Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
After that day in the cafeteriaâwhen Eddie looked at Zott in a way he'd never once looked at herâFrask found Zott hateable.
“I was in the elevator today,” Eddie had swooned, “and Miss Zott got in. We rode four whole floors together.”
“Did you and she have a nice chat?” Frask said, her molars clenched. “Find out what her favorite color is?”
“No,” he said. “But I'll definitely ask next time. Geez, she's something else.”
Frask had gone on to hear about exactly
Zott was something else at least twice a week since then. With Eddie it was always Zott this and Zott that; he talked about her nonstopâbut then, everyone did. Zott, Zott, Zott. She was so fucking
“I'm sure I don't have to tell you,” Frask said, placing a dimpled hand on Zott's back, “that it's too soon for you to be at workâespecially here,” she said, tipping her head at the room that had once held Calvin. “It's not good for you. You're still in shock and you need your rest.” Her hand moved up and down in a clumsy pat. “Now I
what people are saying,” she said, implying her role as ground zero when it came to Hastings gossip, “and I know
know what people are saying,” she continued, fairly confident Elizabeth did not, “but in my opinion whether or not Mr. Evans was getting the milk for free doesn't mean his untimely death hurts you any less. In fact, in my opinion, it is
milk and if
choose to spoil it, that is
There, she thought, satisfied.
Zott knew what people were saying.
Elizabeth looked up at Frask, stunned. She supposed it took
a certain type of skill to be able to say exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. Maybe that was a prerequisite for a position in Personnelâ a certain clunky, cheerful cluelessness that gave one the ability to insult the bereaved.
“I've been trying to track you down for several reasons,” Frask was saying, “the first being the issue of Mr. Evans's dog. Him,” she said, pointing a finger at Six-Thirty, who stared back grimly. “Unfortunately, he can't be here any longer. You understand. Hastings Research Institute absolutely venerated Mr. Evans and, because of it, overindulged his quirky tendencies. But now that Mr. Evans has left us, I'm afraid the dog must leave as well. As I understand it, the dog was really his dog anyway.” She looked to Elizabeth for confirmation.
dog,” she managed. “
“I see,” she said. “But from now on, he'll need to stay at home.”
From the corner, Six-Thirty lifted his head.
“I can't be here without him,” Elizabeth said. “I just can't.”
Frask blinked as if the room was too bright, and then from out of nowhere produced a clipboard on which she made a few notes. “Of course,” she said without looking up, “I like dogs, too,” although she didn't, “but as I said, we made allowances for Mr. Evans. He was quite important to us. But at some point,” she said as she put one hand back on Elizabeth's shoulder and started patting again, “you have to realize, the coattails only go so far.”
Elizabeth's expression changed. “Coattails?”
Frask looked up at her from the clipboard, trying to seem professional. “I think we know.”
“I never rode his coattails.”
“I never said you did,” Frask said with mock surprise. Then she lowered her voice as if confiding a secret. “Can I just say something?” She took a short breath in. “There will be other men, Miss Zott. Maybe not as famous or as influential as Mr. Evans, but men all the same. I studied psychologyâ I know about these things. You chose Evans, he was famous, he was single,
maybe he could help your career, who could blame you? But it didn't work. And now he's gone and you're sadâ
of course you're sad.
But look on the bright side: you're free again. And there are lots of nice men,
men. One of them is sure to put a ring on your finger.”
She paused, remembering ugly Evans just before she pictured pretty Zott back in the dating pool, men teeming about her like frothy bubbles in a bathtub. “And once you find one,” she said, “maybe a lawyer,” she specified, “then you can stop all this science nonsense and go home and have lots of babies.”
“That's not what I want.”
Frask straightened up. “Well, aren't we the little renegade,” she said. She hated Zott, she really did.
“There's just one more thing then,” she continued, tapping her pen against the board, “and that is your bereavement leave. Hastings has awarded you three extra days. That's five days total. Unheard of for a nonâfamily memberâvery, very generous, Miss Zottâand again an indication of how important Mr. Evans was to us. This is why I want to assure you that you can and should go home and stay there. With the dog. You have my permission.”
Elizabeth wasn't sure if it was the cruelty of Frask's words or the foreign feel of the small, cold ring she'd buried in her fist just before Frask walked in, but before she could stop herself, she turned to retch into the sink.
“Normal,” Frask said as she darted across the room to collect a wad of paper towels. “You're still in shock.” But as she placed a second towel on Elizabeth's forehead, she adjusted her cat-eye glasses and took a much closer look. “Oh,” she sighed judgmentally, drawing her head back. “Oh. I see
“What?” Elizabeth murmured.
