Feeling Chemistry

    This lab is sparkling, don’t you let it go. Photo by Monica Kim/North by Northwestern

    A cute girl making a mistake during an organic chemistry lab initiates what is essentially the nerd Olympics. Every laboratory-competent male in her vicinity will make a desperate dash to help her correct her mistake and hopefully talk to her. I won, mainly because I was working in the vent-hood adjacent to hers.

    “You should probably stir that vial under the hood,” I said.

    “Oh, yeah, thanks.”

    I missed my chance to append some small-talk to that exchange so I kept waiting for her to make another mistake. Unfortunately, the rest of her technique was immaculate and the flimsy conversation I’d constructed in my head went to waste.

    The next week, under the pretext of examining her pre-lab assignment, I started a shallow conversation, teasing bits of information from her, vetting her personality, and trying not to show how interested I was. What was your name again? How are you monitoring the temperature in your distillation apparatus? Got any plans for the weekend?

    She was wearing a broad-necked shirt and I could make out a sentence tattooed on her shoulder-blade. The helix of her left ear had three piercings and she wore curve-hugging jeggings. I covertly glimpsed at her during lecture, and wondered where she was when she was absent.

    Why shouldn’t singles wear something to denote their availability and ease the burden of guesswork and social anxiety upon potential suitors?

    Suddenly I was in that social grey area between small-talk and flirting and I needed to subtly obtain the “I’m single” signal to cross over without being shot down. Ever ready to perform face-saving espionage, I looked for ways to catch a glimpse of her love life but we didn’t have any mutual friends I could pump for information; I had to scout her online presence.

    Unfortunately, her social media provided an inscrutable mélange of information. She was “married to” some guy on Facebook and had been directing flirty tweets at a slew of androgynous Twitter handles. As we approach the age where people actually do start getting married, how was I supposed to tell whether this “married to” was real or a joke? And to what extent did her online personality represent her real one?

    At the peak of my frustration, I chanced upon a website touting Livestrong-style rubber bracelets that said “single” on them. I conveniently overlooked the fact that they are an ersatz, desperate substitute for romantic exploration and accepted them as a sensible simplification of the dating scene. Married people wear rings to show off their privilege and ward off advances, why shouldn’t singles wear something to denote their availability and ease the burden of guesswork and social anxiety upon potential suitors? As a 3 a.m. impulse buy, I purchased two of them.

    A few days later, the bracelets arrived and were, of course, ridiculed by my friends. Hoping to regain some face, I swallowed my insecurities and decided to ask her to lunch two lab sessions from then – another eight hours before showing my hand. Worst-case scenario, she tells me she has a boyfriend, isn’t attracted to me, and awkwardly dodges any future trite small-talk. Nothing new.

    The next day, I saw her coming out of Tech Express with a box of sushi and a face showing the consternation of not having found an open table. My mind began churning, hoping to birth some suave spontaneity:

    “Looking for a place to eat?”

    “Ha, yeah.”

    “I was just about to duck into an empty classroom to have my lunch. Wanna join?”

    “Yeah, sure.”

    As this anticipated dialogue played through my head, she smiled at a girl approaching her; they hugged, and then kissed on the lips. A full-fledged hey-honey-how-was-your-class-let’s-eat-lunch-together type kiss. So that’s why she wasn’t wearing a singles’ bracelet.

    Worst-case scenario partly realized but dignity intact and original intentions safely hidden, I gave her a quick, acknowledging smile and pretended to walk somewhere important.


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