Calculating Romance

It was not quite right to say Jessica hated tourists, though she often told people she did. No one believed her if only because she continued to live in Ptown even though she had been offered jobs elsewhere. The prime evidence that her actions didn’t match her words was that she had chosen to work in a resort town where less than ten percent of the summer population were full time residents.

Furthermore, everyone knew she didn’t avoid all contact with tourists. On the contrary, for the past seven years Jessica had pursued passionate, very public affairs with summer visitors. These men were all part of a curated set regardless of their race or ethnicity and irrespective of whether they were straight or bi. All were square-jawed, big-shouldered guys with names like Kayden, Jackson, or Tyler. They might be lawyers, construction workers, doctors, or basketball coaches, but each would leave Ptown after seven days of thrilling romance with broken hearts and sad eyes. Jessica, on the other hand, would redouble her efforts at work, refreshed and feeling her physical and emotional needs had been met for the season. 

Tourists did get on her nerves, however. She was bothered that they thought Tuesdays were perfect nights to get plastered because they, unlike her, were on vacation. Nor did she like the drunk packs of bachelorettes demanding attention, and sometimes even money, from everyone they passed. Hating the randomness of high season, Jessica preferred the predictable solitude of the town on a cold January morning to the hectic crowds on muggy August afternoons. She would get particularly annoyed with tourists when she was in a rush going to The Stellwagen Institute’s boathouse on MacMillan Wharf from their offices on Bradford Street and a group was stalled in her way discussing whether they should get lunch or visit another tee shirt shop. Jessica had organized her life to parallel the way she did science: she was objective and methodical in everything from conducting multiple regression analysis on complex data sets to picking her summer boyfriends. Tourists disrupted her well thought out plans.

She was a rare bird who had moved to Massachusetts from Florida rather than the other way around. When Jessica first came north to go to college, she had been an optimistic innocent who had never seen snow other than in a movie, and that first winter when the Charles River froze terrified her. But she grew to like the cold and learned to appreciate the short New England summers. She applied to MIT because she had wanted to be a rocket scientist ever since her parents had taken her to Cape Canaveral to watch a launch. But after a spring class on ocean science she took as a diversion from her heavy math load her freshman year, she applied for an internship with The Stellwagen Institute for Coastal Studies, and a dozen years later Dr. Jessica Galster, PhD was a Senior Researcher overseeing a twenty-million-dollar research portfolio. Her projects included being the Principal Investigator on a one-hundred-person global team creating mathematical models of intertidal transport of sand, using digitized satellite imagery to document the impact of rising sea levels on Cape Cod wetlands, and helping newbies at The Institute decide where to go to dinner. Despite her heavy workload and tendency to overdo her nerdiness, she had completely integrated herself into the pulse of the town. Between her striking good looks, her hair was a deep shade of brown and her habit of swimming along the breakwater almost every morning regardless of the temperature had rendered her body flawless, and her happy and friendly attitude, her guileless grin could make a cynic smile, just about everyone in town knew and liked her. Ptown accepts people flaws and all. 

One sunny June late afternoon, it had taken her nearly a half hour to make the trip across the Lands End Saloon to the jukebox and back, not because the floor skews so violently that it’s hard to walk, though that slant often trips up drunk patrons, but because she paused a dozen times to say hello. As was usual for that time of the year, a good chunk of the town was there for drinks and gossip, meaning not only could Jessica entertain her colleagues, but she also accomplished several items on her to do list. She stopped to give a hug of encouragement to Bernie, a retired fisherman who was recovering from shoulder surgery, and again thanked his wife Rose for the kale soup recipe she had shared. Jessica told Gert she would definitely be attending the Stop Anti-Trans Violence rally in front of Town Hall Gert was organizing for next week, and reminded Ibrihim, a children’s book author, that she still had that small bookshelf he had promised to take. After these and other conversations, Jessica ended up back at her table as fresh as if she had just stepped out for a morning walk. 