“Come on, now
” Frask said disapprovingly. “What did you expect?” And then she tsked just loud enough to make Zott understand
knew. But when Zott didn't acknowledge that she knew she knew, Frask wondered if there was an outside chance
know. That's how it was with some scientists. They believe in science right up until it happens to them.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Frask said, withdrawing a newspaper from under the crook of her arm. “I wanted to make sure you'd seen this. It's a nice photo, don't you think?” And there it was, the article from the reporter who'd attended the funeral. “The Brilliance He Buried,” claimed the headline, followed by a story that implied that Evans's difficult personality may have kept him from reaching his full scientific potential. And to prove that point, just to the right was a photo of Elizabeth and Six-Thirty standing in front of his coffin, with the caption “Actually, Love
Blind,” accompanied by a short summary of how even his girlfriend said she barely knew him.
“What a horrible thing to write,” Elizabeth whispered, clutching her stomach.
“You're not going to be sick again, are you?” Frask scolded as she held out more paper towels. “I know you're a chemist, Miss Zott, but
you expected this. Surely you've studied biology.”
Elizabeth looked up, her face gray, her eyes empty, and for one tiny moment Frask found herself almost feeling sorry for this woman and her ugly dog and the vomit and all the problems that were to come. Despite her brains and beauty and her incredibly slutty approach to men, Zott wasn't any better off than the rest of them.
?” Elizabeth said. “What are you getting at?”
Frask roared as she tapped her pen against Elizabeth's stomach. “Zott, please! We're women! You know very well Evans left you
And Elizabeth, eyes suddenly wide with recognition, was sick all over again.
Hastings Research Institute management had a big problem. With their star scientist dead, and a newspaper article implying that his lousy personality had kept him from accomplishing anything worthwhile, Hastings’s benefactors—the army, the navy, several pharmaceutical companies, a few private investors, and a handful of foundations—were already making noises about “reexamining Hastings’s existing projects” and “rethinking future grants.” That’s how it is with research—it’s at the mercy of those who pay for it.
Which is why Hastings management was determined to lay this ridiculous story to rest. Evans
been making good progress, hadn’t he? His office was overflowing with notebooks and strange little equations written in an indecipherable script and punctuated by exclamation marks and thick underlines like the kind one makes when one is on the brink of something. In fact, he was scheduled to present a paper on his progress in Geneva in just another month. Or would have if he hadn’t been backed over by a police car because he insisted on running outdoors in the rain instead of indoors in ballet slippers like everybody else.
Scientists. They just
to be different.
That was also part of the problem. Most of the Hastings scientists weren’t different—or at least not different enough. They were normal, average, at best slightly above average. Not stupid,
but not genius either. They were the kind of people who make up the majority of every company—normal people who do normal work, and who occasionally get promoted into management with uninspiring results. People who weren’t going to change the world, but neither were they accidentally going to blow it up.
No, management had to rely on its innovators, and with Evans gone, that left a very small pool of true talent. Not all of them were in lofty positions like Calvin’s; in fact, a few of them probably didn’t realize they were regarded as true innovators. But Hastings management knew it was from them that nearly every big idea and breakthrough came.
The only real issue with these people, besides the occasional hygiene challenge, was that they always seemed to embrace failure as a positive outcome. “I have not failed,” they’d endlessly quote Edison, “I’ve just found ten thousand ways that won’t work.” Which may be an acceptable thing to say in science but is absolutely the wrong thing to say to a roomful of investors looking for an immediate, high-ticket, chronic treatment for cancer. God save them from actual cures. Much harder to make money off someone who doesn’t have a problem anymore. For that reason, Hastings did whatever it could to keep these people away from the press, unless it was the scientific press, which was fine because no one read that. But now? Dead Evans was on page eleven of the
and there next to his coffin? Zott and the damn dog.
That was management’s third problem. Zott.
She was one of their innovators. Unrecognized, of course, but she acted as if she knew. Not a week went by when they didn’t get some complaint about her—the way she voiced her opinion, insisted her name appear on her own papers, refused to make coffee; the list was endless. And yet her progress—or was it Calvin’s?—was undeniable.
Her project, abiogenesis, had only been approved because a fat-cat investor had dropped from the heavens and insisted on funding, of all things, abiogenesis. What were the
? Although this was exactly the sort of weird thing multimillionaires did:
fund useless pie-in-the-sky projects. The rich man had said he’d read a paper by an E. Zott—something old out of UCLA—and had been fascinated by its expansion possibilities. He’d been trying to track down Zott ever since.
