I dreamed I was in the lobby of my apartment building, in an inky darkness. A man beside me, whom I couldn’t see, said casually, “Have you noticed all the old ladies have disappeared?” I asked what he meant and he continued, “You know—all those old ladies you used to see in the Village with their shopping carts, the solitary ones, they’re gone now …” I had woken up in a sweat. Was it true, were they gone, the tiny elderly women with their question mark spines and misshapen coats, faces ridged and folded like dry riverbeds? The old ladies I used to watch with a deep affection for their inching pace and the ash or toast colored remnants of their hair? I imagined running a comb through that hair: how it would resist me, though feebly…imagined their closets, full of the garments of the past, those which had defied every decade’s sorting out.
There had been a time, years ago, when I was especially mesmerized by the old women because of the way antidepressants had displaced my sexuality, not dulling it exactly but put it where it could no longer be found, like seventh grade Latin. The pills were the Fates, who exact a price. A little of this, a little of that. Snip, snip. Don’t complain. You wouldn’t rather be in the bathtub with a razor blade, now would you?
No. I don’t know. Maybe.
The old women knew. Their husbands or lovers were far behind them; they were still and solidly here. How carefully they walked, putting each foot down exactly. How quickly and slyly they surveyed the street: cars, bikes, loading ramps, dogs. How sharply they examined—and thought what? I wanted a half an hour inside each neatly tucked-in brain. I knew their griefs were all in order, not blotted out, not consuming.
It was a nightmare, I said to myself. They’re not gone. Not all of them. Of course time passes…there are fewer than there used to be…the ones who watched me sally out in my ignorant twenties, foolishly hopeful thirties…Dora who lived in my building, on the eleventh floor, with a captive daughter—but she was my least favorite….
I tried to put the dream aside. It was my policy not to be depressed in the morning, when I got most of my work done. Once upon a time, that had meant writing poems, the paying work left for later, but I wasn’t writing poems anymore. Now I used my best energy to edit pharmaceutical insert copy.
I didn’t work that morning. I went out into the bright glittering day, looking for old ladies. Up and down the streets, passing the usual artists, free-lancers, chattering and texting students, retired men with dogs. All the shopkeepers were inside; it was cold, nearly Christmas, much to do. Too early for customers in this part of town, but the shelves were stocked and more boxes were coming in; delivery trucks clogged the streets. The aroma of coffee seeped out of the cafes, reminding me of everything I couldn’t actually remember.
It was a coincidence I didn’t see any old ladies. How often didn’t I miss what was right in front of my eyes? I could spend an hour looking for keys I was holding in my hand, go back six times to the spot by my computer where my reading glasses were supposed to be, and were, steadily were, though I didn’t notice them. Nothing to worry about. This happens when you bump 50. A minor annoyance. There was worse coming.
I went home, put in a day of work. I played up, then toned down, the absurd claims for what I privately called ‘The Nice Mommy Pill’, did laundry, called my health insurance company to continue the argument over a disputed bill from my psycho-pharmacologist, who’d experimented on me with a drug for nervous horses, and paid off my Amazon.com Visa card with my new Google.Universe card.
I kept thinking about the dream. No more old ladies. Not the ones wearing shoes like rubber doorstops or the ones walking daintily in 30-year-old pumps. Not the ones barely five feet tall, nor their shorter sisters. Their discreet, disinterested gazes stitched the world together.
Was it a message about how I was going to take their place? It wasn’t like I didn’t know this already. But I wasn’t there yet. I was flailing into middle age, years ahead of it ahead of me. Hot flashes, colonoscopies, receding gums, more expensive haircuts. Tiredness and aching joints, suspicious mammograms, friends’ children’s weddings. And the talk, that monotonous middle-aged talk, intimate, embarrassed, yet less embarrassed than ever before, embarrassment now a kind of password, we’re in this together. Money worries, ailments, the deaths of friends.
