Probabilities

Fiction by | March 7, 2010

Assuming that Rudolf is in front, there are 40,320 ways to arrange the other eight reindeer, he boasted as he came up to me with a new book about probabilities. Peter stood about 5’6” but he looked shorter than he actually was because he was duck-footed and because he always wore oversized shirts. He sat beside me, brushed his nose and gave me that kind of ‘you-don’t-know-this-dummy’ look, and I wanted to break his nose for it. Except for the fact that I couldn’t, of course.

I stared at his hardbound book with lots of circles on the cover. The kind of circles that would make anyone dizzy. And I thought of a nice, momentous remark to topple such bold information but I couldn’t think of anything sensible to say. Lots of questions hovered over my head. How many of the guys out there would care about Santa’s reindeer? Why are we talking about reindeer when we’re supposed to discuss the Chem problems? And we didn’t discuss probability in any of our classes and Christmas was not fast-approaching either. Left with no recourse but to praise the guy, I told him, Well, that’s nice! and he stared at me – a demeaning stare – and arched his left eyebrow at those three pathetic words, before he said, Aren’t you interested? That there could be lots of combinations out of nine reindeer? And I shrugged my shoulders because I wasn’t interested in the first place and it really pissed me off because I didn’t want to discuss anything that he likes: the probability problems, the heavenly bodies, or even the city capitals. Yesterday he was bragging about probability that involved the words ‘dice’ and ‘dots’. Totally boring. I just wanted to get on with our work, and I thought I was the most unfortunate creature in our Chemistry class to pair up with the guy I loved and hated at the same time.

Of course, really, I am, I mumbled a lame reply which I regretted a moment after because I felt like an idiot. That sort of consoled him at least because he was enthusiastic again; he went on to tell me about the first possible position for these reindeer. At the back of my mind I was thinking if he’s planning to share the other 40,319 ways to arrange these reindeer – because Peter, I wanted to tell him, I wasn’t stupid not to know that is really going to take you a long time and our Chemistry homework was much much more worthy to deal with than those reindeer. So before he could even finish the first explanation I reminded him of the real agenda for today. Pete – uhmm – about the Chem homework – I began to say but before I could even explain the whole thing he burst with Oh yeah, I forgot! without any hint of apology and I couldn’t help but roll my eyes when he wasn’t looking. But anyway, it’s still about the probability right? he butted in, trying to make up a nice defense for his esoteric digression a moment ago. I tried to concentrate on looking at Isaac Newton’s portrait smiling sheepishly at me than listen to his digressions. Weird, but since when did staring at Newton’s face become more indulgent than talking to him?

Yeah, yeah, I told him. I told him that because I was tired and I didn’t want to talk to him about the probability problems. He smelled really nice. It reminded me of the Axe commercial, or that American model of Hugo Boss. And for a geek like him, it was both amusing and surprising.

I looked at him as he was rummaging for something inside his old Kamaru jampacked with high school books and notebooks. I was not sure if I saw a Batman pencil case because at that moment he suddenly turned to me and asked Did you bring our lab notebook? And I began to putter because I didn’t. I didn’t bring with me that notebook which Peter had covered in the required red art paper. I feigned a confused look. Oh, I think I left it at home. For a moment I thought he was going to get irritated at me but he rummaged in his heavy backpack again and took out an extra notebook. Here, he said. Let’s use this for the meantime.

So we started answering some of the given questions. It was already nine in the morning and most of my classmates were discussing their projects. Lisa, a close friend of mine, was paired with Jose – probably the dumbest creature in class. It must have been my imagination, but Lisa seemed to stare at me with mingled helplessness and envy. Herchel, another friend of mine, was paired up with the campus crush Anthony who had once burned a part of her hair accidentally with a Bunsen burner. Perhaps I was fortunate in a way that I got Peter for a partner, the impressive geek who could amazingly recite from memory the periodic table of elements. I was not good in Chemistry so somehow I’m embarrassed by this stroke of luck. I’m only good in baking class because we ran a bakeshop store and I thought that was enough because I was not planning to become a chemist anyway. I wanted to be a chef.

We are completely different from each other. And by the way I like Peter minus the geeky part in him so it became really complicated. But I didn’t know if it occurred to his mind that every time we would have to postpone to the next time the discussion of our impending group report – the only thing that connected us – I wanted to smash the clock for ticking so fast.

It’s a Chemistry homework, but actually it’s more of a statistical problem. Our Chemistry teacher was on leave for two weeks and our temporary instructor was a half-Japanese man in his early 30s who taught Statistics to the seniors. The first week was a fiasco: Takano-sensei prefers dictation; if he says mo-ra-ri-ty, we couldn’t distinguish if that was a ‘molality’ or ‘molarity’. And when ‘one more’ was actually ‘one mole’ it made the difference. Sometimes the whole class snickered every time Takano-sensei decided to write the word on the blackboard to sort the cloud of confusion and ridicule inside the class. And I knew that he knew we were having too much fun during his Chemistry classes. Thank God spelling was invented, we would say.

