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Excerpt from The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Atomic Weight of Love

by Elizabeth Church

The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church X
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth Church
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  • First Published:
    May 2016, 320 pages
    Mar 2017, 368 pages


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Rebecca Foster
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Print Excerpt

Nothing but nervous silence greeted him. I wondered how long he'd been teaching in this particular room.

"Doesn't matter," he said, running a hand through his unruly hair. And then, without missing a beat, he returned to his lecture.

I liked that he was unembarrassed. It bespoke a level of confidence and maturity that I longed to stand beside.

It was known that Alden Whetstone had a reduced teaching load that year because he was working with other scientists on some hush-hush war project. How different Alden was from college boys. How I envied his ability to ignore social convention — or to be so entirely unaware of it so as to have no need to ignore it. Although he was twenty years my senior, he was still young, fired by the practical applications of his hard-earned knowledge and the associations he was forming through his war work with other world-class scientists.

I approached him after that first lecture and accepted an invitation back to his office. After nearly an hour, we left his office to continue talking over cof-fee. We spoke about what we believed in, what was happening in the world, and what the world might become. It was as though we'd both been starving for that kind of easy conversation and comradeship. When I was with Alden — discussing, listening, leaning across tables, fully animated — life was painted in more vibrant colors; birdsong was more elaborate, rococo.

If I'd played Mrs. Hudson's recommended fawning dumb-girl's role, Alden wouldn't have paid me a moment's notice. I never once thought about feigning stupidity in Alden's presence. Rather, I felt called upon to stretch my mind, to show him I could run alongside him.

Still, I kept dating Jerry. Alden was so high above me. He was such pure intensity and demanding, hard work — work I was not afraid of, but work nevertheless. Jerry was someone with whom I could let off steam, laugh, and maybe even be silly.

In the spring of 1942,newsreels that played prior to the start of films at theaters showed us the bravery of our fighting men and touted U.S. victories. It won't be long now, we all thought as we sat in the dark, watching and hopeful, and Jerry squeezed my hand. Mother sent me clippings from the Greensburg paper and filled in details gleaned from her friends at church: Doc, Eddie, Mickey, Dean, Lester, Gabby, Rusty, and Tom — all of them dead or wounded. Mother told me Lisa Jackson, a friend from Girl Scouts, had married Buck Pemberton, who had joined the navy and was about to ship out. I signed your name to the card, Mother said, and I embroidered a nice pair of pillowcases for them.

Corregidor fell to the Japanese on May 6, 1942, just as we were finishing final exams. Jerry was horrified by the number of ships sunk by the Japanese, but even more so by the number of ships our navy scuttled or destroyed over the course of just two days, all to keep them out of the hands of the enemy. Corregidor floated just south of Bataan, and we knew that the United States had surrendered Bataan about a month earlier.

I could understand numbers — so many dead or captured. I could look at maps, gauge distances, try to contemplate vast oceans or ships' holds packed with sleepless, sweaty, frightened boys on their way to face death. I could talk with Jerry and other students about the war — the fiery, insane world at war — but I could not know. I could never know what it felt like to face mortality.

Alden and I didn't really date. I think we fooled ourselves into thinking we were just spending time together. I didn't tell him about Jerry, and while Alden once referred to an ex-wife, I didn't know if he had a current romantic interest in his life. Nothing so mundane entered our orbit.

I was in awe of Alden. I could only sense the very fringes of concepts that his intellect grasped with such easy, ready fingers. I worshiped his knowledge, his aloof independence and greater world experience. He was my teacher; he led me, and I followed, gladly.

Excerpted from The Atomic Weight of Love by James Church. Copyright © 2016 by James Church. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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