Exchange of Heart

Waitress Michelle Medena was used to the attention she got from men. They were always hitting on her, but none seemed interested in anything but her good looks. Then one night Zak Tover, the teaching assistant in her economics class, sat at her table. With his socialist-themed t-shirts and tendency to leave extravagant tips he was like no one she’d ever met. He seemed to find her beauty of little value.

Zak Tover was completely intimidated by beautiful women and knew better than to try to hit on them. Michelle, however, was particularly difficult to ignore, especially when her class papers revealed a clever mind behind all that loveliness. Still, they come from very different socio-economic backgrounds and Zak knew better than to expect that there could never be a fair trade between them…that was, until Michelle’s wayward brother stepped in with his own radical economic theory and completely altered the exchange rate. (F/M)

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Chapter 1: Sensual Revolutions

The creep was wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and flipping through a comic book. He hadn’t actually done anything disturbing or strange, but Michelle thought he looked creepy, and her fellow waitresses agreed.

“Better your table than mine.” Lisa patted her on the shoulder.

Michelle sighed and crossed over to the guy’s table. He was scrawny in build with a crane-like neck and a long face that included thin lips and a bumpy nose. His messy thatch of hair was somewhere between dirty blond and mousy brown; it looked like he’d tried to comb it into submission, but it had rebelled and won.

“Ready to order?” Michelle asked, expecting him to gawk at her. Her trim figure and sultry looks intimidated geeks. Usually the nerds focused on her breasts, but now and then they would gaze up at her face as if she was a goddess.

The creep didn’t rubberneck as expected, he just glanced up briefly—a flash of eyes, like a peeping Tom. “Root beer float.” His voice was surprisingly soft. His hands, still flipping through the pages, were unnaturally long, the fingers almost spidery.

“Anything else?”

“No,” he said, then, as if realizing that he’d been curt, amended his answer. “No, thank you.”

Creep. Michelle fetched him his float. Though he didn’t speak or glance at her again, she was still very glad when Ted and Gil arrived. “Is it me or is that guy creepy?” She poured them cups of coffee.

“He looks like a stalker.” Ted, her tall, tough brother, scowled at the guy. “Is he bothering you?”

“No, no he hasn’t done anything. He just… bothers me.”

“Take a picture of him,” Gil, Ted’s brawny best friend, advised. “Post it on the Internet and see if he’s wanted for anything. I could do it for you.”

“Nice try,” Michelle said, “but no touching my new camera.”


“No. You wanna take photos, use your phone.”

“Hey, sis,” Ted cut in, “can you loan us some cash? We got this tip on a poker game—”

“You are not wasting my hard-earned money on a fucking card game,” Michelle said. “Bad enough you spend half your salary on beer.”

“There’d be more than enough to burn if you’d get a full-time job,” Ted grumbled. It was an old and sour argument, one they’d been having since their alcoholic father had bailed on them nearly three years ago. Michelle was determined to get a college education even if that meant part-time jobs, student loans and a tight budget. Ted thought she was wasting her time. He kept telling her that she was going to end up in a regular job with a regular husband like every other girl in their neighborhood. So why bother with all this college shit and the money worries that came with it? Michelle had learned to shut Ted out when he talked that way. Her third semester started this week and somehow or other she’d see it though, just as she had the first two.

“How about a couple of burgers?” Gil asked.

“How about one burger and you guys pay for the second?” The diner only allowed her two free meals and the boys knew that.

“Can’t you lie and get us another one?” Gil whispered.

“No. You pay for a burger, or I bring you something you can split. What’ll it be?”

They ordered a club sandwich. Michelle checked up on her other tables. The creep finished his float and asked for a second. She brought over the refill and he sucked it down while reading another comic book. Finally, he requested the bill and, much to Michelle’s relief, headed for the door.

Then she saw what he’d left. “Hey, wait!” she said, racing after him. He didn’t stop when she called, and she had to sprint to cut in front of him.

His eyes flickered up, then down. They stayed down. “What?”

“You didn’t wait for your change,” she said, waving the twenty he’d tucked under the check.

“What’s left is tip,” he said, cutting around her and hurrying off.

Michelle watched him go, uneasy. The tip was nearly three times the bill. Why had he done that?

