My Lab

My lab is full of the type of people who when planning my going-away party, say: “We’re going punting.”

“Oh!” I exclaim in delight. “I’ve never been!”

Lizzie look amused. “Yes, we know.”

Lizzie and I are looking at the rain outside, incongruously loud against the windows (it doesn’t rain that hard for long in England), and thinking maybe punting isn’t such a good idea.

“Dinner?” she asks, and welcomes me to pick a restaurant. We sit in silence for a bit, both with scrunched up faces. I start thinking out loud.

“So there’s this great Indian place.”

“Down the road?”

“No, I think—it’s across from the Brewhouse. But I don’t know if that’s what we’re looking for… my instinct is a nice food place, but we’ll need somewhere with beers.”

More thinking.

“Who’s coming?” I ask.

“Joey, Vasilis, Poly, Lukas… [Reuben’s on vacation, Nuno will go home to wife and his son Ivan]”

And we decide on the Indian place, because with that composition of people, with their particular tastes, with the focus on me since I’m going away, that will work.

(I can sit in silence with anyone in lab now. It’s not awkward. I can start a conversation with anyone now. They go well.)

The weather clears up, so the six of troop downstairs as soon as “the parents” (what we call our supervisors) have left. Everyone’s been hanging out in the doorway chatting about the plan, but Vasilis and I are a bit late to pack up. They’re waiting downstairs—some people meandering the correct way already, Lizzie hanging back for me.

We fall into easy conversation, and another easy conversation with Lukas strides out the door and catches up with us. Any combination of people works. We’re off to Sainsburys (the local grocery store) to pick up food before the punting expedition begins—we’ve done this before.

“Oh my goodness, this alley connects? I exclaim, as we make our way over. “Are you serious? This explains so much!”

“You’ve never been here?” Lukas asks. “Welcome, then.” He splays his arms wide. “Welcome to the smelly alley.”

“So that’s what Zoe was talking about,” I mutter, as Lizzie tells me that it’s a pity I didn’t realize the smelly alley was here sooner. Later, after we’ve left the grocery store (“Can I get ice cream?” I ask, “Does anyone else want ice cream?” (We leave with a four-pack of ice cream, wine and beer, chips and dip and Pringles)) Lukas tells me about the pronunciation of a Japanese name I’ve been wondering about for years. “You’re learning so much today,” Lizzie tells me, and everyone laughs agreeably.

(Lizzie and Joey and I eat lunch together, and the others will drop by and banter for a bit. We’ve got nods for each other when we see each other in the hallways, or a “how’s it going”, or rapidly deep conversations next to the coffee maker. Everyone is friends with everyone else. You see conversations between everyone with everyone. It’s so easy.)

We make it down to the punts, and I’m bouncing a little, one of those energy bursts I get. “Excited, then?” Joey asks me wryly, and I kind of smile / kind of frown while I’m thinking of what to say, because I know he’s had a bit of rough patch today and has had problems sleeping because of his ankles, so I want to say I’m sharing it but I could also just roll with it as part of the usual teasing. I roll with it, and start discussing a sign on the wall with Lizzie while Poly puts down the deposit for the boat; Joey and Lukas are talking near a tree. Joey’s doing that thing where he’s kind of rocking lazily from one foot to the other while alternating glancing around the sky and making eye contact, which means that he’s relaxed and enjoying himself. Lukas is watching Joey, hands open and smiling and nodding when he listens, which means he’s engaged and enjoying himself.

We get the boat. It’s decided I’m doing the punting first. (Punting is a ridiculously Cambridge tradition in which one has a long pole that one pushes against the bottom of the shallow river to move a boat full of people along. You usually have a professional do it, but you’re also allowed to punt yourself if you want.) So I’m in the back of the boat trying to figure out what to do with this pole, and Poly’s in the front of the boat with a normal paddle to make sure we don’t crash into walls.

