The World Biofilm Conference, held every summer in northwestern US, was this year in Big Sky, Montana, an alpine ski and golf resort. Montana State University–the global center for biofilm research–was in nearby Bozeman. The conference offered three full days of presentations by international experts in biofilm research. Over 200 scientists had gathered in this remote location to learn the latest on slime.
Historically, conferences are occasions for openness and collaboration, but not everything was on the table. Scientists dared not disclose their secrets, as they did earlier in Evo’s career. Even with patent protection, it was prudent not to reveal much. Securing intellectual property stymied collaboration, and put in question the very reason for meeting.
Yet scientists cannot help but bounce ideas off one another. Huddled together for a few days with no distractions, at the forefront of a scientific revolution, it was impossible not to share. This exchange went well beyond emails and phone calls. Bonding at conferences increased insight, redefined focus, and helped gauge the competition up close.
These conferences were major growth spurts for scientists. Evo had forged several fruitful collaborations over the years at such meetings. This year he was especially eager to share his groundbreaking work with colleagues and make new connections, without divulging his secret recipe, of course. Avid yes, stupid no.
Why anyone was at a ski resort in the middle of summer to discuss slime was beyond belief. But, for a slime guy, being among colleagues was way cool. Having the antidote to slime was even cooler. Navy scientists were there, because slime drag on their ship hulls cost taxpayers billions. Fossil fuel scientists attended because slime interfered with oil and gas extraction. Biofilms were even a problem in outer space, which brought NASA scientists to the meeting. Industries far and wide showed up, since the costs from slime were considerable. Evo had many reasons to be in Big Sky.
Scientists worldwide were keen on Evo’s work. Current drugs against slime were toxic, ineffective, or both. Reps from the personal care, house & garden, and food production industries wanted to know more about MIFF. The slime-riddled pulp & paper industry was also curious, as were the cement, ceramic, silicone and plastic industries. And, of course, pharmaceutical industries had an eye onDr. Lucio’s work. Evo aimed to connect with many of these folks during the meeting.
Evo stood out at this conference for many reasons. He plainly towered over everyone. His good looks and crisp style were also uncommon among scientists. Unlike so many at this conference, he was not a geneticist, bioengineer, or high-tech geek. Rather, Evo offered a simple, cheap and practical solution to slime. Regardless, he needed to connect with these top-notch scientists and companies. He needed their money, clout and resources. It took a village to bring a drug to market.
On the first morning, things did not start off well. Evo arrived a bit late and barely awake, after a late night at the hotel bar. The room was packed with scientists, and cluttered with audiovisual equipment that blocked the corridors. Sipping on a double espresso, his eyes opened to the day.
He managed his way to an empty seat in the back row, stepping on a few toes in the process. Wedged between two big bosomy women, his range of motion was severely restricted. Fortunately he was tall enough to peer above the rows of heads to see the speaker.
Though a bit groggy, Evo’s babe radar was on full alert. Physical beauty was infrequent and immaterial at these conventions, but Evo had a hawkish eye for it. Creativity and intellect were attractive, but did not stir him like beauty could.
Otherwise a decent man, Evo’s ethics were suspect when it came to women. Casual sex was his calling card. With so many agreeable women around, having just one seemed absurd. Although admittedly shallow, he did not view it as immoral, since these encounters were consensual. Regardless, his romantic ambitions at these conferences were low.
Unexpectedly, Evo caught a glimpse of a tall woman up front, with a braid of black hair down her back. As the speaker’s voice faded into the background, Evo maneuvered for a better look, again disturbing his two buxom bookends. He failed to hear a single word from the lectern.
Shortly thereafter, a timely coffee break ensued, as attendees vacated to an adjacent room. Positioning himself near the middle aisle, Evo fixed upon the braided beauty. She rose from her chair, turned, and did not disappoint. Tall and shapely, with dark olive skin, she was everything imaginable. Several men turned to stone as she passed. Such beauty was lethal, even at a science gathering.
Escorting her was a large, distinguished-looking man, whom Evo met the year before, though the name escaped him. He was super attentive, whispering in her ear frequently during the presentation, and obviously pleased to be near her. The man appeared several decades older; more like a father than a lover. The young lady found him engaging, in a student-to-mentor fashion. But she was truly the master, and he the learner.
As Beauty and her escort approached Evo’s perch, she seemed informed and earnest, from what he could hear. They were discussing the lecture and how it impacted her research. Through the passing crowd, he kept his eyes fixated, trying to recall in what magazine or movie he’d seen her. “Beauty, intelligence AND passion; what a concept!” he thought.
On the edge of his folding metal chair, Evo watched her pass in slow motion. She seized the aisle gracefully, with each practiced step. Briefly, their eyes met, and she offered an inviting smile.
The break provided opportunities to mingle. He followed her out to the coffee area from a safe distance; drawn to her, but afraid to approach. Evo was a couple of decades older, too, but she made everyone look less becoming.
Sensing the attraction, she cut through the crowd toward him. The coffee lines parted like the Red Sea.
“Hi. I’m Jessa Playting. This is my first Biofilm conference. And you?” Her broken English betrayed a middle-eastern accent.
“This is my third year,” he responded. “And the third year they’ve held it. The science of biofilms is relatively new.”
“And I am new to this country.” Her husband recently sent for her from Lebanon, after starting medical school in the US.
“I’m Evo, er Lucio, Dr. Lucio from Brookstone Medical.” He pointed to his conference badge, to be sure.
