She was a solid-bodied female of perhaps twenty years of age with a plain face, an unusually low, simian brow, small squinting eyes, tentative manner like that of a creature that is being herded blindly along a chute. In a bulky nylon jacket, unzipped. Rust-color frizzed hair. Approximately five feet three, weight one hundred forty pounds. Full bosom of an older woman, thick muscled thighs and legs, thick ankles, large splayed feet, and a center of gravity in the pelvic region.
Entering the lecture hall, alone. Blinking nervously as she glanced about for an empty seat. Or for someone to smile, wave at her, and invite her to sit with them …
But no one. Not likely. And so, taking her seat in the fifth row, settling her bulky backpack at her feet.
There it is—she is. Our subject. Like an electric current these words ran through the technician’s brain as (covertly) he took several quick pictures of the girl with his iPhone.
It was a season of protracted heat, drought. No precipitation for months and since early September a hot, arid wind like a persistent cough.
Behind the green-tinted glass columns of Rockefeller Life Sciences Hall the temperature was fixed at 66 degrees Fahrenheit. From vents in the twelve-foot walls humidified air moved like invisible caresses.
The first to sight the girl—the (potential) experimental subject—was the senior technician in the Professor’s (restricted, Government-funded) primate laboratory. Liking to think of himself as a scout—a peregrine falcon—in the service of the Professor, anticipating solutions to problems which the Professor had not (yet) considered.
For the distinguished Professor was so intensely absorbed in his work he seemed often not to know whether an experiment was nearing completion, was only midway, or had just begun, considering the most complicated experiment but a sequence of steps like bricks in a walkway to bring others to the destination at which the Professor already waited like a Buddha basking in his own enlightenment.
Of course! An experiment is not a blundering to discovery but a confirmation of what is already known.
The search for the new experimental subject had not officially begun. But the senior technician N___ (name unpronounceable—Chinese? Korean? Vietnamese?—too many consonants crowded into a single syllable for the non-Asian ear to grasp)—had been keeping his falcon-eyes open.
Alone of his colleagues N___ was in the habit of wandering in the lower University campus where he wasn’t likely to encounter anyone he knew, or who knew him. A tall (six feet, two inches) dark-clad knife blade of a man, lithe as a shadow flying across a walkway, exquisite in aloneness as a figure in an ancient Asian woodcut. Though visible to anyone who actually looked at him, N___ had the advantage of invisibility that is the particular prerogative of his species: deceptively bland Asian face, wire-rimmed eyeglasses, short-cropped very black glossy hair, dark flannel sweatshirt or hoodie, running shoes.
His age?—could be midtwenties. No one could have guessed late thirties.
Even in the primate laboratory N___ did not always appear visible. Standing only a few feet from the Professor he’d heard the Professor inquire irritably, “Where is N___ when I need him?”
At which point N___ did not smile (visibly), cleared his throat, and said in his most courteous nongloating voice: “Professor, I am here.”
He’d sighted her, unmistakably. He was certain.
After the lecture, lingering at the front of the amphitheater. As undergraduates streamed past, waiting for the low-browed girl that he might (unobtrusively) follow her.
Having grasped instinctively that the girl was of that subcategory of young female who was not likely to have friends; certainly, not male friends. She will be grateful for attention. She will not ask why. She will not suspect a motive.
The subject of the Professor’s lecture that day had been the phenomenon called mitosis. Stages of cell mitosis, stages of cell cycle, meiosis. All of life is involved in the replication of life: that is the meaning contained in the word life.
No one understood the why of such a process. But they were beginning to understand how. And very exciting it was to them, the Professor’s hand-picked team, the process of how which they were learning to replicate.
At the lectures it was N___’s custom to sit at the very end of the first row of seats in the semidarkened amphitheater, that he might observe the faint glimmer of hundreds of computer screens cast upward on young, earnest faces. The Professor’s carefully chosen words, uttered through a microphone, further amplified by the PowerPoint presentation (which N___ had helped prepare for the Professor) were channeled through the neurons of the young, fingers rapidly typing on laptop keyboards as in a mass hypnosis.
And then, after fifty intense minutes, the spell was ended. The lecture was ended. Lights came up in the amphitheater, the Professor exited the stage. Laptops were shut, backpacks gathered. Where there’d been respectful silence, relieved chatter began.
Biding his time until the low-browed girl passed in the aisle descending steps with an awkward sort of care and gripping her bulky backpack to her chest. Of course, oblivious of N___.
Exiting the amphitheater, following the girl outside. Like a practiced predator taking care to keep others between them and following at a distance of about thirty feet.
It was not difficult to keep the low-browed girl in sight: frizzed rust-colored hair that looked as if she’d brushed it with rough, random strokes of a brush, stolid mammalian figure, slightly rounded shoulders, a way of pushing herself forward that was both “perky” and defeated. The girl wore an unflattering University jacket of some grape-colored nylon fabric, which she kept unzipped and open, for she was overweight and inclined to be warm on even a chilly autumn morning; perhaps bizarrely, in a gesture that should have been embarrassing to her, the low-browed girl hoped to draw attention to her sizable breasts as if not grasping (of course, the ideal experimental subject was not intelligent enough to grasp) that she was at least thirty pounds beyond the undergraduate ideal for a twenty-year-old female, even if her earnest simian face had been attractive. On her sturdy thighs and legs were jeans that looked stiff and new, also unattractive.
How different this female specimen was from most of the undergraduate girls at the University! If they adhered to a type, regardless of race or ethnicity they were likely to be slender, with long straight silky hair, flawless skin. They were not hesitant but confident. They did not exude aloneness even when they were walking alone.
It was something of a mystery, N___ thought. That the girl with the low forehead, quizzical eyes, and diffident manner had dared to enroll in the introductory biology course, competing with premed students, biochemistry majors, neuroscientists …
N___ felt a pang of pity for the experimental subject. But by definition, no specimen who so matched the requirements for the experimental subject could be anything other than pitiable.
How slowly the girl walked! At least half N___’s normal speed. If he weren’t vigilant, he’d have easily caught up with her.
Following the girl across campus and into the student union, a featureless cube offensive to an eye attuned to the elegantly minimal architecture of Life Sciences. Relieved at least that the girl hadn’t returned to her residence hall where N___ couldn’t have followed her. Hoping she wasn’t meeting a friend for lunch which would ruin his plans.
But the experimental subject would not have a friend, ideally …
Having to wait, at a little distance, as the girl entered a women’s restroom.
This, N___ resented. There came into his pristine mind an unpleasant vision of the restroom interior, crumpled paper napkins (and worse) in a trash bin, hairs in sinks, a smell of toilets and drains, the plain, pasty-faced, low-browed girl peering at herself anxiously in a communal mirror, primping her hair, puckering her fleshy lips ... Admired in the Professor’s lab for his fastidious care in prepping experimental animals for the insertion of electrodes into their brains, as for making sure that his tech assistants kept the animals’ cages as clean as possible, N___ felt a rush of repugnance, indignation. If there’d been the faintest glimmer of romance in the prospect of befriending / seducing the experimental subject, minuscule as bacteria flourishing in a Petri dish, this vision would have killed it.
In the lab, among his colleagues who were both appreciative of the technician’s help when they required it and resentful of his close (if scarcely verbal) relationship with the Professor, it was speculated that N___ was, at whatever age he was, not so much “virginal” as “asexual.” No one had ever seen N___ with a woman in what have been romantic circumstances, nor indeed with a man.
