The Sizzle Paradox by Lily Menon (Excerpt)

Chapter One


My best friend is a serial killer. It’s the only explanation for the unconscionable mayhem that is his bedroom.

Okay, so scientifically speaking, that’s not accurate. There could be many explanations for the mess, and his being a serial killer is probably pretty low on the list. I’d have to check the exact statistics. My point, though, is that the disarray makes it look like his room is the scene of a macabre and violent murder. But in spite of that initial impression, Kian is sleeping peacefully, buried under the covers, snoring softly in the dim light from the closed curtains.

I jump onto his bed, right on top of his sleeping form, and bounce a few times. It’s okay, he’s a big guy. He can take it. To my point: He doesn’t even move, not even when an avalanche of chemistry textbooks and notes slides off and onto the floor, and a leaf from his fiddle-leaf fig plant lands with a sad plop on top of it all. “Yo, Montgomery.” I ruffle his curly, dark brown hair—always thick and luxuriant, thanks to his half-Indian heritage, no matter what products he does or doesn’t put into it, unlike my own fine strands. “It’s nine. Do you think you might want to, I don’t know, venture out into the land of the living?”

He grunts and mumbles something almost coherent.

I frown at the top of his head, the only part of him that’s visible. “‘Jimmy’s steak is clean’? Who’s Jimmy? Why were you sampling his steak?”

With a mighty groan, Kian turns over, sending me flying backward. Grabbing my elbow, he pulls me up and sets me next to him. There are lines on his face and his thick eyebrows are all kinds of screwy. “I said, ‘Give me a break, LB.’” His voice is just a sleep-marinated growl.

I laugh. “Oh. So nothing about Jimmy or his steak at all?”

He palms my mouth to stop me from talking, his hand bigger than my entire face. He’s a walking veritable giant, but he’s my giant, so I let it go. “I went to bed, like, four hours ago.”

Pushing his hand off, I lie down next to him, my head on his broad chest as we both stare up at the ceiling fan on full blast. Kian is always hot. Probably because he’s, like, 90 percent muscle. Meanwhile, I’m already beginning to get goose bumps in my thin T-shirt and pajama shorts. “Were you working on your thesis?”

“Yep.” He can tell I’m cold, so he absentmindedly covers me with a corner of his blue plaid blanket. I snuggle in, immediately ten times cozier. “I need to get everything done. I defend in, what, two months?”

“It’s going to be great,” I reassure him, patting his giant head like he’s my faithful mastiff. “You’re the most brilliant environmental chemist I know.”

I can hear the laughter in his voice. “That would mean so much more if you knew any other environmental chemists.”

I snort but don’t say anything. We lie there in silence, listening to the traffic outside our decrepit apartment building, the hum of the fan inside. Kian is the only male specimen of our species—except my dad, but he doesn’t count—that I can do companionable silence with. Put me in front of any other dude and I turn into a tripping, panicking, wooden-mouthed idiot. But right now, I’m as relaxed as I’ll ever be. In this tiny, messy bedroom that looks like a patio garden and smells like soap and books and sounds like impatient New York traffic, I may as well be in a spa.

Naturally, I’m very aware that Kian is an exceptionally aesthetically pleasing male specimen. I’m not an oblivious robot. He looks like he belongs on a movie poster, starring opposite Zoey Deutch in a romantic comedy set in NYC at Christmas. He’d wear a black wool peacoat, his dark hair dusted with sparkling snowflakes, towering over the Christmas shoppers as he gazed at Zoey with warmth and adoration and passion simmering in his brown eyes. Who doesn’t want that?

Me. I don’t want that.

Because yes, all that’s very swoony, not gonna lie. But he’s also Kian Montgomery. My best friend. My partner in crime. The friend zone is where we both live and thrive. Take us out of it and we’d immediately perish, our insides mangled and crushed from being in an unfamiliar environment, like those deep-sea creatures that aren’t meant to ever see sunshine.

After a moment, Kian speaks. “So, I take it the date didn’t go well?”

Okay, contemplative moment shattered. I squeeze my eyes shut, feeling my cheeks warm. I should’ve known better than to think Kian would forget. “Why do you say that?” I make sure to keep my tone light.

“Because you’re in my room bothering me instead of making the dude pancakes or something?”

“Ugh. That’s so sexist.”

“Sexist? So are you telling me you’re not the cooking fiend I’ve known and been best friends with for the last seven years?”

“There’s a stack in the kitchen. And blueberry oatmeal, too,” I mumble, and then turn on my side to face him.

His eyes crinkle with laughter but he doesn’t do more than smile a little. “Mm-hmm.”

He waits. I wait. He waits. And then I break. With a sigh, I say, “Okay, okay. It didn’t go well. Par for the course for me as of late.”

Kian pats me on the shoulder and then puts both hands behind his head, his massive goalpost elbows sticking out on either side. He could impale horses with those. “What was wrong with this one?”

“I don’t know, dude. I mean, Paul’s so ridiculously hot. As you know.”

