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---   J E F F R E Y   M   B O C K M A N  

I. Phenotypes

Mason has been seduced by eye contact. He is on the verge of something, and as he stoops to peer into the always-pretty eyes of strangers, his lanky frame adopts the geometry of an inflection point. Each club night, in the dark of The Light, as he climbs the club's twist of stairs, he feels himself in an etching by Escher, and imagines bumping into his mirrored self twisting down. On the dance floor, the density of sound interferes with vision, distorting the light waves. The smoke narrows all eyes to sexual slits, swirling in erotic blue galaxies of strobe. The clubbers are visions—everyone has a chaotic halo, all phosphemes and lasers. He runs his hand through his cropped black hair and stares across the floor. The imminence he seeks lurks at the edges of this vaulted room, he is sure of it. His hazel eyes dart about, in search of an epiphany in irises of blue.

Sunday morning, in the light and out on the street, Mason still plays at eye contact, with the impunity of a spiritual quest. Yet, as he tells Tilly in the afternoon, spinning out waves of interference with elegant verbal arabesques, it is merely self-affirmation: harmless, safe and clean; no bodily fluids; no familial messes; no abortions; no anguish. Wordplay, she jousts, is verbal S&M, and she squirms, leaning down to bite his lips. While she straddles him, his eyes are focused on a distant point. She closes her green ones, and they flutter behind the lids. Sometimes she sees cloud chamber tracings of quantum filigree, sometimes fairy lights. She moans.

The next day in the lab Mason turns off the lights to watch fireflies buzzing across strands of DNA, the cool luminescence of the firefly's luciferase protein, usurped from mating signal to science tool: bands of light, and absences of light, strung in Morse code patterns of chromosomal meaning. But, with the strange perversity of discovery, Mason's tasks revolve around the decoding of helical encryptions of a more prosaic fly, the lowly and glowless fruit fly Drosophila. Behind the fame and squabbles of the very human genome project, he quietly and unobtrusively studies a fly gene involved in the maintenance of circadian rhythms.

He considers his job unglamorous, is even embarrassed by it at times. When asked in the course of small talk at parties of Tilly's chic friends, he tends toward esoteric allusions. And his eye contact breaks off as if a semi-opaque amphibian lid had closed. He is a simple functionary, indifferent to his talents, and the questioners seem to expect more from him—they pursue serious professions with serious earnings, and late twentysomethings adrift without ambition are suspect, along with the middling middle class, second tier professions, and mid-level anonymity.

He rebels against his nature and his nurture, even disregarding evolution's daily cycles—perhaps in league with his mutant flies, a circadian apostate. He sleeps only four hours a day, between 8 PM and midnight. REM flutters his limbs as well as his eyes. Tilly asks him about his dreams as she climbs into bed, just as he is getting up for clubbing, and he simply shrugs. The routine is physically taxing: home from the clubs three nights a week just long enough to shower and breakfast on Pop Tarts and tea, he goes to work at seven AM with circles under his eyes, working until two in the afternoon, skipping lunch. On the off-days he reads voraciously until dawn: antiquarian almanacs, half the Western Canon (most of the books, but only half of each text), old issues of Playboy, underground classics, art history, music zines. He then wakes Tilly, even on her days off, with espresso and synopses, a textual bulimic, disgorging between gulped caffeinated breaths. Peer behind his puffy lids, through the slits to his soul: inflamed capillaries scrawl across his eyes like cracked glass.

Now that Tilly has left the underworld of clubs where they first met, leaving Mason a solitary explorer, Tilly is more proprietary with Mason. She knows that he is monogamous now, not so much by consent or by decree but more by his own twisted relief in not having to adopt so conventional an unconventional persona. And so Tilly is reveling in their unique suburban dream in the East Village. She takes great pleasure in acquainting herself with the lost arts of architectural hairstyles and casseroles with Cornflakes on top. Her hair, magenta-streaked black when she met Mason, has returned to the mousy brown of childhood. Her many silver studs, piercings of ears and lips and nose, have been tossed into a drawer along with her paints and sketch pads full of gothic fashion, although she still sports some erotic silver hoops. Mason has left his earrings in but given up on shaving his legs—such are the reversals of reversals of gender as the millennium turns.

