The Award - Toby Tucker Hecht

            Several minutes before opening her eyes, Nora was aware of being awake on a hotel bed, with its cloud-like duvet and downy pillows. She felt a wave of anticipation wash over her. It was the morning of the prize, a lifetime achievement award for a powerful and sustained influence on her field of research, and she wanted to savor every last minute.
            There was much to do. Her lecture in the early afternoon session of the symposium was prepared and rehearsed but this morning she was going to have her hair done and have a professional apply her make-up. She didn’t own any of the products young people put on their faces these days. For most of her life, she had worn only coral lipstick and had pulled back her hair in a knot at her nape. The photographer, a lovely woman who visited her at the university to get some preliminary candid shots in the lab, suggested she “do herself up” for the occasion of her award. Nora had not given it much thought at first, but then, after studying her seventy-four-year-old self in the mirror, decided, why not, and booked a day spa appointment in the hotel.
            The society sponsoring the award, the symposium, and the dinner gala was paying for everything, including the sumptuous breakfast which had just been brought into her room. Her usual breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and herbal tea was there, but in addition there were eggs, buttered toast, cranberry scones, jam, and slices of cheese. It was more than enough for a full day’s feeding. She didn’t want to be weighted down on this most significant day of her career but also didn’t want to ignore all this glorious food, so she tasted a tiny bit of everything on the tray.
            The salon’s hair stylist appraised Nora from several angles and suggested putting highlights in her hair and then fashioning an updo. Nora had no idea what she was talking about but asked if it would look appropriate for an elderly molecular biologist getting an award. The woman laughed and said, “You’ll look elegant.” Nora was happy she didn’t say younger or less dowdy. Elegant sold her.
            “I’m game,” she said.
            Two hours later, she emerged as sophisticated as she’d ever looked. The stylist had a light touch with make-up, and Nora felt like a pampered woman of the world. Back in her room, she dressed in her burgundy suit and pearls and headed down to the ballroom where the lecture would take place.
            Upon exiting the elevator, Nora ran into two of her former post-doctoral fellows who had grown in the field and established eminent laboratories of their own. She was thankful she could recall their names and something about the work they were doing. They gave her a hug and congratulated her on the award. Mentoring students into scientists had been one of the most satisfying and enjoyable parts of her long profession. Of course, not all of the individuals who passed through her lab were of the highest caliber. She had made some mistakes over the years, and mostly they had left before finishing. She did not imagine these people would be at the lecture today. She remembered one person in particular, a young woman, rather arrogant, who she suspected, with some evidence, might have doctored the results of an experiment. When Nora asked to see her lab notebook, she threw it across the room and stomped out, never to return. As it turned out, it was impossible to assess whether the woman was guilty or not, and Nora often worried over the years whether her suspicions short-circuited a career that might have been promising. But now she needed to stop thinking about such incidents and concentrate on enjoying herself.
            The ballroom was filled. Looking out at the audience, she saw one of her contemporaries, Richard, a man she had known almost forty years before, a scientist who’d had a lab down the hall from hers. He had a brilliant mind and was a kind and generous colleague. She had been deeply in love with him, but he never gave even the smallest sign he felt anything in return. That unrequited longing, painful and destructive, had ruled her early days in the lab as a university assistant professor. She slowly inured herself to that kind of injury and vowed not to let romantic emotions interfere ever again with the work she was destined to do.
            And yet she was surprised Richard had come to the award lecture even though he did live and work in this city. They had not kept in touch. Nonetheless, she’d followed his research in publications over the years and knew he was a great success, not as impactful, perhaps, as she had been, but still in high regard. Looking at him halfway back in the auditorium, she remembered how smitten she’d been and saw he still had the magnetism she’d felt then. He’d married a woman outside of research, a publicist, and had three daughters, grown with kids of their own. He’d crafted a full life for himself, at least that’s what was implied on Google.
            Absorbed in nostalgic memories, Nora missed hearing the beginning of the introduction to her lecture but abruptly became aware things were being said about her that she could hardly recognize. There were her accomplishments, of course, and other awards she’d won over the years, but the generous special attributes mentioned seemed to be descriptions of another person: her extreme dedication to the field and to others, selflessness, personal sacrifices, and inspiring energy. She wondered what personal sacrifices the introducer was talking about. She had gone about her work; what did others know about what she gave up in order to do that?
