EXPONENTIAL DECAY • by C. Hall

He still sang Verdi in the shower.

She listened and planned to leave him.

Twenty years ago, when she was seventeen and smitten, she’d considered his singing romantic: her elegant, cultured calculus teacher serenading her while he soaped his graying chest hair into parabolic swoops and curves. Sitting barefoot on his bed, she’d listened to him sing while she crammed for his test. She’d hidden her pink leopard-print socks in her jeans pockets. The night before, she’d realized they were childish rather than edgy when she saw his own dark argyle socks sprawled in an “x” at the foot of his bed, pungent, practical, and manly.

“Studying hard?” he had asked, emerging in a towel, and stooped to kiss her cheek. Her heart leapt up above her walled and timed world of chalkboards, tests, and notes passed between girls. It rose up into a dim imagined space where it shimmered against the vastness of the unknown world.

“Time for school,” he’d said, tugging at her ponytail. That afternoon, when she turned in her test, she drew an infinity sign to the right of her name. When the test came back, he’d written “74%” to the left.

He had also drawn a large red check mark beside the infinity sign.

She thought about contesting the grade on the grounds that she hadn’t been able to study the night before. But why make a fuss about a C?

Her second year of college, she planned to leave him. She’d end it during December break — no, March break. Why wreck Christmas?

In February, he got fired. The principal had found some of their letters stashed underneath a pile of uncorrected geometry tests. “Mr. B’s been after me for years,” he told her over the phone, “he wants to hire a cheap young kid too dumb and idealistic to say ‘no’ to anything.”

She didn’t think it was that. Over the summer, she’d told her best friends about him even though she’d promised she would never tell anyone. Her friends said they’d keep the whole thing secret, and she’d said she believed them. The firing was probably her fault.

“Mr. B’s a jerk,” she said.

She went home and helped him clean out his classroom. While they packed his Rubik’s Cube collection, he proposed to her. On the poster above his desk, Einstein — the same Einstein who had witnessed their first kiss — gazed across the empty classroom, looking guilty. She accepted the proposal.

She’d still planned to leave him. But without teaching, he was a fractional man. She’d leave when things were better.

Then she was hit by a car when she was jogging in the rain. She’d broken bones with names she’d never heard. He stayed by her through her year-long recovery, calm, reliable, and centered as the x-axis on a grid.

After that, whenever she planned to leave him, she remembered his big, dark Einstein-eyes looking over her in her hospital bed.

Now she was old and he was older. His Verdi rasped. He dabbed his lean, precise lips with a napkin when he ate. He took four minutes to pull on his socks. His forehead was a white square segmented by five horizontal lines. She wanted to draw vertical bars down across them, one for every five years they’d been together. Then she’d draw a downward sloping line across the grid, demand he “solve for x,” and see if he could still solve any problems, even simple ones.

She remembered algebra. Graphs and equations modeling change, each variable unknown but each one solvable. Knowing that the lines on her paper would continue beyond the page, beyond the hundreds and thousands, and onward toward infinity. Now all variables were known but nothing solved. The concept of infinity was not expansive but stifling.

Sometimes, she still planned to leave him. But she knew she wouldn’t. She was a line whose trajectory had been set, not by his firing or the car accident but by some invisible variable in her personality that made the confrontation impossible.

In the bathroom, his Verdi paused. He cleared his throat and spat. She heard the spit hit the shower wall and imagined it, a viscous yellow slug, sliding toward the floor. She wanted quiet mornings, high school, and the scent of chalk dust, fine and intangible as adolescent longing.


C. Hall writes in Massachusetts, USA.


Rate this story:
 average 5 stars • 1 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    You are a marvelous writer. Won me over in a genre I dislike almost as much as math. Five stars.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    You are a marvelous writer. Won me over in a genre I dislike almost as much as math. Five stars.

  • Stephen Ramey

    Fabulous. Self-contained and yet expansive.

  • Stephen Ramey

    Fabulous. Self-contained and yet expansive.

  • Ben Warden

    Love the bits of math metaphor that leek through. Beautifully quietening.

  • Ben Warden

    Love the bits of math metaphor that leek through. Beautifully quietening.

  • Sarah Russell

    Such a vivid portrait. Congratulations!

  • Sarah Russell

    Such a vivid portrait. Congratulations!

  • joanna b.

    wow! i agree with every comment. “she was a line whose trajectory had been set” is sheer brilliance.

  • joanna b.

    wow! i agree with every comment. “she was a line whose trajectory had been set” is sheer brilliance.

  • Elaine Olund

    This one drew me right in. Beautifully written. Thanks!

  • Elaine Olund

    This one drew me right in. Beautifully written. Thanks!

  • Avalina Kreska

    5 Stars. It was deliciously depressing. The vicous yellow slug turned my stomach. I think I’ll skip breakfast.

  • Avalina Kreska

    5 Stars. It was deliciously depressing. The vicous yellow slug turned my stomach. I think I’ll skip breakfast.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I’m not sure who I’m supposed to sympathise with in this story – the whinging narrator or the abuser of power? Nor did I work out who ‘grew’ during the telling of the story.

    • OscarWindsor
      Despite the excellent writing, I find myself agreeing with you, @paul
  • Paul A. Freeman

    I’m not sure who I’m supposed to sympathise with in this story – the whinging narrator or the abuser of power? Nor did I work out who ‘grew’ during the telling of the story.

    • OscarWindsor
      Despite the excellent writing, I find myself agreeing with you, @paul
  • Excellent story. Hooked from the start and held me right through to the bitter end.

  • Excellent story. Hooked from the start and held me right through to the bitter end.

  • Angela

    This was great; I really enjoyed it. I didn’t have any sympathy for the characters, but it was very realistic and believable.

  • Angela

    This was great; I really enjoyed it. I didn’t have any sympathy for the characters, but it was very realistic and believable.