i. me enthralled, you blissfully blind
It happens, like the best and worst of things, on a whim.
She's in the thick of the semester, and with this being her first year as an assistant professor, it's a struggle of planning and teaching and having office hours open for her students. It still doesn't feel fully real most days, that what had been a long dream is now a reality. That after slaving over her Master’s and her PhD, the stress of applications and the fear that at the end of it all she’d still have nothing to show for it, she made it. It’s a different kind of stress being on the tenure track, but every day it’s fulfilling to know she’s closer and closer to getting a secure position as long she keeps on working as hard as she can.
And there are so many good days, days when she sees her students' faces light up when a concept finally clicks, days where she feels like she could lecture for hours, so excited to share her knowledge with all the bright minds she teaches.
But today, as some days sometimes are, was not a good day.
Tessa shivers, pulling her cardigan tighter around her. She should've picked a thicker sweater this morning, but she must’ve been too optimistic. She had chosen to take time before heading home to walk around the St George campus, take some time to breathe and empty her mind, but maybe she was better off just going home. And then she’d be able to curl up under her blankets, a mug of hot cocoa, put on a TV show to fall asleep to.
The chatter and laughter of a few people milling catch her attention, and a few groups appear to be entering a building up ahead and it draws her out from her thoughts for a bit. There must be some sort of event on. She wanders closer and stops at the sign in front of the open doors, light spilling out like it’s beckoning her inside. Tonight at 7 pm, Our Very Own Prof. Scott Moir Presents ‘In a World Full of Chaos...Let’s Talk Chaos Theory’ in the Fields Institute, Room 230, the sign reads.
She’s had to develop a good grasp of math in order to understand and carry out the statistical analyses needed as part of her research, and in teaching it now too, but it’s something she had had to work very hard for. Math did not come to her easily.
Still, she finds herself walking into the building, following the surprisingly large crowd up the spiralling staircase until they reach the room indicated on the sign. She slips in, hanging around the back, finding a seat in the back and settling in. She half-wonders what she’s doing in this room but she felt some pull to come here.
Maybe, it’s fate.
She takes a notebook out of her bag, the habits of nearly a decade of study not easily broken, and she doesn’t think she’ll follow this lecture well at all but she can try to learn something new. She taps her pen against the front of her notebook while she waits and it’s not long until Scott Moir walks out into the front of the room.
From this far back, she can’t see him very well but the first thought that crosses her mind is that he looks incredibly young. He doesn’t look that much older than her, but he’s obviously done enough in his field to give public lectures that have this many people attending. It’s also the first moment that she realises that a good portion of the room skews young and female, and she stifles a laugh.
Scott Moir taps his microphone to check it and starts to speak. “Good evening, everyone! I’m glad you’ve all joined me tonight. Every year I still think it’s just gonna be me talking to myself about math, and I have enough of that in my daily life, eh?” The audience chuckles along with him. “The topic I picked this year is ‘Chaos Theory’ which is something I hear referenced in TV and movies a lot. I bet a good portion of you all have at least heard the term, yeah?” He raises his hand and a few scattered hands rise up in the audience too.
“What it basically is, is looking at a lot of things that appear unpredictable and complex and well, chaotic, and trying to come up with the math and the science to predict them. It’s in stuff like the weather, the stock market, your brain activity. It really is everywhere. And tonight, my goal is to help you understand it a little bit better and show you how integral it is to our lives. Does that sound good?”
Tessa had walked into this room ready to have everything talked about fly over her head but Scott Moir is an engaging lecturer as he dives into his topic, striking the right balance between conveying his knowledge but explaining it in a way that’s easy to grasp. At times during his lecture, she’s scribbling as fast as she can to remember what he’s saying, and at other times it’s not until several minutes have passed that she realises her pen’s been slack in her grip because she’s been too focused on what he’s saying.
It’s been a long day and it’s been a tough day, and it’s been one of those days when self-doubt creeps in and she fears that she doesn’t deserve to be where she is, but listening to Scott Moir lecture—she feels the spark in her heart grow that little bit brighter. She has a long way to go, but one day she hopes to be able to teach as well as he does.
His talk is starting to wind down and Tessa looks down at her pages and pages of writing. It’s surprising considering how if you’d asked her even earlier that day if she would picture herself where she is now, she would not have imagined this.
“When most people hear ‘Chaos Theory’, they think of this little guy,” he shows a picture of a butterfly on the PowerPoint slide. “The idea being that a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world and that creates a hurricane on the other side.” He stretches his arms as far as he can. “That might be a bit too oversimplified,” he concedes, shrugging. “But the story goes that there was this guy, Edward Lorenz, who was running a weather simulation. This was back in the 1960s, so he was doing a pretty good job! Anyway, something happened that meant he had to retype his data in, which he did, carefully and painstakingly. He let the computer do its thing for a while and when he looked again, the weather simulation went nuts. It was not what he had going on the first time. It left him wondering: what could have gone wrong? He rechecked the data that he had entered and it was correct.”
He stops his pacing. “The thing is though that for one of the variables, he had rounded it off to a different number of decimal places when he re-entered the data compared to the first time. And that tiny difference was all it took to make a massive difference in the overall simulation. A tiny difference that’s the equivalent of the flap of a butterfly’s wings.” He looks up at the screen before turning back to the audience.
“And maybe that’s the real chaos of life. That there are choices that you make, as small as what you had for breakfast that morning, or choosing to come to this lecture tonight,” he pauses, scanning the room with a grin, “and that choice, that change, that ripple will change your life someway, somehow further down the line. And...we’ll never know exactly what or how. But it will.”
He claps his hands. “Okay! That’s it. Thank you for indulging me once again in my mathematical ramblings. Feel free to come up to ask questions, and as always there are light refreshments just outside this room. I know that’s the real reason most of you come to these things.” Tessa hears the wink in his voice.
A good portion of the crowd swarm out to where the food and drink must be, and a few scattered people make their way to the front of the room as Scott Moir had invited them too. She remains in her seat for a few moments. She looks to the doors that she came through and knows she could make a break for it now, that it’s not too late to have the quiet evening she had planned.