N___ had a vague sense of this reputation. So long as the Professor held him in high regard, he did not so much mind what others said of him though it amused him to think that anyone should consider him a virgin.
The cafeteria was only just beginning to fill. Casually N___ fell into line behind the low-browed girl who appeared hungry for lunch, at five minutes before noon. A good appetite! A healthy female specimen made for breeding, wide-hipped and with a (probable) high threshold for pain.
N___ was taller than the girl by a head. This was good—(was it?). Authority exudes from superior height in Homo sapiens as in other mammalian species. Moving a sticky black plastic tray behind hers, seemingly by accident giving her tray a nudge.
“Hi, h’lo—thought I saw you in Intro Biology, was that you?—”
Exactly what a fellow student might say in these circumstances. Composing the bland-inscrutable Asian face into a friendly smile and hoping the girl would not perceive immediately how forced and insincere these banal words were.
Startled, the girl looked up at N___. Stammering, blushing—“Yah … yes. Intro Biology, I just came from the lecture …”
Surprised that N___ was speaking to her. Touchingly grateful for the friendly smile from the tall neatly dressed handsome (?) young Asian man.
“… like, my head aches from trying to make sense of … what’s it … miyotis …”
Looming tall, not too close to the low-browed girl, friendly but polite. Gentlemanly. Pushed his tray behind her tray as if they were casual acquaintances and not total strangers.
It was the girl’s wish to present herself to this unexpected fellow student as overwhelmed by the biology lecture. Imagining that, to N___, seeming even less intelligent than she probably was would appeal to him as male.
But it was a way for N___ to connect with the girl, a stratagem to deflect her suspicion. Falling in with her tone of wry puzzlement, N___ volunteered cheerfully that, of the Professor’s lecture that morning, he’d understood just a fraction himself—“Eleven percent.”
A joke: eleven percent. To glance at N___ would be to guess that N___ was hardly of that cohort who have difficulty understanding an undergraduate science lecture; a more experienced individual than the low-browed girl would have guessed postdoc, research science, Chinese?—Korean?—Vietnamese?—quirky but brilliant.
Unsuspecting any stratagem on N___’s part the (naive) girl imagined N___ as a kindred undergraduate though surely—(for so N___ perceived the girl’s brain cranking into action like a computer of another era)—smarter than she was. Just possibly, potential help to her in preparing for exams. Tutorials. Study dates. Nodding fiercely in agreement, “Oh, gosh I know! The same with me. He’s, like, a famous professor, a scientist—they say … I try so hard to understand him but it slips through my brain, I guess. Sometimes I try so hard it hurts.”
As if the girl meant to be funny N___ laughed. Not very convincingly but in her excitement the girl took no notice. Like an actor reading a script he has never seen before N___ said that he felt the same way—“Except it’s my back molars that hurt, from grinding.”
Wincingly unfunny but the girl laughed as if she’d been tickled. Her mouth was large as a pike’s mouth, her hilarity breathless and overdone.
“You mean, like—at night … Yah sometimes I grind my teeth too, it used to be worse when I was a little kid …”
Smiling at N___ coquettishly now. Oh, this was flirting!
N___ had not been in such intimate quarters with a female for some time. The Professor did not encourage females in his primate lab—even gifted female postdocs had been turned away, and female research scientists in Life Sciences were pursuing their own subjects. N___ had little contact with undergraduate girls enrolled in the lecture course for he was not one of the Professor’s team of teaching assistants; he’d more or less forgotten the (hypothetical) sexual imperative that a male naturally seeks a female mate, to reproduce his own kind. N___ did not care much for his own kind—his DNA. Yet he felt the pathos of this so clearly lonely and love-starved girl whom not even smiling could make pretty. He would have to harden his heart against her, not to succumb to pity.
Of all human emotions, pity is the least useful.
For the scientist whose research involves experimental animals, pity is particularly not-useful.
Asking the girl if she was having lunch with anyone and when she shook her head no asking if he could sit with her and she laughed in sheer confused delight (it seemed) as blood rushed alarmingly into her face. Eagerly she said, “Yah—yes.”
“Well. Maybe we could sit together …”
Deftly N___ guided them into a corner of the cafeteria, where no one was likely to intrude.
Rare for N___ to have lunch in so public a place. Usually he ate in the lab, takeout food in Styrofoam packages and not what might be designated as “lunch.” Just ate when he was hungry, or rather became aware in the midst of work that he was hungry.
Like characters in a broadly humorous, brightly lit TV situation comedy they introduced themselves: N___ with a plausible-sounding name—“Nathaniel”—(for wasn’t that an Anglo name, slightly formal, archaic?)—and the girl with a name that suited her—“Merry Frances.”
But no, the name must be “Mary Frances.”
“That’s a nice name … ‘Mary Frances.’”
“It’s for my grandma. I mean, it was. I mean—my grandma is—isn’t—alive …” Pausing, breathless. “‘Nath-an-yiel’—that’s a nice name.”
N___ smiled. Tried to smile. Not recalling how Asian boys smiled at Caucasian girls.
Not that N___ had been a boy for fifteen, twenty years.
In so public a place, amid a babble of undergraduate chatter, N___ felt exposed, absurd. Here was “Nathaniel Li” in the alarming company of “Mary Frances Bowes.” If anyone from Life Sciences happened to see the Professor’s chief technician in the clamorous student union, sitting across a table from the smiling, stolid undergraduate girl—how astonished they would be! Unless the colleague was from the primate lab, and could guess what N___’s motive was …
By asking discreet questions N___ was able to determine during the course of the cafeteria meal that 1) Mary Frances had few friends at the University; 2) Mary Frances did not have a “boyfriend”; 3) Mary Frances was living some distance from her family which was a “broken-up family” and she was “not real close” with them; 4) Mary Frances was enrolled in the College of General Studies yet had signed up for Introduction to Biology with the (questionable) hope that it would aid her application to nursing school—“I always wanted to be a nurse ’cause I want to help people all I can. It’s what Jesus wants us to do—I mean, Christians … It’s real hard to get accepted in the nursing school here but my advisor said they’d be impressed if I took Intro Biology and got a good grade …” Her voice trailed off wistfully at good grade.
So that was why the girl was in the Professor’s lecture course, valiantly trying to take notes amid a sea of premed students and science majors, murderous, competitive as sharks. A responsible advisor would have urged her to take only courses in the College of General Studies in which, in fact, she might receive good grades.
N___ pushed himself to sound sympathetic, convincing. “Well. If you work hard … Maybe—somebody could help you …” Picking with a plastic fork in the “Asian salad” swill he’d selected in the cafeteria line, lifting his eyes to meet hers, shy-Asian-boy smile: “… maybe I could help you.”
Have you no mercy for her? Once, you were her.
But no. No mercy. Not in Life Sciences.
Recalling the girl’s eager eyes on his face when he’d told her he could help her. Feeling a shudder of guilt and self-revulsion that the experimental subject was so unwary, so easily led and so tractable.
But it is not in the nature of the peregrine falcon to pass up its prey.
Especially if the falcon is hunting in the service of his master who expects much of him that is not outwardly stated.
