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I'm not exaggerating. I wish I were.
The air that October evening was chilly and damp as I hurried across the Stanford campus, past the mission-style buildings that breathed academia. All I could breathe was my mantra: Don't let her get to you, Jill. You're thirty-she's fifty-five. You haven't had time to accomplish as much as she has. She can't knock you down for that. She can't knock you down for anything.
But I could feel my face twisting into a smirk as I cut across the grass and took the last few steps to the club at a virtual canter. Who was I kidding? One appraising look from my mother, one switchblade remark, and I'd be down for the proverbial count.
I hurried up the walkway feeling like a truant sixth-grader. Unlike most such facilities that are housed in old, traditional, ivy-covered buildings, the Stanford Faculty Club was a modern affair that looked like someone's upscale, rambling rancher.Who knows-maybe it was designed that way to give it a homey touch. My mother certainly felt at home there after twenty-five years on campus, although tonight she was the guest of honor.
The front door opened, and an undergrad, attired in the traditional garb of the campus banquet crew, chanted "Good- evening-are-you-here-for-the-anniversary-banquet?" as if he were reading it off a teleprompter.
I'm not here for the cuisine, kid, I wanted to say to him. But I just nodded, and he pointed toward the door to the main dining room. So, Mom had made the big time. They'd opened up the Taj Mahal of banquet rooms. Not surprising.
I forced a smile at the kid and made a beeline for the ladies' room.
Fortunately, nobody was in there, though if every stall had been full it wouldn't have stopped me from doing what I did, which was to survey myself coolly in the mirror. Good paternal genes had given me fair skin of a decent texture, dark eyes, and dark hair. My mother had been pontificating since I hit puberty about the need to wear makeup in order to look polished. I never wore any. She'd also held forth on more than one occasion about how much more professional I looked with my hair up. I pulled out the clip that held it in place and let it fall down to my shoulders in its straight, dark panels.
I could almost hear her saying, "If you insist on wearing it down like a Russian wolfhound, at least don't drag your hand through it. You might as well bite your nails or pick your nose while you're at it."
I neither picked nor bit, but I did rake my fingers through my hair and shake it out so that it had its usual tousled, I do-not-have-time-to-think-about-my-hair look. Then I slung my purse over my shoulder and, with one more rake through the hair, I headed back toward the dining room, my black jacket flapping behind me. I was so unpolished that my mother would probably come down from the podium with a can of Pledge.
Forks were already clinking when I walked in. Big, teddy-bear Max stood up at a table near the front and waved to me with his usual effervescent enthusiasm, his signature shock of dark, wavy hair tumbling onto his forehead. Everyone within a two-table radius brought his or her respective head up from the smothered chicken and cold broccoli to stare. It was always hard to tell whether Max was directing Beethoven's Fifth or just saying hello.
He was in Jewish-mother mode when I got to him. Make that New York Jewish mother.
"I was worried sick," he said, gesturing toward his plate. "Look at this. I could barely eat."
"Only because it isn't veal scaloppini," I said. And then I submitted to the customary kiss on each cheek, which I always tolerated because there was no sense doing otherwise. Max never asked me if I wanted to be fawned over like fifth-century sculpture-he just did it.
"Sit down, sit down," he said. "I had them cover your plate. It's probably stone cold anyway. You want me to order you another one?"
"No," I said. "I don't think it'll make much difference."
"I've given up on banquet food improving." Max's words were always more gushed than spoken. "I've tried to tell them-heaven knows, I've tried. A university of this caliber-all the guests we have ... Jill, honey, eat, eat. God forbid you should still be on the dessert when your mother gets up to give her speech. You know everyone here? What am I-I'm a miserable host. Jill McGavock, Liz's daughter-"
There was probably no need for an introduction. From the expressions on the four faces that looked back at me, they had been hearing about nothing but me and my whereabouts since they sat down. And they were undoubtedly relieved that I had finally arrived so Max would move on to another topic. Not that he wasn't charming-but enough already.
"Dr. Wang from pathology," Max was saying. "And his wife, Stephanie. Look at her. Is she a picture? Beautiful lady."
"Definitely," I said to the mousy woman with the bad perm. "We've met."
