Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
“Oh. Hello, Dr. Meyers,” she said, looking up. “Yes. Just going over the test protocol for tomorrow. I think I found a problem.”
He opened the door a little wider, stepping inside. “I didn’t ask you to do that,” he said, his voice edgy with irritation. “I told you it was all set.”
“I know,” she said. “But I wanted to give it one last look.” The one-last-look approach wasn’t something Elizabeth liked to do—it was something she knew she
to do to maintain her position on Meyers’s all-male research team. Not that she really cared about his research: his was safe stuff, not at all groundbreaking. Despite a notable lack of creativity paired with an alarming absence of new discoveries, Meyers was considered one of the top DNA researchers in the United States.
Elizabeth didn’t like Meyers; no one did. Except, possibly, UCLA, who loved him because the man published more papers than anyone in the field. Meyers’s secret? He didn’t write the papers—his graduate students did. But he always took full credit for every word, sometimes only changing the title and a few phrases here and there before passing it off as an entirely different paper, which he could do because who reads a scientific paper all the way through? No one. Thus his papers grew in number, and with them, his reputation. That’s how Meyers became a top DNA researcher: quantity.
Besides his talent for superfluous papers, Meyers was also famous for being a lecher. There weren’t many women in the science departments at UCLA, but the few there were—mostly secretaries—became the focus of his unwanted attention. They usually left after six months, their confidence shaken, their eyes swollen, citing personal reasons. But Elizabeth did not leave—she couldn’t, she needed the master’s. So she endured the day-to-day
degradations—the touches, the lewd comments, the rank suggestions—while making it clear she had no interest. Until the day he called her into his office, ostensibly to talk about her admittance to his doctoral program, but instead shoving his hand up her skirt. Furious, she forcibly removed it, then threatened to report him.
“To whom?” he laughed. Then he admonished her for being “no fun” and swatted her bottom, demanding that she go fetch his coat from his office closet, knowing that when she opened the door she would find it lined with pictures of topless women, a few splayed, expressionless, on their hands and knees, a man’s shoe resting triumphantly on their backs.
“It’s here,” she said to Dr. Meyers. “Step ninety-one on page two thirty-two. The temperature. I’m fairly certain it’s too high, which means the enzyme will be rendered inactive, skewing the results.”
Dr. Meyers watched her from the door. “Did you show this to anyone else?”
“No,” she said. “I just noticed it.”
“So, you haven’t talked with Phillip.” Phillip was Meyers’s top research assistant.
“No,” she said. “He just left. I’m sure I could still catch him—”
“No need,” he interrupted. “Is anyone else here?”
“Not that I know of.”
“The protocol is right,” he said sharply. “You’re not the expert. Stop questioning my authority. And don’t mention this to anyone else. Do you understand?”
“I was only trying to help, Dr. Meyers.”
He looked at her, as if weighing the veracity of her offer. “And I need your help,” he said. And then he turned back toward the door and locked it.
His first blow was an open-handed slap that spun her head to the left like a well-hit tetherball. She gasped in shock, then managed to right herself, her mouth bleeding, her eyes wide with disbelief. He grimaced as if unsatisfied with his results, then hit her again, this time knocking her off the stool. Meyers was a big man—nearly 250 pounds—his strength a product of density, not fitness. He bent down to where she lay on the floor and, grabbing her by the hips, hoisted her up like a crane lifting a sloppy load of lumber, plunking her back down on the stool like a rag doll. Then he flipped her over, and kicking the stool away, slammed her face and chest against the stainless-steel counter. “Hold still, cunt
” he demanded as she struggled, his fat fingers clawing beneath her skirt.
Elizabeth gasped, the taste of metal filling her mouth as he mauled her, one hand pulling her skirt up past her waist, the other twisting the skin of her inner thighs. With her face flat against the table, she could barely breathe, let alone scream. She kicked back furiously like an animal caught in a trap, but her refusal to concede only infuriated him more.
