Description: A student gets to deliver a parcel to an outstanding
scientist in Westchester, NY ... Guess who.
I seldom get that much attention when I step into a room. Except once, when I shaved my head over the weekend. I don't quite recall what possessed me to do that, I was a little over twenty, and still trying to find myself, and maybe my hair got in the way. Maybe my brother's razor was just too handy, and I wanted to see how it worked. And by the way find out what my skull looked like. I've always been curious to my fault. Whatever it was, on Monday morning my then boss actually suffered a short-term amnesia out of pure shock, and I won a lifelong friend, a lab assistant that was being roughened up for mistaking nanograms for miligrams. A deadly mistake ... for a billion innocent culture-cells.
The sight of that gaping yaw must have engraved some lasting associations into my brain, for years later I immediately grabbed my head with both hands when I found myself suddenly pierced by a dozen pairs of eyes. I was certain my hair had somehow been blown off my skull without me noticing it. The gesture turned into a defensive shield when a dozen index fingers snapped out to point at me.
For my life, I don't get this country. I understand perfectly why the most recent grad students get to do all the dirty work in a lab, that's just the way it is in every lab of this whole wide world. I myself am eagerly looking forward to having my own lab back home, with my own students to kick around. If I manage to get my PhD, that is. I also understand why the foreign students get to do stuff that the local students wouldn't touch with a fire- poker. Even the academic sector isn't quite free of a tiny touch of chauvinism.
What I absolutely don't get at all was why any of my more deserving colleagues would refuse to make a paid trip over the weekend to NY to deliver a box, and get the chance to visit the lab of, maybe even talk to, one of the most brilliant researchers in biochemistry and human physiology of the country. Who also happened to be the least public one. Geez, my first day in this lab I was handed eleven papers to read for the next day. Five of those papers where co-authored by this guy, and all but one cited his work, but when I asked about him, no one had even met him at a scientific meeting. And they didn't jump at this chance?
Thinking he might share some insight to this quite strange, and, as I thought, nationally restricted behavior, I asked Yamoto, one of the senior students and quite a nice, open-minded guy, why he had not claimed the privilege for himself. You know, back home at the Lightning Lab, the senior researchers would have gotten into a fistfight to sort it out. We humble students would have never gotten half a shot. His nervous answer astonished me even more. A mutant? So what? Don't tell me you'd suspend experiments on a Friday 13th.
He didn't find words to reply, but his expression said it all. Maybe he had been in the States too long, and there might be an infectious property to all this anti-mutant paranoia, or maybe I'm just a dumb third-world-equals-village girl. I didn't pursue the topic any further, lest they come to their senses and I find myself without the assignment.
Well, they almost did. I spent the next seventy-two hours being coached by researchers from our neighboring labs as well as our own, so I wouldn't embarrass our institute too much, plus all the students who came to show me highlighted passages of his papers like I myself was the author. I filled sixty-odd pages of notes and remarks and question marks in those three days, and if it hadn't been for my own enthusiasm, I would surely have called in sick. As it was, after the first five hours or so of the first day I just smiled and penned everything down and swore I wouldn't forget to ask, if I got a chance. Which I probably wouldn't. I was, after all, just a delivery girl.
On the last day, Professor J. himself granted me half an hour of his valuable time, a great honor for a puny first-year PhD student. I could have dispensed of that honor, though. I've never sat through such a dragging, boring monologue in my entire life. At the end, he handed me a wooden case that looked suspiciously like a box of cigars, and launched a series of instructions on how to handle it. He seemed to be particularly worried that it might be stolen. Well, I don't come from the South end of the continent for nothing. I'd just stick the case into the back of my belt, wear a baggy pullover and a jacket, and carry a thick wallet in my side pocket. I've "lost" five wallets that way in three years back home, cheap things, stuffed with toilet paper to make them more appealing. It's a pretty neat trick to keep one's money safe. He seemed quite relieved, and I was so eager to be dismissed, I didn't even ask what was in the box. Professor J. might be a genius, but he is a bore, and he speaks at a rate of about one word a second. Thank God he wasn't my immediate superior, his research field being Molecular Biology. I'd go crazy if I had to deal with him every day.
