IN THE CASCADE
The busiest part of the month is also the loneliest. Ironic, since work usually distracts him from his loneliness.
But on the week when they close the monthly book, Barron usually stays late to check his team’s numbers, correct their mistakes. The office is deserted, shut down to half-lighting, just him and rows and rows of silent cubicles. Silent, but not empty. They teem with stuff: doodads and souvenirs, stuffed animals and birthday cards, children’s drawings and dozens of dozens of family photographs. Proof of life.
Sometimes when he’s waiting for a report to finish compiling, he walks alone between the silent rows, looking at the frozen fragments of other people’s lives. Christmases, birthdays, vacations, baseball games. Parents hugging children, couples posing in their fanciest outfits over romantic dinners or draped drunkenly over each other at a bar. He can identify the emotions in the photos even if he can’t really remember how they feel anymore.
And every now and then, on a night like tonight, he feels that hole in himself more keenly than ever and tries once more to fill it.
There’s a hotel bar not far away, adjacent to an office park, full of secretaries and salesmen taking advantage of cheap booze after work. The air is thick with cigarette smoke. In any smaller amount, it would be an irritant, but at this concentration, in a place like this, with the liquor flowing and the music pounding, it’s like a chemical marker for sex.
Barron walks between the tables and booths, and even though the people here are real rather than photographs, he feels no more connection to them than to the photos in the cubicles. Strangers living lives he can’t comprehend. Usually when he does this, he ends up just sitting and watching them, like a TV show without a discernible plot, the dialogue drowned out by the soundtrack. He’s looking for something very specific, and he rarely finds it.
Tonight is different.
He has read dozens of books and articles on the psychology of attraction and pick-up methods, knows dozens of ways to manipulate a conversation to where he wants it to go, but there is one thing he cannot get around. The woman must find him attractive on some level before the conversation even begins. He has a multitude of ways of closing the deal, but he cannot manufacture something that isn’t there to start with.
He tries to make eye contact with each single woman as he walks along the bar. With most, the contact is fleeting, but one gives him a little smile that he returns. Mid- to late- 20’s, pretty, ash-blonde, slim. He finds an open spot at the bar where he can order a drink, looks back at the woman, and yes, she gives him a second look and another smile.
They exchange a few more looks as he waits for his beer, and it is as if she is demonstrating the classic signs of attraction in an instructional video. Holding momentary eye contact and looking away. Looking up at him from under her eyelashes. Toying with the rim of her glass. Turning her body slightly toward him in an open posture. She’s almost too perfect.
But he can’t approach right away. Even though he knows all the right things to say, it can be hard to get the words out because of the noise in his head. Ever since the day that changed everything, the day no one else remembers, his life has been a constant struggle to function past the noise of his expanded perceptions.
Because although common wisdom says that everything in the universe consists of just two things—matter and energy—the truth is that there is a third factor: information. A proton is a proton is a proton. The only real difference between gold and lead is the number of protons in the nucleus. You want the alchemical secret of turning lead to gold? Build a tiny vacuum cleaner that can suck three protons out of every lead nucleus.
There’s more, of course, much more. The entire universe is built on numbers: mass, velocity, wavelength, the speed of light, the gravitational constant. Barron perceives the numbers in everything; the universe sings to him, because music itself is a mathematical progression and Barron’s senses aren’t equal to the task of perceiving these things in their pure state. He hears constant atonal music, and every surface crawls. He sees something like static and something like symbols, but he has to concentrate to bring order out of the chaos, and he can’t do it for long. Sometimes the flow of information becomes so overwhelming, it’s like his mind is being sandblasted.
Alcohol helps, usually. Helps him relax and surrender to the flow, helps him pick the pieces he wants out of the information that bombards him. The scouring sandblast becomes a gentle shower, a comforting cascade.
He drinks half his beer and feels the bombardment retreat before making his approach. She smiles at him as he draws near, and it feels as if the battle is half-won, but he can’t relax. He knows dozens of conversational gambits from the pick-up artist books and knows hundreds of statistics about human behavior, but that math only ever works in the aggregate. If he could approach 250 women at once, he would be almost guaranteed to score one, but human attraction doesn’t work that way. One on one, he can play the odds, but there’s never a sure thing.
He doesn’t worry about an opening line, because he already has her attention. He just introduces himself and asks how she’s doing. Her name is Isobel, and anything else she tells him about herself is lost in the cascade. There’s a script that he has aggregated from a dozen pick-up books, structured like a flowchart or conversational tree from a video game. He can almost see the next lines dropping into place as she responds to his questions and comments, and meanwhile, he’s reading her data. The diameter of her pupils, the temperature of her skin, the rate of her pulse and respiration..
There’s arousal there, but something else holding it in check. Something she’s holding back, keeping secret. Husband or boyfriend, maybe, or maybe lying about her job. He doesn’t really care, because he’s not interested in becoming a part of her life, or in her becoming a part of his. He wants what she is increasingly signaling to him that she wants, and nothing more.
He goes in for the kiss, and when she draws back, her eyes narrow. “You know, there’s something about you I can’t quite put my finger on,” she says. “I can’t figure you out.”
“There’s nothing to figure out,” he says. “What you see is what you get.”
Which is quite possibly the biggest lie he has ever told in his life, but it’s not as if he can tell her the truth. All that ever did was lose him his daughter and his job, and it has never, ever, gotten him laid.
Of course, he could help things along. Because the language of God is more than just simple data. There are the formulae, not just the equations that govern physics and chemistry, but the deeper equations, numbers and symbols and concepts that cannot be expressed in any human language, that can regulate and govern anything and everything. Some might call it magic, but for Barron, there is no distinction between magic and science. There is only the hidden truth which only he knows, now that God is gone. He holds his tongue, though, because if she doesn’t choose to go with him freely, what’s the point?
And soon, she suggests they leave, and he suggests a motel, and it’s so easy, you’d think she were seducing him. Her body under the business casual dress is a surprise, firm and strong, more like a professional athlete than a secretary. He plays her like a theremin, almost able to see the numbers flickering across her skin as her nerves respond to his touch. He calibrates his touch to her responses and hears her skin sing with pleasure.
She lies back on the bed and her legs sigh open, and he can taste by her galvanic skin response when she’s faking an orgasm, and later, when she’s not.
And then he’s inside her, and the gentle shower of the cascade becomes a driving rain and then a wave breaking over him, the hum of the universe drowned out in the power chord of their shared pleasure.
And all too briefly, there is a moment of quiet.