For there was the understanding that, if the Professor’s renowned primate lab violated certain legal restrictions, committed certain acts that might be ruled “scientific misconduct”—not often, but occasionally—in the service of scientific progress—it would be the chief technician N___ who took the blame, and not the Professor. In the many years of the primate lab it hadn’t yet happened that any outside authority had challenged the Professor’s findings, still less his methods, for the primate lab was one of the crown jewels of Life Sciences, bringing in approximately twice as much money in research grants as its nearest competitor, and so the University had no wish to look too carefully into the “ethics” of its experiments even if the University had had the means to undertake an investigation, or could have known where to begin.
In any case, N___ would be the individual held responsible. N___ would be the member of the team to be disciplined, even “suspended”— “terminated”—for he was not a PhD appointment to the University, but rather an employee of the Professor.
This possibility N___ understood and accepted tacitly though he and the Professor had never discussed it; just as N___ understood that, in the event of an investigation, a harsh ruling, ugly public exposure, and the loss of his appointment, still N___’s coveted Green Card would not be rescinded, for the Professor would protect him from deportation to the birth country he had not glimpsed in more than thirty years. And, in time, there would be a considerable reward for the chief technician. He was sure.
It helped that in this affluent adoptive country, under the protection of the Professor, N___ had forgotten his origins. There’d been “war”—“civil war”—a terrible air bombardment. A sky churned into havoc, clouds bleeding guts. Not once. Not twice. Countless times.
Collapsing walls. Clots of flame. A refugee camp, with a muddy burial ground. Before that a protracted escape-by-boat, or had it been the reverse, or had there been more than one desperate escape-by-boat, and more than one squalid camp. And more than one death. More than one language and N___ had forgotten them all. His brain refused to process these lost languages so that the name on his Green Card—“N___”—had come to seem mildly preposterous to him, too many consonants packed into a single syllable, a foreign name.
All that was changed now. N___ could barely recall his adolescence, let alone his childhood. Let alone his young childhood. The English spoken in his adoptive country was his language now. He had no interest in any other language. He had no interest in any other country. Vaguely he was aware that he had relatives who shared a surname living in Canada, possibly in Vancouver, a cousin his own age who was a research scientist like himself. But he had no interest in any other N___ for (in fact) “N___” was (almost certainly) not his birth name but a refugee-camp name given to a mute parentless child not (evidently) terminally ill and so worth “naming.”
Instructive to remember too that N___’s surname was, or rather is, the most common of surnames in his native country. One of the most common surnames in the world. Not much pride in this and indeed, N___ was not one to take pride.
Like removing a CD from a player, such memory. Sliding in another CD. A phase of life: slice of neural memory in the brain. In an autopsy you could slice—very thinly—such neural matter. Store it, with care, in formaldehyde. Hardly necessary to recall, let alone record. So long as he had his Green Card and the identity that went with it: “N___.” So long as he had the protection of the Professor who was his sponsor / employer in this affluent adoptive country.
Sending a rare email to the Professor: Something to report on preliminary scouting for Project Galahad.
Next morning at the weekly lab meeting there was N___ with a proposal.
Taking the others by surprise. For that was the Professor’s chief technician / right-hand-man for you—crafty and unpredictable. In the way that N___ hid his smile somehow up inside his deceivingly bland Asian face so that you felt it rather than saw it, inscrutable.
Informing them that he’d sighted, he’d vetted, at least to a degree, a very promising female specimen for (classified, confidential) Project Galahad.
The female was twenty years of age. A first-year student in the College of General Studies with a (quixotic?) hope of being accepted into the Nursing School. By her own account she had virtually no friends. She and her roommate “didn’t get along.” Most crucially she had no boyfriend, fiancé, husband.
She did have a family, but not living close by. And no close ties.
She was tractable, credulous, eager to please. Not very bright. Not very attractive. Physical type: wide hipped, sturdy boned.
N___’s proposal: with the permission of the lab, he would move forward in securing the girl as the experimental subject.
But no: objections were immediate. For N___ had adversaries in the lab. Rivals for the Professor’s esteem. Pointing out that initiating even the first stage of the experiment was in violation of University policy regarding classified research, since the primate lab did not (yet) have permission to move forward; also, the schedule for Project Galahad hadn’t yet been established …
But yes of course. Permission would be granted eventually. A schedule could be drawn up within a few days—N___ could compose a draft. It was unwise not to take advantage of the female specimen he’d discovered for she appeared to be ideal, and if they lost her through an excess of caution they might not find another.
But—no. It was months too soon for Project Galahad, there wasn’t yet a budget …
But—yes. The Professor’s National Institute of Health grant could be tapped for miscellaneous expenses.
The senior members of the primate lab were meeting in the Professor’s office on the eighth floor of Life Sciences. Sitting at an oak conference table heatedly discussing N___’s proposal as with a bemused expression the Professor scrolled through images of the twenty-year-old female specimen on N___’s iPhone.
As others debated the issue the Professor remained silent. Stroking the crisp white goatee that gave him at a little distance the (misleadingly) benign look of a wire-haired terrier.
At such times the Professor’s brooding silence did not indicate that he was listening to his younger associates, who spoke as much to impress the Professor as to reason with one another. Yet, the contemplative way in which the Professor stroked his goatee did not indicate that he was not listening, perhaps very carefully to each word.
The father is most powerful when he does not indicate his preferences among the children. Only the most subtle hints, but these must be conflicting hints, fertile for endless speculation.
At last putting N___’s iPhone down on the table and pushing it in N___’s direction.
With a terse nod of his head, yes. The female specimen was ideal.
Around the table, a ripple of assent. Even those who’d most opposed N___ now agreed, it was wisest to begin at once.
“So, N___—will you be the one to prep her?”
Gravely N___ said: “Of course, Professor. I have already begun.”
It is known that Homo sapiens shares ninety-five percent of DNA sequences, and ninety-nine percent of coding DNA sequences, with certain ape species; and in some human beings the simian kinship seems more evident than in others. Many times this thought has occurred to N___, seeing the experimental subject waving to him, blushing at the mere sight of him—“‘Nath-an-yiel.’ Hi!”
Meeting at the student union. In the main library. In a coffee shop on campus. In a coffee shop off campus. Never in her residence hall since N___ did not want to be seen by girls who knew her, in her company.
The delight in the coarse-skinned face, the glisten in the small close-set eyes. The thrilled smile.
“Mary Frances. Hi.”
Seeing, to his embarrassment, that Mary Frances’s chapped-looking lips began to turn rosy. Her rust-red frizzed hair began to be more frequently shampooed, brushed.
In her pudgy ears, pierced earrings.
The nails of her stubby fingers, filed and polished.
An attractive sweater, fitting her sizable breasts snugly. An attractive shirt. Necklace, scarf. Whiff of something cheaply sweet like lilac.
The pretext for their meetings was N___ kindly providing help for Mary Frances with the biology course. Securing her trust. Making her grateful, indebted.
For all his intelligence N___ wasn’t a natural teacher. Research engaged his interest, not teaching. To teach another, you have to care.
Yet, in the service of Project Galahad and what it might mean for scientific progress as well as what it might mean for the careers of everyone in the primate lab, N___ was determined to care.
Over the years he’d acquired a sympathetic and instructive manner with younger students in the lab. His natural disdain for persons less intelligent than himself he’d learned to disguise. Though he was impatient with stupidity he could sympathize, to a degree, with ignorance; it was astonishing that Mary Frances knew so little about science, but he was impressed by her determination to learn, and volunteered hours of his time tutoring her in elementary principles of mitosis, meiosis, gametes, chromosomes, genetic diversity though he felt (he could not help it) a faint revulsion for the girl, both physical and intellectual … Also a sort of angry pity for her, that a girl who looked like Mary Frances could sincerely believe that a young man like “Nathaniel” was genuinely interested in her.