"Ellen Van Dyke," Max continued, gesticulation in high gear. "New in hospital administration. Fascinating. You'll hear her stories about China-she's an expert." And with a raised hand, "No, Ellen, you are. Don't argue with me."
"I can't wait," I said.
"And this is ... what am I, slipping? What is your name again? Please forgive me?"
The man whose arm Max was by now wringing like a dishrag grinned. "Sam Bakalis," he said. "I tagged along with Ellen. Free food."
"You'd have done better standing in line at the soup kitchen," I said. "That's a little higher on the chain."
Sam grinned again and nodded toward my plate. "So does that mean your share is up for grabs?" Then he squeezed Ellen's hand and said, "No, seriously, I came for the delightful company."
"Save it, Sam," she said. "You've heard all my China stories. And so has just about everybody else here, so you're going to be spared tonight, Jill."
"Stop by her office and see her slides, though," Sam said.
"So, do you work at the hospital, too?" Max said, nodding at Sam.
"No, no, I'm in the philosophy department."
What are you, the file clerk? I thought.
He obviously wasn't. Stanford Hospital administrators didn't date the office staff. But this Sam person didn't look like your standard academic. Not that there was a look. When you were riding across campus in the middle of a flock of bicyclists, you saw staff members wearing everything from berets to dreadlocks. But few of them did the I-look-like-a-student thing, and Sam had it down to an art form. He had dark curly hair that was on the shaggy side, which sneaked out over his ears as if he'd spent the money his mother had given him for a haircut on baseball cards. His eyebrows were thick-no professorial trim at the barber. And he smiled-no, grinned-more than most people in academic pursuit. Besides all that, his shirt and blazer both had an almost-rumpled look, as if he'd pulled them out from the bottom of the stack on the chair.
He must be looking for a wife, I thought. Don't look at Ellen. She falls more into my mother's class. Women in Gotchy shoes don't marry guys who look like unmade beds.
I looked up then to find the unmade bed in question staring back at me.
"Max tells us you're a graduate student," Sam said.
"I am," I said. "Fifth year." And I don't go for unmade beds either. Or any beds, for that matter.
"Math, right?" Dr. Wang said.
I nodded and pushed my plate aside to see if the salad was any better than the rice pilaf.
"Math. You're a sick woman, Jill," Ellen said. "But I'm sure your mother is extremely proud of you."
"Proud?" Max said. "She's a peacock when she talks about Jill!"
Even though that was definitely not accurate, Max could never be convinced otherwise. He was completely biased when it came to my mother. I'd discovered years ago that the Liz McGavock he saw and the one the rest of us had to live with were not the same person.
"So, fifth year," Sam said. "You're pretty far into your dissertation then."
"I am," I said. "I'm close to proving my thesis, actually."
"Good thing," Dr. Wang said. "Don't you have to finish in five years?"
"You don't have to finish, but you don't get funding after five. And, yeah, they wonder about you if you can't pull it off by the end of that time."
"And your thesis is-?"
I looked at Sam, who was surveying me through his thin-rimmed glasses. What I hadn't picked up on before, when I was putting him into the secretarial pool, was the intensity in his eyes. They were hazel, kind of a neutral color, but focused, as if there were something behind them fine-tuning their lenses.
"Do you actually want to know what my thesis is?" I said. "Or are you just being polite?"
"Polite isn't a word I'd use to describe Sam," Ellen said with a laugh.
"Besides, differential calculus doesn't usually constitute small talk," Dr. Wang said.
"I guess I have no choice but to say I really want to know." Sam was still grinning.
"If they had just put a little basil in this sauce," Max said, "it would have made all the difference."
"Nice try, Dr. Ironto," Sam said to him. "But let me just get my question answered before we go off into the culinary world."
Max looked like the host whose tea party has just been crashed by the Hell's Angels. He knew me.
"So how much algebraic topology have you had?" I said.
"None," Sam said. "I didn't even know it existed."
"I'd have to give you a crash course, then. You sure you have that kind of time?"
Sam grinned again. "Sure. I should be able to get that down before they bring the dessert."
I set my fork on the edge of the plate and folded my hands. My eyes locked onto Sam's. "I'm specifically in the area of K-theory, working with vector bundles. We can take any shape and assign a vector space, so that for every point on the shape we end up with a vector bundle. K-theory studies those vector bundles."
