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Prologue

Frankly, Olive was a bit on the fence about this whole grad school thing. Not because she didn’t like science. (She did. She loved science. Science was her thing.) And not because of the truckload of obvious red flags. She was well aware that committing to years of unappreciated, underpaid eighty-hour workweeks might not be good for her mental health. That nights spent toiling away in front of a Bunsen burner to uncover a trivial slice of knowledge might not be the key to happiness. That devoting her mind and body to academic pursuits with only infrequent breaks to steal unattended bagels might not be a wise choice. She was well aware, and yet none of it worried her. Or maybe it did, a tiny bit, but she could deal. It was something else that held her back from surrendering herself to the most notorious and soul-sucking circle of hell (i.e., a Ph.D. program). Held her back, that is, until she was invited to interview for a spot in Stanford’s biology department, and came across The Guy. The Guy whose name she never really got. The Guy she met after stumbling blindly into the first bathroom she could find. The Guy who asked her, “Out of curiosity, is there a specific reason you’re crying in my restroom?” Olive squeaked. She tried to open her eyes through the tears and only barely managed to. Her entire field of view was blurry. All she could see was a watery outline—someone tall, dark haired, dressed in black, and . . . yeah. That was it. “I . . . is this the ladies’ restroom?” she stammered. A pause. Silence. And then: “Nope.” His voice was deep. So deep. Really deep. Dreamy deep. “Are you sure?” “Yes.” “Really?” “Fairly, since this is my lab’s bathroom.” Well. He had her there. “I’m so sorry. Do you need to . . .” She gestured toward the stall, or where she thought the stalls were. Her eyes stung, even closed, and she had to scrunch them shut to dull the burn. She tried to dry her cheeks with her sleeve, but the material of her wrap dress was cheap and flimsy, not half as absorbent as real cotton. Ah, the joys of being impoverished. “I just need to pour this reagent down the drain,” he said, but she didn’t hear him move. Maybe because she was blocking the sink. Or maybe because he thought Olive was a weirdo and was contemplating siccing the campus police on her. That would put a brutally quick end to her Ph.D. dreams, wouldn’t it? “We don’t use this as a restroom, just to dispose of waste and wash equipment.” “Oh, sorry. I thought . . .” Poorly. She’d thought poorly, as was her habit and curse. “Are you okay?” He must be really tall. His voice sounded like it came from ten feet above her. “Sure. Why do you ask?” “Because you are crying. In my bathroom.” “Oh, I’m not crying. Well, I sort of am, but it’s just tears, you know?” “I do not.” She sighed, slumping against the tiled wall. “It’s my contacts. They expired some time ago, and they were never that great to begin with. They messed up my eyes. I’ve taken them off, but . . .” She shrugged. Hopefully in his direction. “It takes a while, before they get better.” “You put in expired contacts?” He sounded personally offended. “Just a little expired.” “What’s ‘a little’?” “I don’t know. A few years?” “What?” His consonants were sharp and precise. Crisp. Pleasant. “Only just a couple, I think.” “Just a couple of years?” “It’s okay. Expiration dates are for the weak.” A sharp sound—some kind of snort. “Expiration dates are so I don’t find you weeping in the corner of my bathroom.” Unless this dude was Mr. Stanford himself, he really needed to stop calling this his bathroom. “It’s fine.” She waved a hand. She’d have rolled her eyes, if they hadn’t been on fire. “The burning usually lasts only a few minutes.” “You mean you’ve done this before?” She frowned. “Done what?” “Put in expired contacts.” “Of course. Contacts are not cheap.” “Neither are eyes.” Humph. Good point. “Hey, have we met? Maybe last night, at the recruitment dinner with prospective Ph.D. students?” “No.” “You weren’t there?” “Not really my scene.” “But the free food?” “Not worth the small talk.” Maybe he was on a diet, because what kind of Ph.D. student said that? And Olive was sure that he was a Ph.D. student—the haughty, condescending tone was a dead giveaway. All Ph.D. students were like that: thinking they were better than everyone else just because they had the dubious privilege of slaughtering fruit flies in the name of science for ninety cents an hour. In the grim, dark hellscape of academia, graduate students were the lowliest of creatures and therefore had to convince themselves that they were the best. Olive was no clinical psychologist, but it seemed like a pretty textbook defense mechanism. “Are you interviewing for a spot in the program?” he asked. “Yup. For next year’s biology cohort.” God, her eyes were burning. “What about you?” she asked, pressing her palms into them. “Me?” “How long have you been here?” “Here?” A pause. “Six years. Give or take.” “Oh. Are you graduating soon, then?” “I . . .” She picked up on his hesitation and instantly felt guilty. “Wait, you don’t have to tell me. First rule of grad school—don’t ask about other grads’ dissertation timeline.” A beat. And then another. “Right.” “Sorry.” She wished she could see him. Social interactions were hard enough to begin with; the last thing she needed was fewer cues to go by. “I didn’t mean to channel your parents at Thanksgiving.” He laughed softly. “You could never.” “Oh.” She smiled. “Annoying parents?” “And even worse Thanksgivings.” “That’s what you Americans get for leaving the Commonwealth.” She held out her hand in what she hoped was his general direction. “I’m Olive, by the way. Like the tree.” She was starting to wonder whether she’d just introduced herself to the drain disposal when she heard him