In 1980, a survey of American children born of that year revealed Michael to be the most popular boy's name. Though they would some two years later choose this for their youngest, the fact itself was not general knowledge to the Hofstadters of 121 Carlyle Avenue, Princeton, New Jersey, and so no such consideration was taken when deciding on one for their first-born son. At least, none that didn't come from a professional respect Beverly Hofstadter held for the bedrock challengers of her field, and that this particular name just happened to flash into her head in that post-delivery haze when the brain is generally, and disappointingly, unpredictable.
All Leonards supposedly have the strength of a lion. And certainly that would be true, if such origins are to be believed as one might believe in past lives, or the wearing of sharks' teeth to guard against misfortune; but as it was this boy came into the world with barely a cub-like mew. With so little evidence to support this theory, his mother could hardly give it merit.
He was born on a Friday, at eleven minutes past midnight. She held him in her arms, thinking, with some objectivity, that he looked raw and small, and how unfocused his eyes were, even for a newborn.
On that list of one thousand names, Leonard came in at two hundred and ten.
Forty-four minutes. Forty-four minutes and seventeen seconds: this is exactly how long it takes the woman sitting next to him to realize that a one-sided conversation, however entertaining, cannot possibly last the six hours it takes to fly across the breadth of the continental United States.
At some point in minute number forty-five, when all he can hear is the sound of glossy magazine pages being turned over, Leonard risks opening his eyes. To his right the leading tip of the Boeing's wing cleaves a sharpened, invisible line through the clouds. Small droplets of water cling to the window's outer layer. Rain over Colorado, never to reach the ground. He wonders what the weather's like in Princeton, if the box hedge his father tended for so many years is still thriving and threatening to swallow the mailbox whole; or has Beverly, as a blatant display of disinterest at the end of nearly thirty-nine years of marriage, chopped the whole thing down because she has neither the time nor the patience for pruning shears. It wouldn't surprise him one bit.
Your father has taken a small apartment near the University, she had written in an email. I think it would be beneficial if you were to stop there for the duration of your stay. Here is the address. And on the same day, in the same hour even, as Leonard sat gazing at the walls of his Caltech office, rolling a dry erase marker from one end of the desk to the other in an attempt to circumvent actual work, just like magic an almost identical email had appeared in his inbox from his father, as if this whole event were an exercise in therapy, and yet another excuse for his parents to substitute clinical observation for love.
Sincerely, Dad. Really, that's all he gets? No wonder his reaction was to promptly close his eyes and feign sleep the minute his friendly but chatty neighbor managed to glean from his mumbled pleasantries the fact that yes, he was flying home, and yes, to the closeted and small world he'd grown up in, to attend his brother's wedding.
"Can I get you a drink, sir?"
The stewardess smiles pleasantly from behind her trolley. The woman beside him—oh, ironic, perfect timing—is well and truly asleep, so he sits up as quietly as he can, straightens his glasses and smiles back. "Coffee. Please."
He shakes his head, no. They perform an awkward dance of trying to pass cup to hand while the cabin shudders briefly. The seatbelt signs flicker on. Fumbling for the strap, he notices that the light outside has dropped a shade darker, the clouds turned thicker and more imposing. The tip of wing he'd been staring at before has disappeared completely. The coffee is supremely bitter, but strong. Strong is good.
Leonard is not entirely sure how long a single weekend can last, apart from the hours and minutes. Apart from the units of time he knows, with a familiar sinking feeling, he's going to have to make a conscious effort not to count as he plunges, head first, into everything he was sure he'd left behind.
in these woods lives a memory
Sunlight falls across the room in thin, vertical lines, illuminating the plain white cot in the far corner. There is dust in the air, weightlessly captured in the light and circling current, but the space is otherwise quite bare. Walls painted a washed-out blue are the only source of real color; the wooden floors and panelling seem to be cut from the same tree, so uniform are they in pattern and shade. If not for the few toys lined up in rag-tag formation along a shelf (bear and soldier and duck—fur brushed and buttons bright), there is little evidence that this room even belongs to a child, or to anyone, really, of distinct character. It is simply a room, nothing greater.
On a high dressing table sits a single framed photograph in black and white. In it a man and a woman stand by a waterfall. They appear posed and still, eyes fixed somewhere beyond the lens, their faces unreadable.
Alone and undisturbed, for the figures in the photo are meaningless in his small and dreamless world, the child sleeps. With every breath his fingers clasp and unclasp the satin fringe of the blanket; faint whisperings at the intake of air foreshadow a common disorder that will not manifest itself until his early teens, by which time he will have other worries to deal with. Now, though, there is unburdened comfort in this tactile sensation, something given with the barest minimum by his mother.
Of course, none of this matters, as sleep and silence are impenetrable at an age so young. First memories do not plant themselves without some influence, and this is not that moment. It is merely a place and a beginning.
Time passes. Distantly the sound of cars come and go, the faint tread of tires interposed with things heavy and utilitarian—a garbage truck, fire engine, a school bus. The light from the near-drawn blinds has changed angles and grown weaker. Far off voices make softened impressions in the quiet, though not nearly enough to disturb him. He is listening to things that come to his ears from distances even farther than the strange outside.
When he wakes, finally, it is to the measured steps of a woman. She wears a sombre pantsuit, and walks on stockinged feet. She is twenty-eight years old, the face in the photograph. She is his mother.
Their eyes meet, and the child, stirred by recognition, his name and her voice, pats the blanket away with chubby fingers and holds up his arms to be taken.
She lifts him, gazes without expression into his small face, his crown of curly hair, his eyes wide and calm, the color of Teddy's button nose. Though she does not hold him close, maternal instinct heightens the feeling of security, that she would not let him go.
"Good," she says. "That was six hours. Room for improvement, yes, but...good. Come."
Together they leave the room. Her words, of course, have no meaning; still clinging to sleep, he places his head against her sternum, listening to the whisper of wool against cotton against skin. Her scent is faint and unobtrusive.
(Later, he will try and recall it, mostly out of curiosity, and mostly without success. It is what sons and mothers do.)
Beverly was just nineteen when that photo was taken. She proposed marriage to her friend John Hofstadter that same day, because it was the sensible course of action, and that procreation, in the future at least, seemed inevitable. He could come up with no reason not to. The promises of an established career and financial stability were still some ways off, and both were realistic enough to accept that there were inherent benefits in partnership and mutual support. Love stood farther down that particular list, and did not need to be mentioned, as much (in Beverly's opinion) as it played an unnecessary part in things. The year was 1971. They would work on their dissertations solidly over the next ten years, bear two children and be carrying a third by the close of it.
Leonard blinks in the false new light of the hall and living room. He would like to be back in the quiet again, but does not have the means or understanding to communicate such feelings, so he starts to cry. His mother stops and turns in half circles, turns in her working clothes, the suit of her job still buttoned and neat. One hand cradles his head, back and around, around and back, until he stops. And he burrows into her, this child, with the world outside and the sun fading, as a cub in the woods.
There's a moment when he stands before the door to his father's apartment, closed fist an inch away from knocking, and it occurs to him that he has no actual memory of what was said the last time they met. Everything seems to come from when he was so much younger, as if nothing since the day he left has made any impact at all.
He turns. A figure emerges from the shadow of the stairwell, two boxes cradled in his arms. Textbooks and pizza. It's hard to make him out in the dark light.
"Dad." They both move at the same time, into a sort of hug that doesn't quite avoid knocking a number of things to the floor. Books, mostly. Lots and lots of books. Leonard grins, flustered at being in such close proximity; the corduroy of his father's jacket smells of dust and wood smoke. The familiarity hits him quite suddenly, a full belt right in his chest. "Hey...uh, good to see you."
"Yes, yes." Greeting apparently made to his satisfaction, John Hofstadter starts patting his pockets with his free hand. He looks up and shakes his head. "I'm sorry—I...well. I appear to have misplaced my key."
Leonard is about to reply when his father's expression changes. "No," he says. "I tell a lie. It's in my other jacket. I was doing some work on my speech, and it was getting stuffy in that shoebox of an office, so I took it off...you know, son, it's a good thing that you're here, because I can use you as a test audience. This is a very important day for Michael and I want it to be just so...if you could hold these—" he shoves the boxes into Leonard's arms and hastens back down the stairwell. "I won't be a minute."
He's left standing with a cooling pizza, alone in an echoing hallway, and it's not until he finds the energy to sit among the textbooks that it occurs to him that his father has managed to say more words in less than a minute than he somehow managed in ten whole years.
what's a little leakey between friends?
Today Marianne is fourteen, but as the family does not celebrate birthdays, the cake batter she is pouring into a carefully lined tin is not for her. It is a Mothers' Group cake, dark chocolate and ginger, not to be touched. Still, Marianne has a knack for culinary exploits, and so Beverly allows her a small participatory role in the baking. Allowances among the Hofstadter children are rationed out with consideration, rare enough to enjoy with quiet triumph when they happen.
"Where are your brothers?" asks Beverly, touching the tin to make sure the batter settles evenly. It isn't required, but she does it anyway; her daughter's hands appear steady enough.
"In the Castle."
"Of course. Well, when we are finished here, you may go outside and bring them in."
The Castle is a tree house without a tree. In the Hofstadters' modestly sized yard, it sits beneath a withered peach tree that flowers for about two days of the year and fruits for even less. Its drooping branches have no strength to support a childish enterprise of broken planks and rusted nails, so the tree simply provides cover, but that is enough. In this small monarchy of eighties New Jersey, the falling leaves are enemies storming the battlements. Beverly, in the middling warmth of the kitchen (for the oven is temperamental and often overheats) watches as her daughter sets the mixing bowl upright and walks it to the sink. She will do as her mother bids, but won't do as the boys and be warriors at play in an imaginary world. Birthday or not, fourteen is fourteen and Marianne no longer a girl, and both know that time is quickly passing.
But she doesn't leave, not immediately. She stands by the kitchen island, flour on her fingers. Her eyes dart about as she searches for a cloth to wipe them. Beverly peers studiously at the cake, at the smooth and shiny mixture; she can already tell that it will turn out perfectly. She unfolds a new dishcloth and hands it to her daughter.
"Thanks." Marianne presses her lips into a smile, and dutifully cleans her hands, the countertop, the dripping wooden spoon. Careful, sweet child, for the chocolate is bitter and still running warm. She trots outside, with a glint in her eye.
"That's not a sword, stupidhead! Sword's go swish!"
"Too bad—this is a club! A club with explosive spikes, Leonard Leakey...and you're dead!"
With a battlecry shrill enough to break glass, five-year-old Michael cleaves his weapon through the air and sets off after his brother. Two pigeons that have been sitting unobtrusively in the peach tree startle at the noise, and with a whistle of feathers take to the sky. They rise to nearby power lines and settle again, watching the fight unfold.
Leonard doesn't move.
For a moment he can't, he's frozen, and all he can do is watch Michael run towards him, arms flailing and voice at a strangled and otherworldly pitch, as if calling the world to join his cause. Even at the tender age of seven, in Leonard's experience the powers of younger brothers are too often given free rein to roar and cause havoc; it is the unvoiced rule of kids growing up close in age, so near in temperament. He can't fight because it's wrong, but he must because it's there. So Michael, magical sword-slash-club with explosive spikes in hand, comes hurtling closer and closer, until finally, suddenly, the freeze turns to fire and Leonard is gone. Gone, off and running, the weapon of his own creation (a fallen stick, for the tree provides armoury as well as shelter) clasped firmly in both hands.
He'll win this game, for though he's quiet, he's lighter of foot. And he's fast.
With all his attention focused on the chase and how many looping concourses of the yard it's going to take for Leonard to emerge the victor, he fails to notice the extra body emerging from the back porch until it's too late. He crashes into Marianne with an almighty thud!—the impact knocking the breath from his lungs and the glasses from his face, and with a gasping wheeze Leonard tumbles to the grass.
From across the yard, Michael snorts with laughter and pulls up quickly, the game happily forgotten now that there's some actual misfortune to examine. "Nice landing," he says, in a voice altogether too knowing for a boy so young. "Now you're really dead."
Leonard coughs and spits out a leaf. The shadow that was his big sister looms briefly, and then she is at his level and looking right at him.
"You okay, little b?"
She stretches out a hand to his smaller one, helps him stand. Her hair is long and still in plaits, honey-blonde like their mother. But her eyes are studious and all warmth, and the hurt that threatens to bubble over changes into an embarrassing tear. It is blinked away before she (or anyone) can see.
He sniffs, pats his face. "I lost my—"
"No, here they are," she says, quickly, ducking down to retrieve the glasses. Marianne smiles, and places them back on his nose. "See? Good as new."
It's frighteningly true. They're not even a week old, these thick, shining, heavy frames. (Picked by Beverly straight off the display rack, without any heed at the saleswoman's suggestions. She'd had bright pink lipstick, and an even brighter smile for Leonard. "What about something softer?" were her words as they'd stood as a trio to choose. "He's got such a sweet face..." "Frames are a necessity," said Beverly, "but it is the lenses that correct. How they look is of no matter." Economy and logical thought winning out, as always. He was happy to get out and back home for a glass of apple juice. Besides, the lady smelt funny.) Leonard attempts a smile now to show that he is brave as well as light of foot, but hesitation takes over and he shrugs instead. He wonders what could be good and what could be new about something that makes him feel top heavy and light headed all at once. The Knights of the Tree don't wear glasses. The enemy would laugh, throw down their weapons. They would refuse to play.
(Michael laughs anyway. But he thinks a club with explosive spikes can beat a ruby-red sword. So that doesn't count.)
"You've got white on you," Leonard says. He points at her t-shirt, to a dusty splotch on the bright pink cotton.
Marianne frowns. She looks down. "Oh!"
It's Thursday, so Leonard knows what it is and why it's there. Mothers' Group is always on a Thursday. Mothers' Group means dark chocolate and Beverly making lists with talking points and agendas and things he doesn't understand. But he knows his days well; he can keep track of time despite seeing the world in a blur. Small boys who live in castles, they have senses other than sight.
The winter of that year sees the Hofstadter family lose and gain a portion of their number, two strange and curious events from which none of them quite recover.
