Rutgers was missing something, although you wouldn’t have called him stupid in any conventional way; not the kind of man to agree to give some scammer $57 for a Comcast bill he didn’t owe, not the kind of person to have trouble filling out an income tax return. No, Rutgers knew the value of things. It was something else, something else that he was missing.
You couldn’t exactly call an Associate Professor of Mathematics an idiot, could you, wondered Rutgers. You had to be pretty bright to be one of those. But he felt like a fool, with every rustle of the browning leaves from the stiff wind that hit him in the face, sitting on the park bench with his paper bag of bagels.
The child sat next to him on the bench in the crisp autumn sunshine. He was beautiful, Rutgers thought, the sunlight on its long journey through the trees filtering through his chestnut brown hair, lighting it up, making it into a godlike brown, dropping a leopard pattern on his little, perplexed face.
“Ms. Inger says,” the child continued, “that if you do something to one side of the equation you have to do it to the other side.”
The child was ten years old, not really ready for algebra, but bright, very bright. He had already been placed in the advanced class, where kids who are going to learn algebra sooner are introduced to the ideas to get them ready.
“That’s true,” said Rutgers. “An equation is like a scale.”
The child cocked his head and the light danced through the space he cleared with the movement. “Like on the piano?”
“No,” Rutgers hastily added. “No, wrong kind of scale. No, like one you measure things on.”
“Like in the bathroom.”
“How is it like that?” the boy asked, wrinkling his nose and narrowing his eyes. A magic box with numbers that told you something about what kind of person you were seemed to have nothing to do with a mysterious code involving an equals sign.
He remembered. Rutgers remembered, himself at twelve, feeling dumb. Studying algebra. Mrs. Santoro with her drone, the voice that hit you on the head like a redundant palm, pound pound pound. “Still don’t get it?” What’s wrong with you.
The sounds of the birds swelled as the light began its final journey down the segment of its remaining arc. Soon it would be dark and probably cold not long after that.
“You have to imagine the way scales were before,” Rutgers tried to explain. “They used to have two sides, two plates or bowls, and you weighed things by putting a brick or something on one plate and some grain on the other.”
The boy was losing interest. Something fascinating was crawling on the ground. He bent down to examine it. An ant was looking for its evening meal, scrounging for something twenty times its own weight.
“You knew what the brick was,” Rutgers continued, “And if the scale balanced exactly even with the grain, then the grain weighed exactly as much as the brick.”
“Oh,” said the boy from down on the ground.
He didn’t get it. Rutgers knew he didn’t get it. “What’s wrong with you,” asked Mrs. Santoro. “I’ve explained it I don’t know how many times.”
“But once the scale is balanced, if you want to keep it balanced you have to do the same thing to one side that you do to the other side.”
The boy was following the ant to unknown regions with his eyes.
“So if you add a one-pound brick to one side, how much grain do you have to add to the other side?” Rutgers asked him.
“I don’t know,” muttered the boy.
“One pound,” said Rutgers. “You added a pound to one side, so you have to add a pound to the other side.”
“I get it,” the boy mumbled, rolling a rock in the dirt with his finger. The rock traced a path through the dust and dirt. In an hour that path would be gone, vanished in the rapidly diminishing light.
The child was fading. Rutgers knew it. But rather than clarify for him, he allowed his own attention to be caught by the lowing of a leaf-blower far across the park. Some park worker was making a path for whoever would be strolling today, tomorrow, a path that wouldn’t last, obscured with the falling of the leaves.
Summer’s golden head appeared over the rise at the end of a long walkway, the one that wended by the pond. The rest of her body followed, seeming to rise up as if she were ballooning towards him. Her arrival over the small hill near the bench brought her to him suddenly, and she was there before he knew what to say.
“Sorry I’m late,” she coughed apologetically into her sleeve. Her coat was a soft grey ash color, pretty on her, like the scarves she always wore. Her jeans baby blue, soft pink boots folded over her feet. It was hard not to look at Summer, though Rutgers couldn’t keep facing her for very long without turning away.
“That’s okay,” said Rutgers shrugging. “Do you want a bagel?” He held up a paper bag containing a poppyseed and a raisin-cinnamon.
“Oh, no, that’s all right, I thought we were going to dinner.”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Rutgers, “I was hungry so I went ahead and bought a few.”
Summer’s brow furrowed, as if this revelation about the bagels were a weight that tipped the scale somehow. She sat down heavily on the bench next to him.
