Ethan had left his bed unmade only three times in his life that he remembered. The first had been when, at the age of thirteen, a bad case of the stomach flu had kept him home from school for nearly a week. The second, on the morning after graduating medical school, owing to a head-splitting hangover. The third time was the day his mother passed away, one week ago.
At the end of a long battle with terminal illness, she had put her affairs in order, refused a funeral and insisted on cremation, so there was nothing for him to do but just be there with her. He had not been back to his childhood home much during the fifteen years since graduating college. First medical school, then work, and even when work went cyber and he could live wherever he chose - so why not choose sunny southern California? his mother had pleaded - being away had become his habit. His adult, idealized self had run as far as he could from the mama’s boy he knew it in his nature to be.
Was he a mama’s boy? He certainly fit the description: only child, avoidant, finicky, unable or perhaps unwilling to maintain a healthy relationship with a woman - not since Avery, if their college romance, as tumultuous as it was brief, could be deemed healthy. As a boy Ethan rarely left his mother’s side, declined invitations to sleep-overs because he dreaded the thought of being away from her for even one night. Ethan had not been breast-fed. Perhaps his clinginess was in some way compensatory for having been denied the intimacy that infants crave, who’s to say?
The closeness between mother and son had morphed into frank codependence when Ethan was fourteen and his father passed away (at fifty-two, from a heart attack, his third). He had lived at home for college, electing to attend the local university at his mother’s suggestion even though he had been accepted to Berkeley, which was stronger academically than UCLA. He had yearned in his heart to attend Berkeley. When he and Avery began dating, during his fourth year in college, they considered getting a place of their own. When he asked for his mother’s advice, her terse reply was, “You’ll never survive away from home.” He never forgot these words, in fact he took them as a dare, and he needed to prove to his mother, and to himself, that mama’s boy or no, he would make it on his own.
And so, Ethan applied and was accepted to Stanford medical school, which was even stronger academically than Berkeley, and just as far from Los Angeles, and when it came time to leave, he packed his bags and moved out without ceremony, as though it were the most natural thing in the world to do. For most young men, it was.
His wanderlust spanned over a decade and took him first to another city, then out of the state, and briefly to another country. And over the years his homecomings, as he inwardly called his visits to his mother, became shorter and less frequent, finally giving way to a weekly phone call, and the occasional holiday card. Even after her diagnosis, he stayed away. Far from home became his habit.
He had taken up distance running in college, fitting in a metaphorical sense, for now he was always running, distancing himself from what he knew it was in his nature to be. Running from the scared boy who wouldn’t leave mommy’s side. Running from himself. And since his mother’s passing, the distance haunted him, and the boy in him, the mama’s boy, came running back. Flying back home, actually, and in tears.
Perhaps this was to get him back for leaving her in the first place, but as fate would have it, his mother passed away before he made it home. Yes, he had missed his plane, having somehow overslept, but still the doctors had given her weeks! And, as if to make up for missing her, since coming home he chose to sleep in her bed, and each night dreamt the same dream. A heavy weight on his chest. Gasping for breath. And then, nothing. As he saw it, the dream could only be interpreted one way: he had come home to die. (For some reason he had neglected to consider sleep apnea as a possible diagnosis.)
On the seventh day after his mother’s death, a Sunday, Ethan got out of bed and left her room. To stretch his leaden limbs he considered taking a jog in the park, but it was an uncharacteristically cold Los Angeles December, on a few nights the temperature was below freezing, and his knees ached him terribly in the cold. (Early signs of arthritis?) He elected instead to ride his bicycle. Out of the wooden shed beside the house he took out what had been his father’s ten-speed, dusted it off, oiled the chain and sprockets, pumped air into the tires, and, still wearing his pajamas, set off on the narrow road into Westwood Village, a distance of three miles.
As he pedaled into town, he thought of seeing a movie – moviegoing was a pastime he had shared with his mom - passed by the theater where they had seen the first movie he could remember seeing, E.T: The Extra-Terrestrial.; but it was between show times, and he didn’t recognize any of the film titles. Besides, all four films were sequels and three of them were animated, and he disliked both sequels and animation and especially animated sequels. Then it began to drizzle, which soon gave way to a tumultuous downpour. Tumultuous. Ethan chained his bike against a parking meter and sought cover beneath the awning provided by a magazine stand, his plan to while away the wetness amid some of his favorite periodicals. He was sopping wet. He had not had time to browse the selection when he heard her say his name.
He had not seen Avery since . . . he began to wonder how long it had been. College graduation? Had they still been dating at graduation? Why had they broken up again?
Ethan saw himself at twenty-two, leaving for medical school. By then he had made it abundantly, one might even say redundantly, clear to Avery that the surgeon he would one day become would have no time for a family. No kids, no white picket fence, no dog, no way. A wife was not entirely out of the question, provided she be low-maintenance (whatever that meant he wasn’t even sure of at the time but probably had something to do with doing the laundry and the grocery shopping and placing relatively few demands on his pocket book and leisure time), and Avery was anything but low-maintenance. Wooing her had been like driving a Porsche. Ethan had never driven a Porsche, but had heard somewhere that Porsches were expensive and subject to breakdowns and costly repairs. In their five-month dating period, Avery had cost him a pretty penny – he had maxed out not one but two credit cards taking her to dinner and movies and buying her trinkets she desired but never used – and she broke down often, in teary-eyed laments and bitter accusations. Having a large family had been Avery’s dream, even at the age of twenty, when marriage is the furthest thing from the minds of most girls. Having sowed her wild oats in high school, slept with half the varsity football team and a few members of the chess club (of both sexes, she unabashedly admitted), she was ready to be barefoot and pregnant, and Ethan was the man for her. He had all the requirements. He came from a good family. He was nice looking, smart, and reasonably well-endowed, though she’d had bigger. So what if he could be intense at times, liked to argue, lacked a sense of humor and was too close to his mother. Nobody was perfect, and Avery would change him. Ethan wasn’t so sure that people were capable of changing or whether he wanted to be changed or that Avery was right for him. In fact, he was absolutely positive that though Avery was exciting and adventurous, and the sex out of this world, there could be no shared future for him and her, no way. She was too much of a distraction. She consumed him, and with her in his life he couldn’t get anything done, except fuck and fight, and how far would that take a person? He had dreams, and he knew that eventually he’d have to break it off, or else they’d go up in flames.