As the only female among the dozen year-round academic staff, Jessica made a point to befriend the women researchers who came to The Institute each summer. To help them settle in, she had taken them to The Lands End Saloon to have beers and give them the official, unofficial guide to straight female Provincetown. “The men at the Arts Center are poets and artists, so if you are after a sensitive kind of guy, head to Pearl Street,” she smiled as she remembered her summer fling with Owen, a visiting sculptor with big hands and impressive shoulders, back in 2018. “Go to a reading or opening and you’ll have your pick of men with heavy dark glasses and skimpy chin hair.” She thought about Payton, a shaggy, pencil thin guitarist from 2019. “The rock and rollers can be found at the bars across from Town Hall. Hang out there if you want guys with a little scruff on them. Just remember to wear your Doc Martins.” Then there was Jamal, Mr. 2016. Jessica smiled as she thought about his habit of giving investment advice while lying naked in bed. “The Bay View gets a more upscale, sophisticated crowd,” she wistfully said before she recalled Jamal had a wife, “Though half the men flirting with you are married. You must go check out the guys at the Thursday night underwear party at The Maroon Bar. They are fabulously handsome and incredibly well built, but keep in mind they are all gay. Here at The L.E., as we affectionately call this place, you’ll find all types of men from fishermen to biotech millionaires. Don’t judge them by their looks, though I always do.” They all laughed because they thought she was kidding. 

There was still enough sunlight coming through The L.E.’s big front windows to brighten up the bar so that its collection of oddities on its walls could be made out in detail. In just their corner, for example, was a faded photograph of an old fishing boat with its crew celebrating a successful catch with cigars; a flyer advertising New Year’s Eve 1977 at The Barn that featured a seminude man dressed as a faun; a framed note signed by Harry Kemp, the self-proclaimed poet of the dunes, promising to pay his bar tab; keys from a hotel that had closed in 1962; and a set of handcuffs that legend says mobster Whitey Bulger left behind after a one of his stays at The Sun and Sand. 

“And where are the beautiful, intelligent single women in this town?” interrupted a man at the table next to them. He had caught Jessica eyeing him as he tightly held on to his beer to keep it from sliding off the severely titled table he was sitting at. Given the bit of gray in his otherwise jet-black hair, she judged him to be about forty. He wasn’t tall, but then, neither was Jessica. He was her type, however. He looked like the kind of a guy who would recite Mary Oliver poetry while fixing her flat tire.

“You’re looking at the cream of the crop here,” she joked as she began to mentally apply her criteria for a summer fling. “Julia is married, so she’s off limits, as is Joan, who is engaged. But the rest of us are single. Connie is not only pretty, she was awarded a McArthur Fellowship when she was but eighteen, and Fran is on the tenure track at Hopkins. And we have three post docs here: Georgina, Frida, and La’vern. Oh, I am Jessica,” she added as if it was an afterthought. Then to keep the conversation going, she asked, “What brings you guys to Ptown?”

 “The little bro,” he gestured towards a man who looked nearly identical to him, “is running in tomorrow’s Outer Cape Road Race and we’ve come to cheer him on. Allow me to introduce us. I’m Matt, the bro is Nate, and these are our buddies Tico and Jack. Poor Nate has to behave himself tonight but the rest of us want to see what this burg has to offer.” Jessica could tell Matt was infatuated with her. She preferred her men to be a little hard to get as she enjoyed a challenge but was willing to make an exception for him. Jessica liked to boast she was inflexible in her wants, but in reality, she knew when to compromise.

The two groups merged as they went to dinner at The Plaza restaurant across the street and then caught Luna’s early show at The Standish Hotel. Halfway through her sensuous cover of Bésame Mucho, Luna blew a kiss at Jessica as she glanced at Matt to indicate she thought he was handsome. Jessica had already fallen for him, but Luna’s approval was welcomed as one more criterion he had to meet to advance to summer romance consideration. Eventually, everyone else went their own way leaving Jessica and Matt to themselves as they walked to her East End home. There being no privacy in Ptown, just about everyone knew Jessica invited Matt inside for a nightcap. 

The rest of the weekend was a blur of laughs and lovemaking. Jessica joined Matt to cheer on his brother, he came in a respectable fifth in his age group, and then the couple spent the afternoon together lost in a fog of blushes and giggles. They were part of a group of eight for dinner at The Pot, and then they went to hear Jonboy perform at The Sun and Sand. As was the tall, boyishly blond piano player’s custom, he sang She Blinded Me With Science when he saw Jessica walk in. Though Jonboy liked to wear Elton John inspired glasses and was obsessively devoted to Dolly Parton, Jessica trusted his taste. When Jonboy nodded approvingly towards Matt, Jessica was all set to launch her summer romance even though the solstice was still over a week away.

