The Thermodynamics of Glass

It’s October and the damp cling of Ann Arbor summer is gone, but Jaye is still wearing her shorts around the apartment. She sits on the futon, sips hot tea, and slowly rubs her bare legs together. She’s trying to rouse her lover, Andie, out of her comic-book stupor. It’s not working. It hasn’t worked in a long time.

Andie was kicked out of the physics Ph.D. program last semester, and now she sits in the old recliner she and Jaye rescued from the dumpster. She sits there all the time, immersed in comics from Mad Joe’s. The afternoon sun shines through the sliding glass door. Andie squints and shifts. Jaye thinks of the Tin Man as empty beer cans slip under Andie’s thighs, crunch, and conform to her body. Andie reaches for the can between her legs. It’s empty, Jaye knows it, but she watches Andie suck fumes off the top, comic book still in hand.

Jaye wants Andie to put The Huntress down. All she can see is Andie’s mangy-wild hair and that damn comic book. Jaye wants Andie to stop reading and notice she isn’t alone in the apartment, or the world. But Jaye doesn’t say anything. She never says anything. She spreads her toes apart, examines the brown-panelled wall between them, and thinks about the thermodynamics of glass. She’s writing a paper on the subject. It’s due next week and Jaye is in a panic. Viscosity, fluidity, phase transition.

Glass: is it solid or liquid? Scientists disagree.

Jaye stares at the cover of The Huntress in Andie’s hands, at the reactionary feminist superhero’s skimpy purple outfit, her black cape flowing in the wind. She stands over a throng of defeated thugs and villains. She has a dark and violent past. Andie told Jaye all about it.

Jaye needs Andie’s help with thermodynamics but physics isn’t spoken here anymore. There are only comic books and vigilantes and sometimes, game shows on TV.

The sun begins to reach Jaye’s legs. The tea has warmed her hands. For a moment, hope is almost a possibility.

Then Andie says: “I’m moving back to Miami.”

Jaye puts her tea cup down. “You can’t do that.”

Andie’s dark eyes peer over the comic. “And what shall I do? What’s your next brilliant idea, baby?”

Andie’s already tried pizza delivery, dog grooming, and corn husking. She didn’t last more than a week at any of those jobs. They were demeaning, degrading; she couldn’t do them.

The cans crunch again and the sour smell of warm beer permeates the room.

“What about the museum?” Jaye says. “They hire people to explain science to kids on field trips. Remember field trips?”

Andie sets the comic book on the table. She picks up Jaye’s fluid dynamics textbook and grips it like a football. “Don’t you have a paper due?” she says.

Water is thin, its viscosity low. Olive oil is thicker. Corn oil, thicker still. I can quote their viscosities to nine decimal places. I can describe the relative splash each would make when poured from a constant distance. But…

“You don’t want me anymore,” Jaye says. “You want to leave me.”

Andie hugs the textbook to her chest. “All this time, and you still have no idea what I want. How can you be that unaware?”

Andie kisses Jaye’s book, sets it down on top of The Huntress.

*

Andie made a perfect score on her SATs; GREs, too. They met freshman year at Princeton. Andie was the genius who never studied. Jaye was the wannabe scientist, scribbling frantic in the front row of every lecture, half lost but desperate not to be. It was Andie’s inimitably clear explanation of special relativity, over beers and popcorn at the Tiger Claw Pub, that won Jaye’s heart. Within a month, Jaye transformed from asexual nerd clad in baggy sweatpants to enraptured creature of the flesh. She couldn’t get enough of Andie talking physics; Andie couldn’t enough of Jaye naked.

Andie’d had girlfriends before; she knew what to do. She worked out five times a week. Jaye loved her biceps and her deep, dark eyes. They were lab partners for four years.

Andie had a dozen grad school offers. Stanford, Harvard, M.I.T.

Jaye had only one.

“I love you,” Andie said, and they both moved to Ann Arbor.

*

Andie walks to the refrigerator, gets another beer.

Jaye wants to tell her she’s wrong. She wants to say that she knows Andie loves her, and she tries to understand the rest, and sometimes she does but other times, it’s just too much. She wants to say that she hopes everything will be all right. She almost believes it will be, if Andie stays in Ann Arbor; if Andie tries again. But Jaye can’t bring herself to say anything but: “I’ll make spaghetti and meatballs tonight.”

It’s a code; it almost says what Jaye wants to say. Spaghetti used to elicit kiss-attacks from Andie, promises of extreme sexual favours. Andie once said she loved spaghetti and meatballs more than beer. “Except Guinness,” she said. “Who wouldn’t kill for an unlimited supply of Guinness on tap?”

