Gain of Function – Vivian Dyer
September 5, 2023
Some time not so long ago, I read that Marcel Proust would divert himself, sexually, by poking needles through rats. In some high-up VIP room of the male brothel he frequented, an attendant would wheel out several cagefuls of the critters, and carefully place two into yet another cage, where they would begin to fight as the novelist unbuttoned and slowly shuffled off his trousers. This combat was fuel enough for masturbation, but, although he could edge closer and closer, never enough for climax; only the ginger removal of one of the rodents (the still-breathing loser? or—what a joke!—the victor?), and its yet-more-ginger perforation by a long, slender point—its soft belly dimpling and then bursting with a tiny trickle of blood, squeezed out ten times a second by a maddened heart—could coax him, at last, into an ejaculatory fit.
The writer of the article doubted the anecdote’s veracity: it was too bizarre, too cruel. But I know it’s true. How, you ask? Because I’ve had the same fetish since I was a child! I had never, and have still never read anything by Proust, but at once I felt a warm closeness to him, a sort of siblinghood, across time and place.
I don’t remember my youth very well. It might be that I had my first thrill seeing roadkill, or watching my grandparents’ cat slink up to their back door with a limp mouse in its mouth, to be left on the threshold. How tender and sad it was, how fragile a little life extinguished. That endeared me to death, but not violence; no, that wasn’t until puberty, when I witnessed a teacher stamp out a mother mouse and her litter he had found beneath his rostrum. It was in the middle of class, and I had a perfect view, sitting right before him in the front row. My inclination found its sexual edge in the gore of those perfect little pinkies.
As you can maybe tell, it’s not just perforation, but all types of murder and maiming, and isn’t just mice and rats, either, but all rodents or rodentiforms: hamsters and guinea pigs, chinchillas and chipmunks, moles and voles. (In fact, one of my greatest experiences was with a squirrel I baited with some birdseed, and whose eyes I gouged out alive with a screwdriver.) And to be clear, I don’t hate these vermin, but in fact find them very cute. Under this analysis, my perversion is nothing unique, but only an extreme form of the neurophysiological response to cuteness any of us has: namely, to hug and squeeze and crush and violate and annihilate the object of our affection. They say killing cats and such is the sign of a psychopath. Maybe. But I’ve never cared much for cats, and never wished ill of them either. It’s only rodents, rodents!
My holy grail has always been to torture a bat. I’ve never managed to capture one: for their rarity, their flight and agility, as well as my childhood fear of rabies. But I think they’re the cutest of all. I’ve always identified with bats, since I was born with abnormally large webs between my fingers, which extend almost as far as their first joints. I like to think my hands are halfway to being wings, although my classmates always called me “frog” instead, which teasing was also not uninfluenced by my ugly, rather froggish face. Nor was my popularity boosted by the time in middle school when I was caught, crouched in a corner of the yard at recess, puncturing a mouse I had brought to school in my pocket. The rumors have dogged me ever since.
What I’d really love to do is to splay a bat out and crucify it with some pins, like Jesus. I’d then take a needle and poke lots of little holes in its wings’ taut membranes, until they looked like bug-eaten leaves.
These are probably not the sorts of things you should tell your new colleague, and certainly not one with whom you’ve fallen in love. So why did I do it, you ask? I was tipsy, is why, and the more liquor that entered my mouth, the more words that came out of it. A stared back at me silently from across the table, with a look of perturbation, or curiosity, or maybe bemusement. (I was too tipsy to tell.)
“So is that what led you to biology?” he asked.
“This… interest in rodents?” I watched the glow on his face pulse with the candlelight. We were at the bar in a Western-style restaurant, away from the round, raucous table of our peers, whose shrieks and laughter mixed with the clinking of glasses and plates.
“Oh. Yes, that was part of it. And my webbed hands,” I said, holding one up and splaying and unsplaying my fingers, at which A developed that look again. “What makes that happen? Genetics and all, you know? Anyway, from there it’s a typical story. By high school I wasn’t bullied so much as left alone, which gave me plenty of time to study. I aced the gaokao and got into Wuhan University, but didn’t do very well there, and only made it into shitty grad schools. So I decided to stick around as a lab tech. And, well.” I threw up my froggy mitts. “Here I am.”
“So you’ve lived your whole life here?”
“Oh yes. In the same apartment, even.”
“Are you staying for your parents, then?”
“Nope. My mom’s a bitch.” He couldn’t help but chuckle, and I took a self-satisfied sip. “And my dad is gone. But what can I do? It’s all I’ve ever known. It’s all I can do to keep living, day by day.”
“It’s probably not so good, for you to…” (He trailed off.) “You know. Not very objective. Not scientific.”
“Isn’t it? I think science is done best with a healthy sentimentalism:”—I lofted my glass in camp—“a goal, a will, an ideal, a passion of great conviction; an investment, if you will.”
“Hm-m.” He smiled, as if I’d passed a test. “I know what you mean. Like that old English painting, of the bird trapped in the glass globe, attached to some alchemical contraption.”
“Ah-h-h,” I moaned. “I know the one, I’ve seen it online. I don’t usually go for birds, but that one is so precious—what is it? a little cockatiel?—and it looks so frightened… What’s going to happen to it? Will it suffocate? Will it be shocked, burned, vacuum-sucked? Maybe the glass will pressurize and crush it, or depressurize and make it pop… Oh, it really turns me on…”
“Ha-ha. Anyway, the country gentry and their daughters are all crowding around, and lit up by candlelight, in a stark chiaroscuro. A literal Enlightenment! They’re fascinated, apprehensive, terrified; one little girl can’t even bear to look. So I think you’re right to use the word ‘investment’: some are long, some short, others hedged, but they’ve all spent their feelings and bought in—including the robed, Newtonic gentleman doing the experiment, who clearly relishes his audience, the tension, the drama of it all! You’re right—even for those of us who carry it out, the work of science is never neutral.”
“In that case, you’ve invested yourself, haven’t you? What’s your position?” He smiled again.
