"I didn't know Manchester had a textiles programme."
Ann had been idly watching people mill around the exhibitors' hall of the Northern Britain Industrial Materials Conference, hoping no one had any complicated questions about the various displays at her booth. Mostly it was other students, like the ones she'd been out with the night before, with a smattering of recruiters and industry professionals. She'd noticed the person before her wandering around earlier, looking a little out of place as they stopped and talked to some of the other exhibitors.
"Oh yes," she managed, hoping Marcus would be back soon with the mountain of chips he'd promised, so that she could try and quash her hangover with suitable applications of greasy carbs. "The whole Materials Science programme is internationally renowned – best in the EU, certainly."
"Oh, brilliant!" The person - Ann wasn't quite sure if she was talking to a man or a woman – smiled. "I'm an artist, you see, and I'm trying to find some place that can help me with some materials for a commission." Their eyes strayed to the display for Marcus's doctoral project, the three dimensional knitting machine. "See, that sort of thing, that would be perfect – I need it to be seamless, so it will work with the lighting properly – but the material itself needs to meet certain specifications too..."
Ann nodded, returning a blank smile. An artist – well, that explained a lot: the hair, the clothes, the appearance of being out of place. The project itself seemed, well, a bit poorly conceived, at least, but that may have been the hangover speaking. If she weren't feeling so bad, she might have tried to pry out a few more details.
Her lack of enthusiasm must have been apparent, as the artist trailed off, deflating a bit and running a hand through their hair. "Ahh well. There is more to it, but maybe this isn't the place. Have you got a card? Or one for someone at the uni, maybe?"
"Here. This is me. If you contact the lab it would be run through me anyway, so drop me a line and I can pass it on. There is quite a lot of different research going on, I can't make any promises..."
They took the card, glancing at the name. "Cheers, Ann. Lindsay Vale." Lindsay – the name was no help – offered a hand, which Ann took and shook on autopilot. "I'll be in touch."
Ann nodded again, feeling a mite guilty, for poorly representing her institution, or being rude, or something else she wasn't sure of. "Cheers."
"You too." Lindsay tucked away the card and smiled again, this time with a mischievous gleam in their eye that seemed more natural than their earlier cautious professionalism. "You know artists just drink constantly, that way we never have a chance to get hung over."
Ann snorted, but Lindsay had wandered away before she could think of anything clever to say, and there wasn't much left to do but sink down into her chair and pray for Marcus to return with her lunch.
Half an hour later, Marcus had yet to reappear and wasn't responding to her texts. Ann was starting to get annoyed, on top of hungry, thirsty, and hung over. At least she didn't have to use the loo yet. Probably she didn't have enough water in her system. She was considering trying to flag one of the hotel's staff to watch the booth for a few minutes so she could at least grab some crisps when she noticed Lindsay again, not passing through the displays aimlessly, but heading much more purposefully through the afternoon crowds. And carrying a greasy looking paper bag and a Venti from Starbucks. Lindsay was headed her way, Ann realized. She sat up a little in her chair.
"I brought you something, love. You looked such a wreck, I couldn't help myself. Here."
Ann had almost decided that Lindsay had to be a bloke – too confident, maybe. But now that he or she was here again, she was unsure again. Lindsay's cheeks were too smooth to be shaved, she thought, and the loose waistcoat could easily be hiding a smallish chest. The makeup, subtle apart from the eyeliner, didn't actually help decide things either. Ann was a mess at makeup herself, but she knew it could be used to perform magic – to cover a world of flaws, or even change the whole shape of your face. She pulled her eyes away from Linsday's face and down to the bag – a mountain of chips – now sitting on the table.
She hesitated briefly. It was one thing to take pity food from a friend, and another from a total stranger. But she was starving, and Marcus, she guessed, had probably fallen victim to his own hangover and passed out in the room. And they were here, looking greasy and delicious. "Cheers," she said hesitantly, trying to show some kind of restraint by not shovelling a handful of them into her face immediately. She took one to start. It was amazing.
"And black coffee. Which I hate, but there's nothing better."
Ann nodded, her mouth still full. She liked coffee, but preferably with a gallon of cream and a cube or three of sugar. She swallowed, and went for another chip. Lindsay seemed to be sticking around. Fair enough then.
"Well, now that you've been a real dear and brought me food, can I be terribly rude?"
Linsday, who apparently had brought more than just chips and was flipping through a sketchbook, quirked an eyebrow.
"Uh, are you a bloke?"
"No." Lindsay smirked.
"A girl, then?"
"No – I don't really think of myself that way at all. It's very freeing, for me."
Ann hesitated over her chips. She knew about transsexual people, of course, who might not look like whatever gender they said they were, but she'd never met anyone who claimed to be neither. Lindsay had taken a seat on the edge of the table, apparently unperturbed by Ann's curiosity. But... they? Must get it a lot, she figured. "Er, how does that work, then?"