But she thinks back to how stumbling upon this lecture, this act of serendipity, had made a hard day like today just that little bit better. And how in experiencing a lecturer as good as him, it’s inspired her to be better at what she does.
She shoves her things in her bag and makes her way to the front of the room. She waits in the back of the crowd that surrounds him. He seems to be answering every single question with not a hint of a patronising or condescending tone. And she’s familiar with those, as a woman in academia.
When the person in front of her finishes their conversation with him, she sees him properly for the first time. The first thing that she notices is that his eyes are kind, a warm shade of brown that must turn gold when the sun hits it just right.
“Hi,” she starts, “I just wanted to say thank you for the lecture. Math’s far from my forte,” she smiles sheepishly, “but I learned so much today.”
“Thank you so much,” he grins at her. “Between you and me, I think one of these days they’ll realise what a mistake they made giving me these to do but I really love giving them. I’m so happy you found you were able to learn something today...can I grab your name?”
“Tessa. It’s Tessa.”
“Tessa.” He says it carefully, like it’s something delicate. “I’m Scott.” He ducks his head. “But you probably already knew that because I said that enough times this evening. You’ll have to forgive me. It’s been a long day.”
“I know the feeling. It’s been a long day for me too,” she sighs. “It’s actually my first year teaching here.”
“You teach here too? Welcome! And congratulations. What department are you part of?”
“Psychology. My specific teaching area are Social, Personality and Abnormal Psych.”
“That sounds fascinating. What’s your favourite part of what you teach?”
“When I was learning it way back in undergrad, it felt like everything...clicked in my head. Like the world made so much more sense. At least the way people worked, their flaws and their faults but also their strengths and the incredible things people have done too. And I just wanted to contribute to all that knowledge in my own way. And now teaching it, the best part is when I see that understanding in my students too. How they want to debate and challenge and learn as much as they can.”
Scott just looks at her agape for a moment and she worries she was too enthusiastic and spoke too fast. “Wow,” he shakes his head, “that’s—that’s exactly how I feel about math. Sounds like we’re both where we need to be, eh?”
“I hope so. It’s definitely been a struggle. There’s been so much good that I’m so thankful for, but some days are just…” she shrugs.
“You think you know the worst that you’re gonna get but…”
“...it still surprises you.” She fiddles with the strap of her bag. “That was the other thing I wanted to thank you for, actually. You’re...an incredible lecturer,” she worries she says it too softly. “It was really inspiring, for me, so thank you for that.”
"Thank you for saying that. That really means a lot to me. I bet your students would say the same thing about you, yeah? The way you talk about psych, it's so clear how much you care and I'm sure that translates in how you teach."
The conviction in his voice is strong and makes her want to believe his words. "I hope so."
He takes his jacket from where it's hanging on a chair near the front and as he does a small velvet box accidentally falls out, neatly stopping at Tessa’s feet. She bends down to pick it up.
“Shit. I can’t lose that.” When she looks up at him, his smile is sheepish. “You probably think it’s stupid to carry this around everywhere, eh? More risk of losing it somewhere.” He opens the box and the stone catches the light, winking like a lighthouse in a distant bay. “But I never know when the perfect moment will come for me to ask Kait, my girlfriend. So I just carry it around with me, just in case.”
“I think that’s sweet.” She doesn’t know him well, doesn’t know him at all, really, but she sees his kindness, his open eyes, his warm smile.
It must be a privilege to be loved by him.
“I know she’ll say ‘yes’,” she says, with as much genuine warmth she can put in those words.
“I hope so,” he says softly, as he tucks the box back in his pocket. “I always thought it was a mathematical impossibility that anyone could ever possibly meet the person just right for them...but I’ve been lucky to have met Kait.”
“I can’t say I’ve been lucky enough like you but you’ve just given me hope,” she jokes. It’s weak but he laughs anyway. She glances up at the clock in the front of the room. "I think I'm gonna head off now, thank you again."
"Thank you for coming. There'll be another one next year if you want to be subjected to me rambling for another hour," he says with the beginning of a laugh. “Oh! And Tessa, if you ever need advice or help or just a chat feel free to come find my office. It’s in this building too. Or maybe email if that’s easier? My staff email should be the same as yours, just with my name. I know how hard the first year can be, and if I can help you, I’d be more than happy too. Having people to ask or just rant to, helps so much. Still does, to be honest.”
“That’s so kind of you. I’ll probably have to take you up on that.”
She thanks him again, gets another of his warm smiles as she hurries out of the building into the cold. And yet it doesn’t feel as cold as it did earlier that evening, something like hope settling in between her pages of notes, light as butterfly’s wings.
ii. you leave me in the iridescent glow
It’s the smallest of things that sometimes make him think of her.
He’ll be waiting in line for his coffee at Tim’s and he’ll catch the profile of someone who could look almost like her, or he’ll stumble upon something that could almost be a match for the colour of her eyes, or he’ll be passing through a crowd and he’ll hear someone speak and it could almost be her voice.
He’ll see a butterfly flutter among one of the university gardens and he’ll think back to his lecture almost a year ago now when he met her.
Tessa never did take him up on him offering an open office door if she ever needed advice, or his email inbox if she ever needed a chat, but he definitely doesn’t begrudge her that. It had been something his mom fondly commented on since he was a kid, the way he would try to befriend almost anyone, and he’s sure he’s one of many, many well-meaning strangers who have offered support to someone like her who’s just starting out. He remembers there were so many people that offered to help him when he was in the same position, far too young and still too naive in many ways, who just happened to be good enough with numbers to make it so far so quickly.
‘Prodigy’ was the word that followed him when he graduated high school and got his degrees a lot earlier than his peers, but he’d never liked the term. He’s never thought of himself as particularly special. But he counts himself lucky that he gets to do what he loves, and instil that same love in his students.
He hasn’t seen Tessa since they first met, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever see her again, but he still finds himself thinking about her sometimes, in moments that hit him like raindrops randomly strike a windowpane. He hopes she’s doing well.