So I had this idea that this homework was our teacher’s way of regaining his pride and coming up with revenge. But it didn’t come as a surprise to Peter who was comfortably lodged in his seat. Wandering between two realms of chemistry and probability. He seemed to be drowning in fervent interest – I could see his eyeballs flickering in excitement when Takano-sensei first distributed the group’s homework. If I could smash his head open I might be able to see neurons all flaring up.

It says here describe Statistics, Peter said as he was pointing at the item number one. I fumbled for my pocket dictionary and looked for the word. The science of collecting, organizing and applying statistics, I told him and he narrowed his eyes. Applying statistics? he asked with a quick sideways look. I nodded at him. The word ‘statistics’ shouldn’t be in the definition itself, he said, stroking his chin as if he was fondling an imaginary goatee.

Well it wasn’t my fault, that’s what the dictionary said, I muttered.

Don’t use the dictionary, it tends to simplify things, he said, fixing his eyes back at the questionnaire.

Which is what we need at the moment.

What? he said, straightening up and scratching the hair at the back of his neck.

To simplify things. I told him, and he looked up at me and then back at the paper. In the end we ended up with that definition. At first, I was conscience-stricken. Who was I to counter a geek?

The rest of the questions required a more complicated mathematical solution. Takano-sensei must have held a terrible grudge against us.

[A student has 5 shirts, 4 pairs of pants, 3 pairs of shoes, and 5 pairs of socks. In how many ways can a student go to school using a shirt, a pair of pants, shoes and socks?]

Methods in counting, he said with excitement.

A what? How did you know about that? I asked him, trying to stifle the sudden fascination that I suddenly have for him. He told me his brother had once told him about it. He said, It’s necessary in chemistry because sometimes you do possible combinations on chemicals. Then he dictated how to go on with the solution so that I would know how it works.

No, it should be a bracket here, not an open parenthesis, he says as he was pointing to the next item solution.

Oh really. I grunted. I crossed out the open parenthesis and replaced it with a bracket. He was eyeing my paper for more possible errors that he might have overlooked.

Yeah, in Math it’s different.

So where was I exactly?

We continued solving that part for the rest of the afternoon. It was already 5:30 and most of my classmates had gone home. Let’s finish the last question, he said, straightening his back. And then we could do the atom homework tomorrow.

I read the last question. What is the best way to present the data?

What do you think?

I don’t know. It depends. I pouted my lips to concentrate.

Well, just choose one then, he said. Dusk was slowly gaining ground outside the chemistry lab. The sky was in violet and orange hues.

I scratched my head. I couldn’t choose. How many types of presentations are there?

Three, he said. Textual, graphical, and tabular.

Well then you choose.

Let’s analyze then.

So we analyzed the three characteristics. I saw his forehead wrinkled with his own thoughts. I could see the pores on his face. I’d say graphical, I told him without any reason in mind, wishing that I might be able to smooth out the creases on his forehead.

He nodded before he said, Me, too. Textual is too wordy. And tabular – well, that involves large numbers. I think it’s graphical, he said with utmost confidence. Because relationships between variables can be clearly seen when you graph it, he added.

Oh. I looked up at him. His eyes are pitch black, tunnel like. I like that. That was all I managed to say.

How could I think of chemical bonding, protons and electrons at a time like this? Peter was in front of me, smelling like soap and sometimes smiling at me. Which was freaky because I couldn’t find any reason at all. It was already five in the afternoon, and he was still wearing his basketball shoes after his regular play-offs with the team. Oftentimes, I glanced at him and he would ask me if I understood his explanations. Oh yes, the protons – the positively charged atoms and electrons, the negatively charged ones. They stick. They should. Do they? I’m not sure.

Finally, we went on experimenting about theoretical yields. We were sitting in front of each other, elbows dangling over the ridges of the tiled table, observing the boiling flask changing colors from yellow to red. The color reminded me of a summer’s burst, the color of summer’s first sun that scourged all the garden plants of my mama. The color was as vibrant as my papa’s beer turning flaming red on his cheeks at night when he was drunk.

The bubbles swirled inside the Erlenmeyer flask. And it made me wonder how the scientists were able to see the principles underlying them. Peter was writing his own observation about the chemical reactions, indulged with his own scientific trails of thought. So I thought of the probabilities that might arise after this report. If he would undergo any change as much as the atoms here have undergone. If we would stick with each other after all of these are over: become good friends or end up together. If there are probabilities of illicit affairs, probabilities of having geeks for children or probabilities of ending with a failed marriage because we both came from generations of failed ones. Or whether we’d end up as casual friends – the scientific way – that we were just high school classmates who shared the same report about things that may occur in chemicals and people, but will never occur to us. One or the other wouldn’t stick around. Results may vary when both Science and Math go hand in hand with our life’s processes in the event of trying to blend with the roughness of our lives’ daily routines. I wasn’t sure if our own common sense would matter in the end. I knew for sure early hominids didn’t solve for frequency distribution or probability combinations to come up with their own tools and to make their civilization sustainable. And they didn’t care about the reindeer either. Did they?

And Peter wouldn’t think of protons and electrons undergoing changes for the rest of his life. But I thought about lots of probabilities after our meeting. And I thought That was enough for me.

—-
Khareen Culajara is graduating this semester from the Creative Writing program of UP Mindanao.

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