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The Lunch Substitution

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All my friends at the U would have gotten class time off had their professor been forced to undergo major surgery. Here at Caltech, however, they don’t believe in the concept of free time. While time may or may not be a measurable structure, any moment not spent on the endless torrent of assignments was considered wasted and frivolous.

Not that I could blame them, I guess. Every student here has to take five terms of introductory physics courses, so it’s not like they could put the Physics 1A class on hold for a few weeks until Dr. Kaneki recovered. Still, I don’t think any one was prepared for our substitute instructor.

Dr. Kaneki was a bit old, and his style of dressing was even older and strictly formal. His shoes squeaked when he paced, and the lab coat he always wore smelled faintly of chlorine. So it was a bit of a welcome surprise to see our new professor standing at the front of the class in tennis shoes and what appeared to be a vintage Star Wars T-shirt.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Hofstadter… I owed Dr. Kaneki a favor, so, um, I’m going to be your teacher for a while!” The new guy announced, the enthusiasm in his voice clearly forced. It was easy to see he was nervous from the way he didn’t quite look anyone in the eye. If that wasn’t enough of a clue, he almost dropped the laser system he was setting up, not once, not twice, but three times. Each time he laughed and adjusted his glasses with shaky hands. At least the parts wouldn’t have far to fall; this guy was really short…

One of the girls in the front row raised her hand hesitantly as the substitute continued to fiddle with the demonstration. “Dr. Hofstadter, would you like me to pass around a sign-in sheet?”

The man glanced up, clearly relieved to have a question to answer amidst the awkward silence going on. “Oh, right. Yes please, thank you.” He smiled a little and took his place behind the podium, booting up the computer and clicking on a few keys to open up the lecture of the day.

“I’m really sorry about all this; they kind of sprung this on me at the last minute. It should go smoother tomorrow. Um, let’s see.. ok, you guys are studying neutrino beams, right?”

Like the majority of the faculty here, Dr. Hofstadter knew his material well. Once he began the lectures, he relaxed and forgot his awkwardness. Thankfully for us, he was one of those rare people who knew both the material and how to teach it to others in a way that they were able to understand. He was patient, almost to a fault; there were a few times when we saw disbelief in his expression at our inability to grasp a concept, but he worked us through it. Once the lectures ended, however, he became shy and socially inept, haphazardly gathering his things while us students leisurely filed out the door.

The class settled into a predictable routine, undisturbed for two weeks, until the Tuesday of the third week when all sense of normality was thrown from orbit. It wasn’t even twenty minutes into the topic of the week when the door was nudged open. A tall, thin man stood in the doorway, dressed in layered shirts and holding a cafeteria tray loaded with food in some sort of strange plastic covering. Undisturbed at all the eyes on him, the man took strategically-placed steps inside the classroom, taking a seat at a desk nearest to the door. It was almost humorous, watching the man trying to position himself in the desk, until at last, he removed the plastic covering from his tray and smoothed his napkin out on his lap. The newcomer had a Caltech faculty badge clipped to his belt, the only indication of his status.

“Shel…D-Dr. Cooper!” Even Dr. Hofstadter was gaping at this strange spectacle, though he looked more confused than any of us. “What are you doing here?”

“What else would I be doing with a tray containing grilled cheese, peas, and what the cafeteria fails to pass as yellow squash? I am eating my lunch,” the apparently named Dr. Cooper replied easily.

“But why here? In this classroom?” Dr. Hofstadter pressed on. A dozen heads turned back to the newest addition to hear his response.

“As you know, Koothrappali is attending a conference and Wolowitz elected to spend his lunch break chasing the freshman in a futile attempt to find a mate who would tolerate copulation.” Dr. Cooper studied his spoon carefully before taking a scoop of peas. There was a few disbelieving chuckles.

“Ohhkay…” Dr. Hofstadter began, rubbing his head with one hand.

“There were no available tables with empty seats,” Dr. Cooper continued. “You know I don’t sit with strangers, nor will I sit with the rest of the department after the eraser incident. Thus, I am eating my lunch in your company. Although I have observed that you don’t seem to be doing your job, Dr. Hofstadter. I haven’t seen much teaching going on in the two minutes and thirteen seconds I’ve been here,” he added.

Dr. Hofstadter started to sputter a response, but thought better of it. He didn’t hide the roll of his eyes, though, as he turned back to the lecture.

Dr. Cooper stayed fairly quiet throughout the presentation, although a few derisive snorts emitted from his general area. Dr. Hofstadter ignored the man’s presence with a remarkable strength for a man of such low self-esteem. Everything was going fine, until one of the students in the last rows raised his hand.

“Yes… um, Brandon…?” Dr. Hofstadter called on him.

“Actually, it’s Bernie. So you’re saying that uniform motion at the mean speed covers a larger distance as uniform acceleration?” Bernie asked.

