Organic Chemistry Taught Me to Fully Inhabit My Mixed Identities
I am not half of anything. I am only me, a single whole with multiple truths.
how atoms and molecules can help us explore our lives.
“I want to wear swim trunks,” I tell my mother.
“Swim trunks are for boys, honey. You get to wear a one-piece.” She is curt because my brother is crying. He has thrown his chupón onto the concrete and she is trying to find a clean one.
“But I want to wear swim trunks.”
“Sweetie, girls have to cover up. You can’t walk around bare chested. It’s just not right.” She is trying to be reasonable, but my brother has begun to remove the swim trunks altogether.
I look at my brother’s chest, then tug at my swimsuit to look down at my own. “But, Mama, I look just like him! Why can’t I wear swim trunks too?” There are tears welling up in my eyes, which my mother cannot see because my brother is now naked and waddling toward the pool.
“Ariana Maria Remmel! You are a girl, and this is what girls wear. End of discussion!” She has said it in that voice that feels like a punch in the gut, that steals the air out of me. I do not dare tell her that I do not want to be a girl. I don’t know how to say that yet.
I hate going to church. Dad never comes, so it is just me, my siblings, and my mother at St. Edward’s Cathedral. The Mass is entirely in Spanish. I do not speak Spanish. No one speaks Spanish to me.
Mom tried to teach us when we were little, but I am twelve now and I’ve learned to hate the sound of it. It is the sound of a priest who tells me that a woman’s hair is her glory. It is the sound of our housekeeper Elizabeth who nags me about putting away my toys. It is the sound of my mother saying something on the phone to a relative I’ve never met that she doesn’t want me to hear.
But it is also the only language my abuelita understands. Mama has named me after her own mother—Maria—but Lita can no longer say my name or Mama’s. She is old and frail and speaks in the broken phrases of a woman whose language center has been destroyed by multiple strokes. She has lived with us all my life, and what words I have learned are meant for her.
“Te amo, Lita,” I tell her every night before bed. She cannot say it back, but she always smiles her good night.
I think Mom believes I will learn her language by immersion at Mass. But I am old enough not to believe in God anymore. Old enough to have forgotten what it sounds like to hear my mother say she loves me in her native tongue.
I am reading my chemistry textbook in class. I am fourteen years old, and none of the other kids are paying attention to the teacher, who has mostly given up on lecturing for the day. We are learning how each element has a distinct number of protons, but atoms of the same element can have a different number of neutrons and electrons. He draws an H on the board for hydrogen, then puts one dot on its right. The dot is an electron.
“Hydrogen has one proton and one electron,” the teacher explains.
Then he draws another H, next to the first, with a second dot.
“When two hydrogen atoms come together, they will share their electrons to make a bond.”
He draws a line from one dot to the next so that the Hs are connected.
“Every element is different, and not all of them will share electrons to form bonds like this,” he tells the class. “But you have to study the periodic table to know how atoms like these make up the world around us.”
I make a copy of the periodic table in the front of my textbook. I carry it with me everywhere I go. On a yellow legal pad, I write out the element names in order over and over. I’m trying to memorize how many protons and electrons each element has. I’m trying to figure out what the world is made of.
I am at an art gallery for a high school field trip. I am sixteen. The exhibit is called Part Asian, 100% Hapa, and it features portraits of mixed-race people like me. They all look different, and they are all beautiful. Each photograph has a plaque with a handwritten note by the person in the picture. There is a woman with porcelain skin and flax-colored hair. Her note reads: “My mother is a woman and my father is a man. That makes me half woman and half man.” I am astonished. I read the note over and over again, but it will take me years to fully understand why it resonates.
I am cramped into one of those chairs with a tiny desk that slides out, used for standardized tests. This is one of the big ones—a college-admissions test that will decide my future. But I am stuck on the very first page. Sex: Female or Male. I check “Female” with some remorse, but I still don’t have the words to describe my sadness. Race: White, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, Asian. The instructions say to check one. Only one.
When I look in the mirror, I think I look white. That is, until I gaze into my dark-brown eyes, which are my mother’s and my Lita’s and her mother’s before her. I have my father’s pale skin and my mother’s round features. If I choose white, no one will bat an eye. I will only feel the guilt of erasing my mother and abuelos and the sacrifices they made for me to be here. In fact, when I’ve told friends about this dilemma, they say of course I should check “Latino” because then I will get better scholarship offers.
And that has made the decision so much worse because now I am afraid that I am stealing someone else’s opportunity by claiming my mother’s heritage. Either way, I am sure that the testing agency will find out I am lying. I am sure that someone is going to come yell at me for being an imposter. I fill the bubble for “Prefer not to say.”
