Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
Actually, he hated weddings. For years, they’d reminded him that he was still unloved. But now he had her and tomorrow she’d be in close proximity to an altar and he hypothesized such proximity could revise her perception of marriage. This theory even had a scientific name: associative interference.
“No,” she said quickly. “I don’t have an extra invite, and besides, the fewer people who see me in this dress the better.”
“Come on,” he said, reaching one long arm across the span that separated them, pulling her back down. “Margaret can’t expect you to go alone. And as for the dress, I’m sure it’s not that bad.”
“Oh, no, it
” she said, reverting to her sensible tone of scientific certainty. “Bridesmaids’ dresses are designed to make the women in them look unappealing; that way the bride looks better than usual. It’s an accepted practice, a basic defensive strategy with biological roots. You see this sort of thing in nature all the time.”
Calvin thought back to the weddings he’d attended and realized she might be right: not once had he ever had the urge to ask a bridesmaid to dance. Could a dress really have that much power? He looked across the table at Elizabeth, her firm hands moving through space as she described the gown: extra padding at the hips, sloppy gathering at the waist and chest, fat bow spanning the buttocks. He thought about the people who designed these dresses; how, like bomb manufacturers or pornography stars, they had to remain vague about the way they made their livings.
“Well, it’s nice of you to help out. But I thought you didn’t like weddings.”
“No, it’s only marriage I don’t like. We’ve talked about it, Calvin; you know where I stand. But I’m happy for Margaret. Mostly.”
“Well,” she said, “she keeps repeating how by Saturday night, she’ll finally be Mrs. Peter Dickman. As if changing her name is the finish line for a race she’s been in since she was six.”
?” he said. “From Cellular Biology?” He didn’t like Dickman.
“Exactly,” she said. “I’ve never understood why when women marry, they’re expected to trade in their old names like used cars, losing their last and sometimes even their first—Mrs.
Lincoln!—as if their previous identities had just been twenty-odd-year placeholders before they became actual people. Mrs. Peter Dickman. It’s a life sentence.”
Elizabeth Evans, on the other hand,
Calvin thought to himself,
Before he could stop himself, he felt around in his pocket for the small blue box, and without hesitation, placed it in front of her. “Maybe this could help improve the dress,” he said, his heart at full gallop.
“Ring box,” announced one of the geologists. “Brace yourself, kids: engagement in process.” But there was something about Elizabeth’s face that didn’t read right.
Elizabeth looked down at the box and then looked back up at Calvin, her eyes wide with terror.
“I know your position on marriage,” Calvin said in a rush. “But I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I think you and I would have a different kind of marriage. It would be very unaverage. Fun, even.”
“There are also practical reasons to get married. Lower taxes, for instance.”
“At least look at the ring,” he begged. “I’ve been carrying it around for months. Please.”
“I can’t,” she said, looking away. “It’ll just make it harder to say no.”
Her mother had always insisted that the measure of a woman was how well she married. “I
have married Billy Graham,” she’d often claimed. “Don’t think he wasn’t interested. By the way, Elizabeth, when you do get engaged, insist on the biggest rock possible. That way, if the marriage doesn’t work out, you can hock it.” As it turned out, her mother was speaking from experience. When her parents filed for divorce, it was revealed she’d been married three times before.
“I’m not going to marry,” Elizabeth told her. “I’m going to be a scientist. Successful women scientists don’t marry.”
“Oh really?” Her mother laughed. “I see. So you think you’re going to marry your work like the nuns marry Jesus? Although say what you want about nuns—at least they know their husband won’t snore.” She pinched Elizabeth’s arm. “No woman says no to marriage, Elizabeth. You won’t either.”
Calvin opened his eyes wide. “You’re saying
“Calvin,” she said carefully, reaching across the table for his hands while taking in his deflated face. “I thought we’d agreed on this. As a scientist yourself, I know you understand why marriage for me is out of the question.”
But his expression indicated no such understanding.
“Because I can’t risk having my scientific contributions submerged beneath your name,” she clarified.
“Right,” he said. “Of course. Obviously. So it’s a work conflict.”
“More of a societal conflict.”
“Well that is AWFUL!” he shouted, causing any table that
wasn’t already watching to turn their full attention to the unhappy couple in the middle.
Elizabeth said. “We’ve discussed this.”
