The Chemistry of Em

By Danielle Davis

In the final week of Em’s first semester of her last year of high school, four days after her eighteenth birthday, she returned home from school in the evening. She was given a note by the security guard downstairs at her apartment building. It was from her parents. It was not unusual to get a note from her parents via one of the security guards.

This note was more unusual though. It said the two of them had gone to Nepal to get away from noise and pollution and people. It said Em would have to leave immediately for the west coast of the country of her birth, a town to which she’d never been. To a country she did not think of as her own. Her Uncle Don would look after her there.

The maid had already packed Em’s bags for a morning flight, the note said.

Em rode the elevator up 24 floors to the empty apartment. It wasn’t that her parents wouldn’t be around; she rarely saw them as it was. It was that she had to move across the world. Just like that.

Em went to her room and took off all the clothes she was wearing.  She inhaled them. They smelled of the coffee and cigarettes she’d had with her friends. They smelled of bus exhaust. They smelled of dim sum and fast food French fries she’d also had with her friends. She stuffed the clothes in the neatly folded suitcase on her bed and, naked, wept.

Image courtesy of pockafwye (

Image courtesy of pockafwye (



Image courtesy of thewamphyri (

Image courtesy of thewamphyri (

At the end of the long flight away from her city, a flight attendant passed out two wet rolled up washcloths to every passenger, one hot, one cold. Em draped the warm one on her face, followed by the cold, and was surprised by how soothing the ritual was. She looked out the airplane window. Below her there were green patches of different shades, then mountains, then grids of gray rectangles intersected by snakes of freeway. Em had only known the tall smoggy city whose buildings’ glimmering glass shimmered down to streets filled with puddles of soot. To Em, the soot, the smog, the tall buildings were beautiful. The red taxis and green trams, the ducks at food stalls—some scuttling live, some hanging dead—the people elbowing their way through crosswalks.

By the time the plane landed and taxied, both washcloths were cold. They were white and had the airline’s red dragon insignia embroidered on them. The dragon’s body looked like it was dancing, its fierce head thrown back in the air with a pearl in its mouth, its claws spread out like sharp jazz hands. Two long whiskers curled around its snout. Though she’d never stolen anything before, Em slid one of the washcloths into her backpack right before the fasten your seatbelt sign turned off.


She could tell as soon as she arrived that there were no tall buildings in the small gray town in the new country where Uncle Don lived. It had a name that meant view of the sea, but the beach, Don said, was an hour away, depending on traffic. Uncle Don, whom Em had never met before, reminded Em of a mollusk: squidgy, simple. His wife, Aunt Lydia, whom Em had also never met, reminded her of a mollusk’s shell—ornately sculpted, hollow.

Em thought of her parents on steep quiet mountains, with antlered goats. She wondered if they ever thought of her, and doubted it. She felt like she should hate them. But she couldn’t muster any feelings at all.

In what had been an office/guest room and would now be hers, Uncle Don and Aunt Lydia had hung a giant map like the ones in fourth grade classrooms. Em’s former city was just a dot to the right of most of the green and pink and purple and orange colored clumps, an atom in a molecule among the oceans and masses of the world. The atom where she was now, Vista del Mar, was practically as far away as you could get from it to the left, the way things were drawn. She took the map down from the wall and rolled it up end to end into a cylinder so she could see how the two atoms were actually almost next to each other that way, only the blue of ocean in between. Then she stuck the map back up, flat, dots on faraway edges again.

The house and the suburbs were confusing to her. She recognized her way by landmarks—the massive television, the upholstered chairs, the doll collection; the Taco Bell, the lawn art, the one wide street with a white-pillared building and lined with flags.

It was the start of Em’s second semester of her senior year. Teachers announced she was from Hong Kong, which confused everyone at school. She heard students whisper when she walked by the short dreary buildings lying very far below the brilliant blue sky. They whispered “Ching Chong” and “King Kong.” Em thought of how if her old friends were there they would defend her, telling them the confused mistakes they were making. But her old friends weren’t there and defending herself seemed like it would only make her smaller when she already worried she might disappear.

Em had never had much interest in school before, but she found herself liking chemistry. At first it was mostly because of the scientific historical figure posters on the wall—Einstein, Madame Curie, Alexander Graham Bell. The posters gave her something to focus on aside from homesick loneliness. And it was also the teacher who’d hung the posters, Ms. Martine. Ms. Martine intrigued Em. She had the most lovable dangle of flesh hanging from her chin.

