Imaginary Numbers

A short story about what happens when two souls from different worlds occupy the same space. From R. M. Dolin’s novel, What Is To Be Done.

Imagine Liking Math

Summary: Chance is Harley riding drifter doing what he can to stay one step ahead of a past in relentless pursuit. He’s just hired on at Jake’s distillery hoping to rest long enough to figure out his next move. Sympatico is still coming to terms with what it means to be freed from human trafficking. She’s found sanctuary with Jake and wants nothing more than to be left alone. The problem is, Jake forgot to mention that to Chance and now that Jake’s away for the evening, Chance has his opportunity. Imaginary Numbers is about what happens when two souls fleeing their past encounter the complexities of occupying the same space.


Chance doesn’t really consider his commitment to stay through crush binding, but the prospect of being in one place for an extended period is comforting; especially given the unfortunate way he vacated Worland. Then there is his burdensome policy of never staying anywhere long enough to be remembered even if constantly moving takes it’s toll. There’s an exhaustion that comes with always being on edge about what you say or do, never permitting yourself the freedom to really relax. Life’s gotten easier with the advent of prepaid phones and quantum encryption, but he’s still careful to keep his Harley registration current by renewing it each time he exits a state. Chance doesn’t own credit cards and has no bank accounts, in the information age, he’s as far off the grid as a person can get; as unknown to the IRS, law enforcement, and the Watchers, as the most stealth migrant.

The reason Chance came to New Mexico, isn’t so much that he left South Dakota needing to create a requisite buffer, it’s that his driver’s license is about to expire and New Mexico is quickly becoming a haven for the country’s fast growing shadow community because no one’s required to prove who they are, provide citizenship papers, or even validate they’re eligible to drive. Word on the grid is New Mexico law enforcement is restrained from even questioning one’s status or identity; which is, either good or bad depending on what side of the white picket fence you reside. Chance’s plan is to stay long enough to get a driver’s license, then either move on to the next start over, or hold pat until his predictable pattern necessitates another rapid departure.

He doesn’t think much anymore about the night his life dramatically diverged, what happened, happened. He did what he did, and he’d do it again without hesitation. After all, when a woman’s in peril, a man’s obligated to step up; and in the aftermath, self condemnation and remorse are not value added. He does occasionally allow himself to wonder what life would be like absent that night. In many ways it would be the same, after all, he’s the same. In some ways, things are actually better, or at least more interesting. There’s very little about his old life he misses, except seeing his Dad. They manage to talk, but only when Chance is about to leave a state and discard his phone. He hasn’t seen his Dad since just before Worland, and of all the hardships he endures, that’s the one extracting the most angst.

“Someday,” He vows while emptying another case of bourbon into a display rack. He constantly schemes new strategies for hooking up. Current thinking is Canada, or perhaps Europe, the barrier is that every scenario, at some stage, requires interaction with customs, boarder patrol, or TSA. He almost got a gig aboard a Polish freighter leaving Baltimore last summer heading to Marseilles. The plan was for his Dad to fly to France and meet him, but then, just as the gangplank was being raised, the Captain demanded to see his passport, this after Chance paid the first mate to insure papers weren’t necessary.

Comfortable alone, life on the road is at least manageable. Ironically, Chance craves contact; especially with the ladies. Luckily, his naturally good looks and convincing charm makes getting to know women not much of a problem. What’s been a tad more elusive, are relationships that don’t precipitate self-destructive outcomes. Transferring another case of bourbon to the display rack, Chance takes a moment to catch his breath, “almost bourbon time.” With painful satisfaction he arches his back to stretch tightening muscles comforted knowing a couple fingers of bourbon will soon provide the magic elixir. “The beauty of living where you work.”

The studio apartment has everything Chance needs, a bed, a bathroom with shower, a kitchen, and a living room with TV and Internet. The odd thing about the casita though, is that the entire wall facing the main house is glass. There are curtains of course, but it nonetheless feels like literally living in a proverbial glass house. The kitchen is fully stocked with food and beer and since the food’s fresh, Chance speculates someone either just moved out, or someone’s in the habit of staying over. He’s unclear if it’s on him to keep the food stocked or if that’s part of his package, but doesn’t stress, questions like that have a way of getting resolved precisely at the necessitated moment.

