I’m already a beer and a half deep by the time she shows up. Initially she says she doesn’t want a wimpy beer but I tell her nothing’s wimpy if it gets the job done. She settles on something that tastes like plum and her face lights up in a way it wouldn’t have if she’d stuck to her guns. I tell her good beer tastes better than patriarchy and she laughs.
She looks over at the ancient cigarette machine in the corner. “Wait, do they sell cigarettes here?”
“Pretty sure that still works,” I tell her.
She pauses for a second, and it’s redundant to tell me but she says “I kiiiinda wanna get cigarettes.”
“I kinda want you to get cigarettes too.”
“You think smoking’s sexy?”
“I generally think doing what you want is sexy.”
A minute later she lights up and crosses her legs and I catch myself just a little too late looking down at her hem as it slides an inch down her thigh. “How do you think you did on that test?”
I shrug. “Guess we’ll never know.”
“Wait, she’s gonna post the grades, right?”
“Probably.” I shrug again. “I don’t check them.”
“You DON’T?” And she leans forward and uncrosses her legs and the hem slides a little more. Her eyes are wide and animated and she’s grinning to her ears. “WHAT? That’s crazy! You don’t check them?”
“Too late to do anything about ‘em once they’re up, right?”
“So, wait,” she puffs her cigarette, “you don’t check your grades at all?”
“Well I should correct myself,” and I finish my beer and I was feeling it before but now it’s really coming, scotch ale highs, “I check up on assignments but not, like…final grades.”
“Oh, okay. That’s…less weird.” She leans back and puffs again. “Still weird, but…more normal than I was thinking.”
“Final grades are final grades.” I get up to get another beer. She’s only a third of the way through hers. I should slow down but I won’t. “Once they’re up, it’s…” and I finish by spreading my hands and twiddling my fingers.
“Out of your hands?”
I snap and point to her and give a thumbs up and make my way back to the bar. The guy tending is surly and irritable and seems to dislike me more every time I come. I like the guarantee that he won’t try to talk to me. She’s still only a third of the way through her beer when I head back, and my glass matches hers by the time I reach the table. I should slow down but I won’t.
“You like playing darts?” I ask her.
“”How do you play?”
“You stab a piece of cork until everyone’s too drunk to keep score.” I get up and she follows and I pry the darts from the board.
“I don’t think I’ll be getting drunk,” she tells me.
“I’ll carry the weight for both of us.”
She wins and we sit back down and while we were playing she worked her way through her first and second rounds. She’s drinking water now and she’s giggly and she’s leaning on me in a way that doesn’t quite betray the platonic tone she said this would have. Or maybe I just want it to. We start talking about a paper she brought up in class today, about perceptions on issues related to family planning. The paper had a lot of Likert scales and she asks about something I said in class.
“Why do you hate Likert scales?”
“I don’t.” I’m still drinking, but even I know I’m not going to finish this third beer. Thank fuck I can walk home from here. She’s in even better shape, set up in a loft above a shop a few doors down. “I just hate seven point scales. Five point tells you all you need to know.”
“You don’t think there’s value in the extra variability?” She’s leaning in and her breath is wispy smoke and wild August wind and something sweet, like flowers but not flowers. Nectar?
“‘Moderately agree.’ ‘Slightly agree.’ I mean come on. You either agree or disagree. Everything else is just fluffing.”
She laughs. “Are you sure clinical isn’t pronounced cynical?”
I shrug. “I guess more nuance is a good thing in some situations, but ‘like, love, dislike, hate, don’t care,’ I mean that tells me all I wanna know, y’know? The rest…” I wave my hand and take a bigger drink than I should. But then every drink is more than you should.
“It’s that clear cut?”
“For me. Or I guess I want it to be. What about you?”
“I kinda fucking love seven point scales.”
“I’m going to keep drinking.”
“They tell you so much!” And she sweeps her arms and almost clips our glasses, and then pulls them back to her sides in a jerking motion and laughs. This close to the door the southern summer has untamed her hair, despite the AC’s efforts. “So much SO SIMPLY!”
“But I mean like what does slightly tell you that moderately doesn’t?”
“Not much. Everything. More for us than for normal people though, right?” And she laughs and accidentally kicks me and says “oh shit sorry” and reflexively grabs my leg where she kicked me.
“I don’t even think other psych students would find this as funny as we do.”