step closer. The hand that closed around hers was dry, and warm, and so large it could have enveloped her whole fist. Everything about him must be huge. Height, fingers, voice. It was not entirely unpleasant. “You’re not American?” he asked. “Canadian. Listen, if you happen to talk with anyone who’s on the admissions committee, would you mind not mentioning my contacts mishap? It might make me seem like a less-than-stellar applicant.” “You think so?” he deadpanned. She would have glared at him if she could. Though maybe she was doing a decent job of it anyway, because he laughed—just a huff, but Olive could tell. And she kind of liked it. He let go of her, and she realized that she’d been gripping his hand. Oops. “Are you planning to enroll?” he asked. She shrugged. “I might not get an offer.” But she and the professor she’d interviewed with, Dr. Aslan, had really hit it off. Olive had stuttered and mumbled much less than usual. Plus, her GRE scores and GPA were almost perfect. Not having a life came in handy, sometimes. “Are you planning to enroll if you get an offer, then?” She’d be stupid not to. This was Stanford, after all—one of the best biology programs. Or at least, that was what Olive had been telling herself to cover the petrifying truth. Which was that, frankly, she was a bit on the fence about this whole grad school thing. “I . . . maybe. I must say, the line between excellent career choice and critical life screwup is getting a bit blurry.” “Seems like you’re leaning toward screwup.” He sounded like he was smiling. “No. Well . . . I just . . .” “You just?” She bit her lip. “What if I’m not good enough?” she blurted out, and why, God, why was she baring the deepest fears of her secret little heart to this random bathroom guy? And what was the point, anyway? Every time she aired out her doubts to friends and acquaintances, they all automatically offered the same trite, meaningless encouragements. You’ll be fine. You can do it. I believe in you. This guy was surely going to do the same. Coming up. Any moment now. Any second— “Why do you want to do it?” Uh? “Do . . . what?” “Get a Ph.D. What’s your reason?” Olive cleared her throat. “I’ve always had an inquisitive mind, and graduate school is the ideal environment to foster that. It’ll give me important transferable skills—” He snorted. She frowned. “What?” “Not the line you found in an interview prep book. Why do you want a Ph.D.?” “It’s true,” she insisted, a bit weakly. “I want to sharpen my research abilities—” “Is it because you don’t know what else to do?” “No.” “Because you didn’t get an industry position?” “No—I didn’t even apply for industry.” “Ah.” He moved, a large, blurry figure stepping next to her to pour something down the sink. Olive could smell a whiff of eugenol, and laundry detergent, and clean, male skin. An oddly nice combination. “I need more freedom than industry can offer.” “You won’t have much freedom in academia.” His voice was closer, like he hadn’t stepped back yet. “You’ll have to fund your work through ludicrously competitive research grants. You’d make better money in a nine-to-five job that actually allows you to entertain the concept of weekends.” Olive scowled. “Are you trying to get me to decline my offer? Is this some kind of anti–expired-contacts-wearers campaign?” “Nah.” She could hear his smile. “I’ll go ahead and trust that it was just a misstep.” “I wear them all the time, and they almost never—” “In a long line of missteps, clearly.” He sighed. “Here’s the deal: I have no idea if you’re good enough, but that’s not what you should be asking yourself. Academia’s a lot of bucks for very little bang. What matters is whether your reason to be in academia is good enough. So, why the Ph.D., Olive?” She thought about it, and thought, and thought even more. And then she spoke carefully. “I have a question. A specific research question. Something that I want to find out.” There. Done. This was the answer. “Something I’m afraid no one else will discover if I don’t.” “A question?” She felt the air shift and realized that he was now leaning against the sink. “Yes.” Her mouth felt dry. “Something that’s important to me. And—I don’t trust anyone else to do it. Because they haven’t so far. Because . . .” Because something bad happened. Because I want to do my part so that it won’t happen again. Heavy thoughts to have in the presence of a stranger, in the darkness of her closed eyelids. So she cracked them open; her vision was still blurry, but the burning was mostly gone. The Guy was looking at her. Fuzzy around the edges, perhaps, but so very there, waiting patiently for her to continue. “It’s important to me,” she repeated. “The research that I want to do.” Olive was twenty-three and alone in the world. She didn’t want weekends, or a decent salary. She wanted to go back in time. She wanted to be less lonely. But since that was impossible, she’d settle for fixing what she could. He nodded but said nothing as he straightened and took a few steps toward the door. Clearly leaving. “Is mine a good enough reason to go to grad school?” she called after him, hating how eager for approval she sounded. It was possible that she was in the midst of some sort of existential crisis. He paused and looked back at her. “It’s the best one.” He was smiling, she thought. Or something like it. “Good luck on your interview, Olive.” “Thanks.” He was almost out the door already. “Maybe I’ll see you next year,” she babbled, flushing a little. “If I get in. And if you haven’t graduated.” “Maybe,” she heard him say. With that, The Guy was gone. And Olive never got his name. But a few weeks later, when the Stanford biology department extended her an offer, she accepted it. Without hesitating.

Jan. 1, 2022, 11:41 p.m. 0 Report Embed Follow story
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