“For me? It’s a love of freedom; or at least a healthy contempt for limits. I resent having to eat and shit; that if I don’t exercise, my limbs wane; that if I haven’t slept right, my very rationality suffers. From a young age, the bases in a strand of DNA, glimpsed in a textbook, have been as bars of a cage to me. Is this all I am? An animal? I can’t accept it; I want to open myself up and reach inside myself, rearrange myself, perfect myself…” (At this point my mind began to wander off, since this was all a bit highfalutin, and anyway, he looked so ravishing, in our own candle’s chiaro… something…)
“But what does that have to do with virology?”
“Well—would you be here, had you not yourself found them fascinating? What is a virus, anyway? They’re ancient, so ancient they’re not even truly alive—if not quite inert, either—from a time not just before consciousness, before even the machinations of cells, but the dawn and very border of vitality itself. When earth was a sloshing, fuming caldera, there went vira—and we, proud vita cellularis, are unwelcome parvenus, tolerated only as reproductive colonies.” (This last phrase jabbed lust in me.) “Homo sapiens, the flower of Eukaryota, has shored up many walls against his ruin, giving him meager peace—but in the darkness beyond the gates, the barbarian paces, sharpens his axe, and simmers in blind fury; and the virosphere, which straddles and outspans the anthroposphere like the heavens do earth, often sends down a plume of aether to wreak destruction…”
“Anyway.” He rolled his eyes and spun his hand, indicating his spiel’s abridgement. “It is this liminality, this contradiction, their simplicity and power—the power allures, and the simplicity makes them a sort of test case. However weak we are to outbreaks, when brought within our walls in chains, they’re at our utter disposition; and because we can modify them so easily, and so significantly, we can begin to think through what it might be like to modify ourselves, to the same extent and degree.”
I gasped, cutting him off. “So you’re one of the ones brought in by Dr. C? For gain-of-function research?”
He nodded. “Yes—of bat coronaviruses. I was quite lucky in that my doctoral supervisor was working on the same topic. You could say, after SARS, it’s become the crown jewel (ha-ha) of virology.”
“Ah, you lucky… getting to visit those caves in Yunnan. I’ve already mentioned bats, haven’t I?” (You have.) “For me, flying foxes are the apex. But I love horseshoe bats all the same. Even if they’re a little ugly.”
“What’s your project?”
“They swap me around. Right now it’s some nothing rat-borne virus, which apparently kills loads of people in Brazil…”
“So it’s your job to infect the rats?” He paused. “Do you… enjoy it?”
Oh, do I ever!
The Wuhan Institute of Virology inhabits a shabby building: a modern, mid-rise office block of the sort you often see in American movies, along highways or by strip malls, wondering what insurance company, or pyramid scheme, or other desperate suburban paper-pushing goes on inside. Its only distinctive aspect is the organization’s title, suspended by steel latticework above the entrance in large characters, red like fresh smears of blood. This is what I would say, at least, if I worked in that building, and not the adjacent one: the newly-built Biosecurity-4 laboratory of white, chrome, and bottle-blue glass, gleaming with science and sterility. As one enters, the spacious foyers and atria sustain the impression; tall windows yawn sunlight onto marble floors and pale birch benches. Each morning, as I present my ID to the prim and pressed receptionist, I—I admit it, ok, I admit it—I feel important, like that gleaming space exists for my sake, cognizant of my august task, and lays itself out before me in reverence. After that, the shabbier, messier offices dampen the illusion somewhat, but I don’t mind: the stacks of paper, the coffee-maker—they’re quaint, homey. I rarely speak to my coworkers, outside what’s necessary, but no matter: they often speak with each other, and the camaraderie rubs off. (A bit.)
On the far end of the hall comes, finally, the mudroom, as we call it. To get from the mudroom to the lab is relatively simple, but to return from the lab to the mudroom is tedious—so let’s go in reverse, for the fun of it. I step backwards into the adjoining washroom, hair damp on my shoulders. There, I pull my set of clothes off, rub myself wet with a damp towel, and enter the whining, piping-hot shower, whose droplets lift scummy soap onto my body as they crawl up it and leap into the showerhead, which I then gather in my hands and offer up to the dispenser. Soon I am dry, and can exit out the other side, where I retrieve my scrubs from the autoclave, put them on (making sure to tape the pants into the socks!), retrieve my pressure-suit, with its tall galoshes and doddering plastic helm, laboriously don it, and come now into the chemical shower, where first water, then disinfectant, are again drunk up from me. And then a light flashes from red to green on the door, which swings open as I back out into the lab—sure to fit my air-tube in, for which my suit has been swelling in anticipation.
By now the environ, while still plenty chrome, has had its white darkened to the beige of resin and linoleum; smooth ceilings have curdled into membranes of pipes. No matter! If the day is right, and I’ve been plucked from my usual drudgery of pipetting and PCR-ing, then I’m already getting hot flashes across my skin, tingling wherever it’s touched by Tyvek. I usually have a colleague to collaborate with, yet I speak with them on autopilot, my consciousness swimming in the dark, warm bath of my mind. We enter the animal room, itself beyond an airlock: two more green lights, clicks, and creaks, against the ventilation’s continual dry drone.
Normally, animals are only brought into BSL-4 on an ad-hoc basis, for exposure to dangerous pathogens and subsequent analysis or testing. Dr. C’s practice differs. The animal room, or “rat room” as we call it, is lined on every wall with live-in cages and colonies, of sundry size and constitution. (Single-occupancy studios, all-male bachelor pads, all-female bachelorette pads, quaint monogamous households, frenzied orgiastic dungeons, multigenerational estates, huge multifamilial compounds.) The chittering rivals the ventilation for volume and incessance. It is my job to feed, water, shovel the shit of, and otherwise care for the rats, which duty I discharge dutifully, as best I can from my puffy suit. I love them! I love them to death, the adorable little things: for sometimes, die they must. The rats are infected with various strains of our currently-studied virus, and various prophylactics or prospective cures, in differing combinations, to observe the effects; the method of introduction, in nearly all cases, is via hypodermic needle.
