Leslie had one ironclad rule in her lab. She alone killed animals. It wasn’t that she liked to kill. It bothered her a lot, especially when it came time to put down a dog, or more rarely, a monkey. But she knew it bothered her less than it did some of the others, like Mitzi or Daniel, and she didn’t want to put them through it. In any case, they were her animals, and she was the one who had to take care of them.
The larger animals she injected, and the smaller ones she gassed. She hoped that she would go so quickly.
It was a Sunday evening, and the clap of her heels and the fizz of the faulty fluorescent over the sink filled the lab. The mouse room was pale and bright.
She had to kill a bunch of them before she left. She had to go for the next couple of days and wanted Mitzi to start the processing before she got back.
The recent tests were more promising than any she had seen before. It really looked like she had statistical significance on tumor reduction with this new COX2 inhibiting agent. Enough mice trials and she’d move to dogs, then monkeys, then maybe it could be turned loose on humans. If it remained statistically significant, and if the funding continued.
A half-dozen mice slept in a furry clump in the first cage. They were brothers. More than that, even. They’d been inbred for generations to make them as genetically homogeneous as possible. They were identical except for the notches she’d cut in their ears and tails.
The mice woke when she opened the top of the cage, scampering through the shavings as she reached inside. A-6, the mouse she had to kill from this group (cage A, mouse six: incision on right ear, docked tail) stretched and yawned–his small mouth forming a pink “O.” Before he could make a move she grabbed him by his shortened tail and dropped him in a plastic bag.
After she clamped the bag to the nozzle of the CO2 canister, she turned on the gas. The bag inflated, and she turned it off. A-6 gasped, scrabbled at the smooth plastic, and began to convulse.
Once, long ago, the man and woman had been lovers. She had been his first. He had been shy, neurotically so. Day after day and night after night she slid her face close to his and turned it just so, to the side, inviting him to kiss her. He may have never kissed anyone had she not been so patient.
For nearly a year and a half when they were twenty-two and twenty-three they spent every day and night together. They shared classes, tests, movies, dinners, colds, the flu. When his mother died he turned to her for support. When her parents divorced she cried with him through that long next weekend. And then? Nothing. She asked him to marry her, and the question collided with an uncomfortable silence. She said she’d wait until he was ready. He said he loved her but couldn’t see beyond that love. Not with her. Not without her. Not with anything. Finally she tired of his blindness.
With gloved hands, the man pulled a sealed envelope from the pocket of his coveralls and carefully unfolded it. He massaged the granulated chlorine in one end into the hair cream in the other. He looked around the room.
This was his last trip into the building. He’d smashed every computer terminal, removed every hard drive, and collected every floppy he could get his hands on. He’d emptied or removed the cages, and piled all the paper he could find–from filing cabinets, desks, wastebaskets–in the middle of the floor. To this he had added the floppies and hard drives. He’d poured diesel fuel over the pile, and now a gasoline-soaked rag waited for the envelope, a low-tech, inexpensive, untraceable, time-delay fuse.
He didn’t think the fire would do much damage–fires never did–but the sprinkler systems were guaranteed to raise hell with what was left of the electronics. In any case, the fire would be pretty. Too bad he wouldn’t be here to see it.
After he’d thoroughly mixed the contents of the envelope, he stuck it next to the rag, smiled, and slowly walked out of the building.
Now, on an airplane, a woman stood in the row ahead of him, made her way to the aisle, then began to search the overhead bin. He did an awkward doubletake and then said, “Leslie? Leslie Applegate?”
She stared at him blankly. Finally, she said, “Richard? Oh, my god. I didn’t. . . . It’s been. . . . “
“Fifteen years,” he said.
“Is anyone sitting here?
“You, I hope.”
Long before the door opened, when she only faintly heard footfalls down the long hall, Leslie knew Alan was coming. Eighty-hour weeks were the rule here, but Alan, her supervisor, was a special case: if anyone besides Leslie were going to be here tonight, it would be Alan. But it wasn’t just the timing that gave him away; something about the firm, rapid steps were unmistakable.
When the door to the lab opened, there he was. She smiled.