Sam's full lips were twitching. "Ah, that certainly clarifies it for me. How about the rest of you?" He grinned while surveying everyone around the table.
"I'm good to go," Ellen said.
"Okay, but here's my real question," Sam said. He leaned over his broccoli. "Why? Why do you want to fool around with shapes in the first place?"
"Because I can," I said.
"She has a terrible image problem," Max said, straight-faced. "We've tried therapy, but still, always with the inferiority complex."
"All right," I said. "I do it because it's beautiful."
"Math is beautiful?" Mrs. Wang said.
Ellen was shaking her head. "No, Jill. A sunset at Half Moon Bay is beautiful. A German chocolate cake is beautiful. Geometry is not beautiful. What were you saying about basil, Max?"
"No, really, indulge me here," Sam said. "I'm intrigued."
He had yet to take his eyes off me. I, in turn, was holding my own in the who's-going-to-look-away-first contest, even amid the banquet chatter and dish clatter that was going on around us. No man won that competition with me.
"So it's all about the beauty of it for you," he said.
I leaned forward. "That's pretty simplistic."
"So work with me. I'm a layman."
"For me, yes, it is about the elegance of it. What I'm working on is going to help us understand the mathematical big picture."
"So, you're learning math so you can...learn math."
"Again that's a little simplistic. If you have to have a practical reason, K-theory has some applications to quantum physics." I shrugged. "But there isn't much applied math here at Stanford."
"That would be too mundane, wouldn't it?" he said. "I try to make a practical application in the philosophy department and they're ready to give me the hemlock."
"What is it exactly that you do there?" I said, eyes still fixed.
"You're a TA."
"No, I'm a professor. But not tenured. Don't be too impressed."
I wasn't. But I was surprised. The Midwest twang and the shaggy do had me fooled. And I don't fool easily.
"Ah, the pièce de résistance!" Max said, with more fervor than was warranted by the slices of carrot cake that were being served.
I knew he was ready for a subject change, and I reluctantly let him make it. If I ever cut anybody slack, it was Max. He hated any dissonance that didn't come from a Rachmaninoff piece. At that moment, he was bowing his silver-streaked head to each of us as the cake was being distributed, as if he'd baked it himself. As he handed me my piece, his soft brown eyes practically begged me not to mar my mother's special night. I gave in and looked around for the mother in question.
She was at the head table, of course, next to Dr. Grant, chief of all the Stanford labs. Her face was turned away from me as she talked to him, more than likely treating him to her opinion about something. Anything. There was nothing she couldn't hold forth on with complete eloquence at the drop of a toupee. I didn't have to hear her to know her voice was deep and rich in Grant's ear-that her articulation was impeccable, that every word was slicing into him like a scalpel. As always, she was almost perfectly still as she talked. My mother never seemed to feel a need for gestures or anything else that didn't contribute to the collected image she projected.
Right about now, I thought, Grant is probably saying to himself, "Is this woman human?" Don't give yourself credit for an original thought, pal. I've wondered that all my life. The real question is-
But the real question faded right there in my frontal lobe as my mother turned her head to address the tuxedo-clad gentleman on her other side. I could see her face, and it stopped me cold.
Did I miss the cyclone she survived to get here? I thought.
That was only a slight exaggeration considering the package my mother always-always-presented to the world. I'd expected the thick mane of dark hair peppered with gray to be in its perpetual cut-fashionably-short, not-a-hair-out-of-place condition. The square, handsome face to be flawlessly made up. The 22-karat understated gold necklace to hang in tasteful elegance against something in pure silk.
What I saw was a woman who had thrown herself together en route to the banquet and hadn't bothered to look in a mirror since then.
She was at least two months past the last due date for a haircut.
Excerpted from Pascal's Wager by NANCY RUE Copyright © 2001 by Nancy Rue
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted April 25, 2002
I really liked the relationship that develops between Jill and Sam. The dialogue between the two of them is so realistic that it sounds like everyday conversation. So many characters in books sound like they're just reading a written speech, but these characters sound as those we are listening in on a real conversation. It was also interesting to see how Jill's views change towards her mother throughout the book. I highly recommend this book.
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