This love story has a long build-up before things get heated. Please be patient. I've always found that having a stronger sense of who the characters are makes for a more intimate experience when the fireworks finally happen. Enjoy.
"This isn't a good idea. Stop smiling, Sanjit. I really don't think this is going to work. I could count on one hand the number of times that I've agreed with Ethan and on top of that, he's a class-A jerk. Three years of classes, another year of being a TA with him and..."
"Rachel. Insight and understanding are not vegetables harvested by a lazy farmer."
Rachel pursed her lips to suppress a sharp response. After almost a decade of working with Professor Rajagopalan, she no longer processed his mini allegories or endless analogies as words. She'd come to accept his speech patterns in a more fluid form of gestalt. Even the almost comical sing-songy, "veg-a-ta-bals" failed to soften her resolve. Had she been a bit less intense of an individual, Rachel would have long-since noticed that Sanjit would lean more heavily on his native accent with good-natured humor whenever her temper got the best of her. Sanjit continued, "Ethan most certainly sees the world with different eyes than you and that is exactly why you shall partner with him. I must be blessed to have the opportunity to watch a pair of strong minds as they strive for answers on questions that society must consider. Ah, my luck to be advising both of your dissertations and each on such similar topics. A nest full of eggs, but what kind of birds will hatch?"
"I wouldn't say that the topics are the same. In fact, they're antithetical. Ethan wants to package the world's data and sell it. He ignores the heart of the issue that people want their data to be private. He's dismissive of the essential historical context that demonstrates the need for constraining corporate actions in the present in order to avoid the inevitable wanton abuse by government regimes of the future." Rachel's eyes were bright with the passion of her argument.
The silver-haired professor looked fondly at the young woman whom he'd watch grow in so many ways. She had started in the MBA program as an ideological 23-year old and was now an equally ideological, if not significantly more informed, 29-year old about to start her doctoral dissertation. Were he her father, he would be both proud and so very interested in seeing such a girl find the right person to share her life with. Sanjit had a wry thought about how his own mother and father would have dealt with Rachel. He reached for his tea that had cooled enough to sip and looked out at the typical red brick buildings of the George Washington University campus in Georgetown. He said, "Yes, yes. But a girl who walks through the woods and only comments on the roots of the trees is not so much noticing the many-colored birds above her."
Rachel laughed. "Okay, that wasn't particularly subtle. I get it, but I don't have to like it."
Ethan stripped off his windbreaker and long-sleeved compression shirt. Now that he was back in his apartment, the exertion of his run was catching up to him without the early Spring, chill breeze from Lake Michigan. Sweat beaded on his forehead and a rivulet skirted his nose before plopping on the hardwood floor. His muscles felt loose rather than exhausted which was a sign that his workout had been lighter than usual.
After punching on the power of the espresso machine to let it warm up, he wandered over to his laptop and cracked the lid to bring the screen back to life. A pernicious addiction to email still lingered with him even though it had been a years since he'd been in the 'real world' as the academics called it. He could always tell which students hadn't spent time working prior to heading into business school. The angst expressed over twenty or thirty emails in an inbox was a pathetic clue about some student's lack of workplace experience.
The mail at the top of his queue was from his financial planner. Ethan had a number of decisions to make now that the final tranche of money from the acquisition had come through. One outstanding idea, a shealthy sprinkle of good luck, four years of horrifically rigorous work, the termination of a friendship that he'd imagined was unbreakable, subtract one fiancé and the result was that little Zenttara, Inc. sold for forty seven million. That gave his investors a 600% return on their money and left the three principals with enough to make sure that funding their retirement was never going to be a problem. There were no private jets or penthouse flats in New York for him, but Ethan had a beautiful condo and the freedom to choose how to spend his days. Going back to school after a windfall like that was not what most people would have done. His two partners had become serial entrepreneurs who were chain smoking start-ups. Paul could fall off a cliff as far as Ethan was concerned, but it was good to see that Liz was enjoying the thrill of the next fight. As for Selma, his ex-fiancé, she could go fuck herself.
Ethan unlaced his shoes and set them aside before sifting through the rest of the correspondence. When he got to Rajagopalan's mail, he blew a long-suffering sigh. The phraseology of the mail was pure Sanjit, but the implications were going to make life more difficult. "Liberal use of manure enriches soil..." was his favorite line from the mail as there was no shortage of bullshit he was going to have to put up with from Rachel. So much for pure independence as he worked on his dissertation.
The espresso machine emitted a satisfyingly industrial sound as it masticated the beans before applying pressurized hot water to extract the flavors that signaled the start of each day. The smell of the crushed beans lingered in the kitchen long after the grinding and hissing had ceased. Ethan grabbed the mug and wandered down the hall to get showered and changed.
He'd known Rachel Aberlieb during the three years of doctoral course work at the GWU Business School when he'd still been living in D.C. She'd already been at the school for a number of years having completed her MBA and directly matriculated into the PhD program. She was the classic academic, ivory tower, idealist that made him nutty. Crazy-bright, annoyingly well-informed, and had never had to worry about making payroll or managing cash flow to keep the lights on and the doors open for another month. She'd never put in the sweat equity to convince an investor to lay down a few million based solely on roughly estimated numbers and a belief that you have what it takes to make a business work. The two of them had been like oil on water and there had been endless conflict that he looked back on with some regret. She'd managed to bring out aspects of his personality that he didn't much care for. She was pretty, but so damn opinionated that he'd long-since given up on thinking about her as anything other than a source of near-constant debates.
Oh, well. At least the coffee was good.
"Symposium on Globalized Data" was printed in bold, blue print next to a stereotypical logo of a globe with the continents made up of binary code. The garish vinyl sign hung above two female undergrads who looked awkward in their attempt to wear "business formal" clothes. The young ladies were manning a registration table armed with highlighters, a list of attendees and an ironic stack of printed versions of the research being presented at the conference. Ethan was waiting in line, musing on a symposium about the management of electronic data that was producing unneeded paper when Rachel approached. The ever-present Nalgene water bottle in one hand, her phone in the other and an over-stuffed shoulder bag banging against her hip. Ethan's jaw clenched in anticipation of the conversation.
Rachel wanted to start things off with Ethan on a positive note even if she deplored the idea of working with him. She'd promised Rajagopalan that she would at least try. She and Ethan hadn't seen each other since he'd moved to Chicago at the end of the previous school year and she was almost certain that by the end of the day, she wouldn't feel any better about him. Yet like most hard things in life, she felt it was best to tackle it head-on. "Hey, Ethan. When did you get into town?"
"Oh. Rachel. I got in on Saturday to catch up with Phil and Ling. I hadn't met the baby yet."
Rachel's expression softened and an uncomplicated smile emerged at the mention of Ruby. "Yeah, Ruby is adorable. I've been over there a bunch helping Ling keep up with the laundry and whatnot. Really it's an excuse to see the baby, but I'd like to think I've been making Ling's life easier." Rachel shifted the heavy shoulder bag that had her laptop and sundry documents stuffed into it. "Did they tell you about the big move?"
"Yeah, it's going to be a hell of an experience." Ethan was slightly taken aback by Rachel's friendliness. "The baby'll adapt to everything easier than they will. I wouldn't want to live in Dubai, but the offer was too good for Phil to pass up." Ethan noticed that Rachel had new glasses. The lenses were smallish rectangles surrounded by deep green, slightly blocky frames. He had to admit they looked good on her but, as usual, the rest of her baggy clothes did nothing to enhance her appearance. She was most definitely not high maintenance. "So are we going to find time to chat today or tomorrow? I think both of us probably gave Sanjit the same response, but if we don't wade into things, he's going to get on us." Ethan could produce a near perfect impression of the old professor. "Plow horses who do not take to the yoke are likely to end up as glue."
Rachel laughed at the impression. But the laughter was forced as she tried to make light of the stress underlying the conversation. She made a failed attempt at humor, "Yes, but only if you acknowledge up-front that I'm right. That'll make everything easier." Her throat tightened involuntarily as she realized how poorly she'd masked her distaste of working with Ethan.
"Riiiight. How about we stipulate that Rajagopalan is the one who's right and we're both investigating alternative options." Ethan was wary of getting things off to a poor start. He knew Rachel had been trying to lighten the mood, but the negative tension was palpable to both. He gestured toward the conference room. "This is supposed to wrap-up at 4:30, what do you say to dinner at 7:30 and we can ask the waiter to keep all knives off the table."
"That'll work." She didn't acknowledge Ethan's more adept attempt to lighten the mood. She was glad that he'd offered the time which showed he was at least going to make a real attempt. Rachel was thankful that there'd be time to hit the hotel gym before dinner. She'd try to bleed off energy in hopes of avoiding unnecessary once they got talking about their dissertations. "Lobby at 7:30. See you then." She turned and moved into the crowd that was heading into the conference room.
Biological programming, or what most would call 'being a guy,' resulted in Ethan noticing that Rachel's skirt was pulled tight across her backside by the weight of the bag at her hip. She wasn't particularly tall and she was slight. There was a visually pleasing curve revealed through the nondescript fabric.
"Name please. Sir." A curt voice cut into his absent reverie.
Ethan's cheeks reddened slightly. He wondered if the girl behind the table had noticed where his attention had been drawn. It was going to be a long day.
"The poor bastard didn't know what'd hit him. That's the last time he'll try to use Bertenson's or Melks' work to explain away anomalies based on a regression function like that."
Ethan had left the conference and immediately changed for a workout. He was running on a treadmill next to another ex-classmate who was also working on a dissertation. "Colin, you've got to hand it to her. She knows her shit. I could almost hear a collective groan from all of the Colonials in the room when he tried to dismiss her point with that argument. Rajagopalan doesn't even go down that path anymore." Sweat had darkened the neckline of his shirt and he was ratcheting up the speed of the machine now that his legs were loose. He'd purposely set a later meeting time so the workout might get his head ready for what he now thought of as 'The Great Dinner Debate.'
Colin briefly looked over at Ethan and said, "So I hear you're going to combine your research with Aberleib. You sure you're up for that? She's an amazing researcher, but the two of you have..." He thumped along for a few more steps trying to think of a way to capture the point, "er...your points of view aren't generally compatible."
"You'd noticed, huh?"
A grin sidled into Colin's expression. "You remember the seminar class with Professor Seldridge? I thought Aberleib was going throw shit at you that time you started doing a cost analysis on the fly with the numbers she'd proposed for her group's solution."
This was not one of Ethan's favorite memories. Rachel had pissed him off even more than usual that day and he'd let his emotions get the better of him. He'd never normally set out to embarrass someone, but he succeeded in that forum. He'd dismantled her assumptions, projections and conclusions with cold precision that left Rachel scarlet and furious. They hadn't spoken for a few weeks and then, after that first blowup, their only meme had been arguments. Looking back on it, she'd been an easy target for him to vent other disappointments in his life. He replied, "Yeah, I do. But I'd rather not."
Colin said, "You were unstoppable after that. I think you're the only one who consistently got the better of her."
"Right." Ethan hit the up-tempo button five more times hoping to put himself into an anaerobic state so he wouldn't have to keep the conversation going. He really didn't like thinking about that day or his later behavior with Rachel.
Thirty minutes later, he finally relented on the pace and slowed the belt to a fast walk for a cool down. He was drenched with sweat and Colin had already gone back to his room. As his breathing came under control, he became more aware of another set of feet pounding away on a treadmill. The wall of windows along which all the cardio equipment was arranged was divided in the middle by a large support pillar for the building. He let his treadmill come to a final stop and waited for his inner ear to stop playing tricks on him. The sense of forward motion passed and he stepped off to use some of the weight circuit equipment.
He glanced quickly at the other runner and immediately averted his eyes so as not to be caught looking in the reflection of the window. Black running tights, a bright red jog bra and dark hair pulled back in a ponytail was all that he registered. His second surreptitious glance allowed him to admire the slender mid-section and the dimples in a toned lower back. While adjusting the weights on the lat pull-down machine, he focused more on the ass in the running tights. Distracting. He sat with his back to the runner and began his first set of reps. Using the mirror across from him, he took a longer look and was inwardly bemoaning how long it had been that he'd been with someone. The ponytail bobbed to the rhythm of her stride and he moved onto the chest press which unfortunately had an obstructed view.
Just as he finished his third set, he noted that the treadmill's tone dropped to a whisper and then completely off. He came around the machine to find the girl bending to get a cup of water from the cooler. He toweled his head and wandered over to get some water as well -- maybe a little conversation could lead somewhere.
Rachel turned and gave a startled yelp. "Oh. Hi."
"Jesus...Rachel." Ethan was flabbergasted. The mental leap from 'hot' to 'Rachel' was so abrupt as to leave him temporarily addled. His first try at a response came out as a mélange of two or three words and he had to start a second time. "I had no idea..."
"No idea what?" Her brow furrowed.
"Ah...that you were...I mean a runner."
Realization dawned on her that she was out of context for how she generally allowed people in her academic community to see her. She never ran on campus, always preferring to use her time on the road to be away from her daily work. Aside from the treasured time for thinking that running afforded her, she was following her father's advice about keeping professional and private lives separate. That thought was accompanied by an unexpected embarrassment from her exposed mid-section. She tried to casually wipe her face with her towel and then held it lightly in front of her.
Ethan couldn't help but notice the tight fit of her top and the outline it had presented or how her running pants emphasized the shape of her hips. Her body was well-proportioned for someone her size. He forced himself to look her in the eye. "Seems like we had the same idea. After sitting all day, I was looking forward to getting the blood moving a little."
She didn't want to admit to the fact that her eagerness to exercise was because of their upcoming dinner, and not in a good way. "Yeah. I was getting twitchy too. So, um...okay. I tell you what. Ah...I'll go get cleaned up and see you downstairs at 7."
He could see that she was also a bit flustered by their unexpected encounter. "We'd said 7:30, but if you want to..."
"No, no. Sorry. Right. 7:30. Okay -- see you then." She kept the towel where it was and was annoyed with herself that she'd gone for the door so quickly. He'd looked good with his hair tousled from the workout and she'd admired the strength in his forearms and hands. Shit...what was she thinking? Bad idea. Very bad idea.
Ethan watched her go and when the door closed he said aloud, "Wow." Completely not what he expected.
"I'll have the crab cakes to start and the wild mushroom pasta. Thanks." Rachel handed the menu to the waiter. Her nervous fidgeting resulted with her ankle knocking over the big blue water bottle that she'd brought down to the lobby out of habit. Silly to have it at a restaurant but she hadn't wanted to go back to her room to drop it off. She leaned down and stood it up behind the chair leg.
"You sure you don't want some wine with dinner?" Ethan asked. After she declined, he ordered a glass of cabernet for himself and his dinner. "Right, round one. Where do we want to start?" Rachel really didn't want this to become a fight. She'd seethed about his embarrassing her in a second year class and it had colored her impression of him for years. Following that conflict, it seemed as if the two of them were always locking horns over one thing or another. His inflexibility had met her stubbornness with predicable results. Yet Ling, her closest friend from business school, was always trying to get Rachel to soften her opinion of Ethan. In some ways, the fact that 18-months had past since they last saw each other was making it a bit easier to be objective. Apart from his habit of disagreeing with her, he was a self-possessed guy who had a sharp mind. It seemed as if everyone else in the doctoral program liked him and the undergrads he worked with worshiped him. On top of that, all of the emails they'd traded over the past few weeks to figure out where they were going to meet to get their research lined up had been nothing but cordial. Also the image of him in the gym had unexpectedly lingered during her shower. Again...bad idea.
Rachel said, "How about both of us try to drop the whole 'round one,' 'round two' stuff. If we're really going to work on this together I think we can't approach it like boxers. We both know that we fundamentally disagree on how data should be used."
"Do we really know that?"