“I learned a new word today,” she said. They had been silent for a few minutes so it startled him when she said it. They were both enjoying the summer sun and the controlled chaos of Trinity Bellwoods Park.
“Oh yeah?” he replied. He opened his eyes and sat up, sweeping off the grass that inevitably stuck to his hair, arms and shirt. Whenever she said that she learned a new word, it would always be an unspoken challenge between the two. He was no walking Oxford dictionary, but he had a decent vocabulary. So did she, of course. “What would that be?”
She also sat up, also sweeping the grass off of herself in a similar fashion. “The word is…” she paused a moment, perhaps trying to make sure she got the pronunciation on her first try. “Epizootic.”
A short word, but a fun pronunciation. He asked her to repeat the word, then said it to himself phonetically. “Ep-ih-zoh-aw-tic…” He shook his head. “Nope. nothing.”
“You can probably figure out the definition if you think about it,” she said. “But I’ll tell you anyway. It’s the animal version of an epidemic.”
“Oh, I probably could have figured that out,” he said. “I was just so flustered by not knowing the word.”
She laughed. “So in other words…”
“Yes,” he said with a sigh. “I lost.”
He met her two years ago, and he had his high school to blame. Growing up in the small town of Paisley, Ontario, he was surrounded by people who were happy with their lots in life. As he progressed through his four years with no interest in school sports, he found himself increasingly uneasy talking with some of his classmates. What were you in a small town, if not an athlete?
Not to imply that Saugeen Shores Secondary School was a scene from some teen comedy, but sports were always a big deal. He instead found a passion for chemistry, taking to learning the periodic table by atomic number, by heart, by the time he was in his final year.
On encouragement from his teachers, he applied to the University of Toronto’s chemistry program and got in easily. His friends were a little shocked that he would within a year be making the transition to the “big city.” He had no such qualms. He wanted to get the hell out.
His first visit to Toronto (to tour the campus, of course) was a little terrifying. The subway wasn’t too complicated, but once he got to St. George Station he got a little confused by which exits led where.
Things went a little better once he moved in. He took to his studies with vigour, as always, but he made more of an effort to be involved with extracurriculars. He ended up, on a whim, getting involved with a U of T theatre group. The first production he had a role in was As You Like It, as Duke Senior, a role his friends described as “eerily suited to him.” Apparently he always had an air of authority, even when he didn’t mean to.
In third year, he met her. She tried out (and got) the part of Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. He did not get the part of Petruchio, but he still worked up the courage to talk to her after her audition.
He wasn’t sure how to describe what drew him to her. She just had an air of confidence in the way she presented herself, from the casual, barely-there makeup around her eyes to the way she had hair piled up on a bun. During her audition (she recited Hamlet’s most famous speech) her eyes could look like they could well with tears one minute and blaze with anger the next. He wasn’t nearly so poised, which was probably why he was interested. Maybe he could learn a thing or two.
“That was really cool,” he said, somewhat choking on the words.
“Oh thanks,” she said, without looking up.
“What got you interested in this play?” he asked.
Now she looked up. “I don’t know,” she said after a few seconds. “I just felt like it.”
“You felt like auditioning for a Shakespeare play?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “Can’t believe they liked me so much.”
“Wait, you just had Hamlet’s ‘To Be or Not to Be’ soliloquy memorized?”
“Everyone has something they know by heart, I’m sure you do,” she said.
“That’s true,” he said.
“That was an invitation for you to tell me what that is,” she said.
“Oh, well, I know the periodic table by heart, from atomic number 1 to 118.”
“Get out!” she said, a smile forming on her lips. “Prove it.”
Without hesitation, and now in his element, he began listing the elements. By the time he got to “cesium,” she told him to stop and that she believed him.
She glanced at her watch and apologized, saying she had to leave. But she asked him to hang out, an invitation he wholeheartedly accepted.
They met a few days later, deciding to hang out the cheap way (they were students, after all) by going for a long walk. They decided to walk to Exhibition Place, which at least an hour on foot, and so they had plenty to talk about on the way and back. She was studying history and had done extensive traveling in the year she took off before applying for school.
She spent a few months in Asia before taking a brief detour to Oceania, then headed west to Europe. By the time she was back in North America, she felt like she had to relearn customs.
They learned a lot about each other, that first real meeting, and it quickly became something more. When he finally asked her if she would be his girlfriend, she laughed in his face. He was hurt for a minute, until she clarified the reason for her laughter. “I didn’t think we had to formalize it. What is this, 1895?”
As they spent more time together, he grew to love her devotion to vegetarianism and her unabashed love for NewsRadio, and she grew to love his habit of mumbling to himself when deep into writing up a lab report and his tendency to eat slices of pizza crust-first.
“Say it one more time,” she said. “I don’t hear it often enough.”
“You’re really relishing it,” he said, and she didn’t disagree. “I lost, I didn’t know the definition of the word, congratulations.”
“Well thank you,” she said, doing a mocking bowing gesture (the best she could accomplish while still sitting on the grass).
“How did you come across the word, anyway? Sounds like a word I should have known, not you.”
“Came across it in some research I was doing today,” she said. Just a month ago she got an archiving job at Robarts, and when she was finished a task and had some downtime she’d skim articles for interesting factoids to pull out later. “In 1990, something like 10,000 cormorants died from Newcastle disease. It was seen as pretty bad, but it might have been even worse 100 years ago, when it wiped out a slew of Scottish livestock.”
“You really learn a lot of strange things,” he said.
“It’s what I do,” she said. There was another lull in conversation, this one lasting at least five minutes. He looked around the park, from the baseball diamond (currently hosting some adult softball game) to the dog bowl, a naturally lower-elevated part of the park where people take their pets to play in a large but enclosed space.
“Hypothetical question,” he finally said, to start a new train of thought. “If you had to pick one current world problem to be the cause of the apocalypse, what would it be?”
“Hmm, good question…” she said. She closed her eyes and ran her hand through her hair. “It’ll be something to do with Russia. Maybe Putin will overplay his hand and some country will get offended and then BAM, some other country will get spooked by the tension and launch a nuclear missile. I just know it’ll be something really stupid like that. It’ll be a few minor events that suddenly add up to something huge, like when Princip killed Archduke Ferdinand.”
“That’s a kind of cynical view of our world leaders, if you ask me,” he said, considering her answer more as he spoke. “I mean sure, they make lots of bad decisions, but I don’t think anyone would think to start a nuclear war.”
“Maybe not now, but it’ll happen, I’m sure of it,” she said. “What do you think will be the cause of the inevitable end of Earth?”
“I’m not sure if this counts, but I think it’ll be whenever the volcano at Yellowstone National Park erupts. I read somewhere that it’s had a sort of typical pattern of eruptions over its thousands of years of existence, and it’s basically been dormant for a lot more years, mathematically, than it should.”
“It’ll erupt someday, so what?”
“So what?” He did his best not to strike a professor-ly tone but he couldn’t help it. “A massive eruption could send huge clouds of ash up to the sky and blot out the sun. We’ll all live in misery for the brief time we’ll be able to survive without sunlight. I see everything going all Walking Dead, minus the zombies, of course.”
“So nuclear war or massive volcano. Fun options,” she said.
“I worry about our conversation topics sometimes,” he replied. Suddenly they both heard a shriek. They looked over to see what was happening. A small crowd had gathered.
Deciding to join the herd, the two walked over and saw three birds lying dead on the ground, with no visible wounds.
They looked at each other, and mouthed the new word in unison.