BY RONA WANG
Lincoln High School, ’16
2016 Adroit Prize for Prose: Editors’ List
So this is us, sixteen and aching for something to happen. My fingers are tangled in Lisa’s* hair because I like how it’s so heavy you could break your teeth on it. She swats me off. We’re in her apartment studying, or rather, she’s getting high off algebra and I’m splitting my mouth with chocolates I dug out of her fridge.
“What the hell is this polynomial,” she says. Voice thick like smog. As hard as the rest of her. Her words, tea leaves steeped in Nanjing, city of sun-whipped skyscrapers and restless lights.
“Use the quadratic formula,” I say because I don’t know either.
“Useless. It’s a sixth-degree.”
I shrug and unwrap another Hershey’s Kiss, rolling the silver foil between my fingers like it’s something pretty and precious.
Later, when the sun’s near gone and the sky’s cold, I leave. Portland comes undone after 8 p.m. All the streetlamps are watery-gold and the trains zip by with teeth bared. Green hills with soft edges stud the skyline.
I’m always surprised by the messiness of winter. It creeps up on you, and then suddenly bam! it’s everywhere, and it doesn’t give a damn about geometric purity. Wind so thin it slips through coat buttons. Silver puffs of breath splotching the air and then dissipating. Frost encrusting anything it can touch.
See, with math there’s a difference. The numbers, slim and sleek. All possible movements—addition and subtraction for starters—are already defined rigorously, have been for millennia.
Math’s neat. Clean, or at least cleaner than anything else I know.
Lisa is probably in love with a clear-eyed boy who laughs fleeting and soft. I say probably because I don’t keep nearly enough of my promises to know love, at least not well enough to recognize it.
She watches the boy play Ping-Pong in the cafeteria and I think about everything high school is supposed to be about. Parties, getting smashed, cutting class to pull stupid stunts we’ll laugh about in ten years. All the sex. Nobody is lonely. Nobody is wrong.
But not Lisa and me, nah. We cling onto our math contest prep, our linear resolve, the tiny clean-cut world we hold in our palms.
The days fall away. We have our phones set on countdown for the 2015 American Mathematics Competition, the numbers unwinding like a roll of ticker tape.
Mornings, we get to school an hour early to study. We crack the equations between our molars until the numbers seep onto our tongues. The blistering rush of adrenaline.
Sometimes, people ask us, “What is it with you guys and math?” They pose the question like a nudge to the ribs, like, c’mon, could ya be more of a virgin if you tried?
We always answer the same: “It’s fun.”
Weeks later, we’re at a sleepover and the other girls are clustered around painting nails in glittering shades so bright you can feel the bite. In the next room, Lisa and I sit on the same armchair. I peek over her hair at the Lecture Notes on Mathematical Olympiad Vol.7.
“Did I get more stupid or is this book just impossibly hard?” I ask with my chin resting on the top of her head.
“Probably both.” She’s blunt not because she’s irritated, but because she’s already halfway in another world, one where the air is hazy with variables and formulae that cling to her skin. One where she can forget herself. I’m pressed up against her shoulders, close enough that I can feel the distance between us stretching so slightly, pulling, and then slackening again.
We’re quiet, peeling apart the problem printed on the page. I have a shorter attention span than a goldfish, though, so soon the laughter and shrieks of delight drifting in from the living room start eroding away at my resolve. Half of me wants to leave and see what our other friends are snickering about.
“Do you ever get lonely?” I ask into her scalp. Her eyes skip up.
These kinds of questions aren’t meant to be asked so direct, straight to the bone. My heart drums quick and erratic against her spine. Maybe she’s thinking about the boy she loves. Unrequited love might be the loneliest thing.
Over the pop music blasting the enamel off our teeth, the other girls burst into giggles, fleeting and energetic like an espresso shot.
“I always have math,” she says.
I’ve never seen Lisa cry. I’ve never seen her scream or smash plates or bury her face into a pillow. Lisa is steel. All hardness and no down feathers. The kind of person you break your teeth against.