“Yes, I know. You disapprove of the name change. But have I ever suggested that I wanted your name to change?” he protested. “No, in fact, I
you to keep your name.” Which wasn’t completely true. He’d assumed she’d take his name. Nevertheless, he said, “But in any case, our future happiness should not depend on whether a handful of people might mistakenly call you Mrs. Evans. We’ll correct those people.” This seemed like the wrong time to tell her he’d already added her name to the deed on his tiny bungalow—Elizabeth Evans, that’s the name he’d given the county clerk. He made a mental note to call the clerk as soon as he was back in his lab.
Elizabeth shook her head. “Our future happiness does not depend on whether or not we’re married, Calvin—at least not to me. I’m fully committed to you; marriage will not change that. As for who thinks what, it’s not just a handful of people: it’s society—particularly the society of scientific research. Everything I do will suddenly be in your name, as if you’d done it. In fact, most people will
you’ve done it simply because you’re a man, but especially because you’re Calvin Evans. I don’t want to be another Mileva Einstein or Esther Lederberg, Calvin; I refuse. And even if we took all the proper legal steps to ensure my name won’t change, it will still change. Everyone will call me Mrs. Calvin Evans; I will
Mrs. Calvin Evans. Every Christmas card, every bank statement, every notice from the Bureau of Internal Revenue will all come to Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Evans. Elizabeth Zott, as we know her, will cease to exist.”
“And being Mrs. Calvin Evans is absolutely the worst thing that could ever happen to you,” he said, his face collapsed in misery.
“I want to be Elizabeth Zott,” she said. “It’s important to me.”
They sat for a minute in uncomfortable silence, the hateful little blue box plopped between them like a bad referee at a tight match. Against her will, she found herself wondering what the ring looked like.
“I really am sorry,” she repeated.
“Not a problem,” he said stiffly.
She looked away.
“They’re breaking up!” Eddie hissed to the others. “They’re going straight down the tubes!”
Zott’s back on the market.
Except Calvin couldn’t let it go. Thirty seconds later, completely oblivious to the dozens of pairs of eyes resting upon them, he said in a voice far louder than he’d intended, “For the love of
Elizabeth. It’s just a
It doesn’t matter. You’re
—that’s what matters.”
“I wish that were true.”
true,” he insisted. “What’s in a name? Nothing!”
She looked up with sudden hope. “Nothing? Well in that case, what about changing your name?”
“To mine. To Zott.”
He looked at her in astonishment, then rolled his eyes. “Very funny,” he said.
“Well, why not?” Her voice had an edge.
“You already know why not. Men don’t do that. Anyway, there’s my work, my reputation. I’m…” He hesitated.
Elizabeth. I can’t just
“Oh,” she said. “But if you weren’t famous,
changing your name to mine would be fine. Is that what you mean?”
“Look,” he said, grabbing the small blue box. “I get it. I didn’t make this tradition; it’s just the way things are. When women get married, they take their husband’s name, and ninety-nine point nine percent of them are fine with it.”
“And you have some sort of study to back up this assertion,” she said.
“That ninety-nine point nine percent of women are fine with it.”
“Well, no. But I’ve never heard any complaints before.”
“And the reason why you can’t change your name is because you’re famous. Although ninety-nine point nine percent of men who aren’t famous also happen to keep their names.”
“Again,” he said, stuffing the small box in his pocket with such force that the fabric gave way at the corner. “I didn’t create the tradition. And as I stated earlier, I am—
—in full support of you keeping your name.”
“I don’t want to marry you anymore.”
Elizabeth sat back hard.
“Game, set, match!” crowed one of the geologists. “Box is back in the pocket!”
Calvin sat fuming. It had already been a tough day. Just that morning, he’d gotten a bunch of new crank letters, most from people purporting to be long-lost relatives. This wasn’t unusual; ever since he’d gotten a little famous, the flimflam artists wrote en masse. A “great uncle” wanted Calvin to invest in his alchemy scheme; a “sad mother” claimed she was his biological mother and wanted to give
money; a so-called cousin needed cash. There were also two
letters from women claiming they’d had his baby and he needed to pay up now. This was despite the fact that the only woman he’d ever slept with was Elizabeth Zott. Would this ever end?
“Elizabeth,” he implored, as he raked his fingers through his hair. “Please understand. I want us to be a family— a
family. It’s important to me, maybe because I lost my family— I don’t know. What I do know is that ever since I met you, I’ve felt there should be three of us. You, me, and a…a…”
Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide in horror. “Calvin,” she said in alarm, “I thought we agreed about that, too.”
“Well. We’ve never really talked about it.”
