"So you don't love her now?" The doctor was a gray-haired woman with a tongue piercing and a faded bluebird tattoo on one exposed forearm. She wore a white coat over a lacy halter top and hotpants. She kept looking down Benjamin's throat with a penlight as if his malaise could be pharyngeal.
"I do, I do," Benjamin said when he could talk. "I love her so much. I just want to be in love with her again. I want that grand passion. I don't want it with a new person, I want it with her." He perched on the exam table, the paper gown and fluorescent light making his pale skin look jaundiced. He had sandy hair threaded with gray. And huge, perfectly round ears.
Benjamin spent his days trying to come up with a formula for artificial Sangria that tasted more like real fruit, as far as anyone remembered how fruit tasted. He could not remember a time when he hadn't been on the brink of losing his job.
Dr. Minter kept beaming her light into the red recesses of Benjamin's throat, like a spelunker searching for a fallen comrade.
"You know," she said, "wanting to make yourself love someone so you can feel good is a kind of codependency. You have to have a reason for loving someone besides just wanting to be in love."
"Aaa ooo," Benjamin protested. "Aaa uhhhh aaaa iiiiiii." As he gaped, he thought about Lori, and random images came into his head: her disintegrating pleather shoes, her skin-care products, a pile of her limbs as she curled on a chair.
Benjamin had started staying up late every night to play one of those reward games on the Bigsphere—the one where you put the cartoon rabbit into the cannon and fire it into space. He would sit in his cubby at work, deep underground with the scent of black mold coming off the walls, and grip a squirming bunny with both hands, over and over. Benjamin got so that he felt a chime of serotonin inside his brainstem when he managed to land the rabbit on the floating carrot patch.
One time recently, when Benjamin crawled into bed with the sleeping Lori late at night, she turned over and slapped her forearm into his face, so hard he had a fat lip the next day. "Sorry, hon, didn't see you," she said without waking up.
The doctor looked deeper until she was illuminating deep inside Benjamin's esophagus, way down into the core of him. His mouth smelled of cloves. She was going to have lunch after this.
"Back when I started practicing," she said, "we'd have given you anti-depressants. They wouldn't make you happy, just put you on a level. But we don't do that any more. I think I can help you find what you're looking for." She scribbled a name and phone number on her Bigsphere and beamed it to Benjamin's. "Tell them I referred you."
"Thank you thank you!" Benjamin bopped his head up and down on his way out of Dr. Minter's one and only exam room, which was built with a slanted metal platform so she could stand over her patients and look down on them.
After Benjamin left, Dr. Minter didn't go to lunch after all. Instead, she went to visit her best friend and sometime lover, who was a pornstar with a production studio in the highrise next to the medical building where Dr. Minter practiced. The two women had met at the convenience store next to their two workplaces, where Dr. Minter bought beercakes at least once a day. Beercakes didn't have any beer or any cake in them, and they didn't taste like either beer or cake. Instead, they had a sort of nutty, vinegary, syrupy crunch. The first time she tried one, Virginia Minter thought it tasted like ass, but now she had to have at least one a day. The pornstar, Patricia Vicious, had been in the convenience store buying painkillers, but nowadays Dr. Minter helped her get better drugs.
Virginia Minter sucked on a beercake as she walked over to the porn studio, and the enjoyment of the beercake was indistinguishable from the anticipation of seeing Patricia. Virginia had a whole ritual for eating a beercake. First you suck on one tip, to get the juices out. They start sweet and then turn bitter as they travel back over your tongue, leaving you with a battery-acid aftertaste. You absolutely do not suck on both ends of the beercake, or what's left won't be worth eating. Just one end. Then you run your tongue along the crispy underside, and nibble tiny flakes off the sides. Once you've chewed and licked off enough of the surface, the beercake will fit in your mouth and you can experience the sweetness, the pungency, and the aftertaste all at the same time. If you eat a beercake properly, it can last up to fifteen minutes. Virginia imagined lecturing people about the proper technique, but had never actually talked to anybody about it.
The beercake was down to a nub by the time Virginia got to Red Elvis Productions, where the receptionist/aerialist knew Virginia by sight and waved her through with a single dangling toe from her silken perch.
Patricia Vicious was icing her forehead but she stopped to wave at Virginia. "It is so good to see you, you wouldn't believe," Patricia said. "It has been one of those days. I swear to god Rodney Trash has a cranium of granite." Patricia's eyes had glittery peacock-feather swirls around them. Her lips were bright red against her white skin, she bruised easily and flushed even easier. Patricia was naked and her perfect body glowed under the ultrapink light.
Everything smelled of sweat and lube and lavender body wash. Virginia found the porn studio comforting in exactly the way her own medical office was not.
"I brought you some stuff for your head, sweetie." Virginia Minter handed Patricia a cloth box of double-strength painkillers. "You should take a break for a while, or just try a different routine."
