There were two things that very few people knew about Dr. Erin Gilbert. The first was that in the endless debate of Star Wars versus Star Trek, Erin sat firmly in the Star Wars camp. The second was that though she almost never got the opportunity, she very much enjoyed piecing together costumes and was actually quite good at it.
The reason no one knew these little details about the physicist was because no one ever cared enough about her to ask.
Although cruel and unfair, it was a fact of life that Erin had become accustomed to. While she didn’t dress up as much as she used to as a child, having traded in creative costumes for sensible skirt suits and pumps, nothing could stop her from daydreaming of potential costume pieces when she took breaks from grading papers.
So when Phil informed her that there was a Halloween university mixer happening and that she was to accompany him as his date she tamped down the little spark of excitement that burst to life in her chest. She knew full well that the people at this university would never dress up, and she felt her face flush as she stopped the question that was on the tip of her tongue.
‘What are you dressing up as?’ she asked Phil silently, biting the words back as she nodded, a strained smile on her face as he told her they were going together.
“Wear something pretty,” he told her. She leaned up for a kiss and he turned his head at the very last moment, her lips landing on his cheek instead. He smiled faintly and turned to walk away, wiping her lip gloss off his face when he thought she couldn’t see him anymore.
The little spark that had flared to life died as she watched him walk away. She should be happy. He was exactly the kind of man she should be dating and her parents would be proud. But for some reason looking at him made her feel empty instead of warm, like she knew she should feel.
She shrugged the uncertainty off and turned to go back into her office. She still had a ton of papers to grade and the idea of the mixer didn’t lighten her sense of dread in the slightest. She just didn’t get along with these people, and the knowledge of this settled low in her gut and reminded her once more how much she was faking her way through this charade. Just as she opened her door and was about to close herself off again she heard a whispered conversation to her right.
Two professors she only knew through Phil were standing nearby. Erin didn’t particularly like them because they reminded her of the popular girls that had picked on her in her high school years. The two women always seemed to be gossiping back and forth about something, usually whispering and giggling. Erin found it to be juvenile, and couldn’t help but feel like she was being judged whenever she happened to cross paths with one of them. As much as she’d rather avoid them entirely they were Phil’s friends, so she had to be friendly toward them if they interacted with her.
Like now apparently.
‘ Shoot ,’ Erin thought as the professors started to approach. ‘ What are their names again? ’
“Hi Erin” they said simultaneously.
“Oh hey…you guys,” Erin replied with a fake smile plastered on her face. “What's going on?”
“We were just talking about the mixer,” the taller blonde one said.
“Oh. Yes. I just heard about it from Phil,” Erin replied. She leaned against the door to her office in a failed effort to seem casual. “I'm sure you two are gonna be there?”
“Absolutely,” the one with the black hair confirmed. “I mean it is an open bar.” She and her friend look ed at each other and started laughing as if it was some private joke. Erin, feeling a bit put out, started to fake laugh but it came out a bit too loud and forced. The two women turned to look at her and Erin's gaze dropped to the floor.
“Anyway,” the blonde said, changing the topic, “Are you planning on dressing up?”
That took Erin aback a bit. “I'm sorry? You mean like in costume?”
“Well yeah. Duh. Everyone's going to be wearing something,“ the shorter one said. “It is almost Halloween after all.”
“That's true,” Erin replied. “It did cross my mind but this doesn't seem like the kind of crowd that would participate in a costume party.”
“Oh please,” said the taller one. “Do you really think all of us are the stuffy scholarly type?”
‘ Is that a trick question? ,’ Erin thought.
“Have you decided what you’re wearing?” The woman continued, and there was a tone in her voice that Erin didn’t like. It sounded like it should be punctuated with a wink, and she set her jaw against it.
“No, well, maybe,” she stammered, her uncertainty from high school seeping back in. It settled against her easily and she hated it for its familiarity. “I mean, I just found out about it, so…” She trailed off, feeling foolish as the two women exchanged a look.
“Phil’s so lucky to have you,” the blonde remarked, but her smirk said otherwise. “You make him happy.”
“Really?” Erin asked, raising her head and feeling a small spark of hope.
“Oh yeah,” the other professor agreed. “Really happy.”
“You know what would make him even happier?” The blonde chimed in and Erin cringed a little at the way they seemed to spea k in unison. She shook her head and they exchanged another glance. “If you found something great to wear.”
“Oh,” Erin said, looking down at herself involuntarily. Her skirt suit was practical but even she had to admit, boring. She squinted up at the two women, feeling suspiciously like she was being had. “I have some dresses…”
The two women snickered and the way they kept exchanging glances made Erin’s fists itch. She clenched and relaxed her fingers a few times in an effort to relax.
“Haven’t you been paying attention? That’s not what we mean,” the shorter woman said, and if she could be smacking gum Erin thought she would. She tilted her head and gave Erin a once over. “We mean a costume.”
“Oh yes. Right,” Erin said feeling a tad foolish. “Well I don’t have any idea what I want to be. What are you two going as?”
The two women shared a brief wide-eyed look. ”Um, we haven't really agreed on something yet,” the blonde one said.
“Cheerleaders!” The other one blurted out. “We’re going as cheerleaders.”
‘How fitting,’ Erin thought wryly. “I think I have an old costume lying around,” she said casually, trying to downplay her growing excitement at being able to break out the old outfit. She hoped it still fit. “I was Princess Leia once, for a costume party a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I think I bought it at the Darth Maul.” The two women stared at her blankly and Erin regretted speaking immediately. “I’ll...see if I can find it,” she trailed off lamely, wishing she could just dissolve on the spot.
“Well, you and Phil should match,” the blonde one piped up. “You’ll be so cute.”
“Yeah, he can be the one with the pointy ears and the bowl cut,” the other one added, and Erin cringed.
“That’s Star Trek,” she muttered, knowing full well that the women weren’t even listening to her anymore. “You know what, don’t worry about it. If you really think we should match, I’ll just tell him to come as Han Solo.” In the back of her mind she wondered how that conversation would go and felt a hint of dread.
