I met my wife in the organic chemistry lab.
I proposed to my wife in the organic chemistry lab.
And, somewhere in between, I nearly lost my wife forever in the organic chemistry lab.
She was a chemistry student, I the charming and mature chemistry lab assistant. At the time we both were molecular biology majors and held as possible career plans practicing medicine in the third world. I remember our first conversation very clearly. She had described to me her desires to be a medical missionary and concluded, with a twinkle in her eye, "Now, I just need to find a husband who has the same vision." * Huh, I thought, she totally digs me.
There was chemistry from the very beginning, and our relationship progressed from week-to-week, as I, the older and wiser student, would impress her with my deep and wide knowledge of all things organically chemical as well as my ability to open really tightly closed chemical containers (some of which I may have pretightened for just such demonstrative feats of strength). Occasionally, I would surprise her with flowers or mix tapes in her lab drawer.
There were two lab assistants for this class: I mostly assisted the cute girl at the front bench; my partner assisted the other 15 students.
Our relationship progressed quite nicely until the last lab session of the semester. This session was dedicated to checking out-- students ensured their drawers were still appropriately stocked with lab materials, that their bench areas were clean, that they'd turned in all of the required assignments, etc.
My co-lab assistant (or lab co-assistant) and I had a brilliant idea. Since the check-out lab was less than two weeks before Christmas, we played our then-favorite Christmas carol: Dominic the (Italian Christmas) Donkey blared through the lab in a continuous loop. And we added one more required task to the mandatory end-of-term to-do list. In addition to cleaning bench tops and handing in lab reports, each student had to make the sound of a donkey before exiting the lab. It didn't have to be theatrical-- a spoken "heehaw" would suffice.
To the other lab assistant and myself, this made total sense. To most of the males in the class, this made total sense: they complied enthusiastically, some voluntarily getting on all fours** to more realistically emulate the donkey. To the professor in the class, this made partial sense: he appeared to be amused by the inanity. To most of the females in the class, this made little sense: they merely spoke or, in some cases, whispered "heehaw".
To my then-girlfriend, this made absolutely no sense whatsoever: the donkey noise requirement was downright assinine (sic).
My partner and I stood at the door, preventing anyone from leaving without meeting all of the requirements. My now-wife glared at me as she approached with her materials. I asked her as she neared, "What's the magic word?" She was not amused. She did not open her mouth, nor did she stop moving. In fact, she began walking more quickly towards me. I braced myself firmly in the doorway, arms extended. She ran straight into my arm (think: "Red Rover, Red Rover, send Yajeev's girlfriend right over"). Despite her best efforts to escape, my arms were rigid. "What's the magic word?" I repeated, Dominic blasting in the background for the 12th straight time. She did not respond. Instead, she struggled against me. She ducked to go beneath my arm, but I lowered it to block her.
Finally, as we engaged in a battle of wills, the angel on my shoulder asked me, "Yajeev, why are you doing this? What are you trying to prove? Wouldn't it be better to admit defeat and save your relationship?"
The demon on the other shoulder was quick to retort: "No, Yajeev. You must win! Relenting is tantamount to weakness." I can't be sure whether I listened to the angel or if she overpowered me, but before I had to time to rationally weigh the pros and cons of enforcing lab law, she had wriggled free and had escaped.
Instantly, I realized the complete extent of my foolishness (idiocy, my wife now corrects me as I write) of our game. As she walked down the hall away from the lab, I shouted, "Hey, I'll call you when everyone's checked out!" She did not reply or acknowledge me.
I returned to lab, turned down the stereo, and finished the check-out procedures, markedly subdued from when we had begun.
After the last student had turned in his assignments and enthusiastically heehawed, I rushed to my dorm room to call my girlfriend. She did not answer the phone. I hung up and called again. She still did not answer. I repeated again and again, until finally, she picked up. "Hey there," I said, as if I hadn't just embarrassed her in front of her classmates and been calling her room obsessively until she begrudgingly answered the phone. "Hey," she replied as if I had in fact just embarrassed her in front of her classmates and been calling her room obsessively until she begrudgingly answered the phone.
I had to make things right. Christmas break was around the corner, and I did not want to part ways on bad terms. "Wanna get some coffee?" I asked. There was silence. "C'mon. It'll be romantic." More silence. "Whaddya say?"
After a pause, "Okay. Pick me up?"
"No," I replied, "Let's walk. It'll be romantic." (I was big on romance.)
After another pause, "Okay."
A few minutes later, I met her at her dorm entrance. It was cold and wet. There was about six inches of snow on the ground, and the streets were filled with black, dirty, icy slush. The coffee shop was a half-mile away. I put her hand in mine. She did not resist, though she did not squeeze back. We began walking. No. We began trudging. Very quickly, I realized that the notion of walking being more romantic than driving may have been a gross miscalculation, but I had passed the point of no return. The wet snow covered our shoes and ice cold water seeped in through our socks. I tried to carry the conversation as we marched down the cold, wet romantic street, but I could tell I had not yet won her back.
