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Standard Deviation

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There was an evening that May thought of often that fall. It was a formless memory, set in one of a string of arbitrary dorm rooms, wreathed in the fading light of some arbitrary change of season. They had been a little bit drunk, or maybe a little bit high, either climbing towards sobriety or preparing to tip into the freefall of intoxication. What they had been for sure was curled towards each other on a twin XL, one of May’s ankles caught between Liv’s. Had they been dating at the time? May didn’t think so.

May had looked at Liv across the span of a single pillow—her big eyes, the shadow of her strong nose. She had been younger than she gave herself credit for. The May remembering would have leaned across and tasted her, would recall whiskey or tequila, weed or sex or pure exhaustion.

“I lied to you,” she’d said instead. Murmured it, across about eight inches of cheap cotton.

“Ooh,” Liv had said. “Is this one of those Catholic schoolgirl things?”

“Which?” May asked.

“With the girls in the little skirts.”

“That’s most of them.”

“They kneel down in the little box? Because they’ve been so very, very bad…”

May snorted. “Don’t be gross,” she said, mostly on behalf of her mother. “It’s not confession. It’s—”

“A confession.”

A confession.”

“May,” Liv said, and blew a thin stream of air that ruffled the whisps of hair by May’s temple. “Is whatever you’re about to confess in the universe of things I care about?”

May’s confession was in the universe of things that had happened at Paige’s dive meet. “Statistically, probably not,” she said.

“Save it for the creepy old man at the interfaith chapel then, huh?” Liv said.

“It’s just,” May said. She had worried that she was going to sound stupid, and she shouldn’t have. “I didn’t think we should lie to each other.”

Liv’s eyes cut to hers, briefly, and she rolled onto her back, releasing May’s ankle. The room itself cooled, but then Liv jabbed an elbow into her stomach.

“We won’t lie to each other when it’s important,” Liv had said.

Now May thought about that evening the way old women in hospice thought about their wedding nights and the way lawyers thought about constitutional amendments. What was lie? What was to each other? What color had Liv’s eyes been in that light?

The truth was, it didn’t matter; the truth was, she knew they were doomed. But there was a grace period. They went to class, they did their homework, they ate in the dining hall, they went to bed. May, for the first time, knew something about Liv’s universe that Liv did not.

May’s own future was climbing over the horizon as well. The blank spaces between the familiar beats of her life were saturated with tasks in preparation for its arrival. Applications to complete, statements to write, exam books to study, and brochures to review accumulated like snow drifts, and May had not one but three near-volcanic conversations with her parents over the phone before meeting them for lunch one Saturday and brokering a peace on the basis that, while not one of them knew precisely what an engineer should do next, they could agree that she should certainly do something.

What May wanted to do was move to Illinois. This was not, as Liv had initially assumed, a joke; Illinois had a top-five mechanical engineering program and a professor with whom May was in correspondence about her work on engineering ethics. It was May’s first choice for a PhD program. Ben was applying too. The more she thought about it, the more it excited her.

“It’s not even in Chicago?” Liv asked. “Jesus Christ.”

It didn’t escape May’s notice that Liv hadn’t asked her about applying to West Coast programs—CalTech, Stanford, anything in the time zone that Liv imagined herself destined for. Liv’s objections were bound up in distaste for the middle of the country’s intangible midwestern-ness, not its actual physical location. She saw herself on a boomerang’s course, out to some desert in Nevada and back in two years with a guaranteed job at Fisk and a CV she could wave around like a ten-inch dick. May, at her least charitable, saw her as a dog after a tennis ball no one had actually thrown.

Sumaya, of all people, was the first one to verbalize the tension between the two of them. May was explaining the whole thing—Illinois; no, Urbana-Champaign; yes, engineering ethics—to her, Rob, Moonbeam, and Moonbeam’s very tall girlfriend of the month, who was painting Rob’s lips a shade of red that Moonbeam herself wouldn’t be caught dead in.

“And Liv doesn't want you to go west-west with her,” Sumaya summarized, ignoring the rest of what May had said.

“Um,” May hedged. She wished it otherwise, but it really was that simple. “She’s having this thing where she’s laser focused right now.”

