Physicist in a Chinese Restaurant

Her heart pounding, she knocked on the door of apartment 7A, not knowing if she’d get a housekeeper or an alien. Instead, she got the professor. The sight of him doing something perfectly normal — opening the door of his own apartment — threw her off a bit. You don’t expect the mundane from world famous physicists, especially one as foreign as Hempstead.

“Ms. Arthur, I presume?” he said, greeting her with a slight bow and faint smile that complimented his boyish appearance. He was tall and gangly, a flop of blonde hair haphazardly covering half his forehead. Everything he wore — from his brown trousers to his tan sport jacket — fit a bit too loose and had the worn look of a hand-me-down.

He stood to the side and motioned her in with movements that had an almost mechanical quality, like he was inviting a person into his house for the first time.

The apartment was like everything and nothing you’d expect, all at once. Small and cluttered. Unglamorous yet comfortable. Stacks of books were piled everywhere. A small black and white sat in the living room, along with a cluttered up old green couch and a recliner with a tear in the back.

“Please, call me Jane,” she said. “Good that you have power back on this block.” She was referring to the storm that’d passed over earlier that evening. She noticed a pair of feet in the recliner facing the TV and knew right away who it must be. It was well-known Hempstead still lived with his father, Dr. Veneray, a retired UN ambassador who’d adopted Hempstead when he was three and raised him single-handedly without a mother his entire life.

The TV was blaring the local news, some report about Sputnik. Hempstead’s father made no effort to turn it down, let alone greet the visitor. At first, Jane thought he must be sleeping, but then he had yelled for quiet. Hempstead proceeded as if his father hadn’t said a thing. Instead, he commenced an awkward search for his wallet, patting his pockets and looking under stacks of papers piled up on the kitchen table. Finally he found it on top of the refrigerator.

“I’m sorry,” Hempstead said, nervously, “would you like a drink?” The question was forced, like he was reading it from some crib sheet with pointers he’d gleaned from a book on how to host people to your house. Jane had anticipated an awkward evening, and her intuition felt spot-on.

Never looking up from the TV, Dr. Vaneray chimed in gruffly, “Thought you were going to a restaurant?”

Jane smiled, a bit embarrassed and looked at Hempstead, who seemed to be looking over her shoulder at a plain white wall, perhaps running calculations through his head, she mused.

“No, but thank you,” Jane said in response to Hempstead’s offer for the drink. “I’m sure I can wait until the restaurant.”

Dr. Vaneray groaned in frustration at something the television newsman had just said.

Jane looked at Hempstead, waiting for him to initiate their departure. “Shall we go?” she eventually had to say. Hempstead agreed and grabbed a heavy trench coat, which seemed unwise given the humidity of the evening.

Jane could have sworn she heard Dr. Vaneray say something as the two closed the apartment door behind them.

* * *

They walked on the city sidewalk, still damp from the rain earlier that evening. The city had an otherworldly feel to it tonight. Light from street lamps revealed galaxies of swirling oil slicks spread across the dark pavement as the lingering wetness of the rain infused the air with a rusty sort of freshness. While street lamps had been restored, many apartment buildings and businesses along the street were still darkened — their power still out.

“Where are we going?” Hempstead asked after they’d walked a block.

Jane stopped and looked at him. “I thought you knew. Your secretary said she’d arrange something.”

“She did?” Hempstead asked, running a hand through his blonde hair.

“Well, it doesn’t matter, does it?” Jane said. “There’s a little Chinese place a couple blocks from here. It might be on a street with power. How about we try there?”

Hempstead paused for a second and then began nodding slowly. “Yes. Yes, that may work.”

“So how long have you and your dad lived in the apartment?” Jane asked, hoping to start small talk as they walked to the restaurant.

Hempstead scrunched his face and looked up to the sky in thought. “Uh.” He paused so long Jane thought he’d forgotten the question, or just dismissed it. “Twenty two years,” he said at last.

“That’s been your home your whole life?” Immediately Jane felt embarrassed. Her question could be taken as insinuating that Hempstead’s life before adoption was somehow meaningless.

“Yes,” Hempstead said. “That’s right, except for when I was real young.”

