Chapter no 6 – The Hastings Cafeteria

Lesson, in Chemistry

There’s nothing more irritating than witnessing someone else’s unfair share of happiness, and to some of their colleagues at Hastings Research Institute, Elizabeth and Calvin had an unfair share. He, because he was brilliant; she, because she was beautiful. When they became a couple, their unfair shares automatically doubled, making it really unfair.

The worst part, according to these people, was that they hadn’t earned their shares—they’d simply been born that way, meaning their unfair share of happiness arose, not from hard work, but from genetic luck. And the fact that the duo decided to combine their unearned gifts into one loving and probably highly sexual relationship, which the rest of them had to witness at lunch every day, just made it that much worse.

“Here they come,” said a geologist from the seventh floor. “Batman and Robin.”

“I heard they’re shacking up together—did you know that?” asked his lab mate.

Everyone knows that.”

“I didn’t know that,” a third named Eddie said grimly.

The three geologists watched as Elizabeth and Calvin chose an empty table in the middle of the cafeteria, the clash of trays and silverware rat-a-tat-tat-ing around them like gunfire. As the stink of cafeteria stroganoff

threatened to asphyxiate the rest of the room, Calvin and Elizabeth placed a set of open Tupperware containers on the table. Chicken parmesan. Au gratin potatoes. Some sort of salad.

“Oh, I see,” said one of the geologists. “So the food here isn’t good enough for them.”

“My cat eats better than this,” the other geologist said, shoving his tray away.

“Hi, fellas!” chirped Miss Frask, a too-cheerful, wide-bottomed secretary from Personnel. Frask set down her tray, then cleared her throat as she waited for Eddie, a geology lab tech, to pull out her chair. Frask had been dating Eddie for three months, and while she would have liked to report it was all going very well, it wasn’t. Eddie was immature with boorish tendencies. He chewed with his mouth open, guffawed at jokes that weren’t funny, said things like “va-va-va-voom.” Still, Eddie had one important thing going for him: he was single. “Well, thank you, Eddie,” she said as he leaned over and yanked her chair out for her. “So sweet!”

“Proceed at your own risk,” one of the geologists warned, tipping his head in Calvin and Elizabeth’s general direction.

“Why?” she said. “What are we looking at?” She spun in her chair to follow their gaze. “Jeez Louise,” she said, spying the happy couple. “Again?”

The four of them watched in silence as Elizabeth pulled out a notebook and passed it to Calvin. Calvin studied the page, then made some comment. Elizabeth shook her head, then pointed at something specific. Calvin nodded and, cocking his head to the side, slowly started to chew his lips.

“He is so unattractive,” Frask said in disgust. But because she was in Personnel and Personnel never comments on an employee’s physical appearance, she added, “And by that I only mean that blue is not his color.”

One of the geologists took a bite of stroganoff, then set down his fork in resignation. “Hear the latest? Evans was nominated for the Nobel again.”

The whole table issued a collective sigh.

“Well, that’s meaningless,” one of the geologists said. “Anyone can be nominated.”

“Oh really? Have you ever been nominated?”

They continued to watch, transfixed, as a few minutes later Elizabeth reached down and pulled out a package wrapped in wax paper.

“What do you think that is?” one of the geologists asked.

“Baked goods,” Eddie said, his voice filled with awe. “She bakes, too.” They watched as she offered Calvin brownies.

“Oh good god,” Frask said, exasperated. “What do you mean, ‘too’?

Anyone can bake.”

“I don’t understand her,” one of the geologists said. “She’s got Evans. Why’s she still here?” He paused as if weighing all possibilities. “Unless,” he said, “Evans doesn’t want to marry her.”

“Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?” the other geologist suggested.

“I grew up on a farm,” Eddie contributed. “Cows are a lot of work.”

Frask glanced at him sideways. It irritated her that he continued to crane his neck toward Zott like a plant to sunlight.

“I’m a specialist in human behavior,” she said. “At one point I was pursuing a PhD in psychology.” She looked at her lunch mates, hoping they’d ask her about her academic aspirations, but no one seemed even slightly interested. “Anyway, that’s why I can say with confidence: it’s she who’s using him.

From across the room, Elizabeth straightened her papers, then rose. “Sorry to cut this short, Calvin, but I have a meeting.”

“A meeting?” Calvin said, as if she’d just announced she was attending an execution. “If you worked in my lab, you’d never have to go to meetings.”

“But I don’t work in your lab.” “But you could.

