“SEX,” the sign read in bold, bright letters. It was written in marker, like the kind you see on telephone poles advertising yard sales. Except, this one wasn’t advertising a yard sale; in fact, it wasn’t advertising anything–just trying to attract attention.
My lab partner, Maria, and I were in the mess hall of a 4H Club in the middle of the north Georgia woods, presenting our research on salamanders; and no one was interested in it. Our poster was situated on the side of the room, alongside about 20 others, all vying for the eyes and ears of the Southeast’s leading herpetologists. Years before, when I was deadset on becoming the next Tim McGraw, I’d never imagined this would be my life. I would’ve been terrified of anything involving the prefix herpe-, as well as the people who threw it around casually in conversation. “I’m going herping this weekend.” “Do you herp?” “Yeah, I herp.”
Yet, this was my life now–because I’d told myself I was going to dental school, and someone had told me that dental schools love to see research. What they failed to mention, though, was that no one would else would love to see my research. Which was becoming more obvious by the minute, and why I’d decided to resort to a drastic measure and write SEX in big, red letters on a piece of paper, taping a few inches above our poster.
“Maybe now people will want to hear what we have to say,” I said to Maria.
Minutes later, a professor from a nearby university walked over and laughed. “Trying to get people’s attention, huh?” He looked at our poster for a second and I began explaining it to him. He nodded, half listening, before thanking me and continuing around the room.
This happened a few more times before, frustrated, Maria and I abandoned our poster and posted up, instead, alongside the chips and guacamole. There, we watched as the rest of the presenters continued their work, occasionally dipping out to get more beer from the keg in the creek behind the mess hall.
This had been my first impression of a herpetology conference. When I checked in the night before, the front desk lady handed me a nametag and a Solo cup and said flatly, “There’s booze and boxed wine in the kitchen. And if you want beer, there’s a keg in the stream behind the mess hall. You only get one of those,” she pointed at the cup in my hand, “so don’t lose it. And if you do, don’t come asking me for another. I won’t have one.”
Apparently she said the same thing to Maria, and we half judged, half marveled at what we’d gotten ourselves into. This was not a conference by any definition I’d known. Say the word “conference” and I think Holiday Inn Expresses and rental cars from Avis. People wear suits to conferences, or at least khakis and polos; and they brag about things like the continental breakfast, or trunk space.
But here in the north Georgia woods, it was like we stumbled on a party of horny park rangers. Everyone was wearing some combination of Patagonia, North Face and Mountain Hardware, and they proudly rocked headlamps like they were crowns to their crunchiness. People way-too-enthusiastically overturned rocks and logs, hoping to find some kind of salamander beneath them, and when they did, everything stopped and researchers sprinted over to make an identification.
“Who the hell are these people?” I said to Maria, as we stood in the kitchen on the first night, filling our cups with red wine.
She didn’t know, and neither did I. But it was kind of perfect for that reason–like we’d stumbled upon some kind of Carollian wonderland, or Swiftian island, where the natives were some long-forgotten species of human that still got high on drinking too much Pepsi and staying up past midnight.
Taking our first sips of wine, I felt something foreign and odd: excitement. Since the breakup with my girlfriend, Karen, two weeks prior, nothing had been exciting. Nothing had even been interesting, just grey and methodical. So I was a bit confused by the small glimmer of hope I was feeling now.
I said something to Maria and she laughed. I said a few more things, and she laughed again. And then it hit me:
Holy shit, you have a crush on her.
I was stunned by the thought. Maria and I had worked closely together all summer, but never once had anything passed between us except friendship. There was no flirting, no thoughts of, “I wonder what it’d be like with her,” nothing. We were just lab partners, bound together by small amphibians you find under rocks and logs.
But something had changed now that I was single. As we spoke, as I watched her speak to other guys at the conference, I felt a mixture of spark and jealousy. She’s mine, I heard myself saying as the weekend stretched on. She’s off limits.
It all begins to swirl following our research presentation, the countless tortilla chips and guac, and trips to the keg in the stream. There was a game of Apples to Apples. There was a campfire and huddling by it for warmth. There was a raucous game of Slap the Bag, in which you hurl insults at a bag of wine, slap it, then proceed to chug from it. (Who knows why?) Then everything gets calm and it’s just me and her. We’re drunk and I lean in to kiss her and she says, “No. What about Karen?” I tell her that Karen broke up with me and she says, “Oh, I’m sorry.” We get up and walk around the campsite some more, breaking into the first aid station to get…something. Maybe a band-aid. I don’t remember.
Some time later, I lean in to kiss her again, and this time she kisses me back. We make out for a while, before she invites me back to her bunk, where a bunch of people are already sleeping. “I don’t think so,” I say, imagining how much trouble we’d get into, but also feeling a cringe of remorse. It’d been a lonely past few weeks; it would have been nice to just sleep next to someone again. But I couldn’t. We couldn’t. We had graduate school to think about. What if we got kicked out of the research program? Or school? It was just too risky
So I kissed her goodnight, and walked back to my bunk. Alone.
When I woke up the next morning, it was as if the whole world had changed. First of all, I woke up without a hangover, which, thanks to the liver I inherited from my mom, never happens. Secondly, I felt like a reset button had been pushed on my life. The pain I’d felt from my breakup had diminished from something like a migraine, to something like a tension headache. It still affected my day-to-day, but didn’t leave me completely useless.
There was also the excitement. I’d drunkenly made out with my lab partner. At a herpetology conference. In the middle of the north Georgia woods. It was like someone had written a party scene out of an American Pie movie, except about science dorks who were trying to get into grad school. I was a new man, a phoenix coming out of the ashes. Maybe I do still have it, I thought. If Maria made out with me, I must be doing something right. I’m not a shell of a person. All’s not lost.
When I saw her that morning, things were awkward for a second, but then they weren’t. It was as if nothing happened, and I wondered if she just didn’t remember anything, or if she was just choosing to ignore it. Whatever the reason, I didn’t mind, and I didn’t bring it up. The crush I’d felt the past two days had strangely dissipated, and the charge in the air now made me think of Kate Chopin.
So the storm passed and everyone was happy.
Maybe even me.
One of the most deceiving things about getaways like this is the thought that you can bring it home with you. That you can bottle up the energy, the connections you had with people, the spark, and carry it with you like an amulet, protecting you from the darkness that awaits.
This is how I felt riding in the back of our van on the way home to Nashville–invincible. I don’t need Karen, I thought. It’s clear other women like me. So why not just focus on them? I’ve got at least, what? Eight options?
It’s embarrassing to admit it, but this number was real, and came from the running tally of classmates and coworkers I’d perceived to be flirting with me while I was dating Karen. Just in case things don’t work out, I told myself.
But like the lack of interest over my research, even with the SEX sign shouting from above it, there was absolutely no interest from these girls when I returned. (Not that there was really any to begin with.) I texted all eight of them, just seeing what was up and if they wanted to hang out, and not a single one of them responded. I couldn’t believe the reversal of my fortune. For 24 hours, I felt like the blood in the water that attracts sharks from across the sea; and now, back in Nashville, I’d become whatever substance might repel sharks from across the sea.
What’s going on? I began thinking.
I’d look down at my phone, checking to see if maybe someone had finally responded. But still nothing.
Maybe I was wrong about them. Maybe I was wrong about me. Maybe I don’t have it, after all. But what about Maria? What about Georgia? WHAT ABOUT EVERYTHING THAT JUST HAPPENED? She made out with me. I must have something. Right?
And that’s when I heard it for the first time: the thought.
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