the bottle of wine, before I noticed that I hadn't properly tasted them.
"Should I open another bottle?" he asked, collecting the dishes.
"Not for me." I picked up the empty bottle and the glasses, and the silver, to help, but by the time I started for the kitchen he was starting back, and we met in the doorway. He reached for me, but my hands were full, and the things in them between us, so he stepped back. I put the things on the counter and turned, but he was sitting at the dining-room table again. First chance, gone. I washed my hands and checked my reflection in the kitchen window, wishing it were a mirror.
I sat next to him and we stared at the candles. This went on much too long. They burned almost another inch while the silence consumed me. I wanted to melt, like the wax, or at least get out the door without him noticing.
"Do you have a boyfriend?" he asked.
I was so astonished I simply stared.
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"I see you on campus with certain boys," he said. "I thought maybe one of them... "
"No. We study, or hang out. We're friends." I didn't mention that most of them were gay. I like gay men. They're attentive and nonthreatening. "Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Not at the moment."
I wondered what that meant. Girlfriends were disposable? "I should go," I said. "My father worries."
"Oh. I thought... Can't you stay a bit longer?"
"I shouldn't." I needed him to be more aggressive, because I was inexperienced. I needed him to be confident, because I wasn't. I needed him to know what I needed.
He leaned over and kissed me. He knew what he wanted after all.
"Samuel," I said.
I stroked his face, temple to earlobe. "Samuel."
"Clover," he said. "You're the one with the beautiful name. Beautiful name. Beautiful girl."
This was all so predictable I had to stop myself from laughing. I'd never let myself be seduced, but now I saw how it worked. I knew what to say and do. Everything was strange and familiar at the same time. I was looking on and laughing at us, and falling in love with him, too. I was calculating what to do and say, and yet I felt spontaneous and genuine. I stroked his cheek, and it was soft, and I said his name again.
"Won't you stay?" he asked.
"I don't know," I said.
He kissed me. This time he opened his mouth and touched my lips with his tongue. I drew away.
He leaned in and kissed me again, but with his mouth closed. I kissed him back, and we sat for a long time that way, simply kissing. He cupped the back of my head in his hand. The candle must have burned another half inch.
"Clover?" he said.
I didn't want him to stop. I'd completely forgotten myself until he spoke. I felt different between my legs. I knew I was getting wet. I'd heard about this, read about this. I could even smell it, a little.
"Clover?" he asked again. I knew what he wanted to ask next, and I wasn't ready.
"Shut up." I unbuttoned my blouse and put his hand on my breast. I'd gone bra-less, something I never did because the sensation was too free.
"God," he said. "God." He thumbed the nipple, then kneaded it.
"Your mouth," I said. I pulled the blouse open. "Your mouth."
If I'd thought his kisses were too much, now I was about to lose track of every distinction that made me a separate, conscious, self-aware being. I was exploding out of my skin. I wanted to scream. I needed to move in some way I couldn't. I didn't dare budge, or breathe. I didn't want to disturb what he was doing. My entire body tingled.
"Ah." Someone was whimpering.
He took his mouth away and started to speak.
"No," I said, and pulled him back to my breast.
His hand was creeping up my leg, under my skirt. I was ashamed. I didn't want him to know I was wet, but I couldn't move, except to continue holding him to my breast.
He kissed my mouth and I opened it and he licked my lips. I broke away.
"No?" he asked.
I kissed him and did the same thing to him, and then our tongues touched. I was trying to stop but I couldn't. I felt his thumb and forefinger pressing my labia together. I leaned back and thrust my hips forward. Who was this woman in my body? Why was she doing these things? Why did my face burn?
He stood and I opened my eyes and looked at him. Why had he stopped? Oh. He took my hand in his. In slow motion I saw him pull me up from the chair. I sat back down from a half-standing posture. He looked puzzled.
"Samuel, I'm afraid. I've never done this."
"I won't hurt you."
In his bed, after the awkward moments of removing our clothes, he kissed me, and played with my breasts, and touched me between the legs, but the abandoned feeling wouldn't come back. I lay there, watching him do all the work. I couldn't respond. I felt sorry for him, and more sorry for me.
"Samuel, I'm not ready. I can't do this yet. Maybe I'm frigid."
"No. You're definitely not frigid." He lay on his side, next to me, his head on his hand. I couldn't look at him. He said, "What do you want?"
"Will you hold me? Until I fall asleep?"
He exhaled noisily.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I want to. I don't know why I can't."
He held me and after a while I fell asleep.
In the morning I woke before he did. I lifted the sheet and inspected his body. No fat, not much body hair. Everything about him was smooth and clean. He woke while I was looking at his penis. Immediately it started to rise. I kissed his mouth, and moments later all my feelings were like they'd been the night before, when we'd kissed at the table. I was helpless and unafraid.
He rolled over and positioned himself above me. Having this tall man on top of me, holding himself up on his arms so his weight wouldn't press on me, was intimidating and comforting. He grasped his penis and slid right in. He stopped when he was pressed all the way against me, and I was astonished at the feeling. The snugness of us. The fit. I wiggled around a bit, adjusting for comfort. When I'd settled, he started pulling out and pushing in. I was immobile for a moment, astonished at the feeling, and then found myself moving up and down in response. After what seemed like an hour, or a minute, he lifted himself off me and lay on his back.