In the parlance of the time, they are working at being happy, nestled on their perch between edge and center. Mason admires Tilly, from the round of her green eyes and the tilt of her head in debate, the slice of her wit and the plane of her back. He echoes her off-kilter expressions to his co-workers. Her fellow drug sales reps are baffled by the occasional comments that slip past her internal censor. Before dropping out of graduate school she left a brief, cryptic note to her advisor in blue crayon: "Clinical psychology is like trying to finger-paint by the numbers." It is this rich vein of that which will not be suppressed that keenly arouses Mason. But pharmaceutical companies are not so quick to admire quirkiness, originality or aesthetics, all of which are viewed as antithetical to functionality.

In their mutual skill at, and disregard for, their respective jobs, Mason and Tilly are compatible and Generation Next: they are unconcernedly biding their time until the next move, awaiting a sign from the universe, some blip in dark energy. Both have argued with their parents over this nonchalance, over Mason's club addiction, and ultimately over their living together, unwed and issue-less, while their friends transmogrify from couples into ripe and fruit-bearing families. These discussions, decaying into dissension, strangely arouse Tilly: all the forgotten edicts of her parents' religion, the imperatives of female biology, even Mason's mother's witty put-downs. Dysfunction elicits lubrication, Tilly mockingly entitles the newspaper flash.

Mason, however, clenches his jaw, and would rather relieve his tension as in his youth, alone in the shower, where the visions of all those club-land eyes hover before him. These conflicts reverberate during long lunch hour walks, during which he is overwhelmed by subway and street and escalator orgies of a frantic, abstract adultery: locking eyes with high school girls in ballet tights; lanky tourist women with summer transparent skirts; working women with day-schedulers and cell phones; young mothers in sweats; au pairs with Italian strollers; overly thin divorced boomers with sallow skin; elegant tall elderly ladies in beige. His is a satyriasis unsated and unsullied by physicality—it is potential, not kinetic energy he seeks, the book on the uppermost shelf, just out of reach, not the book tumbling down with a loud thwack at his feet.

Tilly believes in words becoming reality, harnessing his kinetic energies: she writes him weekly, tiny love notes, and slips these into his socks, floats them on his coffee, hides them in her undies before bed. It is not clear to her if love and respect can be a form of contraception, but she would like her mother, who tells her to forget to take the pill, to watch as they engage in any number of non-procreative acts. In the laboratory, Mason is very conscious of procreation, and highly sensitive to the pain of the flies. Tilly does not share with her girlfriends his phobia, spawned from horror movies and the daily laboratory exposure to carcinogens and radiation—of unnaturally small infants with transparent wings and compound eyes.

At home, when Tilly, true to archetype, screams expletives at a bug stumbling along the kitchen floor in a nerve poison daze, he scoops the creature up into a cup and deposits it not in the industrial-flush toilet but outside on the window sill, where it can find a dignified death in the jaws of a predatory bird, or crawl into another apartment, or drop down on the head of a tourist from Idaho. Tilly feels her insides warm, both heart and loins, at the thought of Mason's contradictions—a scientist trying to act like St. Francis of Assisi, while in the lab raising (with unconscious hypocrisy) fly larva with mutagens that intercalate into the genes like a crowbar into the spokes of a moving bicycle. The mutant flies move with an errant woundedness, with warped wings and misplaced appendages, one of a thousand different deformities of body and/or behavior. He is partial to those that are stunted, child-flies with adult urges, or those with actions at the crossroads of deviant behavior and morphology, flying in circle-eights or backwards.

Mason's ill-bred flies are traded in for wild city versions during lunch at the thin strip of park running along the East River. Businessmen and housewives and students, runners and walkers and joggers, throng past him, wired into the thrumming of music or stock trades or dinner plans. He imagines the rare person upping their heart rate to an intoning of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. As he eats a sandwich Tilly has made (Mason has charge of dinners), his efforts at eye contact are challenging. He is repeatedly drawn away from the purity of those mirrors-to-the-soul and towards the blind wobblings of tits and ass. This has been happening more and more lately. He tries not to impart any emotional resonance to these yearnings—he posits them as biological imperatives, pheremonal truths to moths and humans alike.

Mason, disturbed by the shift of his eye contact, confides in Tilly, interrupting his reading of a Cheever story—the book perched on her naked butt, his fingers alternating between her warm holes and the pristine words on failed dreams. She does not respond with either tantrums or silent treatments. Tilly offers to go along with him on his walks, to share his lust, to ride the wave of his lust back home. As an experiment, they grade the various attributes of parading girlhood and womanhood, in Washington Square Park on a humid summer afternoon.

