It was a little sad that it took a nineteen-year-old grad student to remind Helena of just how nonexistent her love life was.
Her door had been open. No one really came to her office hours, but she was still required to have them, so she had taken the time to go through her students’ latest problem sets.
Her students, as it turned out, were idiots who had learned nothing.
She was marveling over how a college junior had somehow never learned how to string together a complete sentence when Claudia knocked on her doorframe.
“Hey, Professor Wells, do you have a minute?”
Helena put her pen down and nodded. “Come in, Claudia.”
“It’s super fast, I promise. I was going to send you email, but your door was open, and I’m supposed to be meeting with Artie, but I think he’s on the phone arguing with Frederic over next year’s class schedule, so I don’t think I should go in there.”
Helena smiled. Dr. Frederic was a hardass about the “every professor has to teach intro classes sometimes” rule.
“Anyways,” Claudia continued. “I kind of hate to be doing this, but did you find a different babysitter for Christina? I know it’s kind of unprofessional, but I can’t really TA over the summer, and I could really use the cash.”
Helena actually chuckled at that. “I think our relationship stopped being professional around when Christina started calling you Aunt Claudia,” she said. She had always justified it by pointing out that Claudia wasn’t actually her student. And anyways who else was going to teach her seven-year-old daughter Python? “I just haven’t been out in the last few months,” she continued. “I’ll give you a call if I need you.”
“Yeesh,” Claudia said. “I mean, no judgment, since we’re all socially inept nerds here and it’s really not my place, but I figured if anyone would have luck with dating, it would be you.”
“Well, you don’t meet many people in the elementary school drop-off lane, and OkCupid’s algorithms are woefully unsuccessful.”
“Dude, just hack them,” Claudia said. “I mean, it shouldn’t be too hard to scrape data from the profiles and figure out why their algorithms suck. I mean, come on, didn’t that article last month call you the most innovative algorithms researcher in the country.”
Helena had to admit Claudia had a point.
“Anyways, I should see if it’s all quiet on the Nielsen front,” Claudia said. “Go find a reason to leave your daughter in my oh so capable hands!”
Helena smiled and turned back to her problem sets. She’d have to give Claudia’s idea more consideration.
When solving a computational problem, the worst thing you could possibly do was jump straight into the code without thoroughly thinking through the problem. So after she put Christina to bed, Helena did as much research as she could on OkCupid’s algorithms.
It didn’t take long to figure out that OkCupid’s algorithms were fine (albeit imperfect), and her own profile was the problem.
The problem seemed to be that OkCupid based their matches on a vast array of multiple-choice questions, and the ones that Helena had chosen to answer seemed to be unpopular. Even worse, they asked users to weight the questions by importance, which was such an arbitrary factor that Helena was amazed that anyone managed to find a match. It did, however, seem that if she simply could figure out which questions to answer and which ones to rate highly, she’d be set, and that was just a mathematical problem.
She set up some bots to scrape the data she’d need and went to bed. It was 3 in the morning, and she had a class to teach the next day.
She filled her largest travel mug with strong black tea before dropping Christina at school. (She could never abide the taste of coffee.) She was still finishing up the last few drops as she walked into her 10 AM lecture, hoping that her students wouldn’t notice her fatigue. (She did, after all, have a reputation as an intimidating genius to maintain.)
She had a meeting after that, a paper discussion group in machine learning. (It wasn’t her field, but she had collaborated with one of the machine learning researchers that winter, so she figured she might as well start going to their meetings.) It was noon by the time she actually got to sit down at her desk and check her email.
For once, there wasn’t actually much work email in her inbox, just some deliberations about when to schedule next year’s guest speakers and some questions from her undergrads about the final. She sent out some terse replies and flipped over to her personal email. It was mostly junk, although Christina’s teacher had sent out an adorable class newsletter, but there was one thing that was a little troubling.
It seemed that OkCupid had picked up on one of her bots and terminated the account. And given that all of her bots were based on the same code, she figured the same would happen for the others too.
Well, Claudia would be on her lunch break, and she’d probably have some theory about what to do.
Artie’s cryptography lab was just down the hall from Helena’s office, and when Helena got there, only Claudia and a new grad student who Helena had seen around a few times during the semester were in. The two of them were sitting at Claudia’s computer, looking at what appeared from a distance to be a Shakespeare play.