Jaye goes to the kitchen, bangs pots and pans like toy drums. The truth is, she wants to ask Andie about the molecular structure of glass. She wishes that wasn’t what she was thinking about, but it is. She wants to know Andie’s opinion.

Standing at the kitchen sink, Jaye says, “I won’t survive here without you.”

The water rises in the pasta pot and Andie is behind her, arms wrapped around her waist. She kisses Jaye’s shoulder, caresses her belly, slips her fingers inside her shorts.

Fuck you, Huntress, Jaye thinks. She inches forward, coaxes Andie deeper.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics: The entropy of an isolated system not at equilibrium will tend to increase over time, approaching a maximum value.

Entropy rises then peaks. Heat dissipates, pressure lessens.

“Don’t leave me,” Jaye says, with Andie pressed tight against her. They are both liquid and solid. Together. Andie kisses Jaye’s neck, holds her tight as Jaye turns the water off. She closes her eyes and wishes this moment would never end; but before she finishes her wish, Andie lets go, and reaches for her beer.

*

Right after they arrived in Ann Arbor, Andie established her routines. Tuesday and Friday Grad Student Happy Hour. Pizza buffet and pitchers of beer at the Tavern on Saturday (and sometimes Sunday). Weekly comic book subscription at Mad Joe’s.

That first fall semester is hazy in Jaye’s mind but she remembers the beginning clearly. She remembers finding the apartment. Remembers the two of them dragging that old ripped recliner up three flights of stairs and then falling into it, sweaty and panting. She remembers the taste of Andie’s lips, her skin, her sex, when they were still happy.

Jaye remembers the green leather barstools at the Tavern. Remembers football on TV, the roar of the Big Blue overtaking the entire town. She remembers the feel of the lacquered wood on the bar where her electromagnetism textbook sat open as she asked Andie questions. She remembers Andie spitting peanut shells into a small wooden bowl and answering with the disappointed monotone of a mother discouraged by her child’s struggle to master the alphabet.

Was it before mid-terms or after, when the happy hours were never long enough, when the pitchers of beer were never full enough, when Andie got into that horrible fight with poor pock-faced Stanley Weissman over experimental protocols and punched him right in the nose in the middle of the grad student lounge, then found herself banned from the Lab for two weeks and ordered to mandatory counselling.

Was it before Thanksgiving or after, when Andie stopped going to classes, when Andie swore her counsellor was a Nazi, when Andie locked herself in the apartment and wouldn’t talk to anyone but Jaye.

Things got better in the spring. Andie stopped going to bars and started drinking at home. She signed up for the same classes as Jaye. She said it was tolerable. But the harder Jaye tried to make things okay, the harder Jaye studied and worked on her physics, the more Andie hated Ann Arbor. Jaye could feel the growing presence of Andie’s sacrifice as if it were another person living between them. Andie’s disappointed gaze, her blank stare into the horizon: no to M.I.T. Andie’s hands wrapped around a stein of frothy beer on a Friday, a Tuesday, a Monday: no, Stanford. Andie asleep in the middle of the afternoon, her withdrawal, her unresponsiveness: no, Harvard. No. No. No.

*

They eat spaghetti and meatballs five nights in a row. Andie begins to look thick around the middle and Jaye tells herself she’s happy. Andie is in bed with her every night, clutching Jaye after the lights go out. Jaye doesn’t think she’s called the museum or thought a single minute about getting a job. But she’s there. During the day, Andie reads comics and plays the stereo and watches game shows. Jaye can’t study in the apartment with all that noise so she takes a carrel at the library and camps out at the corner café. When she comes home that Friday night, Andie is staring out the sliding glass door. She’s burning incense and listening to Pink Floyd.

“There isn’t any beer,” she says. “And I don’t have any money.”

Jaye goes to the bathroom and closes the door. She stays in there a long time, trying to think of something solid and strong and helpful, something to say that won’t float away as soon as the words leave her mouth. When she comes out, she hands Andie ten dollars and kisses the top of her head.

“I love you,” Jaye says.

Andie goes to the store.

*

Sometimes Jaye wishes she didn’t love physics. When she thinks about it – which is often – she doesn’t really understand why she does love it, but even as a child she was a math and science kind of kid. She wasn’t talented; she didn’t make the best grades; but she was drawn to it. She never felt like she had a choice. Sometimes she wishes she could love more ordinary things.

Jaye’s friends from high school are studying business, law, English literature. Their boyfriends play sports and drive fast cars and one is in medical school and another is commissioned in the Air Force. Jaye’s high school friends are having babies or planning not to have babies – not yet, not while they’re so young – and Jaye is certain that when they wake up in the morning they do not feel the heavy sense of doom weighing down on their shoulders like she does.

Jaye wishes she could stop loving physics. She wishes she could convince herself there was another way.