This is not what he told her, of course. What he had said then was, “With different temperaments and different aspirations, breaking up seems the logical thing to do.”
In other words, why delay the inevitable? (we paraphrase)
In response, Avery cried hysterically, all the while staring at Ethan with the look of one who had been irreparably damaged.
That had been nearly sixteen years ago.
Now it was Ethan who stared at her.
"It’s me, silly,” Avery said, giggling. She stood by the register. She held a magazine. She was dry.
I was just thinking about you, is what Ethan wished to say. Barely a day went by that he didn’t think about Avery. But he didn’t say this. What he said was, “Of course I remember you.” Vaguely aware that this was a non sequitur, he scratched his cheek. His fingers scraping against seven-day-old stubble sounded like a match being struck. Why didn’t I take an extra five minutes to shave, or for that matter to shower? He never left the house looking so disheveled. But his mother had never died before. This was a week of firsts. That he should see Avery at this point in time was fitting: it felt like the first time.
He brushed his wet hair off his forehead, rubbed his eyes, smoothed his rumpled pajama shirt, and tried to look presentable, or as presentable as a grown man wearing wet pajamas in public can.
“You look the same,” she said, her eyes devouring him. “Maybe thinner? I mean that as a compliment. It’s been . . . gosh, how long has it been? Forever.”
With these words, feelings came flooding back. He hated the way she would speak categorically and in superlatives. How could one take such a person seriously? It had been a decade since they had last spoken, and yes he was thinner. Ethan took pride that, pushing forty, he was down to his high school bodyweight, and though she had not commented on his hair, he was proud that it was still there, all of it, no thinning or receding, and without a single strand of grey.
Again he brushed his hair from his forehead.
She went on. “Most people . . . are you on Crackbook?”
He squinted at her.
“That’s what they call Facebook, silly. It’s so addictive it’s like crack. Or coke. I’ve never tried crack but I’ve been hooked before. Hooked on smoking, drinking coffee, chewing gum after giving up cigarettes and coffee. Hooked on you!” Her eyes appeared to pop out of their sockets. “But you know all that. I tried coke, once, after we broke up, but it made my nose all stuffy. What was I saying?”
“Facebook,” he reminded her.
“Yeah. You’re not on there. I’ve checked. Wow. All these years.” She bobbed her head three times vigorously, then she abruptly began shaking it. “You haven’t changed.”
She could have a discussion with herself. And all these digressions! He had often asked her what she needed him for. “You’re such a good listener,” she’d reply. And then she’d grab him by the groin, even in public. She was so much like a guy. Dating her made him feel gay. Not gay as in happy.
Although he had to admit, she did look better than ever. A light seemed to shine in her brownish-greenish eyes, more brown than green. Just as he remembered her looking the few weeks she had been pregnant. How could she, at thirty-five, look younger than she had at twenty? Plastic surgery already? It wouldn’t be surprising in L.A. And why the shawl? It was maroon, and she had wrapped it around her head to conceal her hair, which made her look like an Arab, or a cancer patient. Sure, it was raining, but it wasn’t that cold. He remembered her hair. A lustrous brown, falling in waves midway down her back, streaked with blonde, kissed by the sun. And her smell, like the day after rain. It had never totally left him. It wasn’t her fragrance (she never wore any), nor her hair products (she hardly ever washed her hair). It was just her scent. Her aroma, she liked to say. He wanted now to live in that familiarity. Once upon a time, it – she - had been his.
They had met Ethan’s senior year at UCLA – she was a sophomore transfer student at the time - in a survey course. The philosophy of religion. On the first day of class, in an auditorium filled with three hundred other students, they happened to sit next to one another. She had lost her pen and asked to borrow his. He always carried an extra. They began dating immediately. With Avery, everything worthwhile happened immediately, or why do it at all?
Philosophy had been Ethan’s minor. A liberal arts emphasis looked good on medical school applications, and though his counselor had recommended English or history, he chose philosophy after meeting with the department chair, who told him that philosophy trained the mind and taught one how to express himself clearly, and Ethan found he liked a good argument and was quite good at it. Avery had taken the course to fulfill a general education requirement and had enrolled the night before the course began. This was just like her, he’d come to find. Her head in the clouds. Always waiting till the last minute. Missing deadlines. Misplacing things. Making appointments she’d fail to keep. Showing up late for their dates, when he was always punctual. For him, time was sacred. For her, it was something to spend with abandon. She believed she’d live forever, that she’d never grow old. A kinder person would have tolerated her behavior as being suited to the artistic temperament, even been charmed by it, but Ethan felt only that she was holding him back. Besides, she was no artist. What had she ever created? She knew how to strum a few tunes on the guitar, had a decent voice, could paint, but she never finished anything she started. If genius persevered, as he had once read, then she was a dunce. If she was an expert in something it was in failing to complete anything! And she was messy. A total slob, really. Ethan couldn’t so much as think in the presence of clutter.
Avery’s major had been communications, but she proved herself to be a very poor communicator, at least as far as a cogent argument was concerned. She came at it too much from her heart, the professor had written on her midterm. But the class is about God, she argued. How else to know God but through your heart? Philosophy means love of wisdom, the professor had countered. Wisdom, which is borne in the mind. Maybe, she said, but not love.