Lots of people die in their 40s and early 50s, even discounting AIDS and suicides. There’s just a certain number who get brain tumors or sudden heart failure, who die of diseases you’ve never heard of, or ones you didn’t know were fatal, like Lyme disease. Diane’s sister died of Lyme disease. My friend Carol died of colon cancer, and my neighbor Emma of liver cancer, and lots of people I sort of knew died of lots of things I’d sort of heard of. And there were car crashes, plane crashes, household accidents. There were the famous people you really liked, the writer whose next book you were waiting for, the politician you’d secretly hoped would run for higher office. The actor you always thought you’d somehow manage to sleep with, the actor you didn’t like except at the end, his astonishingly funny and candid interview about his illness. Not to mention the people in the neighborhood, the Korean lady dragged by a bus, the doorman killed by his crack-head son-in-law.
It was like slowly flaking wax off a dining room table. It was like picking at a loose thread. Someone taking me apart. It’s not that I blamed them. God, whomever. The forces of evolution, which I imagined as big gray waves on a beach. Why should I be spared? The young deserved the future; I’d had my shot.
Is there anyone who believes that?
I was spending the holidays alone. My only family—my sister Eunice—lived in Seattle with her husband and children; we spoke on the phone, but rarely visited. My best friends Kathy and Allan were going to St. Lucia, my other friends were with lovers or family.
Kathy was the one I would miss on Christmas morning. I’d known her since we were schoolgirls in the New Jersey suburbs, together or on the phone nearly every waking hour. Five years ago she and her husband had moved to New York from Chicago, where Kathy had gone to college. While apartment hunting in Manhattan they’d found, by coincidence she claimed, the best deal right here in my building. Their moving in had made me nervous. New York is an anonymous city. That’s the myth—it’s anything but. Still, I clung to my illusion of privacy, of my flawed life playing out in comforting shadow. Kathy brought glare and high standards. She had strong opinions about the folly of dating amusing drunks, pitiful married men, or talented paupers. She believed I didn’t value myself enough. Sometimes I agreed, but even at those moments it seemed wiser to accept my self-hatred then endlessly combat it. It was my theory that if you gave enough room to your masochistic demons, they’d eventually get tired of themselves and disappear.
Kathy and Allan moved in and I adjusted. I saw other friends less often. My sex life dwindled, then stopped. I couldn’t really blame Kathy. It’s just easier when you have something that feels like a family right down the hall to postpone another attempt at the Internet lottery.
Wanting to tell her the dream, I padded down the hall in my socks. She was in the kitchen when I entered, scrubbing it spotless. Down on her knees, up on her toes, a trim, toned version of her teenage cheerleader self. I lounged in the doorway, admiring the granite counters and the old farmhouse table of the kind that costs $3400 in Soho.
“Stevie, there you are. I wanted to talk to you. You made plans for Christmas day, didn’t you? You’re not going to be alone?”
“I’m having dinner with Kelsey and Mike,” I lied.
“Good.” Her parental tone annoyed me; the familiarity of this annoyance annoyed me further.
“Women with families love nothing better than a lonely single woman at the table,” I said. “It makes marriage look so much better and there’s someone to play with the kiddies.”
“Not if it’s a bad marriage. Then they envy you.”
“Neither of us knows anything about bad marriages.”
“You’ve forgotten our childhoods already?”
“Kelsey loves you.”
“You think she’s an airhead.”
“No, I think she’s choosing not to use her brains. Raising kids is one thing but making her own soap? Please.”
I decided not to tell her my dream. Instead, I told her about my young friend Natalie, who was spending Christmas in Payne Whitney. Natalie was a therapist who had regular breakdowns, usually at the holidays. “Lucky her, she can afford mental hospitals,” I said to Kathy.
“Stop whining,” she replied. “You could afford them too if you worked harder.”
Allan came in from the living room to see what we were laughing about. “You wouldn’t get it,” Kathy assured him.
“The curse of being male. We never understand.”
He was so solid, in his yellow cashmere sweater and gray slacks, carrying a new book about the discovery of America, or Antarctica, one of those places once magical and virgin. His paunch just noticeably there, comfortable-looking. Allan was only a little taller than the two of us, pink-faced, brown-eyed, curly-haired and balding; a little rugged, a little soft. He had that rumpled, Jewish, smart-kind demeanor that I sometimes think is the best way for a man to be. He made you understand how a person could be very intelligent, perceptive, recognize evil and hate it, yet still be wholeheartedly in favor of the human race. He seemed objectively benign. That was my first impression and it had never changed. His devotion kept Kathy at the necessary remove from Manhattan’s ferocity. She was successful at her new job, he was successful at his, they made plenty of money but were nowhere near the top—And we’re fine, he said as an undertone to everything he said. We’re fine; we’re happy; we’re lucky. They were. He was steady and quietly ardent. He made her laugh.