"I used to find it hard, and confusing, but it's easier to be weird if you're an artist. I mean, that's not why, though, it's not just a gimmick, though I'm sure that's what some say. But I think it comes from the same place, for me – I've had to create myself in a way I can be happy with. There's artistry there, in that transformation. Everything else is easier, comparatively." Lindsay pause a beat, smirking again, and stealing one of the chips. "Or is that not what you meant?"
"I guess... I don't really know what I meant." She felt embarrassed, and wasn't entirely sure why. "I mean – what do I even call you? Well other than Lindsay..."
"I'm partial to zie – zie brought zir sketchbook along to show Ann zir sketches. If you're not too knackered after the room closes down, maybe we could meet up?"
"To talk about work," Linsday offered, slipping back into a more professional tone, though Ann wasn't sure if she imagined a hint of disappointment. "I need someone to tell me if this really is impossible. I don't believe it."
"Alright." Ann smiled, accepting the book as well as the chips and coffee. Maybe by tea she'd be feeling more human. She found that didn't want to disappoint Lindsay. "I have to pack up, and it seems like I'm on my own, so..." She considered – she'd probably want a chance to freshen up a little, and change into something more casual. "Maybe seven?"
Lindsay nodded, smiling again. "I'll find someplace nice for us to go, away from the crowds, and meet you in the hall. Cheers again." With that, zie hopped down off the table and slipped back off through the crowd. Anne found herself watching until zie passed through the doors on zir way out.
The coffee helped Ann survive until Marcus turned up around three. He did bring more chips, along with profuse apologies for falling asleep, but she ditched him to work the booth alone in favour of taking a nap herself. Despite being utterly knackered, she found it hard to fall asleep immediately, and wound up flipping back through Lindsay's sketches. She'd glanced at them earlier, when things were quiet, but only enough to have a general sense of the designs. Now she paid more attention to the accompanying notes. Some were more impressionistic things about lighting or colour or other more artistic aspects, but there was an attention to the mechanics of design that she wasn't expecting to see: notes about material weights, load calculations, sketches specifically of mounts and other more technical matters she never considered part of an artistic process. There were also some other business cards tucked into the pages that she recognized as other exhibitors at the materials fair – some for companies Ann knew to dabble in textiles, but others for things like carbon steel and things that would be more useful for creating the framework zie had sketched...
The sketches in the book were mostly of the same piece, she guessed, but there were other drawings that seemed more random. Some she couldn't decide what they were supposed to be, or if she might have them turned upside down, or if maybe it was just sort of like those drawings of stairs that went in all directions, including into themselves. There were a few things that were more representational, drawn in a more shaky hand – Ann wondered if they were done on a train, maybe. Lindsay's card claimed zie was based in London – had zie come up just for the Materials Fair? She supposed it would be convenient. And she could ask later. After a nap. She set the book aside, and tried to make herself comfortable...
Her phone alarm rang at quarter past six, dragging her out of a dream of walking along the seashore with someone she couldn't quite remember. She staggered out of bed, bleary-eyed and starving, trying to remember what she was getting up for. Marcus had apparently come back to the room at some point – she hoped after the display room closed – and dropped off his things before going out again. She'd text him later, after dinner, to see where the rest of the MU gang was. Thankfully, it would be someone else's turn to man the booth tomorrow and she could sleep in without too much. Dismissing the idea of a quick shower, she dressed, cleaned herself up, and headed downstairs with the sketchbook and a notebook of her own. Lindsay, she expected, would not be hard to spot.
Lindsay had also changed, and was wearing a gray jumper over skinny jeans. A wide-banded silver watch added a nicely masculine touch. Zie'd also redone zir makeup with a hint of purple around the eyes, matching the highlights in zir hair, and a bold purple lipstick as well. Zie was texting, or maybe playing some kind of phone game, looking up every so often, and smiled when zie saw Anne.
"Oh good – that was a bit of a gamble, leaving my book. Thank you." Zie slipped zir phone into zir back pocket, taking back the book and flipping through it briefly. "Do you like curry? There's a nice fish place too. Unless you're veg?"
Curry was not something she quite felt up to after last night's dinner and associated binge drinking. "Nah, not veg. Fish would be nice, I think?"
"Great. It's not far, if you don't mind a walk? It's a bit chilly, but not too bad."
"A walk would be fine, get some air and all. What's the name of the place?"
"The Golden Grid. Would you mind telling me more about your programme on the way?"
Ann did not – having something to talk about made it easier to ignore her nerves. She sent Marcus a text telling her where she was going, adding 'with a conference friend' after a moment of hesitation. That was perfectly normal – going out for dinner with a new colleague of some sort. Ann knew she was being silly. She was a grown woman, and it was perfectly okay for her to want to go out on a date with an interesting new person. She didn't have to justify it to anyone, not even herself. It was just dinner, and at least partly business, at that. She took a deep breath, launching into the spiel she'd been too tired to give that afternoon. Lindsay listened.