*

Stanley Weissman drinks hot chocolate all day at the corner café as he writes in his notebook and scratches his arms until they are lined with red ridges as inflamed as the pocks of acne on his chin and brow. He looks at the floor when Jaye walks in. Jaye asked Andie to come to the café with her, to drink coffee and read comics while Jaye works on her paper.

Andie was watching TV, her leg draped over the arm of the recliner. “I finished my comics for the week. And I don’t want coffee.”

When Jaye sees Stanley, she almost turns around and goes home. But her paper is due on Monday and it’s Friday night and the library is closed and there is nowhere else to go. If seeing Stanley there isn’t bad enough, the café is so crowded, the only open table is right next to his. So close it feels like shared space. It’s impossible to ignore him.

Jaye puts her bag down, and smiles.

“Hi,” Stanley says, scratching his arm. He looks around; his face twitches. Jaye knows he’s searching for Andie, and he’s scared.

“Don’t you have an office on campus, Stan?”

She knows he does; Stanley’s on fellowship. He’s the brightest guy in the program, now that Andie is out. Jaye would kill for an empty office on a Friday night but she has no fellowship, no school-sponsored workspace, no assistantship of any kind.

Stanley holds up his cup. “I hate instant cocoa. So I work here instead.”

Jaye smiles again, and for a minute, it is genuine. She feels Stanley’s vulnerability, and it comforts her.

She spreads out her papers, and begins to work.

Viscosity is a measure of resistance. How will a fluid deform under shear stress?

Amorphous solids, such as glass, are considered to have viscosity, on the basis that all solids flow, to some small extent, in response to shear stress.

Jaye thinks about Andie at home. She can see her in the recliner. She senses her stillness. Her resistance, her resentment.

“Have any thoughts about the fluidity of glass, Stan?” Jaye says.

Stanley’s pen slips off his notebook and mars the table. He wipes it with a napkin. “Is that your seminar paper?”

Jaye nods.

“Sort of a lightweight topic for you, isn’t it?” he says.

Jaye’s face gets hot. Her ears burn and she knows they’re red. She’s not sure if he’s teasing her, or trying to flatter. Either option makes her want to slip under the table and disappear. The thermodynamics of glass is a lightweight topic but Jaye is drowning in it. She needs help.

Stanley’s jaw tightens. He goes back to scratching his arm. He has no idea how to make actual conversation and Jaye feels sorry for him, but the feeling passes quickly.

Glass is an unusual liquid (or according to others, an amorphous solid), usually produced when the viscous molten material cools very rapidly without sufficient time for a regular crystal lattice to form.

“Have you read Santen and Krauth?” Stanley asks.

“No,” Jaye says.

“They use mathematical models, not experimentation, but their evidence against the thermodynamic origins of glass transition is provocative. You should check it out.”

Jaye’s been working on this paper advocating for the thermodynamic origins of glass transition, not against, for two months. She has the urge to stab her pencil into Stanley’s forehead. But she is not Andie. She takes a deep breath.

Stanley leans toward her, begins to talk about Monte Carlo simulations as if they were a cherished secret. He writes the reference on her napkin with his rollerball pen. The ink bleeds to the edge. Jaye doesn’t see Andie enter the café. She doesn’t see her hesitate at the door, watching Stanley’s hand inch across Jaye’s table. But she sees Stanley see it. His panicked face causes Jaye to look up. It’s the first time Andie’s looked directly into Jaye’s eyes in weeks. Jaye smiles and waves and her knee bumps Stanley’s and he knocks his hot chocolate over. It soaks his notebook and drips onto his pants. Jaye doesn’t care. She goes to Andie.

“You came,” she says. She wants to stroke Andie’s arm and kiss her, as if they were the only two people in the world. But she holds back.

“Didn’t expect me to interrupt your date with Weissman, did you.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I wanted to bolt out of here when I saw him. But I have to finish this damn paper.”

Andie stares at Stanley. Her jaw is so tight it squares her face, slits her eyes.

“Baby, seriously. It’s nothing.”

“I think I’ll just go say hello,” Andie says.

Stanley is packing up his things as fast as he can. He is out the side door before Andie takes two steps toward him.

Jaye touches Andie’s back. She holds her hand there, and says, “Now will you stay? I’ll buy you a cupcake. What kind of icing do you want? Chocolate or vanilla? Do you want sprinkles?”

Jaye digs into her pocket for money.

Andie shakes her head. She is a small child, fragile and lost. “Come home,” she says. “I won’t watch TV or play the stereo. I miss you.”

Jaye reaches for Andie’s fingers, squeezes them, and says, “Oh baby. Let’s go.”

They walk home together and when they get to the apartment, they go straight to bed, and sleep.