She sighed, busying herself with the Tupperware. Of course, she’d love to work in his lab, but it wasn’t possible. She was an entry-level chemist.

She had to make her own way. Try to understand, she’d told him more than once.

“But we live together. This is just the next logical step.” When it came to Elizabeth, he knew logic ruled the day.

“That was an economic decision,” she reminded him. Which, on the surface, it was. Calvin had initiated the idea, saying that because they spent most of their free time together, it made financial sense to share living quarters. Still, it was also 1952, and in 1952 an unmarried woman did not move in with a man. So he was a bit surprised when Elizabeth didn’t hesitate. “I’ll pay half,” she’d said.

She removed the pencil from her hair and tapped it on the table awaiting his response. She hadn’t actually meant she’d pay half. Paying half was impossible. Her paycheck hovered just above ridiculous; half was out of the question. Anyway, the house was in his name—only he would receive the tax benefit. Therefore, half wouldn’t be fair. She’d give him a moment to do the math. Half was outrageous.

“Half,” he mused, as if considering it.

He already knew she couldn’t pay half. She couldn’t even pay a quarter. This was because Hastings paid her a penurious wage—about half what a man in her position made— a fact he’d encountered in her personnel file, which he’d peeked at illegally. Anyway, he didn’t have a mortgage. He’d paid off his tiny bungalow last year with the proceeds from a chemistry prize and had instantly regretted it. You know how people say, “Never put all your eggs in one basket?” He had.

“Or,” she’d said, brightening, “perhaps we could work out a trade agreement. You know, like nations do.”

“A trade?”

“Rent for services rendered.”

Calvin froze. He’d overheard all the gossip regarding the free milk.

“Dinner,” she said. “Four nights a week.” And before he could reply she said, “Fine. Five. But that’s my final offer. I’m a good cook, Calvin. Cooking is serious science. In fact, it’s chemistry.”

So they’d moved in together and it had all worked out. But the lab idea? She refused even to consider it.

“You were just nominated for a Nobel, Calvin,” she reminded him as she snapped the Tupperware lid closed on the remaining potatoes. “Your third nomination in five years. I want to be judged on my own work—not work people think you did for me.”

“Anyone who knows you would never think that.”

She burped the Tupperware, then turned to look at him. “That’s the problem. No one knows me.”

She’d felt this way her entire life. She’d been defined not by what she did, but by what others had done. In the past she was either the offspring of an arsonist, the daughter of a serial wife, the sister of a hanged homosexual, or the graduate student of a renowned lecher. Now she was the girlfriend of a famous chemist. But she was never just Elizabeth Zott.

And on those rare occasions when she wasn’t defined by others’ actions, then she was dismissed out of hand as either a lightweight or a gold digger based on the thing she hated most about herself. How she looked. Which happened to be just like her father.

He was the reason she didn’t smile much anymore. Before becoming an evangelist, her father had wanted to be an actor. He had both the charisma and the teeth—the latter, professionally capped. The only thing missing? Talent. So when it became clear that acting was out, he took his skills to revival tents where his fake smile sold people on the end of the world. That’s why, at age ten, Elizabeth stopped smiling. The resemblance faded.

It wasn’t until Calvin Evans came along that her smile reemerged. The first time was that night at the theater when he’d vomited all over her dress. She hadn’t recognized him at first, but when she did and despite the mess, she bent over to get a better look at his face. Calvin Evans! True, she’d been

a little rude to him after he’d been rude to her—the beakers—but between the two of them there’d been immediate, irresistible pull.

“Still working on that?” she asked, pointing at a nearly empty container. “No,” he said, “you eat it. You could use the extra fuel.”

Actually, he’d planned to eat it, but he was willing to forgo the extra calories if only she would stay. Like Elizabeth, he’d never been much of a people person; in fact, it wasn’t until he’d found rowing that he’d made any real kind of connection with others. Physical suffering, he’d long ago learned, bonds people in a way that everyday life can’t. He still kept in contact with his eight Cambridge teammates—had even seen one of them just last month when he’d been in New York for a conference. Four Seat— they still called one another by their seat names—had become a neurologist.

“You have a what?” Four Seat had said, surprised. “A girlfriend? Well, good for you, Six!” he said, slapping him on the back. “About bloody time!”