“No, no, we’ll tell him,” the dark haired woman said quickly, exchanging another glance with her counterpart. “That way it’ll be a surprise.”
“How is that a surprise?” Erin asked.
“He won’t know what you’re coming as,” the blonde answered, rolling her eyes. Erin considered telling them that it should be obvious but gave up. At least this meant she didn’t have to have the conversation with Phil herself.
“Alright, you can tell him,” she said with a shrug, opening the door to her office. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a ton of grading to do if I’m going to make it to this shindig at all.” She slipped into her office with a little wave, closing the door behind her and leaning against it. She breathed a sigh of relief at being free from the two women whose names she still didn’t remember, and only then did the excitement begin to set in.
She was going exploring in her closet that night.
When Erin walked through the doors of the venue that Friday night she knew she had been tricked almost immediately. First of all there wasn’t a single halloween decoration. No festive lights or paper bats. No candles strewn about or unhealthy candy on the tables. In fact, the venue looked as plain as she had expected it to when Phil first told her that they were going.
As she scanned the room full of people from several universities she felt her heart sink. There wasn’t a single costume in sight, only formal dresses and tuxedos.
‘Frick,’ Erin thought ‘I totally let those two barbies trick me.’ Sure enough the two professors were leaning up against a far wall staring at her and laughing. She was too far away to hear what they were saying, and frankly she didn’t want to know. ‘Maybe I can still salvage this. Phil might not be too mad.’
She scanned the crowd again, hoping that maybe she was wrong and Phil would be wearing a costume as well. But when she finally spotted him she wished the floor would open up and swallow her whole. She recognized the back of his head and realized he was wearing one of his favorite suit jackets. He had worn it on their first date, and wore it every chance he got.
“Phil,” she said when she finally pushed through the crowd.
“You’re late,” he said as he turned around. He had texted her about a half hour before the event to tell her that he wouldn’t be able to pick her up as they had planned. She had flagged down a cab, and with the New York traffic as it was she had been later than anticipated. When his gaze fell on her white Princess Leia dress and wig his face quickly changed from annoyance to disgust and he turned away without another word.
“Phil? Phil come on,” she pleaded. “Just talk to me. I can go home and change—”
“You’ve done enough,” Phil snapped. “Stay away from me tonight. Some of us care about our reputations and I won’t have you dragging me down with you. If you’ll excuse me.” And with that he turned around and looked for another conversation to butt into.
Erin swallowed heavily around the lump that had formed in her throat and willed herself not to cry in front of everyone. Several people who had heard the exchange turned away, pretending that they hadn’t heard. There were smirks on their faces and Erin backed away. Slinking home with her tail between her legs felt like admitting defeat, and she had already done that more times than she was comfortable with. So instead she made her way to where all the downtrodden seek refuge.
“Damn, you Colombia folks are cutthroat.” The bartender said as she approached and sat down. The idea that the bartender had been witness to her humiliation only made Erin feel worse. She was the only person there, everyone else still mingling on the floor. “First drink’s on me. You look like you need it. What are you having?”
Erin squinted at her, trying to decide if she should be offended at the comment before figuring that it took too much effort. “Thanks. Vodka martini. Extra dry, hold the olive.”
“You got it, princess.”
‘Why’d she call me…Oh right. The costume.’ Erin thought. ‘This drink cannot come fast enough.’
The bartender set the drink down in front of her with a sympathetic smile and Erin accepted it gratefully, taking a hearty swig and relishing the burn in her throat. She observed the crowd as she sipped at it, noting that she had seen most of these people before. There was an expressive tuft of blonde hair in the crowd that caught her attention but her phone buzzed in her hand before she could investigate further.
[Phil 7:34 P.M.] I’m telling them to send your food to you at the bar. We can discuss your mistake tomorrow in private.
‘Screw you Phil,’ Erin thought, setting her phone down on the bartop with more force than was necessary. The barkeep looked up but turned away when Erin gave her a shrug and an apologetic grimace.
By the time she turned around again the blonde had vanished into the crowd.
Dinner was...disappointing to say the least.
Apparently dinner was ordered in advance on a card that came with the invitation, but instead of asking her opinion Phil just went ahead and ordered her a side salad with no main course. ‘Typical,’ Erin thought bitterly as she stabbed some wilted greens aggressively with her fork. ‘The man gets the steak and the woman gets the salad. I shouldn’t have expected anything less.’
Erin was fond of salads herself, but particular sadness of both this salad and the evening itself made it taste bitter in her mouth. She sipped at her drink and picked at the salad and soon her head had a pleasant light feeling to it. She had lost track of Phil and couldn’t bring herself to mind terribly or even scan the crowd for him. He was probably off talking to some “respectable” woman. Erin scoffed aloud and tipped her glass back to get the last few drops of her drink.
“Oh, looks like your date is back,” the bartender spoke up suddenly, looking somewhere behind Erin’s right shoulder. Erin rolled her eyes and swirled the dregs of her drink unhappily in the bottom of her glass. Phil was the last person she wanted to see right now, but she supposed he was coming over to berate her for not replying to his text.
‘Let’s see how he likes the silent treatment,’ Erin thought, passive aggressively angling herself away from the empty barstool next to her. Sure enough, not even a minute later, she felt someone take a seat next to her. She grit her teeth, getting ready to ignore a volley of vague insults and subtly sexist comments, when...
Erin whipped around, one hand clutching at the bar top to steady herself. ‘That’s not Phil,’ she thought. ‘Not even a little bit.’ She hoped she wasn’t obviously buzzed, but she knew she had probably passed that point long ago. She squinted at the woman who now leaned against the bar next to her. She wasn’t familiar to her at all, which was odd as Erin had assumed she knew everyone there in some capacity. Erin took in her appearance, from the wild blonde hair stacked high on her head to the yellow tinted glasses that sat on the bridge of her nose, to... her costume.
“You’re—” she started, and paused to get her bearings before continuing. “You thought this was a costume party too?”
“Nope,” the woman replied, giving Erin a broad grin.