The first is when Beatrice and Benedict, a pair of black moor goldfish who have lived happily in an octagonal-shaped tank since before Leonard was born, are discovered one day floating incongruously and upside-down among the anubias fronds. The whys and hows of this possible suicide pact are debated briefly between Beverly and John, while the three children stand as one in the kitchen, observing the stately passing in the form of their father with a bucket and their mother a net. It is the first experience of death for any of them, and they are silenced by the thought of something so familiar being suddenly no more. Nevertheless, as deemed by Beverly to be a critical and important life lesson, the subject has several airings as part of the weekly family discussion circle, though perhaps without success, for the tank remains in the living room, filled but fishless. Her insistence that it be left as a reminder of the intangible grasp of mortality ends up simply confusing matters, not to mention visitors who happen to gaze through the glass and wonder innocently where the fish are hiding, only to be informed that it is empty on purpose so that the children might learn. They never do get another goldfish. Or, for that matter, is Leonard able to watch, in his later school years, amateur college productions of Much Ado About Nothing without thinking of strange, aquatic funerals.
The second event, one even more surreal if that were possible, is the arrival of a dog.
Leonard is in his bedroom when he hears the noise. He is recovering from a cold, and is supposed to be tucked beneath the covers, but he feels perfectly fine and is instead lying flat on his stomach, searching in the dark space beneath his dresser for a marble. It's the blue Tom Thumb, his favorite, and there's no way he's going to let it die a lonely death in a dusty corner. Never mind that he doesn't really play marbles; he just likes to arrange them; but there's a touch of the neurotic fastidiousness in him passed through his father's genes, and so the thought of a marble lost and alone under the dresser fuels him to reach just that little bit farther, until he grasps it and rolls out with a triumphant grin.
Still prone on the floor, he squints and aims a perfect roll into the middle of the rug. He's just admiring the way his arrangement of canis major catches the light, when raised voices from outside make him look up. His mother's voice, sharp and steady, and his father's, questioning.
And then he hears barking.
In an instant Leonard is springing upright and running to the front door, which he finds Beverly blocking, like some sort of strangely gallant sentry in tweed and pearls.
He can see his father standing by the front gate, wrapped in his scarf and long overcoat. By his feet is a ball of unidentifiable fluff.
A pink tongue emerges. The ball wriggles, and barks again.
"John," says Beverly. From the tone of her voice it sounds as if this is a repetition, and one not entirely new. "This is completely unacceptable."
"Not my intention, dear," comes the reply. John Hofstadter smiles amiably, carefully. "I was followed home by a vagrant..."
"How poetic. And how perfectly naive. We cannot house a canine, John."
As she speaks, Beverly leans to one side, creating a gap between her body and the doorframe. Leonard spots his opportunity and darts through.
"Dadmomdadcanwekeephimcanwekeephim—" The cold air, sudden and sharp, makes his breath hitch, but still his words fly without thought or coherence. He tears to the gate and his father's legs, falling to his knees right there on the hard concrete of the sidewalk, into the fur and pink tongue, causing the aforementioned wriggling to intensify with nuclear speed. He is enveloped in a volley of happy barks, and licked all over, and manages an awkward combination of a laugh turning into a cough and then a sneeze.
"I would like to record my displeasure at this unconsidered addition to our home. But as I see imprinting is already underway, it would appear that my voice must go unheard." She walks to the gate, heels clicking. "Look at it. It's a stray, probably disease-ridden, probably full of neuroses picked up from goodness knows how long a life on the streets. As an anthropologist, Jonathon, you should not have to be reminded that canines live in packs. Do you really want our children to grow up with that sort of mentality?"
"It looks like there's a bit of Lhasa Apso in there," John remarks, quietly and somewhat curiously, ignoring most of this speech but still considering the dog, which is now spinning circles around his son in a strange combination of advance and evasion, "but definitely not a wolf. I hardly think they'll tear each other to bits for food."
Leonard emerges dishevelled and grinning from the doggy embrace. "Can we?" he asks again. "Please?"
"I suppose there is no harm in at least considering the idea." His father thumps his hands together and breathes out sharply. "Perhaps if you were to give him a name, Leonard."
Beverly's lips tighten. She looks on as her husband speaks, but she says nothing.
Leonard thinks for a moment. A name? There are so many possibilities: Einstein, Newton, Nelson, Flash, Zip, Captain Fantastic, Luke, Spock, Buzz, Apollo—how can he possibly choose? But the honor is on him, and soon the others will be home, and there will go any chance of being the first, the first to decide anything, so—
He opens his mouth, and...
"Mitzephalie?" John repeats, with a frown. "Well, okay then. You'll have to explain the origins of that to me later, son."
And this is how Mitzy Hofstadter, the very un-wolf-like stray, comes to be named after a sneeze.
"Dad? It's almost half past. We're meant to be at the breakfast by nine, and I'm not sure if I have a whole lot of faith in that car of yours."
He rinses the coffee mug and looks about the kitchen. On the windowsill there's a ceramic vase in the shape of a skull, with a cactus growing out of an eye socket, stretching towards to light as if it wants to escape. He prods it with a finger and murmurs, "I know how you feel." Then, louder, "Dad?"
"I need your opinion on these ties."
Leonard sighs and wanders into the hall. The door to his father's bedroom is half-open; he can see pieces of clothing scattered about the floor. "The blue one," he says, without looking.
"I think Michael was wearing blue."
"Then you'll all blend in together...look, Dad, didn't you have four or five rehearsals for this?"
John appears at the door. "You want a cup of coffee?"
"I've had three."
"I think I need a cup of coffee..."
He brushes past, still muttering about ties and clashing colors. Leonard keeps his mouth shut and starts picking things up off the floor. His father wasn't this bad at Marianne's wedding, but then, he was still a married man himself. There's just too many loose ends floating round this whole weekend, and it's barely started.
He's bending to retrieve a pair of balled-up socks when he notices something poking out between the pages of Chernow's Washington. A yellow wedge of silk, screen-printed with fading letters: Princeton Day Science Fair, 1988.
Book and ribbon still in hand, he's about to say something when John pokes his head around the door, gesturing with a frown at the pile of clothes on the bed. "Pass me that darned tie there, would you? No, the blue one. And what are you standing about for? We're going to be late."
lima beans verb adverb to noun
It's the tiniest thing. Soft brown earth in an egg carton, and in the first cup, a thread of green. This particular one, the smallest, is yet to unfurl, and sits wound tight in a spring, reminding him of fossilized primordial ferns under his father's microscope, spiralling over and again to the point where he can no longer see. Mathematicians have discovered formulas that explain why this is, but all Leonard knows is that it's alive and in his care, and right now that's all that matters.
This is his responsibility. It's a big deal.
He fills the eyedropper with a little more water, and squirts it very gently into the mix. He watches with interest as it darkens and disappears slowly, turns to his notebook and makes a note of the date and time, and then takes a measurement with a small plastic ruler. Winnie-the-Pooh and Piglet look up at him with fixed and cheery faces, Piglet's ears at one and three quarter inches marking the position where the biggest stalks now reach.
The bedside clock reads 7.58. Leonard watches for a moment as the eight clicks into a nine, before reaching for his tape deck. This recording isn't the best quality, but it was the only one he could find at the library, and he especially wanted this version because it's the one his grandpa had. He died a few years ago, and in one of those memories that remain stuck like a burr, Leonard remembers being shown how the old record player worked, that big cumbersome thing that looked like it belonged on the bridge of the Enterprise (used by Uhura, of course, to transmit important interspace signals and brownie recipes). He was shown how the grooves in the vinyl were positioned, and how the little needle floated above, and then, amidst the crackles, suddenly there were the warm notes of a piano, played by a Canadian man his grandpa would refer to, with nothing but admiration, as a humming-bird, weird as all hell but a genius. Always a genius.
(Leonard didn't like to ask why—there was already so much strangeness in the world—but he listened all the same to that echoless sound, and maybe as the record turned and the needle flew, maybe he understood.)
Now the numbers change again, all three at once. Time to begin.
"So. Do lima beans grow better to classical music?" He looks around the empty room, to the absent audience. The anticipation, that quiet thrill of being so near to discovery, makes him grin. "Well, let's see. Today is Day Three, and the time is nearly eight. Prepare to do your worst, little guys."
He presses play.
Down in the Hofstadters' laundry, next to the washing machine and dryer, another cluster of lima beans sit without any musical accompaniment whatsoever. These beans will not know that famous interpretation of the Goldberg Variations currently being played to the all important test batch; and nor will they ever, as far as their short lives are concerned, be witness to the following:
Leonard, running his young vocal cords almost hoarse by repeatedly singing—in a very touching but not-exactly-in-key boy soprano—the Clown's Aria from Leoncavallo's Pagliacci;
Leonard, again, making use of his Winnie-the-Pooh ruler for less than scientific purposes when his brother Michael comes crashing into the room to subject the lima beans to a screeching rendition of Ernie's Do De Rubber Duck from Sesame Street;
Mitzy, eating bean number five (and unceremoniously bringing it up again fifteen minutes later on the kitchen floor);
And Beverly, standing by the doorway at an indiscriminate hour late one night, observing the quaint tableau of her son lying asleep and drooling into his comforter, glasses turned backwards in his hair and eyedropper clutched like a talisman in his hand. While across the room, the last notes of The Nutcracker trail quietly from a tape deck, watched with great stillness by a forest of green.
The letters read SCI—NCE FAIR, but the missing E, having some time ago fallen from its position high above the assembly stage to land behind the microphone stand, appears mostly forgotten as people mill past busily and without notice. The remaining squares of silver-blue construction paper waft gently in the circling air, announcing to all present that today's event will go ahead as planned—until, much like the projects (or possibly just the teachers) it very quietly falls to pieces.
Twenty-four tables are arranged in a horseshoe pattern in the center of the room, each presided over by a small child, sporting—as reflecting the degree of messiness, thrills, or outright danger involved in their grand experiment—a various array of goggles, gloves and lab coats, be it inspired by Actual Science, or, with what seems to be the more popular choice, the less challenging guise of Evil Genius. In the case of one Freddy Truman, the gloves have the slightly worrying appearance of having last been used to handle radioactive isotopes, while little Bethany Llangton isn't so much wearing her lab coat as being drowned in it.
And here is Leonard. He is wearing a pair of protective goggles, but this is not for fear of his lima beans suddenly turning into triffids and attacking every third grader in sight (though he would not say no to the situation if it means being a Hero and gallantly throwing himself in front of the paper-mache table, saving Christie Parchetski and her blonde curls from a sticky and unpleasant end). He wears them because in the morning's excitement he'd dropped his glasses and snapped one of the hinges, and the oversized piece of moulded plastic now pinching his nose and crimping his hair into tufts is basically the only thing preventing the world around him turning into a blurry dream.
He looks at his watch. It's digital, and pretty neat, square with buttons on the side. Dick Tracy had a watch like this, would look at it steely-eyed and then turn in the one motion and sock a bad guy right in the jaw—bam! pow! In the comic book store downtown, in his permitted Friday after school browsing with his father waiting in the car with a newspaper, Leonard likes to rummage through the bargain boxes. The old comics smell of dust balls and crackle thickly when opened, and he often thinks that it's unfair to be relegated to the back of the store, these older, wizened heroes, when they have done so much and saved so many lives without complaint or fanfare; to be revered by small boys seems too a small a reward.
Bam! Pow! Take that, taller, bigger, brainless buffoon...
"Just a couple more minutes, Leonard. Sit tight."
Miss Newman's smile is brief as she walks past, clipboard in hand and heels a loud chime on the wooden floor. She teaches Math, keeps Leonard in the seat by the window because he won't daydream like the other kids. His eyes are always on the blackboard, the calculations running through his head always faster and always cleaner than she can write them.
Leonard frowns. A couple more minutes? But he wants to start now! His hands jiggle against the table; the heavy watch slips around and he has to stop and pull it straight, and his elbow flies out and nearly knocks over one of his poster boards. It's the one listing ten fun facts about lima beans and ten interesting facts about classical music (his reasoning being that classical music operates at too serious a baseline to be categorized as fun...but that lima beans are just beans). He closes his eyes, steadying himself briefly with a stern reminder that while he's jiggling about and fussing with watchstraps that don't quite fit, the lima beans are still growing—admittedly on a fairly microscopic level—and therefore still under his influence. So he must be calm. This is his project, every last measurement and every mark, pencil smudge and splash of water on and inside the specially bound notebook labelled L. Hofstadter, Third Grade Science; this, and every part of it, his. Be calm...wait...except he's sick of waiting; he's been here since seven-thirty, when the janitor came to open up the hall with his big set of keys. And once inside, Beverly, who had driven Leonard in, had stood for exactly two minutes looking at the room and contemplating its emptiness. She even told him as much, as he fought with a tablecloth that stubbornly refused to lie straight. The mind, Leonard, is an empty space. She then remarked that his choice of table was not wise because the light was too direct and would make the leaves wilt, and left to retrieve the rest of the family.
But that was two hours ago. At this rate he's going to have to start a new test batch from scratch, and seeing as he's already returned Glenn Gould to the library, that means he's not going to have the right set of variables, so of course it will be all wrong, and—
"Good morning everyone."
The large bulk of Principal Hubert looms behind the microphone. There is a pause as he flattens out a sheet of paper, adjusts his tie and gazes across the room. "Today's Science Fair is to honor our Third and Fourth Graders, who have been working very hard over the past few months to present what I hope will be an exciting array of wonderments..."
Leonard watches, not really listening. It's too hard to hear with plastic goggles, anyway. Or nerves that leap to notes of disquiet.
"Ah, now here's Mr. Hofstadter. And what are these?"
"Yes, yes, that I can see. If you would be so good as to elaborate..."
He leaps into his presentation. He has practised this speech many times over, mostly alone, once to Beverly (who hadn't listened) and once to Marianne (who had), and has it timed to exactly three and a half minutes.
It's a good speech. It's an informative speech. It's both fun and interesting (to quote his list of facts) and he even decorated his banner with the elaborate fronds of a magic beanstalk, plus a cartoon of Beethoven's cat. He doesn't even know if Beethoven had a cat. He just thought it looked kind of neat.
He begins, very calmly, very clearly. But it doesn't last, because he starts to hear his own voice, the inflections, the way it climbs higher towards the end of each sentence and how some words start runningalltogetherandhecan'tmakethemSTOP—
The adjudicators nod and listen. They seem to understand, so maybe, maybe—It's okay, he thinks. I can make it stop. I can. There. Just like that. They make marks on clipboards and look on benignly at his goggles and unruly hair. And they look to the table, at the three-dozen green shoots, lined up in neat, parallel lines. He's worked and worked so hard for such a modest return.