Socio-Economic History fulfilled a general education requirement, and so had a good many freshmen and sophomores. By the third week, however, half of them dropped the class or just started skipping out on lectures. Zak was used to this, especially when it came to the dilettantes more interested in checking their cellphones than discussing eighteenth century financial crashes.

One of these, however, had not only caught his eye, but gotten his interest by never missing a lecture: the stunning waitress who served him his root beer floats at the local diner. On her first day she’d sat with a posse of equally beautiful friends whispering and giggling. But once the class had started, she’d put away her phone and listened.

Week three and her friends had stopped coming, but she was still there, always taking meticulous notes on a clunky, old laptop and paying close attention when questions were asked and answered.

Zak tried not to stare at her, or dream of her for that matter, but it was hard. She had that 1960’s, From-Russia-with-Love look that he adored: smooth and beautiful olive skin, the golden sort that always made him fantasize about women sunbathing on the French Riviera, a pert nose, full lips and thick, dark hair on the delicious edge between brown and black, like Turkish coffee.

Her easy curves and lithe legs finished up the fantasy. God help him, he wanted to dress her in a mini-skirt and go-go boots and put her on a moped. Not that she even knew he existed, Zak reflected. He was completely worthless to girls like that, as invisible as a busboy in a four-star restaurant. He graded their papers, but they never came over to talk to him. They went straight to the professor if they had problems or questions, which was just as well. Intimidated as Zak was by their sparkle, he knew such girls were false. All shine, no substance.

It came as a shock, therefore, when class ended and someone pushed a red-marked paper across his desk. He blinked at it. It was the first week’s assignment. The students had been asked to pick an economic system and defend it. Like ninety-percent of the other papers, this one had argued the virtues of capitalism.

“I don’t think you graded this fairly,” the tone was defensive.

He glanced up. There she was, flipping back that dark, luxurious hair. He tried to drop his eyes, but it was as if his gaze had gotten stuck on her breasts. Her blouse had a plunging neckline. With each shift of her arms, each breath, smooth orbs of golden skin rose and fell. To make matters worse, he could make out her nipples poking like buttons through the thin fabric. He felt his erection pushing against his jeans and was glad to be sitting behind a desk. Shit.

“You did grade this, didn’t you?” she demanded.

“Yes,” he murmured.

“I thought so. You hate it because it’s pro-capitalism.”

He hadn’t thought it possible to escape the captivity of her breasts, but her words got through. When he was suddenly able to meet her gaze, he noticed her eyes were thickly ringed with dark lashes and golden-brown in color, like heated brandy.

Very expensive brandy warming him all the way through.

“I graded your paper on the merits of its argument,” he retorted as coolly as he could. “Your points were weak and you repeated propaganda rather than facts. Like when you insisted that a capitalistic economy guarantees democracy.”

“Propaganda? You’re wearing a Karl Marx T-shirt!” she pointed out. “God, I hate your type. You theorize about how people should live, but you don’t know anything about them. I bet you’ve never had to work a day in your life.”

He felt a pang of guilt and his eyes started to sink down. “I’ve held jobs.”

“Yeah, but did you ever have to worry about losing your home or starving on the streets if you got fired? There was always a safety net under you, wasn’t there?”

True as the words were, they angered him. “So you’re a woman of the people? Fine. Maybe you can explain something to me. Why is a poor person like you supporting a system that so undervalues your worth? Marx had a term for it: Exchange Value. Oversimplifying, it means the importance of your labor. That gold locket you’re wearing…”

She touched the heart-shaped charm as if suddenly afraid he was going to tear it from her neck.

“Miners worked very hard to get that gold to make that locket. But when it came to deciding what the gold was worth, their efforts mattered very little. The cost of the gold was decided according to its weight, purity, how it was valued by the stock market, supply and demand. Not how much effort a man gave to digging it out of the ground.”

Her fingers toyed with the locket and she frowned thoughtfully.

He brought it home. “Shouldn’t the value of that gold be based on how much sweat and pain a worker gave for it? At the very least, shouldn’t the miner earn a share of the profits?”