She didn’t know what to make of him. She often thought of Alan as a kind of balloon, brilliant, but so full of himself, and in some strange sense so full of the spirit of science–full of “the Ghosts of Scientists Past,” as Daniel liked to say–that it threatened to blow him apart unless he routinely relieved the pressure by burdening those around him with the effluvia of his knowledge. The staffers took to hiding when he was in this wing of the building, because he so often added to their workloads. Daniel sometimes made a great show of stepping into closets during “Alan Alerts.” On hearing his steps, Leslie herself had to check the impulse to dive into her office and turn off the light. But with the break-in yesterday at Pfizer, she knew he would have been suspicious enough to check her room. What could she have said had he found her huddled beneath her desk?
“I’ve been thinking about your presentations Tuesday . . .” he began. Classic Alan, or as Mitzi would have said, “Seven Alan Factors on a scale of ten.” No hello. No nothing. Right to business. He continued, “. . . And I’ve just come up with another series of regressions you need to do on that last set of data before you present.”
“Alan, I leave in five hours.”
“And. . . ?”
“And I’ve got mice to kill in the meantime.”
“I’ll do it. You write the routines–“
“–You haven’t even written them?”
“How on Earth would I have written the routines? I just thought of the regressions right now. Look. Work on the plane. Finish tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow I tour the Chicago lab.”
“And. . . ?”
“And Tuesday night?”
“No,” he said, firmly. “That’s unacceptable. I’ll show you the calculations, and then you do them. I’ll kill the mice. You’ve written up which ones?”
Though she realized that with a simple gesture and without a fight she was surrendering the one rule of her lab, she pointed absently to the list on the table next to her.
“I’ll lock up afterwards,” he said. “We really need to watch our security. Another lab got hit this evening.”
She was suddenly exhausted by the knowledge that she would get no sleep either tonight or tomorrow night.
He continued, “Rantech. Poof, the place just went up in flames. Did you hear?”
She barely listened, preoccupied by her workload. Still, a part of her wondered what sort of person would do something like that.
She sat down immediately, without waiting even to find what she’d been searching for. They looked at each other. He was conscious of the stubble on his chin, his unbrushed teeth. He became aware of the faintest smell of diesel clinging to his clothes.
She said, “I swore if I ever saw you again there was something I had to say.”
She laughed. “It’s not bad. I need to thank you.”
She laughed again, this time at his puzzlement, and said, “I always loved how the corners of your eyes wrinkle when you’re confused.”
He smiled. “I’d forgotten.”
“I never did. Anyway, right before the end, you asked me something that changed my life.” She hesitated a moment, and he remembered Leslie’s dramatic pauses. She said, “You asked what was most important to me in the world. After we broke up, I thought and thought, and finally came up with something.” She paused again, then said, “But before I tell you more, I have to say how great it is to see you. I never thought I’d see you again.”
“I didn’t think you’d want to.”
“Nor you me,” she said, “And you moved.”
“I did.” He looked at her intensely. He still liked how she looked.
She asked, “Do you ever wish. . . ?”
“Yeah,” he said. “We had something.”
She looked at him closely.
He asked, “Did you marry?”
“You knew I would.”
“The next one?”
She laughed, and said, “You knew I would.” Another laugh, then suddenly more serious: “Did you ever marry?”
“Some.” There was a silence, and then he asked, “So what did you devote your life to?”
He’d ferried the dogs in plastic kennels to a van waiting outside the building. They’d gone willingly and quietly. He was grateful for the quiet. It must have taken twenty trips, and his shoulders had grown sore. He had wished, then, that he trusted others more, and that he would have allowed the van’s driver, a dreadlocked kid, white, wearing camo fatigues and combat boots, smelling of pot, to help. But Richard wasn’t going to trust his freedom and future to some kid he’d met only the night before, when they’d hit that first lab, and someone he hoped he’d never see again. The kid, recommended as reliable by Richard’s local contact, hadn’t even brought a mask. When they’d first met, the kid had tried to make small-talk, but Richard, ski mask in place, had refused to say a word, merely gesturing for the van to follow the black nova he had been given to use while here. Once in the car, Richard had taken off the mask till he’d arrived near the site.
After he’d removed the dogs he’d returned for the mice. The kid had been listening to the radio in the front, nervously punching the control buttons and jumping from station to station. Richard had gestured for him to cut it. The kid had, then looked away to scan the parking lot as though expecting a half-dozen black and whites to come screaming up any moment. Theoretician, Richard thought. This guy wants to do something good, but get him here and he’s about to shit his pants.
The kid said, “How many more trips?”
Richard held up one finger and nodded.
“Hurry up, man. I saw some cars on the street.”