He glances through the last few slides of the PowerPoint for this year’s lecture, making sure everything he needs is on there. God, he still remembers the first year when he realised half of it was missing. It was not a good realisation to have five minutes before he was due to start. But he made it through, and if another hiccup comes up today, he’s sure he’ll make it through that.
But that doesn’t mean he won’t try to make sure none come up.
You Make My Heart Go Lub-Dub: The Math Behind Modelling Heartbeats and More Miscellaneous Medical Marvels, reads the title slide. He hadn’t been sure of what topic to do this year, but over his summer he’d spent some time with his Grandpa Mac, during which he’d gone to one of his doctor’s appointments with him. He saw the heartbeat monitor and like pretty much every moment since he was a boy and discovered numbers for the first time, his mind yearned to learn the math behind it. His Grandpa had noticed it almost immediately, chuckling and patting his knee affectionately.
“You’re gonna figure out exactly how they work, am I right?”
He’d smiled sheepishly, and he knew what the topic his lecture was gonna be on.
People start to trickle in, sometimes in pairs or in threes or alone or in larger groups, in whispers and the occasional laugh that’s too loud. There’s a pattern there, maybe, because the funny thing he’s learned about people is that no matter how hard they try, nothing is ever completely random, but he lets it go.
It’s not long until he needs to start. It’s his fifth public lecture this year, and a part of him is still as terrified as that first day. They were meant to have an actual accomplished guy in as the speaker, but he cancelled at the last minute and being the youngest guy and the only one who somehow didn’t have anything pressing enough to get out of it, he got thrust into the spotlight.
He’s lucky that he’s always been good with people and always been good at math. A hastily-slapped-together PowerPoint later and fingers crossed behind his back, he delivered his first public lecture.
And enough people liked it that they asked for him to do it again the year after.
It’s a different style from the lectures he has to give to students, and he has to think from a different perspective to make sure what he delivers is accessible and engaging. It’s worthwhile though, to hear from people that they’ve learned something new, to get questions and start conversations about topics he’s passionate about.
“Good evening, everyone. Welcome to tonight’s lecture. I came up with the topic I picked tonight when I accompanied my grandpa to the hospital for one of his check-ups. As a kid, to me, hospitals were pretty scary places, but I’ve learned growing up that they have some of the most amazing people there: some of our bravest and best heroes. From my research on the topic, it turns out that the human body is incredible and can teach us a thing or two about math. Let’s dive in, shall we?”
The lecture goes by quickly, and after that, he stays back to answer people’s questions. He’s deep in an explanation about what he’s learned about how electrocardiograms work to a little boy with glasses falling off his nose every couple of seconds when the crowd parts just so and he sees her.
Their eyes meet in the same moment and he pauses mid-sentence. It’s Tessa who lifts her hand and waves. He lifts his own hand to return the gesture, before looking back at the little boy in front of who has been patiently waiting. Scott apologises for being distracted and finishes up his explanation.
Stoking curiosity in a young mind is always a good thing for him and definitely one of the best parts of nights like these. He answers a couple more questions, trying to maintain his focus as best as he can, and it’s like a perfect mirror-image to the evening last year when it’s Tessa who approaches him last.
“You remembered my name,” she says, startled, a soft smile settling on her lips.
“I do try. It makes sure I keep some friends,” he jokes.
She laughs just like he wanted, quick and bright but it peters out in the next moment like a falling star. “Scott, I—I’m so sorry.”
He frowns. “What for?”
“That you were so kind and you offered so much help and I never took you up on it.” She wraps her arms around herself. “I got so busy right after your lecture last year that by the time I had my emails open and drafted something to send to you, it felt like too much time had passed.”
“You could have,” he says, gently. “It would never have been too late.”
She nods, giving him another small smile.
“And thank you for coming tonight. You must be busy and you didn’t have to.”
“But I wanted to.” It’s firm and resolute when she says it. “Really, I—I wish I’d been braver.”
“Well,” he shrugs, gestures around them, “you’re here now.”
“I am.” She uncrosses her arms, adjusts the way she’s holding her clutch. “So, how are you? How’s the last year been?”
He presses his lips together. How does he begin to answer that question? “With teaching and research, it’s been really good.” It has. It’s the highest number of papers he’s ever published in a year.
Tessa tilts her head, opens her mouth to say something. Closes it. “Scott,” her voice is gentle, “I know we don’t really know each other well at all, but...is everything okay?”
Memories assault him: an open velvet box and him on one knee, the echo of a shaky No, Scott, I can’t, I’m sorry.
He leans against a table and Tessa mirrors him, concern etched in the furrow of brows. “Do you remember when we met last year? And I accidentally dropped the ring I was carrying around in my pocket?”
Tessa, who he assumes is impossibly brilliant and intelligent, must connect all the dots in an instant given by the way her eyes widen. She doesn’t say anything, and he continues. “I proposed. To Kait. And she said no.”
“Oh, Scott. I’m so sorry.”
The pain is duller now. Not quite the sudden knock to his chest and his head the moment she gave him her answer. Not quite the stabbing in the gut in the days, the weeks after, every time he’d remember, every time he had to tell another person in his life that his relationship had ended.
The thing that stung was that he hadn’t seen it coming. He hadn’t seen that she was unhappy, or that he could have been doing more for their relationship. And he had always prided himself on being smart, and for caring for those he loved, and to realise that he had failed on both counts was jarring and painful.
Tessa shakes her head. “No, no, it’s not. You don’t need to diminish or hide what you’re feeling. Not in front of me. I know—I know we don’t really know each other that well, and that’s mostly my fault,” he’s about to protest but she keeps speaking, “but if you ever need anything, I can be here for you.”
She says it with determination and it makes him feel seen, like there’s someone looking out for him.
“I mean it.” She leans back against the desk, and they’re quiet for a moment.
He looks at the clock on the wall and turns to her. “Tess, I’m so sorry for keeping you. I’m sure you’re busy, and—”
She shakes her head, “If it’s helped in any way, that you’ve told me what you’ve gone through, that’s worth my time.”
