There were seventeen buttons on the front of her dress, running in a long line from neck to mid-shin. Seventeen. He grouped them visually. Eight, eight, one. Back to the hem, and up again. Seven, seven, three. Again. Three groups of five, and two. Four groups of four, and one. Five groups of three, and two. Eight groups of two, and one. His gaze lingered on that last button at her neck, an incongruous rock in the stream of flowing, symmetrical factors. Seventeen; a prime number, an oddly shaped building block that stood out from the crowd, endlessly fascinating. There was room for one more button at the hem near her knee, but no buttonhole bespoke a lost button. No, it was only ever seventeen. It was his favorite of her dresses.
He started to count them again: eight, eight, one; seven, seven, three—but when he reached the top button again he realized she was speaking.
“…you should be confident about this one, Peter. You know the piece backwards, forwards, and upside down. We’ve run through it today twenty times at least, and it was perfect; tomorrow will be no different. Even if there are a hundred people here—“ (Twelve rows arranged in three columns of six seats across, except the four exit rows of four seats each, makes two hundred and eight people with four hundred and sixteen eyes.) “—it’ll just be the two of us up there.”
Peter looked up at her face. She was smiling. Her buttons caught the light and glinted pink when she moved. Just the two of us up there. His own sweater had five buttons. The sum any of two primes is an even number. Seventeen plus five equals twenty-two, leaving eleven for each of us. A pair of elevens. Beautiful, symmetrical… and both prime.
“Do you want to run through it one more time?”
He looked over at the grand piano that dominated the stage. Steinway & Sons, Model D, concert grand. “Do you think I should?”
She nodded, still smiling.
He took a seat at the bench, pausing to polish out a stray fingerprint on the ebony with his sweater sleeve. Eighty-eight keys is eight times eleven, or four times twenty-two; four pairs of us, one pair reflected in each lens of her glasses and of mine. He closed his eyes, positioned his fingers over the keys, and started to count out the time signature: nine over eight. One-two-three-four…
“So how did things go with Cathy today? Did you ask her out?” Bruce’s tongue flicked beer foam off his lips and mustache. Right side, left side, lower lip.
“Her name is Catherine.”
Bruce set his pilsner glass back down on the bar, missing the cardboard St. Pauli Girl coaster by two inches. His gaze followed the new bartender’s slender form as she navigated a stepladder to retrieve a bottle of Macallan single malt from the top shelf. In one quick motion, Peter repositioned Bruce’s glass squarely onto the coaster and swiped the condensation off the bar with his napkin. “I’d like a piece of that,” muttered Bruce with a grin as he turned back to Peter. “But seriously, bro. How did it go?”
“I don’t know what to say to her.”
Bruce shook his head and chuckled. “Just tell her how you feel, Pete. Girl like that, artsy fartsy type, she’ll be a sucker for it.”
“She’ll go for it, fall for it, you know.”
“Right.” Fall for it. Peter pictured her falling, tumbling gently through an endless tunnel, like Alice in the rabbit hole. He’d felt that way himself when she was near him, like he was falling. It made his stomach lurch. “How I feel.”
He pictured her sitting beside him in a metal folding chair as he played the upright Wurlitzer in her garage: eyes closed, elbows on knees, chin in hands, a smile on her face. The piano was slightly out of tune, but when she matched it with her voice the whole universe seemed to rotate into alignment around them.
“I feel happiest when I’m with her.”
“What are you– twelve?” Bruce chortled and took another pull of his beer. “You can’t just say that kind of crap to a woman, like some lame Hallmark you memorized. It’s gotta be, you know, real. Honest.” The plaid lines of Bruce’s overshirt did not align at the shoulder seam; there was a quarter-inch discrepancy where red met black instead of red. Peter stared at it, mentally adjusting the stripes. “How long have you known her again? What is it– three years?”
Two years, seven months, five days—he looked around for a clock—and three hours. “Yeah, almost.”
Bruce gestured at the bartender and she brought over another round of beer. “You new around here, girl?” She rolled her eyes and turned to help another patron.
“I think she is, Bruce. I’ve haven’t noticed her in here before tonight.”
“You wouldn’t notice her if she stripped off her clothes and started dancing on the bar, Pete,” snorted Bruce.
“I notice things.”
“I noticed that you missed a spot near your right ear when you shaved this morning.” Bruce’s hand shot up to feel his jaw. “I noticed when you stopped wearing your wedding ring, the first day you took it off.”
Bruce’s face reddened. “Yeah, alright.”
“I’m not stupid.”
