What is love? Is it real, a bond between two people, strung together with memories of hand-holding in a movie theatre, candle-lit dinners and short, furious bouts of intercourse? Is it just a particular pattern of synapses firing off in the right order thanks to just the right mix of biochemistry? Who really knows – and outside of my colleagues in this particular lime-green laboratory in Washington, D.C., who would ask this question without profound embarrassment?
Chemistry seemed to be the key for me. It even connected idiomatically, in the current of everyday language. “They’ve got good chemistry. There’s just no chemistry here. Did you see the fireworks between those two? (Fireworks generating a simple yet powerful chemical reaction). That fit. We just have to find the right molecules, put them together and bam, you’ve got Love Potion number 9 and it’s going to outsell every celebrity-endorsed perfume or cologne on the market today. Forget about lightning in a bottle. If you can bottle love, that’s a trillion-dollar industry right there.
We were right in the middle of it, working for a mere billion-dollar company on a fragrance that would actually work. Put these pheromones within ten feet of your sniffer and you wouldn’t just turn that shy intern head over heels for you so you could end up head-over-heels or whatever position the kids are working on these days; you would feel that authentic, spontaneous, overwhelming attraction at the same time. It wasn’t an olfactory pharmaceutical to compete with Rohypnol for scummy drink spikers – this was going to turn people on for and towards each other, to turn a momentary encounter into a potential mate-for-life-and-until-death-do-you-part moment. Want to find love? Spray yourself, walk around and inspire that higher plane of consciousness that today’s hook-up culture seemed to be extirpating through the commoditization of encounters between the sheets.
We couldn’t get it to work, of course. Five years on and our big expensive scent was about as useful as every other product out there – which is to say, it wasn’t. There was just nothing to it, yet.
So last week, as the guys in suits are asking when my team is going to show results, I’m sweating it. It’s a bad fucking day. They’ve got me dead to rights. Five years, a boatload of money and nothing to show. The chemistry wasn’t coming together. All I can do is ask for more money. More time.
And of course, they went for it. Don’t know what it is, maybe the lab coat. Venture capitalists and CEOs just go into Beta-male mode as soon as a guy with facial hair starts talking esters and compounds.
That night, I argue with the missus. What a fucking gong show. Of course, it didn’t need to go that way. I get home to Lindsay and she’s sparkling as always in her bright Manolo shoes and that yellow summer dress that showed off her figure. Damn, what a score. Organic chemistry nerd with a hipster beard ends up with the prize belle of the ball. Amazing rack, smart as a whip and she moves real estate like nobody’s business. We’re past the Netflix and chill phase and headed straight to more domestic territory. Moved in to my place six months ago, now looking to seal the deal down at the Carnegie Chapel on Hill Street with our nearest, dearest family members we never talk to except on the holidays. At least, until I get all uppity with my big dumb idea.
It was all good. Or I thought it was. And I wrecked it. But I’m putting the proof before the hypothesis.
It’s all Fred’s fault.
The jerk dresses like a stockbroker – OK, it’s not pinstripes on Wall Street, but he outclasses me any day of the week. I can’t even remember the last time I wore a tie. He goes to the lab in one every day. No beard, either. Vegetarian, prude weirdo who’s had the same cowlick haircut since grade school. We’ve been friends since then. Kept in touch all these years and now he works literally in the other side of the building, for some lab that outsources projects from the Center for Disease Control – stuff that’s weird, but not dangerous enough to have to keep behind two-foot thick blast doors.
So he tells me what he’s been working on for the millionth time as I’m downing a pint and well past caring, because I know it already, but today’s he’s got something new. “It worked. It’s fucking creepy, but it actually worked,” he says. “I kind of wish there wasn’t a correlation because I don’t know how I feel about it.”
I shrug. What is he on about? I thought his project was never going to end.
“It’s done,” he went on. “Proven, six different ways. Toxoplasma gondii does exactly what Niles said it would do. Those little invisible bastards are controlling it all.”
