I sat down next to him reluctantly and opened my mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
I closed my mouth.
“I’m really sorry I bothered you,” he elaborated. “I made you uncomfortable, even after you asked me to stop, and that was wrong.” His face looked earnest, but his soft voice was very calm. “Let’s start over. Hi, I’m Howie. It’s nice to meet you.” He held out his hand and smiled shyly. That smile changed his whole look. Dimples appeared in his cheeks, and he looked almost cute, in a nerdy, wears-glasses kind of way.
“Stella.” I shook his hand cautiously. It was dry and cool to the touch, not all sweaty the way I would have imagined it to be. “I shouldn’t have kicked you.”
“I deserved it. Where are you from?” he asked in his strange monotone, leaning forward in his chair slightly as if he expected a fascinating answer, like “Khartoum” or “Rio” or “Candyland”.
“I’ve never been there. Did you like it there?” It was like being interviewed by a robot. A somewhat cute robot.
“I guess. It was home.”
“What brings you out to Vancouver?”
“…My mom got offered her dream job, so we moved.”
“I’m sorry you got uprooted. But that’s neat about your mother getting a new job. What is it?”
“She does viral marketing, and she made this video that got millions of hits, maybe you’ve seen it…”
Just then the teacher stood up. Howie winked, put his finger to his lips, and turned around smartly in his seat. It was like a totally different guy. Instead of being sluggish and dozy, he was alert and responsive.
“We’ll be doing an experiment today. Howard, it looks like you have a partner… if you can manage to keep your eyes on the experiment.”
Howie just nodded and smiled sheepishly, showing his dimples again.
The teacher faced the class. “Today we will performing two esterifications on the same substance: salicylic acid, a toxic irritant. One of these esterifications will result in oil of wintergreen. The other results in something completely different: aspirin. This experiment is excellent at demonstrating how a simple change in chemical reactions can create two entirely different results. Before we begin, I have a pre-lab assignment. I want you to look at the two equations involved, and draw the resulting esters, and then calculate how many moles of each substance we will be using, and calculate the theoretical yield.”
I groaned when I looked at the sheet. Judging by Howard’s inability to answer the teacher’s questions last week, we were going to be Dumb and Dumber.
“What’s wrong?” asked Howie, looking seriously concerned.
“We hadn’t started organic chemistry back home yet,” I said. “I did some reading on the weekend, but I have no idea what esterification is. I didn’t get that far.”
He brightened up. “I can help you. You’re smart, you’ll catch on in no time.”
On what was he basing his confidence in my intelligence, exactly? Not that he was wrong, but he didn’t know me in the slightest.
Then he took out his pencil and gave me the clearest chemistry lesson I have ever received. Within five minutes I felt like I could have written a test on this, no problem. It was more like dealing with a teacher than a fellow student.
“I see you’re back, Howard,” said the teacher dryly, glancing at our paper. “Carry on.”
“You’re good at this,” I said.
Howie glanced at the ground again, looking embarrassed. “It’s one of my best subjects,” he said in his bland, husky way. “My dad is a scientist.”
“What kind of scientist?”
“He’s a virologist at Simon Fraser University. Look, I know I acted strange on Thursday. I get kind of stupid when I’m hungry.”
“You were… hungry? Like, low blood sugar?”
“Like that. It’s… a kind of medical condition. I’d rather not talk about it.”
“And that’s why you were staring off into space?” I tried to say it tactfully, but he looked right at me and I felt stupid for tiptoeing around the subject.
“I wasn’t staring off into space,” he said quietly. “I was staring at you. I’m sorry I made you uncomfortable. I just think you’re completely beautiful, and you took me by surprise.”
I felt my cheeks begin to burn and I became obtrusively aware of my own heart beat. I mean, what do you say when someone says something like that right to your face?
Random people don’t pay me compliments. I am tall and heavy set, and in a society where tiny girls with thigh gaps still prance around complaining about being fat, that puts me well outside the accepted standard of beauty. It used to bother me a lot. I first got into kung fu because I figured it would help me with bullies and make me lose weight at the same time. But while it worked for the former, it didn’t do much for the latter. I came to terms with that a while ago. I looked at a lot of Renoir and Rubens paintings, read some fat acceptance blogs, and realized that I could still be pretty without conforming to the anorexics in mainstream advertising. Now I was fairly happy with what I saw in the mirror. I have good hair, nice skin, big eyes, and full lips… If I wear the right clothes, I even have an hourglass figure.
So why did this come as such a shock? Why shouldn’t he think I’m beautiful?
Because no one outside of your immediate friends and family ever has.
He was still looking at me.
“I… don’t know how to respond to that.”
“I’m making you uncomfortable again.” He was so monotone that I couldn’t tell if he was asking a question or stating an accepted fact.
He looked away. “Then I won’t bring it up any more. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable. Let’s do some science.”