“You’re Han Solo,” she said bluntly, realizing that she was stating the obvious but unable to stop the words from leaving her mouth before her brain could catch up.
The woman’s grin widened. “You think I look like Harrison Ford? I’m touched,” she said, lifting a hand over her heart. “But nah. The other 364 days I go by Holtzmann.” She extended her hand for Erin to shake. Erin took it tentatively, a confused smile settling on her face.
“Erin,” she replied, her hand drifting back to her empty glass. Seeing this Holtzmann flagged the bartender down.
“Could I have a Sprite? Oh with a little umbrella in it if you have ‘em,” she asks, and her gaze shifted to Erin and then over to her empty glass. “What are you having? On me.”
“Oh, um,” Erin stammered, unsure if she should be drinking with company who was not and knowing that she should slow down on an empty stomach anyway. “Uh, I’ll have the same, please.”
“A fine choice,” Erin’s new companion said after the bartender left. “Maybe I should have asked if they had any blue milk. Something to really stay in character.” Erin let out a chuckle at that but before she could reply the bartender returned with the drinks. After thanking the bartender Holtzmann turned and raised her glass towards Erin, gesturing a toast. “Salud!” Erin clinked her glass with Holtzmann’s offering a less enthusiastic “cheers” in return. After taking a sip, Holtzmann plucked the tiny umbrella from her drink and stuck it in her pocket. “I’m gonna save it for a rainy day,” she said with that wild grin of hers. Erin snorted at that, but covered her mouth in embarrassment after the sound slipped out. However instead of looking disgusted her companion just laughed and took another sip of her drink.
“I don’t know you,” Erin mused, leaning her head on her hand. ‘Smooth Gilbert. She just bought you a drink and now you’re letting your buzz talk.’ But Holtzmann only grinned in return.
“Yes you do,” Holtzmann responded, a mischievous glint in her eye. “I’m Han, remember?” Erin rolled her eyes and Holtzmann put her hands up in surrender. “Okay, you got me.” She leaned in conspiratorially and Erin found herself leaning in as well. “I’m not supposed to be here,” she whispered and then leaned back in her seat.
Erin scrunched up her nose in confusion. “Why would anyone willingly come here?” she asked, once again cursing the alcohol and her bluntness. “I’m sorry, that was rude.”
Holtzmann only shook her head. “You don’t know me,” she said. “I work at the Higgins Institute. We weren’t invited but my lab partner wanted us to make an appearance. And then she ate a bad bowl of soup and that was that. So I’m here on my own. She said it would be good for one of us to make an appearance. To remind them that we still exist. I think she just wanted to cause some chaos. But who am I to talk? I’m always up for a little chaos.” She winked and Erin felt herself grow warm.
‘It’s the alcohol,’ she told herself firmly, but she dropped her gaze to her hands anyway. “Higgins huh? Most of my colleagues would argue that it hardly counts as an establishment of higher learning.” She bit her tongue as soon as the words left her mouth, realizing how much she sounded like the colleagues she couldn’t stand. “Oh shit. I’m so sorry. That wasn’t—”
“Ha. No you aren’t wrong there. It’s certainly no Columbia. Place is kind of a sty but we need the lab space and what meager funding we can get.”
“Ah, so you’re here to play nice for some kind of upgrade?”
“Oh no. I’m just here to ruffle some feathers. God knows these academia trouts need those sticks out of their asses,” Holtzmann paused for a second. “Now look who’s being rude. I’m sorry.”
“No, no it’s okay,” Erin reassures her. “I mean normally I’d disagree but after the night I’ve had I feel like I might be coming over to the dark side with you.”
“Well I do like a bad girl,” She winked again and Erin was embarrassed to feel heat blossom across her face once more. “But seriously, I couldn’t help but notice your impeccable sense of style. Everyone else seems to have missed the memo.”
“Actually, I’m the one who missed it,” Erin said, picking miserably at the fabric of the dress she had been so proud of just hours before. “But not without a little help.” Holtzmann said nothing, silently prompting Erin to continue. “These two professors I work with tricked me into thinking it was a costume party.”
“Oh you mean Betty and Veronica over there?” She asked, pointing to the two women now sitting at a table with Phil. “Should have known. I think they’ve been not so subtly talking about me all night”
Erin felt her jaw drop. “Oh my god I think Veronica is actually one of their names”
“Which one?” Holtzmann asked, fascinated as she leaned closer so she could stare unabashedly at their table.
“The one currently attached to my boyfriend’s arm,” Erin replied, her brow furrowing as she really looked at Phil for the first time since the disappointing salad.
“Oh,” Holtzmann said, looking suddenly subdued as she leaned away.
“Well after tonight I should really be calling him my ex-boyfriend,” Erin corrected herself. She noticed with a bit of surprise that she felt nothing as she spoke the words.
“Oh?” Holtzmann asked, perking up a bit. She silently cocked her head and raised an eyebrow, urging her to continue.
“He’s been pretending I don’t exist all night. All because of this stupid costume,” Erin said, growing angry at the situation all over again. “And he ordered me a salad.” Her stomach rumbled almost in agreement.
“Who wants to be like this boring crowd anyway?” Holtzmann said, scanning the room again before her gaze landed on Erin again. “No offense.” Erin shrugged, far beyond the point of caring. “I’m sure you make a suit look great. But more important than that, you haven’t eaten?”
Erin shook her head. “I was too angry. And it was lackluster to say the least.”
“You weren’t missing much with the main course either,” she said with a look of disgust passing over her face. “I’m pretty sure you could use the mashed potatoes as mortar.”
“So you didn’t eat either?”
“That is a negative,” Holtzmann responded. “I did send a scathing tweet to Gordon Ramsey though. I can’t wait for the reply.”
Erin scoffed lightly and swatted at Holtzmann’s arm. “Isn’t that a little mean?”
“Probably but I haven’t exactly been received in a hospitable manner.”
“You did crash the party,” Erin pointed out matter of factly.
“That is a thing I did,” Holtzmann said, mock pondering. “But if the cops ask, I was in Kentucky at a cyber country rave.”
