Sex, Rain, and Cold Fusion
By A.R. Taylor
Like many of David Oster's bad decisions, his escape from California to the state of Washington would be justified with an orgy of lies. The worse the decision, the more he liked to sugarcoat it to his critics, and in this instance, he prepared himself for a virtuoso performance.
Only one man could save him from a definitive female throttling, and that man was Niels Hoekstra, director of the Larson Kinne Institute for Applied Physics. As he stood in the steamy August night air, staring out of the kitchen window at the hibiscus growing halfway up the glass, he decided he had to call Hoekstra himself. The older man had trouble hearing him for a moment, but at last blared into the phone, "Oster? Good to speak to you." There was rustling in the background and the noise of a glass hitting the table. "Shh," Hoekstra said, presumably to someone else in the room, and then in a louder voice, "I am just finishing up my work."
"Ahh, I was wondering. . . "
"Yes?" he growled.
"About the job."
"It's still available, if you want to know."
"I don't know if I conveyed that I am very interested."
"You did not seem completely interested, to my eyes. I assumed, young man, that Scripps or Woods Hole was your destination. However, President Thornton shall know your personal leanings." He made it sound as if David liked to screw cats.
"Wherever I can get the most money for ship time, especially if I don't have to teach, that's where I'm going." His putative boss promised to have a decision in two days.
David sipped his Scotch and drew little equal signs with his finger on the windowpane. At last no more grant proposals; he could pry all the money he wanted out of the Institute, and that meant underwater physics that could lead to fundamental breakthroughs, and that meant - maybe someday - the N word, as in Nobel. More importantly, he could leave Pasadena, California and his postdoc at Caltech without seeming to break up with his three, yes, three girlfriends.
Never in his thirty years had he collected women like this, and he could only ascribe it to some serious gonadal rush. Of late he could feel himself swaggering like a brainy Casanova, and he paid way too much attention to his longish black hair, hoping that it vaguely suggested the poet. Around dinnertime at last the all-important call came. "Do you think you would like it up here, Oster?" Hoekstra almost shouted at him.
"Love it, absolutely love it," David said, more or less in a stupor from too much sugar and Scotch.
"Why would you love it?" Hoekstra said, apparently puffing on a cigarette because there was a breathy pause.
"It's so - picturesque," David said, although the "p" word sat plumply on his tongue.
"The position is yours if you want it, but you have to start in three weeks. Any problem getting yourself up here, you know, any encumbrances?"
"None, none whatsoever."
"So, you took the job." David's advisor, a distinguished old man who was head of the oceanography group, had carefully watched his protégé's progress in a two-year postdoc that had stretched into four.
"Yes, I plan to lock myself in the lab and do nothing but science." David proceeded to spin a long tale about how great it would be up north, where he could commune with nature. He portrayed an earthly paradise specifically designed for his benefit, a wet dream of scenery and silence perched on the Olympic Peninsula between the Pacific Ocean and the Cascade Range. His soul would expand, as would his wallet. The thing about all these lies was that he knew what kind of hole he was digging for himself. Or he sort of knew.
When he finished his screed, the old man stared at him a moment. "But it rains so much there," he said in a low voice. Alas, David would not let anything puncture this otherwise perfect piece of mendacity - and anyway, who cared about a little rain? He had real troubles.
At home that night, David sketched randomly on a pad of paper by the phone, looping curlicues and knots together and then making up fanciful equations to express their relationship. He knew what he faced, and he faced it now with controlled foreboding. He would have to lie carefully and well, over and over again to Valerie, to Cosmo, even to poor Helena, telling them how broken-hearted he was to leave the haven of their arms and journey all alone to the Pacific Northwest. He would have to feign sadness when he wasn't, in fact, sad - he felt manic, almost possessed, since for months now he had been experiencing himself as an actor, a very bad actor at the service of someone else's muse. When he slept with too many women, each one represented an alternate reality, and he blended into that reality depending on the woman before him. Now his personalities had begun to collide, and he had to get out before the inevitable explosion.