“Don’t fight me,” he warned, as sweat dripped from his stomach onto the backs of her thighs. But as he moved, her arm regained freedom. “Hold
” he demanded, enraged, as she twisted back and forth, gasping in shock, his bulbous torso flattening her body like a pancake. In a final effort to remind her who was in charge he gripped her hair and yanked. Then he shoved himself inside her like a sloppy drunk, moaning with satisfaction until it was cut short by a shriek of pain.
“Fuck!” Meyers yelled, pulling his weight from her. “Jesus, fuck! What was that?” He shoved her away, confused by a blaze of misery springing from the right side of his body. He looked down at his blubbery waist, trying to make sense of the pain, but all he saw was a small pink eraser sticking out from his right iliac region. It was encircled by a narrow moat of blood.
The number-two pencil. With her free hand, Elizabeth had found it, gripped it, and driven it straight into his side. Not just
part of it—all of it. Its sharply pointed lead, its friendly yellow wood, its shiny gold band—all seven inches of it versus all seven inches of him. And in doing so, she pierced not only his large and small intestine, but her academic career as well.
go here?” the campus police officer said after an ambulance had taken Dr. Meyers away. “I need to see some student ID.”
Elizabeth, her clothes torn, her hands shaking, a large bruise beginning to bloom on her forehead, looked back, incredulous.
“It’s a valid question,” the officer said. “What would a woman be doing in a lab this time of night?”
“I’m a gr-graduate student,” she stuttered, feeling like she might be sick. “In chemistry.”
The officer exhaled as if he didn’t have time for this sort of nonsense, then took out a small notepad. “Why don’t you tell me what you
Elizabeth supplied him with the details, her voice dulled by shock. He looked as if he was jotting it down, but when he turned away to tell another officer he “had it all under control,” she noticed that the notepad was blank.
“Please. I…I need a doctor.”
He flipped his notepad shut. “Would you like to make a statement of regret?” Then he gave her skirt a glance as if the fabric alone was an obvious invitation. “You stabbed the man. It’ll go better for you if you show some remorse.”
She looked back at him, hollow eyed. “You…you misunderstand, Officer. He attacked me. I…I defended myself. I need a doctor.”
The officer exhaled. “No statement of regret, then?” he said, clicking his pen shut.
She stared at him, her mouth slightly open, her body trembling. She looked down at her thigh where Meyers’s handprint was outlined in a light purple. She choked back the urge to vomit.
She looked up in time to see him checking his watch. That small movement was all it took. She reached out and snatched her ID card back from between his fingers. “Yes, Officer,” she said, her voice as taut as prison wire. “Now that I think about it, I do have one regret.”
“Much better,” he said. “Now we’re getting somewhere.” He clicked his pen back open. “Let’s hear it.”
“Pencils,” she said.
“Pencils,” he repeated, writing it down.
She raised her head to meet his eyes, a rivulet of blood coursing from her temple. “I regret not having more of them.”
The attack, or “unfortunate event,” as the admissions committee called it just before they formally rescinded her admittance to the doctoral program, had been her doing. Dr. Meyers had caught her cheating. She’d tried to change a test protocol to skew the experiment’s results—he had the proof right here—and when he’d confronted her, she’d thrown herself at him, offering sex. When that didn’t work, a physical fight ensued and before he knew it, he had a pencil in his gut. He was lucky to be alive.
Almost no one bought this story. Dr. Meyers had a reputation. But he was also important, and UCLA had no intention of losing someone of his stature. Elizabeth was out. Her master’s was complete. Her bruises would heal. Someone would write her a recommendation. Go.
That’s how she’d ended up at Hastings Research Institute. And now here she was, outside the Hastings lounge, her back pressed against a wall, sick to her stomach.
She looked up to find the lab tech peering at her. “You all right, Zott?” he asked. “You look kind of funny.”
She didn’t reply.
“My fault, Zott,” he admitted. “I shouldn’t have made such a
big deal about the beakers. As for them,” he said, tipping his head toward lounge—it was clear he’d overheard the conversation—“they’re just being fellas. Ignore ’em.”
But she couldn’t ignore them. In fact, the very next day, her boss, Dr. Donatti—the one who’d called her a cunt—reassigned her to a new project. “It’ll be a lot easier,” he said. “More your intellectual speed.”