“Ha!” Erin cackled with no shame this time. “Your secret is safe with me.”
“Good, cause I have the death sentence on twelve systems” Holtzmann said, pretending to be threatening.
Erin laughed a bit. “I’ll be careful,” she said.
The two sat sipping at their drinks in companionable silence for a few minutes until Holtzmann broke the quiet. “Well,” she started, punctuating the beginning of her sentence by draining the rest of her drink with a single swig. “I was thinking maybe since we’re both hungry we could leave and see if we could find some food in a galaxy far far away? What say you?”
Erin turned and scanned the crowd of people who were determined to keep her an outsider, realizing that there wasn’t a single one that she wanted to spend time with apart from this woman. “Yeah. Let’s get out of here.” She started to stand and paused. “What about your lab partner?”
“She doesn’t really care about these things,” Holtzmann replied as she started to count out a generous tip for the bartender. “And I’ve already caused plenty of chaos just by being here. I don’t think they’ll forget Higgins anytime soon.” She left the tip on the bar top and hopped down from her seat, offering her arm to Erin. “Ready? I’ll show you how I made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs.”
Erin took one last look at Phil getting chummy with her tormentor then turned back to Holtzmann.
“I can’t believe you said ‘sorry about the mess’ to the bartender,” Erin said to Holtzmann as they walked down the street to the place Holtzmann had recommended. “Do you even think she got that reference?”
“Maybe she didn’t, but to not reference Star Wars whenever the opportunity presents itself?” Holtzmann clutched her chest and looked scandalized. “What you ask is impossible.”
“Really? Luke to Yoda. Empire Strikes Back?”
“Actually Savage Opress to Count Dooku. The Clone Wars season three.”
Erin sighed and shook her head good naturedly. “I haven’t seen Clone Wars yet.”
“Erin! I am both shocked and appalled,” Holtzmann said, still smiling. “It’s like I don’t know you at all.”
Erin made sure to bump into Holtzmann on her next step. “Technically you don’t. You just met me. But give me a break. I've been busy working.”
“Ah, I’ll let it side,” the blonde said. “But it’s seriously worth the watch. It's exciting in a way the prequels should have been, Anakin gets a badass apprentice, and he isn't such a whiny pissbaby in this.” That got a giggle out of Erin. “All the episodes are up on Netflix.”
“Oh,” Erin seemed to physically shrink a bit. “I don't actually have Netflix. I know it's kind of a modern faux pas but I don't really watch a ton of tv.”
“Hey it's okay,” Holtzmann assured her. “I'll just let you use my account. Not a problem.”
Erin stopped walking for a second. Holtzmann noticed a few steps away and stopped, turning to look back at her. “You'd do that for a stranger?” Erin asked once she had found her voice.
Holtzmann shrugged and replied, “I'm a good judge of character. Plus I let my friends use it.” Erin didn't know why her gut coiled at Holtzmann’s use of the word ‘friend’ but before she could dwell on it the woman continued. “There's so many good shows on there. Have you heard of Stranger Things?”
Erin shook her head and swore she heard the shorter woman gasp.
“Oh man. It's so good. It's like E.T. meets Goonies meets X-files with a dash of Stephen King.”
“Wow, that's quite the mix of genres.”
“Yeah it sounds insane but it totally works. Plus it takes place in the 80s so it's just a huge nostalgia trip for me. Reminds me of my childhood,” she sped up as she got more excited, leaving Erin to jog a little to keep up.
‘Wait how old is this woman anyway?’ Erin thought but before she could think too hard she sensed Holtzmann tense up beside her. She was uncharacteristically silent for a few seconds before she spoke again.
“Hey, uh,” Holtzmann said in almost a timid tone. “Maybe I'm being presumptuous but uh, I was thinking that maybe we could watch something together sometime?”
“You mean Netflix and chill.” Erin stated matter of factly.
“Wha—no! No. I uh. That's not what I meant when I—” she stopped short when she realized Erin was completely serious. “Wait do you know what that means?”
“Of course I do,” Erin said, also stopping so she could tilt her head and blink at her in confusion. “It means hang out and watch movies on Netflix. Right? I heard my students using it and it sounded catchy.”
“Uh, yeah. Pretty much,” Holtzmann replied, grimacing a little to herself. “Maybe just don’t use that phrase too often.”
“Why not?” Erin asked, noticing the other woman’s expression. “Is there something wrong with it? Why are you all flustered?”
“I am not flustered,” Holtzmann huffed. “I was just worried I had overstepped a boundary. That's all.”
“How would you have overstepped a boundary?” Erin asked, growing more puzzled by the second. Holtzmann stepped closer and grabbed her gently by the upper arms and her mind went blank at the touch.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said, looking her in the eye. Erin felt heat rise to her face and was thankful for the dark. “I’ll tell you later, just—just don’t use that phrase again until then, okay? Especially not with someone else.”
“Okay,” Erin agreed readily, unable to think with Holtzmann’s hands on her even in such an innocent way. Holtzmann nodded firmly and released her and they began walking again. “So where are you taking me?” Erin asked, desperately trying to change the subject and take her mind off the flutters that were happening in her chest.
“There’s a great diner down here,” Holtzmann replied, recovering quickly as she gesticulated wildly in a vague direction. “None of that prissy overcooked food. Oh, sorry.” She glanced sideways at Erin.
“You have got to stop apologizing,” Erin said, hooking her arm through the crook of Holtzmann’s elbow, feeling a little foolish at her eagerness to touch the other woman again but not really caring. She pulled her closer, telling herself that she was warding off the bite in the air and not enjoying the tingles that shot up her arm. “I didn’t know anyone could ever be capable of overcooking a salad. Who hired those caterers?” She squeezed her bicep and wondered if she was imagining the way her muscles jumped under her hand.
“Probably your boyfriend,” Holtzmann said with a snort. “Oh, sor—” she snapped her mouth shut and her teeth clicked but Erin just smiled.
“ Ex- boyfriend,” she said with emphasis.
“Ex-boyfriend,” Holtzmann agreed with another sharp nod.
“Anyway,” Erin pressed on. “When we left you said your bike was impounded?”