When the time is right, I remove the necessary rat from its cage. I feel it wriggle and throb, even beneath my thick gloves. I walk it aloft like the eucharist, tail thrashing, to the biosafety cabinet at the end of the room. I lay it on its back, and gently press it to the table with the index finger and thumb of my left hand, cradling its neck with my middle finger, pinning its throat as its paws flail, clutch, and squirm, helpless to dislodge one tendon of my grip. I take the needle in my right hand—already, with a pulse and suction of the trigger, having raised the serum in its dread proboscis—and bring it slowly, slowly to the rat’s stomach, which for a moment I let it graze, softly, gingerly, before, with the slightest motion of my arm, I plunge the point inside the peritoneum, and, with the sure fall of my thumb, plunge the serum down after it, and complete the unfolding of my body’s pleasure.
Sometimes, with rodent and needle in this tableau, I have a strange thought. I imagine the needle is not entering the rat, but emerging from it—heralding the birth of something altogether new and unforeseen.
The night was over, and we were all stepping groggily out into the night, huddled over phones and checking the trains or calling cabs in groups. A was chatting with two prettier girls, while I slunk a few steps behind him, plucking my own phone as an alibi, praying and fearing he would turn round to discover me. And as sobriety dawned, and rays of shame crept back, and I began to berate myself for my pathetic conduct—a typically lively process of indictments, apologies, justifications, and recriminations, sure to protract itself well into my dreams—all of a sudden he did just that.
“Hey, A. Sorry—”
“About the bats—”
“What about them? What bats?”
“The—you know. That you like slicing and dicing.” He gestured mock butchery.
“Slicing and—what? A-ha-ha. What are you talking about? Did I say something like that?”
“Sorry. I make up lots of stuff when I’m drunk. I’m kind of an attention whore.”
“Well, let’s say that’s true. But in case you weren’t lying: next week, Dr. C’s organized one of her little expeditions to Yunnan. And we could use another pair of hands.”
“Besides.” He smiled in the dark. “I want to know more about you.”
In Yunnan, nature seems to be in a state of flux more conformable to the earth’s primeval era than to our age of terracing, railway gauges, and the centrifuge. Here the Lancang wavers like a scale, poised at the fulcrum of its tropical delta and alpine mouth. Here stone rises out of the land, and the land is hollow. Here is 67% of China’s biodiversity, says Dr. C, as if we all, being naturalists, did not already know. We drive through hills and past touristy tribal hamlets. A is to my side (in the left seat; I am in the middle, and in the last G, a certain ugly and flaccid lab tech, whom I despise), and I scooch imperceptibly closer to him, hoping to reap some advantage from any sharp turns. (No matter: whenever one comes I get scared, and hold myself straight, and make contact, if any, only with the ungainly mass to my right.) But just this closeness is enough for me. A is curious and perceptive, and spends his time staring out the window; when he spots something of interest, he turns toward me and points it out, always with a smile, at once eager and relaxed. I infallibly respond with my own interest, and scooch just a bit further towards him. The longer we go without repeating this little ritual, the more anxiety builds in me. Oh, am I boring him? Was my last comment banal? Am I scooching too close? Can he tell? Am I disgusting? Is he ruing his automotive entrapment next to a nasty, presumptuous, drooling little frog? But of course, whenever he turns back again, after no matter how long, it melts back away.
By this time, we’ve built up a little acquaintanceship, after all. I was reassigned to the coronavirus project shortly after the night at the bar, and since then have been bumping into A around the lab. Usually, I’m unable to give much more than a curt nod, or make more than hapless small talk, but A has a way of making it natural, and coaxing longer conversations out of me—each one of which I take as a treasure. He is a very interesting man, just as much as he seemed, and has all sorts of ideas; sometimes they’re difficult to understand, but I find myself turning them over in my head, off and on for hours afterward, if not days. Each morning, while lining up to present my ID, my heart starts to beat faster, even feverishly, at the possibility of his being ahead of or behind me, and that we might have even those thirty seconds together. And it’s a bit pathetic, but bedtime has become the zenith of my day: for every night, after turning out the light and getting under the covers, I imagine him lying next to me, and with his arms around me, and fall asleep like so, cradled by a mute phantom.
The entrance is nondescript, little more than a crack in an exposed shelf of karst. Standing around, we follow the brusque orders of a hired caver, pulling on helmets and clinking harnesses, strapping, clicking, winding, tying, and locking all the equipment into place. A rope is tossed in, with its near end secure in place; then one by one, we shimmy down into the maw of darkness. Dr. C goes first, then A, then the others, then I, hesitating only as long as our guide’s impatient look will allow. I grant myself a last wistful look at the blue sky, and around at the green hills, and at a few soaring birds, which dip above and below the horizon formed by the two. Then I descend.
After a thin vertical passage, which makes my throat close and my heart twitch with claustrophobia, we begin to submerge into the system’s principal cavern, and the gasps of those below echo up to me through the thickening stench of ammonia. Momentarily, I can add my own headlamp’s spotlight to those roving wildly over the walls. It is large and oblong, rather like a cathedral, with the dense rows of thick stalactites along the sides resembling buttresses, or even humongous organs. If so, then their music is wildly incongruous with this appearance: only more raspy echoes, and the trickling of water, and indeed, if one listens closely, the fluttering and chittering of bats. At times, the shadow of one will swiftly cross our beams. I must have lingered too long on the rope, staring out and listening to these noises, and over them Dr. C already lecturing at those around her in her excited way, because the caver grunts at me from above, and, before I know it, A has his arms gingerly about my waist and is helping me to the floor. As soon as I’m down I instinctively squirm away, and immediately look back, then wince at the direct glare of his headlamp. I think he winces too, although I cannot tell for sure.
After that we all gather and sit, the clammy ground dampening our butts, and Dr. C gives us her official spiel, and reminds us of what types of samples to take, and distributes the small cages for integral live specimens before we disperse. (It is daytime, and most of the bats are resting, although we nevertheless dim our lights and tread softly.) I think of following A whichever way he goes, but instantly refuse, since, after spending so much of the day with him, and especially the awkward incident which just occurred, it must be obvious now how I feel; I see me in my mind’s eye trotting after him, idiotic, with my little schoolgirl crush, and him turning around, smiling with pity, and thinking of how he’ll spread this bit of gossip around the lab, and… no, no, no! So, very distracted with all this, I wander off inadvertently from the nave, as it were, toward the altar of the church, where a particularly grand cluster of columns looms imposingly over us. I creep up to one side of it, and peek behind. Sure enough, my light falls on a mass of brown fur and black skin, that is, a mass of roosting horseshoe bats, with their noses like wood ears and unsettlingly simian lips. A few are disturbed by the intrusion and flap about. My heart flutters with them.
