Part II of the Dawnwalker Cycle
"A Spearfish Lake Story"
After that long but interesting afternoon and evening in the cafeteria, Jon and Tanisha were friends. Not boyfriend/girlfriend, but just friends they could share their joys and frustrations with, do some studying with. They were just a little closer than the casual acquaintances both of them had around Tech. Black or white just didnít enter the picture; it was a difference they had, but they had a lot more things in common.
Being able to study together did help with the stress analysis class they faced the next semester. It was tough; one of those make-or-break classes, and it broke a lot of kids. Dr. McDermott had a reputation of being a hard-nosed bastard. He could be fair if you knew your stuff, but he could be tough indeed if someone tried to fake it. Some of the students said he was an out and out sadist, but it was clear that he intended to separate the wheat from the chaff. Anyone who got an A in his class was going to know a great deal about stress analysis of many kinds, not all of them involving engineering.
While Jon and Tanisha were study partners on occasion, they had to do a lot of the reading and practical work on their own, although they frequently compared notes on Dr. McDermottís class, along with the others they were both taking. Thatís what they were doing one Saturday along in the middle of February in the cafeteria, where by now they were regular lunch partners. On this day, Jon could see that Tanisha wasnít being very communicative, which was fine Ė he wasnít managing very well at it, either. "Are you making any progress on that paper for Monday?" he asked.
"No," she said glumly, "Itís a McDermott special, thatís for sure. Iíve been wrestling with it for a week, and it just keeps leading to dead ends."
"Thatís about where I am," Jon agreed. "And itís a third of the grade for the semester. Iím sure the problem is buried in the math somewhere, but I canít get a handle on it."
"Thereís something goofy with the data," she said. "Iím sure he must have thrown some bad data points in there just to put a false trail in it. If you try to work with the full data set, it just leads you into side issues of reducing the data to something meaningful."
"Yeah, a McDermott special all right," Jon agreed. "A maze of side issues, false trails, bad data, and a kernel of truth buried in there somewhere. I do know this much: there has to be a correct answer, or he wouldnít have assigned the problem."
"Maybe we ought to take a swing at working our way through it together," she suggested. "Two heads might be better than one."
"Yeah," he sighed, "Iím up for it. Weíre going to have to crack that thing this weekend, like it or not. You want to do it up in your room?"
"No way!" she replied. "My roomie has a couple friends in, and theyíre blaring rap. I absolutely canít stand all that badass homeboy stuff. That may be why I canít concentrate on this stupid problem of McDermottís."
"That might have something to do with it," Jon agreed. "I canít stand being distracted either. My roomie is going out to the basketball game, and heíll probably hang out with some guys this evening. He doesnít want to hang around a nerd like me."
"Your room, then," she agreed. "Iíll bring my laptop."
Fifteen minutes later, they were up in Jonís room, booting up his Pentium 150, new the previous fall, and still about the hottest thing on the market. Jon put on a CD of George Winston piano music, kept low, but to sort of take the edge off of the normal Saturday afternoon drone of noise around the dorm. "Thatís more what I call studying music," Tanisha smiled. "Do you have any idea how weíre going to go about this?"
"I know itís easy to get into side issues in trying to make sense of the data sets," Jon said. "But the bottom line is that the answer has to come out of them somehow. Iím thinking that maybe if we run a statistical analysis of the data sets, set by set, it might point out obvious bad data points."
"I thought about that," she said, "But that would take all weekend in itself."
"I dunno," Jon said. "Tell you what, letís concentrate on data set two. I just have a gut feeling itís a little cleaner than the other two. If we can make sense of it, maybe we can work our way backward through the others."
"Makes sense," she said. "But itís still going to be a lot of work. Seems to me I recall a pretty good statistical analysis algorithm that might help. I think Iíve got it buried on the hard drive some place, but itíll be a pain to reduce the data with it."
"Dig it out," he said. "Iíll write something in C, nothing fancy, just something to work it over with. You got Excel on that thing? Maybe you could key in the data while I kick out some code."
With Tanishaís help on the math, Jon had to write about a hundred lines of code. Both of them were pretty smart kids and knew their stuff, although Tanisha had already conceded that Jon was just a bit better at drafting and programming, while she was just a touch better at math. But, their skills fit together well; in an hour they had a curve appearing on the screen that didnít make any sense. "How are you supposed to make anything out of that?" she asked, looking at the lumpy, bumpy curve.
"I wonder," Jon frowned at the curve on the computer screen. There was something there Ė he couldnít quite make sense out of it. "Maybe itís a blind alley," he said, "But I want to look down it a bit. Let me take a few minutes to make this thing output the curve as numbers that I can transfer into AutoCAD. I want to look at that curve with some drafting tools."
