I’d never been to the Caldwell Labs before, since it’s an engineering and computer sciences building, and there’s not much use for an English professor over there. It’s an older building, with grubby red bricks and perpetually dirty windows. Somehow it seems fitting that Riley would be teaching a class over here.
I find the classroom where he’s teaching, which is one of the larger lecture halls on the first floor. I slip in to catch the last fifteen minutes of his lecture, although there’s pretty much only one seat available. The lecture hall is completely packed, which is a stark contrast from most of the lectures I’ve taught. A few students seem like they’re on the edge of their seats. At a computation theory lecture.
Riley is at the front of the room, dressed in his usual rumpled shirt and slacks. He’s sitting next to the podium, leaned forward in his wheelchair as if he’s just having a friendly chat with this large lecture hall of students. “So,” he says. “The famous Turing test. Show of hands: who’s familiar with this test?”
About half the class raises their hands. Present company excluded.
“Great,” he says. “Because we’re going to run one here today.”
Riley wheels to the center of the room, where there’s a very large cardboard box. “The Turing test,” he says, “is the ultimate test of artificial intelligence. You ask a computer program a bunch of questions and if you are fooled into thinking it’s a human, then it has passed the test.” He jerks his thumb in the direction of the cardboard box. “Behold! We have here a box containing either a very smart computer or an average human with a laptop. Now it’s up to you to figure out which it is.”
He’s certainly all about the theatrics. No wonder his students like him so much.
Riley wheels over to a desk at the side of the room, where a laptop is set up. “Now I’m going to type in your questions and read you the answers. Who’s got a question for the computer slash human?”
Nearly everyone in the room shoots up their hands. Riley grins at the response and starts picking on students one by one:
“What kinds of foods do you like to eat?” one boy asks.
Riley types the question onto the keyboard. He types very, very fast—I can tell. He waits for a beat, then reads the answer: “I mostly eat a Mediterranean diet.”
Another hand: “What sports teams are you favorite?”
Riley types in the question and reads off the reply: “The Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Browns,” then he adds, “And the Buckeyes, of course,” which causes several people to hoot in appreciation.
It continues like this for several more minutes. I notice there are two girls sitting next to me who keep giggling and poking each other. “You ask!” one says, and the other says, “No, you do it!” Finally, one of them raises her hand in the air.
“Yes?” Riley says. “You, in the back.”
The girl tucks her hair behind her ear: “Do you think Dr. Samuels is sexy?”
I almost start choking. The class titters and Riley grins. “Excellent question,” he says. “Clearly this will help us differentiate between a computer and a human female, at least.”
Riley types in the question, and for a second, while he’s waiting for a response, he catches my eye and gives me a look I can’t quite interpret.
“Just as I suspected,” Riley says. He reads the response: “Sexier than Channing Tatum, Justin Bieber, and Robert Pattinson rolled into one.”
The class laughs again, and I find my face turning a little red. There’s something self-deprecating about Riley’s humor sometimes, and I feel like he’s being unfair to himself.
After the questions end, Riley takes a poll of the class to see if the entity under the box is a computer or a human. About two-thirds of the class votes human, which would be my guess as well. Sure enough, Susan shucks the box and pops out, looking pleased with herself. She shakes hands with Riley. “Let’s all give Dr. Richardson a big round of applause,” Riley says.
The class claps for Susan as she takes a bow, and I can’t help but notice they seem to like her just as much as Riley.
As the students file out of the room, I make my way down the front. Susan beams at me, “Wasn’t that a great lecture, Maggie?”
“It was,” I answer honestly.
“This is why we had to have Riley teaching over here,” she says. “Nobody else can make computation theory as much fun. Plus I love getting to play the computer in the box.”
“Would you like to join us for lunch, Susan?” I ask her.
“Oh, no,” she says quickly. “I wouldn’t dream of it. You two have fun.” The subtext in her words makes my stomach flip-flop.
“Um,” I say, “we’re not… I mean, Riley and I aren’t…”
I’m not sure how to finish that sentence, and since both Riley and Susan are staring at me, I finally just give up.
Susan heads upstairs, and I go in the direction of the entrance where I came in. “Hang on, Margaret,” Riley says, “we have to go another way.”
I give him a suspicious look. Where does he want to take me?
He gives me a crooked smile. “The stairs. I have to go out through the back.”
“Oh,” I mumble, feeling embarrassed.
Sure enough, there’s a back exit with a ramp leading to the street. I wonder what it’s like to be Riley, in a wheelchair and constantly needing to worry about subverting a few steps. He doesn’t seem particularly bothered by it though. Once again, I wonder why he needs that wheelchair, if he’s really a paraplegic and if so, how it happened. But even with our renewed friendship, I realize that would be an inappropriate question to ask.
