This is math. By Joey Comeau
The man sits on Rose's couch too easily. He's too used to making strange living rooms his home. She clears her throat and turns to the kitchen table.
"In here," she says. She's not going to be intimidated by his notepad filled with numbers. There's nothing to numbers. It's all one through ten. She can count, and she knows better than to be scared of some man who counts for a living.
He gets up and joins her at the table.
"This shouldn't take long," he tells her. "We are just going to go over your expenses. Do
you have your receipts?" He has a degree in accounting, she guesses, which he probably thinks is
math. It isn't. The word counting is right there, inside it. They all think that it's math.
Rose has a book of math exercises in the closet, hidden beneath the porno magazines her
old boyfriend left. She hides it under the smut, because nobody's going to keep digging after
they find the spread open legs and the photos of semen tracing arcs onto hungry vacant eyes. It's
safer, hidden under everyday filth.
She never got higher than a C in high school math, and that was good enough for the
school boards, and good enough for her. It wasn't math, either. He probably got an A. The first
time she ever saw math, real math, was in that used bookstore, when she opened an old book and
let her breath catch inside of her. The symbols were a maze on the page, an incantation. It was
a coded message that sent electricity through her whole body, and she put her own meaning
into it, right there.
She stands up from the table, and motions for him to do the same.
"They're in my closet." she says, and she meets his eyes in a way she knows looks good.
In the closet, she pulls out the box of receipts, which is right on top. Then she pulls out
the magazines, one by one, setting them beside the door of the closet. He eyes them, but doesn't
say anything. She moves slower, making her gestures more pronounced, exaggerated, like the
plot points in a dirty movie. When she reaches the math book, the book of exercises, her fingers
brush against the embossed cover. She turns and makes a pout and in a small voice, she says "Do
you know much about math?"
He smiles.
"I did my graduate studies in number theory," he says. It's unexpected, and there's
suddenly a cold spot in her stomach, but she makes herself smile. "I like to think I'm pretty
good." he says.
Rose pulls the book out, where he can see it.
"Then maybe you can help me," she says. She opens the book to the middle, and takes a
marker from her pocket. She passes it to him, letting her fingers linger on his, and then pulls her hand away.
She rolls up her sleeve, and there is an equation written there, in black. It's a series of
symbols and numbers. There are Roman and Greek letters, all together, strung along a line that
begins on the inside of her elbow. It is from a random page in the book. She has no idea what it
means.
"That's not quite what I studied," he says, and she knows that this is the smile that he
considers his charming smile. This is the one he pulls out in bars, or when he's being introduced
to women he knows are single. She smiles back, and touches the top button of her blouse with
her other hand.
"If you can solve this one, there are more." she says, and he looks again at the equation.
He looks at it more seriously, this time, taking her hand to hold the arm steady. She knows the
answer, symbol for symbol, but has no idea what it means, either. She knows what it means to
her. It's the first in a series of locks, lines of defences.
This is how it works. He'll struggle with the first question, but solve it. He'll solve the
second and third, too. But they never make it past the fourth, and she sleeps with them anyway,
because she feels bad. Because she's worried that no one ever will.
He reaches out for the book, but she shakes her head no, and holds it closer to herself. He
has a tight grin on his face.
"It's been a while," he says, and she nods. There are symbols there that he would never
have studied in finance, she's sure, and the farther beneath her clothes he gets, the less like
counting the math would become. Eventually it would be nothing but magic to him, and he
would give up.
Only, he doesn't give up. He solves the first equation, writing the answer onto her palm,
the soft tip of the marker moving with fast confidence. She pulls up the other sleeve, and he does
it again, faster this time. He's smiling now, and she undoes the front of her blouse.
"I hope you don't think this is going to make me any easier on your taxes," he laughs.
There are five equations on her chest, all drawn carefully with the black marker. She
doesn't even have to look down to know that he's writing out the answers properly, symbol for
symbol, perfect. His handwriting is like hers, and he draws the symbols with the same care.
When he's done, he looks up from where he is knelt before her belly, and she nods. He
undoes the first button of her jeans, and begins to pull the zipper down.
"Give me the marker," she says, and he does. With both hands free, he pulls her pants to
the ground, and her legs are naked and unmarked. He reaches for the waistband of her panties
but Rose shakes her head.
She takes the cap off the marker, and she begins to draw symbols on her legs, down one
and up the other. This isn't an equation from the book, but one that just pours out of her. She's
drawing from instinct, from her heart, and when she's done she passes the marker to the man. If
he can't solve this one, there won't be any pity sex. She won't send him home with a consolation
prize. This isn't counting anymore, and he can't just turn to his calculator for the answer. This is math.
The End