“I want to see you again, but I can’t come down next weekend because it’s Father’s Day,” was how Matt broke the news about his ex-wife and two kids, Zack and Maddy. She didn’t care about Matt’s past; she was too busy being devastated that he was breaking up with her even before they had a weeklong relationship. She assumed that he was just using this commitment as an excuse for his not seeing her again.  She figured that Matt, like all men, had his own test that she had failed. She was too far gone not to be upset.  

To her surprise, however, Matt returned to Ptown the weekend after Father’s Day, and he spent the long Fourth of July weekend with her as well because his ex took the kids to her parents’ cabin in Maine. On Friday, the couple went gallery hopping followed by dinner and then another visit to Jonboy’s piano bar. He acted shocked, opening his eyes wide in mock surprise that Matt was still with her as he serenaded them with Maybe This Time. On Saturday, Jessica and Matt took the shuttle out to Long Point to spend the afternoon making out on the beach there. The next day they rode bikes on the trails in the National Seashore with Jessica impressed that Matt could pedal up the steep slopes of the dunes, another box checked. When they were back at Jessica’s, Matt asked, “Can I bring the kids here next weekend? It’s my turn to have them and I’d love to show them this town.” For the first time since she moved to Lands End, children crossed the threshold of Jessica’s condo. 

“You’re a nice lady,” Maddy told Jessica while Matt and Zack were out on the deck changing the grill’s propane tank. “I can see why Daddy likes you so much.” Jessica was tired from taking the kids to the Pilgrim Monument Museum, Zack had insisted on spending more than an hour in the Wampanoag exhibit, and her arms were sore from the four of them kayaking on the harbor. But Maddy’s words forced Jessica to focus on the state of her relationship with Matt. She wasn’t in control of things and that made her uneasy. 

“Face it, honey,” Luna had agreed to a midweek lunch at the dumpling place in the center of town to help Jessica sort out her feelings. Though Luna couldn’t have been more than forty, she had eyes that seemed to have accumulated hundreds of years of experience. She had been in Ptown longer than anyone could remember, and everyone sought out her opinion on matters of the heart. “You are a different person now that you have been spending time with Matt.”

“I’m sorry,” This confirmed she wasn’t herself. It also raised the question of just who she was.

“I mean different in a positive way.” Luna was tall and dark, reflecting her Cuban origin. As she picked at her food, Luna radiated peace and tranquility. “You used to always be rushing around. Running to your office, scrambling to meet someone at The L.E. for drinks. You had your agendas, your deadlines that you used to keep the world distant from your inner self. Now look at you. Rumor has it you spent a couple of hours helping Ms. Rodrigues sort out her sewing box and I saw you and Matt making out in the middle of Commercial Street last weekend. Honey, love looks good on you.” Luna smiled. Jessica admitted that she and Matt had been standing in front of the Aegean Gallery which is always loudly playing Sinatra from speakers pointed out to the street. When Come Fly With Me came on, they grabbed each other to share a long kiss. Time stopped as traffic backed up for blocks. It being Provincetown, no one honked to disturb their happiness for a blissful moment. Then reality rushed back in as a hundred inpatient drivers angrily hit their horns at the same time.  

Jessica appreciated Luna’s confirmation of what she had been feeling but was afraid to acknowledge. “I don’t know. I wasn’t planning on falling for him. My life isn’t set up for that.” 

“Don’t be so methodical and calculating,” Luna told her. “If your instincts are telling you that all is well, then don’t let your brain overrule your heart.”

Jessica decided the best way to handle Matt was to live in the moment and not think about the bigger picture. In that way, she saw him nearly every week through September including staying with him when she visited Boston for work. But she never thought about the future, that was off limits. Then Matt forced the issue.

“My ex has been offered a job at Mid Cape Hospital in Hyannis,” Matt told her minutes after settling in one Thursday night. “She wants to move the kids to a house she’s found in Wellfleet that’s just a bit over fifteen miles from here.”

“What do you want to do?” Jessica was terrified. She had not predicted this scenario. She had no plan, no prepared answer. Her statistics background had nothing to say about entering into a long-term relationship; her science training was useless regarding the utility of romance. To her surprise, however, she discovered that her mind was nimble. She could adapt to anything Matt proposed because she wanted her happiness to continue. 

“I can work from anywhere; my job is mostly online. I thought maybe I could move to Provincetown to be with you.” 

The next Friday night when Jessica and Matt walked into the Piano Bar at The Sun and Sand with a big engagement ring on her finger, Jonboy, ever the showman, played the giddiest version of Beyonce’s Crazy in Love ever heard in Lands End.