"Very good, Leonard," says one.
"And what a sweet little cat," says another, with a smile. "You certainly did your research."
Really, he should have known how it would end. How events would conspire against the simplest of triumphs or the plainest of congratulations. Yes, some might think that it's a shame for a boy who hasn't reached double digits in age to be thinking these things, but he isn't like other boys, and they aren't like other families, and so if he doesn't know what normal is, it's all relative and then, yes really, whose fault is that?
Kermit the Frog said that it isn't easy being green. He was a wise enough creature; he might as well have said it isn't easy being young.
Beverly, as chair of the Parents' Committee, has been given the task of handing out the prizes, and she stands on the assembly stage with the last of the ribbons in her hand.
"The honorable mention," she says, peering down at the paper, "for ages eight to ten, goes to...oh. Leonard Hofstadter."
Everyone is looking at him, but he doesn't care, he rushes up the steps, lab coat flying, coming to a skidding halt by his mother's legs. His heart is thumping like a cannonball. He won! Well, okay he didn't win, but still. A prize!
Beverly adjusts her glasses a little, and leans into the microphone.
"I must say, it is a curious adjudicating process that rewards what is really just a revisit of last year's stand out entry, 'Do lima beans grow worse to rock and roll'." She looks out at the audience, a note of careful amusement in her voice. "I seem to recall my youngest, Michael, winning that particular challenge. So advanced for his age...his father and I both felt that this year the competition was simply beneath him...but I digress. We must be accepting in all things, no matter how erroneous." She holds out the ribbon. "There you go, Leonard. Well done."
He leaves the stage to warm but slightly confused applause. It's hard to hear them; the claps sound so distant and fuzzy. His throat is tight. When he reaches the bottom step and the darkest corner of the wings, he bumps into Miss Newman, maybe on purpose, he doesn't know. But he pushes the triangle of silk into her hand without thinking, and does a masterful job of pretending not to care or respond as she looks with shock at his retreating back, and moves her lips to the shape of his name.
He sees the back of her first. Shoulders upright and neck straight, dark blouse and pants cinched high at the waist, hair twisted in a knot; she doesn't notice them until they're hovering a little awkwardly at the end of the room, and then it's as if she is seeing them in reflection, and she half-turns and looks the two of them over, her fine features masked by angular frames and something quizzical in her eyes. He stands beside his father, surrounded by bouquets of roses, and attempts a smile. She walks towards them. She doesn't smile back.
"John," she says. And then, almost in the same breath, "There's a mark on that tie."
"Microscopic, I think. Most unnoticeable."
Beverly merely nods at this, but the way her mouth sets at the corners is all Leonard needs to know that she is already disinterested in the conversation. Or simply in his father's conviction. He fidgets, embarrassed for one or both of them, he's not sure. As his hands duck in and out of his suit pockets, he finds a ticket stub. From the dry cleaners, or a toll booth maybe, but the ink's long faded. He starts to smile at his ability to be distracted by something so mundane and then realizes that nobody's talking. Which, really, he could apply to so many different things, most particularly to the fact that he's been here approximately twenty-nine hours and already he wants to hang his head and crawl for home. Talking? That's a joke. Nobody talks in this family. Nobody's been talking for a very long time.
"And have you spoken to your brother yet?" asks Beverly.
They're both staring at him. He blinks rapidly and clears his throat.
"No, Mom. We kind of just got here. Hey, uh, so the place looks really nice. Did—did Nicole choose the flowers?" Leonard has to force himself to leave his pockets alone. He's going to end up unpicking the lining at this rate.
Beverly shrugs. "I hardly think so. They had a woman organize such matters...Leonard, you're doing that thing with your hands again. Have you some dermatological condition that needs seeing to?"
"I—what? No, no, I'm fine. You know me, just nerves."
"Well, when we are gathered to acknowledge something of significance on your part, dear, then I will allow nervousness to a degree. Otherwise it is plainly psychosomatic and quite frankly something I thought you would have grown out of by now." She brushes at an invisible mark on her sleeve and sighs a little under her breath. "Something your father here knows all too well, I'm sure."
Before anyone can respond to this there's movement at the door, Beverly is walking away, and Leonard is left standing there, sweat in the palms of his hands, struck quite still by the fluttering of nerves so accused by his own mother. He swallows, hard. It doesn't help.
"So," he says. "Mom looks well."
"Yes. She's an absolute picture." John rocks on his feet for a moment and then clears his throat, eyeing the back of the room. "I'm going to...get a glass of water."
Leonard exhales slowly and glances at his watch. Six minutes in, and already abandoned by both parents. It's comforting to know that some things never change.
John is a collector. But not of things, not of objects that clutter shelves and take up space in boxes or draws. What he collects are ideas, and they exist in his mind in pure, elementary space, categorized to order, and always there. His work is dry-coated to the extreme, necessary, of course, and intellectually stimulating—but it's books and words and data, lots and lots of data, and these days relies less on what first drove him to anthropology, than a whole lot of administrative blather that in all honesty would be better suited to his pot plant. So he retreats to daydreams, the emphatic pulse of things that exist because they can. And don't have to be explained to anyone.
Back in the early days, when he and Beverly weren't so much getting to know one another as slowly edging around the periphery of what could only very loosely be described as a courtship, she would accuse him of being too much in his own shell. Not exactly the approach to a loving and supporting relationship, but then, he was mostly of the same opinion, so he could hardly contradict her. Truthfully, he didn't mind being pushed. He'd grown up with five brothers and one sister, so had little means to battle the average (or, in Beverly's case, un-average) female persuasion. So he went about his work locked in that shell as if he were a tortoise, wandering in his own way through fields scattered with bones, hedged into a sort of parallel existence, with family, children and the traps of university on one threading plane, and his mind on another.
And throughout everything, there was love, not mentioned once. It remained an idea.
The Saturdays of the school year see most kids out and about on the tracks, diamonds and fields scattered about the district. There are skills to be honed, plays to master and times to beat. Girls wave pompoms and jump in formations, their cries a staccato chorus in the morning air. They are almost military in execution, as are the boys and coaches, for the sporting calendar is a pursuit to be compared to a great infantry preparing for battle. And come the end of the season, they will turn around and begin it all again, perhaps with the same faces, perhaps with a new string of recruits, but all with the overwhelming desire to win, impress, dig in and achieve. Latin quotes and team chants sit alongside broken egos and the beginnings of rivalries that will continue well into the law firms or boardrooms in fifteen, twenty years' time.
Unless, of course, that kid happens to be Leonard. In which case Saturday morning will see them in the engineering workshop, building, piece by painstaking piece, a contraption so simple in its outcome and yet so very, very complicated in its meaning, that when asked they will say it's a work in progress (patent pending), and elaborate no more.
It should be mentioned that the workshop is mostly empty, but not quite, because there is a bird at the window, balanced on the ledge but unwilling to fly. And what he is building is a hugging machine.
He sits, hunched a little over the soldering iron, concentrating hard so as to not make a mistake. He likes how the metal softens and pools into tiny bubbles; it makes him think of the T-1000 in that new movie Judgement Day, but in slightly less murderous form. (He won't admit to having nightmares of being chased by a man who runs fast, and faster still. Or waking up to find his mother with exoskeleton appendages. On the other hand that would probably liven up family therapy, so maybe there is an upside to post-apocalyptic doom.) The wing where the workshops are located sits in a U-shape around a parking lot, and beyond that is the running track. Through windows that are beginning to cobweb a few of the hardier students can be seen running up their long-distance miles. Leonard occasionally thinks if he were to take up a sport, it would be something like hurdles, if only because years of having Michael chase him to all corners of the neighborhood has given him a seriously honed ability to avoid confrontation with the aid of obstacles. (Often corners weren't even involved, sometimes there were dead-ends too, resulting in brief but unfairly physical scraps, at which point Mitzy would jump to Leonard's defence and the whole thing would devolve into dog yips and tears. And counselling. Lots and lots of counselling.) Of course, he thinks a lot of things that laughably will not happen, so he ends up spending his Saturday mornings in the company of a bird that refuses to fly, and a pair of robotic arms.
And there's probably a metaphor in there somewhere, if he only cared enough to look.
Leonard continues soldering until he has things basically in the right places. He's about to make a first attempt at trying out the radio controls, when he hears footsteps approaching.
"Aha! So you're the one who left that outside door open..."
Behind his grey beard, Jack Mosley's voice comes out in a gruff rumble. But his eyes twinkle ever so slightly as he weaves his way around the workbenches to where Leonard and his pile of metal sit accused. God knows trying to corral a small community of pre-teens into sitting still for long enough in order to take in the finer aspects of science and engineering is not the easiest job on the planet, but the man plainly has the patience of a saint, and Leonard, momentarily fearful of getting into another round of excuses as to why he's holed up in here when most people are outside being useful and productive, relaxes enough to answer back with, "Sorry, Mr. Mosley. My bad."
The teacher comes to a stop, crosses his arms, and ponders the contraption carefully. "I hope the Home Economics department know that you have one of their dressmaking mannequins. Do I dare enquire as to the nature of this beast? Or shall we remain ambiguous and just call it an untitled project to while away the hours."
"They said this one was being eaten up by moths." Leonard shrugs. "So I was welcome to it. And I'm a fan of ambiguous."
"As am I, young man, as am I."
He feels relief at not having to explain any further, almost intensely so, and together they set about adjusting and tinkering with the mechanisms. This ends up taking a while, as it turns out that Leonard maybe isn't so fantastic with the soldering iron as he'd thought.
"Now that I'm here," Mosley says, quietly contemplating a wrench as if it were a relic from another age, "I should mention that your mother came to see me the other day. She was a little concerned about your, how shall we say, lack of self-discipline and general inattention to life? To which I replied, well, his marks are not the issue, because quite honestly I don't know how you could improve on one hundred per cent accuracy."
"Oh," says Leonard. "Uh...thanks?"
"I'm not after thanks, Mr. Hofstadter, I am simply informing you of the facts. But I have to agree with her diagnosis. There's a lot going on inside that head of yours."
He puts down the wrench and looks briefly at Leonard over his reading glasses. Leonard fiddles with the switch on the radio control but doesn't respond.
"How are things at home?"
"Okay? Well, okay is good. Life is a series of okays. It's a sort of universal mean, a middling shrug. My dentist asks me how my teeth are. They hurt like a dog, but I'm a tough guy so instead I say oh, sure, they're okay." There is a pause as he tests the hinges on the right arm. It swings and squeaks. The bird up high at the window taps its beak on the glass and Mosley looks up. "D'you think he wants to come in?" he wonders.
Leonard isn't sure. He reaches with the oilcan instead, and pours a few drops on the hinge. The squeak disappears.
"There's an electric blanket," Leonard explains. "It's...stuffed inside. I adjusted the thermostat so it stays at 98.6."
Mosley nods, carefully, with interest. "Core body temperature."
They fall quiet again. Voices echo distantly from somewhere in the building, footsteps passing by and fading away. He pushes absently at a screwdriver until it's right at the edge of the bench. Out in the field, the group of cheerleaders break formation, and just as he is about to tap the screwdriver one last time so that it falls either to his lap or the floor, he sees the shape of a station wagon, turning slowly into the parking lot. It's his father, come to take him home.
"My dad's here," Leonard says, standing up. He reaches for the mannequin, holding it awkwardly against his small body. "I'd better go."
"You need some help there?"
He's twisting around, looking for the radio control. Mosley picks it up and tucks in beneath Leonard's chin.
"As you wish."
Leonard offers a small smile, and makes his way, a little precariously but in one piece, to the door. "I'm okay, Mr. Mosley," he says. "Really. Thanks for helping me with the joints."
In the workshop, the teacher pushes back his glasses and studies the figure of his student, trailing cords and wires, as he shuffles across the parking lot. A muffled slam of the rear door resonates in the quiet. At the exit the vehicle seems to wait for an improbably long time, signal light ticking on and off. He can see the balding head of John Hofstadter behind the wheel, but he can't quite see the boy. The car pulls into traffic, and disappears.
He makes to leave, but in the process of turning his eyes are drawn back to the window, where, tail feathers swirling like the coil of a spring, the bird flies away.
Breakfast is both overindulgent and awkward. The former in a way that only real money and taste can afford, the whole day being one long celebration of some of the best and brightest in an affluent New Jersey; and awkward in both a familial and practical sense. This becomes especially apparent considering that the amount of times Leonard manages to elbow the person beside him and bump either a knife, fork, or in one spectacular moment a whole vase of roses onto the floor, ends up almost equal to the number of times he overhears Beverly mention one of Michael's accomplishments not two seconds after loudly wondering what on earth her middle son is actually doing all the way in the hippie communes of California. And at the point where Leonard is sitting upright again and about to dive to his own defense, he is interrupted by a glass being raised to toast the soon-to-be happy couple, and is left holding a knife at a backwards angle, with a poor, innocent croissant on his plate the only means to temper his frustrations.
It's just about the most violent meal he's ever had.
Still, he is nothing if not an optimist at heart, and is able to convince himself that if he eats enough at least he'll be somewhat fortified for the various humiliations that will inevitably come, like a spawn point in a video game, with every slime drenched zombie a new relative to appease, or friend of the family to convince that yes, he is doing some good among the tie-dyed soy frappucino drinkers of the west. Despite what some people might say.
(When asked by the few guests who have somehow escaped being trapped in a corner and having his life story told to them by his own unbiased mother, he explains that he's building a time machine so he can tap Columbus on the shoulder and point out that a) jaguars only live in the Arctic circle, and b) 1452 was just a particularly warm year. They seem to leave him alone after that.)
He does manage to say a few words to his brother before they leave. Michael's fiancée, Nicole, is very tall and serious, but she kisses him very sweetly and doesn't look down in the way Michael does, as with his usual winking exuberance, he concludes their short conversation by thumping Leonard on the shoulder and telling him to keep on trying. It's nothing Leonard hasn't heard before, so he smiles back and makes assurances and jokes until his face starts to ache with cringe-worthy bonhomie.
"I thought the bride and groom weren't supposed to see each other on the day."