            She walked slowly to the podium and put on her glasses. The first slide appeared on the screen. Several members of the audience snapped pictures with their cell phones. She understood the photos were of the slides and not her. That was common these days. In the past, photos during lectures were not permitted. She wondered why this had changed. So many things in life moved ahead at lightning speed ‒ things added for no discernable reason or discarded as though they never existed ‒ she couldn’t keep up. She began to speak, and as she described the overall goals of her life’s work and presented data both published and new that verified those goals, she became transported back to a different time ‒ a time when she had to prove herself as a young woman worthy of respect in the field. There were no female mentors at the institution where she earned her Ph.D. The man with whom she did her studies put more pressure on her than the other graduate students in the lab, and he told her that was to see if she had the mettle to stick it out. He was afraid of investing time and resources in her, only to have her get married, have children, and drop out. He expected her to work around the clock ‒ nights and weekends ‒ and write papers non-stop for high-impact journals. And she did exactly that.
            Nora was halfway through her lecture. She’d lived with the data and analyses for so long that the talk was on autopilot. But she was coming to a part that required more concentration. She willed herself to stop thinking of the past and zoom in on the exciting bits of the story she needed to tell her audience. She could feel energy surging through her body. The story had many intricate elements that at first seemed disparate, but in the end clicked together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. She saw the audience was engrossed in her words. No one was checking their email or whispering to each other. She was now close to the end and wanted to draw out the denouement. This moment would never happen again; a lifetime award is given at the end of a career, not when the scientific community thinks additional breakthroughs are forthcoming. In fact, she knew she was aging out of the field ‒ so many new technologies had been developed that the young people were already experts in ‒ and recently the chair of her department asked her about her possible retirement. She was on the last slide, which gave credit to all the collaborators she’d had over the years, many of them in this auditorium. With her final words and the thunderous applause from the audience, some people standing and cheering, a bubble of joy burst in her chest. She understood that all the choices she’d made, doors she’d opened and others she’d left shut, were worth it.
            The award itself was a crystal sculpture of the double-stranded DNA molecule. After a photographer took several pictures of her holding the award, she left it on her chair and went down into the audience to greet her colleagues. She scanned the ballroom, but Richard had already left. Although it was foolish, she wanted him to see her now that she’d made an effort with her appearance. Perhaps he would be at the dinner that night. It was something to look forward to.
            Current and former students and post-docs crowded around her with congratulations. One woman showed her pictures of her son, born during the first year at her position as an assistant professor. Having a child, apparently, did not dampen the institution’s enthusiasm for granting tenure, as this woman had recently been promoted to an associate professorship. In Nora’s days, once a woman was pregnant or even married, she was asked to resign. There was no tolerance for that kind of thing and certainly no maternity leave. Men in the same positions were encouraged to marry and have kids; it would keep them hard at work and tamp down their social lives. Today, it appeared, you could have it all. Nora wasn’t sure that was the best for research. No one could really have it all.
            Once the crowd had dispersed, Nora was aware of a man standing in the first row of seats. As he came forward, Nora thought she recognized him: Darren Davis, a pharmacologist she’d known when she was in her early thirties. He’d been single and had asked her out many times. Finally, she decided to say yes. She was lonely and wanted to have a physical relationship, something she’d never had. Darren was easygoing and they had many things in common. She was naïve enough to think it would be simple ‒ just sex, with no fuss or commitment. But it was a disaster. After months of dating and brisk activity in bed, it became obvious he was looking for a wife, one whom she suspected would support his career and follow him wherever it took him. She cut him off with a single blow.
            “Congratulations,” he said, smiling. “I loved your presentation ‒ clear and compelling. The award is richly deserved.”
            “I’m glad you came, Darren. I hope you are well and enjoying life.” She’d expected him to say something more, something personal after all these years, but he didn’t. He stood there blinking and looking confused about what she said, but then turned and walked away. Perhaps he wasn’t well, and it was something she should have known.
            Who invited all these people from her past? She had not seen the list and had not asked to see it. She assumed the hall would be filled with scientists in her field as well as graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and members of the society. Someone must have gone through her computer contacts, but even so, some of these attendees were in her life before the advent of email and the modern computer. She wondered whether they were also invited to the dinner and were asked to speak about her, to parody her life, adding humor to what might be a dull, humorless reception. There were many embarrassments over the years ‒ awkward things she said and did ‒ starting in high school and continuing throughout her career. Would all the characters in these dramas rise up to confront her on the happiest day of her life? She knew she was starting to think dark thoughts, and the touch of paranoia so many scientists work hard to fight off was showing its colors today. Nora needed to get out of the hotel and walk in the fresh air. She retrieved her award and brought it to the front desk.
