Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
To this she had no response.
“We’ve never been formally introduced,” he said. “I’m Calvin Evans.”
“Elizabeth Zott,” she answered, gathering her things.
“Well, Elizabeth Zott,” he said, managing a small smile, “you’re a lifesaver.”
But it was clear she hadn’t heard.
“My DNA research focused on polyphosphoric acids as condensing agents,” she told Calvin over coffee in the cafeteria the following week. “And it’s been going well up until now. As of last month, I’ve been reassigned. To an amino acid study.”
“Donatti—don’t you work for him, too? Anyway, he decided my work was unnecessary.”
“But condensing agent research is critical to further understanding of DNA—”
“Yes, I know, I
” she agreed. “It was what I’d planned to pursue in my doctorate. Although what I’m really interested in is abiogenesis.”
“Abiogenesis? The theory that life arose from simplistic, nonlife forms? Fascinating. But you’re not a PhD.”
“But abiogenesis is PhD territory.”
“I have a master’s in chemistry. From UCLA.”
“Academia,” he nodded sympathetically. “It got old. You wanted out.”
A long moment of uncomfortable silence followed.
“Look,” she started up again, taking a deep breath, “my hypothesis of polyphosphoric acids is as follows.”
Before she knew it, she’d talked to him for more than an hour, Calvin nodding as he made notes, occasionally interrupting with elaborate questions, which she easily fielded.
“I would be further,” she said, “but as I mentioned, I was ‘reallocated.’ And before that, getting the basic supplies to continue my real work proved nearly impossible.” That’s why, she
explained, she’d been reduced to stealing equipment and supplies from other labs.
“But why was it so hard to get supplies?” Calvin asked. “Hastings has plenty of money.”
Elizabeth looked at him as if he’d just asked how, with all those rice paddies, there could possibly be starving children in China. “Sex discrimination,” she answered, taking the number-two pencil she always wore either behind her ear or in her hair and tapping it with emphasis on the table. “But also, politics, favoritism, inequality, and general unfairness.”
He chewed on his lips.
“But mostly sex discrimination,” she said.
“What sex discrimination?” he asked innocently. “Why wouldn’t we want women in science? That makes no sense. We need all the scientists we can get.”
Elizabeth looked at him, astonished. She had been under the impression that Calvin Evans was a smart man, but now she realized he was one of those people who might only be smart in one narrow way. She studied him more closely, as if assessing what it might take to get through. Gathering her hair in both hands, she wound it twice before placing it in a knot on top of her head. Then she secured it with her pencil. “When you were at Cambridge,” she said carefully, placing her hands back on the table, “how many women scientists did you know?”
“None. But my college was all-male.”
“Oh, I see,” she said. “But surely, women had the same opportunities elsewhere, correct? So how many women scientists do you know? Do not say Madame Curie.”
He looked back at her, sensing trouble.
“The problem, Calvin,” she asserted, “is that half the population is being wasted. It’s not just that I can’t get the supplies I need to complete my work, it’s that women can’t get the education they need to do what
meant to do. And even if they do attend college, it will never be a place like Cambridge. Which means they won’t be offered the same opportunities nor afforded
the same respect. They’ll start at the bottom and stay there. Don’t even get me started on pay. And all because they didn’t attend a school that wouldn’t admit them in the first place.”
“You’re saying,” he said slowly, “that more women actually want to be in science.”
She widened her eyes. “
Of course we do.
In science, in medicine, in business, in music, in math. Pick an area.” And then she paused, because the truth was, she’d only known a handful of women who’d wanted to be in science or any other area for that matter. Most of the women she’d met in college claimed they were only there to get their MRS. It was disconcerting, as if they’d all drunk something that had rendered them temporarily insane.
“But instead,” she continued, “women are at home, making babies and cleaning rugs. It’s legalized slavery. Even the women who wish to be homemakers find their work completely misunderstood. Men seem to think the average mother of five’s biggest decision of the day is what color to paint her nails.”
Calvin pictured five children and shuddered.
“About your work,” he said, trying to redirect the battle. “I think I can fix it.”
“I don’t need you to fix anything,” she said. “I’m perfectly capable of fixing my own situation.”
“No, you’re not.”
“You can’t fix it because the world doesn’t work that way. Life isn’t fair.”
This infuriated her—that
about unfairness. He wouldn’t know the first thing about it. She started to say something, but he cut her off.
“Look,” he said, “life has never been fair, and yet you continue to operate as if it is—as if once you get a few wrongs straightened out, everything else will fall into place. They won’t. You want my advice?” And before she could say no, he added, “Don’t work the system. Outsmart it.”