We end up in a campus café a few blocks down. They mostly have sandwiches encased in saran wrap, which is not the most appetizing thing, but it will do. I look at my choices, trying to decide which is the least fattening. I’m getting serious about this diet. Last night, Walt complained that the bedsprings were creaking too much from my weight every time I moved. He suggested I relocate to the couch, which I did not do.
I select a turkey sandwich, even though it does have bacon and mayo on it. Turkey is really healthy. It probably has negative calories, so I can afford the bacon.
Riley has already gotten on line with his ham sandwich, and I get behind him with my sandwich and bottle of Diet Coke. As the cashier rings up his order, he pushes my own food next to his. “All of this together,” he says.
“No,” I say, trying to grab back my own food. “I’ll pay for myself.”
Riley is being stubborn though. “You can pay next time, okay?” Although I have this feeling he’ll never ever let me pay.
The café is pretty empty and we find an isolated table in the back of the room. Riley pushes away the chair that was already there so that he can sit across from me. We dig into our food, but my mind is swirling with thoughts. “It’s just weird,” I finally say.
Riley pauses mid-bite and looks up at me. “What’s weird?”
“You know everything about me,” I remind him. “But I know nothing about you. I mean, practically nothing.”
“Fair enough,” he says, nodding. “So let’s remedy that. Go ahead and ask. Anything you want. I’m an open book.”
“Absolutely.” He swallows a bite of his sandwich. “Here, I’ll start you off. I was born in Cleveland. My parents are Elizabeth Riley and Fred Samuels, just in case you were wondering how I got my name. I have an older brother named Matt and a younger sister named Patricia. My birthday is April 3, so I’m an… Aries, I think. I don’t know, that’s stuff is crap. Okay, that’s a start. Go ahead. Ask your questions.”
“Okay…” I look down at my Diet Coke, trying to think of a question. “How old are you?”
“Tough questions!” he remarks, smiling. “I’m 36.”
So he’s a year older than me. No wait, he’s two years younger than me. I can’t believe I’m freaking 38. Two years from the big four-oh. I feel a little cheated.
“Um,” I say, cursing that it’s so hard to ask the questions I really want to know the answer to. “When did you learn to juggle?”
He laughs, looking more amused than I think the inquiry deserves. “I was fourteen. I saw some guy at chess team juggling and I thought it looked really cool. I thought it would be a way to impress girls.” He shakes his head. “That was pretty misguided, in retrospect.”
“Juggling doesn’t attract women, huh?”
He snorts. “When I pull out those juggling balls, I may as well be chopping off my own, if you know what I mean. Still, it’s fun. Kids like it.”
His reference to children makes me realize how very little I know about Riley. “You don’t have children, do you?”
“Me? Nah. Just nieces and nephews.”
“Have you ever been married?” I glance over at the fourth digit on Riley’s left hand. No wedding ring tan lines.
“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”
Riley raises his black eyebrows at me. “Have I ever had a girlfriend? Seriously? I’m 36. You really think I’ve never had a girlfriend? That’s pretty insulting.”
I frown at him. “Hey, you said I could ask whatever I wanted...”
“So I did,” he says, raking his hand through his hair. “It’s just a little annoying to hear you ask me the same insulting questions a second time.”
I look at him across the table, perplexed. I’ve nearly forgotten my turkey sandwich. “You mean we did this before?”
He hesitates a moment, before answering, “Yeah.”
“And I asked you all the same questions?”
Riley nods. “Not just the same questions, but you asked them in the same order. It’s a little freaky, to be honest. If I’d known you were going to lose your memory, I would have recorded it to save us some time.”
“Wow.” It is kind of weird to think that everything I say is so predetermined that when I lose my memory, I just say all the same stuff.
“It’s okay, though,” he says. “Go ahead.”
I’m about to ask him if he has any pets, but then I hesitate. “What did I ask you next last time?”
Riley thinks for a minute. “I think you asked me if I had a dog. I don’t.” Damn him. “Of course, it took you like half an hour to ask me what you really wanted to ask.”
“And what is that?”
“Why I can’t walk.”
If I had Diet Coke in my mouth at that moment, I would have likely dramatically spit it out. But my mouth is empty, so I play it cool. “Well, if you want to just tell me...”
Riley laughs. “What? And miss out on seeing you squirm again?”
“Okay, fine,” I say, trying not to squirm. “Why can’t you walk?”
“Car accident when I was eight years old,” he says. “Broke my back. I can’t feel or move anything below here.” He holds up his hand just below where I’d imagine his nipples would be. I can’t help but wonder what he means when he says he can’t feel anything. Does that mean... anything? Riley’s hazel eyes meet mine and he flashes me a half-smile: “Maggie asks, ‘Anything??’ Yes. Anything.”
“Oh,” is all I can say.
“It’s not a big deal,” Riley says and he sounds like he means it. “I was eight years old. My parents told me I wasn’t going to be able to walk anymore and I’d have to use a wheelchair, and I said okay. They made the wheelchair sound cool and fun. Said I could pop wheelies. Eight year olds are really good at adjusting to stuff.”
“Really?” I can’t imagine that at any point in my childhood if I were told I’d never walk again, I’d just have been okay with it. That’s a pretty big deal.
Riley looks down at his sandwich for a minute, toying with the top slice of bread. “I guess some parts of it were harder than others.”
“Like what parts?” I ask before I can stop myself.
He shakes his head slowly. “That, my dear, is not a question for a friendly lunch. I don’t think we’re there yet.”
He doesn’t elaborate and there’s no way I’m going to push him, even though he had previously assured me he was an open book. I’ve already learned more than I had hoped from this conversation. But there’s one last question that’s bugging me, and before I can stop myself, I blurt out, “Why do you like me so much?”
Riley seems a little taken aback. I guess it’s the one question that I didn’t ask him back the first time we had this conversation. But it’s driving me nuts. He’s clearly crazy about me, yet I can’t figure out why. I’ve been nothing but mean to him. And when I look in the mirror, I definitely don’t see anything there that would explain it either. Just the opposite.
He clears his throat, then scratches his head. When he raises his hazel eyes to meet mine, the emotion in his eyes is so intense that I feel a flush rise in my cheeks. “I just...” he begins, then seems unsure where to go.
“Never mind,” I say quickly.
He nods, and it’s the last thing we say to each other for the rest of the meal. I finish my sandwich so fast, I nearly choke to death on it.
Walt has never been a morning person, but it seems like he’s only gotten worse in the time we’ve been married. He’s so unbelievably grouchy in the mornings that I don’t even want to be in the same room with him. Not a great deal, considering he gets home so late at night that often I’m already asleep. I finally went to night school in order to learn how to use the coffee machine (I’m kidding, but seriously, it’s complicated) and I’ve been trying to cheer him up by making him a big heaping cup of coffee every morning.
He wanders into the kitchen this morning in an undershirt and boxers, doing his sleepy shuffling gait. Walt has long, muscular legs covered in blond hairs. He’s gotten chubbier since we married, but he still has a nice upper body as well. There’s no questioning that Walt is a handsome man. But for some reason, as I watch him stumble over to the kitchen table and collapse into a seat, I feel zero attraction to him.
“You’re making coffee, Margaret?” he grumbles.
“Yes,” I say.
“Well, where the fuck is it?”
I tighten the belt around my housecoat. It’s an ugly woolen sky blue coat that makes me look like a cow, but it fits at least. Which is more than I can say for the cute slinky housecoat that I bought right before my wedding. “It’s still brewing.”
“Buy me an expensive coffee machine, she said. The coffee will be ready faster, she said.” Walt rubs his face. “I swear to God, that is the slowest coffee machine on the planet, Margaret.”
Keep in mind, he just walked into the kitchen sixty seconds ago.
“You know,” I say. “Just because you’re in a bad mood in the morning, you don’t have to take it out on me.”
I brace myself for another fight, but instead, Walt looks sheepish. “I’m sorry,” he says. “You knew I was a cranky asshole in the morning when you married me.”
“Yeah,” I say, pouring the coffee into two cups. “I knew.”
While Walt drinks his coffee, he surfs the web (or does something) on his phone. I attempt to make conversation, but it’s pretty clear from his “uh huh” responses that it’s a lost cause. So I get up to start the laundry.
It’s a good thing that I have a lot of free time because Walt is very particular about his clothes and how he wants them cleaned. Most of it has to be dry cleaned, and he does nothing to sort through which is which. That’s my responsibility and God help me if I make a mistake.
I really hate doing laundry. It’s my least favorite chore. I remember when I went away to college, I had this horrible realization that I was probably going to be doing my own laundry for the rest of my life. And now that I’m married, the situation isn’t better. It’s worse because I’m doing twice as much laundry now.
I’m sorting through Walt’s white shirts when I can’t help but notice a flash of pink on the inner collar. I haven’t even been bothering with lipstick lately, and anyway, it’s not my shade. For a minute, I actually try to figure out why Walt would have been wearing lipstick. Then of course, it hits me. This isn’t Walt’s. Lipstick on the collar. The classic sign of the cheating husband.
I grip Walt’s shirt in my hand, my heart pounding, not sure what to do. Do I confront him? Have I already confronted him about this? What am I supposed to do?