He hoped that she wasn’t boasting about him, at least. Hoped she had no one to whom she might boast.
By degrees N___ began to take some (small, grudging) pleasure in teaching the girl something valuable about biology. Enough at least to prepare her for lab quizzes and exams.
Mary Frances did not seem to grasp principles or abstract theories but she had a capacity for memorization, at least for temporary memorization. N___ could coach her to repeat something enough times to get her through a limited period—a day, a few hours—before it began to fade.
Despite himself he began to take a sort of pride in his tutoring. And indeed it was flattering to see that look of adoration in a (white) girl’s face, which he’d rarely seen before in any face.
Running to greet him one day as he approached the coffee shop, with childish joy waving a sheet of paper—“Oh—Nath’iel! Oh gosh! Look! Look at this! Thanks only to you.”
Startling N___ by hugging him, pushing herself breathless and heated and smelling both frantic and fragrant against him, laughing as the two came close to toppling over on the walkway.
In red ink on white paper, a beautifully rendered B–.
It was only a weekly biology lab quiz graded by a postdoc but a B– was impressive for a student of Mary Frances’s capacity. N___ was himself impressed.
“It’s, like, you are saving my life, Nath’iel. Oh gosh—I love you.”
How soon then, to initiate the impregnation.
By measured stages seduction, sexual relations, impregnation. And if impregnation, gestation.
Birth, and beyond birth.
Of course, much had to be spontaneous, or seeming-so. With the Professor’s approval N___ had drawn up a tentative schedule based upon a normal nine-month’s gestation, birth sometime the next summer if all went as planned.
If successful impregnation, an engagement ring. If necessary, plans to marry after the birth.
Promise her whatever is required. You will know her very well by then.
Soon, N___ steered the female specimen away from campus. He preferred to spend time with her less publicly, he said.
Soon, meals together in (inexpensive, ethnic) restaurants and cafes where N___ wasn’t known. For certainly that was the next step, taking out the experimental subject on “dates.”
(Of course, N___ kept receipts for all expenditures and was reimbursed weekly out of the Professor’s miscellaneous fund.)
Tutoring the girl in biology was still crucial but was not the only or even the primary subject of their conversations.
How did one fall in love? N___ had no more personal experience of falling in love than he’d had of personally experiencing impregnation, gestation, birth in laboratory animals whom he oversaw in the Professor’s elaborate experiments.
Drawing a deep breath one evening as they sat at a small table in a Chinese restaurant awaiting their meal, N___ took hold of Mary Frances’s hand that lay, like a small animal in a pretense of sleep, on the tabletop. Steeling himself for the immediate pressure of her (hot, moist) hand, grasping his as a drowning person might grasp for life.
A single heartbeat thudded between them. Suddenly, they were a couple.
Soon then, Mary Frances dared to slide her arm through his as they walked together. Leaning against N___, giddy and clumsy as in a three-legged race.
Together, crossing a street. At a pace that left the girl breathless trying to match N___’s long-legged stride.
“Oh, Nath’iel! You are so tall.”
Such inane remarks the girl made. There was something childlike in her naïveté that made N___ want to protect her.
“People are always saying, Asians are so smart. Not like the rest of us. And, know what?—they are right.” Pausing, leaning against N___. “And handsome, too. And sweet.”
This was bold. This was unmistakable. Yet, N___ did not wish to take advantage of the girl, just yet.
He was fearful of her emotion, that threatened to overwhelm him. Her warm, often over-warm body, leaning against his, denser than his own and (possibly) more resilient. Her eyes he saw were mud brown, shiny with feeling.
Like a precious coin that has been covered by the thinnest soil the girl’s soul was too easily exposed. Seeming to take no notice of how guarded N___ had been in speaking of himself she did not hesitate to open her heart to him, confiding her most private secrets—bullied in middle school, friendless in high school, lonely and “miserable” at the University until she’d met him.
Oh, there’d been some guys at the University—“frat boys, real assholes”—who’d asked her out to “disgusting ‘keg’ parties, they call them”—but she’d had enough sense at least not to say yes.
“Really bad things happen to girls at ‘keg’ parties. All along Posner Avenue—those damn frat houses …” Mary Frances shook her head wryly, with an expression both disgusted and wistful.
N___ wondered uneasily if Mary Frances was a virgin. The very term virgin was quaint, faintly ludicrous to the ear, like an old-fashioned clinical name for a disease.
“Guys can be mean. Nasty. Back in middle school they’d tease us—try to scare us. ‘Pig-snout’—they called a friend of mine. She’d run away and cry. Just nasty.”
Shaking her head, such disgust that N___ had to suppose it had been Mary Frances herself called such a name.
Once begun, the girl could not seem to stop. A faucet turned on, and further on. Soon confiding in N___ all he might wish to know, and more, of her life.
Except for cousins in the Navy she was the first of her family to leave her small town, and she was definitely the first to go to college; everybody in the family thought she was “snooty” for going to the state university and not to a community college. They weren’t “supportive” of her at all, in wanting to become a nurse. But she planned to surprise them by becoming a nurse and not returning home but (maybe) living in the urban area near the University.
“D’you think that’s a good idea?”
“A good idea—what?” N___ had been listening so intently to Mary Frances, watching the odd twitchy movements of her mouth, he’d lost the thread of what she was saying.
“Living around here. After I graduate.”
“Y-Yes. It’s a great idea.”
“‘Cause I am getting to like it here. Getting to know you …”
No idea how to reply. N___ murmured a vague smiling assent.
“But I have a lot of work to do, I guess … to get admitted to the nursing school. To pass Intro Biology …”
“Well. I can help you, Mary Frances. Like I have.”
“Oh, gosh! Oh, I am so lucky …”
Deeply moved, Mary Frances grimaced, shook her head mutely, swiped at her eyes.
Where had N___ seen this gesture before? Had to be one of the primate lab animals. A female chimpanzee named Maude who’d learned to mimic human mannerisms with eerie precision—a way of courting favor with her masters, they’d thought.
In an aggressive male chimp like the alpha male Galahad, such a gesture might be meant in mockery. If his teeth were bared, an outright gesture of defiance against his jailers.
But Mary Frances was wholly sincere. Nothing meant more to her than nursing school, she said repeatedly; it was the predominant theme of her life, her dream of helping other people. Though N___ had known Mary Frances only about three weeks he’d heard her speak in this way countless times, and could have finished her sentences for her.
“’Course, I might just end up married …”
Boldly Mary Frances spoke, casting a coy / hopeful glance at her companion who seemed at first not to know how to reply; then asked, gamely, with a weak smile, if she thought she might like to have children, and Mary Frances said, “Oh yes. A family. I do.”
N___ heard himself ask, as if this were a perfectly normal conversation of the sort he had frequently: “How many?”
“How many? Children? Oh gosh, maybe three … Maybe four.”
N___ was smiling foolishly. A dull blush had come into his face which Mary Frances saw, and misinterpreted.
“’Course, that’s all in the future, Nath’iel. We’re having a really nice time now …”
The rest of the evening passed in a blur. Crossing a street on the way back to campus and to her residence Mary Frances slid her arm into N___’s, and came close to leaning her head against his shoulder. A faint stir of desire in his groin, like a young snake waking.