Holtzmann let out a long suffering sigh. “Yeah. She's more than a bike though. She's my baby.”
“What happened?” Erin asked stifling a laugh at the woman’s wistfulness.
“Parked in a tow away zone,” she said as she shrugged. “Though I can't be blamed. They were giving out free tacos and I had to get there as fast as I could.” This time Erin couldn’t stop her giggles. “Yeah, yeah. Very funny. But they were high quality food truck tacos. I really did have to hurry because the refrigeration unit went kaput and meat and fish tacos aren’t great when they spoil.”
Erin took a minute to compose herself then asked, “What’s been stopping you from getting your baby back?”
“Luckily not money this time. I fixed that refrigeration unit for the owner and they generously paid me even though I didn’t charge for it. I was just doing my civic duty to keep the streets taco-full,” She smiled as the joke landed. “I just haven’t had the time. I’ve been ‘busy working’, as you put it, and I’m not so good with paperwork. Luckily I have a friend at the MTA who gave me a discounted metro-card so at least I can get to and from work.”
“Well that’s nice of them.”
“Oh yeah. Patty’s a good egg. I get on her nerves a lot but she loves me.”
They walked along in comfortable silence for a few more minutes until Erin’s stomach let out another huge growl.
“Sorry,” she groaned, putting a hand over her eyes. “I’m just so hungry.”
“Well, lucky for you we’re here,” Holtzmann said with a mischievous grin. Erin opened her eyes.
“Valerie’s,” she read aloud, stopping in her tracks as she took the building in. It was a shabby looking building with a neon “open” sign flashing different patterns in the window. “Holtzmann, are you sure we’re in the right place?”
“Oh yeah! It’s not Dex’s Place but it’s the best diner this side of the Milky Way. Come on!” Holtzmann said excitedly, taking her hand and pulling her toward the building. Erin felt tingles run up her arm at the touch, but found herself distracted as they quite literally slammed through the doors. The inside of the diner wasn’t as bad as she expected. It wasn’t fancy, but the surfaces were clean and the whole place had a kind of charm to it.
Erin blinked a few times, trying to adjust after being outside in the dark, but Holtzmann was already pulling her toward a booth. “This is my favorite booth. And my favorite diner. I come here sometimes when—” she stopped abruptly, her expression closing off a little. “—after a long day at work.” She finished, not meeting Erin’s eye.
Erin leaned in a little over the table, her fingers itching to take Holtzmann’s hand, but before she could take the leap a server appeared seemingly out of nowhere and she sat back, disappointed.
“Hey Val!” Holtzmann said. The mood that had passed over her fell away immediately as she brightened, her grin chasing away the shadows.
“Hi Jillian!” the server replied, ignoring Holtzmann’s groan at the use of her first name and pulling a small notebook and pen out of her apron pocket. “Haven’t seen you in a while. I guess that means work is going okay.”
As the two women exchanged pleasantries Erin found herself unsure of how to feel. She was beginning to realize that this must be a place Holtzmann came when work wasn’t going okay, and that made her feel sad for the eccentric blonde sitting across from her. She was quickly accepting the fact that she wanted to know more about this woman, and with that epiphany came the small smoulder of jealousy that settled low in her gut at how familiar she seemed to be with Val. By the time the woman turned to her Erin was so deep in her thoughts that she jumped when Val addressed her.
“But Jillian,” she said, a sly look in her eye. “You’ve never brought a date here before.”
“Val!” Holtzmann admonished, her face turning a sudden, bright red. “She’s not—”
“Erin,” Erin said smoothly, extending a hand to the server, who shook it, grinning like she knew exactly what she had done.
“Ooh I like this one Jilly,” Val said, her smug grin never leaving her face.
Holtzmann let out a pained fake laugh before giving Val a death glare “Leave. Now.”
“Not before you’ve properly introduced me.”
“Ugh,” Holtzmann whined then sucked in a long breath, dragging her hands down her face. “Erin this is the one, and thankfully the only, Valerie.”
“Hey!” Val cried outraged while whacking Holtzmann’s shoulder. “I am a goddamn delight.”
“That depends on who you ask,” Holtzmann and Val locked cold stares for about ten seconds before they burst out laughing.
“I’ll go put in your order and grab a menu for your ‘friend’,” Val air quoted and punctuated her words with a waggle of her brows. Holtzmann rolled her eyes good-naturedly and turned back to Erin, who was smiling shyly.
“So you’re that much of a regular here,” she said, carefully keeping the conversation on a neutral ground. She leaned her head on her hand and looked closely at her dinner companion, who was staring at her hands instead.
“Yeah,” Holtzmann said, clearing her throat and glancing up at Erin before looking down again. There was a distinct flush to her cheeks. “Sorry about Val. She’s got a good heart but—”
“She’s great,” Erin said with a smile. She started to reach for Holtzmann’s hand again but Val swooped back in, setting a large glass in front of Holtzmann and Erin slumped back in her seat. Holtzmann stared up at Val with an incredulous look on her face.
“Here’s your shake Jill,” Val said with a grin, seemingly oblivious to the moment she had just ruined. “Don’t worry, I brought two straws in case you want to share with your lady friend here.” She grinned down at Erin who forced a smile.
“I’m giving you a lousy tip and a one star Yelp review,” Holtzmann said, her face buried in her hands again. Val winked at Erin, who found her smile becoming less forced as she caught on to the server’s teasing.
“Ha! As if you haven’t been threatening that for years,” she responded, patting Holtzmann on the shoulder. As Holtzmann stuck her tongue out at her Val handed a menu to Erin. It was laminated and slightly greasy. “You look like a sensible girl. Don’t listen to any suggestions she makes,” she said pointedly, before turning and walking away.
As the sound of her footsteps receded into the kitchen Erin reached up to readjust her wig.
“I’m sorry, this is probably going to be a little gross, but this wig is unbearably itchy,” she said as she pulled out the pins she had used to secure it in place. She set the wig on the table and removed the elastic holding her ponytail in place. She ran her fingers through her hair, shaking it out, and when she looked up she caught sight of Holtzmann’s wide eyed expression for just a second before she looked back down at her hands.
