|| 1. Getting the Calculus
It's just a text. Girlfriend to boyfriend. To maintain the life support system supplying oxygen into the lungs of our romance.
Babe, can you take a video of yourself jerking off and send it to me? I miss you.
The message, I send to Ben on the T to work, so that he will see it when he wakes up, three hours behind me in foggy San Francisco. And he will swell with love for my mischief.
This morning's edition of the Wall Street Journal features an article on factors that make or break a relationship. Shared humor is supposed to increase chance of success by 4 percent. Condescension shown by one partner to the other will increase likelihood of failure by 5 percent.
By "success," the article means "not divorced." Ben and I are not married. Though now that we're both twenty-five, this relationship has spanned more than a fifth of our lives. If Ben weren't on the other coast of America, I should be expecting a huge diamond any day now.
I would not be surprised if the Wall Street Journal's core audience comprises of unhappily married people.
Unfortunately, the article is more promising than it is useful. Ben already loves laughing at my jokes. Anyway, 27 percent of all statistics are made up.
Just before noon in frosty Boston, my phone vibrates. That's disgusting, Ben responds.
My coworkers love to talk in terms of calculus.
In a promise to our clients, "The underlying calculus in our analysis is sound."
To human resources, "A promotion would certainly affect the calculus of my decision to apply to business school."
On the performance of the current in-season Boston sports league, "The calculus was in the back of his mind when he made that play."
I think my coworkers just want to show off their understanding of calculus. After all, being a consultant is being in the business of knowing things. What else sounds as impressive to the layperson? It's pretty clever, so I try to add it into my vocabulary.
"Ben's text is changing the calculus of my outlook on our relationship," I explain to Selina, the other analyst who shares an office with me. "What if he dumps me?"
All the furniture in our office is designed with ergonomics as priority. So Selina spins around neatly in her desk chair to face me. "Well," she says, "What do you care about more, being the dumper instead of the dumpee, or marrying him?"
I can already predict the path of Selina's thinking. If the former, dump him. If the latter, stop fucking other guys.
"I want him to man up," I say. "And then I want to marry him."
Selina cringes. This sister is an open book for beginner readers. Though Selina was born 100 kilometers away from me in Beijing, she is wholly American, having been transplanted to the opposite side of the world before the start of elementary school. She holds a U.S. passport, speaks flawless English and scarring Mandarin. Everything for her is black and white.
Selina starts to argue that there are different ways of being masculine. She's like the female version of Ben. Except better looking.
Selina is beautiful in the style of actresses of Beijing cinema from fifty years ago. She is beautiful with delicate, subtle features. Though if I were her, I would put moisturizer on my skin. Especially in in the winter. Selina and I are the same age and she already has fine lines around her eyes from not investing in skin care and being constantly fatigued with capitalism. I don't think Selina knew, when she took this job, that she'd spend most of her days helping multinational companies avoid taxes.
Would Ben be nicer to me if I looked like Selina? Not likely. He had been overwhelmingly nice and patient until I pushed one button too many.
"I think you're right," I tell Selina, when she's finally done with her speech. "Can you read over this email for me and tell me if it looks good?"
I met Ben on the eve of my twentieth birthday, a milestone that, looking back, should not have filled me with as much dread as it did. But what did I know? I was a teenager. I liked being a teenager.
That we both spent the day in New York was pure coincidence. I was in Manhattan picking up a new phone for my mother, and he was in Brooklyn visiting a friend from high school. An unexpected Metro-North train delay made both of us miss the shuttle back to campus.
Stranded at the train station, I was trying to call the university shuttle services, which did not pick up, about sending another bus. Ben overheard.
"Excuse me, I think we're in the same psych class." He had waited for me to give up phoning in favor of texting a friend before introducing himself. In those days, riding taxis alone was my last resort. My parents sent me too many articles about students studying abroad getting chopped up in strangers' cars. "I'm Ben. Would you be interested in sharing an Uber back to campus?"
