This Chemistry Between Us

This Chemistry Between Us

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach….”

Knock. Knock. Two furious knocks.

“Excuse me, Ms. Sharma! It’s time for my class.” 

A deep baritone interrupted Neena’s rendition of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet.

She recognized the voice even without lifting her head. 

“Just a minute, Sir. Class! We will continue this reading tomorrow. Please submit your assignments.”

The voice outside the class snorted impatiently. She ignored him and his unmasked disdain. She swept her books under one arm, and cleaned the blackboard with her free hand, humming all the while.

Sidharth Arora, the Chemistry Teacher, walked in with a scowl that was a permanent fixture on his face. At a towering 6”1 he managed to intimidate everyone. Well, everyone except her. Neena Sharma, the English Teacher, was the bane of his existence. She was everything he wasn’t. He was all things dark and gloomy; she was sunlight in a bottle. 

Neena smiled pleasantly at him and exited the class. She had joined JLM High School six months ago. She got along well with the students and the staff. The only black cloud in her silver sky was Sidharth. He was new to the school too. She had hoped to find an ally but was disappointed. They were always at loggerheads over something or the other.

Neena sauntered into the staffroom. Her best friend Parthavi, who taught Mathematics, sat there, grading worksheets. Parthavi’s face broke into a wide smile, as she greeted her friend. 

“How was your class?”

“It was great until the Grinch burst in!”

Parthavi giggled.

“Did Sidharth bother you again?”

“Yes. I have tried to be friends with him. But he has this perpetual milk-curdling look on his face. It’s annoying.”

“Do you know he is a chemical engineer? From IIT. His parents know the Principal. That’s how he landed this job.” Parthavi whispered conspiratorially.

“Why would he take up a teaching job? Shouldn’t he have sold his soul to some corporate Satan by now?” asked Neena, puzzled.

Parthavi hesitated. 

“I heard on the grapevine that he was dumped by his fiancée.”

“Oh!” Neena’s heart melted. The Grinch had a tragic backstory.

Their tete-a-tete was interrupted by another teacher who had just walked in.

************

“Ms. Sharma! Do you have a minute?” Sidharth had stormed into the staffroom, looking disgruntled.

Neena had a vague idea of what might have upset him, but she decided to play along.

“The students of 9B tell me that you have arranged drama rehearsals on Thursday afternoon.”

“Yes indeed. A Midsummer Night’s dream. You must attend. It will be delightful”

“Ms. Sharma.”  Sidharth gritted his teeth.

“You can call me Neena.” She smiled sweetly.

Sidharth grimaced. Every time she smiled, something in him turned warm and fuzzy. No! His heart had no place for emotions. He steeled himself.

“I had planned to take extra classes for chemistry. The exams are two months away and the students need all the preparation they can get. They can’t while their time away in frivolous activities like drama club.”

An insult to her passion was unforgivable. Neena drew herself to her full 5”5 height.

“All due respect Sir. The play is two weeks away. The class needs this practice. I don’t expect you to appreciate anything related to art or literature. Drama may seem a waste of time to you, but it invokes emotions in ways that test tubes and beakers don’t!”

Sidharth grew red in the face. “I will complain to the Principal”

“Can’t wait.”

Parthavi viewed their exchange with amusement. 

Sidharth stomped his feet and walked away in a huff.

“Was I rude?” Neena asked, after a minute.

Parthavi asked gently. “Why do you care?”

Neena stammered. 

“He is my colleague. If he had asked me politely, I could have shifted the rehearsals.”

“You are one of the few people he willingly talks to.”

“He isn’t that bad you know. He once stood up to a parent that was harassing me,” confessed Neena. She was lost in thought. She would declare truce with a peace offering. 

“I think you like him,” Parthavi accused.

“What? No!”

“The lady doth protest too much,” chuckled Parthavi, ignoring Neena’s eye-roll.

**************

The next morning, Sidharth was surprised by a box on his table. It had a card that said, “Sorry for yesterday! Can we work out the scheduling together?”

He approached the box suspiciously. If this were indeed from Ms. Effervescent, he wouldn’t be surprised if a pink unicorn jumped out of it. He soon discovered that the contents of the box were ten times worse. A bunch of yellow roses. Achoo!

******************

The allergies had sent Sidharth home. 

“How was I to know that he was allergic to flowers? Yellow roses symbolize friendship. Who in the world is allergic to flowers? What else is he allergic to? Happiness?” Neena complained to Parthavi.