Ethan remembered now that Avery often fought for and got the last word, though it hadn’t helped her grades one bit. While he earned honors in the philosophy of religion, she barely passed.
It never ceased to amuse him to think that his most serious relationship, by far, had been with a girl he never took seriously.
The pregnancy was a careless mistake and his fault entirely. While it was true that she disdained contraception in favor of the less reliable rhythm method and he had been usually good about exiting prior to ejaculation, there had been that one time. . . .
The abortion had been his idea. She had left the decision up to him, which he thought irresponsible – after all, it was her body, shouldn’t she be the one to decide whether to spend nine months harboring a parasite or have it scraped from her insides? She made him take a stand, and when he did, she gave him hell for weeks thereafter.
How could you be so cold, so cruel, so unfeeling? she had cried in a torrent of tears.
Easy, when the other option was that they actually raise the child (this had been her suggestion). They were still kids themselves, and with no money, nor jobs. What would they live on, love? He hadn’t asked her this question. He knew what her answer would have been, and hearing her say yes would just have made him angry. What is love, anyway? The entire philosophy of religion class had been about that very topic. The ancients knew the answer. Hadn’t he been paying any attention? How had he managed to miss the point and still make the grade?
Their breakup played itself out like a cheap melodrama.
And so, to avoid further scenes, Avery did not attend Ethan’s graduation ceremony, even though he had reserved a ticket in her name - mostly to keep up appearances, for his mother’s sake. His mother would not stop asking about Avery, whom she adored like a daughter; she refused to acknowledge that they had separated, even though it had been nearly a month. The summer after his graduation they never crossed paths, not once, even though he had gone to campus on errands but really hoping to see her. Was she all right? Why had she given up so easily? In the fall he moved to Stanford, and so began his voluntary exile from home.
And then the thought struck Ethan: maybe all this time I have been running not from my mother, but from Avery! Everyone knows it is damn difficult to get over someone when everywhere you look is an instant reminder of the person. And in their courtship they had been to all the eateries in Westwood, studied in all the libraries and campus hangouts, watched movies at all the local theatres, made love in several public places, including parks, stairwells, and a restaurant bathroom (once). Westwood and its environs had been their love nest, when they were not up at his mother’s house, where Avery had practically lived for a time.
It was possible that his aim in leaving Los Angeles had been to shut the door on the past, their shared past, and go somewhere new, where nothing would remind him of her.
In Stanford, he plunged himself into his studies. What did she do . . . after him? He remembered something about a semester off, or was it a semester abroad? In his mind, he had gone on, and she had stayed behind.
There had been something else. He was sure of it. Something he couldn’t for the life of him remember. Something important.
Anyway, what Ethan did remember was that he had moved on to the prospect of a bright future involving the things most young men dream of: money, power, pretty girls. But these had not been for him the vague notions they are for most college grads. Specifically, he would make his mark in medicine, be the first in his family to do so, and within this elitist profession establish himself as a specialist of world renown. Surgeons were the best of the best. What did it matter that the sight of fresh blood (including his own) disgusted him? What mattered was that at twenty-six he’d be an M.D., then residency, and at thirty-three a practicing neurosurgeon or plastic surgeon. He wasn’t sure which, so in order to gauge a response he liked to try on the two specialties in conversations. Guys liked the idea of brain surgeon, while the mention of plastic surgery made the eyes of women (especially women over the age of twenty-five) light up. But, as it turned out, neither specialty did fit. An old sports injury (lower back, courtesy of intramural soccer, which he’d only participated in to make his med school application seem more appealing) made long hours hunkered over an operating table an impossibility. Surgery was out, which he came to realize was probably a good thing. Doing to others what he himself wished never to have done to him – in this case prying people’s insides open with a scalpel – would have made him a walking contradiction.
“So I went into family medicine,” he told Avery. They were now seated at a coffee shop adjacent to the newsstand. It was a favorite haunt of theirs as lovers. It was as if no time had passed. Sixteen years. A flash. Ethan was still wet and trying not to shiver.
“What a riot! You used to say you were . . . what was the way you put it . . . constitutionally averse . . . to a family. It seems to me—”
“I’m a walking contradiction.” He shook his head ruefully. It seemed he couldn’t escape his fate.
“Or a changed man.”
More and more of her was coming back to him now. What he remembered as sloppy, teary-eyed feeling, and soft, warm sensuality, had a lighter, wittier side which kept him on his toes.
“Where’s your practice, family man?”
“I work from home,” he said, sipping his espresso.
“Putting out a sign? How atavistic of you.”
“Futuristic, really,” Ethan corrected. “I run a website.”
And instantly he blushed. What was it about treating people on the ‘net that embarrassed him? It saved him thousands of dollars in rent and personnel, and he could work when and where he pleased.
“Really?” Her face contracted. “Online rectal exams . . . that’s something I have got to see.”
“I don’t examine patients, not in the traditional sense. I do consultations. Basically, you fill out an online questionnaire, and I, you know, make suggestions. Nothing too avant-garde. Diet and exercise, mostly.”
Ethan took another sip of coffee and braced himself for her reply. He had learned from conversations such as this that his interlocutor’s response would determine whether the dialogue wasted away or propelled itself to new heights. It would also influence his opinion about the person. If she expressed scorn, he’d launch into a debate about the drawbacks of face-to-face interaction; should she be indifferent, he’d probably condemn her as an imbecile; blind enthusiasm he enjoyed but didn’t take seriously. Enlightened interest, by far the rarest reaction, earned his most loyal accord. Of course, Ethan already had an opinion of Avery, and he was in the conversation for the long haul, so he resolved to greet with indifference whatever her reaction, which, when it came, was as novel as it was perplexing: she didn’t react.