But such evolutions of behavior cannot be so readily foisted upon nature, even in the East Village. Tilly is driven to confess her own newfound misgivings among the aisles of St. Mark's Books, in front of the spines of Bataille. Eye contact is not seen as a form of flirting anymore—she now sees it is a form of pre-adultery, not as high a treason to her as a kiss, but just below the exchange of telephone numbers or email addresses. She has suddenly subscribed to the mirror-of-the-soul hypothesis. Yet the experiment in the park is some kind of success, and later she moans and squirms when Mason caresses her eyelashes with his tongue.

II. Cry, Period & Timeless

Only weeks later the asynchronous and lazy rhythm of their lives is altered by a simple package, the month's articles for peer review for the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Biology. Mason is at his bench, pipetting some DNA into a tube. It is DNA from a fly that becomes paralyzed at twilight, unresponsive to the smells of decaying meat or signals from the opposite sex. An assortment of insects crawl against the window beside his bench. Occasionally just past twilight a firefly will stray from Central Park, heading east towards some rendezvous, perhaps in Queens. Outside Mason can see 73rd Street, and one of the city's sanitation department depots. A garbage truck backs into the building for its scrub down as Mason turns to watch Dr. Reeves going through the day's mail. The lab head is a burly man entirely at odds with the stereotype of the weakling scientist, and his nickname in the lab, in honor of the two actors who played the character, is Superman. Since Mason happened to bring in the mail, he is aware when Reeves opens the package from JCMB.

Dr. Reeves begins flipping casually through the papers, nodding with certainty, knowing many of the labs and the scientists. Mason finishes his immediate task and starts walking to the sub-zero freezer, right beside where Professor Superman is standing. The Professor's face suddenly drains of color and his hands begin to tremble. Mason is unsure of whether this is anger or shock, although once he saw Reeves in frustration pick up a stout post-doc from the UK by the lapels of his lab coat and push him up against the wall, two feet off the ground. This time his response is not directed at anyone, and he merely flings the stack of papers from him as he storms out of the lab, the stack staying together in a masquerade of non-competitive harmony, toppling a two liter flask that crashes to the floor and shatters.

At home, Mason is tense, and for relief is having his scalp messaged by Tilly, just along what he calls his follicles of recession. She is perched atop the back of the sofa, while he sits between her legs. She wears an old, ribbed, grandpa undershirt because of the heat in their air-conditionless apartment, and her breasts tickle his neck. He is undressed, ready for his four hours of pre-clubbing sleep, but is worked up as he relates Superman's surprise at being scooped. The whole lab is disappointed. Tilly would prefer that he stay home this evening. The keloids along the rim of her ears, remnants of those many piercings, throb hotly, and like the sage rheumatic foreseeing bad weather, she believes this is an early warning system of some advancing psychic turmoil.

The source of Mason's unsettlement: an article on the isolation and sequencing of a gene called cry. Dr. Reeves hoped his lab would be the first to fish the gene—that had originally been described in plants and found to govern the opening and closing of flowers—out of a fly's chromosomes. Tilly, well-read outside of her necessary drug rep knowledge, remarks on a potential therapeutic role, and on the strange coincidence of names: the manipulation of the gene cry in humans might help treat SAD, Seasonal Affective Disorder. Mason, continually impressed by her insights, turns around to bite one of her nipples through the t-shirt. She squeezes him between her thighs, but he quickly transforms her avid, open-mouthed kisses into sweet little pecks, and excuses himself for bed.

The sound of his showering covers her sobbing. Something is not right, she thinks—he seems a facsimile of himself. MAD, she mutters—monthly affective disorder, and she opens her purse, foraging for ibuprofen. Happiness through pharmacology—the implicit slogan of big pharma. Her keloids continue to pulsate, like beacons.

In the shower, Mason has left the light off. He considers masturbating, to dampen the possibility that later in the club his eye contact will transform for the first time from philosophical flirtation into actual body contact. The disappointment of the day, the frustration of all their hard work, despite his lackadaisical attitude, has struck him harder than he would have expected. The gene cry, activated by blue wavelengths, the numinous twilight rays, regulates another set of genes, the lyrically named period and timeless, setting the circadian rhythm of the fly. The creature's internal destiny is mapped at the molecular level, leaving only the exigencies of nature to shape the direction of flight.