He scoffs. “How would I know? I saw him at the coffee place when you not so subtly pointed him out, and yeah, he’s muscular with straight teeth, but ‘ridiculously hot’? I don’t know about all that.”

I laugh and sit up, wrapping his blanket around my shoulders. It leaves him uncovered in just his sleep shorts, his tawny, well-muscled chest and abs exposed to the air, but he doesn’t complain. He’s probably already sweating. “Why are straight guys so reluctant to admit other guys are hot? Like, just say it. It’s not a ding on your manhood.”

Kian raises an eyebrow and says, deliberately, “I can say it. I’ll say it no problem.”

I make a go on, then expression.

Kian clears his throat. “Paul was … a bot.”

I quirk my mouth. “Really?”

“Paul had … crotch rot.”

I attempt to pinch his side, but he laughs, easily holding my wrists in one steel manacle of a hand. “Okay, okay,” he says finally, knowing I’m clearly not going to let him rest. “He was hot!”

I nod approvingly and sit back, and he releases my wrists. “See? Did it kill you to say that? Anyway, I have no idea what happened.” I pause and lean over Kian’s torso to reach the curtains, and, pushing some kind of fern that looks like it should only exist in the mountains of North Carolina aside, yank them open. The room floods with light and Kian hisses, as if he’s a vampire. I ignore his melodramatic attempts to get me to close the curtains and plunge us into gloom again.

When he’s able to speak like a normal human, Kian says, “So? How’d he rate on the SPS? You know you’re dying to tell me.”

The SPS—or the Sizzle Paradox Scale—is a scientific instrument I designed a couple years ago to rate my romantic and sexual partners. Measuring things using scientific instruments is second nature to me; in experimental psychology, if you can’t measure something, it doesn’t exist. And as a doctoral student with a barren social calendar, I have no boundaries between my work and personal life. Which is probably reason 3,456 I’m currently single.

I look down at the cars splashing through springtime puddles on the road below us and sigh. “It started out so promising. A 4 out of 5 on the pre-sex sexual chemistry index and the invitation to kiss portion.”

Kian raises his eyebrow. “Not bad.”

“Yeah. And then the actual kiss was a 3.”

He scrunches up his face. “Ooh.”

“Well, it got better … the hooking up was a 4 and the actual sex was a 4.”

Kian looks impressed. “Not bad.”

“Yeah, but get this. The postcoital communication? A 2. And that was me being generous.”

Kian’s mouth falls open with an audible pop. “A 2? Is that the lowest yet?”

“Yep.” I pull the blanket tighter around me, miserable as a cat in a rainstorm. Postcoital communication is what normal people call “cuddling”—you know, basking in the hazy glow, your head on your partner’s chest, talking about sweet nothings. “Paul was probably the hottest guy I’ve gone out with in months and he wasn’t horrible to talk to. I really thought this one had a shot at going somewhere. But it’s always something. If the sex is great, they bore me to tears. Or if we hit it off emotionally, the sex is tragic.”

“Man.” Kian appears lost in thought for a moment.

I squirm a little; he’s never judged me for not having been with a guy for more than three months (or thirty minutes, as the case may be), but I’m always afraid he’s going to start. I mean, I kinda judge me. I want a long-term relationship that glows with good health. I want it almost more than anything. But I just don’t seem to have what guys want and also, I’m probably a picky bitch.

“What was so bad about the postcoital communication part?” Kian pauses. “Also, can I just put in that the term ‘postcoital’ is disgusting?”

I snort and then shake my head. “After we finished, he burped.”

“Burped?” Kian screws up his nose. “Is the bar really that low out there?”

“Apparently.” I sigh. “But it’s not just that. I think the real reason we didn’t last past the night is, um…” I consider my next words, wondering how to say it delicately. And then I decide to just press on. This is one of the luxuries of living with Kian—I don’t have to watch my words around him.

Pulling a hand out from under my blanket shield, I curl a strand of my dark blond hair around my finger. “Actually, I think it’s because he’s an MFA student.”

“What?” Kian frowns at me and scratches the dark stubble on his cheek. Scritch scritch scritch. The sound of so many mornings spent dissecting a sucky date from the night prior. “You’re so picky.” It’s pretty normal for Kian to read my mind and echo my thoughts. We’ve been friends so long, it doesn’t even freak me out. “What’s wrong with being an MFA student? You’re a psych grad student; I’m an environmental chemistry grad student.”

I wave a hand and the blanket slips from one shoulder. “Not the student part—the MFA part. The entire time we were hooking up, I just kept thinking, what would we really have in common besides our shared interest in underground metal bands, anyway? He’d be, like, quoting Whitman at me and stuff, and I’d tell him … what? About the sexual chemistry exhibited by newts in the rain forest?”

Kian shrugs and sits up, propping his gigantic self against the wall behind him. Progress. At this rate, he’ll be out of his bed by lunchtime. “I mean, you could talk to him about sexual chemistry.” When I give him a dubious look, he adds, “In humans. That would probably be an aphrodisiac. You’re doing a literal Ph.D. on it, LB. Share some of that sexy knowledge.”

I pull my knees up and prop my chin on them. “You really think guys would find that sexy?”

