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How to seduce a man with an autoclave

From the LabLit short story series

Julia Richards 15 June 2011

I quickly discovered the secret to grad school romance: alcohol

Camille was all about subtlety when it came to attracting the opposite sex.

“You can eat seductively in his presence,” she would say. “Food can be very erotic. But don’t deep-throat a popsicle or anything like that.”

Camille was one of the most interesting people I had ever met, a mix of cultures and influences that made her fit in at all times with all people. Born in New York City to a mother from Barbados and a father from India, she was raised in a small town in Ottawa where she was the only brown child on the synchronized swimming team. She moved to Michigan for college where her innocent Canadian enthusiasm mystified African-American girls her age. Following graduation, she did her masters in New Orleans and living in the grit and poverty of the city turned her to American cynicism. After that, she naturally moved to the East Coast, where we met in Philadelphia as I was starting graduate school.

Her experience with the opposite sex was a mixed bag as well, which meant she could relate to almost everyone about their experiences. As a teenager, her mother had forbidden her from dating and even hanging out with the “popular” girls, but once she hit college, her first boyfriend was a University of Michigan football player. They broke up because she wasn’t ready to get married so young. She had somewhat too good a time in college throwing luau parties involving 30 pounds of sand from Home Depot, and her grades naturally suffered. Giving up her dream of medical school but still ambitious, she got her masters in Public Health. She quit when she received her Level 3 Biohazard suit, feeling she had obtained the highest achievement she could in the field. So she ended up eventually in Philly retaking classes and determined to apply to med school again.

I came to the city after realizing I didn’t want to find a real job, instead applying to graduate schools my senior year of college. I chose the chemistry department at the University of Pennsylvania. Two months before I was set to move, I flew up to find a place to live. Completely clueless and terrified of social interaction in general, I had merely picked a few roommate-wanted ads from the university housing website, figuring that living with people would give me some instant friends or acquaintances in a new city.

I met Camille as she and another roommate showed me their house. I liked her and the place and decided it was where I would live. It was an old row home built in the 1920s that hadn’t seen any renovation since the 1970s. During the year I lived there, the furnace died on the first cold day and the plumbing broke twice, leaving us to borrow buckets of water from the fashionable gay couple next door. Mice and roaches invaded the living room during the summer, becoming increasingly bold as the season wore on. There was only one bathroom for four girls, but since one of them was a physics grad student and one a math grad student and I, a chemist, it worked out fine.

Camille and I got along the best out of everyone and became lifelong friends. She was the perfect friend for someone as sheltered as myself because she had once been that way too. I had never had a boyfriend, and not really even wanted one, as I was an introvert who would prefer to read a book than talk to a human being. However, I had also watched a lot of television, which taught me about “normal” human behavior. I felt in order to fit in with “normal” people that I needed to have some wacky romantic adventures like the kind sitcom characters have all the time. Some people despise conformity, but I saw it as an achievement.

Camille had tons of practical advice for attracting the opposite sex. For example, she knew the particular flick of the eyes that would tell the guy you liked to pounce on you when you were sitting on a couch next to him.

“Subtlety,” she would say, “is key.”

And she knew directly from experience. She was currently dating Jerome, a guy she had met during her masters. She had been a technician and he had just started at the lab, a big muscular guy with flirty eyes. Her boss, a professor with a perceptive sense of humor, knew Jerome was exactly her type and assigned her to train the new guy.

“And I would do all these little things, which would seem unintentional,“ she explained. The first time she was showing him how to count cells in culture. As he was sitting at the microscope, she leaned toward him, explaining the hemocytometer, and let her long black hair brush against his shoulder. Later, when they actually were dating, he told her that was the first time he really noticed her. Another time, she was showing him how to use the autoclave. It was an older one, the kind where you turn a huge wheel to seal the metal door.

“I was really fit at the time,” Camille said, “and I was wearing a tank top. So as I turned the wheel, I kind of did it slowly so he could see my muscles.”

I tried to picture the incident: sterilizing biohazardous waste and seducing a man with her toned arms.

“And it worked?” I had to confirm.

“Yeah,” she said, “Later when we were dating, Jerome mentioned all these other little things that had caught his eye. And I was like, yeah, I did that on purpose.”

“Wow,” I thought, “men are idiots.” I credit her influence with the fact that within a few weeks of moving to Philly, I met and went on a date with an actual guy.

Dave was a 4th year organic chemist who often sat in his group’s break room, trying to recover from a failed experiment or something. I would casually walk by on Friday afternoons and even managed enough awkward flirting (in this case, flirting being a synonym for talking) for him to ask for my number. He called me up and asked me to go on a walk, which I assumed was the type of date you asked someone on when you weren’t sure you liked them enough to spend money on coffee. Still, it was a date and I was in no position to be picky, I thought.

And I actually had a pretty good time. We walked through the park, sat on a bench and talked for four hours. He was pretty cute, blond and wiry with thick black-frame glasses. But when we headed back to my place, he walked me, not to my door, but to the corner of the street that I lived on, shook my hand, and bolted like a rabbit. I would have assumed he wasn’t interested, but he cornered me at my lab the next day saying that he came by just to say what a good time he had. Then I never heard from him again. I began to get an inkling of the pitfalls of dating nerds.

Fortunately, I quickly discovered the secret to grad school romance: alcohol. After a drunken night at pub quiz, I made the wise decision of making out with another student who worked in my lab. I had a massive crush on him for months, mostly attracted by his intellect. He seemed to know everything about all fields of chemistry from the Mitsunobu coupling reaction mechanism to Hoogsteen base pairing. After our drunken hook-up, we had three days of bliss until he asked to speak to me in the smallest of our lab’s four rooms. There, between the fume hood and rotovap, he said he “felt too weird about stuff” and managed to break up with me using the vaguest language possible. Anyone else might have wondered what he was talking about, but my social awkwardness was instantly in sync with his social awkwardness. I felt simultaneously devastated about being dumped, and elated that I was having those life experiences everyone else had gotten as a teenager.

“So this is what it’s like,” I thought.

As short as it was, it was my first real relationship. And it was the beginning of a long line of scientists I would date. What followed in the next six years of grad school was a string of heartbreaks, covert sex in the x-ray diffractometer facility, picking up men at the chemical genomics symposium, using the metric system as a flirting tool, drunken departmental Christmas parties, and much, much more.

I never tried the autoclave thing, though.