This week, we present two stories about science intersecting with love -- in both fortunate and unfortunate ways.
Part 1: Nothing can come between Lindzi Wessel and her new boyfriend, David -- except maybe herpes.
Lindzi Wessel is a science and health journalist who recently graduated from the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. Before turning her sights on journalism, she studied the mind, obtaining a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s in neuroscience from UC Davis. She has covered topics ranging from wildfire management to Zika transmission for outlets including The San Jose Mercury News, Alzforum, and STAT. For the moment, she resides in DC where she is writing for Science. Lindzi is a traveler who enjoys spending time outdoors and in the presence of dogs, whenever possible.
Part 2: Marine biologist Skylar Bayer and first mate Thom Young find love on a boat.
Thom and Skylar Young-Bayer live in Maine with their two adorable dogs, Millie and Misha. Thom Young-Bayer is a former marine biologist, former sailor and current farmer and produce specialist. Skylar Young-Bayer is a Ph.D. in marine biology. They are both veteran storytellers at The Story Collider and are regulars at the storytelling group, The Corner, in Lewiston, Maine. Together they co-host the sometimes monthly podcast, Strictlyfishwrap Science Radio Hour. Skylar and Thom believe that a couple that creates interpretive dance videos about scallop sex together, stays together.
Part 1: Lindzi Wessel
So I first met David when he showed up at our neuroscience graduate school orientation twenty minutes late and wearing toe shoes. Just a few days earlier, he had cycled into Davis, California, from Portland, Oregon, a thousand miles away by bike. He had lots of options for grad school, but he had chosen ours because he felt the students were down to earth and because it was close to skiing. Sometimes he and I would hit the mountains together, sometimes we’d bike and other times we’d just talk about life over beers. I had never been the sappy type. But I started to realize that I just kinda always wanted to hang out with David, and when he told me that he kinda always wanted to hang out with me too, it made me really happy.
It was spring in California and everything was beautiful, and I just thought, Nothing is going to shake this wonderful feeling that I have. Except maybe herpes. Herpes shook things up a little bit. So probably all of you know that herpes is a sexually transmitted disease that can cause painful outbreaks in some very private areas, and it's contagious and lifelong so it doesn't exactly make dating easy. So when David called me to tell me that he had tested positive for this virus, he was not feeling great. I went over right away, and he started to tell me everything that he knew. He had tested positive for both types of herpes, herpes type 2, the infamous STD, and herpes type 1, which is more common and much less stigmatized form we tend to associate with cold sores.
He had never had a symptom for either, but he was told by the doctors that he could pass either virus on to a partner. He was so upset and just shocked that he had paid $200 right there for another test. But by the time I got to him, he was resigned. He knew denial wasn't really going to help anything. So, to be honest, at this point I honestly wasn't that alarmed. I mean I just I told David like, Let's hold off on the physical stuff. No sex obviously but also like we just to be safe no kissing but just in time I could do a little research to figure out the best way to protect myself. And how hard could it be? So the next day I launch in with your typical Google searches, and things go downhill instantly. Let me just recommend that if you ever have the temptation to do a Google image search for herpes, you squash that. Your whole screen transforms into a checkerboard of all these body parts that you never wanted to see sporting the worst-case scenario of all sorts of rashes that you never wanted to know existed. And the more that I researched, things just got worse. I started to realize that everything that I had thought I had known about herpes wasn't actually true.
While it is accurate that herpes is most likely to spread when there's an active outbreak, it can be spread to a partner when no obvious symptoms are present. Also, herpes can nest outside of the area that condoms cover. And so while condoms can be effective, they can also be pretty much useless. And the cold sore kind of herpes can definitely spread to your junk so I'm panicking a little. Actually I'm kind of panicking a lot, and it's not just because the situation that I thought was a take-minor-precautions situation has now transformed into a herpes-owns-your-ass kind of situation. It's not the only reason I'm panicking. I'm also panicking because I'm realizing those minor precautions might not have protected me from some risks I had already taken. David and I really liked each other so of course we’d kissed quite a bit and don't tell my mom or anything, but that's not all we've done. So I start hallucinating symptoms instantly. I’ve got the tingles and the itches on my mouth and on my other parts. But fortunately my logical brain kicks in and says, You know it's very unlikely that you already contracted this. So like let's just focus on prevention. So my best option seems to be finding a way to make sure that David isn't contagious before getting too close to him. And by this point I'd gone, with all my research and like Googling everything, I've gone a little crazy enough to think that I could write a protocol for this myself.
