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An Ex-Lover’s Guide to Failing Organic Chemistry by Christopher Mohar | Word Riot
Short Stories

June 15, 2010      

An Ex-Lover’s Guide to Failing Organic Chemistry by Christopher Mohar

The phone in my hand is a warrant, self-signed. It was ringing and ringing and I flipped it open blind.
    “Mattie?”
    I walk a couple paces and let him hang. The air is cool and calm, but I know the good feeling will be gone as soon as I open my mouth.
    “I’m here. What?”
    “Can you give me a ride somewhere?”
    This is where I cut the line and forget the whole thing ever happened.
    “Maybe,” I say. “Where?”
    “Wicker Park. From Pilsen.”
    I know I should be pissed about the sheer audacity of it. But I’m not. I’m just thinking, By tomorrow I’ve got to have these neucleophilic substitutions down cold.
    “I thought you had a car now,” I say, and I can feel my fingers brushing against my lips, skin kissing skin right where the cigarette would be.
    “My car died.”
    “So take the L,” I say. But I’m already jaywalking, already fishing through my purse for my keys.
    “We can’t,” he says. “Jenni has an appointment.”
    “You have a lot of fucking nerve,” I say, and hang up. Then I key the ignition.
    Jack’s house is on a slow corner just off Loomis. Huge, white, shitty. The wooden siding is rotting, crumbling out from underneath the paint to leave empty pockets of air shelled in dry latex. His dead car is in the driveway, two of its tires up on blocks, the trunk latch broken. Through the opening I can see a nest of exposed wires: his unfinished DIY subwoofer. Where the bumper should be, there’s just a rusty knob.
    Jack and Jenni are sitting on the top step of his porch.
    He is as ever. Smiling, elegant, bird-like.
    She is a kindergartener blown up to 5’6″—all pouts and baby fat. Of course he’d leave me for a blonde, a girl who goes to parties and sits in the corner reading magazines about pregnant movie stars.
    Even after I’m parked they don’t get up. He hasn’t told her. Jack is like that. Don’t worry, Babe, I got us a ride, and that’s it. She presses close to his ear and I can almost feel the pressure of her words in the air between them, a voltage building to jump a short. Her? Her?
    That’s all communication really is, right? Alternating currents. Peak, trough.
    There’s a science to all this.
    She stops talking and squeezes her mouth tight. Her lips are full and wet and pursed, and somehow this makes me embarrassed, like I’ve seen her naked, like I’m looking at her cunt.
    I look away, lean across the passenger seat and make a half-hearted attempt to corral the notebooks and gum wrappers to the far edge of the floor mat. I don’t want to watch them talk, to see my past projected onto that conversation. I’m trying so hard not to go: this could be me, this could be me, this could be me.
    When I look back up they’re still on the porch, arguing in whispers. I don’t know if they’re waiting for me to get out of the car or what, but I don’t. I sit and spin the radio knobs and look at the dirty, shitty, house with the faux-brass address numbers nailed into the siding. An 8 has lost its top nail and swung upside-down, but with the symmetry I don’t notice right away—it just looks like extra white space. That’s exactly how these people are: they don’t fix shit when it breaks.
    I honk the horn.
    Jack grabs her elbow and walks her down the stairs in front of him. It looks like he’s squeezing too hard. He looks at me and smiles, but the whole way to the car she just stares across the street. He holds the car door open.
    “Hi, Jenni,” I say, smiling so big it hurts.
    “Hi,” she says, looking down into her purse. She’s digging as if maybe buried somewhere in the bottom of all the bobby pins and Bazooka wrappers she might find a pair of ruby slippers and click her way out of here. When she sees that I’m still watching, she looks away and folds her hands across her lap. I lean over and unlock the front passenger door, but Jack slides in back with her.
    “Thanks for the ride, Mattie,” he says, cranking open a squeaky window. He digs a lighter from his pocket, starts one for Jenni and one for himself.
    “Cigarette?” he says.
    “I quit,” I say.
    For the rest of the drive, no one speaks. All the way to Wicker Park.
    I turn on the radio and try to pretend they aren’t even there. I’m with someone else, going somewhere else. It’s funny how you split with someone and you forget how it ever worked to begin with. Here’s how it did, once:
    We broke into an abandoned church and made love in the bell tower.
