Sing the Body Electric
I have been waiting for a miracle. Strange, perhaps, for a woman of my persuasion to indulge the hope of unexplainable occurrence. For a scientist to believe in supernatural phenomena. We look to nature by profession as something to dissect, comprehend, and – ultimately – turn to our purposes.
But, as Dr. Bergin would remind me, nature is rarely so submissive. Its term are fickle and obtuse, layers difficult to navigate. And fully comprehending it led me to embrace the unquantifiable.
My final undergrad paper was an experimental design for splicing culicidae sans plasmodium – engineering breeds of mosquito whose biochemistry rejected the protists that cause malaria. It was hailed as “uncanny” and “prodigious” and a number of other superlatives – superlatives I was used to and had heard attached to most of my academic work.
Then after graduation, I received a call from the government…and a meeting with the Director of the Middle State Research Center.
“We want to give your design a shot”, said the Director – an imposing, steely-eyed man named Tomalski. “It’s getting a lot of play. Even heard some buzzing up at federal. I’ve talked it over with the center’s owners, and they’ll work out the research grant for us…if we can get you to lead the project.”
He surveyed me from across the meeting desk, toying with a faint smile over broad features. But I wore my excitement plainly, no desire to hide it.
“I’d love it if you joined us at Middle State, Miss Drooker”, he continued. “You’ll have full access to our genetics lab – state of the art – for the culicidae experiments. This is the kind of breakthrough we’re looking for.”
I accepted, of course. I knew Middle State’s reputation…and found him a difficult personality to turn down.
On my first day at the Research Center, Tomalski showed me around the lab and familiarized me with most of the staff. The last person I met was Dr. Sandra Bergin.
“Sandra”, Tomalski introduced, as we came to her table, “this is Nola Drooker. The mosquito girl.”
Dr. Bergin looked up from the slide she was studying. I observed coiffed hair. Asymmetric specs. A bored expression. “Oh, right”, she said. “Our new little genius.”
Something tightened inside me. I had the feeling of being impressed upon. Her eyes scanned my cheeks, and I turned pink. Then she broke a grin.
“Relax, Nola. I’m not gonna bite you. Welcome to the lab.”
Director Tomalski laughed, while my lips kept thin. I knew of Dr. Bergin – one of the most distinguished in her field. Ten years my senior and a wall filled with bio-medical accolades. She radiated, it seemed, a subdued yet palpable energy. I was not comfortable in the presence of powerful figures.
Did she see me as a challenger? Fresh grad, school prodigy, up-and-comer out to prove herself? I tried to brush it aside and not let it bother me.
Yet every day I saw her afterwards, as I began my culicidae experiments in the lab, I’d feel uneasy around her. Every time she’d enter the room, my guard would come up by reflex, feeling threatened by as little as her poise and carriage.
“Anything wrong?” she asked me bluntly one day, and I was so startled to hear her voice right behind me that I sent a beaker clattering off the table.
“I – “ I whipped around to face her, exhaling in convulses. “I – am fine. Thank you. Did you need – ?”
“No, nothing”, she shrugged. “But boy, do you sound stressed.” Though her expression was bored, I noticed her dilation evoke concern.
“The research”, I muttered anxiously. “I’ve hit a stumbling block in reconciling my genotype-perpetuation forecast with the experimental data…it’s in the daily reports, you can read it yourself – “
“You need to relax, Nola”, she said, placing a hand on my shoulder – and I stifled a painful thrill. “Let loose a bit.”
Then she gestured for me to follow her. At first, I couldn’t budge…but curiosity took over, and allowed her to lead me to Greenhouse-3 in the east wing.
The greenhouse was home to a number of botanical projects, but she brought me to a far corner, hidden from immediate view…and directed my attention to a row of potted plants, tucked between canisters of orchidae. Recognizing what they were, my jaw dropped.
“Is that – ?” I asked, knowing the answer.
“A new strain. One I’ve been developing.” Dr. Bergin grinned. “In secret, though.”
Taking a polybag and cutter from her lab coat, she began clipping and packing stalks from the plant. I gaped at her.
“So, Nola – how about we sign off work an hour early? My apartment’s nearby. You can try this stuff out.”