No really, because it really all we need to do right is like take a swab and test for the presence of the virus. And if the virus wasn't there then we'd be good. Maybe that could work, right? But I honestly didn't get very far before realizing that this was going to cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars that frankly we didn't have so. And logistically right it's just a nightmare because you're swabbing down your boyfriend, you're amplifying the sample, and then you're down in some probes to see if the virus shows up. Even for the most die-hard scientists, it's a far cry from dinner and a movie.
So I'm kind of starting to realize that maybe there's no way for me to be with this guy and guarantee myself a herpes-free future. I have to dump him, right? I mean, who wants to be that person that, thinking they're in love, makes some huge sacrifice for something that maybe wasn't going to work out anyways. And then where are you? Single and with herpes. But my mind kept going to my aunt and uncle who, everyone who knows them says, is the picture of true love. When they were teenagers, my mom's family tried desperately to break them up. And that was because my uncle wasn't Jewish, but they, even at that young age, knew that something so trivial shouldn't get in the way of love.
It's real. And they're still making each other happy sixty years later. I can't help but wonder if herpes would have stopped them even if Jewish grandmothers couldn't. But fortunately we don't live in a world where you have to ask that kind of deep personal question to someone you know and who loves you now. No, instead, I turn to complete strangers on the internet. I joined an anonymous herpes forum and I read about the lives of people with herpes. So, on this forum, I read about some really actually upsetting things. I read about a man who had stopped dating and dropped all his friends because he was too ashamed to tell them why he wasn't trying to pick up women anymore. And I read about a woman who had decided to stay with a boyfriend who hit her because he had also given her herpes and she thought no one else could love her again. I was just horrified. Just totally enraged. And I even went to David and I said, “How could our society just ridicule and dismiss these people who haven't done anything wrong? These other human beings.” And then I went back to researching herpes, leaving my glum boyfriend to contemplate the prospect of being alone forever alone.
Throughout this whole process, these weeks that this was going on, David had actually been quite patient, but one day during a walk on campus, his patient seemed suddenly to snap. He asked me to sit down with him on the grass and started telling me he was getting really fed up with my process. We had never really argued before, but he was upset and I got upset in response. Didn't he realize how much work I was doing and how much I was considering risking for him? Voices were raised. Things got a bit ugly. I went home crying. I called my sister and I told her, “I never want to see this guy again.” David and I were in a class of twelve people so that didn't work out well.
We saw each other later that day and when we ran into each other we stepped into this cold, dark room that I was doing my graduate research in. We apologized for things getting heated and in this room, this room was painted black because of light sensitive experiments that used to go on there and also there were chains that used to hold oxygen tanks that now just sort of like dangled from above. And so he starts to tell me like why he suddenly got so upset, and he told me that on our walk earlier that day I had been drinking a coffee and he had asked for a sip and when he had handed it back, he had seen me, almost subconsciously, take my sleeve and wipe off the straw.
When David said this to me with sadness and really humiliation in his voice, I was so ashamed and everything just hit me right then. I realized that what mattered here wasn't David's situation and that wasn't the problem. The problem was my situation. Whatever research or questions I still thought I had left to answer about the science and the risk of herpes, that wasn't important here. What was important was that I was treating my boyfriend, someone I respected, someone I was in love with, as something dirty and less than human. So I threw my arms around him and I just started kissing him right there, and I told him it was ridiculous and I just didn't care. I just wanted to be with him. And he puts his arms around me too and kisses me back and there, in this dark room with the black walls and the chains hanging down, David tells me that he loves me for the very first time.