The conversation over dinner was more two sided – Lindsay explaining a bit more about zir background and zir project, Ann talking about her own projects dealing with industrial textiles and polymer fiber structures. She couldn't quite trace when it turned personal – maybe towards the bottom of the bottle of white, but she found herself pushing the parsley garnish around on her plate with the back of her fork idly, talking about how she'd first gone to uni to get away from her family, and how maths and engineering always just seemed easier to understand, for the most part.
"The problems are generally solvable. Not always, but you can usually figure out something that will work for what you need. Create something new, even. People..." She laughed, looking across the table, wondering how this would sound to someone like Lindsay, and wondering what she even meant by that. "People are complicated. I mean. I do like people, generally, but they're harder to fix and redesigns are generally frowned on."
"Oh I know all about that." Lindsay smiled, leaning in. "It's not impossible though, we hold ourselves back more than anything. But I like the complexity, the mess. The things you can learn about yourself, about who you are, who you were. People are complicated. We're always changing, with every new experience. We're more like... designs in flux. We're too dynamic to be fixable."
"Nice." She raised a worryingly empty glass to the pun. "So, what are you trying to change right now?"
"I don't know. That's not a joke, I should clarify. But how do you feel about this dinner? Not the food, but the experience?"
"I don't know either. It's not just... professional, is it?"
Lindsay considered, taking a sip of wine. Zie almost seemed nervous, which was fair enough as far as Ann was concerned. She was definitely nervous. "Not just, no. I feel like... We've hit it off today, very well."
"You're very charming."
"Thank you, but that's not everyone's reaction, you know." Lindsay elaborated when Ann lifted her eyebrows. "Oh, I'm pushy, and presumptuous, and just plain weird, I hear. I've just had enough of being scared to be myself. Our worlds can change so quickly, sometimes – if you meet the right person, say – there's no point in holding back."
"How do you know if someone is the right person, though?"
Lindsay paused for a moment, then laughed again. "You're risking me getting very philosophical. Can I blame the wine? I mean....the right catalyst. What the reaction is, though – whether it's good or bad – you can't always foresee."
"Are you looking to... be catalyzed?" Ann wondered how she could deliver the line without blushing, but she was sure the wine had already gone to her face. It probably wouldn't be noticed... Lindsay gave her a saucy grin.
"Oh, always." Zie sobered up a little before continuing. "But really... yes. Not as an innuendo, though, or not always. I do fancy you, but I try to be a little careful. Not being scared doesn't mean I have no limits."
Ann nodded slowly. She wasn't sure, really, if she was trying to pull, or if she was just playing – it was one of the reasons she didn't usually flirt much. "That's fair. You know, with catalysts, the reaction is often irreversible. Sometimes you wind up with something that's a lot harder to change than you'd intended..." She was thinking of her own work now, with polymers, and tilted her head. "That all said, I think I might have an idea for your project."
Lindsay blinked, apparently as surprised by this sudden development as Ann. "You do?"
"Well, I have an idea, not a solution, and I should probably think it through when I'm a little more sober, which is definitely not now. It will need some testing anyway."
"Would it be an excuse to see you again, then?"
"I hope so – I could do lunch tomorrow, if you like? That should give me a little time to think through things."
"Then I will look forward to it very much."
Lindsay had walked her back to the spa – she decided against going out to meet up with the rest, and sent Marcus a text to let him know. She'd gone to bed early, and slept well until about three when Marcus stumbled in loudly with some girl she didn't recognize. Ann just managed to keep them from having sex in the bed besides hers, but only by redirecting them into the loo. She still felt better in the morning than she had on the previous day.
She skipped a few of the morning sessions, grabbing a quick coffee with her friend Gemma to catch up on the last year and bounce around some ideas about the textile she was thinking of for Lindsay. Really, if she could get it to work how she wanted, it would be quite marketable. By the time lunch rolled around, she was feeling more confident about the theory. Whether or not it could be put into practice effectively was another matter.
Lindsay met her in the lobby again, politely offering zir arm as they headed down the steps of the spa, and Ann only hesitated briefly before accepting. They were about the same height, but she somehow felt better that Lindsay was at least a little taller. It was one of many little stray thoughts she'd had in the past day that made her want to snatch it out of the air and examine it until she understood where it came from. Lindsay smelled nice too, but that was somehow less confusing.
They chatted on the way to a CAMRA local pub that Ann suggested, having heard good things from Gemma that morning about their lunches, and looking forward to a pint. There was something about a good beer that lubricated scientific thinking, she found. Lindsay agreed, saying that it worked similarly for the artistic process. They kept things light until they were settled, talking about their mornings – Ann giving a brief rundown of the topics she had attended, Lindsay enumerating a few of the other vendors zie had talked to about sourcing other materials for the project.