Rehearsing what he would say to the experimental subject, soon. I love you, Mary Frances …
But no. He could not.
For one thing, how could N___fashion his face, uttering such improbable words? Surely, even the low-browed girl would not be so easily deceived …
I—I—I l-love …
More plausibly N___ might say—I care for you, too.
Steering a careful course, as he thought it. Between his (outward) display of affection for the female specimen and his (inward) repugnance for the female specimen.
If the challenge was to overcome his (physical) revulsion for Mary Frances a yet greater challenge would be to overcome panic that for all his revulsion he was becoming (physically) attracted to her …
No! Not possible. The low forehead, the russet-red fringe of hair on the forehead, the matronly breasts and hips, the plain face with its simian cast—he could not be seriously attracted to that.
Yet Mary Frances’s soft limpid brown eyes were sometimes attractive. When love for N___, frank adoration for N___, showed so frankly in them.
When love for N___ glowed in her face like reflected candlelight. Ohhh gosh Nath’iel, you are so handsome.
When it was not jocose and exaggerated and lipstick smeared, her smile could be attractive. To a degree.
When she refrained from grabbing his arm and speaking excitedly she could be, if not attractive, not (totally) unattractive.
Shame! You are falling in love.
N___ laughed appalled, this was preposterous. Clueless Mary Frances joined in, giggling. Like a trained dog, eager to please its master and also to imitate its master. If she’d had a tail, N___ thought in disgust, she’d be wagging it, thumping against his legs.
His lab colleagues had advised N___ to proceed cautiously. To behave like a (stereotypical) Asian male, courteous and deferential, warmly friendly, shyly affectionate, fascinated by the (white) girl’s inane chatter. Above all, no threat to the (white) girl.
He, the Asian male, was too reserved to initiate sexual relations. If something should go wrong with Project Galahad it would be prudent if the girl, and not N___, had actually initiated the next, intimate stage of their relationship. N___ would behave as (in fact) he felt in the low-browed girl’s presence—physically awkward, reticent. Not so comfortable with touching or being touched.
It might be a matter of weeks before a sexual relationship could be established. Possibly months. Crucial not to hurry. Not to move prematurely. For the integrity of the experiment would depend upon the bond N___ established with the experimental subject, her unquestioning loyalty to the young man she knew as “Nathaniel Li.” And yes, if necessary, this young man would enter upon an engagement with the experimental subject, during the pregnancy. If / when there was a pregnancy.
Marriage was a possibility. Though it would not be an actual, “legal” marriage, of course, but one arranged through the Professor’s contacts.
By the last week in October a furnished apartment had been secured for N___’s use. (N___ would never bring the experimental subject to his own quarters of course. On principle, N___ never brought or invited anyone there.) The apartment was just far enough away from the University to assure some measure of privacy; its shelves had been hastily filled with books sloughed off from N___’s colleagues’ libraries or picked up by N___ at sidewalk sales. The bed would be freshly made, towels and hand soap in the bathroom. It was N___’s responsibility to at least partly fill kitchen cupboards, bureau drawers, a closet or two, to suggest actual occupancy.
Reporting to the Professor weekly even when there was relatively little progress to report.
Stroking his stiff white goatee the Professor peered at pictures of the experimental subject on N___’s cell phone. Such an unattractive female! It was no wonder she was grateful for N___’s attention. The Professor evinced indifference to N___’s reports even as he insisted upon a voyeur’s particularized account. In what ways had N___ touched the female specimen? Kissed her? And what sort of kisses?—light, glancing, casual, or—impassioned? Had the female specimen signaled sexual receptivity, as a female chimpanzee might, in estrus? (But this was a joke: female chimps in estrus lifted their swollen genitals boldly to the male chimp’s face.)
No? The experimental subject had not (yet) displayed this behavior?
The Professor laughed as if suspecting that N___ was keeping something from him.
Not a very aesthetic procedure. But at least not very difficult: procuring the first store of semen from Galahad.
Fortunately, Galahad was a lusty young animal in the prime of life and ripe for reproducing his kind—whether ejaculating into the vagina of a female chimp in the rabid heat of estrus or into a technician’s rubber-gloved hand and a sterile glass beaker.
“Galahad, my friend! Hel-lo.”
It was remarked in the Professor’s primate lab: the chief technician N___ was not nearly so relaxed with his own kind as he was with certain of the experimental animals and especially with the young male Galahad, a beautiful chimpanzee specimen to whom he gave treats and whom he even groomed with a bristle brush.
Galahad was nine years of age, four feet ten inches in height, one hundred sixty-six lean-muscled pounds. Emerging out of the black-haired pelt at his groin, an astonishing frequency of erections like living, writhing, tubular things—giant sea slugs with blunt blind heads of a bright rosy hue, stiff with blood and translucent frothy liquid rife with the sperm of Pan troglodytes verus.
Nature’s imperative to reproduce species, to replicate DNA into the next generation, is never more evident than in chimpanzee sexual behavior. No romance to it, simply energy, zeal, application, and repetition.
N___’s younger colleagues joked nervously about Galahad and other hot-blooded male chimps in the lab. If these near-human creatures could seize control of their jailers, if they could free themselves from their cages, they might imprison their jailers, or might just murder them where they overpowered them. In their place, that was what (murderous, vengeful) Homo sapiens would do.
Pan troglodytes verus (western Africa) were not carnivorous animals, essentially. Their preferred diet was fruit, nuts, vegetables, insects. If these were not available, small mammals. But out of meanness (just possibly) the rampaging males might mutilate and devour those human specimens who’d mistreated them and spare others who’d been kind to them. Ape memories were excellent, unforgiving, like the memories of certain corvids.
Apes were capable of human-like behavior: rage, tantrums, vengeance. In the wild, ape communities were strictly hierarchical, with a strong alpha male dominating and all other chimpanzees subordinate to him; in captivity there was no community, only (caged) specimens. You could argue that a caged specimen is sui generis, an aberration.
Older chimps in the Professor’s lab, male and female, were not nearly so exciting or as readily aroused as young Galahad. Lust had dimmed in their eyes, they’d endured too many experiments for the good of humankind, or rather for the good of Big Pharma. Since the Animal Welfare Act of 2010 these chimpanzees were no longer routinely subjected to the sort of painful experiments they’d endured when younger, but they had not forgotten their torturers …
One of the Professor’s most famous experiments, however, hadn’t involved electrodes in chimpanzee brains or injections of cancer, TB, AIDS into their blood but rather the discovery that chimpanzees could recognize themselves in mirrors. That is, individual chimpanzees were capable of recognizing themselves as individuals, in mirrors, and not simply as “chimpanzees.” In a sequence of experiments now recognized as historic the Professor had drawn red dots on the foreheads of chimps who were then positioned before mirrors into which they gazed with great excitement and fascination, waving their arms wildly, grimacing and mugging; like Narcissus falling in love with his reflection the chimps came eventually to comprehend that they were in some unfathomable way seeing themselves, and not just another chimp on the farther side of a sheet of glass. This was a sight they’d never seen and for which they had no neural imprint to guide them.
When the first chimp gingerly touched his forehead, leaning close to the mirror and rubbing the red dot with his fingers, everyone in the lab had burst into spontaneous applause.
N___ hadn’t worked in the Professor’s lab at that time. But almost he could remember, he’d applauded the Professor’s great discovery which would be replicated over the years in other laboratories.