The casita comes with satellite TV which, Chance really appreciates. Everyone has vices, and for him, it’s being a news junkie. Headline news, international news, liberal lunacy or conservative crazy, it’s all addicting. He can spend hours surfing, intrigued by the heavily biased ways the mindless hosts and arrogantly ignorant panels present often radically different points of view regarding whatever issue is currently headlining. Lately he’s begun to realize that all his binging on news is destroying his ability to reason, so as a distraction, he’s discovered a new and even more intriguing vice; weather channels. It started as a survival measure since knowing the weather in all directions is essential should a hasty, albeit predictable, departure be necessitated. A compelling consequence of owning a full restored Shovel-head Harley is that under certain conditions, it matters what direction you travel. Over time Chance’s obsession developed an aptitude for assessing patterns and trends, not something he can explain, just an intuitive comprehension of cause and effect. His latest passion is predicting weather in one part of the world based on current activity somewhere else. He’s found his intuition is far more accurate than any meteorologist. The first thing Chance did the night he moved in, was verify he gets weather channels. That as much as anything might cause him to stay through Crush. Of course it also goes without saying that the beautiful woman he briefly saw yesterday is another first order factor.

Chance rests against the display rack staring through the tasting room windows to the vast valley vista amazed how quickly things went from dusk to dark. “Too late for a ride.” Digging out the leatherman his Dad gave him for his eighteenth birthday, Chance cuts the last box open, working quickly to get its bottles transferred. He glaces through the partially opened pocket door separating the tasting room from the kitchen catching a glimpse of Sympatico, appreciating the way she darts in and out of view sashaying to the dining table to retrieve dirty plates, and returning clean plates to the cabinets. Until now, he’s only witnessed this superbly beautiful woman in stolen glances.

“Time to play,” Chance grins with redirected purpose as he heads for the kitchen having no real plan and a full complement of confidence. He’s still undecided about Sympatico’s status, is she just an illegal domestic, or perhaps a maid with benefits? While Jake seems like a straight up guy, this would not be the first time he’s encountered such arrangements and if experience has taught him anything, it’s that who can say about such things. Either way, by his overly optimistic assessment, an illegal working in such a rural local doesn’t get many opportunities to be with appropriately aged men, which makes her an easier than usual conquest. “Good I got my own place,” he devilishly grins, convinced this intoxicating woman dashes in and out of view for his benefit. With the nonchalant bravado of a seasoned journeyman on a well traveled path, Chance steps into the kitchen initiating what will be a most satisfying evening. “Disculpeme porfavor, Habla English?”

Sympatico is not surprised by this strange man’s intrusion, she heard him in the tasting room and expected before long he’d come around looking for what all men think all women can’t wait to provide. In anticipation, she’s strategically prepositioned her carving knife on the counter next to the sink. Jake mentioned Chance, but failed to provide a formal introduction; something most bosses would have done. Jake explained Chance would be living in the guest house and helping in the distillery but cautioned her that he doesn’t know anything about him before adding that he seems safe. ‘No man is safe,’ Sympatico instinctively reiterates while discretely rehearsing the motion required to quickly grab her trusted utensil. If the last two years of unspeakable torment taught her anything, it’s that this is not going to end well.

“Habla Española then?” Chance asks with patented charm. Maybe she doesn’t speak Spanish, after all, who knows where a guy like Jake gets his domestic help.

