Love, Theoretically by Ali Hazelwood
In my life I have experienced regret, embarrassment, maybe even a touch of agony. But nothing, absolutely nothing prepared me for the ignominy of finding myself in a bathroom stall, pressed against the arrogant older brother of the guy I’ve been pretending to date for the past six months.
It’s an award-winning, rock-bottoming low. Especially when coupled with the knowledge that Jack Smith is saving my ass. When he picks me up by the waist to maneuver me around the cramped space, gravity-defyingly strong, I’m not sure what’s worse: the fact that his hands are all that prevent me from crumpling like a scrunchie, or the mortifying amount of gratitude I feel toward him.
“Settle down, Elsie,” he says against the skin of my cheek, terse as usual, but also incongruously soothing. He’s close—too close. I’m close—too close. Not nearly close enough? The sweet oblivion of death. “And stop fidgeting.”
“I’m not fidgeting, Jack,” I say, fidgeting.
But after a second I just give in. I close my eyes. Relax into his chest. Feel the scent of him in my nostrils, anchoring me to sanity. And wonder which one, out of my millions of asinine life choices, led me to this moment.
WAVES AND PARTICLES
Twenty-four hours earlier
All throughout middle school, my Halloween costume was the duality of light.
I made it with a marker, drawing a bunch of circles and zigzag lines all over one of Dad’s white undershirts I’d rescued from the trash can. In hindsight, the production value was so low, not even the physics teacher managed to guess what it was. I never minded, though. I’d walk around the hallways hearing Bill Nye’s voice in my head, his beautiful explanation of the ways light could be two different things at once, depending on what others wanted to see: a particle and a wave.
It seemed like a winning idea. And had me wondering if I, too, could contain two—no, a whole multitude of Elsies. Each one would be crafted, custom tailored, carefully curated with a different person in mind. I’d give everyone the me they wanted, needed, craved, and in exchange they’d care about me.
Easy peasy, photons squeezy.
Funny how my physics career and my people-pleasing career started around the same time. How I can draw a straight line from baby’s first quantum mechanics concept to my current job. Actually, to both my current jobs. The day one, in which I earn next to nothing by hatching physical theories that explain why small molecules cluster together like cliques of mean girls during lunch hour. And the other one, in which . . .
Well. The other one, in which I pretend to be someone else, at least pays well.
“Uncle Paul will try to rope us into a threesome, again,” Greg tells me, soulful brown eyes full of apologies, and I don’t hesitate. I don’t act annoyed. I don’t shudder in revulsion thinking about Uncle Paul’s sewage breath or his oily comb-over, which reminds me of pubic hair.
Okay, maybe I do shudder a little bit. But I cover it up with a smile and a professional “Got it.”
“Also,” he continues, running a hand through his messy curls, “Dad recently developed severe lactose intolerance but refuses to ease up on the dairy. There might be . . .”
“Gastrointestinal events.” Understandable. I’d resist giving up cheese, too.
“And my cousin Izzy—she’s known to become physically aggressive when people disagree with her over the literary value of the Twilight Saga.”
I perk up. “Is she pro or against?”
“Against,” Greg says darkly.
I love Twilight even more than cheese, but I can withhold my TED Talk on why Alice and Bella should have left all those idiots behind and ridden off into the sunset.
Team Bellice 4evah.
“Elsie, I’m sorry. It’s Grandma’s ninetieth. The whole family will be here.” He sighs, breath smoky white in the night air of this icy Boston January. “Mom’s going to be at her worst.”
“Don’t worry.” I ring the doorbell of Greg’s grandmother’s town house and offer my most encouraging smile. He hired me to be his fake girlfriend, and he’ll get the Elsie he wants me to be: reassuring, yes, but also gently bossy. A dominatrix who doesn’t like to wield a whip—but could if necessary. “Remember our exit strategy?”
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