“You mean she’s having that thing where she always wants the best thing and hates the second-best thing because nobody paid attention to her when she was a kid and now she only cares about whatever people are paying the most attention to because if she stands close enough to it then people will have to pay attention to her too. And if you like the second-best thing then you’re an idiot.”

Sumaya said this extremely quickly. “No,” May stalled, only understanding about half the statement. She couldn’t quite tell how vigorously she was supposed to defend her girlfriend from character assessments when her girlfriend barely felt like her girlfriend and the character assessments felt accurate. She didn’t like that this was becoming a recurring problem.

“Sumaya’s just saying that everyone likes to feel important,” Rob said peaceably. Moonbeam’s very tall girlfriend hushed him with a finger under his chin.

“I’m saying Liv likes to feel important,” Sumaya grumbled. At that moment, there was a loud bang on the door, which swung open to admit the woman herself.

Liv was steaming, literally: outside it was the first truly cold day in October, and she appeared to have run across campus. She was breathing heavily through her nose, like a horse that had been run into the ground. The whole room looked to her expectantly, May with a sinking feeling in her stomach.

“May,” Liv said, her voice tightly controlled. “Could I speak to you?”

“Ooooo,” Rob said, as if someone had been called to the principal’s office.

“Rob,” Moonbeam warned.

“Yeah, babe,” May said. She gathered her loaned-out belongings together like a deckhand furling the sails before a storm—Sumaya had needed chapstick, Rob, her green pen, and she wasn’t sure whether she’d be back to retrieve them. She went out into the hall, to Liv, and the door swung shut behind her like an inverted cell door.

The walk from Rob and Moonbeam’s dorm to Liv’s was uncomfortable. They wound their way down the stairs, across the quad, and into Liv’s building in silence, May murmuring barely-there greetings to the acquaintances they marched past. Liv’s roommate, a junior with a delicate constitution whom May had never had a full conversation with, looked up in alarm when Liv shouldered the door open.

Out,” Liv barked, and the junior scrambled away with two textbooks and without her pencil. Liv locked the door behind her and turned to face May, crossing her arms. The air shifted then, the silence moving from uncomfortable to somewhere in the neighborhood of threatening. May wished that she had sat them down on a bench outside, that they were doing this anywhere but shut in a tight, airless, soulless room that May would never remember right.

In lieu of apologizing, she said, “You shouldn’t talk to her like that. You guys have to cohabitate.”

“I’m not getting the fellowship,” Liv said. May braced for an accusation, but after one moment, then two, it became clear none was forthcoming. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, Liv.”

“That pretentious bitch didn’t give me the recommendation.”

“Oh,” May said. “Professor Sarrafan?”

“Dave got it,” Liv spit. “And fucking Carly, which is token.”

May didn’t need to ask which Dave—it didn’t matter. Carly was the only other woman left in the intersection between their majors and graduating class. She was okay. “Gosh, Liv,” May said, aware that she was beginning to sound corn fed. “I know it was important to you.” And then, very honestly: “I’m sorry.”

“I need you to talk to her,” Liv said. “Right now.” She was still standing in front of the door, arms crossed tightly over her chest.

“To Carly?” May blinked. “I think she’s pretty set on applying. She mentioned it a couple of years back, and since then she’s been working on—”

“To Sarrafan. The letters go out tomorrow, and I need you to convince her to take back Carly's.”

“How am I supposed to—”

“I don’t know!” Liv yelled. “I don’t know how you get people to do what you want. I don’t know how you get people to like you. You walk around doing it every day and I don’t— I don’t. But you can, so I need you to go to Sarrafan’s office and fucking do it for me.”

“Liv,” May said, dread at the prospect of breaking a heart continuing to trickle in. “I don’t know what you want me to say. Sarrafan made a decision—”

“So smile and flash your tits and get her to un-make it—”

“Liv!” May said. The dread ebbed. Softer emotions—pity, nostalgia—were destined to suffocate in Liv’s presence. She was beginning to loom over May, infringe on the space that was theirs in the good times but just May’s in the bad. May didn’t mean to be made smaller than she was. “Sarrafan doesn’t care about my tits, she cares about your service-mindedness.”

“My service-mi—” Liv paused, and her face contorted into an unholy expression. “You already talked to her.”