About three weeks into our happily ever after. David got results back from that two-hundred-dollar other herpes test that he'd sent away for, and it turned out that after all of that he'd never had herpes in the first place. Along with over 50 percent of Americans he did have the cold-sore type. But for the more stigmatized kind, he had had a false positive due to a common issue with the test.
David's relief at narrowly escaping herpes was palpable, but the results meant nothing to me. I had already made my decision. My relief had come weeks earlier when I narrowly escaped ruining a laughter-filled, loving relationship, a relationship that is now going on for years, over a skin rash. Thank you.
Part 2: Thom and Skylar Young-Bayer
Skylar: So my friends Dennis and Candace own an old-timey ship with sails, red sails. It’s up in Camden, Maine – best state in the nation. And they asked me to be a naturalist on one of their weeklong cruises. So we leave Monday morning, come back Friday night. And I agreed and I come to Sunday evening orientation, and within like five minutes on deck, Dennis, who’s the captain, he says to me, “Hey you did that SCA sailing program in college, right?” And I was like, “Yeah.” And he’s like, “And you studied marine ecology, right?” I’m like “Dennis, that’s why you hired me for this trip.” And he’s like, “You have a lot in common with Thom. Thom’s single. You should date Thom.” And I was like, “Who the hell is Thom?”
So, for some context, I’d had a breakup with a boyfriend I’d lived with for about three years, who it turned out I didn’t have much in common with. We’d broken up about four months prior, and I was perfectly happy spending the Fourth of July alone drinking with my dog, watching the entire Twilight series, crying because love is beautiful. But my friends weren’t really happy about this. They were like, “You should be dating everyone. What are you going to do, go back to your ex for the winter?” And I was like, “I have central heating. I don’t need man heating.” So I would get really annoyed when everyone was like, “You should date so-and-so.”
Back on the boat, Dennis was like, “Thom’s the first mate.” And then like, as if out of a sitcom, fifteen seconds later, Thom, this rugged sailor type in a dirty T-shirt jumps up on the deck and is like, “Hi, I’m Thom.” And I’m like, “Hi…” And then, when I went home that night to prepare my lectures for the trip, I was like, “Well, maybe I should shave my legs in case I have to wear shorts…”
Thom: The night that Skylar and I met, it was the beginning of the last weeklong trip of a very long sailing season. For the past six months, I had been working virtually nonstop as the first mate of the Windjammer Angelique. It’s this beautiful tan bark sail topsail catch, really fast boat, won the schooner race. We would take these passengers out on these multiday sailing trips along the Maine coast, which is just a stunning place. So it was a dream job aboard the dream boat, but the whole time with not a single day off. Well, that's not exactly true. I did have I did have one week off in the middle of the season, during which my quote-unquote vacation consisted of going home to an unexpected divorce one day before my seven-year wedding anniversary. So that was, that was devastating and really, really hard for about a month, and then I thought to myself… I pulled myself together it's like, Okay, Thom. I haven't been on a date in eleven years. I'm going to start dating again. So I start with, you know, what little free time I have between trips, I start going on dates with all these women and meeting new people and it's great. I'm having a good time, but I don't really hit it off with any of them and I'm certainly not looking for anything serious yet.
Skylar: Yeah, no. But so it’s Monday, which is arguably the only good day of sailing that trip, and the only warm day. I got to wear my shorts. And I was like, Wow, this guy Thom is really cute, which means he's probably a jerk. But we have a lot in common so maybe I should go talk to him. So the crew are all at the front of the boat and I go over to get to know Tom.
Thom: We had so much in common. We knew all these same people and had done very similar research, back when I was a marine biologist, and we had been to so many of the same places too, like the Brooks Range in the arctic of Alaska and the Marquesas Islands in the middle of the Pacific. But we had been to them all at just slightly different times and had just missed meeting each other on so many different occasions. Like, for instance, the professor at Brown University that she worked with as an undergraduate invited me to be a PhD student in his lab and I almost, almost accepted. And if I had accepted, we would have ended up meeting a whole decade before that.
