The cover image on the March issue of Rock and Ice magazine was fairly epic, though of course they always were on climbing magazines. The immaculately framed photograph was of a climber dressed in black as he ascended a frozen waterfall attached to the vertical side of an immense mountain.
John scratched his jaw, examining the cover more closely. No matter how many times he looked at this particular one, it always managed to stir something in him for some reason. Just the right combination of textures on the different materials. Just the right balance of hues. His enthusiasm didn’t extend to the color they’d chosen for the headline’s font, which he felt was out of place, but he tried not to let the mental complaint linger. Life was too short.
John Andrew Marshall, age nineteen, college junior, computer science and geophysics major, narrow and small for his age with brown hair, amateur artist; fan of the X-Files, walks on the beach, tearful reunions, and Siamese cats was pleased he’d saved the issue. He felt a slight irrational guilt for mutilating it for its cover, just on principle, but he told himself it was for a good purpose.
Flipping the detached page upside down, he reached to his shelf and grabbed the tape dispenser, applying the sticky plastic liberally. One piece for each corner, one in the middle, four more for redundancy’s sake. He then smacked the page on the wall and regarded it with an odd smile. He looked out the window and peered down at the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. No snow! Hurrah! He went downstairs and looked in his mail slot. No mail! Hurrah for me!
He took a walk.
Two hours later, John was sitting in geochemistry class. Bored. He had already read the notes. The room wasn’t very large, capable of seating perhaps fifty people. Like many classrooms on the campus, it was ultramodern. The floor was carpeted and an inoffensive blue. The rows of desks were wooden and opened up into two staired aisles that divided the chamber into thirds and converged towards the front. In the center of the room, an expensive-looking video projector dangled from the ceiling, on a fat, confidence-inducing metal support, and sprouted a series of differently colored cables that snaked up the metal pylon before disappearing into a hole in the ceiling. In the front of the classroom were three slidable dry erase boards.
John looked down at his clothes. He was wearing blue jeans, black socks, Pumas, and a charcoal shirt that brought out his shoulders slightly. Where the sleeves met the torso, there were thin white stitches. His hair was fairly short but not too much. And he was wearing glasses. Until recently, he’d worn contacts, but they were expensive and irritated his eyes.
John reclined in his sleek, cool-looking chair and looked at the professor. Gray hair. Sharp dresser. Liked to wear black. Really liked to wear black. Which wasn’t a criticism, it suited him. It was just another personality quirk that John added to his filing cabinet of observations of the man.
La la la la la… The class wore on. They only met on Mondays and Wednesdays, so it was an hour and a half long. Sometimes John brought Skittles to stay awake. Mostly though, he relied on coffee. Coffee, mother of life. Coffee, disturber of bowels. Coffee, godsend to the overachiever. That and Adderall. He had a cup in front of him right now. Coffee, that was.
An autumn road, covered in leaves. John woke up. He’d been dozing. Shit. How long had it been? He didn’t know. He hadn’t been listening to the prof so he didn’t know where in the preprinted notes they last were. Autumn road. Goddammit. John sat up straight. Focused on the professor. Squinted. Stifled a yawn. Drank more coffee. Emptied the cup. Looked longingly at the brown ring at the bottom. Looked at the person to his left. Looked at the far side of the room. Looked back at the professor. Looked at his watch. Realized they still had thirty minutes to go. Christ.
He rose from his chair and made for the door on the right, stepping into a long hallway. He looked around until he spotted the bathroom and ducked inside. There was a professor in there, wearing a big beard, looking ever so slightly like a late Jim Henson, pressed up against a urinal. John hesitated a moment, then took the urinal next to him. He couldn’t help but find the scenario amusing. Here was this professor, an important and powerful person, dressed in an important looking suit, maybe not even a professor, maybe a dean. And here he was taking a piss, just like a scrawny college kid. There was no dichotomy here. It was an interesting facet of college.
After the bathroom, John took a walk down the long corridor, arriving at a staircase which he took downstairs to the first floor. If memory served, there was an electronic classroom a floor below. He hopped out of the stairwell a floor hence and started walking straight, parallel to his original course, looking through classroom doors. Office, office, break room occupied by a few professors. He kept walking. Perhaps there wasn’t a classroom. Finally, he came upon one on the right and reached for the door handle. It didn’t budge. Son of a bitch. There was another handle fifteen feet farther down. He tried that. This time, it turned. John pulled the door open and stepped inside. The classroom was pretty much a duplicate of the one upstairs. Like the one upstairs, the shades were drawn. The only difference was the lights were low and the video screen blank. And for a fraction of a second, it was… what was the word? …damn. Since he’d come to college, his vocabulary had been ruined.
Anyway, he didn’t have much time so he decided to make the most of it. He hopped down into the professor’s chair and directed his attention to the touch screen in front of him. The equipment was quite standard on college campuses at this point and John could operate it without much thought. He tapped for a little while and then with a hum, a projector screen slid down from the ceiling and an intense blue light shone from above. About thirty or so seconds later, the blue beam that lit up dust in the air was replaced by a spectrum and John turned to see a football game.