“Margaret!” I hear Walt call from the kitchen. “I’m leaving for work now! I’ll see you later, okay?”
“Okay!” I call back.
And then he adds, “Just so you know, I’ll be home late again tonight!”
I hear the door slam shut. I’m miserable. I feel fat and ugly and unloved. My husband is cheating on me. Of course he’s cheating on me. I mean, look at me. I can’t even blame him.
I know I should cry or something, but somehow the tears aren’t coming. I’m too stunned. Or maybe I cried my heart out over this once already.
There’s a honk from outside to signal Jill has arrived. Even though my car has been repaired, we decided it made sense to keep carpooling for now. I tell her that I still feel shaky behind the wheel, but truthfully, it’s just fun to spend the commute with Jill. If not for her, I’d feel even lonelier than I already do.
Jill waves cheerfully when I come out of the house, and I jump into the car, shivering slightly from the brisk air outside. Winter comes too early here. It’s still only October.
When Jill sees my face though, her expression changes. “Maggie, what’s wrong?”
At first, I can’t gather up the breath to speak. Finally, I manage, “Has Walt been cheating on me?”
She hesitates just a second too long and gives herself away. She knows about the cheating. Riley knew. I knew. Everyone in the fucking world knew. “I’m so sorry, Maggie,” she murmurs. “He promised you he’d stop and... I was hoping... you’d forgotten.”
“I had.” Now that Jill confirmed it, there’s no denying anything anymore. “Riley told me...”
“He didn’t!” Jill looks furious. “That was absolutely none of his business! How dare he!”
“I made him tell me,” I say, cutting off her rant. “And anyway, I didn’t believe him at the time. But then this morning I found lipstick on Walt’s clothes. And... it just makes sense.”
“So he’s still doing it?” Jill whispers, grabbing my hand in hers. Her hand feels so small and frail.
“He must be.”
“Oh, Maggie...” Jill reaches over and gives me a hug. And somehow that’s the impetus that gets me to cry. Tears start streaming down my face. My make-up would have been ruined if I were wearing any.
“How long has this been going on?” I sniffle.
Jill pulls away from me and starts sifting around her purse for tissues. “You’ve known for about a year. That’s when you told me, anyway. Some girl called the house, and then you checked his phone and found all these messages. You confronted him and he promised to stop, but... it was never the same after that.”
“I can’t believe Walt would do that to me,” I murmur.
“I know.” Jill locates the tissues and holds them out to me. I grab three, pull off my glasses, and start dabbing at my face. “It’s not that he’s a bad guy. He’s just weak-willed, I think. He sees some girl he really likes and he just can’t help himself.”
“What should I do?” I ask. “Do you think I should... try to lose some weight?”
It pains me to say that, but let’s face it: I’m fat. I wasn’t when we got married, when Walt fell in love with me. I could also use a trip to a salon to get my hair color touched up, and I don’t know what caused me to toss all my contact lenses in the trash and purchase the most unflattering glasses in all of Sears.
“I don’t think it matters,” Jill says. “He’s not cheating on you because you gained a little weight, Maggie. He’s cheating on you because… he’s Walt.”
“Great,” I say miserably.
“Maybe…” Jill looks thoughtful. “Maybe you guys could go for counseling or something?”
I blow my nose with one of Jill’s tissues. “I don’t want to think about this anymore. Can you take me to work?”
As we drive in silence, I contemplate what I’m going to do. Confront Walt, I guess. It’s bad enough he’s a cheater, but I don’t want him to think he’s getting away with it. And then, once it’s out in the open… then what? Would I really leave Walt? I doubt it.
Jill drops me off in front of my office building, after making me reassure her half a dozen times that I’m really all right. I’m not, of course. But missing out on work isn’t going to make things better. My career is already struggling. No wonder I couldn’t write my book with all this going on.
As I get up to my floor, I immediately see a flash of metal wheels in the hallway. It’s Riley, dropping off my thermos of coffee. I feel a tightening in my chest at the sight of him. If he was telling the truth about Walt’s infidelity, what else that he said was true? Were the two of us really having an affair? Was I in love with him?
Riley puts down the thermos and is about to wheel away from my door when he catches sight of me. His whole face lights up, but then when he gets closer, he looks alarmed. “What’s wrong, Margaret?”
“Nothing,” I say, quickly wiping my eyes with the back of my hand.
“You look like you’ve been crying,” he observes.
“Allergies,” I lie.
“You don’t have allergies.”
Sometimes he can be really maddening. “You don’t know everything about me, you know.”
“I know more than you think.” He rolls back a few paces, picks up the thermos, and holds it out to me. “If you want to talk, let me know.” He gives me a meaningful look. “I’m always up for some coffee.”
To be continued...