“Watch out, bats! There’s a predator here!” says A in a whispered shout, close behind me. I freeze. “Have you maimed any yet?” I turn to face him, frantically inwardly calculating.
“Oh, good. You’re on your best behavior.” He looks back up. “Very ugly creatures, aren’t they?”
Why is he here?
“No? I mean, yes, but—I don’t know. I like them.”
“Do you? Better put them on alert again!” He laughs, then falls more contemplative. “But really. Don’t you feel bad about what you do to animals? Aren’t you ever guilty?” I don’t really want to talk about this right now, not sober, certainly not with A, but feel I have to oblige him.
“I am. I—always end up killing them. I don’t want them to suffer more than they need to. It’s bad, isn’t it? I don’t like that I do it… it makes me feel very bad. I mean, of course, it makes me feel good, really good, but also, at the same time, really quite horribly bad. So I’m unhappy with it. Ah. Why do we not do what we want to do, but instead do what we hate? And there’s so much in me to hate.”
He is quiet for a moment.
“I don’t hate you for it.”
“No.” He shrugs. “They’re just animals.”
“Animals! Only beasts of the earth. Or sea, or air, but beasts nonetheless. Nothing you haven’t had upon your trenchers. And this even more so for bats and rodents: they are base, lowly, vermin, after all. We are higher than them, they lower than us, and we may dispose of them as we wish.”
“But they can feel.”
“They can feel.” He laughs. “I hold them to be nothing more than Cartesian machines.”
“Oh yeah?” I say, irritated. “You mean they’re just physical processes, series of reactions to stimuli? Systems of interlocking, tinkerable parts? Like your viruses? And humans? What makes humans different?”
“That,” he replies, his smile turning sad, “is the bleeding skin, under the scab that science picks at.”
He seems content to leave this gnomic pronouncement to linger among the echoes of the cave, and it does for a few moments, but I don’t understand what he means, so I say: “What?”
“I mean,” he says, sadness becoming annoyance, “that very quality of our superiority to all other animals, and which is the first precondition of science—namely, our rational faculty—is that which, in its relentless investigation into the causes, structures, and true natures of things, is destined to disassemble, as you say, the interlocking gears of our biological mechanisms. So: we get to view the divine watchmaker’s handiwork. What a privilege! But this watch lacks all teleology; it winds toward no end but that prescribed by the iron rule of evolution: mindless, infinite self-propagation. Our rational, as well as our sentimental, aesthetic, and yes, even divine modes of thought are revealed to be so many channels, cut into our mind’s table by the continuous flow of experience, all of which converge and drain at the single goal of fucking. And in this it turns out we are no different than any rat, bat, or virus, in promiscuously groping our way towards increase. Thus our highest purpose abolishes itself. The great chain of being, its links shattered, is swept and scattered on the floor.”
I look up, concerned. He’s speaking quietly, but forcefully, almost hissing, really, and some of the bats are stirring.
“Look at you: you’re not even listening. You can’t take your eyes off the bats for a second. I thought your fetish was a fascinating idiosyncrasy, but that’s only in the false, human world. In the real, biological world, which lies beneath, it’s nothing but a few crossed wires. An evolutionary dead end.”
“Oh, can’t you let it go?” I hiss back. “My wires are fine. I’m into people, too.”
“You are?” He wears a strange expression.
He takes a step towards me, still hushed, at once less agitated and more manic. I take a step back.
“Are you into anyone right now?” It is the phrase of a middle-schooler, but without its usual coy veneer: pure pleading.
This makes him rear back and laugh almost whimsically. “You know, U. I really don’t hate you.” And he leans back in.
“You said so.” I feel my back brush damp stone.
“I don’t hate you at all.”
His face is beatific.
The ceiling ruffles and squeaks.
“No,” he whispers.
We kiss—almost. Our headlamps clack, and we readjust.
“Ah”—he gasps—“what the hell?” I have withdrawn, clenching the small of my back, from which a small, warm, and fuzzy lump has just beaten its wings away. I worm my fingers under my jacket and shirt, and feel a telltale slickness; when I draw my hand back up, it is smeared with blood. “Shit,” A says. “Did you cut yourself?”
“I must have,” I lie, after a moment. “Um, anyway.” I reach back for his face, but he swats my arm away.
“God, no. What are you doing? You’ll get it all over me; everyone will see.” He stands up straight, and his expression softens. “Why don’t you go wash it off in the stream? Anyway. We’ll continue. Somewhere more private.”
“I’m glad. I’ve had my mind on you, U.”
As he leaves, I finger my wound again, and look up to the writhing above me, thinking that this ecstasy, howsoever new and unforeseen, in its character is not unfamiliar, tinged as it is with a certain sickness.
After the long drive back, which A and I made in separate cars, and for which, because ours’ trunk was full, I perched my caged and sedated specimen on my lap, and often wished idly I had scissors, with which I could make repeated thin cuts along the outer edges of its ears and nose, but only idly, because I was too preoccupied with reliving what happened (it’s funny, isn’t it? you gain a memory, and want to preserve it, so you comb through it again and again in your mind, slowly enough to pick out any new strands that spring up, follow them, in turn, to their roots, then align them with the rest, so that the sequence of thoughts and sensations becomes a bit more orderly and complete each time—yet also with each combing uproot a few hairs as well, and contribute to the whole’s balding, tingeing your pleasure with desperation), and letting the joy circulate in my body, but also anxiety, because I am an ugly person, inside and out, so how could he really love someone like me, he must just be after my body, as all the world’s matriarchs and crones have spat in the ears of young girls since creation, and didn’t he say so himself, anyway, that love isn’t real, and humans are biological sex machines—after the long drive back to the city’s central station, and the furtive unloading and distribution of cargo, and my hurried and downcast goodbyes, and the train ride home, at an odd hour, and the unremarkable walk to my grey apartment building, and placing my veiled prison on the kitchen counter, and stumbling into the bathroom, I lifted my shirt and twisted my torso and saw in the mirror, as I had feared, the twin red dots on my lower back.
