Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
Every day is new,” Calvin repeated as if he were still that child. But the memory of what he’d learned about his father still proved too much for him and he stopped. “Look, I’m tired. Let’s call it a day.”
“We should get some sleep,” she said, not yawning.
“We can talk about this another time,” he said, depressed.
“Maybe tomorrow,” she lied.
The Hastings Cafeteria
There’s nothing more irritating than witnessing someone else’s unfair share of happiness, and to some of their colleagues at Hastings Research Institute, Elizabeth and Calvin had an unfair share. He, because he was brilliant; she, because she was beautiful. When they became a couple, their unfair shares automatically doubled, making it really unfair.
The worst part, according to these people, was that they hadn’t earned their shares—they’d simply been born that way, meaning their unfair share of happiness arose, not from hard work, but from genetic luck. And the fact that the duo decided to combine their unearned gifts into one loving and probably highly sexual relationship, which the rest of them had to witness at lunch every day, just made it that much worse.
“Here they come,” said a geologist from the seventh floor. “Batman and Robin.”
“I heard they’re shacking up together—did you know that?” asked his lab mate.
“I didn’t know that,” a third named Eddie said grimly.
The three geologists watched as Elizabeth and Calvin chose
an empty table in the middle of the cafeteria, the clash of trays and silverware
ing around them like gunfire. As the stink of cafeteria stroganoff threatened to asphyxiate the rest of the room, Calvin and Elizabeth placed a set of open Tupperware containers on the table. Chicken parmesan. Au gratin potatoes. Some sort of salad.
“Oh, I see,” said one of the geologists. “So the food here isn’t good enough for them.”
“My cat eats better than this,” the other geologist said, shoving his tray away.
“Hi, fellas!” chirped Miss Frask, a too-cheerful, wide-bottomed secretary from Personnel. Frask set down her tray, then cleared her throat as she waited for Eddie, a geology lab tech, to pull out her chair. Frask had been dating Eddie for three months, and while she would have liked to report it was all going very well, it wasn’t. Eddie was immature with boorish tendencies. He chewed with his mouth open, guffawed at jokes that weren’t funny, said things like “va-va-va-voom.” Still, Eddie had one important thing going for him: he was single. “Well, thank you, Eddie,” she said as he leaned over and yanked her chair out for her. “So sweet!”
“Proceed at your own risk,” one of the geologists warned, tipping his head in Calvin and Elizabeth’s general direction.
“Why?” she said. “What are we looking at?” She spun in her chair to follow their gaze. “Jeez Louise,” she said, spying the happy couple.
The four of them watched in silence as Elizabeth pulled out a notebook and passed it to Calvin. Calvin studied the page, then made some comment. Elizabeth shook her head, then pointed at something specific. Calvin nodded and, cocking his head to the side, slowly started to chew his lips.
unattractive,” Frask said in disgust. But because she was in Personnel and Personnel never comments on an employee’s physical appearance, she added, “And by that I only mean that blue is not his color.”
One of the geologists took a bite of stroganoff, then set down his fork in resignation. “Hear the latest? Evans was nominated for the Nobel again.”
The whole table issued a collective sigh.
“Well, that’s meaningless,” one of the geologists said. “Anyone can be nominated.”
“Oh really? Have you ever been nominated?”
They continued to watch, transfixed, as a few minutes later Elizabeth reached down and pulled out a package wrapped in wax paper.
“What do you think that is?” one of the geologists asked.
“Baked goods,” Eddie said, his voice filled with awe. “She
They watched as she offered Calvin brownies.
“Oh good god,” Frask said, exasperated. “What do you mean, ‘too’? Anyone can bake.”
“I don’t understand her,” one of the geologists said. “She’s got Evans. Why’s she still here?” He paused as if weighing all possibilities. “Unless,” he said, “Evans doesn’t
to marry her.”
“Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” the other geologist suggested.
“I grew up on a farm,” Eddie contributed. “Cows are a lot of work.”
Frask glanced at him sideways. It irritated her that he continued to crane his neck toward Zott like a plant to sunlight.