“So, how much effort did it take?” she demanded. “And did every man at that gold mine work as hard? If you lived in my neighborhood you’d know how many lazy idiots there are. For every one working, there are three doing a half-assed job. Give them a share of the profits and they’ll waste it on beer and card games. Why should I subsidize that? If we’re talking about this value exchange, then capitalism is what works. It allows me to be rewarded for doing more, and punishes those that do squat. It motivates everyone to do their share.”

Her eyes were glowing with fury, with, God help him, intelligence. Beautiful and smart. This diamond looked to be real. He pushed the paper towards her.

“Rewrite this. Include those points you just made. Back them up with valid research on monetary rewards as motivators. That’s exactly the type of evidence this paper lacks. Put it in, and I’ll re-grade it.”

“I will,” she assured him, snatching back her assignment and marching off.

The minute she was gone, he collapsed, head into hands. He was amazed that he’d managed to argue with her as he might with any other student. He didn’t usually do so well with such women. Not well at all in fact. They scared the shit out of him.

Michelle Medena. That was the name on the paper. Michelle. He knew he shouldn’t, but he attached that name to the face, which left him haunted by both for the rest of the day.

When he got a call from his grandfather that evening, Michelle was still on his mind. “Workers of the world unite!” he answered the phone.

“For heaven’s sake!” the old man’s voice was gruff and exasperated. “I hope you don’t answer the phone like that every time.”

“Sometimes I answer it ‘Arise ye prisoners of starvation.’ What can I do for you, Gramps?”

“I’m checking in with you as you refuse to check in with me. Believe it or not, I like knowing you’re alive and well. You, uh, surviving on that pittance they’re paying you?”

“Me and every other Teacher’s Assistant,” Zak said shortly.

“Other TA’s have parents, spouses who help with the bills….”

“I’ve only got myself to support.”

“Come on, Zak, give your old granddad a break. I won’t send you cash, just a new laptop computer? Something like that? The stuff other college kids have.”

“Not all of them have new laptops. I don’t think I should have one ’til everyone has one.” He got some cold Chinese food out of the refrigerator.

“Now you sound like a parody of yourself,” his grandfather pointed out. “You’re not that naïve.”

The savvy old bastard was right, of course. Michelle had left Zak feeling guilty. “I don’t deserve or need a new laptop or anything else, Granddad. How’s that? It’s bad enough you’re paying for my education.”

“Zachary, I earned every penny of the money I made—”

“Including the money your underpaid workers made for you?” Zak retorted. “Did you earn that?”

His grandfather sighed. “Must we get into this? We’re all we’ve got. And I know I didn’t do right by your mother—”

“Or my father.” Zak stirred the carton of pan-fried noodles with his chopsticks. The way his grandfather had treated his father still rankled.

“No, but there’s no way to apologize for that now, is there?” A pause. “Will I be seeing you for the holidays?”

Zak felt his stomach turn over. “Yeah. Sure. Look, I’ve gotta go. I’ll call you later.”

“You’ll let me know if you need anything?”

“Yeah.” Eating his dinner, Zak tried to figure out just where his relationship with his grandfather had taken such a wrong turn. He could remember going on fishing trips and horseback riding with the old man. He also remembered the stories he’d heard of a hard-working man who had lifted himself out of dire poverty, a man Zak had admired and wanted to emulate. Until, of course, he’d learned other stories, stories of the old bastard’s unscrupulous business practices.

It was too bad, really, Zak thought, trashing the empty cartons. He would have loved to tell his grandfather about Michelle Medena. Maybe get the old man’s advice. There was, however, too much distance between them and it hardly mattered. Zak was too socially bankrupt for a girl like Michelle. The only time she’d probably speak to him is if he gave her another disappointing grade, which he hoped he wouldn’t have to do, much as he might like to.

The creep’s name was Zak Tover and Michelle was beginning to think she’d been wrong about him. Finding that he was one of her TA’s had disturbed her. She’d even wondered if he’d given her a low mark on that first paper in order to lure her into talking to him. Isn’t that how creepy TA’s worked?

Refusing to be unsettled, Michelle had marched right up and challenged Mr. Zak Tover. At first, the conversation had gone as expected, him with eyes down, dismissing her, then, quite suddenly, those eyes had looked up. They were dark blue and Michelle didn’t know how, but they’d sharpened her brain like a whetstone. Maybe it was the way they regarded her, as if she were worthy of dueling with him. Arguments had clarified, and she’d found herself countering his jabs. So arousing was that gaze that when it had started to drift, she’d deliberately tossed down another gauntlet to get it back.

