“Sounds like the literary world and Fizzy.”
His brows went up. “Oh yeah? How so?”
“You wouldn’t believe the things people say to her about writing romance. Calling her books ‘trashy’ and ‘guilty,’ like they’re something to be ashamed of. Even in interviews. She’s been asked what her father thinks of her writing sex scenes.”
“Yeah, I get that. Early on nearly everyone who knew me asked, ‘Are you that desperate to find a girlfriend?’ They obviously didn’t know that in 2018, fifteen percent of Americans were using dating sites, and that same fifteen percent spent almost three billion dollars a year on them. Imagine that number going from fifteen percent to forty-two point five percent—”
“The current percentage of unmarried people over the age of eighteen.”
Their eyes met and held as they shared this deeply—and surprisingly sensual—data-wonk moment.
“Well.” She blinked away and back again. “I’m sure you’re getting the last laugh, and I think it’s cool.” He stared at her in disbelief. “I really do. I just …” Jess winced and the obvious question hung between them, a swinging sign in the wind. “Does it annoy you that I don’t believe our score?”
“Not really. I admire your natural skepticism.” He gave her a little self-indulgent grin. “And we have enough data that I feel fairly confident we know what we’re doing here. You’ll just have to decide what to think if this test comes back with the same score.”
“What are you expecting?”
“I’ll believe the test if it says we are biologically compatible, but I’m not a scientific zealot, Jess. I recognize the element of choice.” He pulled his gloves off and dropped them on the tray. “No one is going to force you to fall in love with me.”
With his face tilted down, Jess was able to stare at him outright. Smooth olive skin, the shadow of stubble, full lips. Jess wasn’t sure, but she’d guess midthirties. She put the mental filter of time over his face, imagining him with salt and pepper at his temples, the small lines of laughter in the corners of his eyes.
She shifted a little on the stool, hit with an unfamiliar ache.
“When you saw the first compatibility score over ninety, what was your immediate reaction?”
He stood and pulled on a fresh pair of gloves. “Dread.”
This was … not the answer she was expecting. Jess followed him with her eyes as he moved with the rack of vials over to the hood. “Dread? Seriously?”
“Over ninety is where we enter the range of scores that could completely throw off our curve.” He set the rack inside and then peeled off his gloves, turning to face her. “We’d already seen great compatibility with scores up to ninety. The scores coming off the behavioral and mood assessments tracked. It was all linear. We didn’t know what to expect. Could it stay linear? How would that look emotionally? A sigmoidal curve made the most sense—the emotional satisfaction scores might flatten out at some point over eighty and reach an asymptote. But to imagine that at higher biological compatibility we might see lower emotional compatibility—that’s what scared me. We really don’t want to be bell-shaped, but we just don’t have a lot of data either way.”
He seemed to hear his own rambling and stopped abruptly, blushing.
Self-conscious River was too much to handle. Jess shoved fondness away. “You are deeply nerdy.”
“I’m just saying,” he said, laughing self-deprecatingly, “if actual emotional compatibility tanked at higher DNADuo numbers, it would narrow our range of possible matches, and make it harder to argue that we’d been binning them the right way.”
“But that isn’t what happened,” Jess said. “Right? They’re all together and happy.”
“The ones we know of, yeah. But like I said, there’s only a handful at the top of the scale.”
He sat down at the fume hood, pulling on a fresh pair of gloves, spraying them with alcohol, and pulling on a second pair over the first.
He wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Even Jess knew enough to know he could do this sample prep out on the lab bench, but she wasn’t surprised he was using sterile technique. Still, the anxiety building in her stomach had reached a boiling point: she would need to find a way to explain it if the results came back ninety-eight again.
Even if it was starting to feel like River Peña might not be the worst man alive.
Jess lifted her chin to the two identical hulking machines on the other side of the room. “Are those the DNADuos?”
He followed her attention briefly and nodded. “Creatively named DNADuo One and DNADuo Two.” She could hear his smile. “DNADuo Two is down right now. Getting serviced next week. It’ll be up and running by May, I hope. You’re welcome to stay and hang out,” he added, “but the assay takes eight hours, so the data won’t be analyzed until tomorrow morning.”
“A wild Friday night for you?” she joked.
But with his back to her, she couldn’t tell if he even cracked a smile. His posture took the shape of renewed focus. “I’m usually here anyway.”
“Spoken like a true dream boyfriend.”
He scoffed—appreciating her joke just about as much as she expected him to. Jess realized she was being politely dismissed. Standing, she pushed her sleeve back down. “Think I’ll head home to Juno.”
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” he said without turning around. “I’ll call either way.”
MOM, DID YOU know the first roller coaster was built to keep people away from brothels?”
Jess dragged her eyes away from Google to focus on her pajama-clad seven-year-old, hanging upside down over the back of the couch. Her hair was nearly to her waist, and Pigeon had made herself a nice little nest where it pooled on the cushion. “Hello, small human. How do you know what a brothel is?”
Juno peeked at her from behind her book. “I heard it.”
She lifted her chin to what Juno was reading. “Your library book about lizards mentions brothels?”
“No, it was in a movie I watched with Pops.”
Jess leaned an elbow on the dining table next to her abandoned bowl of oatmeal and slid her gaze over to Pops sitting innocently in the lounger. He scanned his crossword puzzle, saying casually, “It was on some history channel.” He flipped a page. “Practically a documentary.”
“A documentary about brothels, Pops? It can’t wait until she’s, I don’t know, ten?”
Upside-down Juno grinned at her victoriously. “I looked it up in the dictionary you got me.”
Pigeon darted off the couch barely a second before Juno slid the rest of the way to the floor, landing in a giggling, crumpled pile. Sitting right-side-up again, she flipped her head back, leaving her hair a tangled mess around her head. “It was a movie about Billy the Kid.”
Jess looked at Pops again. “Young Guns?” she said incredulously. “My seven-year-old watched Young Guns.”
“In my defense,” he said, still not bothering to glance up, “we were watching Frozen again and I fell asleep. When I woke up, she’d changed the channel and got invested. You want me to keep her from learning history?”