Discordant Maps

I walk every afternoon to get reacquainted with the outdoors, and then—enough’s enough—hurry back to my duties. One day, Kenny joins me. He’s going to ask Jenny out.

“Work is where a lot of couples meet,” he says.

“You are colleagues,” I insist.

He shrugs, spreads his hands to the late summer sky under which hazy figures wend their way to class. September is the kindest month.

“I spend all my life not asking girls out, Anne, and my life’s half over.”

Kenny is 42, a little pudgy, not much taller than me. Clumsy. Always bumping into things.

“Jenny doesn’t want to date right now,” I say.

I know this because, once in a while—like just last week—the three of us go crazy and maybe knock off early on a Saturday and drink. In my case, that’s an iced tea, but Jenny orders Chablis, and Kenny, craft beer.

“To friendship!” Kenny says, elevating his pint.

Jenny and I bring our glasses ever so slowly to the clink.

“There you go!” Kenny says, trying to sound like that cool teacher in high school.

He’s sweet, and as uninterested in fashion and popular culture as Jenny and me. We’ve been working in proximity for nearly three years, and it’s only recently that he strains to be a different Kenny.

“To Jenny, Kenny, and Anne!” he announces.

I break the rhyme but Kenny says that’s OK because if we were a folk group, Jenny, Kenny, and Anne sounds more authentic than Jenny, Kenny, and Penny. (Dad named me Penelope; Mom pretended to acquiesce.)

Kenny says: “A girl I once knew, her grandmother was an Appalachian folk singer.”

Kenny imparts this solely to Jenny, although I am sitting right there, lips-to-straw (but not sucking), and I am reminded that work cannot cancel emotion. Kenny’s infatuated, but Jenny notices not. He’s telling her that he’s had dates, that women have found him attractive.

“Yes, indeed, Appalachia,” Kenny says again because maybe Jenny heard and maybe she didn’t.

Always looking down and with that jet-black hair and goggle- glasses makes you wonder if she’s getting sick. This university setting blesses us with casual acceptance, though we’re an odd triangle. People elsewhere would at least glance. Kenny, coal black and still carrying the slight Nigerian accent. Jenny, Asian-American with a wistful aura. And me, blanched skin framed by frizzy red hair—the druid priestess.

Our offices hunker in a stubbornly rundown house-like structure on Great Road. We share a common waiting room except that nobody waits. We examine data gathered from our experiments in cellar labs. Uncle Sam grants, and we deliver, and neither of us knows what the other is up to.

The guards are interchangeable nice guys who sort of remind me of my father, except Dad’s a salesman and he’d want to ask what I am up to. The security devices are state: retina scans, video monitoring, DNA swabs, a satellite sentinel.

We’re blue-sky. Just fiddle around and see what you come up with. And, because no overlords, we put in 12- to 16-hour days, or go 25, 49, 73—or whatever—hours straight. And what we invent, we own. Emotionally, I mean. The government owns it, patented under the Invention Secrecy Act of 1951. But it is our accomplishment.

My accomplishment. Not that anyone will ever know. Recall the CIA Memorial Wall in Langley with those 125 stars carved in marble and representing people who died in service. The identities of most remain secret. I, too, am secret.

But I invented that pill. Not a team. Not a project with a project manager. I did it. The gel-cap that cures love. Think of how much pain it will ease once people get access. Other scientists in other safe houses oversee the trials. A covert committee somewhere weighs the ethical and societal ramifications. It could take years.

How much should we influence human nature? Where’s the line? Example: An ugly divorce. The husband’s got a history of domestic abuse. Give him the pill, for goodness sakes. Make him fall out of love with the spouse. For it’s still love of some sort, though twisted, warped, and defiled if it makes a man commit murder-suicide. Virtue untethered to moral code can be as destructive as vice.

Poor Kenny, wrestling with the Freudian: What does a woman want? Well, I know what Jenny doesn’t want.

We parted on Nassau Street that night, Kenny jumping into his ticketed car (he’d eventually notice) and driving off, while Jenny and I waited for Ubers to take us to our respective efficiencies.

“He likes you,” I tell her.

“That way?”

“A little.”

“I’m not ready for kids!” she cries.

“Whoa!”

“I want to do important things!”

“So do I.”

“You are unsettling me!”

Gear change: “You and Kenny? Absolutely not!” I dictate.

“Do not worry. It is never a good idea to date someone you work with.”

As if I’d know.

“He’s going to ask to date? But he’s…old.”

Jenny and I are in our early 30s. A metaphor flutters through the Princeton twilight, something about black holes or particles with zero rest mass. It flies off unformed, weaving and spinning among the spires.

Jenny and I cancel our rides and talk on that corner for 17 minutes, mostly me assuring that Kenny will never, ever ask her out.

“It was idle chatter,” I say.