John hated football. He tapped the screen and found another TV channel. The Learning Channel. Extreme Makeovers. He scrolled down again to the news. Energy summit. Oo. The announcer was inaudible. John tapped the volume-up button. Even before the voice rose to audible levels, he knew the guy was in Europe.
He could tell by looking at the cars. They had a style and finesse that American cars just didn’t. Americans were so fixated on big muscles, sports star bodies, broad features. And their cars reflected that. He couldn’t remember the name of the car off the top of his head but he remembered he’d once been watching a baseball game with his father when he’d seen a commercial for some huge car, with a hemi. Its lines and bulges looked like a baseball player’s and it was blatantly apparent who it was being marketed towards. Ugh. John didn’t like it. It was stupid.
John, on the contrary, favored a rower’s build. Ripped but not boastful. Strong but not obnoxious. Agile but unassuming. You were confident enough in your abilities to be comfortable exercising a little discretion. Besides, it just looked sleeker. European cars reflected similar paradigms. They were a unique marriage between style and functionality. They weren’t blunt instruments. Style and function. A lot of things seemed to be like that over there. Some used the term ‘more refined.’ John preferred ‘wiser.’
The volume reached an audible level. Something about Russia using its natural gas as a political tool. He saw a clip of the Russian president, followed by a soundbite of the German Chancellor. The clip ended. John didn’t really learn much. The news then shifted to a story about a serial rapist in New Mexico. John minimized the video window on the console and tapped the PC option on the flat screen. He was shown a computer desktop. It was remarkable how much Windows 8 resembled Android. He clicked on the Google search bar and entered Bloomberg News. John had discovered this website one day by accident. Ever since, he’d checked it on a regular basis.
He found the link to energy news and was offered a list of topics. He saw an article that looked promising and clicked it. The only thing that really bothered him about the site was the pictures were too small. He got about a paragraph into it and was pleased to note the site avoided sensational language. No plays on words. Just straight-forward prose.
A few more paragraphs into it and the picture started to come into focus for him. Russia and Ukraine were battling diplomatically over gas prices and that was creating uncertainty in the rest of Europe. Germany was commenting that in the future, it would try even harder to insulate itself from influence from Russia. It was an interesting, long article. He read to the end and then clicked on another article about methane hydrate exploration in the Mediterranean. Italy was funding a research initiative in conjunction with the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, NOAA. Neato. He clicked the backspace button on the keyboard and was brought back to the energy news main screen. What else?
Gas prices were expected to drop below two dollars a gallon again by the summer. Nice. Pity he didn’t have a car. And at the bottom of the page, an article entitled, How Much Petroleum is There Really? He considered clicking on it but decided to check his e-mail instead. He’d be dealing with petroleum soon enough probably. Assuming the NOAA Corps didn’t pan out... Truthfully, the prospect of going into the oil industry appalled and sickened him. But if it came down to it, and he was faced with a hard choice… well he had to feed himself too. He went to Gmail and entered into his account. He was a member of the environmental science club on campus and so got e-mails about summer job opportunities fairly often. Earlier in the semester, he’d applied to a bunch of different organizations, NOAA, USGS, EPA, Alaska Conservation Corp. No response yet. He had his fingers crossed but his grades were solid, so he wasn’t concerned. In all honesty though, the only one he really gave a damn about was NOAA.
Some of the job openings seemed interesting but most were for positions as educational assistants and camp counselors, which really didn’t appeal to him. John wanted to be a researcher who got his hands dirty. Yes, the educational jobs might pay well, but he had no desire to be a glorified babysitter. Bitch please. He finished up looking at e-mails and went to science.com. The first featured link was for a groundbreaking study on atmospheric particulates carried out in Antarctica. The image above the link showed a young woman in a red parka leaning over an ice core. She was smiling. John clicked the link and was brought to an article which, to his disappointment, made no mention of the girl. John frowned. He wanted to know how old she was. It was hard to tell. But she couldn’t have been much older than he was.
He clicked the PDF link for the paper. Since he was using a university IP, all the links at Science were free. John skimmed the article, enjoying its numerous colorful charts and arcane language. He went back to the very front and read the abstract over again. When he was finished, he closed the window and leaned back in his seat, his brain stuffed for the time being.
He checked his watch and saw that class only had seven minutes left. No bother; he’d read the notes tonight and tomorrow. He tapped the touch screen and after a few tries, got the projector screen to go up and the projector to turn off. Rearranging the console so it was the way he’d found it, he scratched his shoulder and thought about the girl in the photo. He really wanted to know who she was. How old was she? Was she a graduate? An undergrad? How had she possibly gotten involved in a project like that? He could tell he admired her. He was getting that odd feeling in his stomach, a mix of respect, envy, and even farther down, shrouded by mist, the faintest twang of regret. He checked his watch again. Five minutes. He needed to get back to class.