May took a deep breath. “I went to her office. To talk about the road trip. You were supposed to be there—”

“And I wasn’t, and you were pissed, apparently, so instead of talking about the road trip, you told her what, May.”

“I told her about the road trip! And then, when she asked, I told her you’re not service-minded, Liv, which you aren’t—”

“You know, May, you’re a real fucking pretentious bitch too,” Liv said.

The room was quiet, the air shaping itself, for the first time in a long time, around their mutual dislike. “You’re important to me, Liv,” May said, not sure what she was trying to justify or why. Maybe after all this time, she was still just trying to win. “Who you are is important to me. And I— you— we both— You never would have lied about me like that. You would have never even thought to. You never would have.”

“I am important,” Liv snarled. “You don’t get to fuck with anything about me just because you noticed. Because, May, listen up: nothing, nothing you ever do will be as important as the part of my life that you just got in the way of.” She turned on her heel, wrenched the door open, and slammed it closed behind her, leaving May surrounded by the detritus of Liv’s life.

***

When May was about seven, she realized it had been several months since she had looked after her Pet Rock. Concluding that Angela was absolutely, irrevocably deceased, she resolved to lay her to rest with full honors and threw her in the East River the next time her father took her on the ferry.

Two and a half seconds later, May wanted Angela back.

What May was still learning, fifteen years out, was that dead things seemed alive in absence of evidence they were not. The second the cold, smooth stone slipped under the water, its potential became infinite. Young though she was, May could have warmed Angela in the palm of her hand until she was withered and grey.

All this to say: in the immediate aftermath of their fight, May wanted Liv back.

In very particular times of crisis, straight girls were the ones you could rally around. May consulted with Lindsey, who consulted with Tracy, who consulted with Jennifer and Paige, mostly for the sake of gossip. Jennifer and Paige consulted with some chick named Amy who was also in the room at the time, and May had her very own brain trust. They generated a very simple two-step solution: one, go to a party. Two, show Liv what she’s missing.

It was late October then, and rapidly approaching Halloween. May considered this a stroke of luck—it seemed a much easier holiday to execute on than, say, Easter. There was scheduled, as usual, a party: the kind of thing that unaffiliated frat-looking boys came around collecting five dollars on behalf of, held off campus in a warehouse of mysterious provenance. It was an event that cut across the social strata of King’s College, the result being that everyone who knew anyone attended.

Lindsey et al. decided that May was attending as “sexy.” Per May’s understanding of the holiday, sexy was supposed to be followed by some sort of noun, but Tracy’s interpretation, which had served her well year after year, was that if you leaned hard enough into sexy alone then your target audience would project the rest of the costume according to their own preferences. May was escorted to the mysterious warehouse in platform heels, fishnets, and a leotard, none of which were her own, and a coat, which was, but which was confiscated the moment they were within the radius of visibility of the building.

The party was loud, crowded, and surprisingly chilly—the architecture of the space created an echo, so the music seemed to be playing, then playing again, softer. Combined with the assemblage of mistimed strobe lights and some-chick-Amy’s expansive definition of a pregame, the effect was immediately disorienting. May had a mind towards locating Liv and propelling herself into her approximate orbit, but for twenty, thirty, long minutes the best she could do was allow herself to be glad-handed from friend to acquaintance to girl who is so fun, promise, doing something resembling dancing and trying to stave off dizziness.

Eventually, there was a break in May’s chain of minders, and she was momentarily deposited at the edge of the building, near the corner where a set of rusted stairs led up to the mezzanine catwalk that was the dumbest and most popular place to stand. There were two couples tucked into the recess underneath the landing, and, with a blink and a sway, May realized that one of them included Liv.

The sexy noun Liv had selected was octopus: there were improvised tentacles sticking out every which way from a backpack she was carrying, most of them constructed from paper towel rolls and hanging listlessly but one, which seemed to be the tube of a vacuum cleaner, waving about under its own power, if aimlessly. Liv was pressed into a blonde woman who was pressed into the wall—May recognized her mostly by her hair, which had escaped containment and covered most of her face.

In the flashes of the strobe light, May could see them licking into each other’s mouths—it looked sloppy, artless, but enthusiastic. May let the dizziness take over and leaned back into the wall, parallel to the other girl but about five yards distant. For a minute, she just watched as the scene blinked on and off. Finally, Liv cut a glance sideways. Noticed her. On the next flash, May waved.

