The geek was tall, maybe five-eight, and Jodie had to look up as she extended the pink Tupperware container. “Can I bum a couple of scoops of coffee? There’s nothing but decaf in the house, and I need something stronger.”
Dr. Jane took the container, but she seemed to do it reluctantly. She didn’t strike Jodie as the stingy type, so her reaction probably meant she wasn’t in the mood for company. “Yes, I’ll—uh—get you some.” She turned away and headed for the kitchen, obviously expecting Jodie to wait where she was, but Jodie had a half hour to kill before the pregame show started, and she was curious enough to follow.
They passed through a living room that, at first glance, seemed pretty boring: off-white walls, comfortable furniture, boring-looking books everywhere. Jodie was getting ready to pass right through when the framed museum posters on the walls caught her attention. They all seemed to have been done by some lady named Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jodie knew she had a dirty mind, but she didn’t think that explained why every one of the flowers looked like female sex organs.
She saw flowers with deep, dark hearts. Flowers with petals flopping over moist, secret centers. She saw—jeez. It was a clamshell with this little wet pearl, and even somebody with the cleanest mind in the world would have to look twice at that one. She wondered if maybe the geek was a dike. Why else would she want to look at flower pussies every time she went into her living room?
Jodie wandered into the kitchen, which was pale lavender with pretty floral curtains hanging at the window, although these flowers were regular ones, not the X-rateds in the living-room paintings. Everything in the kitchen was cheery and cute except for the owner, who looked more dignified than God.
Dr. Jane was one of those neat, tweedy women. Her tailored slacks had small, tidy brown-and-black checks, and her soft, oatmeal-colored sweater looked like cashmere. Despite her height, she was small-boned, with well-proportioned legs and a slender waist. Jodie might have felt envious of her figure except for the fact that she had no boobs, or at least none to speak of.
Her hair was jaw-length—pale blond with streaks of flax, platinum, and gold that couldn’t have come from a bottle. It was arranged in one of those conservative hairstyles that Jodie wouldn’t have been caught dead in—brushed loosely back from her face and held in place with a narrow brown velvet clip-on headband.
She turned slightly so that Jodie got a better look. Too bad about those big, geeky glasses. They hid a nice set of green eyes. She also had a good forehead and a decent nose, neither too big nor too small. Her mouth was sort of interesting, with a thin upper lip and a plump bottom one. And she had great skin. But she didn’t seem to do much with herself. Jodie would have added a lot more makeup. All in all, the geek was a good-looking woman, but sort of intimidating, even with those red-rimmed eyes.
She put the lid on the Tupperware and held it out toward Jodie, who was just about to take it when she spotted the crumpled wrapping paper on the kitchen table and the small pile of gifts lying next to it.
“What’s the occasion?”
“Nothing, really. It’s my birthday.” Her voice had an interesting huskiness to it, and for the first time Jodie noticed the tissues crumpled in her hand.
“Hey, no kidding. Happy birthday.”
Ignoring the Tupperware container in Dr. Jane’s outstretched hand, Jodie walked over to the table and looked down at the assortment of presents: a puny little box of plain white stationary, an electric toothbrush, a pen, and a gift certificate for Jiffy Lube. Pathetic. Not a pair of crotchless panties or a sexy nightie in sight.
To her surprise, Dr. Jane gave a short laugh. “You’re right about that. My friend Caroline always comes through with the perfect gift, but she’s on a dig in Ethiopia.” And then, to Jodie’s surprise, a tear skidded out from under her glasses and slipped down her cheek.
Dr. Jane stiffened, as if it hadn’t happened, but the presents really were pathetic, and Jodie couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. “Hey, it’s not so bad. At least you don’t have to worry about the sizes being wrong.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t . . .” She stiffened her bottom lip, but another tear slid out from beneath her glasses.
“It’s okay. Sit down, and I’ll make us some coffee.” She pushed Dr. Jane down into one of the kitchen chairs, then took the Tupperware container over to the counter where the coffeemaker sat. She started to ask Dr. J. where the filters were, but her forehead was all crumpled, and she seemed to be taking deep breaths, so Jodie opened a couple of cupboards until she found what she wanted and began making a fresh pot.
“So what birthday is it?”
Jodie was surprised. She wouldn’t have taken Dr. J. for any more than her late twenties. “Double bummer.”
“I’m sorry to be carrying on like this.” She dabbed her nose with a tissue. “I’m not usually so emotional.”
A couple of tears was hardly Jodie’s idea of “carrying on,” but for such an uptight chick, this was probably big-time hysterical. “I said it’s okay. You got any doughnuts or anything?”
“There are some whole wheat bran muffins in the freezer.”
Jodie made a face and headed back to the table. It was small and round with a glass top and metal chairs that looked like they belonged in a garden. She sat across from Dr. Jane.
“Who gave you the presents?”
She tried to manage one of those smiles that held people at a distance. “My colleagues.”
“You mean the people you work with?”
“Yes. My associates at Newberry, and one of my friends at Preeze Laboratories.”
Jodie didn’t know about Preeze Laboratories, but Newberry was one of the most la-de-da colleges in the United States, and everybody was always bragging about the fact that it was located right here in DuPage County.
“That’s right. Don’t you teach science or something?”
“I’m a physicist. I teach graduate classes in relativistic quantum field theory. I also have special funding through Preeze Labs that lets me investigate top quarks with other physicists.”
“No shit. You must have been a real brain in high school.”
“I didn’t spend much time in high school. I started college when I was fourteen.” One more tear trickled down her cheeks, but, if anything, she sat even straighter.
“Fourteen? Get out of here.”
“By the time I was twenty, I had my Ph.D.” Something inside her seemed to give way. She set her elbows on the table, balled her hands into fists, and propped her forehead on top of them. Her shoulders trembled, but she made no noise, and the sight of this dignified woman coming all unraveled was so pathetic that Jodie couldn’t help feeling sorry for her. She was also curious.
“You got troubles with your boyfriend?”
She kept her head ducked and shook her head. “I don’t have a boyfriend. I did. Dr. Craig Elkhart. We were together for six years.”
So the geek wasn’t a dike. “Long time.”
She lifted her head, and although her cheeks were wet, her jaw had a stubborn set to it. “He just married a twenty-year-old data-entry clerk named Pamela. When he left me, he said, ‘I’m sorry, Jane, but you don’t excite me anymore.’ ”
Considering Dr. J’s, basic uptight personality, Jodie couldn’t exactly blame him, but it had still been a shitty thing to say. “Men are basically assholes.”
“That’s not the worst part.” She clasped her hands together. “The worst part is that we were together for six years, and I don’t miss him.”
“Then what are you so broke up about?” The coffee was done, and she got up to fill their mugs.
“It’s not Craig. I’m just . . . It’s nothing, really. I shouldn’t be going on like this. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”
“You’re thirty-four years old and somebody gave you a Jiffy Lube gift certificate for your birthday. Anybody would be bummed.”
She shuddered. “This is the same house I grew up in; did you know that? After Dad died, I was going to sell it, but I never got around to it.” Her voice developed a faraway sound, as if she’d forgotten Jodie was there. “I was doing research on ultrarelativistic heavy-ion collisions, and I didn’t want any distractions. Work has always been the center of my life. Until I was thirty, it was enough. But then one birthday followed another.”
“And you finally figured out all that physics stuff isn’t giving you any thrills in bed at night, right?”
She started, almost as if she’d forgotten Jodie was there. Then she shrugged. “It’s not just that. Frankly, I believe sex is overrated.” Uncomfortable, she looked down at her hands. “It’s more a sense of connection.”