“I like your real hair much better,” she said quietly, addressing the table top instead of Erin, who smiled softly.
“It looks awful right now,” Erin replied, trying in vain to pat her bangs down.
“No,” Holtzmann said with a slight shake of her head and a small smile appearing on her face. “No, it’s perfect.” Holtzmann and Erin found themselves caught up in each other's eyes before hearing Val’s returning footsteps. Both quickly looked away, blushing and smiling sheepishly. Erin quickly turned to Val and ordered a swiss and mushroom burger. As Val took Erin’s menu, she subtly winked at Holtzmann, earning her another death glare as she hurried to put the professor’s order in.
“So Higgins huh?” Erin started. “What exactly do you do there?”
“Oh I’m an engineer. My doctorate is in experimental particle physics but I can build just about anything. Not to brag of course. Sometimes I teach classes but mostly I work on private projects.” The proud smile on her face faded a bit when she noticed the look of shock on her companion's face. “Oh sorry. Did I lose you?”
“Wha- no.” Erin shook her head. “No it’s just that I teach physics. At Columbia. Where I work.”
‘Smooth, Gilbert,’ Erin thought to herself.
Holtzmann put her hand on her chin in thought. “Wait a second. Erin. As in Doctor Erin Gilbert?” The professor in question nervously nodded her head. “No way! I’ve read all of your publications. I’m a huge fan. You’re absolutely brilliant.”
Erin blushed and lowered her head to look at the table. “Thanks.”
“My favorite one is Ghosts from our Past: Both Literally and Figuratively: The Study of the Paranormal, ” Holtzmann continued, rattling off the long title without hesitation.
Erin felt her jaw drop. “How have you read that? I burned my copy which means that the only one still in existence belongs to —”
“Abby. Yeah, we work together actually, so she loaned me her copy,” Holtzmann leaned her head in her hand, smiling at Erin’s surprised expression. She looked pleased that she had been able to take the physicist off-guard.
“Abby Yates? No kidding.” Holtzmann just shrugged and nodded in response. “I haven’t seen her since I transferred to Princeton way back when. How is she?”
“She’s doing pretty well. Still working on paranormal research. I’ve actually been helping her actualize some theories from the book and from some of her further studies.”
Erin sat up straight in her seat. “You’re actualizing my theories?” she asked, disbelief in her voice. “I never thought my ideas would leave those pages.” She shook her head and then looked to Holtz in surprise. “Wait, is she the lab partner who wanted you to go to the mixer to mess with people?”
“The very same,” Holtzmann confirmed.
“That’s just like her. Abby always disliked Ivy Leaguers. It’s not a surprise that she still does.” Erin smiled softly at a memory of her old friend complaining about ‘uptight highbrow assholes’. Then she let out a little sigh. “I’m sad we grew apart after I left. What would she think of me now?”
“Well I think she still respects you,” Holtzmann chimed in. “I mean she doesn’t talk about you often but the majority of your sections in her copy of Ghost from our Pasts are highlighted. I’m sure she would have reached out if she knew you were in the city.”
“I would have done the same,” Erin said with a wistful smile on her face.
Before Holtzmann could say anything else, Val was back with their meals. Erin’s stomach grumbled appreciatively as the smell of her burger wafted up from the plate. Eating here had to be so unhealthy and yet after the sad excuse for a salad she had picked at earlier she was in the mood for something truly bad for her.
But not as bad as what apparently was Holtzmann’s regular order.
“Holtzmann, what is that?” Erin asked, leaning forward to try to see what was on the large burger.
“It’s the Holtzburger! Fresh off the secret menu and created by yours truly,” she said, somehow managing to pick the giant burger up and take a hearty bite of it. “It’s two beef patties with cheddar cheese in the middle, thick bacon strips, crunchy honey peanut butter, and pickles, smooshed between a pretzel bun,” she elaborated before chewing off another large mouthful. Erin knew that watching someone shove a questionable burger larger than their face into their mouth shouldn’t be attractive, but as Holtzmann ate with gusto all she could think was ‘for the love of all that’s sane, please don’t let me fall for this woman.’
‘Maybe some change would do you good,’ the part of her brain that was definitely falling fast piped up unhelpfully.
“That looks disgusting,” Erin said conversationally when Holtzmann dipped one of her french fries in her chocolate shake.
“Hey, don’t knock it till you’ve tried it,” Holtzmann responded, jabbing the french fry in Erin’s direction for emphasis. A little of the shake dripped onto the table and Holtzmann shoved the rest in her mouth quickly before she lost any more. “Seriously though,” she said with a full mouth, making Erin wrinkle her nose. “You should try it.” She scooted the glass closer to Erin, who eyed it suspiciously. “It’s the only way to eat french fries.”
“What about plain old ketchup?” Erin asked, grabbing the bottle that sat on the table and offering it to Holtzmann. She pressed herself back against the booth as though Erin had tried to hand her a live snake.
“No way!” she exclaimed, shaking her head emphatically. “That’s disgusting. Why do people always want to ruin perfectly good fries with that sludge?”
“Uh, have you seen what you’re eating?” Erin asked, nodding at the already half eaten burger on the other woman’s plate.
“Excuse you. This right here is a culinary masterpiece,” Holtzmann said, picking up her burger and gesturing with it, causing a glob of peanut butter to drop onto her plate. “That,” she said, pointing at the ketchup bottle with a look of disgust on her face, “is just sickening.”
“Are you serious? How is dipping a fry into a chocolate shake not sickening?”
“Because sweet and savory things together are magic. I mean you got your chocolate dipped pretzels. PB and J. Chicken and waffles! It’s only natural, Erin.”
Erin eyed her dubiously before picking up one of her own fries. She reached across the table and dunked it into Holtzmann’s shake before she could say anything. She popped it into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully before dunking another into the shake.
