Stef snaked through the crowd and regretted deeply that she had not seen Molly before Molly had seen her. She felt that familiar pang in her gut, a flush across her cheeks. Stef had often felt this way with men, that the men she had dated did not or could not understand her. She had chalked this up to differences in chemistry, biology. With Molly she had begun to suspect there was something within herself that prevented understanding. Like God, she was unknowable.
Molly did not share this opinion.
“You’re not divine,” Molly had said to her once, “You’re just an asshole.”
But like God, Stef was dynamite at the start of things, largely absent in the middle, and breathing fire by the end.
Stef had stepped out of Dr. Wegner’s office, Dr. Wegner had stepped out behind her, he put his hand on Stef’s shoulder, he closed the office door, Stef turned and her eyes found Molly’s.
Molly had dressed for the party. She’d changed out of the patterned sundress she’d been wearing when Stef left their apartment into dark slacks and a collared shirt. This change was unsuccessful. Molly looked out of place regardless.
“I’ve been here for a half hour,” Molly said as Stef reached her, “I was about to leave without you.”
“Thanks for sticking around,” Stef said and took Molly’s hand and began to lead her to the stairs, “I got hung up.” They passed a group of animated research assistants whowere taking turns drinking a heavy looking liquid out of a cheap souvenir mug.
By the time they reached the bottom of the stairs Stef felt the weight of her own drink in her hand and left her wine glass on the landing. This afforded Molly the opportunity to race ahead, her car keys clinking against the buckle of her purse as she dug them out roughly.
Stef saw that they would fight this whole fight through and that the only reasonable position she could take would be no position at all. Stef slid into the passenger seat and closed her door with deliberate quiet. Molly turned the ignition and left the radio on at a volume uncomfortable to talk over. She gripped the steering wheel with both hands and leaned her body into it, her eyes squinted and mouth drawn in a narrow line. Molly must have forgotten her glasses at home. They merged onto the bridge and Molly paid the toll without thanking the attendant for her change.
It was late already. Stef leaned her head against the cool glass window and watched the fog glide across the bay and into the city. She strained to listen to the rhythmic thump of tires going over grooves in the pavement.
“I looked and looked for you and I couldn’t find you anywhere,” Molly said without leaning back or taking her eyes off the road.
“I was right there, babe,” Stef murmured. She pulled at the hem of her skirt to inch it closer to her knees and, after a beat, repeated herself a little louder.
“I had to ask Howard if he knew where you’d gone and the look he gave me – “ Molly leaned ever slightly forward, craning her head up to read the road signs.
“Dr. Wegner had just pulled me into his office to introduce me to a visiting particle physicist – it was a big deal, Mol.”
“Why? Why you, specifically, and no one else?” Molly merged into the far left lane, speeding, the car lurched off the bridge onto solid city pavement. Stef outlined the skyline in her window as it swam by. She imagined the speckled office lights were constellations she was connecting, clusters of galaxies yet undiscovered. She traced an Einstein cross.
“This guy worked on the Abell 383 project. He’s a giant in the field and this connection could get my dissertation published somewhere that matters,” Stef said, “It was huge of Dr. Wegner to introduce me.” She considered putting a hand on Molly’s knee but thought better of it.
“What you’re telling me is that Dr. Wegner had this guy, this particle physicist,” Molly spat the words like a swear, “just sitting in his office, an ace in his back pocket, waiting all night to meet you, a grad student.”
“He just flew in, you’re making something out of nothing.”
“Howard said he hadn’t seen you all night,” Molly’s breath tumbled out of her, a geyser.
“The sixth floor was packed, Molly, would it help my case if I told you I didn’t see Howard either?” Stef was smiling and was trying to stop smiling because she realized it was inappropriate but she couldn’t seem to help herself. The wine was getting to her head and she was remembering their first date. Molly had misunderstood Stef’s dating profile, mistaking astronomy for astrology. When Stef finally explained to Molly that she was studying cosmology and not star sign compatability Molly was unfazed. Stef explained her research – what constitutes the universe, where to and how it is expanding, and the implications of dark matter and dark energy on our understanding of space. Molly latched onto the latter. She had liked that Stef studied things that couldn’t be seen. She found something romantic in the placeholder “dark matter” – she’d told Stef that night that it was love, or life-force, or God and Stef had thought she was so lovely, so kind, so gentle that she’d never corrected her.
She hadn’t told her that she was terrified of that unknown and in studying what it touched – the ways its mass distorted space-time – she hoped to know it, dissect it, to put it on display. That she was afraid of this rapidly expanding universe, inescapable, impossible to slow. That she knew what it meant – that everything, every observable and unobservable particle that ever was or will be, would thin out, and get cold. Would die. It didn’t matter to her that it would take billions of years and that she would have stopped existing long before. She could confront her own nothingness. But the nothingness of everything?
Stef looked at Molly, hunched over the wheel, and under the harsh light of the streetlights Molly suddenly looked smaller. More real. She was shrinking in her leather jacket, her dark hair pulled loose into a low ponytail. Stef could see now, looking at her directly for the first time since, that Molly’s cheeks were wet.
“I’m sorry,” Stef said.
Molly stayed still and silent.
At the next intersection they turned and crept up the hill onto their street. The locked branches of the Pepper trees and Soapbarks – tentatively held hands – blocked out any visible starlight. A block away from their apartment, on the corner where they bought their produce, there was a tiny island of pavement sandwiched between a moving truck and a hatchback for sale. $3,000, 2008.
“I can fit,” Molly said. She wiped her cheek with her sleeve. “Get out and help me back in.”
“I don’t think we’ll fit,” Stef said. Molly often underestimated the size of their car.
Molly closed her eyes and said, “Get. Out.”
Stef opened the door, partly unconvinced that when she stepped out onto the ground it would be solid beneath her. The air was thick with sea mist and wrapped around her bare legs, forcing her knees together, rattling them.
The car would not fit. She shook her head. Molly pulled forward, turned the wheel sharply, and began to back in. Stef realized she could walk home and be in bed in less than ten minutes if she wanted.
Molly rolled down the passenger window, “You’re just standing there. You’re not helping.”
“The space is too small.”
“I can fit,” Molly said, her voice cracking.
Stef got into the car. Molly was crying. Stef didn’t know how to comfort her, didn’t know what to do with her hands, her words, her body. She slumped against the hard door. Molly shook against the steering wheel. Stef shut her eyes tight and a flash across her eyelids, a marriage of light and dark, illuminated the invisible connective tissue that bound all the universe together. Molly was close enough to touch but light-years away.
Aliceanna Stopher is a semicolon fiend, plant eater, lady gamer, cardigan wearer, and comic book enthusiast. She writes and lives in San Francisco.