Finally, we arrived at the coffee shop. I opened the door for her (because that's the kind of guy I am when I'm not barricading doors waiting for donkey sounds). We walked to the counter and placed our orders. We carried our hot beverages to a cozy little table against on the side of the shop, dimly lit by a small lamp affixed to the wall.
"My feet are freezing," she said matter-of-factly. "And soaking wet," she added.
"I'm really sorry about that," I replied, cognizant of the fact that I had not yet improved the situation or my standing within it. I tried to look into her eyes, but hers were diverted toward her hot cocoa. I turned my head and gazed blankly at the wall. Staring at the lamp burned my eyes, though this pain was no worse than the heartburn I was experiencing over my most recent relationship faux pas.
Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea, an idea that would surely impress my girlfriend and bring me back into her good graces. "Take off your shoes," I told her.
"What?" she asked, startled.
"And your socks. Give me your socks."
She looked at me like I was a lunatic (which, by now, reader, you too might believe to be true). "Just give me your socks. I have an idea." As an aside, and perhaps as a bit of foreshadowing, I must say that it is striking how often the words "I have an idea" are followed by really crummy results. At least when I say them. The same goes for "Hey, watch this!"
"Do it. You won't regret it," I importuned. After having been humiliated in front of her peers, having listened to her phone ring unceasingly for ten minutes, and having been coerced into tromping through the snow and slush, she had lost the will to fight. Inexplicably to those sitting around us and even to herself, she complied, removing her shoes and socks. She handed her socks to me across the table and rested her bare feet on a chair on the opposite side of the table (as the only viable alternative to placing them on the dirty floor).
I took her socks and draped them across the metal rods which suspended the light bulb in the middle of the lamp under the lampshade. "This'll warm them up and dry them out," I explained, pride brimming. She did not resist, but made no indication that she supported this effort.
We continued drinking and maintained a decent level of conversation. Things began to improve slightly. Every few minutes, I'd reach up under the lampshade to feel the socks. After several minutes, they remained cold and wet. We had nearly finished our drinks, and it seemed my brilliant sock-drying plan was not working. Accordingly, I made a minor adjustment: I moved the socks from the metal rods and laid them carefully across the bulb. The bulb was very hot, and I knew that this would speed the process dramatically; these socks would be toasty warm and dry in no time at all.
We refilled our drinks and resumed our conversation. I was feeling cautiously optimistic about my chances. I had at least managed to engage her in a meaningful verbal exchange, and I think she was genuinely touched by my efforts to provide warm, dry socks. Maybe it was the sugar and caffeine perfusing our neurons, but for a few moments, I felt like I could fix this situation and extricate myself from the bind in which I found myself.
I was reveling in the hero status I would have when her piggy toes were hot and snug when... something smelled funny... "Do you smell that?" I asked.
She sniffed. "Yeah, it smells like... like... like something is burning."
"I think you're right. I wonder what they've burnt," I replied.
I turned to look at the coffee bar when thin wisps of gray smoke floating above the wall lamp caught my eye. "Oh, shoot!" I let slip as I thrust my hands to the light bulb, oblivious to the heat it emitted, and pulled the socks to my lap.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Nothing," I lied. My heart sank. I had gone from hero to zero in a matter of moments. All hopes of saving this strained relationship by the ingenious laundry drying-by-light-bulb approach had been dashed.
I slowly lifted her socks above the table for her to see. Where the heels had once been were now baseball-sized holes surrounded by a fringe of charred, black cotton. Her eyes were wide. I was sure this would be the end of me. As I mentally framed an apology for the atrocity I had committed to her socks, the unexpected occurred: the biggest smile I had seen all day appeared on her face as she broke into hysterical laughter. She grabbed the socks from my hand and examined them, still laughing. She slipped her socks onto her feet, heels protruding, then her shoes.
We plodded back to campus, hand-in-hand (this time, she squeezed back). By some miraculous twist of fate, my utter ineptitude had saved the day and endeared me to my now-wife. The same cannot be said of poor Dominic. She still hates the Italian Christmas Donkey. I still love him... and, against better judgment, am unable to refrain from turning up the radio volume when the song comes on. It's a miracle she's still with me.
* My wife remembers this conversation a little differently (i.e. incorrectly): She had described her desires to be a medical missionary. I interjected, she contends, with a twinkle in my eye, "Now you just need to find a husband who has the same vision." Huh, she thought, that's a funny thing to say.
** Under ordinary circumstances, it is not recommended to get on all fours in a chemistry lab, as there may be chemicals, shards of broken glass, or other hazardous material it would be unwise to crawl through. However, the compulsion to act out as a donkey is no ordinary circumstance.