“I didn’t know you two were so literary,” Helena said, walking towards the computer.
“Oh hey, Professor Wells,” Claudia said. “It’s a ‘hello world’ program actually. I’ve been getting into esoteric programming languages lately.”
“And this one makes your code look like a Shakespeare play. I can see,” Helena cut in.
“It’s actually called Shakespeare,” Claudia said. “I can send you the documentation if you like.”
Helena laughed. “I doubt I’ll ever have time for that. I did have a question for you, though.”
“If you have a bot to scrape data, but the website you’re scraping has software to prevent that sort of thing, how would you get around it?”
“Well, it’s probably just trying to see if your activity matches normal click rates. Hey, Jinksy, do you have OkCupid?”
“Jinksy?” Helena asked.
“Hi, I’m Steve,” the young man sitting next to Claudia said. “Don’t listen to anything Claudia says. Unless it’s actually about computer science, in which case it’s probably right.”
“Oh, trust me, I know,” Helena said.
“So?” Claudia said, elbowing Steve. “Weren’t you talking about some guy you met online last week?”
“That was Grindr,” Steve said. “But, yes, I’m on OkCupid.”
“Great,” Claudia said. “I’ll stick some spyware on your computer, Professor Wells can change her bots accordingly, and we’ll be all set.”
“Wait, what?” Steve said.
“I’m going to second that,” Helena said.
“Oh, come on,” Claudia said. “It’s not going to do anything bad. It’ll just keep track of his click rate when he’s on OkCupid.”
“Is this legal?” Helena asked.
Claudia shrugged. “Mostly.”
“Should I be concerned?”
“Robert Tappan Morris is a professor at MIT.”
“Robert Tappan Morris had a ten thousand dollar fine and was under probation for three years.”
“Um, who’s Robert Tappan Morris?” Steve asked.
“He created the first computer virus,” Helena said, shaking her head slightly. Really, weren’t computer science grad students supposed to know that?
“Worm, technically, since it wasn’t malicious,” Claudia said. “It shut down the whole Internet.”
“And I fully expect you not to get any ideas,” Helena said.
“Please,” Claudia said. “All my ideas for shutting down the entire Internet have remained firmly unimplemented. So. Jinksy, spyware, yes?”
“Is it going to slow down my computer?” Steve asked.
“No, the fact that you won’t let me upgrade your RAM is slowing down your computer,” Claudia said.
“Good call,” Helena said to Steve. “I wouldn’t trust Claudia around hardware.”
“Oh, come on, it’s not like screwdrivers are so dangerous,” Claudia said. “Might I remind you that I built my own computer from parts? And it works well too.”
“Then install the spyware on your own computer,” Steve said.
“Can’t, I don’t have OkCupid. I mean, what would I put, ‘looking for someone smart, beautiful, and in the Witness Protection Program’?” She turned to Helena and added, “Don’t ask.”
“I really wasn’t going to,” Helena said.
“But you promise this won’t do anything bad to my computer?” Steve said.
“Not as long as you don’t mind the good professor seeing your click rates.”
“What the hell, set it up,” Steve said.
“Thank you, Claudia,” Helena said.
“So, sure you won’t let me set up a Linux partition on your computer while you’re at it?” Claudia said to Steve, which Helena took as her signal to go.
It took a few weeks to get enough data from Steve to actually be useful. (Helena supposed it was good that at least someone in the department was doing work instead of poking around on dating sites.) In the meantime, she graded a hundred finals, polished up two journal articles she’d been working on, and attended a rather dreadful second grade end of year concert.
Once she did have the data she needed, it was easy enough to modify the bots. They worked slower than they had before, so it would take longer than she hoped to get the data, and even so, she’d need to keep the bots running 24/7. She set up her old laptop—the one whose battery had died but worked fine otherwise—in a corner of her home office. As long as there were no power outages, she’d be fine.
Helena had always hated waiting for data. That was why she had gone into algorithms in the first place. She could work on mathematical problems constantly—in the shower, while waiting for Christina to get out of her after school program, while sitting in a stunningly boring meeting—and once she solved them, she didn’t have to wait for code to run or for human subjects to respond. She tried to take her mind off the OkCupid project by throwing herself into her other work. She made significant progress on a problem she had been working on for the past year and started talking with an English professor who was thinking about using network analysis to try to verify various literary theories.
