“Basic atomic structure, periodic table, chemical bonding, electronegativity and polarity, water, and pH.” She was reading from the syllabus. “All in one day. Un-fucking believable. It took me years to learn this stuff.”
“Well, yeah, this is kind of how it’s presented. It’s how it was presented from middle school on, or at least that’s how I remember it, kind of an insane dash through all of biology in a semester or two.” He paused. “No, actually first we probably did all of science in a semester, and then all of some sub-discipline after that if we wanted to, maybe one or two classes.”
“And there’s nothing much in this book about the importance of scale and complexity and systems and emergent properties and interactive effects of, well, everything on everything at every level of complexity, at least not that I can see yet. I sure am glad Dr. P. talked about that stuff, at least a little bit. Of course it made it all the more a mad dash through far too much stuff. I’m glad it’s not all new to me.” Emily sighed. She’d been amazed by the deer in headlights looks all around her as the basics of biochemistry were spewed out by the pacing banshee at the front of the room for exactly 100 minutes.
“Yup. That’s kind of the way of it. Quite a few of the people in that room have not a clue what she’s talking about and don’t really care. Of course this is a pretty good school, so most of them can probably do a binge and purge for exams and pass the class, depending on what kinds of exams she gives. No doubt she gives exams, right?”
“Oh yeah, it’s pretty much required. All these syllabi have so many consistent lines in them and such consistent criteria, that I imagine the myth of academic freedom is mostly just that. They’re legal contracts. This is a business.” Emily was quite worldly for a farm girl. Over the years, lots of different folks had come and gone, only the core extended family had remained intact. Lots of academicians had passed through.
“So tell me about atoms. Or sub-atomic particles. Or whatever turns you on.” He was starting in early that evening. They were having a beer, technically contributing to Em’s delinquency, but since it was her Uncle Ren’s home brew, that was kind of a sticky technicality.
“Oh, she didn’t get quarky or anything, just down to the nucleus and electrons, enough to make sense of electronegativity and energy shells and atomic decay and radiometric dating, enough to make sense of electron arrangement and the periodic table and ions and bonding.” She sighed. It was a habit she was picking up from her newly favorite professor. The women she’d looked up to at the commune growing up, her aunties, had generally seemed to be more contented with life on the farm than Dr. P. was; it was a little sad.
“We’ll have to talk about up quarks and down quarks and karma and decision making and fundamental forces some day. I’ve given those things some thought. But right now I’m thinking we should stick with biochemistry, maybe focus on bonding.” He did the eyebrows and smiled.
She tried hard not to; failed.
“Elements. Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Sulfur………a few more, but really, these are the biggies for life. Even on a cosmic level, it’s rare to find an atom of a chemical element all by itself, unattached to anything else for any great period of time. Bonding just wants to happen, it almost seems to me that it’s the very nature of matter to want to come together, that’s what the fundamental forces are all about.”
“Whoa. This is what your professor said?” Zach was flabbergasted. Not only was this line of thinking really appealing to him, it was almost more erotic than his stupid little pun had been.
“Well, maybe not in so many words, but kind of.” Em smiled at the memory. She could tell that Dr. P really did love teaching the stuff, even if most of the class seemed far more interested in their cell phones. “She covered the basics, you know, proton number, charge, electrons and the valence shells of atoms of different elements and why….if I may say why….chemical bonds form, and bond angles and how they affect the shapes of molecules and how strong or weak bonds might be and about energy storage and polarity. All in like, fifteen minutes at most.”
“Kind of crazy, you’re right. I read the book, it’s pretty boring and doesn’t really bring it into context for me much. Of course I’ve never really had to think about any of this stuff, I only ever really barfed it back out on test day. But I think I basically get it.”
“My Auntie Kay taught me the basics of soil chemistry years ago. We had some pH issues with our compost, so we started learning about that. Hydrogen is pretty basic to the whole show, and it caught my attention early on. Water is even more cool, and Dr. P. did a great bit on emergent properties when she talked about water.” Em really had learned science organically.
“Water is sacred.” Zach suddenly took on an odd solemnity that Em had not seen before. It was compelling to her in a slightly uncomfortable way. His experiences down south had been perspective altering, and he had a certain vibe to him, something a little different. It was not unattractive.
“Okay, well, the cool thing was how she talked about hydrogen, and how cool it is, you know, in the sun and everything, even in terms of cosmic evolution, then about oxygen, and how cool it is, with it’s pull on electrons, then about what happened when they came together to make water, polarity, the emergent properties of water and how freaking awesome it is. And of course all three of those things, water and hydrogen and oxygen, interact in ways, do all these dances and moving of electrons and bonding and building and breaking down and……”
“And it’s sacred! Do you like to dance? Can I have another beer? This is really good beer.” He belched.
“Yes, it’s really good beer, and I’ll have one more, too, thank you, and yes, I like to dance, but only when the music wants to dance me.” She liked Zach more all the time. She could hardly wait for him to start his personal exploration of winning her affections. Or for him to step up his pace a little bit at least, get past the one liners and get serious. Perhaps her own sense of humor and his joy at making her smile was slowing him down a little. The joy in the smiling was awfully good though, she had to admit that. Awesome foreplay. He was cute and smart and lots of fun, and really into learning. She liked that, it’s what she was there for. Mostly. It was what he was there for too. At least a little bit. She supposed the same could be said of life.
He plopped down in front of her on the floor at the base of her recliner and handed her a frosty mug of beer, having found her glass stash in the freezer when he served up the first round. He turned and leaned against the folded up footrest, pulling her legs down over his shoulders to rest on his chest, so as not to disturb the laptop she was working on. He took a long pull on his beer and belched again before setting it down. He rubbed some of the olive oil he’d brought in from the kitchenette into his palms and went to work on Emily’s left foot, starting at the ankle.
