The train slowly rocked as it ascended from the tunnel. Across the river, industrial stacks belched white clouds against the backdrop of lower Manhattan. The gap in the city’s skyline reminded me of my constant nightmares of smoke, of burning, of the imagined death of the man who raised me. The train gained momentum, hurtling me south toward my uncertain future.
My knees jittered from nervous exhaustion. From worry over how my bosses would react over the mice fiasco. Of course, Stan would freak out – the damn drug was going into human trials next month. I counted on Tien to keep him calm. I just hoped he’d save his lambasting until later. Because today was pivotal, for all of us, but especially for me. Although our decamping Harvard for Hopkins was pretty much a done-deal, my rank, post-doc or assistant professor, remained the outstanding point of contention; the Hopkins professors were pissed some unknown post-doc was leap-frogging over their post-docs into a tenure-track position. I had to nail my seminar; no way could I afford living another year on a post-doc salary.
I powered up the laptop, punched in my passwords, and ran through the slide deck blessed by Stan and Tien two weeks ago. I stared at slide six; none of JM-25’s side effects alluded to biting, fighting, or any forms of mutilation. Nothing. If mice could murder, couldn’t people? People like me?
The laptop quivered on my thighs. I reached for my quetiapine; the antipsychotic would calm me. My hand hesitated over my backpack. I couldn’t afford to be a zombie, not today.
I cupped palms over kneecaps and breathed. Lead me from ignorance to truth, lead me from ignorance, lead me to truth... The laptop whirred warm in my lap, the wheels’ gentle click-clack lulled me… lead me from ignorance…
I spiraled awake. The conductor’s sweaty face peered down at me.
I had arrived.
Down by the Inner Harbor, the vestiges of a surprise snowfall camouflaged the grit and grime I remembered of the city. The hotel gleamed in sunlight reflected off surrounding water, hurting my eyes. Inside, people milled about reception, luggage trailing like obedient dogs. My room wasn’t ready, so I checked my bags except for the laptop and asked the clerk for Tien Zhao’s room number.
“She’s my wife,” I said. “I wanted to surprise her.”
His gaze wandered to my bare left hand. “Sorry, sir. Security, you understand. I’m happy to ring the room for you.”
He turned to the monitor. I leaned against the counter and made out the number as he lifted the phone.
“Hey,” I said and pointed towards the cafe. “Thanks, but no matter – I see her.”
I strode past the Starbuck’s, then cut left to the bank of elevators. I found her room on the tenth floor, half-way down the hall. Low voices seeped from behind the door. Television? Maybe I had the wrong room - Tien never watched the idiot box. Neither did I. Ear against the door, I smiled at discovering her singular vice. Tien’s distinct chortle floated over the television’s drone. When I knocked, the murmuring ceased.
“Yes?” Her voice sounded tentative.
“Hey, baby, it’s me. Missed you.”
The chain rattled. Tien’s perfectly painted red lips peeked through the four-inch crack. Her mouth parted into a tight semi-smile.
“You’re early,” she said.
“I snagged the Acela. Let me in?” I peered past her into the light-filled room. Disheveled bed linens tumbled on the floor. A breakfast tray rested on the small round table, laden with a carafe and two white teacups.
“I was just getting into the shower,” she said.
“I’ll join you.” I reached for her terry-wrapped body.
She pulled the towel tighter and edged away. I laughed, but my gut hardened into a knot.
“Ten minutes,” she said. “Downstairs in the lobby. I’ll call Stan.”
The lock slid back. The peephole’s glassy eye rebuked me. Then the television cut through the muffled thrum of water hitting tile. I raised my fist to pound on the door, then let it drop; Tien was resolute. What did it matter? I’d see her in a few minutes. Unlike most women, when Tien said ten minutes, she meant nine.
I hustled back to the elevator, wondering why she was always so unpredictable with her affection. So inscrutable. Wondering why I put up with her aloof bullshit. Looking back, I couldn’t recall specifics of how I ended up sharing her bed. Sure, we’d worked together for years, but like everything she did, her seduction of me was a well-controlled protocol - unwavering, systematic, always within pre-ordained parameters. Back then, she needed my mind and I needed someone beside me at night; I wasn’t good alone. But after two years, I wanted to crack her, peel off her shell until I found the soft part I knew was there – I’d seen glimmerings.
These thoughts bounced around in my head as I returned to the thronging lobby. Mostly, though, I wondered about the two cups.
Ben, in Baltimore, after the mice committed hari-kari and after his Mother's funeral. Excerpted from PURE, a novel slowly stitched together. I appreciate any and all feedback...