It’s fine until we get to the first bridge, at which point I don’t realize the pole won’t fit and almost fall in. Everyone’s laughing— “let the pole go, Monica!” and being supportive, and then generally leaving me alone and entertaining themselves and me while I figure it out. The beers and chips are dug into, and at the front of the boat, Poly’s providing commentary on what we’re seeing. She’s been on enough punting trips that she knows what the guides usually say. Joey’s ragging on her as we go along, and Lizzie and Lukas and Vasilis are adding their two bits, and everyone’s listening and commenting. Lizzie and Poly are up front drinking wine from plastic fancy drinking glasses, while the boys are drinking beers. We make it along almost the whole of this part of the river—with crashes, of course—before we switch off to let Vasilis have a go so I can eat my ice cream.

There are jokes about relative rights and lefts because Poly’s sitting facing one direction and Joey and Vasilis are facing another. There are jokes about Cambridge, and about ducks and Doritos, and it’s the most awkward kind of seating arrangement because it’s a narrow boat and pretty much no one is facing each other but the conversation just flows along. We know each other now, what we like and dislike and care about, what’s good to make fun of people for, what we all think. I get the ice cream passed back to me when I sit down, and when I grab the chips from near Joey he offers me the dip like he’s apologetic he didn’t offer it before. Lukas congratulates me for steering and he and Joey start up a discussion about Vasilis’s equally bad steering.

“They call him Vasilis the Destroyer,” Joey begins, and everyone gets caught up in that. “How do you feel about this upcoming boat situation, Destroyer?”

“Like we’re going to run them all over,” Vasilis announces, a smile in his voice, and then he tells Poly “a little help, here” and Poly paddles us out of the way. There’s always a good discussion going between the punter and Poly when we come up close to bridges with three semicircles, because it becomes a question of which semicircle we’re going to pass through, and neither Vasilis nor I have ever gotten the one we were aiming for.

Joey feeds a duck a Dorito and it follows us until he feeds it guacamole. Poly tells us much about the old Colleges and we make up stories about some of the scenery. “What’s that?” Lizzie asks as we pass an emblem underneath a bridge. “A ram, then a…?”

“That’s a ram riding a fish,” I say confidently. “Uh, seahorse.”

“A ram riding a fish-seahorse,” someone in the boat says, “Very good, Monica,” and then we’re off to the races.

I switch off with Vasilis and punt about halfway back, too, because I like it and I’m getting better at it. Lukas tells me he’s very impressed with both of us. We only semi-crash into the dock and we all yell at Joey for hanging onto the wrong thing.

Lizzie and Lukas and I are standing loosely in a circle while Poly and Vasilis pay. It’s decided we do dinner, and Lizzie calls the restaurant to set it up. “You off now?” she asks Lukas next, because Lukas is crazy busy this week and the last and the next weeks as well and the lab’s doing the best it can to support him. He checks the time on his phone, agrees. (I got some mocking while I was punting for not showing up to last Friday night’s drinks. “I already had three social occasions last week,” I say kind of sheepishly, since we’ve done this conversation and Joey has already assured me that it’s not like you run out of social occasions after a certain number of them. “At least I was productive?” I try. “We were very productive. We danced,” Lizzie says. “Not me, I went home,” Joey says, and then we get into a discussion about tequila shots. The best part about this lab is that they don’t push. Everyone respects each other. We respect each other’s choices, and plan around those choices, care about each other and I’ll never have it so good again.)

Poly and Vasilis are walking up front when Lizzie and Lukas notice Joey’s not on the walk back to the lab with us. Lukas hangs back, calls and texts him, while Lizzie and I walk on. A few people head to the bathroom, I head upstairs to get my stuff, and everyone’s leaning on their bikes, chatting, when I make it down. Lukas takes his leave with a salute, and we head off for the restaurant.

(I see that moment clearly, walking out the door to everyone outside. A bunch of twenty-somethings sitting around bikes, completely comfortable with each other, the intertwining between personalities easy and established, everyone understood.)