"I have done a mock-up, you know. It isn't just the sketches. It doesn't travel well though. It's about one to five scale, and I don't have a van anyway. I do have some video though, if it would help – I don't know how clearly I explained it yesterday."
"Well, I don't know how well I remember your explanation either – something about wine?"
"I told you – you've just got to drink more regularly and it won't go so badly to your head." Lindsay smirked. "I suppose you may not have as much to drink about as your average artist?"
"Oh, we drink regularly, I assure you, especially when we're working on something tricky. I am a graduate student still, you know! I just can't do the big piss-ups like I used to, and I'm sure that's half what these conferences are for."
"Well, fair enough then. Here." Lindsay handed over zir phone, with a video file cued.
Ann could make out Lindsay's voice in the background, but the file was too quiet and the pub too noisy for her to hear all of the recording. After a minute or so, a fan started as well, to simulate the effect of the wind, drowning out even more of the sound. It was easier to understand, looking at the model, why Lindsay felt so strongly about the issue of the seams. Shadows from the interior structure moved around the fabric of the mock-up, and even the almost invisible lines of stitching were enough, with the extra fabric, to distort the sharp lines of the forms and figures into something that made less.... well, not sense. But that lacked a sense of continuity, or contiguousness. She imagined that it would otherwise be even more hypnotic, and only managed to look away when the barman set down her lunch – the turkey sausages smelled strongly of sage, and she hoped Gemma hadn't led her astray.
"How big is it going to be?"
"If the engineers I was talking to this morning are correct about the steel they were trying to sell me on – I'm hoping for the peak to be about, hmmm... 9 meters. There's a building I'm trying to match, for the height, and I haven't got a straight answer yet. But it's around nine or ten, I'd say? Maybe I should just go for then – that's what I guessed for the mock-up. It won't hurt to be a little taller."
"And you're just going to build this yourself, once you get everything together?"
Lindsay laughed, zir eyes sparkling. "Oh no, not at all. I have a workshop, with assistants that I pay all proper like. Though this is the first thing I've made that's quite this large. I admit, it is a little daunting, even for me. But it's in my head now, I'll be wrecked if I can't get it done, and get it right."
"Well, I did say, I had an idea. It's not all worked out yet, but I told you that one of the things my research group has been working on is developing new polymerized fibers, right? We might be able to work out a way to join the edges of the fabric chemically – use a catalyst to get them to bond. There would have to be some overlap, but it would be very minimal, essentially seamless, and I don't think there would be any visual evidence. It would be bound at a molecular level, so it would be quite strong. The other things you would need – to be heat and light and weather resistant – should be relatively easy. If we start with something like an acrylic, or even polyester, before it is treated, it could be very lightweight and have the kind of translucence you were talking about yesterday. There are all kinds of other tested treatments that can provide extra durability, and even different finishes – if you wanted to give it a bit of a sheen, say." Ann paused. "I would offer to show you my notes, and I suppose it would be only fair, but it is very technical and some of it draws on other research from the lab that I really shouldn't be sharing."
Lindsay was smiling thoughtfully – probably trying to sort out all exactly what she'd meant. "That does sound very promising." Zie leaned in across the table, after taking a long sip of beer. "Now – how do we proceed from here?"
Much of the rest of lunch was spent discussing logistical matters, but there was only so much that could be worked out at this juncture – Ann didn’t really have the authority to go any further at this point, but she could at least fill Lindsay in on what to expect, vis a vis contracts and timetables.
"I suppose I'm lucky you've taken a personal interest, then."
Anne shook her head, blushing a bit. They were nearing the bottom of their second pints, and it was time to either commit to having a third or finish up and head back to the conference. The food had been quite good, despite her initial concern over the sausages, and she didn't feel like getting up quite yet. She also wanted more than just business, and hoped Lindsay did as well. She wasn't looking to rush things now any more than she had been last night, but it would be good to be clear. "Well... if it's too personal, someone might deem it a conflict of interest, you know." She grinned, she hoped playfully. "Wouldn't want anyone to think you were just using me for cheap access to my genius."
"I hope you wouldn't let me undervalue you! And it's not just your genius, if you're worried about it – though I certainly appreciate it. I like that it is part of who you are, not, or at least not just, that it's useful to me. You're lovely, and I enjoy talking to you, and I'm excited that you're interested in my art, and me, and that you don't think I'm just some weirdo. I mean, I know I'm a weirdo, but I like to think I'm a little interesting, at least."
Ann grinned again at that. "I admit I don't really understand, and it's odd for me... I'm not the type to moon over blokes, I've never really gone for girls at all. I've always had other things to worry about. I still do, really, but... I don't know. I'm glad I've met you, I hope I can help you out, and that I can maybe see more of you. I think I'd be disappointed now, if... well, if these few days were all there was. Happy to have had them, though."
