“Pretend we just met!” she said at SFO. An eight-hour plane ride was going to kill her if she couldn’t turn it into some kind of game. Personally, I prefer to pop a sedative or two, put some headphones on and stare out the window. “No, no,” she said, “let’s pretend we don’t know each other, starting… now!” She had packed everything for the trip into a small backpack, breezing by the security checkpoint in her kickoff sandals while I labored with shoelaces and belts, keys and coins – a clunky old non-reducible laptop. She was scheduled to speak to the International Consortium of Pediatricians on behalf of Stanford University about the new breakthrough. But for me the five-day trip was going to be more of a vacation, a celebration even. As a history teacher I was caught up in the excitement of simply being alive to witness such an achievement.
"mice were now living indefinitely in laboratories all over the world... the possibility of ‘freezing’ entire families in place at a moment in time had become particularly attractive"
Plus, I had never been to the Caribbean before and so when we arrived on the island with the sun still high, hopping an over-air-conditioned bus to a grand new tourist resort on the beach, I was all agape. Diane’s department was paying for everything. I gazed out the window at the cane fields while the bus driver explained into a microphone how the tunnel of trees we were driving through had been destroyed a few years back by a hurricane. I said something out loud, realizing too late that Diane was sleeping. She opened her eyes at me, then shut them again. I put my face down close to hers, wanting to whisper to her something about… I don’t know what. She patted my leg. There was a time when a few words such as “you’re my favorite” might have gone along with that pat.
We were ushered into a film orientation straight off the bus, before we were allowed to check in. Someone slapped a label on my chest and Diane carefully drew ACTON MCMANN-RAMÍREZ on it for me. She donned her official badge and we took our seats. The film was a corporate commercial, a sort of pep rally – as if everyone were not already fully aware of the background details.
“Useless,” Diane whispered.
“…then suddenly we had something additional to live for…” the narrator boomed, “…hundreds, perhaps thousands of years.” The film went on to show images we had seen dozens of times by now: the company’s sponsored researchers at Stanford accepting the Nobel Prize for curing a certain kind of cancer – really curing it, beyond remission, and then the infinitely more significant advancement that had ensued shortly thereafter: the illumination of a way to prevent normal mammalian cells from aging. On the screen, the New York Post came spinning out towards us, having kicked off the scoop of the millennium with ‘WE WIN!’ in exactly the same font that the Times had used for the surrender of Japan in 1945; there were the satirical cartoons exploiting caricatures of Ponce de Leon, Psyche and Achilles, clips of internet and TV talk shows, politicians getting giddy. The narrator proudly annunciating: “…cellular senescence…” “ …homeodynamics…” “…perpetual telomeres lengthening…” “…organismic immortality…” while the projector threw up Pollock-like stained images of mouse embryonic fibroblast cells. It was dazzling (infrared jellyfish genome sequences), way over my head but then they got to the part where mice were now living indefinitely in laboratories all over the world. Ordinary people were being interviewed in snippets, the possibility of ‘freezing’ entire families in place at a moment in time had become a particularly attractive one to some. I looked over at Diane, the lights of the presentation flickering in her eyes. Her talk was supposed to address these very issues. The film ended by informing us that the drug for human consumption now had a patent pending and would be unveiled at the conclusion of the convention. This caused a minor stir among the audience. I looked at Diane again. At this point I wasn’t sure if we were still pretending.
Because these little ‘pretend we just met’ games had been known to last up to a week. After the orientation we proceeded to the lobby and checked in under a bright, busy aviary. A tree grew straight up into the sky lit dome above, its branches, vines and leaves cascading down the various arches and columns. We passed a fountain and a marble sculpture of a man with an extremely small penis. Diane pointed at it, smirking. I read the plaque aloud to her: “Apollo: god of light and the sun, truth and prophecy, medicine, healing, and plague, music, poetry, the arts…”
“God of healing and plague?” she said. “Perfect.”
I was smiling at the god. “I think he’s supposed to be a boy here.”
“Except that’s not the musculature of an adolescent.”
I circled the immortal. I could tell you as a historian that there was a time when little penises were en vogue and big penises were considered crass or unsightly. A dork was originally a guy with a big, ugly penis. Now, I was no dork, but I was also no Apollo. I could—
She popped my reverie by gently cupping my crotch and telling me she’d see me upstairs. She disappeared into the elevator and I sauntered into a little gift shop next to a birdcage containing the biggest parrot I had ever seen. I stopped to say hello but it might have been one of the Russian speaking varieties I had read about on the plane. I grabbed a six pack of Imperiale for myself and a box of reduced fat Wheat Thins for Diane.