The last week of June, there was a conference in London. She signed Christina up for day camp and asked Claudia to babysit for the week, hoping that when she got back, Christina wouldn’t consider brownie batter the core of a balanced meal. It was nice to get away for a bit, and, remarkably enough, she managed to actually fit in some sightseeing between the different talks and poster sessions, so when she got back, she was in a great mood.
And when she checked her computer, she discovered the bots had worked their magic.
Helena had never been daunted by large data sets. After all, she could use the same algorithms on large data sets that she did on small ones, and if the algorithms were any good, they wouldn’t take too much longer. So the problem wasn’t that there was too much data; it was that the data was seemingly all over the place.
Oh, of course, there were some trends regarding what questions had been answered and how important people thought they were, but they were vague trends, and Helena doubted they were statistically significant. She supposed she ought to congratulate whoever had come up with the questions. If the point was that different people would answer them differently to make it easy to distinguish between people, they had done a good job.
She had been staring at the data for a good hour when it dawned on her that she didn’t need to target her profile to attract everyone, just to attract the sort of people she actually wanted to date. All she really needed to do was find the group of users she’d be interested in and mine their data, and the first step was just a clustering problem.
Clustering problems were straightforward and right in her wheelhouse. Some were even simple enough that she taught them in her introductory algorithms course. The premise was simple. Given a bunch of seemingly arbitrary data, split it into a limited number of clusters so that the distances between the clusters were as large as possible. Some clustering problems were quite fascinating from an algorithmic perspective, but at the moment, all that mattered was that Helena already had the code on her computer to solve them.
She still had to mess around with some parameters, but by the time she was done, she had seven clearly distinct clusters, and it wasn’t hard to figure out which one to look at. It was a group of liberals in their late 20s and early 30s, mostly young professionals and people finishing up advanced degrees. At a glance, they were just what Helena was looking for.
Once she had zeroed in on who she wanted to target, it was easy enough to use some machine learning algorithms figure out how to answer the profile questions. She wasn’t going to lie about her answers, obviously, but she didn’t see any harm in weighting all the questions so as to get her the best match.
The only thing left to do was to write the perfect profile description, which she knew she couldn’t automate. (Computer-generated language was getting better, but it was still hopelessly stilted.) That didn’t mean that she couldn’t let the data help her a little, though. She text mined the profiles, picking out the most popular words and phrases and seeing what she could say about them. There seemed to be lots of references to teaching and not so many to children, so she made sure to talk about her work teaching undergrads and, somewhat regretfully, only mentioned Christina briefly.
There were almost twenty messages waiting for her when she got up.
It was a Saturday, and Christina had gone to a friend’s house for the day. Helena was still a bit groggy from the jet lag, but she refused to go back to sleep once she had already gotten up for the day, so she made herself a large cup of tea and began to sort through her messages.
The first message was from a man named Pete Lattimer. It read, “Heya. Your profile looked cool, so I thought I’d say hi. Plus our match numbers are pretty great, though I’m not really sure where they get those. I guess you’re the one who know computers, Spock (though I hope you like sex more than once every seven years). Kirk out!”
Helena clicked through to Pete’s profile, chuckling at the Star Trek reference. He was an ex-marine working in law enforcement. He seemed like a bit of a goofball, but he also seemed sweet, and he was definitely handsome. Helena sent him a message asking if he’d like to meet up some time.
There were a lot of deadbeats, idiots, and neckbeards among the people who had messaged her, but there were a handful who were definitely worth at least one date.
Pete Lattimer, as it turned out, was a great kisser and a lousy date.
He had messaged her back within the hour, saying, “Oh dude, have you been to the new ice cream shop on Maple Street? I hear they have a sundae with both cookies and brownies. We should check it out.” From there, it hadn’t taken long to set up a date.
The first few perfunctory questions had gone fine. Pete seemed fascinated by the fact that Helena had studied martial arts, and they managed to have a good discussion of different fighting styles. After that, they started grasping at straws for something to talk about and, except for a brief discussion of how the Star Wars prequels were a crime against god and man, didn’t find much in the way of common ground. For a moment, Helena thought she had lost her touch, but when Pete pulled out his Batman voice, she figured she had just chosen badly when she decided to give Pete a chance.
Pete messaged her asking for a second date a few days later. Helena decided to ignore him.
The other dates she went on went about the same. Some were fun. Some weren’t. None were worth repeating.
One date with a young journalist had ended at some hipster bar where Helena had wound up drunk enough that her recollections of the date were rather fuzzy. Claudia apparently had pictures of her stumbling home drunk, and Helena had told her that if she ever shared those photos with anyone, she would never graduate. In any case, when the woman hadn’t messaged her again, Helena hadn’t bothered to follow up.
She had been at it for over a month with only two fairly disappointing second dates to speak of when Claudia said, “Hey, have you ever thought that this might not be working?”
She had just gotten back from a date with an archaeology professor who had looked perfect on paper and who was apparently actually incapable of talking about anything other than his work. Christina was in the other room, supposedly working on programming exercises, which meant that she was probably either playing Flash games or eavesdropping on the conversation. Helena didn’t really mind. She had never tried to hide her personal life from her daughter.
“The thought had crossed my mind some time in between the guy who kept quoting Proust and the woman who wouldn’t shut up about her dog,” Helena said.
“Well, you are giving me lots of terrible date stories to laugh at. I have to give you that,” Claudia said.
“Yes, they are quite entertaining in retrospect, aren’t they?” Helena said.
“Okay, I need to get this out,” Claudia said. “I know my life philosophy is to just kind of hack everything, and I guess I kind of pushed a little too hard for that when I heard about your dating troubles. I mean, obviously I know that the world is not actually one giant supercomputer, and it totally makes sense that dating doesn’t work that way. I guess I just didn’t think about it, you know, and I’m sorry if I’m responsible for all those horrible dates.”
“Claudia, do you remember when you wanted to replace my laptop battery last year?”
“Hey, it wasn’t under warranty. It would have been way cheaper than taking it to the Apple store where you wound up getting a new laptop anyways.”
“The point is that I don’t blindly follow your advice.”
“Which is good, because I’m pretty sure if you did, we’d have blown up at least one university building by now,” Claudia said. “Alternatively, we’d have built a quantum computer and broken all of modern cryptography.”
“I think even the two of us might not be able to manage a quantum computer of any reasonable size. Even the NSA seems to be struggling with that one.”
“Hey, we don’t know what the NSA has done. Those guys are seriously sketchy,” Claudia said. “Anyways, I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be,” Helena said. “Knowing me, I probably would have tried hacking OkCupid sooner or later. You’re not the only one with the hack everything approach to life. Oh, and Claudia?”
“You’re welcome to come over here and spend time with me and Christina whenever you like if that’s what this was all about.”
Claudia smiled. “You know I’m going to plague your house now that you’ve said that.”
Helena chuckled. “I think Artie still expects you in the lab. I don’t want to get in trouble with anyone here.”
“Hey, don’t worry. I try not to take my responsibilities too lightly. But when I’m not in the lab, I’m going to be a menace. You won’t be able to get rid of me.”
Of course, the whole discussion with Claudia didn’t stop Helena from reading her OkCupid messages. Mostly, it was just an ego boost; it was good to know that her algorithms were still working and that people found her attractive enough to message. And, really, it wasn’t too hard to ignore the messages she got. If the messages themselves weren’t boring or offensive, she could usually find something unappealing on the person’s profile.
It had been a week and a half since the discussion with Claudia when she got a message from Myka.
It had been a light work week. She had turned in a handful of conference submissions the week before, and half the department was away on actual vacation, so there weren’t many meetings to attend. She had found herself checking her personal email over her lunch break, and finding no interesting emails there, she couldn’t help but check her OkCupid account to see if she had any messages.
As it turned out, she had two. The first was from a man who still lived in his parents’ basement. Helena had to give him props for having the nerve to even think it was worthwhile to message her, but she deleted the message within a few seconds. The second one, which came from a young woman named Myka Bering who OkCupid indicated was a 91% match, was much more intriguing.
The message read, “Hi, Helena. I read through your profile, and it looks like we have a lot of similar interests, so I thought I’d send you a message. You mention that Lewis Carroll is one of your favorite authors. I’ve loved his books since I was kid, and I actually got to handle some of his original manuscripts last year, which was amazing. Anyways, let me know if you’d want to talk or maybe go on a date.”
Helena smiled and clicked through to Myka’s profile. She was a beautiful woman, or at least the pictures on her profile were gorgeous. (Helena was always wary of the pictures. Photoshop could do wonders.) Her profile said that she was a museum curator working on a master’s degree in English on the side, and from what Helena could tell, the two of them did have a number of overlapping interests. Myka’s rather long favorite books list could have described the contents of Helena’s bookshelf, from Shakespeare to LeGuin. She was active with feminist causes too, which Helena had to love.
She closed OkCupid and got to work on a grant proposal that was due the next week. Still, she couldn’t get Myka’s message off her mind. As she finished tracking down some of the references she needed for the proposal, she decided that the worst thing that could happen was yet another bad date and messaged Myka back.
She wrote, “I actually read some of Lewis Carroll’s mathematical papers back when I was in grad school. I have to say they’re not nearly as compelling as Alice’s Adventures. Would you like to get together some time? I should be free this weekend.”
She closed the tab and got back to work on her grant proposal, but when she got home that evening, OkCupid was the first thing she checked. Myka had messaged her back saying, “I could do lunch on Saturday if that works for you. This is a date date, right?”
“Claudia, are you free on Saturday?” Helena yelled into the next room where Claudia and Christina were putting together a Star Wars Lego kit.
“Should be. What’s going on?” Claudia yelled back.
“I have a lunch date,” Helena said.
Claudia walked into the room, followed closely by Christina, and plopped down on the couch next to Helena.
“Christina, did you put away your Legos?” Helena asked.
Christina’s facial expression immediately turned guilty. “Aunt Claudia should help. She was playing with them too.”
“Claudia will be there to help you clean them up in a minute,” Helena said pointedly. The last time Claudia and Christina had played with Legos, they had left a good number out, and Helena had managed to step on all of them.
“So you’re back to the dating thing?” Claudia said. “What, someone on OkCupid too perfect to resist?”
“Yeah, something like that,” Helena said.
“Well, I guess either you’ll have actually found someone or I’ll get to hear another hilarious horrible date story. I mean, hoping for the former obviously, but given how these things usually work out…”
“Your support is as appreciated as always,” Helena said sarcastically. “So Saturday lunchtime?”
“I’ll clear my already empty calendar,” Claudia said, getting off the couch to go help Christina.
Helena looked back down at her computer and sent Myka another message saying, “Definitely a date date. Noon at Leena’s Café?”
Myka Bering was somehow even more beautiful in person, with dark curls framing her face and a tight blouse that accentuated her figure. (Helena obviously wasn’t going to stare at Myka’s boobs, but there was no reason she couldn’t glance at them from time to time.)
Once they had exchanged the necessary greetings and settled in, Myka asked, “I have kind of a weird question, but I think you’re the first person I’ve talked to who might be able to actually answer it.”
“Go ahead,” Helena said.
“Did Alan Turing actually commit suicide by eating a poisoned apple? We were putting together an exhibit for his 100th birthday, and the whole thing sounds a little fantastical.”
“Well, we know he died of cyanide poisoning, and it certainly could have come from the apple found at his bedside. He seemed to have been fascinated by the Snow White myth. He could have inhaled the cyanide, though, and we can’t rule out the possibility of murder.”
“Yeah, I get the impression that he wasn’t the most popular guy in England,” Myka said.
“You can invent modern computing and effectively win World War II, but they’ll still hate you if you’re gay,” Helena said. “The Apple logo had nothing to do with Turing, by the way. I don’t know how that rumor got spread, but the apple is supposed to refer to the apple that hit Newton on the head.”
“Ha!” Myka shouted. “Sorry, the guy I work with swore that the Apple logo was a reference to Turing.”
“And I take it you like being right,” Helena said, smiling.
“Yeah, just a little,” Myka said, slightly sheepish.
“I get that,” Helena said. “I’m a professor. And a mother.”
“I’d love to hear more about your daughter, by the way,” Myka said.
“Christina is an angel,” Helena said. “Well, at least when she isn’t leaving her toys all over the place. She’s turning eight in September, and she’s very bright for her age, although I suppose all mothers say that. She got in an argument with her second grade teacher last year because she thought their math curriculum focused too much on rote memorization.”
“Sounds like she takes after her mother,” Myka said.
“Maybe a little.”
“And her father?”
“Not in the picture,” Helena said. “Never was, really.”
Myka nodded in understanding.
“Do you ever work with children?” Helena asked.
Myka shook her head. “Not much. I mean, we get school groups at the museum a lot, but I mostly work on collecting and maintaining the artifacts, so I usually don’t deal with those. I like kids, though. I’d love to meet Christina.”
“We’re talking about meeting the family already?” Helena teased, although privately she thought that she would be introducing Myka to Christina soon enough.
They went to the park after lunch, since they were too engrossed in a conversation about Myka’s master’s thesis (an analysis of Victorian precursors to speculative fiction) to just end the date. They had been in the park for about an hour when Myka said, “Okay, I have something to confess.”
Helena nodded, indicating for Myka to go on.
“I might have tweaked my profile a bit before messaging you,” Myka said nervously.
“How so?” Helena asked.
“Well, I could tell you were smart from your profile, obviously. I mean, you’re a professor, for god’s sake. So I might have just added a few things to make me seem a little more academic.”
“We just had an in-depth discussion of Mary Shelley. I doubt anyone would call you dumb, darling.”
“I know, but I kind of padded my favorite books list a bit, and I added a whole paragraph about the degree I’m working on. Not that, you know, I’m not getting a master’s, but still, there are days when I want to set every piece of Victorian literature on fire.”
Helena chuckled. “I think we all feel that way sometimes. I did get a PhD once, after all.”
“I just thought you should know that I’m not some literary genius,” Myka said. “You know, in case you got that impression from my profile.”
“Well, if we’re going to be completely honest here, I might have doctored my profile a bit too,” Helena said.
She wound up telling Myka the whole story of what she had done to her profile. Well, not the whole whole story. She left out a lot of the technical details didn’t come up, and she didn’t mention Claudia’s name nor did she use the word spyware (even if it had turned out that installing the spyware was completely legal, given that Steve had consented to it). Still, by the end, she had thoroughly explained how she had modified her profile based on the data she had scraped.
When she was done, Myka was silent for a moment before saying, “Wow.”
“Good wow or bad wow?” Helena said, nervous.
“I’m not really sure,” Myka said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, that’s amazing that you can do that, but at the same time, it’s a little weird?”
“I’m a computer scientist. It’s not so strange for me to use my skills to help me solve problems.”
“I just don’t really know many computer people, and I need some time to think about what that means.”
“By all means,” Helena said somewhat meekly.
“And I think that means it’s time for this date to be over,” Myka said.
Helena just nodded, unsure of what to feel. “Well, I suppose this is goodbye, then,” she said.
“Goodbye, Helena. It was really nice to meet you,” Myka said, smiling faintly.
Helena still wasn’t sure what to think when she got home.
“Okay, I can’t figure out what’s up with your face,” Claudia said when Helena went to pay her. (Not that she actually expected Claudia to leave any time soon.) “Good date? Bad date?”
“I really don’t know,” Helena said.
“Well, that sounds interesting,” Claudia said, raising her eyebrows. “What happened?”
“Well, we talked for a long time, and she was wonderful. We had all sorts of amazing conversations about serious literary things that I’m sure you don’t care a bit about.”
“Yeah, spare me the boring stuff. What actually happened?”
“Well, we had been talking for a while when she mentioned that she had tweaked her profile before messaging me, just to make her seem a little more ‘academic’, in her words. So in the spirit of honesty, I told her about my data analysis.”
Claudia shot her a skeptical look. “Dude. I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to talk about the things that make you a giant freakazoid on the first date.”
“I liked her, and she had told me about how she had changed her profile. I didn’t want to feel like I was being dishonest.”
“There’s dishonesty, and then there’s dropping giant bombshells on the first date. How did she react?”
“She didn’t really. She said she needed time to think about it and ended the date.”
“So basically you might have blown it,” Claudia said.
“I might not have,” Helena said, a hint of hope in her voice.
“Oh my God, you really like this chick,” Claudia said.
“Professor Wells has a crush,” Claudia shouted, sounding more like a middle schooler than a grad student.
“I don’t have a crush,” Helena said indignantly.
“Yeah, yeah, keep telling yourself that,” Claudia said. “And for the record, I hope it works out. You deserve it.”