Could it have been virulent? Should I go into work tomorrow?
But I don’t feel sick. I’ve had my shots. And Dr. C, with her contempt for protocol, wouldn’t be sympathetic to my calling in…
“U,” came a croak from across the apartment.
“Yes, Mom, coming!” I straightened out my shirt, shut off the light, and made my way to her bedroom, then knocked on the door.
“Come in.” I opened it, pushing against the weight of some invisible dirty laundry. She was in bed.
“What’s all that squeaking?” I listened, and realized the bat had woken up. “Do we have mice?”
“No, Mom. It’s a bat.”
“Don’t worry! It’s in a cage. The lab’s closed, but I’m taking it in first thing tomorrow morning. Don’t you remember? We were doing fieldwork in Yunnan.”
We were both silent a moment, then I asked: “How are you, Mom?”
She went even longer without responding. I thought she might be asleep.
“You know, I met someone. At work. Who I really like. I think he likes me, too.”
“Are you together?”
“I think so.”
“Has he proposed?”
“He’s only after your body.” I smiled with sad affection. Here was another ship wasted on the same rocks.
“I’ll keep that in mind. Goodnight, then. I love you.”
I closed the door softly, and stepped back into the dimly-lit kitchen. The bat really was making a lot of noise. I lifted the pillowcase off its cage, at which it stopped its fluttering and stared back at me with its beady blind eyes, heart visibly throbbing.
“Hsh-h-h. Don’t you bother us.” We continued to stare at one another for a long while. At a point, I slowly made my way over to the drying rack by the sink, still keeping my eye on him. I rooted around blindly under clinking glass and ceramic, until I pulled out a long carving knife, and stepped back over to the cage, through which I slid the blade, with which I gently prodded my still-frozen prisoner at varying points on his body.
You know, I thought to myself, I don’t really feel like it. And I realized it was not because I needed to bring him in tomorrow, and that Dr. C would have been mad if I didn’t, since a fear of consequences had never stamped down my passion before—but because the passion itself had receded. The fact left me standing dumb and pensive on the kitchen tile, for at least several minutes, before, with a sigh, I replaced the knife, drew back the veil, and went to brush my teeth.
This moment of relative calm ended as soon as I had undressed and flopped down on my bed, from which a thousand flowers of A immediately sprouted and began to unfurl. My anxious agony returned, and stayed with me the whole insomniac night, and through morning, when my alarm sounded itself matter-of-factly to my alert ears, and as I ate my breakfast, and while I placed the bat, now flapping and screeching again, into a large duffel bag, and during my commute. My heart galloped, and my vision blurred; I kept a hand on my neck to feel my pulse, and only made myself sicker with worry when I felt it accelerate. All this fretting was such that I nearly forgot what was causing it, until, that day of all days, as I walked through the lobby to join the line at the end, I found myself walking alongside A.
“Hi,” was all I could eject.
“Hi. What’s that?” He gestured at my bag, which slightly jostled back and forth on its straps like an upset pendulum, and occasionally squeaked.
“It’s my live specimen.”
“Ah. Of course.”
We exchanged a few more pleasantries, through which his face remained totally anodyne. That’s it, I thought, he’s changed his mind. He’s changed his mind. I felt like sobbing and killing myself, until, before I got into the elevator (as he always took the stairs), he discreetly whispered in my ear: “Meet me in cold storage. After nine.” And such a euphoria entered into me that all the anxiety was instantly cast out, replaced only by febrile expectation, which remained the whole workday, as I sterilized and electrophoresed, and was lectured at by Dr. C, and helped her postdocs as they turned the rat room into the bat room, in anticipation of their first in vivo transmissibility study of modified strains—constantly swinging back, in its wide arc, to throb in my head and stomach.
At eight-fifty, I gave some mumbled lie about having work to finish up downstairs, and made my way to the storage room—which is not itself particularly cold, but only called so for its many refrigerators, which hold vials of viral DNA, infected blood, and other such biomatter that, if uncorked, could devastate the world. This gives them an ominous aura, which, with their looming size, placement in orderly rows, and industrial austerity, creates a certain impression: that before men, there were a race of giants on the earth, and that this were a graveyard, of their standing sarcophagi. There is a low hum, like their perpetual death-moan. Against one sarcophagus was leaning A.
“Hey.” He waved as I walked down the aisle. “I thought you wouldn’t come.”
“What? Why?” As I came up to him, he surprised me by throwing his arms around my neck, at which I recoiled.
“What’s wrong?” he asked with a confused—and perhaps hurt?—expression. Tears welled up in my eyes.
“Do you only want me for my body?” I blurted out.
“Why would you think that?” He reached for the sides of my arms, and this time I let him hold them.
“You—you just went and kissed me like that. I thought you hated me. I’m so repulsive, and I… thought you only wanted to use me. Because I’d be easy.” By then I was crying and choking on sobs.
“Oh, U,” he cooed, his voice soft and anxious. “But didn’t I deny precisely that? No—I’m sorry. It’s my fault. But it’s really the opposite. I’ve been fascinated with you since we first spoke. I’m—drawn to your mind. All your quirks and wonderful idiosyncrasies. I mean—your soul!”
“You don’t believe in souls.”
“You think we’re mechanistic, reflexive chains. Just clinking around to bone each other.”
At this he paused, then fell into the same sad smile as before, and then became graver. His grip tightened.
“U. Do you believe there’s another life?”
“What?” I asked, shuddering with a gasp for air. “You mean an afterlife?”
“An afterlife,” he repeated, “or a metalife, or a paralife; it doesn’t matter: only that it shimmers somewhere just beyond the border of our own; some further state, towards which this all will have been progressional: where some superior and obscured part of ourselves will be able, at last, to tell us we are more than our present selves—whom no pleasures, no joys have afforded lasting contentment.”