She sat silently, weighing his words. They made annoying sense in a terribly unfair way.
“Now here’s a lucky coincidence: I’ve been trying to rethink polyphosphoric acids for the last year and I’m getting nowhere. Your research could change that. If I tell Donatti I need to work with your findings, you’ll be back on it tomorrow. And even if I didn’t need your work—which I do— I owe you. Once for the secretarial remark, and again for the vomit.”
Elizabeth continued to sit silently. Against her better judgment, she felt herself warming to the idea. She didn’t want to: she didn’t like the notion that systems had to be outsmarted. Why couldn’t they just be smart in the first place? And she certainly didn’t like favors. Favors smacked of cheating. And yet she had goals, and dammit, why should she just sit by? Sitting by never got anyone anywhere.
“Look,” she said pointedly, as she brushed a strand of hair off her face. “I hope you won’t think I’m jumping to conclusions, but I’ve had trouble in the past and I want to be clear: I’m not dating you. This is work, nothing more. I am not interested in a relationship of any kind.”
“Nor am I,” he insisted. “This is work. That’s it.”
And then they gathered their cups and saucers and went off in opposite directions, each desperately hoping the other didn’t mean it.
Introduction to Chemistry
About three weeks later, Calvin and Elizabeth were walking out to the parking lot, their voices raised.
“Your idea is completely misguided,” she said. “You’re overlooking the fundamental nature of protein synthesis.”
“On the contrary,” he said, thinking that no one had ever called any of his ideas misguided and now that somehow had, he didn’t particularly like it, “I can’t believe how you completely ignore the molecular struc—”
“You’re forgetting the two covalent—”
“Yes, but only when—”
“Look,” she interrupted sharply as they stopped in front of her car. “This is a problem.”
“What’s a problem?”
she said firmly, pointing both hands at him. “You’re the problem.”
“Because we disagree?”
“That’s not the problem,” she said.
“It’s…” She waved her hand uncertainly, then looked off into the distance.
Calvin exhaled, and laying his hand on the roof of her old blue Plymouth, waited for the rebuff he knew was coming.
In the last few weeks, he and Elizabeth had met six times—twice for lunch and four times for coffee—and each time it had been both the high and low point of his day. The high point because she was the most intelligent, insightful, intriguing—and yes—the most alarmingly attractive woman he’d ever met in his life. The low point: she always seemed in a hurry to leave. And whenever she did, he felt desperate and depressed for the rest of the day.
“The recent silkworm findings,” she was saying. “In the latest issue of
That’s what I meant by the complicated part.”
He nodded as if he understood, but he didn’t and not just about the silkworms. Each time they’d met, he’d gone out of his way to prove that he had absolutely no interest in her beyond a professional capacity. He hadn’t offered to buy her coffee, he hadn’t volunteered to carry her lunch tray, he hadn’t even opened a door for her—including that time when her arms were so full of books he couldn’t even see her head. Nor did he faint when she accidentally backed into him at the sink and he caught a whiff of her hair. He didn’t even know hair could smell like that
as if it had been washed in a basin of flowers
Was she to give him no credit for his work-and-nothing-more behavior? The whole thing was infuriating.
“The part about bombykol,” she said. “In silkworms.”
“Sure,” he answered dully, thinking of how stupid he’d been the first time he’d met her. Called her a secretary. Kicked her out of his lab. And then what about later? He’d thrown up on her. She said it didn’t matter, but had she ever worn that yellow dress again? No. It was obvious to him that even though she said she didn’t hold a grudge, she did. As a champion grudge holder himself, he knew how it worked.
“It’s a chemical messenger,” she said. “In female silkworms.”
“Worms,” he said sarcastically. “Great.”
She took a step back, surprised by his flippancy. “You’re not interested,” she said, the tips of her ears reddening.
“Not at all.”
Elizabeth took a short breath in and busied herself by searching in her purse for her keys.
What a huge disappointment. She’d finally met someone she could actually talk to—someone she found infinitely intelligent, insightful, intriguing (and alarmingly attractive whenever he smiled)—and he had no interest in her. None. They’d met six times in the last few weeks, and each time she’d kept it all business and so had he—although his was almost to the point of rudeness. That day when she couldn’t even see the door because her arms were full of books? He couldn’t be bothered to help. And yet each time they were together, she felt this practically irresistible urge to kiss him. Which was
unlike her. And yet after each meeting—which she ended as soon as she could because she was afraid she
kiss him—she felt desperate and depressed for the rest of the day.