            “Please keep this for me for now,” she said. “I am going out for a while, and I’ll pick it up later.”
            “Room, please?”
            The receptionist grabbed the award as though it were a trinket from a souvenir shop, plunked it on a table behind the desk, and continued taking reservations over the phone.
            Nora stepped out the front door and walked down the street. It was a warm, fall afternoon. Suddenly, she wished she had someone to walk with. It would be good to see and speak with Richard again or even one of her former students. But she was alone and thought about how she would spend the hours until the reception. She didn’t know the city well and was afraid of getting lost. Shops lined both sides of the street but there was nothing essential to buy for herself, and no gifts were needed for anyone else. She hardly knew anyone well enough to do that anyway. After a half a mile, she became tired and considered taking a taxi back to the hotel. But then, she saw a café and decided to enter and have something to drink. She took a seat and scanned the menu. The café had an extensive wine list, and Nora thought, why not have a celebratory glass of Cotes du Rhone? She rarely indulged in alcohol, but this was such a special occasion, and she was feeling a bit down about something she couldn’t put her finger on.
            The wine was excellent, and, after one glass, she ordered another. She hadn’t realized how hungry she was until now but didn’t want to fill up because of the dinner in a few hours, so she also ordered a small salad. As she sat sipping her wine with nothing to read, watching young couples flit in and out of the café, her thoughts drifted to the past. Should she have been more forthright with Richard back when she had feelings for him? Should she have been more tender to Darren, a sweet man who didn’t deserve the abruptness and cruelty of her rejection? She should have been more caring about all the men who wafted in and out of her life. Her behavior in support of her career ambitions was not at all exemplary. It left her a lonely old woman. Dried up. Unlovable. She received an award for her work, but her life was in shambles.
            She paid her bill and began the trek back to the hotel. There was time for a nap before the evening festivities. She’d need to be careful about her hair. If it came down, she wouldn’t know how to fix it. She was a little woozy from the wine, and her shoes were pinching her feet, making it hard to walk. That’s all she’d need, twisting her ankle stepping down from a curb. There were times when she’d predicted events that were about to happen, a clairvoyance, like the time her keys fell through a crack between a train and the platform; she saw it in her mind’s eye several seconds before it actually occurred, but was helpless to prevent it. Now she felt that strange foretelling again, the sprained foot, the bruise and swelling, and the pain. She needed to be vigilant, to watch for cracks in the sidewalk, to be cautious crossing the street.
            Two blocks from the hotel, the walk sign flashed, and as she stepped into the street, carefully avoiding a muddy puddle, a delivery cyclist zoomed directly into her path. She looked up, and right before his front wheel grazed her left leg, sending her sprawling into the gutter, she saw a young man with anger on his face and hard luck entrenched in his soul. He didn’t stop to apologize or to help her, but instead screamed as he swerved to right his bike, “Stupid hag. Someone should put you in an old age home. Worthless, drunken bitch.”
            A young woman passing by extended her hand to Nora. “Are you okay?” she asked. Nora nodded and allowed the woman to help her up. Her suit was soaked and dirty, and her stockings were ripped. She limped back to the hotel, took off her wet clothing, and stared in the mirror. Her beautifully coifed hair was a mess. She pulled out the pins, let it all down, and got into the shower. She scrubbed the blush, eyeliner, and lipstick off her face. It was ridiculous to think she could look glamorous at her age. A stupid hag. That’s what he called her, and was he that far off?
            She crawled under the covers. There were several hours left before the dinner. She wondered if it was possible to make an excuse (was getting run over and landing in the gutter good enough?) and skip the event. She knew there would be speeches, and although she was the guest of honor, she wasn’t expected to say anything. What difference did it make to anyone at the gala whether she was sitting on the dais or lying in the hotel bed? She wished she had brought someone with her to the symposium, but who would that have been? She had no siblings, and it had been years since she spoke with her first cousins on her mother’s side. As far as friends went, there was no one close enough to invite.