Skylar: Yeah. And so talking to Thom, it’s like, Ugh, this guy is cute and he’s like accomplished, and we have things in common. I was like, This would be terrible. Because my experience with handsome science engineer types is they will ditch you at the airport, for example. True story. And you know I am I'm a busty blonde who usually has a stain on their shirt. I'm sure there's one on my dress. And I always am game for a sex joke even if no one else is. And four of my exes, a psychologist, two engineers, and a sailor -- you know people I had stuff in common with -- the next woman they met, they married them, and all of these women -- I'm not kidding. Like there are four, we went back and counted. All the women they married were petite brunette, quiet and reserved in some way. So I was like, Well, I'm really good at showing guys what they don't want. Like really good at it. Really good at it. But you know, Monday night, I decide I want to play I want to play rummy card game with Dennis, the captain, and the crew. So I go around and collect all the crew, and I peered down the crew quarters and there's Thom with no shirt on in his underwear.
Thom: I was wearing my shorts.
Skylar: Well, was there underwear under your shorts?
Skylar: So it’s underwear. But he's playing he's playing this like bagpipe flute-like thing, you know playing this melodious you know Celtic music stuff, and he's also like half naked and I'm like, Wow, this guy is hot. But I'm like, No, Skylar, play it cool. So you know I looked down at him like, “Oh hey, Thom, do you want to come play cards with us?”
Thom: Oh. When Skylar peered down into the fo'c's'le to ask me to play cards, I was in a truly foul mood. Earlier that day, we had a passenger who had explosive diarrhea all over the shower, and when I say all over, I literally mean all over the shower, and our crew had to clean it up. And what that meant for me as the first mate is that during some really challenging sailing maneuvers that day, I was really shorthanded. I didn't have to clean that up myself. That's part of being a first mate, but I was pissed off and then later I overheard Shitnado, which is what we came to call the passenger, insulting me behind my back but very much within earshot, so I was I was not a happy camper. I just wanted to hang out in my crew cave and not talk to anybody. So I looked up at Skylar and said, “Sorry but not tonight, maybe tomorrow.”
Skylar: So I was kind of disappointed, though wasn't really not surprised. I mean he's probably a jerk because he's so handsome with no shirt on playing bagpipes. But while we're playing cards there's this like beautiful angry classical piano that starts to waft in. And I’m like, “What is that?” And Dennis is like, “Oh, it’s just Thom.” As if you are like the cat or something you know and I was like, All right, so this really handsome accomplished sailor former marine biologist who plays the bagpipes in his underwear and angry piano, for whatever reason I don't know, just exists on this boat. OK, whatever.
Thom: I feel like I need to explain something here. When I'm mad, I play Rachmaninoff. That's not unusual behavior, right?
Skylar: Everyone does that, right?
Thom: But the next night I had I felt like I had done my term fuming about Shitnado and I needed to pull my I needed to pull things together and socialize a bit so I decided I'm going to go down below into the mess room and hang out with the crew and play some rummy. So I go down to the mess room and I of course, I sit next to the cutest person on the boat, which is Skylar, instead of, you know, sitting next to the smelly sailors I worked with. And earlier that day I’d spent some time watching her during one of our short trips. She was roaming the intertidal, picking up organisms, looking at them intently, and she was showing this true curiosity of a naturalist. And I really admired that, having worked as a research diver and a marine biologist in the past. And then we started interacting during the rummy game, and what really impressed me was, more than anything, was her sense of humor. Skylar had this quick, witty, full laugh, this assertive confidence in her humor. She didn't pull punches when it came to making fun of the crew. She had no qualms about giving us those comic jabs whenever she saw the opportunity. But I think most notably is that Skylar single-handedly brought “that's what she said” jokes back to the boat.