“I need to go,” she said.
“Business as usual,” he retorted. But neither of them moved, instead turning their heads in opposite directions as if looking for the person they’d actually meant to meet in the parking lot even though it was almost seven o’clock on a Friday night and the south lot now contained only two cars: hers and his.
“Big plans for the weekend?” he finally ventured.
“Yes,” she lied.
“Enjoy,” he snapped. Then he turned and walked away.
She watched him for a moment, then got in her car and closed her eyes. Calvin wasn’t stupid. He read
He must have known what she was implying when she mentioned bombykol, the pheromone released by female silkworms to attract male mates.
he’d said almost cruelly. What a jerk. And
what a fool she’d been—so blatantly broaching the subject of love in a parking lot, only to get rejected.
You’re not interested,
Not at all,
She opened her eyes and shoved the key in the ignition. He probably assumed she was only after more lab equipment anyway. Because in a man’s mind, why else would a woman mention bombykol on a Friday evening in an empty parking lot when the soft breeze was coming out of the west carrying the scent of her extremely expensive shampoo directly into his nasal cavity unless it was all part of a plot to get more beakers? She couldn’t think of another reason. Except for the real one. She was falling in love with him.
Just then there was a sharp rap to her left. She looked up to find Calvin motioning for her to roll down her window.
“I’m not after your damn lab equipment!” she barked as she lowered the pane that separated them.
“And I’m not the problem,” he snapped as he bent down to face her straight on.
Elizabeth looked back at him, fuming. How
Calvin looked back at her. How dare
And then that feeling came over her again, the one she had every time she was with him, but this time she acted on it, reaching out with both hands to draw his face to hers, their first kiss cementing a permanent bond that even chemistry could not explain.
Her lab mates assumed Elizabeth was dating Calvin Evans for one reason only: his fame. With Calvin in her back pocket, she was untouchable. But the reason was much simpler: “Because I love him,” she would have said if someone asked. But no one asked.
It was the same for him. Had anyone asked him, Calvin would have said Elizabeth Zott was what he treasured most in the world, and not because she was pretty, and not because she was smart, but because she loved him and he loved her with a certain kind of fullness, of conviction, of faith, that underscored their devotion to each other. They were more than friends, more than confidants, more than allies, and more than lovers. If relationships are a puzzle, then theirs was solved from the get-go—as if someone shook out the box and watched from above as each separate piece landed exactly right, slipping one into the other, fully interlocked, into a picture that made perfect sense. They made other couples sick.
At night, after they made love, they would always lie in the same position on their backs, his leg slung over hers, her arm atop his thigh, his head tipped down toward hers, and they would talk: sometimes about their challenges, other times about their future, always about their work. Despite their postcoital fatigue, their conversations often lasted long into the early morning hours, and whenever it was about a certain finding or formula, eventually, invariably, one of them would finally have to get up and take a
few notes. While some couples’ togetherness tends to affect their work in a negative way, it was just the opposite for Elizabeth and Calvin. They were working even when they
working—fueling each other’s creativity and inventiveness with a new point of view—and while the scientific community would later marvel at their productivity, they probably would have marveled even more had they realized most of it was done naked.
“Still awake?” Calvin whispered hesitantly one night as they lay in bed. “Because I wanted to run something by you. It’s about Thanksgiving.”
“What about it?”
“Well, it’s coming up and I wondered if you were going home, and if you were, if you were going to invite me to tag along and”—he paused, then rushed ahead—“meetyourfamily.”
Elizabeth whispered back. “
No. I’m not going home. I thought we might have Thanksgiving here. Together. Unless. Well. Were
planning on going home?”
“Absolutely not,” he said.
In the past few months, Calvin and Elizabeth had talked about almost everything—books, careers, beliefs, aspirations, movies, politics, even allergies. There was only one obvious exception: family. It wasn’t intentional—not at first, anyway—but after months of never bringing it up, it became clear it might never come up.
It’s not to say they were incurious of each other’s roots. Who didn’t want to dip into the deep end of someone else’s childhood and meet all the usual suspects—the strict parent, the competitive siblings, the crazy aunt? Not them.
Thus the topic of family was like a cordoned-off room on a historic home tour. One could still tip a head in to get a vague sense that Calvin had grown up somewhere (Massachusetts?) and
that Elizabeth had brothers (or was it sisters?)—but there was no opportunity to step inside and sneak a peek at the medicine cabinet. Until Calvin brought up Thanksgiving.