May watched it happen in stuttering bursts—Liv grinned, and the next moment her attention was back on the other girl. Then her hand was threaded through her hair, their kiss broken off and her mouth against her neck. Liv’s hand was against her stomach, then down below her waistband. The girl’s eyes were closed. Her head was tilted back. Her mouth opened.

In all, it was a very thorough way of breaking up with someone. May pushed off the wall and allowed herself to be carried back into the center of the party, working herself back up the chain from girl who is so fun, to acquaintance, to friend. Her strategy was mostly forgotten in the face of some new drama that May wasn’t following, so she was blessed with the privilege of not speaking to anyone for the rest of the night.

***

Six months later, they graduated. May was struck by how much there was to fill that time: she and Ben visited Illinois. Her family spent Christmas in Florida, where June was spending her freshman year in the sunshine. Moonbeam won a prize for one of her short stories, and everyone dressed up for the associated banquet. Paige did something shocking and upsetting to her ankle at a dive meet, and they took turns visiting her in the hospital.

May went in to see her one Tuesday with a stack of newspaper crosswords and a coffee and an apple muffin from the good-muffins-okay-coffee diner five blocks over. Paige’s room in the recovery wing was as cold and dreary as the early March air outside, but with muffins in a paper bag and MTV on in the background it felt companionable.

A doped-up Paige was the same amount of help on the crossword as a sober one: none at all, except where May needed it, which was on the sports clues. “Gwynn, with a Y,” she slurred, almost before May had finished saying the words Padres, and promptly burst into tears.

“Oh no,” May said, not as horrified as she would have been had Jennifer not let her know this would happen. “Do you not like the Padres?”

No,” Paige said, tapping the nurse’s call button emphatically—and, May thought, accidentally. “I just like having you so much and you’re going to leave without knowing anything about baseball.”

“Oh, sweetheart,” May said, just as happy and as sad as Paige was in that moment. “How about I learn in Illinois, huh? Does Illinois have baseball?”

“The Cubs!” Paige wailed, and the nurse came in to give May an exhausted look and take away her coffee for no good reason.

May told Ben this story that same afternoon when she saw him in the dining hall, pouring medium-bad coffee from the row of grimy pots. He was outside her dorm the next morning with a thermos.

“Apparently by the time we get to Illinois it’ll be playoffs, which is expensive for tickets even if the Cubs do make it,” he said without preamble. “But games start again in March or April or something.”

May took the thermos and a sip: medium good. There was a swooping feeling in her stomach—the same as being on the monkey bars as a kid, trying to skip a rung for the first time, in the moment before you make contact but after you realize you’re going to do it.

May and Liv weren’t speaking then—in fact, they did not speak again for the rest of the year. May caught glimpses of her around corners and across rooms—her hair above a sea of bobbing heads, her boot prints distinct on the lab’s slick tile—almost every day until she stopped looking. May only found out where Liv had ended up when the circular proudly listing the graduating class's destinations was published. Octavius, O. was listed under the Fisk heading, the name of a decent but lesser San Antonio office tacked on. Their thesis was completed by means of dispassionate Post-it notes left atop neatly organized stacks of meticulous lab notes, left behind in departmental mailboxes they visited at rigidly different hours of the day.

They had drafted their dedications in the winter of their junior year, in a lust-addled fugue state that it was difficult for May to remember had felt the way it had. They had been love letters, basically, meant to be surprises planned a year or so out. May redrafted hers in the spring: she thanked Jennifer, Paige, Lindsey, Tracy, and Charlie, who had stuck it out from the beginning; she thanked Ben, who had been and would continue to be her friend. She thanked Rob, Moonbeam, Sumaya, having become herself among them, and Moonbeam’s very tall girlfriend, who knew a lot about formatting long reports and was willing to share. She thanked her parents and her sister, because she loved them, and Professor Sarrafan, for the same reason, and every T.A. she had ever had, for their pains. She thought, for a fleeting moment, about thanking her past self, but decided to leave that task to the future.

Liv didn't bother with edits. Her dedication read:

To May, the smartest woman I know.