Instead, with a quiet smile, she changed the subject.
“So my dear,” she said, pinching off a bit of her croissant and dipping it in her cappuccino, “where is home these days?”
“I’ve only been in town this past week,” he began. “I’m staying at my mother’s currently. Just briefly. Just until—” He could feel himself breaking down. Keep yourself together, man!
She warmed her hands on her mug and nestled into her quilted jacket. “Where are you visiting from?”
“Colorado the past three years. Before that a stretch in North Carolina. New York for a couple of very bitter winters. Hawaii after residency, which I did in Pennsylvania. Even did a stint in Belize. Doctors Without Borders. That was after medical school, which I did at Stanford, as you probably recall.”
“Which takes us back to—”
“Where we left off,” he said, just as she said, “When you left home.”
“We’re both right, I guess,” he said.
“I guess,” she repeated.
Their eyes locked. They both smiled. Were they flirting? How strange to flirt with someone you’d seen naked at least a hundred times!
“So let me see if I can map this out in my mind,” she said. “First back East, then down South, most recently the Midwest.”
“Colorado isn’t exactly Midwest. Mountain, I think is what it’s called. Or Interior West,” he corrected, and then regretted it. It seemed pedantic of him. He hated pedants, was one. What did that say?
“My point is, you’ve been getting closer and closer.”
“To what?” he inquired.
“To coming back to where you started. To being back home.”
She smiled. “I’m asking you,” silly.
“Avery, I just moved back.”
“I thought you were just visiting—”
“You asked if I was visiting. That’s how this started.” He sighed, suddenly exhausted. “You asked where I was visiting from.”
“And you didn’t deny it.”
“That you’re home.”
“No, I suppose I didn’t.”
Ethan let out a breath of air and rubbed his neck. Right side, just above the shoulder blade same as always. Then he rubbed his shoulder and said, “It feels like we’re back in class.”
“Philosophy of religion.”
“Yes. I remember.”
“Only now the roles are reversed,” he said. “You just wrestled me into submission!”
“Oh Ethan, don’t give up so easily! You know I always fight for the last word. At least until the next one comes.”
He stared outside. Pedestrians scuttled by, skipping puddles. After a moment, he said, “Truth is, I don’t know where home is.”
“Maybe that’s why you’re back. To find out.”
They finished their coffees. The rain was letting up. He felt his body relax. His clothes had dried.
And then she asked, “How is your mother?”
The words came like a blow to his solar plexus. Ethan stood up briskly, his chair scooting out from under him and tipping over. He felt the urge to be sick. He reached his arm out to her as he felt himself falling.
*At the park, his head lay in her lap as she stroked his brow, still cold and damp. A welt had formed just above the left eye, from where his head had hit the table.
She had insisted on taking him to the park even though he said in her car that he preferred to be alone – which was a lie, and she called him on it – and before he could think of another excuse she said she wasn’t going to let him get away a second time. This comforted him. Perhaps he hadn’t been such a bad boyfriend? Another thing about her he loved: she could read his mind. How had he been so foolish to let her get away? The young man he had been then was so different from the man he was now. Maybe, then, he had been cold to balance out her hyper-emotionality, or perhaps, now, he was needy on account of losing his mother.
For this reason, in talking about his mother, few words sufficed.
“She used to bring me to this park when I was a boy.”
“You brought me here on our first date, silly. We had our first kiss on this very bench.” A pause. “You don’t remember.”
He did not. He sat up because his sore back required a position change and changed the subject.
“What is this thing that happens with age?”
She laughed. “That’s a line from a movie.”
“No, it is. Don Juan de Marco. Johnny Depp. We saw it together.”
“Did we? I didn’t realize.”
She patted his back. “Don’t be so hard on yourself, Ethan. With all that scientific know-how floating around in your head, it’s no surprise you’ve forgotten the little things.”
“I wasn’t referring to my memory, though I suppose it fits. I’m not even forty years old, and my back is shot, I have this deep ache in my shoulder, a constant crook in my neck, my knees and hips give out in cold weather . . . My own mother, at practically twice my age, had more spark. On her death bed.” And then he caught himself. He hadn’t actually seen her on her death bed.
“I run, yes.” He always made it a point of saying running as opposed to jogging. The distinction lay in time, the cut-off was a three-hour marathon, as far as he was concerned, or under seven minutes for the mile, and he was capable of both.
“You used to run yourself into the ground.”
“Well there you go. Stop, maybe?”
She leaned over and kissed his cheek.
“I never forgot about you, Avery.”
He kissed her back.
*She moved in to his mother’s house, and they picked up where they had left off as college sweethearts, before denying life had driven a stake through their budding love. Her parents had died, and like him she was an only child without an extended family, and so it was just the two of them, just like the Bill Withers tune that had been their song as lovers.
Just the two of us
We can make it if we try
Just the two of us
Building castles in the sky . . .
During lighter moments, she liked to sing the chorus to him, and wrapping her arms around his waist, and swaying side to side, she’d make him dance with her. There were many light moments with Avery. Another thing he appreciated about her. She lightened his gloom.
She kept by his side as he sifted through his mother’s possessions, graciously accepted bottles of nail polish and pieces of jewelry – even though she never wore makeup or jewelry. She stroked his hair at night as he cried himself to sleep. He walked with her in the garden, showed her as if for the first time the trees he had climbed as a boy, the grass he’d waddled along, the pool he’d waded in, the hidden corner on the side of the house where he first explored his sexuality.
They took long walks through the mountains adjacent to the property, but fewer and fewer down memory lane. The abortion came up only once, and she put it to rest quickly and neatly by saying that it had been the right thing to do, she hadn’t recognized it then but did now, and thanking him for his strength. This amazed him: he’d secretly called himself many things – cold, callous, insensitive, and other less flattering synonyms - but never strong. Why hadn’t he ever tried to contact her in all the years since?
