Last week we announced that Christopher Meeks’ Love At Absolute Zero is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Love At Absolute Zero, you’re in for a real treat:
by Christopher Meeks
Love At Absolute Zero is a comic romance about Gunnar Gunderson, a 32-year-old star physicist at the University of Wisconsin who’s determined to meet his soul mate within three days using the Scientific Method. Channeling his inner salmon for speed dating, he accidentally steps on the toes of a visiting Danish schoolteacher—who turns his life upside down.
- “A deeply resonant read that manages to be funny without sacrificing its gravity. Highly recommended!” –Heather Figearo, Raging Bibliomania
- “Thermodynamics are nothing; it’s that love thing that is so frustratingly hard to figure out. ‘Love at Absolute Zero’ is an excellent read that is very much worth considering, highly recommended!” –Midwest Book Review
- “It is a given, now, that Christopher Meeks is a master craftsman as a writer…. [The novel] is a gift–and one of the many that continue to emerge from the pen and mind and brilliant trait for finding the humor in life that makes him so genuinely fine a writer.” –Grady Harp, Amazon Top-Ten Reviewer
- “It is impossible not to like Gunnar Gunderson. As he progresses from one disaster or near miss to the next, one views him with a mixture of compassion and laughter, but he is such a good-hearted young man that it is impossible not to root for him.” –Sam Sattler, Book Chase, who placed it in Top Ten Best Fiction 2011
- “As engaging as it is amusing, ‘Love at Absolute Zero’ is, ultimately, a heartfelt study of the tension between the head and heart, science and emotion, calculation and chance.” –Marc Schuster, Small Press Reviews
- “The author hit a home run. It’s a very good story, very well told.” –Jim Chambers, Red Adept Reviews – Selected in Top Three Romances 2011 by Red Adept Reviews
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
The following excerpt starts five chapters in. Our hero is Gunnar Gunderson, 32, who just received tenure in physics at the University of Wisconsin. He and his two partners are in a race with MIT into research into what happens to atoms at the coldest possible temperature, known as Absolute Zero. However, after his surprise tenure, he can’t think clearly, and he realizes that he thought he’d be married when he got tenure. He and his lab partners figure they can put their heads together and find him his soul mate in three days using the Scientific Method. After all, science has never let them down. After they researched what women want in a mate, Gunnar is about to apply his new knowledge (and new braces) at a speed-dating event known as ScurryDate. He just needs to do two more things to prepare: lose the glasses by having laser surgery and then a haircut.
“The net force on a body is equal to the sum of the forces impressed upon it.” –Superposition principle of forces
In the morning, Gunnar awoke to the loud chirping of a bird. He saw a blue jay on a branch outside his bedroom window. It looked so regal. How fun it must be to be a bird. The number of dreams Gunnar had had over the years of flying like a bird made him wonder if birds were the ideal creature. He smiled. Hey, today was ScurryDate day. He’d be as sure as that bird.
The blue jay sang and seemed to strut on the branch. It must have been a love song because he could see another bird swoop in. The other bird’s wingspan, though, was huge, and before Gunnar could realize what was happening, the other bird, an owl, snatched the blue jay in its talons, and the blue jay, flit, was gone with barely a wiggle and no more song. Gunnar launched out of bed and flung open his window, and shouted “Hey!” He knew it was no use. The blue jay would be eaten, no doubt. It was an owl-eat-blue-jay world.
In the kitchen, Gunnar munched on Wheat Chex, which he thought of as Man Chow. The bird snatching was just not a great thing to wake up to. He realized he was really nervous about his next appointment. After all, one’s eyes were everything. The doctor had told him of the risks, such as the loss of the corneal flap after surgery, an incision too deep or shallow that caused acuity problems, and of course there was infection, but Gunnar told himself the negatives seemed small considering the doctor’s record. He decided things would go well. After all, he was a candidate.
Less than ninety minutes later as Gunnar sat in Dr. Wise’s waiting room, a tall, grim-eyed nurse came out with a pill for him, an oral medication to relax him. She also gave him a form to sign that explained that because he was over thirty years old, the surgery couldn’t give him both good distance vision and good near vision. He would need to use reading glasses. He had to write the sentence, “I will need reading glasses,” and sign.
