The Beauty Scale Malfunction
By Laura Schiller
Based on: The Big Bang Theory
"Excuse me? I'm Amy Farrah Fowler. Are you Howard Wolowitz?"
Howard's heart sank into his child-sized sneakers as he turned to meet his latest blind date.
Howard, you're a very attractive man, Raj had told him the other night as they scrolled through their dating site profiles. But you must admit your charm is a bit … unconventional. Maybe you should, you know, open your mind a bit when it comes to beauty.
You mean lower our standards? Howard had asked.
Dude, remember that 200-pound Sailor Moon cosplayer? I'd say our standards are plenty low. Hey, check out this one, she's a neuroscientist. She must be really smart. And she loves Neil Diamond, just like you!
But what about that friend of Penny's that Leonard set me up with? he'd argued wistfully. What was her name again, Bernice? She was smart and pretty.
Yeah, and you had nothing to talk about, remember? Leonard says he almost fell asleep at that double date, he was so bored. See, nerdy girls can't afford to be boring. Their personality is all they've got going for them. Just like us.
Speak for yourself, Raj, he'd grumbled, but had sent the e-mail to Amy Farrah Fowler nonetheless. The result was standing right in front of him.
The neuroscientist was every bit as plain as her profile picture: limp hair, thick glasses, a nose like a hatchet, and a short plump body wrapped in layers of clothes that looked like they belonged to her grandmother. She didn't register as more than a three on his personal beauty scale; a four at most.
On the plus side, though, she had to be packing C-cups under that cardigan, with a tushie to match under the ankle-length corduroy skirt. And at least she had a pleasant voice. He was picky about women's voices.
"That's me," he said, giving her what he hoped was a winning smile. "Nice to meet you."
"Before we proceed any further, I must inform you that any form of physical contact, including coitus, is off the table."
"Wow. Huh. Okay." Most women at least waited for him to make a move before shooting him down point-blank, but he had to appreciate her honesty. And it beat getting slapped across the face, which had happened to him more than once. "Wanna get a drink?"
"Tepid water, please."
"I'll have a cocoa. Whipped cream, extra sprinkles."
The barista gave them both an bemused look, but Howard ignored it. He was going to need all the sugar he could get to survive this afternoon.
"Our profiles indicate that the interests we have in common are … " Amy took her phone out of her shabby leather purse and squinted at it like a nervous student reading her flash cards. "Literature, science and music, is that correct?"
"Sounds like it, yeah."
"Have you read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales?"
Was she working through the list on their profiles in order? He couldn't decide if that was charming or bizarre. "Nope. I tried once, but …. " He mimed an explosion around his head, indicating the massive headache he'd gotten from plowing through the first pages of the medieval poem. "Honestly, I'm amazed that anyone still reads that stuff."
"Thank you," she said demurely, as if he'd given her a compliment.
"I did read Lord of the Rings, though. All three volumes. Loved it."
"I don't care for speculative fiction. Change of subject: what is your current field of study as an engineer?"
Howard considered being offended at the way she dismissed a masterpiece of literature, but she listened to his explanation with such steady attention, and asked such intelligent questions, that he warmed to her more and more. He was so used to Sheldon and the others putting him down, claiming he wasn't a real scientist, that he'd almost forgotten what it felt like to be treated with respect.
"You're a neurobiologist, right? So … what are you working on right now?"
"Just recently, I participated in a study of human sexuality. I achieved 137 orgasms via brain stimulation alone."
"Oh wow," Howard breathed, sincerely impressed. "I'd kill to have that job. I've been working on designs for a robot girlfriend for years, but that sounds so much more efficient."
She surveyed him impassively, and he wondered if this was about to be the kind of date that ended in a slap. Instead, she only said: "You know, I could lend you a modern translation of the Canterbury Tales. Someone with your high libido might appreciate them. Some of them are quite … earthy."
"Are they? Hmm … Tell you what, I'll try it – if you try Lord of the Rings."
A faint flush spread across her cheeks, as if she were remembering an especially dirty scene by Chaucer. She took a sip from her tepid water, and something about the shape of her lips around the straw made Howard wish he wasn't wearing his extra-tight jeans.
Maybe his rating of her had been a little harsh earlier. She was totally a five.
"Yes, Ma … I know, Ma … I should be home by seven, you got any of that turkey left? … Aw, seriously? Not even a drumstick? … How many times do I gotta tell you, Ma? You don't need to yell when you're on the phone. I can still hear you. THE WHOLE CITY CAN HEAR YOU!"
Howard slammed the End Call button, trembling with mortification as he realized how loud his own voice had become. There would be hell to pay when he got home, of course, but he was too irritated to care. Didn't she know by now how important it was for him to make a good impression on a date? Didn't she know the very existence of her future grandchildren depended on her not embarrassing him in front of women?
He glanced sheepishly around the café. The cashier ducked behind the coffee machine and switched it on, producing a roar of grinding beans that would have been much more welcome a few seconds ago.
"You live with your mother?" asked Amy.
He braced himself for the raised eyebrow, the thinly veiled contempt, the oh-really-at-your-age? or, worse yet, the I-knew-it.
"How practical," she said instead, with an approving nod. "Free food and lodging are difficult to come by in this economy."
"Really? You think so?" He sat up a little straighter in his chair. He had been called many things in his life before, but never practical. It was oddly flattering.
"Although if you always speak to each other in that tone, the resulting stress and its effect on your life expectancy might balance out any benefits."
Aaand there's the other shoe dropping. I knew it, thought Howard, but the backhanded nature of the compliment didn't disturb him as much as it might have done. He'd been hanging out with Sheldon much too long. Besides, the girl had a point.