I do not know what compelled me – but I nodded.
Half an hour later, we were in her apartment…and the oddity of the day’s events left my body in a blissful rush. Senses deadening with each intake, all tension slipping away, I allowed the familiar warmth to circulate. Except…
“My head isn’t buzzing”, I remarked.
“’Course not”, said Dr. Bergin with a smile, rolling her cigar stick between her fingers.
“This is my own little medical miracle. I’ve neutralized the hallucinogenic symptoms.”
“The concentration of cannabinol relative to THC. Took months to get right. Dozens of trials.”
I continued ingesting it, amazed at the effect. The slowing of my mental faculties, but less the hallucinogenic hampering of the senses, was allowing me to perceive the neuro-electric signals from my receptors with startling clarity. I could breathe the stifling draftiness of Dr. Bergin’s apartment. Inhale her and my own odors of toil-induced sweat from the day’s work. Listen to the rhythmic pattern of her lips smacking together, from where she sat across me. Even register, if but faintly, my own heartbeat.
“Truly harmless cannabis. Impressive.”
“Too bad I can’t share it with the world.”
“Tomalski doesn’t know?”
“You kidding? He’d tell the owners in a heartbeat.”
We laughed briefly, carelessly. Then with a drawl, she commented, “You need to relax more, Nola. Get laid, maybe.”
I coughed. Were it not for the cannabis, I may have reacted more tellingly.
“You have a boyfriend?” she asked.
I chewed my lips, pushing silence. But she let the question hang so awkwardly it demanded a response.
“Not since high school.”
“Yeah? How come?”
My stomach stirred, the stimulant failing to hinder an unpleasant memory. A memory of my life in high school…and how little I’d enjoyed the relationships I’d had.
I remembered the men who’d made love to me. I remembered the heat of electric friction prickling from their bodies, friction in synch with chemical urges and euphoric combustions. It had felt romantic, at first…but soon I’d be bemused by the far-too-conscious rhythms, the repetitive impulses that grew to elicit little impulse of my own. To the point of reminding me of planar laminas on fulcrums, rocking out in forcibly continuous ignorance until they’d expended their kineticism.
“Really?” said Dr. Bergin, frowning at my description. “God, Nola, that sounds awful.”
She spoke no more of it, thankfully. Later she put me in a cab and had me sent home. I staggered to my bed and collapsed into fitful sleep.
Cannabinol has no addictive properties, no chemically-induced withdrawal symptom, yet something kept me returning to Dr. Bergin’s apartment, at least once every week, to share the substance. Perhaps it was as simple as my need of a constant break from the lab and all thoughts to do with the lab, a set period for dulling my mind and allowing my baser impulses to thrive.
During one of these sessions, I muttered, “My body is either telling me I’m hungry…or I’m lonely.”
“Here”, said Dr. Bergin, passing me a bag of potato chips. “And you can say ‘horny’ if you want, Nola.”
I opened the bag of chips, thinking only momentarily of the acrylamide and trans-fat acids that I usually took care to avoid, before devouring them and relishing the powdered flavor on my palate. A simple pleasure, but utterly delightful in the throes of sensation heightened tenfold.
“I’m not horny”, I felt the need to reply. “Though I have given thought to your suggestion.”
“Of, um, ‘getting laid’.”
“Have you”, and she grinned. “So, Nola, who’s the best looking guy at the lab?”
I had to mull over that for a minute more, before answering, “Strangely, it might be Director Tomalski.”
She laughed. I could not fault her.
“Kinda looks like George Clooney, doesn’t he?” she said, smiling darkly.
“Thinner eyebrows, though. And messier hair.”
“Then you appear to agree with me.”
“On looks, sure. But that didn’t stop me from turning him down.”
Even in subdued mental function, my eyes jolted in surprise.
“He hit on you?”
“A while back.”
“For how long?”
“Don’t remember. He stopped about a year ago.”
I rubbed my forehead, trying to clear my mind enough to process this.
“And what made him stop?”
She paused for a moment, puffed her stick, then exhaled deeply. “Finding out I had the bug.”
I expected a laugh, or a smile, or a frown – some accompaniment to her words.
