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Speaking of was and when

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Boston, 1973


Wanda can, and will, do great work. She knows that as surely as she knows the part in her own hair. When she gets her own lab, she will never stop working, not least because she'll have so much to catch up on.

Until then, however, she gets by as best she can: adjunct positions and temporary post-doc fill-ins at BU, BC, Tufts, and Simmons. Once all the way out at Holy Cross. Her father reminds her that in Germany, there are two dissertations to do; "everyone is a post-doc until middle age", he likes to say.

Her father tries to be kind - as with Wanda herself, kindness comes with conscious effort, never naturally - but he will never grasp her impatience.

In every lab she lands in, she is the one who types up the reports. She can't type and invariably creases or tears the carbon, but they hand her their scrawled notes nonetheless. When she does take time for lunch, she eats alone on a quad or in a sub-basement where the pipes rattle and clang overhead. The department secretaries, whether older women who have built careers on their unflappable competence or the younger ones snapping gum who are on the make for a husband, pity her.

Of course, such women always pity academics. Their affectionate condescension, their coddling of the absent-minded and vague professor, is as necessary to the job as words-per-minute and experience with punch cards.

The pity with which they regard Wanda is not fond, not at all. When they look at her, she sees herself all too clearly: She is thick-calved, with fly-away, shapeless hair; her hose is two shades too dark for her skin and always bagging around her ankles by mid-morning.

She does not belong with them, any more than she belongs with her lab mates.


It could all change today. Her father arranged an interview for her at MIT with a search committee for a lecturer in biochemistry. She has been concentrating in the last few years on theoretical physics, the subject of her last degree, but biochem is her original love.

She can do this. She has made her way past the anti-war protesters who throng every science department across Boston, decrying the government contracts that, among other things, pay her meager salary. Wanda always keeps her eyes downcast as she hurries through, wondering just how these hippies think the world should be organized; they're angry, but never offer solutions.

She believes every problem has a solution. If she thought otherwise, she would not be a very good scientist.

Her research presentation goes off well. Non-verbal communication via the electrical impulses of brain is cutting-edge enough for even MIT snobs to take notice of. The questions afterward are probing, serious, and, most of all, respectful. Wanda allows herself a smile.

When the session is finished and she's stacking her transparencies and packing her valise, a dark-haired woman approaches the lectern. She is stunning, like someone in a foreign film, French or Italian, all angles and smoldering intelligence; her wrap dress, its pattern gaudy and psychedelic, clings to a rangy, coltish frame. Wanda actually straightens up and passes a hand over her untidy hair.

Before she can greet the woman, the head of the search committee interposes himself. A distinguished professor, he has not published his own research in over ten years. He throws out his chest and shakes his greasy forelock out of his eyes.

"Excellent, excellent," he says and Wanda tastes the aspirin-bitter flavor of condescension, so familiar and so nauseating. "The committee just has a few more questions..."

The woman behind him rolls her eyes and circles her hand as if to hurry him up. Wanda bites the inside of her cheek to keep from grinning. "Go on."

"We're concerned, of course, about your...commitment," he says. "Are you married?"

"No," she replies.



He squints at her; Wanda tries to look pleasant, dull, unintimidating. "You'll be looking to start a family...?"

The dark-haired woman makes a gun out of her thumb and index finger, cocks and fires at the back of his round, stupid head. Her dark hair, casually tied up, exposes neatly pointed ears.

Wanda laughs, at that and at the absurdity of his question. "I need a child like a hole in the head. No, never."