Civil engineering instruments began to appear on the table, objects Jackson brought over from his hotel for use in the workshop he was leading. He was moving in, a bit at a time. Although it irritated her to see his measuring equipment on the tables and floors, Nela appreciated that he was careful not to fingerprint the blue silk walls, or take her books out of their slots. He was respectful of her things, but she did not make it easy for him to share her space.
“What is this?” she wondered, drawing out a gadget with a telescope on it, from behind a sofa cushion.
“That’s a laser theodolite.” Jackson picked it up and looked around for a better place for it. “It’s handy for when you don’t have access to GPS.” He dragged out a chair from the kitchen and stood on it, shoving the equipment onto the top book shelf.
“And what is this thing?” Nela nodded at another contraption lying under her desk.
“That’s a manometer. “ Jackson said. “It measures flow rate and pressure in rivers.” He carried it to the closet. Nela heard the reshuffle of her cot, her boots and coats, but did not comment. Why should she care where he put his things? It was only a temporary arrangement. He had a job that would take him far from her, although for the moment he seemed to have forgotten about all that.
She opened a drawer to find a ball of his socks stuffed in next to hers. It reminded her of motion camouflage in hoverflies. One doesn’t even see the other until the first is right on top of the other.
Nela accepted Jackson’s presence, but didn’t change her habits or methods of working to accommodate him. She had fought too hard for independence and the right to put her work above everything. It would take more than one man to change her priorities. As for his part, Jackson seemed so eager - charmed and intrigued by everything about her. He seemed proud of her drive. “You were miles away,” he observed at breakfast after he had seen her working naked at the whiteboard for the first time. “You didn’t even know I was there.”
Turning the sensation of being watched over in her mind, it washed over her again, a slow moving wave, and she struggled once more to keep her own secret. Of course she had sensed his eyes on her. She had posed in the moonlight for him. She bit off a corner of toast. Oh yes, I did.
The interruptions in her days intercepted her nights. One morning, Nela awoke in a panic. She had had a dream that had disintegrated and she was convinced that only Jackson could help her piece it together. She patted his side of the bed, but he was gone. She squinted at the clock. 10 AM already! She pulled on her clothes. “Birds. It was about collectives,” she mumbled, trying to sew her dream back together. “There was a flock...and then what?” She asked the empty kitchen. “Surrounded by birds. Enclosed in a circle.” She bit into toast she had mistakenly spread with relish instead of jam. She spat it out. “Where are you, Namagiri?”
She strode the route to the university, and walked with purpose to Jackson’s cubicle, still mumbling. “One bird broke away, and the others flowed upwards.” What did it mean? There was a message in the movement.
Jackson’s voice and the voice of the chairman of the civil engineering department tugged her along the long hall, a cue, a direction. Were they arguing? The possibility barely registered as Nela sat down beside Jackson, obscuring him from the other man’s view, who scowled at her presumption. Nela shrugged. He was not her chairman.
“Let x be…” she began, taking Jackson’s hands in hers. It was an unconscious gesture meant to help her focus, but so intimate that the chairman abruptly left the room.
Jackson and Nela talked until dusk. When she rose to turn on a light, a sound resembling applause caught her attention. The window framed a passing murmuration of birds, a dark cloud streaming through the sky in ribbons, in perfect synch. Nela put her hands on the glass. “How can we tell whether a bird is being chased or leading?” She took up a piece of chalk and began to write a formula.
Jackson asked, “You mean, are we witnessing pursuit and evasion, or is it actually pursuit and cohesion?”
“Yes, and does the leader know that only one other bird is following it, a third following the second and so on, until the sky is crowded with birds?”
“We would have to trace the birds’ trajectories. We could go up on the roof with the cameras from the lab and take a look,” Jackson suggested.“Like Kaplansky said, ‘When God whispers a theorem in your ear, you should listen.’”
They entered the lab excitedly. “Where are all the tripods?” Nela worried. “I’ve got one for my theodolite,” Jackson said. “Shall I run home to get it?”
The sound of the word home in Jackson’s mouth raised the hairs on Nela’s arms. “No, no. Here they are. I found some,” she managed to say. They gathered the equipment and lugged it onto the roof, set the cameras around, worked as one organism to pin down a new hypothesis.“Calibrate and synchronize the cameras,” she reminded Jackson.
“I know, I know.” Jackson bent over the machines. “OK. They’re on automatic now.” He stood up straight behind her, and put his arms around her waist. Nela’s focus narrowed at once, on her own labored breath and the breath of the man right behind her. She tried to remember the time before Jackson, what it felt to be alone in an evening like this one, gathering in pinks and violets. Night would fall and their excitement would mount. He would take her to bed.
Jackson was the first to speak. “It’s the Italians who have hypothesized that a starling pays attention to only a few of its neighbors. Have you read those results?”