Race: White, Black, Latino, Pacific Islander, Asian. The instructions say to check one. Only one.
My family has decided to drive to the Mid-America Science Museum so that I can see the Body Worlds exhibit. The halls are filled with dissected human cadavers, cut to show different views of their anatomy. I want to know what my insides look like, and Mom and Dad think the outing will convince me to declare a premed track in college.
We come to the body of a young boy whose abdominal cavity has been laid bare. I feel like I’m looking into the window of a stranger’s house. Mom gasps.
“His liver is on the wrong side!” she exclaims, searching for an explanation on the display plaque. I find the boy’s liver nestled under the left side of his rib cage.
“Is it just his liver?”
“No, honey. All of his organs are mirrored from where they should be. I don’t know why that isn’t written out more directly on this plaque.”
“Then how did you know?”
“I learned all about anatomy in medical school. You will too, if you decide to become a doctor like your dad and me,” Mom says. “But of course, you’ll have to take organic chemistry first.”
She smiles at me, obviously aware of the periodic table poster in my bedroom and my stacks of chemistry notes. I already know that all living organisms are made of organic molecules. “It’s the hardest class I ever took,” Mom says. “But you can’t learn about the body without knowing what it’s made of.”
We look back at the boy whose liver is on the wrong side. Mom wonders if his discombobulated organs had something to do with why he died so young. I wonder what could be learned by peering into my own body. I want to figure out what I am made of.
I am a freshman in college sitting in a lecture hall with a hundred other general chemistry students. I have learned how to use the periodic table to figure out how many electrons each atom uses to bond. We have moved beyond the two hydrogen atoms. Now we are looking at carbon. Hydrogen can only make one bond, but carbon can make four. We learn to draw the shape of carbon atoms with four single bonds.
“Carbon doesn’t only make single bonds,” the professor explains.
She draws a carbon bonded to two hydrogens and an oxygen. She draws two lines to the oxygen.
“In this molecule, the carbon and oxygen share two electron pairs, making a double bond,” she tells us. “Double bonds are stronger than single bonds and more rigid.”
I write this in my notes.
My family is on vacation in New York City during winter break. I have called a taxi to explore the city on my own for the afternoon. I can’t see the driver’s face, but the radio is playing a talk show in Spanish and I am trying to parse the few words I know. I think I see a rosary hanging around the rearview mirror, just like the one Mom gave me when I first learned to drive. The taxi driver makes small talk. He says he is from Mexico.
“My mother’s family is from Mexico,” I say.
“¿En serio? ¿Pues, hablas español, no?” There is an awkward pause.
“Solo un poco,” I say too slowly. “We didn’t speak it at home growing up, but I’m trying to learn now.”
“Psh, you’re not Mexican,” the driver tells me in English. “You can’t be Mexican without speaking Spanish.”
I laugh, but it feels like the wind has been knocked out of me. I don’t know what else to do besides change the subject. I don’t want to start crying in a city cab, so we talk about the weather.
The lecture hall is one of the biggest on campus because all the biology and chemistry majors are taking organic chemistry—the study of carbon-based molecules. We are finally learning about the molecules that make up our bodies.
Today’s lecture is about proteins. The professor draws a special type of bond between amino acids, the building blocks that make proteins. It’s called a peptide bond. In this first drawing, there is a double bond between the carbon and an oxygen. That same carbon is single-bonded to a nitrogen that has a lone pair of electrons.
“Look closely at the lone pair of electrons on the nitrogen,” the instructor says. “What else can they do?”
I look at the bonds between the carbon and nitrogen, then the carbon and oxygen; I see that there can be movement. The lone pair of electrons on the nitrogen (blue) can form a bond with the carbon. Because carbon can only have four bonds total, that would push one pair of electrons shared between the carbon and oxygen (red)—currently tied up in the double bond with the oxygen—back to being a lone pair on the oxygen alone. You can also draw the structure like this.
I realize that the electrons aren’t just stuck in one bond. Both diagrams describe the exact same molecule, but my peptide bond can be drawn with the electrons in different positions and bonds.
“That’s called resonance,” the instructor says. He starts to draw a special arrow with one head in each direction (purple).
“Both structures are true, but they are not the whole truth,” the instructor explains. “When you draw resonance structures on paper, you are drawing multiple, partial representations of a molecule’s single, three-dimensional form.”
I look back and forth between the two drawings. I don’t understand what it means for a pair of electrons to be bonded in one diagram but a lone pair in the other—and yet still represent the same molecule. Nor do I understand why this is important. My professor has anticipated this thought.
He begins leaping between two spots in front of the class. “The molecule doesn’t jump from one resonance structure to the other,” he says, hopping back and forth, back and forth. “It’s not oscillating between different bonding arrangements. Instead,” he says, scooting to a point between the two spots, “the resonant bond is something uniquely in between.”