“That’s okay,” she said, “I’m not that hungry anyway.”
“So do you want to go out?”
“I don’t know,” Summer admitted, looking away across the field towards the sound of the out-of-sight leaf blower.
Rutgers looked down at the child sitting at his feet. The boy’s own coat was threadbare. You could see through the fabric to his clothes underneath.
“Well, then, what should we do?”
“I don’t know, Rutgers,” Summer said again, and the exasperation in her voice hinted at something more.
“Are you mad at me?”
“Well, a little,” she said, looking peevishly at him. “I mean, we were going out and now you’ve already eaten—“
“Well, you were late,” he replied evenly.
“I know, I know!” she said, holding up a hand to forestall the criticism. “I’m sorry, I just…I was just…”
The child moved forward along the ground towards the grass as if in search of something, and Rutgers fancied that he could see the grass through the child.
“I was just thinking there isn’t much point.”
“Much point in going out tonight?”
“Or at all…” Summer said, looking sidewise at him, checking to see to what extent these words would hurt him. But he gave no sign of any emotion, no indication that what she said affected him at all. And when he did not respond she turned on him fully, bringing her bent leg upon the bench in between them, the knee pointed at him. “What are you thinking?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” admitted Rutgers. “Are we breaking up?”
“Well, I suppose…” said Summer. “But I think it’s been coming a long time, don’t you?”
“I have to admit I didn’t really expect it,” Rutgers said, watching the grass through the child.
Summer made a sigh that sounded like a small, angry cry. “No, I’m not surprised,” she said. “I don’t think you’ve really been paying attention to how I feel or what I say or anything really about this relationship for a long time.”
“I thought we were doing pretty well,” answered Rutgers.
“How?” Summer demanded, staring at him now. “Based on what?”
“Well, you’ve never said anything,” Rutgers replied, rattling the bagel bag.
“How could I?” Summer said. “We don’t really talk about our relationship.”
“Well, I thought if there was anything to talk about, you’d have brought it up.” Rutgers looked into the bag, as if additional answers would be in there.
She sighed again, bringing the weight of her feeling down inside her where it could fortify her, do her some good. “Okay,” she said. “Okay, I’ll talk.” Turning to face the grass, straightening her hands in front of her, she spoke again, in a practiced tone, indicating perhaps that she had rehearsed this speech in her head a thousand times and was only now finally coming to say it.
“I want some assurance in my life. I have too many things that are unknown, that I can’t predict. I don’t want my relationship with a man to be one of those things.” She paused to listen for his reaction. He only fiddled with the bag, which was his way to show that he was listening, not talking. The gesture did not seem to satisfy her. She continued on. “I know I was late today, but that’s the way I feel about our whole relationship, that it’s too late. There’s nothing there now.”
“You’ve felt this way for how long?” Rutgers asked her.
“I don’t know…weeks? Maybe even a couple of months. Longer? I’m not sure why we even got together at this point.”
“We’ve been good together,” Rutgers argued, trying now to get a point in.
“Oh, sure, we look good,” Summer said. “The quiet one and the talkative one. We made a nice couple, you know? But we were never really together. Just sitting with each other.”
“I have no idea…”
“It’s that I don’t think you have any real idea what I need or want!” she blurted out.
Rutgers didn’t have an answer to that.
“And furthermore,” Summer covered her mouth with her sleeve, but her eyes were dancing, darting, full of tears. “I don’t think you care. I’m not sure you ever cared.”
Rutgers couldn’t argue. He knew what he wanted, but now he couldn’t say. The words wouldn’t come. He could never have been called smart, never could have called the words to mind, even when they counted the most. Now they shared nothing except the space, two opposite ends of a bench. As he contemplated his non-answer, little remained of the child except a dim outline.
“I have to go,” she said, getting up in anticipation of a complete breakdown. “I think…we can have this conversation…we can continue…” but she was wrong. Her sleeve took her up into a standing position and she quickly strode back towards the path by which she had come. She vanished over the rise. As Summer set behind the hill, Rutgers looked up. The light had begun to fade now.
He was alone on the bench. The leaf-blower had stopped some time ago. It was over. His relationship was officially over. Crumpling up the bag with the rock-hard bagels, he threw them in a waiting trash-bin. As he began walking away in the opposite direction towards the darker part of the sky what was left of the child blew away with the leaves.