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Small Talk

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Hands enter her field of vision, cupping loosely in the air around hers, making it much easier to achieve that first drag of nicotine. Rachel looks up over her silver blue exhale and remembers, finally.  

“Cosima Niehaus,” she says with the cigarette still between her lips.  

The other woman, Cosima, grins at her. “Yeah, that’s me. Took you a minute,” she wags a finger playfully. “We met at the DYAD shindig a few months ago.”


Rachel takes in the festive atmosphere of the ballroom, which surely has more to do with the open bar than the horrendous decorations. Garland and glossy ornamental balls of various colors are tacked to the walls along with rows of bright green (fake) pine boughs. All around her people are talking, in twos and threes and small, circled groups.

Somewhere near the bar, Paul is laughing in one of those groups, standing beside a blonde woman almost as tall as he is. Her curls bounce as she tells a joke of her own, Rachel assumes, and everyone laughs.

Rachel does not laugh much. Rachel has been dating Paul for nearly two months and already she is bored. Rachel stands straight and wears expensive heels and expensive skirts and expensive blazers and every word she deigns to breathe is laced with expense reports and old money made new. Her adoptive father is a scientist. Rachel is more interested in languages than in biology. Rachel is interested in languages (she speaks eight of them fluently) and, as such, she is more suited for the business world. Rachel finds ways to get what she wants.

Paul might be something she wants. Rachel hasn’t decided quite yet. He’s good in bed, at least.

Rachel sighs and sips her drink. She stands straight and sips her martini like she has been raised and bred and broken to. Rachel does what is expected of her, but she finds ways to get what she wants. Rachel wants some excitement, but excitement is uncertain. If there is one thing in the world Rachel hates, it is uncertainties.

It is a certainty that Rachel will graduate at the top of her class when she finishes her business degree. Rachel was top of her class in undergrad. It is a certainty that the international business division of the conglomerate her adoptive father works for (he is in R&D, of course) has already made an offer to her. It is a certainty that Rachel will turn her impressive linguistic abilities to her advantage. She would guess that her starting salary will be $10,000 higher than the initial offer. Rachel would guess, if she was the sort of person who takes chances. She isn’t, not yet.

Rachel stands alone and radiates nothing other than confidence and class and expense. Rachel recognizes many faces around the room. Rachel grew up knowing their faces. They work for the DYAD Corporation. Soon, Rachel will, too. Rachel will succeed at the expense of those who dare to underestimate her.


The cheerful greeting draws Rachel out of her musings. Rachel turns her head and sees the woman standing next to her, wearing glasses and green tights and a dress that is entirely too festive. Rachel is nothing if not polite.

“Hello,” she tilts her head enough to pass as a nod and starts to turn away again.

The woman brushes her arm against Rachel’s in a manner that is entirely too familiar. “Some party, huh? A ‘who’s who’ of scientists and suits.”

Rachel hums, unable to argue with the description.

“Which are you?” The other woman tilts her head to the side, smiling lazily at Rachel. She sips her wine in a way that is entirely too… unhurried. As if she expects this conversation to last beyond pleasantries.

“A suit, I suppose,” Rachel looks away, but she is not dismissive about it. That would be rude.

“I figured,” the woman smiles wider. “I’m in biology.” She offers this without invitation, seemingly without a care whether or not Rachel cares.

Rachel turns to face her and extends her hand, “Rachel Duncan.”

“Cosima Niehaus, the dreadlocked evo-devo hippie who is somehow top of her class at the University of Minnesota,” Cosima’s grin edges toward something nasty.

Rachel knows the feeling: of being confused for someone less intelligent, less deserving, less. Rachel finds it odd that this woman, this stranger, would share something so personal so… freely.

“International trade and patents,” Rachel gives back, because even she can recognize a kindred spirit when she sees one. “I speak eight languages.” She looks around the room again, remembering that she doesn’t care if this fact impresses anyone except the ones deciding how much money to pay her for the skill.

Cosima whistles under her breath. “Nice, dude. Speaking of nice, see that curly haired chick over there, the tall, blonde one?” Cosima leans closer to Rachel and points with her wine glass.

Rachel sees Paul standing next to the woman in question.

“She’s in immunology. Smart as hell and damn fine. And French,” Cosima breaks off her words with a noise that is entirely too predatory. Her dark eyes flick to Rachel’s from behind her glasses. “How about a kiss for luck, Ms. Linguistics?”

“Excuse me?” Rachel is caught off guard, even though her posture is quite a bit more straight than her sex drive.

Cosima points above them with the hand unoccupied by carrying alcohol to her lips. She waits as Rachel looks and see a sprig of mistletoe. She winks when Rachel looks back at her.

“That is….” Rachel sneers, quickly hiding it with a (large) sip of vodka.

“Tacky?” Cosima giggles into her wine.

“Yes,” Rachel agrees.

“Totally. So, how about it?” Cosima tilts her head again and smiles in a way that shows off her canine teeth entirely too much.

Rachel looks around the room again. No one is paying them any attention. Least of all her boyfriend or the woman Cosima intends to speak to. Rachel raises both eyebrows at Cosima and feels her lips twist into a small smile.

Cosima’s lips taste like wine and how science fits unknowable things neatly into the realm of human understanding.

“Good luck,” Rachel feels like laughing. She doesn’t, not yet, but the feeling is there. She wants a cigarette.

“Thanks,” Cosima winks again as she walks away.

Rachel knows eight languages, but she finds that her extensive vocabulary is entirely inadequate to form an answer that feels correct and substantial when Paul asks her later how her night was and if she enjoyed the party. He was only there because Rachel was invited.