I didn't recognize him. The intro psych class I was taking had 200 students in it. Looking Ben over, I thought that he had kind eyes but a forgettable face. Though he did look good in that camel colored peacoat and a navy scarf.
"Sure," I said.
When our Uber came, he opened the door and held it for me. Okay, I thought. Maybe not so forgettable after all.
In the car, I would learn that he was pre-med but majoring in history. That he was a frat brother at DKE and played on the tennis team. That his parents came to California from Shanghai in the late 80s to seek asylum from religious persecution, though he himself was an atheist.
"Do you know Chinese?" I asked.
"I understand most of Shanghainese and a little bit of Mandarin when I hear it. But I can't really speak it or read it. My parents wanted me to grow up fully American."
"What does that mean? Being monolingual?" I wondered then if he knew that, phonetically, "Ben" sounds almost exactly like the word for "dumb" in Mandarin. When I met his parents a year later, I learned that he was named after Benjamin Franklin.
Ben smiled—he was so easygoing at the start. "Yeah, I guess hindsight's twenty-twenty. So how many languages do you speak?"
"English. Standard Mandarin. Mandarin with the accent of my hometown."
Ben laughed at that.
When I told him I went to a private school in China where most classes were taught in English, he didn't say, like others had, that he had been wondering why my English was so good for an international student. Instead, he'd asked me if there was a crew team at my high school, and if I'd been rowing then as well as now. That made me surprised.
"How do you know I row?"
"There's a photo of you on the athletics home page. I just… noticed. And then I saw you in Psych." He ran a hand through his hair. "Sorry, that sounds really creepy when I say it out loud."
"That's okay. I think it's sweet." I grinned.
Our Uber driver dropped us off by the campus center. A middle aged white man who obviously liked voicing his opinions, he told us, "You guys should get married," when Ben thanked him for the ride.
"Ha—what was that?" With his hands shoved in his pockets, Ben looked at me, then looked around him as though he had never seen the red-bricked campus center and the adjacent parking lot before. As though our driver had left us by the curb of a completely foreign university. I think he was trying to come up with something clever to say, but couldn't.
It was a breezy Saturday night in October. I remember tucking a strand of hair behind my ear, admiring Ben admire me.
"Where are you heading?" I asked him. It was a phrase I really liked since coming to America. As long as you made sure to be the first to ask, you had control over whether or not to continue spending time with someone by pretending you needed to go in the same or opposite direction.
The delayed train had derailed my plans. Wherever Ben was heading, I was going to make up an excuse to follow a little bit longer.
"Probably back to my room to drop off my stuff," Ben said. "But actually, there's a concert at DKE tonight. Do you want to come?"
Under the soft glow of a lamp post, I felt as though I was wearing the halo of the romantic protagonist. The earnest way his eyes followed me flattered me unexpectedly. I hadn't felt that way that quickly since I was sixteen and stupid.
"Yeah, for sure," I said. "Do you want to grab dinner first? It's almost my birthday."
"Yeah? Happy early birthday!"
He didn't make it back to his room that night.
The first couple of years, when our relationship was sweeter than a honeymoon, I always viewed the delayed train which Ben and I took as an intervention from heaven. A sign that we were meant to be together.
I didn't think too much about the person who leapt in front of a moving train that day. Not ours, the one scheduled an hour before ours on the same route. It was this sudden loss of a life that had temporarily halted the entire track.
I didn't think too much about it. Only that if it were me, I wouldn't have gone out with Metro-North. Maybe Amtrak. Maybe the bullet train from Beijing to Tianjin. It was not a sensitive thought, but I was prioritizing style and memorability.
All this is just to say that maybe there was a sign from heaven the day I met Ben. But I got the calculus all wrong.
Happy new year!
I've had this idea for a longer length fiction project for the past six months or so, and I'm very excited to finally have something to show for it. As always, feedback is appreciated. Particularly on voice.
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