“I did some training at your school with my mentor, Dr. Wanabee, the professor I sat with this morning. I am from Yale Medical Center in New Haven, not far from you.”
“Two hours by far or kerry, I mean, car or ferry,” Evo responded. “We’re neighbors.” His English seemed more broken than hers. It was difficult to breathe with her so close.
“Montana is unfamiliar to me. Are you a cowboy, Dr. Lucio?” Jessa’s playfulness took off some of the edge.
“Heavens no! It’s Hicksville to me too, Jessa. I’m a city boy.”
“Then why are you talking like a cowboy?” Montana was apparently bringing out the Texan in him. He spent four years in the Lone Star State procuring his doctoral degree.
“Are you a movie star, or a model?” Evo inquired.
“No, but I play one on TV,” she giggled. “We watch American movies all the time in my country.” Suddenly she grew homesick. She missed friends and family from her native country. A moment passed before she continued, as Evo stood star struck.
“I prefer a big city, where the wine is fine and we dance into the wee hours.
It’s been a while since I’ve had fun.” The pretenses faded as she spoke, exposing her sadness. Jessa was disquieted by her circumstances; stuck in an unfortunate marriage in an unfamiliar world, and eager for real love. She yearned for rescue.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m fine,” she assured him, with a forced smile. This was a damsel in distress if he ever saw one. He knew the game.
“There’s a dance tonight at the Big Barn. Would you care to join me?” He was amazed at his sudden boldness.
With that, her gaiety returned. “Yes, I’ll see you there, Doctor.”
“Please, it’s Evo.”
Just then, Dr. Wanabee approached from the crowd with two cups of java. Jessa took one as she introduced the two men, who made reserved gestures toward one another. After an awkward pause, Evo excused himself and quickly exited.
With nothing else going on, most attendees joined up at the dance that evening, located in the dining room of the conference hotel. There was live music, and the evening meal was being served. Evo and Jessa spotted each other from across the great hall. They maneuvered their way through the crowd toward one another, and toward the dance floor in front of the band shell.
The band was the real deal, with cowboys sounding fiddles, washtubs, spoons and other strange instruments. They played old country tunes, some hokier than others; some Evo never heard before. Jessa was completely unfamiliar with the music, but slowly got into it. Shaking off reservations, they made their way onto the dance floor, which broke the ice and drew a crowd of couples.
Evo and Jessa danced to several songs in a row, fast then slow. He taught her the Texas two-step, after recalling how to do it. They were the center couple, with a growing circle two-stepping around them. She was used to being in the center.
It was hard to believe this was happening, how quickly and effortlessly they were joined together. Granted, it was more about her longing than anything he did or said. Under the circumstances, and given their cultural differences, it was best to say little and go with the flow.
When the band took a break, Evo followed Jessa and the crowd outside, where it was growing dark. The large yard behind the hall was aglow from a huge bonfire, where dozens of geeks talked science and roasted marshmallows. Jessa never had one−much less one burned on a stick−and enjoyed it like a child. Chocolate was provided to melt on the marshmallows, which Jessa approved of gleefully. Her happiness rivaled the fire before them.
Jessa ate enough S’mores to make her sick, but still wanted more. When the supply ran out, Evo went off to find more. But she was gone when he returned. He circled the Big Barn several times looking for her, to no avail. Eventually, Evo slogged back to his room and woke the next morning thinking he’d dreamt it all.
He ran into Jessa once more during the meeting at his 3-hour poster presentation. His breakout moment had arrived, but he was too enthralled with Jessa to engage with other scientists. He was hopelessly under her spell. His presentation proceeded without fanfare. A few questions were asked, but no real connections were made. Her presence–and his absence–repelled even the most curious. You could say he was afflicted. As was she.
She approached him warmly: “I can’t believe you have the magic bullet for so many problems with biofilms. This whole conference comes down to what you’re doing.”
“They’d be flocking to me, if that were true,” Even sighed. He was right: He didn’t have the animal or human data to make a convincing argument for MIFF.
Just then, an inner voice counseled, ‘Show interest in her!’
“So what you are working on, Jessa?” He leaned closer under the pretext of confidentiality.
“I’m just a student, not sure yet what I want.” Her tone was soft and insecure.
“I think you’re amazing. You must be a serious student. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.”
“I find this place boring,” Jessa admitted. Evo agreed. He was used to playing in New York; she in Beirut. Big Sky was a small, quiet village in the middle of nowhere. The main attraction was its magnificent, snow-capped, mountain peak. Evo looked forward to ascending it later that day.
“Listen. I’m heading to the top of Big Sky soon. It’s my 50th birthday and I promised the folks back home I’d send vibes from the summit. Would you care to join me?”
Suddenly she lunged at him, kissing both cheeks. “Happy birthday! I’ll be in meetings all day, and then we’re off to the airport. I’m so sorry.” She was clearly upset, but not as much as he.
“Damn! Poor timing,” he groaned. “Perhaps we could meet up again back east. We’re neighbors for God’s sake! Here’s my card. Give me a buzz and we’ll get together.” Something in her eyes assured him of a future meeting.
Just before taking the tram up Big Sky, Evo checked his messages at the front desk. Jessa had left a small, decorative note. On the cover was a wild Mediterranean rose. The note offered words of friendship, and a desire to connect back home.
Now certain of his chances, Evo felt like beating his chest, but waited until he reached the peak at seven thousand feet. There he let out a barbaric yalp that echoed through the valley.
Though not his best performance, she made it easy. A Mediterranean goddess knelt before him and delivered the keys to the kingdom.