Imagine that, Richard thought. He actually saw some cars on the street. Walking back inside, Richard almost laughed: it’s so hard to find good help these days.
He brought out the last box of mice, and as he placed it on the floor the lid came slightly off. A mouse leapt out, and froze at the unfamiliar openness of the van’s bed. Richard’s hand shot out instinctively, and he caught the mouse before it could move. He felt its pads on his palm, and turning his hand upward loosened his fingers slightly. The mouse, white with pink around its eyes, panted. For a moment Richard held it there, hand open, before he slid it back in the box.
Richard walked to the front of the van, and put his hand on the kid’s shoulder. Their eyes locked. Richard had not wanted to speak (one less way to be identified if things fell apart), but said, “You’re all right. You did a good job.”
The kid smiled, scared.
Richard continued, “Courageous as hell to come out here.”
The kid hit the ignition, and drove away slowly, presumably to a safe house where he’d drop off the animals for eventual redistribution. Richard finished with the lab, and walked to the nova. He fired it up, and soon was driving alone, as he so often did, through the night.
“Cancer.” A very dramatic pause. “I work for a pharmaceutical company. A small one. I was the fifth employee. Now there are two hundred, with offices in California and Illinois.”
“Are you happy?”
“It’s good work. Important. I’m a dull girl. Long hours.”
“Does your husband mind the hours?”
“He did, yes.”
“I’m sorry. Is he dead?”
“One. He’s nine. We split custody every other week.”
“Does he like science?”
“That’s good. Do you, still?”
She paused, not dramatically but in confusion. Then he saw her shake off the confusion, like a dog shedding water, and ask, somewhat sharply, “Why wouldn’t I?”
Leslie took a long look at her face in the mirror. With one finger she hooked her hair, short and muddy blonde, behind her ear. She was both pleased and repulsed by the ease with which she was able to slip into this mode, pleased because she knew she could pull it off, and repulsed for the same reason.
Down to business. Clothes. Black dress. Black hose. Suit jacket. White blouse, top three buttons undone. Small heart earrings. Tiny golden pendant. All of that would go into the suitcase. For tonight? Jeans and a sweater.
She sighed. She was so tired of it all. Not just the sexual politics of funding, but of life. And she was just tired. She looked closely at her face. Lines around her eyes that weren’t there last year. Dark circles. Not enough sleep. When did that start? She swallowed, and made her mind busy. Pack. Drop off Timmy at Mom’s. Catch the red-eye to Chicago–the red-eye seeming not such a good idea now as it had when she’d made the reservation (work all day, she’d told herself, fly through the night, a quick nap before meetings in the Chicago office, and she’d be right as rain). Then after work tomorrow in Chicago, she’d fly to DC and spend the night with her laptop.
Turning away from the mirror, she saw for a moment the reflection of her mother. She turned back and saw it was so: the years settling on her face had given her the rounded jaw, the slight dewlap, the eyes, always worried and always somehow simultaneously eager. Even the creases around her mouth reminded her of her mother. Finally, something that could make her smile.
He asked, “So, what do you do?”
“Daily? I oversee animal testing, plus develop my own projects.”
He drew in a breath, but before he could speak she answered his unasked question: “By inducing brain tumors in mice, dogs, and monkeys. Then we inject the drugs, observe the responses, and after they’re sacrificed we examine the brains.”
He forced the corners of his mouth to turn slightly into a smile.
“We’re making good headway.”
Finally she said, “This weekend somebody trashed a couple of labs. Can you believe it?”
Shit, he thought.
“These people don’t understand what we’re trying to do. They aren’t even saving animals. They’re just destroying research. And they’re killing people. All the people who could be saved.”
His face remained impassive.
She said, “Your mother maybe.”
“She tried chemo, remember?”
She nodded. “But maybe there could have been a better drug.”
“Or maybe they could have just shut down the refinery above her aquifer.”
She gave him a look he couldn’t read. Then she took a deep breath, and said, a touch more lightly, “We’re lucky none of the animals were infectious, or we’d have a real health risk on our hands.”
“Yeah, I can imagine,” he said. He didn’t tell her that the person responsible had also done research, that he knew what the tests were, knew about the force-feeding of chemicals, the forced inhalation of radioactive materials. He pushed the thought away. He didn’t want her to read his mind. So many years he’d been doing this, and never yet a slip-up. He asked, “How did my question change your life?”
“About what’s most important.”