He learns, with each conversation, all the facets of how remarkable she is.
She takes her phone out and looks at the screen, frowning. “Oh, but if it’s not too much trouble, I will head off. I just got a text from my boyfriend asking where I am. Shit, the reservation was meant to be at…” she winces, “...now.”
It’s like it hits him all at once that she’s wearing a pretty black dress, her hair curled and her face done up in fancy make-up. But Tessa’s beautiful in a radiant way beyond just what she looks like, plus she’s obviously intelligent and incredibly kind on top of that. Whoever’s waiting for her is a lucky guy.
He stands straighter. “Of course, I shouldn’t have kept you for so long.”
“Ryan will understand. Or—” she shrugs “—he’ll complain about it, but he’ll forget soon enough. It’s to celebrate our six months together, but it’s not like he’s never been late either.” She rolls her eyes. “This is important to me too. To be there for my friends.” She startles, looks at him. “We are friends?”
“Yeah, of course,” he reassures her. “You go ahead. Thanks for coming again. Maybe, I’ll see you next year?”
“I won’t miss it,” she smiles.
(It’s almost past midnight, but he’s still up finishing up his lesson plans when an email comes through. At first he grumbles thinking it’s from the head of the department announcing a cut in funding again but it’s from Tessa.
This is Tessa. (But you can probably tell that from my email address? Sorry, it’s too late and my brain’s not at 100%) Thank you for your lecture today, and thank you for last year when you offered to be there for me if I needed it.
If you ever need anything, don’t hesitate to ask. I’m sorry you’re going through what you’re going through. Kait doesn’t know what she’s missing out on—just because I haven’t known you long doesn’t mean I can’t say that you’re an amazing person. I’ve seen it in the way you teach, the way you answer questions, the way you offer help without second-guessing to anyone who you think might need it.
I remember when you said to me during the first lecture of yours that I went to that it’s almost a mathematical impossibility to find the person perfect for you, and I’m sorry that Kait didn’t turn out to be the one, but I know they’re out there somewhere for you. Who knows? Maybe you’ve crossed paths yet and you just haven’t realised.
Take care, Scott.
He’s just given a talk where he’d spent a good portion trying to explain how mathematics can model the rhythm of the human heart, but if there’s one out there to describe the way his own had just skipped a beat, it’s not one he’s found yet.)
iii. the moment comes, the moment nears
“Tess?” There’s a knock on her office door. She looks up to see Scott poking his head in. “You ready for lunch?”
“Won’t be a second. I’m just finalising something with Caro.” Carolina, her colleague that coordinates the Introduction to Social Psychology unit with her, smirks at her and raises an eyebrow. It’s the same look she shoots Tessa every time Scott drops by when she’s around. The unspoken insinuation is clear but she doesn’t bite. No matter how many times she repeats that she and Scott are just friends, Caro just scoffs at her, something like, You’re just in denial, muttered under her breath every single time.
(The way her eyes catch on his arms as he crosses them when he leans against the door, and the way she stupidly smiles at his grin, probably aren’t helping her case but. They’re. Just. Friends.)
“I think we’re good here, Tess. You don’t want to keep Scott waiting. We can finish this up later.” No amount of protests from Tessa, or reassurances from Scott, can keep her and with a final wink, Caro exits the room.
“I guess we’re up for lunch then?” She smiles at him as she shrugs on her cardigan and grabs her wallet.
“Yep. We gotta get going, T. Your favourite food truck’s parked on campus today—the line’s gonna be long and I’ve learned how you get when you’re hangry.”
“I don’t get hangry!” she retorts, but he just laughs, grabs her hand and pulls her out of her office, the sound echoing in the hallway. He clamps his mouth shut, no doubt thinking of all the academics whose work he’s just interrupted. But he breaks in the next moment and she can’t help but laugh along with him.
She likes to think that the past year has been good to him, that his heart has slowly mended. Her own relationship had slowly faded, but it had been so, so easy to let go. She found Ryan attractive from the start and the sex was decent, but god, had he even made her laugh once?
Scott fills her in on the smart-ass comments his students had made in his lectures that day, and then she bemoans the loss of the coffee machine in the psych department kitchen. The Blue Chip Truck is there today and she’s already thinking about their poutine—their serving sizes are generous and service is fast and she will definitely need to put in an extra couple of hours at the gym this week but it will be worth it.
She’s learned over the past year that it’s a rare day that their schedules align with enough time to get lunch, so today’s a bit of a blessing. They walk over to one of the quads in Knox College and find a free bench, miraculously. She adores how much greenery there is in the place, how it doesn’t even feel like they’re in the middle of a bustling city.
“So,” she prompts as she tucks into her lunch, “are you ready for your lecture this evening?”
“Oh god,” he leans back, swallowing, his Adam’s apple bobbing. “Yes? I hope so.”
Considering she’d been on the receiving end of many panicked and semi-coherent texts, she knows he’s still made the time to make it the best lecture possible given everything else he’s got going on.
“This year’s topic is on…” she pauses, searching for the right words he’s mentioned to her, “Pascal’s Triangle?”
“Yeah,” he angles his body to face her, crossing one of his legs. “T, it’s fascinating. There are so many different patterns to find in it that aren’t obvious at first but then when you realise...it was right there in front of you, all along. I hope you like it.” He ducks his head. “You are coming, right?”
She pretends to mull it over for a second, trying not to laugh as he pouts. “Of course I’m coming. Wouldn’t miss it.”
Scott, ever the gentleman, walks her back to her office with enough time for her to prep for her last few lectures for that day. She gets through a majority of her tasks for that afternoon and evening, pushes the rest to tomorrow, before hurrying over to the math department.
(Caro sticks her head out of her office door to say ‘Have fun with Scott, Tess!’ accompanied with a knowing smile, and normally she’d argue the point but she really doesn’t want to be late.)
There’s no one else in the room yet, just Scott out the front trying to connect his laptop to the audio-visual system, and she takes a moment to stand there watching him. Who knew that he’d become one of her closest friends when she first stumbled on his public lectures that fateful night two years ago?
