If your mother had known, she’d have brought it up during one of those post-high-school-dance weepfests when you came home inconsolable because no one asked you to boogie.
Had she realized that there was, in her only daughter’s future, a place where men would be attracted to her because of the way her mind worked, and where the kind of looks the girl had would be Good Enough, Mom might have said: “Just hang in there sweetie – someday you’ll be at the Marine Biology Laboratory on Cape Cod. Trust me. At the MBL, everything will change”.
Not that you would have believed her back then. But now, in your third summer as Course Assistant, you’ve learned to trust the reliable magic wrought by the mix of sun, sand, science, and sleep deprivation, plus tequila. The marine lab is the only place you’ve ever been where certain men have an almost visceral response to the beauty of your ideas.
It’s Friday night, time for the venerable and boringly named Friday Night Talk, ending another exhausting week of backing up students as they learn new techniques and compete to impress the most famous course professors. Since your job is to keep them stocked with whatever their projects require, gene constructs to Cheetos, they’ve kept you hopping. At least they found their own pot connection, in Hyannis.
You’re glad to be sitting down, even if the lecture, on squid giant neurons, promises to be dull. But you picked a seat that makes it easy to focus three rows over, on the profile of this month’s Scholar in Residence. Though he doesn’t know it yet, he’ll be sneaking through the dark with you before the week’s over. You know a pattern when you see one. Particularly when it’s your own.
Post-talk, everyone will head for the wine-and-cheese reception, where you will grab a bottle and pour him a plastic glass of Merlot. He’ll comment on the lecture you just heard, and you’ll respond by mocking the MBL’s cheese plates – Velveeta cubes stabbed with cellophane-frilled toothpicks that look like they were retrieved from an air-raid shelter. You know that if you pick up a toothpick, sight down its length and squint at him through the faded blue cellophane, then ask “Do you think there’s any chance they sift these out of the trash and re-use them every year?“ you’ll evoke a genuine grin. That will spur you to greater efforts, because he’s got those eye crinkles you always fall for, plus the startled-yet-willing deer-in-the-headlights expression. He’ll be surprised anyone is noticing him, yet happy to bask in the attention. You’ve seen it before. God knows what kind of lives these nerds lead at home, but dub them a Scholar in Residence, give them their own housing on the Cape for 10 days in exchange for a few lectures, plus a demonstration of how they make a teeny tiny electrode that is a hair thinner than last summer’s teeny version, encourage them to shmooze in the lab, and then stand back. Every year, these Scholars emerge from their cocoons of convention to find themselves damp and fragile in the daylight. This one has to dry off and warm up before he can fly.
It will be easy to wander into a corner and chat, positioning yourself so he’s facing you with his back to the crowd. Easy to refill your glasses, the better to enjoy the hilarious academic horror story he tells. At the climax you will double over with laughter and lean toward him, touching his arm for a moment and running your own bioassay for heat. In eighty-degree coastal breezes he’ll be radiating like an open hearth. The game will begin. Stimulus, response.
He didn’t know what to expect when he got invited. Three weeks as “Scholar in Residence” at a marine lab – the place a bit of a relic from the days before express mail. Now you can get sea urchins or abalone shipped to you in the middle of the Great Plains, but back in the day, you went to the coast to work on ocean creatures. When he told his Ohio colleagues about the gig, the guys all started grinning the same grin and chortling variations of“Oh jeez – the MBL? The Cape?! It was the best summer of my life!” “The lab, the cafeteria, the housing, the beach – all within 25 yards!” He discounted their enthusiasm. Still, within a few days of arriving he starts to feel an aliveness he hasn’t experienced since he was 16.
He is hyper aware of the course assistant. He notices every pat on the arm, catalogs and reviews every inside joke. She’s not beautiful, but she stays on his mind. He imagines running a toothpick frill down her neck, then reminds himself he is married, allegedly happily. Somehow though, the environment is rendering him defenseless. Though he tells himself it’s dangerous to even fantasize, he begins to recognize that living at the border of sea and shore, mucking around in salt marshes where so much depends on the most minute changes in depth, temperature, or salinity, then fertilizing eggs in the lab and witnessing the inexorable progress of 2 cells, 4, 8 and a few hours later the miracle of a recognizable head-tail axis, has both revitalized his thinking about his own research and in some primal way, juiced him up. He’s feeling like a biological animal with a serious, gut-level evolutionary connection to every tiny tide pool crustacean or one-celled creature writhing on a microscope slide. He hasn’t been this horny since he was a graduate student.
You’ve never believed in destiny, much less that everything happens for a reason – unless
the reason is to give the homo sapiens brain a mini-workout as it strives to create a
retroactive explanation for every twist of fate. You believe in free will and choices. But you’ve
been here before. Once this connection’s been made, there’s never been any turning back.
It will be totally up to you what happens next, because all existing data lead to
two conclusions: (1) This guy’s not going to make it happen, and (2) He won’t stop you from
making it happen. He’s too far out of his element. Wearing shorts! Drinking beer at 4:30 in the
afternoon! Hanging out in the lab and shooting the shit ‘til after midnight! Volleyball!