“I’m a specialist in human behavior,” she said. “At one point I was pursuing a PhD in psychology.” She looked at her lunch mates, hoping they’d ask her about her academic aspirations, but no one seemed even slightly interested. “Anyway, that’s why I can say with confidence: it’s
From across the room, Elizabeth straightened her papers, then rose. “Sorry to cut this short, Calvin, but I have a meeting.”
“A meeting?” Calvin said, as if she’d just announced she was
attending an execution. “If you worked in my lab, you’d never have to go to meetings.”
“But I don’t work in your lab.”
She sighed, busying herself with the Tupperware. Of course, she’d love to work in his lab, but it wasn’t possible. She was an entry-level chemist. She had to make her own way. Try to understand, she’d told him more than once.
“But we live together. This is just the next logical step.” When it came to Elizabeth, he knew logic ruled the day.
“That was an economic decision,” she reminded him. Which, on the surface, it was. Calvin had initiated the idea, saying that because they spent most of their free time together, it made financial sense to share living quarters. Still, it was also 1952, and in 1952 an unmarried woman did not move in with a man. So he was a bit surprised when Elizabeth didn’t hesitate. “I’ll pay half,” she’d said.
She removed the pencil from her hair and tapped it on the table awaiting his response. She hadn’t actually meant she’d pay half. Paying half was impossible. Her paycheck hovered just above ridiculous; half was out of the question. Anyway, the house was in his name—only he would receive the tax benefit. Therefore, half wouldn’t be fair. She’d give him a moment to do the math. Half was outrageous.
“Half,” he mused, as if considering it.
He already knew she couldn’t pay half. She couldn’t even pay a quarter. This was because Hastings paid her a penurious wage—about half what a man in her position made— a fact he’d encountered in her personnel file, which he’d peeked at illegally. Anyway, he didn’t have a mortgage. He’d paid off his tiny bungalow last year with the proceeds from a chemistry prize and had instantly regretted it. You know how people say, “Never put all your eggs in one basket?” He had.
“Or,” she’d said, brightening, “perhaps we could work out a trade agreement. You know, like nations do.”
“Rent for services rendered.”
Calvin froze. He’d overheard all the gossip regarding the free milk.
“Dinner,” she said. “Four nights a week.” And before he could reply she said, “Fine.
But that’s my final offer. I’m a good cook, Calvin. Cooking is serious science. In fact, it’s chemistry.”
So they’d moved in together and it had all worked out. But the lab idea? She refused even to consider it.
“You were just nominated for a Nobel, Calvin,” she reminded him as she snapped the Tupperware lid closed on the remaining potatoes. “Your third nomination in five years. I want to be judged on my own work—not work people think you did for me.”
“Anyone who knows you would never think that.”
She burped the Tupperware, then turned to look at him. “That’s the problem. No one knows me.”
She’d felt this way her entire life. She’d been defined not by what she did, but by what others had done. In the past she was either the offspring of an arsonist, the daughter of a serial wife, the sister of a hanged homosexual, or the graduate student of a renowned lecher. Now she was the girlfriend of a famous chemist. But she was never just Elizabeth Zott.
And on those rare occasions when she wasn’t defined by others’ actions, then she was dismissed out of hand as either a lightweight or a gold digger based on the thing she hated most about herself. How she looked. Which happened to be just like her father.
He was the reason she didn’t smile much anymore. Before becoming an evangelist, her father had wanted to be an actor. He had both the charisma and the teeth—the latter, professionally capped. The only thing missing? Talent. So when it became clear
that acting was out, he took his skills to revival tents where his fake smile sold people on the end of the world. That’s why, at age ten, Elizabeth stopped smiling. The resemblance faded.
It wasn’t until Calvin Evans came along that her smile reemerged. The first time was that night at the theater when he’d vomited all over her dress. She hadn’t recognized him at first, but when she did and despite the mess, she bent over to get a better look at his face. Calvin Evans! True, she’d been a little rude to him after he’d been rude to her—the beakers—but between the two of them there’d been immediate, irresistible pull.
“Still working on that?” she asked, pointing at a nearly empty container.
“No,” he said, “you eat it. You could use the extra fuel.”
