Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
She turned to watch as other rowers began to file in, each of them nodding in deference to Calvin as he continued to erg on the noisy machine, a few revealing a trace of envy as he took up the stroke rate with such obvious smoothness that even Elizabeth could recognize it as a sign of natural athleticism.
“When are you going to row with us, Evans?” said one of them, clapping him on the shoulder. “We’ll put that energy to good use!” But if Calvin heard or felt anything, he didn’t react. He kept his eyes forward, his body steady.
So, she thought, he was a legend here, too. It was obvious, not only in their deference, but in the obsequious manner in which they tried to work around him and his ridiculous position—Calvin had placed the rowing machine right in the middle of the boathouse floor. The coxswain, clearly annoyed, assessed the situation.
“Hands on!” he called to his eight rowers, causing them to jump into position on one side of their shell, their bodies braced to pick up the heavy boat. “Slide it out,” he commanded. “In two, up to shoulders.”
But it was obvious they weren’t going anywhere—not with Calvin in the middle.
“Calvin,” Elizabeth whispered urgently, scuttling up behind him. “You’re in the way. You need to move.” But he just kept erging.
“Jesus,” said the coxswain, blowing air out between his lips. “
guy.” He glanced at Elizabeth, then thumbed her sharply out of the way, taking up a crouched position directly behind Calvin’s left ear.
“Atta boy, Cal,” he growled, “keep the length, you son of
a bitch. We’ve got five hundred to go and you’re not done yet. Oxford is coming up on starboard and they’re starting to walk.”
Elizabeth looked at him, astonished. “
but—” she started.
“I know this ain’t all you got, Evans,” he snarled, cutting her off. “Don’t hold out on me, you fucking machine; in two I’m calling for a power twenty, in
call, you’re gonna put these Oxford sons of bitches to bed; you’re gonna make these boys wish they were already dead; you’re gonna kill ’em, Evans, wind it up, brother, we’re at a thirty-two on our way to
on my call: there’s one, there’s two, take it up, POWER TWENTY YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” he screamed. “RIGHT NOW!”
Elizabeth didn’t know what was more shocking: the little man’s language or the intensity with which Calvin reacted to that language. Within moments of hearing the words “you fucking machine” and “sons of bitches,” Calvin’s face took on a crazed look usually not seen outside of low-budget zombie films. He pulled harder and faster, his exhales so loud, he sounded like a runaway train, and yet the little man was not satisfied; he kept yelling at Calvin, demanding more and getting more as he counted down the strokes like an angry stopwatch: Twenty! Fifteen! Ten! Five! And then the count evaporated and all that was left were two simple words that Elizabeth couldn’t agree with more.
“Way enough,” the coxswain said. Upon which Calvin slumped heavily forward as if he’d been shot in the back.
“Calvin!” Elizabeth cried, rushing to his side. “My god!”
“He’s fine,” the coxswain said. “Aren’t you, Cal? Now move this fucking machine out of our fucking way.”
And Calvin nodded, sucking in oxygen. “Sure…thing…Sam,” he panted between gulps of air, “and…thanks…. But…first…I’d…like…you…to meet…Eliz…Eliz…Elizabeth Zott. My…new…pair…partner.”
Immediately Elizabeth felt all eyes in the boathouse upon her.
“A pair with Evans,” one of the rowers said, his eyes wide. “What’d you do? Win a gold medal in the Olympics?”
“You’ve rowed on a women’s team, then?” the coxswain asked, taking interest.
“Well, no, I’ve never really—” And then she stopped. “There are
“She’s learning,” Calvin explained as he began to catch his breath. “But she already has what it takes.” He inhaled deeply, then got off the machine and started to drag it out of the way. “By summer we’ll be wiping the bay with all of you.”
Elizabeth wasn’t sure what that meant exactly. Wiping the bay? He didn’t actually mean compete, did he? What happened to watching the sunrise?
“Well,” she said quietly, turning toward the coxswain, as Calvin went to towel off. “I’m not sure this is really my—”
“It is,” the coxswain interrupted before she could finish. “Evans would never ask anyone to be in a boat with him if they couldn’t hold their own.” And then he closed one eye and squinted. “Yeah. I see it too.”