He made a face. "Ugh, tell me about it. She drives me crazy."
"It appears to be mutual, from what I heard."
"Hey, you know what would really push my mom's buttons?" Nothing like a wild attempt at flirting to change the subject. He hitched his chair forward, leaned closer across the table, and batted his eyelashes at her. "Bringing a shiksa home."
"Are you intending to use me as an object of adolescent rebellion?"
He was about to stammer out a flustered denial – until he saw the delighted sparkle of her eyes behind the glasses.
"Awesome," she said, grinning. "I've always wanted to be the bad girl."
The grin transformed her entire face. The stern lines around her mouth vanished, her nearsighted eyes turned into shining half-moons, and as she tilted her head, the fluorescent lights struck golden highlights in her brown hair.
She was a seven. No, an eight. And he was definitely taking her home someday.
"I'd still be living with my own mother in New Jersey if CalTech hadn't offered me such a prestigious research position," Amy continued. "I miss her cooking. What I don't miss," she added grimly, "Is getting locked in the Sin Closet. I suppose, on balance, it is a good thing I moved out."
"Um … excuse me … did you say Sin Closet?"
Howard felt chills down his spine as she explained, with a brusque matter-of-factness that made it even more disturbing, that her mother was a religious fanatic who used to lock her in the closet for such things as reading a Harlequin novel or eating a banana tip-first. No wonder the girl was nervous about physical contact.
Part of him wanted to hustle out of this café and never look back – didn't he have enough crazy to deal with among his own friends and family? – but the better part of him demanded he stay put.
"I'm … sorry," Amy said awkwardly, swirling her straw around her empty glass. "You look uncomfortable. My colleagues tell me I have a tendency to overshare my personal life. Is this an instance of oversharing?"
"Honestly, yeah, it is. But hey," he hurried to say as her face fell, "You're talking to a guy who admitted to building a robot girlfriend in public. I'm like the king of oversharing. No judgment here."
"You're very kind."
"Also … " He cleared his throat, wanting to say something reassuring, but not really sure where to start. Diplomacy wasn't his forte, but Your mom sounds evil didn't strike even him as particularly helpful. Nor did I'm so jealous of you for getting your own place, because I'm not sure I could.
"It must've taken a lot of guts for you to get out of that house," he said. "You should be proud."
"I try to be." She adjusted her glasses and frowned at the framed photograph of coffee beans on the wall opposite their seats. "Some days, it works better than others."
Her hands were clenched into fists on the table, looking very white against the dark polished wood.
"Hey, uh … I know you said physical contact was off the table, but … d'you mind … ?" He was never at a loss for words around women – it was finding the right words that was the problem – but he had rarely felt as tongue-tied as he did while his hand hovered above hers.
"Oh!" She looked about as flustered as he felt. "Are you, um … would that be a courtship ritual, or an expression of sympathy?"
"How about both?"
"Okay." That deep, confident voice of hers got downright squeaky when she was nervous. It was adorable.
Her hand, when he touched it, was rough and dry from too many sterilizations at the lab. Her nails were clipped short and unpainted, and she had scars that might have come from her experiments with animals. It was the hand of a woman who worked hard, who didn't care how she looked, and who wasn't used to being touched. The opposite of sexy, he would have said.
Until she turned her hand palm-up and linked their fingers, and something clicked. He was an engineer. It was his job to recognize when two parts fit together, and in this case, they certainly did.
"Hey, guys?" The barista had shuffled up behind them without them noticing. "Excuse me, but it's closing time. Or it was, ten minutes ago."
Already? Howard started to argue, but the facts were against him: the sun had gone down, all the chairs except theirs were standing upside-down on top of the tables, and the daily specials chalkboard was wiped clean. The lanky young man in the green apron was watching them with the same look of patient suffering that Stuart wore when he had to kick Sheldon out of the comic book store.
"Oops." Howard grinned. "Sorry, buddy. Guess we lost track."
As they both got up, Amy slinging her purse across her shoulders, Howard realized they were still holding hands.
"Now it's off the table," said Amy, looking down with wide-eyed fascination. "Literally."
He could never resist a girl who made such terrible puns. That put her at a solid nine.
"The night's still young," he said, tipping his face up to inhale the fast-food-and-gasoline smell of the street as if it were a rare wine. "I don't know about you, but I don't feel like going home yet. Tell me something you've always wanted to do in high school, but were never allowed."
"Dissect a popular girl's brain to find out what made her so mean?" Her deadpan delivery made it somewhat unclear whether she was joking.
"Eep! Uh, tempting, but how about something less illegal?"
She looked around at the bars and restaurants, the tattoo-and-piercing parlor with the drawing of an elaborate red heart in the store window, the psychic's consultation room with the neon outline of a crystal ball, the laughing, drunk couples and friends strolling down the sidewalk. Her gaze settled on the last place he would have picked: a narrow, dimly lit bar with a flickering sign that read KARAOKE.
"I know." She tugged him along after her, orthopedic shoes hitting the pavement with proud determination. "Can you sing?"
"Not sure. The question is, will I sing? And the answer is: You bet your sweet tuchus, I will."
That was how they ended up on a tiny stage, dazzled by spotlights, in a room that smelled like beer and pot, bellowing out the lyrics to "Sweet Caroline"over a roaring crowd and loving every second of it.
Amy's mouth was wide open, her skin gleaming with sweat, her hair flying as she tossed her head, her whole body bouncing to the beat. She was a force of nature. He had never seen anyone so happy, or so free.
Hot damn, he thought. I can't rate her. She just broke my beauty scale.
For once in his career, he was truly, deeply grateful to have his measurements screwed up.