“No… I’m not sure I understand. But if I do—I’m not sure it’s a place I’d like to go.”
“Why? Why not?”
“Despite everything, I like this life. It’s comfortable, like a childhood bedroom, and has the smell of home. It has a sadness, but a well-worn sadness, its fabric pilled and elastic slackened.”
“And you wouldn’t cast off these patched and mildewy rags?”
“For everything, I like them. I like my spare apartment; my cold, bedridden, and bitchy mother; nervousness; the empty streets; a tacky bar; boredom; perspiration; ammonia; darkness; menstruation; examinations; pins and needles; falling asleep and awakening; my fat lips; my webbed fingers; the jeers of bullies; quietness; the pipette and Python; R and autoclaves; a harsh PI; caged animals; viruses.” I smiled, tearing up again. “Hey, A. How did viruses come about? When we first spoke, you seemed to hold the RNA world hypothesis, which has us fathered by them in the primordial soup; yet I myself tend toward the regressive theory: that some, at least, have been cast off from us eukaryotes in degenerate shame. So they are of us, or we of them; either horn would make us truly viral, in this pathogenic, virulent, and plagued life—which is yet as dear to me as anything.”
“That’s only cowardice. The fawning of a battered wife.”
“Maybe so. But the life beyond this one might not be better. I may have seen it, once. It was being given birth to by a rat. It was in pain, but perhaps no longer understood what pain was.”
A laughed, saying: “You are truly, truly interesting, U. I also once thought science would lead us across, although I wasn’t so scared of it. Now I know that was naïve: what’s there is only suffocatingly familiar—the airing of our dirty laundry, in the crushing tedium of a perfect model. But I haven’t ceased to believe in that life; in fact, I know now, more than ever, that it’s right there before us; I can feel its heat and glow on the inward skin of my mind. And only love—I’m certain of it—only our love can open the door.”
I could not believe that he would use that word, which had been on the tip of my mind since first laying eyes on him. Yet I saw that his own eyes were burning.
“Our love…” I murmured. “To somewhere further? Beyond just sex?”
“Beyond sex—outside fornication—above copulation—and beneath birth and death.”
“To open the door…”
“…to another life.”
I let, with a shiver, my head fall onto his chest, and my hands creep up to his fists.
“If it’s with you, I’ll go,” I mouthed into warm fabric. “It can only be a chaste love, for now. But I can promise that, and myself, to you.”
“Oh, U.” He laced his fingers between mine, and caressed, with their tips, my vespertilionine webs. I looked up, for there was nothing left to say, and kissed him. And this time no being could interrupt our embraces, or indeed, had it wanted to, could have numbered them.
A chaste love—was at this point, out of lingering caution, all I could give. “Chaste,” mind you, only in that it refrained from, as I once saw it put, the extreme act of Venus. All else, up to that point, was done, and liberally. We were both busy with work, then; nor did I want to invite A back to my tragic little home; nor he, apparently, me to his. And of course neither of us would dream of revealing the affair to any of our colleagues. So it proceeded by furtive assignations, or else quickly-stolen moments when we found ourselves alone. I was still timid, at first, often too much to even meet his eyes while going about my work, and would plunk away at my keyboard while he gregariously schmoozed—yet not seeing the screen, ears sharp and mind blurry, inwardly a red-hot coil. Even when I heard the voices and footsteps echoing away I wouldn’t look up, though I braced myself to feel, within a moment, his long arms wrapping around me, and his warm breath and then chin nestling on my neck.
And yet the strangest thing happened. By and by, I could meet the gazes of my peers, and even shyly join their chatter—whether A was there or not. I began to apply chapstick, wear a necklace, wash my hair more than once a week. I wrote verse. I started learning French, and, dissatisfied with my indolent body, to play squash; at the courts one day, I ran into a girl from high school, an old acquaintance (or, rather, someone who hadn’t bullied me), with whom, after a match and some catching up, I agreed to have a little coffee date. We sat in soft armchairs, and between sips swapped stories from our jobs; she seemed genuinely fascinated by mine, and assured me over and over, in ravished tones, how important was the work I was doing, for the nation, and, indeed, the world. On our way back, still pleasantly laughing, we came across a certain toothless, decrepit bum, whom I often encountered on this street, and always waved away with a mumble; yet that day I looked him in the eyes, apologized with deep pity for his state, and, from the bottom of my wallet, pressed five crisp bills into his trembling hand.
What was this? What could be so ennobling? I felt an industry in each cell of my body; each morning I awoke with a fundamental joy.
“Ah, I’m in love, Mom, love, I’m in love, I love and am loved,” I sang out to my mother, lightly tossing my hips while cooking dinner.
“You’re crazy. You’re going to suffer,” she moaned back from her room. “Oh-h-h… my daughter is crazy…”
I’m going to suffer? You stupid hag. All my life has been suffering, I thought, running my fingers along the webs of my other hand, tautening and slackening them the while. So you’ll be jealous of me because you’re a ruined woman? Because the light is behind you, while it’s still ahead of me? Go ahead. I’m not nostalgic anymore; for I understand now what life can be. With this I resumed singing:
“Oh, I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love!”
Came her voice’s weak trickle: “Love is nothing but a virus.”