“It’s as if you’re a different person.”
“New and improved,” she hastened to add. To his puzzled look, she flexed a bicep playfully.
He endeavored to get her to open up about life after him, and before the second coming, as it were – life between me, was how he put it - but on this subject her usual loquacity vanished and she fell silent. This was new, this reticence. How she used to go on and on, loving to talk. Diarrhea of the mouth, he had once termed her deluge of words, secretly of course. She had always been a good listener, but where once she had rambled, now her responses were unwaveringly pithy. Getting her to open up was like pulling teeth.
This much he was able to extract: after the break-up she had taken a trip to Europe to clear her head, took a lot of drugs, returned to L.A., enrolled in and as quickly dropped out of acting school, worked a series of odd jobs and burned through a string of ho-hum men, which didn’t stop her from trying to get pregnant again. This never happened, until at twenty-eight she stopped trying. For the last few years she had settled down in the valley. She went out less. She was comfortable being alone.
“I’ve become more like you,” she added.
“Who I was then,” he corrected.
“Who are you now?”
“Much different. I said, did, some very hurtful things, Avery. You could have called me cold and callous and even I’d have to agree!”
“You were just acting from your point of view. It’s all anyone can do.”
“My point of view has changed.”
“Your mother’s passing?”
“Before that. Life broke me down.”
She gave him a probing look, but he didn’t elaborate. She didn’t push him.
“I’m here to build you back up,” she said, rubbing his back.
He let his Internet-based practiced dwindle. Business had been down anyway, he hadn’t had many clients during the winter months (it was now February), and he derived the bulk of his income from his published works in the field of health, sales of which had been modest but consistent for years, and his simple habits coincided with his humble income. There was the inheritance. His mother had not been wealthy, but she had saved, and invested wisely, adding to his father’s estate, and leaving it all to him. He had no longer any material concerns, no career aspirations. He felt he had said everything he had needed to say on the subject of medicine, and didn’t want to be like others who rearrange the contents of previous books under a new title and pass off the thing as original. He wanted something outside the realm of career or money. His need was a spiritual one. Since graduating college he had denied himself physical love in favor of worldly aspirations, which had failed him, or failed to satisfy him, and now he wanted nothing more than to merge heart and soul with her, to discover himself in loving her, to be complete. He wanted to live what they learned in that philosophy class. He wanted to love her forever.
At first they slept in separate beds. He continued to sleep in his mother’s unmade sheets, she to lie with him until his breathing slowed, then retiring to his boyhood bedroom, the room they had slept in together in college.
Then one day, he washed his mother’s sheets, remade the bed, and left the room, locking it behind him. He had placed his mother’s ashes beside her bed, as if to say, “You are with me, and yet away, but not far.”
He joined Avery in his bedroom. They spent the night in each other’s arms. She would let him explore her – caress her, smell her, gently, briefly – but not enter her. In the bedroom, she took off her shawl to reveal lustrous curls the color of almonds and smelling sweetly. They went through photo albums. They found pictures of them his mother had taken, at the entrance to the house, by the pool, at the dinner table. Standing side by side, they held up the photos to their mirror images. Ethan at age thirty-eight looked more or less the same as he had at twenty-two, if more drawn and severe, his eyes narrowed with worry and his brow furrowed in habitual concentration, courtesy of over a decade spent reading charts and tending the sick, hearing their concerns. Avery, on the other hand, looked younger at thirty-six than she had at twenty. The photo didn’t lie. And not only was she not aging: she had had a scar over her chin from where as a girl she had tripped and fallen against a sprinkler. Seeing it in the photos brought it back to his recollection. Now there was no trace. When he asked her about it, she joked that he had her mistaken for another girl before admitting to cosmetic surgery. He didn’t believe her – no surgeon is that good. She gloated a moment before adding that there were other surgeries which were not elective. But she didn’t elaborate. He wished he had the courage to undergo surgery, if only to end his back pain, and the pain in his neck, shoulder, knees, hips. The pain in his heart.
“I’m no surgeon, but I know just the trick.”
She scooted over and massaged him, starting with the neck, and moving her way down his hips to his thighs, kneading with strength and assurance and finding the knots with an osteopath’s precision.
In five minutes he was fast asleep. In his ear, she whispered these words: “I promise to put you before me until I becomes we.” Hearing this as if in a dream, he woke up and kissed her gently on the nose.
He never asked for her hand, not in so many words, but it was understood that they’d spend the rest of their lives together, at least by him. Often they’d lie in bed all day, and hold each other all night. But as their bodies grew closer her mind became distant. Then she began disappearing in her old, beat-up Volvo, at first on little errands, then for hours at a time, and sometimes overnight. He suspected that she just needed time to herself, but sometimes she’d spend days away from him. He asked her, not to pry, but where was she off to? To her old apartment, she told him: to tidy things up, cut ties, close doors. I had a life before you, you know. He offered to help, but she insisted on doing it alone. The past was the past. He wondered whether he shouldn’t be doing the same. His name was still on the lease of a furnished apartment in downtown Denver. Perhaps he could offer the landlord his furniture in lieu of the penalty for early termination of the lease.
She wished to know why he had chosen to leave traditional medicine. He told her he felt the machines were taking over. The hospital in which he had trained had recently installed advanced computer programs which could both diagnose patients and suggest treatments (which of course physicians could override but rarely did, because the computer was usually right). He felt inadequate. Anachronistic. Technology was taking over the world – better, faster, smarter society - and that was supposed to be a good thing. But he was suspicious. People were getting stupider (was that a word) and society less efficient. Avery shook her head. Was she disagreeing with him or did she agree and was she lamenting the sad state of the world? But he couldn’t really blame technology. The truth was that though he had loved the learning part of medicine, had graduated top of his class, he hated the business side of it. And the hospital system was big business. Once you entered the hospital the learning stopped and what prevailed were protocols and paperwork. And since he had left the hospital behind, never a minute had gone by that he missed it. He was glad to be gone.
