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  • The Theory of Light and Matter
  • Andrew Porter (bio)

It wasn't until the last day of the fall semester that Robert finally spoke to me. I suppose, to be technical, he had spoken to me before then, since he was my teacher and he had called on me in class, but that was the first day that I can remember him looking up from his small wooden desk at the front of the room and saying my name. It was snowing that day and the quad outside the classroom was covered with a thin, white powder. The students who had arrived early were already sitting at their desks and when I walked into the room I remember Robert standing up by the front of the chalkboard, passing out our final exams. The exams he handed out that day contained a small equation typed neatly at the top of a blank piece of paper. There were no other markings, no directions, no words. Hours later, I would learn the origin of this equation, but at the time I simply understood that it involved a level of physics way beyond the comprehension of anyone in the room. Within an hour, I watched two of the brightest students in the class walk out the back door without handing in their work. Several others were simply looking up at Robert, as if they expected him to suddenly change his mind. But he made no movement, no gesture toward apology or remorse. He simply sat there, reading his book, and when the class period ended, when everyone except for me had departed in protest, Robert announced, in his soft, gentle voice, that my time was up.

"Heather," he said, "please put down your pen."

Even now, ten years later, I find it hard to explain why I didn't leave then, why I instead walked straight up to the front of the room, handed Robert my exam, then stood there, stupidly, as he looked over my work. I suppose I had wanted him to say something encouraging to me, something kind, but after studying my work for what seemed like a long time, Robert simply stood, slid the small crumpled blue book into his satchel, and started for the [End Page 159] door. And it was was then, as he was putting on his coat and packing up his bag, that he turned to me, and in his soft, gentle voice asked me whether I would like to have some tea. It was the middle of winter, already a foot of snow on the ground, and though I easily could have, I did not imagine his invitation to be romantic. He was a frail man, thirty years my senior, and did not seem like the type who lured wide-eyed undergraduates back to his apartment.

"It's okay," he smiled. "I won't be hurt if you say no."

"No," I said, putting on my coat. "I'd like to have some tea."

As it turned out, we didn't have to walk far. It was only a short distance from the classroom to the small apartment Robert kept in town, and as we trudged awkwardly through the snow and ice, he asked me about my finals and what I planned to do over the Christmas break. The questions, I knew even then, were just a formality; but I appreciated the attention he gave to my answers, the cool and thoughtful way he responded each time that I spoke. He seemed to go out of his way to put me at ease, and the slightly nervous habit he had of glancing down whenever our eyes met made me feel strangely powerful. We had never really spoken before, not outside of class, and yet I already felt a calmness, a warmth in my blood, that came from being with him. It was the same warmth that I felt in the presence of my father's friends, older men whom it was easy to joke with, men whose shyness in the presence of a young attractive woman somehow rendered them harmless.

Robert's apartment was a small two-bedroom with sloping ceilings that sat above a...


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