Lindsay was quiet for a moment, thoughtful, and then reached zir hand across the table, palm up, offering. "Would you like to go for a walk, Ann? I haven't been to the shore yet, and I hear it is the thing to do in Scarborough."
Ann knew that her advisor would be annoyed if she blew off the entire afternoon. There were a few other students from her programme giving papers around three, and she really should be in attendance. But she had some time, surely... "It's a little chilly at this time of year, isn't it?"
"It might be," Lindsay conceded, smiling as Ann place her hand in zirs, "but it is still the sea."
They spent an hour walking along the strand, talking about all sorts of things – about themselves, their families (Lindsay had a younger sister, she learned), their lives, their dreams. It was enlightening. Lindsay was so easy for her to talk to, even though the more she learned, the more she knew in her gut that whatever they had, it could only be, as all things seemed to be with Lindsay, transitional. But there was a certain peace in that.
"I think, what I want," she said as they meandered their way back to the spa, "when I've made a million pounds off of brilliant materials patents, is to buy a little cottage somewhere – maybe in the Netherlands. I saw a picture of this cute little farm on a polder somewhere, surrounded by all these canals and windmills. It just seemed so quaint and peaceful." She paused. "I don't know if I can imagine you in a quaint little cottage though."
Lindsay shook zir head ruefully. "Maybe for a holiday? I'm too much a city person. But I do like to travel, and there are lots of interesting places to visit in Amsterdam."
"What do you want then? I don't know if artists retire."
"No – the life is a bit of feast or famine, I'm finding, but I try to put away a little something for later and life in the feast years and hope it doesn’t all get whittled down in the famine. I keep hoping that after this one piece, or the next one, things will keep on being easier... It's a little true. I'll see what happens after this project – the art world is so fickle, you know? You can't plan too much, and anyway, I don't want to anticipate the changes because who knows? Maybe in another ten years I'll be tired of this and, I don't know, settle down and become a clerk with a nine to five in some quiet little borough." Zie smirked at the unlikely vision. "I don't want to stop, that's all I do know."
Ann nodded along, trying to imagine Lindsay older. It was hard to envision zir being any less dynamic, doing anything other than chasing after visions of the impossible, capturing them, making them real. In ten years, how many of these kinds of connections would Lindsay make – people captured by zir magnetism, drawn into zir orbit for a short time, only to spin, or be spun, off, their worlds forever transformed? She wasn't sure what she thought of just being a part of the pattern, and wanted to contribute some lasting change herself. At the very least, she would do her best to get her programme on board with Lindsay's project.
They were almost back at the spa now, and only running a little late for the presentations she'd meant to attend. "I'm supposed to be going to the conference dinner tonight," she said. "I don't really want to... I could slip out early, maybe? But tomorrow we're supposed to be leaving around 9-ish, and I'm not the one driving so it's not up to me." She briefly considered catching a train instead, but she was already behind on work she'd brought with her. The plan had been to steal a few hours here and there to try and get it done, not to go traipsing around to dinners with mysterious artists.
Lindsay nodded, looking a bit resigned. "Text me, then? I imagine I'll be free."
"I've had a lovely time." Ann looked at zir, not wanting to reclaim her arm and slip away inside just yet.
"Me too," Lindsay said, then leaned forward to kiss her. Zir lips were cold, but zir mouth was warm and zie tasted like salt.
The morning she left Scarborough was a bit of a blur. The last evening was a different kind of haze in her mind, but she was left feeling so content that it was easy to ignore the friendly ribbing from her travelling companions about whey she'd only turned up in her hotel an hour before they were meant to be on the road. She politely refused to answer their questions, but otherwise let them have their fun.
Dr. Stephanus was receptive to both her ideas and the proposal she helped Lindsay put together. The university was quite keen on the collaboration of science and art and were happy to parrot the text from Lindsay's artist statement about both being creative ways of trying to bring about new understandings of the world. It all seemed to be going well, and the continued correspondence gave her something to look forward to between the long hours she was putting in at the lab. Still, she was going to get a paper out of this, and her name associated with a patent. It turned out the University would keep control of it for the most part, so neither she nor the rest of her team were likely to see much direct revenue. In the end it was Marcus who ended up solving the last piece of the puzzle by convincing them to try a different weave which would provide a better matrix for creating the polymerized bond. After that it was mostly testing the strength of the bond and working out some of the kinks in the process – the first formulation left no visible seam, but it did leave a bright purple stripe running across the otherwise translucent white fabric.
Things were starting to look more promising a few months in, and Ann knew Lindsay was making good progress getting the framework assembled. It was time for zir to come up north and see things in person, and Ann was desperately nervous. She tried to pretend that it was about how her labmates might react on meeting the artist in person, though they all knew that Lindsay was genderqueer. Lindsay didn't have any interest in protecting anyone's closed-minded sensibilities. There had been crude and lewd comments made by some of the other students, but Dr. Stephanus had been surprisingly good about cracking down on the worst of it, if only because he found it unprofessional. Really, with the itinerary they'd drawn up, Lindsay would be pretty busy while zie was here, and would be unlikely to have to deal with anyone too obnoxious.
Ann had made sure that she would have at least some time alone with Lindsay. She hadn't wanted to presume anything, nor to impose on her flatmates, so she'd booked zir a hotel using lab funds. But they had a dinner, and she'd already made reservations, after some consultation, at Rosso's. And that was what she was nervous about. It was nice to text and chat occasionally, and they were still immersed in this project together, but what would it really be like to see zir again?
It turned out to be easier than she'd feared. As she was the official liaison, she was the one sent to pick Lindsay up from the train. Ann saw zir first, glancing around the crowded platform, tired but expectant. And Ann saw Lindsay's brilliant smile once she was spotted, just as she raised her hand to wave. Zie waded through the throng of people, set down zir bag, and wrapped her in a tight hug.
"It's so lovely to see you, Ann."
"You too," she answered, looking up and wondering if she should kiss zir, and deciding that yes, of course she should, purple lipstick be damned. She felt Lindsay smile against her mouth, and all her worries seemed foolish. "I wasn't sure what to expect," she admitted as they made their way back out to the car. "Between us, I mean. I hope you don't think that's too silly of me."
"No, I know. People are complicated. We can't just be reformulated to specification. I remember."
Ann nodded, remembering their first dinner together. "Always changing in unexpected ways."
Lindsay laughed. "If I've changed much, I think I might just be more tired. The welding feels like it is taking three times as long as it should."
"I can work with tired. I'll try not to contribute more to the problem?"
"Some things are worth staying up late for." Lindsay grinned at her blush as they got into her little Corsa.
There wasn't much time for resting that afternoon. She took Lindsay to meet her advisor and the rest of the project team, and to show zir some of the preliminary tests. Lindsay was supposed to have a working dinner with Dr. Stephanus and one of the university's patent lawyers to finalize some contract matters. Zie promised zie would call if zie wasn't too tired afterwards, but Ann finally got a text around nine saying that zie'd just gotten back to the hotel and was too utterly shattered to do anything but sleep. That was fine. The next day was the lab tour, some more demonstrations for Lindsay's benefit, and some longer consultations to work out details about the base fabric, finishes, and so forth. Lindsay had lunch with some professors from the department of art, one of whom it turned out zie already knew, and gave a lecture to a combined class before returning to materials science for some more meetings. Dinner, however, was with Ann.
She'd made the reservations for eight so that Lindsay would have a little time to rest after zir long day, but she was dressed and ready to go by half past six. One of her flatmates finally talked her into having a beer to calm down. She was too paranoid to drink more than half, but it seemed to help regardless. When she left for the hotel, her friends hugged her and promised they wouldn’t wait up.
Lindsay looked amazing in a pale lavender shirt, a high-necked silvery gray waistcoat, and darker purple cravat. Zir jewellery tonight was all silver as well, and zie'd lined zir eyes to match. The rest of zir makeup was all quite subtle, relatively, and Ann felt a little dull in comparison in her relatively plain black dress and makeup she'd borrowed from a friend and inexpertly applied. Lindsay still smiled when zie opened the door.
"You're gorgeous," zie said. Zie was wearing some kind of perfume or cologne that smelled nice and made Ann want to bury her face in zir neck
She settled for a, "So are you," and a quick kiss.
The restaurant was amazing – she'd always wanted an excuse to go, and Lindsay had been enthusiastic about the suggestion. They were seated at a nice quiet table and, once the host left them to consider the menus without giving her any kind of judgemental looks for failing to meet their standards of dress or comportment, she began to relax.
They had been in close enough contact that there wasn't too much to get caught up on, but they found they both had details to elaborate on after their wine selection was brought out. It was followed shortly after by the mozzarella di bufela that they'd ordered to enjoy as an antipasto. Ann nibbled on a sliver of the rosemary focaccia bread, half listening to Lindsay and half thinking about the future beyond the next few days.
"The logistics of on-site assembly are already giving me a headache – it's just all so heavy. I looked at the information I could find on the roads, but apparently it is about five years out of date. So it is either roads that aren't rated for heavy-loaded lorries, or trying to navigate through the downtown with a giant flatbed. They don't seem to understand that it isn't the sort of thing I can just take apart easily." Lindsay sighed, a touch dramatically Ann thought.