“What?” she said, surprised. But he’d already turned away, barking out orders for the boat to be walked down to the dock. “One foot in,” she heard him yell, “and down.” And within moments, the boat disappeared into a thick fog, the men’s faces oddly eager despite the first fat drops of a cold rain warning of the discomfort that was yet to come.
The first day on the water, she and Calvin flipped the pair and fell in the water. Second day, flipped. Third day, flipped.
“What am I doing wrong?” she gasped, her teeth chattering as they pushed the long, thin shell toward the dock. She had neglected to tell Calvin one little fact about herself. She couldn’t swim.
“Everything,” he sighed.
“As I’ve mentioned before,” he said ten minutes later as he pointed at the rowing machine, indicating that, despite her wet clothes, she should sit, “rowing requires perfect technique.”
While she adjusted the foot stretchers, he explained that rowers usually erged when the water was too rough, or they had to be timed, or when the coach was in a really bad mood. And, when done right, especially during a fitness test, there was vomiting. Then he mentioned that erging had a way of making the worst day on the water seem pretty good.
And yet, that is exactly what they continued to have: the worst of days. The very next morning they were back in the water. And it was all because Calvin continued to omit one simple truth: the pair is the hardest boat to row. It’s like trying to learn to fly by starting out in a B-52. But what choice did he have? He knew the
men weren’t going to let her row with them in a bigger boat like an eight; besides being female, her lack of experience meant she’d ruin the row. Worse, she’d probably catch a crab and crack a few ribs. He hadn’t mentioned crabs yet. For obvious reasons.
They righted the boat and crawled back in.
“The problem is that you’re not patient enough up the slide. You need to slow the hell down, Elizabeth.”
“I am going slow.”
“No, you’re rushing. It’s one of the worst mistakes a rower can make. Every time you rush the slide, you know what happens? God kills a kitten.”
“Oh, for god’s sake, Calvin.”
“And your catch is too slow. The object is to go fast, remember?”
certainly clears things up,” she snapped from the stern. “Go slow to go fast.”
He clapped her on the shoulder as if she was finally getting it. “Exactly.”
Shivering, she tightened her grip on the oar. What a stupid sport. For the next thirty minutes she tried to heed his contradictory commands:
Raise your hands; no, lower them! Lean out; god not that far! Jesus, you’re slouching, you’re skying, you’re rushing, you’re late, you’re early!
Until the boat itself seemed sick of the whole thing and pitched them back into the water.
“Maybe this is a bad idea,” Calvin said as they marched back to the boathouse, the heavy rowing shell biting into their sodden shoulders.
“What’s my main issue?” she said, bracing herself for the worst as they lowered the boat onto the rack. Calvin had always insisted that rowing required the highest level of teamwork— a problem since, according to her boss, she also wasn’t a team player. “Just tell me. Don’t hold back.”
“Physics,” Calvin said.
“Physics,” she said, relieved. “Thank god.”
“I get it,” she said, skimming a physics textbook later that day at work. “Rowing is a simple matter of kinetic energy versus boat drag and center of mass.” She jotted down a few formulas. “And gravity,” she added, “and buoyancy, ratio, speed, balance, gearing, oar length, blade type—” The more she read, the more she wrote, the nuances of rowing slowly revealing themselves in complicated algorithms. “Oh for heaven’s sake,” she said, sitting back. “Rowing isn’t
“Jesus!” Calvin exclaimed two days later as their boat sped unimpeded through the water. “Who
you?” She said nothing, replaying the formulas in her head. As they passed a men’s eight sitting at rest, every rower turned to watch them go by.
“Did you see that?” the coxswain shouted angrily at his crew. “Did you see how she gets length
And yet about a month later, her boss, Dr. Donatti, accused her of exactly that. “You’re overreaching, Miss Zott,” he said, pausing to squeeze the top of her shoulder. “Abiogenesis is more of a PhD-university-this-topic-is-so-boring-no-one-cares sort of thing. And don’t take this the wrong way, but it exceeds your intellectual grasp.”
“And exactly what way am I
to take that?” She shrugged his hand off.