Patricia Vicious was already squirting one of the lime-green bottles into her mouth. "I wish," she said with her mouth still half full. "It's the curse of popularity. Everybody loves what I do, including me. It just, uh, it hurts. My head. I feel like I'm going to get double Parkinson's."
Patricia was the first porn performer to head-butt her co-stars. Not once, but over and over, during intercourse. Her "concussion-gasms" were legendary. There were concussion-gasm shirts and tote bags and Bigsphere themes. Other porn performers were violent, but the head-butt was Patricia's thing.
"If you had a choice," Virginia said. "Between having to fall helplessly in love with someone who was gross and ugly, someone you thought was a total loser, versus never falling in love with anyone ever, which would you choose?"
"You know, I fall in love with every man I head-butt," Patricia said. "It's totally intimate, we see the same stars. And then they're gone, and I have halos in my eyes and my head feels toxic and I have trouble thinking of, you know, words. Love hurts, man." She laughed and then took another gulp from the green bottle, which was already easier to squeeze than when she'd picked it up.
Virginia wished she and Patricia Vicious could go get the treatment together, the one she'd sent Benjamin Furst for. They could be locked in love, and take care of each other. The session with Benjamin Furst had made Virginia think about this, and she'd had in the back of her mind the idea of walking over to Patricia's studio and suggesting this. But now that she was here, she realized it was a dumb idea. Things were perfect now, why mess everything up?
Patricia Vicious actually did love someone that she hadn't told Virginia or anybody else about: her pet gerbil, Lysander. She'd had Lysander for three years. He had a single bald patch on his back, amidst his cloud of brown fur, and this one imperfection only made him perfect. His nose was pink and wet, and the quivering of his whiskers syncopated endlessly.
Lysander smelled the way Patricia imagined fresh-cut oats would. He lived in a terrarium and slept on a bed of old porn magazines that he'd shredded with his teeth. Nobody printed porn on paper any more, but Patricia had a huge stash from an ex-boyfriend who'd been a collector, and Lysander's nest was colorful and splintered, like a stained-glass window. You could just make out an eye, a mouth, a body part.
Sometimes Patricia let Lysander out of his glass box so he could run around her apartment. There was no place for him to escape—the whole place was a bunk atop a dresser, facing a shower and fridge/cooker along the other wall. Eight by eight by eight. Cozy.
How long do gerbils live anyway? Patricia knew Lysander would die soon, but she tried not to think about it. When she did imagine the world without Lysander, it was like she would be traveling to another universe, one where time went slower and gravity pulled harder. On this other Earth, everything would be way more difficult, almost impossible, but people would expect Patricia to behave the same, and do her job and stuff.
She'd already started hoarding Virginia's painkillers for the day Lysander went, just in case. When she thought about this, she cuddled him and let his whiskers graze her face with unbearable gentleness. Sometimes he pooped in her hand.
Patricia had met Lysander when she answered an advertisement on the Mag train. She'd been slouching in her seat, letting the carriage rock her into a stupor on her way to an audition, when she'd seen the flashing message over the window, seeking people who had no affinity for nature and wanted to make $1,000. And then there was boilerplate about a university study seeking experimental subjects. With a thousand bucks, Patricia could take a week or two off from performing.
An hour after her audition ended, Patricia was in a gray cubby on the tenth floor of a 1950s tower block, on a folding chair opposite Dr. Wallace.
"How do you feel about animals?" Dr. Wallace had kept asking Patricia that question different ways. His beard was down to his navel, but he still bothered to wear a crimson tie. He was bald except for a miniature ponytail on the back of his head. Patricia had told the truth, that she didn't really care about animals one way or the other, they were okay as long as they didn't bite her, and Dr. Wallace had smiled, a dark sailboat between waves of facial hair.
"Because I believe in full disclosure, I must tell you what will happen if this drug trial succeeds." Dr. Wallace had handed Patricia Vicious a live gerbil and a pearl, and indicated that she should swallow the latter. "We aim to turn you into an animal-lover. There is some mechanism in the brain that kicks in when you see a fellow human in distress, and we want to see if we can make it work with other mammals. This may be the only way to prevent a total ecological collapse: if people loved all living creatures the same as each other. Or the same as their own pets. We could at last have a peaceable kingdom."
The pearl had gotten stuck in Patricia's throat just when she'd wanted to ask when she would get her thousand bucks. The gerbil's legs had kicked and scratched, making a break for it, at the exact moment the pearl had kicked in and she'd seen true beauty for the first time in her life.
The drug trial had failed, of course—Patricia Vicious loved only Lysander, not all animals everywhere. You could force-feed a live rodent to a snake right in front of her, and she'd yawn, as long as it wasn't Lysander. No other gerbil smelled the same, or kissed her nose the same, as her baby.
