The academic expert ripped off her headset. She marched past the moderator of the debate without speaking to her.
A pair of her friends met her at the wings of the stage. One was the chemistry professor who had helped her prepare. He wore a white, buttoned shirt and a blazer. His lips formed a grim line behind his beard. He kept his hands clasped behind his back. The other was her former college roommate, now a lab manager. She'd dressed in a blue pantsuit, not something she often did since she was more comfortable in a lab coat and jeans. Both had come to watch her perform. She knew she'd let them down.
Her former roommate threw her arms around her. They both sniffled. She didn't like the sensation of holding back tears, so she extracted herself from the embrace.
"My boyfriend is across the street at the coffee shop." Her friend tried to smile.
A few minutes later as they stepped into the shop, her shoulders heaved with a sigh. The room felt comfortable. The debate stage had been too cold even in her jacket. The lights had shone too brightly. Her words had echoed against the hardwood floors and along tiled hallways beyond. That had made her feel distant and almost lonely.
"This is better," she said. "I'll buy drinks."
"Oh, no, don't. I'm doing it."
Her friend's boyfriend - he had a nice smile, a lean body, but she couldn't remember the fellow's name - hopped up from his grey, laminate-topped table. He gestured to the seats. He held out a chair for her. A moment later, he joined his woman in line to buy coffee.
That left her alone with the chemistry professor. She drummed her fingers and looked around.
"Jeez, what are they doing here?" she said. "They've got a political show on the screen."
The professor followed her gaze. They could hear the debaters over the noise of the other coffee shop patrons but not well.
"It looks planned along the same lines that yours was," he said.
Her debate had started out as a chance to publicize her environmental proposals, she thought. That's how the moderator had put it. The rules had been straightforward. She'd known she would have two opponents but she'd also have an ally. It should have been an even match.
To her surprise, the man from the environmental organization came out against her position. Or he'd seemed too, anyway. He'd spoken softly. She'd had a hard time hearing him. On top of that, he'd reacted to questions slowly, which made her talk over him a lot. That had probably made everything worse.
"Two to a side," she conceded. "An attempt to be fair."
"I meant that they seem like professionals. That's pretty much what you faced."
"Professionals?" She slapped the table. "They don't even understand the question they were asked."
"Oh, I think they do. They're deliberately misrepresenting the other side in order to argue a point they can win. That was almost the first thing your opponents did with you. It's why I don't listen to debates."
"You listened to mine."
"Only because it was you."
She looked down at her hands. It would be better to have a coffee cup in them. Her fingers trembled.
In the overwhelming wave of emotion over her performance in the debate, it was hard to notice more delicate sentiments but she knew that she was starting to like this guy. He was another professor, very much on par with her, and he exuded a feeling of relaxation. Even in his sitting posture, he seemed tall and calm. There was no pressure to be romantic with him. He'd made no moves on her. She knew he'd be nice to the point of helping her prepare for other events whether or not she returned his affections.
Her cheeks warmed. She resisted the urge to touch her face. Instead, her gaze rose from her intertwined fingers to the political show.
"Listen, now they're talking up the craziest choice there is." Her voice was louder than she'd intended.
"It's another tactic. I hate it." His eyes went to the screen, then to her, then down to the tabletop as he spoke. "Your opponents loved this one, didn't they? They worked hard to create a false dichotomy. I was surprised you didn't challenge them."
"That's because there is a dichotomy." This was a topic she felt comfortable addressing.
"Not necessarily." His tone remained thoughtful. "There aren't only two options, not in anything. We don't have to choose between safe drinking or factories closing. Factories can mitigate their pollution. They do it all the time. The price is a few percentage points difference to the consumer."
"Mitigate isn't the same as stop."
"It's not perfect, environmentally, but it's progress." He leaned back in his seat. "I think that's what your ally wanted to say. He didn't get much chance to speak. The other side avoided asking him questions, another tactic. They wanted to debate you."
"Because I said that they should drink their own water and die?"
"Because they knew you'd frame the argument as a choice between them polluting or shutting down the factories. That's the debate they wanted."
"I'm perfectly right about that. Even economically, the right thing to do is shut down the old factories and build new ones. I didn't have an opportunity to explain why."
"That's because your were up against professional arguers. All they do is debate. They don't care that you're right. One of your opponents talked over your rebuttal. That's what she does. Whenever you made a good point, she argued as if you'd said something different. Again, it's what she does."
"The moderator should have helped. She should have pointed that out."
"The moderator tried. Well, I think she did. But your opponents treated her the same way as they treated you." A sad smile graced his lips. "Did you consider who they are? That older woman is the head of a corporate law firm. The middle-aged man is the company lawyer who contracted the firm. That means they're both lawyers for the company. It's their job to save their employer money. That's their concern."
"They don't live around here, that's for sure." She would have liked to do research on her opponents but the moderator hadn't announced them until today. "They don't give a damn about the pollution."
"For that matter, I doubt they care about the company in any meaningful sense. It's their job." He opened his hands in a gesture of concession.
"They've got a rude way of doing immoral jobs." She took a deep breath. Her skin felt better, almost normal. "So they're professionals. What am I suppose to do? Turn down the next offer to debate them?"
"I don't know." He shook his head. He didn't seem to be holding back his opinions, which meant he really didn't have advice. "Debates are misleading."
"No, it's not the format that's bad." Her shoulders slumped. "It's me. I need to elevate my skills."
"You were better than you think." He gave her such a kind smile that, for a moment, she believe him. "The problem is, acting as if there are two sides to a problem is such an old method that Socrates formalized it. We have better ways of working out issues now. We know more about how to be effective. But we're not taking advantage of what we know."
She didn't want to admit she wasn't sure about the methods he meant. She suspected they were part of the fairness seminar they'd both taken last year. She hadn't paid much attention.
"These kind of debates will keep going," she pointed out. "Maybe the best thing I can do is improve my game."
"Yeah." He hesitated. Then he nodded, as if to himself. "You're right. You can become an expert at debating. Until now, you've worked more at being right than on dispute tactics. You're like a geometer who can see that the butcher is inefficient. You can explain it. But if you plan to walk into the butcher shop to out-carve the butcher, you need to train up first."
He put out his arm. It was odd. It wasn't a romantic conversation. He didn't seem to be offering anything more than reassurance. But she grabbed his hand before he could have second thoughts and revoked the gesture. She gripped him with trembling fingers. She could feel the calmness of his body, the strength of his forearm.
A motion at the pick-up counter caught her eye. She let go.
"What's taking so long with the coffee?" she wondered. She didn't see the other two where she expected them.
"They're just now getting to order." He barely glanced over. Apparently, he'd kept track.
"Thanks for listening," she said.
"I enjoy it. You're really nice to talk with."
"But am I debating you? I'm still charged up from the stage. Am I arguing with you about how to argue?"
"I hope not. We shouldn't score points. The best we can do is to speak constructively. Let's not poison great conversations with tactics. A debate ends with one side winning. A conversation can go someplace different."
"Someplace unexpected." She nodded. Her hands rose to cover her smile.