“No, we have,” she pressed. “We
“Just that once,” he said, “and it wasn’t really a talk. Not really.”
“I don’t know how you can say that,” she said, panicked. “We absolutely agreed: no children. I can’t believe you’re talking like this. What’s happened to you?”
“Right, but I was thinking we could—”
“I was clear—”
“I know,” he interrupted, “but I was thinking—”
“You can’t just change your mind on this one.”
“For Pete’s sake, Elizabeth,” he said, getting mad. “If you’d just let me finish—”
“Go ahead,” she snapped. “Finish!”
He looked at her, frustrated.
“I was only thinking that we could get a dog.”
Relief flooded her face. “A dog?” she said. “A dog!”
“Goddammit,” Frask commented quietly as Calvin leaned over to kiss Elizabeth. The entire cafeteria instantly echoed her sentiment. From every direction, silverware fell to trays in resigned clatters, chairs were kicked back in moody defeat, napkins were wadded in dirty little balls. It was the noxious noise of profound jealousy, the kind that never results in a happy ending.
Many people go to breeders to find a dog, and others to the pound, but sometimes, especially when it’s really meant to be, the right dog finds you.
It was a Saturday evening, about a month later, and Elizabeth had run down to the local deli to get something for dinner. As she left the store, her arms laden with a large salami and a bag of groceries, a mangy, smelly dog, hidden in the shadows of the alley, watched her walk by. Although the dog hadn’t moved in five hours, he took one look at her, pulled himself up, and followed.
Calvin happened to be at the window when he saw Elizabeth strolling toward the house, a dog following a respectful five paces behind, and as he watched her walk, a strange shudder swept through his body. “Elizabeth Zott, you’re going to change the world,” he heard himself say. And the moment he said it, he knew it was true. She was going to do something so revolutionary, so necessary, that her name—despite a never-ending legion of naysayers—would be immortalized. And as if to prove that point, today she had her first follower.
“Who’s your friend?” he called out to her, shaking off the odd feeling.
“It’s six thirty,” she called back after glancing at her wrist.
Six-Thirty was badly in need of a bath. Tall, gray, thin, and covered with barbed-wire-like fur that made him look as if he’d barely survived electrocution, he stood very still as they shampooed him, his gaze fixed on Elizabeth.
“I guess we should try to find his owner,” Elizabeth said reluctantly. “I’m sure someone is worried to death.”
“This dog doesn’t have an owner,” Calvin assured her, and he was right. Later calls to the pound and listings in the newspaper’s lost and found column turned up nothing. But even if it had, Six-Thirty had already made his intentions clear: to stay.
In fact, “stay” was the first word he learned, although within weeks, he also learned at least five others. That was what surprised Elizabeth most—Six-Thirty’s ability to learn.
“Do you think he’s unusual?” she asked Calvin more than once. “He seems to pick things up so quickly.”
“He’s grateful,” Calvin said. “He wants to please us.”
But Elizabeth was right: Six-Thirty had been trained to pick things up quickly.
Before he’d ended up in that alley, he’d been a canine bomb-sniffer trainee at Camp Pendleton, the local marine base. Unfortunately, he’d failed miserably. Not only could he never seem to sniff out the bomb in time, but he also had to endure the praise heaped upon the smug German shepherds who always did. He was eventually discharged—not honorably—by his angry handler, who drove him out to the highway and dumped him in the middle of nowhere. Two weeks later he found his way to that alley. Two weeks and five hours later, he was being shampooed by Elizabeth and she was calling him Six-Thirty.
“Are you sure we can take him to Hastings?” Elizabeth asked when Calvin loaded him into the car on Monday morning.
“Sure, why not?”
“Because I’ve never seen another dog at work. Besides the labs aren’t really that safe.”
“We’ll keep a close eye on him,” Calvin said. “It’s not healthy for a dog to be left alone all day. He needs stimulation.”
This time it was Calvin who was right. Six-Thirty had loved Camp Pendleton, partly because he was never alone, but mostly because it had given him something he’d never had before: purpose. But there’d been a problem.
A bomb-sniffing dog had two choices: find the bomb in time to allow disarmament (preferred), or throw himself on the bomb, making the ultimate sacrifice to save the unit (not preferred, although it did come with a posthumous medal). In training, the bombs were only ever fake, so if a dog did throw himself upon it, the most he might get was a noisy explosion followed by a huge burst of red paint.