Michael ignores this. "Hey, do you think Dad's okay?" he asks. He is leaning on the door of what looks suspiciously like a just off the showroom Range Rover. The body paint is so immaculate that Leonard is able to use it as a mirror and brush away several flakes of brioche before anyone can make the pithy remark that if he'd wanted take out he should have stopped by McDonalds. "Last I saw he was staring at the ice sculpture like it was a woolly mammoth unearthed from the cretaceous." He spins the keys a couple of times. "Or something equally bizarre..."
"Mammoths didn't live during the cretaceous," says Leonard. "And Dad's been in his own world for the last three decades. Don't tell me you've only just worked that out."
"Yeah, well." Michael fists the keys and hops into the car, a wry smile on his face. "He's all yours today. Just make sure he doesn't wear that tie this afternoon. He looks like a damn anthropologist."
And with that he starts up the motor. Nicole is already in the passenger seat, and the two of them wave in unison. Leonard watches with a thin and fixed smile as the car roars away. Or as much as an expensive, luxury SUV on civilized asphalt under leafy elms can roar. Which is to say, not much.
Across the parking lot, the other guests are still milling about, chatting to one another while subtly comparing clothes and expensive motors. "That's because he is a damn anthropologist," Leonard mutters, as his eye catches sight of a familiar figure shutting the trunk of old VW.
It's Marianne. She looks over, he gives a tentative wave, starts to walk, and gets about three steps in before the smile on his face changes to a grin and he breaks into a run.
when bach turns middle-of-the-road, you know that something's wrong
It is a cliché to say that those born with talent will at some point reject it.
On the death of his father in 1695, the organist Johann Christoph Bach was given the then not uncommon task of bringing up his orphaned brother. The rest of that tale (religion, order, equal temperament and a great and imposing lineage for which western music has much to thank) is a history too well known to bear repeating, but it shares some relevance to this one, so it will, if briefly, stay.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica (15th edition, published 1976; resident of John Hofstadter's study next to his Levi-Strauss and The World According to Garp), devotes a considerably sized portion of scholarly adoration to that famous name, and yet somehow in all the chorales and preludes neglects to give any hints as to whether the young J.S swore at his cello, or slammed his hands down on his clavichord because he was sick of scales and minor-key harmonics. It neither confirms nor denies that he occasionally threw a seventeenth-century hissy-fit and had his bewigged siblings up in arms trying to corral this prodigious talent into something studious and well-mannered. Perhaps he was a child made of wood, meek and mild and entirely free of disobedience. The name history will forever label a genius. Perhaps he was none of these, but simply a boy.
Leonard is no orphan, nor is he a master (yet) of the chromatic fugue. But he rejects. He rejects with all his heart.
"Okay, Leonard. Try again, please."
"Don't apologize. Just play as you see it."
His fingers ache. His brain aches. In his mind he has no trouble whatsoever seeing the chords and how the bow moves sweetly in a proud and feather-light arch. He can hear every pluck and murmur, but that is where it stops. This is the howling of coyotes, the crash of shattering glass. This is not music.
In this class—yet another of his advanced placements—Leonard, at twelve, is by far the youngest. Most of the other kids are fifteen and sixteen, but more importantly, big enough to actually hold their cellos. Despite having grappled with an instrument the size of his body for these last two years at least, he's still forced to endure the humiliation of being relegated to the musical equivalent of a high chair. Really, he should be used to these things by now. If the world ever sought a poster boy for pre-adolescent suffering (otherwise known as the middle-child with an IQ higher than his peers but who still can't outshine his siblings) they'd need look no farther than Leonard, as he bends to reach a low C and stumbles, with elephantine grace, to the floor.
He bites down on a curse and blushes, but Mrs. Lucas has moved on, and the twin busts of Beethoven and Bach, their frowns forever trapped in plaster, remain his only audience.
In the car ride home, Beverly asks, "And how was class today?" She asks this in the same tone she uses for each and every inquiry made to her three children—calm, outwardly polite, but lacking in anything remotely near truth or feeling. In the passenger seat, Leonard shrugs.
"Please don't do that, Leonard. I'd much prefer you say I don't know rather than revert to non-verbal signals."
He nods, but still doesn't speak. When she glances across her eyes give nothing away. And he knows, from the dull ache in his stomach, that he's failed at whatever test this was meant to be.
"Did I mention that the National Archives contacted us today to congratulate Marianne on her finding that error in the state constitution? Apparently your sister has sharper eyes than a White House appointed curator. A reporter from the Gazette is coming over Tuesday next to write a small blurb."
Beverly's mouth turns, oh so slightly, at each corner. No, Leonard didn't know. How could he, when he been too busy living out clichés.
"Oh," he says.
"Yes." She taps a fingernail on the steering wheel, selectively ignoring the breakthrough that he's made by actually talking. "They seemed quite pleased. I told them shame would be more appropriate, seeing at it was their error in the first place, but who knows how these public servants think."
Leonard tries to come up with a response, fails, and this more or less concludes the conversation. The remainder of the drive is carried out in silence, until a sudden stop at the lights coming into Carlyle Avenue causes his cello to roll gently off the back seat and break a string.
Alone in his room, he makes a half-hearted stab at his homework but gives up after the contents of his dictionary begin to resemble ancient cuneiform. He reaches into the nook on his bookcase and pulls out his CD player. It's one of those portable ones, so Leonard is able to lie on his bed and listen to what his mother is only too glad to describe as derivative popular music fit for the masses who only listen because they know no better. (It's actually Bryan Adams. Hardly the devil incarnate. And anyway, he's got an overload of brain cells—or so he's constantly reminded in terms generally more blunt—it's not like he can't spare a few.) In actuality, he's not really listening; he's tuning out other things that crawl about inside, that want to be said if only he could be sure anyone would actually hear them. For young Leonard, who registered on the Stanford-Binet scale at upwards of 160 (and he has never seen the results; they're filed in Beverly's cabinet along with report cards and a finger painting he did in pre-school—the over reliance on primary colors to depict Bert and Ernie being, in Beverly's opinion, evidence of a predication for fantasist behavior), and was actually categorized as a genius, it's touch and go whether he can manage to simply have the salt shaker passed to him at dinner time, let alone be listened to when and if he feels like letting off some steam because he's sick of being called shorty-pants.
With a sigh he leans back and stares up at the ceiling. Listening to this CD is pointless; all he seems to be able to hear is his own whining voice, plus a smidge of white noise. He yanks the headphones off and picks at the foam of the earpiece with a fingernail. These had come with the player but they're already falling to bits. Stupid, cheap, mass-market cra—
The door opens a crack. Through the gap he can see his sister, hovering.
"Hey," he says.
She slips inside, perches on the end of his bed. He can tell she's in a good mood, because she's doing that thing where she stares doe-eyed at him, like a trusting animal, the faintest of smiles pulling at the corners of her lips; full of the knowledge that this middle brother of hers isn't in the best of moods and simply wants to curl up and be left alone. And she does all of this without a word, patient and still, until he relents and smiles back. Her face is so young, hair smooth and straight and in a single braid past her neck, a ribbon the only allowance to fashion. He's certain that she'll not change, in five years or even ten, when they're all grown up and haven't the time to sit on a comforter and be normal. If this can be called normal, this moment of complete silence in a house of frightening intellect. But then, there's not a great deal for Leonard to compare it to.
He sits up and swings his legs off the bed.
"I hear you're getting your picture in the paper."
"Is that what Mom said?"
Leonard nods. Marianne scrunches up her nose. "It's a fuss over nothing, really. I hate being the center of attention."
"Then don't be such a smart cookie, Mari."
He knows she doesn't blush for anyone else. It's not pride, just the simple fact that he understands her the best. There's a part of him that wants her to stay this way for as long as possible. He's heard his parents discussing universities and med-schools, one of the many facets of their lives that feels as if it's written out in permanent marker in his mother's hand; but this is how it is, they're accelerated beyond childhood pursuits at a speed so fast that it's almost unfair. And it still manages to catch him by surprise, just sometimes, knowing that one day they'll be doing things of great importance and great consequence, and there's not a thing any of them can do to stop it. The one thing he can do—and it's this he sees in his sister's eyes as she sits by his periodic table and swings her own legs in a quiet counter rhythm—is rebel as only the smart ones can, and pretend that there's nothing out of the ordinary in being able to play Bach from memory when his feet still don't quite touch the floor.
She pokes him on the shoulder. "Well, I heard a rumor, too. That a certain someone's going to be playing in the Parents' Day assembly with a busted cello."
Leonard groans, and falls back onto the bed.
"Hey. You'll be famous one day, you know that, right? You might as well get some good stories while you're still awkward and young."
"I take it all back. You're not a cookie at all. You're just burnt."
The neat counter rhythm takes a sharp rev in speed she turns on him, sparking a battle for dominance between scuffed Nike hi-tops and a pair of ballet slippers.
Arms stretched over his eyes, he buries his face, and laughs.
At two o'clock the first drops of rain begin to fall.
They don't stop.
Plan B, which basically involves hauling everything that was outside, inside, is called into action with impressive military precision; and thank goodness for wedding planners is all Leonard can think, because the idea of his mother taking charge of logistical co-ordination brings to mind every horrific family outing and then some, which, quite honestly, is too emotionally draining to contemplate when he's full to the brim with coffee and enough pastries to front a small Parisian cafe.
"So. Home again, huh?"
They sit together on a wrought iron bench, sheltered by the branches of a walnut tree. Leonard stares at the clouds in the gaps through the leaves, and breathes in deeply. The air tastes clean, like ice. Marianne is wearing slender heels with straps that circle her ankles. He watches as they dig into the soft ground. He can feel her eyes on him, waiting.
"Yup." He glances across and shrugs. "The prodigal son."
"I'm glad you came."
Her lips curve into a smile, wavering a little as she winces and shifts on the bench, one hand hovering over her middle. She is four months' pregnant, her second. He'll be an uncle again soon.
By the steps of the church he can see his mother in conversation with a man and a woman he vaguely recognizes from breakfast. They are dressed in matching long coats, wool and cashmere, the uniform of the discretely wealthy.
"The Greysons," says Marianne. "Both attorneys. He works for Boeing and she's something high up in insurance."
"With an Olympic bronze medallist turned appeals court judge for a daughter?" Leonard shakes his head. "Normally it's the kid who has to live up to the parents, but in this case I'd say things are pretty even. Well done, Michael."
"Two-time bronze medallist," she says, poking him on the shoulder. "Don't forget that. Have you met them?"
"Have I met them? God...I shook someone's hand over a coffee pot this morning. So maybe? But about three seconds later was when I knocked over some irreplaceable antique vase and it shattered into like a thousand pieces. People weren't so chatty after that." He pushes at his glasses and stares her down. "Stop laughing. I mean it. Stop."
"What, no happiness on this day of joy? Come on, I'll introduce you."
"Mari—" She's half-standing and he pulls her back gently. "It's okay. I'd kind of like to just...sit."
Marianne tosses her bangs with a puff of exasperation, but relents. She sits back down. "Well, to be honest you're not missing out on a whole lot. If Mom's head of the society of mutual appreciation and showing off of one's children, then the Greysons practically run the board. But Nicole's a sweetheart. God, if she can deal with Michael as well as she can jump on a pair of skis and shoot a target in the snow then I think they'll be okay."
Leonard nods. He presses a finger on the cold iron, watches as a droplet of water resists for a moment before collapsing beneath his skin, and when he looks up, the figures on the steps have parted ways. He had been trying, unsuccessfully, to read their lips. "I hope so," he says.
the wednesday focus group
There is a whole science in dreams. Or a whole dream in science. One or the other, anyway, it's not as if he can make sense of any of it; his are wild adventures that chase him into places he shouldn't be and put him face to face with people he shouldn't know. The world in those eight or nine hours appears in thick primaries, red, yellow, blue...but when he wakes and blinks to the tactile sensation of sheets tangled in pajama pants and his head pressed to the pillow as if it were there to keep him from flying off the bed, in those very quick moments he thinks back and the colors have gone. Washed out and diluted, spoiling the picture. And then, of course, this whole confusing experience is coaxed out of him by Beverly, who lives by the opinion that the mind is an open map ready to ponder and question, not that he's her son. Not that this might actually be normal.
And then he shrugs it off, because that's what he's learned to do.
So you're telling me that an oversized monster from the domain of popular culture was chasing you through the basketball courts. And what do you think that means, Leonard?
It was the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, Mom. I ate too much candy last night, okay? It's no big deal.
(He doesn't mention that there was a two-man game in progress during that chase: Leonardo versus Leonardo. The artist and the ninja turtle. He'd badly wanted to join in but Stay Puft had been somewhat unrelenting in his lumbering pursuit, and the next thing to happen was Leonard waking up and knocking his alarm clock off the bedside table, so that put an end to things. It's not like he can take a shot to save himself anyway. But for a genius Renaissance man, and a walking, katana-wielding amniote, they weren't half bad. Old Da Vinci for one had a pretty mean lay-up.)
One day, he thinks, he'll give her something unanswerable. Beverly will hold her pen to her notebook but be unable to write. There will be no offhand comments about adolescence, bed-wetting, latent hero-worshipping complexes or delayed development leading to unoriginal thought.
One day he might even surprise her.
[audio tape recording, datestamp 05-22-93; 20:03:00]20:03:01
[auto-transcription ###v.0001 (©1990 MarcoLab Software)]
B: Leonard, please choose a chair before one is chosen for you.
Mi: Yeah, bucket-head.
L: What? That doesn't even make sense.
Mi: You should have seen him, Mom, it was the tub with the coleslaw, they tipped it all over his —
B: Okay, quiet now, I said QUIET please...yes, perhaps you should sit there, Leonard, it's probably more your size. Good, let's begin.
L: That's the doggy bed.
B: Oh. Well, it's an easy enough mistake.
L: [inaudible] easy enough to —
B: This is the Wednesday Focus Group, Hofstadter family residence. Present are Beverly Hofstadter, Marianne Hofstadter, Leonard Hofstadter, and Michael Hofstadter. Now, I have a message from your father. He is sorry he cannot join us this evening but, and I quote, 'hopes the presence of the dog will act as a sufficient proxy' unquote. Well, we can probably expect a similar level of participation, if not quite as vacant a stare. In any case, let us move on...the date, if you would be so good as to make a note, Marianne, is May 22nd, and it's a little after eight o'clock, but now that Leonard has given us his full attention I think we can ignore those lost four minutes and put it down to the self-absorbed momenta of pre-pubescent males.