Skylar: Yes, I did.
Thom: All season long, all year as the first mate, I felt it was my professional duty to keep “That's what she said” jokes off the boat. And it was so difficult. It was so challenging. There are so many great opportunities on a boat, you don't understand. Hardening of the sails, going down below, cleaning the head, pumping the bilges. Every hour, someone had to bite their tongue. And I don't even remember the first “That's what she said” joke. It was not anything really impressive or noteworthy – sorry, but it wasn’t. We tried to remember, but we couldn't.
Skylar: Yeah, I couldn’t even remember it.
Thom: But when she said those four words all of the crew just stopped and turned and looked at the captain and waited. And without missing a beat, Dennis just started bursting out into laughter. And Skylar opened up those floodgates and there was no turning back.
Skylar: No, there definitely wasn’t for the rest of the trip. But so after the game Thom and I ended up talking. We ended up talking like a lot and we were up on deck and I think we're about probably all the bird calls that Thom happens to know and all the constellations that he happens to know and you know marine science and scuba diving, which both of us have done and then I had to go and explain why I can't scuba dive anymore, because I had this heart surgery about six years ago now that was very traumatic for me both physically and emotionally. And I told him all about the surgery and all of a sudden to my surprise he starts talking about all his feelings and all the details about the traumatic surgeries that he endured when he went through having testicular cancer.
Thom: I’ve always had a really hard time talking to anybody about the details of my own surgeries. And even though everyone on the crew had seen my scar, I hadn't really talked to any of them about it and they were like family to me. But I immediately knew that I could open up to Skylar about what I had gone through. And there was this -- I felt this instant connection between us, this bond that I just couldn't deny. And actually we learned something really interesting, that if you line up our surgical scars if they were combined they would run from the bottom of my pelvis up to the top of her ribcage so I thought that was pretty cool. And after that that long conversation that we had I, you know in true Oregonian fashion because I'm from Portland, Oregon, I went up to her and I gave her this really big hug.
Skylar: Yeah, and I was like, I'm from New England and I've known you today. What are you doing? You know, I didn't say that. I just sort of stood there stiffly like Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, like, There, there. I just find it really strange that this guy that I find attractive was actually like touching me in some way after two days and I had begun to really admire Thom on a deeper level than just his looks. And it was sort of this odd moment because on the inside I was sort of like, pleasant pleasant, but I was like I don't know, is this a friend-zone move? Is this like definitely putting me in the friend zone? I think that's what's going on here.
Thom: Well, I had absolutely no idea that she had any attraction to me whatsoever. I mean, you'd been spending quite a lot of time with our deckhand Hoppy up to that point that trip
Skylar: Well, Hoppy might as well have been carrying a billboard that said, “Date Thom,” and he would he would say things like, “My girlfriend and I have a very stable, good relationship because we have a lot in common,” and then like twenty minutes later, I don't even know what we’d be talking about, he’d be like, “You and Thom have a lot in common.” I'm like, OK. And one time, I was sitting on the deck watching Thom working or something, and I had these big valley-girl sunglasses so you couldn't you couldn't see my eyes. That was sort of the point, like you couldn’t see where I was looking or anything. I was like, No one can see that I'm looking at Thom, and so Hoppy like sidles up next me silently and then he says next me like, “Dear Diary, Today I saw Thom working in there rigging.” And like I didn't even think I looked away from Thom I just said, “Shut it, Hoppy.” And we're back to looking at Thom, like you know wondering if he is attracted to me, but I was like I like that would probably be embarrassed if you realize he was even remotely interested or attracted to someone like me.
Thom: Meanwhile I had absolutely no idea any of this was going on whatsoever. I was the last… the whole crew was trying to set her up with me and I was the last one to know about it. None of them told me. I didn't even realize that I was attracted to her until I think it was Thursday night. We were at anchor after a long day of sailing and I went out for a row and going back to the boat, I saw her on the deck in her bathing suit jumping into the frigid cold waters of the Gulf of Maine. And this is this fall already, the water is no longer warm. It is really cold, and she was the only person on the boat who was brave enough to endure the cold Maine waters for a swim, and I really admired that. And I also later that night learned somehow for the first time the whole trip that she had a cabin to herself. And that's when I really realized that I knew that I was attracted to her.