“Good lord,” Dr. Cooper spoke up loudly, startling some of the students around him. “How on earth could you possibly misunderstand that simple concept? As Dr. Hofstadter attempted to demonstrate, uniform motion at the mean speed covers the same distance as uniform acceleration, therefore the speed at time-zero plus the final speed, divided by two, will equal the average speed of a body in uniform acceleration!”

A few students glanced down to see if they had typed their notes correctly, but I was too distracted by the interesting color changes occurring in Dr. Hofstadter’s face.

“Dr. Cooper! May I have a word with you?” Dr. Hofstadter spoke sharply, jabbing a finger at the door. It was the most assertive anyone in the class had ever seen him.

“I can save you the trouble; I am not apologizing for someone else’s incompetence, no matter how dismal it is,” Dr. Cooper announced firmly. Dr. Hofstadter’s eyes narrowed as he maneuvered around the podium to approach Dr. Cooper’s desk.

“Then get out!” Dr. Hofstadter glared down at the other man until Dr. Cooper finally picked up his tray. “Say what you will about my teaching methods, but I will not allow you to insult the students. Understand?!”

Dr. Cooper made a noise in his throat, but did not speak further. His departure from the room was as noticeable as his entrance had been.

“Well… that was Dr. Cooper…” Dr. Hofstadter remarked as the taller man slipped out the door. “Unfortunately, he’ll probably be back. The good news is, he’s not a professor either, so don’t worry about him teaching you in the future.”

Indeed, it was the first of many removals of Dr. Cooper from Physics 1A. When lunchtime rolled around the next day, he was there with his covered tray and awkward stance, distracting us from Dr. Hofstadter’s lesson. Dr. Cooper was annoyingly brilliant and never ceased to remind us of our own inferior intelligence. For all his superior ways, he responded to Dr. Hofstadter’s glares, the shakes of his head, and the briefest of words with stubborn, reluctant obedience. The two complimented each other: the confident, dismissive man and the patient self-doubter who inexplicably was able to rein in the other’s quirks.

We never knew how the class was going to go; some days Dr. Cooper derailed Dr. Hofstadter so completely the two just argued theories the entire time. On other days, particularly Wednesdays, Dr. Cooper kept his comments to himself. No matter how often Dr. Hofstadter threw the wayward scientist out, there was never any viciousness to the action. It was clear the two were friends even if they had a bumpy professional relationship.

After five weeks with our substitute and his lunchtime theatricals, we had our first major test. Dr. Hofstadter looked extremely relieved when he informed us that our original professor had created the exam questions. After five weeks, I think he was ready to escape back to the labs again.

When Dr. Cooper entered the room and found our heads bent laboriously over our exam papers, he planted his tray beside Dr. Hofstadter’s laptop at the front demonstration table. Unfortunately, I had arrived at class a little later than usual, so all that was left were front row seats. Not exactly prime staring space if your eyes tend to wander when you think. It was prime eavesdropping space, however.

“Hey, Sheldon. Oh good, they have the lime Jell-o you like today,” Dr. Hofstadter whispered to the taller man. Dr. Cooper nodded, the barest hint of a smile on his lips. When some students brought their completed exam papers up to the front to be graded, Dr. Hofstadter held out a red pen to his colleague. “C’mon, Sheldon. Help me grade?”

“Why on Earth should I help you after last night’s conversation?” Dr. Cooper protested. “Also, need I remind you of what inconveniencies occurred this morning while I was supposed to be watching Dr. Who?”

“If you help me grade, I’ll have more time for Halo tonight…” Dr. Hofstadter wheedled. Huh. Apparently they were roommates. That made sense, in some odd way. “Pleeease, Shelly?” he continued, his voice dropping an octave.

Oh. Oh my.

“I suppose if these papers stand between us and Halo then I can help you,” Dr. Cooper muttered back. He remained unfazed at his friend’s change in speech. “Honestly, Leonard. I told you not to agree to cover for Kaneki.”

“Waaay too late now,” Dr. Hofstadter remarked. “Besides, it’s almost over. Kaneki should be back at the office next week, so I’m almost done. Thank you for being patient.”

“Good. Perhaps then I can go back to eating in the designed area and you can go back to your futile experiments.”

Dr. Hofstadter twitched, uncapping his pen with focused attention. I turned in my test soon after; with an afternoon of math and chem. labs, the sub’s conversation with his friend quickly faded from my mind.

A glimpse of the tall scientist brought the memories back at the end of the day. Dr. Cooper was standing impatiently at the entrance to the building, equipped with a shoulder bag and a frown. As people maneuvered around him, Dr. Cooper watched the crowd with stern eyes until at last, the short wavy-haired form of the substitute appeared. With a smile, Dr. Hofstadter approached him, giving him a verbal greeting and a pat on the back. As the other man’s hand fell back to his waist, Dr. Cooper reached out, silently threading his fingers between Dr. Hofstadter’s. Without missing a beat, they continued out the door.