B: Yes, thank you, Marianne. We should not let the passive aggressiveness of others dictate the tone of our proceedings. Your father might simply find a cold half of the bed when he does eventually grace us with his presence, and that is all I will say on the matter. Now, shall we — yes? What is it, Michael?
Mi: Topic for discussion, please!
B: Certainly. Go ahead.
Mi: Leonard keeps one of Christie Parchetski's hair ribbons in his pencil case, and today I saw him tie it round his thumb and lick the end.
L: What? Were you SPYING on me? You're a dirty, rotten weevil...
Mi: Oh, yeah? Well, you're a love crazy parasite AND an earthworm, so suck on that!
B: Excellent topic, Michael. Now, what we have before us in Leonard as he tries to crawl beneath the furniture — please watch the tablecloth, dear — is a typical example of the adolescent mind unable to reason with sensibility as it is quite literally drowned in hormones —
L: EARTHWORMS KEEP THE PLANET ALIVE!
Mi: OW, CUT IT OUT, NOODLEBRAIN...MOM, HE'S GOT MY — OW!
The words are spoken in a bright, singsong voice, making him jump in surprise. Leonard folds the computer printout in two, shoves it hastily into his notebook and looks across the study cubicles. The dark eyes of Lily Chen meet his gaze with a flutter of amusement. She taps the eraser end of a pencil thoughtfully against her chin and waits for an answer.
"Home studies," he says, trying to be cryptic and failing.
"Yeah, right. We're in the library, silly."
Lily is thirteen, the same age as Leonard, and like Leonard one of the best and the brightest; but she loves everything about it, is almost permanently cheerful and irritably adept at choosing the wrong (or, in this case, right) moment to pull her fellow brainiac from whatever daily bout of family-related pain and introspection he happens to be wallowing in. Today it is his reviewing of last week's family so-called therapy session in order to better prepare for the next. Which just happens to be tonight. His head, that painfully reliable indicator of impending doom, is already starting to ache.
He suspects that Lily knows all of this already. But there's something irresistible about whispered conversations in a room full of other whispered conversations, intersected with the occasional squeak of Miss Cowell's book trolley as it trundles over the carpet, and the giggles of two eighth graders as they exchange kiss-and-tell stories in the shadows of the American History shelves. So he tells her.
"Hmm. Christie Parchetski, huh?" She grins and slides around so they can see each other properly. "I'd say 'in your dreams' but I'm pretty sure you've got that covered already."
Leonard blushes. He does that a lot these days. If he didn't know better, he'd start to think that his own body was turning against him.
"Anyway," he says, drawing out the word in an attempt to change the subject—or, at least, steer it peripherally into less embarrassing waters. "This is the deal, okay? You've gotta help me come up with something intelligent to contribute tonight that will shut Mom up about, well, about sex—" He has to mouth the word, as if the library were some sort of anti-zone ready to swallow him whole for betraying his innocence with three little letters. No wonder he lights up like a damn tomato. "Yeah. So. I feel like I'm in a hole and every time I speak I'm digging myself in a bit deeper."
"Isn't it..." Lily screws up her nose in thought. She spins the pencil on the desk, once, twice, blunt lead and eraser tip lost in a dizzy blur. It reaches the edge and falls to the floor. "Isn't it, like, against the rules for parents to psychoanalyse their own children?"
With a grunt he bends to retrieve the pencil. It's still rolling, and the thrum of movement vibrates very softly against his fingers. "Yeah, but here's the thing. I learned a long time ago that my parents make up their own rules about pretty much everything. There's the United Nations, and there's the Hofstadters. Separate from the government, from society, from justice..." He trails off, feigning wistfulness.
"From sanity," Lily supplies.
He pulls a face at her, which she returns happily. At least he's not blushing any more.
"Well done avoiding the question, by the way."
"Yeah." Leonard tips his head and smiles mysteriously. "It's a gift." He pauses for a moment and then brightens. "Hey, did you like my unsubtle use of the words digging and holes to describe the feeling of going through puberty for no other reason than as a test case for my mother?"
"Me too. Do you think other thirteen year-olds sit around and have conversations like this one?"
"Do you realize that you sound like a parrot right now?"
They collapse into laughter, and every time Leonard tries to stop, something about the face Lily is making has him flushing red again, but then a tutting sound from one of the library aides hushes them quiet, and Lily grins one last time and does a neat shuffle with her Mary Janes across the carpet so that her body and her chair are back where they began, and all Leonard can see are her eyes over the partition wall, framed by dark bangs.
He shoves his chin in his hand with a sigh, and scans the last few lines again, ignoring the twist in his stomach that makes him want to run to the bathroom and bring up his oh-so-delicious cafeteria lunch every time he sees his words reproduced in stupid courier twelve-point font. Previously, on the House of Horrors...
The two girls in American History bend their heads one last time, their laughter a shrill peak of noise that follows them as they scamper out, giggling. Leonard picks up his pen, underlines the words typical example and in his notebook writes inconclusive reasoning, an opinion isn't fact. He doodles at the downward curve of the letter f until it looks like a worm, twisting over the page through college-ruled lines. It feels like he's lived his whole life through those lines. They are constant; filling some strange void left gaping by indifferent parents and the confusion of growing up. And that's about as typical as it gets.
The problem with opinions, he thinks, is that they only seem to matter when they aren't his own.
Lily's still watching, though she's quiet now, and when he doesn't look up she sits back down with the strange sigh of one who has reached thirteen and for the first time met with conflicting feelings for which her brilliance has no answers; and very soon there's nothing but silence.
Dinner that night is hamburgers, done in the style Beverly likes to call molecularly altered, but what is really just very, very well done. He can feel it sit in his stomach, like a lumpen and unsettled beast, as he sits on the couch at seven minutes to eight, waiting for the rest of the family to wander in and for the fun to begin. The pendulum on the ancient grandfather clock swings back and forth; he follows with his eyes until a wave of dizziness forces him to look away. Perpetual motion has always made him anxious, which is really kind of stupid as he's not going to get anywhere in science with the worry that if time were to come to a standstill, right here in the Hofstadter living room, Leonard and all of his teenage years might simply keep on going like a lost soul sitting and waiting on a creaking leather couch, waiting forever because there's no one left but him.
Or maybe he's just nervous. When he braves the clock again the minute hand is nearly at the hour, which means no escaping to the bathroom unless he wants his bladder to become topic of discussion number one. It wouldn't be the first time.
He wishes Marianne were here. But she's back at campus as of yesterday, and they won't see her again until semester break. And he's pretty sure that if he were to mention her he'd get a lecture on coping with separation and some amused disapproval from his mother.
"Oh," Beverly says, sweeping in with an impish looking Michael at her heels. She glances at her watch and raises an eyebrow, looks from it to Leonard; and he expects her to remark on the fact that he's either too early or too on time, or too much in an idle state sitting there doing nothing, but all she says is, "There you are," and takes a seat in the armchair.
"I have a topic." Michael's hand shoots into the air. "Ready, Mom?"
"One moment, Michael. Remember, patience is a virtue."
Beverly crosses her legs and smoothes down an invisible crease on her immaculately laundered blouse. She fingers the pearl droplet at her throat until it sits behind the collar. Never flaunt jewelry, she told her daughter once, when Leonard was very small and had only eyes for candy colors and things he was not supposed to touch; but he must remember the moment, a glance exchanged between the two of them, something kindred and rare, because the way Beverly's hands are moving now causes a twist of sudden and terrible sadness in his chest, and he has to look away so that she doesn't see. And as Michael bounces on the opposite end of the couch, chattering madly about things Leonard doesn't want to know or hear, his father arrives, walking through the door with briefcase still in hand as if resigned to stepping straight from one place of work to another.
And then the old clock is ringing eight o'clock, and it's time to begin.
Here are a few things that Leonard has learned from thirteen years of happy, familial psychoanalysis, while crawling under furniture, while pitching words and wars with his brother:
Metaphysically speaking, there is no center of the universe. And even if there were, no boy, however gifted or well intentioned, could ever think to take that place. That waiting room is full. Don't even bother.
A wet nose and muddy fur is about as close to unconditional...well, not love, but something.
(Okay, it's love. It's everything perfect and what's above and beyond perfect is how he can recite the periodic table to a four-legged friend because he won't be talked over or told to try again, improve and be better—Leonard, if you insist on trailing after atoms, then trail is all you'll ever do—
He's not a leader. He's not. He's three years past a single decade, and to be told he's virtually going backwards? Hurts like a sonofa—)
That Freud has a lot to answer for. Mothers, see, they don't always know best.
Two-year-old Charlie, like most toddlers, is fascinated by anything and everything, but in the big wide world and in particular on this rainy day full of strange people, there is nothing more attention-grabbing than a game called Pull Uncle Leonard's Glasses off his Nose.
"I can't believe how much he's grown."
"Believe me, I can," says Marianne. "This little guy's got the appetite of a lion."
Leonard looks sideways at his sister. Or tries to, seeing as he's currently being pulled in several directions at once. "I—ow...I also can't believe Mom let you bring him along."
She grins. "Well, Sam's a pretty good negotiator. I don't know what it is, but that husband of mine somehow manages to reason with her in a way we never could."
Marianne looks away and nods. He can tell they're thinking the same thing. Her eyes move to the line of cars behind the church. "Anyway. I told him to grab some seats at the back, just in case we have to...you know."
"Make a quiet but dignified exit?"
"Yeah. Screaming all the way." She watches Charlie continue to gargle and squirm in Leonard's lap for a moment longer, then reaches across to rescue him. "Okay, kiddo. I know you're a smart guy, but I don't think you need corrective lenses quite yet." She wrestles the glasses from her son's determined grip and hands them back with a wry smile. "Let's give genetics and a history of chronic short sightedness a chance to kick in first."
She stands up, and so does Leonard. He wrestles with the umbrella. "God, this thing is like a tent. Where did you get it?"
"Actually a very nice drug rep left it at the clinic. Sam says they like to butter him up with pens and promises for a better world."
Leonard raises an eyebrow. "Out of the goodness of their heart, I'm sure..."
"Hey, the cynic appears! I was wondering when he was going to show."
"He's been in hiding because everyone he's ever disappointed is in that church, and he doesn't want to start a world war," Leonard says.
"Please. We're all as bad as each other. Don't start claiming all the childhood woes just yet." Marianne looks at her watch, drops a kiss onto Charlie's nose. "Come on, we'd better go."
He stands by the edge of the canopy, holding the umbrella high. The gallant cynic, the gallant brother. He and Marianne make faces at one another, while the clouds roll and clap, and little Charlie lets out a squeal.
Leonard looks worriedly at the sky.
"Oh...we're going to get it bad."
He's wrong, of course. It's like playing battles around the old yard, running infinite loops around a great tree of a castle with a sword at his heels. Easy to forget that the race never stopped.
when bryan adams turns baroque, you know that something's right
In the months that follow Leonard's sixteenth birthday (no celebration, of course, but he feels compelled for some reason to mark the occasion; so he locks himself in his room and proceeds to build a fully-functional transistor radio while blindfolded, just to see if it can be done), a number of things unfold.
One is his application for the Timothy L. Kinkaid scholarship to study at the Université Paris-Sud in Orsay. He breezes through the interviews but doesn't progress beyond the shortlist. There's only a twinge of disappointment as he quite honestly wasn't expecting to get it, but of course Beverly sees things differently. She makes the suggestion that he sign up for a summer school on professional discipline and self-management, with a crash course on body language thrown in for good measure. (Though why it is made out to be a suggestion is a mystery to Leonard, seeing as the amount of autonomy he has in saying anything other than yes is laughably nonexistent.) Apparently he had come off as too indecisive when asked to rank great achievements in applied physics in the context of the French impressionists. He doesn't bother to argue that a) it had been an offhand question and more of a joke from one of the interviewers, who'd just happened to notice the Make Way for Monet! pin that was on the lapel of his (okay, slightly outdated) jacket; and b) how the hell did his own mother find out something that was supposedly said behind closed doors? Is she operating a clandestine outfit in the school all of a sudden, or sewing microphones into his collars? It's just too hideous to contemplate.
(The pin, not that it matters, is a gift from Marianne, slipped in a card sent from Chicago. She's twenty-three now, a semester away from graduation. Not the first doctor in the family by any means, but the first to live and breathe hospital life. She tells Leonard how she'll be back one day with grants and good faith to do research and cure diseases, but for now she's racing through nights and rounds and surgeons who hate interns. Haven't found my Dr. Ross yet, she'd written. But it's an adventure, little b. Don't tell anyone. Wouldn't want to think I wasn't living up to my great expectations.
So obeys and obliges, and he says, "Okay, Mom," like he's been asked to go put out the trash. It's just easier that way.)
And then there's debate camp. Specifically, the East Coast School Alliance Debate Symposium of 1996. A place where things of life-changing significance never, ever occur.
"I think we're lost."
"Didn't we pass that supply closet a minute ago? I'm sure we did."
"Wait, is this even the third floor? How many stairs did we take? I'm starting to get deja-vu about this whole corridor."
Lily's hand is like a vice on his arm. He winces and spins on both heels to face her.
"Ow! What are you made of, titanium?"
Eyes narrowed, she turns and starts to walk away. Leonard shoves the map into his pocket and jogs to catch up. "I'm sorry," he says. "You're made of cotton candy and you totally got us that win tonight. And we're lost in this stupid dorm because I was...I was, uh, thinking of carbon atoms instead of map reading. There. I've said it. Wow. I actually feel better..."
Lily slows enough so they're walking side by side. When he looks over there's a hint of a smile behind her dark hair. "It's a good thing they made you debate team captain instead of orienteering leader. Because if they did I think we'd have to find new ways to define 'going round in circles'."
"Oh. Well, you know, just on that point, despite its ubiquitous but often incorrect usage in popular culture, the main principal behind what we refer to as deja-vu is actually, uh, actually a scientifically proven state of—"
She folds her arms. The charm bracelet on her wrist catches the fluorescent light. Flashes of silver. It's the only piece of jewelry he's ever seen her wear. "Cotton candy? You're lucky I don't offend easily." Her eyes gleam a little as she sneaks a glance his way. "I was kind of on fire, though, right? Hit them out of the park."
"Out the park and into the ocean, Lil."
He closes his fist and holds it out, grinning. Lily stares at him.
"What are you doing?"
