Read Lessons in Chemistry Online
Authors: Bonnie Garmus
Donatti rolled his eyes as a puff of stale air escaped his lips. Why were brilliant people so dumb? If Evans had any brains at all, he’d accuse him of attempting to horn in on his good-looking girlfriend.
“Actually, Cal,” Donatti said, stubbing out a cigarette, “I was trying to give her career a little boost. Giving her a chance to work with me directly on a very important project. Help her grow in other areas.”
Grow in other areas—how obvious could he be?
But Calvin started in on her latest test results as if they were still talking about work. The guy was clueless.
“I get offers every week,” Calvin threatened. “Hastings isn’t the only place I can conduct my research!”
This again. How many times had Donatti heard it? Sure, Evans was a hot ticket in the research world, and yes, much of their funding was based on his mere presence. But that was only because funders erroneously believed that Evans’s name attracted other big-brained talent. Hadn’t happened. Anyway, he didn’t want Evans to leave; he only wanted Evans to fail—to become so unhinged by love lost that he self-destructed, ruining his reputation and tanking all research opportunities going forward. Once that happened,
he could leave.
“Like I said,” Donatti replied in a measured voice, “I was only trying to give Miss Zott a chance for personal growth—I’m trying to help her career.”
“She can take care of her own career.”
Donatti laughed. “Really. And yet here
But what Donatti didn’t tell Calvin was that a huge fly had recently landed in his get-rid-of-Evans-via-Zott ointment. A donor with impossibly deep pockets.
The man had appeared, out of the blue, two days ago, with a blank check and an insistence to fund—of all things—abiogenesis. Donatti mounted a polite argument. What about lipid metabolism, he suggested. Or cell division? But the man insisted: abiogenesis or nothing. So Donatti had no choice: he put Zott back on her ridiculous mission to Mars.
Truth was, he wasn’t making much headway with her anyway. She’d steadily refused to yield to his repeated “you’re not smart” put-downs. No matter how many times he said it, she hadn’t once responded in the proper fashion. Where was the low self-esteem? Where were the tears? If she wasn’t restating her boring case for abiogenesis in a professional way, then she was saying, “Touch me again and live to regret it.” What the hell did Evans see in this woman? He could keep her. He’d have to find some other way to fix the big man’s wagon.
“Calvin,” Elizabeth said, rushing into his lab later that afternoon. “I have great news. I’ve been keeping something from you and I apologize, but it was only because I didn’t want you to get involved. Donatti canceled my project a few weeks back and I’ve been fighting to get it back. Today that fight paid off. He reversed his decision—said he’d reviewed my work and decided it was too important not to move forward.”
Calvin smiled broadly in what he hoped was the appropriate expression of surprise—he’d left Donatti’s office less than an hour ago. “Wait? Really?” he said, clapping her on the back. “He tried to cancel abiogenesis? Well that must have been a mistake from the start.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you about it. I wanted to handle it on my own and now I’m glad I did. I feel like it’s a real vote of confidence in my work—in me.”
She looked at him more closely, then took a step back. “I
get this on my own. You had
to do with it.”
“First time I’ve heard about it.”
talked to Donatti,” she pressed, “you
“I swear,” he lied.
After she left, Calvin clasped his hands together in a silent fit of glee and flipped on the hi-fi, dropping the needle on “Sunny Side of the Street.” For a second time, he’d saved the person he loved the most, and the best part was, she didn’t know.
He grabbed a stool, opened a notebook, and began to write. He’d been keeping journals since age seven or so, jotting down the facts and fears of his life between lines of chemical equations. Even today his lab was full of these nearly illegible notebooks. It was one of the reasons everyone assumed he was getting a lot done. Volume.
“Your handwriting is hard to read here,” Elizabeth had noted on several occasions. “What’s that say?” She’d pointed to an RNA-related theory he’d been toying with for months.
“A hypothesis about enzymatic adaptation,” he answered.
“And this?” She pointed farther down the page. Something he’d written about her.
“More of the same,” he said, tossing the notebook aside.
It wasn’t that he was writing anything terrible about her—just the opposite. Rather, it was more that he couldn’t risk having her discover that he was obsessed with the notion that she might die.
He’d long ago decided that he was a jinx and he had solid proof: every person he’d ever loved had died, always in a freak accident. The only way to put an end to this deadly pattern was to put an end to love. And he had. But then he’d met Elizabeth and, without meaning to, had stupidly and selfishly gone on to love again. Now here she was, standing directly in line of his jinx fire.
As a chemist, he realized his fixation on jinxes was not at all scientific; it was superstitious. Well, so be it. Life wasn’t a hypothesis one could test and retest without consequence—something always crashed eventually. Thus he was constantly on the lookout for things that posed a threat to her, and as of this morning, that thing was rowing.
They’d flipped the pair yet again—his fault—and for the very first time, they’d ended up in the water on the same side of the boat and he’d made a terrifying discovery: she couldn’t swim. By the looks of her panicked dog paddle, she’d never had a swim lesson in her life.
That’s why, while Elizabeth was off in the bathroom at the boathouse, he and Six-Thirty had approached the men’s team captain, Dr. Mason. It was bad-weather season: if he and Elizabeth were going to continue to row—she actually wanted to—it was best to be in an eight. Safer. Plus, if the eight did flip—unlikely—there’d be that many more people to save her. Anyway, Mason had been trying to recruit him for more than three years; it was worth a shot.
“What do you think?” he’d asked Mason. “You’d have to take both of us, though.”
in a men’s eight?” Dr. Mason had said, readjusting his cap over his crew cut. He’d been a marine and hated it. But he’d kept the hairstyle.
“She’s good,” Calvin said. “Very tough.”
Mason nodded. These days he was an obstetrician. He already knew how tough women could be. Still, a woman? How could that possibly work?
“Hey, guess what,” Calvin told Elizabeth a minute later. “The men’s team really wants both of us to row in their eight today.”
“Really?” Her goal had always been to join an eight. The eights rarely seemed to flip. She’d never told Calvin she couldn’t swim. Why worry him?
“The team captain approached me just now. He’s seen you row,” he said. “He knows talent when he sees it.”
From below, Six-Thirty exhaled.
Lies, lies, and more lies.
“When do we start?”
She felt a jolt of panic. While she’d wanted to row in an eight, she also knew the eight required a level of synchronization she had not yet mastered. When a boat succeeds, it’s because the people in the boat have managed to set aside their petty differences and physical discrepancies and row as one. Perfect harmony—that was the goal. She’d once overheard Calvin telling someone at the boathouse that his Cambridge coach insisted that they even blink at the same time. To her surprise the guy nodded. “We had to file our toenails to the same length. Made a huge difference.”
“You’ll be rowing two seat,” he said.
“Great,” she said, hoping he didn’t notice the violent shake in her hands.
“The coxswain will call out commands; you’ll be fine. Just watch the blade in front of you. And whatever you do, don’t look out of the boat.”
“Wait. How can I watch the blade in front of me if I don’t look out of the boat?”
“Just don’t do it,” he warned. “Throws off the set.”
“Hands on!” yelled the coxswain.
“Don’t worry,” Calvin said. “You’ll be fine.”
Elizabeth once read that 98 percent of the things people worry about never come true. But what, she wondered, about the 2 percent that do? And who came up with that figure? Two percent seemed suspiciously low. She’d believe 10 percent—even 20. In her own life it was probably closer to 50. She really didn’t want to worry about this row, but she was. Fifty percent chance she was going to blow it.
As they carried the boat to the dock in the dark, the man in front of her glanced over his shoulder as if to try to understand why the guy who usually rowed two seat seemed smaller.
“Elizabeth Zott,” she said.
“No talking!” shouted the coxswain.
“Who?” asked the man suspiciously.
“I’m rowing two seat today.”
“Quiet back there!” the coxswain yelled.
“Two seat?” the man whispered incredulously. “
rowing two seat?”
“Is there a
?” Elizabeth hissed back.
“You were great!” Calvin shouted two hours later, pounding on the car’s steering wheel with such excitement that Six-Thirty worried they might crash before they reached home. “Everyone thought so!”
“Who’s everyone?” Elizabeth said. “No one said a single word to me.”
“Oh, well, you only hear from the other rowers when they’re pissed. The point is, we’re in the lineup for Wednesday.” He smiled, triumphant. Saved her again—first at work and now this.
Maybe this was the way one ended a jinx—by taking secret but sensible precautions.
Elizabeth turned and looked out the window. Could the sport of rowing really be that egalitarian? Or was this just the usual fear from the usual suspects—rowers, like scientists, were afraid of Calvin’s legendary grudge holding.
As they drove along the coast toward home, the sunrise illuminating a dozen or so surfers, their longboards pointed at the shore, their heads turned, hoping to catch a few waves before work, it suddenly occurred to her that she’d never seen this supposed grudge holding in action.
“Calvin,” she said, turning back toward him, “why does everyone say you hold a grudge?”
“What’s that?” he said, unable to stop smiling. Secret, sensible precautions. The solution to life’s problems!
“You know what I mean,” she said. “There’s an undertone at work—people say if they disagree with you, you’ll ruin them.”
“Oh that,” he said cheerfully. “Rumors. Gossip. Jealousy. There are people I don’t like, certainly, but would I go out of my way to ruin them? Of course not.”
“Right,” she said. “But I’m still curious. Is there anyone in your life you’ll never forgive?”
“No one comes to mind,” he answered gaily. “You? Anyone you plan to hate the rest of your life?” He turned to look at her, her face still flushed from the row, her hair damp with ocean spray, her expression serious. She held out her fingers, as if counting.
When Calvin claimed he held no grudges and hated no one, he only meant it in that way that some people say they forget to eat. Meaning he was lying. No matter how hard he tried to pretend he’d left the past behind, it was right there, gnawing at his heart. Plenty of people had wronged him, but there was only one man he could not forgive. Only one man he swore to hate until his dying day.
He’d first glimpsed this man when he was ten. A long limo had pulled up to the gates of the boys home and the man had gotten out. He was tall, elegant, carefully dressed in a tailored suit and silver cuff links, none of which fit with the Iowan landscape. With the other boys, Calvin crowded the fence. A movie star, they guessed. Maybe a professional baseball player.
They were used to this. About twice a year, famous people came to the home, reporters in tow, to get their pictures taken with a few of the boys. Occasionally these visits resulted in a couple of baseball gloves or autographed headshots. But this man only had a briefcase. They all turned away.
But about a month after the man’s visit, all sorts of things started to arrive: science textbooks, math games, chemistry sets. And unlike the headshots or baseball gloves, there was enough to go around.
“The Lord doth provide,” the priest said, handing out a stack of brand-new biology books. “Which means you meek shall shut up and sit the hell still. You boys in the back, sit still, I mean it!” He slammed a ruler on a nearby desk, causing everyone to jump.
“Excuse me, Father,” Calvin said, leafing through his copy, “but there’s a problem with mine. Some of the pages are missing.”
Calvin,” the priest said. “They’ve been removed.”
“Because they’re wrong, that’s why. Now open your books to page one hundred nineteen, boys. We’ll start with—”
“Evolution’s missing,” Calvin persisted, riffling through the pages.
“That’s enough, Calvin.”
The ruler cracked down hard against his knuckles.
“Calvin,” the bishop said wearily. “What’s wrong with you? This is the fourth time you’ve been sent to me this week. And that doesn’t count the complaints I’ve received from our librarian about your lies.”
“What librarian?” Calvin asked, surprised. Surely the bishop couldn’t mean the drunk priest who often holed up in the small closet that housed the home’s pathetic book collection.
“Father Amos says you claim to have read everything in our stacks. Lying is a sin, but brag-lying? There’s nothing worse.”
“Silence!” he shouted, looming over the boy. “Some people are born bad apples,” he continued. “The result of parents who were bad themselves. But in your case, I don’t know where it comes from.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean,” he said, leaning forward, “that I suspect you were born good but went bad. Rotted,” he said, “through a series of
bad choices. Are you familiar with the idea that beauty comes from within?”
“Well, your insides match your outward ugliness.”
Calvin touched his swollen knuckles, trying not to cry.
“Why can’t you be grateful for what you’ve got?” the bishop said. “Half the pages in a biology book are better than none, aren’t they? Lord, I knew this would be a problem.” He pushed away from his desk and plodded about his office. “Science books, chemistry sets. What we have to accept just to get cash for the coffers.” He turned to Calvin, angry. “Even
your fault,” he said. “We wouldn’t be in this position if it weren’t for your father—”
Calvin jerked his head up.
“Never mind.” The bishop retreated to his desk, picking at papers.
“You can’t talk about my father,” Calvin said, heat rising to his face. “You didn’t even know him!”
“I get to talk about whomever I like, Evans,” the bishop scowled. “And anyway, I don’t mean your father who died in the train wreck. I mean,” he said, “your
father; the idiot who’s saddled us with all these damn science books. He came here about a month ago in a big limo searching for a ten-year-old whose adoptive parents got hit by a train, whose aunt wrapped her car around a tree, a young boy who ‘might be,’ the man said, ‘very tall?’ I went straight to the cabinet and pulled your file. Thought maybe he’d come to reclaim you like a misplaced suitcase—happens all the time in adoptions. But when I showed him your photograph, he lost interest.”
Calvin’s eyes widened, taking in the news. He’d been adopted? That wasn’t possible. His parents were still his parents, dead or not. He fought back tears, thinking of how happy he used to be, his hand tucked into the safety of his father’s bigger one, his head resting against his mother’s warm chest. The bishop was
The boys were always being told stories about
how and why they ended up at All Saints: their mothers died in childbirth and their fathers couldn’t cope; they were a problem to raise; there were already too many mouths to feed. This was just one more.
“Just so you know,” the bishop said as if selecting from a list, “your real mother died in childbirth, and your real father couldn’t cope.”
“I don’t believe you!”
“I see,” the bishop said dryly as he withdrew two pieces of paper from Calvin’s file: an adoption certificate and a woman’s death certificate. “The budding scientist demands proof.”
Calvin stared down at the documents through a cloud of tears. He couldn’t make out a single word.
“All righty then,” the bishop said, clapping his hands together. “I’m sure this all comes as a shock, Calvin, but look on the bright side. You
have a father and he
looking out for you—or for your education at least. That’s far more than the other boys get. Try not to be so selfish about this. You’ve been lucky. First you had nice adoptive parents; now you have a rich father. Think of his gift”—he hesitated—“as a remembrance. As a tribute to your mother. A memorial.”
“But if he’s my real father,” Calvin said, still not believing him, “he would take me away from here. He would want me with him.”
The bishop looked down at Calvin, his eyes open with surprise. “What? No. I told you: your mother died in childbirth and your father couldn’t cope. No, we both agreed—especially after he’d read your file—that you’re better off staying here. A boy like you needs a moral environment, lots of discipline. Plenty of rich people send their kids to boarding school; All Saints isn’t that different.” He sniffed, taking in the sour smells from the kitchen. “Although he did insist that we swell our educational offerings. Which I found presumptuous,” he added, as he picked some cat hair off his sleeve. “Telling us—professional educators—how to educate.” He rose, turning his back on Calvin to look out the
window at the roof that sagged on the west side of the building. “The good news is, he did leave us a nice chunk of change—not just for you, but for the other boys, too. Very generous. Or would have been if he hadn’t earmarked all of it for science and sports. God, rich people. They always think they know best.”
“He’s…he’s a scientist?”
he was a scientist?” the bishop said. “Look. He came, he made inquiries, he left. Left a check, too. Far more than what most deadbeat fathers do.”
“But when’s he coming back?” Calvin begged, wanting more than anything to escape the home, even if it was with a man he didn’t know.
“We’ll have to wait and see,” the bishop said, turning away to look out the leaded window. “He didn’t say.”
Calvin trudged slowly back to his classroom, thinking about the man—thinking of ways to make him come back. He
to come back. But the only things that ever showed up were more science books.
Still, he was a child, and as children do, he held on to his hope long after the hope should have expired. He read all the books his new-to-the-scene father had sent—devoured them as if they were love, stocking his broken heart with theories and algorithms, determined to uncover the chemistry he and his father shared, the unbreakable bond that linked them for life. But what he realized through his self-study was that the complexity of chemistry went well beyond birthright, that it twisted and turned in sometimes heartless ways. And thus he had to live with the knowledge that not only had this other father discarded him—without even
him—but that chemistry itself had spawned the grudge he could neither hide nor outgrow.