Few other animal species can recognize themselves in mirrors. Certain apes, but not all monkeys and not marmosets. Asian elephants, Eurasian magpies. Dolphins, orcas. But not dogs or cats. Not horses. Not crows. And not brain-damaged, retarded, or severely autistic human beings.
N___ was capable of seeing his reflection in a mirror or glass and not (immediately) recognizing himself. But this was only natural (he believed) since N___ resembled so many other young Asian men of his type, slender, cerebral, self-effacing, with glasses, glossy black hair, dark clothing, an air both earnest and stealthy.
Not visible, by design. Yet not (entirely) invisible.
In a variant of the classic mirror experiment the young chimp Galahad had recognized himself in record time. Waving arms, grimacing and mugging, in an expression of sheer animal joy, but in his manner something guarded, wary. Here was the quintessential (male) chimpanzee, tirelessly virile, fecund, whose copious sperm wanted only to populate the world in its own image. Out of Galahad’s flat, low-browed, hairless face innocently round eyes blinked and glistened with crafty intelligence, playfulness. His fingers were hairless, like his toes, the palms of his hands, and the soles of his feet, as if in mimicry of his human jailers; his thumbs and big toes were opposable; his brain allowed him a cognitive map of a considerable range of territory, far greater than that of most human beings. (N___ had no doubt that, in tests involving spatial memorization and hand-eye coordination, Galahad was superior to slower-witted individuals like Mary Frances.) He was not burdened with conscience, and he was not burdened with ambition. He did not dwell simultaneously in the present, the past, and the future, to his detriment. He could comport himself like a baby, for treats, he could “smile”—but if he wished, he could sink his sharp teeth in your face, and tear it off in a heartbeat. It seemed appropriate, N___ thought, that this fine specimen would be the father of the first Humanzee to survive—if all went well.
Slipping on the surgical gloves, a tight fit.
He brings her flowers. She is so touched that tears stream from her small squinting eyes. In turn, he is touched by her emotion. The gratitude the experimental subject feels reflects upon him—it’s as if N___ sees himself for once in a mirror that flatters, not flattens.
She loves me. Therefore, I am worthy of love.
At last in early November breathless Mary Frances dares to stand on tiptoe to kiss N___’s cheek and then, as if impulsively, N___’s mouth; and to whisper in N___’s ear that (maybe) they might go to his apartment that night … And N___ draws in a deep breath and says yes—“I’ve been thinking the same thing, Mary Frances.”
Walking hand in hand then to the furnished apartment on Edgar Street which N___ has seen only once, and then hurriedly. At least he has the key to open the door and does not fumble it.
Seeing, inside, on a coffee table, a much-annotated paperback copy of Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals placed there deliberately, as a joke, presumably by a lab colleague. N___ wonders what other jokes may lie in store for him, in these several rooms that constitute an experimental laboratory of a unique kind.
Still gripping N___’s hand Mary Frances blinks and squints like one who is blinded by a sudden light. With a little cry saying, not very coherently, “Oh, this is where you live, Nath’iel! It’s—like—a ‘bachelor’ place—I guess.” Then, with awkward coquetry, “Could be a little more—cozy …”
“Well, it will be, Mary Frances. Cozy. Now that you’re here.”
Now that you’re here. Forced, flat words. But Mary Frances seems not to notice, marveling at several shelves of the hodgepodge of used books as if they constituted an impressive library: “Gosh! All these books … I guess you’ve read all these books, Nath’iel?”
Hears himself murmur modestly. “Oh, well—some of them.”
“Are you, like, a teacher? ‘Assistant professor’—is that what you are called? And you teach these books?”
N___ has been vague in identifying himself to Mary Frances. So far as she knows he is someone attached to Rockefeller Life Sciences, a young colleague of the distinguished Professor; she has sighted N___ in the Professor’s company, setting up the Professor’s computer for his PowerPoint lectures. But N___ has been purposefully elusive in giving a title to his role, a subject attached to his work.
Chief lab technician. Peregrine hunter-falcon, sent out into the world to do the Professor’s bidding.
Thinking: the seminal solution, in a syringe in a compartment of the refrigerator, carefully wrapped in gauze. Must be brought out, to be at room temperature, or near-room temperature, by the time of use. Twenty minutes?
Many times N___ has coolly rehearsed in his imagination the steps of the insemination. First, he must establish that the subject has ingested enough flunitrazepam to render her erotically stimulated and yet lethargic, dreamy; confused, yet not alarmed; trusting as a child is trusting.
“Mary Frances? I think you will like this. I—I chose this—for us … For this occasion.”
Prominent as a prop in a play, a bottle of red wine on a counter in the kitchen. N___ has not purchased the wine but guesses that it is sweet, to appeal to the experimental subject’s probable taste for sweet things. N___ pours wine for each of them and in Mary Frances’s glass surreptitiously dissolves the colorless and tasteless drug that will enter the girl’s bloodstream within seconds.
“Oh! This is—kind of—going to my head …” Laughing as she trips on a carpet, and N___ catches her.
And, soon afterward: “It is getting kind of cozy here, I guess … But must be sad here, Nath’iel, isn’t it?—to be alone so much …”
So wistfully she speaks, in her clumsy attempt to be coquettish, N___ understands that she is speaking about herself.
Neither is accustomed to drinking, it seems. Yet Mary Frances finishes the glass N___ has poured for her taking no notice that N___ only pretends to drink his glass. He cannot risk losing control of this situation which is quite unlike anything he has ever attempted in his life, and for which there would appear to be no precedent.
Unorthodox methods are but shortcuts to scientific advancement. But, being unorthodox, they cannot be shared with anyone outside the laboratory.
At last, after an appropriate number of minutes, leading the experimental subject into the bedroom. Switching on a light. Hoping that Mary Frances doesn’t sense that this room isn’t really a familiar place to N___, he’d had time only to cursorily glance around earlier that week, to bring over a few items, stock the refrigerator and a storage area with things essential to this step of the experiment … Even as N___ assures the girl that he will “be careful”—(that is, he will use a condom)—(certainly, he will use a condom)—he understands that Mary Frances is too excited / distracted to care what he might do, or even exactly to notice. As soon as N___ gently nudges her onto the bed, and they begin kissing, and running their hands over each other, and tugging at each other’s clothing, Mary Frances is oblivious to all else.
Love love love you. Oh—Nath’iel …
A single glass of wine might have been sufficient to render the naive girl intoxicated, and Mary Frances has had two, in fairly rapid succession. And so the flunitrazepam will be doubly, even triply potent. N___ hopes he will be able to revive her—eventually.
It will not be an aesthetic experience but it should not be onerous: “making love”—“having sex”—with the experimental subject. Essentially a mechanical act like most physical processes that are quasi-involuntary, “instinctive”—in which N___’s body might participate while his mind looks on bemused. Or rather, his mind looks away, fastidiously repelled.
This is not actually me but another in my place—“Nathaniel.”
It is difficult to tell if the experimental subject is drunk, or just wildly affectionate, or both. She is very demonstrative, sobbing with emotion. Many times moaning Love you, Nath’iel. Love love love you not seeming to notice that her lover remains (grimly) silent.
Does he dare to see the girl in the bed? The unclothed female body, so much larger, fleshier than he’d imagined? Heavy breasts corroded with faint bluish veins, nipples like copper coins, heated skin with myriad small blemishes and marks, coarser than his own. Wiry rust-colored pubic hair like underbrush sprouting at the pit of the protruding belly, far thicker than his own, or any he’d ever seen, or imagined. Yet it is touching, Mary Frances seems to have shaved her lower legs, that are hard with muscle; her thighs, slack and jiggly, are covered in coarse hairs. Touching too, the low-browed girl with simian features had taken time to apply mascara to her eyes, lipstick to her mouth.