T. gondii. The microbes that live in cat shit – and were allegedly the cause of every crazy cat lady who ever lived. Those tiny beasties were behind a 5,000 percent rise in schizophrenia in the USA, since the 1950s, when beat generation pre-hippies started pretending like they lived in Paris and all got housecats. Mental illness, car accidents, industrial accidents – they were all getting traced back to the same itty-bitty worms that had invaded half the brains in the country. And now, Fred’s work said that was just the tip of the iceberg. Just like how T. gondii made rodents fearless (and thus helpless) against the cats that ate them, it was messing with people’s heads in very strange, eerily consistent ways.
The bugs trigger an anxiety reflex. You’d think it would affect everyone the same way, but quite the opposite – with keen differences along gender lines. Guys that are infected get stand-offish, skeptical, and generally unfazed by anything approaching an established rule. “Fuck that red light” or “I’ll be fine with one more for the road, was the last infected thought of many a stray dude contaminated by the parasitic offspring of stray cats.
Women go the opposite way: they don’t try to stand out. Some become open-minded to the point of their brains just about falling out. They’ll attain a highly-suggestive frame of mind that makes them suckers for everything from advertising to really bad pickup lines in bars – especially if the reckless jackass with the bad line carries that same bug. Who the hell knows why. Microbes want company, too.
So Fred is telling me all this and seems real nervous, going on about the ramifications for humanity of these microscopic animals fucking up human behavior on a global scale – and to what purpose? It’s like he senses these disgusting zombie microbes spell doomsday.
But the invisible worms don’t control people. They just… do what they do. They’re operating on something even more primitive than survival instinct. Just behaviors determined by a half dozen gene sequences, without even a nervous system to provide a feedback loop that can do any real damage, if that was hooked up to some kind of functioning cerebellum.
I tell him he’s off and needs to slow down his pacing with the beer. This isn’t what ends us.
But it’s not good, either.
How do you know if what you feel is real?
I think maybe I’m in love with Lindsay, particularly with a growler of 6 percent in my belly. But maybe I’m riddled with tiny little invisible bugs. And she’s only with me because she’s the same way.
I try to put the thought out of my head with another pint and then another, but it won’t go away.
T. gondii are just the microbes we know about. What other beyond-tiny little terrors are colonizing our tissues and chowing down on our neuron fibres? How much of our thinking is affected? Five percent? Fifty?
So Lindsay knew something was off when I get home. “Just lay off,” I tell her – and of course, she does. Because she’s probably got the bugs in her brain. That would be just like them – stoke up the docility to eleven. As if to punctuate my thought, I hear her say (through a kind of watery haze in my head), “I can see you’re in a mood. I don’t want to fight.”
So she keeps her distance, but it’s really me staying away, sitting down just a bit further away on the couch, then moving off it entirely into the chair at the edge of the kitchen, keeping my space, withdrawing, because of course, T. gondii is telling me to do it.
The thought is stuck in my head and I know this is going to be the way it is from now on, all night. All year. All our lives. I only think my thoughts are my own. She only feels like her moods come from inside the squishy bits in her chest, but it’s really the things she can’t see, crawling around on the edge of her grey matter and sinking tiny quiver-like appendages into her heart and lungs.
This mood will pass and probably, this thought, too. I hope not, but I think T. gondii will make me forget by the morning (even if I tell myself that would be the natural effect of drinking just one too many down at the bar with Fred.
And the thought does pass. The mood, too. By morning, all is good. And Lindsay puts on her fancy new dress and brushes her hair one hundred times and she’s going to have an amazing day showing people the homes of their dreams. I’m off to the laboratory to work on the things I know in that little room, where we strive to create a bottle of love. Maybe it will work. Someday.
In the meantime, something is tickling the spider-web like strings that run down the center of my spinal column, buffered inside watery cerebrospinal fluid.
We are masters of our own destiny. And it is good to love someone.
Who could argue with that?