“Zott? But Mr. Zott works here!” they’d told him before they could stop themselves.
The rich man had seemed genuinely surprised. “I’m only in town for a day, but I’d very much like to meet with Mr. Zott,” he’d said.
And they hemmed and hawed.
Meet with Zott,
they thought. And find out
? His check was as good as gone.
“Unfortunately, that won’t be possible,” they’d said. “Mr. Zott is in Europe. At a conference.”
“What a pity,” the rich man said. “Perhaps next time.” And then he went on to say that he’d only be checking in on the project’s progress about once every few years. Because he understood science was slow. Because he knew it required time and distance and patience.
Time. Distance. Patience. Was this man for
? “Very wise,” they’d told him as they fought the urge to do backflips across the office. “Thanks for your trust.” And before he was settled into his limo, they’d already carved up the bulk of his largesse to fund more promising research areas. They’d even given a bit of it to Evans.
But then—Evans. After they’d so graciously reinvested in his no-real-idea-what-the-guy-was-actually-doing research, he’d stormed into their offices saying if they didn’t find a way to fund his pretty girlfriend, he’d leave and take all his toys and ideas and Nobel Prize nominations with him. They’d begged him to be reasonable; make them actually fund abiogenesis? Come on. But he refused to budge, went as far as to assert that her ideas might even be better than his own. At the time, they wrote it off to the ramblings of a man who’d hit the jackpot, sexwise. But now?
Her theories, unlike the theories of all the Edison “I’m not
a failure” quoters, appeared—at least according to Evans—to be dead-on. Darwin had long ago proposed that life sprang from a single-celled bacterium, which then went on to diversify into a complex planet of people, plants, and animals. Zott? She was like a bloodhound on the trail of where that first
had come from. In other words, she was out to solve one of the greatest chemical mysteries of all time, and if her findings continued apace, there was no question that she would do just that. According to
at least. The only issue was, it would probably take ninety years. Ninety completely unaffordable years. The fat-cat investor would surely be dead in far less. More to the point, so would they.
And there was one other minor detail. Management had just learned Zott was pregnant. As in
Could their day get any worse?
Obviously, she had to go; no question about it. Hastings Research Institute had standards.
But if she were to go, where did that leave them on the innovation front? With a handful of people making poky-pony progress, that’s where. And poky ponies didn’t inspire much in the way of big-ticket grants.
Fortunately, Zott did work with three others. Hastings management had sent for them straightaway; they needed assurance that Zott’s so-called critical research could limp along without Zott—whatever it would take to make it seem as if the money it never actually got was being put to good use. But as soon as the three PhDs were in the room, Hastings management knew they were in trouble. Two reluctantly conceded that Zott was the main driver, essential to any forward progress. The third— a man named Boryweitz—went the other route. Claimed
actually done it all. But when he couldn’t back up any of his assertions with meaningful scientific explanation, they realized they were in the presence of a scientific idiot. Hastings was rife with them. No surprise. Idiots make it into every company. They tend to interview well.
The chemist sitting in front of them now? He couldn’t even spell abiogenesis.
And then Miss Frask from Personnel—the one who’d first sounded the alarm regarding Zott’s condition? She’d used her limited talents to spread the Zott’s-knocked-up rumor, ensuring that all of Hastings knew of Zott’s plight by noon. Which scared the hell out of them. The rumor’s wildfire effect meant it was only a matter of time before the institute’s big investors knew, and investors—as anyone knew—hated scandals. Plus, there was the problem of Zott’s rich man-fan. The multimillionaire who’d written them a virtual blank check on behalf of abiogenesis—who’d claimed to have read
Zott’s old paper. How would he feel when he learned that Zott was not only a woman, but a knocked-up, unwed woman at that? God. They could picture that big limo swinging back round the drive, the chauffeur keeping the motor running as the man strode in and demanded his check back. “I was funding a professional slut?” he’d probably shout. Trouble. They had to do something about Zott immediately.
“I’m afraid you’ve put us in a terrible, terrible position, Miss Zott,” scolded Dr. Donatti a week later as he pushed a termination notice across the table in her direction.
me?” Elizabeth said, confused.
“I’d like to get through this as civilly as possible.”
“Why am I being fired? On what grounds?”
“I think you know.”