"Yeah!" she smiled. "You might have something there."
In ten minutes, the data curve was displayed on the AutoCAD screen, which was a lot simpler for drawing curves while leaving out some data points. Jon started on the basic line of data points, ignoring the ones that seemed far out of whack, but still, he couldnít come up with a curve that made sense. "Blind alley, I guess," he sighed. "Maybe itíll poke its way out of the other data sets." He turned to the computer screen, to minimize the window and start over.
"Jon, no!" Tanisha said, getting an insight. "Try a curve on the data points that are way out of whack."
"Yeaaaaah," he agreed, eyeballing the screen display and reaching for the mouse. "That might be something." He made a few clicks of the mouse, and in an instant a smooth curve appeared on the screen.
"Hey, I think we got something there," she said.
"Right," he agreed. "What if what we thought was the bad data is actually the good data?"
"You got an algorithm for that?"
"Give me a minute," she said, turning to her laptop.
"Iíll cut some code to run it," he smiled, feeling for the first time like they had a handle on the problem. "You start entering data on one of the other data sets. We may just have done a tonsillectomy through the rectum."
"Right," she agreed. "We started on set two because it seemed the cleanest. If weíre right, itís actually the dirtiest."
"One way to find out," he said, minimizing the screen and bringing up C again.
In a few minutes, a number appeared on the computer screen that seemed to make sense. "If we can get a number like that out of the other two data sets, we might have something," she said.
"Youíre working on set one, right?" he asked. "Iíll get started keying in set three."
The whole process took them another hour Ė but it was an exciting hour, for they felt they were finally on the right trail for the first time. When the curve from the first data set appeared on the screen, it was clear that they were in fact onto something, for they could even see by eye that the "bad data" curve was smooth, while the assumed "good data" curve had problems. Excited now, they finished up with keyboarding the third set, brought it up onto the screen Ė and much the same thing happened.
"OK, now for the important part," Jon said. It took only a minute to run the vector analysis on the good "bad points" of the new data sets Ė and the numbers were, for practical purposes, the same.
"I could do that on a graph," he commented, "But the lines would be right on top of each other. From there on in, itís simple."
"Right," she agreed, "But weíre not out of the woods yet. What if the data points weíre using are wrong after all? Are there any other possible curves laying there in that mess?"
"We know how to find out, now," Jon said.
It took another hour, mostly in AutoCAD, trying to find data points that would provide a useful curve. There were some, but only a few data points, and the vector analysis didnít agree. "I think weíre to the point where weíre going to have to go ahead with the three good curves," Tanisha said thoughtfully at the end of that hour.
"I agree," he said with a smile. "Let me go ahead and cut some code to run the final solution."
It was only the work of minutes before the Pentium kicked out the final solution. "Yeesssss!" Jon cried out at the numbers on the screen. He turned to Tanisha, and threw a high-five at her. It had taken hours of work, intense concentration, and the result was like a dam breaking. They threw their arms around each other, pounded each other on the back in joy. Somehow, without it being either of their ideas but both of their ideas, their lips came together, and they shared a big, sloppy kiss that went on and on, just holding each other tight, sharing the thrill of victory Ė and, somewhere in the kiss, magic happened. By the time it was over with, they were boyfriend and girlfriend.
Somewhere along in there they came up for air. "Thanks, Jon," she said, "I could never have done it without you."
"I could never have done it without you," he smiled, pounding her on the back again, somehow realizing that now she was more than just a fellow engineering student. "We did it together. Thanks."
"Oh, that felt so good," she said. "It felt wonderful."
"Yes it did," he said.
"I meant the kiss," she said, sounding a little shy. "Jon, Iíve never kissed a boy until now."
"Thatís what I meant," he said. "Youíre the first girl Iíve ever kissed."
She let out a sigh. "We really are a pair of nerds, arenít we? Jon, I never had a date, all the way through high school, and until now through college."
"Me, either," he said. "Always too busy with the computer, I guess. Iíve hardly ever even thought about what it would be like to have a date, or what Iíd want to do on one. What would you like to do on a first date?"
"I donít know," she sighed. "I guess maybe go for a cup of coffee, or something. I mean, Iíve never been much on movies, or anything."
"Me either," he said. "Tell you what, thereís a Starbucks a couple blocks off campus. Letís go have a good cup of coffee. We can finish up this paper later today or tomorrow or something. Weíve got it licked, now."
"Sounds good to me," she smiled, and pulled him close to kiss him again.