Calvin had nodded excitedly, explaining in detail Elizabeth’s work and habits and laugh and everything else he loved about her. But in a more somber tone, he also explained that although he and Elizabeth spent all of their free time together—they lived together, they ate together, they drove back and forth to work together—it didn’t feel like enough. It wasn’t that he couldn’t function without her, he told Four Seat, but rather that he didn’t see the point of functioning without her. “I don’t know what to call it,” he’d confided following a full examination. “Am I addicted to her? Am I dependent in some sick sort of way? Could I have a brain tumor?”

“Jesus, Six, it’s called happiness,” Four Seat explained. “When’s the wedding?”

But that was the problem. Elizabeth had made it clear that she had no interest in getting married. “It’s not that I disapprove of marriage, Calvin,” she’d told him more than once, “although I do disapprove of all of the people who disapprove of us for not being married. Don’t you?”

“I do,” Calvin agreed, thinking how much he would like to say those words to her in front of an altar. But when she looked at him expecting more, he added quickly, “I do think we’re lucky.” And then she smiled at him so earnestly that something inside his brain went haywire. As soon as they parted, he drove to a local jeweler, scanning the selections until he found the biggest small diamond he could afford. Sick with excitement, he kept the tiny box in his pocket for three months waiting for exactly the right moment.

“Calvin?” Elizabeth said, gathering the last of her things from the cafeteria table. “Are you listening? I said I’m going to a wedding tomorrow. Actually, I’m in the wedding if you can believe that.” She gave a nervous shrug. “So we should probably discuss that acid study tonight if that works.”

“Who’s getting married?”

“My friend Margaret—the Physics secretary? That’s who I’m meeting in fifteen minutes. For a fitting.”

“Wait. You have a friend?” He thought Elizabeth only had workmates— fellow scientists who recognized her skill and undermined her results.

Elizabeth felt a flush of embarrassment. “Well, yes,” she said awkwardly. “Margaret and I nod to each other in the hallways. We’ve spoken several times at the coffee urn.”

Calvin willed his face to look as if this were a reasonable description of friendship.

“It’s very last-minute. One of her bridesmaids is sick and Margaret says it’s important to have an even ratio of bridesmaids to ushers.” Although as

soon as she said it, she realized what Margaret really needed: a size 6 without weekend plans.

The truth was, she wasn’t good at making friends. She’d told herself it was because she’d moved so much, had bad parents, lost her brother. But she knew others had experienced hardships and they didn’t have this issue. If anything, some of them seemed better at making friends—as if the specter of constant change or profound sorrow had revealed to them the importance of making connections wherever and whenever they landed. What was wrong with her?

And then there was the illogical art of female friendship itself, the way it seemed to demand an ability to both keep and reveal secrets using precise timing. Whenever she moved to a new town, girls would take her aside at Sunday school and breathlessly confide their crushes on certain boys. She listened to these confessions, faithfully promising she would never tell. And she didn’t. Which was all wrong because it turned out she was supposed to tell. Her job as confidante was to break that confidence by telling Boy X that Girl Y thought he was cute, thus initiating a chain reaction of interest between the two parties. “Why don’t you just tell him yourself?” she’d say to these would-be friends. “He’s right there.” The girls would draw back in horror.

“Elizabeth,” Calvin said. “Elizabeth?” He leaned over the table and tapped her hand. “Sorry,” he said as she startled. “I think I lost you there for a moment. Anyway, I was just saying, I love weddings. I’ll go with you.”

Actually, he hated weddings. For years, they’d reminded him that he was still unloved. But now he had her and tomorrow she’d be in close proximity to an altar and he hypothesized such proximity could revise her perception of marriage. This theory even had a scientific name: associative interference.

“No,” she said quickly. “I don’t have an extra invite, and besides, the fewer people who see me in this dress the better.”

“Come on,” he said, reaching one long arm across the span that separated them, pulling her back down. “Margaret can’t expect you to go alone. And as for the dress, I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

“Oh, no, it is,” she said, reverting to her sensible tone of scientific certainty. “Bridesmaids’ dresses are designed to make the women in them look unappealing; that way the bride looks better than usual. It’s an accepted practice, a basic defensive strategy with biological roots. You see this sort of thing in nature all the time.”

Calvin thought back to the weddings he’d attended and realized she might be right: not once had he ever had the urge to ask a bridesmaid to dance. Could a dress really have that much power? He looked across the table at Elizabeth, her firm hands moving through space as she described the gown: extra padding at the hips, sloppy gathering at the waist and chest, fat bow spanning the buttocks. He thought about the people who designed these dresses; how, like bomb manufacturers or pornography stars, they had to remain vague about the way they made their livings.