“So what’s it like being male?” I asked.
“‘…And we are here as on a darkling plain/ Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight/ Where ignorant armies clash by night.’”
And “Even at Dade, Whitlaw and Perkins?”
“I may not be a litigator, but I have my battles.”
“Isn’t he cute?” said Kathy.
“Fuck off,” he remarked mildly.
“We were the ones minding our own business. You came in to be one of the girls. I think Stevie’s being very nice to you, asking you about yourself.” Kathy was packing her bathing suit—electric blue one-piece, to go with her electric blue eyes, two bulging bags of cosmetics, mostly the invisible sort. No meds.
“Stevie’s a perfect doll,” he said.
“I always wanted to be a Ken doll.”
“Now, why is that?”
“Because I felt sorry for him.”
“Who wouldn’t feel sorry for Ken? But how does that translate into wanting to be him?”
“Because Stevie thought that if she were Ken, she could shape him up and not make him a wimp anymore.” Now she was packing her pink cotton pajamas, the sort she’d worn for thirty years.
“Hardly. I’m a wimp myself.”
“I don’t think so,” said Allan. “I think you’re very courageous. You lead an independent life in New York City. Not every woman can do that.”
His compliment flustered me. He was always gentlemanly, but was he beginning to overdo it? Right then I was thinking, I don’t have a husband or a boyfriend to be with on Christmas, I’m a failure at the most basic human activity. But I didn’t want to complain to Allan about being a single woman. He had already set me up with every available man he knew. I had slept with several of them, to no good effect, and now he refrained from asking those men to parties. I felt bad about that.
“Actually,” said Kathy, “Stevie wanted to be Ken so she could lure Barbie away from the prom and beat her up. Barbie reminded her of all the girls in school she hated.”
“We’re not in school anymore.”
“In my dreams, I am.”
“Everyone is in their dreams. That doesn’t count.”
Then I wanted to tell her and Allan about the old ladies, but I still hesitated.
Allan gave me a lopsided smile. “Girls can be cruel,” he said.
“Life is cruel,” said Kathy. “We die.”
“But not tonight.” He kissed her ear.
“It could happen,” I said. “We could go to sleep like every other night—having brushed and flossed, taken our pills—wake up dead.”
“If it’s you, let me know before we get on the plane, okay?” said Kathy. “I don’t want to have to fly back for a funeral.”
“Well, just in case, I’ll leave a note telling Eunice not to call you.”
She glanced at me and said dryly, “I think you should put me down as your next of kin. When did you last see your sister?”
As if I could remember the exact year. “You’d be too unhappy to plan my funeral properly.”
“Why, what do you want?” asked Allan.
“What do you mean?”
“She means in her casket,” said Kathy, though this was the first time I’d made this particular remark, or even thought of it.
“Dead or alive?”
“In a coma.”
He looked confused. “Now you’ve lost me.”
“She doesn’t want them to suffer,” said Kathy. “On the other hand she doesn’t want them to smell.”
“Sometimes you frighten me,” I said.
There was a pause. “I should go,” I said. “Merry Christmas.”
“Goodnight,” they chorused, “Merry Christmas! We love you, we’ll call you, take care.”
Alone in my apartment, I allowed myself a shot glass of self-pity. Kathy and Allan were going away and hadn’t invited me. It wasn’t that I thought they should have invited me. They needed their time alone; I didn’t want to be dragged along like one of those 30 year old kids who haven’t figured out how to leave home. It was simply that my feelings and I did not always agree on things.
You had a wild and sexy youth, I whispered to myself. You’ve felt passionately about a dozen men, and one or two of them returned it. You’ve eaten in the best restaurants, been whisked past the lines at trendy nightclubs, snorted coke on the same sofa as a minor movie star. You’ve made love in the back of a limo, with two men at once, with a married couple from France, never with dogs or children…by the means of such thoughts and a little oval pill striped green and white like spearmint candy, I went to sleep.
