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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: March 14, 2020      Views: 62

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

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December
"Molecules - Part 2 (of 4)" by Mark Valentine



Previously on "Molecules": Dan and Carie, two of Dr. Zhou Jianwei's Teaching Assistants at Caltech, find themselves sharing an office. They do not like each other. Dan is a working class Catholic from Pittsburgh, Carie fancies herself too intellectual for such a primitive belief system. Dan bets Carie that one day she will believe in miracles.The story is told in the first person from Dan's POV.



The weeks go by and December is here before I know it. December means finals, both taking them, and grading them. In spite of the work load, I am not about to let anything dampen my Christmas spirit; not late night paper-grading, not the lack of snow, and certainly not Ms. Carie Carlson.
 
I brace myself for mockery when I bring in a tiny Christmas tree for my desk. I imagine her asking me to explain the biology of the Virgin Birth, or how a star trillions of miles away could pinpoint a specific stable on earth? I’m not going to let any of it get to me. I remind myself of Michele Obama’s rule for her daughters: “They go low, we go high.” I will not respond to her rudeness with rudeness. In fact, I decide that I will go out of my way to be nice to her.
 
I notice that she is in the habit of having an afternoon latte from Starbucks, so, one afternoon I decide to get her one while I am buying my caramel macchiato (a Christmas favorite of mine). I walk in and nonchalantly say, “I stopped by Starbucks on my way here. I notice you like their lattes, so I got you one.”
 
I’m not sure what reaction I expected, but what I get is a surly, “I don’t want this”.
 
 I brusquely pick it up off her desk and carry it to my own.
 
Apparently she is offended by my being offended. She says “What? I’m supposed to be grateful for something I didn’t ask for and didn’t want?”
 
Something snaps within me and I find myself no longer able to take the high road. “Yes. Yes, you are. That’s the way human beings work. Someone does something nice for you, and you say ‘thank you’. The ‘thank you’ isn’t for the coffee, it’s for the gesture. We live in a world of relationships. Kindness matters. How can somebody so smart not know the first thing about basic human decency? You’re unbelievable. Your 170 IQ may get you an endowed chair at some Ivy League school someday, but let me tell you something lady, you’re gonna be a failure at life.”
 
She has no response. I can tell that my words, for once, have made an impact. As she walks out of the room, I see her begin to bring her hands to her face. Oh My God, what did I just do? Did I make her cry? I feel horrible. She went low, I went lower.
 
I feel even more horrible the following night at the Department holiday party. All the faculty, including TAs, from PMA (the Department of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy) are there.  Only Carie is missing. I know that must be my fault. I scan the room, searching for Dr. Jianwei. I have to do a double take because I see a man who looks an awfully lot like him, but this man is wearing blue jeans and drinking a beer. I look more closely. Yup, that’s him alright.
 
All of us who are his Teaching Assistants revere, and are in awe of, Dr. Jianwei. He is not stern, but he is formal, and thus the thought of having a beer with him and engaging him in casual conversation seems daunting. Nevertheless, I have had a couple of beers myself and am feeling brave, so I approach.
 
“Dr. Jianwei?” my voice conveys my timidity.
 
“Oh, hi Dan. Good to see you. Please, call me Dr. J.”
 
He had told us that we could call him Dr. J at the beginning of the year. Carie was the only one to take him up on it. She’s such a brown-noser. I come right to the point.
 
“Dr. J, Do you think maybe you could change office assignments? Carie is a great teacher and obviously very smart, but for some reason the two of us don’t get along. I can’t speak for her, but I’m guessing she would rather have a different office mate as well.”
 
His response is more paternal than professorial, “Funny, Carie stopped by my office earlier today to ask me the same thing.”  He continued, “I’ll tell you what I told her. I can’t change your office assignments without disrupting someone else’s. Let’s give everything a chance to digest over the Christmas break. If you still feel the same come January, I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, have another beer and enjoy the party.”
 
For some reason, I feel hurt that Carie asked to change offices - even though that's the outcome I want also. Oh well, I'll think about that later. For now, Dr. Jianwei told me to have a beer, so I guess I'll have a beer. Can’t disobey a directive from Dr. J.  I wonder if I’ll actually be able to call him Dr. J? Maybe we’ll start hanging out together. I wonder if he bowls? Maybe I can give him a nickname – J-Crew. I take it for a test drive in my mind. Yo J-Crew, what say you and I throw a few back after work? Nah, probably not.
 
After finishing that beer and grabbing another, I make my way across the room to where my cohort of TAs, sans Carie, is standing. There is Gary Mayer, an ABD doctoral student from New York, and Isabela Garcia, a second year student like myself. Isabela and I often eat lunch together so that I can practice my Spanish. She’s cute too, but not Carie-cute.
 
I mention how rude I had been to Carie and they say “It’s about time”, and then begin relating their own Carie-is-such-a-bitch stories.
 
At first their empathy makes me feel better. But after a few such stories, and another beer, my remorse resurfaces and I find myself defending her, at least temporarily.
 
“She’s not THAT bad, I mean she IS really smart.”
 
Gary is quick to counter, “Intelligence is a morally neutral quality, Danny. It doesn’t make her a good person.”
 
“That’s just what I told her” I say. “I’m glad you guys get it.” To show them how much I appreciate their support, I go to the bar to get us all a round of shots. Gary doesn’t want his, but he thanks me for the gesture. I mention how unlike Carie, Gary is. “Carie would never have said, thank you.” Then I drink my shot, and Gary’s.
 
At some point, the conversation turns to anthropogenic carbon emissions, but my mind is lagging a bit behind the rest of the group. It is an alcohol-induced lag. Someone mentions a new twenty year forecast that has been issued by the NOAA when, apropos of nothing, I chime in, “I’ll tell ya something else about Ms. Carie Carlson – she may be a bitch, but she’s really cute.” Isabela rolls her eyes at me. I assure her that I am not being chauvinistic by saying that, just stating an objective fact.
 
“Oh c’mon, surely even you can see that she’s beuafitul… I mean beautiful.” My mouth has totally disengaged from my brain now. I can hear the inappropriate words hit my ears, but I can’t stop producing them. All I know is that there seems to be a lack of consensus on the important matter of Ms. Carie Carlson’s looks, and that it is of the utmost importance that we come to an agreement.
 
Fortunately our boss, the arbiter of all disputes, is in the room.  “Let’s ask Dr. J.” I notice a look of horror on my colleagues’ faces. I reassure them that I know what I’m doing. “It’s OK, me and Dr. J are buds.” I point to Dr. Jianwei before launching my potentially career-ending line of inquiry. I shout across the room, “Hey Dr. J, don’t you think that Carie Carlson is beaufitul? Have you seen her shoulders?”
 
Gary swoops in to rush me off to safety. He turns to Dr. Jianwei and says, “Sorry about that – he’s pretty drunk”, and then to me, “Hey Danny, how about you and I go get some coffee?”
 
“A good idea. I think I may have been overserved here.”
 
“Yeah, I’m thinking that’s a definite possibility.”

(to be continued)

 

Author Notes
ABD - All But Dissertation - a term for doctoral students who have completed all of their coursework and just need to finish and defend their dissertation.

NOAA - National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
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