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is help. You knew that. I just didn’t know how. So I helped the wrong people. You remember that guy I dated just before you. . . . Well, I’ve learned to choose better. I help my son, and. . . .”
“And now people who have cancer.”
Her eyes smiled. She said, “Something like that. But really, the point is that because of your question, I realized that if I wanted to accomplish something, I had to focus. My family. My work.”
He said, “Animal experimentation.”
“No, that’s a means to an end. Curing cancer.”
“Ah,” he said, “Progress with a capital P.”
“Don’t be silly. Nobody believes in that anymore. But I make a difference.”
He wished he didn’t smell of diesel.
She asked, “What about you? What do you do?”
He answered, “I work day labor. Construction.”
She was silent again. Then she said, “Construction. Whatever happened to science?”
“Once you lose faith there isn’t much left but funny robes and dogma.”
Her shoulders hunched slightly, as they always had when she was upset, but she backed away from the confrontation: “Tell me about the relationships. Do you still. . . ?”
It was his turn to finish the sentence, “Not see a future? I still don’t.”
He thought a long while, then said, “Sometimes I am, too. . . .”
A bit too quickly, she asked, “About us?”
Her shoulders hunched again. “That’s probably honest enough.”
“I didn’t mean it that way. It’s just that generally I’m not sorry about not seeing a future. That’s the way I am. Am I sorry it destroyed our relationship? You bet. Do I regret the relationships I’ve had since? No.”
“Richard,” she said, “What is it. . . .”
“What is it that you’re afraid of?”
Richard knew the question was on target, but he didn’t say so. “It’s like a blind spot, you know? We all have them. Honeybees see ultraviolet, and flowers look different to them. Sure, we can design all sorts of fancy optical equipment that lets us view images we believe resemble what they see, but we can never really know. Or we can sit here and drink apple juice on this plane, but we’ll never know what it’s like to fly. And since we’ve never known, we don’t miss it. We can’t. I’ve never known a future–“
“–Not even as a kid?”
“Not even. And so I don’t miss it.”
“When we were dating, you never admitted your not seeing the future was anything for anyone to miss.”
“I’m not sure I do now. Bees see UV, but they don’t see the color red. I think when it comes to the future you and I just always saw things differently.”
Sometimes she loved her son so much it was like a deep stomachache she knew would never go away, only it was delicious at the same time. She sat with him in her car. She asked, “Have you got everything you need?”
He nodded. She backed the car down the driveway and into the street, and began the short trip to her mother’s. Were the car a burro, she thought, she would not have to touch the reins. Left, left again, right, past the Safeway, right again, and so it went. She told her son she would miss him, and he said he would miss her too.
She thought she was doing a good job with Timmy. He seemed happy. That was important to her.
She never asked herself anymore if she was happy. At one time she would have said she was, and sometimes now–during simple repetitive tasks at the lab, or time spent quietly with Timmy or her mother–she would still say the same. But most of the time she no longer thought about it.
She said, “I almost hate myself for asking, but I have to know. Did you see a future with these other women?”
“This time, yes.”
“That must have made relationships hard.”
“For them? You’d know better than I. As for me, not at all. I just concentrate on the present. I always figure if we make the present sing the future takes care of itself.”
“Has this ever worked?
“How many times?”
“Probably ten relationships in fifteen years, including a couple of minor ones I never should have started.”
“Ten.” A word for her to say, a sound for her to make, while she thought of this difference in their lives, even in something so simple as the numbers. “So the future didn’t take care of itself.”
“They all ended, right?”
He laughed. “They weren’t simultaneous, if that’s what you’re asking. One would end, and then sooner or later I’d start another.”
“But don’t–and please don’t take this personally, because I’m trying to understand–don’t you ever feel like a failure?”
He laughed again. “There were a couple of times it was a triumph to extricate myself.”
She was silent.
“All relationships end, whether by death or divorce or walking away. Sometimes walking away is failure, sometimes it’s success.”
She shook her head.
He continued, “You were very important to me. The world. And you taught me so much.” He stopped and smiled. “Everytime I kiss a woman I have to thank you for giving me the courage to ever do that.”
Now she laughed. “I can’t believe that. You were always so passionate.”
“It takes courage to show it. You gave me that.”
She laughed again. “The pleasure was all mine.”
He smiled. The pleasure. “Good God!”
He thought of the courage it had taken him to kiss her, then thought of the fear and courage of the kid in the van tonight, the same age now as he was then. His face darkened a little.
She asked, “What’s wrong?”
He wasn’t sure what to say. He thought, Where do we leave ourselves behind? He said, “Do you remember how in college I used to sit in the back and in my mind blow up any professor who lectured past the end of class?”
“And students who asked questions with less than two minutes left.”
“Where did that begin?”
“I always hated school.”
“Even as a kid. Straight rows, and time passing so slowly. Every minute a death. And then regular jobs.” He paused, then asked, “Do you remember our first kiss?”
”Sure. Night. Small grass area behind the Chem E building. But how did you get from jobs to kisses? I don’t think I like that connection.”
“No. The opposite. The first time we made love.”
“My parents’ cabin. Saturday morning. Spring. Snow on the ground. A bluejay outside the window.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
He wanted to say that by entering her body he had begun to re-enter his own, and that he saw an unbroken line running from that first kiss to his actions earlier this night, but even had it been safe he could not have found the words. And there was something else. He said, “Our relationship was my most successful.”
“But. . . .”
“But now I’ve got to tell you that you look wonderful–“
“I’ve put on some weight. . . .”
“Haven’t we all? You’re still as beautiful as you were–“
She laughed. “But. . . . I know there’s a but in here somewhere.”
“But. . . .” He didn’t know how to finish the sentence. Suddenly he remembered what he’d seen in the laboratories that evening, and the night before, mice with tumors the size of their bodies, dogs with holes drilled in their skulls to facilitate the implantation of circuit boards. He saw himself carrying away some of these animals to the van, and killing others to end their pain. He saw himself smashing computers and destroying electronic and paper files.
She didn’t say anything, and finally he said, “Tell me about your marriage.”
“I’m not sure what there is to tell. How do you condense thirteen years into one sentence? We met, we loved, we married, we built a home, we grew apart, we split, we divorced.”
“Is he a scientist also?”
“Yeah. No. I don’t know anymore. He was. That’s how we met, in grad school. That’s what he was for a long time. But he changed a few years ago. Other jobs, other women. A new car.”
“You deserve better than that.”
“She looked at him. “What do any of us deserve?”
He thought a moment. “Love, I suppose. Freedom.”
She looked again at the seat back, then to Richard, “I never wanted to hold him back. I didn’t love Eric because he was a scientist. I loved him–and in a lot of ways I still do–because of who he was. And who he was included those changes. He never understood that. He thought that to grow he had to be alone.” She stopped, then continued, “Or at least be with other women.”
She took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. She said, “But there’s something he didn’t understand. . . .” Suddenly she turned her face to his. “My sister-in-law had another baby.”
“I hope it was a girl.”
“Exactly!” she said. “Because you and I shared that time at my brother’s house–“
“–The thousand year week–“
“–you know she hates men. I don’t have to fill in the blanks.” A pause. “It was a girl, by the way.”
“Have you told him this?”
“That it was a girl?”
“Don’t be a goose.” She looked at him with raised eyebrows.
“I take it that’s a ‘yes.’”
She didn’t say anything. The man in the seat behind them began to sneeze repeatedly. Richard semi-consciously began to count them. When the man finished, Leslie said, “Seven.” More silence.
Finally she said, “Can I ask you a question?” She paused, then, “Why did you throw all those women away?”
He thought, then said, “I’ve been thrown over at least as much as I’ve thrown. But some I couldn’t talk to. A couple were crazy, one was violent, one hated sex.”
“And me, Richard, what about me?”
“If I recall, you’re the one who ended it.”
“But you could have had me all along.” She paused. “Why did you move?”
“I moved away from a lot of things. You, science, religion, everything I believed in.”
He was silent, and he could feel the hum of the plane as it moved through space, the engines combusting fuel and forcing them all forward. How could he say that though she had started him on this path, he’d never then thought that she, too, wanted to follow it? He thought again of the horrors he had seen that day, the horrors he had seen so many times in so many labs. “I don’t think you understand how much I hate science. The things I’ve seen. It’s not reformable. Napalm, plutonium, chainsaws, CFCs, the ozone hole.”
“What’s that got to do with us?”
“You’re a scientist.”
“And. . . ?”
Long silence. “And I’m not.”
“So I don’t think we could support each other in our life’s work.”
“Construction? What’s not to support?” She paused. “Oh, I see. You’re saying you couldn’t support me because I’m still a scientist.”
He didn’t say anything.
She continued, “But napalm and plutonium aren’t science.”
“What are they?”
“What’s science, then?”