He asked her about her work, which had not come up. She told him she had jumped around from job to job, working as an interior decorator most recently, until her life had taken a sharp turn. Now, work was unnecessary. She saw he was confused.
“Oh I suppose I should just fess up. There was an accident. I almost died.”
Ethan scanned her features. It was a reflexive gesture. Already he had memorized every detail. “You don’t have any scars.”
“The marvels of modern medicine.” She laughed. “No really, the damage was mostly internal. Brain. Spinal cord. Other organs.”
“Which they fixed?”
“Improved upon, I’d say.” They were walking in the garden. She wore a floral dress and held a rose to her lips. She spun around for him and was hit by a shaft of sunlight that ignited her features. His desire overwhelmed him.
“But you’re unfit to work?”
“Correction. I don’t have to work. There was a settlement. Very large. Huge.”
She said no more.
Each absence brought her home looking thinner, her features more angular, her skin tighter, more translucent. She slept less, hardly ate. When she used the bathroom, he never heard the toilet flush. He’d have thought her inhuman or dying, if not for her radiance. Truly, every day she became more beautiful, like a glorified version of her former self. Was it the lover’s preference, or something else?
He thought of following her, but was afraid of what he might see, and so he kept pressing.
Finally she told him. “I’m receiving these treatments,” she said.
“They must be working. Look at you. You’re glowing.”
His tone was ironic. Was she having an affair? If she was seeing someone, could it be called an affair when he had not asked her to be his, and they had not yet had sex? Was he, in fact, the other man?
On his suggestion, they began taking morning runs. His frustration needed an outlet, and eating her portion of lunch and dinner had added an unseemly bulk to his midriff. He was a six-minute miler, had won distance races as recently as the year before. She had never been athletic, her curves not built for speed or endurance (unless the event was held between the sheets), her short limbs and thick calves hardly what one would consider a runner’s ideal - but she began gaining on him, and soon beat him up the steep quarter-mile hill that led to the house. At night, as an alternative to TV, they’d alternate between Scrabble and crossword puzzles. She won these games handily, which irked him all the more. Crosswords had been his college hobby. To improve his gaming ability, he had devoted an entire summer to reading the dictionary. She used to mispronounce multisyllabic words, and her spelling in college had been atrocious. How had she become so . . . literary?
“I must be getting old,” he said. “We’re practically the same age and I’m the elderly. How’d that happen?”
His attempt at humor went unrecognized. Maybe because it was true.
Lying in bed. Again he tried to enter her with his fingers, but she gently but firmly guided his hand back to her hip. He turned on the bedside lamp and propped himself up on an elbow. “Are you seeing someone else?” This could have launched an argument. He knew it. Was that why he had said it? Was he picking a fight? Hoping for a reaction, anything but this frigidness? But rather than take the bait and go on the defensive, she did something much more poignant: she told the truth.
With a straight face, and no hint of irony, she said, “I suppose I should tell you I’m part of a government experiment.”
She told him everything. The accident had left her without cognitive function, a vegetable. In high school she had donated her body to science, and the fact had been advertised by the word donor stamped on her driver’s license. Apparently choosing to be a donor gave the medical establishment the right to do pretty much anything with your body. She told him about the operation, how what began as a procedure to implant motor chips in her brain to restore cognition evolved into something much more complex and experimental.
“The next evolutionary step. The man-machine merger.”
“Or in my case, woman slash machine,” she said.
“Sounds like science fiction.” He tried not to laugh, bit his lip, but she was earnest.
“Hardly. Sci fi has its visions of the future. Most involve technology taking over, the us versus them scenario. But the reality is it’s more like us plus them. We become the machines, or they become us, if you prefer. We merge.”
“In uniting made stronger.” She went on: “Not E pluribus unum - out of many, one – but rather Ex uno plura. Out of one, many.”
It had begun the day computers had become smarter than humans. He’d read about it, but it wasn’t supposed to happen for some thirty or fifty years, at least. According to Avery, the day had already come.
“I’ve told you all that I know. The rest is a lot of theory. I just have to trust where it - I - am headed.”
“Where is that?” he wished to know.
“In a word, superconsciousness. A sort of sum total of all the cognitive capacity - all the smarts - existing in the universe. That last part is hard to say without laughing.” A pause, and then: “You think I’m crazy?”
“It is hard to imagine. It’s like—”
“Imagining God,” she said, completing his thought. “You can’t be accurate with confidence, unless you become It.”
“We. That’s what it’s called. Project We. I’m the prototype. The first of my kind.”
He snorted and shook his head.
“My weekly getaways? More neural implants. Intelligence tests (I’m off the charts, I might add), simulation exercises. Virtual reality stuff, except I’m in my body – some real Matrix shit - doing things I couldn’t do like two weeks ago.”
“Like beat me in my favorite games.”
“Running is child’s play when you can fly.”
“You can fly.”
She let out a grunt. “If you can even call this body me.” She looked down at her cleavage, shrugged her shoulders, then looked at him as if waiting for a response. “You think I’m crazy.”
“I don’t know what to think.”
“You’ve noticed the absence of wrinkles, the disappearance of life’s little tragedies, the scars and pock marks and . . . Ethan, I’m a thirty-five year-old woman who has hardly exercised a day in her life, can make a meal out of a hunk of Brie cheese, and has spent many a Sunday baking in the sun . . . burning to a crisp, really. In a world of cause and effect, I should have crow’s feet and cellulite.”
“But you don’t.”
“I did before the accident, trust me. And now my skin is as smooth as a baby’s bottom.”