"I, um." Leonard drops his hand. They stop walking and stare at each other. "Don't...don't people do that thing when they've experienced some self-fulfilling proclamation in order to reinforce the mutually co-operative unit? As in, dude, you're a player."
A door at the end of the corridor slams open and shut. Lily looks as if she is about to say something more but instead she starts to laugh. She laughs and laughs and leans into him, hair swinging, one hand reaching gently into his jacket pocket. Her body is warm. "We're lost in a strange dormitory," she says, "in a strange campus, in an even stranger city...at debate camp. Debate camp, Leonard. The only thing anyone played today was at rebuttals and refutations." She grins and tugs at his collar until it's sitting straight. "Just pretend that we high-fived each other like in junior high, and watch me read a freaking map."
If asked, he would claim it came from nowhere, that when it happened he was as surprised and innocent as the prairie wind. There are probably piles of data somewhere in his mother's office from years of planting electrodes on his head every night for what seemed like years to back up this theory. Never mind that the whole undertaking had come from Beverly suspecting him of having an overstimulated hormonal drive because he had somehow gone against his own genes and basically stopped growing in height at the age of fourteen; it's still his own body acting on a wild, unsupported path, far from his mind, and surely far from anything sensible.
At least, that's what Leonard tells himself. He's rather a dab hand at blind flailing and happy self-delusion, actually, so it's not as if he's going to argue against the fact that he's gone and developed a stupid, idiotic, adjective stuffed crush on his best friend.
Oh, this is bad. This so very bad.
He listens as Dexter Goldberg snores gently in the opposite bed, and counts along in his head. One one thousand, breathe in, two one thousand, breathe out, whine and rattle like there's a scorpion tail lodged deep, that's how the song goes, right? Except now he can't sleep. And doesn't want to because of what he might think about.
(Certainly not Lily's hair. Or how her face lights up when she smiles. Or how she doesn't even need to smile, because everything that was ever smart and beautiful and made of utter perfection need only flicker in those dark eyes for some stupid beta blocker to manifest itself in his brain, and okay, look, it's not his fault if his voice broke in the concluding statement and there was his whole team staring at him like he'd grown a fish head and gills...
The thought occurs that this might be the reason why Beverly eventually gave up on her research, and why the file so carefully prepared for her middle son had to be closed and marked incomplete. There was so much preoccupation in knowing that he was lying there, sending pulse waves for eight hours a night, maybe throughout everything he somehow forgot to...forget.
Leonard makes a face in the dark. Forgot to forget? he thinks. My god, the poetry.
Well, really. What does anyone expect? It's not as if he ever claimed to be the ideal test subject.)
Goldberg mumbles something and turns over. There's a moment of blissful silence, and as if to keep it in place, Leonard concentrates deeply, pooling all his focus into the calming simplicity of numbers: three one thousand, four one thousand. He presses his cheek into the pillow, looking for a cool patch and finding none. He can feel something pounding in his head. Battering thoughts, battle axes, cries of angst. Why can't he just sleep? I think she was wearing perfume, five one thousand, oh wow she totally was, that's never happened before has it, six one thousand, is it because of me, did I do something I mean I'm always doing something like that's ever going to change, seven one thousand, can I die from a broken heart I have to tell her soon yes soon no wait what am I thinking I can't I'd have to look into those eyes and oh god this is math camp all over again OH GOD—
"Jesus, Hofstadter. Would you shut up?"
"Eight one thou...sand. Sorry, Dex."
"You're like fucking Rain Man on downers."
"I know." He blinks into the dark. "I know...hey, listen. Was—"
"Yes. Yes she was wearing perfume just for you. Now go to sleep."
As he does, or attempts to, Leonard can't help wondering if it was really the best idea bunking snoring and sleep apnea together in the first place.
Nine one thousand...and that's ten.
But on the plus side, he's at least five hundred miles from Beverly's electrodes.
Of course he says nothing. And he does nothing but work damn hard with the team until they get on a roll, until they start winning. Afterwards, there's the usual geek post game celebration in which everyone sits quietly and a lot of unnecessary analysis is done with a red pen and book binders; and later, over bottles of something patently non-alcoholic (it's hoppy and tastes of bath water, and that's the extent to his knowledge, or as much as he cares) he's just sitting there, nodding vaguely at what Lily is saying, trying to process her voice over the noise of the party.
But the problem is this: the moment he looks at her a little too long, or too meaningfully, everything kind of grinds to a stop, he becomes suddenly fascinated with the position of his glasses, notices the time (it's always late) and makes a hurried escape.
Tomorrow they'll be on a bus, sleeping the long, straight lines of the freeway. Leonard hates bars anyway, especially the ones that seem to act like magnetic meeting points in leafy college towns, populated with a cast of kids in Gap t-shirts and preppy cords. It's too much like home.
Time passes. Bodies turn about and conversations mingle. Someone turns up the music. So tell me what to do now when I want you back, sing 'N Sync, and Leonard, in some sort of Pavlovian response, buries his head in his hands.
"Hey...don't I know you?"
He opens one eye. And then he sits up, very quickly.
"Christie?" The bottle falls from his lap to the floor, smashing quite spectacularly. "Um," he says. Christie Parchetski is sitting next to him. At an end of debate camp party. His brain ticks off an imaginary list with familiar panic. Something's not calculating property. There's a hanging integer. He's still sleeping. There never was a party and he's still dreaming—
"Oh my god...Leonard Hofstadter!"
Her whole face is lit up in a way that's very strangely beautiful. Was she always this pretty? Well, yes, because he wouldn't have spent nearly his entire childhood thinking of a strawberry-blonde ponytail and how she never looked at him like she's looking at him right now.
Or more accurately, looking but not really listening. But her eyes are lined with something brown and velvety that makes them seem absolutely huge, so he smiles back weakly and mirrors her exuberance. "Oh my god...Christie Parchetski!"
As he speaks he makes a brief and unsubtle attempt at sweeping the broken glass away with his shoe. He connects with her bare calf instead.
"Shit," he mutters, blushing. "Sorry..."
He's waiting for the usual reaction—a rolling of the eyes and a sigh of disgust, or worse, pity—but her eyes only narrow as if there's a thought caught inside, spinning its way into an idea. And then Christie's laughing, so he does the same, relief flooding his body, and around about the point where he starts wondering if the question was even directed at him in the first place, he stops laughing and blurts out, "I'm sorry—again—but this makes absolutely no sense at all. Why are you here?"
She grabs his hands. "I told Mark it was you. That's Leonard, I said, he's like, this amazing genius...and I was right! How cool is that?"
"Oh," says Leonard, looking down. The answers still aren't quite meeting the questions, but they're getting closer. Her nails are bright blue. "Um. Very?"
"Yeah. He's on the track team."
Over by the punch bowl, he catches sight of Lily, watching. She mouths something in fake disbelief, hands waving mockingly in the air. He rolls his eyes at her and turns back to Christie.
"Really? Wow, that's...just great." Apropos of nothing, he thinks. But great. Fantastic. Tell me all about your boyfriend and just keep holding my hand.
"Isn't it?" Her lips curl at the edges. She leans forward. There is an imprint of lace at the curve of her breast, black through pale cotton. He tries not to look, but it's like when someone says don't think of a raccoon, all you can think of is a raccoon.
Leonard never ran track because he grew up building robot arms. Sometimes it's better to just say nothing.
'N Sync are still bopping and harmonising away when Christie starts talking about super Mark, how she's going to send all her designs to Nike and Adidas so by the time he's running the marathon at the Sydney Olympics it will be like they're in it together. And at the point where she's got a hand on his shoulder, fingers threading upwards, and is saying something about how she always liked his hair because it reminds her of her poodle Jemima, Leonard is straining his neck to look back to the table, but all he can see is Dex Goldberg swirling a paper cup through the punch and staring in fascination as if it's a white giant about to pull him through the vortex. And Lily has gone.
Christie's hair smells like pot. Pot and whiskey, and he hates that he knows these things scientifically and hates it even more that the combination is such a turn on. Her body is a warm shape that pushes him through a doorway that isn't his and onto a bed that's too soft. A small voice is lecturing him on the dangers of sleeping on a mattress without proper lumbar support, but it's drowned out oh so slightly by the near explosive thud of some great demon of hell's own spawn wanting to break free right there in his ribcage. Several shaking breaths later and he realizes that it's only his heart. It's only his body taking over and it's horribly, insanely embarrassing. He's about to have sex for the first time and he's pretty sure the whole thing is going to end with a six foot track star he's never met but feels as if he knows in every excruciating detail bursting through the dark and punching him in the face. He shouldn't be here. He shouldn't be anywhere near here and he's about to say this out loud but then she pushes a foil wrapper in his hand and when he stands looking at it dumbly she sighs, unwraps it herself, and kisses him sloppily on the mouth. He responds. Or rather, his body responds. He's not naive; he would happily admit to never fully grasping the hows or whys, despite a life's worth of therapy; all he can do is act on instinct and hope it's somewhere close. But maybe he's doing the right thing, or maybe it's his default mode or being pathetic and sweet, because suddenly there's his name in his ear, her fingers threading his shirt and belt undone, and the room and everything in it goes quiet. Somewhere distant, he is aware of movement, the rush and pooling of blood, how close he is. And how, if he could only hold on, this might actually be a mistake worth making.
He doesn't speak the whole way home. Not to apologize, not to make excuses. Lily rests her head on his shoulder, and in her hands are two knitting needles, and they click and tap, holding together a strange pattern that reminds him of fractals and mandelbrot sets. As the wheels eat up the miles he thinks of confessions in libraries. Or of growing up and just wanting to sleep.
Marianne wins. Pregnant and with a two-year-old in tow, she still wins. He's hardly surprised.
"Not fair, you had an advantage," Leonard argues, wheezing a little between breaths as they stand on the church steps. He shrugs off his wet jacket and waves it back and forth. Droplets of rain cling to his hair, pressing it into an unflattering style. That is to say, more unflattering than usual. It doesn't take much.
"Oh yeah? Enlighten me, little bro."
He grins and edges away in preparedness. "Age..."
She splutters and swipes at him. Charlie squeals again. "God damn," she murmurs. "Okay, I'll see you in there."
Leonard watches her leave before turning his attention back to his jacket. It isn't anywhere near dry so he brushes it half-heartedly one last time and puts it on. As he smoothes the cuffs down he notices the indistinct shape his hands make against the fabric, and wonders when it suddenly became so misty.
"It's your glasses, silly."
He looks up, slowly, at the voice.
She hasn't changed. He's not sure what he was expecting. Maybe that's a good thing.
"Doctor Hofstadter." She pronounces each syllable with care, her smile almost shy, and he is reminded almost instantly of her turning about the stage as Francis Flute from A Midsummer Night's Dream, a smudge on her nose and fake beard failing to hide an impish grin because there weren't enough boys willing to swap their skateboards for drama class. Leonard had made a poor Demetrius for many, many reasons, most of them involving walking into set pieces and once, memorably, right off the stage; but Lily had perfect timing, and no fear at all.
He takes off his glasses quickly, wiping the lenses and shoving them back on. And he blinks and starts to say something but finds that she's already stepped towards him, and her arms have fallen about his neck; so he swallows the words and without thinking wraps her impulsively into a bear hug, turning, lifting her feet and her silver heels. He catches sight of them and laughs. She never wore anything but jeans and converse sneakers. It seems absurd and out of place to see her like this.
"Stop staring," Lily says. He puts her down. She brushes a hand over the material. The hemline floats slightly with the movement, skimming her knees.
"Then don't blush like that."
"I'm not blushing."
"Oh yeah?" He fakes a shiver and rubs his arms. "It's really hot out here..."
She pokes him with a sharp finger. "I can still punch you silly, Leonard Leakey."
"I see you cut your hair."
"Well, I got sick of looking in the mirror and being reminded of Mitzy, so." He grins a little, and then as they stand and look at each other, he notices something else. It must show in his face because she flushes for real. She curls the fingers of her left hand, very slightly.
"Hey..." Leonard begins.
Lily finishes for him. "I know," she says.
"You got married?"
"Yeah. Weird huh? Can you believe people still actually do that?"
She's looking at him in a not looking kind of way. And he feels guilty and dumbly inadequate, angry at letting three time zones and his own small obsessions cloud a friendship. Why do these conversations always happen at weddings? Not that he's been to many, but there's a sort of meek predictability clothed in irony that makes him want to revert, as with his sister, to foot races and name calling because he's still just a kid who's scared of change. Change in the form of the ghosts of (not quite) girlfriends past. God help him, for the inescapability is staggering.
There are petals on the ground. Wet in the puddles. He chooses his words carefully. "That's great. Really, it is."
"Thanks." And it seems like she's about to say more but her eyes catch sight of something. She nods over his shoulder, into the church. The place is almost full. He spots Marianne, who gives him a knowing look. Lily ducks her head. "Um, I think we'd better go in."
"This is kind of a...bad day for reunions. I'm sorry." He's always apologizing. Jesus, it's like a goddamn tic. He starts to turn away, and that's when she reaches out with her smaller hand to catch his, and now with what feels like the eyes of the entire gathering on them, Leonard pulls his friend back, kisses the point where her furrowed brow ends and the dark hair begins. It's okay, that's what he wants to say, It's okay, Lil, but he can't because he doesn't want to know why, and he doesn't want to feel it.
This is enough.
May 25th, 1997. At 5:32 pm, in downtown West Orange, Patricia Jane Hofstadter, wife of Floyd and mother to Sebastian, takes a left at the intersection outside her office block and is struck side on by a '92 Ford Explorer doing sixty-one in a thirty-mile zone. She is pronounced dead at the scene.
The driver later claims that she turned out in front of him, however a PDA seized as evidence had logged the date and time; he had been checking his address book at the moment of impact.
In the same year, Seb Hofstadter, aged eighteen, is accepted on a double scholarship to study law and economics at Yale. Mid-July he packs up his belongings and is driven to New Haven by his father.
"I stood by the car, some ways away off the street, watching him go in," Floyd says, sitting out on his brother John's back porch. It's nearing dark, and outside grasshoppers are calling out, sharp and shrill. The two men cradle beers but don't drink. "Couldn't get a spot any closer. It was like every young kid and their family had descended right then and there on that school. So I had to stand there beneath the elms and watch, but then there was this warden coming down the other side, and in the back of my mind I thought, I thought, that's my boy leaving home and I'm worrying about a damn parking ticket. Pat, see, she would've given me a thump on the shoulder, yelled out Seeya, Striker! He hated that name, used to go red all over when she used it in front of his friends."