“Why, Dr. Donatti?” she asked. “Was there something wrong with my work?” She’d been the driving force behind her current group research project and as a result, they were close to publishing results. But Donatti pointed to the door. The next day, she was assigned to a low-level amino acid study.
The lab tech, noting her growing dissatisfaction, asked her why she wanted to be a scientist anyway.
“I don’t want to be a scientist,” she snapped. “I
a scientist!” And in her mind, she was not going to let some fat man at UCLA, or her boss, or a handful of small-minded colleagues keep her from achieving her goals. She’d faced tough things before. She would weather what came.
But weathering is called weathering for a reason: it erodes. As the months went by, her fortitude was tested again and again. The only thing that gave her any respite at all was the theater, and even that sometimes disappointed.
It was a Saturday night, about two weeks after the beaker incident. She’d bought a ticket to
a supposedly funny operetta. Although she had long looked forward to it, as the story unfolded, she realized she didn’t find it funny at all. The lyrics were racist, the actors were white, and it was blatantly obvious that the female lead was going to be blamed for everyone else’s misdeeds. The whole thing reminded her of work. She decided to cut her losses and leave at intermission.
As luck would have it, Calvin Evans was also there that night, and had he been able to pay attention, he might have shared all
Elizabeth’s opinions. But instead he was on a first date with a secretary from the Biology Division,
he was sick to his stomach. The former was a mistake: the secretary had asked him to the operetta only because she believed his fame meant he was rich, and he, reacting to her eye-watering perfume, had blinked several times, which she thought meant “I’d love to.”
The queasiness started in act 1, but by the end of act 2, it had escalated to a roiling boil. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, “but I don’t feel well. I’m leaving.”
“What do you mean?” she said suspiciously. “You look fine to me.”
“Sick to my stomach,” he murmured.
“Well, excuse me, but I bought this dress special for tonight,” she said, “and I’m not leaving till I’ve worn it the full four hours.”
Calvin thrust some cab money in the general direction of her astonished face, then rushed himself out to the lobby, one hand on his abdomen as he headed straight toward the bathroom, careful not to jounce his hair-trigger stomach.
As luck would also have it, Elizabeth had reached the lobby at the same moment, and like Calvin, she too was making her way to the bathroom. But when she saw the long line, she whirled away in frustration, and in doing so, slammed directly into Calvin, who instantly vomited on her.
“Oh god,” he said, between retches, “oh Jesus.”
Stunned at first, Elizabeth gathered herself and, ignoring the mess he’d just made of her dress, put a comforting hand on the bent torso. “This man is sick,” Elizabeth called to the bathroom line, not yet realizing who it was. “Could someone call a doctor?”
But no one did. All the theater bathroom goers, reacting to the stench and the sound of violent illness, vacated the area immediately.
“Oh my god,” Calvin said over and over again, holding his stomach,
“oh my god.”
“I’ll get you a paper towel,” Elizabeth said gently. “And a
cab.” And then she took a good look at his face and said, “Say, don’t I know you?”
Twenty minutes later, she was helping him into his house. “I think we can rule out the aerosol dispersion of diphenylaminearsine,” she said. “Since no one else was affected.”
“Chemical warfare?” he gasped, holding his stomach. “I hope so.”
“It was probably just something you ate,” she said. “Food poisoning.”
“Oh,” he moaned. “I’m so embarrassed. I’m
sorry. Your dress. I’ll pay for the cleaning.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “It’s only a splatter.” She helped him onto his sofa, where he collapsed into a large heap.
“I…I can’t remember the last time I vomited. Much less in
“I was on a date,” he said. “Can you imagine? I left her there.”
“No,” she said, trying to remember the last time she’d even had a date.
They were silent for a few minutes, then he closed his eyes. She took this as her cue to leave.
“Again, so sorry,” he whispered, as he heard her make her way to the door.
“Please. There’s no need to apologize. It was a reaction, a chemical incompatibility. We’re scientists. We understand these things.”
“No, no,” he said weakly, wanting to clarify. “I mean about assuming you were a secretary that day—about telling you to have your boss call me,” he said. “I am so