Em was convinced that despite having no accent, Ms. Martine had been transplanted from France. She wore navy and white stripes and large red-framed glasses and was always bringing tiny espresso cups to her lips when she sat at her desk, which had the advantage of momentarily hiding her fleshy neck. In those moments Ms. Martine looked not only smart and French but also beautiful.

Em carried her chem notebook everywhere, tucked into her drawstring backpack with tiny round mirrors sewn throughout the fabric. She was always taking out the journal, stained with ash and bloated with water, recording observations about her new school, new place, this experiment she’d been subjected to. She felt like a proton who’d left her nucleus. Everyone at school stopped teasing her and just ignored her. They were seniors after a lifetime in that town, with each other. She was from a strange place they’d never heard of and didn’t care to. She walked the halls looking for atoms she couldn’t possibly find. She paid attention to chemistry like the periodic table of elements might save her life.

Em and Ms. Martine wrote back and forth in Em’s chem notebook. They spoke of entropy, acids and bases, chemical bonds.

When Aunt Lydia asked Em if she’d made any friends, she would say yes because of Ms. Martine. When Lydia asked if Em had had any suitors, Em would simply tell the truth and say no.

Ms. Martine wrote in Em’s chem notebook: “Equal volumes of gases under identical temperature and pressure conditions will contain equal numbers of particles.”


And then Em had her first suitor.

One day, a guy followed Em from school to Uncle Don and Aunt Lydia’s neighborhood. She didn’t know he was behind her until she turned around to see him picking up a cigarette butt she’d thrown to the street. He held out a fistful of butts, candy wrappers, and debris and pointed to the sign on the sidewalk about storm drains by way of explanation. Em wondered if he was mute. But then he caught up to her and spoke, mostly about how she should quit smoking and about littering and also about God.

Ty was a member of a Christian rock band and carried his guitar everywhere. At first glance, he looked like any other high school rock band member. Until he opened his mouth.

Em was intrigued by Ty’s unfamiliar religious devotion. He told her he’d made a towering bonfire of his extensive, beloved CD collection after deeming the music it contained sinful. He said he cried as he watched it burn.

Em didn’t have the heart to ask Ty not to walk her home. She was grateful for the company. And Ty seemed kind of like a wandering proton without out a nucleus too, a religious nomad.

Ty continued following Em home. After a few days, Ty swung his guitar to his chest and played Em a song he’d written, which he assured her was morally sound. Em feigned swaying while he strummed but her mind kept wandering to other boys she’d known and other songs she’d heard back home. She ended up staring stiffly at the pale driveway and stubby, thorned palm tree across the street, smoking and, at Ty’s request, collecting each butt to be disposed of inside.

Standing by Uncle Don’s mailbox, Ty leaned in for a kiss and their closed lips made contact. The kiss reminded Em of toast. She told Ty she had to go inside, she was thirsty, and went to the kitchen where she swallowed spoonfuls of Aunt Lydia’s apricot jam.



Em kept two clocks on her nightstand in the guest room of Uncle Don and Aunt Lydia’s house, one for Vista del Mar time and one always set to Hong Kong time. That one was opposite time. When going to bed, she’d think of her friends having lunch the next day, standing outside the gates of school to smoke, applying lip gloss in the bathroom. When waking up, she’d look at the clock and think of calling her best friend, Anne, or beginning the long night at a bar. She thought of watching American television piped in from outer space, of walking in the dark streets, the hyper neon signs, the honks of cars.

The map on the wall always stared down at her. She drew her finger from her current tiny speck at the edge of the huge pink continent all the way right and down to where all the countries began to get smaller, more spread out. Finally, after making a tear in the Bay of Bengal, she cut out a ragged six-inch multi-colored square of South East Asia. This she safety-pinned among the little mirrors on her backpack to identify herself.

Uncle Don was well meaning, but usually at work or commuting to or from work. On days he was home in time for dinner, Aunt Lydia served her husband and niece chicken in a variety of preparations—wrapped in a tortilla smothered with red sauce, mixed into mac and cheese, cradled in a blanket of bacon. Em’s parents had once or twice referred to Aunt Lydia, and in doing so implied she was not very smart. Em could see now they were wrong; she didn’t seem dumb, only bored. Lydia wore a lot of pink. She filled her time tending to the sick and elderly in town the way she might have cared for children. She took care of her skin and nails as playthings.  She offered to braid Em’s hair as though she were a teenaged doll.


Image courtesy of Yagan Kiely (

Image courtesy of Yagan Kiely (

Ms. Martine wrote in Em’s chem notebook: “When breaking a bond, energy is absorbed from the surroundings. When making a bond, energy is given out.”