He hasn’t done stuff like this since college, and probably not much even then.
It is an unexpected juxtaposition of experiences – the suddenness of being both at one with nature and at the peak of his intellectual game. He is different at this place. He’s less jaded now – he feels things. He pictures himself as a García Marquez character, thrilled to have sprouted the wings that allow exploration of new, heretofore-inaccessible realms. He feels more like himself than ever, even if that self is a narcissistic college sophomore.
He wonders whether the course assistant is looking at him a lot, then does the experiment, glancing unpredictably in her direction at random moments, always to be met by her steady hazel gaze. Their vibe feels strong enough to be characterizable by Newtonian physics. He keeps his new power concealed under his Dockers and flowered shirts, like Superman with his tights. Will there be a romantic emergency requiring his intervention? He hauls his mind back to the day’s seminar on marine protozoa.
Nothing has been said. But it’s reconfirmed every time you look toward him only to find his eyes already on you. Not that you are planning. You are merely creating favorable conditions, scientifically speaking. You’ll show the walled garden to the Scholar, later, maybe walk around past the sailboat pond next to the lab, down a side street to a wooden gate concealed in a hedge. Inside, it’s Central Casting, Fairy Tale Division – flower garden, stone bell tower, bronze sundial and a moss-covered log bench. An oasis of calm within a Frisbee toss of the buzzing laboratory buildings.
You steal a half hour alone there during the day to decompress, though sometimes you remember that even as you’re loving being on the Cape, your competition is slaving away productively in landlocked labs. Still, you are nurtured by the coast, the ocean colors, the minutiae of shells, driftwood and sea-polished pebbles, the soaring seabirds. You wish you had been born in the 19th century, when you could have done science simply by collecting organisms, observing and describing them. You have a very sharp eye. But now it’s all molecular mechanisms, and projects are never finished.
Sitting in a lecture about why we react more strongly to novel than to familiar stimuli, he realizes he’s been set up, biologically. No wonder the slightest arm-brush from the TA has him on high alert. After the talk, she materializes beside him. The proposal is innocent enough: a grocery run to restock the lab refrigerator.
On the way home she says, “Let me show you my favorite place”. He feels a frisson and reminds himself it’s 11 AM – he’s perfectly safe. She parks across from a churchyard ringed by dense privet, then leads him through a concealed gate, into a tiny garden.
He sits with her on the bench, looking at the moored sailboats. The quiet and seclusion, after 8 days with constant student stimulation, are intense. He knows she’s showing him this spot for a reason. He pictures himself at 2 AM, looking up from yet another student’s neuron prep, and meeting her eyes. She’ll slip out. Five minutes later he will exit. It will be dark, with fog rising from the pond and the cold fluorescent lights of the lab casting wavery silver bands onto the water’s black surface. He’ll be a goner.
Waiting in the garden you will see the labs, lights in the windows burning late into the night, their reflections glistening in the darkened pond. The rigging of the moored sailboats will ring dully against the masts. You’ll stand by the sundial, making up a joke about whether it also works as a moondial. Unless you’re way off your game, unless you have completely lost your ability to read the signs, he will soon join you. Because you are on the romantic coast, in a romantic place on that coast, in a romantic garden within the romantic place; and because you have the sense that you understand each other deeply, even though it’s only been a few days, with most interactions ostensibly science-focused, the first kiss, the acknowledgment of your already-established intimacy, will be something you will both remember for the rest of your lives.
Since beginning his residency, breathing the lab’s mix of salt air, dead squid, and, he’s certain, a stew of pheromones emanating from the graduate students, he has felt different. Sparklier. Now a choice point looms. Should he query a neutral observer – “Am I nuts to contemplate a fling with the person I’m more attracted to than anyone I’ve met in a decade?” Any response would be biased by the MBL Uncertainty Principle. In physics, one can’t precisely measure an electron’s position, because the very act of measuring affects said position. Regarding affairs, everyone’s answer is warped, either by their experience or lack thereof.
He replays her casual touches, her knowing grin. Will she expect him to have a condom? He is unprepared. He pictures himself slapping a pack of Trojans on the counter of the local drugstore, only to be busted by students who have come in for sunscreen and gum.
1:30 AM. She catches his eye across a sea of electrophysiology apparatus, slings on her backpack, and walks out. Ten minutes later he detaches from an overeager student angling for a postdoctoral position in his lab and follows. He skirts the edge of the pond, walks down the side street, stops at the gate, hand on the latch. He turns, and goes on.
—Sally G. Hoskins is a recently-retired biology professor, formerly at City College of the City University of New York, where she developed the CREATE science education project. CREATE aims to transform the teaching and learning of science through close analysis of published research papers. Hoskins’s essays have appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Visible Ink, Read650 and Science magazine, as well as in scientific journals mainly read by fellow academics similarly obsessed with neuronal specificity and/or ways to measure students’ critical thinking ability.