“Chatter?” Like I’d just admitted to pedophilia. A dying sun off-handedly throws a coat of easy-does-it on the world and, finally, she smiles.

“Men have flirted with me,” Jenny reveals.

“Me too!”

“We are such nerds!”

“A badge of honor! How about one more?”

“But you don’t drink, Anne.”

“I will sample a fancy-schmancy beer.”

I wish I could say that some breakthrough followed. Instead, silence and clinical investigating of revelers: couples in various stages of unification or disintegration, or both at the same time (somehow—worth investigating). The students, the work crowd, and the brooders among flashing lights and intolerable music. Humans are such discordant maps. When we do attempt to communicate, Jenny and I shout about science, but try relaying a complex thought that way. We give up, me sampling a pint of headache called Evil Twin Bringing a Gun to a Knife Fight.

That was just a few days ago.

Now, on our walk, I ask Kenny: “Scientists do romance?

He slumps, gives me a look.

“We’re not typical scientists, Anne. Scientists are normal people with normal lives and houses and spouses and kids in the backyard. Swing sets and minivans.”

I don’t mention numerous historical exceptions. I should have said we’re brilliant scientists.

“We’re androids,” Kenny concludes.

No, we are not, because my reaction to this is a very un-android- like anger.

“You don’t know me!”

He slows a bit, looks in the other direction as if there’s something there.

“I didn’t mean to say…”

We just move on for a few yards, until he says: “We are family.”

“No, we are colleagues. Work colleagues where there are federal anti-harassment laws in place.”

“Harassment?”

“Look, Kenny, go ahead and ask Jenny out. You’re going to do what you want. But you get one shot. Ask her out twice, and it’s harassment.”

“Harassment.” Surprised, like he’s watching a lab rat’s unexpected decision.

Jenny’s sorting her mail in the waiting room when we come back, and he right away launches the awkward. I manage to escape into my office so as not to witness.

In 33 seconds there’s a rap on my door, and I am taking my second walk of the day, this time with Jenny.

“Say ‘no thank you,’” I instruct.

“I want to.”

“You have to.”

“Can you do it for me?” she pleads.

I am about to explain why that’s wrong in so many ways but I can’t because of the animal terror in her eyes. Jenny’s told me a little about her life. Inner-city immigrant, bullied and chased, zealous and unloving parents never satisfied with perfection. Alone, alone, alone and then science. Saved by quantum.

I hate this nonsense.

All I want to do is something again on par with Love Potion Number 10, which is what I call my pharmaceutical breakthrough. I need another chance to try and alter humanity’s destiny. Messy JenKen entanglement isn’t part of my scheme.

We’re not allowed to bring our cells into the office; we check them with the guard. I write “meet me at 6 at Votive for dinner” on notepaper, show it to the guard who nods blankly. I fold it, slip it under Kenny’s door.

I cannot work the rest of the day, and I hate waste. Anxiety assaults me because I am really not emotionally equipped to do this. It’s risky. You see, I saved three Love Potion Number 10s. If discovered, I’d not only lose my job, but I could be prosecuted. Me.

It is the old problem. When I was a teenager, social anxiety disorder made me invisible, red hair be damned. No one saw me except for teachers, and they don’t count. Cocooning myself led to compulsive behavior. I shoplifted. I mean, I shoplifted all the time. I never got caught. I never suffered the humiliation of my parents’ astonished disappointment, or of getting handcuffed and fingerprinted. Gawd! I would never steal anything again. I’d probably never leave the house again. That didn’t happen.

Too bad, in a sense, because one day, I took three of the Love Potion Number 10 pills, wrapped them in a yellow sticky, tucked them into my purse, and walked right by the guard. Gambled, because he’ll periodically check anything we take out (red-faced and apologetic going through the purses, especially if he comes across “ladies’ things). This day he smiled.

“You have a good time tonight, Anne.”

Oh, you can bet I will. I basked in the euphoria of what I’d done. I was high. Who needs drugs? Who needs booze? I’d danced on the precipice of danger. I zoned.

And they never asked me that particular question during the polygraphs. “Did you ever take anything that you’ve invented out of this building?”

The queries were all about whom I contacted or who may have approached me. Anyone with a foreign accent? (Not counting Kenny.) Anyone who gave pause for any reason? (Again, not counting Kenny.) Too chummy? Someone who crosses my path a lot? My comings and goings since the last polygraph? I stashed the packet of pills in my glove compartment in a bottle of Excedrin—they’re identical, only I can tell the difference.

Or can I?

I brazenly open the bottle, with my car windows down and Carrie Underwood’s “Something in the Water” playing. There were three pills. Now there are two. I turn off the music, raise the windows, blast the air conditioning. I sweat nonetheless as I pour the contents into my shaking cupped palm and count.

There it is.

