The Mathematics of Being Alone

     I understand that God is a bachelor.—John Barth

Jake had never had an alter ego. The only child of a single mother, he didn’t see the point in imaginary friends. Real ones were of limited use as well—never as reliable as books or toys.

It worried his mother that she never caught her son talking to himself while arranging and rearranging his brightly colored blocks on the sunroom carpet. The hours he spent making abstract shapes, geometric forms, patterns that made sense only to him, his childhood fantasies were never on human scale, not the standard houses, cities, domestic interiors which most children constructed.

She also, oddly, never caught him masturbating—not even a hint of it in his dirty laundry or suspiciously long showers. He did, however, grow up to be a successful molecular physicist, and the only physicist he knew who got laid on a regular basis.

It’s all ones, Jake said, fiddling with the oversized fork and spoon on his napkin. He moved the spoon outside of the white paper rectangle, then centered the fork within. Just one, he nodded. Then bringing the spoon back into the fork’s space, he made room for the smaller utensil, adjusting the two shiny objects to fit without touching. One plus one does not equal one.

Cheryl looked up from her papaya salad and half-smiled. What are you talking about?

I think we should break up.

Right now?



She slammed her fork down on the mahogany tabletop in the place where her napkin had once been. The slightly soiled napkin fell to the floor as she pushed back her chair and stood to leave. Tucking her trapezoid-shaped clutch purse tightly under one arm, she scratched at its alligator hide with a short polished thumbnail and stared at Jake as he slid her salad closer to his side of the table.

You know, it always bothered me that you never put your napkin in your lap, she said, then turned and left the restaurant.

The table seemed to shrink from football field size back to little more than a postage stamp every time Cheryl tried to focus on Michael’s face. I know what it’s like to realize that what you’re holding onto is nothing, he was saying. When a connection seems not just fleeting but imagined on your part.

Looking steadily at Cheryl, Michael’s eyes returned a clear image of her shape. She watched as his sharp cheekbones seemed to soften, which snapped her into really seeing the man seated across from her. He was listening, and so she spoke.

It wasn’t like that, exactly, I mean, he always warned me that he wasn’t the man I thought he was, but I still don’t know if I believe that. How could I? It’s a question of language vs. looking. I thought I saw what he couldn’t say. But I never could tell how his mind worked. I would ask him, What’re you thinking about, and he’d say, Nothing. Really, he’d insist when pushed, Nothing at all. But I can’t imagine that that’s possible. I’m always thinking, I think, and about at least five different things at once. They may not always be the most profound thoughts, but words are constantly streaming through my mind in crisscrossed layers. Or visual input in various stages of transformation into language.

Trailing off, Cheryl stared up at the over-sized clock on the wall, struggling not to blink so she could witness the minute hand’s movement. This seemed important. But it was too slow, too fluid for her eyes to catch, not like the clocks she’d spent hours watching in school, the ones that ticked back a hair before thudding forward to mark off another minute.

Michael didn’t respond, pushed his salad farther towards the edge of his big oval plate instead. Cheryl speared some of his untouched greens and added them to her pile.

What’re you thinking about, she asked.

Right now?


I’m thinking about how you can poke down so much fucking salad and where I should go to buy a new desk tomorrow and if they’ll ever bother to scrape all that tape off the window and what the hell it would take to make that man really feel full and if that hot girl pacing the sidewalk would be interested in anonymous sex in a public restroom.

Cheryl turned to look through the window at her back, its panes stippled with discarded scraps of scotch tape, laughing as she had to lean to look around the obese man on the patio in order to locate the girl.

Which one?

Jeans, white jacket, black bag.

I don’t, oh, her? She’s not hot. Cute, but…

Well, whatever. Want to get out of here?

Soon as I finish my salad.

When they rose to leave, the questionably hot girl and a friend were following the hostess into the dining room. Michael lingered to finish his water before taking a different route through the labyrinth of little tables than the path Cheryl had forged.

I saw that, she said when he caught up with her by the exit.

Saw what?

She looked at you and you looked at her, simultaneously checking each other out, eyes locked as you moved through the crowded room, she said in a mock-melodramatic voice.

Did not.

It was touching, really. She’s just your type.

Types are for Madison Avenue, he muttered, moving ahead of her to join the crowd on the sidewalk.