“The antibiotics we pump into chickens and cows so they can survive factory farms?”
“You’re being obtuse.”
“What else is science? Curing chemically-induced cancers? And at what cost to animals?”
She was angry now. Her face tightened, and she jutted out her chin. He remembered that look. She inhaled deeply, then let it out. He could smell the tension on her breath. Then he saw her push her anger away by an act of will. She said, “You do know that right now you’re in an airplane, don’t you?”
“I had to get quickly from one place to another.” He saw a flicker of recognition cross her face. Stupid, he thought, Stupid.
“Without science you couldn’t have done that.”
“Without science I wouldn’t need to.” He couldn’t believe he was still talking.
She looked him up and down, and suddenly he knew that somehow she knew. Somehow that had been enough for her. Only she could have read him so quickly and so well.
On a dark street he pulled the car to the side and waited. No one. Still he waited. He could not wait so long as he would have liked, because he had to catch a plane. But confident now that no one was following him, he stepped from the car and removed the coveralls. He placed them in the trunk for the car’s owners to dispose of later. He got back in, then turned the key and slowly drove on. No traffic violations now. Nothing stupid. Almost done.
He was uncomfortable. There was much he did not like about this action. He hadn’t known–and still didn’t know–the locals well enough, and they hadn’t given him enough lead time. And his dreadlocked driver didn’t know the first rule of covert action: if you’re going to be a revolutionary you can’t look like one. The kid should get a damn haircut and take a bath.
But the thing that bothered him most was the flying. He never would have agreed to that–airline travel is far too traceable–but they’d supplied phony ID, and he was needed back home. But damn, mistakes like that are how you get caught. Having spent so much of his adult life removing others from their cages, how would he respond to being put in one himself? For years now he’d slept with a gun next to his bed, and though he thought about it often, he did not know at whom he would aim it–self or other–when that knock finally came.
Waiting in line to get his seat assignment he thought again about his mistrust of the punk with the dreadlocks. What he wanted more than anything, he realized, was to be able to trust someone, to be able to trust a woman, to fall soundly asleep in the arms of someone who knew, and who loved him anyway, or who loved him in part because of what he did. When was the last time he had slept perfectly soundly, or had a perfectly unguarded conversation? He was starving. What he wanted was to be able to share his life, secure in the knowledge that the other held his interests in the palm of her open hand, as he, earlier, had held the mouse. He did not think he would ever be able to do so.
She asked, “Richard, what did you devote your life to?”
He heard someone answer, using his voice, then realized too late he was speaking: “Trying to understand this mess that surrounds us, to do something about it.”
“What do you do about it?”
He thought a moment, then said, “I argue with beautiful scientists on airplanes.”
“I’m not going to let you off that easily.”
“I do the same as everybody else. I keep my head down and try to get through the day. I work a job I hate so I can put food on my table and keep a roof over my head. Then I bitch and moan about what a lousy way this is to live.”
“You never could lie to me.”
“I never tried.”
“Not until now.”
“I don’t do anything.”
There was a long silence between them. Finally she said, “I’ve never stopped loving you. What I said about Eric goes for you, too. Whatever you do now doesn’t erase what happened then.”
“I didn’t do anything.”
“And who you are now is the same person you were then, only fuller. You’re a little tree grown large.”
This was always your gift, he thought. He said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You know better than to try this. Do you think it surprised me that you left science? Do you think it really even surprised me that you left me?”
He grasped at that question to change the subject, “You ended it, remember?”
She said, “All I’ve ever wanted to do is help. I told you that. From the beginning. Not just with you. That’s why I do my work. That’s why I’m still in science. If we just keep trying we can do things better. If we just could have kept trying, I could still be with Eric.”
“But you ended it, remember?”
“No, with me.”
He thought, How did she know?
She said, “Do you know how I knew you were going to leave science? It was because you didn’t believe in the future. To believe in science you have to believe in the future. That’s what we’re building for. That’s what this is all about.”
“Everything. This airplane. Automobiles. Antibiotics. My work. I do the work so that someday cancer will be cured.”
“I do the work.”
Suddenly he was tired. He’d only slept three hours last night, and two the night before, both at a safe house. Once the plane landed there was still the long Greyhound ride home.
She said, “It broke my heart to break up with you, but you not seeing the future guaranteed we wouldn’t have one. I needed something to build for. The days have to add to something.”
“They add up to a life.”
“But what do you have when you’re done?”
“What do you have anyway?”
“You have what you’ve built.”
“What you’ve built.”
“You saw a future. I didn’t. Fifteen years later we’re at the same place: single.”
“That’s not because I didn’t try.”
“It’s just what is. And even if you were still married, even if you stayed married till the day you died, all you’d have at the end is memories, followed by death, then dust. I’ll have the same, only different memories.”
“That sounds depressing–“
“–Not at all–“
“–If you’re not building anything, why don’t you just off yourself now?”
“Why should I? I’m having fun.”
“It’s the process. The experience. You know the cliché. Being here now.”
“I thought you said you work a job you hate.”
He didn’t say anything. He closed his eyes. She had him. He wanted to leave, but where? Then suddenly, stripped of his lies, he remembered that this–her intuition, her intelligence–was why he loved her. Remembering that love, he was no longer afraid, of her or anyone. He opened his eyes, and saw her smile softly, as though she were frightened of the truth she had laid bare. He began to laugh, and said, “I am a terrible fucking liar.”
Because of the plane’s interior light, they couldn’t see the clearness of the night above, nor the brightness of the stars. Below, and this they could have seen had they chosen to look, lights shone from occasional farm and ranch houses. Clusters revealed small towns, and in the distance, far to the right, an undifferentiated mass of light betrayed a city.
She laughed too. “You probably don’t get much practice.”
“More than I want to think about.”
“Let’s talk, for real.”
“You don’t want to know. If I tell you, and you don’t tell them, you’re a participant.”
“Then let’s not talk about that, but just talk. Just be with me. Talk.”
He didn’t say anything.
She continued, “Tell me, when was the moment, the moment you realized, about science, about me.”
“After all these years, I still love talking to you.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere but off the hook. Tell me.”
“About you? There wasn’t a moment. I was just unhappy. It had nothing to do with you.”
“What made you leave the relationship?”
“But you were already gone.”
“I needed to go inside. Like a caterpillar.”
“I would have come with you.”
He thought, I didn’t think you would. I didn’t think you could. He said, “You needed a future, remember?”
“Yeah.” They were both silent. He thought of the years in between, a long, seemingly-infinite series of moments that each slipped away, leaving behind memories as tangible as air. He thought of the women he’d known. Stacey, with her long blonde hair and pale skin. Carol, the most sexual woman he’d ever known. Teri, the one who hated sex. He remembered Leslie.
The plane skipped from turbulence, and he thought, If this plane were to crash, what would happen to those memories? With no one left to remember, would the memories disappear too, like the moments themselves? Or would they hang in the air like breath on a cold day?
She asked, “What about science, then?”
“That one I can tell you. It was on a walk a couple of years after I moved away.”
“When I left I didn’t know what I wanted. I just knew everything was fucked.”
“That’s twice you’ve used that word. You didn’t use to swear.”
“Nor you. Do you now?”
They both smiled. She said, “Science.”
“I was on this walk, with a female friend. . . .”
“Is that a euphemism? I’m not jealous.”
“We never slept together. I’d known her about a year–“
“Was she cute?”
“Very, but not so cute as you.”
“Right answer! Please continue.”
“She was also very smart–“
“But not so smart as me. . . .”
“Of course not. Anyway, we were walking along these railroad tracks, and I asked her, ‘What’s the point of life?’ We stopped, she looked at me for the longest time, and then she reached up and kissed me.”
“A big kiss?”
“I’m not jealous.”
“A very big kiss.”
“What happened then?”
“That’s the moment I left science.”
“I don’t get it.”
“The world cracked open, and I saw it whole. I tasted it. It was raining a little, and I felt how rain and plants and insects who eat plants and birds who eat insects all fit together. We’re all blind, and we can’t see how easy it is to fit ourselves in. We think we have to hold onto things but that’s not so. We just have to fall in.”
“That must have been some kiss.” A pause. “So did you start a relationship?”
“Not with her, no. That wasn’t the point. We stayed friends, but we never kissed again.”
“Were you in love?”
“I don’t understand where science. . . .”
“I couldn’t do it. Science doesn’t demand we love the world. It demands the opposite.”
“I don’t see it.”
“Try this.” He gently leaned his face toward hers. He kissed her softly. Then he slowly pulled his face away.
She said, “That was nice, but I’m not going to quit science.”
“Maybe we’ll have to try again.”