“I hope the drug’s effective,” said Gunnar, “because my every nerve is buzzing. The enormity of this is now getting to me.”
The nurse gave him a double dose. It did the job. The nurse also gave him surgical covers to go over his shoes and his head. This made Gunnar think he was a sausage—the ends were capped, but what about the middle? Apparently the middle was fine. The nurse led him to the surgery room and had him sit on the operating table.
“Lie down,” she said, “and center your head into the indentation.” She could have said, “Open the window and jump out,” and he may have, he felt so good.
Gunnar smiled when Dr. Wise entered the room in green surgical attire, pulling a green mask over his face and mustache. He covered Gunnar’s eyebrows with a special tape. Dr. Wise then attached a speculum to Gunnar’s right eye.
Gunnar couldn’t blink. A film came to mind, A Clockwork Orange. Alex had had the same device attached to both eyes, and Alex was forced to watch violence and porn after imbibing a drug to make him nauseated. Alex then associated sex and violence with a sickening feeling. Gunnar, however, was feeling so good from the relaxant, perhaps a little porn wouldn’t be bad.
The doctor spoke as he worked. “I’m now using an excimer laser to ablate part of the corneal stroma.”
The doctor asked him to stare into the red laser light. One eye at a time, the procedure was soon over.
“Look at me,” said the doctor. “How do you see?”
Everything was blurry and too bright, and his eyes were watering excessively. “Yes, fine,” said Gunnar.
The doctor laughed. “I know it’s blurry and bright, so you need to wear these for the next four hours.” He handed Gunnar a pair of thick black-framed sunglasses that Gunnar guessed were cheap knockoffs of Ray-Bans. He put them on and immediately felt better. The doctor also gave him a bag with three different types of eyedrops: a steroid, an antibiotic, and a “tube of tears.”
“Use the tears as much as you want,” said the doctor.
“Why use the tears if my eyes are watering?”
“The artificial tears are for when they don’t water. The best thing to do is just go home and sleep. In the morning, you’ll be fine. Over the next three days, your focus will improve. The eye is an amazing organ, the most resilient part of your body.”
“What do you mean in the morning? I have a date tonight.”
“You might not be feeling up for it,” he said.
“I have to feel up for it.”
“Your date might be a little blurry—and you may have watery eyes or dry eyes. It’s best you just rest.”
“No rest for the datable.”
“Call me if you have any problems. My card has my pager number.”
“Good to know,” said Gunnar.
“I’ll check you in three months, and we may do a little post-operative enhancement if you’re not at 20/20. And you may need reading glasses.” He turned to his nurse who was just reentering the room. “Is Dr. Gunderson’s ride here yet?”
“No one yet,” she said.
“I drove here,” said Gunnar.
“You were told you needed a ride. It was in the paperwork. You can’t drive,” said Dr. Wise. “You can’t see well.”
“I knew you were just being conservative. I figured I could always call a cab if it were too bad.”
“We don’t allow that,” said the nurse. “You can’t see, and we’ve had cab drivers take advantage of that. You can’t count your money, for one. You need a ride. I thought you understood.” She seemed strident. Was she the one with the philandering husband? “You need a friend or relative. I’ll call for you,” said the nurse.
“But my mother’s all the way in Fond du Lac.”
“You’ll have to wait now, won’t you? Give me the number.”
Gunnar did. He felt so relaxed, he fell asleep. Next thing he knew, he was being shaken awake. When he opened his eyes, he had to blink several times because everything was so blurry. His mother stood before him, but for some reason, she was so much younger, as when he was a boy. Was he hallucinating?
“Gunnar, get up,” she said. He recognized the voice as from his sister, Patty, who had come instead. He cringed. His sister was going through a divorce, and he didn’t want to hear about it.
He leaned forward, trying to get up. “I thought the nurse called Mom.”
“She did, but her car’s in the shop. And— What the hell did you do to your teeth? Are you seventeen?”
“No, I just— You know.” Gunnar could feel his eyes watering excessively, and when they were closed, they felt so much better. He kept them closed.
“Aren’t you ten years too early for a mid-life crisis?” his sister said, pulling him up.
She led him like a blind person. In the hallway, when she let go momentarily, he walked right into the elevator door and banged his head. “Hey!” he said.
“What? You can’t even see the doors are closed?” she said.
“I can’t see. Don’t you get it?”
“Don’t be such a wimp. As Vince Lombardi said, will is character in action.”
“What’s that have to do with anything?”
“You thought you could drive after an eye operation? Jesus.”
“Why’re you so critical?”
“I’m not critical, god damn it. You just look silly.”
When they stumbled out front, Gunnar experimented by opening his eyes again. It was still painful, but there, parked in two spaces at the curb, was the Bookmobile. He could tell by its hulk. Patty was a librarian in Fond du Lac and drove the bookmobile. He guessed her husband Brad got to keep their one car.
His eyes watered anew, and he slammed them shut, saying, “You’re driving me home in this?”
“What, is it too embarrassing? If you want to be embarrassed, just look in the mirror.”
“How am I going to get my car back?” he now realized.
“Well, Mr. Einstein, you should have listened to the nurse. I know she told you—”
“Since I drove all this way, you’re buying me lunch, buddy. An expensive one.”
“A seafood place. Lobster.”
“Really?… How about a new outfit, I could use a new outfit.”
“God, this is great,” said Patty. “I should visit you more often.”
“You think I could get a haircut first? I’m on my mission.”
“Mission for what?”
“I’m speed-dating tonight.”
His sister, of course, laughed, but she said, “I’m not taking you to your usual Supercuts. This calls for a salon.”
“Be nice to me.”
“You’re going to be better than Brad Pitt.”
“The great tragedy of Science: the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” — English biologistThomas H. Huxley
Because Ursula had loved ScurryDate, the idea of it for Gunnar loomed like a giant Exxon sign for a car running on empty. He took a cab to the event with hope. He needed a cab because his eyes were still blurry, and they’d get watery for no reason whatsoever. Still, he didn’t think it’d get in his way because it was lessening and people may not even notice.
As he’d learned from the ScurryDate website, the evening would be “eight dates, eight minutes each.” Groups would be set up within a limited age range, in his case, people twenty-five to thirty-five, and the evening’s meeting would be limited to an equal number of men and women, between twenty and one hundred people. The website explained the meetings typically took place in a banquet room of a pub or restaurant, and before the evening started, a computer would randomly select eight dates for everyone. Each participant would be given eight table numbers in a certain order, and when you would show up at each table at a specific time, so would your new date.
Each pair would have eight minutes to converse, asking questions of each other to find out if they were compatible. You were not to ask people for contact information or for a future date. Everyone’s nametags would only give a first name and a registration number.
At the end of the evening, back home, Gunnar was to go online and stipulate which people he’d like to ask for a real date. If the other people asked for him, too, then it was a match. Only then would he be given their e-mail addresses and phone numbers to contact them.
“Good luck to you, my good friend,” said his Pakistani cab driver when Gunnar was let off at the Great Dane Pub and Brewing Company, the site of that night’s event. Gunnar had explained the whole speed-dating phenomenon to his driver, and the driver was a great listener, asking him such questions as what would be his ideal woman and where did he want to get married. He hadn’t thought about “where” ever. He’d grown up a Unitarian, but hadn’t been in years—which is okay with Unitarians. He’d like to get married by the corn field by his house, if his neighbor who owned it would let him. There was something majestic about a corn field.
He gave his driver a twenty percent tip, and then Gunnar scooted out from the back seat and stood in front of the three-story brick building where the dating would take place. He felt anxious in his brown loafers, khaki pants, and a blue dress shirt so new, the creases from the packaging were still in it. The sandblasted brick, newly painted trim, and the elegant bay windows of the old building were a contrast to the other nearby drab buildings in this oldest part of town. Perhaps this building’s resurgence was a beacon of good luck. Tonight was the night.
Because he was early, maybe he’d start with a drink. He knocked on the nearest car’s hood for luck. Everything was on his side. Even the ibuprofen he’d taken for the pain in his jaw had helped.
Near the restaurant’s entrance, a sign said the building had originally been the Fess Hotel, built in 1858. He felt the ghosts of the long-ago hotel welcome him. Inside, he went up to the young hostess in a sleeveless summery dress. Her exposed tan shoulders held the white straps of her bra. When she looked up, she smiled and said, “One for dinner?”
“Oh, no, I’m here for—” He rechecked his watch. “I’m very early, and perhaps I should—”
“You’re waiting for someone? Would you like a table or would you prefer to wait right here—or in the bar, if you have identification.” She smiled brightly, trying to be helpful.
“An I.D. to prove my age?” said Gunnar, thrown off. “I’m thirty-five. I’m a professor.”
“If you say so.”
“Or do you mean a nametag? Aren’t I supposed to get a nametag?”
The woman looked puzzled, so Gunnar added, “For the event—is that what you meant?”
“There’s an event? Another ScurryDate? No one tells me these things.” Now the hostess looked annoyed as if she was always the last to know. “One sec, let me find out more from the manager.” She took off before he could say anything. Was he at the wrong place? The wrong time? He grabbed the printout he made of the event from his back pocket. No, it all checked out. A minute later, the hostess walked back with a svelte woman who wore white flared pants and a silky blouse the color of a calla lily. Very sexy. And he gasped when he saw her face and long dark blond hair that spilled just beyond her shoulders. “Ursula!”
Ursula paused, looking as if she should know him. But from where?
“It’s me, Gunnar. We met the other night in Fond du Lac. What’re you doing down here?”
“Gunderson?” said Ursula, now smiling. “Didn’t you have different hair?”
He touched his newly blond hair. “My sister insisted I go to a salon. And they made it this way. A long story.”
“It’s … well, it makes you look young—but still handsome. And your teeth—I didn’t notice the braces the other night.
“Oh, yes, those are new, too.”
“You really liked ScurryDate you said, so … you know.”
“You’re here for ScurryDate?” She seemed surprised.
“Yes.” In that instant, he realized she might be there for ScurryDate, too. “Maybe the computer will put us both together. Then again if—”
“I’m the manager here.” The hostess, standing next to her, smiled and returned to her podium.
“You never told me you were in this business,” said Gunnar.
“You never asked,” replied Ursula.
“Don’t you live in Fond du Lac?”
“Not for years,” she said.
“We’ve hosted ScurryDate for months now—which is how I tried it. I think you’ll have a good time.”
“Ah,” he said. His heart fell. She was still dating that guy? The world absolutely sucked at times–to paraphrase how his students would explain it. And now his vision went blurry.
“Your mom told me about your research.”
His eyes started watering. “My mother?” He didn’t remember telling his mother he was looking for a wife in three days.
“Your research into absolute zero.” Ursula laughed and touched him on the shoulder. “That sounds odd, doesn’t it, like it’s absolutely nothing you research. But it’s not, of course.”
His eyes were watering so much, but he loved that she’d touched him so casually as if they’d been long-time friends. He could feel a drop fall on his cheek. He wiped his eyes with one of his blue short sleeves.
“Are you okay?” said Ursula. “Did I say something wrong? I didn’t mean to insult what you do.”
“I had eye surgery this morning. That LASIK thing. This is one of those side effects I’m learning about.” He laughed. “I just wanted to make a good impression tonight—find someone as great as you did.”
“You never know,” she said.
“I’m only sorry you’re not in the event tonight. I really like you.” There, he said it. Maybe it was from the rush of seeing her, but it was also the truth.
“I like you, too.”
She seemed to gaze at him wistfully—or was she admiring him? He couldn’t see that well. “Once I stop leaking, I’ll be okay,” he said. “Glad I didn’t have urinary tract surgery today.”
Or was that the wrong thing to say?
“You’re funny.” She was laughing. He smiled.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Funny how things work out,” she said. “I’m sure you’ll find someone as great for you as Jim is for me.”
Why oh why did she have to be taken already? “Nice meeting you again, Ursula.”
“You, too, Gunnar.”
He watched her walk off, appreciating her form once more and thinking he should have been more alert in high school. Was it that he’d missed the opportunity then, or had it not really been there? Ever.
“So do you want to wait here or at the bar?” the young hostess asked him. “The ScurryDate E.O. should be here any minute.”
“Event organizer. She’ll bring you downstairs, get you your tag and all.”
“Thanks,” said Gunnar. He didn’t feel like a drink anymore. He sat and waited.