For what David projected as possibly their last meeting, Valerie Jordan insisted he come to her apartment, and on the appointed Friday night, he gazed up at those seductive bookshelves of hers lined with books in a variety of arcane language es. Anyone who could devote herself to Sophocles or Lucretius in these fetid times had him by the balls. It was a triumph of the ideal, because what could she ever do with these things beyond spreading their hermetic beauties to a few brainy groupies?
But now, instead of the subtle speech he had prepared for this tricky evening, he could do nothing but picture her warm breasts rising on his tongue. As Valerie gazed dreamily at him, finally she muttered, "I believe I'm falling in love." For one instant, without considering, he smiled with the boldness of a lover who is loved back. Then the panic set in. Thank God, before he could speak she said, "His name is Sid. Sidney Gershon, professor of Mayan languages and culture. I met him at a dig in Tikal last summer."
Those Latins and Greeks of hers must have been conspiring in his good fortune, and David nearly giggled at the image of an absent lover named Sid dusting old bones with a toothbrush. "Very violent, " he finally coughed out.
"They weren't so bad, if we drop our ethnocentrism."
David made his way to the kitchen, clapping his hands under the faucet and wiping water over his face and neck. It was heartening, actually, that she talked such crap. Valerie was one of those "everything is all right if it exists" people. Because someone somewhere does something, no matter what it is, it has value, hence morality, even if it involves a culture that flung its children into bottomless pits and played football with their heads. It made him feel better about leaving her. Besides, it now appeared that she was breaking up with him.
He returned and sat down beside her. "Don't worry, I'm happy for you. I'm actually going somewhere myself for a while, to the Pacific Northwest. You know Larson Kinne, the guy who adapted osmium, one of the world's densest metals, for engineering uses?" She shook her head no and ran a finger around the edge of her wine glass. "He's developed the conviction that physicists don't apply physics anymore because they've descended down into the world of subatomic particles or up into the Big Bang. We're too busy counting quarks, something like that." At the word "quark" Valerie stiffened a bit.
No non-scientist, no matter how bright, actually wants to talk physics, nor can they. They want to know it exists but not how it works, and Valerie was clearly one of these. "You're here now, tonight," she said in a low voice, pulling him to her with alarming intensity.
"What about Sid?" David struggled to breathe.
"I don't fuck him the way I fuck you." He had no idea what she was talking about, yet what could he do? He was just short of the point of no return when she jerked her body away and stared at him, eyes narrowing as if an awful truth had suddenly occurred to her. "You know, you're a good-looking guy, David, but you're a tremendous pain in the ass."
He wondered how quickly he could get out of the house, but she took the lead once again, dismissing him with a shake of her head. What could that mean? As he fired up his twenty-year-old BMW, he realized that he had never actually broken up with anyone before. His former romances seemed to have just trickled away like a failing battery. He pulled out from the curb, feeling lighter somehow, but only for a moment, because the prospect of two more such confounding scenarios, face to face, with two other women who might have entirely other agendas, soon had him shaking at the wheel. He had to swerve to avoid a squirrel scooting across the roadway.
"I need to see you," David yelled into his mobile phone. He was trying to set up a time to meet up with his second girlfriend, Cosmo, she of the incredible legs and the short blonde hair, the flight attendant on Alaska Airlines the day he had flown to the state of Washington for his first interview at the Kinne Institute. "Where are you exactly?" he yelled over the noise of jet engines on the tarmac.
"Let's see, I'm headed to Boise, then Salt Lake, then back here to Los Angeles, I think. I could meet you later in the evening, around 11."
