Monica sat at basecamp, an impressive array of books stacked on the table in front of her. Not content with mathematical theory, she’d piled on tomes relating the philosophy of math. Not content with physics, she’d found Capra’s The Tao of Physics. Not content with—but she’d only sat there, for two hours and, quick check, thirty-eight minutes, doing nothing.
Lita had called, again. Six times in two days. Monica’s father had relented, while Aja was visiting, on his punishment, and he’d made no mention of it since Aja had left. Aja was fun, though self-absorbed as always. They finally made it to Six Flags, which they’d been talking about since Aja started college. And then Aja left, on Sunday morning, and for two days the master spy had evaded, but this time she left a message.
“I’m coming over tonight at seven. You’d better be there, because if you’re not I’m going to tell anyone who is there the location of every mole on your body.”
Monica had run to basecamp after hearing it. She’d been down there ever since, and done nothing, but doodle in her notebook and read last week’s Time. She stared at her notebook, flipped it back a dozen pages to remember what good notes looked like, and there, in her lyrical script, were proofs and theorems of exceeding complexity.
She flipped to her set-up page, where she’d copied out Hultzoven’s proof of “Double-Integer Redundancy Theory”. Whenever she saw somebody coming, she’d flip to this page and manufacture such intense scrutiny and palpable thinking that no mortal could resist. Then, whenever they asked what she was doing, she’d mark off something at random, close the book and say, just math.
She’d marked it off too many times, she noticed, maybe it was time for a new set-up. She had this year’s M.I.T. mathematical journal, and she flipped it open—random problem generation. It opened on junk about real numbers, which while mathematically impressive looks kind of lame on paper, so she flipped to another page, and then realized she wasn’t alone.
Across the table, in between stacks of abstract physics and impenetrable math, reading The Watchmen—a comic book, a long, long comic book—was Ben. He seemed to pay no attention to her, as if they’d never met.
“What are you doing here?” She yelped. In her surprise she’d put no varnish on the statement, and it was only then that Monica realized how much basecamp was her sanctuary.
But Ben was dense, for all his esteemed brilliance, intellectually and otherwise, he couldn’t hear an undertone to save his life, “African American studies is kept on a small shelf, in the back of the unlit section of the basement.” He stopped. Considered. Continued, in cockney, “Down a flight of broken stairs, behind a door that reads, ‘Beware of the Leopard!”
“Behind the, what?”
“It was uh, a joke.”
Then Ben smiled, in that patronizing way, because Ben knew so much and he’d lived so much and I’m just a silly little Muslim girl, “Ben, what do you want?”
It was that easy, she knew. Ben didn’t have a subconscious, he never read into things, and if he’d been of even standard intelligence, this would have resulted in the kind of silly simplicity that would have made him a great jock or, something. But he really was smart, goddamn him, and if you just asked him things, he took them so seriously, and answered them so well, that maybe he could help.
“The Watchmen.” He said, simply, holding up the comic book, “It’s a graphic novel,” he corrected, “About superheroes. Only, it presupposes,” Was that a word? “That they’re all normal people, basically, along the same mold as Batman, except for one of them, whose truly super, and it deals with what it’s like, in their off-time, with each other. I was playing around on the card catalog and noticed the school had a copy. Pretty cool, hunh?”
“No.” She closed her notebook, “No. I mean, what are you doing down here?”
His face took on a stifled grin, “This where the book was. Apparently, it’s considered independent fiction.”
She didn’t want to play his stupid game, “You sat down there, and didn’t say a word to me. You just sat there. Without saying hi or anything. I’m busy and you’re distracting me. Can’t you see I’m studying.”
“No you’re not,” he still wasn’t taking her seriously, he never took her seriously. “You’ve been reading that magazine, and flipping through your notes. Time’s really turned into crap, it’s just Newsweek with a slightly different cover, I’d recommend U.S. News—”
“Don’t tell me what I’m doing!” Monica looked around at the books, searching, “You always think I’m so simple and you can laugh at me because of it!”
“You are simple!” And then he laughed, and Monica wanted to cry. “And simple isn’t bad!” Ben still didn’t take her, or the conversation, or anything seriously.
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I don’t know anything, period.” It was all a game to him. Then he stopped, and his expression changed, very slowly, “Are you all right?”
“So I can’t get bothered by your being rude.” Monica didn’t realize how loud she’d become, “If I get offended by you, then that means something’s wrong. With me.” She was trying to stay angry, because she could feel tears coming.
Monica closed her notebook and stood up. Ben asked her again, asked her where she was going, and her response was to turn away and walk toward the stairs and up and out of the library. The sun broke her stride, and she stopped outside the heavy, glass library doors, as her eyes adjusted to the sudden change.
“Hey!” It was Ben, who looked washed out, like everything else, but coming into focus, “What just happened?”
She looked at him, and suddenly he looked like such a kid, his silly goatee, his silly Russian hat. She used to think he was so much more mature and exotic, but now he was just the college student he’d always been. What would he do, if she told him? Make some crack about how hot it was, agree with Lita. Still, she always ended up telling him things.
“I’m just really busy,” she began, “that doesn’t mean—” The tears were coming, she stopped.
Into the gap walked the reminder of just how childish Ben was. Her name was Janice, one his many, many female friends. She was, in Ben’s words, ‘gloriously slutty’ and was held as the counterpoint to his arguments against Monica’s virginity, her timidity, everything. And, of course, Janice didn’t notice that they were talking, didn’t care, she just walked right up.
“Mister Ridge.” She said, the mister lasting a full five seconds. “Who let you out?”
The smile returned to Ben’s face, Monica’s problems were that easily forgotten, and he smoothly quipped, “If only someone would let me in…”
Janice laughed, it was a crude and loud thing, as were the words that followed. “Get your mind out my gutter.”
“Janice,” Ben said with mock flourish, “My spectacular friend Monica. She’s brilliant and funny and deserves better people to hang out with than me. She’s also in a terrible mood and I’m trying to find out why.”
Janice looked at Monica, she had dirty blond hair, purposefully cut ragged, and a pretty, aquiline face. She smiled, and even her smile was crooked—everything about her was crooked, Monica realized. She was sexy, and hot, the way Audrey Hepburn looked whenever she was playing someone out of sorts or yet to be helped by well-meaning English nobility.
“I know Monica, we had Modern China together.” Monica didn’t remember her in that class, but she’d been a freshman. “She’s really smart.”
And then Janice smiled, and Monica wondered strange thoughts. Ben said something about how Janice was pissed off, then Monica realized it wasn’t Janice but herself, and glared at Ben, perturbed, and stepped back.
“Hi Janice, nothing’s wrong and I’ve got to go.” She turned and started walking. As soon as she got to her car, she turned up the music and drove. She started crying at the light and didn’t stop until she got home.