            She had a deep yearning to talk to Richard. He came to her talk, so he must have thought about her over the years. Perhaps he was back in his lab. She could find out the phone number and call. Just to hear his voice would calm her and help erase the nasty words screamed by the delivery man.
            She grabbed her cell phone, did a search, and was able to get the number of the department in which he worked. It was almost five o’clock, and perhaps the offices were already closed for the day. Without preparing what she would say if he were there, she dialed. The department secretary picked up; Nora gave her name and asked to speak to Dr. Richard Lowitt.
            “Hold, please.”
            When he answered, his voice was friendly, but it was clear he didn’t quite understand the person who directed the call to him because he asked, “Who is this?”
            “It’s Nora, Nora Edwards.”
            “My goodness! It’s been decades. How are you?”
            “Just fine.”
            “To what do I owe this honor?”
            “I just wanted to thank you for attending my presentation and award ceremony.”
            Nora held the phone. When she heard nothing, she thought the call had dropped. She said hello several times, and finally Richard said, “Was that meant to be sarcastic?”
            “What do you mean? I was glad to see you in the audience. That’s all.”
            “I wasn’t there,” he said. “You must have thought someone else was me.”
            “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.”
            “No problem.” The phone clicked, he was gone.
            Nora sat on the bed breathing hard, willing herself not to cry. Richard was no longer the person she remembered so fondly. Or had she completely misjudged him years ago, seeing only what she wanted to see? Either way, she mourned the destruction of her long-held, treasured image of him. She opened the closet and stared at the navy silk dress she brought to wear for the dinner. It would be a torment to sit for hours listening to speeches and eating lukewarm food, smiling all the while, thinking about all the humiliating things that occurred on what should have been the happiest day of her life. What she really wanted to do was to get on a plane, go back to her lab, pore over data, and do analyses. None of these other trappings ‒ including celebrations with no real purpose ‒ made her happy. Only discovery ‒ making observations, asking questions, and figuring out the answer ‒ provided her with joy. And even then, what she accomplished would mean nothing if its importance didn’t stand up over time.
            Nora placed her suitcase on the bed and packed her belongings in a few minutes. She found the phone number of the person in charge of the dinner and dialed.
            “It’s Dr. Edwards,” she said when the woman answered. “I had an accident this afternoon. I was hit by a moving vehicle a few blocks from the hotel. I think I’ll be okay, but I was rattled by what happened, and I need to get home to have my doctor check me out. I won’t be able to attend tonight. I’m so sorry. Please send my regrets to everyone who asks where I am.” Nora held the phone for a few minutes while the woman went on talking about getting someone in to see her now.
            “No, please don’t bother. I’ll be all right. Thanks for your concern.”
            The taxi pulled up minutes after Nora arrived downstairs with her luggage. The evening was in its bloom with magenta skies filling the city, and the streetlights shimmered. She worried she might not be able to change her airline reservation, although there was an hourly shuttle which should have a seat or two vacant on one of the late flights. By the time she arrived at home, it would be late, but it was better to sleep in one’s own bed and get an early start at work in the morning. She gave instructions to the cab driver, sat back, closed her eyes, and relaxed. But the cab driver was talkative. He was from an Eastern European country and wanted to practice his English. He asked about the hotel, what she was doing in the city, and where she was going. She rarely spoke to strangers, but for some reason she indulged him in a conversation, a made-up story of all the exciting things she’d done in the town. It was the first chat she’d had in a long time about something outside of science or her career. It was playacting, simply to appear normal.
            “There’s so much more to do here,” he said. “You should come back and visit the museums.” He gave her his card and said if she returned, she should call him, and he would pick her up at the airport. “Such a nice customer,” he said.
            As they took the exit, Nora noticed a helical sculpture at the approach to the airport; it reminded her that she’d left her award at the hotel desk. She considered asking the driver to turn around and take her back. She could instead call the society and ask that they retrieve it and mail it to her. Or, she could go on with her life, as she had done for decades, and do neither of those things.

Toby Tucker Hecht is a writer and scientist who lives and works in Bethesda, Maryland. At least thirty of her stories have been published either in print or in online literary journals. A native New Yorker with a rather traditional life, she writes fiction to explore more exciting lives than her own. She is now working on a collection of short stories, and a series of linked short stories. When not writing, she can be found at the National Cancer Institute where she works to turn molecules into medicines for the benefit of cancer patients.