The Mathematics of Being Alone

Michael backed Alison against the wall and brought his parted lips up close to her ear. The party had reached that point of the evening when from a distance it sounded like random howling. But there in the dark stairwell, lit only by an emergency exit sign, they heard something falling, end over end like a slinky, accompanied by the sound of its contents spilling out onto the marble steps.

That was my purse falling down the stairs, wasn’t it, Alison said.

Michael let go of her arms and stepped back. Saved by the bag, he said, laughing.

He watched the dark shade of Alison’s body as she scrambled down to the bottom landing, sweeping the stairs with her hands as she moved back up. She was bent over only at the waist, her torso at a right angle to her long legs. Her legs were shapely and firm and Michael had wanted to touch them from the moment he met her. He wanted to shave those legs, actually, cover them thickly in lather then slowly reveal the skin beneath, on line at a time. He would be perfectly content to spend a few hours doing nothing more than admiring a woman’s legs.

It’s obvious from the way you move that you’re a dancer, he said, sitting down on the top step.

His eyes had adjusted to the dim enough that he could now see the crumpled shape of her bag just beneath her left foot. She stepped up farther away from it, still searching with her hands.

If you’re not going to help, why don’t you go back to the party and keep your girlfriend company.

Michael stood up and did just that.

When Alison left rehearsal at the usual time, Charlie was waiting for her, sucking on a cigarette as if life depended on it. She wanted to like Charlie, but when he looked at her, the whites were visible all around his eyes, and he was always laughing inappropriately. He did this now, after only saying hello. She smiled, then looked to the ground.

Can we talk, started Charlie.

Alison started north along 8th Avenue and he fell into step with her.

I don’t know what else I can say to you, she said.

I just need to know the truth.

Do you ever stop?

But what is it, really? Why him and not me? Tell me. What’s wrong with me?

There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re a wonderful person, Charlie, and I enjoy spending time with you, but my feelings for him are just stronger. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it.

There was more to it. Jake was a challenge while Charlie called her seven times a day. Charlie was also awkward and unkempt. These weren’t things you could say to a person, although Alison could clearly imagine her voice saying: Keep your cool, clean yourself up a bit, and then we’ll talk. She bit her lip. Was she really that shallow?

But you said it yourself once, you can see through my eyes, he continued. Isn’t that still important to you? And remember when you said it was like being in bed with a hundred of me. That thing doesn’t go away.

It’s too much, actually.

He’ll never love you like I love you.

You don’t know that, said Alison, perturbed. How many times did they have to have this inane conversation? She stopped to look Charlie in his too big eyes. The blues had gone watery, clouded by his obsession. Look, love is like mathematics. It’s a simple idea but it tends to get complicated.

You don’t know shit about mathematics!

This was true, especially considering that Charlie was currently pursuing his Ph.D. in the Psychology of Mathematics. Alison didn’t even understand the basic premise behind what he was studying. As many times as she’d asked and he’d tried to explain it in layman’s terms, her eyes would glass over and she’d find her mind replaying an interaction with the deli guy at Dean & Deluca or planning her outfit for the next day.

Yeah, well, you don’t know shit about love.

Alison turned and walked quickly away in the opposite direction, and Charlie just watched her leave. She truly had the best ass he’d ever seen.

Charlie scribbled in his notebook s (x) = ƒ (x° + h) - ƒ (x). This sequence of symbols signified nothing, but it calmed him to compose empty yet elegant equations, like doodling the strange faces around him, if only he could draw.

At 23rd Street, an olive-skinned woman with long dark hair got on the train and sat diagonally across from Charlie, sweeping her skirt taut under her rear as she lowered to the bench. He watched her, unabashed, as she pulled a little yellow paperback from her purse. He had to squint to read the cover: it was Ibsen, but the title was in a language he didn’t know. Was that what Norwegian looked like? He liked the look of all those little circles and slashes; they had a comforting familiarity of form like his equations. Then suddenly the woman looked up at Charlie and smiled. He blushed and smiled back and looked nervously away, but then he wasn’t sure if he had smiled before or after he’d turned his eyes away.

When he garnered the courage to look at her again, she was holding the little book up, positioned as a screen between her eyes and his. Her eye contact had been steady, sure, nothing to elicit his anxiety and jerky movements. Surely she would give him another chance. So he waited, watching her, one finger twirling a thick strand of hair as she read. He imagined his legs entwined with hers as she read to him before bed—the foreign words like a lullaby, whatever they meant. When she did peer up over her book at him again, he was ready. He held her eyes and smiled for what he thought was just the right amount of time before looking back down at this notebook.

max (x) = s (∞ + ∞)x ∫ g (s · x)2, he wrote, smiling to himself.