“Enlighten me,” she said, leaning forward, her hands clasped together in a tight mass, her number-two pencil behind her left ear glinting in the light. She wasn’t sure from where her composure came, but she knew she must keep it.
He glanced at Miss Frask, who was busy taking notes.
“You’re with child,” Donatti said. “Don’t try and deny it.”
“Yes, I’m pregnant. That is correct.”
“That is correct?” he choked. “That is
“Again. Correct. I am pregnant. What does that have to do with my work?”
“I’m not contagious,” she said, unfolding her hands. “I do not have cholera. No one will catch having a baby from me.”
“You have a lot of nerve,” Donatti said. “You know very well women do not continue to work when pregnant. But you—you’re not only with child, you’re unwed. It’s disgraceful.”
“Pregnancy is a normal condition. It is not disgraceful. It is how every human being starts.”
you,” he said, his voice rising. “A woman telling
what pregnancy is. Who do you think you are?”
She seemed surprised by the question. “A woman,” she said.
“Miss Zott,” Miss Frask stated, “our code of conduct does not allow for this sort of thing and you know it. You need to sign this paper, and then you need to clean out your desk. We have standards.”
But Elizabeth didn’t flinch. “I’m confused,” she said. “You’re firing me on the basis of being pregnant and unwed. What about the man?”
“What man? You mean Evans?” Donatti asked.
“Any man. When a woman gets pregnant outside of marriage, does the man who made her pregnant get fired, too?”
“What? What are you talking about?”
“Would you have fired Calvin, for instance?”
“Of course not!”
“If not, then, technically, you have no grounds to fire me.”
Donatti looked confused.
“Of course, I do,” he stumbled. “Of course, I do! You’re the woman! You’re the one who got knocked up!”
“That’s generally how it works. But you do realize that a pregnancy requires a man’s sperm.”
“Miss Zott, I’m warning you.
Watch your language.
“You’re saying that if an unmarried man makes an unmarried woman pregnant, there is no consequence for him. His life goes on. Business as usual.”
our fault,” Frask interrupted. “You were trying to trap Evans into marriage. It’s obvious.”
“What I know,” she said, pushing a stray hair away from her forehead, “is that Calvin and I did not want to have children. I also know that we took every precaution to ensure that outcome. This pregnancy is a failure of contraception, not morality. It’s also none of your business.”
“You’ve made it our business!” Donatti suddenly shouted. “And in case you weren’t aware, there is a surefire way
to get pregnant and it starts with an ‘A’! We have rules, Miss Zott! Rules!”
“Not on this you don’t,” Elizabeth said calmly. “I’ve read the employee manual front to back.”
“It’s an unwritten rule!”
“And thus not legally binding.”
Donatti glowered at her. “Evans would be very, very ashamed of you.”
“No,” Elizabeth said simply, her voice empty but calm. “He would not.”
The room fell silent. It was the way she kept disagreeing—without embarrassment, without melodrama—as if she would have the last say, as if she knew she’d win in the end. This is
the kind of attitude her coworkers had complained of. And the way she implied that hers and Calvin’s relationship was at some higher level—as if it had been crafted from nondissolvable material that survived everything, even his death. Annoying.
As Elizabeth waited for them to come to their senses, she laid her hands flat on the table. Losing a loved one has a way of revealing a too-simple truth: that time, as people often claimed but never heeded, really was precious. She had work to do; it was all she had left. And yet here she sat with self-appointed guardians of moral conduct, smug judges who lacked judgment, one of
whom seemed unclear on the process of conception and one who went along because she, like so many other women, assumed that downgrading someone of her own sex would somehow lift her in the estimation of her male superiors. Worse, these illogical conversations were all taking place in a building devoted to science.
“Are we done here?” she said, rising.
Donatti blanched. That was
Zott needed to go right now and take her bastard baby, cutting-edge research, and death-defying romantic relationship with her. As for her rich investor, they’d deal with him later.
“Sign it,” he demanded, as Frask tossed Elizabeth a pen. “We want you out of the building no later than noon. Salary ends Friday. You’re not allowed to speak to anyone regarding the reasons for your dismissal.”
“Health benefits also end Friday,” Frask chirped, tapping her nail against her ever-present clipboard. “Tick tock.”
“I hope this might teach you to start being accountable for your outrageous behavior,” Donatti added as he held out his hand for the signed termination notice. “And stop blaming others. Like Evans,” he continued, “after he forced us to fund you. After he stood in front of Hastings management and threatened to leave if we didn’t.”
Elizabeth looked as if she’d been slapped. “Calvin did what?”