A shifted his schedule, and began a new “project,” so he could care for the neglected rats with me; and we could play house, as it were, become surrogate mother and father, and tenderly afflict our charges. Many rats were born to us, and many died to us, and we were there to coax them every step of the way. We made them breed, and took inspiration from their lust; we flipped them on their stomachs to check their bellies, admired their pregnancies and births, and fawned as they suckled their babes; we snipped their tails and toes for genotyping; we pet them and played with them, fed them and grew them strong; we of course let fall the myriad needles, thrusting our noxious charge into body on body, making them receptacles of our overflowing love and fury; we watched, as fever nestled, their eyes blear with tepid glow, little coughs and sneezes puff from their snouts, which in time gravened to constant retching, speckling their bedding red; we sniffed their foul odors, runny stool, the fetid ulcers breaking upon them, and listened to their anguished squeaks, finding pathos in their complaint; we saw them perturbed, grieving, scared, dashing and twisting at phantom sounds, then lying exhausted, trembling, breathing fast and shallow or in seldom deep drags, fluid crackling in their lungs; we saw them, with swelling tails, blocked nostrils, hard skin, hollow eyes, after flushing crimson, hacking yellow phlegm, shriveling blue in their members, oozing out their lives in black, crawl over to their kin—whom in their deepest throes, seized by general oblivion, they had shunned—and, upon them, die; and those which didn’t die we gassed and snapped their necks, then pinned and autopsied them, splaying their withered guts over the dissection tray. We were Saturn and Medea, or I suppose I was more a Phaedra—but no, that’s not right either, since all their disfiguration and pain fell coldly on me; only the death I liked, the moment of extinguishment, where I felt I was their arbiter and utter controller—and most of all his gaze, which never lingered on our subjects, but was always slipping up to me, gauging my engagement; the more rapt I appeared, the more delighted in our atrocities, the greater his affection swelled; and the more he desired me, the more I madly cherished him. Thus he took pleasure in mine, and I in his, so the rats were a conduit of our love, closing a circuit whose feedback impelled it exponentially and inexorably upward; and I felt at any moment my feeling could sprout wings and rise, could soar and unfurl and extend and expand to straddle and outspan the world.
You’re right, Mom. Love is a virus. And no one is immune. And when you catch it, you’re sick from head to toe.
Sometime later, the above situation reversed itself: deep in the evening, I found myself in the otherwise-empty office, with A intently hunched over his monitor. After a quick survey of all the chairs and doorways, I trotted across and leaned over his back, forearms supporting my chin.
“What are you working on?”
“Oh, nothing,” he said, reaching his arm back to stroke mine, but not otherwise reacting. I bent forward to look more closely. He was exploring a 3D rendering of a coronavirus, idly spinning it like a globe, the motion tossing spike proteins over the horizon like bouquets blighted with numberless galls. He abruptly stopped, and zoomed in on one, exposing its structure in polychrome—astroturf greens, urinal blues, maraschino reds, but predominately a computerized, yet fleshy purple, somewhat lighter than amethyst—a prolapsed geode of buboes. I had long studied these mechanisms, and could read their final causes by these signs.
“What is this? Just how many mutations does it have?”
“Like I said, it’s not anything. Just a sort of spare-time hobby.”
“Does this already exist?” I asked, the hurt and anxiety beginning to creak in my voice. “A! How can you even—I—does Dr. C know?”
He swiveled around to face me. “Officially, no, but… what’s wrong?”
“Why didn’t you tell me? I thought you had given up on all that, were just going through the motions…”
“I am, in a sense.” He was staring at the floor, chastened, but now his gaze, while remaining in place, took on a hardness. “Some motions, once set in motion, cannot be arrested so simply.”
“So very mechanical of you,” I shot back, eliciting a glare—yet, to my surprise, not an entirely cruel one.
“In fact, I hadn’t told you, U, because I was still waiting to. But it’s fine. I’ll show you everything, right now.” He stood up, and went off briskly in the direction of the lab, beckoning me towards him. I stood there, incredulous, for a few moments, before following.
We began our walk down the long corridor in silence, although A soon developed a smirk, like a punished child nursing his bitterness. After a while, he spoke, as if to himself:
“For a long time now, I’ve thought a virus is a lonely thing. It can’t reproduce sexually, yet is also denied, in its crudeness, the self-sufficiency of mitosis. Instead, it must steal into a cell, like a thief in the night—or rather an incubus—to replicate discreetly; for detection means destruction. You saw it now, didn’t you? With all those spike proteins, yearning to cleave themselves against a membrane, breach that lipidous boundary, for it to insinuate itself into that warm and gurgling womb beyond…” He trailed off as we stopped before a door with a retinal scanner, which I had never seen before, yet which chimed and cracked open at A’s practiced look. “Yes, that’s the meaning of those spikes,” he murmured on entering,—“and if they form a crown, it is a crown of thorns.”
We came into an unfamiliar mudroom, where A immediately started to strip down, with no visible reservation. I looked away, and, feeling compelled to match this spirit, and only with the dislodging of a boulder’s-worth of inertia, did so myself, although not without stealing glances back at him. With one our stares met blatantly, and I flushed with a deep shame; for the anger I felt at him was threatened from beneath by giddy pricks of arousal, and I knew that he knew this.
We completed the process, and, with our suits pressurized, passed beyond the boundary of BSL-4. A took me down several further hallways, and several further doors, to a room I had never seen before. It was dark and capacious, though with the usual laboratory fittings. Only a single light hung overhead, under the blaze of which, at the room’s center, a large island stood like an altar.
“Go on,” said A, calmly.
I crept up, afraid, yet at each step trembling further with anticipation. What I saw awed me, although, in an obscured part of myself, was only what I had expected: the same cage—and within it, I could soon tell, the same bat—which had previously sat on my own counter. Its fragile limbs were twitching, occasionally rapping on the bars in spasms; there were crusts around its eyes, a sort of white efflorescence on its nose, and, as I perceived by minuscule glints of light, flecks of saliva at the corners of its lips.
Its wings had been ravaged by what looked like a secondary infection, and had the appearance of bug-eaten leaves.
“This is it, isn’t it?” I said at last, without turning around.
“Consider it a gift.”
With this, I looked back, bounded over, and tried to envelop him in a hug, although I only bounced off.
“Oh, darling,” I cried. “It’s beautiful. I love you so, so much.” I let a mischievous smirk onto my face. “To be honest, it seriously turns me on. But really, why? It’s too dangerous, A. This crosses every rule, law, or norm we could think of. It’s forbidden.”
“It is forbidden to forbid.”
“I mean, the Dual-Use Committee—”
“The Cartagena Protocol—”
“Don’t bother. I won’t let any limp treaty or board describe the limits of my own activity. Those governing bodies, task forces, commissions—they’re all ointment for the weak, cowed, and envious, those who hector, while secretly coveting, the pure potential of the strong, which in fact would scald them could they grasp it. No: they can’t put a stop to this. You won’t stop this. Nor can even I.”