“I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist!” Holtzmann exclaimed. She jabbed another fry in Erin’s direction for emphasis and the food flew out of her hand, hitting Erin on the chin. Holtzmann’s eyes went wide as Erin wiped the bit of shake off her face. She stared at Holtzmann for a moment before picking up one of her own fries and tossing it back, laughing triumphantly when it settled itself in Holtzmann’s hair.
“This is more fun than I’ve had in a long time,” Erin admitted, shaking her head as their laughter died down. “Phil never would have taken me to a diner. In fact he’d never be caught dead in a restaurant that didn’t have tablecloths.” A soft quiet settled over them as Erin’s words sank in.
“Are you sad that you broke up?” Holtzmann asked faintly, her usually bright demeanor fading just a little. “I mean, it just happened tonight and now you’re with me.” The unspoken question of rebound and is this real hung in the air.
“Not at all,” Erin said emphatically. She reached across the table and finally took Holtzmann’s hand. Holtzmann looked up, surprise written clearly on her face. Erin sighed before continuing to speak. “It didn’t work from the very beginning. I should have stopped it before it even started. I mean, you saw what he did tonight. Well not saw but...” Holtzmann nodded, her brow furrowed as she thought back to the party and how lonely Erin had looked sitting there at the bar by herself.
“I didn’t have to see,” Holtzmann said, face scrunched up with a slightly subdued look of fury as she struggled to find her next words. “I think it’s just basic human decency to treat your romantic partner with respect no matter what. Sure, couples disagree but to do what he did. Act like a child instead of talking it out or compromising. That’s cruel. No one deserves that.” For a moment the engineer looked lost, like she was somewhere else entirely. Erin squeezed her slightly shaking hand, successfully pulling Holtzmann out of whatever trance she was in. “Anyway, not the move I would have made.”
Erin leaned in, accepting the challenge of the last statement. “Really? What would you have done in his shoes?”
Holtzmann leaned back in her seat, removing her hand from Erin’s, much to the former’s disappointment, and crossed her arms over her chest as she pretended to consider the question carefully. “Well first I would have taken off his shoes and burned them. Loafers are not my thing.”
Erin let out a little laugh at that. “Then?”
“Then I would have taken in what you were wearing and said ‘Babe that’s awesome,’ and then I would have gone home and changed into…well.” She looked down at her Han Solo costume. “This.”
Erin grinned. “And I suppose you’re going to tell me we would have ended up here?”
“Of course,” Holtzmann scoffed. “It would be irresponsible of me not to rescue you from bad catering.”
Erin’s expression softened as she dropped her gaze almost bashfully. “Holtzmann, why did you bring me here specifically?” she asked gently. She glanced up and blushed a little at the intense way her dinner companion was watching her. “Val said you always come alone. You don’t even know me yet but you brought me here all the same.”
“I wanted to make you feel better,” Holtzmann responded in the same soft tone of voice Erin was using. “It looked like you were having a shitty day and when I have a shitty day this place always makes me feel better.”
Once again Erin reached out and grasped Holtzmann’s hand. “That’s really sweet of you Holtzmann.” The engineer reached up and rubbed the back of her neck with her other hand. “I’m glad I’m here with you instead of back there with Phil in any capacity.”
“I’m glad I’m with you too.” Both women held eye contact for a long minute, a near tangible electricity passing through their locked gaze. That is until a loud croon of a saxophone started blasting through the diner’s speakers.
Erin and Holtzmann both jumped, unlacing their hands in the process. As Erin clutched her chest at the sudden scare, Holtzmann whipped her head to look at a laughing Val behind the counter. “Are you seriously playing Careless Whisper right now?” Val could only wheeze in response. Holtzmann quickly slid out of the booth and ran to vault the counter. “GET OVER HERE VAL! THIS CUSTOMER HAS GOT ONE HELL OF A COMPLAINT!”
As Val gave chase into the kitchen Erin could only howl at the spectacle unfolding in front of her.
‘Yeah, I think change will be good for me,’ she thought as the duo ran around the restaurant, leaving nothing but chaos in their wake.
After Holtzmann and Val had finally settled their differences (“I don’t forgive you,” Holtzmann had gotten out between pants. “I’m just really tired.”), Holtzmann took her place across from Erin and the two finally managed to have an uninterrupted conversation. They talked about everything, from Holtzmann and Abby’s work to the latest Star Wars theories. The two became so wrapped up in their discussion over who Rey’s parents might be that neither one noticed how late it had gotten.
“I’m telling you, Holtzmann, Rey is a Kenobi. And it is not just because of the accent,” Erin argued.
“Well — ” Holtzmann started.
“Hey nerds!” Val called out from the back. “I hate to break this up but we’re closed and I’d really like to go home now.”
“Oh geez,” Holtzmann said while checking her watch. “She’s right. It’s nearly eleven.”
“Oh shit. I didn’t expect to be out this late.” Erin said as they both shimmed out of their booths. Holtzmann approached the cash register while fishing her wallet out of her vest pocket, but Val quickly shook her head.
“Nuh-uh Jill,” she said smiling and shaking her head. “You know your money isn’t good here. And the same goes for your date too.” Before Holtzmann could correct her, Val had wrapped her into a hug. “Don’t be a stranger Jillian,” she murmured into the blonde’s ear.
“I won’t,” Holtzmann mumbled back.
After they drew back from the hug Val pointed a finger at Erin. “Same goes for you too, Missy. And you keep this one in line because someone has to.”
“Ha! I’ll bet,” Erin chuckled. “Don’t worry. I’ll try my best.”
As they left, Holtzmann whipped out her phone. “I’m gonna call a taxi. It’s too late to walk home,” she said as she dialed the number. “Do you wanna split a ride or — ”
“Yes! Definitely,” Erin blurted out. She covered her mouth with both hands in embarrassment, but Holtzmann only grinned in return. The taxi arrived very soon afterwards. Erin told the cabbie her address, and as the yellow car went speeding down the city streets she looked over find to a very pale looking Holtzmann. “Hey, are you alright?” She asked.
“Huh? Oh yeah. Fine,” Holtzmann replied looking distinctly not fine. “I’d just rather be driving you know?”
