By Kell Smith
Attraction is a science, they say, all chemicals and hormones, a type of alchemy that turns strangers into gold. The right physical proportions, the right smile, temperament, were each components in their own chemical compounds, a blend unique to each couple. And what is chemistry without the application of math? All I needed was the right equation, and I could triangulate the exact moment Matt would fall in love with me.
We were getting close, judging by the texts. Ever since he had broken up with Cindy (our first point of reference), our texting had increased 500%, all precipitated by him. In yesterday’s texts (our second point of reference), after I had made him laugh, he had said, “What would I do without you?” Today, we encountered our third point of reference, the use of a winky-face emoji as punctuation.
I shared this latest evidence with a third party, as any true scientist should: Greg, a mutual friend, who had received no emoticons, winking or otherwise, in his last text conversation with Matt. His interpretation was mixed.
“Is this a good sign?” I asked, phone tipped in Greg’s direction.
“Depends,” he said, drawing out the word between bites of his bagel. The crinkled paper it had come in caught the crumbs, but my fingers itched to smooth out the edges, to tidy the corners and fold it neatly, exactly, until it took up as little space as possible. I noted the way I was folded, arms and legs tucked in close like human origami, and wondered if that was what I was trying to do—take up as little space as possible. “I usually consider grown men using emoticons a bad sign in general.”
“But as a sign that he’s interested? Sure.” A colleague’s confirmation. The validation soothed an itch at the edge of my brain, next to the itch that folding that bit of brown paper would soothe. “I still think you can do better, though.”
“I don’t want better.”
A shrug from Greg. I didn’t expect him to understand. Matt and I had been friends—best friends—since fourth grade.
As the new girl, I’d been the topic of nine-year-old gossip, transplanted from That Other School across town. At lunch I would sit alone and keep my head down, arms and legs tucked in close in that origami-fold, afraid that eye-contact would turn the gossipers into bullies. I had expected to stay like that all school year, when a pudgy, blond-haired boy had set his tray in front of mine.
“Kara, right?” he’d asked. I’d nodded, daring to look up. “I’m Matt.”
Suddenly, I went from being Other to being Accepted, and at his side, I was even Content.
I don’t know how it happened or why, the chemical shift from friendship to something more, but I do remember when. It was a day on the bus, on our way to high school like any other. I made him laugh, and his smile washed over me like sunlight, leaving me warmed to my toes. I saw the after-images of that smile for hours after, like I’d stared at something too bright for too long.
Five years ago. It was a long time to wait for someone to notice you, but it had taken five years for me to see him that way. Maybe the chemical reaction was taking a little longer to work through on his end.
The harsh crinkle of paper being crushed brought me back to the coffee shop, to Greg, and I winced at the untidy ball he’d made of his wrapper.
“Just promise me,” Greg said, “that whatever happens, you will stop the silent pining? If he doesn’t make a move, you need to. You know?”
And I did. Really. I couldn’t take five more years of measuring the angles of his smile, of writing multiple drafts before sending a text, of waiting, hoping, praying that I had said the right thing, had dressed the right way, and that I hadn’t screwed everything up despite how carefully I had planned everything. I couldn’t take five more years of lung-crushing disappointment.
But the timing had to be perfect. He was still hurting over Cindy, after all, and what kind of friend would I be to just swoop in right after that? But wait too long, and he would find someone else. He always managed to find someone else.
My phone buzzed at the same time as Greg’s, and we thumbed on our screens to the same message: game night tonight? seven?
“Sure,” Greg said aloud even as he typed. “And when I conveniently leave the room for a conveniently long phone call, I expect you to carpe fucking diem.”
Just the thought made my hand sweat, but I typed out my own Sure!
Matt answered my text with a smiley face. Greg just got a thumbs-up.
Attraction is all chemistry, but so is the brain. And the brain is very good at misreading things. I trust my brain less than most, checking and rechecking, doubting and questioning, and even now at nineteen I wonder how things like romance and affection come so easily to everyone else, when they are foreign things to me.
When you have OCD, it’s easy to get stuck on the unquantifiables, on things like love and affection, things you ache for but can’t quite puzzle out. They’re not meant to be obsessed over, but that’s what you do with the things you’re afraid of losing.
I can’t tell anymore what counting actually helps (memorize the number of steps so you can navigate this hall in the dark) and what counting is just one more thing to get stuck on (always count your steps in intervals of three, right foot first or Bad Things will happen). I can’t tell anymore what precautions are normal (that man keeps touching you without your permission, and you should call for help) and what aren’t (don’t let any men within two feet of you, or they’ll do what he did).