* * *
Later, he walked down the stairs with the E.O., a slightly chubby woman named Judy who wore tiny high heels and a midriff-baring blouse that gave a clear view of her love handles pouring over either side of her jeans.
“What the online description doesn’t explain,” said Judy, “is that our computers take into account the thirty-two dimensions of our personalities—which is four more than E-Harmony promises.”
“Such as curiosity, spiritualism, romance, sexual passion.”
“I don’t remember anyone testing my sexual passion,” said Gunnar.
“It’s all in the questions. Very scientific.”
“That’s my approach, too.”
“It’s a much better approach than meeting potential mates in the wild.”
They stepped down into what appeared to be a bat cave: stone floors and walls with subdued lighting. While upstairs had high ceilings and tall windows, downstairs had a low wood-planked ceiling and short windows. The bar featured a blackboard with the chalked-in offerings of the brewed ales and lagers, including Peck’s Pilsner, Crop Circle Wheat, and Old Glory American Pale Ale. The event itself would be in an adjoining room. A set of windows looked out onto an ivy-covered patio filled with people sitting in wrought iron furniture.
“Has the event started already? I didn’t see where—”
“Those are mere diners,” said Judy as if to dine outside was like being a serf in feudal Europe. “Our event will be in a room over this way.” She pointed and they walked toward it, the room for royalty. “It’ll be starting in about ten minutes,” she said, “but I’m going to give everyone until 6:20 to mingle.”
He looked at his watch. It was 5:50. There were three men and two women in the room when they walked in. “Am I supposed to mingle now?” he whispered to Judy.
“Sure. Absolutely. Enjoy yourself. I have a few setup things to do.”
He nodded to the women first, both in dresses, then the guys next, in shorts and sandals with socks, and he stood there, his head still bobbing as he tried to relax and appear genetically attractive.
Judy came back by and handed him his nametag and a printed card of his order of tables. He’d start with table eight. All the tables were small and white-cloth covered, with burning candles and placards giving the table’s number. Gunnar found the table, right near number seven. Number eight. That’s where he’d sit. Right there.
People started drifting in, getting their nametags from Judy, who had made a space for herself at the bar whose counter was painted black. The women, he soon noted, mostly came in with low-cut blouses. Cleavage. Cleavage was good. Most of the new men wore pressed pants and polo shirts. Some of the men swayed. Gunnar tried walking that way to the appetizer table. Most of the men had tan arms with bulging muscles. Apparently these guys didn’t read much. They wasted their time in a gym—or maybe they were roofers. Did women really want roofers?
At the appetizer table he grabbed a small paper plate and a plastic fork and looked over the offerings, which would give him something to do for another few minutes. The steam table offered finger foods: cocktail wieners, chicken strips, fried zucchini, egg rolls. To another side was cold food: mini-cheese logs, celery sticks, carrots, and long, curled shrimp. Shrimp didn’t agree with him, so he went for the vegetables and tortilla strips, giving himself a huge dollop of dip. The dip was amazing: a spicy red thick substance with threads of spinach and chunks of whitefish. He could taste horseradish.
But what did it do to his breath? He was a dragon mouth now. At such a social event, why would why would they make such a sauce? His instant thought was mint gum, but he didn’t have any. Then he spotted the parsley garnish on the edge of the fruit plate. Parsley with its chlorophyll was a natural breath cleanser.
He grabbed a sprig and chewed. He liked it. He took two bigger sprigs and chewed them up and swished.
Another guy, clearly closer to twenty-five than thirty-five, approached the steam table.
“Shrimp. Wow,” said the man.
“I wish I could eat shrimp,” said Gunnar. “I’m allergic.”
Gunnar could see the man’s name tag: Steve 908. The young man read Gunnar’s.
“So you were over in Iraq or something?” Steve pronounced the country’s name “eye-rack,” as did most Midwesterners.
“No,” said Gunnar. “Why?”
“You’re a gunner, ain’t ya?”
“This isn’t my job—or the spelling for the job. It’s my name.”
Steve 908 smiled and nodded. “Gunnar.”
“Heck of a mess, though, that Iraq,” said Gunnar.
“Nice tits on that girl, eh?” said Steve.
Gunnar looked up to see at the bar a very blond young woman in white jeans and a low-cut purple tank top as tight as the skin on a plum.
“I happen to know she’s a physics professor specializing in high-density quark matter under stress,” Gunnar said.
Steve 908 looked baffled.
Gunnar scooped into the dip and ate generously.
“Oh, I get it. You’re joking!” Steve laughed, then added, “I’d like to get a hold of her high-density quark matter.”
Gunnar nodded. “Maybe irradiate her with a stream of high-energy neutrons.” He smiled wide. He could be a guy’s guy.
“What happened to your teeth, man?” said Steve, grimacing.
“This?” he said, pointing. “Braces.”
“It looks like your mouth’s rotting.”
“What?” Gunnar opened his mouth again for Steve, who scrunched his face, grossed out. Running his tongue over his teeth, Gunnar felt nothing. “Thanks. I’ll check it out.” He quickly found a restroom, and as he headed for it, an alluring woman in a yellow patterned dress exited the women’s bathroom, drink in hand. She smiled at Gunnar and raised her glass. He nodded and smiled. She grimaced.
He hurried into the men’s room and gazed into the mirror. His braces were covered in green dark dots of parsley and threads of spinach from the dip as if he hadn’t brushed in months.
He rinsed his mouth over and over, swishing as hard as he could. Most of it came out, and he was able to pull other bits out with his fingers. Soon his silver braces appeared again. The sink was now full of green bits, and he took handfuls of water to wash them down.
He returned to the main room. Steve now stood at the bar, and the bartender in a Hawaiian shirt said to Steve, “What’ll you have?” The bartender was tall and square-jawed like a movie star. He probably had no problems getting dates. Perhaps to the bartender, every guy there was a loser.
“A large Foster’s malt liquor,” said Steve.
“We don’t have that here,” said the bartender. “We’re a microbrewery. Here’s our list.” He pointed to the blackboard.
“I’ll have the Landmark Lite,” said Steve.
Gunnar returned to the steam table. After all, his mission was to chat with women, but the fact was he’d never been good at party situations. Was he supposed to go up to someone who looked interesting and say something? Probably.
The blond woman in purple came over to the steam table. Gunnar could see he’d selected the right spot. She glanced cursorily at the food, then slowly looked up at Gunnar and smiled. Her tag, above her right breast but not covering it, said “Chantel 880.” He smiled back.
Her smile disappeared and she returned quickly to the food. He knew he didn’t still have green in his teeth. “How about that mess we have in Iraq?” he said using a small cracker to slide into the dip.
“I’m sorry, what did you say?” She moved closer to hear.
He spoke directly into one ear. “Iraq,” he said.
She looked immediately down into her breasts and then glared up at him. “My so-called ‘rack’ is just fine.” She grabbed some carrots and celery sticks and marched directly for the bar.
He hoped the night would go better than this.
At 6:15, the room started to get crowded. A sea of heads bobbed above bright and beautiful clothing. One head rose above everyone else’s, a great-looking woman with long, dark hair. She could be Rodin’s exquisite sculpture of a walking man, only narrower and female. Was she a basketball player?
Judy the E.O. rattled a dinner bell. “Ten minutes until we start. If you haven’t picked up your nametag yet, come over here please. I’m Judy, the organizer for this evening, and I’ll help you. Everyone else, keep mingling. Remember if someone appeals to you, use your notepad and pencil to write down their registration number. You can select people who aren’t assigned to you. Also enjoy our food and the bar.”
Gunnar could see a young woman in a red dress had a man on either side of her talking, and she was laughing. One man stared down at her breasts while the other was checking out her rear.
At last, the dinner bell rang again. When the chatter diminished, Judy said, “All right. Everyone go to your assigned seat. You have thirty seconds before the eight minutes begins. After four dates, we’ll take a fifteen-minute break when you can get more food and drinks.”
Gunnar was the first at table eight. Soon the very tall woman—taller than Gunnar—sat down, and even then he was looking up at her. Her nametag said “Marshelle 702.” Gunnar reached across the table to shake her hand. “Gunnar,” he said.
“Mar-Shell” she said. “Like Michelle, but with a mar.”
“Nice to meet you, Marshelle.”
“Do you like tall women?” she said.
“Oh, do we start already?”
“I was just wondering if you liked tall women.”
“Sure, tall women, short women, skinny women, fat women—well, not actually fat women.”
“So you have a thing against fat women?” said Marshelle, starting to take notes.
“Oh, no,” he said, seeing she had missed the humor. “I have nothing against them. I meant I’m unlikely, given probabilities and all, that a fat woman and I would become, you know, ensconced and intertwined.”
“Ensconced and intertwined?”
“The numbers aren’t there.”
“I’m talking statistics.”
“Like bust-size and waist-size? We’re all parts to you?”
“Do you know it’s unnatural for women to be waifs? Do you know how much bulimia is a problem with young women today? I mean, my God.” Marshelle looked upset. “Look at the magazines in the grocery store checkout line to see what women are supposed to be in this society. Short skinny waifs with big boobs.”
“But I like tall women,” he said, trying to correct.
“And you like statistics. What are mine, right? I’m a 36A bra size, thirty-two-inch waist—thin enough for you? And six-feet, six inches tall. Too much for you?”
“You’re attractive,” he said.
“Should I get some pliers so I can extract more compliments?”
“No, you’re beautiful!”
She glanced at her notes. “Question one: Let’s say we’re on a desert isle and it’s only us but we don’t know each other. I have something you want. We’ll call it breadfruit. Then we go on a date and—“
“On a desert island?”
She looked at him hard. “Yes,” she said.
“And am I hungry?”
“You tell me.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m confused. Breadfruit? Are we in Tahiti?”
If her brown eyes were photon torpedo tubes, he’d be stardust. She barked, “What are you, fifteen? You’re supposed to be at least twenty-five.”
“Right, and I’ve got a dick.”
“What did I say wrong?”
“I’m afraid you won’t make my list,” she said, and she stood and moved off. He felt deflated. Gunnar glanced at his watch. He had five more minutes to himself. Although his stomach now churned, he zipped back to the buffet table and ate bread, safe white bread.
At the sound of the next bell came Judy’s voice, electrodes to his nerves. “Make sure again to write down people’s registration number. You’ll need the right numbers for going online, remember. You have forty seconds to get to the next table.”
Gunnar sped toward his next assignment. On the way, there was another familiar face—Svetlana from his physics class. Why would she be there? She didn’t see him, which was good because he didn’t want to be seen by her—embarrassing. She was too busy introducing herself to Steve 908.
At his table, Chantel 880 was already sitting. She grimaced as he approached. “I don’t think we’re going to have much to talk about,” she said.
He sat down, saying, “I think you misunderstood me. I was talking about the war in Iraq—not about ‘a rack,’ but ‘eye-rack.’”
Chantel laughed in surprise. “That’s different. I’m sorry,” she said. “Let’s start over. I’m Chantel.”
“Gunnar,” he said. They shook.
“That’s an unusual name,” she said. “Or is it a nickname from Iraq?”
“No, I didn’t go there, I— It’s just my name. Swedish. Gunnar Gunderson.”
“You’re not supposed to give last names.”
“I’m sorry. Gunnar 1002.”
“I really wonder if they’ve had over a thousand Gunnars here. This place must be really popular,” she said.
He smiled. She now stared at his mouth. He should have splurged on the ceramic braces—less noticeable. “Should I begin?” he asked.
“I thought we’re already talking.”
Gunnar pulled out a list of typed questions from his pocket. “In the morning, do you like to make the bed right away?”
“Really? We had sex already and you want to know if I’ll make the bed?”
“Your questions are like this?”
“I’m sorry. How about….” He thought quickly. “If I were a one-armed librarian—”
“You’re kind of morbid, aren’t you? You first talk about war, now dismemberment. Did your father beat you or something? People who were beaten as kids go on to beat their own family.”
“No, I had a great father. He died when I was a teenager.”
“A lot of death around you, I see. So, my turn for a question,” she said, looking him straight in the eyes. “I can be direct, too. Why did you leave your last girlfriend?”
His heart sank as he thought about Allison, who’d at least understood him. “She left me, actually.”
“That’s because men are passive aggressive,” said Chantel. “Did you know that seventy percent of all divorce petitions are by women? Guys drive their women away.”
“Is that true?”
“Yeah, men are cheating jerks, for one. Did you cheat on her?”
“No, no. I— She— I mean, I—”
“Get your story straight.”
“Allison was a veterinary student. I was going for a Ph.D. in physics. We had no money and little time. I had to work in the lab often and late.”
“Uh, huh. I heard that workin’ late thing before.”
“No. She fell for someone else at vet school. She moved with him to Seattle. I’m a professor now. A physics professor.”
She paused, nodding her head. “Like I’m supposed to be impressed. I heard how professors do it with their students. You like to teach them physics, do you?”
“Not the way you’re implying.”
“I’d put out for A’s, I can tell you that, and that was just high school.”
When the bell rang, neither he nor Chantel wrote the other’s registration numbers down. What criteria, what analysis of dimensions, did the ScurryDate computers use to find his dates so far?
At his third table, a petite woman dressed demurely in what looked to be a long Amish dress was already sitting. She immediately stood when Gunnar approached. They shook hands formally.
“Becky 142,” she said.
She held onto his hand and pulled it to her nose, sniffing. “Interesting. You don’t smell musky but rather like candy.”
“Licorice,” he said.
“So you’re edible?” She looked excited, which made him yank back his hand.
“I don’t know how to answer that,” he said.
She pulled out a piece of paper with what he assumed were questions. “May I begin?” she asked. “Or would you like to? Let’s have three questions each.”
“Ladies first,” he said.
She smiled softly and began. “First, let’s say we’re on a remote island in the Pacific and—”
“Is that your first question?”
“I’m sorry,” said Gunnar. “I don’t know about remote islands. This is my first time.”
“A newbie. Delightful. So you don’t like the question?”
“No, go ahead. It was rude of me.”
Becky gazed at him even more softly. He must have said something right.
She said, “So we’re on this island—in separate huts, of course—and if you could put any kind of sheet on your bed, would it be flannel, satin—or nothing at all?”
He was confused. “So we’re on a desert isle but we have huts with really nice sheets?” She nodded. “I’ve never felt satin sheets before. I don’t even know where to buy them.”
“Victoria’s Secret. You’d love satin. Okay, now let’s say we go swimming on this island, and you can have me in any swimsuit you want. In women’s swimwear, do you prefer a) a tankini, b) a bikini, or c) one-piece suits like the miracle bra tortoise one-piece with a keyhole back?”
“That’s your second question. It’s a tank top with a bikini bottom.”
“You work at Victoria’s Secret?”
“Yes, sales. That’s your third question, though.”
“So would you like me in a swimsuit?”
Was Becky offering? Everything was going too fast. “I— I don’t swim often. The lakes are usually too cold for me.”
“Tell you the truth,” she said, “I’ve got long nipples, and they always stick out when I hit those cold lakes.”
He blinked. He was trying to reconcile the way she looked with what she was saying.
“Last question before your turn,” she said. “On a first date, what animal are you like the most? Turtle, kitten, tiger, or octopus?”
“A kitten is on the desert isle?”
She laughed. “I think you’re a turtle.”
“I’m a physicist!”
“I’m a tigress,” she said, making her hands into claws, barring her teeth and moving her tongue up and down.
He must have grimaced because she said, “Never mind. You’re not right for me. Forget it.” She threw her questions down and looked at her watch. They sat in silence until the bell rang.
Now Gunnar was feeling that he was definitely in the wrong place. In fact, he was feeling a little nauseated, and his stomach seemed to be swirling. He moved to the next table but considered just leaving. He reminded himself that he had just a little more than a day remaining.
“Professor?” said Svetlana, sitting. “Wonderful.” Her tag said, “Natasha 309.” She had a martini glass in her hand with a pink beverage—a cosmopolitan, he knew. His mother loved them.
“That’s not your name,” he said.
“Are you sure?” she said, laughing.
“What are you doing here?” he said.
“I’m twenty-six and need a green card. Time to marry, no?”
“Surely you have a student visa.”
“Then let’s call it love.”
“I don’t understand. Did you follow me here?”
She laughed grandly. “I think it’s a joke, frankly, this ScurryDating, but my girlfriend wanted to come, so I’m Natas