“I have the paper on my desk,” she said. She leaned into his body and witnessed one bird break away from the flock only to be overcome by it again. The couple stood on the roof for a long time watching the birds act out the universal conflicts of independence versus the safety of the group. They witnessed the difference between leading, and being chased away.
After so long, Nela had found what she was looking for. She had her juicy problem, and she worked on it in a white heat. Her days became seamless, nights and days joined together by the calculations’ intricacies. In the mornings, before she even opened her eyes, she’d put her arms behind her head and begin where she and Jackson had left off just before they fell asleep. “Let X represent...” He brought her tea and toast like a patient, brushed away the crumbs from the bed, unplugged the phone when she was writing, thumped her back during convoluted thoughts that made her hold her breath. He got her to her classes on time, took her for walks during which she was not expected to chat, and canceled all her unnecessary meetings.
“You’re neglecting your own work, “Nela said by way of thanks. She had scribbled notes all through the dinner he had cooked for her, and now she pushed her notebook aside, signaling her readiness to talk.
“It’s not every day a scientist finds a ground-breaking problem to work on. When that happens, the scientist in question needs an amanuensis.” He dragged out the word in a way designed to make Nela laugh, and to draw attention away from the phrase she had expected to hear: Wife. “Besides, you’d do the same for me,” he said, drying his hands on a dish towel.
Nela wasn’t so sure. It upset her to owe anyone anything, and their relationship was becoming lopsided. She knew that Jackson had come by his caring nature genetically. He told her stories about his parents, both missionaries, and he made their experiences sound idealistic and adventurous all at once. Nela was suspicious of passed- down values. She had spent her life shucking off almost everything she had been born into.
To change the subject, she reached across the table and picked up the paper Jackson had been reading. “What is this?” she asked.
“It’s a paper about Hamilton’s Rule,” he said, “kin selection and altruism. You know, the how-many-cousins-are-worth-one-brother question, how biological relatives influence one another's ability to prevail.”
“Ah. A gene encoding a trait that enhances the fitness of the carrier should increase in frequency, while a gene that lowers it should be wiped out.”
Jackson smiled. “However, a gene that prompts altruism may increase in frequency anyway, because relatives often carry the same gene. And there you have kin selection.”
“What about our case? I believe I am correct in assuming that we would each save the other in an ocean of relatives, and we’re not
even related by blood.” She had suddenly raised the stakes, and both of them knew it.
“We exemplify a special case called ‘inclusive fitness,’ gene copies in unrelated others.” He turned from the sink and stood over her. He caressed her halo of hair.
She pulled a pencil from behind her ear, and marked the back of his paper. “So this is why you will leave me to help your strangers.” The words slipped away from her and she listened helplessly. Neither had mentioned his departure for India, now imminent, and whatever sacrifices that would call for.
“I have to go. There’s a contract.” Jackson leaned down to hug Nela’s shoulders. She shrugged him off, but he pulled her up and held her tighter, held her as close as if one of them might be lost.
“I was fine alone, before you came,” she said, her words muffled by his chest.
“I know, I know.” He tilted her chin up and kissed her. She tried to pull away from him, but could not. Not because he wouldn’t let her, but because she had lost the will to step out of the circle of his arms.
Nela thought she understood and accepted his commitment to his job, but when Jackson closed the door to the cottage the next morning, she was decimated. Hearing the lock on the front door click into place, she stood in front of the bedroom window and watched his cab pull away. She did not move for a long time. In her mind, she let words she had pushed down float up. She loved him, and vice- versa. But since she could not define “love” with any accuracy, she began to second-guess her own feelings. Her guilt turned to anger, and anger to guilt.
For the first time she noticed the ash tray on his bedside table had not been used. Had he quit smoking for her sake? Sacrifices, big and small. She opened the closet. Then, all of the closets. Jackson had left nothing behind. What did that mean? “I must go, but I’ll come back,“ he’d promised. She did not believe him, and here was the proof. He had no intention of coming back. He had left nothing to retrieve.
What did that have to say about love? She slammed the closet shut and hustled back downstairs to make sure the front door was locked. Even if he turned around now, even if he rushed into the house convinced he had left something precious there, it was already too late.
Nela moved through the kitchen, making tea. She sat down, first in her own seat, then in Jackson’s, while she waited for the kettle’s whistle. Jackson always kept his chair at a distance from the table to accommodate his long legs. It had bothered her, that disharmony in a small space. She tried it his way, stretching her legs out under the table, flexing her toes. Suddenly angry again, she thudded her feet onto the floor and banged into a piece of metal.
So Jackson had left something behind! It was his theodolite. She picked it up and held it on her lap for a minute. She felt the tug of magical thinking, the idea that if she kept this equipment, he would have to come back to get it. Nonsense! She got up and carried it from room to room, dropping it into each waste-paper bin in turn, but she was not capable of throwing it out. Instead, she tucked it into a drawer in her bedroom, and buried it under her nightclothes like a piece of the past.