Michael Goldstiver Likes a Girl, And Just Oh God
Fiction. Neurotic actuary whiz M. Goldstiver is back by lukewarm demand. And just oh god.
Michael Goldstiver is sitting in a bar on a Thursday afternoon. He’s sharing a table with four strangers, the only thing they have in common is that they work nearby and they each know this guy called Dave. It’s Dave’s birthday drinks. The table is reserved with a piece of paper that says ‘Dave 7:30’, but Dave is missing. Dave was held up at the office. Dave. Dave. The more Goldstiver says the name in his head the more ridiculous it sounds. No adult person should be called Dave, he thinks, and yet the world is full of them.
Dave is a crucial social lubricant for this table of four shy people with nothing of substance in common. There’s a thick silence in his absence. Speech is replaced by a good deal of smiling and absent neck stretching and the drumming of fingers on the black vinyl table. Stolen glances at phones. Then brazen glances at phones when it seems like everyone else is doing it. Coaster fidgeting. The occasional routine and flaccid pleasantry that peters out painfully. Throat clearing, eye contact that lasts the wrong amount of time, lame and uninformed meteorological speculation. It is all excruciating to Michael Goldstiver, who likes his conversations like he likes his binary code: a complete 1 or a total 0.
And as if it isn’t already too much to bear, add to Michael Goldstiver’s trauma the fact that he has just fallen in love at first sight. Her name is Lydia, she sits to his left. Lydia is an economist and knows the absent Dave through pilates.
Goldstiver’s plan to woo the girl is bad and it is this: do not look at her. It wasn’t a particularly long-term plan, just a sort of instinctive response to the altogether overwhelming feeling of falling in love at first sight. There are many problems with not looking at the person you are trying to woo, but the main one is that you can’t see them at all. Goldstiver has no visual information upon which to base his usual speculation about what her level of eye contact and the number of times she touches her hair says about his chances. He’s flying blind.
Michael Goldstiver is a man of data. He has a god given gift for calculus. In his subconscious brain is a constant stream of mathematics, always gathering data and running it through various theorems and formulas, which has been honed by years of study and one full fiscal quarter at a top actuary firm. His brain is a highly adept risk calculator, and is so completely autonomous in this function that the only thing Goldstiver is really aware of is the projection of numbers onto the things around him. A simple example: as Goldstiver sees it, over his beer there hovers a big, phantom, 63% — which he knows is a good estimation of its approximate capacity. He actually sees this number. And he sees numbers over everything, looking around the bar he’s aware of the probability of a fight breaking out two tables over (15%), the number of people tipping the bartender (3%), and the likelihood that the man sitting next to him, Stefan, Dave’s university buddy and a self-proclaimed writer that Goldstiver suspects is actually named Steven, will, in a few moments, start talking about his substack blog (100%).
For Lydia he’s got nothing. No numbers. He can’t see her at all and it’s agony to his brain: flying blind is the worst possible way to fly a machine as complicated and neurotic as Michael Goldstiver. He shifts nervously in his seat, whispers the name of god a few times, tries to feel as relaxed as possible. This does not work. He realises he must change strategies, and so now lets himself glance at the economist but only from the very corner of his eye. He looks at various contrivances around the room, swivelling to face the clock as if he isn’t wearing a watch, checking the score of the sport on the TV as if he cares about it, and tries to see as much of Lydia as he can from a thin sliver of his peripherals. The main objective of these glances is to see if the girl has herself seen that he’s not looking at her. This is only the beginning.
Dave arrives. He apologises for being late and asks, rhetorically, ‘Oh no, do you all hate me?’ Michael Goldstiver thinks We sure do and then accidentally says, ‘We sure do,’ out loud. This is a side-effect of a brain so full of numbers: sometimes there isn’t enough room for words and they have to be let go. Goldstiver is 93% serious, but his matter-of-fact delivery is mistaken for deadpannery, and the table laughs. Lydia in particular. It’s a strange but good sort of laugh; it sounds as if it’s mostly done in the inhale, the sucking of air into the mouth, where it smashes against air being expelled from the diaphragm, creating a sort of lyrical wheeze. It’s nice. Kind of. It flutters Goldstiver’s insides and gives him the courage to look at Lydia full on for only the second time all evening. She smiles at him. Oh god. Okay. Fucking hell. Goldstiver’s-heart. Has-something. It-wants. To-tell-him. By-speeding. Up-and. Pounding-in. His-ears. His brain is flooded with inputs and mathematics and working theories and he lags for a few moments, potentially losing consciousness altogether, he can’t be sure for how long, and then he smiles back. He overthinks it though and reveals his rear molars. His eyes are a maniac’s eyes and his eyebrows are at different heights.
Michael Goldstiver is as bad at smiling as he is at similes, and so he thinks that Lydia looks like a really nice lamp. Bright. Energy efficient. Maybe manufactured in Sweden. She had silky dark hair, a perfectly average degree of facial symmetry, and two eyes. A small and pointed nose. Teeth. Lips. All that. Yes. Yes it was all very good. Objectively, mathematically good. And yet no number appeared above her head. This makes Goldstiver feel seasick.
Dave greases the conversational wheels. For all his flaws and tardiness, Dave has a kind of super power in this regard, and he somehow makes Goldstiver volunteer anecdotes and generally exhibit a real personality—something he sometimes forgets that he has. And frequently Michael the actuary makes eyes at Lydia the economist. ‘Making eyes’, for Michael Goldstiver, means to look in a confident and understanding but deliberately aloof kind of way.
After a little while, Goldstiver begins layering nuanced, coded messages into his glances. Through only his eyes he hopes to convey his own interestingness and kindness and willingness to watch whatever kind of TV she wanted to watch without judgement. Lydia looks back at him when he does this, and sometimes she smiles, which he is unable to understand without his scientific calculator. He begins to wonder if she too is trying to communicate actual parsable English sentences with her eyes, like he is, and how he could ever hope to interpret them if she is.