The problem, you see, is that it all starts off normal. You don’t notice it building until your lungs feel tight just at the thought of leaving the house, until you’re so afraid of repeating one day’s mistakes that you flinch when a man, any man, touches you even in passing. Until you realize that you only let Greg stand so close because you know he’s gay.
That’s also when you realize that you’ve never had a problem letting Matt get close, that against all logic and hardwired caution, you’re actually okay with letting him get closer.
“It just… happens,” one girl had told me of her first kiss.
What is so quantifiably different about her that her first kiss—and every other first kiss she’s had since— “just happened”, that she can keep meeting people who like and want her, without being afraid of them? It is a question that gnaws at me, that makes me want to peel back my skin and see the wiring underneath, to find the fried or tangled bits that make me do whatever the hell it is I’m doing wrong. But, I suspect, if I were to open up my brain, all I would see is a hamster on a wheel.
But not tonight. No, tonight I was certain. Maybe.
The evidence was all there (fourth point of reference, another text: Can’t wait to see you!! 🙂 ). In all the years I’ve known him, he’s never sent me texts like that, not while he was in a relationship. And it seemed he was always in a relationship.
“He’s drawn to the first pretty face he sees,” Greg had said of him once.
That stung, at first. “Implying I’m not pretty?”
“Implying you need to put yourself in front of him.”
And that’s what I was doing, sitting next to Greg in front of Matt’s apartment building at seven o’clock: putting myself, and my heart, in front of him.
Seven-thirty saw us still sitting there. I texted Matt, who said he was on his way. Again. For the third time in the past half hour.
“I am contemplating murder,” Greg said, his coat’s collar muffling the words and hiding half his face.
In my fidgeting, I noticed one fingernail was the wrong shape. I sat on my hands for warmth and to keep from biting it, but the thought of it was another itch in my brain. I should invest in gloves. “Of Matt or just in general?”
“Matt,” said the huddled mass of coat. “To start with.”
“He’d need to be here first, which would defeat the purpose.”
“Not for me,” Greg said. “I never forget a man who’s wronged me.”
“Considering your love life, that must be quite a list.”
The mass of coat with Greg’s eyes turned an offended look my way.
“Don’t give me that look,” I said, pulling one hand out to swipe a thumb over my phone’s screen. 7:35. I tried to account for the missing thirty-five minutes (traffic? flat tire?), but nothing fit with the tone of Matt’s texts, none of which had featured any smiley faces. “We both know I’m right.”
Over our heads and to the left was Matt’s kitchen window, high enough to be out of reach, but low enough to make me question if it was.
“Hey.” I nudged Greg with an elbow. “I bet we could break in.” Greg laughed. “No, really.”
“Ah yes,” said Greg. “Freezing my ass off and committing a felony. Exactly how I wanted to spend my Friday evening. Thank you, Kara.”
I was contemplating the trash can’s height and measuring it against the height of the window when a set of headlights washed out the wall in white.
“You kids git off mah lawn!” And there was Matt, smiling like the sun. He was a taller and lankier version of that boy I’d met in fourth grade, his cheeks still round but no longer pudgy, and I wondered if he had any idea of the power of his smile.
Carpe fucking diem, Greg had said.
“Where the hell were you?” Greg groused as we stood on cold-stiff legs.
“Told you. Had to make a few stops.”
“Where, Manchu Picchu?” I asked. “We were wondering—”
Words caught in my throat, and I swallowed them back. Next to Matt stood a blonde with glasses, her hands stuffed in her pockets, breath misting in the cold air.
That did not make sense. We’d broken script. I needed the script.
“Hey,” I managed through tightening lungs, fitting the “mystery blond girl” puzzle piece into the thirty-five minute gap.
“Guys, this is Angie,” Matt said, placing a hand on the small of her back. A fifth point of reference, this one nullifying the other four, my pitiful “evidence”, and the hypothesis I’d formed. “I met her at work a few weeks ago, and she’s just—well, she’s great. I’ve been dying for you to meet her.” He beamed at her with that sunlit smile meant for me. “Anyway, Angie, this is Greg and Kara.”
Weeks. In that time, Matt and I had talked about movies and video games, about politics and philosophy, but not once had he mentioned her.
“Hey.” She pulled one hand out of her pocket long enough to wave as I catalogued her features. One of her eyeteeth was distractingly crooked, and her brown roots made a skunk line in contrast to straight, platinum-blond hair. But behind her glasses, her eyes were a nice shade of blue, and her cheekbones complemented her round face.
I didn’t understand. I was prettier than she was. Thinner. Smarter. From an evolutionary perspective, he should want to be with me.
In that moment, with the air cold and sharp on my face, I considered leaving, considered turning around and walking away. I pictured it, legs carrying me away into the dark. By foot, home was half an hour away, and maybe between here and there the night would manage to swallow me whole as my thoughts disappeared into white noise.
“Oh! Um.” Angie turned, pointing her elbow at the car, and her voice reminded me where I was. “I have Rock Band. Guitars and drums and stuff are in the car.”
“Right!” said Matt. “You guys mind helping her carry everything while I get the door?”
Angie handed me a mini plastic guitar. It creaked as I took it, its weight more real to me than that entire conversation.
I spent the rest of the night strumming that mini guitar, the fingers of my left hand pressing buttons that lit up the screen. Music was all math, at its heart, and the counting and repetition—one-two-three-four, one-two-three-four—was grounding, distracting, and lovely.
One. I didn’t notice she was in my usual seat and sitting on my fluffy pillow.
Two. I couldn’t hear Angie’s giggles or see the way she and Matt sat hip-to-hip.
Three. I couldn’t see the way Matt looked at her or hear That Man’s cockroach-voice telling me of course of course he doesn’t want you why would he.
Four. He kissed her, just a brush of lips between songs, but still a kiss. I couldn’t feel my hands, but they kept moving anyway.
The music was still playing and my friends were laughing and singing, but everything was static. I was static. A computer glitch, an error, as I watched them and wondered how it was so simple, so easy, so fast for these two people, while I was stuck in a loop, still decoding texts and emoticons and trying to eke affection through a phone screen.
When Matt stepped into the kitchen to grab a drink, I followed, tamping down on the hamster wheel in my head telling me all the reasons why I shouldn’t, focusing instead on three words from Greg: carpe fucking diem.
“Hey,” he said, body blocked by the open fridge door. “Want anything? I’ve got Coke. Angie insisted on diet, but…”
“Why her?” I asked, for once just saying the words as they came to me instead of filing them away for inspection later.
“What?” Matt had his drink in hand, but he didn’t close the fridge, almost using the door as a shield. Maybe actually using the door as a shield.
“Why her?” I asked again, words wrung from a tight throat. I scratched at that too-long nail as though smoothing it down could make this right. “Why not me?”
Matt’s eyes were wide, a cornered animal. “I dunno.” He shrugged. “I just like Angie.”
“And you don’t like me?”
Matt rubbed a hand over his face and finally closed the fridge. “I like you, Kara. I like you a lot, just… not the way I like Angie.”
“Or the way you liked Cindy? Or Ashley? Or Karen or—?”
Matt held up a hand for me to stop. “I was attracted to them, yeah.”
“But not to me.”
With a regretful look, Matt shook his head.
It was a relief of the painful sort, like shaking feeling into a limb that’s fallen asleep. Five years of working up the courage to ask that question, and he was just not interested. The one man who didn’t make me flinch.
“Alright,” I said, chest too tight to be angry.
Matt’s shoulders sagged. “Kara, I’m sorry.”
“I know.” I believed him. I could even accept it, as long as there was a logical explanation, a deal-breaking flaw, something. Maybe it would even be something I could fix, if not for him, then maybe, someday, for the next man who didn’t scare me. “So why not?”
“Why aren’t you interested in me, then?” I had changed my looks, kept up with his interests, had remade myself in the image of the girls he found attractive. And yet there he was with Angie, who was imperfect in all the ways I had been, which he hadn’t found appealing them either.
Matt looked at me like I was crazy, and I pictured an error message over his head, over mine, spitting strings of numbers and letters that made sense to no one in this room. “I don’t know,” he said, shrugging.
“You don’t know,” I repeated, my voice brittle. “There is always a reason.”
“Not always, Kara.”
He didn’t touch me as he walked back into the living room, but I still flinched. I stayed standing there for a while longer, recalibrating my reality, until Greg came in to make sure I was okay. I pulled out my phone and deleted my saved texts, wishing I could delete five-years’ worth of heartache as easily. All the while, there was that computer error, reminding me that I had miscalculated, and round and round went the hamster wheel, trying to understand how.
The answer was simple but brought no comfort: sometimes, people don’t make sense.
Sometimes, hypotheses are wrong.
About the Author:
Kell Smith is a Latin teacher/adjunct professor/comic book illustrator who loves words, whether teaching languages, writing novels, or making terrible puns. She graduated in 2010 with a double major in Classical Studies and Art History and is currently juggling work, grad school, and taking care of far too many cats. She is a member of the Providence Writers’ Guild in Rhode Island and has been writing novels since she was ten.