By Friday, the day of my departure, I swear that at least two out of ten were actually envying me. I know Yamoto was, he must have been kicking his own rear end real hard for not speaking up before, but I already said he is a nice, decent guy, and I guess he acknowledged my right to be the one. He even drove me to the airport. I expected him to stuff me with instructions, too, he had been the only one not to do so, and he was writing his thesis, so he must have had quite a few questions. But he just told me stories about his home and his family and his girl-friend, and when I was about to check in, he gave me a shy hug and told me to take care of myself, and to make the best out of my time in Westchester. From the way he smiled, I guess he knew that the question-filled notebook was in my black jeans jacket. The one I "accidentally" left at the lab.
His reassuring words kept me from going stark raving crazy during the flight. Had I been into the nail-chewing habit, I'd been bleeding out of all ten fingers before we actually landed at the New York airport. OK, one of the NY airports. Don't ask me which. I was far too nervous to mind such little details. I didn't even enjoy the journey like I usually do, though I had a window-seat. I stared at the clouds and munched my pencil and cursed myself for getting into these bellyaching situations. But at the same time I knew I would probably have cursed myself much more if I had refused to make the trip. Thank God I had had no choice in the matter. Some things we are forced to do really turn out to be for our own good.
I had been given a printout of an email directed to Professor J., containing precise instruction in the sparse, pragmatic style of experimental notes. Of course, I knew it by hard before the plane even got off, still I clung to the paper like a drowning wretch to a life-saving vest. When I got off the plane, I was to rent a car and drive to Westchester. A very neatly hand-sketched map, scanned and attached to the email, described the landmarks to reach the Institute where I was to deliver my burden. I guess they recognized me by that map, when I was studying it for the zillionth time in the line for the car rental.
"Hi", yelled a young voice right into my ear. I jumped almost a foot high. A teenage girl in a bright yellow coat grinned into my face, obviously satisfied by the impression she had caused. A carefully dressed, beautiful red-haired woman shoved her gently aside and shook her head at her. Then she offered me her hand.
"I am glad we arrived in time. My name is Jean Grey", she said, and then introduced the girl as what sounded like "jubilationly" to my dazzled ears.
What else could I do? I shook the hand of this perfect stranger. I told her my name, convinced she would now apologize for the misunderstanding and search on for whoever she was looking for. Far from it.
"Nice to meet you", she smiled. "Hank was concerned you might have difficulties finding the place."
It took me a moment to make the mental connection. Dr. H. McCoy. Hank must be his first name. I was so surprised, I actually blushed. The girl with the festive name grinned like the fabled Cheshire Cat. Fortunately, her mother was so nice as to ignore my ketchup-colored face, guiding me out of the building and towards the parking lots, politely inquiring about my journey and telling me that people tended to get lost on their way to Xavier's Institute.
"The drawbacks of a retired location. But our gardens make up for it, and it is better for the students. You brought the samples, didn't you? Hank is quite looking forward to examine them."
I blushed again, right up to the roots of my hair, while I frantically searched myself for the box of treasures. There it was, thank the Gods, safely strapped to my belt as it was supposed to be. A small girlish giggle at my back told me that neither my blush nor my panic reaction had gone unnoticed. Gosh, this was embarrassing.
The third blush occurred when we were discussing sitting arrangements in the car. The girl wanted to sit in front, her mother wanted to relegate her to the back seat. Only, Mrs. Grey -Ms. Grey!- wasn't her mother. Uh-oh. The girl was by now almost choking with laughter. Had I not been utterly confused at that time, I would have seriously considered strangling her. Of course, had I not been so confused, I wouldn't have screwed up like that in the first place. Or maybe I would have. I'm not a terribly observational person. Otherwise, I would have noticed right away that Ms. Grey couldn't possible be the girl's mom, unless she'd given birth to her at about age thirteen. In the end, though, I was forgiven, the relationship was set straight, and I settled into the back seat with my small travel pack and my cigar box.