After school, we’re shivering into practice problems. Our pencils make lines faint and thin and unsure like veins. Descartes’ Rule of Signs and Vieta’s Formula. Trim the fraction, multiply over. Factor everything, polished and cold.
A boy from Mandarin class strolls by, sees our papers spread out. Raises an eyebrow, asks, “Why are you two so obsessed?”
We both shrug. There’s no quick answer, which is the kind he wants.
After he leaves, the conversation becomes small and whispered. There is always a why. We’re both escaping from something. The night my mother found me with my mouth on another girl’s and locked me out of the house. I pushed my face against the screen of the door and knocked over and over until shame was stamped on my cheeks as a checkered red imprint. We’re all looking for a salve, and numbers was mine.
She tells me about the evening, years ago, that her father pointed a handgun in her face and muttered, voice blacker than death, I’ll splinter you first then myself.
“Did I have a choice besides running away?” she asks. She means: How would I survive if I didn’t still all my veins so that I would never bruise again? If you tore my heart out by the roots, arteries and all, flush with light, would I even bleed?
“I don’t believe in love,” she continues. “I believe in facts. Math, physics. Things you can hold onto.”
Most of the time, Lisa lives in the apartment by herself. Her mother is back in China, and her father is at a house on the other side of the Willamette River, closer to his workplace. She says it’s not lonely; she likes it better with the silence crisp and singing through the fourthstory windows, anyway. But, she adds, she doesn’t care much either way. There is too much energy expended in caring.
The boy she loves is with another girl. The two of them play Ping-Pong together, and sometimes, when the orange plastic ball zips over the net, I see the honesty in his eyes. He looks at her like she’s the brightest star in the galaxy.
Lisa and I don’t talk about him anymore.
Weeks shuffle by and the sky gets softer. Sometimes when we do problems, Lisa just traces her pencil over the numbers, over and over, like maybe she’ll get closer to the answer if she cuts the same path a thousand times. I can almost taste the blood in the air.
It’s a velvet May night, stars flickering like last kisses, when she decides to kill herself. “What’s the point,” she says over the phone, and what scares me most is that all the sadness in her voice has been wrung out dry and there’s only a hollow husk left.
“Don’t hang up.” I’m scrambling for the right words to say, the promises I should’ve made sooner.
She sighs heavily, not out of frustration, but out of exhaustion. “This is goodbye, I guess.”
She’s already hung up.
I call her over and over, heart banging against my ribcage erratically but surely, like it’s the only thing holding me together. Each time, the default voicemail, wilting aluminum and small through the receiver. So I call 911 instead, because I have to try.
[DOMAIN AND RANGE]
The sheriff asks too many questions. I’m not used to not knowing answers.
I want to respond with something meaningful, something useful. I wish I had known her, all the way. There’s a t-shirt she always wears, with a (mod n) ≡ 2014 on the back. I wish I had figured out what it meant.
I wish I had done something sooner. I should’ve told her that maybe she didn’t care about much or anything at all, but I did. I cared. But we are all trembling and hiding and afraid to love too hard and too fast.
“How many perfect odd factors are there in two-to-the-fourth—”
“Hang on, let me grab a pencil.” There’s some shuffling on her end. “Okay, continue.” I squint at the computer screen, white and lit harsher than hospital walls. “How many perfect odd factors are there in two-to-the-fourth times three-to-the-sixth times five-to-the-tenth times seven-to-the-ninth?”
Lisa laughs deep and it echoes. “One hundred and twenty. Too easy. Next?”
At the beginning, I asked her if she was okay, and I could almost feel the vibrations from her eye-rolling. Have you ever seen me anything besides okay? Now, we don’t talk much about the psych ward, or when she’ll be home.
Instead, we discuss the future. We both want to leave Portland for college, major in math. Do something useful for the world we live in, even though neither of us is sure how. Find something bigger than ourselves.
I tell her I love her at the end of every call. Love not in a soap-opera sense, no ribbons or pink-lily dreams, none of that crap, but a constant. Unwavering. Maybe being soft and open is stupid, but I’d rather be stupid than lost.