They walked the rest of the way in near silence, Jane trying to imagine Hempstead as a child. She couldn’t’ do it.

* * *

The restaurant had power, the only one on the block that did. Only one customer was seated when they arrived — a short, stocky man of about fifty with a bushy black mustache and curly dark hair, which poofed out from under the black fedora atop his head. He was an odd one, Jane thought, not only because of his location (a circular table in the middle of the empty restaurant) but because he still wore his black rain coat. Three large platters sat before him but he didn’t seem to be eating. He’d looked at Hempstead and Jane when the pair arrived; otherwise, his eyes remained on his table.

The hostess, who was missing a front tooth, gave a warm smile as she approached the front door to greet the new arrivals. Jane looked at Hempstead, who looked back at her before realizing he should do something.

“Oh, uh,” he stammered, “we’d like to eat…some food.”

“Just two?” the hostess asked.

Hempstead looked back at Jane, seemingly confused by the question.

“Yes,” Jane spoke up, clutching her small purse against her slim-fitting black dress with the white buttons running up the front.

“Storm knocked out our power,” the hostess said, looking around at the near empty restaurant as she gathered two menus. “Good to have some customers.” She smiled brightly at Jane, unashamed of the gaping black hole in her teeth, and led the two to a big red booth against one of the walls in the back of the restaurant.

Hempstead bolted a hand to a pair of wooden chopsticks, still sheathed in their paper wrapping, and began fiddling with them while looking up at the graceful cranes and smiling monkeys surrounding the large mirror with the ornate golden frame hung by their booth. He seemed incapable of focusing his attention on any one thing in particular, especially the petite young student reporter sitting across from him.

Jane thanked the hostess for filling their waters and listened to the soft Chinese music coming from the record player back by the hallway to the bathrooms.

“Have you eaten here before?” she asked.

Hempstead looked at her. His eyes were a brilliant grey that reminded Jane of a color photograph she’d once seen of a glacier in Alaska. The photo showed two men in the distance, ice picks in hand, on top of the glacier, looking like waving little specks of sand. She wondered if those same two specks were somewhere within Hempstead’s eyes.

Hempstead bulged out his cheeks and took a deep breath. “Yes. My father and I have come here. I think he comes here as a regular.”

“And you don’t accompany him?”

“No, I’m either at the University or working on something. I think he comes in the middle of the night.”

‘When you’re sleeping?” Jane asked.

“Or working,” Hempstead answered. “Mostly, I’m working. I don’t often hear him leaving if I’m working.” Jane pictured Vaneray getting on his hat and coat and slamming the door shut as Hempstead worked obliviously at the tiny apartment’s crowded desk, crunching equations in some sort of unwakable hypno-trance.

“I do love Chinese food. Had it the first time when I moved to the City from Wisconsin last year,” Jane said, wondering if she might trigger some follow-up inquiry from Hempstead, some human discussion of any kind.

“I don’t care much for it,” said Hempstead, looking over his shoulder to the front of the restaurant.

“Sorry, we could have gone…”

“I don’t care for much of any food,” Hempstead continued. From any other person, the remark would seem cold, disdainful. Given her dining partner’s lack of social acuity, Jane only sensed a tragic innocence in the answer.

Jane said a simple “oh” and slouched down a bit, resting her brown pony tail against the booth.

“So what is it you’d like to ask me about, Misses…” Hempstead had forgotten her name already.

“Just call me Jane.” She flashed a grin, trying to hide her growing annoyance. Before the interview, she’d been excited — nervous, perhaps, was the better word. Or perhaps beyond nervous. She was a student reporter, on assignment for NYU’s graduate student newspaper, about to meet a world-renowned physicist. And not just any physicist. In the last year, Hempstead, Columbia University’s enigmatic boy wonder, had appeared on the covers of Time and Life magazines, and had just been named a finalist for the Nobel Prize in physics. The Hempstead Theorem was the talk of the Western World, promising to harken in an age of “Forever Peace in the Nuclear Age,” as Time’s cover had declared.