It came as such a surprise to both of them that they hardly even considered the black/white part of it. The boy/girl part was plenty for them, just then, and they kept it pretty low-key, since there was plenty of new territory for the both of them to explore. In the days and weeks to follow, there were new worlds to explore, and with a sense of wonder, and perhaps not too seriously, they began to explore them, just learning the wonders of being friends. It was no big bolt from the sky; but gradually, they began to spend more time together, eat together more often in the cafeteria, talk about things together, with no real sense of where the future was taking them. And yes, there was more kissing, more hugging, some more touching, full of wonder, full of enjoyment. Not a lot; it was new to the both of them, and they took their time.
* * *
It was the following Friday before they found out if the chain of assumptions and insights in the thorny stress analysis problem had any validity. "About the paper from last Monday," Dr. McDermott said in class, "A lot of you were on the right track, but you missed some critical points along the way. It turns out that only Ms. Blythe and Mr. Chladek managed to work out the correct solution, and from what I can see of their proofs, they used some interesting reasoning. Am I to assume that the two of you worked together on this?"
"Yes," Tanisha admitted, "We did exchange a few ideas, but I think we both contributed about the same amount."
"Mr. Chladek, is that how you see it?" the professor asked.
"Pretty much," he said. "We were both seeing what we saw, but sometimes one of us would see something obvious that the other one overlooked."
"Good teamwork, then," Dr. McDermott smiled. "Out of curiosity, can I ask how you determined to use the data points you used?"
Jon briefly explained the process that they used, and how using the drafting program made the curves jump out. It took a couple minutes.
"Thatís an interesting approach," Dr. McDermott said. "Itís not the way that I would have expected you to go about it, but itís certainly valid. You must know a little about AutoCAD."
"Iíve been working with it for years," Jon replied. "It looked like it might have a possibility of telling us what we wanted to know."
"Good point," the professor nodded. "If you have a tool available to you that you know well, itís best to use it. There were several ways that the correct answer could have been worked out, but you seem to have found a good shortcut. Excellent work, Ms. Blythe, Mr. Chladek. Now, letís examine some of the other ways the correct answer could have been derived."
It took half an hour to do the wrapup, and it was an interesting half hour. Jon and Tanisha saw several points they had missed, and a couple of them made the two feel really stupid Ė but then, they were well ahead of the rest of the class, which had missed even more. In the end, they got the only two "A" grades awarded; much of the class got somewhat lower grades, more reflecting the process theyíd attempted, rather than the final results, and about a third of the class flunked, from turning in papers that made no sense at all.
Needless to say, they left the classroom with a great feeling of victory. "Tanisha, I think we need to celebrate," Jon said after the class. "Got any ideas?"
"We could go to Starbucks again, I suppose," she shrugged, "But it would be nice to come up with something else."
Jon glanced up, and noticed a hand-drawn and Xeroxed poster on the wall, announcing a concert on campus that evening, a student doing a required presentation: Nola Johnson Ė Lady Sings the Blues. "What about that?" he asked. "Do blues work for you?"
"Works just fine, if itís old-time stuff," she smiled. "It wonít cost us anything to find out."
That evening, after dinner in the cafeteria, they walked across the campus to the concert. It was in the fine arts building, and it was a long walk, but it was a nice evening for February, unlike the cold chills and snow of St. Louis or Chicago at the same time of year. The singer proved to be pretty good, nearly professional quality. She was a white girl, but she sang with a lot of soul, accompanied by another student at the piano. He wasnít quite as good, but it was a wonderful performance overall, and both of them agreed it was a shame that only a handful of people had shown up for it.
"Take that same performance, put it in some smoky club some place, and it would be something else," Jon said as they started the long walk back to the dorm through the cool darkness of the evening. "Not that Iíve ever done anything like that, but I can imagine it."
"Well, me too," Tanisha agreed. "I could just about close my eyes and get a little homesick. We had people in the choir who could sing like that. Thatís pretty close to the spirituals we used to have in church."
"You miss that, donít you?" he asked.
"Yeah, I do," she admitted. "There really isnít much else I miss about it. Letís face it, I grew up as a preacherís daughter and I heard enough of that stuff to burn me out. I donít miss the politics and the hate and the hypocrisy, but I do miss the music and I miss the chance to sing."
"Why donít you sing something?" Jon suggested. "Iíll bet you have a pretty good voice."
"Itís not that good," she shrugged. "Itís just something I enjoy. But, all right." She thought for a moment, then started in on an old spiritual:
"Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna lay down my sword and shield
Down by the riverside
Ainít gonna study war no more."