"Fine," David said, thrilled at her ridiculous optimism. She talked as if she might live to see another day. He hated flying, really despised it and attributed this fear to his father, an alcoholic auto executive nicknamed Dave the Bomber, who liked to test drive cars while drunk. He used to force David and his mother to fly with him on his friends' vintage airplanes through weather that few commercial airline passengers ever experienced. Hammered, he would reach his head into the cockpit, scream at the pilot - "How's it going, Chick? Think we're going to make it?"- laugh like a crazy person, then pound on his son's shoulder. "Don't worry kid, I'm insured. You can collect if you're not smashed into the side of a mountain."
Skeeter's was Cosmo's favorite sports bar right near the airport, and it was noisy. He hated to have to yell his desertion into her face at high volume, but she had insisted. While a football game blared over the bar and laughing pilots and mechanics enjoyed the free hors d'oeuvres, David worked random Newtonian equations in a small notebook he always carried. F=dp/dt, momentum divided by time, and there was his own initial. Next p=E/c, energy divided by the speed of light, and there was little Cosmo. Then p=hv/c, Helena, Valerie, and Cosmo all in one expression of the momentum of light. To move things along, hv/c=E/c. At last, and this could be derived from all of the above, E=hv, the energy of light, courtesy of Einstein. All of these overheated particles floating around in his life - no wonder things had gotten so out of hand.
When Cosmo finally vaulted her way over the chair, David had to admit that he might miss her jouncy good will. They ordered chicken wings and while she kept smearing her face with hot sauce, then wiping it off again, David tried to explain why he had decided to move away. "I can't stand Los Angeles any more. I mean, what's with the guy on the corner who wears a Ralphs bag on his head and threatens me with a broom even though I give him money all the time? Whenever I manage to track down the so-called 'locals' and socialize with them, they only talk about movies and money. In Washington it'll be all physicists under one roof doing science."
"Sounds creepy," she said with a grimace, and then let her hand glance off his leg.
"I don't really care where you live, David." Outside in the parking lot, when normally she would have lured him to her motel room, instead she kissed him on the cheek.
David's final farewell to Helena turned out to be similarly perplexing. Granted, he had gone out with her only three times since their meeting at some deplorable dinner party filled with her U.C.L.A. colleagues in the specialty of Finno-Ugric linguistics. Tall, thin, with a weary Modigliani kind of face, she had stared at him across the baked Brie. "I aam Helena from Hun-ga-ry," she had said, sounding an awful lot like Dracula.
In preparation, he had begun drinking vodka as soon as he arrived at her neo-Gothic apartment. This worked, so much so that he couldn't adequately frame the parting words he had crafted. Helena only seemed to register his pain without absorbing the fact that he actually planned to flee the state, and responded by launching into her own tormented personal history. He lay sprawled on her couch while her story floated over him like Liszt - in fact, he thought he heard her mention Liszt, although he was not a close relative. When he awoke, it was light, and she was passed out beside him. She opened her eyes as he leapt up.
"Goodbye," she said, snuggling into the couch cushions, smiling - so apparently she was less than heartbroken, if she understood what was going on at all.
Back at home, David found himself wanting to phone each of his women with some sort of heartfelt pleading. Finally, though, in terse, straightforward e-mails he lied once again to Valerie, he lied to Cosmo, even to Helena, telling them how crucial the Larson Kinne Institute of Applied Physics was to his scientific future, when in fact he knew little about it. In the service of these lies he became eloquent, hyper-rational, as if he could fix his life by talking about it. Worse yet he lied to himself, thinking he could live a solitary outdoor life, perhaps hunting, maybe fishing. He would wear hiking boots and down vests while chopping logs for the wood stove, and soon enough he would go to sea. Even if he met a gorgeous woman who offered to play the mandolin by the fire, then fuck his brains out every night right after they'd eaten her home-baked blackberry pie, he vowed to say no.
A. R. Taylor writes fiction and non-fiction, was head writer on two Emmy award-winning series on public television, and performed at the Gotham Comedy Club. She taught at Oregon State University, and that experience forms the background for Sex, Rain, and Cold Fusion. To learn more visit www.lonecamel.com.