Bruce slid the half-finished plate of prosciutto-wrapped bocconcini to Peter. “You done?”
Peter nodded. “I’ll try to talk to her, Bruce. Tomorrow. Before—no, after.” He ran through the event timeline in his mind, trying to inject room for a conversation he knew would be complicated. “Maybe before. Or after might be better.”
“Wait, before what?”
“Chamber orchestra is doing Debussy for Valentine’s Day. We’re performing Clair de Lune.” Bruce’s face was blank. “Soprano soloist and piano, written in 18—“
Bruce cut him off with a dismissive gesture. “Yeah, yeah, whatever, I get it. You got it easy, Romeo. Just ask her out to dinner afterwards. Then after dinner,” He slid into his coat. “It’ll all seem pretty natural. Just don’t, you know–” he shot Peter a sideways glance. “Screw it up.”
“Right.” Peter buttoned his pea coat—one, two, three—and wrapped his scarf around his neck before plunging out into the February night. Don’t screw it up.
Her dress didn’t have any buttons; just one long zipper up the back that ended between her shoulder blades. Her hair was twisted up in a loose knot, and she was wearing earrings: five-pointed, flower-shaped. “Are those diamonds?” Peter cracked his knuckles.
“You shouldn’t do that.” Her voice was quiet.
“Are they zirconium?”
“Oh, uh,” she felt her right earlobe with one gloved hand. “These are just rhinestones, cut glass. But I thought they had a nice sparkle.”
“They are very sparkly.”
She glanced at him, distracted. “Thank you,” she smiled briefly. “You look nervous. You’ll do fine, Peter. I’ve never heard you make a mistake.”
“I make mistakes.”
“I don’t want to argue about it.”
“Sorry.” He fidgeted with his tie. He had bought a clip-on after thirty-seven failed attempts to tie one himself following a tutorial he had found online. This one was solid colored, dark red; no distracting stripes or dots.
“It’s straight, it’s fine. You look great.” She turned away from him and smoothed the wrinkles from her dress. As he reached out to pick a piece of lint from her shoulder, she turned suddenly towards him. His outstretched hand brushed her neck, but as he pulled it away, she grabbed it and held onto it with both hands. She looked into his eyes.
“You don’t have any buttons on your dress,” he said.
His collar was choking him. “Don’t you think that even numbers feel more whole, more… symmetrical?”
“Peter, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Symmetry. Goldbach’s conjecture says that the sum of any two primes—“
“Are we talking about math now?”
“Yes. No. I’m talking about prime numbers.” She stared at him. “About us.”
“You think we’re like prime numbers?” She moved a little closer to him, her hands still holding his. His palm felt slippery, and his face was getting uncomfortably hot. One of the violinists brushed past him.
“Well, the thing is, an even number is complete, stable, symmetrical. You can divide it into even parts, redistribute them—there’s no loose end. Two even numbers always make an even number, so that’s easy. One even and one odd— always odd, maybe even prime. But two primes—two primes always combine to form an even number. No surprises.”
“And all prime numbers are odd, right?” She was smiling now. He could smell her perfume. It smelled like vanilla, and something else he couldn’t place.
“Yes. Except two, of course.” There were freckles on her bare shoulders. A cluster of three, shaped like a triangle. He started to count the rest. Four, five, six…
“Are you saying I’m odd, Peter?”
“Yes. No. I don’t know. I’m just saying prime numbers are lonely. They only have two factors: one and themselves.”
“Do you think I’m lonely?” She reached down to take his other hand, and drew them both together in the narrowing distance between their torsos.
“I don’t know. I think you might be.” Peter could hear the audience murmuring as they took their seats on the other side of the heavy curtains. “I think I am.” He paused. “But you’re certainly unique.”
She laughed. “Not as unique as you are.”
“Uniqueness isn’t scalable. It’s a toggle state: unique or not. Nothing can be slightly unique.”
She was grinning. “True enough. But you’re changing the subject. People aren’t ones and zeros, Peter.”
The conductor coughed to interrupt them and pointed at his watch. “Places,” he urged softly. Catherine released his hands and dried her palms on her skirt, mumbling apologies and reddening.
“I’m just trying to say that I feel sick whenever I’m with you,” he blurted.
She grinned and leaned close to him. Her breath was hot and moist on his ear. “You make me feel sick, too.” She brushed his cheek with her lips, smiled at him, and walked away. Her heels clicked on the wooden floor: one-two, one-two, one-two.
One and one make two: a prime singularity. And the only consecutive primes are two and three. We can name our son Goldbach. He smiled, cracked his knuckles, and headed after her.