When we go to court, I agree to tell the truth. I tell them when we met, a cubic metre of helium cost one dollar and seventy-five cents. I wore a new skirt that crept up when I walked from my desk to the lab and I spent the day pushing it back over my knees. I dragged a nauseating feeling I shouldn’t be there, like still being half-drunk as the sun rises.
Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. That’s what my PhD was in. And his. We measured magnetic fields around atomic nuclei, compounds contracting invisible lines with exclusive gravities. We were scientists. We believed our tissues were the same, that atoms from our hearts would resonate.
Laboratories account for ten percent of helium use. Superconducting magnets need liquid helium to keep them super cold. Four point two Kelvin. It sounds bearable when you measure it like that. But in celsius, it’s nearly three hundred degrees below zero.
I was planning our wedding when the first shortage came. I didn’t mourn the loss of the balloon arch. Our supervisor needed to move the magnet, but the groom-to-be got to finish his thesis first. I could finish mine after. There was no helium to waste so the magnet was transported at cryogenic temperatures. We got married. I could finish my thesis soon. I peed on a stick. The magnet broke in transit. The stick showed a plus. For once, I couldn’t do the maths.
Helium comes from decaying radioactive substances. It’s very light. Released, it goes up and up and up into space. Gone. Like no other material on earth, it cannot come back. I drove around all day looking for balloons for her fifth birthday. I don’t recall where he was. Not there.
The judge is a man. I explain I wanted to be doing experiments, not scrambling to keep the instruments alive. The government hoarded the stocks then flooded the market. New helium is only found in natural gas wells but fracking is more lucrative. In the shale formations, where rocks split into thin layers under pressure, you only find oil, molasses-thick. It has a rainbow shine that disappears every time you try to get closer. I never finished my PhD. I raised a daughter.
Helium Shortage 3.0 was all politics. Russia, Qatar, Tanzania. That’s where helium will come from in the future. No one trusted the supply. A cubic metre of helium cost seven US dollars. But she was too old for balloons by then and I developed an instrument with improved insulation and integrated cold heads to recondense the helium, recycle it. A new machine that didn’t need replenishing. It made money. He wants his share.
The judge looks bored but not the kind of bored where you could joke about it. He doesn’t understand. Not the cost of absence from a market, not how things break when you move them in their incorrect state. Not the cost of helium in divorce proceedings. He thinks coming up with an idea while ironing pleats in a school skirt is because of the opportunity to iron, not despite it. He rules. The injustice sits like lead on my lungs. I cannot breathe.
I’m a scientist. I know lead. Have felt it. Always. When I was twenty-one and pushed my skirt back over my knees. When I watched our daughter roll hers up and take photos in the mirror.
Lead. Galvanised and cold. But it’s so malleable I thought I was making shallows with the smallest of pressures. And maybe I did. But it’s also dense and hard and immoveable in bulk.
Lead. It’s almost a win to know its name.
Because I know it tarnishes upon exposure. I know its isotopes are the end products of radioactive elements. And I know helium comes from radioactive decay.
Helium. Of celebrations and balloons.
Helium. The cost of lightness.
Our daughter will graduate tomorrow. I was feeling sentimental for the things I’d lost so I bought balloons. And I will blow each one up. With nothing but my lungs.
Kinneson Lalor is a mathematician and writer living in the UK. Her work has appeared in places like the BFFA Shortlist, Reflex Fiction, and Cease, Cows, won #1KWHC 2021, has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and is included Best Microfiction 2022. You can find her, her dog, and her chickens on Twitter (@KinnesonLalor), Instagram (@kinneson.lalor), or via http://www.kinnesonlalor.com.