She elicited no such qualifier. I took another puff, hoping it would dull me for the rest of the session.
As the months wore on, the stress of my work at the Center returned to the forefront. I’d exerted countless days in modeling my forecast, identifying the key traits necessary for new mosquito genera to thrive in the wild. Yet the results observed from actual field tests were inconclusive.
Splicing the mosquito, that was simple. But inserting it into the ecosystem, ensuring it would genetically spread its anti-malaria constitution through the species, even relative to a certain geography, was coming to dead-ends.
Frustrated, I slammed my fist on the table, ignoring the coworkers who glanced in my direction.
“Whoa, hey, Miss Drooker – you all right?”
Instinctively, my breath seized up, recalling Dr. Bergin asking me that months ago. It actually took me a split-second to register that it was a man’s voice, this time.
I turned to see Director Tomalski standing right before me.
“Oh, no – I’m fine, director”, I replied. “I just need…”
But he cut me off early. “You’ve been working hard for months. Take a break. How about lunch with me at the Carlton?”
With a smile, he reached a hand out towards my arm – and with small terror, I jerked back.
“No – no thank you, Director”, I said as I quickly turned back to my table, trying not to think of the way his brow had furrowed. “I’m – not quite finished here…”
I related this to Dr. Bergin later in the day, when we met at her apartment for our routine.
“No kidding”, she mused. “So he finally tried.”
“He…he really was, then? By inviting me to lunch?”
“Yeah”, she said wryly. “That’s usually how he does it.”
I shivered, glad I hadn’t taken the offer.
Dr. Bergin chose not to pursue the topic, and next asked, “The mosquitoes still giving you trouble, Nola?”
Normally I hated discussing my work outside of the office, referring those who’d ask to read my written reports. But this time I freely loosened my tongue and shared the frustrations of how, contrary to initial simulations, the natural ecosystem was adamant at rejecting my unnatural construct.
To this Dr. Bergin nodded, smiling at me.
“Nature”, she said, “often denies us our own inventiveness. But that doesn’t mean we can’t keep trying.”
And raising a hand she gently ran her fingers through my hair.
“You’d think she’d support me”, I said loftily. “I’m trying to eliminate a virus from the world.”
“They can be part of how she works, though.”
“That doesn’t make them good.”
She considered me delicately, and for the first time since I’d known her, a vulnerability spread over her facial features.
“No”, she said, “it doesn’t.”
I returned home and, in spite of the cannabis in my system, felt uneasy. Strange sensations were rising to the surface of my body, miniscule sparks dancing across my epidermic layer.
I started thinking about Tomalski’s gesture. His hand reaching out to stroke my arm. Imagining what would have happened if I had allowed him to do so.
Imagining, in the safety of my mind’s eye, strong hands finding their way around a faceless woman’s body…imagining his contorted facsimiles brimming with intensity, his breath currents arcing over her back, the sweat issuing from his pores…
But soon my thoughts passed over him, and fell solely on the woman he was caressing. On her, I imagined…not myself. But Dr. Bergin.
I recalled the ungainly, unpleasant intercourse of my youth, the mechanical rocking of bodies in tiresome rhythm. But now I imagined in Tomalski and Dr. Bergin – especially in Dr. Bergin – something far fiercer. Something that felt not mechanical, but…chemical. Something combustive, reactive, electric. Passion igniting a thermodynamic charge of chaos unbridled, her sighs and convulsions and excretions building a haze of bodily ephemera that caused all ambient matter to fuse and fray.
It was lucky that I came to work early the next day to make up for a few monthly hours I was lacking, and to engineer a fresh start on my culicidae experiments.
Lucky that, as I tread silently towards my workplace, I passed near the office of Director Tomalski and heard raised voices through the half-open door. Familiar voices, which everyone else at the lab seemed to be ignoring.
Wishing I could still my heartbeat, I crept towards the door to listen.
“You’re an asshole.”
“Sandra, I just want you to – “
“What is this, David? Nursing your injured pride?”
“I’m not taking any pleasure from this.”
“How dreadfully guilty that makes me feel.”
“You went behind my back, Sandra.”