Five Excedrin and, still, just two Love Potions. I place the bottle between my legs and one-by-one drop the capsules back in, twist the cap.

When I get home I will claw the upholstery looking for an object about the size of an ant.

“Gone for good, probably,” I think.

Meanwhile, I’ve an appointment.

Kenny’s waiting outside Votive; he notes that I am uncharacteristically late. We enter, sit at a booth that offers a view of the foot, bike, and car traffic on Nassau Street. I order Evil Genius Purple Monkey Dishwasher.

“You, Anne? Craft beer?” Kenny’s incredulous. “But you don’t imbibe.”

“Just another scientist experimenting on herself.” A regular Jonas Salk.

“Two, please,” Kenny tells the waitress.

When the pints arrive we both hold the glasses up to the light, as if they’re test tubes. We toast and taste, and taste again.

“I am not becoming that man,” Kenny says.

He means a romantic obsessive, a stalker. The sort of man who gets in trouble at work, the kind they watch as he packs his things and escort out of the building.

“I won’t let you,” I say. “Give her space. Give her time. She may yet come around.”

Doubtful.

“I just do not know what it is with me and women. I am a good person.”

Here it comes. I’ve heard it all my life from exceptional men. Why is it that women always go for the jerks?

But Kenny doesn’t say this. Jenny isn’t going for jerks. Jenny’s gone for science. He may as well be wooing a nun.

He drinks his beer a little faster than usual and so opportunity arrives sooner than I’d predicted. He orders another and goes to the bathroom. When the brew comes, I take the gel capsule that I’d hidden next to the centerpiece and drop it. It dissolves, becoming just another one of the moody tints.

When Kenny returns, he places his hands palms down, concentrates on them. He’s on edge. In love, and in an unrequited state. He quaffs. I glance at my watch and count down: ten, nine, eight….

Now he’s transfixed on the exit sign.

I say, “So, Jenny….”

“Yeah?”

“You were explaining?”

“Explaining that that young woman needs to get a life,” Kenny says. “I mean we, the three of us, are wired. Intense. Type A. Focused on work. But Jenny….”

“Amazing.”

He shrugs, quaffs, exhales his satisfaction.

“Is this revelation to you, Anne?”

“Not to me, it isn’t.” I want to take notes, jot down the outward signs of transformation.

I mean, just like that. His memory hasn’t changed, only his reaction to those memories. Perception is 9/10s of reality. The silent stirrings of the heart are silent no longer. They talk, show themselves, bang drums. They can be measured, scanned, detoured. The cherished thing dims and wilts, becoming just another weed. I sit back, bask a little.

“You’ll get someone, Kenny,” I say. “You’re a catch.” For a certain type.

His eyes brighten, not perhaps, so much because of my encouragement but his third beer arrives. He looks into the foam for a five-count.

Maybe we should order food.

“You’re going to laugh,” he says.

“Go on.”

He raises his eyes, nods so slightly that it could be a tremor, some side-effect to the anti-depressant he most definitely takes. And when he tells me—in an embarrassed little monologue—I do laugh, a sound that occurs so infrequently that it startles both of us.

“Enough,” he warns.

“Do not be offended,” I say, trying to control myself. “Kenny, it’s not that…”

“Just stop right there,” he says. “I was relieved that you didn’t feel that way. I was sweating nights wondering how to let you down, Anne. It seemed to me that you were sending signals.”

“Signals? When was this?”

He tells me what he thought the signals were. They are a chorus line of clichés: eye contact held a bit long, striking up conversations, sitting close at social hours, hanging on his every word, laughing at his lame jokes.

“And then,” he snaps his fingers, “it stopped.”

“Exactly when did this happen?” I ask. Details. I want details.

He pulls out his cell, punches a few buttons, reads me excerpts from his log. “September 15, 3:43 p.m. Anne corrals me in the waiting room. Asks me if I’m hungry and do I want to grab a bite. Third time this week.”

My memory is unique. I do not need to look at a calendar and I don’t keep a diary.

I think, “How could a man be so deluded?”

It’s as if we flip through two piles of the same snapshots, except his are reversed.

“Sorry I stressed you,” I say. “Kenny, we are friends.”

He slides back in the booth in surrender.

“I am saying that I am sorry. Does that not work?”

“Let us order some food, Kenny. Let us look at the menus.”

I am annoyed. I turn the menu over and then over again. I know what I’m getting. But I need this printed barrier. Men. All the eye-rolls Mom gave over the years about Dad that she thought I didn’t notice. Testosterone paves the way to self-mythology and ego-madness. Almost 94% of prisoners are male.

Kenny drones as I squint at what I’m not reading. I think about chaos, the ocean of events between initial cause and ultimate effect.

I am missing something.

Kenny places his menu down.

“I know what I want,” he says.

“Me too.”

I want to find that damn lost pill.

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