categories: Cocktail Hour
I’m heading back to the Gulf of Mexico again for a week and this time likely won’t be blogging. While I’m gone I’ve decided to serialize the first section of The Adventures of Mr. Id, which is the opening of a novel I wrote three summers ago. It may be the first novel to be based on a Youtube video, since I got the idea while filming my own little film, Transformation. I have always been obsessed with transformations, loving werewolves and Altered States and having re-read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde not long before deciding to try my own hand at the form with this project.
Charles was saved from his moment of unease by a high-pitched and raucous tintinnabulation at the end of the table. The noise flew formless through the air, insensible, indecipherable, out of place, until his mind arranged it into what it was: the clinking of glasses in a toast. He was busy trying to actually visualize the tinkling serenade, wondering if it were truly possible to see sound molecules with the bare eye, when the noise called forth a great breaching at the table’s far end, like trumpets announcing an emergence. And so it was: there rose Dean Stanwurst, pale and bibulous and proud, smiling at the prospect of monologue, a great hog of a man breathing in deeply as he prepared to go about his usual business of boring them all to death. He held up his glass as if ready to toast but anyone who had ever encountered him before knew that we would be some minutes until they got to drinking.
“Thank you, thank you,” he gurgled. “As I’m sure you all know, the word University is derived from the Greek holon, which translates as ‘whole’ or ‘Turned into one.’ Our goal at this table, and in this committee, is to make our university truly universal. That is, to turn to modern definitions, to make it ‘comprehensively broad’ and have it demonstrate a ‘great and or unbounded versatility of mind.’ In this spirit one would hope a walk across the Yard would also be a walk across disciplines.”
As the words poured out of Stanwurst, Charles was struck with a great, sure epiphany. How much he disliked–no it was more visceral than that–how much he hated the formality and periphrasis of academic speech. It was an odd revelation for a man inclined to use the word “vicissitude” when he could have used “change,” but it seemed obviously and suddenly true. Why hadn’t he ever seen it this clearly before? The way people in the academy spoke—the way he spoke–ran so against the urge to say things directly, which was the urge that was bubbling up in him at the moment, an urge strangely similar to the desire to smash the wash basin. To get at the thing. That was it. Not words but action! This notion excited him so much that for the first time since his trip to the bathroom, he felt a deep pang of anxiety, a pang no doubt born of an instinct for self-preservation. Would the Tourette’s strike again and would he blurt out how he felt in the middle of Stanwurst’s toast? In an effort to distract himself Charles turned back to staring at Helen Warworthy, but she was now obviously aware of, and made uncomfortable by, his gaze. He had the sense at least to turn away. Trying to act naturally, he attempted to scan the other faces at the table but all he could focus on were the women, or more specifically, on their breasts. He didn’t want to stare, but at the moment there was no choice. It was as if they had been called to that table, not to make meaningless academic proposals that the administration would never take seriously, but for the sole, and more glorious, purpose of celebrating breasts. Breasts, breasts, breasts! Almost half the people at the table had them! The bliss of it. How lucky a man he was to be seated so close to some many breasts.
The sensation of pleasure, already intense, was intensified further when he looked up from one particularly pleasing set of breasts to see the face of the person the breasts belonged to. The face he found outshone even what lay below. For a second, or perhaps longer, Charles allowed himself to take in the full sight Pamela Swan, Associate Professor of Ornithology. The long brown hair hanging straight and simple down her back, the thick lips, the slightly crazed blue eyes behind the granny glasses. She wore a blue wool sweater, the same one she had wearing earlier when Charles had come upon her watching birds in Harvard Yard. His brain now dredged up that memory with a surprising fealty, as if it were happening again as it ran on the screen of his mind.
He knew he had acted like a lunatic, and regretted the interaction, but then again he didn’t regret it. He’d run back to the lab but hadn’t been able to shake the image of her staring up into that tree, her sweater pulled taut across her breasts, or the feel of electric current that had run through him when she pinned his hand in hers. Of course it was insane to be thinking about her, about anyone, on this of all nights. Taking the primal gene was a monumental scientific decision for him, uncharacteristically bold, one that had come about only after years of research and experimentation followed by months of being stymied in efforts to follow traditional protocol. So why couldn’t he stop thinking about that electric current or her stupid sweater or the way she laughed after he’d surprised her?