"Come here." He pulled me over on top.
I straddled him and lifted up. I didn't want to hurt him, or it. I was very careful not to bend it. The position felt different from the first way. I knew how to do this. I always had. I started to move. He put his hands behind his head and smiled. "Is it safe to come?" he asked. I nodded yes.
We spent most of the weekend in bed, except for dinner at Genoa, and a walk around the lake near his house, and time spent working on mathematics. We watched a kung-fu movie from bed, imitating the screams and shouts. He was striking at the air the way the actors were striking each other, and yelling and bugging out his eyes. That led to a wrestling match. No matter how I tried, I couldn't pin him. He was bigger and stronger, and I was annoyed that I couldn't win. My hair was getting damp and tangled from the struggle, and that exasperated me further. He pinned me and even though he was holding down my arms with his, he used his mouth and rubbed himself against me, and I quickly forgot my irritation. The sound of the cries on the television receded, and I heard only his panting, and my own. We were in the middle of having sex when the tape reached its end and the television switched to a broadcast channel at high volume. He fumbled for the remote and we laughed so hard that he fell out of me and we had to begin again, which I was glad for. I would have appreciated any excuse to make the sex last longer.
We fooled around a dozen different ways, and I wondered how I'd been so lucky. I'd never been nice to anyone, and now I had this beautiful man, this perfect man, who was so kind to me, and so gentle and tender. Who understands the formulas of love? There was no way I could have lucked into this. I didn't have the right skills or personality. It was beyond believing, the tenderness with which he touched me, the way he asked what I liked and didn't like, the way he brought me to see the humor of sex by tickling and touching and joking, the way he let me experiment with him, and when we were done, allowed me to curl up next to him. And the act of sex itself: I would have started much sooner, had I known. Finally I was rid of that observer in my head, that mental camcorder, that damn detachment. Finally I felt, and didn't evaluate.
I started living with him during the fall semester. We were married the next summer, on the anniversary of our first night together. We moved to Berkeley, where I went to grad school and he had a tenure-track teaching position. I'm not superstitious, but maybe I shouldn't have worn black to my wedding: after three years Samuel found someone he liked better. She was a classical violinist, Korean, twenty years old. She was a bigger trophy than me, and she wouldn't be better than him at math, which was what he found increasingly annoying about me. Since he and I were on the same campus, I was nearby all the time, keeping an eye on him, and that made his affairs difficult to conceal. I think what he liked best about Ms. Park, other than her fame, and his yellow fever, was that she traveled more than half the year. He could have affairs while she was gone.
I'd seen letters from lawyers in his office in-box, so I bought a machine and had a friend install it, hidden in the basement of our house. It recorded all phone calls. I would come home, take out the tape, put another tape in, and go upstairs to my study. I'd label the tape with the date and listen to the calls. He was checking around, trying to find a way to divorce me without giving me anything. He couldn't meet the residency requirements in any other states. He started looking into foreign countries.
I had the tapes, but they weren't ammunition. I hired a detective, and gave him the names of the women I'd discovered. When I had enough information, I went to the best lawyer I could afford. The divorce papers caught Samuel unprepared. He knew I was still in love with him, and he thought I was ignorant of the affairs, so he didn't expect me to pre-empt him. He certainly didn't expect photographs of his assignations with Ms. Park. After our time together, he should have known better, but he underestimated me. In an unexpected way, I was disappointed. He was a less than worthy opponent. I wasn't one of his naive girls, to be talked into going away quietly and not making trouble, but he wasn't bright enough to see that.
California is a community property state, but the community property in this case was only our house and his salary. I wanted more. I needed more. My best leverage was the names of the women, some of them his former students. I threatened to ruin his career. I said that I'd tell Ms. Park and the university. To buy my silence we settled on six hundred fifty thousand, a chunk of which went to my lawyer. Then Uncle Sam got his tithe. But I was happy to take twenty per cent of Samuel's net worth. I should have got more, considering the way he hurt me. I used his money to buy a house, not near and not like the one we'd lived in. I was finishing grad school, but I wasn't worried. There were plenty of universities in the Bay Area, and I could always get a job with one and stay in my house. My work was getting international attention. As it turned out, the Berkeley department took me on and gave me a fast tenure track and a better office than I could have expected.
Shortly after I joined the department, Samuel and his little violinist moved away.
He'd been offered a job at Champaign-Urbana, and a chance to work with Wolfram,
a great opportunity, since his interests were changing to computational mathematics.
I think he wanted to get away from me, too, but maybe that's a self-serving notion.
At least I didn't have to run into him at departmental functions any more.
My God, he was always trying to act detached and adult, as if we'd become
friends after the divorce. I wanted him gone.
Who did he think he was, to seduce an innocent girl and then
discard her like to much wastepaper? But now he's banished. I won. Occasionally I
see his name in the journals, or notice that he's giving a talk at a conference.
But I outproduce him, and I solve harder problems, and I have a bigger name.