Skylar: Took till Thursday. It took me like five minutes. So Friday night comes along and I need to go run down to Portland, Maine, to go get my dog from my friend and as soon as the boat is like touching the deck touching the dock, and Thom is still like coiling lines or something tying up the boat, and I hop off with my backpack. And all of a sudden he looks at me like he's never going to see me again and I was like surprised and thrilled at the same time like, What do I do? He looks like he's going to miss me. And so I go, OK, Skylar, play it cool. So I just look at him when I go, “What?” And then I like turn up towards the hill and walk to my car and I go, Oh yeah, I just played super cool.
Thom: Yeah, you played it really cool -- you played it a little too cool. I think after she gave me that look I was pretty sure she never wanted to see me again, but I thought, What the hell? I've got nothing to lose. So I sent her a text.
Skylar: Yeah, so I'm driving back with my dog, Millie, and I see that I got a text from a new unknown number and it's signed T, and I turned to my dog in the back and I go, “Yes, Millie, I got one!” And I literally pump my fist in the air like that with just my dog there. And you know I just… it was exciting, but I was like you know, Thom's just flirting around, like nothing's going to happen. And if something did happen, I might get my heart run over, like he probably will figure out that he's still in love with his ex-wife because he spent time kissing me. I'll just be another in-between girl like I have been so many times. It sounds terrible, but it's so true. And so, you know, I had that in my head. But then I also like, I really liked him, like as a person, and the whole week all I could think of was this movie Serendipity, which maybe some of you have seen, the more romantic people in the audience. It's a John Cusack movie and these two strangers meet in New York and seven years later they're trying to find each other and there's all these hints and clues that they sometimes pay attention to and don't. And it reminded me of all the times that Thom and I have almost met in the last ten years but never did until now on this boat. And it just felt serendipitous.
Thom: And so I'm pretty darn excited about seeing Skylar again. And I actually managed to get a day off from the captain, like for the first time the whole year, other than you know the divorce. And so we go to the common ground fair and we spend the whole day at the fair together trying to bait each other into saying, “That's what she said.”
“Hey, how do you like those gourds of that guy grew?”
Skylar: “Those beans look rather large."
Thom: And it basically resulted in us just constantly suppressing giggles with each other like little school kids and giving each other these like furtive glances and laughs. And it reached a peak when a sailor friend of mine joined us. And in all seriousness she started talking with us about all the work she had to do earlier that day, which explained why she was late -- caulking a leaky deck.
Skylar: I mean, that is literally what she said.
Thom: That is what she said. And after such a great time just laughing with Skylar all day, after that day at the fair I did a lot of reflection on my recent divorce and my past relationship and I realized what I'd really been missing was this common sense of humor, this person who I can not just really be open and vulnerable with but also who I could laugh with and who could teach me how to laugh at myself. And here I was spending all this time with this wonderful woman who made me laugh like no other. And so I asked her out on a real date, and the timing couldn't have been more perfect. We ended up going to the top of Mount Battie and watched the total lunar eclipse together overlooking Camden Harbor, where we met here.
Skylar: And you know when Thom actually asked me on a date, I was scared shitless. I was excited, but I was like, Oh crap. Like something might actually happen. And you know I was really nervous that like I would just get run over and treated like crap like I have so many times before. But I was like, I'm going to give it a shot. And you know while Thom and I have all these things in common, what we really discovered on that day and the month that followed is that we had both met our best friend in the universe at the same time. I know it's really corny, but it's true. And exactly thirteen full moons later after our date, we got married at a lighthouse overlooking the bay where we met.
So, as they say, the captain is always right.
Thom: Thank you.