And then Em had her second suitor.



Jared asked her out on a proper American date while Em was cleaning up her lab table. She knew who he was—quarterback, voted best eyes and most popular last year—but she didn’t know why he wanted to take her out for a burger and action movie given her social status at school. Perhaps he was in an experiment of his own because the cheerleaders bored him with their perky parts and dispositions. Perhaps he’d seen one too many high school movies in which the new, unpopular, strange, or seemingly undesirable but hot underneath girl becomes prom queen via the intervention of someone of Jared’s esteem.

Jared drove a truck. Jared steered with his knee. Jared brought Em a single red rose nestled in a plastic sheet. Jared listened to the local station with hard rock and perverted call-in shows. Jared kissed her on the beach after an hour-long drive to get there and a dinner of burgers and chocolate milkshakes. Em could tell his desirability was not undeserved. Jared’s tongue was adept at burrowing, a determined, wet meerkat. Still, the chocolate milkshake frothed in her knees.

Em thought she may have found herself an electron, but then Jared groped her to hard rock in his truck after the movie, grunting like the action star had during vigorous scenes. Too soon. Too vigorously. Jared bit her lip, which immediately swelled, but he didn’t notice.  Em tried hard to think of the Marie Curie poster in her chemistry classroom instead of what she was doing with Jared. She thought of the quote beneath Marie Curie’s picture: “In science, we must be interested in things, not in persons.” Em focused her attention on the dashboard, the breasts of the hula girl air freshener, the dim stars in the sky, and then thumped at Jared’s knee, pleading for it to steer her home.



Weeks passed with the same routine. After school, Em would have a cigarette in the backyard and then come inside to wet her airline washcloth with cool water. She would lie down and cover her face with the damp cloth. For a while it smelled like stale plane until Aunt Lydia found it in her room and washed it. Then it smelled like fresh chemical lilacs and Em learned to carry it with her in her mirrored backpack. Lying with her eyes closed, sometimes Em imagined flying home on the dragon’s back, arriving with fireworks. But sometimes she imagined returning only to find the buildings were empty and no one remembered her name.

Em’s parents called occasionally, usually in the middle of the night. They spoke of spiritual enlightenment and Sherpas. They seemed not to be aware that Em was having her own journey, without Sherpas to accompany her. During one call, Em began to cry, but they immediately lost connection.


Aunt Lydia suggested a trip to the mall as something they could do together. Em had never been to an American mall. The first thing she noticed was that it smelled of packing peanuts and cologne. They went to the food court, which was crowded and appeared to serve mostly oversized items: lemonade for giants, cinnamon buns with proportions of certain volcanic floating islands.  Her aunt suggested they eat at the Asian fast food place, a kind gesture the sort Em’s mother would never have made. Em came to another conclusion about Lydia: she may be ornate, but not hollow. Unfortunately, the food was less Asian and more just heaps of grease and salt.

During the meal, Lydia confessed the farthest she’d ever traveled was to “the lake.” Em consoled that she had never actually seen any lake at all. Lydia confessed she thought Em’s parents were exotic and couldn’t quite believe one of them was related to her Don. Em told her being exotic wasn’t always what it was cracked up to be. They shared a giant cinnamon bun before Lydia bought Em shoes, earrings, and nail polish she would never wear.



Ms. Martine wrote in Em’s notebook: “A layer of protection is necessary to prevent oxidation—or the loss of at least one electron.”


And then Em had her third suitor.



The gray town had once been a massive orange grove. Em learned this on a tour of a local historical site she went on for a history assignment. It was a well-preserved Victorian house associated with someone of import though she wasn’t sure of his actual connection to the house. He had not designed it or built it or even lived for any length of time in it, but perhaps had been born in it or was related to someone who’d been born in it. Em’s history teacher thought the house necessary to see.

The young docent was named Brick, so said the tag on his ill-fitting suit jacket. He seemed particularly taken with wood despite his name—the kitchen stove and manual washing machine made of it were his most animated narrations of the premises. He was also quite taken with Em because afterward, during Victorian tea and biscuit time, he approached her and asked if she’d liked the tour. Her polite yes elicited even more local facts and information from Brick—what was playing at the performing arts theater, when said theater was built, the best time to swim at the community pool without bother of children and urine, and that both an Olympic athlete and adult film star came from that very town. Brick was a walking encyclopedia of Vista del Mar.

