image: Maureen Gallace, July 24th, oil on panel, 22.9 x 30.5 cm
This short story was originally commissioned for Weak Signals, a Rhizome Reader, which culminated our research season Info-wars.
When my husband returned to work after our honeymoon, and I was left alone to confront “the rest of my life,” I had an identity crisis, the most fundamental and therefore humiliating crisis a person can endure. Though I’d always spent most of my time at home, through marriage I had become a “housewife,” a phrase I wanted no association with due in large part to its linguistic inelegance. I sent my résumé to the private middle school near our Upper West Side apartment, where, though I’m a sculptor, I got a job substitute teaching seventh grade science.
In an experiment I oversaw, the students poured a steady stream of salt into water and watched as the crystals dissolved. Suddenly, when the water was tasked with holding more salt than it could contain, the mixture entered the “precipitation zone,” and the salt sprung from the water as if from nowhere, falling to the bottom of the beaker in the dissolution of the mixture.
I quit teaching after two weeks, when the shock of being married wore off and I remembered the bust of Emperor Diocletian I was modeling from beeswax in the living room, but I still thought about the “precipitation zone” whenever I was suddenly unable to overlook injustices once seamlessly absorbed.
For decades, a quarter of East Hampton’s residents contracted tick-borne Lyme disease. People who contracted the disease liked to talk about it, probably to establish they’d owned property there too long to escape statistics. I’d never been bitten by a tick because I’m always tucking my socks into my pants, which I tell the other women in my exercise class to do, but they never listen. I concede that it’s hard to tuck socks into miniskirts.
That summer, the East Hampton tick situation had entered the “precipitation zone.” Over half of the summer population had been infected with Lyme disease. Worry about the northern migration of the disease-carrying lone star tick, a pest that conferred a severe allergy to meat with its bite, escalated the situation—especially as these were some of the last who could afford meat that wasn’t lab-grown.
The town clerk called a homeowners’ meeting in the post office basement. I liked the meetings, as I’m not one to waste an opportunity to see glassy-skinned women in a poorly lit room forced to defer to a middle-aged civil servant.
The clerk said there was an easy way to deal with the bugs—winnow some of deer overpopulation that the ticks fed on—but the assembled residents of East Hampton took issue with killing the elegant creatures.
“They’re the real Hamptons locals,” said a woman in a pink Calypso tunic.
The other attendees nodded. I watched one blonde woman from exercise class smile what was either a botulinum-impaired grin or what our instructor taught us was the half-smile of the Buddha, a facial expression that, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, cultivated inner joy and visceral awareness. There was chatter from the pews as people told each other stories of deer on their property.
“It’s worth having to clean their shit off the tennis court to see a bit of genuine nature,” I heard someone say.
A young woman toward the back of the room raised her hand. Her hair was dyed icy blonde in streaks and cropped in an unfashionable flapper style.
“Yes,” said the clerk, pointing at the woman’s hand. “Ms—erhm, sorry I don’t know your name.”
“It’s alright,” she said, standing up, revealing her pregnant belly. “We just moved here from Nantucket. We had a similar problem with ticks but we solved it last year.”
I recognized this woman and her frosted lipstick; she was the former Miss Massachusetts and also, allegedly, a non-practicing neurosurgeon. She and her husband had moved into a beautiful white farmhouse near the beach and built a large corrugated steel addition. The husband was a biologist at MIT, and in the structure, he conducted gene therapy research, supposedly the key to curing cancer. Cancer or not, the steel monstrosity ruined the look of the street I biked along on my way to the farm stand that didn’t spray their nectarines with pesticides. I now had to take a longer route past the horse stables to not feel totally hopeless.
“No new cases of Lyme disease,” Ms. Massachusetts said, “and we didn’t need to kill any deer.”
A month after the first meeting, we were reassembled and subjected to two visits from men in terrible shoes who called themselves “ecological engineers.” Mice, the men said, were the ones infecting ticks with Lyme disease. