M has fallen in love with the girl and her math homework.
Her handwriting is so neat. The formulas always are boxed, and her brackets match on both sides. M is not a STEM kid, but she is in love. The girl takes the same bus as her, every morning at 7:12 a.m., and if M stays behind after school and skulks around the cafeteria for an hour, she can catch the girl leaving Science Olympiad practice to take the late bus home. The girl always sits three rows from the front, so M can sneak peeks at her notebook if she sits across the aisle. The girl does her math homework on the bus, or maybe her science olympiad calculations. Something involving variables and exponents. Instead of doing her own homework, at home M spends her time looking up math pickup lines.
“You’re going to fail precalc,” says M’s best friend, Q. He’s eating an enormous sandwich. It’s lunchtime. Excluding the large cup of iced coffee at her elbow, M is not eating anything because she is busy furiously copying down Q’s homework answers. “I hope she’s worth it.”
“She is,” says M with certainty, not looking up. “Her parabolas look like they were graphed on a computer. Perfect little smiles.”
“You’re being weird again,” says Q with the authority of a best friend. “You like her because her parabolas were smiling at you?”
M huffs a little. “You don’t get it. It’s a metaphor.”
“Oh?” Q is not a fan of English class. “Is that so?”
“Yep.” M taps the paper in front of her. “It’s bisexual code. It means she’s as straight as the graph of a three-degree polynomial.” She squints at the sheet. “Hey, why is this part here squared? Oh, never mind, I get it.”
Q contemplates M as she copies. “Are you going to ask her out?”
M laughs without humor. “No.”
M pauses in her scribbling. “Look, admiring a girl from a distance is different from telling her, ‘Hey, I love the way you factor equations and I have a big gay crush on you. Wanna date?’”
Q holds up his hands in surrender. “Just saying, she might be your math soulmate. Your complex conjugate. Your rational root, your solution set —”
“I get it.” M makes a face. “But I don’t even know her name, Q. I can’t just tell her I’ve been casually stalking her.”
“You’ve obviously been doing a terrible job of stalking if you don’t even know her name.” Q grins at M’s scowl. “But lucky for you, I am the best best friend to exist in the history of math crushes, and it just so happens that the girl on your late bus is also in my physics class.”
M stares. “What.”
“And,” Q continues, “it also just so happens that I overheard her talking about how she signed up to be a peer tutor last week. And as much as I love to let you copy my homework, you have to admit that this is an ideal situation for you.” He swipes M’s iced coffee and takes a long sip. “My genius is truly frightening sometimes.”
“No way. No way,” says M, math homework forgotten. “That will be the most awkward thing ever.”
Q shrugs. “Don’t think it can get more awkward than drooling over her logarithms.”
Peer tutoring. M is the only non-freshman in the room, fidgeting with her backpack and trying to pretend she actually wants to be here for math reasons, when Math Goddess herself walks in. She’s beautiful and amazing and she’s here, in the same room as M. Smiling at M. Bending over M, her hair falling over her shoulders like the graceful curve of a sine wave, asking, “What do you need help with?”
M is opening her mouth, quite possibly about to blurt out something embarrassing and sappy that will embarrass her beyond the point of redemption, but then the girl’s eyes widen. “Hold on. You’re her!”
Oh no, thinks M. She noticed me on the bus. I’m totally and completely busted. But before M can work out how far her babysitting money will get her in her new life on the run, Math Goddess is continuing, “You won the essay contest last week in English class! On Sappho, right?”
M’s mind goes blank. All she can do is nod as the girl slides into the seat next to her. What can she do? Deny that she wrote a truly iconic essay about homoeroticism in archaic Greek poetry? Whatever happened to math tutoring?
“I loved it!” Math Goddess has one hand on the corner of M’s desk, and M is hyperaware of how close she is. “It was just funny, and witty, and interesting, and of course, it was really awesome to learn about all these badass Greek lesbians—” she cuts herself off with another smile, and M can’t help but grin back. “I really wish I could write like you! How do you do it, seriously?”
“Um, I dunno,” says M, and wants to kick herself. Real sexy, M.
But somehow, against all odds, Math Goddess is still smiling at her, eyes shining. “Look, I know this is, um, like, you’re here to learn about math, but, um, would you mind giving me some tips about writing? Like, after peer tutoring? I’m great with memorizing atomic numbers and square roots, but I just don’t get essays.” She grins a crooked grin. “Words are hard for me, y’know?”
And M feels something blossom within her. Before she can think twice, she’s saying, “Do you want to hang out after this? I mean, we could meet at a cafe, or you could come over to my house.”
Math Goddess’s eyes get big. “Really? You mean it? You’ll help me?”
“I’d love to,” says M, and she wouldn’t trade the smile she gets in return for all the perfect parabolas in the world.