“Well, I suppose we both have to keep our fingers crossed,” Helena said.
“By the way,” Claudia said, not so subtly changing the topic. “Christina says that you make the best mac and cheese from scratch, and as a long time devotee of easy mac, I think I need to try this.”
“I think that can be arranged. Christina’s starting school a week from Monday, and I always make mac and cheese the night before the first day of school since it’s her favorite. You should join us,” Helena said. Well, Christina would be delighted. Helena was pretty sure she liked Claudia more than she liked her.
“Sounds like a plan,” Claudia said, a smile on her face.
Myka had said she needed time, so Helena had resolved not to message her for another few days. That didn’t mean that she couldn’t check OkCupid ten times an hour to see if Myka had messaged her.
Sunday evening, she finally had a message.
“Hi. Sorry I freaked out yesterday. I know I told you I needed some time to think it over, and I have. And you know what? I think it’s amazing that you managed to hack OkCupid. Seriously, that had to take a lot of work. So I just wanted to let you know that I’m more than okay with it, and I’m sorry for the weirdness yesterday,” Myka’s message said.
Helena smiled and wrote back, “Technically speaking, I didn’t hack the site. I just scraped data. But I don’t mind if you’re impressed. And I’m sorry too. I probably should have saved that story for at least the second date.”
Myka wrote back within a minute. “Who said anything about a second date?”
Helena responded immediately. “I did just now. How about it, Myka?”
Again, Myka responded quickly. “Definitely. Are you free Wednesday night?”
Helena smiled. She’d have to check with Claudia, but she had a good feeling things were going to work out.
They went out for dinner on Wednesday. Myka didn’t bring up the hacking OkCupid thing, and Helena didn’t feel the need to mention it either. Everything seemed to be going fine. More than fine even. Things with Myka were going great.
The next day, Myka sent her an email saying, “I’m starting classes soon, and we have a temporary exhibit coming into the museum, so I thought I’d warn you that my schedule’s going to be difficult to work with for the next week. Anyways, I wanted to see if you’re free this weekend. Saturday’s not great for me, but I could do something Sunday night?”
Helena sighed. That was when she had promised Claudia and Christina mac and cheese. Claudia probably wouldn’t mind rescheduling, but she knew that Christina would become a terror if she didn’t get her mac and cheese, and anyways, it was a back to school tradition. There was probably some other time that worked for Myka, but Helena had a terrible idea.
“Christina, would you mind if Myka joined us for dinner Sunday?” she asked.
Christina, who remarkably enough had actually been working on a Python exercise, looked up from the computer. “That’s the one you have a crush on, right?” she said.
“What has Claudia been telling you?” Helena said.
“The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” Christina said, sounding eerily solemn.
“And she’s probably letting you watch crime dramas, lovely,” Helena said. She and Claudia were going to need to have a talk about the definition of seven-year-old.
“Aunt Claudia’s still coming tomorrow, right?” Christina said.
“And you’re still making mac and cheese?”
“Is Myka pretty?”
“She is. She’s very pretty.”
“Well, then I guess she’s okay,” Christina said.
Helena smiled and turned back to her computer. She emailed Myka, “I promised Christina and a friend that I’d make them mac and cheese, since school starts Monday. You’re welcome to join if you like.”
A few minutes later, Myka wrote back. “Not what I was expecting as a date, but that sounds nice. I’ll be there,” she said.
Claudia lived within walking distance from the university, so Helena wound up giving her a ride back from work and telling her that Myka would be at dinner. Claudia had promised to be on her best behavior and only judge Myka silently, so Helena figured they were all set.
The mac and cheese was in the oven and Claudia and Christina were engaged in a lively discussion about cryptography when the doorbell rang. Helena gestured at the others to stay put and went to answer the door.
Myka was as beautiful as ever, a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She handed the flowers to Helena, saying, “I figured Christina wouldn’t appreciate it if I brought a bottle of wine.”
Helena chuckled, taking the flowers. “Let’s hope not. Come into the parlor. I’ll introduce you to the others.”
They walked into the parlor, standing only a few inches apart. As they entered the room, Helena said, “Myka, this is my daughter Christina, and this is Claudia, one of the PhD students in my department.”
As Helena put the flowers in a vase she kept on the coffee table, Myka began to laugh. “Sorry, when you said Christina and a friend, I thought the friend was going to be another seven-year-old. But it’s a pleasure to meet both of you,” Myka said, seating herself on the couch.
“If it makes you feel any better, I’m nineteen, so basically everyone at the lab calls me a child. Well, mostly my advisor, and it’s usually preceded by devil,” Claudia said.
“Claudia joined the department about a year ago,” Helena said. “Since then, she has babysat for me on a number of occasions. And I’m fairly certain Christina likes her more than any of her elementary school classmates.”
“So Professor Wells here tells me that you are repping the grad life,” Claudia said. Helena sat down next to Myka, a little nervous. She had told Claudia to be on her best behavior, but that didn’t stop Claudia from being, well, Claudia.
“If everything works out, I should be getting my master’s degree this winter,” Myka said. “I don’t think I could ever do a PhD, though.”
“Yeah, best to snip those stuffy academic tendencies in the bud,” Claudia said. “Uh, sorry prof.”
“Hey, I hear this one hacked OkCupid,” Myka said, gesturing towards Helena. “That sounds pretty non-stuffy to me.”
Helena was about to point out that what she had done still wasn’t technically hacking when Christina cut in, “Hey, Myka. Mom’s been reading me Harry Potter. Can you read me a chapter after dinner?”
“I would love to,” Myka said. “Did you know that when the last book came out, I got it from the bookstore at midnight and stayed up all night reading it?”
Christina grinned. “You are the coolest. Mom says I can’t read the later books until I’m older, but I’m only on Chamber of Secrets now.”
“Well, I think we’re going to have to see if we can break your mom’s resolve on that matter,” Myka said, and Helena mentally groaned. She had a sneaking suspicion that Myka would be able to break her resolve on almost any matter.
It was strange in a way. Helena knew she had only known Myka for about a week, but Myka already felt liked she belonged. Dinner went perfectly. Myka and Christina had a rather intense discussion about how not all Slytherins were evil, and Myka even seemed interested when they started talking about computer science. (Admittedly, they kept the discussion pretty fundamental so Christina could follow it.) Helena tried not to spend all of dinner making eyes at Myka, since it seemed a little rude, but was pretty sure she didn’t succeed.
After dinner, Myka read Christina a chapter of Harry Potter, and Helena and Claudia sat on the other side of the room, talking about a roadblock Claudia had hit in her research. (Artie apparently resolutely refused to respond to work emails on his week of vacation no matter how many Claudia sent.) It wasn’t the most productive discussion, since Helena frequently found herself tuning Claudia out and listening to Myka, but Claudia fortunately didn’t seem to mind.
When Myka had finished the chapter, Christina turned to Helena and asked, “Mom, can Myka stay forever?”
Helena chuckled, a stupid irrational part of her tempted to say yes. “I think that’s up to Myka. And in the meantime, you have school tomorrow morning.”
Christina let out a melodramatic sigh as Myka said, “I think that’s my cue to go.”
“I’ll walk you out,” Helena said, deciding that begging Myka to stay was a little much for what was technically still their second date.
As they reached the front door, Myka said, “I’ll admit at the start of the night, I thought this was going to go really badly.”
“And?” Helena asked.
“I couldn’t have been more wrong.”
Myka leaned in to kiss Helena, but Helena turned her head away.
“Christina is right there,” she said, pointing a few feet behind them where Claudia and Christina, who had apparently followed them, were standing. Helena didn’t mind Christina knowing about her love life, but she did have some sense of boundaries, and she had a feeling that any kiss with Myka wasn’t exactly going to be chaste.
“Oh, yes,” Myka said awkwardly. “That does kind of put a damper on things.”
“Just a little,” Helena said.
“Next time, we’re going to my place,” Myka said firmly.
Helena grinned. “Would you care to up that to this time?”
“Only if you’re interested, of course. I don’t mean to be too forward.”
“I… no, yes, I am definitely interested if you can leave Christina.”
“Claudia, darling?” Helena asked. “Could you stay here and look after Christina for the night?”
“Yes,” Claudia said emphatically, her voice higher pitched than usual. “Definitely. Do not worry about a thing.”
“Excellent. Well then,” Helena said, grabbing Myka’s hand. “Shall we?”