In the shadows of the kitchen, Leonard stands and listens, unnoticed, to his uncle's voice. And he can hear the tremor, the shaken effort from deep in the man's chest. "She would've probably hugged the warden too, said that's our boy..."
Then it's his father speaking, a low murmur that is not made of words, but the rough-hewn response of one man to another, a hand on the back of the neck, quiet, understood. Private. He feels a quick and sharpened guilt, because he knows that he shouldn't be listening; he ducks his head and steps away, feels for the latch on his bedroom door and kneads his fists into the edge of his comforter. And he swallows and swallows but can't stop the rush of air from his lungs to his throat. Hit her straight, sideways, hit her speeding. Not a chance. He's almost the same age as Seb, but feels as if he is only just beginning to see the brevity of things, and it's cruel, to hate something like his cousin hated a pet name, given to him out of love.
Uncle Floyd, he is told, will be staying in Princeton for a time. When asked how long his mother simply says a while. Her lips make a shape so thin and unreadable that he doesn't press the issue. Apparently Seb wants to drive from Yale and join them for the holidays; he's newly licensed and eager to get some miles under his belt (in between solving the mysteries of campus living...which seem to mostly involve girls, or getting the right invitations to the right sorts of places). There's some argument that Leonard is only partly witness to over the fact that Floyd doesn't want his son anywhere near a car and an icy road in December.
Nobody mentions Christmas because that just isn't done.
Floyd has a generous heart, and it is particularly attuned to the offspring of his absentminded and ever-so-slightly scattered brother. He's a particular favorite of Leonard's, and they always get on well.
Tonight they're watching The Simpsons. The Springfield Elementary school bus, occupied to groaning capacity with members of the Model United Nations, is playing host to a game of 'roll the fruit down the aisle ('cos we're bored)'. Go banana! cries Ralph, full of glee, as Milhouse's grapefruit cannonballs towards the earphone-wearing and perfectly oblivious Otto. Leonard laughs because he can see what's coming, but there's a moment when it starts to feel wrong, when the bus careens out of control and off the bridge, and then it's sinking, fast, and Otto is surfacing with his cassette player, and is carried to the horizon.
I guess this is the end, Wendell, says onscreen Bart, as the kids—and Leonard—watch in stunned silence.
"What a dreamer," says Floyd from the couch.
Leonard takes another handful of cheetos. "Who?"
"I don't get it."
But his uncle merely smiles. For a second or two Leonard thinks maybe he didn't hear him properly, so he just goes back to watching the school bus sink into the ocean, down and down to the bottom of the sea.
Bart is swimming after the trunk of food, the heroic boy, when Floyd speaks.
"Day I met your Aunt Pat, she was dragging a guitar case down the sidewalk. Huge floppy hat on her head, one of those crocheted things, nearly swallowed her whole. We'd always known each other, lived within a couple blocks in the same neighborhood. When I asked about the guitar she said it was her boyfriend's Strat. Surf green, I think that's what the color was. He'd run off west apparently. That was...'75. Yeah, '75. Seems like I only have to close m'eyes and she's still there. With that goddamn hat." And there must be something in Leonard's face, a question at the point of being asked, because his uncle puts down the can of soda and looks him in the eye. "Found out later that guy she'd been sweet on stepped out front of a bus in Santa Monica. He'd thought it was a pickup, out in the back roads somewhere, rolling on by to take him home. I guess it did."
"God," says Leonard. "That's..."
He's not quite sure what else to add, so he thinks for a bit, and then says, "I never knew she could play."
"That's 'cause she couldn't," his uncle says, with a sudden laugh. "Not a lick. Loved her music, though, quiet thing she was. Wouldn't have known it to look at her."
They fall into silence. On screen, the kids are squaring off. War paint and rations. The jungle court. Lisa Simpson, the lone voice of reason in the trial of The Island vs Milhouse Van Houten, the boy who cried wolf.
"Democracy descending into chaos," Floyd says. "That's why I said he's a dreamer, Otto. 'Cause when you're left with nothing, when it's all gone...well. I don't know, but Zeppelin, they sure as hell don't rule."
He takes a breath, but there's a ragged edge to it, and when he puts down his soda can, he doesn't really let go.
"It's just a cartoon," tries Leonard, in a small voice. He's not sure why his brain came up with that. It's kind of obvious; but by then there's a loud voice blasting over the credits, and Mitzy has found his way through a door that wasn't properly closed and is gazing at Leonard with button-bright eyes, tail lost in a happy blur.
Floyd forces a chuckle and picks up the remote.
"I think you're a wanted man, Lenny."
They drop by from time to time, Floyd and Seb, but there's no regularity to anything. January comes and goes, and soon there are Valentine cut-outs being stuck about the place and passed between willing hands. Leonard slips into his well-worn guise of Ignoring It All Man (the most underrated super hero of all time) and when he next sees his uncle, it's a fleeting stop on the way to a conference in New York City.
One day he gets up early, clicks on his desk lamp and unscrews the back of his PalmPilot. In the faint light he takes the components apart and pulls everything out, the plastic case, the wires, the microchip, all of it; shoves it in the long side-pocket of his camouflage pants, and digs out his old bicycle from the depths of the garage.
It's early, Sunday morning, and everyone is still asleep. The house and the world outside seem flat and eerily still. He leans into the pedals, struggling with the effort of pushing the bike into a gear he can actually turn over. He tries not to sigh at the fact that he's supposedly an adult now but can still fit on this contraption with the rusted bell and the squeak in the wheel that no amount of forensic examination or pulling apart with a wrench and oilcan has ever been able to eliminate. With a gentle thud he rolls off the curb, and into the quiet.
The grasshoppers are all gone. They have been silenced by the light, the dew on the neat lawns. He rides the length of Carlyle Avenue, and at every fifteen seconds, he throws a piece away.
By the time the ceremony actually begins, the quartet of string players, physically curtailed into a cramped corner of the church's ante-chamber because of the downpour, have managed to repeat a four piece adaptation of the minuet from Boccherini's String Quintet so many times that it has almost become an exercise in jazz improvisation. Leonard has a feeling that he's the only one really listening to them anyway, but he's having too much fun picking out the cello line under the slightly over-zealous first violin to really care. And really, it's about three thousand times better than listening to his mother instruct Michael on what not to say or do.
As if there's much chance of straying from the page there.
From his position up front he turns around, scanning the faces. Three of his uncles on the Hofstadter side are sitting as a group, looking very much like a row of pawns from a chess set. That is, if chess pieces were made of balding men wearing mismatched suits. Uncle Floyd catches his eye and gives Leonard a happy thumbs up.
Leonard smiles and returns the gesture. So apparently the champagne didn't really stop flowing from breakfast. Well, it's an occasion, after all.
The music ebbs away to a quiet note and then there's just the sound of people coughing and shuffling in their seats. He glances at his father, who is fiddling with the knot in his tie for about the hundredth time. Their eyes meet. John rubs his hands together, and when he sees the look Leonard is giving him, sort of squashes them awkwardly between his knees.
"Are you okay, Dad?"
A nod. It's the most he ever gets, so Leonard shrugs and let's it go.
Nicole is wearing something the wedding planners would probably call not-white or near-white. Maybe bone? No, this is more in the creams. He could name the hex code but that's probably too much information. Something else no one wants to hear.
She looks stunning. Stunning and gorgeous and deserving of every accolade his mother and every upstanding member of the Princeton elite will undoubtedly toast the happy couple's way come the fifth or sixth round of drinks. Well done, Michael, you lucky bastard. Here's to love.
Distracted with the thought, and happy to wallow in self-pity for a moment longer, he's still looking through the crowd as the vows are spoken. He's half looking for Lily and half not. Maybe she never came in. Maybe she was never here in the first place.
With a sigh he slumps a little into the rock-hard pew. It's hard to slump convincingly in a place of worship, but Leonard manages all the same. It's not until the chorus of I do's is over, and there's a not-white (or near-white or maybe-white) train of lace and silk trailing back up the aisle, that he dares to look again. And this time he sees her. Floyd has her trapped in a three-way conversation with Aunt Carol-from-Pensacola, who is wearing a hat so glaringly colorful that it makes Leonard wonder if a peacock had been sacrificed for the occasion.
But Lily is laughing, and his uncle's face is flush and happy.
"Everything all right, son?"
He manages a smile, liking the symmetry of the question, if not the irony that he and his father are choosing the strangest moments to agree.
"I'm getting there."
Across the way, Lily's eye catches Leonard's, and her expression softens. John straightens his tie one last time and stands up, wincing. "These pews really are brutal."
oh honey, they only want you for your mind
The day he decides to leave is the day he first hears his father's voice raised in anger.
These things are not related. But he has to tell himself that more than once, because nobody has the deal on insecurities quite like Leonard.
Fights between Beverly and John were always, for the most part, closed-lipped and cold-shouldered. Really, they could hardly be called fights; it was more a silent battle of wills, like a chess game played out over thirty plus years between two adversaries who thought and acted and spoke almost identically. It was always easy to tell when something had happened, because John would disappear for hours into his study and the talk around the dinner table would stray decidedly towards male insecurities. Beverly might tilt her chin up a little more than usual, pitch her glasses further down her nose so that eye contact was forced at a slight angle, side on, never straight ahead. For Leonard, Marianne and Michael it was like circling a shark...if a shark wore pencil skirts, sensible heels, and its hair in a French twist.
Apparently these things don't change once you grow up, either.
Now the voices rumble through the walls, like something low-pitched and dangerous. A small tidal wave, building from a bubble in the sea. Leonard, who is honing his nerd multitasking skills by simultaneously eating a cheese-free burrito and solving a Rubik's cube one-handed, first notices Mitzy's ears twitch, and then a second later he hears them.
It's not about him, but it might as well be.
He puts on his headphones, listens for a while without really taking anything in, and when things have quietened down he wanders out. In the kitchen, Beverly is making clattering noises in one of the cupboards. She sees Leonard and straightens.
"Good, you're here." She places something on the counter. "Please take that in to your father."
It's a mug. Earthenware, with a wobbly looking handle and raised letters spelling out his name, the blue and white glaze cracked in places over the terracotta base. He picks it up. "Hey, I made this..." He looks at her. "You know it doesn't actually hold hot liquids, right? Or any liquids for that matter."
"No. It holds pens."
He tilts his head, frowning. "Is that what you were arguing about? A lack of receptacles suitable for writing instruments?"
But she says nothing, and goes back to rattling pots. Leonard sighs and takes the mug away.
Time is a strange thing.
Here's the deal: when you're young, the minutes, the hours, seasons, the great span between meals and those important markers of the day, these things are meant to stretch to something resembling forever. And then, at the other end, when you've all grown up and the aches of reality and independence have supposedly wiped all that away, time then dons a pair of stupid wings and damn near flies.
At least, that's what's supposed to happen.
From the moment he'd first opened a book, or pressed a tentative and childish hand to paper, there was a small part of Leonard's mind which had managed to somehow convince the rest of him that all he had to do was to take that first step, just once, and there he would be, finished, graduating, gowned and smiling. The highest accolade and the fittest honor, all of it, his.
Going that extra step is no different. They all expect him to weave his way past his fellow graduates and reach his PhD, and when he does, courtesy of the physics department at Princeton University, just two months shy of turning twenty-four, he honestly feels no different than the day he first dissected a frog or was able to name the chemical reaction that causes a can of soda to explode when shaken. Knowledge is knowledge and a piece of paper changes nothing.
Time is not only strange, but it's a strange and savage burden. Leonard lost the first watch he owned, that heavy, impractical thing lifted from the pages of Dick Tracy. It fell off one day when he was throwing a ball for Mitzy and was never found again. When he becomes Doctor Hofstadter, his parents give him an Omega, but nobody tells him to go forth and make a difference, to forget about science, to live in the world just a bit.
So he makes a joke about James Bond, because anything is better than disappointment, being one, feeling it, either way it's all the same. Michael, holding two glasses of champagne because his academic star of a brother has apparently lost all taste for celebration, is the only one who laughs.
He finds his father staring at a bookshelf.
"Here," he says, "this is for you. Apparently."
"Just put it on the table."
"Don't you even want to know what it is?"
John rubs his chin and contemplates the row of encyclopaedias. "Did you know who wrote the first true compendium?"
"Uh...someone in a toga?"
"Actually yes. It was Pliny. The Elder, to be exact. Now that was a family of intellects..."
"Dad. What's this got to do with anything?"
"Well, when you fashioned that piece of quite unique pottery, Leonard, at the tender age of...of—"
"Yes, six. What you were—really? That young?"
"What you were doing was transferring a part of your mind onto that object. A very tiny part, with every press of your thumb. Just as our Roman historian with his Naturalis Historia. All things are passed on, you see, made permanent. And then left to sit...gathering dust..." He clears his throat and turns around. "Have you made a decision yet?"
John stares back over his glasses, eyebrows raised. Leonard shifts uncomfortably and picks up an eraser, turning it over in his hands like the Rubik's cube.
"I'm thinking Cambridge...maybe, or Brown. Or just sticking with Princeton? Professor Davies was with me all that time and made a compelling case—"
"You shouldn't let other people decide for you, my boy."
"I know that." Leonard puts down the eraser. This room is so goddamn dark. It's always been like this. His father would see the world end before opening a window...
The silence stretches uncomfortably. Leonard crosses his arms and chews at his bottom lip, waiting for the sage advice to continue. John returns to the bookshelf. Eventually he takes a volume down and begins to flick through the pages. It's a typical conversation between them, starting halfway and never quite meeting in any particular place.
Leonard caves first. "Tell Pliny I said hi," he mutters, unable to take the not-talking version of talking any more. On the way out the door, he scoops up a handful of pens from the desk and tosses them at the mug. He lands a ballpoint. The rest fall to the floor.
A week passes. He agonizes over submission forms, references, the fact that he's not entirely convinced that his bedroom won't be turned into a homemade lab full of monkey brains the second he goes. He dreams of a giant pen wearing Roman sandals, sitting behind a huge desk, asking him why lima beans don't just go on strike and refuse to grow in the first place. He loses his glasses and has to wear an old pair from when his corneas were a little sharper and on the ball. He has a headache for three days. And even though he believes in signs about as much as he believes in psychics, Leonard takes this as the gentle prod that it is, makes final lists from the tentative ones, and real decisions from sketched out ideas.