The bar has a dance floor after 11:00 p.m. Dave—an obvious dancer—encourages most of the party to take off and boog. Goldstiver—obviously not a dancer—resists without being rude or conspicuous, and Lydia says she thinks she maybe did something to her knee at pilates. Everyone else goes to dance. So. Here they are. Goldstiver shifts in his chair again and looks around and smiles. Just smiles at the room. He begins to order his thoughts, scan his big mind for every interesting factoid ever picked up on an episode of QI, and construct a clever and probably very complicated plan to engage Lydia in conversation.
‘So where’d you go to uni?’ she asks with zero run up. Yikes. That’s direct. He answers. Waits a beat. Then asks the same question back. He’s so proud of this move that he doesn’t listen to her answer.
‘Oh, very cool,’ he says in the resulting pause, eyes wide, laying it on a bit too thick. He swallows. He waits a beat. ‘What’s your favourite movie?’ he asks, hoping she’ll have to think about it and he’ll have some time to regroup. ‘Transformers 4,’ she fires back. Oh boy. No time to regroup. Goldstiver chastises himself for such a soft-ball question. He swallows again, but this time his throat is so dry that it takes him a few goes. Which must have looked pretty weird. Ugh. He waits a beat.
‘Two trains depart for central station at the same time, one from x, 300km to the north and travelling at 80km/h, which must make four five minute stops on the way, the other departs from y, 250km to the south and travelling at 60km/h, and it doesn’t have to stop at all. Which train will arrive first and by how long?’
The two look at one another very seriously, trying to work out how to play it. Eventually Lydia laughs her emphysemic laugh. ‘Do I have to show my working out?’ she asks, coyly. Sensing this is banter, maybe even flirtation, Goldstiver replies, with far less panache than he had planned in his head, ‘Only approved calculators can be taken into the exam.’ He will regret this line at least once a day for the next three years.
While she thinks, Goldstiver’s mind drifts to memories of girlfriends past. This is a mistake. There was that one girl Sally who used to always call him ‘Mikey’. Harrowing stuff. He winces even thinking about it. And Kirstin - the one with the foot. And Anabelle Ackerman and her anaphylactic apple allergy. Goldstiver’s mathematical brain, always on the hunt for patterns, noticed that a common theme of all these love affairs had been that every time he’d dated someone it had made him feel worse instead of better. He wondered vaguely whose fault that might be.
Michael Goldstiver is what medical professionals call a Visceral Rememberer. That is, attached to the recollection of each bygone love were the actual physical feelings he had felt inside of him. Nausea, dizziness, lethargy, sharp arm pain, literal heartburn, sweating, and so on. Sitting, in the present, in a bar, watching Lydia the economist think, he begins to feel physically woozy. And the worst was yet to come, for it was rather inevitable that this train of thought should fly 100km/h, without stopping, into Elizabeth.
Elizabeth had been Goldstiver’s mother’s great hope for a daughter-in-law to be proud of. Polite, high achieving, always around. Always. Goldstiver and Lizzy were together for twenty-one months and nine days, and he hadn’t enjoyed all that much of it if he’s honest, especially the Valentine’s Day they said they weren’t going to do presents on account of that ‘not being the true meaning of the day.’ They went out for dinner and Goldstiver had just taken a bite of his expensive salmon when Elizabeth cleared her throat and said, ‘So I know we said we weren’t going to do presents, but…’ She produced a new calculator. A Casio. Premium gear. He paused. Chewed. Swallowed. Apologised. Took another bite. Chewed. Apologised again. Swallowed. Gulped. Endured a great silence. The next day Goldstiver had bought a very cheap and, he knew, aesthetically bad necklace, buried it in the back of his sock drawer, and waited for an appropriate moment to gift it unto Lizzy. No such moment seemed to arrive in the next calendar year. When the inevitable but altogether amicable dumping came, Michael Goldstiver had felt, more than anything, relief.
Relief. Ahhh. That was how it had felt, and he felt it inside now too. A settling of nerves. A flooding of the brain with calming chemicals. Relief. The air is lighter and the goodness of all things is indestructible. He looks around the bar absently, his thoughts swimming in a sereneness that does not lessen when his eyes fall on the economist.
Lydia’s mouth is bunched up on its left corner. She blows air in and out of her right cheek. Goldstiver shifts in his chair again and takes a mental breath, noticing that the stream of numbers running through his head has stopped. Completely stopped. He’s not even trying to work out how he must look from Lydia’s perspective; his brain is completely quiet. He isn’t sure why he isn’t terrified.
Being calm like this, under obvious emotional duress, was quite an unusual state of being for Michael Goldstiver. He was used to being afraid: he was scared of getting caught on escalators, choking on his food, general inadequacy, all diseases, the smell and customer service inside every Lush store, small talk with his hairdresser, and so on. Michael Goldstiver had had a recurring nightmare that the bus he was on wasn’t the right bus every night for the last five years. In his whole life, he’d never spelt the word ‘restaurant’ correctly on the first go. So this self-assurance in the face of obvious uncertainty was strange, and though the strangeness of it should have been scary, he remained calm. Relieved. Serene.
‘It’s hard to do the exact numbers in my head,’ she says. ‘But I think the northern train arrives first by like maybe five minutes. Right?’
‘That’s a pretty weird question, Michael.’
‘What’s the opposite of left?’
‘Are you stuck?’
He was. He had been. Goldstiver theatrically blinks and shivers himself out of it. Both parties smile and both parties lean forward.
Michael Goldstiver feels uncharacteristically simple. He likes feeling simple.
‘Would you like a necklace?’ he asks.
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