On Christmas, I woke up at six worrying about my IRA, lay there rigidly until I drifted off, then slept until eleven. I opened a few gifts, ate leftover curried tofu with yams and a box of cheap butter cookies someone had left on the bench in the hall, and spent the bulk of day re-reading Pet Semetary. Kathy called. Eunice called. I didn’t pick up.
In the late evening, I put on my boots and my coat and went out. There had been a few minutes of snow. The air was still crystalline, with that hint of the ocean that keeps Manhattan from imploding. The serrated holly leaves and bright berries in the tiny, white-dusted gardens on 5th Avenue looked so beautiful I wanted to seize a quiver of quantum weirdness, and become them.
There were a lot of people on the street, but no old ladies. Okay, a few—silver haired or glistening blond, in expensive coats, on their husband’s arms: not what I meant. Of course the little, ancient ones didn’t go out at night, even on Christmas. They had more sense than that.
I had reached Washington Square Park, and after pausing by the big lit-up tree in front of the arch, went into the park proper, and sat on a bench. I wasn’t the only person alone. My kind were dotted here and there: old men in black overcoats, teenagers in baggy pants and woolen caps, and one middle-aged woman talking to herself (really talking to herself, no cell phone), fingers stroking the air for emphasis. Who said spending Christmas like this was worse than sitting at a laden table with friends? Even the most wonderful friends get tiresome over the decades. Time reveals their inner mechanisms, the compulsive rearranging of the limited repertoire. Charm goes bad.
The city was different. The city knew how to change, belonging as it did to the fierce tides of immigrants and the super-rich, whose sentimentality could always be stashed elsewhere. Buildings, businesses, neighborhoods, culture: what resisted change provided the necessary irritant for action. What makes us helpless in our lives feeds the power of others, and then, if we are lucky, we benefit from their energy, from the world transformed.
I moved to New York in the early ‘80s, when it was still dangerous. When Union Square didn’t mean baby lettuce and artisinal goat cheese, when 42nd street was still the pimps’ playground, destination of choice for confused runaways and sad men with a few quarters to spare for the peep shows. The city had no money; people smoked in offices and pissed on the street; race war was ever imminent and artists could pay the rent.
In those days, I would walk for hours. After a party or a night at a club, I’d tramp the grand boulevards of Church, West Broadway and Houston with their windswept sidewalks, empty lots, and passing hipster gangs; the too-quiet side streets; the espresso alley of Macdougal. And everywhere the deep aromas of the city—human, mineral, machine—were layered like a French pastry or a great novel. I believed then that change was in the past and in the future; that the present was somehow sacrosanct, giving me room to learn.
I worked on the lowest rung of the catering trade, which I preferred because I got to stay in the clients’ kitchens smearing olive tapenade on rounds of baguette instead of donning a white shirt and mingling with festive professionals. I didn’t care for crowds. I didn’t like being in an office either, where I landed next. It wore on my nerves, surrounded by people all day. It made me feel like I was being sucked into a tube of rubber sealed at both ends, a squashed gray place full of unkind, nattering faces. I thought this meant I was overly sensitive, bad at life, and I was correct.
“You’re a poet, my dear,” said my first married lover, a well-known editor with a leonine head and power over my paycheck. Roland and his wife ran an imprint at the venerable Reaper and Crow, before the company was bought out. I made copies and coffee, carried manuscripts between offices, and called writers to remind them that it was daytime and they should consider working. Meanwhile, Roland made deals, bought shirts, and introduced me to anal sex. “Rimbaud liked this,” he said while engaging in the latter.
“So does Allen Ginsberg.”
“Yes, My Angel, but you’re so much more Rimbaud than Ginsberg.”
“Thanks. I guess.” Ginsberg was prolific, socially committed and had lots of friends. Rimbaud gave up poetry at 19, became a gunrunner, lost a leg in Africa and died alone.