"Hey, thatís not bad," Jon smiled.
"Why donít you join in?" she said. "Thereís a bunch of other verses, but if you just join in on the ĎDown by the riversideí line, I can do the lead."
"Well, all right," he said. "Iíll warn you, I canít carry a tune in a bucket."
"Gonna talk with the Prince of Peace
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Down by the riverside
Gonna talk with the Prince of Peace
Down by the riverside,
Ainít gonna study war no more."
"Try to get it a little lower," she suggested. "Letís try another verse."
Jon would never be a singer like Tanisha. He really had a dead ear, but he could sort of fake it a little with her guidance Ė and besides, it was just fun to walk along singing together, feeling good about being together. Down by the Riverside carried them a good way across campus, and a ways off it, to a nearby coffee shop.
Over a cup of indescribably exotic coffee, Jon commented, "Considering how non-religious my family is, it does seem strange to be singing a spiritual with you. But, hey, itís fun. That made this evening kind of special."
"I thought so, too," she agreed. "Weíre going to have to keep our eyes open for more concerts like that. I guess even engineering nerds like us need a little culture once in a while."
"Yeah, I guess," Jon nodded. "This has been such a good day, such a good evening, that itís going to be hard to let it go."
"Me, too," she agreed. "Any ideas?"
"Iíve got the network version of ĎDuke Nukem IIí on my laptop," Jon suggested. "Maybe we could get together, set up a peer to peer link and have a little shoot-em-up."
"I wish I could say that shoot-em-up computer games interested me," she said. "I think you have to be a guy to get off on them. We could try SimCity. Iíve got it on my desktop. My roomie was planning on going out clubbing tonight, so she probably wonít be back till the bars close."
"Works for me," he smiled.
It was fairly quiet up in her room. She turned on the computer to let it boot up and turned to Jon. "Thanks, Jon," she said, "Itís been a nice evening, and itís been good to be away from the school stuff for a while. But mostly, thanks for being a friend."
"Thanks to you, for the same reason," he said. "Having a friend around has helped with all the family hassles Iíve been having the last couple months."
"Same here," she agreed, and turned to take him in her arms, just as he eagerly took her in his. Their lips met, and this time, the kiss wasnít a share of victory, it was a share of friendship, and it went on for a long time. Somewhere in there, the computer screen saver blinked on, and they found themselves on her bed, arms still around each other, burning lips against burning lips, their hands exploring each otherís bodies a little. Some unknowable time later, she felt his hand up against her breast, and the touch of it through her heavy sweatshirt felt wonderful, even if muted.
After a while, with growing excitement she took his hand and guided it up under her shirt. She could feel his hand on her breast much better now through the thin fabric that remained, and he could feel its warmth and softness. Feeling rather daring, he reached one hand around behind her, and she could feel him fiddling with the catch to the brassiere, but she made no move to stop him. She felt it come loose, and with growing excitement facing the thrill of the unknown and the forbidden, she felt his hand now directly on the bare skin of her breast, still discreetly covered by the sweat shirt, and felt a thrill go up her spine at the touch of his fingers playing with the hard, sensitive nubbin of one of her nipples. It was just about the most exciting thing sheíd ever felt, heíd ever felt Ė flirting with the forbidden, the wonderful.
It might have gone farther, but it didnít. Both of them somehow sensed that theyíd pushed each other about as far down that road as they dared go this evening, and maybe even a little too far. It was fun, sure Ė but there were obvious dangers in getting serious.
"My God," Tanisha breathed shyly after theyíd pulled apart a little, and just lay side by side, belly to belly on the bed, kissing a little and talking a little. "Do you realize that my father or my brother would blow sky high if they ever thought Iíd even kissed a white guy, let alone gone further?"
"Yeah," he said, "Probably about as high as my dad would blow up if he knew Iíd ever kissed a black girl. Maybe even more spectacularly. Iíd be right out on the street with Crystal, for sure."
"Thank God my family is in St. Louis, and yours is in Chicago," Tanisha admitted. "That might be a safe enough distance. But Jon, itís so good to have you for a friend, right now especially, that itís worth it."
"Yeah," he agreed. "After all the time I spent being a nerdy guy who no girl would have anything to do with, itís really nice to have a girlfriend."
"It may be better to be a nerdy girl whoís finally found a boyfriend," she smiled. "Jon, I donít know whatís going to happen with us, but I donít want to quit."
"Me, either," he said. "At least Atlanta is pretty far from our families. I guess weíll just have to wait and see what happens when it happens, and cross that bridge when we get to it."
She didnít reply, at least verbally, but her lips on his said about all that needed to be said.