Erin nodded her head sympathetically. ‘I should probably distract her,’ she thought. “Hey I’ve been meaning to ask. Why Han Solo? I mean that’s one hell of a coincidence.”
“Are you accusing me of knowing that you were gonna be Leia?” Holtzmann asked with a smirk.
“Course not,” Erin replied. “You just don’t strike me as a Han Solo fan. In fact you seem like the kind of person who would love an excuse to carry a lightsaber around.”
“Ha! That’s very true. Harrison Ford is a handsome man but he doesn’t do it for me, if you catch my meaning.” Erin raised her eyebrows at the comment but Holtzmann shrugged and tried to get more comfortable in her seat. “I dunno. I just do Star Wars every year. Last year I did Rey and built my own BB-8, and the year before I was Captain Phasma with homemade armor. I guess this year I wanted to keep it simple. Because something tells me that I’m probably gonna be Luke next year, and I’m gonna finally have to make Artoo.”
Erin was quiet for a second. “So…you’re telling me you built a working BB unit?”
“Psh. Of course that’s what you took away. But yeah I built a working replica. As close as I could get without a selenium drive.” Holtzmann pulled out her phone to show Erin her wallpaper. It was a photo of the BB-8 replica with what appeared to be a chinchilla on top of it. “There he is with Faraday. It moves and makes noise and everything.”
“That’s incredible. How’d you even go about making it?”
“Well it all starts with reverse engineering a Sphero…”
The rest of the disappointingly short ride was spent talking about Holtzmann’s inventions. Erin found herself hanging on every word, and she felt her heart sink when the taxi pulled up to her apartment.
“I guess this is me,” she said quietly, her gaze drifting out the window to her apartment building. She realized suddenly that she had never been more disappointed to be home. She dropped her head and studied her hands. “Thank you for tonight. You made a really good date. I wish I had started the evening out with you instead of Phil.” She noticed Holtzmann’s head snap up as she spoke.
“So that’s confirmed then?” she asked, her own voice low. Erin wasn’t sure if she didn’t want the driver to hear her speak or if she felt the same calm that had settled over the two of them. “This was a date?” She sounded timid for the first time that night and Erin smiled.
“Definitely a date,” she replied. The moment was broken when the taxi driver cleared his throat impatiently and Erin jumped.
“Just...wait for me a sec, would you?” Holtzmann addressed him, before clambering out of the taxi and hurrying around to open Erin’s door for her. “You can leave the meter running or whatever. I don’t care.” Finally she turned and looked at the cabbie. “I’m gonna walk the lady to her door.”
She followed Erin up the walk and fidgeted as Erin searched for her keys. Once she had found them she paused and turned nervously to face Holtzmann.
“Would—would you like to come up? For a drink or something?” she asked, her voice betraying her nerves. She had never invited anyone up to her apartment after a first date, or really ever, and her mouth was moving faster than her brain. ‘Way to be forward you idiot.’
“Nah,” Holtzmann said with a lopsided grin. “Although I appreciate it. I’m a traditionalist. I wouldn’t say no to another date though.” She suddenly looked unsure, as though she herself was worried about being too forward.
“I would love that,” Erin said, emphasizing her words so that Holtzmann could be sure that she meant it. If the grin that split the other woman’s face said anything, it was that she believed her.
“Excellent,” she said, taking a step forward so she and Erin were level with each other. She reached for her. “May I?” she asked, and Erin nodded breathlessly.
Holtzmann wrapped an arm around Erin’s waist and leaned in. Erin closed her eyes and held her breath, but was surprised when she felt Holtzmann’s lips against her cheek instead. She opened her eyes and gave Holtzmann a confused look as she moved away.
“Traditionalist,” Holtzmann murmured again as she stepped back. “I don’t kiss until at least the second date Dr. Gilbert.”
“When?” Erin found herself blurting with little thought of what she was saying. A flush spread over her cheeks at the desperation in her voice and she knew that even in the dark Holtzmann could see it.
“Next weekend?” Holtzmann asked, her tone betraying her eagerness as she extended a hand. “I can call you?”
“Next weekend,” Erin repeated, pressing her phone into Holtzmann’s hand. As Holtzmann put her number in Erin was unable to stop the grin from spreading over her face until her cheeks hurt. Holtzmann texted herself and then passed the phone back. She shot her a two fingered salute and backed away to the cab.
Erin stood on the step for a moment longer, biting her lip as she watched the taillights disappear. After the cab was gone she pulled her phone out to check the time and noticed that she had an old, unread message from Phil.
Phil [10:16 P.M.] I am very disappointed with your actions tonight. You embarrassed me in front of our colleagues. We’ll discuss this tomorrow.
Erin had the sudden urge to throw her phone on the ground, but after a deep breath realized that it was far from worth it. Instead she set her jaw and typed out a quick reply.
Erin [11:10 P.M.] Actually I'm disappointed with your actions tonight. We aren't going to discuss anything tomorrow because there is no “we” anymore.
Erin [11:11 P.M.] We’re done.
Erin’s heart was pounding as she put her phone back in her pocket. Almost as soon as she turned to open her door though, it buzzed again. Angrily she plunged her hand into her pocket, ready to shoot back a reply to whatever nasty thing Phil had sent her in return, but when she looked at the phone Holtzmann’s name was lit up on the screen. She gasped aloud and almost dropped it in her hurry to unlock the screen.
Holtzy ;) [11:12 P.M.] on 2nd thought what are u doing 2morrow?
Holtzy ;) [11:12 P.M.] i dont think i can make it a whole week without seeing u again
With a broad smile and fluttering heart, Erin started to type out a response
Erin [11:12 P.M.] What did you have in mind?
Holtzy ;) [11:13 P.M.] wanna go trick or treating?
Holtzy ;) [11:13 P.M.] i know where to get the king sized stuff
Erin [11:13 P.M.] How about a movie instead?
Holtzy ;) [11:14 P.M.] sounds out of this world
Holtzy ;) [11:14 P.M.] get it?
Holtzy ;) [11:14 P.M.] bc star wars?
Erin couldn’t wait until tomorrow.