A short series of interludes later, we took a stroll into Old Havana and passed a boutique with a low cut sleeveless blouse in the window – white and green with muted pink swirls. She had to have it. My fingers had noticed over the past few months the bumps of her breastplate becoming more prominent and I wasn’t sure how I felt about this yet; but this recent loss of padding had also brought her near-perfect features into relief. When she smiled, her teeth stood out like sugar cubes against her coffee colored skin. God, she was beautiful. Standing in front of the dressing room mirror in her new blouse, she stepped out of character for a moment and told me she had made up her mind to add a little extra eyeliner tonight, she would apply a slightly darker shade of lipstick, maybe even paint her toenails. “How fun would that be?” she said. I shrugged but I was getting tingly again. We would ‘meet’ at the hotel bar at dusk, where she would be sitting near a window, posing as the type of person who would drink an entire glass of red wine.
“I’m off!” She hefted her gym bag over her shoulder. We had had a romp, walked around Old Havana for three hours and now she was off again. Off to the hotel’s gymnasium to yank and push and climb around on various apparatuses like a little hamster. She was nonstop. I could have spanked her when she did adorable things like this but instead I just sat on the patio with my beer and one of the sandwiches she had made for the plane ride. “Off with you!”
She closed the door.
Not long after we met, I had asked why someone like her had not already been snatched up. I was reading to her in bed.
“I was married,” she said. “For three months.”
At first I was relieved that it hadn’t been longer.
“That must give you pause,” she said.
I thought for a moment. “Three months?” She must have known something was wrong before the wedding. “The only thing that says to me is that you might not know how to get out of a relationship you don’t want to be in.”
She had smiled, genuinely, at that. “With everyone else, I always feared losing my sense of self. But I don’t have that fear when I’m with you.”
“I used to have that same fear,” I said. “But then I thought, who am I that I need preserving?”
She had been staring at my mouth like a child, her lips moving along while I read and spoke to her… who am I that I need preserving.
Later that evening, halfway into her glass of zinfandel, a man approached (that would be me) from a small table and asked if she was waiting for someone. She glanced up at a fit man, well dressed (by her), six foot one, late twenties, with straight reddish brown hair falling into his eyes. A warmth seemed to be flooding her cheeks. She looked back out the window. “It’s huge,” she said.
When I didn’t reply she glanced back up at me. I had frozen mid sip in my beer. She pointed at the sun. “Why does it seem so big when it’s setting?”
“Or rising,” I said, then smiling, taking the chair across from her. I introduced myself as Jay, a filmmaker, and offered to buy her a drink. Normally she would have pulled out of character here to tell me that casting myself as a filmmaker was verboten since it was a little too close to reality (she had been helping me with applications to various local film schools – the kind that advertised on inframercials or through email spam). But now, she didn’t seem to notice, or care.
“I don’t drink,” she said.
“What’s that in your hand?”
“This?” She swirled her wine around in the glass. “This is just an experiment. I meant to say that I don’t normally drink.”
“Ah, so this is a special occasion?”
I raised two fingers to the server and then pointed at the table. “Well, this is a bit experimental for me as well.”
She swallowed the last of her wine. “I’ll bet.” She set the glass down.
“Well, if you must know,” I said, “I am showing a film here.”
This captured her attention. I could tell by the way her lips parted, the way her gaze moved to my mouth.
“The Cannes Film Festival. You’ve heard of it? Nobody will leave me alone about that.” That was my line.
She leaned forward as the server brought the wine and I explained that the film was my graduate project, a twenty-two minute piece about two lovers who had driven to Mexico to exchange their kidneys, just because. So far, critics had hailed it as (I air quoted) ‘a particularly powerful and timely piece on the nature of devotion in a noncommittal world’.
“Oh!” She clapped a little.
When she swallowed the last of her second glass of wine, I paid the bill (charged it to the room) and we made our way down to the beach. She took off her sandals and squeezed her painted toes into the sand. The evening was warm and breezy and the rising moon created a light like those old movies shot through a dark lens at high noon. She looked wonderfully disheveled – the wind played with her hair and her skirt, and I caught glimpses of the little panties she had bought in the boutique in town. She rose up to kiss me and I watched her close her eyes. When she dropped back down, I took her hand and we continued walking.
“We can get a rail pass and see the Continent,” she said. “All of it.”
“No, we’ll do it the American way. I’ll buy a motorcycle and put you in a sidecar with a leather helmet, a scarf and goggles – we’ll ride to Istanbul.”
“I’ll put you in a sidecar,” she said and pulled me down onto the sand on top of her.