“Well, it’s nice of you to help out. But I thought you didn’t like weddings.”

“No, it’s only marriage I don’t like. We’ve talked about it, Calvin; you know where I stand. But I’m happy for Margaret. Mostly.”


“Well,” she said, “she keeps repeating how by Saturday night, she’ll finally be Mrs. Peter Dickman. As if changing her name is the finish line for a race she’s been in since she was six.”

“She’s marrying Dickman?” he said. “From Cellular Biology?” He didn’t like Dickman.

“Exactly,” she said. “I’ve never understood why when women marry, they’re expected to trade in their old names like used cars, losing their last and sometimes even their first—Mrs. John Adams! Mrs. Abe Lincoln!—as if their previous identities had just been twenty-odd-year placeholders before they became actual people. Mrs. Peter Dickman. It’s a life sentence.”

Elizabeth Evans, on the other hand, Calvin thought to himself, was perfect. Before he could stop himself, he felt around in his pocket for the small blue box, and without hesitation, placed it in front of her. “Maybe this could help improve the dress,” he said, his heart at full gallop.

“Ring box,” announced one of the geologists. “Brace yourself, kids: engagement in process.” But there was something about Elizabeth’s face that didn’t read right.

Elizabeth looked down at the box and then looked back up at Calvin, her eyes wide with terror.

“I know your position on marriage,” Calvin said in a rush. “But I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I think you and I would have a different kind of marriage. It would be very unaverage. Fun, even.”


“There are also practical reasons to get married. Lower taxes, for instance.”


“At least look at the ring,” he begged. “I’ve been carrying it around for months. Please.”

“I can’t,” she said, looking away. “It’ll just make it harder to say no.”

Her mother had always insisted that the measure of a woman was how well she married. “I could have married Billy Graham,” she’d often claimed. “Don’t think he wasn’t interested. By the way, Elizabeth, when you do get engaged, insist on the biggest rock possible. That way, if the marriage doesn’t work out, you can hock it.” As it turned out, her mother was

speaking from experience. When her parents filed for divorce, it was revealed she’d been married three times before.

“I’m not going to marry,” Elizabeth told her. “I’m going to be a scientist. Successful women scientists don’t marry.”

“Oh really?” Her mother laughed. “I see. So you think you’re going to marry your work like the nuns marry Jesus? Although say what you want about nuns—at least they know their husband won’t snore.” She pinched Elizabeth’s arm. “No woman says no to marriage, Elizabeth. You won’t either.”

Calvin opened his eyes wide. “You’re saying no?” “Yes.”


“Calvin,” she said carefully, reaching across the table for his hands while taking in his deflated face. “I thought we’d agreed on this. As a scientist yourself, I know you understand why marriage for me is out of the question.”

But his expression indicated no such understanding.

“Because I can’t risk having my scientific contributions submerged beneath your name,” she clarified.

“Right,” he said. “Of course. Obviously. So it’s a work conflict.” “More of a societal conflict.”

“Well that is AWFUL!” he shouted, causing any table that wasn’t already watching to turn their full attention to the unhappy couple in the middle.

“Calvin,” Elizabeth said. “We’ve discussed this.”

“Yes, I know. You disapprove of the name change. But have I ever suggested that I wanted your name to change?” he protested. “No, in fact, I expected you to keep your name.” Which wasn’t completely true. He’d assumed she’d take his name. Nevertheless, he said, “But in any case, our future happiness should not depend on whether a handful of people might

mistakenly call you Mrs. Evans. We’ll correct those people.” This seemed like the wrong time to tell her he’d already added her name to the deed on his tiny bungalow—Elizabeth Evans, that’s the name he’d given the county clerk. He made a mental note to call the clerk as soon as he was back in his lab.

Elizabeth shook her head. “Our future happiness does not depend on whether or not we’re married, Calvin—at least not to me. I’m fully committed to you; marriage will not change that. As for who thinks what, it’s not just a handful of people: it’s society—particularly the society of scientific research. Everything I do will suddenly be in your name, as if you’d done it. In fact, most people will assume you’ve done it simply because you’re a man, but especially because you’re Calvin Evans. I don’t want to be another Mileva Einstein or Esther Lederberg, Calvin; I refuse. And even if we took all the proper legal steps to ensure my name won’t change, it will still change. Everyone will call me Mrs. Calvin Evans; I will become Mrs. Calvin Evans. Every Christmas card, every bank statement, every notice from the Bureau of Internal Revenue will all come to Mr. and Mrs. Calvin Evans. Elizabeth Zott, as we know her, will cease to exist.”