The next minutes passed by in quiet conversation, mostly between Ms. Grey and me, and I relaxed. I asked myself if she might be one of Dr. McCoy's co-workers, and whether it would be impolite to inquire about him. Like on key, she asked me whether I had ever met a mutant before.
"Not really, I ... Yes. In my former lab, we had an encounter with a spider once..." I had almost forgotten about that Friggin'-Spider incident last year.
"And what happened? A mutant showed up and blast it to pieces?" The girl snapped out of deep boredom and regarded me almost excitedly, as if she'd expect a bedtime story.
"Jubilee!", warned Ms. Grey.
"Of course not", I said. "It was quite harmless, unless you... upset it." I almost said "pissed it off", but that might not be language Ms. Grey would approve of. She looked like a woman who gave great importance to correct behavior, even though she was one of the most welcoming persons I had met since I arrived in the States. That girl could count herself lucky to be one of her students. "Of course it was poisonous, like most spiders, but it wasn't really dangerous unless you were stupid enough to take a nap on the floor in front of it. It mutated from a kind of spiders that can only attack something that is right below them, you know? They jump on the prey, poison it and eat it."
Suck it up, really, and they prey on water bugs the size of fat fleas, unless we are talking about a mutant spider like this one, grown to the size of a ripe watermelon with legs twice as long as my arm. I learned a lot about spiders during that encounter. Enough for some very educational nightmares.
"A mutant spider", shuddered Jubilee. She probably wasn't much into spiders, either.
"What about mutant persons?"
I shrugged. Where I come from, mutants aren't much of an issue. One in ten thousand is, after all, a very low fraction. In fifteen millions of humans, it makes a total mutant population of about thousand five hundred, most of them with very "weak powers". As for my year in the States: well, I don't watch much TV, not having one of my own and spending most of my spare time in the Internet or in libraries. I automatically skip sensationalistic articles in the newspapers, and I'm not much of an observer when I walk the streets. Usually my mind is on anything but the fear of being assaulted, by either mutants or non-mutants. I must have walked by dozens of mutants without noticing. I explained that to Ms. Grey, before it occurred to me that I really shouldn't be so honest to people I didn't know. I had heard about the FoH fanatics, after all, and they where much more dangerous than mutants, at least in my opinion. Much more numerous, too, unfortunately. And devious. One of the students of the lab had landed in the hospital after getting too confident with "undercover" FoH members in a bar. But Ms. Grey smiled at me through the review mirror, and I knew there was no way in hell this woman could be an anti-mutant fanatic.
"Call me Jean", she said. And then: "I can't quite place your accent. It sounds more European than South American."
"It is European. I spent my childhood in Austria. My English teacher claimed to talk Oxford English, but I guess that was wishful thinking. He sounded terribly 'Schwarzenegger', even to me."
"You speak German, really? Neat! You know some neat curses you could teach me?"
"You always say one can never learn enough", pouted the girl.
I grinned inside, fighting to keep a straight face. I liked this Jubilee. At her age, and in the same situation, I would probably have asked the same thing. Actually, I did, once. A Turkish classmate, who, unfortunately, had very strict parents, so her vocabulary was quite restricted on that particular area. I made a mental note to pen down a few mild, easy-to-pronounce phrases and secretly hand them to her, if I got the chance. "Scheiss mit Reis", for instance, or "Donnerfurz". Ms. Grey -Jean- shot me a glance through the review mirror that made me wonder whether I had actually mumbled the words out loud.
Then another explanation popped up in my head, and was promptly confirmed by another look at the review mirror by a pair of knowing green eyes. I leaned back, speechless, and suddenly felt that excitement tingling in my fingertips, like when I was young, and just about to open my birthday presents. This was going to be a very interesting experience.
Continued in Chapter Two.
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