I Can't Believe She Did That!

Published in O, The Oprah Magazine, August 2006


That summer I felt beautiful in motion, but Camille was just beautiful, without exceptions, even leaning over a Petri dish in goggles, fiddling with a pipette.

We were interns in the Stanford Genetics Lab, growing yeast cells and then examining their tiny insides.

Camille was not the usual lab type, though—she had Audrey Hepburn’s haircut from the second half of Roman Holiday and also Audrey’s derring-do and mischievous sparkle—and next to her gamine grace and fluttering French eyelids, I was a graceless, boisterous sidekick.

But she became a dear friend, and so I minded less.

I’d never been in close proximity to a beauty before. I saw how it made men come alive and stumble over their words. Once a Ph.D. student followed us out of the building on our way home, talking about yeast and then about France and then about how well he could dance the rumba, up close and grinding. I imagined him, his lab coat swaying to a Latin beat.

I didn’t want him, or the other men who hung around her, and neither did she: pale Ph.D. students and post-doctorates crouched over magnifying instruments. But I saw how her presence lit them up, like the dye we used on yeast cells under the electron microscope to make them glow in the dark.

The only place I felt beautiful that summer was in dance class. I’d been dancing jazz since I was 8, and that summer I’d perfected my jeté: a splits in the air landing with a soft ploof sound, like a bird touching ground after flight.

One day I asked Camille to come to class with me. I wanted to share my favorite activity, and also I wanted be somewhere with her where I felt beautiful too. Camille had never danced jazz before.

I spoke to her freely of the perils – of listing pirouettes, of pas de bourrée that might pretzel her doe-thin legs, of the myriad details vying for attention, hand, foot, leg, arm, each slipping out of position as she concentrated on the next. I remembered what it was like to be new on the dance floor, and I wasn’t trying to trap her: I told her that no friend of mine had ever dared before.

She came along. And in the class she mixed up her lefts and rights and once, after an overambitious turn, she almost fell but she caught herself by the heel of her hand. Spindly legs were not an advantage here, and nor was a high center of gravity. She was concentrating too hard for her beauty to radiate outward like it usually did. I admit: enjoyed those moments feeling suspended and alluring beside her.

But after class and the next day and then for the rest of the summer I noticed her looks less often. I thought instead about the way she’d finished the dance class with unselfconscious aplomb. And about how loyal she’d been to come. When I looked at her, I imagined I saw further in. Beauty thinned next to brave friendship.

The next day we punctured millions of yeast cells and discarded their little membrane skins. It was just protocol: we hoped to examine their complex and surprising insides, and the skins sometimes got in the way.