Despite his reputation for aloofness among his scientist colleagues N___ has felt desire intermittently in his life. Precarious and perishable as swirls of cloud in a windswept sky. Long ago—in another lifetime, and in another language—before he’d become N___—he’d been attracted to very young girls—(children his own age?)—with smooth, hairless, epicene bodies—and long silky (black) hair. These were not sisters of his but might have been sisters for all had been children together, lost and helpless and desperate to be saved by—whoever would save them … In his new lifetime no one matters to him, not as these young girls had mattered. And all of them vanished. He will not think of it, never thinks of it, for there is no purpose to such thinking in his new life as the chief technician of a renowned primate laboratory.
Wondering in subsequent years if it is a sort of sex fetish—the female must have a full head of hair, preferably falling past her shoulders, yet the female must not have hair, hairs, on any other part of her body for such hairs are repulsive to the male eye …
Ugh!—having to touch the female hairs. That are springy and resilient to the touch, like Galahad’s hairy pelt.
Yet N___ is discovering that despite his disdain he is “attracted” to Mary Frances—perhaps because of his disdain. (There are fine hairs even on her breasts!—disgusting.) It is somehow exciting to him, the girl has become so—passionate. Her skin is coarsely mottled, flushed. Her smeared lips are parted. She is panting, grunting. She is shameless, grasping at him with her hands as no one had ever grasped at him. A descent into chaos, N___ thinks. Dissolution of a compound, hissing like acid. Fastidious N___ is falling into pieces, he is no longer he. What springs out of the base of his flat belly, like the rosy-pink fleshy tube that springs out of Galahad’s belly, is not he.
A crude stranger, suddenly frantic with desire. Grunting like a chimp.
Nothing aesthetic here. Only just raw appetite here.
No holding back, N___ must enter the female body as Galahad might have done. Shuts his eyes, ceases breathing. Immediately the female grips him, muscled arms, legs. Inside the heated flesh, muscle. He is thrusting, pumping. Involuntary. Helpless. The chief technician in the Professor’s esteemed lab has become a wildly thrusting machine, brainless as a chimp.
Fleeting images of very young girl-children with long silky (black) hair pass through his brain like wraiths. But too quickly, he can’t hold onto them and will forget them at once.
At last, it is over. Has ended.
Spent and exhausted on the sweat-slick body of the female. His spirit seems to have detached itself from the ordeal. Possibly N___ has died (he thinks): his soul floats above his lifeless body. He feels nothing—for air cannot feel.
The other, the low-browed girl, is barely conscious. She has been sobbing. Her face appears swollen, damp with tears, mucus. Her flesh has gone slack as if boneless. The drug has worked perfectly as the Professor has assured N___ it would.
How N___ would like to flee! Extricate himself from this smelly embrace, hurriedly dress and flee to his own apartment, step into a shower as hot as he can bear …
But no. Now comes the most delicate step of the procedure.
The syringe, filled with the frothy-clotty semen of Pan troglodytes verus, has been placed strategically beneath the bed, where N___’s groping fingers can locate it.
Very carefully, N___ raises himself on his elbow. He is still breathing hard, audibly. (When is the last time N___ has breathed audibly? Even when he jogs in the early morning, he does not pant; his heartbeat is only slightly accelerated, like the calm cascade of his thoughts.) With the most remarkable composure, under these awkward circumstances, N___ brings the tip of the syringe against the vagina of the experimental subject. Inside that nest of damp, sticky hair, as coarse as chimpanzee hair. Very carefully, N___ inserts the tip of the syringe without disturbing Mary Frances who lies spread-eagled and sprawled in the damp bedclothes. (Though by this time very little could have disturbed the unconscious girl, who could not have been more deeply asleep if she’d been anesthetized.)
Within seconds the syringe is emptied of its cloudy liquid. N___ has succeeded in the first step of the experiment!
Unknowing, sprawled in a bliss of erotic satisfaction, Mary Frances slumbers on. Perhaps she will be impregnated that very night—it is not probable, but a possibility. The raw yearning with which she’d made love with him suggests that she is ovulating.
Ovulating! Disgusting thought.
Cautiously N___ climbs out of the rumpled bed and stands beside it, naked. With his iPhone he takes several quick pictures of the stuporous experimental subject, to email to the Professor who is sure to be waiting for the latest news.
Step one: completed.
Wondering whether, in fact, he might flee the premises and shower at his apartment, and sleep in his own, pristine bed sheets that night; or, for it is more in line with the romantic narrative in which N___ and the experimental subject each have roles, he should shower here, and try to spend the remainder of the night with Mary Frances who may, in the morning, need to be placated and assured that she is cherished by her lover.
No. Not possible that he can “sleep” with her. Someone will have to change those soiled sheets before he comes anywhere near them again.
The lab administrator can arrange for housekeeping. He will have nothing to do with it.
Deciding that he will shower in the apartment on Edgar Street. It would be distasteful to dress in his clothes, his body sticky and unclean.
It is the first time—he supposes, resigned, that it will not be the last time—that N___ showers in this apartment. At least, there is a good supply of towels, for which he has the lab administrator to thank. At least the shower is adequate—the water temperature is more responsive to calibration than the shower in his own small apartment.
N___ is still giddy—he is still mildly repelled—he feels a thrill of something like vanity. No one else in the Professor’s laboratory could have executed the procedure so flawlessly. His colleagues will make crude jokes, out of envy. But not even the married men, seasoned in the routines of sex, experienced and adroit in feigning emotions they have long since ceased to feel, could have performed as convincingly as N___ performed with a female as unattractive as the experimental subject.
If the experiment comes to fruition, the Professor will single out his chief technician for special thanks though, given the unorthodox nature of the experiment, the details of N___’s contribution will not be divulged.
Previous experiments with creating a (forbidden) hybrid species, a Humanzee, have ended in failure. Insemination of female chimpanzees and other apes with the sperm of Homo sapiens have never resulted in fertilization, so far as reliable records show, though there are accounts of the efforts of the Russian biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov attempting, in the 1920s, to create a hybrid species by impregnating a female ape, that ended with failure and the exile of Ivanov to Siberia.
There are (unverified) accounts too of human females impregnated with the semen of apes, whether voluntarily or otherwise, in laboratories in China, in more recent years; but no scientific data, no conclusive results. If there are rumors that a Humanzee was actually born, somewhere in China in the 1970s, it is usually the case that the Humanzee died soon after birth, and its remains lost. No data, no photographic evidence.
Ideally, the experimental subject would be a human female voluntarily involved in the experiment, who would nurse and nurture the Humanzee after birth, as human females have occasionally nursed and nurtured chimpanzee infants; but overly restrictive “ethics” laws in the US and elsewhere make such an experiment impossible, and in any case, as the Professor has many times pointed out, no human female could be trusted to continue with the experiment if / when the hybrid specimen were taken from her by research scientists. If, for instance, for whatever reason, the Humanzee had to be euthanized and anatomized, like any experimental animal. Thus, ignorance on the part of the experimental subject is crucial to the project.