“I can’t believe I’m asking this,” he finally ventured in the thick silence. “But I realize I don’t know where you’re from.”
“Oh,” Elizabeth said. “Well. Oregon, mostly. You?”
“Really?” she asked. “I thought you were from Boston.”
“No,” he said quickly. “Any brothers? Sisters?”
“A brother,” she said. “You?”
“None.” His voice was flat.
She lay very still, taking in his tone. “Was it lonely?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said bluntly.
“I’m sorry,” she said, taking his hand under the sheets. “Your parents didn’t want another child?”
“Hard to say,” he said, his voice reedy. “It’s not really the kind of thing a kid asks a parent, is it? But probably. Certainly.”
“They died when I was five. My mother was eight months pregnant at the time.”
“Oh my god. I’m so sorry, Calvin,” Elizabeth said, bolting upright. “What
“Train,” he said matter-of-factly. “Hit them.”
“Calvin, I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”
“It’s okay,” he said. “It was a long time ago. I don’t really remember them.”
“Your turn,” he said abruptly.
“No wait, wait, Calvin, who
“My aunt. But then she died, too.”
“We were in the car and she had a heart attack. The car jumped the curb and slammed into a tree.”
“Call it a family tradition. Dying in accidents.”
“That’s not funny.”
“I wasn’t trying to be funny.”
“How old were you?” Elizabeth pressed.
She squeezed her eyes shut. “And then you were put in a…” Her voice trailed off.
“A Catholic boys home.”
“And…,” she prompted him, hating herself for doing so. “What was that like?”
He paused as if trying to find an honest answer to this obscenely simple question. “Rough,” he finally said, his voice so low she barely heard him.
A quarter mile away, a train whistled and Elizabeth cringed. How many nights had Calvin lain there and heard that whistle and thought about his dead parents and his almost sibling and never said a word? Unless, perhaps, he never thought about them—he’d said he could barely remember them. But then who
he remember? And what
they been like? And when he’d said, “Rough,” what did that
exactly? She wanted to ask, but his tone—so dark and low and strange—warned her to go no further. And what about his later life? How did he ever learn to row in the middle of Iowa, much less make his way to Cambridge to row there? And college? Who’d paid for it? And his earlier education? A boys home in Iowa didn’t sound like it provided much in the way of learning. It’s one thing to be brilliant, but to be brilliant without opportunity—that was something else. If Mozart had been born to a poor family in Bombay instead of a cultured one in Salzburg, would he have composed Symphony no. 36 in C? Not a chance. How, then, had Calvin come from nothing to become one of the most highly respected scientists in the world?
“You were saying,” he said, his voice wooden, as he pulled her back down next to him. “Oregon.”
“Yes,” she said, dreading the telling of her own story.
“How often do you visit?” he asked.
?” Calvin almost shouted, shocked that she could throw away a perfectly good family. One that was still alive anyway.
Calvin paused, as if he might have missed something.
“My father was a…a type of religious expert,” she explained.
“A sort of God salesman.”
“I’m not following—”
“Someone who preaches gloom and doom to make money. You know,” she said, her voice filling with embarrassment, “the kind who rants about how the end is near but has a solution—say a specialized baptism or a pricey amulet—that will keep Judgment Day off just a bit longer.”
“There’s a living in that?”
She turned her head toward his. “Oh yes.”
He lay silent, trying to imagine it.
“Anyway,” she said, “we had to move a lot because of it. You can’t keep telling everyone the end is near if the end never comes.”
“What about your mother?”
“She made the amulets.”
“No, I mean, was she also very religious?”
Elizabeth hesitated. “Only if you count greed as a religion. There’s lots of competition in this area, Calvin—it’s extremely lucrative. But my father was especially gifted and the new Cadillac he got every year proved it. But when it comes down to it, I think my father’s talent for spontaneous combustion really made him stand out.”
“It’s really hard to ignore someone who shouts, ‘Give me a sign,’ and then something bursts into flame.”
“Wait. Are you saying—”
“Calvin,” she said, reverting to her standard scientific tone, “did
you know pistachios are naturally flammable? It’s because of their high fat content. Normally pistachios are stored under fairly rigid conditions of humidity, temperature, and pressure, but should those conditions be altered, the pistachio’s fat-cleaving enzymes produce free fatty acids that are broken down when the seed takes in oxygen and sheds carbon dioxide. Result? Fire. I will credit my father for two things: he could conjure a spontaneous combustion whenever he needed a convenient sign from God.” She shook her head. “Boy, did we go through the pistachios.”