She walks up to the front of the room. She knocks on the space in front of his laptop, watches his face break into a bright grin. “Virtch!”
She sits on one of the tables near the front, swinging her feet, letting Scott ramble nervously at her about his lecture. She hands him a bottle of water and a granola bar because he had said he doesn’t like to eat a lot before them, but she had argued that he’s better off having something in his stomach. He had acquiesced eventually, with a quiet, ‘Thanks, T’.
She sneaks off to her usual seat at the back when people start to come in and his lecture begins.
“Good evening, all! Thank you for coming in to join me for this year’s lecture. The topic I picked for this year is Pascal’s Triangle.” He shows an image of numbers stacked in the shape of a triangle on the screen. “As a bit of a segue into history, the Western world calls it Pascal’s triangle after French mathematician Blaise Pascal, but it goes by different names in different cultures: historically, it’s been called the Staircase of Mount Meru in India, the Khayyam triangle in Iran, and Yang Hui’s triangle in China. It doesn’t look like much when you first see it, just a random bunch of numbers, right? But tonight I’d like to show you a lot of patterns it hides in plain sight…”
She really does feel like she could listen to him forever.
By the time he’s finished both the lecture and answering audience questions, she can’t help but notice that he looks...tired. And not just in an ‘it’s been a long day’ kind of way. But in a ‘something’s been weighing on my mind’ kind of way.
She waits until it’s just the two of them. “Hey, Scott?”
“I just wanted to ask...is there anything on your mind? I just noticed then that you seemed...exhausted.”
“Nothing escapes you, eh?” He sighs. “There’s this thing I’ve been thinking…” He still seems reluctant to tell her.
“If you don’t want to talk about it yet, you don’t have to,” she tells him, gently. “But if you want a willing ear, I’m here. I hope you know that.”
“I do, T. You’re one of the few people I’d want to talk about it.” He shuts his laptop, slides it into his bag, then goes to stand next to where she’s sitting.
“The thing is that…I’ve felt stagnant recently. In terms of my work. I have this feeling like I want...something more. Maybe even somewhere else?” He winces. “It just sounds so ungrateful when I say it out loud. I know how hard the job climate is already and the fact that I have a steady job that I love should be more than enough.”
“It’s not an ungrateful thing to want to further your career. You’ve given so much to your department here already. I’m sure they’d be supportive of it, even. Paul, especially.” At the mention of the professor who’s acted as his mentor since the start of his career, the tension in his body releases a little. “You can’t tell me that he wouldn’t support you, right?”
He leans his head against her shoulder. “You’re right. Maybe...it’s time to start dreaming again.”
She breathes in the scent of him, soap and sandalwood. She’ll miss him when he’s gone, but she wants him to chase all his dreams. “You’ll let me know how it goes?”
“Of course, T.”
iv. once again, you puncture my heart
“...Fermat’s Last Theorem, although his last, marked the beginning of a search for the proof that wouldn’t be found until more than three centuries later. And although it’s my last year and my last public lecture here, I know it’s the beginning of a new chapter. If this is the first time you’ve come to one of my lectures, I’m so sorry that you’re gotten a blubbering mess. Next year’s speaker is going to be one hundred per cent better—please come back. But if this is your second, or third or fourth or more: thank you for coming the first time and thank you for coming again. My love of math is only fulfilled when I get to share it with others, so thank you so much for letting me share it with you.”
When he finishes speaking, there’s not a sound to be heard. But then someone begins to clap, and then another, and then another, until the sound of applause is nearly thunderous. He can’t help it; he starts to cry. He’s always been emotional and the appreciation from everyone in the room is overwhelming. It’s bittersweet in the best way.
Over the past year, he’s redefined what goals he wants to pursue professionally and what he wants his research to focus on. There were more opportunities than he’d realised. He really just needed to begin looking. It was nerve-wracking, looking at open positions in other universities, researching the costs of visas and accommodation and the general cost of living and checking all his savings to make sure it was viable. Self-doubt plagued him so often that he was tempted to abandon it all, but he’s glad he didn’t. He knows he owes a lot of that to Tessa.
Tessa, who was there with colour-coded spreadsheets and helpful text messages, stern words when he needed them and kinds ones when those were what was required. He’s terrified that he took up more of her time than what he should’ve, considering all of Tessa’s own responsibilities.
(He thinks back to the first conversation they ever shared when it was her who was going through a period of self-doubt. He’s so proud of how far she’s flourished. She was blushing when she told him the news that she’d won one of the university’s awards for teaching excellence, but he had hugged her so fiercely because if there was anyone who deserved it, it’s Tessa.)
He searches for her in her seat at the back and she’s there standing and clapping along with the audience. It’s too far to clearly see her so he assumes it’s also too far for her to see him but he gives a grateful smile in her direction anyway. He watches her press her hands to her eyes and watching her get emotional is about to set him off again.
There are so many kind members of the public, so many familiar faces, and there are a few kids who’ve brought him drawings and he knows he’s going to treasure every single one. He probably answers questions for a lot longer than what he usually would, but he wants to savour this.
Soon, it’s just Tessa and she’s smiling but it’s watery. When she comes closer to hug him, he doesn’t resist the impulse to sweep her off her feet and spin her around. She makes a sound that’s a half-laugh, half-cry and it’s like a song both old and new.
He doesn’t know if it’s kind or callous of the universe or his heart that it happens in this moment, but it’s here with Tessa in his arms and her joy in his ears and the world a spinning blur of colour, that he realises.
He’s fallen in love with his best friend. And he’s about to leave her behind.
When he sets her back down, he studies her face. Every contour, every shadow, every shade of green in her eyes. He wonders how it will change after he says goodbye. It’s not a concrete or final thing, their farewell, because there’s facetime and texts and social media, if he ever figures that last one out. As long as she wants to be part of his life, she will be.
But it won’t be the same.
“What is it?” she asks, touching her cheek. “Do I have something on my face? If you’re gonna make fun of me for having red eyes from crying, Scott, I will point out that you can’t talk.”
“No, no, it’s not that. It’s just I—” love you, he thinks, “—I’m going to miss you.”