“And being Mrs. Calvin Evans is absolutely the worst thing that could ever happen to you,” he said, his face collapsed in misery.

“I want to be Elizabeth Zott,” she said. “It’s important to me.”

They sat for a minute in uncomfortable silence, the hateful little blue box plopped between them like a bad referee at a tight match. Against her will, she found herself wondering what the ring looked like.

“I really am sorry,” she repeated. “Not a problem,” he said stiffly. She looked away.

“They’re breaking up!” Eddie hissed to the others. “They’re going straight down the tubes!”

Shit, Frask thought. Zott’s back on the market.

Except Calvin couldn’t let it go. Thirty seconds later, completely oblivious to the dozens of pairs of eyes resting upon them, he said in a voice far louder than he’d intended, “For the love of god, Elizabeth. It’s just a name. It doesn’t matter. You’re you—that’s what matters.”

“I wish that were true.”

“It is true,” he insisted. “What’s in a name? Nothing!”

She looked up with sudden hope. “Nothing? Well in that case, what about changing your name?”

“To what?”

“To mine. To Zott.”

He looked at her in astonishment, then rolled his eyes. “Very funny,” he said.

“Well, why not?” Her voice had an edge.

“You already know why not. Men don’t do that. Anyway, there’s my work, my reputation. I’m…” He hesitated.



“Say it.”

“Fine. I’m famous, Elizabeth. I can’t just change my name.”

“Oh,” she said. “But if you weren’t famous, then changing your name to mine would be fine. Is that what you mean?”

“Look,” he said, grabbing the small blue box. “I get it. I didn’t make this tradition; it’s just the way things are. When women get married, they take their husband’s name, and ninety-nine point nine percent of them are fine with it.”

“And you have some sort of study to back up this assertion,” she said. “What?”

“That ninety-nine point nine percent of women are fine with it.” “Well, no. But I’ve never heard any complaints before.”

“And the reason why you can’t change your name is because you’re famous. Although ninety-nine point nine percent of men who aren’t famous also happen to keep their names.”

“Again,” he said, stuffing the small box in his pocket with such force that the fabric gave way at the corner. “I didn’t create the tradition. And as I stated earlier, I am—was—in full support of you keeping your name.”


“I don’t want to marry you anymore.” Elizabeth sat back hard.

“Game, set, match!” crowed one of the geologists. “Box is back in the pocket!”

Calvin sat fuming. It had already been a tough day. Just that morning, he’d gotten a bunch of new crank letters, most from people purporting to be long-lost relatives. This wasn’t unusual; ever since he’d gotten a little famous, the flimflam artists wrote en masse. A “great uncle” wanted Calvin to invest in his alchemy scheme; a “sad mother” claimed she was his biological mother and wanted to give him money; a so-called cousin needed cash. There were also two letters from women claiming they’d had his baby and he needed to pay up now. This was despite the fact that the only woman he’d ever slept with was Elizabeth Zott. Would this ever end?

“Elizabeth,” he implored, as he raked his fingers through his hair. “Please understand. I want us to be a family— a real family. It’s important to me, maybe because I lost my family— I don’t know. What I do know is that ever since I met you, I’ve felt there should be three of us. You, me, and a…a…”

Elizabeth’s eyes grew wide in horror. “Calvin,” she said in alarm, “I thought we agreed about that, too.”

“Well. We’ve never really talked about it.”

“No, we have,” she pressed. “We definitely have.”

“Just that once,” he said, “and it wasn’t really a talk. Not really.”

“I don’t know how you can say that,” she said, panicked. “We absolutely agreed: no children. I can’t believe you’re talking like this. What’s happened to you?”

“Right, but I was thinking we could—” “I was clear—”

“I know,” he interrupted, “but I was thinking—” “You can’t just change your mind on this one.”

“For Pete’s sake, Elizabeth,” he said, getting mad. “If you’d just let me finish—”

“Go ahead,” she snapped. “Finish!” He looked at her, frustrated.

“I was only thinking that we could get a dog.”

Relief flooded her face. “A dog?” she said. “A dog!”

“Goddammit,” Frask commented quietly as Calvin leaned over to kiss Elizabeth. The entire cafeteria instantly echoed her sentiment. From every direction, silverware fell to trays in resigned clatters, chairs were kicked back in moody defeat, napkins were wadded in dirty little balls. It was the noxious noise of profound jealousy, the kind that never results in a happy ending.

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