I was a poet: I wrote poems. I wrote and rewrote, and slowly the finished pile grew. Meanwhile I read the great and the near-great, and my soul would flare out in exultation. This was life, everything contained in twelve or fifty lines, a fingerprint lifted and chiseled into stone. That little, unobtrusive hinge in your thought, the place where, when you find it and let it do its work, your thought doesn’t falter or fray but grows stronger, draws energy to itself and glows, where the lid opens: that was the thing you made a poem of.
I knew this but I’d never been able to abide by it. I was too busy covering my traces. Beginning a poem from an inspired moment, a glimpse, then as I developed and revised, at some point, seeing myself, I’d bolt for the pretty or the derivative and get stuck there, going around like a hamster on its wheel.
I was afraid. Of course everybody is afraid, every writer feels the dread of knowing herself, but I read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and he described the dread so beautifully I didn’t think it had anything in common with my dread. My dread wasn’t exquisite enough. There was nothing I could do but hide and wait for the future, when time would by its ceaseless action have made me into a different person. I’d still be flawed, but I’d have more acceptable flaws—flaws within the parameters set by other people’s work.
No matter how widely I read, how many bizarre, outrageous, or quietly peculiar writers I discovered, how stretched and nearly infinite these parameters became, they were never wide enough because no one wrote just like me. I knew, of course I did, that this was a good thing….
I read, I wrote, I thought hard and worked late into the night, by the cold window whose firm glass I tried to emulate, or with the window open to the foul-fragrant stew of summer air. I listened to the street noise or Chet Baker. I didn’t notice when I slid away into dreaming, association after association, when the words became dependent on prior, private use. I was always trying to say something I had tried to say before, which I had never reached, so it seemed natural to refer, elliptically, to that previous attempt and failure, and not to notice I was doing this, or notice vaguely I was doing something ‘wrong’ but that particular ‘wrong’ immediately sticking to the general concept ‘wrong’, which was intimately attached to the general concept ‘me’, and since I was trying to reveal myself, or use myself as the vehicle of truth, whatever was ‘wrong’ couldn’t really be wrong; I was in fact being daring.
Not believing this, and not knowing why not—confusion and loneliness making me want to cry or hurt myself…
I would turn back desperately to words, one word, any word, a first word I surrounded with others as if making for it a bed. The activity itself, the continuance of it, was consoling, timidly generous. And through all this, the energy of my youth was a like a tidal wave in my body, flung up enormous, unable to get out. The pressure of it against my skin, against my thoughts, was overwhelming. I was an unborn thing, a grub, precious only to myself and God, who for his own mysterious reason was holding me back, whispering a barely audible Wait.
From Chapter Three
Gordon took a breath. “I know this is going to sound idiotic. I suppose that’s why I wanted to talk to Stevie.”
“Because I’m an idiot?”
“Because you’re sympathetic. Because I feel like I know you.” I was old enough to be scared when someone I’d just met said that. But attraction has a way of making its own use of fear.
“It’s the most important discovery in the history of the world,” he said.
Wow, I thought. Somebody in real life has actually said that to me.
“Shoot,” said Allan.
The three of us all sat in a row on the couch. Gordon sat across from us, in a straight wooden chair and began to talk. He started with the idea that death is an evolutionary compromise, not a law of nature. Once upon a time the only life was unicellular, and each cell reproduced by dividing, so it never died. “My father told me that,” I said. “It was his opinion that life should have stuck with that program.”
Gordon paused, and continued. When sexual reproduction happened along, who knows how, chance, whim, some sticky protoplasm getting left in the other creature by mistake, it was a real boost. It worked so they kept doing it, ages and ages before wonder bras and late night cable and gullible women having cosmetic surgery on their vaginas. Once it started, the species changed with every generation, which had the advantage of protecting creatures from the parasites that evolved in their gut—evolving at much more rapid rate than larger animals ever could—and were transferred to the fetus by the mother, but then stopped cold, as the fetus with its mix of genes was a new environment, requiring further adaptation; and also introduced a higher chance of mutation, and thus even greater diversity, though at the cost of losing the original creature. Actually, I think he said, “original blueprint.”
What about the parasites, I thought. Were they sexed? If so, why? Did they have their own parasites?