His thrusts and repartees had drawn blood, but he’d heard her out and, when they’d finished, his look had saluted her—she’d never felt so victorious. Afterwards, re-reading Zak’s critiques on her paper, she’d realized to her chagrin that he’d been right. Her arguments were weak and repetitive. She’d revised the paper, spelling out her points and adding solid examples. The revision had gotten an “A,” and comments praising her insights.

That was more like it!

From then on, she did better, so much so that she had no real reason to talk with Zak. Their conversations continued, however, in the comments he left on her papers: “Michelle,” he wrote, “Do you really believe that Mercantilism hurt the British Empire with its tariffs and duties, or do you just believe it’s wrong to impose such restrictions on trade? You may not like such laws, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t benefit their society at the time.”

It was as if Zak were urging her to fight with him. Or, more to the point, as if he were sharing his arsenal and showing her how to fight with him. Responses to such critiques would rise to mind, answers focused as a laser. It made her feel powerful. It also made her feel strangely jealous of Zak, like she didn’t want to share him. She’d glance at other people’s papers, checking out the comments and felt smug when she didn’t see any that matched hers in length, or didn’t refer to people by name.

Covertly, she also started watching Zak in class, the way his expressive face commented on the professor’s lecture, how his choice of T-shirt announced his values and principles. He was utterly different from anyone she’d ever met. But then, she was beginning to realize that she was very different, too.

“The cutest guys hit on you,” her girlfriends kept nudging her, “and you keep blowing them off. What’s with you? Don’t you want a boyfriend?”

Yeah, right, she found herself thinking, like she was going to sacrifice her valuable study time to dote on a demanding boyfriend. She did wonder, however, what it would be like to be with someone like Zak. He wouldn’t undervalue her education. And he’d probably treasure every minute she was willing to give to him.

An absurd idea, she and Zak. Her friends would laugh at her, call her crazy. It’d be embarrassing. Nevertheless, she found herself musing on it every Wednesday when he came to the diner and seated himself at her table. Strangely, he never looked up when she took his order, never asked for anything more than a root beer float or two. He’d drink these down while reading either comic books or thick tomes on economics. Sometimes, when she stepped near, those spidery hands of his would tremble.

He always left a twenty, over-tipping her outrageously. Intrigued as she was by him, that still bothered her. Why did he do that? Was it charity or something more?

“Hey, look, it’s your creep,” Ted said. It was halfway through the semester and they were at a frat party.

“His name’s Zak Tover,” Michelle said, sipping her drink. “He’s my TA in Socio-Economic History.”

“Shit luck, that,” Gil sympathized.

“What a nerd,” Ted shook his head. “Talk about not belonging!” Which was hypocritical as Ted and Gil didn’t belong at the party either. One of the bros, an old high school buddy, had brought them along. “I wonder who invited him?”

“I don’t know,” Michelle said, “but I wish they hadn’t.”

It was painful to watch. Zak stood drink in hand, alone in a corner. Rowdy frat boys and laughing sorority sisters pushed past him as if he were a piece of furniture. Whoever dragged him to this party was either sadistic or stupid.

“Michelle did you see?” Kim and Esme, who’d dropped out of Socio-Economic History, came up snickering. “The freak’s here. You’d think he’d at least dress different!”

Zak was wearing a red tee with a black-and-white photo of a sharp-nosed man. The lettering below named him “John Reed.”

“Who’s John Reed?” Gil asked.

“Some old communist probably,” Esme said dismissively. “Zak’s such a dinosaur. It’s like he doesn’t know we won the cold war.”

“What do you know about the cold war and how it ended,” Michelle muttered under her breath. Idiots! If they were going to make fun of Zak, they could at least do the research. She knew who John Reed was. Ten Days that Shook the World. The only American buried in the Kremlin. She knew because every time Zak wore a tee with a new face, she took the time to google it.

She didn’t agree with his politics, but she admired him for formulating those views, for working at them. He didn’t just blindly believe, not like her unworthy friends. They couldn’t possibly know Zak’s true value. Not like she did.

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