So apparently, he had a paper due at the end of the semester. Fabulous. That meant he had five weeks to research it, write it, and proof it. Finals were the second week of May. Hard to believe but this was the homestretch. Walking away from the Geoscience building, orange microfleece ski jacket insulating him from the cold, he crossed the quad, making his way towards the library. Later in the year, he would gladly switch to his old rowing jacket, which had been quite expensive, by the way. But at the moment, it was still too cold for that. The late morning sun reflected brilliantly off the veneer of water on the bricks of the quad, nearly blinding him. Off to one side was a similarly illuminated pile of snow, left over from the harsh winter. He needed to remember to buy some sunglasses.
Folsom Library, like most everything else on the campus, had a modern style. The circulation desk was a glass and wood construction lit from within by blue lamps. Overhead, there was a wooden light fixture that matched its lines. Behind the desk was a sculpture made to look like rock that was molded into six skewed cylinders arranged vertically and reaching from the floor to the ceiling.
Walking to the coffee shop, John bought a coffee cup at the glass counter and walked left to the silver coffee canisters arranged on a semicircular wooden counter. What to drink? The cream options were the usual variety. Hazelnut, cinnamon chai, and French vanilla, the latter of which John thought was disgusting. He opted for the chai, pouring black coffee into three quarters of his cup and then liberally topping the cup off with cream. Reaching to his left, he got a cardboard insulation cylinder and unfolded it, sliding his cup into it, and then reached for a stirrer, swirling it in the liquid, cream twisting in ivory curls around the central centripetal depression. Dying matter, falling into a black hole. He capped it and turned to leave.
And that was when he saw Margaret. Marge to her friends. Ugly name really, but you could get used to it. She was approaching from the way he’d come in. Immediately, John’s stomach turned. How long had it been since their last forced conversation? Two months? Three? It was hard to keep track. She looked better than she used to. She was wearing a sweater that suited her hair color fairly well. Goddamn her for coming in here. In truth, he didn’t resent her. Not really. Which wasn’t to say he ever wanted to see her again. The simple truth was, being around her wasn’t good for his brain chemistry.
The last time they had been on genuinely civil terms had been years ago. John had said some things he shouldn’t have, she’d done something she shouldn’t have; it all went sideways. Then they’d had their cold war for a while. A year and a half. No communication. No eye contact. No acknowledgement beyond the occasional quick aversion of eyes, reversal of direction, or arbitrary fixation on a nearby magazine cover that wasn’t nearly that interesting. In short, it had been awkward. And frankly, John suspected it would always be that way, which was sad because once upon a time, they’d been on very good terms.
Friends. Close. More? Who knew anymore? Or maybe he just didn’t want to think along those lines. It was strange reflecting on it now. He didn’t even realize he was doing it until several seconds had gone by. It didn’t matter what the situation was, how they met, what random confluence brought them together. What psychological barriers he’d managed to construct since their last encounter. As soon as he saw her, he was at the mercy of his emotions, utterly without control and typically hostile. And yet, relentlessly genial. She was the same way. Which led him to suspect she felt similarly, which of course made the sensation in his stomach much worse. Was it all inevitable? Could it have been avoided? There would be no peace. Could be no peace. She was the thorn in the back of his mind. The ghost who would haunt him forever. The infinity he couldn’t normalize. The Reya to his Kelvin. She was a mirror for everything he hated about himself. It was rather sad actually. But that was the situation.
He tried to think but couldn’t. He could sit down at a table to his left. Steamroll by her. Hail her. Throw a tangerine at her… Too many options… Crap. Eye contact was made. Well, that narrowed it down a little bit. Just not really. All of the above options were still viable. Their countries had no diplomatic discourse so he didn’t HAVE to do anything. He could brush by her and from her standpoint, it would be totally acceptable. Suddenly, he realized that since people tended to revert to instinct when heavily stressed, in the end, whatever he decided to do was what he wanted to do. Which apparently and unfortunately was to talk to her. And so he maintained eye contact. And she hesitated, and he said an inward fuck and waited for her to painfully slowly close the distance between them. When she was a few feet away, she smiled a crooked, maybe sincere maybe not smile. Clearly she was agitated. He had some practice in this situation and returned the smile. How predictable he was. It maddened him. He couldn’t out-maneuver her even if she was standing still.
He asked her how she’d been. She nodded and said good. She clearly wasn’t in control. She had probably practiced this conversation a dozen times, either in anger or frustration. Planned out how to act, how to portray stability, inner peace. But it was a sham.
“So… you’re getting coffee?”
“Well all righty then.”
“Are you leaving?”
“Hmm yeah. I hafta head back to my dorm and do some work. Busy all the time.”
Fake laugh. They regarded each other a moment. And so there they were, two naked apes examining each other's faces, armed with hours of angst induced premeditation, and without a single thing to say.
They looked at their watches. And then the inevitable split. He walked away, part of him angry he hadn’t told her all the terrible things he wanted to say, another part happy she would still talk to him. And then the pain in his forehead. The throbbing he’d forgotten about.