Mason's unease stems from the recognition of some internal miscoding, as if he were a flower trying to blossom at night. He can no longer deny the reality of his life: his job, his living with Tilly. He can no longer play the mental trick implicit in his manic quest for eye contact, the affair-in-an-instant. The cool water streams down onto the back of his neck, his head rests against the blue tiles—in the light from the street lamps, the tiles glow with pale luminosity. All the eyes, all those souls, all the days and nights he tries to fill with more than an infinity of instants—refusing the temporal strictures of the world, shooing away chronology and trying to snatch up, quicker than light, the ticks and tocks—in order to become timeless.

He doesn't hear Tilly banging on the bathroom door until he is shriveled and, even in the warm summer night, shivering.

III. Gene Mutations may be of the following class: viable, behavioral defective, lethal

The change from the pharmaceutical company's frigid offices in midtown to the stagnant air in their small East Village apartment grows less easy as August approaches, and Tilly often finds herself hyperventilating, gasping like a beached fish. Or maybe it's not a lack of oxygen, but a lack of shared fluids. Nevertheless, as salesperson of the month, she decides her bonus will definitely go for an air-conditioner, despite Mason's belief that the seasons should be experienced each to their fullest (no heat in winter, just blankets, and the bathroom window always open to let in the cold night air). To counter his resistance, she considers getting a new tattoo, just at the base of her spine. Tilly has heard that this mark signifies a penchant for anal sex. Perhaps something clever, rather than decorative. Something like Maison d'amour.

In the depths of an August heatwave, when Tilly returns late one Friday afternoon from a week's sales meeting in Canada, although she doesn't expect to find Mason home, she sings hello anyway, and her lilting voice absorbs into tens of thousands of words among the floor-to-ceiling bookcases that line the walls, and into the books and magazines that cover every available horizontal surface. She knows that Mason usually spends a few hours each afternoon ambling, sitting at a cafe reading or scribbling as he calls it, browsing the used book tables along West 4th or the towering shelves of the Strand, but his absence seems absenter this time. Her intuition buzzes in the humid room, like psychic heat lightening. On the flight back, her keloids burned like cysts. She downed two Motrins with a gin and tonic, while conversing with the retired professor of anthropology next to her, who asks her if the scars on her ears are a new form of scarification.

Tossing her baggage on the floor, she heads for a cold glass of water to wash down more analgesics, carrying a bag containing three good bottles of French white wine. She is not really surprised to find the enigmatic free verse note on the refrigerator, done with Magnetic Poetry: Time is/Out of/I am. Her dress is stained with sweat. A waterbug lies wriggling on its back on the checkered linoleum like a toppled chesspiece. Check, she says, then fuck. The bag of wine slides out of her hand to the floor, but the linoleum, perhaps the humidity, softens the fall to a dull, non-shattered thud.


"The gene is associated with defective optomotor responses and phototaxis," the database reads under the heading Phenotypic Info. Mason hunches over the computer in the university library, his hands anxiously and absently rubbing his forehead along his receding hairline. Several paper cups of vending machine coffee rest on the table, along with a notebook, some breath mints, several books by G. K. Chesterton, and the Handbook of Drosophila Genetics. The last two nights he has slept in this very chair, immersed in the streaming of data from the internet. It is a form of cold turkey: no clubbing, no roaming with the hunger in his eyes. In fact, he is wearing a pair of impenetrably dark sunglasses.


By the time she has called several of his friends and found no one at home, Tilly, rather than becoming panicky, becomes almost peaceful, becalmed in the eye of the storm. There will be resolution. Certainly not recriminations, for that would be pushing the illusion of her gender obligations too far. But a certain flare, in both senses, would be appropriate. She pads gently through the apartment, grabbing books from the shelves, through the small living room, down the narrow hallway, into the oddly shaped bedroom. She makes several such trips. Then she pulls back the sheets on his side of the bed, and begins to arrange the books into the shape of a body, choosing titles appropriate, literally or figuratively, to their location. Her hair is matted with sweat. There are lipstick kisses on some of the books. She discards her clothes and collapses alongside this very literal golem, exhausted, and dreams.


