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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: March 12, 2020      Views: 62

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"Like every book I never wrote, it is by far the best book I've ever written."

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A 4 part story of love, science, and the meaning of life
"Molecules - Part 1" by Mark Valentine

There are approximately 10 to the 78th power molecules in the universe. Remember that – there will be a quiz later.

Dr. Zhou Jianwei is one of the world’s foremost experts on those molecules. He is the James L Hightower Professor of Theoretical Astrophysics at Caltech. I am lucky enough to be his student and one of his four Teaching Assistants for the upcoming academic year. I will be sharing an office in Linde Hall with another one of the TAs, a fellow doctoral student named Carie Carlson. I have not met her yet, but I’ve seen her photo in the student directory. She’s cute.

I arrive in Pasadena a week before classes are scheduled to begin. Dr. Jianwei wants to meet with his TAs tomorrow to go over the syllabus and our responsibilities. The campus is quiet. A woman from the Facilities Department issues me a key to what will be our office. I feel so grown up. I can’t wait so I go up to office 314 to check it out.

There are two desks. My office mate has not arrived yet so I get first pick. I decide to let her have the better space, the one by the window. I figure this nice gesture will start off our relationship on a good note.

I am wrong.

About an hour later, I am putting some books on a bookshelf against the wall, my back to the door, when I hear her voice.

“He never said that.”

I turn and recognize the woman from her picture. She’s even cuter in person.

“Excuse me?”

“Einstein never said that.”

She points to a poster of Einstein that I have taped to the wall. Below his picture is the quote, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

“How do you know?” I ask.

“Had he said it, surely someone would have the citation, but the book, paper, article, or interview where he allegedly uttered these words is nowhere to be found. The quote is just a way to sell posters.”

This is not going well. I try to change the trajectory of this nascent relationship before it goes too far off course.

“Hi, I’m Dan Polachek. You must be Carie.” I say the words clearly and slowly as if I were modeling behavior for a child. See, this is the way normal adults behave upon first meeting each other.

She simply responds, “I must be”, and begins unpacking her boxes.

No ‘Nice to meet you’. No ‘So, where are you from?’ No ‘Thanks for letting me have the nicer space’. It’s gonna be a long year. I do not like this woman.

The next day during our meeting with Dr. Jianwei, Carie stakes her claim to teacher’s pet status early and often. She lets him know that, not only has she read the textbook (which he wrote) for this year’s class, but she has read all of his books. The other TAs and I trade surreptitious eye rolls. After the meeting, Carie and I go back to our office to finish setting up. She is aloof and barely speaks to me. What a bitch, I think to myself.

It is a hot August day in Pasadena. Carie is wearing shorts and a spaghetti strap top. Her back is to me. As I continue to unpack my own things, I occasionally glance at her. I notice her slender, toned arms, the gentle curve of her shoulder. My eyes follow the curve up to where it meets the nape of the neck.  My heart beats a little faster as I follow that elegant neckline up to the back of her ear. I wonder what it would be like to kiss that spot softly and sensuously.

But I digress. The point is, I do not like this woman. Not one bit.

I resign myself to the fact that she is not going to speak to me. I am about to call it a day and grab a beer somewhere when she says:

“So, you believe in miracles?” There’s a definite condescension in her voice.

“I’ve never experienced one myself, but I believe in the possibility that they exist.”

“Are you sure you’re in the right place? This is the Department of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech.”

What is this chick’s problem?

“I’m just saying that I acknowledge the finitude of the human mind. We don’t imagine that chimpanzees have any idea about dark matter, or string theory. We’re only one rung up the evolutionary ladder from them. Why should we imagine that ours is the highest rung possible? That there isn’t more to know than our minds can grasp? That maybe there are non-material aspects to the universe that we haven’t discovered yet?”

“At least you believe in evolution.”

I couldn’t imagine what I had done to offend her.  I decide to go on the offensive.

“You’re gonna believe in miracles one day, too.”

“What on earth makes you think that?”

“Because you’re young and smart and you’re not done learning yet. You don’t know what you don’t know.”

“Did Einstein say that too?”

“Probably. We don’t know for sure because nobody’s made a poster.” I am trying to make a joke, but it is wasted on her.

“Well, I may not know everything, but I’m quite sure I will never believe in miracles.”

“I’ll bet you a dinner you will.”

“You’re on, Rudy.”


She pointed to my shirt. “Rudy – like the movie.”

Oh, so THAT’S it! I am wearing a t-shirt from my undergraduate alma mater, Notre Dame, and she assumes I’m some intellectual Neanderthal who believes the world is governed by magic, whereas she, like most people at this university, has evolved beyond the need for such superstitions.

She holds out her hand to shake on the bet. I do the same and all of the sudden her hand is in mine and I feel the gentleness of her soft, smooth skin. The skin of the hand that is connected to the slender arm, that leads to the curve of the shoulder, that leads to the … nah - I stop myself before I get to the neck. I don’t like her and that’s that.

“How will we know who wins the bet?”

“We’ll have to rely on the honor system. If at any time in our relationship, you acknowledge that you believe in miracles, I win the bet. If I ever acknowledge that there are no such things, you win the bet.”

“I seriously doubt that either one of those things will happen”

“Then neither one wins – no biggie.”

At least we were talking. The next day, I thought perhaps we could build on that momentum. I again got to the office first. When she walks in, I greet her with a friendly and innocuous “Hi Carie, how are you?”


And she sits down. That’s it. Apparently she never took Civility 101.

A few minutes later, I notice her struggling to get the blinds to stay up on the window that was next to her desk (a window she had access to thanks to my generous gesture, I might add). I thought I might help.

“I think you need to pull the cord at an angle in order to get the cogwheel to engage the string.”

“Thanks for mansplaining how blinds work. As a doctoral student in physics, I was a little fuzzy on that.”

That elegantly curved shoulder sure seems to have a huge chip on it. Yeah, I definitely do not like this woman.

Once classes begin, Carie and I are forced to talk to each other in meetings and around shared assignments. I lead one of her seminars when she is out ill and she says “Thank you” - progress. I still don’t like her, but working alongside her, I come to respect her discipline and work ethic, and to envy her intelligence. She is clearly smarter than I am. My acknowledgment of this reality seems to take some of the chip off her shoulder. Without explicitly saying it, I convey the message, There is no rivalry here – you win the IQ contest.

Determined to make the best of this forced relationship, I break out my most powerful weapon, my sense of humor. Occasionally, I make her laugh. At those times I again notice how pretty she is.

Inevitably though, just when I think some semblance of a friendship might be building, she reverts to her default mode, which apparently, is being derisive and condescending. She cannot pass up the opportunity to ridicule my parochial world view, whether it’s my culinary habits (the problem being that I think deep dish pizza and Budweiser are haute cuisine), or my religious beliefs (the problem being that I have some). She seems to seek out opportunities to put me down.

Yesterday, she asked me what I thought happened to people after they die. I knew it was a trap, and I certainly wasn’t going to leave my king unprotected by making the ‘heaven and hell move’. She’d checkmate me in no time flat. So, I went for the safer play. “I guess we don’t really know, do we?”

She was ready. “Are you kidding? Of course we know. It is the one study where the sample size is literally every being that has ever lived. And in every case – 100% - without exception, what happens is that autonomic functions cease, cells stop regenerating, and bodies decompose. You can observe it with your eyes. Go to a graveyard and dig somebody up -- they're still dead. I guarantee it. End of story. Or do you have a poster of Einstein talking to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates that will refute all of the facts and data?”

Check and mate.

(to be continued...)


Author Notes
thanks for reading - it gets better in the next three chapters
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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