“Cuz we’re nerds!” And she laughs again and grabs my arm and she leans into me again. She regains her composure and sits up. “Wooo. I need more water. And probably weed but definitely water.”
“I should probably help you with that.” She tells me she can get it when I stand up but I tell her honestly that I need water too. “With the weed too but y’know that’ll be for later.”
The closing bartender is a lot friendlier than the guy before. I like that flow. Hit the ground all business, close out with a friend. Good system. I get our water and consider paying for our beers but sometimes it annoys people when I pay for them. I thank the guy and compliment his Transformers shirt and I mean it, the Insecticons don’t get enough love.
She’s scratching out a Likert scale on the back of a coaster. Seven points.
“So what does this tell me?” I ask while she shotguns half her glass. Pretty sure she blazed a little before making her way over. Or someone outside the door did.
“Okay, so, like, you’re trying to figure out how somebody feels about something.”
“I sure am.”
“Okay so, they’re neutral here.” She points to the center.
“I’m following so far.”
“Yeah, so, even without them telling you, you probably already know you ain’t vibin’ to ‘em.” We put up screens in the south but our g’s drop hard when we drink. “They ain’t laughin’ at your jokes, they ain’t makin’ eye contact. They ain’t feelin’ you.”
“That’s the general condition, yeah.”
She grins and licks her teeth and keeps talking. “So that sucks but at least they ain’t icy around you.” She points to the next point to the left. “Before it was just two people not giving a shit. Now it’s someone letting you know you ain’t really welcome, but they’re not being, like…mean about it.”
“That’s helpful.” I work on my water. “So you know to stop trying without getting shamed too hard.”
“Dudes ain’t great at hints.”
“Nope! So then we just say,” one more to the left, “fuck off, dude.”
“No more ambiguity.”
“Right. Now we don’t care cuz fuck you.”
“What about that one?” I point to the last dot.
“That’s when we stab you.”
“Seems measurable to me.” I point to the right side. “Now what’s going on here?”
“We’re such nerds!” She grins and licks her teeth again. Her lipstick is so light I don’t think I’d notice if it was on her teeth anyway, especially in the low light. “Who the fuck gets this interested in this?”
“If we weren’t nerds we wouldn’t be in school this deep in our twenties.” I point again. “So what’s happening with these assholes?”
“So this is where polite people are usually hovering, right?” First dot to the right.
“Okay. You’re not ignoring someone, maybe you even do something helpful for them.”
“Right! At a minimum you’re making an effort to make the interaction comfortable for everyone.”
“Alright so here,” next dot, “here you’re buddies. Friends, acquaintances, whatever. Maybe you’re out on a date.”
“Maybe we are.”
Another grin, another sweep of her tongue. “Yeah, so here is where someone’s company isn’t just pleasant, it’s desired. Doesn’t matter in what way. Romantic, platonic…”
“Oof, fuck, not platonic.”
“…it’s just desired.”
“So here…” and she pauses.
“What happens there?”
“What’s the word where you and another person are inseparable?”
“Bonded! You’re bonded with somebody here.” She taps the last point. “Doesn’t matter what kind of bond. Friendly, family, romantic. You’re just…just bonded. You’re interdependently living.”
“That was a whole story arc.”
“You think you could tell it with just five points?”
“Well I can try.” I finish my water and I’ve got dry mouth but I flip over a coaster and sketch my scale. The points aren’t really even but neither am I.
“Alright, neutral.” I point to the center. We scoot our chairs so we’re side by side and I hold out the coaster so she can see but she leans over anyway. A hair of hers is caught in the current of the open door, and it flicks against my temple before clinging to my beard.
“Right here,” I move over a point to the left. “Is casual disregard. Maybe you’d just be inconvenienced by interacting with the other person or maybe you just don’t like them, but it doesn’t matter because either way you’re avoiding the interaction.”
“Awfully wide degree on interpretation for why though.”
“But it’s all the same outcome. You’re just avoiding them, regardless of why. And here,” last point to the left, “you’re in opposition to someone. You’re either antagonizing or being antagonized by someone else. Doesn’t matter why or really in what way. You and another entity are in the process of opposing the well-being of each other.”
“You’re a broad strokes kinda guy.”
“Strokes is the operative word. Alright now these motherfuckers,” First point to the right. “Your company is being sought, or you’re seeking another person’s company. Doesn’t matter why, to what degree, you’re just actively interacting with other people.”
