Chemistry

“Bromine and hypobromous acid make water at room temperature,” she said, over the rapid clack of the train wheels on the downtown #2 express. “Remember that; it’s going to be on the test.”

Tall and slender, she clicked her gum and swayed her taut black-jeaned hips against the brushed steel pole as her shorter blonde girlfriend and the coffee-skinned boy listened. He leaned against the door, facing them, who together clutched the overhang to my right.

His voice was soft and familiar when he looked at the tall girl, “You know kinetic molecular theory will be on this, right?” A smirk creased his smooth skin.

“Shut UUUP!” she shrieked.

The second girl: “Oh, man.”

“It’s totally going to be on it,” he said. “I am totally ready for it.” His white teeth appeared.

There was silence for a moment as the train hurtled past the 66th Street station toward Times Square, my destination.

“Let’s see,” the tall one began again, “H-G is… H-G…”

“…is mercury,” a new voice piped. The voice was seated below the four of us. “Hg is mercury.” A woman with grey hair falling from her scalp like thirsty weeping willow branches, eyeglasses with yellowing lenses and whitish peach fuzz on her cheeks looked up at the three. “I was a chemistry major.”

“No waaay!” And the tall girl handed the group’s study sheet to the older woman, A Mentor Discovered.

“Well,” as her voice dropped in pitch, and as she looked at the pencil-written one-pager, “it was a long time ago. 1965. A lot has changed.” She held the page between her hands like she was holding butterfly wings. The white, single-ruled note-sheet shook slightly as she glanced over sentences, charts and pictures. The three teens formed a canopy over her.

A lot has changed. Hg was still mercury; the Periodic Table was, is and always would be; but in 1965, was this woman the one with the bellbottom jeans, the sleek blonde hair, the rosy cheeks, or was she always hidden, only to emerge with the answer to a question others were wrestling with in front of her, as though she was the invisible contributor who is ever ready but never intrusive?

She handed back the paper after her brief study, and there was silence. The train wheels clacked, and the long iron tube thrust southward, passing 50th Street, carrying hundreds of the more than five million people circulating like blood through arteries around an island at the edge of an ocean.

The teenagers resumed their chattering. The old lady looked into their conversation—wistful for what was lost? longing for something never gained? judging her popular classmates nearly half a century after the fact?—her eyes participating, probing, tacitly questioning and answering, her lips forming a slight smile.

photo: Howard Freeman

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