“So, why? How?”
“One word: regeneration, baby.”
“That’s two words.”
She laughed. Was this some kind of game?
“The computer . . . they’ve designed apps. One repairs cellular malfunction, another one prevents wear and tear. All the latest technology is hardwired in me.”
“I think . . . I’ve read about this.” He jogged his memory. “Nanotubes.”
“Nanotubes doesn’t even begin to describe it . . . but yes, exactly! You are aware that humans use a very small fraction of our intellectual capacity?”
“A few percent—”
“A few hundredths of a percent,” she corrected. “That’s because so much of the brain is redundant. And so much of our time is spent seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.”
“But not you.”
Avery went on: “First they uploaded the brain onto a computer, mapped it out, really explored it – frontal lobe and executive functioning, amygdala the fear center, cerebellum and coordination. It’s called reverse engineering. Then they made it run better . . . then they fed the program back into the nervous system.”
“Your nervous system.”
“The neural fiberoptic interface. It’s becoming me. We’re, like, feeding off each other.”
“Me and the machine. I don’t even know where it begins and I end, or where it ends . . . you know what I mean.” She brushed the hair out of her face and leaned over to him. “It’s kinda like sex,” she whispered, biting his ear. “Which makes sex the old-fashioned way obsolete. Why reproduce?”
“Because it feels good?”
She waved his comment away. “In the future, there will be more like me.” A pause, then: “Surely you can’t find this too alien.”
“Nice choice of words.”
“You with your strict diet, your superman workouts, always reading, thinking, meditating. The whole ‘my life is my symphony’ thing. I get it. I used to make fun of you, but I get it now. You’ve perfected yourself to the bounds of human limits, to the bounds of your limits—”
“Attempted to do so.”
“And you’re experiencing the consequences. Nagging aches and pains. The infirmities and afflictions of age. Technology lets us take existence further, Ethan. It allows us to perfect ourselves until we merge into a whole much greater than the sum, where you leave individuality at the door and become anything and everything you wish. It’s like being in your own video game!”
Ethan wanted to say that Avery sounded like a brochure, but before he could form the words she said, “I know I must sound like a spokesperson, but you can understand my excitement., and you’ve only seen a fraction of what I can do.”
“So why did they pick you? I’m not saying you’re not special . . .”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I had a good insurance plan, I guess. Truth is, I scored well on a psychological profile, which by the way they were able to perform on my brain while I was in a freakin’ coma. Imagine that! All my responses were recorded as electrical charges. They said what impressed them most was my emotional development, if you can believe it. And here I used to think I was a basket case . . .”
“And so now–”
“I’m property of the US government.” She giggled and slapped her knee, giving her hair an insouciant flip. “You’ll have to excuse me. I always laugh when I say that.”
“What does being government property involve?”
She became serious again. “I show up when they tell me to, do as I’m told, like your average postal worker or trash collector. That is, until I get so advanced I take over the place. That last part they don’t know yet.” Another giggle. The way her eyes squinted gave her a girlish appearance that once again made Ethan feel his age.
“And you’re okay with this? It sounds like a jail term.”
“The girl I used to be would have bucked against the lack of freedom – they make me spend so much time in that stuffy lab! - but the one I’m becoming sees the beauty in it. Small sacrifices sometimes pay big dividends, you know. No death. A supermind, free of bias, malice, and other baser emotions. Incapable of hatred or evil. Or capable of it because It – capital I - is capable of everything but sees evil as an inferior choice and so avoids it. Harming others is, after all, harming yourself, so It embraces everyone.”
She let this sink in.
“In the grand scheme of things, we are all one, Ethan, all part of one great experiment to extend the reaches of intelligence and information, and love, to the farthest possible limit, which is eternity, infinity, and beyond.”
“What you’re describing sounds an awful lot like God.”
“Or what we, with our limited perspectives, believe to be God. But really God is both good and evil, darkness and light, since everything comes from God. How can you deny what you are, you know? But that’s beside the point. When they’re done with me, I may be something far greater than what you think of as God, because I’ll be something unfathomable. Only, I’ll be able to fathom it.”
“And us? What does this mean for us?”
“You and I, ha!” she threw her head back and laughed. “I know what it doesn’t mean: your traditional male-female gig, with lovers’ spats, petty jealousies, make-up sex, fancy dinners involving heady wine and juicy steaks, which as a teetotaling vegan I know you won’t miss.”
He didn’t feel at all humorous but a chuckle escaped him.
She went on. “The pleasures of the flesh just aren’t that appealing when the trade-off is everlasting life, baby. Death as a dilemma is about to be solved. The body really is a prison, Ethan. And the jailer is, well it’s a variety of things, really. Pizza. But the key is in the mind. Only when you leave the flesh behind, and become mind, can you understand that most pleasure is pure poison.
“But I have to recognize the hand of fate in all this. It’s no coincidence that the day I got out of the hospital, after suffering an accident that should have killed me, who should I bump in to but my one true love. And if that weren’t poetic enough, when should it happen but a week after your mother dies, on the very day that you return to the land of the living. And that you should have these bodily ailments, despite your quest for self-perfection. Your body is betraying you. Which of course makes you weary of life, eager for something new.”
He waited for her to continue.
“Don’t you see? I was sent to you. To help you evolve. Like Eve to Adam in Eden, I’m with you to show you the way to knowledge, but unlike with the first lady, my way does not lead to damnation.”
“It leads to infinity and beyond,” Ethan said, with the hint of a smile.
She rose and stood beside the bed, letting him look at her naked body. It was flawless. She held out her hand to him. He took it, looking up at her.
“How does it all work?” he asked, giving in.
“I’ll show you tonight. Fix us a great meal and prepare to be amazed.”