She smiled. “I haven’t been kissed in a year.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Not half so sorry as I am.” Finally, she said, “I think most people go their whole lives never connecting to anything.” She hesitated, then continued, “I love my son. More than the world. And Eric. And you. My parents. My brother. But I want more. There’s still a hole I want to fill up. That’s why I do my work. I thought somehow if I focussed my life and my love on my family and my work, I would fill that hole. But it’s as big as it ever was. Bigger. And I’m afraid.” She was silent for a moment, and then she asked, “Why did I end our relationship?”
“Because I couldn’t see the future.”
“Why don’t you?”
“Why do you?”
“That’s no answer.”
“Well, why do you?”
She didn’t say anything for a very long time. At last she said, “I ended it because I was afraid tomorrow you wouldn’t be there. And I couldn’t bear that.”
“You bore it well.”
“You don’t know that.”
“What about you?”
“The same reason. I can trot out whatever justification you might want–spout all sorts of wisdom about living in the moment, but it boils down to fear.”
“Take your pick. Ecological collapse–if the planet doesn’t have a future, how can I? Or maybe death–we’re going to die someday, so I may as well cut everything off in that direction and just live what can’t be taken away, which is the now.”
“Or you could leave. Like you that wasn’t something I could bear.”
“So you cut it off.”
“So I cut it off.”
“Jesus,” she said. “What messes we make of our lives.”
Neither said anything. The pilot announced that the plane was beginning its descent.
“Why did you do it?” she asked.
“End the relationship?”
Silence again. Then both began to say something.
He said, “Go ahead.”
He spoke slowly. “Like you, all I’ve ever wanted to do is help. We spend our lives in cages. Working jobs we hate–yeah, I used to work construction, and yeah, I hated it. How many of us really do what we want? How many of us even want what we really want? And no matter what we do the damn cages are still there. Are you a scientist? An activist? A husband? A wife? How about breaking the fucking cages and just trying to be a human? And you know things only get worse. Your work. If we get a handle on one cancer some jerk at a petrochemical company just creates six more carcinogens. It’s the same with activism. For every minor victory there are a hundred huge defeats.”
She didn’t say anything.
Finally he continued, “It’s bad enough we cage ourselves, but what about the others, the ones who’ve done nothing to us? What did they do to deserve this? Do you see?”
Still she didn’t say anything.
“If I can’t stop all this shit around us, for Christ’s sake if I can’t fix my own life, the least I can do is let this one. . . .”
“Shhh,” she said. “It’s okay.”
“That’s what I understood when I saw everything whole.” There was a long silence. He took a deep breath, and said, “What were you going to say? Before.”
“Honeybees. I was going to say ‘Honeybees.’”
“What about them?”
“How different the world must look from their perspective.”
The plane touched down. The tires screeched. The aluminum frame shuddered. He said, “You know, we really did have something.”
“Yes,” she said, “We really did.”
It was four in the morning. Outside, the city began to awake. Newspaper carriers picked up their loads, or had already begun their deliveries. Bakers brought out the day’s first bread. Inside a laboratory a dog stood, walked tiny circles around the inside of its cage, then collapsed back down with a sigh. Somewhere else a chimp rocked silently side to side, its eyes, old as Africa, staring past the bars into the dark of the room. In a third lab somewhere a mouse raced on its treadmill.
They waited seated, not saying anything, not knowing what to say, as the other passengers first stood unmoving, then slowly made their way to the front of the plane, and to the exit. He remembered sitting with her on a hill their last night together. Like tonight not talking, and like tonight feeling the moments slip away until they would probably never see each other again. But that night, he now remembered, he had felt tears flow one after another down his face. On this night he wasn’t crying. He wondered what gift he could ever give her to thank her for his courage, for his life. As the last of the travelers passed by, he knew they would now have to get up, and go their different directions.
She said, “Well.”
“Well,” he said.
“Can I have a piece of paper?” she asked.
He gave her one, and she wrote a number on it. “If you’re ever in town, give me a call.”
She said, “It’s my home number.”
“Don’t worry, I won’t come to your lab.”
She stood and reached into the overhead compartment for her handbag, and for her small suitcase.
He asked, “So what’s the most important thing in your life?”
She looked him dead-eye center. She said, “I don’t know.”
They looked at each other, then impulsively she reached down and kissed him once, on the lips. “I will think about it,” she said. And with that, she walked to the front of the airplane.
Originally published in the anthology The Ex-Files: New Stories About Old FlamesFiled in Essays