Even so, Gordon continued, death was not inevitable, at least not early death—some trees live thousands of years—but mammalian death was a result of the greater survival value of sexual improvement. Sexy creatures had more babies, and if they lived long enough to raise those babies to independence, nothing else mattered. There was no incentive for longer life, so nobody bothered putting it in. He didn’t say it like that, nobody, his language attempted to be strictly neutral, but humans aren’t able to talk about this neutrally; something creeps in: agent, intention, meaning.
He was saying that all the meanings we give death are ex-post-facto; our sense of it as ‘natural’ was only because it happened. It was natural like eating raw meat or living in caves was natural.
We listened politely to his lecture. Allan and I already knew something about evolutionary theory, and Kathy didn’t care. She was taking in information the way she always does, like a biological computer, but she didn’t care. Not yet. She was waiting for the payoff.
Then he got more technical, and we followed him less well. I remember the word ‘apoptosis’ which means cell suicide. And necrosis, cell death, and something in between the two, a word beginning with p, which implied that all cell death was really suicide following insult or injury. And that certain cells, like cancer cells, don’t die but rather reproduce themselves indefinitely.
He mentioned the Hayflick limit—cells get to split 50 times, that’s all, then it’s over, and how people thought that was a natural limit until they learned to sidestep it with telomerese, which this hadn’t lived up to its early promise, and anyway carried a great risk of cancer. And how scientists thought the limit on cell growth was there for the express reason of preventing cancer. And then an intuition on the part of some molecular biologists that there was a switch in the central nervous system controlling the production of what you might call a youth hormone—not human growth hormone, he assured us—and so many people had been looking for it, including him, Gordon, and he’d just happened to find it. (I pictured him going through his lab assistant’s coat pockets looking for parking meter change and finding a tiny bottle from an East Village homeopathic store, and, what the hell, trying it out…but I don’t think that’s what he meant.). That wasn’t all, he’d also figured out how to slow down, by a tiny, by an infinitesimal amount, the copying of DNA, vastly reducing the errors of that process. It had to do with the new advances in understanding RNA. Could we imagine, people used to think RNA was not so important?
“Got it,” I lied.
So anyway, a lot of people were working along the same lines, and he’d been lucky. He was looking at us now with an intensity that made us all rather dazed, uneasy, yet mesmerized. “I discovered it essentially by chance. I could so easily not have done that experiment. I was concerned about a political conflict at in the department, and working to avoid having to think about it. Not proceeding along the lines I’d set up because I knew I was in a careless mood, and didn’t trust myself. Doing what seemed unimportant. And even then, I could easily have missed the point…actually did, for weeks….”
The point being, of course, that he’d figured out a way to keep us young forever, or rather for a very long time. Maybe. It worked in mice, even better than the notorious starvation diet, or feeding them the equivalent of 72 bottles of red wine a day. Oh the elegance, the beauty of this solution which was complex, brilliant, yet so obvious! Although of course he couldn’t have done it if—
“You weren’t standing on the shoulders of giants,” Allan said.
“You have to stand on their heads,” said Gordon. That’s the hard part, scrambling up past their ears.” He grinned. It made him look so boyish, not more than fourteen.
“Stand science on its head,” said Kathy.
“Not really. It’s a continuum.”
“Stand society on its head,” she corrected herself.
“You don’t care?”
He thought for a minute. “I don’t know how to answer that. I guessed if I cared more, I wouldn’t do this. Who knows what results will be? But I also think that maybe it will be the best thing that ever happened. Maybe people, given a longer life, will work harder to make it better, think longer term. You have to admit, one of the big problems in the world is that the people with the most power are the ones with the least left to lose, in terms of years.”
I thought this was naïve but I didn’t say so. What had my cynicism done for me lately?
Allan began to ask detailed questions, and Gordon answered them. Allan asked everything I could have thought of, and Gordon was very patient. But we didn’t have the background to really understand. All we knew was that he’d learned how to manipulate the behavior of cells, and it worked in mice. Those given this treatment reverted rather quickly to a state of young adulthood, and so far, a little over four mouse-lifetimes, they’d aged so slightly it was only just perceptible.
“You want to try it on people,” said Kathy.
He shrugged. “Of course. Giving a mouse back its youth lacks a certain je ne sais quoi.”
“Fuck you, this is serious.”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I know. But isn’t it also exciting?”
She didn’t answer. She was biting her thumb and I knew she was thinking a hundred things at once, not all of them pleasant for Gordon. She could call the New York Times. She could call the FDA. I wondered why he wasn’t afraid of this. Me, I understood. I was fairly transparent in some regards. I don’t betray people, even when they behave badly. But Kathy?
“Why the hell did you have Stevie in mind for this?” asked Allan.
“She said her life was terrible. She was concerned about getting old.”
“So you saw her as vulnerable. You also knew she liked you, and you saw that as making her vulnerable,too.” Allan was really angry, which was so unusual. It made me feel good. I had been right to insist on my friends’ presence. On the other hand, I didn’t feel vulnerable anymore. Something inside me was shrieking with laughter and excitement and an emotion that moved so fast it scorched the ground.
“Mousy little Stevie,” I said with a smile.
“Not at all,” said Gordon, ignoring Allan’s anger. “I happen to like Stevie and I identify with her. I don’t want to get old. Why should we if we don’t have to? Do you believe this is the way it’s supposed to be? Do you think anybody cares? Do you believe you’re going to Heaven or coming back to be a Supreme Court judge?”
“Allan doesn’t want to be a Supreme Court judge,” said Kathy.
“Oh please, “ said Allan. “I don’t believe in reincarnation, I don’t believe in God. I think you’re right, there’s no moral reason why we should die. I don’t think Kathy should ever die, or Stevie. But what you’re talking about is some wild-eyed, unproven bullshit.”
“I wish I could do it myself, you know. I’d be the first in line.”
“Why can’t you?” asked Kathy. “You should.”
“Because he’s still young,” I said, letting my gaze lean against him. Young, but not too young. Utterly grown-up yet still smooth-skinned, clear-eyed, giving off something like the lingering scent of a toy new from the box.
“Because I wouldn’t be taken seriously in my profession if I looked 21, no matter that my brain was still 36. It’s difficult enough already. Scientists usually do their best work young but people still resent it. They feel like you haven’t earned it. That would only get worse…I can’t do it personally until my research is completed, or until society and the government have gotten over their distress.”
Distress, I thought, a good, quiet word. Distress, de-stress. Nothing that would scare anybody. The sort of word doctors use when they’re talking about the pain of terminal cancer. Wouldn’t we be resented too? Of course we wouldn’t be in the public eye, although how did I know that? I had no idea what would happen.
But this was a trickle of thought; mostly I was remembering being 21, my body undamaged, at its peak, like a great poem, every word in place. I was remembering how I used to feel getting up in the morning—that I didn’t even notice how I felt because nothing was wrong.
“You shouldn’t try something like this on people without other scientists reviewing your data and methodology,” said Kathy slowly. “It’s unethical. You need protocols.”
“Of course. That’s the way it’s done. That’s the way things are normally done, and I’d do it that way, except….”
“Something like this? I’d never get permission, not for years. Pressure would be brought to bear, my funding would be cut off; they could even take my lab away. Think about all that fuss about stem cells, for God’s sake.”
“And this doesn’t tell you something?” asked Allan.
He asked it mildly, almost rhetorically. We were all so relaxed suddenly. It was as if Gordon was one of us, one of our gang, our best friend. Just for that little piece of time, he was ours; we’d always known him. I can’t explain this except to say that what he was offering was beginning to register. Eternal youth. We were wary—and of course not really considering doing it, were we?—but amazed. To be offered this! Us, in all the history of the world, us in my living room on 9th street. Three middle-aged people with thickening medical dossiers, indistinguishable from thousands of others.
“You ask if it tells me something?” Gordon asked, leaning toward us, his voice low and rapid. “Sure. It tells me I’m out on a limb. I’m all by my fucking self. Could this be a mistake? Oh, yeah, I think so; I think that’s high on the list of possibilities. But you know, so much research has been stifled or slowed down in the last 15 years, except of course weapons research. Sure, we have clones, supposedly, in China, that was inevitable, blame agri-business for that, and all the work with infertility, new drugs for cancer, diabetes and heart disease, advances in imaging…stuff’s happened, but a lot of stuff hasn’t. Everyone thought Obama would change all that, but it’s not only coming from the top. It’s the process. The committees, the universities, the amount of money that’s needed. It’s not like the old days when you went in your basement workshop, cobbled together a new technology with what you had lying around.”
He wanted to do it alone, I thought. Even if they had let him, given him all the help he needed, he preferred doing it by himself. He wanted to take it from start to finish, be the mechanic as well as the theorist. Well, I could understand that. I recognized in him what I had once had myself—the belief that I was born for a unique fate. That was what had carried me though the early death of my mother, the depression and failures of my youth, and doubtless what had contributed to those failures. I had always thought that something would happen later. I worked but I didn’t scheme. I let myself be carried. Gordon clearly didn’t, and I admired that far more than I would have at 20. I admired it so much I wanted to steal it from him, lick it off with the late night scent of his body.
“But isn’t it true that what you’re doing is considerably more dangerous than, say, inventing electricity?” said Allan.
“Tell that to the guys fried in the chair.”
“Point taken. Nevertheless….” Allan and Kathy talked more about how dangerous it might be—for the world, not us, we were putting that to the side for a moment—and Gordon countered with the dangers if bio-terrorism. He repeated the kinds of scenarios we’d all heard, the violent, repulsive diseases that were unquestionably being created in labs all over the world, would be used whenever someone, by definition psychopathic, felt like it. Contrast that, he implied, with what he was offering, so Arcadian, so hopeful.
Gordon repeated that he’d do it himself if he could. He said that he chose me because he liked me, because I deserved it. He said, “Why not Stevie?”
“I’m mentally unstable.”
“Your psychiatric history is why the University wouldn’t admit you into a trial, assuming a trial was ever approved. They’d look for the most normal people they could find. Mostly because such people are considered to be more representative, but also because of the fear that you might not be able to handle it emotionally. I don’t see it that way. I think you’ve been through many frightening states of mind and come through intact. I see that as a strength. You’re also creative which means you’re adaptable.”
“I’ve never felt particularly adaptable.”
“Maybe you don’t see yourself clearly.”
“Maybe you don’t see her clearly,” Kathy retorted.
Sure, I’m adaptable, I thought. I adapt to every person I’m around. This is why I choose not to be around very many. “She doesn’t have to do it,” Gordon said. “It’s an invitation, that’s all. Though I think there should be a poet involved in this.”
“You mean like when they send people to Mars?” I asked. “Someone who can say something pithier than that it’s totally awesome?”
“Yeah. You’re making fun of me, but yeah.”
He had a point, I thought, though to be honest I wouldn’t have chosen myself. I would have picked someone with more stamina and public presence, not to mention talent. Several names came quickly to mind. But as with everything, it’s whom you know.
“And Kathy and I?” asked Allan.
“You said you were here because you’re her friends. I realized you were right. She should have friends help her make her decision. She should have people like you two who care about her know what’s going on.”
“So that when she looks like a college kid, we can pretend she’s our adopted daughter?” said Kathy.
He shrugged. “Whatever.”
“I mean I don’t know what’s going to happen. For Christ’s sake, don’t you get it, this is the most radical, fantastic, unbelievable discovery in the history of the world!” He stared at us, breathing heavily. “It’s making me a little freaked, I’m sorry, but it also makes me happier, no, that’s not the word, I mean—.”
I could have given him words. Wasn’t that my job now? Joyous? Ecstatic? Enraptured? Hot? He was on fire and we were all sucked into that flame in our different ways. Allan, I think, identified with the achievement, the male orgasmic juice of doing something so amazing. Kathy was thinking of elements and powers, galactic shifts; she told me later that at the end of his speech her mind had filled up with numbers, images of numbers shining green against dark, bigger numbers whose significance she longed to know.
I was seeing the soft, stained denim of my favorite blue jeans in college. The ones with a rip in the thigh a boy made with his penknife to prove a point (that his knife had a point, I think), the hole in the pocket a set of keys will eventually make and that would be so easy to sew up but you never do. I was remembering waking up, pulling them on every morning, how I took it for granted a person should wear blue jeans every day since you never knew when you’d need to climb a fence, ford a stream, change a tire, or take LSD and crawl through an acre of bramble bushes, Blakean visions tumbling around in your head.