*At dinner the candlelight revealed the radiant sheen of her hair, which was now a softer shade of brown. Her waist looked smaller, and her bosom more robust.
“How do you like the new me?” She tilted her head and smiled. (It could have been that she had dyed her hair and put on a bustier.)
“Beautiful as always, but I prefer the proportions God gave you.”
“You’re right,” she said, looking down at her breasts and squeezing them together. “Too much, even for Hollywood. I’ll ask them for a reduction when I go back to the lab.”
“How much time do we have left?”
“I don’t know. I suppose . . . I could speculate, but I’d be wrong. The future is unwritten. Not even a supermind can extrapolate from the available data, not when the potential is limitless. It could be tomorrow. Or a hundred years from now.”
She spoke so fast he could hardly keep up. The term pressured speech came to mind. Also, flight of ideas. He had treated manics and schizophrenics in his medical residency. Delusions of grandeur, maybe. Or, quite possibly, this could merely be a personality disorder. Histrionic, perhaps. He shook these thoughts from his head.
“I want us to be together,” he told her. “I want certainty.”
Again he thought back to the philosophy course they had taken together in college. Required reading had been Plato’s Dialogues, which argued that for a quality (beauty, love) to be perfect it must not only be flawless, but must exist for all time, which gave rise to the lover’s promise.
“I want to love you forever,” he told her. “I want forever to be an option. All of it, if it’s with you. The two point three kids, the house with the white picket fence (which we already have), shaggy dog, the clutter—”
She cut him off. “We aren’t capable of change, don’t you know that? The life you’ve just described, it’s not who you are. You’ll regret it.”
“How about you? You changed. You’re not messy any more, you don’t exaggerate like you used to, you’re more precise, neat. If you can change, then so can I.”
She finished chewing a bite of food. “I have a confession to make,” she said. “I had help. I’ve been . . . enhanced.”
He looked at her, saying nothing. She went on:
“As I see it, the only way to ensure the possibility - not the actuality, mind you, but only the possibility of our being together, you know, for the long haul - is for you to become like me. Only as a prototype, by taking that evolutionary leap the likes of which has not been seen since man left the trees to dominate the animals, can we entertain the option of forever. You’ll need to be at my level. Loving an inferior can only bring me down.
“Of course,” she went on, “if you do choose to come along for the ride, you’ll have to swallow your fears. Popular fiction is filled with tales of vampires, deals with the devil, et cetera. I saw Faust on your bookshelf.”
“I haven’t read it. I had been meaning to, but—”
“Unfortunate beings,” she went on, “who win life-everlasting only to wallow in self-loathing and wish death on themselves, who live their immortal lives with one eye trained over their shoulders, awaiting Satan’s approach – or the sun’s.”
“I have seen Twilight,” he admitted, and then blushed.
“And I hope you weren’t unsettled by my mention of our namesakes, and the Biblical story that left the first dude stranded in sin, and doomed the human race to a life of perpetual suffering ending in death, or so the Bible would have it. Bogus. I hope I didn’t scare you.”
“I’m over it now.”
“I can’t promise if tomorrow will be sunny or gloomy, only that you’ll spend it with me. You have to ask yourself, will you accept eternal damnation if it means suffering by my side?”
“Do I have a choice?”
“They need a male.”
“Where do I sign up?” A laugh escaped him. It sounded ridiculous, but he was seriously interested.
She told him he’d need to pass a battery of tests. They’d analyze his DNA, and the changes it had undergone during his lifetime (a function of the choices he’d made). These changes were called epigenetic changes, a term he was familiar with.
He spit in a cup and handed it over to her. In his saliva alone were thousands of helical strands, ready for analyzing.
She took the sample and drove off in her car. While she was gone, he waited in his mother’s room for her return.
*He awakened with a start, there in the dark (he must have dozed off), when it came to him, the forgotten details about her past. Something about an eating disorder. Visits to therapists. Impulse control issues. White lies, petty theft. Promiscuity. Prescriptive medication. A week spent in a psychiatric ward. All this she had confessed to him, so many years gone by, or had he found her diary? When they’d argue, he’d call her crazy. That was hitting below the belt. So many years gone by . . .
At the newsstand, what had she been reading? A magazine. Something on the cover had caught his eye. He had seen it in the bathroom since. She must have taken the magazine with her. Had she paid for it? He ran into the bathroom and searching amidst the stack of periodicals piled atop the toilet tank found it: a Time Magazine cover story. The words jumped out at him, because they were words she had used, memorized it seemed, in selling the concept to him: law of diminishing returns; man machine merger; hybridization; neural fiberoptic interface. It seemed that entire portions of her argument, her pitch, had been poached word for word from the article.
He set down the magazine and slumped onto the toilet. In the silence the sound of her voice, singing their song.
Good things might come to those who wait
Not for those who wait too late
We gotta go for all we know . . .
He returned to the bedroom and lay in his mother’s bed; some time later he heard the door open and watched her silhouetted form approach the bed.
“I could have told you this,” she began, turning on the bedside lamp. Gleeful anticipation ignited her features. “But I didn’t want to spoil the surprise. Are you ready?”
“I am,” he replied, almost without thinking.
“Okay, then. But first, answer me this: do you think I’m crazy?”
“No,” he lied.
“Will you join me? Will you become We?”
She ran into his arms. Her kiss filled him with delight. He didn’t care if she was crazy, or if he was crazy for believing her. He’d play along, go with her wherever, as long as they were together. He had left her once, his one true love, had suffered so much since, and now he was home. Home was wherever she was. He flung her onto the bed and smothered her in tender affection.
He told her, his voice barely above a whisper, and cracking with emotion:
And darling when the morning comes
And I see the morning sun
I want to be the one with you.
That night they stayed in his mother’s room, and made love in the moonlight. The next morning she helped him make the bed.