Information, as Mason comes to know, is a tenuous concept—especially on too little sleep and too much caffeine, and no solid food except bags of Fritos. After too long staring at the subliminal flickering of the computer monitor, his mind is a whirl of disparate notions. The light that he has been seeking in the eyes of others is subject to certain principles of uncertainty, he notes. This quantum fact is entirely irrelevant to human existence on the macro scale, but the metaphor has value. There is a buzzing in his head or in the monitor. Truth out of the misunderstanding of universal laws. Even the findings of biological investigations, crafted with exactitude, are vague, misleading and contradictory—not the focused path to eureka depicted in movies. He sips more cold coffee, rubs his eyes, luminous flies and numinous eyes flutter across his field of vision. The truth is often topsy-turvy, or the obvious solution always in plain eyesight. He absently waves away the invisible, but the buzzing remains unabated.

By analogy he hypothesizes that, like the databases of fly genetics he has been wading through, his own phenotypic information may be misleading. Truth is discursive, digressive, like a Dickens novel. He wanders mentally back to himself, and to Tilly, and all those eyes, a universe of fluttering eyes. And now the rhythm is in the eyes, the music of the spheres, the harmony of existence synchronized by eyes. And when the eyes are defective? Polcyclicity, ploy cycles, false signals, compromised viability. He is thinking these thoughts, so he must be viable, if crippled, flying in circles. The database states: "Courtship is abnormal in certain mutants." He leans back in the chair. Perhaps the fluorescent lights are on the fritz, humming in the audible range. His Socrates, his Spinoza, his bard: a mutant fly; in the altered vibration of its wings lies a Morse code of philosophical treatises and a codex of Shakespearean tracings.

Mason logs out. The coffee cups are empty. His temples throb, and caffeine triggered waves of nausea leave him clammy. He grabs his books. His heart palpitates as the sounds of an infestation of the infinitesimal begins to fill his ears from the inside out. He staggers and grabs at a bookshelf. One of the librarians looks up. He drops his books to the institutional gray carpet. The attempt to thwart nature's rhythms can be lethal, psychologically, perhaps even physically. More simply, foolish. Mason's consciousness flickers: artificial lights overhead, mumbling voices, eyes peering down, a cool wetness on his forehead.

IV. Complementation of Mutant Alleles

A graduate student from Mason's lab sees the commotion. With one of the desk clerks they apply a cold compress. The clerk calls 911, and the student the lab, where someone contacts Tilly at home. She is lying in their bed with the bookish doppleganger, drinking chamomile tea and waiting. When the phone rings, she is prepared. In fifteen minutes she is there, where she finds Mason is conscious, pale, probably anemic, but with good respiration. Tilly has a fight with EMS personnel, who arrive after she does—she only has to run ten blocks to NYU, but they have to drive ten blocks. Mason responds to Tilly's questions. The EMS personnel he is less certain of, convinced that they are insect people, and he replies to their questions warily. EMS is ready to bind him to a stretcher. Tilly asks for a moment alone with Mason. She whispers to him about her new tattoo, and he rouses himself sufficiently to convince EMS that he is just exhausted. They are packing and one of them asks Tilly if she is in medical school. She cringes when she finds herself answering that she is just a pharmaceutical sales rep.

In their air-conditioned apartment, Mason relaxes in bed, sipping his favorite smoky tea. He pulls another book out from under the bedsheet. It is Goethe's treatise on light, darkness and color: Towards a Theory of Light. Books keep surfacing like this for several days, and a pile of them is accumulating on the nightstand—a mix of his books and hers. He questions Tilly on this textual eruption, but she shrugs and gives him an enigmatic smile. Make good use of your time, she tells him, winking.

The university has put Mason on indefinite leave. It may be for his physical health, but late at night before his collapse, he ventured into the lab and opened several boxes of his circadian mutants. In the morning light they had scattered haphazardly, blindly, defectively. Some landed entrapped in glassware pitcher plants, others drowned buzzing in mugs of stale coffee, while still others crawled awkwardly along shelves between bottles of the very chemicals that deformed them. Most will die; some will be viable and will mate with the wingbeats of regular sine waves, but will bear no offspring; and a few hardy variants will succeed in propagating, perhaps founding a lineage with a new way of seeing, a new way of responding to the light.

© crossconnect 1995-2001 |
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |