Rivka Borek had plans to become the youngest ever five-time champion on Jeopardy! She told me this our third day at science camp, by which point I was completely in love with her. Rivka had thick curly hair, kind brown eyes, and fuchsia glasses that perfectly matched the brackets on her teeth, but I think it was her insatiable curiosity that attracted me the most—the sense that through Rivka’s eyes, nothing could be irrelevant.
Lacking the courage to put any of these feelings into words, I offered to help her study after dinner. Rivka’s dorm room shared the same scuffed tile and generic wood furniture as my room one floor below, yet for me the space gleamed with the intoxicating mystery of girlhood. Bracelets and necklaces looped through a small metal tree on the desk. The open closet revealed snatches of colorful sleeves. A brush lay on the dresser, bristles densely packed with Rivka’s brown hair.
We sat cross-legged on either end of her bedspread. I held up one side of the flashcard for her to see. Tonight the topic was World Geography, so the card might read “Myanmar” or “Bahrain,” and she would have to come up with the capital city. Or it could say the name of a city or a town, and Rivka would name the country to which it belonged. This was practice she could have easily carried out on her own, and I flattered myself, imagining she had accepted my offer because she wanted to be with me.
I was not the only boy to have developed a love interest that first week. The New York State STEM Advancement Program, colloquially known as “science camp,” catered to the promising scientific minds of middle and high school students around the state. Among the older set especially, the prospect of finding mates was far more exciting than the prospect of expanding their scientific know-how. At eleven, my comprehension of sex was akin to my comprehension of photosynthesis: biological processes whose steps I could list out on command, but which seemed to have little bearing on my daily life. I had the idea that I would like to hold Rivka’s hand, to share a coke out of the same tall straw, yet even these modest goals seemed as unreachable as the moon. Always there were the facts between us.
Did I know the average white shark lost 30,000 teeth in a lifetime?
Did I know the ancient Egyptians believed the world was rectangular?
Did I know Venus was actually the hottest planet in our solar system?
Later, I’d understand that sharing these inane pieces of trivia was Rivka’s way of showing compassion, her attempt to include me in the factual world where she felt so alive. But at the time I only despaired that this avalanche of information was killing the romantic mood.
At eleven, my comprehension of sex was akin to my comprehension of photosynthesis: biological processes whose steps I could list out on command, but which seemed to have little bearing on my daily life.
In desperation, I consulted my roommate, a thirteen-year-old named Stacey Chang, who had a girlfriend back home in Schenectady. I knew because he had decorated his side of the room with a hundred photos of the two of them together, a chubby redheaded girl with her arms thrown around Stacey’s narrow shoulders.
“Let me tell you something about women,” said Stacey. It was 11:30 p.m., well past curfew, but everyone was sprawled in the hallway studying for a physics exam the next morning. “Women are skittish creatures. They must be treated gently. Have you ever had to get a mouse out from behind a piece of furniture?”
I confessed I had not.
“Well,” said Stacey, “you can imagine. You go at it with a broom, it runs to the other end of the sofa. You try to move the sofa, and the mouse moves, too. It requires great patience. Finesse. You’re not gonna get it right your first try.”
After Stacey had disappeared on a vending machine run, another boy, who had been eavesdropping, scrambled across the hall to my side. He was small, wiry, with a crop of whiteheads on his chin. Though he must have been in my physics class, I don’t recall ever seeing him outside this single interaction, and I never learned his name.
“Dude,” he whispered solemnly. “Forget all that. You just gotta go for it.”
And this is what I did. Against all probabilities, utterly flouting my nature as the cautious boy with the color-coded wardrobe and the self-imposed code of foods eaten in a certain order off the plate, the words just flung themselves from my lips: “Rivka, will you go out with me?”
We were walking back from biology lab. The August afternoon was still, the colors brighter than usual. Rivka’s hair had gone crazy in the humidity, fanning out around her like a cirrostratus cloud. She cocked her head. “Go where?”
“Nowhere,” I said, baffled. “Just, you know, out. Will you be my girlfriend?”
She thought about this, raising her eyes skyward exactly as I’d seen her do when pondering the capital of Fiji. We had halted in the middle of the sidewalk. The crowd of students parted and surged around us like water rushing past two boulders. Then it was just Rivka and me, alone beneath a ceiling of low, purple clouds that heralded rain, and suddenly I knew just from the length of the silence what her answer would be.
I don’t remember the exact terminology of her rejection, only that as I was turning away, tearful and humiliated, she reached out with sudden tenderness to touch my arm: Did I know that when two people who were in love gazed into one another’s eyes for three minutes, their heart rates synchronized?
Many years later, after college, I would utter these very words to my then-girlfriend, Sarah. We were fighting—we were always fighting—and in an effort to deflate the tension, I felt myself reaching for that odd fact with its perfect balance of science and sentimentality.
Sarah was not impressed. “Are you kidding me?” she fumed. “Are you actually kidding me with this shit?”
She grabbed her bag and swept out of the room. A moment later, the front door slammed. I fell back in bed and stared at the ceiling fan. At that time I was living in a nice two-bedroom outside Boston. I worked as a software engineer at a cybersecurity company. I had done well for myself. Every so often I turned on NBC to watch Jeopardy! It had been a while, but I was certain I would recognize her face.