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Fiction

The committee meeting

From the LabLit short story series

Julia Richards 23 August 2015

www.lablit.com/article/876

She likes being wanted. She can peel oranges well, even if her experiments are going terribly. He listens but has no idea what her work is about

Winter

“So I got three of the biggest fuddy-duddies on my Ph.D. committee,” she says. “But at least, I got the form signed and turned in.”

She is doing yoga. Her arms push her into upward facing dog, and then she flips over her toes and presses back, showing him the proper form for downward facing dog. She took up yoga a year ago and is getting good. He thinks yoga is ridiculous and sits on a chair strumming a Beatles song on his guitar. He is obsessed with that guitar.

“The organic chemists don’t have much of a choice. We all have our meetings on the same day, so the professors only have to waste one day. Our committee is whoever is free in our assigned time slots.” He reads the song from tab he printed off the internet. She offered to show him how to read music once, but he says it is too difficult.

“And now you spring forward to your hands.” She explains as she demonstrates, hopping her feet up to her hands and landing in a forward fold.

He laughs and laughs. “What is with the hopping?”

“It’s sun salutations series. That’s what you do.”

He is still laughing. “Here, I’ll show you something better. Here’s an A chord.”

He hands her the guitar and then moves her fingers into the right places. Grey’s Anatomy is on the TV, but the episode bored them. When it finishes, she feels like it is time to leave. She asks for the book on organic chemistry he promised her.

“I was going to borrow Paolo’s before everything happened,” she says. “Did you hear? He’s dating Lindsay now.”

She doesn’t mean to keep talking about it, but she asks, “What’s wrong with me? Is she prettier than me? Lindsay also just got a paper published, first author too.”

She is worried about Paolo. She is worried about passing organic chemistry classes. She is worried if she’ll have anything more than blank slides for her committee meeting in three months.

“No,” he says with a smile. “Paolo is just one confused dude.”

Then he kisses her. He’s only the second guy who has kissed her, so she is still surprised when it happens.

A few weeks later as they wake up together, he says, “we should work out a schedule. You stay at my place Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and we’ll do weekends at your place.”

“Okay.” She is surprised at the direct scheduling of dating, but only feels happiness underneath. He takes longer in the shower than she does for some reason, so she makes his sandwich every morning. She adds an orange to his lunch bag that she will peel for him at lunch. Since they work in the same building, they can eat together every day. He always asks her to peel the orange. She can take off the peel in a single spiral.

It has turned into more than Monday, Wednesday, Friday. She usually stays over since he hates her apartment with its cramped bathroom and rusted ceiling tiles. His place is closer to the lab as well. She likes being wanted. She can peel oranges well, even if her experiments are going terribly. He listens but has no idea what her work is about. Committee meeting is only a few months away.

Spring

One beautiful day when the cherry blossoms are blooming, she is running along the river, and she begins sobbing. Not just a few tears, but sheets of tears that make it difficult for her to see and shoulder shudders that make it hard to breathe. Somehow she gets home and curls up in bed. It’s safe and warm there. The next day she feels fine. How weird she thinks, but it already seems like something that happened to someone else, a story she watched on TV. She tells him about it, and he assures her that it’s just stress. She should worry less about the committee meeting, he says. It’s just a formality.

A few weeks later, she is at work and the tears begin. She goes to the bathroom and locks herself in the safety of a stall. She is suddenly glad so few women work in this department as she tries to cry quietly.

Analyzing herself with an evidence-based approach, she realizes she must be depressed. She doesn’t like or understand therapy, but it has been proven to help with depression. Even as a scientist, she is hesitant about taking drugs. They don’t actually know what her particular brain chemistry is like. It seems like guesswork. She wants to learn how to just make herself normal.

Therapy is her worst nightmare, someone getting inside her thoughts.

“I guess I’m a bit stressed about my committee meeting,” she says to the therapist, a woman in her thirties with wild, curly hair and a perpetual iced coffee in her hand. Even to a professional, she doesn’t want to say the thought of it has been making her want to vomit for months, that sometimes the terror of it won’t let her sleep. None of her experiments have worked though she has repeated them dozens of times, slightly varying each condition.

Summer

The committee meeting is a non-event. She shows some background slides on the plan for her project. Then she shows a bunch of gels that proved the key reaction hasn’t worked. The professors just nod and say she should get a new project.

Even though the committee meeting went okay, the feeling of failure hangs around. The experiments are still failing. She has a feeling she is a terrible girlfriend. He buys her roses and cooks her salmon for her birthday. He remembers a lucky cat bank she liked in Chinatown and gets it for her. He wants to spend every night together. She wishes she were home.

Sometimes it goes badly. She had never slept with anyone before and is puzzled.

“I can’t do all the work.” He looks at her. She wishes he wouldn’t care so much. Sometimes she cries after he falls asleep, no matter how well it has gone.

“I feel like you were happy, until you started dating me,” he says.

“It has nothing to do with you,” she explains. “It’s something inside of me, something physiological. It just happened to come out now.”

She would like more time alone, less time spending the night, but what girlfriend is supposed to want that? Her illness has been so hard on him. She has made him unhappy and stressed out. She feels guilty.

She considers dropping out.

“What would you do?”

“I don’t know.” She considers law school so she can be a patent lawyer, another science-based career. She has never applied for a real job; all she knows is school.

Fall

She is better. She has gotten a second project from her professor, which might have a chance of success. Out of the blue, she realizes she enjoys therapy, enjoys the talking, the “getting it all out there” as they say. She has even learned to ask him for what she needs: more time at home.

One week near Halloween, he tells her he doesn’t feel like their relationship is working, like they are just friends with benefits. He is setting up a reaction in his fume hood. She used to come into lab. He would always make her laugh. Now he focuses on putting his reaction under nitrogen, putting a flask on the rotary evaporator, talking about the paper he is writing.

They were best friends before they dated, and she agrees in some ways that it does feel the same. She struggles to know what the difference she should be feeling.

“I don’t feel like we’re close,” he explains.

She thinks about the nights crying in his bed after he has fallen asleep. “I feel like you never want to hear about my depression.”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” he says.

A hole opens up in her stomach, a void sucking in every bad thing around her. She feels simultaneously deaf and nauseated, but not surprised at his words. She has always known this in some way. She is only surprised at how little it matters to her. She wants to continue dating him, to eat the pasta he cooks, to peel his oranges for him, to walk home together after a long day in lab, to make love.

It seems fair to her. He liked her because she was funny, pretty, and free of angst. She is none of those things anymore. He’s not obligated to like this new person. But she can simulate being that person again. He has said it without malice, without thought, just as a plain fact. And she loves him for being another weak, flawed human like herself. She loves him for his honesty. It is the first time she has loved someone. She goes running in the autumn sun the next day, full of certainty. She will stay with him and she will stay in graduate school.