Dr. Wallace was writing a book about his failure, a million words long already. Think about it: dogs, cats, and babies are disgusting, smelly, vomitous creatures. But people are brainwashed to love them. People who would never touch a scabby rat will cuddle with a dog for hours. If you invented a ray gun that would make cat lovers see the true ugly horridness of their pets, they would pay you any money not to use it on them. But what if you could do the reverse? It should have worked.
Now, Benjamin and Lori Furst were sitting in that same room in the 1950s office building, clutching their referral from Dr. Minter.
The Fursts hugged themselves on separate folding chairs, shivering with sleep-deprivation. Over their heads, a giant screen flashed messages like: "MEN ARE GENETICALLY HARDWIRED TO FALL OUT OF LOVE" and "WHEN YOU CEASE LOVING YOUR SOULMATE, YOU DO VIOLENCE TO YOUR OWN SOUL." Lori Furst checked the time again. She was going to be late for work.
Dr. Wallace came in and half-sat on the counter, because he only had two chairs. He wouldn't look either of the Fursts in the eye. His beard had forked. Occasionally he jotted ideas for his book, which he pretended were notes about their case.
"Because I believe in full disclosure, I have to tell you that you don't need this treatment. Either of you," he told Benjamin and Lori Furst. "You already love each other. Or you wouldn't be here. All it takes to rekindle your love is an exertion of will. That's really all love is, after the infatuation wanes. Will, and focused attention. You can retrain yourselves."
"We don't want that," Benjamin said. "We want it to be like new. We don't want it to be an effort."
"Yeah." Lori Furst sounded less sure than her husband, whom she wouldn't look at. She couldn't grasp the vital difference between "I need a medical intervention to keep loving you" and "I don't love you any more," and this frozen room and this endlessly bearded man were freaking her out.
"Are you sure? Because there are risks. Many subjects experience catastrophic liver failure."
The Fursts finally looked at each other for a moment, then turned and nodded at Dr. Wallace. He clapped his hands together, with obviously fake jollity, and sent a few hundred pages of waivers to their Bigspheres for them to sign and GOterize.
Dr. Wallace jerked his head at the screen above them, which was blaring: "WHEN IT COMES TO LOVE, THE VICTORS ARE TOO BUSY LOVING TO WRITE HISTORY."
"I'm sorry about that claptrap," he said. "I have sponsors. I racked up a lot of debt. You know how it goes."
Once the Fursts had signed the waivers, things went fast, before anybody could have second thoughts. Dr. Wallace told them to hold hands and look at each other, get as close to each other as possible, knee to knee, maybe even rub noses. Fill your senses with the other person. Both of them had muscle cramps from holding still in this unnatural position.
Then Dr. Wallace slid his palm into the tiny crevice between their chins, and on it were two pearls. "If my trials had worked, I would have put these in the water supply," Dr. Wallace said aloud, as if that would make sense to anyone in the room.
Benjamin and Lori were close enough to hear each other's mouths and throats laboring to choke down the white spheres without a sip of water. They gagged in unison, and even dry-heaved a little, and it seemed like their airways would be blocked before the pearls settled at the base of their throats. It felt like a lump in your throat, like when you're too choked up to speak.
Benjamin kept thinking this was it, the love was overtaking him now, but it kept being a false alarm. Maybe now? No, still nothing. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the words: "A BROKEN HEART IS THE WORLD'S LEADING CAUSE OF DEATH." The muscle cramps were getting too much, Benjamin started to pull away from his wife and ask if the doctor had given them placebos. And then it kicked in.
Lori had her eyes closed, and her eyelids had a million crinkles in them, and they were perfect and delicate embroidery. And her nose was a big exclamation point rather than an inverted question mark; Benjamin had never realized how wonderfully emphatic his wife's nose was before. Her shallow breathing, her messy brown hair, every detail was precious. The six inches separating the Fursts became a chasm.
They were kissing and babbling and crying, all at the same time, while Dr. Wallace scribbled in the corner. There was too much light and not enough air, their skins had insufficient surface area to touch each other in all the ways they needed to be touching. Benjamin's hands clutched at his wife's back, her hands were on his ears, and neither of them could make sense of the words they were saying into each other's lips, but the sense didn't matter anyway. Benjamin had a flash of seeing his entire life, from puberty until now, as if it were a single moment, a dot on the geological timeline, and it all made sense, every decision he'd ever made was a wise one, almost Buddha-level. He had nothing to regret and everything to lose and his was the passion/joy forever and ever. Their skins flushed with the discovery that horniness and gratitude were the same emotion, so that they would never stop glowing, and neither of them could say whether the stabbing pain at their cores came from their hearts or their livers, and neither of them cared, now that they both had their eyes open and dilated many times bigger than their retinas, wide enough to see that the fluorescent ceiling light was made up of the same photons as the creation of the universe, which was still happening right now.
"This is all just a coda," Dr. Wallace wrote without looking at the two people stumbling into each other below him. "My life was over long ago."