“What happened here?” he said, ignoring her tone as he took her bandaged fingers in his hands. “If you’re struggling with the lab equipment, you know you can ask one of the fellas to help you.”
“I’m learning to row,” she said, snatching her fingers back. Despite her recent gains, the next several rows had been complete failures.
“Rowing, eh?” Donatti said, rolling his eyes.
Donatti had been a rower too, and at Harvard, no less, where he’d had the incredible misfortune to row just once against Evans and his precious Cambridge boat at the fucking Henley. Their catastrophic loss (seven boat lengths), witnessed only by a handful of people who’d managed to glimpse it over a sea of impossibly big hats, was carefully blamed on some fish and chips they’d ingested the night before, instead of the tonnage of beer that had washed it down.
In other words, they were all still drunk at the start.
After the race, their coach had told them to go over and congratulate the la-di-dah Cambridge crew. That’s when Donatti had first learned one of the Cambridge boys was an American—an American who held some sort of grudge against Harvard. As he shook Evans’s hand, Donatti managed “Good row,” but instead of responding in kind, Evans said,
“Jesus, are you drunk?”
Donatti took an instant dislike to him, a dislike that tripled when he found out that Evans was not only studying chemistry as he was, but he was
Evans—the guy who’d already made a major mark in the chemistry world.
Was it any surprise that, years later, when Evans accepted the incredibly insulting Hastings offer Donatti himself had crafted, Donatti wasn’t overly enthusiastic? First, Evans didn’t remember him—rude. Second, Evans appeared to have maintained his fitness—annoying. Third, Evans told
that he took the position, not based on Hastings’s sterling reputation, but because
he liked the fucking weather.
Seriously—the man was an asshole. However, there was one consolation. He, Donatti, was director of Chemistry, and not just because his father played golf with the CEO, or because he happened to be the man’s godson, and certainly not because he’d married the man’s daughter. Bottom line, the great Evans would be reporting to
To enforce that pecking order, he called a meeting with the
blowhard, then purposely showed up twenty minutes late. Unfortunately, to an empty conference room, because Evans hadn’t shown up at all. “Sorry, Dino,” Evans later informed him. “I don’t really like meetings.”
And now? Elizabeth Zott. He didn’t like Zott. She was pushy, smart, opinionated. Worse, she had terrible taste in men. Unlike so many others, though, he did not find Zott attractive. He glanced down at a silver-framed photograph of his family: three big-eared boys bracketed by the sharp-beaked Edith and himself. He and Edith were a team the way couples were meant to be a team—not by sharing hobbies like
for fuck’s sake—but in the way their sexes deemed socially and physically appropriate. He brought home the bacon; she pumped out the babies. It was a normal, productive, God-approved marriage. Did he sleep with other women? What a question. Didn’t everyone?
“—my underlying hypothesis—” Zott was saying.
Underlying hypothesis his ass. This was the other thing he hated about Zott: she was tireless. Stiff. Didn’t know when to quit. Standard rower attributes, now that he thought about it. He hadn’t rowed in years. Was there really a women’s team in town? Obviously, she couldn’t possibly be rowing
Evans. An elite rower like Evans would never deign to get in a boat with a novice, even if they were sleeping together. Scratch that;
if they were sleeping together. Evans probably signed her up for some beginner crew, and Zott, wanting to prove that she could hold her own—
—went along with it. He shuddered at the thought of a bunch of struggling rowers, their blades hitting the water like out-of-control spatulas.
“—I’m determined to see this through, Dr. Donatti—” Zott asserted.
Yes, yes, there it was. Women like her always used the word
“determined.” Well, he was determined, too. Just last night he’d come up with a new way to deal with Zott. He was going to steal her away from Evans. What better way to fix the big man’s wagon? Then, once he’d made the Evans-Zott romance a crash scene with no survivors, he’d dump her and return to his once-again pregnant housewife and impossibly loud children, no harm done.
His plan was simple: first, attack Zott’s self-esteem. Women were so easily crushed.
“Like I said,” Donatti emphasized as he stood, sucking in his gut as he shooed her toward the door. “You’re just not smart enough.”
