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Calculus of Devotion

—after Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express

Clare dresses like an ice cream cone. Chocolate lace, vanilla skirts. All of it melting down her limbs, rain or slush. Faye is glad that Clare doesn’t give her an ounce of recognition—not when they sit next to each other in calculus, or every Saturday after varsity tennis, she stops by Baskins Robbins. One scoop Very Berry Strawberry, one scoop Gold Medal Ribbon in a sugar-free cone. Faye is not good at memorizing equations but she knows how to make substitutions, especially to find out the nature of an unknown variable. She swaps the sugar-free cone for one made-to-order in the waffle iron. Clare grasps her order, nails painted whorls of peach sorbet, and shouts “Thank you” over the counter. Faye never hears, or pretends to. California Dreamin’ chips through the stereo, fights the brown snow coating the sidewalk. Both of them dream of LA, a trajectory towards palm trees and promise.

Two years later, Faye part-times at The Broken Egg when she finds Clare at the formica counter, her eyes cracked and puffed as blueberry pancakes. Anything light on the stomach, white chocolate mocha. Faye folds eggs in the buttered pan with more care than she ever has, trims the browned edges before plating it onto a thick slice of rye. She squeezes whipped cream over the coffee even though Clare didn’t ask for any. At the diner, Faye has seen this equation many times but still has no solution. Clare closes her eyes when she eats, chews a long time before swallowing.

Ten years later, Faye works the tables at Ruth’s Chris, a steakhouse inside a train station, where everyone in this town buys a one-way ticket from. Faye tries to take the second wine glass from the table but Clare tells her she’s waiting for her husband, a pilot whose flight must be delayed. Faye serves Clare the best thing on the menu—crab cakes with lemon butter—though if she had a choice, she would take Clare home to her kitchen. And then what? Faye stops thinking further than the studio kitchen, the futon at its feet. Clare smiles each time Faye passes her table, and by dessert, they are the only ones left in the domed dining room. They light the bread pudding on fire, the whiskey burns until there’s only orange-scented smoke. Clare beckons Faye to sit by her side, sneaks a spoonful to her mouth. Faye works backwards from the night before. A pair of lobster bisques and one-way tickets for a pilot and his date. Faye decides Clare knows how to isolate a problem variable, subtract what she needs. Faye decides this is the closest she’s going to get (after all, every tangent has only one point of contact with the curve they lean against) and squeezes Clare, waiting until she drives away, before buying a ticket.

The next morning, Clare walks into each of the eateries downtown, searches through smoothie joints, bakeries, and arcades with pizza that is 50/50 good and games that do not obey probability. She buys mojitos and loaves of bread but neither solves her hunger. Waiters assume she likes mochas without whipped cream, serve her Diet Cokes until they are sun-piss warm. When she asks the staff at Ruth’s Chris for Faye, they pass her a napkin in advance. Clare is left with a theorem, no proof.

One year later, Faye tugs her luggage into the one air-conditioned shop downtown. She smudges the glass display with a California-tanned finger. One scoop of Very Berry Strawberry, one scoop Gold-Medal Ribbon. Only when the server hands her a real waffle cone does Faye look up, her fingers laced into one with sorbet-dipped nails.

Star Su grew up in Ann Arbor and is currently an undergraduate at Brown. Her fiction appears or is forthcoming in The Offing, Passages North, Jellyfish Review, & elsewhere. They read flash for Split Lip Magazine. Find them on Twitter: @stars_su.

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