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This Feeling Calls for Everything I Can't Afford

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Jane reads her first calculus textbook when she’s eleven. It’s her neighbor Tom’s, and when he wanders into the kitchen and finds his sister Beth carefully measuring mint extract into cookies and Jane sitting on a stool with the book balanced precariously in her lap he ruffles her hair and calls her kid and tells her not to strain herself as he takes the book away.

She looks up at him with what she knows is cold rage and he seems to think is adorable. “I was reading that,” she says, and Beth ducks behind the refrigerator door, taking way too long to get eggs.

“You’re just a little girl,” Tom says, looking very smug, and Jane would give anything to have a brilliant retort, something that she’d learned that he wouldn’t expect her to know, because maybe Beth lets him call her a little girl but she’s his sister and maybe family’s supposed to do that.

She can’t think of anything, though.

Tom pats her on the head again and wanders off, dropping his textbook back on the living-room table where Jane had found it, and she darts off to retrieve it as soon as he’s gone.

There’s fury and uncertainty and humiliation tangled into a tight knot in her stomach, and all she really knows right now is that nobody is going to make her look that stupid or young or—or whatever it was that made him think he was so great in comparison—again.

She reads her first romance novel when she’s fifteen, on a six-hour bus ride to visit her grandparents (and get some fresh air, Jane, it’s not good for you to be inside reading all day—you don’t have any friends and nobody’s going to want to date you if you don’t make an effort). Someone had left it in the empty half-seat next to Jane, and about an hour in she’s bored enough to pick it up, after looking in all directions to make sure nobody’s watching.

The cover is bright candy-pink, with flowers and a half-naked man—Jane has no objection to half-naked men, but she’s so tired of everyone expecting her to think boys are more important than the rest of her life—holding a giant sword and with a swooning maiden in a flowing gown clutching his arm. The title is in a curly metallic script, almost illegible, but after Jane squints at it for a bit it eventually resolves itself into the words His Captive Bride.

Jane can feel herself blushing, because this is—this is complete trash, the Diet Coke of nutritious literature, and if anyone sees her reading it—

—well, you know, they can deal with it. Jane squares her shoulders defiantly, opens the book, and prepares to fall asleep out of pure boredom.

Forty pages in she’s enthralled almost against her will.

Jane is one of six girls in her first astrophysics course. The number dwindles the harder the classes get, and Jane thinks she must be growing smaller and quieter to her professors, because they look past her more often.

When she goes to her gen ed classes, it’s almost a shock: there are female professors; there are classes that are a good half girls. When she raises her hand people call on her, when there are group projects people don’t practically flee to the other side of the room and treat her like the kickball players in elementary school always did when it came time to pick teams.

Some days she thinks about switching her major, going into something a little softer, a little more concrete. Chemistry, maybe, or geology. But every time she starts thinking about it she feels something twist tight and angry in her chest, because she doesn’t want to be a chemist or a geologist—she wants the entire universe.

She stays up late every night, studying long after the sky has deepened and filled up with stars, because she will be double-damned if she lets herself slip, if she gives anyone the excuse they don’t even think they need to dismiss her.

Boyfriends, Jane decides midway through her doctorate, are almost certainly a lost cause.

If she had a dollar for every time she’s been told that watching television/going to a sporting event/dinner and a movie are more interesting than her boring old research, she’d be a long way towards funding said research. If she never hears the phrase “emotionally unavailable” again, she’s pretty sure she’ll still have exceeded her lifetime quota.

“You just don’t care about my problems,” Ted explains, and Jane does care about his problems but not to the extent that she’s willing to spend over an hour every day listening to him talk about how much his job sucks.

“You’re not feminine enough for me to enter into a long-term relationship with,” says Rick, but Rick is kind of a jerk and what he means by that is that Jane is more or less in his field and smarter than he is and won’t drop out of grad school to be a housewife (which she knows because he kept trying to hint around it until she told him no and also hell no, which is what precipitated this conversation in the first place).

“You need to learn how to relax,” Bill informs her gently. “You worry too much about things.” Jane breaks up with him, because she gets condescended to enough at school, she does not need to deal with this shit when she’s not working.

It’s a shame, because she likes sex and she likes having someone warm to snuggle against at night and she really likes having people to think out loud at, but she has a vibrator and a great fluffy comforter and she could get a—a dog, or something, to talk to if her apartment allowed pets. When she moves out, then. It’s not like the dog would be any better at talking back than the walls (or some of her exes).

She’s gotten pickier about her fiction as the years went by, which works out because she has less and less time to read. She has an abiding horror of contemporaries, especially the ones with titles like The Billionaire CEO’s Virgin Secretary, because what the hell, why is the heroine always somehow serving the hero? God, these are supposed to be women’s fantasies, why are people trying to tell her that what modern women want is to be the secretary, the nurse, the live-in nanny?

But, she finds, she loves historical romances if they’re done with any thought at all, because the (anachronistic, probably, but history was never her best subject) heroines often are intelligent, thoughtful, driven women—at least for their time, which is the best she’s probably going to get. And the stories treat it like it’s a good thing—that the twelfth-century laird’s bride can read and write, that the Victorian nobleman’s daughter is arguing for women’s right to vote, that the lady spy is fluent in five languages, that the lovely peasant girl accused of being a witch has made a careful study of herbs and bonesetting.

They remind Jane of herself, scrambling to hang on to the edges of a world that doesn’t want them, screaming for respect because if they don’t shout as loud as they can nobody will hear them. And they attract people with that clamor, instead of being dumped one by one by a long string of insecure boyfriends.

Romance novels are pretty awesome.

The problem is that she meets Don right after she’s gotten an actual job offer, when she’s giddy with victory and everything seems possible.

The other problem is that he reminds her of one of her heroes, tall and dark and broodingly handsome, grim-but-willing-to-be-charmed.

In retrospect, she realizes those were both incredibly stupid reasons to date someone. At the time, though, it felt almost like destiny.

Her intern Darcy thinks Jane is the best thing ever, and she reminds Jane of the puppy she’d never gotten around to getting. Darcy’s wildly partisan hero-worship is the ego boost Jane really needs right now, what with Don and the fact that none of her own students were willing to volunteer—they make all sorts of jokes about how she thinks she’s living in a science fiction novel when they think she can’t hear them, and if one more person asks about UFOs she’s going to become one of those professors who throw things at their students for asking ignorant questions and then she’s going to get fired—and the breakthrough that isn’t happening.

It gets a little irritating sometimes, having Darcy constantly talking about things when they aren’t actively working, but at least Darcy never seems to expect Jane to become anyone else, and she makes good coffee. Jane is willing to forgive her a lot for the coffee.

So this—this—whatever he is, Thor, he’s not like anyone Jane has ever met.

When she first sees him, as soon as she realizes he’s not dead and before he starts talking, a still small voice in her head goes my God, it’s like he stepped out of—and she cuts it off, hard, because she went there with Don and she is not doing this again, no way.

But he’s so irrepressibly enthusiastic that she can’t help being charmed, and then—well.

When he brings her back her research, she’s pretty sure she falls in love.