Wiping sweaty palms onto my jeans and taking a big breath to quiet the thunderous heart in my chest, I opened the door to meet him. It was an arranged marriage of sorts, like all relationships between Ph.D. advisors and graduate students. I even came with a dowry – a fellowship that would cover my stipend. Unbeknownst to either of us, it was perhaps the world’s worst pairing. In one corner, a highly conservative, right-leaning Christian with born-again tendencies. In the other corner, a liberal, left-leaning Jewish-born atheist – daughter of a Planned Parenthood board member.
So, there I am the very first graduate student in an empty lab. I don’t think either of us knew what to make of this new relationship at first. My new home was a hallway converted into a laboratory. It was like a galley kitchen with equipment spread out and not nearly enough counter space. Blinding fluorescent lights decorated the ceiling, and there was a faint smell of bleach. But, it was my new home, and I was going to learn to love it. This was the perfect beginning to an underdog story, and I always root for the underdog.
I bought a laptop, lab notebook, a few pens and sharpies, and pack of post-its. I put up an overly-pixelated print out of a Beastie Boys album cover to make it feel like home. I was settling in. I had already spent over two years in a lab doing research, so I knew my way around a pipette. Things were going well.
Tucked up at the bottom of my emotional backpack is a bizarre juxtaposition of the intense need for and complete immunity to male approval. My fingers writhe on the keyboard as I type those words, but it’s the reality of having your father abandon the family when you’re an eleven-year-old girl. If not him, then who? I was entering into my first meaningful hierarchical relationship with a man, and the pressure was palpable.
Then I made a very, very poor decision. I brought in a beloved set of magnets that I hid along the back-facing side of the incubator in our cell culture room. I had a feeling that the neural stem cells bathing in a hot pink bath of nutrients wouldn’t mind the culturally insensitive magnets on the other side of their wall, and the magnets were out of sight for any university staff that might have been offended. Since failure is a constant in scientific research, I would need that visual comedic relief.
Within the first week of this arranged half-decade marriage, I didn’t just cross the line; I rocketed through it. My new Ph.D. advisor, a highly conservative, religious man I was about to find out, did not care for the dress-up Jesus magnets adorning the brand new incubator. Even the fluffy pink slippers magnet couldn’t sway his wrath. There was a heated email exchange that resulted in my removing the magnets (the obvious right thing to do in retrospect). The sweaty palms returned, and my head felt like a puffed-up blowfish wondering if I was going to have to find a new lab.
To our credit, we managed to navigate a solid 4.5 years together, weaving through our perilous differences. I introduced him to my favorite pizza place in town, and we shared many lab lunches together, talking science and life over greasy pizza slices and Cokes. He tried out different facial hairstyles, and I mocked him relentlessly over miserable goatees or mustaches. I cut and dyed my hair every non-natural color in the rainbow, and he would tell me that I was unique…just like everyone else.
He reluctantly but willingly allowed me to explore a few “hobbies” along the way, like pursuing a Master’s in Science and Health Communication during the Ph.D. program and enrolling in gross anatomy because, well, cadavers. We found islands of agreement and cultural overlap. Despite my hatred of running, I woke up early in Ames, Iowa before a conference to do calisthenics and running drills on the university track with him. Relationships are about compromise after all. As long as we followed a wise adage about avoiding topics like sex, religion, and politics, we were just fine.
Then one day, four and a half years later, it was time to graduate and move on. I sought post-doc opportunities in labs that would make both of us proud. I moved 2000 miles away, and the long-distance relationship took its toll. No more pizza dates, no more jokes and jabs, only occasional photos to update each other on facial hairstyles or pink mohawks. We were just two people living a half-county apart, posting quips about all things meaningful and mundane on social media.
One day, after a hilarious failed attempt at distance running reminded me of him, I went to post on his Facebook page. Much to my surprise, instead of finding the button to post on his page, I was faced with the button to add him as a friend. Well, that’s strange, I thought. We’ve been Facebook friends for years. This must be a glitch. I refreshed the page. Add Eric as a friend. Closed the tab. Reopened Facebook. Add Eric as a friend. Shut down the whole damn browser. Add Eric as a friend. Restarted computer. Add Eric as a friend.
Unbelievable, he unfriended me! The ultimate middle finger of digital relationships.
So, I did what any irrational person who wants answers would do. I wrote Eric a private message. It turned out that my political and cultural leanings were a source of great sadness for him. In his final message of the exchange, he apologized for his lack of tact and suggested that we could still be friends if we came up with a modus vivendi. I never wrote back.