    I’d wake up and just lie there and look at him. Up close, his eyelashes were fine as the tiny filaments on a strawberry.
    We watched Mexican telenovelas and placed bets, Coronas and PBRs on which characters would die or screw or betray each other, whether the doctor would elope with the maid or the millionaire’s daughter, whether he’d use her husband’s seed for the in-vitro process or swap it for his own. I always guessed right, so Jack drank. These nights invariably ended with Jack passed out on the linoleum or Jack vomiting into the kitchen sink.
    Guessing right isn’t the same as winning.
    When we get to the clinic, I park close to the building and walk them inside. Jack and I stand in the entryway between the two sets of automatic doors while Jenni goes to check in.
    “You don’t have to stay,” he says.
    “I know,” I say.
    “I can figure something out. I know you’re busy.”
    “What will you do?” I say, hoping he’ll offer to call a cab but knowing he won’t.
    He shrugs.
    “She’s probably not supposed to walk afterwards,” I say. “I’d better stay.”
    We go in and sit down in the waiting room. They call her name and Jack goes in with her, which I didn’t think they allowed, but nobody stops him.
    Two hours pass.
    I’m still in the waiting room by myself, sitting in a hard vinyl chair attached by the arm to the next seat over, attached to the next, all one big chained-together mass. My back aches and my ass squeaks against the plastic every time I move. On the coffee table in front of me is a pile of highlighters and pens, P. Roth O. Chem 3rd Edition splayed out like a bird with broken wings and I’m pouring through the text and diagrams as a surgeon might flick steel implements through organs and entrails. I’ve got the notebooks piled right on top of the Peoples, and Times, and Better Homes and Gardens, and I’m trying as hard as I goddamn can to get my brain to absorb something about the electron transfer that happens when a neucleophile splits a pi bond. How one molecule replaces another. How some reactions are reversible, some irreversible.
    At least, that’s what I tell myself I’m doing.
    Really what I’m doing is waiting. Waiting and picturing what comes next. Because I already know exactly how it happens:
    I hear the slow creek of the waiting room door opening and turn to look over my shoulder, hoping to see them but expecting to see someone else, because that’s how it’s been going all night—but this time it is them and he’s already got his arm across her shoulders, his other hand outstretched to straight-arm the double doors, her eyes like bruises trailing black makeup as they walk out the front door without so much as a glance in my direction, and I shovel my books into my bag and jog to catch up, then let them walk in front of me; letting him find his way to my car as I dig through my oversized purse, through the pens and breathmints and tampons for the cold metal of my car keys, jogging a couple of steps to get to the car ahead of them and work the keys into the rear passenger door, twist and feel the pins in the lock clicking open, the reverberations through the tiny bones in my wrist as the lock pops open in the corner of the window and I hold the door so he can wrap his slender limbs around her and half-lift her into the seat, sliding in after her while I slide in behind the wheel, looking back only once to see her dirty blonde hair wet with her tears, her eyes red and lips swollen from sobbing, her fingers trying to wipe the strands from her face, nail polish chipped, fingertips ticking nervous rhythms against her cheeks as I drive them home and drop them off at the huge, white, shitty house on the slow corner in Pilsen, not speaking a word the whole way, knowing we won’t speak again.

About the author:

Christopher Mohar is the recipient of the 2009-10 Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin. He co-teaches a weekly poetry workshop in a nearby men’s correctional institution, and has previously worked as a metallurgical researcher, a literacy tutor, a computer programmer, a busboy, and a legal assistant’s assistant. Chris is a fiction editor for Devil’s Lake literary journal, and his writing appears or is forthcoming in The Southwest Review, decomP, Ink Node, Bull and elsewhere.

    1 comment to An Ex-Lover’s Guide to Failing Organic Chemistry by Christopher Mohar

    • Lorna

      Wow this is really good. I met you by the copy machine in Rhinelander this weekend. I had to check out your writing. I am so impressed.

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