“Well…yeah, I guess. And here,” last point, “here you’re seeking sustained interaction. Kinda like you were saying, doesn’t matter what kind. But it’s sustained and, like…fuckin’ nurturin’ too, I guess.”
“God, you must be shit at qualitative data.”
“Actually I’m pretty fuckin’ good at it.” I crack my back and she shifts when I do, and when we both settle she’s completely resting against my arm. “People seem to open up to me pretty easy. I’m not sure why.”
“You definitely have a therapy presence.” She sits up then, fishes a smoke from her pack. She looks at me, cocks an eyebrow, offers me one. We light up and she settles against me again. “Actually that’s something our cohort said about you when you took that class with us.”
“I have a therapy presence?”
“Yeah. Therapeutic. Yeah. You’re soothing.”
“Soothing. Like steel wool.”
“Nooooo.” She blows out a thin stream of smoke and looks up at me. “You’re very calming. Your whole demeanor. It’s relaxed.”
“How relaxed you feelin’ right now?”
She snuggles a little deeper. “I’m pretty cozy.”
“You seem cozy.” I look up and blow smoke straight into the air and then look down at her. Her eyeliner comes to a little point. What do people call that? A wing? While I’m looking she looks up and catches me staring. She smiles a comfortable smile and closes her eyes and hugs my arm. I kind of wish I worked out but she doesn’t seem to mind. The cool skin of her knee is slowly warming under my lazy hand.
“So that’s it?” She says then, and her voice is low and tired now. “That’s how people interact?” And she raps her finger heavy on my scale.
“Well,” and I take a moment to consider. “I guess I can see some value in fleshing it out a little.
“Well…” I grab the pen we’ve been using and add two points to the right end.
“Wait, that’s not where those go. Not like, both of ‘em on one end.”
“It’s where they go now. So what do we call ’em?”
I feel her shrug. “Extra Happy and Super Happy?”
Above one I write “Kissy Time.” Above the other I write “Sexy Time.” She lurches from the snuggle and laughs. She seems animated again.
“Well you’re optimistic.”
“Wouldn’t be in graduate school if I wasn’t.”
“But that’s…no, wait, you can only have like a very select subsection of your population along those last two points.”
“Hey man, my people hail from Alabama.”
“Well don’t get your hopes up.”
“Look I’m not predictin’ anything, I’m just readin’ off the scale.” I slap the coaster down. “That’s just science.”
“What are your operational definitions for Kissy Time and Sexy Time?”
“We should probably conference on those.”
“Oh we should?”
“I mean that’s what peer review is, right?”
“1,000% not what that is.”
“Right, totally what that is. I’m just being methodologically rigorous.”
“Rigorous is the word.” She sits up and stretches, yawns. Glasses clink and the dishwasher behind the bar hums. The music lowers and disappears. The moment has come to a close. The trick is to be comfortable with instances of finality.
“Time to go I guess,” I say, looking over my shoulder, and she fishes out her card and I try to wave her off, but she grabs my wrist and closes my hand over the plastic. “If I don’t get a receipt, I’ll…” and she pauses, then shrugs. “I dunno, be a little annoyed I guess.”
“Noted.” And I go to pay and the bartender tells me they’re actually open for another hour, no rush. The music picks up again – I guess the playlist just paused – and I close us out and ask for more water and she’s throwing a little shawl over her shoulders when I get back.
“We got time to get a little hydrated if you want.”
“Excellent idea. 10/10.” And we drink our water and make eye contact and she laughs again.
She laughs a little more. “Kissy time.” Another laugh.
“How far along have we gotten into Friendly Time?”
She smiles, a little, while she thinks. “We’re into it a ways.”
“Which direction?” I nod at the coasters. “More than friendly, less than friendly?”
“Rigorous is right.”
“Long as I’m not tiresome.”
Then we’re walking down to the foot of the iron stairs that lead up to her place, and I just mean to just say goodnight and instead I say “more than friendly?” again and she grabs my shirt pocket and kisses the side of my mouth, then my bottom lip. I kiss back, and I feel wet roughness and then the slick of makeup. One hand holding onto me, the other resting against me. My hands, one behind her ear, one at her hip. Her hip braced against mine. The sweep of her tongue.
And we break and she laughs and asks me “How friendly was that?” and I tell her we’ll need a nine point scale, and she laughs and then she’s quiet and then we’re kissing again.
And then it is goodnight. Her door closes. I slide along a scale as I make my way home.