A Polymer Blend

“Dada, I’m thirsty,” Pema said, eyeing the glass mug which had just been planted in front of Francis. She looked at me across the kitchen table with searching eyes. Would I get her some, or would I tell her she was fully capable of getting her own? I was asking myself the same question when I remembered something and waved it off. “Hey pup!” I shouted, “Check this out!”


I shifted Francis, who was sitting on my lap, to the seat next to me. He frowned, but I countered softly. “I’ll be right back,” I said, “I promise.”


It was late afternoon and the small kitchen of our community at New Buffalo was beginning to bustle. Silke had just walked in the door and sat next to Pema, who was finishing her bowl of soup opposite me. My empty bowl sat on the table. Francis, who had just woken up from a nap, had been sitting on my lap, the two of us against the wall, waiting patiently as his mother melted cheese on triangles of pesto pizza. Maurice, one of our housemates, towered nearby, washing some dishes at the sink, and across from us, another housemate, Dana, occupied the small corner table, eyes focused intently on her computer screen.


Leaving Francis behind, I walked purposefully to the cabinet, threading the space carefully between Francis’s mother at the stove and Maurice at the sink. Sharing a kitchen is like dancing. Opening the cabinet coyly, I grabbed the small bottle I had washed earlier that morning and quickly returned to the table.


“Check it out, pup,” I said, slamming the bottle down to draw attention, “your new water bottle.” Pema’s face lit up. The bottle, which she had selected from a long row of colorful juices at the store, was a unique shape, sort of like an hourglass. It had originally contained pomegranate juice, but Pema hadn’t much cared for it. After sitting idly in the fridge for over a week, earlier that day I drank off the contents and had even tossed it into the recycling, when, noting its shapeliness, I pulled it back out. I had anticipated this very moment. Pema, reaching up, placed her fingers between its bulging spheres and smiled.


Silke, Francis and I watched as she unscrewed the maroon cap and lifted the bottle to her lips. There was a simple moment of anticipation as the bottle hung in midair. She drank and we stared. Her little throat undulated. “Ahhh,” Pema said afterward, releasing the bottle from her lips and gathering her breath. She set the oblong figure squarely on the table, the remaining contents sloshing about, then smiled. It worked.


Pleased with the result, I made a quick nod of my head and sat back down in the empty chair. “Plus,” I announced, pulling Francis back onto my lap, “it’s made from a special polymer blend.” I waved my hand delicately over the table, palm up, accentuating the word “polymer.” Francis’s mother giggled off to the side, while Pema and Silke, plain-faced, agreed uncertainly. I’m always making things up. Dana glanced up from her computer, caught my eye, then sheepishly returned to her screen. I grabbed Francis’s mug with my outstretched hand and raised it in toast.


Francis, enjoying the play, met with confusion as his cup of water retreated down the length of my arm. Following my sweeping gesture with outstretched hands, he shouted a bit uncertainly, “Hey! That’s my water!”


“Okay, but check this out,” I said, returning the cup to Francis’s wiggling fingers. “Do you know what a polymer is? A polymer isn’t just any old blend - it’s an organic blend.” I smiled shrewdly, indicating Pema’s new bottle with a thrust of my hand. “CH2, a monomer, you know what I mean?” I spoke the words like old friends recounting childhood memories, then leaned into the table as if revealing a secret. I picked up the bottle, holding it aloft like a priceless treasure. My eyes, like my fingers, wandered over its subtle form. I looked up at Pema, whose eyes shifted from the bottle to me and back, then set it down purposefully.


“It’s like a series of chains - that’s what it’s made of. Imagine…” I paused, picturing the microscopic bonds of molecular chains. Holding both hands in front of me, Francis close to my chest, I began wiggling my fingers in rhythm. “When it’s warm, those chains slip and slide like wet noodles in butter, but…” I stopped suddenly, twisting my fingers slowly into a hardening clump. “…as it cools those chains wrap around each other…and…” slowing down for effect, “…get all gummed up.” I glanced at Pema. Her eyes were riveted on my hands and her spoon, forgotten in midair, hovered above her bowl of soup.


“Do you believe it?” I asked, leaning back casually. “Pup, your water bottle was once a dinosaur.” I smiled, noting the silence in the room. All I could hear was the soft hiss of the gas stove. Maurice stood at the sink, but the faucet was off. “Can you believe that?” I asked again, as if in wonder, but I didn’t stop long enough for an answer. “Tons of ‘em, pup, climbing all over the earth. Dinosaurs and ferns and even kale - is that possible? There were volcanoes and swamps and huge bubbling vats of….” I paused again. “Pema, I don’t really know.” I shook my head incredulously. “And then guess what?”


“What?” Pema asked.


“What?” repeated Francis.


“All those dinosaurs, and all those plants and algae, and snails and ferns and bubbling vats died.” I frowned. “At least, most of them did. Vast, teeming life, and suddenly it all was all gone,” I waved my hand. “Only it wasn’t all gone.” I paced through the words carefully, as if I couldn’t keep up with all those thundering lizards, running to and fro. “This is what people think. Can you believe it? It’s true.” I cocked my head and shrugged my shoulders.


“Well, all those animals and plants rotted and - we’re talking millions and millions of years ago - they seeped into the earth and rotted some more. They sank down, beneath the ground. No one could even see them anymore. We didn’t even know they were there. But then, suddenly, we did know. They were still there!” Pema smiled.


“Where?” asked Francis, squirming in my lap.


“Under the ground. Except, they weren’t dinosaurs anymore. They were just, well, they were a thick black ooze of life. Oil, pup…oil.” I let the word bubble up and sink in. “Your bottle, a polymer of monomer chains, CH-CH2…” I pronounced the letters and numbers as if unlocking a secret formula, “…is the compressed history of dinosaurs.” I shook my head incredulously, vigorously. “It once roamed enormous uber-continents, feeding off plants and animals incomparably bigger than you or I. Then they got so small you can’t even see them. The mers held hands, forming long polymer chains,” I mimicked the grasping of many hands, looking left and right at invisible people, then stared at Pema. “Till finally they were extracted from the ground - oil, the same thing that runs our cars! It was spun and injected, purified, emulsified, swirled into this beautiful little shape,” and again I picked up the bottle and held it carefully. “Polymers, pup.” I fingered the bulging spheres, the little crevices. I tried the cap, then swirled the water around inside. “Polymers,” I repeated. Pema and Francis stared, riveted.


“It’s true. It’s all true,” I said, shaking my head as if I could hardly believe it. “Your water bottle. Carbon! The stuff of life!” I set the bottle down carefully, afraid to mishandle it, and leaned calmly back into my chair. Francis reached out and stroked the bottle with one finger. Dana’s eyes peered over the screen, fixed on the little bottle.


“In other words,” I said, sweeping my arm behind me in a broad gesture over my head. I touched the cap knowingly and, opening my eyes as wide as they could go, stared intently at Pema. “Plastic,” I said.


There was silence for one brief moment. Pema looked at me, uncertain, then relaxed almost imperceptibly into a smile. Francis, shaking his head in my lap, laughed and shouted, “Nooo…” At that, Maurice slapped the edge of the counter and erupted into a full-bellied laugh, nearly doubling over at the sink. Dana let out a guffaw, Francis’s mother tee-hee’d over the stove, and Silke shook her head. Caught up in the noise, Pema and Francis looked back and forth at each other and the other adults, hoping to catch a glimpse of what just happened.


“Wait till I tell you about this one,” I said, picking up the glass mug Francis had left on the table.