They're mid-town, walking a slightly roundabout route in the vague direction of Carlyle Avenue. Leonard is finishing off the story of his dream, and has gotten to the part where an army of hugging machines rise up from the depths and march him away, Sorcerer's Apprentice style, when Lily asks the one question he's been trying to answer since...well, since he first realized that he could recount the periodic table from memory.
He thinks, silently. He keeps thinking and almost hits a lamppost.
"Hello?" She gazes at him as he untangles himself. "Mars calling Earth. Anyone home?"
"Is it just me, or do those clouds look like rain?"
"Okay." He sighs. "Well, I...look, I don't see what's so bad about continuing what I started. All my connections are here..."
She raises an eyebrow. "All your connections are here," she repeats, slowly. "Wow, Leonard. That's about the most passionate reasoning I've ever heard."
"God, Lily. Give me a chance to speak." He waits for her to concede, which she does, quite sweetly, and then he continues, counting with his fingers as he speaks. "So. Princeton. Brown. There's MIT, of course. Maybe Caltech— although I've yet to get a proper answer from those guys...and then there's Harvard, but that would mean I'd officially become invisible, seeing as Michael's practically put dibs on the whole place—"
Lily stops walking. "Oh my god."
He can't help grinning. "I know, right? It's going to kill me to choose but I kind of like it. All that hard work, it's finally paying off."
"You have to go to California."
She stares at him, eyes wide. "California. Don't you see, Leonard?"
"Cross the whole country just on the off chance that—"
"No. Listen. You just...you just have to do this."
And then he notices. The tears she is blinking away, suddenly, the smile that's not quite there, and before he can say or do anything her hands fall to his face, and then her mouth is on his, and his thoughts are racing and he can't quite match her, but he manages to get a hold of things long enough to clasp her hands and kiss her back, properly. He starts to ask—or tries to—why, why now, when he hears the crawl of tires nearby, the beep of a horn making them jump. She murmurs something against his lips, pulls back, eyes lowered.
"My ride's here."
But she only looks at him, and grips his hand, fiercely, once.
Leonard lets her go.
In the end he does exactly what he was warned against. Decisions aren't the be all to everything. There's plenty he can make on his own. There's plenty he already has. He dials area code 626, and asks for Professor Finkelday.
On the drive home from the wedding, John is particularly quiet. Normally one to take his time on the roads, Leonard always remembered having to forcibly stop himself asking his own father to speed up so they wouldn't be ice ages late to his cello class, math club, or whichever after-school special happened to be the order of the day. And it's no different now. The fact that he's dealing with separate cars just adds to the unhappy knowledge that this is how it's always going to be from now on; different car, different parent. He might as well be back in Pasadena for all the togetherness that's happened so far on this trip home.
"Do you think he'll change?" Leonard asks, looking out the window at a busload of elementary schoolkids, filing out in twin lines and holding hockey sticks and pucks.
They slow at a red light. "Michael. Your son who just walked down the aisle, remember?"
John glances across. His mouth tweaks a little, the patriarchal frown.
"Sorry," Leonard says, automatically.
"What do you mean by change?"
"Well..." The lights turn green. Leonard shifts uncomfortably in his seat. "Did marriage change you?"
As soon as the words leave his mouth he knows that he should have stuck to the weather, or at least some mundane statistical findings from the latest anthropologist journals (had he actually read up on them on the flight over instead of Steig Larsson, the latter being a little more attention grabbing at forty thousand feet). But no, he has to start conversations straight from the transcripts of his own therapy.
Fortunately though, and predictably, his father is silent for the next two blocks. The engine rattles through each gear change and after a while Leonard risks a glance at the mileage counter. It's a string of digits that puts him in mind of fresh-from-the-GIMP-computer prime numbers, so he looks away again, quickly.
They turn into Carlyle Avenue to find there are several cars already parked by the house. They're the last ones home.
He'll be back in his old room tonight. One family dinner, minus the newly weds, who are on their way to Ireland for a honeymoon among grass and sky and Trinity College, and then he, too, will be flying away. And it's too soon. He knows this by the fact that he'd barely finished congratulating his own brother before he'd realized that he was also saying goodbye. Or promising one of his oldest friends that he'll call, of course, yes, he'll keep in touch. Because that's what he does. Good old Leonard, able to love his family when the word was never said.
John Hofstadter switches off the ignition, the car stills, and he says, "No, but my children did."
the elephant in the chair
"You've made the right decision, Leonard. The right decision. Ours is one of the best post-doctoral programs in the country, and I say that as a scientist foremost and fully, not just because I want the brightest minds on the team, if you may permit the sporting metaphor. Exciting things are happening and I think you'll make a great contribution to the field."
He holds the phone and listens, occasionally making noises of agreement, while on the other end Finkelday keeps talking, his enthusiasm for physics, the merits of extended daylight savings, banana chia muffins and inter-departmental golf days interspersed with bad jokes and promises of a car space should he want one. These are apparently hard to get. Finkelday, as he tells Leonard, only got a spot of his own when one of the more decrepit members of the board—who was something like eighty-two and had a more iron-clad grasp on the direction of the institute than Rupert Murdoch and the entire syndicated media—concluded his welcoming remarks to a group of new graduate students by keeling over dead. And this is the point where Leonard suspects some exaggeration of coming into play, but as it's his future and kind of important, he doesn't comment.
"That's great, Professor," he says instead, wincing a little at his own sycophancy. "I won't let you down."
Beverly, entering the hallway, pauses and watches her son hang up the phone.
"Leonard, it is best not to make promises you can't keep."
He looks back and folds his arms. Beneath one hand, through the logo telling him to Just Do It, he can feel his heart thud.
"I know, Mom."
Later, when he starts to pack, he finds that all his shirts have been ironed and every sock paired and folded away. Mitzy sits at the foot of the bed, panting quietly. Leonard scratches him behind his collar, and as a goodbye, gives him his college sweater to chew on.
Beverly is not so much a considerate driver as an indifferent one. He's used to it, of course, but he would have thought to be taking a son to the airport and seeing him off to the other side of the country might have warranted some sort of conversation beyond the occasional disparaging remark on the traffic, or what a poor choice it was to have skipped breakfast. Leonard doesn't bother explaining (or is it defending?) what it is to have nerves, or actual feelings, or a faint, stomach-churning apprehension that the pursuits of science and running away from one's family are really just the same thing. So he grits his teeth and counts the fraying threads in the sleeve of his old hooded jacket.
They are on the freeway and heading towards Newark, when something odd happens.
"I am experiencing a recollection," Beverly says, out of nowhere.
Leonard frowns. "A good one, I hope?"
"Mmm. An incongruous one. It was the time when you...broke something."
"I broke a lot of things, Mom. You might have to be more specific."
"It was your cello."
He makes a sound of agreement without actually replying. A glance at his watch tells him that there's every chance he'll have to sit waiting for at least two hours with her while the United check-in clerks do their best to mislabel his luggage, so he's probably going to have to decipher whatever cryptic code this is. Beverly Hofstadter doesn't do nostalgia. She studies its implications and writes long papers on it.
"Or did the cello break itself?" Beverly muses, thoughtfully.
He tries not to sigh out loud. "Is that a...philosophical question?"
"No. It's a piece of wood and some strings. Pay attention, dear."
"Right. Sorry. But, you know, that's kind of an unfair generalization. I feel like I should be defending all of cello-kind when you say things like that."
"So speaks the ambassador whose feet could not reach the ground." She pauses. There is definitely something odd in her voice, something off kilter. Leonard massages the bridge of his nose. This is going to be one long goodbye. And he doesn't even get to be all noir about it, damn his privileged, Nike-branded upbringing and his Clark Kent glasses. "You used to sit there, legs swinging, with that bow..."
"Are you okay? You sound strange."
"It's a long way to fall."
Twenty-four years, and she's choosing this moment to make analogies that might actually reveal some maternal instinct? Leonard stares blankly out the window. There are ten frayed threads on his left sleeve, and nineteen on his right. He worries one with a fingernail. Make that thirty altogether.
"It's California, Mom," he says quietly.
Beverly turns on the indicator, looks once at her son, at his hands all twisted and caught. They say nothing more.
This will be the third awkward parting that he's had in the space of five hours. First, early, it was with Marianne as she piled belongings into her battered Volkswagen for the trip to Boston and her boyfriend, Sam. Siblings parting ways; she'd cried and he'd stood there and allowed himself to be hugged. Then there was Michael, towering over his older brother by a permanent and perpetually unfair eight inches, sending him away in what felt like the vice-like grip of Captain America.
And his father's hand, a firm shake with a grasp he'd never really known before, still inked from the morning crossword.
"Well. Goodbye, Leonard."
He looks into her eyes. Maybe there's something there, maybe. It's hard to be sure, airport departure lounges not normally being conducive to intimacy.
Beverly looks back. No, he thinks. There's nothing.
Leonard coughs. "Um..."
She is holding his laptop case. He's not sure at what point she'd ended up as its keeper, but it's a strange day so he doesn't question it. He uses the excuse of taking the strap to turn away, and watch the flash of beige as Beverly, in her (serviceable, sensible) trench coat, stays quite still, head tilted very slightly. And because he can't decipher the impossible, he doesn't try. "I'll miss you all."
It's raining over Colorado. At least, it is according to the weather channel, but it's difficult to tell, since he sleeps most of the way, and when he wakes up briefly to blink at the tiny screen, everything's a blur.
In the bathroom, legs splayed to counter the turbulence, he catches sight of his reflection and imagines himself a zombie. On Mothers' Group nights, when Beverly was baking, Michael would steal flour and toss it over his face. What followed was yet another game in which Leonard had to run away from something. Leaning forward, he stares, unblinking. He had figured a good ten years would pass before he'd feel that sort of loss. He hadn't figured being wrong so soon.
The flier says whistlers need not apply. He's heard of the name, of course; and heard the stories. But so far California has offered nothing but sunshine and smiles, and possibly the best burger he's ever eaten. Professors Finkelday and Siebert have already shaken his hand and practically offered him the entire place at his disposal (although some generous recent funding may have boosted that welcome). And if there's one thing about blind optimism, it makes it easier on the whole to put his faith in the fact that this man with the economical but worryingly exact turn of phrase might just have a whimsical side. Because he doesn't need weird. He'd like something normal, if it's not too much to ask.
Besides, they're both scientists. He figures that's got to be as good a place as any to start.
Pasadena, as it turns out, is easy to navigate, and he finds North Los Robles and number 2311 without too much trouble. The building itself is reassuringly nondescript. In the foyer he's almost run over by a guy his age carrying what appears to be his every worldly possession, who responds to Leonard's hello with a wide-eyed, cryptic warning. Run away? It's taken him twenty-four years to muster up the resolve to come this far; turning tail not a week into his new life seems a bit of an overreaction.
The door to 4A opens before he's finished knocking. He couldn't have run away even if he'd wanted to.
"Um." Grand speeches and overtures to scientific kinship disappear in a flash, morphing into one tongue-tied syllable. He holds a hand out. It isn't taken. "I'm Leonard Hofstadter. I called you about the apartment...?"
He's looking at eyes that don't blink or meet his own. And he has to look up, too, for this man is tall and built of nothing. Perhaps this is how it will always be, that he is fated to live amongst the strange, gangling creatures of the world. But it's genius reaching out to genius, he can see that without question; and when his eyes stray through the gap and he recognizes the scrawled evidence of so many equations written over and over on a whiteboard, and knows them because he understands not just what they are, but why it is suddenly so important, a great giant leap, that he make a home of this place.
Picard versus Kirk. The sixth noble gas. Passing the first barrier to roommate-hood. He has answers to these. He's pretty sure he can handle the rest.
Dr. Cooper nods and steps aside. "You may enter," he says, with the logical acceptance of one who has seen all he needs to see, and requires nothing more.
And that is exactly what Leonard does.
Ten years, nine months, and near to five hours later, he is doing the same thing. Except here it's dark, it's late, the room is empty, and on the whiteboard by the kitchen are a whole new set of numbers. He drags his luggage inside and stares at the formulas blankly, trying to work out where they begin and where they end, but the only thing his mind can settle on, and it's stupid, really, is that someone is trying to unlock the universe, and that someone isn't him. So he gives up.
And then he spots a note, stuck to the fridge:
I ORDERED YOU EGGROLLS AND DUMPLINGS. I HAVE PLACED THEM IN MY CERULEAN TUPPERWARE CONTAINER BECAUSE THERE WAS NO SPACE LEFT IN YOUR HALF OF THE REFRIGERATOR. AS WE BOTH KNOW THAT AIRPLANE FOOD HAS THE NUTRITIONAL SUSTENANCE OF THE TRAY IT WAS SERVED IN, YOU MAY IN THIS INSTANCE BREACH RULE 23E REGARDING THE USE OF THE MICROWAVE OVEN AFTER 9PM. IF YOU ARE READING THIS BEFORE MIDNIGHT, THEN I SUPPOSE A THIN SLIVER OF MY FAITH IN THE DOMESTIC AIR TRAVEL INDUSTRY MUST BE GRUDGINGLY RESTORED. THE WRIGHT BROTHERS WOULD BE SO PROUD. ALTHOUGH THEY WOULD LIKELY BE CONFUSED AT THE NOTION OF THERE BEING A SO-CALLED BUSINESS CLASS TO CATER FOR THE MINDLESS DRONES WHO ARE ABLE TO MAKE MONEY OFF THE TRADING FLOOR DESPITE HAVING NO IDEA OF THE MATHEMATICS BEHIND THEIR WIDGITS AND APPS, BUT THAT THERE IS NO EXTRA LEG ROOM FOR THE LEADING LIGHTS OF THE SCIENTIFIC COMMUNITY. IT IS A TRAVESTY OF OUR TIME.
I FEEL COMPELLED TO ASK WHO CAUGHT THE BOUQUET, BUT AS I DO NOT CARE FOR GOSSIP, PLEASE BE SATISFIED WITH WELCOME BACK.
Leonard stands there, staring at the neat, block letters. He is contemplating something. It feels as if he is reaching in and retrieving a thought that has lain dormant for a very long time. After a moment he takes out his phone. Home safe, he writes, and presses send.
The text goes out to his father.