Sympatico bristles at his presence knowing all too well the path they’re on. As familiar fear bubbles toward boil, she once again rehearses, all too versed in the lengths she’ll go once this tragedy gets going. If Sympatico could, she would barely believe she’s safe around Jake, but even that only comes after determined effort. It’s true Jake rescued her, but at what cost? Absent is the man who doesn’t feel entitled to something for even the smallest act of chivalry, and for something as brazenly brave and bold as what Jake did, the sense of entitlement has to be huge. She’s glad Theresa works here because in an odd calculus Sympatico figures that because Theresa’s around all day, nothing bad can happen at night; at least nothing that goes unreported. Instinctively, she runs her fingers along the knife’s faded handle desperately wishing this new guy wasn’t here. As she lightly traces the cold steel that’s worn as much as its faded handle, a sublime tranquility overcomes her, the same calmness she felt the last time her knife was drawn into service. If death is how this ends, and in many ways death is the only possible outcome, so be it. That’s the absolute thing about calculus; in the limit as destiny marches toward determination, all outcomes converge to the only clairvoyance that really ever existed.

At some point there’ll be trouble, that’s the cold absolute aspect of life. Maybe now since he’s sniffing around looking to get something started; maybe later. In the end, ‘when’ won’t matter because it’s certain at some point there’ll be trouble. The postmortem math is equally oblate as Jake will be forced to decide who can stay and who has to leave. Just two nights ago Jake gave her hope for the first time in years while talking about how healing, like the phases of moon, has a season unto itself. That was the night Jake attempted to explain why his cherished blue bottle bourbon is a spirit so precious he choked-up unable to finish; a story so tragic it cannot be repeated. During their talk, Jake assured her she would heal; even if he hasn’t. He invited her to stay as long as it takes to re-enter the world; until her season of healing is over. Even though Jake seems kind and honorable, life comes down to hard and often ugly realities, and as soon as there’s trouble, Sympatico knows she’ll be the one to leave. Striving to avoid her manifest destiny, she busies herself at the sink frantically hoping God provides some way out. “I speak English,” she softly states keeping her head down unsure talking is the right strategy, but also not seeing a down side. At the very least, she hopes she doesn’t betray weakness or vulnerability.

Chance leans against the doorway with the casual flirtation of well practiced charm. “I’m Chance,” he offers giving her an opportunity to respond. When she doesn’t, he continues undiminished. “From Wisconsin.” In Chance’s well-rehearsed rhetoric, it really doesn’t matter what he says, words are simply a secondary means to an inevitable end. “Your name’s not really, Sympatico, is it?”

Sympatico keeps busy at the sink mustering all her resolve, “yours isn’t really, Chance.”

“Ya got me there,” Chance chuckles, in no particular hurry to get past foreplay, this ritual prelude to an obvious outcome that’s only heightened by patience. Disappointed his vantage point doesn’t provide the desired view, he contorts his head in an attempt to perfect an optimum angle but even then he only sees enough to confirm her beauty, which elevates desire. Her long black hair shines like silk in the kitchen’s softly surreal light, layering smoothly over broad slender shoulders before falling along her back in waves and swirls that seem seductively provocative. Skinny girls with long black hair elude a powerful elegance that is simultaneously alluring and stand-offish, and to possess such a woman will become his grandest conquests. The more he assesses his muse, the more it fuels and ferments his desire. The symmetry of her flawless body, the way her wide shoulders narrow to a small waist before flowing seductively outward suggests that the simple act of holding her would take a man beyond bliss. There’s a soft agility to her movement that multiples and magnifies her beauty, which speaks to the enjoyment he’ll have getting to know her. “Where you from?”

Sympatico finds no harm answering truthfully. “Bolivia.”

“Bolivia,” Chance fires back. “They’re having a helluva fall. Raining pretty good today though.”

“Why would you know about weather in Bolivia?”

Chance steps further into the kitchen to better gaze upon his muse. Elegance, he decides; that indefinable charm women with magic possess. “I know about weather everywhere, could say I got a knack for looking at weather in one part of the world and figuring out how it impacts conditions somewhere else. For example, rain in Bolivia’s gonna cause extreme winds tomorrow in Sydney.”

“Bolivian weather has nothing to do with Australia.” Sympatico knows from his approaching voice their distance weakens. She discreetly eyes the knife laying at the ready while running through her checklist of things to do once the final act commences.

Chance gets that Sympatico’s seduction is revealing herself in increments; something he finds intoxicating. “I can’t explain how I know, it just is what it is.” He idly shuffles through a stack of mail on the end of the long tiled island separating the counter where Sympatico works, and the dinning table. Slowly, Chance progresses toward the object of his desire. He’s still at the far end of the island, but as Sympatico is painfully aware, is incrementally closing. “High paid prognosticators are gonna miss it, but I’m telling you, Sydney needs to brace for winds. And just so we’re clear, I’m talking blow the roof off kind of wind.” He finishes fumbling with the unopened mail, acknowledging that this prop has outlived it usefulness. “There’s this guy who does overnight forecasts,” Chance explains in no hurry to jump beyond the verbal serenade that’s such an essential part of seduction; a form of foreplay lesser lovers overlook. “He always starts his weather report by saying, ‘a butterfly’s flapping its wings in Albuquerque, which means Moscow weather’s about to change.’ I have no idea what that means, but am pretty sure he’s agreeing with me.”

Sympatico’s not buying what Chance is selling, because what he’s selling has absolutely nothing to do with weather. “I never once heard such nonsense.”

“Oh yeah, windy today, or tomorrow. I never actually know what day it is down under due to some sort of wrinkle in the space time continuum. I’m gonna go to Australia someday, just to work out my confusion.”

‘Why can’t Jake come home!’ Sympatico silently pleads to her God, wishing just once he’d listen. ‘Don’t make Jake choose! Where will I go? How will I survive?’ Strained panic escalates in uncontrolled palpitations as the hapless knife, a mere inch from her flexing fingers, forecasts pending doom.

“I’ll tell you what, if I’m right, you give me a kiss. And if I’m wrong, well, you miss out on one great kiss.” He smiles at the crafty way he’s worked this sweet ice-breaker deal. After all, the first kiss is not only the hardest step in seduction, it’s the most intoxicating. “How about this,” he excitedly modifies. “If I’m right you give me a kiss, but if you’re right, I give you a kiss, there is a difference ya know.”

With the explosive force of rocket fuel at ignition, Sympatico whirls around reaching for the knife with such instinctual fluidity it avoids detection. Fortunately for the moment clinging so precariously to the darker edges of evasion, she catches herself mid-rotation just as her anxious hand grasps the weathered wooden handle. Pausing to cycle through her churning windmill of emotions, Sympatico summons the courage that’s sustained her through acts far more egregious, far more obscene. “No!” she finally musters with anger-laced disgust. Then, careful to keep her head down and satisfied she’s made her point, she discretely returns to dish-washing.

What Chance considers a flirtatious prelude to the first of many happy nights, Sympatico sees as another instance of the same old shit she’s been dealing with since forever. The best way to describe her world view is through the use of mathematics simplest construct; the real number line. If all men are to be represented as a coordinate on the real number line between zero and infinity, zero defines men Sympatico considers neutral like Padre Paul. He’s a man certainly, but not in the context of men she’s known. Everything beyond zero all the way to infinity, represents the rest of men, measured by the extent to which they are to be despised and distrusted. At number one are men she’s yet to decide on. For most women this might be men who take them on a date, tell them they’re pretty, try to sleep with them at the end of the evening, and then never call again. Sympatico’s measurement system is slightly more oblique.

Men at one on her absolute number line are those who keep their distance and seem benign, but who must nonetheless be viewed with caution. Dario and Senor Armando, are currently between zero and one. They seem safe and honorable because they gallantly, at considerable risk, helped Jake the night of her escape. Still though, they’ve yet to be completely vetted. At the other extreme are men approaching infinity. Men like Miguel and Ruben, who for the last two years were stand-ins for Satan himself. Along with Miguel and Ruben, are all the men who paid for what they offered. In Sympatico’s world view, the preponderance of men skew toward infinity. Chance began the night somewhere in the middle; a cautious starting point. The fact that Jake hired and tacitly vouched for him, should lean Chance left toward one. However, given that Jake felt the need for caution, tilts him toward the right. Toss in comments like that last one, and Chance’s vector sharply veers toward infinity.

Unable to comprehend a woman exists not compelled to yield to his charm, Chance steps around the island stopping beside Sympatico. He leans his back against the counter so that he and Sympatico face opposite directions. To emphasize his nonchalance, Chance intentionally casts his gaze back to the tasting room and his just completed chores. “The thing is, if you don’t take the wager, you’re just delaying our first kiss.”

To say Sympatico’s heard enough, requires blind indifference to the ferocity of her erupting emotions. There’s no way Chance can comprehend the molten mass of entropy bubbling toward release, no way he can grasp the extent of the grave danger he’s suddenly in. Sympatico wheels around from the sink with a rage long ago beaten into compliance, a rage that’s been stewing two brutal years waiting to be exercised, waiting to pounce with reckless vengeance driven by the beleaguered belief justice is obtainable. And pounce she does, with so much momentum she completely forgets to grab the knife, which, as things unfold, works out for the best; especially for Chance. The realization she’s weaponless acutely hits Sympatico just as her spin comes to a stop. Her adrenaline rushed mind races with options and outcomes, each one dismissed as unwise, unobtainable, or unlikely to succeed. The single absolute that’s blatantly clear, is there’s no going back now. If nothing else, her untenable situation does facilitate reason an opportunity to argue for a more rational response. After a deep breath to steady herself and cogitate on the age old question of whether rage or ration should prevail, Sympatico glares at her arrogant interloper, still angry, still barely containing any semblance of composure, still ready, and oh so willing, to unload. “I have no interest in whether rain in Bolivia causes wind in Australia, and I can assure you, whoever you are, I have even less interest in kissing you. Not now, not ever!”

Chance, who’s purposely looking the other way to enhance his flirtation, brushes Sympatcio’s response aside. His confidence is not so easily assuaged by a woman’s ‘no’, regardless of how direct. If it were, many doubtful nights would not have become pleasant memories. With casual calm, he turns toward his muse. “My dear la- dy-” Chance stares in stunned silence, shocked by the sight of the woman he’s seeing for the first time. He’d pre-established Sympatico’s beauty as pristine; possessing a fantastic innocence untouched by the harshness of life. What confronts him though, is so contrary it defies perspective. Gone are his frivolous flirtations; evaporated like dew on a wilting high desert flower. The only thought he’s able to muster, the only words his brain can manage, are ‘what the hell?’ After a prolonged period of stammering that includes, reaching for her in a reassuring touch only to retract prior to contact before reaching for her again, he manages to eek out his most obvious response. “Did- ah, Jake do this?”

As if it’s possible to be surprised to discover your not a ghost, Sympatico suddenly realizes she’s failed to maintain concealment. “No,” she bluntly answers turning back to the sink in a vain attempt to hide. She adjusts her hair to better conceal the brutal realities of her unforgiven, un-resurrected life. She has no interest in what Chance thinks of her appearance, but is still a woman who does not want to be seen for who she is.

Slowly Chance turns toward Sympatico, more out of compassion than any urge to find out more of what has to be an incredible story. He moves his hand to touch the back of her shoulder but stops before contact. “Look, if he did this, you can tell me.”

Sympatico spins around again, accepting the futility of hiding. “Senor Jake, did not do this, he rescued me from the men who did! The rest is, none of your business.”

Orthogonal to the real number line, lies what engineers call the imaginary space. This mathematical construct contains numbers that don’t physically exist, but whose existence has to be imagined in order to solve complex problems. The calculus of imaginary numbers aligns perfectly with Sympatico’s world view. For her, men of honor, character, and courage don’t physically exist, yet, their existence has to be imagined in order to comprehend a world where safety, security, and any hope for happiness are possible. Only one man in the entire universe has the potential to rise above the real number line; Jake, the man who sallied into hell to secure her rescue. The man who defiantly stood against violent psychopaths using wit and courage to out maneuver them. Even though it’s been less than a week since that fate-filled night at Senor Armando’s bar, it’s already a life time ago. An eternity since she initiated her escape from the Wind River Casino, where she’d been forced into service. Her imaginary man, humble, deeply tormented, still mourning the death of his beloved Emilia, still struggling to find peace and happiness in a world devoid of both. This uncharacteristic man who, at great risk, tilted deep into Satan’s lair to secure her release while asking nothing in return; claiming nothing as his spoil. A man so filled with faults; socially lacking, hard on people, short on patience, and who holds others to the same unyielding standards he holds himself. A man inescapably impossible to define because men like him are simply not possible. Sympatico struggles to assign Jake an imaginary number, because she doesn’t fully believe such numbers exist. However, if any hope for future happiness is possible, then imaginary numbers must exist, and Jake is the only man who could ever occupy this space.

To his credit, Chance recognizes the night is lost and splits into his alter ego; someone simultaneously noble and honorable. He recognizes that while he can’t fix what’s happened, he can be someone to help her going forward. In this framework, retreat really is the best tactical action. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to suggest anything about Jake. It’s just-, well-, it’s the most obvious explanation for girls in your situation.” He starts his retreat, but stops. “I’m sorry for what happened.” He tries saying more but words uncharacteristically fail, instead he silently backs into the tasting room, but immediately steps back in. “I was just playing you know-, about the kiss. I had no idea about any of this.” He remains awkwardly in the doorway watching Sympatico stoically stand at the sink, a soul seemingly so utterly alone. He wants to leave but feels he hasn’t said enough. He waits for words that usually can be counted on, but finding none re-retreats, backing into the tasting room only to again re-enter. “I want you to know, I absolutely believe no one should ever have to go through that.”

Since that night in Worland when his life dramatically diverged, he’s vowed to never again let foolish things like sentiment interfere with his ability to survive, but for some unexplored reason, he feels strong apathy for Sympatico. In many ways they’re the same; both striving to stay one step ahead of a past pursuing them with unrelenting vindictiveness. He wants to help, he vows to help; to protect her, even while understanding that getting caught up in a woman’s drama only ends with trouble, and the only way he’ll survive through Crush and not get entangled in something that necessitates a rapid departure, is to maintain desensitized detachment. It takes a moment to sort through his cloudy judgment and conclude he has to get out. With that understanding, he retreats to the bar to prepare a previously promised take-home bourbon.

Sympatico remains at the sink detached from the moment. Except for a recognition that the danger has passed, she’s emotionally blank and deeply past the empty void where she mostly lives. This incident, this man, has brought to boil thoughts and emotions she had just begun to bottle. With the weight of all her sadness and sorrow resettling on her with vengeful gravity, she lowers her head and begins to cry. It’s the first time she’s allowed herself to cry since before she can remember. This man, this shallow Don Juan who’s like all the others, has flooded her with memories of the last two years, the last six days; the last ten minutes. All the pain, all the suffering and torment, all the times her hopes died over and over again until they left her devoid of even the will to breath. She’s sorry about so much and feels guilty about so much more. As she confronts her demons with horrible angsts, something Chance said catches, causing her to storm into the tasting room. “What did you mean girls in my situation?” Sympatico sees what he’s about to do and erupts in a glass shattering scream. “Stop!”

“What?” Chance calmly responds not bothering to look up. All he wants is to escape to his news and weather.

“You can’t have that!”

“Seems like a reasonable perk,” Chance answers with indifference.

“That’s Senor Jake’s blue bottle bourbon! Only he drinks that.”

“I’m sure he won’t mind.” Chance counters in the same dismissive way he reassures a lover her husband won’t find out, or that he’ll be there when she wakes.

“You must not pour from that bottle,” Sympatico pleads. “Any other bottle. That one is special.” Her voice trails off, “more special than even life.”

Chance re-corks the bottle unaware of the magnitude of his indifference. “This can be our little secret,” he cajoles as he passes Sympatico on his way outside, satisfied he’s escaped the evening intact.

Sympatico watches Chance passes through the courtyard and disappear into a darkness that holds only evil and despair. Tears stream down her cheeks, tears trained to be more elusive. “It has to be our secret, I could never let, Senor Jake know I let him down.” She stares angrily into the depths of darkness thinking about how much she hates Chance. How foolish she was to believe he might be like Dario or Senor Armando. “Just another stinking pendeho, like the infinite pendehos before.”


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