Dinner’s wonderful. We’re close around the table. Food’s great, service is great, and we hear about schooling systems, Australia, Greece, England, America. We talk about a lecture Poly and Lizzie are planning, but with lots of jumping around so it doesn’t get focused, we talk about what I’m doing next, we talk about food preferences (we know them already) and things not about work, and it’s amazing. Because we all know each other now that we don’t need the thing we have in common, and everyone knows and likes and respects each other, and it’s so easy.

(I love my lab.)

Poly, who takes care of us, who checks in with us, who bakes for us. Who is the first to step in and organize and notice and get people involved. Who pouts sometimes and laughs and listens. Who cares so much and does so much and is a wonderful, hard-working, caring and capable human being. You’re incredible and smart and organized and funny and your heart is huge and always in the right place, and you’re gonna make it to a place where you help people: I believe it.

Joey, who regales us with stories of frothies and snakes in the backyard and terraces and rowing and hanging out in the sun. Who keeps it to himself when he’s upset, who’s always ready to pick himself up and have some fun, who knows everything around his work, who has this abounding passion in everything. He’ll tease you mercilessly but include everyone when he does it, he’ll roll with you whoever you are. I see him leaning just outside the window in the kitchen, silently watching the outside in a thin stream of sunlight. I see him doing his eyebrow thing with Reuben, waggling them as he makes a point and laughing. He says that there’s no point in poking fun at people if they’re not in front of you, he picks up and runs his own independent projects, and he tells us that biomedical research is f-ing cool. Joey’s a study and a great person to know.

Nuno. Nuno hovers at the table at lunch conversations, standing and listening and contributing and insisting that we don’t move, don’t need to make space. He’s so conscious of our time and graceful, ready to offer anything we need. He’s dedicated, to his work and to his child and his wife, and he balances it without external fuss. Very strong-willed: sets goals and sticks to them. Easy to talk to: has deep ideas about many things and is happy to engage and share. Easy-going and patient and caring and productive. Laughing unexpectedly, sharing something interesting with a smile: Nuno.

Vasilis. So funny, especially in his interactions with Poly. Logical and practical to the end, patient and drolly long-suffering and intelligent, with well-developed, deeply-felt opinions. He’s a listener and good-humored, rubs a hand over Poly’s shoulder. Tries new things, will insist when he needs to, hard-working, a huge supporter. I see him sitting at his desk talking in Greek with Poly, smiling and pushing on a joke at lab gatherings, insightful and systematic in meetings. Rock-solid and consistent. Vasilis.

Reuben, who makes everything seem easy, ready to enjoy himself and always sure of what’s happening around him. He’s open and quick to smile, segues in with a smooth Australian drawl. I seem him in lab early before anyone else arrives, perfect posture at his desk, headphones on and serious, typing. He and Claire come out for drinks and laughter; he defends his research technique’s honor at lunch; he’s calm and quiet on the MRI intercom; precise. I see him laying out a story, hands demarcating the boundaries, big eyes wide and focused on the listener, here.

Lukas, who’s hard-working and unbeatable, who will always look up with a smile, who is graceful about keeping his focus, graceful about joining in. He’s happy to tease anyone, ready to jump on a thought and spin it; he’s careful and attentive and kind. He’s reassuring and conscious of others and funny. He’s easy-going and a good listener and patient. Caring with full-bodied laughter. Thoughtful and interested. He manages it all with constant good humor, is a lovely person all around.

Lizzie. My lunch buddy and all-around supporter. Practical, fun, easy to talk to, easy to get along with, welcoming all. Makes her own clothes, makes her own cakes, creates and circles conversations to keep them bright. With a broad perspective on life, she enjoys herself and brings others with her. Dancing, Zumba-ing, biking, wine-ing, smiling. Notices and supports the people around her, hands out compliments and warmth and solutions. Bright-spirited: almost always good-humored herself, appreciates it in others even when she isn’t, a positive presence always.

I love the lab: who we are together. What we are every day, and all the time. Who we are, and how we mesh.

Love you all.

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