When N___ returns to the humid, smelly bedroom, revived from the shower, hair wetly combed, he sees with a small thrill of disgust that the girl is still unconscious, asprawl and oblivious. Hardly a girl, which suggests innocence, but a young woman, which suggests experience.
Softly the young woman moans in her sleep, her back teeth grind just audibly. Her eyelids flutter, he is panicked that she will wake up, but she continues to sleep. Has a forked sperm of Galahad’s pierced an egg inside that slack, fattish belly yet? For N___’s sake, he hopes it will be soon.
Must keep in mind, they are a couple. He will leave a note for her on the bedside table—
Dear Mary Frances—It requires twenty minutes to compose the note. Each word is eked from him. Like squeezing leaden drops of blood out of his veins.
You are so beautiful.
I will call you soon.
Please lock door when you leave.
Realizing later that thank you was (probably) not the appropriate word.
In a turmoil of dismay, disgust like that sensation of diarrhea microbes simmering in the gut, about to explode through the intestines—N___ lies awake in his chaste bed in fresh-laundered sheets reliving the sex-intercourse with the experimental subject. A part of him is so appalled, it hovers in the air above his prone, motionless body like a wraith. Another part, more callow, careerist, beyond shame, is calculating that the Professor will be very impressed with him. Very.
No. He cannot do it again. Cannot.
But must. One injection of semen will (surely) not be enough.
In his insomniac misery N___ finds himself thinking of the mountains west of Red Bluff. Where with a college friend he’d hiked, backpacked, and camped long ago in another lifetime, it seemed.
In the mountains above Red Bluff they’d found an abandoned cabin overlooking a fast-moving stream, white-water rapids. Sleeping bags on the floor of the cabin, a birch-log fire in the fireplace. Even when pelting rain fell from the sky he’d been happy there with his friend as aloof and reticent as himself, and as smart.
N___ has long ago lost contact with his friend who’d failed to win a prestigious fellowship to Cal Tech as N___ had. But at the time of his thirtieth birthday N___ returned to hike and backpack alone near Red Bluff wanting to give himself a gift and not knowing what to give himself, remembering he’d been happy on the trail there overlooking the white-water rapids, but the cabin had collapsed and he hadn’t been able to sleep in his sleeping bag on the floor, or build a birch fire as he’d remembered … Yet still for a while he’d been happy there listening to the rushing, downward-plunging mountain stream. So happy!—he recalls.
* * *
“Was this person—‘Mary Frances Bowes’—a virgin?”—the Professor inquires with an air of bemused disdain.
Taken by surprise N___ cannot think of a reply.
Was the experimental subject a virgin? Possibly. Or not. No? Is it important, belatedly? N___ tries to explain that he doesn’t know, can’t recall. In the height / depth of sexual urgency his consciousness was obliterated, he’d (virtually) ceased to exist.
Scrolling through the pictures on N___’s cell phone, stroking his stiff white goatee, the Professor seems distracted. At last glancing up at N___ as if he has forgotten that N___ is there.
“Good work, N__! Project Galahad is under way.”
Nath’iel? Hi. Kind of missing you. Give a call …
He has given the experimental subject a cell phone number to call. It is not his cell phone and when he checks it, he sees that Mary Frances has called several times. Maybe he will call back, or maybe he will wait for a day or two.
Even after they have become lovers it is N___’s stratagem to see the experimental subject intermittently and unpredictably. Not setting dates with the girl but promising to call her so that she is never sure of him, cannot take him for granted, and is grateful when he calls; often, practically sobbing with relief which she tries to hide, and N___ tries not to acknowledge.
Neediness in the female is her disadvantage, and her disadvantage is their advantage. Keep her, the Professor has said, on edge.
“The crucial thing is, if and when the experimental subject becomes pregnant she must be led to believe that you will continue to love her, and that you and you alone will provide her medical care. She must not become desperate and tell someone. She must not arrange for an abortion.”
N___ sees desperation in the small squinting eyes, and feels a thrill of guilt—She is afraid of losing me. Me! As if he were a rare treasure and not rather (as he often thinks of himself) an empty vessel waiting to be filled.
Clinging to N___’s arm when they walk together. Exasperating, and flattering! So desperate is the girl to establish that they are, not two individuals who see each other only occasionally, and who are obviously mismatched, but a couple.
N___ still tutors Mary Frances in biology at least once a week. This was the original pretext of their relationship and it is the (only) part of the relationship that N___ enjoys. It is satisfying to him when Mary Frances earns a decent grade on a quiz or, at midterm, a not-disgraceful grade of 74% which translates into a solid C—passing.
“Oh Nath’iel! I love you.”
Flinching from Mary Frances’s exuberance as she throws her arms around his neck to hug, pressing her bosom against his narrow torso. Feeling a sharp current of desire, in the same instant rebuffed.
He has lost something of the acuity of the peregrine falcon. He must try to retrieve it!
N___ doesn’t want to think that without him Mary Frances would soon forget everything he has taught her. Carefully memorized definitions of biological terms, processes—a synopsis of Darwinian evolutionary theory N___ had prepared for her in the simplest possible terms: in danger of evaporating overnight.
She might not get into nursing school, N___ thinks. How disappointed she will be!
For by then, N___ will be out of her life. The experimental subject will be expelled from the experiment, of no further use.
Possibly, she could train to be a nurse’s aide? A hospital attendant?
Elementary school teacher? No doubt, Mary Frances could make the right man a good wife.
Maybe, in some circuitous way unknown to her, the Professor could help her find work. N___ will inquire, in time.
N___ doesn’t see Mary Frances for days. A week. It is part of the stratagem but he doesn’t miss her and tries not to think of her—that is, of their frantic and convulsive couplings in the bed in the Edgar Street apartment which are followed by 1) Mary Frances’s stupor, lasting for hours; and 2) the injection of chimpanzee semen, executed by the lab technician with unwavering skill if with unyielding disgust. When at last they meet for dinner at an obscure Chinese restaurant in the vicinity of Edgar Street N___ sees the wild anguish in the girl’s eyes, the chapped lips that look as if she has been gnawing them, and the thought comes to him—Is she pregnant? He realizes that he is frightened of the possibility.
Mary Frances clutches at N___’s hand. It is her worry, she says, can’t sleep at night worrying, that N___ does not “respect” her now. “—I mean, now that we are, like, seeing each other—kind of—‘seriously’ …” Her voice trails off weakly, she is deeply embarrassed and can’t bring herself to say, having sex.
Quickly N___ says that his feelings for her have not changed at all—of course, he “respects” her. But then his mind goes blank. He has no idea what to say next.
“I hope you mean it, Nath’iel, and aren’t just saying it to—be nice …”
Still, N___ can’t think what to say. He is supposed to say—Of course, I love you.
Impulsively then, Mary Frances leans forward across the table and kisses N___’s startled mouth. Her eyelids droop coquettishly, pathetically. “I think about you—us—all the time. Really hard to concentrate on my courses! Y’know—what I am thinking—do you? Darling?”
Darling. It is a word, an utterance, that sounds as if it has been many times rehearsed. N___ feels a trickle of icy sweat run into the small of his back.
A waitress arrives with sticky plastic menus. A Chinese-American girl of about twenty, child-sized, straight-cut black bangs, beautiful thick-lashed eyes, quizzical half-smile taking in N___ with the plain stocky white girl who appears to be in an emotional state, tears on her flushed cheeks.
N___ looks away, can’t meet the waitress’s skeptical eyes.
Can’t acknowledge the waitress’s mute query—Why, you and her?