Actually, he’d planned to eat it, but he was willing to forgo the extra calories if only she would stay. Like Elizabeth, he’d never been much of a people person; in fact, it wasn’t until he’d found rowing that he’d made any real kind of connection with others. Physical suffering, he’d long ago learned, bonds people in a way that everyday life can’t. He still kept in contact with his eight Cambridge teammates—had even seen one of them just last month when he’d been in New York for a conference. Four Seat—they still called one another by their seat names—had become a neurologist.
“You have a what?” Four Seat had said, surprised. “A
? Well, good for you, Six!” he said, slapping him on the back. “About bloody time!”
Calvin had nodded excitedly, explaining in detail Elizabeth’s work and habits and laugh and everything else he loved about her. But in a more somber tone, he also explained that although he and Elizabeth spent all of their free time together—they lived together, they ate together, they drove back and forth to work
together—it didn’t feel like enough. It wasn’t that he couldn’t function without her, he told Four Seat, but rather that he didn’t see the
of functioning without her. “I don’t know what to call it,” he’d confided following a full examination. “Am I addicted to her? Am I dependent in some sick sort of way? Could I have a brain tumor?”
“Jesus, Six, it’s called happiness,” Four Seat explained. “When’s the wedding?”
But that was the problem. Elizabeth had made it clear that she had no interest in getting married. “It’s not that I disapprove of marriage, Calvin,” she’d told him more than once, “although I do disapprove of all of the people who disapprove of us for not being married. Don’t you?”
“I do,” Calvin agreed, thinking how much he would like to say those words to her in front of an altar. But when she looked at him expecting more, he added quickly, “I do think we’re lucky.” And then she smiled at him so earnestly that something inside his brain went haywire. As soon as they parted, he drove to a local jeweler, scanning the selections until he found the biggest small diamond he could afford. Sick with excitement, he kept the tiny box in his pocket for three months waiting for exactly the right moment.
“Calvin?” Elizabeth said, gathering the last of her things from the cafeteria table. “Are you listening? I said I’m going to a wedding tomorrow. Actually, I’m
the wedding if you can believe that.” She gave a nervous shrug. “So we should probably discuss that acid study tonight if that works.”
“Who’s getting married?”
“My friend Margaret—the Physics secretary? That’s who I’m meeting in fifteen minutes. For a fitting.”
“Wait. You have a
?” He thought Elizabeth only had
workmates—fellow scientists who recognized her skill and undermined her results.
Elizabeth felt a flush of embarrassment. “Well, yes,” she said awkwardly. “Margaret and I nod to each other in the hallways. We’ve spoken several times at the coffee urn.”
Calvin willed his face to look as if this were a reasonable description of friendship.
“It’s very last-minute. One of her bridesmaids is sick and Margaret says it’s important to have an even ratio of bridesmaids to ushers.” Although as soon as she said it, she realized what Margaret really needed: a size 6 without weekend plans.
The truth was, she wasn’t good at making friends. She’d told herself it was because she’d moved so much, had bad parents, lost her brother. But she knew others had experienced hardships and they didn’t have this issue. If anything, some of them seemed
at making friends—as if the specter of constant change or profound sorrow had revealed to them the importance of making connections wherever and whenever they landed. What was wrong with her?
And then there was the illogical art of female friendship itself, the way it seemed to demand an ability to both keep and reveal secrets using precise timing. Whenever she moved to a new town, girls would take her aside at Sunday school and breathlessly confide their crushes on certain boys. She listened to these confessions, faithfully promising she would never tell. And she didn’t. Which was all wrong because it turned out she was
to tell. Her job as confidante was to break that confidence by telling Boy X that Girl Y thought he was cute, thus initiating a chain reaction of interest between the two parties. “Why don’t
just tell him yourself?” she’d say to these would-be friends. “He’s right
” The girls would draw back in horror.
“Elizabeth,” Calvin said. “Elizabeth?” He leaned over the table and tapped her hand. “Sorry,” he said as she startled. “I think I lost you there for a moment. Anyway, I was just saying, I love weddings. I’ll go with you.”