He draws the molecule on the board with a new shorthand where dashed lines represent the resonant electrons.
He tells us that this type of resonance is a sweet spot between the rigidity of double bonds and the flexibility of single bonds. Resonance allows our proteins to build the molecular machines that make our bodies work.
At twenty-five, I have finally found the word to tell the five-year-old at the pool. “You are nonbinary, little one,” I soothe the weeping child of my memory. “You are not a boy like your brother, but you are not a girl either. I’m sorry that Mama doesn’t understand.”
Mom will not use my pronouns. She insists I would be so pretty if I just grew my hair out again. My hair was the core of my sense of beauty (my glory, if you will), so it was a relief to shave it all off. She says I will always be her daughter, but she doesn’t yet see that I never was.
But that is mostly okay. Because I am in graduate school now and my life is all about chemistry. I have notebooks filled with line structures that describe colorful liquids in flasks. I now understand that what I write on the page is only a shadow of the microscopic universe contained in every vial. I understand that my notebooks are only one way of knowing my molecules. Mixing them together with heat and vacuum in round-bottomed flasks is another. I am learning to practice different ways of knowing so that I can make the bonds move and break and reform.
I am starting to understand that perhaps I also deserve the same tender consideration I give to the molecules in my flasks. Perhaps I need to practice different ways of knowing myself so that I too can move and break and reform.
During week six of the pandemic, I am watching the birds out my window when Mom tells me my abuelo is dying of cancer. I didn’t know him growing up. He mostly speaks Spanish and now I wish that I had paid more attention at Mass. Lito does not like to talk much, but he likes it when I sing. I learn mariachi songs and serenade him over FaceTime. He tells me bits and pieces of his childhood memories from Mexico, but he does not like to dwell on the past. He came to the US as a teenager and never looked back. Lito lets me practice my Spanish and never interrupts. I try to speak Spanish to my mother on the phone too, but she always responds in English.
But that is mostly okay. My mother has made her own choices about her language. I am also free to make mine: I choose to practice with my Lito in his native tongue, even if I can only manage broken phrases for now. If I keep practicing, maybe I can learn to reform them into something new.
I don’t remember when the pandemic started anymore, but I am twenty-eight and the census has come in the mail. I may choose one sex. And though I can now check a box for Mexican American, I still don’t know how to fill out the section for race.
I am a white woman, I start to write.
That’s not quite right. I am half white woman.
That’s not quite right either. Was I ever a white woman?
I feel like I am sitting at that tiny desk taking a test to decide my future. I think back to the art exhibit from high school: I am half man and half woman. I am half white and half brown. But I cannot figure out how to divide myself up so that I can hold myself to account.
Maybe I will put all of my memories from my childhood and adolescence with my bones and cartilage in one pile. My fresh skin cells and newly acquired fat and the personality I developed in college will go in another. Maybe those bins will have equal weight.
Maybe I should go back further to my first cells. My ectoderm—skin and nerves, nails and hair—will go in one pile and my endoderm—digestive organs and whatnot—will go in another. The structures of my mesoderm can be divided till the two lie even on the scales.
Or maybe I am simply cut down the middle—a single slice that bisects my right side from the left with the precision of a diamond blade. I will be like the corpses in the Body Worlds exhibit, and strangers will peer at my insides and know something about who I am from my flesh.
But now I have spiraled. Though soothed by the measuring, I cannot bear to be cut apart any further.
Though soothed by the measuring, I cannot bear to be cut apart any further.
I focus on what I am. I am a highly organized solution of water and biomolecules. I focus on the proteins that make up my muscles as I try to relax the tension in my chest that threatens to erupt into tears. I focus on the peptide bonds. I count atoms like sheep as I try to settle back into my fractured body.
I imagine the proteins that are powering the pumping of my heart, the expansion of my ribs. A strand of amino acids joined by peptide bonds—like pearls on a string—floats in front of me. It flexes and sways in the invisible current of my body’s water. I watch the strand fold itself into a hemoglobin protein that carries oxygen from the air to all the cells in my body.
The bonds do not jump from one form to the other, just like I am not boy then girl, white then brown. They are not oscillating between two states like I might try to draw them—confined to graphite and paper—like this form in the mail would have me dissected in a database. When I really take a moment to see these bonds for what they are—a union of atoms in three dimensions—I also witness my sense of self, split between mixed identities, scooch to a sweet spot in the center that is a space all its own. And with that, I finally feel my consciousness settling back into my exhausted form. Everything is okay.
I am not half of anything. I am not back and forth, one thing to the other. I am only me, a single whole with multiple truths. I am resonant.