Somehow, this speech took me out of myself. I cocked my head quizzically.
“So it’s power you’re after.”
“I told you as much from the beginning.”
“You said you wanted freedom.”
“There is no difference.”
We both looked at each other a long while, our faces ambiguous.
At last, A said: “Take off your helmet, U.”
In response, he only zipped himself out from his own, after removing his suit’s ventilation cable, which quickly crumpled it. After a moment, I responded by doing the same. He stepped forward, and embraced me, to which I acceded. When he raised his lips from mine, I said:
“Look: you do have power. Over me.” And I looked up into his face with expectance.
He stared back, bewildered, for just a moment, before grinning, and laughing, and throwing his head back and howling, nearly rocking the room with his cackles—to which my bat, newly agitated, added its screeches in a polyphony. Before I could say anything else, he reached back down for a more passionate kiss, placing his hands on my lower back. And it was true. My knees were glycerin; my torso a furnace, roaring with each squeeze of the bellows.
“Ah—” I gasped “—I’m yours. Je suis ton esclave.”
“Ah-ha-ha-ha! Et je suis ton maître! You’re mine! I own you, I control you.” His gaze jerked back down. “But I don’t know you. I need to know you. Let me know you.”
“To know me.” I smiled giddily. “What do you want to know? You who know everything. Well, you know,—”
“No, God! I mean carnal knowledge.”
“Are you finally ready? Let’s fucking do it. Right here.”
He leaned in and pressed his lips back against mine, from which I tried to back away, although each step back I took he matched with a step forward, like a tango, his arms still wrapped around me. My lower back soon hit the edge of a counter, and my upper back bent over against (I soon saw) a stack of petri dishes, sending them clattering to the floor.
“A! Hold on!” I yelped, disengaging myself.
“What? You don’t want to?”
“Well, we should be careful…” The room’s ventilation was still on full blast, buffeting my ears. “What was in those?”
“Do I care? Fuck!” He barked, glancing over at the fallen material, then back at the counter, then back, then back again, then, switching his head wildly, he lunged and swept his arm across it, tumbling rack after rack of glassware down into a crystal spray. “Let’s do it, U. Do you want to, or not?”
“I want to! God, I want to!”
“Do you love me?”
“I love you! I’m your slave!”
“How much do you love me?”
Before I could finish, he near-tackled me to the ground, tearing at my flaccid suit. I shot out an arm to catch myself, and instantly let out a shriek of pain. Lowering my body the rest of the way, I felt bits and shards beneath me; and drawing my hand back towards my face, removing my glove, I saw that one of my webs, between my middle and ring fingers, had been lacerated straight through, each side dangling limply apart and already streaked yet beading with further blood. Through the gap, I could see just a bit more of A’s expectant face. His beatific and expectant face, half-illumined. A tiny drop plopped onto my cheek.
“I love you a lot,” I replied at last.
“U,” he began, following immediately on the tail of my words: “would you kill someone to be with me?”
And my thought, after so many switchbacks, crested a peak: I at last knew myself. A’s cavern oration was only half-full. What is inflamed must rise, effecting a general displacement; for increase, we desire room; and love’s agon sets all against all. This instinct was my natural strength.
All dreams of romantic ecstasy were behind me. I wanted to have a child.
“I would,” I said. It was true. And at this he kissed me deeply, while wiping my cheek with his thumb, and, after lightly sweeping the glass out from under them, cradling with his fingers the back of my head and neck. And, withdrawing slightly, he said:
“Then what about two people?”
“Yes, I would.”
“A room full of people?”
“A house, with several generations of a family.”
From the island, a thin, long whine sounded over us like an alarm.
“How about,” he continued, gingerly dragging the rest of my suit over my pants, “a whole office tower?”
“Then: would you kill everybody in a hospital? Could you go from room to room, partition to partition, pressing death into each sick and infirm life in turn? How about a school? Could you suffer all the little children to be slaughtered and culled, and at day’s end hand off to each of their mothers an airy nothing?”
“Yes. For you, yes.”
“Then!” he growled, newly fervescent: “what about a city? Would you put to death an entire city?”
“Yes, yes, yes, fucking yes already! Just hurry up and fuck me! I would let a whole city die, everyone within it, at every school, office, home, and hospital, city and borough hall, with their self-important politicasters, whose brows I’d furrow and hands I’d make to wring, every sordid encampment full of bums, with nothing to live for anyway, and the chirping, contented crowds at every bar and restaurant, whom I’d poison with darkling drops of unease, little by little to wax hysteric, yes, I’d vacuate the streets, set deafening still round every monument, across each bridge, through every campus, park, and pleasure garden, lab or market, station, factory, or almost-hidden alley, with only sirens to wail the yawning vacancy—a black fury over the town, a dark outspanning vesper, winging unsightful death to each and all. I’d let a city die, a metropole, a province, an entire nation, I’d let them all die, die, die, die, die!”
“Then what about the whole world?”
“Yes, for fuck’s sake, I’d let the whole damned world die, if it meant you’d finally fuck me, just fuck me, fuck! me!”
Pleasure of men and gods, nutritious Love,
who fill the teeming ocean and the fruitful
lands beneath the slippery constellations—
for in you every species has conception
and, emerging, sees the light of day—
you, Love, you put the huffing winds
to flight, and stormclouds flee your coming;
for you the industrious earth sprouts up sweet flowers,
at you the lapping sea delights, and the
delighted sky goes flush with rosy glow.
No sooner are the first green hairs of spring
exposed, the genitable west wind unwrapped
and swollen, than the warbling birds signal
your entrance—pricked, Love, by your vim;
the estrous herds frisk in their fertile fields,
and even dash through gushing rivers, rapt
and itching, if you tempt them so; for you,
through seas and mountain streams and leafy boughs
and verdant plains, lashing the breasts of all
with fawning fancy, make each organism
propagate; you, Love, alone, govern
the nature of things; and without you
nothing would be amiable, nothing happy,
nothing born to the shores of heavenly light.
In the morning, I had lost my taste for him.