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.
He had been a nervous child and a nervous teenager, and had grown, quite naturally, into a nervous man. But what struck Charles Kaiser now, after all those jittery years, was the sudden cessation of nervousness. The absence of familiar fear, rather than any positive emotion, was what splashed over him, like cold water driving out thought. The simile wasn’t a stretch: at that very moment he was splashing actual cold water onto his face, perhaps a little too vigorously, from the sink in the oak-paneled men’s room of the Harvard Faculty Club. He knew that he must look a little silly, splashing away like a child, as if he were kneeling down by a creek and not merely hunching over a wash basin, but the water felt good and there was no one else around.
Back at the lab he had first concluded that his experiment with the primal gene had been a dud. All the injection had done was trigger a mild loosening of inhibition, a loosening that had given him the confidence to leave the lab and roam Harvard Yard. But now something else was happening. He could feel something rising up, breaching as it were, from deep inside. He noted the throbbing in his bloodstream, the cilia undulating inside his nasal cavity, the way his pores seemed to breathe on the back of his hands. There was no sense of foreboding, however, no horror movie music to signal the werewolf had begun its transformation. He knew that he needed to remain objective but on an entirely unscientific level he had to admit that a part of him liked the tingling, the general sense of animal enlivening, the desire he suddenly had, so contrary to his ordinary life, to lift something large—the white water basin, say—and smash it to the ground. Yes, smashing something suddenly seemed like a good—a sensible—idea. In fact at that second doing anything seemed so much better than doing nothing.
He was riding that particularly strong surge of exhilaration, gripping the basin tightly with both hands, when the bathroom door swung open. In that second his habitual nervousness returned. He released his grip on the basin and reached for his glasses. He turned his eyes to the tile floor and mumbled a barely audible “hello” to Lawrence Bottello, the balding sociology professor who was shuffling determinedly toward a urinal. This was all par for the nervous course, but what happened next was new. Charles stopped and looked up from the tile, straight at Bottello. He wondered why on earth he was acting so frightened of this man. It occurred to him, for no particular reason, that he certainly didn’t need to fear him on a physical level. Charles, a relatively young 48, could easily wrestle the 60-something sociologist to the ground if necessary. True, it wasn’t necessary and he had no intention of doing so, but the thought of this scenario triggered a small surge of confidence.
He rode that surge right out the door of the men’s room. He strode across the foyer to the edge of the dining room and then, instead of scurrying nervously to his seat, as he usually would, Charles stood still near the double-doored entrance, his body awash in smell and light. Pulsing aureoles from the old-fashioned table lamps distracted him for a moment from an even stronger sensation: smells, a river of smells, running through the room. His nose gleaned chemical messages, a lost language that he could suddenly read. Even without years of study he would have recognized the odors for what they were—pheromones—and he could have stood there for hours awash in that river, his feet spread shoulder length apart, his hands clenching and unclenching, his mind strangely calm and confident. But he still had sense enough to know that the fourteen Harvard professors seated around the long oak table, the members of the college’s feeble attempt at cross-pollination, the University Diversity Committee, would soon grow uncomfortable if one of their colleagues simply stood in front of them, just returned from the washroom, smiling at nothing and basking as if he were steaming away in an invisible shower. So he followed the smell river, or at least one of the river’s olfactory tributaries, back to the safety of his stiff seat near the window end of the table.
He paused for a moment to stare down at the weapon-like array of cutlery around his plate—3 knives, 3 forks, 2 spoons and another fork above—and the many glasses—water, wine, champagne flute. The two professors on either side made the usual murmuring sounds, a kind of reentry ritual for anyone coming back from that other socially-accepted ritual, that of urination or defecation, and Charles made the appropriate murmurs in return, bowing his head and pulling his napkin back to his lap as he slid his chair in. There was a brief pause in the conversation, and his old nervousness returned, rendering monumental a not-so-monumental decision, whether to turn to his left, back to Edward Kronin, the droll entomologist who earlier had been regaling him with tales of viruses in fireants, or to his right, to Helen Warworthy, a hefty Johnson Scholar who had spent the past three years fighting valiantly for tenure in an English department that rarely granted it to its own. As it turned out, a strange consideration weighed the decision in favor of Helen Warworthy. The consideration was this: Helen Warworthy had breasts. Charles felt no interest in Edward Kronin, other than a vague and new desire to fight him, while Helen suddenly seemed more alluring than he’d ever found her before. He supposed he’d always regarded her as somewhat homely, and in a flash he now saw how superficial that designation was, and how much undue weight he had–quite superficially–given it. As he turned to her his nose registered her specific scent emanations, her olfactory signature, a musky mix like crushed leaves with a twinge of violet and something else he couldn’t put his finger on. He liked her smell and wanted to speak to her, to make contact, but speaking was a new challenge. His brain had not come into play for the last few minutes, but now he turned to it in hopes that it might convey a sentence down the neural pathways to his tongue. The signals worked. To his surprise.
He asked her how she thought Dr. Johnson might have fared in these times, and what he might make of the current political climate.
She seemed delighted by the question. She rocked back slightly in her seat and smiled to herself before launching into her answer. Her face was virtually free of wrinkles but Charles noticed small sagging white pouches of skin below her brown eyes, as if she’d been stung at the same moment by two synchronized bees. The pouches did not look unappealing.
“Well, as you know, Johnson was notoriously conservative. A real Tory. This evolved from a deeply pessimistic view of human beings. He didn’t put much stock in this modern notion of ‘being yourself.’”
She laughed at this, a surprisingly happy and melodious laugh—a trickling like water from a cave wall. The slight crushed leaf smell again rose off her pale skin.
“He had a darker view of man. He believed the mind needed to be regulated. If we all acted ‘like ourselves’ things might fall apart you see. So he held to what had worked before, clung to ritual in a way most artists don’t. What he was really concerned with is how we human beings can make it through our days. Of course if he were transported to our times he would instantly see the way the word ‘conservative’ has been hijacked. Talk about the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
She talked on, quite melodiously, but soon Charles found he’d stopped listening to what she was saying. Not out of disrespect, for he liked the melody of her lilting voice as well as the actual words, but because her words were overwhelmed by a competing attraction. Though he hoped that through his nods and “uh-huhs” he was appropriately playacting the role of the listener, the fact was that he was now intensely preoccupied with her breasts. Trying not to stare, he made several not-so-furtive glances, his head moving in a strange and parrot-like fashion. The breasts themselves pressed up against a white ruffled blouse that would have fit in quite well on a Shakespearian stage. They were somewhat low slung and udder-like, but still appealing, to Charles at least, enough so that he had to will himself not to reach over and cup them both from below. “Will” was not exactly the right word, but he was pleased that whatever part of him was still in control won out, just barely, over the urge to grab.
“You are an attractive woman.”
The words came out low and growling, and it took a second for Charles to understand that they had been his own. It was as if, by blocking the urge to grab, he had dammed up the water at one place in his psyche, the water therefore forced to come splurting out another—in this case, his mouth. Ms. Warworthy blushed near crimson, though she didn’t look entirely unhappy. He felt briefly guilty but he didn’t apologize—there was no apologizing in this new mood—and at the same time he began to experience something wild and giddy building up inside him. An hour earlier, when he’d injected himself back at the lab, the immediate effects had been mild, mild enough to lead him to believe he might be able to function normally in the company of others. Now he saw, or rather felt, the flaws in this assumption. For the first time he understood that the effects of his experiment would not merely be those of feeling but of action, in this case the inception of a kind of Tourette’s-like blurting that he hadn’t anticipated in the lab.