She was a woman, yes, but first and foremost she was a scientist. An aeronautical-engineering analyst for CNA. A “civilian contractor.” A TOPGUN instructor whose expertise focused on the technological prowess of the enemy. She spoke Russian. She had a PhD in astrophysics and really earned it. The Pentagon listened to her because they knew she could calculate vectors and thrust angles and the proficiencies of young pilots better than anyone in the country.
But she also believed in the Scientific Method the way zealots believe in God. So it really shouldn’t have surprised anyone that she fell for Pete Mitchell.
(No one called him that, except to introduce him. They called him Maverick. She even called him Maverick in bed.)
At first, she really did just want to know about the MiG-28. The fact that he wouldn’t tell her only intrigued her. Why? Why wouldn’t he tell her? What about it was so secret? Yes, she could dig through the files, call up Norton at CNA’s operations research branch and just ask, but if she just asked, she might have lost out on the opportunity to conduct an experiment.
She was interested in the fact that he did everything all-or-nothing. No in-between. He flew by the seat of his pants and fucked like it, too. When he was defensive, he flew aggressively. Every time she thought he’d overshoot, he reigned in his gunsights and hit the target. She’d sit in that TACTS trailer laughing to herself, wondering how she got so lucky—Maverick, the one percent of the one percent. She just wanted to be the one to tame him.
“If I wanted help, I would’ve asked for it.”
Sure, Lieutenant. Sure you would have. God-damn, he was an asshole when he wanted to be. Just like he could be sweet and tender when he wanted to be. His arsenal of sweet-talking missiles was always calibrated a little off; he’d give you some pick-up line that had no business working and it was his lack of self-awareness that would get you in his bed. And those hands, and those eyes—
“So you’ve already left?” —She remembered saying, her voice hard and bitter.
But then he came back, then he took a position at TOPGUN, then she was staring down at a rotary phone on her desk trying to get the order of the words right— “Hi, Mr. McDonnell. I’ve thought about your offer, and I’m very flattered, but I think I will stay here in Miramar for the foreseeable future. Thank you so much for considering me.”
Let’s see if we can make this work.
The rules: Do not break the hard deck. Do not flirt with women who aren’t me. Do not leave your wingman. Show up on time when we set a date for dinner. Define the enemy before you engage. Not every argument has to end with sex. Maintain contact with ATC. Just because you don’t pull your punches in the air doesn’t mean it’s gloves-off with me, too.
All-or-nothing. Days without coming over, days without calling, then he’d bring over flowers and champagne and woo her with sweaty sex against a bare mattress. “Sorry for not calling,” he’d say, and at first she’d tell him “no apologies,” but then she gave up. It would’ve been nice to hear him apologize for once. Actually: it would’ve been nice to see him change.
It was too confusing. The experiment had too many variables. He didn’t know who he was and neither did she; she loved him but hated him sometimes when he walked out the door; she hated how little she knew him and how much she wanted him to know her. Did he ever ask? Did he ever ask about her PhD, about her parakeet in a cage on the back porch, about her dog, about the salads she ate religiously, about the Rabbit parked out front, about her lipstick, about her hair, about her job? Did he ever ask?
He’d tell her about his day, he’d tell her about his father, he’d tell her about Goose, but he’d never talk about himself. That was private. He’d never tell her about the MiG.
(The MiG! It all came down to the MiG. Why won’t you tell me about the MiG?)
“One day I’ll tell you about the MiG,” he’d reassure her, licking a stripe from her collarbone to her ear; she could hear the cocky smile in his inflection. “One day.”
(When they argued, he’d take off on his motorbike and ride for hours. As he’d put the key in the ignition she’d stand in the driveway shouting and he’d pretend not to hear her.)
In the back of her mind she knew he was planning to propose, to tell her about the MiG before he dropped to a knee, and that was a romantic idea she might have swooned over once. But at the forefront she was impatient, furious, doubtful. You famous MiG insulter, you, pressing her into the mattress with those hips and those hands and those intent blue hawk’s eyes, had you been lying to her the whole time?
She’d stand in front of the TACTS trailer with Maverick at her side grinning behind his mirrored aviators, reflecting back a room full of tired hotshots, and wonder where she went wrong, why he wouldn’t tell her now. Pleading in her head: C’mon, Maverick. Marry me so you can tell me about the MiG.
“One day,” he told her. “One day.”
Always holding it over her head, until the experiment lost its value, the test subject warped beyond all constraints and parameters, and she was standing there in Captain Sherman’s office as he explained to her that Maverick kept breaking the rules and did she think he really was a good fit for TOPGUN, and she said, “No, I don’t think so.”
“Hello, Norton, I’m looking for Mr. McDonnell. —Hi, Mr. McDonnell. This is Charlie out at Miramar. I was wondering if the Engineering Research Head position from last year is still open? —It is? Is there any way I might be able to fill it?”
Making love to Maverick against the kitchen counter, in the shower, between the sheets. Standing over him as he slept and thinking, What the hell am I still doing with him, anyway? Calling it quits, taking off in the middle of the night for D.C. and never looking back.
She did hear that Captain Sherman took her advice, kicked Maverick out of TOPGUN. It made her heart a little sore, a little guilty.
Years later, she’d find out that he’d been called back. That they wanted him again, and that besides Maverick, another one of her students had been called back, too. The Iceman, coldhearted son of a bitch; that was one thing she and Maverick could agree on. She regretted, just for a second, that she hadn’t been around to watch that experiment unfold. Then, she was just glad.
She never would find out about the MiG-28. But it wasn’t worth it, in the end.