Jane had first read about Hempstead last year after picking up a copy of Scientific Atlantic in the NYU cafeteria. The picture on the front page showed Hempstead standing next to what looked like an atom bomb. Dozens of men (scientists, politicians, military types) smiled casually in the background, encircling Hempstead. They looked natural, like people; Hempstead was their polar opposite. He had one hand on his belt, like he was holding up his pants, his lips were sewn shut, and his eyes looked as large as golf balls. Jane couldn’t tell if they were the eyes of a mad genius or a scared little boy, terrified by the thought of it all — the notoriety, the responsibility, the sheer act of living in the nuclear age. She couldn’t get the young professor out of her head.

That day she’d brought the Scientific Atlantic to her student editor, Thomas O’Gibb. As O’Gibb thrusted from behind her, she’d pictured the professor — how he might take her, how big he might be, if he’d ever been with a woman before.

After O’Gibb had flung her over and finished himself, Jane employed a small towel to wipe off her chest, while O’Gibb laid on the floor of the locked student newsroom and relayed how the staff had decided it would be funny to have a female reporter covering sports. Think of all the unintentional goofs you might make!

“I think I’d rather report on science,” Jane had replied, still wiping with the towel.

“Even better!” O’Gibb had chuckled.

And from then on, Jane was the science correspondent for the NYU student grad paper. Immediately, she called Hempstead’s office to arrange an interview, knowing it would be a long shot but feeling as if persistence might pay off with Hempstead’s secretary, a seemingly ancient older woman named “Edna.” Edna turned Jane down 49 times, but then — one day — Edna died, and so the phone kept ringing and ringing and ringing until even Hempstead — in his usual cocoon of meditative deep thought — noticed the incessant ringing and, dress shirt half untucked, plodded out of his office to see — for the first time — that Edna was not in her chair. He walked slowly over to the blathering phone, picked it up and answered “Hempstead.” At that moment, a university official barged into the office and informed Hempstead about Edna’s passing. The professor took the news like someone hearing the weather report and simply handed the receiver to the official, who promptly asked the caller who they were and what their business was with Hempstead, at which point Jane lied and said she was calling to “confirm” their interview for 6:30 on Saturday night. The official said, “yes, yes, very good” and told Jane to wait on the line until a substitute secretary could be dispatched from “the Agency” to write down the information in Hempstead’s date book. Ten minutes later, a young girl named Helen with a freshly starched white button up shirt entered the office and took down the details. The university official had hovered condescendingly over Helen, watching as she scrupulously copied the notation in Hempstead’s date book. “Dinner at 6:30 with Jane Arthur.” Once complete, Helen looked up at official and gave a pleasant smile, which he returned with an arrogant nod and — seeing that the substitute could indeed answer a phone and take down a simple message — left the room.

For days Jane had sweated the details of the interview. What would she ask him? What should she wear? Would he be as odd as he seemed? She thought about him everywhere — in class, in the shower, at editorial staff meetings, in the library. She read two articles he had published. On the morning of the interview, she’d awoken and pulled the Scientific Atlantic still resting on her bed stand. Staring at those wide eyes, her hand had made its way slowly between her legs and she’d climaxed.

Now, in the Chinese restaurant, a bit of the castle she’d built in her head had started to founder. Perhaps such absentmindedness wasn’t her cup of tea. Perhaps she liked men who could remember her name, or people who care just a tiny sliver about others — even if they are the savior of mankind.

Jane took a sip from her water glass before reaching into her small black purse and pulling out a tiny flip pad and a silver pen.

“What division are you from?” Hempstead asked.

“The NYU grad paper.”

“NYU grad…” Hempstead trailed off, looking down at a bottle of soy sauce.

“Yes, is there something wrong?”

Hempstead shook his head, keeping his eyes on the soy sauce. “No, I just didn’t know you were a student reporter. I thought you were with the Pentagon.’

A laugh burst forth but was quickly stifled. “Why ever would you think that?”

“Oh, well, I thought my secretary said I had a security clearance briefing…or something of that nature.”

Jane could think of all sorts of things wrong about Hempstead’s assumption — a security briefing at night? On the weekend? In a Chinese restaurant? But one thing struck her more than anything else. “Yes, but Professor, you do understand…I am a woman.”

Hempstead looked at her with an unflinching face.

“Yes.” he said definitively.

“So,” Jane looked around the restaurant and gave a nervous chuckle, “the Pentagon? Sending me?”