“When he returns, he will be insufferable!” she groaned.

*****************

Sidharth fumed as he tossed his fifteenth tissue into the wastebasket. He resembled Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. 

It was all her fault. She must have figured out his allergy and sent him off on the very day he wanted to take his extra class.

The rational part of his brain tried to reason with him. She couldn’t have known. But the antihistamine-addled, angry part of his brain argued that he needed to exact revenge. But how? Ah! Chemistry!

*****************

Neena maintained a whiteboard in the staffroom. She wrote her motivational ‘thought for the day’ on it. That morning, she grabbed her pink whiteboard duster, dipped it in water, and started clearing it.

To her shock, the whole board turned pink. How was that possible? Her hands were stained pink. She looked on, exasperated. 

“How are you, Ms. Sharma? Not in the pink of health today, I, see?”

The devil himself had chosen this moment to appear. Sidharth had a smug grin on his face. 

Despite her discomfort, she couldn’t help thinking that he looked nice when he smiled, a rarity.

“I can’t get this stain off.”

“Try more water,” he said and left for class.

Neena followed his advice and immediately regretted it. The whiteboard looked a hot pink mess. She scrubbed it till her fingers were raw. There was still a stubborn tinge of pink.

“I did see Sidharth near that duster earlier today,” blurted out Parthavi.

Of course! Neena fumed. She was going to teach that man-child a lesson for pranking her.

She found him in the chemistry lab, which was thankfully empty. Else the students would have witnessed a showdown.

“Hey! Did you play that juvenile prank on me?”

“I don’t know what you are talking about.”

Neena held up her hand. 

“Look at this.”

“Just giving you a taste of your medicine. In return for the flowers,” he smirked.

Neena put her hands on her hips. “What is your problem?”

“Perhaps, your constant interference is the problem,” he snorted.

“Well, I’m better than someone who walks around as though the sky fell on their head,” she snapped. 

“You should mind your own business. Didn’t your parents teach you better?”

Sidharth regretted the words immediately when he saw her crestfallen face.

“My parents died when I was young,” she said in a quiet voice.

Sidharth was mortified. He was about to apologize for being inconsiderate when the Principal walked in. Neena furiously blinked her eyes to prevent the tears from falling.

“Neena! just the person I was looking for! The books from the charity drive have been moved to the basement. Can you catalogue them today?”

A month ago, the School had invited students to contribute their pre-loved books, which would then be donated to underprivileged children. Neena had volunteered to sort out these books. She thought that this was perfect timing to get away from the Grinch before she did something she would regret. Like, punch him in the face. She collected the keys to the basement and set off.

The basement was a dingy and dark place used to store spare supplies. She made her way down the staircase and located the four cartons of books. She opened the boxes and got to work. She sorted them into piles when she heard a sound from above.

“Hello! Ms. Sharma!”

A minute later, the forlorn form of Sidharth appeared and descended the stairs.

“I wanted to apologize for earlier.”

“It’s OK. You didn’t know.”

Sidharth shifted uneasily. “Well, I better get going.”

“Wait! Since you are here, can you help me with the books?”

Sidharth would have preferred swimming in shark-infested waters. However, he had messed up earlier. This would be his redemption. He nodded hesitantly.

Neena continued unabashedly. 

“That wasn’t so hard, was it? Now, please sort the books according to the genre. Anything too damaged is to join that pile.”

He rolled up his sleeves and began. Neena couldn’t help noticing. The Grinch worked out too?

They sorted the books in silence. It wasn’t an uncomfortable one.

“What was that poem you were teaching last week?”  Sidharth’s voice echoed through the basement.

“That’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnet. It’s her declaration of love for her husband Robert Browning. Quite a Victorian romance! She was an invalid, and she fell in love with him. They communicated through letters and poems. They eloped and got married. I just love that sonnet.” Neena gushed on.

“Do you really do believe in love?” he asked.

“What’s not to love about love?”

He chuckled bitterly. “Love is nothing but a chemical reaction. The body releases Dopamine that makes you euphoric. And when the chemicals wear off, grief ensues.” 

“Who broke you?” she asked him bluntly.

Sidharth considered ignoring the question. But something about her, made him want to open up. 

“I was engaged to a girl for two years. Two whole years! And then, on the day of the wedding, in front of my friends, family, and colleagues she announces that she doesn’t love me and leaves me at the altar. So much for love.”

