First edition | prose

First Edition features new original works by Northern California Jewish writers. Appearing the first issue of each month, it includes a poem and an excerpt from a novel or short story.

The Geometry of Love

by jessica levine

As the novel opens, Julia Field has been living in Princeton with her boyfriend, Ben, and thinking of moving into New York to take over her father’s accounting business. In the city looking at an apartment, Julia runs into Ben’s former roommate, Michael, with whom she’d shared a single but memorable kiss many years ago. This scene begins as they part from that chance meeting.

And he let me go, casting me into the crowd that straggled down the sooty-breathed stairway to the platform below. The train waited, its silver doors open. I stepped over the narrow abyss between the car and the platform, and the doors closed behind me, their rubber rims bouncing against the last passengers squeezing in. Thus they had closed ten years before, at Grand Central, when Michael had said good-bye not at the top of the stairs but on the platform below, standing with one foot in the train car, his back against the furiously bouncing door, as though about either to get on the train with me or pull me back out. Who was I kidding? That kiss had not been the “accident” that I, for a decade, had imagined it to be—it had been a cutting-in-two good-bye. I’d buried it determinedly in the long ago, but now here it was again, erupting from my dense, volcanic heart.

I rode home with a clenched feeling in my lower abdomen, where I’d had the surgery. Outside the train, over the industrial landscape of northern New Jersey, blue gaseous plumes rising from mammoth chemical tanks melted into a dirty pink sky. An occasional tree struggled up, between steel cylinders and belching pipes, into a mauve blanket of grit-granulated smog. Inside the car businessmen dozed or drank beer. Tired from all the walking I’d done, I closed my eyes, but I was too agitated to sleep.

Ten years before, on the night of the library steps, I got home two hours late.

“That was an awfully long dinner you had with Michael,” Ben had said when he met me at the train station.

“Oh, we ended up taking a walk and chewing the fat for a long time,” I’d said. Chewing the fat—what a ridiculous expression.

I got into the car and Ben looked at me again for a long moment before pulling away from the curb. There wasn’t much light coming in from the street, but I knew he’d seen enough to guess that something had happened. When we got home, he took me by the shoulders, his thumbs against my clavicles.

“Did you do something with Michael?” he asked.

I confessed immediately. “Yes. I kissed him.”

I’d never seen Ben so angry. He wanted to know if I’d slept with Michael, and I said no. He asked if I had been flirting with Michael behind his back all spring. I said, no, I was just spending time with him while you were studying. And that was the truth: Michael was sharing Ben’s apartment, and Ben didn’t want me in his bedroom while he plowed through Shakespeare and Milton for his doctoral exams—he said it disturbed his concentration. So I did my homework sitting in the living room, listening to Michael play the piano. When he stopped the two of us would chat and have tea. That was all there was to it.

“Are you in love with him?” Ben continued, and I said no, it was just a good-bye that got out of hand—and that was truly how I wanted to think of it. And then Ben forbade me ever to see Michael again, and I said I wouldn’t, I didn’t want to. Which was also true. It seemed simpler that way.

So why had I confessed so readily to—what? a kiss? I couldn’t stand having a secret from Ben; it felt like it would spoil the intimacy between us. To put it mathematically, the equation at that point in time was: pain of keeping a secret from Ben > (greater than) pain of not seeing Michael anymore.

Ten years later, the math wasn’t so clear. I couldn’t tell Ben that I’d run into Michael that afternoon. I didn’t want another scene. I didn’t want to rehash what had happened ten years before. And I didn’t want to hear Ben forbid me to see Michael again, because I wouldn’t obey.

And so I decided, for the first time in my relationship with Ben, to keep a secret from him.


Jessica Levine’s stories, essays, poetry and translations have appeared in many journals, including Green Hills Literary Lantern, North American Review and the Southern Review. She is the author of “Delicate Pursuit: Literary Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton” (Routledge, 2002). She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.