Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

More Pink Microscope

She is already out of the box, in fact perched upon it, her pink cape moving lazily about her, as if a slight wind were blowing through the office. "Let's get to work," she says.

"Wait a minute." Allan wants to ask a few questions, questions he's pushed back all day. Where is she from? How did she come to be?
She only waves a dismissive arm. "You're wasting time," she says, disapproving.
"What's your name, then? Surely you can tell me that."
"A name? I'm a microscope. Does your centrifuge have a name? Do you name the cameras?" Scorn sends flashes of raspberry red through her pink cape-stuff.
But Allan persists. The scientist in him must name things. Including this female whatever calling herself an instrument of science.

"Marya," He says. Marya Sklodovska, the woman who later became Marie Curie and discovered Radium with her beloved Pierre. He wanted to give Tina the name; Betty refused, calling it old-fashioned and ugly. Tina, living in the hills with realtor-Robby and her varnished nails: she has lived down to her name. If she had been named Marya, or even Iréne, would she have a thought in her head today?

No matter. Allan looks at the apparition seated before him, swinging one iridescent leg impatiently. Finally he will be what he has always wanted: Pierre. Dashing, brilliant, adored. The pink microscope will be his Marya.

Again, they set to work. Again, the magical sense of transcendance, of ease. Allan is a neurobiologist. For the first two decades of his career he studied synapse formation and function. Lately, just lately, these topics have begun to bore him. A midlife crisis of sorts. Instead of acquiring a Sabine Lazarus, or driving a sporty automobile, Allan has been casting about for a different scientfic direction, something sexy and new and exciting. Something hot, that will attract lots of funding. First authorships in Science, in Neuron. To the frustration and puzzlement of his students (Missy, it must be admitted, is at her wits' end with what she views as his childlishness), Allan has picked up, then discarded, a few intruiging paths: mammalian visual systems, neurological imaging. Then he ran into Charlie Katz at Woods Hole. He'd known Charlie a bit in grad school; now he taught at U Chicago. Over a vinegary Pino Grigio the two hatched a plan that revisited synapse formation while incorporating studies of proteins. Proteins are very big just now, folding them, splicing them up and sticking them into foreign hosts, mice, bunnies, kitties. Missy is suddenly burdened with animal subjects protocols, paperwork so odious she demanded, and received, a raise for placating the University's stringent Human/Animal Subjects Committe, lovingly known an the Animal Nazis.

But the work, however compelling, moves slowly. The NIH dawdles over their grant proposal; Allan's lab community remains bewildered. One young woman, a second year student of great promise, has sought a new thesis advisor. The rest plug along, reading the literature, trying to grok out a sense of what Allan is looking for. He and Charlie write one another daily, bashing their way toward a thesis, feeling their Korean and Chinese and Stanfordian colleagues breathing down their necks, femtoseconds from scooping them.

But now, with Marya, the knotty questions smooth out, resolving neatly into words, sentences, paragraphs that set out not only the hypothesis but potential experiments. Allan is alive with joy. How had he gone along before, so numbed to existence? He can hardly wait to email this draft to Charlie. Then he will hold lab meeting a day early to explain the experiments to the group. He'll order sandwhiches and beer, his dime, then everyone will happily set to work.

(Gordon, damned him, will be so jealous!)

(Missy will be thrilled. She'll tell Sabine all about it--Allan has noticed the two are friendly--and then, perhaps, Sabine will approach him, timidly, and ask for a transfer to his lab.)

(Maybe Stanford will finally make an offer.)

(Maybe, maybe, he'll get a telephone call from Sweden.)

"Bedtime," Marya says, rising up on her toes. Allan watches, still entranced. What lies beneath the pink folds? A woman's anatomy, in all its seashell mystery? Or is Marya more like a mermaid, cold and scaly? She smiles at him, as if reading his thoughts, then climbs into her nest. "Allan?"
"Don't tell anyone yet."
"The work. It isn't ready yet. Keep still about it for just a bit. Until it's ready."
One long finger rises to her perfect lips, which pucker, heart-shaped. "Shhh. Shhh. Be patient, mon Pierre."
He melts. He nods. And she pulls the wooden lid over herself, waiting out the daylight.

Weeks pass, and still Marya demands he wait. To placate the lab, he starts them on a set of synapse experiments. His small group is relieved: they consult him with carefully worked, resolutely tested results. They speak of manuscripts. He nods, agrees, barely paying attention. He writes Charlie, hating having to hold back, longing to open his files and cast a look over the previous evening's efforts. But he cannot: each night Marya transfers their work to a zip disk, which she tucks into the drapey folds of what he's come to think of as her tutu. She must hold on to the disk for safety reasons. What if his computer were hacked? If one of the grad students rummaged through his hard drive? Allan protests, faintly: firewalls, passwords, responsible students.

"Missy." Marya says in a voice of onyx, of brilliantine. Missy.

Marya protects the work.

"Your're having an affair," Betty says. It's a Saturday evening, actually, an early Sunday morning. She confronts him in the foyer, fully dressed despite the insane hour. She's been waiting for him.

"Nonsense. I told you, I've been working."

Betty sputters, composure dissolving. A litany emerges. Late nights, uneaten meals, forgetfulness (Worse than usual: Tina's birthday. Their anniversary.). Doesn't he realize she notices he’s lost weight? And that they haven't, well, been together in months? (Betty has never been able to utter the following words: lovemaking, sex, fucking. Nor was she ever much for performing them.)

Allan stares at his wife. He considers explaining. Betty wouldn't understand a word of it; no harm would come. She might even be placated.

"Let's sit down," He says in his professor-talking-to-a-failing-student voice.

Betty sits. Allan begins, in a carefully surface way, to describe his amazing new project, how rejuvenating it is, its implications not only for research, but for his status. He has always lectured skillfully, been evaluated favorably by the undergrads he is occasionally forced to teach. The words flow easily from his mouth. Betty's eyes, predictably, empty as he speaks. When he finishes, her tears resume.

"But I'm so lonely," She cries.

At this, Allan cannot think of a single thing to say.


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