Chemistry

Non-Fiction

City College, New York.
September 1971.
I was sixteen.
Turning seventeen in three days.

Chemistry 101. First day, first college course.
On the stage, Professor Mulvaney stood at his podium.
Steep auditorium classroom. Three hundred students.
My assigned seat: second row, center.

I already knew an engineering degree was not for me.
It was my old man’s idea, not mine.
He used to say: “You’re too smart to be a plumber like me. You’re going to college.”

From the stage fifteen feet away, Professor Mulvaney saw me snoozing, heard me snoring.
He plucked a card from the large seating chart in front of him.
“Miiiiister Bernsteeeeein,” he bellowed, Irish accent, long and drawn out.
“How many electrons does nitrogen have? Mr. Bernstein. Mr. Bernstein!”

Semi-awake, I heard my name.
Everything else was foggy.

My head rested on the shoulder of the student next to me.
Nice soft shoulder.
She elbowed me. Twice.
She nudged her shoulder up.
Up bobbed my head.

She whispered into my ear, gentle and soft.
A stranger. Was I still dreaming?
She kept whispering.
Warm sweet voice.
Close to my ear.
Closer.
Closer.

My mouth opened and closed like a fish.
Sounds came out, no real words.
“We can’t hear you! Louder Bernstein. How many electrons in nitrogen?”
Students laughed.

All I heard was a whisper, “Seven.”
Soft and sweet.

Awake now. And aroused.
Her warm breathy words an inch from my ear: “Seven. Seven. Seven.”

I stood up, turned, faced the class and spoke.
First softly, “Seven.”
Then louder. “Seven!,” I roared.
Students clapped.

“Correct, Mr. Bernstein. Thank you. You can go back to sleep now.”

I looked over at my angel. She was beautiful.
Suddenly, the lecture wasn’t quite so boring.

At last, Professor Mulvaney folded up his seating chart, gathered his books and announced: “Tomorrow’s homework, memorize the Periodic Table of Elements.”
He glared directly at me.
But I was focused on her.

She seemed familiar to me.
We gave each other the once over.
We smiled. Then we laughed.
And laughed.
And laughed.

“You used to pull my ponytail in the sixth grade at P.S. 82,” she said.
“I did. I liked it,” I said.
“I liked it too,” she said.

A year later, I got my plumbing license.
A year after that, Ms. Nitrogen and I got married.
We had good chemistry.

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