“Tell me about water.”
He smoothed oil first down onto her foot from the ankle, spreading the slippery stuff around quickly with a few quick motions. Then he moved upward, slowly, sinuously, tracing the line of her calf, first up, and then down. He moved back to her foot and got down to business with her toes, giving each its own full body massage.
“Water.” She croaked it out. She took a sip of her beer. Foreplay indeed. She took a deep breath, and focused on the sensation in her foot, then just let the sensation be in the background. She took another breath, and went on.
“Because of oxygen’s big pull on electrons, little old hydrogen protons are hanging on one end of water, sticking their positive proton asses out into the cosmos, just hoping for some energetic electron negativity to come on by and hook up, even if only loosely. Hydrogen bonds. Since the big old electronegative oxygen end of water is hogging all the electrons, they go looking for positive proton asses sticking out to hook up with. When a whole bunch of water molecules get together, it’s like a freaking orgy. When things get hot and individual water molecules start moving around like maniacs, some of them jump off into space and make vapor. When it’s really cold, they get like all totally rigid, and set in tight bonds because nobody is moving around, and it makes totally crystalline ice. Of course between 0 and 100 C, it’s liquid, molecules are moving around and bonding and unbonding, and things are, well, fluid.”
“What’s that got to do with biology?” Zach was actually just prompting her. Maybe; he was definitely learning a lot himself.
“Well, water also hooks up with anything that’s polar like that, and most organic molecules tend to be, at least to some degree. That’s why water is so important in metabolism, it reacts with darned near everything. And even it’s not reactivity with some things, like lipids, is super important.” She paused. “That’s totally huge in all of biochemistry.”
“Okay, that makes sense.”
“But that scale thing is super important, too, and even those state changes, you know, from liquid to solid to gas. It takes a really long time for water to heat up or cool down relative to air. That’s because heating up and cooling down are all about molecular motion, and hydrogen bonding affects molecular motion. It takes more energy to jiggle water than to jiggle air.” She smiled, he laughed. He kind of wished she’d jiggle, but no such luck. She continued. So at the landscape scale, how close you are to a big body of water makes a big difference in terms of the climate you’ll experience. And sweating. It takes a lot of energy for water to evaporate, and that’s what’s happening when you sweat, and the energy is coming from you. It cools you off.”
“Same idea with climate effects. It’s not only how much of a buffer water is in terms of temperature changes, it can also cool the air a whole lot on a pretty big scale.” Zach’s dad had gained an interest in green development long ago, and use of plants and water in urban spaces to help reduce heating was a big part of that.
A long silence followed that.
“What’s wrong?” He turned to face her. She was staring down at him.
“Aren’t you going to do the other leg?” She was giving him a new look, one that he’d have to ponder for a while. He turned back around and repeated the beer, belch, and brain adjustment needed to get back to the task at hand. Somehow, he’d managed to get distracted by their conversation and had lost his focus, even if it was apparent by it’s shine and healthy flush that he’d not been remiss in what he’d been doing without much thought. How, he wondered, had this woman’s words managed to distract him from that lovely calf? He turned his attention right, and started again.
Each toe enjoyed its tender tug and tussle. Her arch was so high it had few rivals. Her heel, well, it was something that had spent some time barefoot in the grass, for sure. He’d like to get it into the bathtub with a pumice stone, he’d have to add that to the list of independent variables he was working on.
“What else?” He’d see if he could maintain focus as he moved up this time. The calf was definitely a lot nicer than the foot in lots of ways. Of course he liked the foot, too, funky heel and all.
“Well, you know how water is, it’s sticky”. She leaned forward and touched her cold beer mug to the side of his face. “The water sticks to the glass on the side, it doesn’t run straight off. And it sticks to itself, each droplet is millions of molecules all stuck together.”
With perfect fluidity, his hand moved from leg to mug and back to leg, bringing some of the cold water from its surface along to bead on the oil he’d already rubbed in.
“Yes, I see.” He was still focused on the leg, and focused on the water, too. Both were turning him on, big time. She leaned down and whispered in his ear.
“And when I put a straw in my mouth, when I wrap my lips around it and apply some negative pressure with my cheeks and tongue, some gentle sucking, and start in motion a pressure gradient that pulls on the uppermost little water molecules, drawing them into my mouth, all of the other little water molecules that are sticking with their friends and sticking to the inside of that long tubular space inside the straw come rushing out with their friends, pulling those still downing the depths of the glass along behind them, and they empty and empty and empty until my sucking stops or they are spent.” She blew in his ear and retrieved her leg from his very limp grasp and stood up,leaving him facing her at thigh level. Her denim cut offs concealed far more than he care for.
“It’s the same way with trees. There’s water coming out of the top of a fifty meter tree, no energy expenditure required. The atmosphere is literally sucking water out of the earth, right through the trees. Unless the trees shut down to it that is, and lots of times, they have to. Water’s really, really important.” She stepped away, gathering the empty beer mugs as she went.
Zach was a bit dumbfounded as she tidied up the space and made the motions that indicated day was done. She’d just blown him away, mind fucked him, and he wasn’t even sure she’d really liked the toe job. And he’d really given her a great toe job. She’d done some nice responsive flexing, but since he wasn’t facing her and she’d been talking, he’d not been able to pick up a lot of stuff that might have been apparent otherwise. So much for his data collection efforts.
Studying with Emily was going to be challenging sometimes.
Linda Brooke Stabler, Ph.D.