It was the noise; it scared Six-Thirty to death. So each day, when his handler commanded him to “Find it,” he would immediately take off to the east, even though his nose had already informed him that the bomb was fifty yards to the west, poking his nose at various rocks while he waited for one of the other, braver dogs to finally find the damn thing and receive his reward biscuit. Unless the dog was too late or too rough and the bomb exploded; then the dog only got a bath.
“You can’t have a dog here, Dr. Evans,” Miss Frask explained to Calvin. “We’ve gotten complaints.”
“No one’s complained to me,” Calvin said, shrugging, even though he knew no one would dare.
Frask backed off immediately.
Within a few weeks, Six-Thirty made a full inventory of the Hastings campus, memorizing every floor, room, and exit, like a firefighter preparing for catastrophe. When it came to Elizabeth Zott, he was on high alert. She’d suffered in her past—he could sense it—and he was determined she should never suffer again.
It was the same for Elizabeth. She sensed that Six-Thirty had also suffered beyond the usual dog-left-by-the-roadside neglect, and she, too, felt the need to protect him. In fact, it was she who insisted that he sleep next to their bed even though Calvin had suggested he might be better off in the kitchen. But Elizabeth won out and he stayed, completely content, except for those times when Calvin and Elizabeth locked their limbs in a messy tangle, their clumsy movements punctuated with panting noises. Animals did this too, but with far more efficiency. Humans, Six-Thirty noticed, had a tendency to overcomplicate.
If these encounters took place in the early morning, Elizabeth would rise soon after to go make breakfast. Although she’d originally agreed to cook dinner five nights a week in exchange for rent, she also added breakfast, then lunch. For Elizabeth, cooking wasn’t some preordained feminine duty. As she’d told Calvin, cooking was chemistry. That’s because cooking actually
@200° C/35 min = loss of one H
O per mol. sucrose; total 4 in 55 min = C
she wrote in a notebook. “So that’s why the biscuit batter is off.” She tapped her pencil against the countertop. “Still too many water molecules.”
“How’s it going?” Calvin called from the next room.
“Almost lost an atom in the isomerization process,” she called back. “I think I’ll make something else. Are you watching Jack?”
She meant Jack LaLanne, the famous TV fitness guru, a self-made health aficionado who encouraged people to take better care of their bodies. She didn’t really have to ask—she could hear Jack shouting “Up down up down” like a human yo-yo.
“I am,” Calvin called back, breathless, as Jack demanded ten more. “Join us?”
“I’m denaturing protein,” she shouted.
“And now, running in place,” urged Jack.
Despite what Jack said, running in place was the one thing Calvin would not do. Instead he did extra sit-ups while Jack ran in place in what very much looked like ballet slippers. Calvin didn’t see the point of running indoors in ballet slippers; instead, he always did his running outside in tennis shoes. This made him an early jogger, meaning that he jogged long before jogging was popular, long before it was even called jogging. Unfortunately, because others were unfamiliar with this jogging concept, the police precinct received a steady stream of calls regarding a barely clad man running through neighborhoods blowing short, hard bursts of air out between his purplish lips. Since Calvin always ran the same four or five routes, police soon became accustomed to these calls. “That’s not a criminal,” they’d say. “That’s just Calvin. He doesn’t like to run in place in ballet slippers
“Elizabeth?” he called again. “Where’s Six-Thirty? Happy’s on.”
Happy was Jack LaLanne’s dog. Sometimes he was on the show, sometimes he wasn’t, but when he was, Six-Thirty always left the room. Elizabeth sensed there was something about the German shepherd that made Six-Thirty unhappy.
“He’s with me,” she called back.
Holding an egg in the palm of her hand, she turned to him. “Here’s a tip, Six-Thirty: never crack eggs on the side of a bowl—it increases the chance of shell fragments. Better to bring a sharp, thin knife down on the egg as if you’re cracking a whip. See?” she said, as the egg’s contents slipped into the bowl.
Six-Thirty watched without blinking.
“Now I’m disrupting the egg’s internal bonds in order to elongate the amino acid chain,” she told him as she whisked, “which will allow the freed atoms to bond with other similarly freed atoms. Then I’ll reconstitute the mix into a loose whole, laying it on a surface of iron-carbon alloy, where I’ll subject it
to precision heat, continually agitating the mix until it reaches a stage of near coagulation.”
“LaLanne is an animal,” Calvin announced as he wandered into the kitchen, his T-shirt damp.
“Agreed,” Elizabeth said as she took the frying pan off the flame and placed the eggs on two plates. “Because humans
animals. Technically. Although sometimes I think the animals we consider animals are far more advanced than the animals we are but don’t consider ourselves to be.” She looked to Six-Thirty for confirmation, but even he couldn’t parse that one.
“Well, Jack gave me an idea,” Calvin said, lowering his large frame into a chair, “and I think you’re going to love it. I’m going to teach you to row.”
“Pass the sodium chloride.”
“You’ll love it. We can row a pair together, maybe a double. We’ll watch the sun rise on the water.”
“Not really interested.”
“We can start tomorrow.”
Calvin still rowed three days a week, but only in a single. That wasn’t uncommon for elite rowers: once in a boat oared by teammates who seemed to know one another at a cellular level, they sometimes struggled to row with others. Elizabeth knew how much he missed his Cambridge boat. Still, she had no interest in rowing.
“I don’t want to. Besides, you row at four thirty in the morning.”
“I row at five o’clock,” he said as if this made it so much more reasonable. “I only leave the house at four thirty.”
“Because that’s when I sleep.”
“Easily solved. We’ll go to bed early.”
“First I’ll introduce you to the rowing machine—we call it the erg. They have some at the boathouse, but I’m going to build one for home use. Then we’ll move to a boat— a shell. By April we’ll be skimming across the bay, watching the sun rise, our long strokes clicking along in perfect unison.”
But even as he said it, Calvin knew the rowing part wasn’t possible. First, no one learns to row in a month. Most people, even with expert instruction, can’t row well within a year, or sometimes three years, or for many, ever. As for the skimming part—there is no skimming. To get to the point where rowing might resemble skimming, you’ve probably reached the Olympic level and the look on your face as you fly down the racecourse is not one of calm satisfaction but controlled agony. This is sometimes accompanied by a look of determination—usually one that indicates that right after this race is over, you plan to find a new sport. Still, once he’d hatched the idea, he loved it. Rowing a pair with Elizabeth. How glorious!
“Because. Women don’t row.” But as soon as she’d said it, she regretted it.
“Elizabeth Zott,” he said, surprised. “Are you actually saying women
That sealed it.
The next morning they left their bungalow in the dark, Calvin in his old T-shirt and sweatpants, Elizabeth in whatever she could find that looked remotely sporty. As they pulled up to the boathouse, both Six-Thirty and Elizabeth looked out the car window to see a few bodies on a slick dock doing calisthenics.
“Shouldn’t they be doing that inside?” she asked. “It’s still dark.”
“On a morning like this?” It was foggy.
“I thought you didn’t like rain.”
“This isn’t rain.”
For at least the fortieth time, Elizabeth found herself doubting this plan.
“We’ll start off easy,” Calvin said as he led her and Six-Thirty into the boathouse, a cavernous building that smelled of mildew and sweat. As they walked past rows of long wooden rowing shells layered to the ceiling like well-stacked toothpicks, Calvin nodded at a bedraggled-looking person who yawned and nodded back, conversation not yet possible. He stopped when he found what he was looking for— a rowing machine, the erg—which had been tucked in a corner. He pulled it out, positioning it in the middle of the bay between the stacks of boats.
“First things first,” he said. “Technique.” He sat down, then started to pull, his breaths quickly becoming a series of short torturous bursts that seemed neither easy nor fun. “The trick is to keep your wrists flat,” he huffed, “your knees down, your stomach muscles engaged, your—” But whatever else he said was lost in his urgency to breathe and within a few minutes, he seemed to forget Elizabeth was even there.
She slipped away, Six-Thirty at her side, and went to explore the boathouse, pausing in front of a rack holding a forest of oars so impossibly tall, it looked as if giants played here. Off to its side sat a large trophy case, the early morning light just beginning to reveal its stash of silver cups and old rowing uniforms, each a testament to those who had proven faster or more efficient or more indomitable, or possibly all three. Brave people, according to Calvin, who’d shown the kind of focus that put them first over the finish.
Alongside the uniforms were photographs of strapping young men with gargantuan oars, but there was one other person, too: a jockey-sized man who looked as serious as he was small, his
mouth fixed in a firm, grim line. The coxswain, Calvin had told her, the one who told the rowers what to do and when to do it: take up the rate, make a turn, challenge another boat, go faster. She liked that a diminutive person held the reins to eight wild horses, his voice, their command; his hands, their rudder; his encouragements, their fuel.