He shrugs, the muscles in his upper shoulders rippling with the movement. If Kian weren’t so sweet, he’d be insufferable. “I would. You should try it next time.”

“Okay.” I nibble on my bottom lip as two fire trucks go blaring by, making Kian wince. Never a quiet moment in NYC. But I grew up here, so it doesn’t really bother me as much as it does him. “I will.” After a pause, I laugh a little, not meeting Kian’s eye. “Pretty weird that someone studying sexual fucking chemistry in committed romantic partners hasn’t had a committed romantic partner in a year and a half, huh?”

Suddenly, his big, warm hand is over my smaller, cold one. “You’ll find someone again. Let’s face it, it won’t be long before some other dude asks you out.” He pauses and when I look at him, he smiles his lopsided, I’m-evil grin that always means he’s up to no good. “There’s no accounting for taste, I guess.”

I pull my hand from under his and smack him. “Shut up.”

“Seriously, though. You’ll probably have another date by the end of the week. And that’s another chance to try. To finally crack the Sizzle Paradox, trademarked by one soon-to-be Dr. Bishop.”

“Yeah.” I pull the blanket in tighter, not saying what I’m really thinking. It’s not getting the dates that’s a problem for me; it’s having them turn into something strong and mutually enjoyable in the long term. And therein lies what I’ve coined the Sizzle Paradox: The more I’m into a guy—either for his mind or his body—the less chance we have at a healthy, committed relationship. Something always goes wrong. But why? Why can’t I find both sexual chemistry and love?

My entire thesis is devoted to studying how partners in successful relationships manage to keep both sexual and romantic chemistry alive. The reason I was admitted into my doctoral program is because I came up with a “revolutionary” way (that’s the word the Columbia psych department uses when speaking to study volunteers and, more importantly, sponsors) to research this in an objective fashion, rather than relying on self-reports from the couples, which can be unreliable.

With the help of the biotechnology doctoral students, I designed software that can analyze people’s brain activity using an fMRI machine to measure how strong their sexual and romantic attraction is to their partners. So, in real time, we can see the rate of sexual attraction and romantic love by showing the participant a picture of their significant other. No one’s done anything like that before.

The idea is that we then interview couples who score the highest on both measures to see what they’re doing right in their relationships. Once we find commonalities among thousands of couples, we can use that information to construct a sound framework for what makes a successful long-term relationship. Psychology has those frameworks now, of course, but they’re hypothetical, based on ephemeral feelings and subjective self-reports. This is the first time we’ve been able to verify the existence of a happy relationship using neuroscience.

It was an idea that excited me when I first got into the doc program. It would help thousands of couples. It would unmask the somewhat mysterious nature of sexual attraction and romantic love. We could take apart healthy relationships and see what made them tick and then I could tell the world about it. I was brimming with excitement.

And now, here we are, five years later and … let’s just say I’m struggling. Not because of the science; the science is solid and we’ve amassed a lot of data. It’s me. I’ve lost my mojo along the way.

See, although I have been in a couple of serious relationships over the last few years, I’ve experienced nothing even close to the emotional connection of the thousands of couples I’ve studied. Therefore, every time I sit down to analyze the data I’ve collected or write up my “expert opinion” on how couples can make their relationships stronger based on my study findings, I feel like a huge fraud. I’m no expert on committed couples. Why are people looking to me to tell them what to do? Most days, I want to hide under my desk at the lab and cry.

I look at Kian, ready to move on to other, more pleasant topics. “So, when’s Kiley coming over?”

He makes a face as he gets out of bed, stretching and lazily scratching his chest like a big, lumbering bear. “Yeah, that’s not a thing anymore.”

“What?” I throw a pillow at him. It bounces off his back and falls in a sad heap to the floor. “Since when?” I actually liked Kiley. She complimented my risotto once.

There’s something closed off about his face all of a sudden. Weird. “Since a couple weeks ago, though she didn’t really want to accept that. We made it official last night.” He strides to his secondhand dresser, pulls out the Avengers T-shirt I gave him for his birthday two years ago, and throws it on over his sleep shorts.

I hop off his bed, frowning. “Where was I when you came in?”

“Already asleep. Which was a good thing because Kiley was … strident about her opinions of me. We stayed up till, like, two A.M. talking. And when I say ‘talking’ I mean she yelled at me while I sat there and took it.”

“Damn. Well, wait five minutes and I’m sure there’ll be someone else more than willing to take her spot.”

Kian raises an eyebrow at me as he heads to the bathroom. Without saying anything, he shuts the bathroom door, and a moment later, I hear the shower start up.

Definitely something strange going on there. Breakups usually roll off Kian like rain off a tin roof. He’s the first person to tell you he isn’t looking for anything serious. He’s the anti-Lyric in that way.

Well, I think, I’m sure he’ll talk about it when he’s ready.

In the meantime, I head to the tiny kitchen, pick up a pancake, and begin nibbling on it morosely. The faucet drips steadily into the sink, like it’s counting down time. It’s my own dating life I really need to focus on.

For science.

Copyright © 2022 by Lily Menon