“You know why I’m growing it, Dave. You know why. I gave you the reason a year ago.”
“It’s not just the unauthorized use of Center resources that bothers me, Sandra.”
“Oh, it’s not? Then what’s the problem?”
“The problem…lately…is what you’ve been doing with it.”
Silence, for a long moment where my aortic strands felt suspended like tightropes.
“This is not about Nola.”
“And you should start calling her ‘Miss Drooker’ from now on.”
“Sandra…I know why you need the plant. I understand. But I cannot condone you using it to take advantage of – “
I heard a slap as clear as a thunderbolt. Then silence again.
“You always were a bastard.”
“Sandra…I don’t want to ask you to leave.”
“Then don’t ask. I’ll take care of it.”
“I think you’re making a mistake.”
“That makes two of us.”
“Well. Let’s hope other centers will be glad to have you.”
“Until they review my medical history.”
“There’s that, I guess.”
“Which you already thought of. Asshole.”
I jolted away as the door swung open, and Dr. Bergin rushed out – a hand over her face, too preoccupied to notice me. Saying nothing as she hurried out of sight.
I took to my desk, tried to busy myself with work, telling myself it was best to ignore what I’d heard…before the electro-chemical impulses that drive our biological purpose flooded my being, and soon I was hurrying to Greenhouse-3 – to where I somehow knew Dr. Bergin would be.
And she was. Entering the Greenhouse, rushing to the corner where her cannabis lay hidden, I saw here there, packing all of her plants into a bag.
“Sandra”, I called.
She turned to see me, her eyes tense and growing only tenser as I was registered, as I strode towards her in force, the electro-chemical impulses steeling my nerves and clarifying my mind and senses, as not even the cannabinol had ever clarified them before.
“Miss D-Nola. I – “
“I heard, Sandra. I heard everything.”
She froze. Looking almost frightened, daring not to speak.
“In the office. With Tomalski. I heard you two. I heard everything.”
Grimacing, she turned away. “I – I don’t think he’ll take anything against you, Nola”, she said, and her voice sounded hoarse with grief. “Even though he might try, and say you haven’t been producing results. Just – watch your step around him, and you should be…”
“Sandra. I’m not staying here without you.”
With those words, I allowed just the tiniest shiver to pass through me…and saw the same pass through her. I saw her set her bag down, saw her look back up again to face me, saw her remove her glasses, and felt myself pulled inexorably into her, and into my first true miracle.
We were in the middle of a garden teeming with life. I thought of the insects I could faintly hear, crawling and buzzing through the leaves, playing out full cycles of existence in spans of twenty-four hours; of the micro-spore accumulating on the surface of orchids, species born of chemical treatments to form vitalic elixirs; of the photosynthetic process turning consolidated energies into nectar and blossom and victuals…and I thought of the world beyond the Greenhouse, of ecosystems, of the interconnected biosphere, of amoebas existing and reproducing from the beginning of time into eternity, all things enraptured by the same fruitful, desire-driven dance.
And I thought of all this as I held Sandra to me, as I began to absorb her odors, her coffee skin, the temperature-induced sweat from the Greenhouse’s artificial atmosphere that layered her breastbone…
…as I saw, for the first time as we drew down her garments, the pitch-black lesions of disease and consequence that contaminated her. On her arm, her leg, her ribs. Yet I put these aside in my mind, knowing that they were mere natural elements of the world that was her, of the worlds that would be us, worlds of internal pressures and surges and chemical reactions surrounding skeletal structures and bloodstreams and lymph systems doomed to rupture and fail, worlds as nurturing and delicate and complex as the one we perceived all around us, as we screamed our defiance of nature’s boundaries and sang our bodies electric.
Sandra passed away a year ago. Watching her struggle was painful, as was keeping by her every day and night.
Not as painful as it is to deal with the struggle itself, as I now have to. Nature often finds ways to enforce her rules on us, even as we choose to follow our desires and deny her.
Or perhaps she merely challenges us to refine our inventiveness. And perhaps that is what I am waiting for – someone to discover a way to make what I shared with Sandra free and pure and just, as it should be. For all the world. To whelm the forces of nature, if not society entire.
And so, again, I am waiting for a miracle.