Sarah Williams

A Study of Emotional Mathematics

In this next section, you will be presented with three theoretical situations. Each situation requires the precise application of advanced emotional mathematics to reach an acceptable conclusion. Be aware that in some situations no non-lethal conclusions are possible and only less-lethal conclusions can be achieved. Be prepared to consult Quimby’s Algebra of the Affections, the Bible, and page six of today’s Mirror. Try to avoid projection-based empathy with the fictional constructs in these situations. They are not real and should not be regarded as such. If you experience difficulty in this area, raise your hand and an Equivocator will come to assist you. You have two hours to complete this section. 

1. A young woman meets another young woman and falls in love. They work at the same department store on different floors. The first young woman is named Adela and the second young woman is named June. June has short dark hair which she cuts herself and which smells like jasmine; she works in a cosmetics store which is aimed towards young countercultural people. Adela, who has dark hair also, likes to watch June’s quick clever hands arranging the rows of lipsticks, like many-colored flowers in beds, each with its own precise click and release. Adela begins to think about June more and more. She wonders what sort of movies June likes, and if she is simultaneously afraid and fascinated by splatter movies like Adela is. One night, somewhat drunk, Adela masturbates while thinking about June. She climaxes and is immediately overwhelmed by shame. She feels that by using June’s image as a sexual stimulant without June’s knowledge or consent, she has involved June, consciously or not, in a sexual situation in which June had no say. Due to various events in her earlier life, this thought is unbearable to her. She is disgusted by herself, and wishes she was dead. She does not go to work the next day. Even when she does return to the department store, it is a week before she can look June in the eye. 

A month later, June asks Adela to a movie. Adela, ecstatic, says yes. They begin a relationship, and for a time it is wonderful. Adela cannot remember ever being happier. June is funny and kind and spontaneous and strange in exactly the sort of way that Adela hoped the first person she fell in love with would be. It is as though a second sun has opened onto the world, bathing everything in clean new light. Adela tries to ignore the guilt about her previous behavior, which still lingers in her gut, chewing and chewing away at her like a starving rat trapped between her ribs. It doesn’t matter, she tells herself. It happened only once. It will never happen again. She does not feel that she can tell June about it. 

June sometimes goes to parties and uses cocaine. Adela accepts this, because of the stereotype of a beautiful, fascinating, self-destructive woman, which has been sold to her by her mass media. One night, June comes home very late, while high on cocaine, and gets into an argument with Adela. During the course of the argument, June strikes Adela across the face and then leaves the apartment. When she returns she is immensely apologetic and says that she will never strike Adela again. Adela says okay, although she does not believe her. She is right to not believe her, as the next time June uses cocaine, she pulls Adela’s hair so hard that clumps of it come out. They aren’t arguing this time, they’re just lying next to each other in bed, and June reaches over and grabs Adela’s hair and pulls and a white blade of agony stabs down into Adela’s skull. She screams, and June covers her mouth with her other hand. 

A few weeks after this, June comes home while Adela is asleep and climbs into bed next to her. She puts her hand in Adela’s pajama pants, waking her up. Adela, tired and afraid, says no, I don’t want to, come on. June says just want to mess around. Adela says no, June, I’m tired. I don’t want to. Get off. June says you want to, I can feel it. She begins to kiss Adela’s face and the side of her neck and puts her hand inside Adela’s underwear. Adela says no one more time and then gives up and lies there still as June touches her. She is aware, vaguely, that this is wrong, but a familiar still cold feeling has closed over her body and she cannot move. She doesn’t want June to be angry at her, not simply because she is afraid of the pain that June can inflict upon her but also because she loves June and does not want June to be upset in any way. So she says to herself, you did this to her before she even knew your name, what you did is just as bad as what she’s doing now, and lets the guilt climb up into her throat until she can feel nothing beyond it, not even June’s fingers inside her. 

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a thunderstorm lasting less than two hours
                  b) a billboard slogan containing the letters a, b, o, e, g, s, h, w, j, l, v, and q
                  c) a public interaction between a short-haired tabby cat and its owner?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

2. An eighty-year-old man named Jason has a fight with his granddaughter Sylvia. Sylvia is Jason’s only surviving relative and wants money to go to graduate school. Jason does not feel that Sylvia needs to go to graduate school, and also he has very little money of his own. Sylvia tells Jason over the phone that she never wants to speak to him again, and then puts the phone down with a resounding crash that makes white static leap through Jason’s head. Jason decides that she is a frivolous bitch like her mother. He knows that he will feel bad about thinking this later, but he thinks it anyway. 

Later that day, Jason hears from one of his neighbors about a break-in which took place in the vicinity of his neighborhood. Supposedly the victim was an old man living alone, which is rather unpleasant for Jason to hear. To change the subject, he complains to the neighbor he is talking to about his granddaughter, and she commiserates about her own granddaughter, June, whom she recently saw in a picture on Facebook with her arm around another girl, wearing a t-shirt that said BOYS OPTIONAL. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it, the neighbor tells him, it’s just that I want her to be happy, and that seems like such an irresponsible way to live your life, you know? Jason nods and reflects on how deeply he dislikes most of his neighbors. He thinks about his wife, Tricia, who died fifteen years ago. He remembers how they met in 1965, and even then she had told him that she sometimes slept with girls. He had been surprised, then fascinated; it was the first time the idea of female homosexuality had ever occurred to him as a possibility. After they were married, they were faithful to each other, but they would still sometimes confuse waitresses at restaurants by flirting with them simultaneously. He had loved Tricia very much. Sometimes he looks back at her and is astonished by how much he loved her. It seems almost impossible, from his vantage point, that he had ever loved someone so much, even though he was there and it really happened. 

In a daze, Jason goes to a nearby gun store and buys a handgun and some rounds. After purchasing them, he is rather baffled by himself—he’s never really been a gun person—but resolves that safe is always better than sorry and having a gun in the house will certainly be helpful if he is burgled. That night, as he sleeps, he is awakened by a sound and filled with fear. He goes around the house looking for the source of the sound but finds nothing at all. The next morning, he decides that he needs a smaller weapon, something that he can have immediate access to, so he goes online to buy some knives. He can’t settle on which knife is best for him, so he buys all of the ones that have good reviews. It costs about a thousand dollars. 

The next night the sounds are there again, and again there is no one in the house but Jason. Jason realizes that knives are still fairly deadly, and he doesn’t want to deal with the legal hassle of killing someone, so he gets a baseball bat. On his way home, it occurs to him that the burglars may come in a group, and if so none of his weapons will suffice to protect him. He goes to the gun store again and gets himself a shotgun and some shells. After a moment’s hesitation, he also buys another small firearm, so that he can put it in the bathroom and be prepared if someone attacks while he’s taking one of his long, stiff, trips to the toilet. 

It rains for the next few nights. Jason doesn’t sleep much. He considers the possibility of death and resolves that he will do anything necessary to prevent it from coming in violence and pain. Tricia’s death was agony; liver cancer, fifteen months in a hospital bed, screaming and vomiting. Jason doesn’t want to die like that. He doesn’t want to die at all. He almost calls Sylvia, and then remembers that she doesn’t want to talk to him. It doesn’t matter, he decides. He doesn’t want to talk to her either. He has more important things to do. 

A week later, he contacts a company that installs home security systems. He wants the works, he tells them; cameras, motion detectors, a keypad for every room. It will take about the same amount of money as Sylvia asked him for to help her go to grad school. He is aware of this. He says sure, I can pay that with a feeling in his stomach that is something like sickness and something like exultation. He has all these guns and no one to shoot. He has nowhere to be but his house, so his house will be the safest place on earth, the only place where death cannot trespass. There will be no death in his house. There will only be Jason, sitting in the corner with his guns and his knives and his baseball bat, always awake and ready for anything. 

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a phone call in which no words are spoken
                  b) the sound of a child crying outside a window
                  c) a poorly-marked patch of slippery ground?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

3. Linnea has gotten the lead role in her college’s production of Tosca. She loves opera and is very happy to have gotten the role; she knows that it will be difficult, and is prepared to work harder than she ever has before. The director is a music professor, Professor Mulhaven. The night after the roles are posted, Linnea calls her dad and tells him she got the part. She is so excited she almost cries. 

Later that week Linnea realizes she has a paper due Friday and has forgotten to work on it. She spends the rest of the week furiously researching and writing, and by the time the first rehearsal rolls around, she has not had time to memorize or practice any of her songs. She arrives in the classroom completely unprepared. Professor Mulhaven, who encourages his students to call him Billy, is deeply unimpressed. Jesus, maybe we should have given the role to someone else, he says. Linnea promises to be ready next week. I’ll believe it when I see it, Billy replies. 

At the next rehearsal, Linnea is ready. She has her lines memorized and has practiced for several hours in a rehearsal room. She feels confident and sure right up until she gets up in front of her castmates and sees Billy looking at her with an expression on his face that can only be described as a sneer. She opens her mouth and nothing comes out. Her voice, the only part of her she has always been sure is beautiful, the part of her that her father described as a gift from God, hides in her chest like a wounded animal. Oh, come on, Billy says loudly, and a few of the other cast members snicker. Panic moves through Linnea like a surge of electricity and she squeezes her voice until it leaps out of her throat, but it sounds thin and whining, like a child’s. Billy wrinkles his nose. I have to tell you, that was terrible, he says, when she’s finished. Here’s some advice: learn how to fucking sing before you come back here. 

Later on, Linnea will think that this is the pivotal moment. This is the first moment he says something truly, deeply, inappropriate, the moment when one of the other cast members could have said this is wrong and reported him and made it all stop. But no one says anything. Everyone is smiling. All their smiles look like the same smile, and it is not a nice expression. 

At the next rehearsal, Billy invites all the others to say one thing they don’t like about Linnea’s performance. When one of the boys says that she’s afraid of high notes, and then adds also she’s gained weight, Billy nods and says good point, to another round of snickering. Linnea starts to feel very tired all the time. Her best friend Sylvia, who is going to another college, tries to Skype with her and Linnea avoids her; she doesn’t want Sylvia to see her face. She doesn’t know why she isn’t saying anything. She’s played the lead in other performances. She could just leave. She could tell someone. But she imagines saying to some faceless implacable figure beyond a desk, they said I was ugly, they said I was stupid and I couldn’t sing, and that thought is somehow more unbearable than any future cruelty she can picture. 

At the next rehearsal Billy sniffs at her face and tells her she’s drunk. She’s not, and she replies to that effect, at which he declares drunk and a liar, too. And then that’s a thing, another weapon to be used against her. Someone pours a beer into her bag during class and she loses most of her written class notes and has to get her computer fixed. Billy pinches her stomach and says you know, I’m pretty sure that Tosca isn’t supposed to look like a pregnant cow. She gets a D on one of her midterm projects and stops going out to meals. At rehearsals her voice starts to sound like glass scraping. It’s ugly. She knows it’s ugly. It’s the only thing she’s ever been truly good at, better than anyone else, and now it’s ugly, and she’s ugly, and the world is ugly. Her life dwindles to going to rehearsals. The thought that she could tell someone occurs to her less and less. Billy grabs her face, forces her mouth open, has the other cast members smell her breath and say that she’s drunk. He stands right in front of her, his face almost touching hers, and tells her to sing and she can’t. She stands there with her mouth open and nothing coming out of it but a sort of wheezing moan. She can’t sing, she can’t make a sound, and she stands there for what feels like hours and everyone laughs and laughs and laughs. 

She wakes up in the night, but it’s actually the daytime and she’s slept through all of her classes. She thinks, I hate him. She thinks, I wish he was dead. She thinks that she’s a bad person already and nothing she does is going to make her a worse person. Almost without meaning to, she does some research and finds out Billy’s home address. He has a wife, three children. She finds herself standing in the kitchen of her dorm, holding a kitchen knife, and for a moment she considers cutting her throat before realizing that she can’t. She doesn’t have the courage to kill herself. What she has is an endless rotation of dreams where she’s stabbing someone and the blood is bright and sweet and it opens her throat up and she can sing again. She can sing into the darkness.

                  How can you resolve this situation, using only
                  a) a throwaway line in a pornographic movie
                  b) a glass of spoiled milk
                  c) a tube of film falling off an end table in the middle of the night?
                  Show your work on the attached paper.

Bonus questions: Is love always good? Have you ever truly been in love? Are there things worse than death? Do people ever deserve to die? What do you owe to the world? Is it possible to entirely divorce your relationship with your parents from your basic anger at having been born? Are you actually a part of your body? Can you ever truly know anyone? 

If you finish this section of the test before the time is up, turn it in to the instructor at the front of the room. Sit in your chair. Put your right hand on the right side of the chair and your left hand on the left side of the chair. Wait for the instructor to announce the time, and then leave the room without speaking to anyone.


Sarah Williams is pursuing a graduate degree in religious studies at the University of Chicago. Her work has been previously published in Room Magazine. She lives in Indiana with her partner.