“Me too,” she says softly. Then her eyes light up. “We should do something tonight.”
“Yeah, to celebrate. Like dinner, maybe? How hard would it be to get a reservation for a restaurant with short notice?”
When you’re as determined and charming as Tessa, it’s entirely possible.
“Whoa, T. This place is fancy.” He says as they’re seated in the restaurant, looking around with wide eyes.
“It is a little, and I know that’s not entirely your thing,” she winces, then gives him an apologetic smile. “But I read that they’re one of the best when it comes to steaks, so I hope that makes up for it?”
He thinks to himself that there’s nothing to make up for, that it’s being with her that will make this evening complete, but that feels both too big and fragile to say. “Thank you, T. You’re the best.”
She blushes, still unaccustomed to praise, but he takes her hand and squeezes it, putting in all the words he can’t say in the simple touch.
“So, are you excited about MIT?” she changes the subject but doesn’t let go of his hand.
“I mean, it still doesn’t feel fully real, at all. I didn’t think my application would be successful.” Even as he was successful with each passing round, even as he was flying in for the final interview, it had never really occurred to him that he could be the one chosen for the position.
“Oh, hush. They’d be stupid not to have hired you. And it’s MIT, so I know they’d want to maintain their reputation for, you know, being smart. I’m so excited for you, I really am. You’re going to do incredible, incredible things. I’ll see you on the news and I’ll be able to tell people, ‘I knew him!’.”
Her happiness for him is abundantly clear, but it doesn’t stop the ache in his chest when she uses the past tense.
He laughs instead, “I’ve got my work cut out for me then. Wouldn’t want to let you down, eh?”
“You could never let me down. Never.”
He doesn’t know how to make this evening last more than what time he’s already been given, or how to make his memory of this as vivid as possible like a painting he’ll keep in a corner of his heart. But he wishes.
Tessa gets caught up in choosing between the praline and ganache cake and the dulce de leche cheesecake for dessert, biting her bottom lip as she tries to make what must be an agonising decision, so he tells her he’ll get one and she can get the other and then she can try both.
He can watch the way she takes the tiniest bites of each, obviously trying to savour both, forever. She sighs in delight at the first bite of both cakes, not realising until several bites later that he hasn’t had any yet. She nudges both plates towards him, telling him indignantly that he should have said something, but he doesn’t know how to tell her that he’ll get two desserts just for her for the rest of their lives if that’s what would make her happy.
(It’s not a promise he’ll be able to keep, anyway. The three years he’s had her in his life have been a wonderful, wonderful point of intersection, but he supposes that their lives, like all intersecting lines, reach a point in time when they move apart.)
When they’re laughing too loudly as they’re finishing up dessert (Tessa has the funniest impersonation of her colleague Meryl) and the people around them are starting to give them judgmental looks, they know it’s time to go. At first Tessa tries to pay for their entire meal—”It was my idea, Scott! I don’t want to impose!”—but he pleads with her to let him pay.
“Please, Tess. Let me cover it. It’s the least I can do to thank you for everything you’ve done for me over the last year.”
She pauses, and he thinks she’s going to fight him again, but she nods, a soft smile on her lips. It warms him head to toe.
When they get into his car, she sinks back into his warmed seats with a delighted sigh. (He never indulges himself when it’s just him, but he turned the heating mechanism on because he knows she runs cold.) She looks over at him just before he puts the car in ‘drive’, and he loves how happy she looks.
It sends a deep sort of ache through his chest, but he thinks that when he looks back on this evening, whatever sadness he’s feeling at the thought of saying goodbye will throw the joyful moments in sharp relief, making them all the brighter.
He insists on walking her up to her door, firstly because his mama raised a gentleman and secondly because he’s taking every moment that he can get with her that he can. There will be a lucky someone who will walk her home not just once but every night for forever, who won’t stop at her front door but instead open it and let her lead them by the hand into the home that they share.
The only word he can think of to describe her smile when she nudges his shoulder in the middle of a joke as they walk up her path is incandescent, and all he wishes for is that whoever that lucky someone ends up being, they’ll find ways to make her smile like that every single day.
She pivots on her heels to face him when they’re by her door. “So, this is me.”
“Thank you again, T.”
She steps closer to hug him, winds her arms around his shoulders until they’re chest to chest. He’ll miss this, he knows. He’ll never know exactly how much, because his body will begin to forget before he realises, the indents where she fits now unmolding because of time passing. If he hugs her tighter so that he’ll remember for a second, a minute, an hour longer, then no one else has to know.
She nestles her head into the crook of his neck, the softest sigh against his skin. She pulls back enough to look at him. Her eyes dart all over his face, his eyes, the bridge of his nose. His lips. She leans in, close enough that he feels her breath on them, the barest brush of her mouth on his, like it could almost be a kiss except it’s more like the touch of butterfly’s wings.
Then she falls back. Eyes wide. “Oh god, Scott. I’m so sorry,” she gets out. Her hand is on the handle of her front door, except it won’t open yet because she hasn’t unlocked it.
“Tessa,” he tries, softly. “Tess, T,” he tries louder, his voice breaking and she looks up. Her eyes shine with unshed tears. Slowly, carefully, he cradles her cheek with the touch of his fingertips first then the curve of both palms.
He brings his head closer until he's just a sigh away from her mouth. Waiting. He's going to make sure it's her choice, if she takes this, if she takes him, if she wants.
When she kisses him, it's like a kiss hello, and it makes it hurt all the more that it's really a goodbye.
"Scott, can you," she says in between kisses, "can you give me," she shakes in his arms, like whatever she's trying to say, whatever she’s learned in between their first kiss and now, can’t come out fast enough, "can you give me one night? Please?" She clutches the collar of his coat in his fingers.
She asks it with a hopeless sort of desperation, like she already knows the answer, but asks the question anyway.
"Yes," he says, forehead against hers, somehow both selfish and selfless and it's heartbreaking how those two things can be true at the same time. "Anything, Tess. Anything."