An hour before their encounter he had injected the contents of a large needle into his right forearm. He hadn’t injected anything bigger than a rat in years and felt more than a little apprehension at the prospect of jabbing the needle into his vein. But he did it anyway, and then, for the first forty-five minutes, stuck to his original plan of recording his heart rate and doing his best to objectively note the subjective impressions: the loss of anxiety, the slight lightheadedness, the increasing restlessness. That was about when he began to grow even more restless, and for some reason found himself thinking of the fruit trees that he had noticed on his march to the lab. What would it hurt to go outside and roam around for a few minutes? Well, it had hurt in turned out, at least as far as making an ass of himself in front of Pamela Swan. It wouldn’t happen again, he’d vowed, and he’d forced himself to return to the lab, and to the regular checking of pulse rate and taking of the notes. But the latter task was undermined when his handwriting began to bend forward on the page, as if pushed over itself by a tailwind, and then the letters started to loop and stretch. It was around that point that the thought of Pam began to recur, but with a new intensity and frequency. The sweater. The current. The laugh. The hawk with the blazing fire tail. Then he had what was, by most standards, a fairly run-of-the-mill revelation, but one that, with the drug coming on, carried epiphanous force: he realized that the things he always teased Pam about, the wild explorer stuff, the frequent trips to South America, the trapping of birds and other animals, might actually be things he was envious of. And in that minute–the first minute, incidentally, that he entirely neglected to record his heart rate—he understood that he would not possibly be able to spend the next few hours trapped inside the lab, that he would need to get back outside and roam the Yard at dusk, would need to see the flowering fruit trees and, perhaps, even, the red-tailed hawk. It was unlikely that Pam would still be out there, but then he was struck by another minor but practical revelation: if she wasn’t there, he knew exactly where she would be. She would of course be attending the Diversity Committee dinner at the faculty club—she had even said as much!—a dinner that he was also still invited to! His mood rose to something close to euphoric as he piled his papers into a neat stack and locked the syringe back in his safe. He gave a quick glance around, double checking that he hadn’t left out any evidence, before dashing out of the lab. By that point the idea of diving into a crowd of people seemed less frightening than fun, and he practically jogged from lab to Club. Not only wouldn’t he spend the first night of his experiment alone, he would spend it in the company of many.
But now he was staring. It was Pam he’d come to see and now it was Pam he was seeing. The delight centers in his brain registered their appreciation of this achievement: shooting off synaptic fireworks in their own celebration of independence, telling him, in the only way they could, that this was a very good sight indeed. At first Pam looked up and smiled—happy to see him, too!—and then, as he kept staring, she rolled her eyes, and finally, the staring continuing, she had let an obvious look of concern cross her face. Finally she turned away from Charles entirely and pretended to focus her attention on the head of the table, where Dean Stanwurst continued to pontificate.
At last Charles turned away from her as well. He realized he had a serious problem: while Pam had been the whole reason he’d come to the dinner, he would need to somehow find a way to control his desire to leap out of his seat and run to her. To keep himself from doing this, or yelling out during Stanwurst’s interminable speech, he stared down at his dinner, and there, thankfully, found something capable of distracting him. He hadn’t yet touched his food, and he wondered how he could have overlooked something so innately fascinating. The contours of his steak reminded him of a painting by Derrain he’d once seen next door at the Fogg Art Museum. But how unsatisfying the encounter with that painting seemed in comparison: he’d simply stared, felt a moment of delight, and moved on along with the other sheep-like patrons. This was different—this cowflesh painting here in front of him. After studying it deeply, the muscular outside and small ridges and hints of rich bloody pink middle, he could smell it and anticipate it and–here was the beautiful thing–ultimately chew and swallow it. You couldn’t do that with art. He was still focused on the smelling part, thrilling to the meat’s slightly wet and rotting odor, when Warworthy’s panicked look alerted him to the fact that his face was perhaps too close to his plate. He backed off, almost simultaneously cast down by the thought that it was socially unacceptable to truly smell one’s food and then buoyed again by the idea that it was perfectly acceptable to eat it. No sooner had the thought come than his knife was cutting flesh and his fork lifting it toward his mouth.
The food was his primary pleasure; the realization that he now had something to focus on the secondary. Perfect! Stanwurst could babble on and Pam could shine across the table and Ms. Warworthy’s enticing breasts could sag only inches away, and still he could indulge in the socially acceptable orgy of devouring his food. Soon he forgot everything except the sheer pleasure of the meat.
How to describe that first taste of steak? Oh Joyous bite! Bloody middle with slight grizzle for texture. A redolent flavor that sent messages of pleasure to his brain, vestigial messages no doubt leftover from days when a bite like this meant both hunting success and survival for an earlier draft of himself. After the first bite he went straight for the fat. Then he saw the little pads of butter, so politely arranged on the white dish, and pulled them toward him, hoarding, smearing the sharp square little pads into the warm white heart of his baked potato. How strange, he thought, that they allow eating, this most sensual of activities, to be done in public. An ambrosial earth musk rose off the potato, and its warmth, its buttery solidity, provided an almost symphonic counterpoint to the steak’s more savage pleasure. Charles felt deeply content in a way he hadn’t in years. And, as happy as he was, he would soon be happier. Because next to the plate of food he spied his full wine glass, untouched, and now he saw that he had a way to compound his already significant pleasure. All his life he had been a sipper of alcohol; it usually left him feeling less inebriated than nauseated. But now in a flash he understood the joy of gulping. He wasted no time, tilting the glass back and pouring it into his mouth as if emptying it into a vat. As he finished he must have let out some kind of noise, clearly audible, not a belch so much as a satisfied grunt and lip-smacking, because both Kronin and Warworthy turned briefly toward him, and even old fat Stanwurst paused for a moment from his blustering. But then they all turned away and continued on, Stanwurst’s words washing over his interruption, and Charles continued on, too, now looking around, perhaps a tad too desperately, for a waiter who could refill his wineglass. He wanted, or now suddenly needed, to repeat the sensation of pouring the wine into himself, and no sooner had the waiter filled his glass than Charles emptied it again. He finished before the waiter got away this time, and the waiter gave a quizzical smile and Charles nodded and so they repeated the ritual again. They might have gone on like this to the end of the night, a simple game of drinking and refilling, had not Stanwurst at last finished his toast, with a final bellow. When the rest of the guests lifted and clinked their glasses, the waiter used the distraction to scurry off.