Number 56

By Nancy Bourne

“I’ll never forget,” Julian begins, pushing his dessert plate away and smiling at the eight guests crowded around the dining room table. “I was in English class, senior year of high school, bored out of my gourd, as usual, when a girl in the back, someone I’d never really noticed before, raised her hand and delivered an interpretation of King Lear that was so complex, so fucking intelligent, I could barely understand it. I don’t think even the teacher understood it. But he knew, what the rest of us didn’t, that that girl was smarter than anybody in the whole damn school.”

Here it comes. Number 56. I’ve taken to counting them.

He’s beaming in my direction. “And there she sits. My wife Beatrice. The love of my life.”

Always the same words. At academic parties, on cruise ships, at college reunions, at concert intermissions, once when he was drunk.

For the first time all evening they’ve noticed me, I mean really taken notice.

I could duck my head and smile. I could say, but he was always head and shoulders above all of us. I could tell them, apologetically, when asked, that I have been his assistant for thirty years, that I edit his scholarly papers. I’ve said those kinds of things and ducked and smiled for years.

I watch them thinking, how generous! A nuclear physicist. And what’s she done? I forget.

I watch him, talking, talking, smiling. I love him. I always have.

I feel myself rising to my feet. Slowly the conversation stops.

I say, “When Julian and I were high school seniors, we studied Calculus.”

They are all looking at me, puzzled, expectant.

“It was a small class in those days; not many high school kids were advanced enough to take Calculus. Just twelve students and our teacher, Mr. Naylor.”

Julian is shaking his head, trying to get my attention. I ignore him.

“Julian sat behind me. At the end of the semester we had an hour-long test. It was fun. I chugged along, doing the calculations, figuring out the answers, lost in my own space.”

Most of the guests are smiling now, but a few of the men look away, as if they are somehow embarrassed for me. I don’t look at Julian.

I continue. “Suddenly, I became aware of a scuffle behind me. I turned to find Mr. Naylor holding a piece of paper high in the air. ‘You were copying Bea’s paper, Julian,’ he said. I looked at Julian. His face was bright red. ‘I did not,’ he cried. Then he jumped up, knocked over the desk, and ran out of the room.”

There is not a sound in the dining room.

“Julian never came back to Calculus,” I continue. “But when he took it in summer school, he asked if I would tutor him. That’s how we fell in love.”

I sit back down and resume eating my blackberry pie and ice cream. People talk and laugh as before. But the party ends earlier than expected.

Julian says nothing on the way home. He just stares ahead, both hands gripping the steering wheel.

“Why did you do that?” he asks once we are home.

“After 56 times I’d had enough.”

“It was cruel,” he says. “You could ruin my reputation, telling stuff like that.”

“That would never happen,” I say. “Our work is too good.”


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