Elizabeth stalked down the hallway, her heels hitting the tile in a dangerous staccato. She tried to calm herself by taking a deep breath in, but it came rushing back out at hurricane speed. Stopping abruptly, she slammed her fist against the wall, then took a moment to review her options.
Set fire to the building.
She didn’t want to admit it, but his words were like fresh fuel to her ever-growing pyre of self-doubt. She had neither the education nor the experience of the others. She not only lacked their credentials but their papers, peer support, financial backing, and awards. And yet, she knew—she
—she was onto something. Some people were born to things; she was one of those people. She pressed her hand on her forehead as if that might keep her head from exploding.
“Miss Zott? Excuse me. Miss Zott?”
The voice seemed to come from out of nowhere.
From just around the next corner peeked a thin-haired man with a sheaf of papers. It was Dr. Boryweitz, a lab mate who often
sought her help, as most of the others did, when no one else was looking.
“I was wondering if you could take a look at this,” he said in a low voice as he motioned her off to the side, his forehead rutted with anxiety. “My latest test results.” He thrust a sheet of paper into her hands. “I’d call this a breakthrough, wouldn’t you?” His hands trembled. “Something new?”
He wore his normal expression—frightened, as if he’d just seen a ghost. It was a mystery to most how Dr. Boryweitz had ever gotten a PhD in chemistry, much less a job at Hastings. He often seemed just as mystified.
“Do you think your young man might be interested in this?” Boryweitz asked. “Maybe you could show it to him. Is that where you were headed? His lab? Maybe I could tag along.” He reached out, grasping her forearm as if she were a life buoy, something he could cling to until the big rescue ship in the form of Calvin Evans pulled up.
Elizabeth carefully pulled the papers from his grip. Despite his neediness, she liked Boryweitz. He was polite, professional. And they had something in common: they were both in the wrong place at the wrong time, albeit for entirely different reasons.
“The thing is, Dr. Boryweitz,” she said, trying to put aside her own troubles as she studied his work, “this is a macromolecule with repeating units linked by amide bonds.”
“In other words, it’s a polyamide.”
“A poly—” His face fell. Even he knew polyamides had been around forever. “I think you might be mistaken,” he said. “Look again.”
“It’s not a bad finding,” she said gently. “It’s just that it’s already been proven.”
He shook his head in defeat. “So I shouldn’t show this to Donatti.”
“You’ve basically rediscovered nylon.”
“Really,” he said, looking down at his results. “Darn.” His
head submerged. An uncomfortable silence followed. Then he glanced at his watch as if there might be an answer there. “What’s all this?” he finally said, pointing to her bandaged fingers.
“Oh. I’m a rower. Trying to be.”
“Are you any good?”
“Then why are you doing it?”
“I’m not sure.”
He shook his head. “Boy, do I get that.”
“How’s your project going?” Calvin asked Elizabeth a few weeks later as they sat together at lunch. He took a bite of his turkey sandwich, chewing vigorously to disguise the fact that he already knew. Everybody knew.
“Fine,” she said.
“None.” She sipped her water.
“You know if you ever need my help—”
“— I don’t need your help.”
Calvin sighed, frustrated. It was a form of naïveté, he thought, the way she continued to believe that all it took to get through life was grit. Sure, grit was critical, but it also took luck, and if luck wasn’t available, then help.
needed help. But maybe because she’d never been offered any, she refused to believe in it. How many times had she asserted that if she did her best, her best would win? He’d lost count. And this was despite significant evidence to the contrary. Especially at Hastings.
As he finished their lunch—she barely touched hers—he promised himself he would not intervene on her behalf. It was important to respect her wishes. She wanted to handle this on her own. He would
“What’s your problem, Donatti?” he roared approximately ten minutes later as he burst into his boss’s office. “Is it an origin of life issue? Pressure from the religious community? Abiogenesis is just more proof that there actually is no God and you’re worried this might not play well in Kansas? Is that why you’re canceling Zott’s project? And you dare to call yourself a scientist.”
“Cal,” Donatti had said, his arms stretched casually behind his head. “As much as I love our little chats, I’m kind of busy right now.”
“Because the only other viable explanation,” Calvin accused, shoving his hands in the front pockets of his voluminous khakis, “is that you don’t