When he was younger, he thought that if he counted the seconds slower, time wouldn't pass as quickly. He'd stretch out the syllable as he’s counting, like the second won't pass just because he hadn't said the next number yet. It doesn't work like that. And yet.
Here, he counts kisses, and he counts touches, and he counts Tessa's moans and sighs. He makes love to her slowly, slowly, like he can make this night stretch indefinitely long, like graphs that tend towards infinity. It shatters him and puts him back together, over and over. As his body meets hers, she holds him close, her shallow breaths dotted with the sound of his name. He loves her like he's got all the time in the world in his pocket and palm, and while his hands don't hold forever, they hold her, and it's—not enough, this will never be enough—but it's something he'll hold close for as long as he’ll live.
There's a moment, after, when Tessa traces circles on his chest and about to drift off to sleep, that she murmurs, “I think I could have fallen in love with you.”
First, he thinks that he’s grateful that she hasn’t yet. He loves her and she doesn’t, and she doesn’t know that he does and that’s okay, because he’s the one saying goodbye. And last, he thinks of overlapping sine and cosine functions: the ones that meet, over and over again, but are always, inevitably and unceasingly, torn apart.
(He wonders if it’s foolish to hope that one day they’ll reach a turning point, and find each other again.)
v. i take a leap without a net below
It’s the smallest of things that make her think of him.
When it’s been nearly five years that have passed, Tessa wonders if she should still be doing this, remembering and remembering, always just enough so she doesn’t forget. She knows she’s forgotten a lot, especially the tiny details. The first time she’d ordered lunch, she’d patted herself on the back for not crying when she’d eaten her poutine. And yet she hadn’t counted on the sudden ache in her throat when she’d looked up at the menu several months later and could not remember the exact order he used to place, and she left in the middle of placing her order because the feeling of loss was too much to handle.
The colours in his eyes, the exact shade of blue that he liked to wear—if she tried to recall it, it was like trying to hold water in her hands: always, always slipping away.
They message, of course, indulge in phone calls sometimes when their schedules align. He was the first one she’d told when she was granted tenure, and his happiness for her through the crackling sound of her phone was the best thing she’d heard in a long time. He’s always sounded emphatically and soundly happy when talking about his work and his life and his friends over there, and there’s nothing that she wants more than that for him. But she misses him. God, she misses him.
The annual public lecture held by the math department is on this evening, and she makes her way across campus to attend. They change up who gives it year by year now, as if everyone knows that no one will ever be able to replace the way Scott had made it his own. Scott had asked her if she was attending this year’s lecture the last time they texted, to which she replied yes, of course. Apparently his friend Chiddy was doing this year and she’s pretty sure he did one of the lectures she attended a two or three years ago. She remembers his warm, affable manner, his good sense of humour, and she knows she’ll enjoy it.
She sits in her usual seat in the back, makes small talk with the people around her. She’s been to enough of these that she knows some familiar faces, asks after people’s kids and listens to their stories from the past year. Soon, Paul, the head of the department, takes to the lectern.
“Good evening everyone,” he smiles warmly. “So, we actually have a bit of a surprise for you tonight. I know we’ve been advertising this talk as being given by Professor Chan—” Chiddy turns around and waves from his seat in the front, “—but we haven’t exactly been perfectly honest.”
Tessa frowns, shifting in her seat. What do they mean?
Paul continues, “Five years ago, we said goodbye to a very special person. And tonight’s the first time we’re sharing the news that he will be coming back to our university.”
Her heart thunders in her chest and in her ears. Do they mean—
And Scott walks out onto the front. His hair is long enough to be curling, and it hits her that they really are getting old because it’s streaked with silver, but he’s still got his familiar smile and she presses a hand over her mouth before she makes a sound that startles everyone around her.
He scans the crowd deliberately, reaches where she’s sitting. He did that for the two lectures he knew she was attending all those years ago, made eye contact at least once because he knew she was there to support him, as if it bolstered him more when he knew she was there in the audience. She knew he didn’t need it, as experienced as he is, but it made her feel set alight anyway.
He lifts his hand in a small wave, the quirk of his lips tender, and she raises her own in return. She’s not gonna ugly-cry, she’s not, she’s not.
She misses a good portion of his lecture, her heart still ringing in her ears because of all the things she thought she’d forgotten, this is one thing she hadn’t realised her heart remembers: he speaks and it answers.
She misses a good portion of his lecture, but this is the one part she’ll keep:
“As a final thing, I’d like to share with you something called ‘Brouwer’s fixed point theorem’. The easiest way to picture it is like this.” He goes over to a table moved toward the front earlier and picks up a sheet of paper and holds it up for everyone to see. “Here, I’ve got a grid of the numbers 1-100 on it.” He lays it back down on the table again, and picks up another sheet. “This is an exact copy of the other sheet, and I’m going to crumple it up. The funny, weird, wonderful thing is that according to the fixed point theorem, if I drop this crumpled up sheet onto the grid,” he pauses to do so, “there will always be a number on the crumpled up sheet directly above the matching number on the first sheet. It’s one of those things that doesn’t feel like it should be true, but it is.”
He searches the crowd for her and even from far away she doesn’t break his gaze. “No matter how unlikely it is for two points to meet again,” his voice turns soft, the microphone barely picking it up, “they do.”
She stays in her seat even as most of the crowd surges around him. When she finds the strength to stand, she lingers in the back, the way she had every other time she’s attended one of his lectures. One by one, the people slowly leave.
Until it’s just him.
And just her.
“Tessa.” He smiles with his eyes first before his lips. He opens his arms.
“Scott.” Her hands cover her mouth, the sob finally escaping. “Scott, Scott.” She stumbles forward, collapsing into him and then he’s holding her so, so tight. “I hate you,” she blurts out, when all she means is the exact opposite. It’s muffled through tears. “You didn’t say—we were just talking yesterday—you’re here and I didn’t know.”
“I know, I know,” he cradles her head. “I wanted it to be a surprise?”
She punches his chest weakly.
He hugs her tight enough that they sway, and she probably needs to pull away to breathe but her lungs haven’t felt this full since he held her last.