"I can't wait to see it erected," she said, "with all the dancing shadows." Setting down her bread, Ann reached her hand across the table. "It's strange to see you so... anxious? About it."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to rant." Zie took Ann's hand and squeezed it. "I'll just get worse the closer it gets to the unveiling. But I am feeling encouraged, about your end of things. It's already well beyond what I'd thought possible. I thought it might be too stiff, maybe, the way you explained the process... you could almost wear what you were showing me today." Zie smiled. "I should get you to make me a shirt, and wear it to the ceremony."
Ann laughed at that. "Oh, it may be nice to touch, but it really is a practically a plastic at this point. It wouldn’t do for clothing unless it was, ahh, a bit specialist. Even then I think."
"Oh, so you won’t be getting rich off your new seamless fashion line? A shame, you could have retired to your little polder farm."
"Afraid not." Ann smiled, taking back her hand to lift her wine glass to her lips. "I'll have to wait for you to become a rich famous artist and buy it for me instead."
"It could happen you know." Zir eyes flashed in merriment for a brief moment, but zie turned serious again. "I have been having some interesting conversations about what comes next for me."
Ann could hear some hint of hesitation there, and wondered if this might be the source of Lindsay's uncharacteristic nervousness. "Oh?" She hoped she sounded curious, and not worried. She didn't mean to be worried.
"I've been contacted by a group who are interested in commissioning a piece...in Hong Kong."
Ann nodded, smiling. It sounded glamorous and exciting to her, even though her lab did business with other equally exotic locales. One of the other doctoral students was form Korea, and another from Brazil, plus Marcus from Switzerland – they'd had some very interesting discussions about cultural differences, all told. "That sounds exciting."
"Well, yes. I don't know, I could probably do a lot of the work here, and just travel back and forth. I've been thinking about it a lot."
Ann nodded. That might well be true – but why not just go and stay, if zie could? "I suppose you could. But what are you worried about?"
"It's just... very far away. If I stayed there to do the work, it could be quite a while, and, who knows where I might end up?"
"It sounds like a fantastic opportunity though, and you said you love travel."
"I do!" Linsday furrowed zir brow slightly. "But, I would miss you, you know."
"Oh." Anne felt her heart beat faster.
"I know I've been maybe a bit crap at things. I get so wrapped up in my projects. If I were even further away..."
Ann shook her head. "I'm sorry. I just... I didn't think I was that important." She blushed at Lindsay's incredulous look.
"Did you think you're the sort of thing that happens to me all the time?"
She had. She nodded, feeling hot.
"Ann... I love you." Lindsay reached out to her across the table, but the server picked this most inopportune moment to arrive at the table, and zie folded zir hands in zir lap instead. At least he had the sense to look embarrassed. It wasn't really his fault – there's no way he could have known what he was walking into. Really, Ann should be thanking him, as the interruption gave her a moment to try and compose her thoughts and try and catch up to her racing pulse. Lindsay seemed more annoyed, and no wonder, but zie flashed the poor lad a smile regardless. He presented their food with minimal flare and withdrew quickly.
"I'm sorry," Ann started after a moments of awkward silence. "I'm just not... I've never..." The words she wanted were elusive. Her cheeks were burning. "I did think that, maybe? That you must meet all kinds of people, more interesting people, and I would just love the time we had and be happy with that." Ann very nearly got up out of her chair to go to Lindsay, but she was still overly conscious of the other people in the restaurant. "I love our time together. I do. And I love you. I just... You’re not meant to settle, Lindsay. I just... I can love you, and miss you, and be happy that it's part of me. I don't need 'forever' from you. I think you'd strangle yourself if you tried."
Lindsay's lips were pursed, faint colour showing in zir cheeks. "Thank you," zie said, zir voice carefully steadied. "You are so special, Ann. It's so easy to share myself with you honestly – to show you what I've made for myself. I don't want to lose that, but you’re right. Of course things will change. But not yet."
Ann smiled in return. "Not yet." There was a beat of silence while they both absorbed the conversation before Ann continued, boldly slipping her foot over to the other side of the table to rest against Lindsay's. "So... tell me more about Hong Kong?"
Ann knew that the unveiling would be the last chance she had to see Lindsay in a very long time – maybe even ever – and it was worth a few more long hours in the lab to make some extra time for the trip. Despite zir general distraction, Lindsay managed to pick her up from the train the afternoon before the ceremony. Ann tried to stay as much out of zir way as possible – it was the most harried she'd ever seen Lindsay, but she didn’t blame zir.
Ann had been to art galleries before, of course, but she'd never been in the kind of circles who went to gallery openings, let alone unveiling ceremonies, and she hadn’t been sure what to expect. Apparently the answer was a lot of free wine and nibbles in a hall across the courtyard from the piece (in the three story, nine-meter tall building zie'd wanted to match heights with, she guessed). There were some speeches, including a lovely one from Lindsay. The lab and school were thanked. Ann, also, was thanked personally and profusely. A few heads in the crowd followed Lindsay's gaze and turned her way. She was sure she was flaming red by the end of it.
And then they turned it on. They'd waited until evening for a more dramatic effect, but the courtyard was shaded enough that the shadows chasing the lights projected across the internal structure onto the perfectly seamless outer screening would still be visible even on bright days. A light evening breeze rippled the fabric, making the projections dance through the glow. The crowd murmured, milling around more to explore the full experience of the piece.
Ann stood in place for a while, her breath caught in her throat. She didn't notice Lindsay sidle up beside her until zie wrapped zir arm around her shoulder.
"Do you like it?"
Ann nodded, lacking properly expressive words. Maybe it was because she'd invested so much of herself in Lindsay that it gave zir work even more power – the play of light and shadow shifted endlessly, almost seeing to coalesce into something sold and tangible before changing again into some new form. Even when the pattern repeated, the rippling fabric provided infinite variety. But in the dance there were recognizable elements – abstract figures, twisting spirals, connected lines...
"There's molecules in there, aren’t there? I'm not imagining it?"
"I tried. It seemed fitting. They wanted... a reflection of potential, I think they said in the call for proposals."
Ann nodded. A gust of wind swelled the screen. "You're right. It's a chrysalis." It was mesmerizing, and she could barely look away when Lindsay was pulled off into the crowd again.
She wasn't able to stare indefinitely – a surprising number of people stopped to talk to her about the piece, or her work, or Lindsay. The rest of the evening passed in something of a blur, and both she and Lindsay were both tired and tipsy by the time they made it back to the hotel. They curled up in bed together drowsily, Ann resting her head on Lindsay's shoulder.
"Thank you," zie said, stroking her hair. "Thank you for coming. Thank you for everything..."
Zie repeated it at lunch the next day. They'd wandered the streets around the hotel until they came to a little Jamaican place that one of the locals from the ceremony had recommended. The smells of peppers and thyme wafted out through the doorway, luring customers inside. They soon found themselves seated at a table, each with a plate of jerk chicken and peas and rice and a bottle of Red Stripe.
"It was so nice to look out last night, and see your face in the crowd. I can't think about this project at all now and not think about you."
Ann wondered how much zie would think of it much in the future, or if it would all get lost in a blur of other work. Lindsay was leaving for Hong Kong in a month, and had been busing making arrangements for zir studio employees and packing up zir flat. But she knew it didn't matter, really. She had gotten what she wanted – she would always be there, be part of what Lindsay had made zirself into. "I don't think I could ever forget you at all." And of course, she'd been changed herself in the process. "You're amazing, and I love you, and I'm going to miss you."
"Loss is part of change, isn't it? The hard part, maybe. I think the absences stay with you longer though. I don't want to forget you Ann. I won't."
"I'll still be there, even if you do. And so will you."
Lindsay nodded seriously, then smirked, leaning back in zir chair. "And, well – we'll always have Holland to dream of, won't we?"
When she returned to Manchester after her trip, she found a drawing tucked into her luggage. It was herself asleep, the strands of her hair coiling into the lines of tilled fields with a tiny house and a windmill. She framed it and kept with her in the lab until she graduated, and thereafter in her office at the textiles research firm she founded with Marcus and one of her other uni mates.
The Northern Britain Industrial Materials Conference moved around each year, but Scarborough was a popular spot, and it was only another five years before it returned to the seaside town. This time, it was her own exhibitor's booth Ann manned, and she'd managed to keep from getting so drunk the night before her shift that her hangover would impair her ability to be coherent. Marcus was another story, but he had warned her in advance this time that he would be up late with 'an old conference friend'. He blushed, at least, when Ann asked whether she was likely to recognize this friend with their clothes on. In any case, she was sat alone, people-watching, when a woman with short, bright red hair and several interesting facial piercings approached her booth hesitantly.
"Err, hello." The woman had an American accent.
"Good morning," Ann smiled. "Are you interested in synthetic fiber and textile structures?"
"Sort of." The woman smiled back. "I mean, yes, I am. I have something I need help with, but...do you know Lindsay Vale?"
Ann's smile broadened into a grin. "Of course I do. I'm Ann." She extended her hand.
"Vanessa." They shook hands – Vanessa had interesting tattoos peeking out from her sleeves as well. "Nice to meet you, Lindsay said you were the one I should look for. I think I might be lucky you’re here. Zie also said I'm supposed to ask you.... something about a shirt?"
Ann laughed, and Vanessa smiled to cover her confusion. "Oh yes, the shirt. Well – when you see Lindsay, how about you ask zir about my polder farm?"
Vanessa's eyebrows went up. "Inside joke, is it? Well, I can do that."
"A bit." Ann shook her head. "Well, then – would you like to tell me about your project now? Or perhaps you'd like to catch lunch..."