“I was depressed for months. I quit my job. I couldn’t face anyone after that. My therapist recommended a change of scene. That’s why I moved here. The Principal is a family friend of ours. He offered me this vacancy.”

Neena reached out for Sidharth’s hand and interlaced her fingers with his.

“I know you are hurting. But look at the bright side. You didn’t get trapped in a loveless marriage. And the love of your life is still waiting for you somewhere.”

Such clichéd words, but he felt strangely comforted. It was his turn to say something.

“What happened to your parents?”

“They died when I was young. It was a car accident. After they died, I got passed around between different relatives. I was the unwanted charity case of the family. I have been on my own ever since I turned eighteen.”

Sidharth admired her resilience.

He asked, “why are you not bitter? Life hasn’t been kind to you.” 

“You can choose to lament every day. Or you can live. I chose to live. To laugh. To love. My parents loved each other a lot. I remember Papa twirling Mama around in the kitchen and all of us laughing. Hopefully, one day I will find a love, like Mama’s and Papa’s.”

Neena looked into Sidharth’s eyes. There was loneliness there. A strange longing. A magnetism that bewitched her.

“Can we be friends?” she asked timidly, as though afraid of rejection.

“Yes. I would like that,” he replied.

Neena blushed and averted her gaze. 

“Ah look, we are almost done. Just the broken pile is left.”

Sidharth’s eyes fell on the damaged books. There were five books, all in different states of ruin, including one with a broken spine.

“I will repair these books and they will be as good as new. I love fixing broken things!” she said cheerfully.

“Is that why you are kind to me? Am I another one of your fix-it projects?” 

Anger rippled through Sidharth’s chest.

“No. When I see you, I see someone who has been hurt. I see someone who is lonely. I see someone who craves love and belonging. How do I know? Because I see the same look in my reflection, Sidharth. We are not that different- you and I.”

They stood looking at each other quietly, afraid that the next word spoken would destroy this spell, whatever it was, that weaved its magic around them. 

There was a narrow window in the basement through which the sun’s beams forced their way in. It lit up half of Neena’s face, illuminating it and rendering her an angelic appearance. Sidharth longed to caress her face and tell her how beautiful she was. It was just him and her there, in that moment. He wished that he could freeze time forever.

“I like you Sidharth. And I know you like me too. But if you want this to go any further, you need to like yourself first. You can’t wallow in self-pity forever. I cannot fix you. You need to fix yourself.”

Sidharth let out an unsteady sigh. 

“Neena, I will try.”

“You called me Neena for the first time! My company seems to work miracles! I suggest we meet for coffee tomorrow. And you must attend the exclusive screening of Midsummer night!”

She giggled and bounded upstairs.

He called after her. 

“It was Permanganate.”

“Eh?”

The whiteboard. Potassium permanganate crystals on the duster. Vinegar and peroxide should fix the pink.”

“The pink’s grown on me. Let it be.” 

For the first time, in a long time, Sidharth felt something bubbling in his chest. A feeling he had given up on. Could this be love?

One Year Later

Neena helped fix the ribbons on Parthavi’s daughter’s hair.  

“Where is Uncle Sid?” the little girl demanded. 

“He has gone to fetch the balloons, Sweety!”

They were celebrating Sweety’s fifth birthday.

“The new bride is glowing! I knew you would be perfect for each other. You have amazing chemistry!” giggled Parthavi.

“My husband would just love that joke, wouldn’t he?” 

Neena and Sidharth had dated for a year. It was hard at first, overcoming his trust issues and her insecurities. But somehow, they clicked, like two pieces of a puzzle, two halves of a soul, searching for one another. Sidharth left his teaching post and moved to a corporate job. Neena continued to teach. They got married in April, in a small and intimate ceremony.

“Uncle Sid!” squealed Sweety.

The image of her giant husband with a big bunch of balloons warmed Neena’s heart.

Sidharth handed over the balloons and shifted over to her side. He whispered into her ear, in his rich baritone,

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

I love thee to the depth and breadth and height

My soul can reach….”

She smiled at him adoringly. How can you not love a man that quotes sonnets?

*************************

Author’s note

Here is the full sonnet.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Sonnets from the Portuguese (sonnet 43)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1850

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3 thoughts on “This Chemistry Between Us

  1. An amazing tale soaked in love. Yes two options in life, to be bitter or to live. I loved Sids character, so intricately built up. Awesome lalitha .

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