At that moment the small little bell above the restaurant door started to chime, signaling new guests. Jane peered sideways out of the booth and looked beyond the man with the bushy mustache (with his back to Jane, now eating his food) to see a group of four had arrived, two couples on a date. Instantly she could tell there was something odd about the group. They were dressed nicely but not in the New York way, almost old-fashioned. Out-of-towners, Jane surmised. Her guess was right. The group was boisterous (drunk) and their southern accents could soon be heard across the restaurant.

They were seated at a large round table across from Jane and Hempstead’s booth, laughing gleefully about what an exotic quest they’d just completed — finding the one restaurant that seemed to have power restored after the storm. The men, thinning hair, overly nourished and dressed in dark wool suits with colorful ties (one paisley, the other striped), helped their dates into their seats. They snickered loudly as they did this, as if the combination of chivalry and intoxication was too subversive not to laugh at. The women were both in their 20s or early 30s, one with blonde hair to her shoulders and the other sporting a neat bun. They were drunk too, although (unsurprisingly) not as boisterous as the men. One of the women, the one with blonde hair to her shoulders, gave Jane a pleasant nod as she sat down, perhaps making an attempt to apologize for the group’s behavior or just feeling obligated to acknowledge a neighboring table in such an empty place.

Hempstead seemed to pay the group no mind, focusing instead on the patterns of the restaurant’s red and gold wall-to-wall carpeting.

Jane turned her attention back to Hempstead, thinking she should get started with the interview. “So when did you become interested in physics?”

“I never became interested. It was always there.” Hempstead paused. “Could we just…Could I just ask you something?”

Of course, Jane said.

“During this interview, I would request that you not ask me any questions for which there are no answers.” Hempstead looked plaintively at Jane. His face reminded Jane of her best friend growing up, standing in the kitchen of his home and asking Jane not to tell anyone about what she’d seen his father do that day. The thought of what she’d seen through the crack of the doorway — the man pulling his cheap brown work pants over his hairy, white legs — would forever be with her.

Jane was going to ask Hempstead what he meant, but she was interrupted by an overly loud question at the other table.

“Did ya’ll see the little black baby in the hotel lobby?” said the lady with the bun.

“Yes!” the other woman exclaimed. “A doll if there ever was one.”

“Those people can be so cute at that age,” said the lady with the bun, pulling a book of matches out of her purse as an unlit cigarette rested between her lips. “It’s just too bad they grow up.” The men laughed and one asked what the baby was even doing in such a fine hotel. The two women agreed that one of the laundresses must’ve brought her baby to work or “something of that nature.”

“What would you like?” A waitress stood beside Hempstead and Jane, beaming with a notepad in hand.

“Oh, uh,” Jane stammered, wondering why all this time she’d neglected to look at the menu. “Do you have Mongolian beef?”

“Something similar,” the waitress replied.

Jane smiled. “Great.”

“And you, sir?” the waitress asked, turning to Hempstead.

Hempstead looked down at the menu but then straightened up when the air raid sirens went off.

“On a Saturday night?” Jane wondered, giving a halfhearted smile. “Don’t they usually save these tests for mid-week?”

But something inside her changed when she observed Hempstead. His eyes. They were as wide as they’d been in the article she’d first seen him in. The two southern men were both standing beside their table, crouching down a bit to look out the big storefront windows onto the street. They’d changed too, going from merry and drunk to befuddled and anxious. The man with the bushy mustache got up and bolted to the restrooms in the back. Someone said, “Maybe it’s due to the storm.”

The waitress didn’t seem to mind. “You want appetizers?” she said, looking at Hempstead and Jane.

Jane shook her head slowly, still fixated on Hempstead and his eyes.

Instantly, the small black sliver of sky visible above the buildings across the street was wiped away and replaced by a heavenly orange, the color of the morning sky.

“Egg rolls, sweet and sour soup…” The waitress said, looking at Hempstead, who was still looking straight across the table at Jane, his grey, glacial eyes nearly bulging from his head.

In his mind, he’d formulated what he was going to say next; however, he and the others were vaporized into sand before he could get the words out.

It’s possible I forgot to carry the two.

Physicist in a Chinese Restaurant was originally published in The Codex on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.
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