“And the other?” he asked in wonder.
“He was the one who introduced me to chemistry.” She exhaled. “I should thank him for that, I guess,” she said bitterly. “But I don’t.”
Calvin turned his head to the left, trying to disguise his disappointment. In that moment, he realized how much he’d wanted to meet her family—how much he’d hoped to sit at a Thanksgiving table, surrounded by people who would finally be his because he was hers.
“Where’s your brother?” he asked.
“Dead.” Her voice was hard. “Suicide.”
Air left his chest.
“He hanged himself.”
“Because my father told him God hated him.”
“Like I said, my father was very convincing. If my father said God wanted something, God usually got it. God being my father.”
Calvin’s stomach tensed.
“Were…were you and he close?”
She took a deep breath. “Yes.
“But I don’t understand,” he persisted. “Why would your father do such a thing?” He turned his attention to the dark ceiling. He’d not had much experience with families, but he’d always assumed that being part of one was important: a prerequisite for
stability, what one relied on to get through the hard times. He’d never really considered that a family could actually
the hard times.
“John—my brother—was a homosexual,” Elizabeth said.
“Oh,” he said, as if now he understood. “I’m sorry
She propped herself up on one elbow and peered at him in the darkness. “What is
supposed to mean?” she shot back.
“Well, but—how did you know? Surely he didn’t tell you he was.”
“I’m a scientist, Calvin, remember? I
Anyway, there’s nothing wrong with homosexuality; it’s completely normal— a basic fact of human biology. I have no idea why people don’t know this. Does no one read Margaret Mead anymore? The point is, I knew John was a homosexual, and he knew I knew. We talked about it. He didn’t choose it; it was simply part of who he was. The best part was,” she said wistfully, “he knew about me, too.”
“Knew you were—”
Elizabeth snapped. “Look, I realize this may be hard for you to fathom given your own terrible circumstances, but while we may be born into families, it doesn’t necessarily mean we belong to them.”
“But we do—”
“No. You need to understand this, Calvin. People like my father preach love but are filled with hate. Anyone who threatens their narrow beliefs cannot be tolerated. The day my mother caught my brother holding hands with another boy, that was it. After a year of hearing that he was an aberration and didn’t deserve to live, he went out to the shed with a rope.”
She said it in a too-high voice, the way one does when one is trying very hard not to cry. He reached for her and she let him take her in his arms.
“How old were you?” he asked.
“Ten,” she said. “John was seventeen.”
“Tell me more about him,” he coaxed. “What was he like?”
“Oh, you know,” she mumbled. “Kind. Protective. John was the one who read to me every night, bandaged my skinned knees, taught me how to read and write. We moved a lot and I never really got any good at making friends, but I had John. We spent most of our time at the library. It became our sanctuary—the only thing we could count on from town to town. Sort of funny now that I think about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because my parents were in the sanctuary
“One thing I’ve learned, Calvin: people will always yearn for a simple solution to their complicated problems. It’s a lot easier to have faith in something you can’t see, can’t touch, can’t explain, and can’t change, rather than to have faith in something you actually can.” She sighed. “One’s self, I mean.” She tensed her stomach.
They lay silently, both wading in the misery of their pasts.
“Where are your parents now?”
“My father’s in prison. One of his signs from God ended up killing three people. As for my mother, she divorced, remarried, and moved to Brazil. No extradition laws there. Did I mention my parents never paid taxes?”
Calvin let loose a long, low whistle. When one is raised on a steady diet of sorrow, it’s hard to imagine that others might have had an even larger serving.
“So after your brother…died…it was just you and your parents—”
“No,” she interrupted. “Just me. My parents were often gone for weeks at a time, and without John I had to become self-sufficient. So I did. I taught myself to cook and do small house repairs.”
“I already told you— I went to the library.”
She turned toward him. “That’s it.”
They lay together like felled trees. From several blocks away, a church bell tolled.
“When I was a kid,” Calvin said quietly, “I used to tell myself every day was new. That anything could happen.”
She took his hand again. “Did it help?”
His mouth sagged as he remembered what the bishop at the boys home had revealed to him about his father. “I guess I’m just saying we shouldn’t let ourselves get stuck in the past.”
She nodded, imagining a newly orphaned boy trying to convince himself of a brighter future. That had to be a special brand of bravery, for a child to endure the worst, and despite every law in the universe and all evidence to the contrary, decide the next day might be better.