*

It was last year, their second year in Ann Arbor, when things got out of control. Qualifying exams were in February, and Jaye was consumed with fear six months in advance. Every waking minute, she studied. She copied her notes over twenty-five times. She carried around a box of 3×5 cards with physical laws, critical theorems, experimental cases. She reviewed her notes constantly. All fall semester, she made Andie quiz her, over and over again.

Andie went back to the bars, but not for Happy Hour. She found dives at the edge of town without any students. There, among the factory workers and motorcycle thugs, Andie drank and drank and sometimes didn’t come home. Jaye had no idea where Andie went, or where she slept, on those nights. Jaye was always awake. Papers and books spread out on their futon, she studied and studied, and as the nights wore on, she regressed. She moved from graduate physics backwards, giving herself easier problems as more hours passed. Many mornings she greeted the sun’s rise with basic Newtonian mechanics. Velocity. Acceleration. Work. Force. Those problems felt like going home. They felt like Princeton, and Jaye could feel the young, happy Andie with her as she solved them. In them, Jaye wasn’t confused, or angry, or scared. She knew the answers.

Then February came, and after Jaye had worked so hard and thought she was almost prepared, Andie showed up for the qualifiers drunk off her ass. She passed out in the exam room. She hadn’t been to class in months. She’d already lost her fellowship. The department said they had no other choice. Andie was dismissed.

Jaye failed her exams that day, too. They’re only offered once a year.

Jaye has one more chance to pass.

*

On Saturday, Jaye goes to the Science Library. She looks up the paper Stanley mentioned. She photocopies it and three others, then sits in front of the building, staring down the sidewalk toward the Lab. Physics is happening there. Research and experiments. Breakthroughs.

Jaye knows she is not going to make it. She doesn’t belong in Ann Arbor just like she probably hadn’t belonged at Princeton and she never would have survived there without Andie’s help. Jaye is not going to graduate; no one is ever going to call her Doctor. She will take a job in a museum back home in Delaware and she will try to explain science to kids on field trips; and some days, she won’t even do that very well.

When Jaye gets back to the apartment that afternoon, Andie is dancing. Electronica pulsates the walls and Andie wears nothing but purple jockey briefs. She’s balancing a half-empty bottle of Heineken between finger and thumb. Two shiny green empties lay on the counter. Andie smiles, grabs Jaye’s hand, spins her around, then dips her. Unsteady but still strong, Andie pulls Jaye up, cradles her head in her hands, and kisses her like Jaye hasn’t been kissed in over a year.

Heat is the process of transferring energy from one body to another due to thermal contact; i.e., energy transferring without performing work on the body.

Andie turns the music down a notch, and says, “Remember that bar in Chicago where the bartenders were so butch and all those femmes in long dresses were slow dancing that night like it was the Lesbian Prom? Let’s go, baby. Let’s go to Chicago tonight—”

She tries to spin Jaye again but Jaye doesn’t move.

“Bartending?” Jaye says. “That’s what you’ll do next? Seriously?”

Andie stops. She stands still, then turns the music off.

“Seriously, baby. You are the smartest person I know and you’re wasting it. I can’t stand it. Why are you so brilliant and I’m so goddamned stupid?”

Andie puts her clothes on, crouches in the corner of the room, cradles her beer between her knees.

Jaye looks down at her hands. She sees waves, tiny oscillating particles of energy dissipating.

In its purest form, glass is transparent, strong, hard-wearing. A biologically inactive material which can be formed with smooth and impervious surfaces.

“You could apply for re-admission,” Jaye says. “They’d give you another chance. Maybe not with a fellowship this time, but if you say you want to try, if you just stop drinking and go to class. The work is not hard for you. It’s never been hard for you.”

Glass can be brittle. It can break into sharp shards. Its properties can be changed, usually with the addition of heat.

Andie gets up, shoves clothes into a duffle bag, lays her comics flat on top, and zips up carefully.

“I got a job at Mad Joe’s today,” she says. “Full-time clerk at a comic book store in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for you. I thought we could celebrate. I thought you’d be happy I was going to stay. I thought that’s all you wanted—”

Jaye doesn’t know what to say.

Glass is a material that is out of equilibrium. It has the disordered molecular structure of a liquid and the rigidity of a solid. The question physicists still ponder is transition. Is it thermodynamic, or not? Is there a discontinuity in the phase shift? Or does it happen slowly? Smooth and continuous.

*

Andie is gone. Jaye is solid as glass.

About Mary Lynn Reed

Mary Lynn Reed is a fiction writer and mathematician. Her work has appeared in Mississippi Review, Colorado Review, The MacGuffin, Sakura Review, and Whistling Shade, among other places. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland and a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the University of Illinois.

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