Saturday, June 23, 2007

How I Met [Redacted] Part IV

If I’m to continue telling you about [Redacted], I should say that immediately after the accident, I went on a trip to California. That set in motion the events that immediately followed the events that I am currently telling you about, and have subsequently drained of any dramatic purpose in their retelling, since you already know how it’s going to work out. Obviously, I am not running a house painting franchise at the moment. You know that because I told you. Implicitly, I am not even the sort of guy who is capable of running a painting business for more than fifteen minutes. You know this because you—however few of you there are—are reading what I’m writing at this very moment. You’ve met house painters in your life before and you’ve drawn your conclusions about them. Among them, I’m sure, isn’t the impression that house painters as a class are given to composing oddball life stories and then spewing them out for everyone else in the world to judge, cherish or reject. No, more often they’re sitting at the corner of the bar at the Fall’s Athletic Club, drinking beer and polishing some old grudge like it’s a bowling trophy. So wrapped up am I in my own chattering, misanthropic ego, I can’t even look away from my own belly-button long enough to nurse a grudge at a bar.

So anyway, I went to California to visit some friends in San Diego—they’re not important to the story, flushed down the rathole of meth addiction and real estate licenses, I haven’t spoken to them in years. On the flight back home I sat next to a woman about my age. I’m just like you, and I have harbored erotic or at least romantic fantasies about getting on a plane and meeting a lovely woman, or at least an unlovely woman with a sparkling intellect, and then arranging either a rushed or a leisurely intimacy with the girl. And just like you, I have never made it happen. It’s not because I don’t have the guts, it’s because everyone gets about twenty-five percent uglier the moment they cross the threshold of an airport. This includes me, and it includes all the women that I would normally be attracted to in any other circumstance. Still, I always wanted to give it the college try and here, it seemed, was an opportunity. This girl was not unlovely and she had her nose buried in what looked like an academic journal. Both are always good signs off an aircraft.

I sat down next to her. She said hello and I said hi. She had black hair, mottled skin and John Lennon glasses. Once we got the greetings over with she went right back to her book. Following suit, I pulled out my copy of Moby Dick and started reading.

The flight went as they usually for the first half. We both respected one another’s space and shifted around our weight occasionally, apologizing to each other for the closeness that the airlines compel. We didn’t speak until after the drink service. I spoke up first, going for the stand-by.

“What are you reading,” I said.

She held it up for a moment. Then she said, “It’s the Journal of Biology. One of my professors has a paper in this issue and I helped him do the research for the paper.”

“So you’re reading it, but you must’ve already read it? Right.”

“Yeah, yeah. I guess it’s vain or silly or something, but it’s still nice to read it in the bound format.”

“What kind of research do you do?”

“I do research with silencer genes in yeast.”

“I don’t know what silencer genes are.”

She gestured with her hands. Okay, what we’re just learning now is that for every gene on a sequence, there’s another gene that turns it on or turns it off. Like ever trait that a gene creates there’s another gene that allows it to express or not express. These are the silencer genes.” As she said, “express” she held one hand over her closed fist. When she said, “not express” she closed her right hand over her left fist. “If we can control the silencer genes, we can control the way an entire genome expresses itself.”

“So you can do this with any trait? Eye color, height?”

“Umm. Not yet. We don’t work with mammals. I mean, right now we’re working yeast because it’s a really simple organism. So it’s easy to see the way these things work out when you manipulate them. But sooner or later I guess what we’re doing will be applied to people. Especially the research I’m doing.”

The stewardess came by with the drink cart again. I got a coke for myself, my seatmate asked for an orange juice. While the stewardess passed our drinks down to us, I tried to figure out how I was going to turn this conversation about yeast DNA into something sexual, or at least something that could lead to a sexual conversation. Again, my creativity failed me. I poured the coke into my little plastic tumbler and took a sip. She sipped her orange juice and gave me one of those raised-eybrow looks that mean, “so is this conversation going to continue, or can I go back to my reading?”

“What do you mean? Especially the research you’re doing?”

“Specifically we work with aging. There’s an aging gene in yeast. If you turn it off, then the yeast cells don’t age.”

“They don’t age?”


“Then they don’t die?”

“Not unless you kill them deliberately.”



I tried to imagine an immortal yeast culture, fermenting eternally somewhere in Kendall Square.

“How do you know that they don’t die? That they don’t age?” I realized it was a stupid question as soon as it left my mouth.

“We look at the cells. They don’t change, they don’t degrade the way normal cells do.”

“Well what happens if? I mean? Forever? They’ll live forever?”

“That’s pretty much what it looks like.”

“So, you guys are going to do this to people?”

“No. I mean. Not now. The research probably won’t get to that point in my lifetime. It’s taking a long time to map the human genome, and then once it’s mapped we still have to explore it, you know. It’s not such a simple operation. The human genome is a lot more complex than a yeast genome.”

I knew what would happen in the meanwhile. These people would try their experiment on higher and higher classes of organisms, until they achieved a monkey that would live forever. Once the monkey doubled the age at which most monkeys die, they’d administer their serum of their gene therapy treatment to some ambitious grad student, who would then be saddled with an endless life. By the 200th year he’d go mad, but by that time the drug companies would have already begun mass marketing their therapy to anyone willing to pay the price. What they wouldn’t realize when they started the therapy is that just as they were putting the option of eternal life into their hands, they were basically mandating that they commit suicide at some point. Afterall, who among us could stand the prospect of visiting the Registry of Motor Vehicles every four years, for the rest of eternity? And then there’s the relativity factor. Everyone knows that as you age each year, each day each moment seems to pass more quickly than the last because each measure of time represents a diminishing fraction of the life that you have lived in the accumulated moments that preceded it.

I said none of this. Instead I murmured, “That’s some heavy shit.”

“I guess it is.” She was bored with me now, and went back to reading her own research.

The captain announced the start of our descent into Logan. I tried to read more of Moby Dick, but I was distracted. When the plane landed, I gathered my stuff and helped get my seatmate’s belonging’s down from the overhead bins. We walked up the jetway together. Her boyfriend came to pick her up, and I gave her a nonchalant wave good-bye when she gestured at him with her chin and he came forward to welcome her home with a hug.

I took the subway home thinking about the death killer on the plane.

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