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Coming together

The Third Component: Part II, Chapter 26

Alison Christy 19 April 2009

www.lablit.com/article/491

Photo Credit: Tim Christy

She believed that guys would never be interested in a girl who studied astrophysics, so she would go out to bars in low-cut shirts and tell men she was a nurse

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of The Third Component, a novel by Alison Christy: a scientist at loose ends after earning her PhD sets off to Russia in search of a missing piece of her family's past.

Chapter 26

Physical Characteristics of Reticuloluminal Contents of Cattle Foraging in Close Proximity to Automobile Emissions

The tarmac becomes a pitted dirt road almost half an hour before the car shimmies through the forming puddles into a cursing, stomping stop in front of three white and brown cows who, with Buddha-like calm, are walking in the middle of the road. The cows stop, and look peacefully at each other with their huge wet eyes, tails twitching, clearly unaware or unconcerned that they narrowly missed flying over the rusty hood of the Azeri brothers’ car.

The driving brother leans his head out the window and shouts something at the cows, waving his fist and pounding on his own car like an angry New York cabbie. The other brother rolls down his window to let in the moist air while he smokes another cheap cigarette, filling the car with the smell of rubbery smoke.

“Michael Perch said there’d be cows,” Anna says softly. “I think we’re almost there.”

“Great,” Frank says, also in a whisper. “Our driver just told the cows to go home and fuck their mothers.”

The cows, apparently unwilling to put up with the driver’s insults, look at each other conspiratorially and begin their slow trek to the other side of the road.

**********

It was another late night at the lab, repeating an experiment that refused to work, no matter how many times she tried it. She and John were watching the centrifuge stutter to a halt when Anna suddenly realized she had completely ruined their experiment. She can’t remember anymore what was wrong: she mislabeled two tubes, forgot to add a crucial reagent; something that was simply negligent, stupid, born of fatigue and repetition.

They were both tired and frustrated. When she explained to John what she’d done, he said, “Good lord, Anna, are you a complete idiot?” and started to take the tubes one by one out of the centrifuge and throw them violently into the trash. Anna just watched, jamming her fingernails into her palms to keep from crying.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you,” John said as he pitched the last tube. “I could train a monkey to do this.” That was it, and she turned away from him and walked out of the lab, pushing the door open as loudly as she could.

She spent the rest of the evening crying on the couch in her common room with Dhatri, a graduate student who had lived in her unit for the past year. Anna liked Dhatri: she was tiny and round and self-deprecatingly funny. Dhatri believed that guys would never be interested in a girl who studied astrophysics, so she would go out to bars in low-cut shirts and tell men she was a nurse, or a hair stylist, or a massage therapist. “Just smart enough,” she told Anna with a wink.

Dhatri listened to Anna’s story and handed her tissues. She said, as she’d said before, that maybe John’s lab wasn’t the best learning environment for Anna, that maybe Anna should try to switch into a different lab. “Choosing a lab is like getting married,” she said in her angular Indian accent. “You spend so much time with your advisor. If it’s not a good situation and you don’t see it getting better, then you’re never going to finish your Ph.D.”

Anna had said before that the problem wasn’t with John, it was with herself: she was the one who kept messing things up, and he was just reacting, understandably, to her incompetence. Now she finally had to concede that Dhatri might be right. They decided that if she was going to stay in the lab, she shouldn’t work directly with John anymore. Anna would tell him, the next day, that she knew the procedures well enough to do them on her own. She would show him her data and that was it: no other interactions.

She went into his office the next day with her major points outlined on a yellow legal pad, but within minutes she found herself choking up again with childish tears, furious at herself for being so emotional.

“I’m only hard on you because I can see your potential,” John said. He pushed a box of tissues across his desk as she tried to wipe her tears away with her fingers as quickly and professionally as possible. “Let me take you out to dinner tonight,” he said. “We’ve been working too hard.”

She thought he would take her someplace close for a quick bite, but the restaurant he chose was trendy with dim lighting; small, pretty portions and wine. Over dinner, they talked about a review on yeast genetics they were planning to write, and about the new lab technician, and about John’s Ph.D. training. Anna laughed nervously at everything John said and worried, incessantly, if she had any food in her teeth. She wondered if the waitress thought they were on a date.

It became clear that they were on a date when John invited her back to his place for a drink. It was unbelievable: she was in his apartment, with him, and he wanted her. A moment before she had been an incompetent and fumbling student, and then she felt like the unbelievably charmed girl who is picked out of a huge crowd by the rock star she has been dreaming about for years. Anna floated around the lab for weeks, smiling to herself about her new life. She was the chosen one: the confidante, the one who knew his private life, the inside of his closet, his secret desires.

Things moved quickly, but then neither of them were particularly young. Before the first six months had gone by, they were in love and intended to be together for the rest of their lives. They weren’t the marrying type, they said – they didn’t even intend to live together, because they both valued their autonomy too much. But she would get a post-doctoral position somewhere on campus after she graduated, and after that he would use his connections to get her a faculty position, and then they could run the lab together as a brilliant scientific team, the amazing McLoughlin-Forsch lab, producing paradigm-shifting scientific work, publishing in the best journals. And in the evenings they would go home to one of their apartments, have dinner and make love, and then one of them would leave so they could each read scientific papers under private reading lamps and fall asleep in their lone, private beds.

Until suddenly, with graduation approaching – the moment when they could finally be together out in the open and realize all their dreams – she just couldn’t see it anymore: this life devoted to the production of great science, this intimacy that would never get any closer than what they already had. Weren’t there other things to live for besides scientific discovery? Weren’t there reasons why people got married, lived in the same house, had children, swore before God to take care of each other no matter what happened?

Anna couldn’t bring herself to tell Dhatri that she was now dating the man she had complained about, so after their talk on the couch she just started avoiding her. When Dhatri finally graduated and moved out a few years later Anna felt too awkward to even attend her going-away party. It was too bad; they might have become good friends, if things had been different.

**********

From the window of the Presidential Suite of the Kolpashevo Hotel they can see a fourth cow, calmly chewing and rhythmically twitching its tail in a large green field that is part of the Kolpashevo Airport. The cow watched them emotionlessly as they drove up to the hotel, unloaded their bags from the trunk of the car and paid their drivers. One of the brothers shook Frank’s hand and said something with a nod toward Anna.

“What did he say?” she asked as the brothers got back in the car.

“He said my girlfriend was very pretty,” Frank said, shifting his guitar on his shoulder, and Anna laughed, nervously.

One of the brothers slammed his fist against the dashboard, and they could hear the radio start up again as the car drove shakily away down the dirt road.

{Continued next week}