“T,” he strokes her hair from crown to nape and back again. “Do you really hate me?”
She shakes her head. “No, I’m just really mad,” she says without any heat.
“Okay. Be mad as long as you like, T.” He’s trying not to laugh at her, she knows it. “Then…” he trails off.
She pulls back. “Then what?”
He swallows. “I was going to ask you to dinner,” he says, soft. “Unless...there’s someone else?”
She shakes her head, cupping his cheek, something warming every inch of her when he leans into her touch. “No, there’s no one else.”
She had tried, but all the dates she’d had with perfectly nice men she only ended up comparing to her one not-even-a-date with Scott. She’d tried harder with some of them, but the relationships lasted a few months at most. It was probably unfair, and she often wondered if she was idealising him in her head. But she knows that how he made her feel is real, and that no one’s made her feel as known and seen and cared for the way he did.
He gives her a smile that’s all earnest and boyish and as dazzling as the sun and—oh. She loves him. She loves him.
And when she kisses him, it's remembering.
There's still things to figure out but for now, he’s here with her, and that's more than enough.
+i. you’re someone who’ll always be there
"I'm so nervous," Tessa says, wringing her hands.
"You don't need to be," he tells her, gently taking her hands in his so that she doesn't worry them raw. He takes his time to run his thumbs over the back of her hands, tracing the valleys of her knuckles and then turning them over to find the lines of her palm. "You've practised, over and over. You know the content. And, most importantly, you care so much." With the last word, he presses a kiss to her hand.
She softens. Then frowns at him. "This is your fault again, by the way."
He had been in her office when he had teased her that she could totally do her own public lectures just as her head of department, Suzanne, had walked by her open door.
Suzanne had poked her head in. "That's actually a wonderful idea. We should get onto it," she had said, eyes gleaming.
Scott knows Tessa had thought it was just said in jest, but Suzanne was determined and Tessa, for all her nervousness, will always find being able to share what she knows with willing minds the most important thing.
Tessa walks over to where her laptop’s connected to the audio-visual system, scrolls through the slides that he knows are flawless. He had looked it over last night before they got into bed. He possibly got less sleep than what he normally does because Tessa would randomly mumble things that could possibly go wrong into his back as she lay curled up against him, feet tucked in his calves. But he’ll do anything to help her feel as ready as she can, and that includes reassuring her as many times as she needs him to in the middle of the night.
When a life shared with her was the most distant dream, he’ll take any sleepless nights that come with the reality of loving her. He knows that moving away was what he needed at the time and he doesn’t regret that, but he also knows that he made the right decision in coming back to Toronto. He’s learned so much and has pushed himself more than what he would have if he had stayed all those years ago, but he woke up one day knowing that it was time for him to come home. It was time to share his knowledge with his students back home, the way his own professors had shared their knowledge with him.
He wasn’t sure if it was possible, but he had reached out to Paul and he’s lucky that their department was more than willing to welcome him back.
Seeing Tessa again was what he was looking forward to the most, and at the same, was what terrified him the most. He had missed her more than what words could describe for all those years. He knew that there was every chance she’d found her lucky someone, but that didn’t matter, he had told himself. He’s spent this long quietly loving her; he can spend another lifetime.
It had not stopped him from hoping when he saw her again, older but no less beautiful, in the same room he’d met her all those years ago, that this could be a universe where she’d love him in return.
And he’s the luckiest someone that she does.
Once it’s time for her to start, he stands off to the side, leaning against the wall in the dark. She's all confidence once she begins, so eloquent and passionate. He adores her like this.
"Interpersonal synchrony: how should we begin?" Tessa walks over to the table where she had set up her demonstration. "To show you what I mean, I've got a pair of metronomes here." She flicks the moving part of one and then the other, and the resultant ticking of the metronomes is dissonant and out of time. "Here's something fascinating though." She takes a small plank and balances it on two short pipes, then puts both metronomes on the plank. After a while, slowly but surely, both metronomes wind up ticking in time.
"There's physics and math that explains why this happens but that's not the focus of tonight," she waves her hand and peeks at him for a moment, wearing a smile that's pure mischief. "But the key takeaway here is that a coupling mechanism, such as the shared plank between the two metronomes, is what leads to synchrony." She takes apart her demonstration then walks in front of the table. "And people are the same. If you watch people who are walking together, their steps will match in time. Dancers that dance together shows interpersonal synchrony. And it’s evident even at the physiological level: there have been studies that have shown that couples who have been together for long enough will have heartbeats that synchronise." She places her hand on her heart, glances towards him again, and he mirrors the gesture.
(The number of people that make fun of the two of them for their heart-eyes is too many to count. But he can't help it. And he loves that Tessa can't help it either.)
"Interpersonal synchrony has important implications for self-esteem, social cognition, cooperation and social communication, among other things. And that's what I want to go into this evening..."
The audience is captivated by her, and he already knows that these lectures are going to be a hit.
There’s no one that claps louder than him by the time she’s finished with her talk. Afterwards, he watches as she takes the time to answer questions from the people who come up to her, attentive and actively listening. She lets more than one little kid take their turn with the metronome demonstration, crouches down beside them as their faces light up once the metronomes inevitably tick in time.
By the time she's done both with the questions, she turns to him, flushed and bright-eyed and so clearly happy even through her tiredness.
“Good job, T. You did amazingly,” he places his hands at her elbows, loving the way she sinks into him as he opens his arms for her.
She hums against him as he holds her, "I don’t know about amazing, but I really enjoyed that.” She stills, murmuring, “You’re gonna say ‘I told you so’, aren’t you?”
He laughs. “Well, I mean...I did tell you so.”
“You did. And you’re right and I should never have doubted you.”
“You should have never doubted yourself,” he says, gently, moving his palm up and down her back.
She smiles up at him, before pressing her face to his neck again. “Thanks for being here."
"Nowhere else I'd rather be." He presses his nose into her hair. "Hey, T?” He waits until she looks up at him. “Thank you for coming to my lecture all those years ago."
She leans in and brushes her nose against his in a butterfly kiss. "I'm glad I did, too."