Later, they went out for coffee at what Brick said was the best café around for hot drinks but not cold ones. They sat outside so Em could smoke and Brick told her that since graduation from Em’s high school the year before, aside from his work at the historical society, he’d been plotting to create a new kind of orange tree in his parents’ backyard. He planned to name it not after himself, as was custom, but after the town. So, it would be called something that conveyed view of the sea combined with gray or suburbs or long drive—Brick was still working that out, but the grafting was coming along beautifully thanks to help from his parents’ gardener.

Em went to the restroom, a break she used to wet her dragon washcloth with tap water and run it over her face. It was calming. Until she’d spent enough time in there and had to stop. When Em came back, Brick asked her what sounded like a rehearsed question about her future plans. In shock, she gulped her latte and dropped her cigarette and burned both her tongue and knee. While he offered wet napkins, she told Brick she was interested in science, was thinking of studying earth or stars or maybe matter.

Brick listened patiently, but didn’t respond. As soon as Em was finished talking, he told her he wanted to escort her home and meet her parents. Okay, her aunt and uncle would do just fine. She protested, but once they were outside the café, he held Em’s shoulders and said, “Let’s waste no time.” Before Em could ask exactly what he meant, he kissed her as awkwardly as his suit jacket. His mouth tasted of citrus that had begun to sour.



Uncle Don taught Em how to drive. She went to prom without any of the suitors, drove herself. She wore a dress that looked like silvery glass with red shoes on her feet. Aunt Lydia gave her a corsage of white orchids. She and Uncle Don took pictures of Em in front of an upholstered chair and a bottlebrush tree and told her she looked wonderful, their eyes bright and wet.

Prom was held at a large library a few towns away that belonged to a fallen politician.  Em saw Ty there dancing with a sweet looking girl dressed in ivory. When certain songs came on, Ty led the girl away from the dance floor, removed his cummerbund, and lovingly covered her ears with it.

She saw Jared when he accepted his crown as prom king and noticed his date when she accepted hers as queen. She was the girl who’d been voted best body in the yearbook, and Em couldn’t argue.

To her surprise, even Brick was there in a suit that didn’t fit. He accompanied Miss Vista del Mar to the stage where she wished the seniors good luck with their future endeavors, the sash over her heart rippling with sincerity. Brick escorted her back to her limo, holding hands.

Ms. Martine stood by the door with the other chaperones, wearing a navy and white striped blouse, a tiny cup of punch hiding her dangly chin. Em thought of the last thing Ms. Martine had written in her chem notebook. It was the first law of thermodynamics, even though they’d already learned it earlier in the semester: “Energy cannot be created or destroyed—only transformed.”

Em took the washcloth from her purse and wet it in the fountain in front of the library. She let its tiny fabric fingers lick her neckline and arms. Then she set the washcloth afloat in the water.  She watched the dancing dragon in the middle begin to swell and sink. She walked away.

After graduation, there was a package from her parents at Don and Lydia’s front door. It contained a wooden jewelry box and brass singing bowl. Em decided the gifts meant they had no plans of ever leaving Nepal. She was surprised all they got her were these tokens. And then she was not surprised. She imagined never seeing them again.

There was a newly bought old car in the driveway from Uncle Don and Aunt Lydia.

Image courtesy of Jay Kaye (

Image courtesy of Jay Kaye (

The inside of the car smelled of damp string. Even though Don had stocked the glove compartment with auto club road maps, Em went back to her room for one more. She peeled the torn world map off the wall and wadded it up on the front seat like a crinkly passenger, right next to her chem notebook. She pointed her finger at the shape of an atom on the big pink mass on the left side of the map. Em had no place to go, so she would make one. She’d write to Ms. Martine about college. She started the engine. She looked back at Don and Lydia, who were waving at her. She imagined she would see them again.

Em backed the car out of the driveway, heading for that tiny spot on the map, not caring what path she would take to make it there.


danielledavisDanielle Davis went to high school in Hong Kong and now lives in Los Angeles. Her short stories have appeared in [PANK], Carve Magazine, and elsewhere, with another forthcoming in Soundings Review. She’s currently at work on picture books and middle grade novels as well as her blog, This Picture Book Life. Find out more at her website:

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4 Comments Post a Comment
  1. […] delighted to share that my short story, “The Chemistry of Em” is up at Young Adult Review […]

  2. visit says:


    The Chemistry of Em | YARN…

  3. You have a new fan! Loved this story and others I have read.

  4. Xavier Mutulis says:

    this has such a warm feel to it. fantastic piece Danielle 🙂

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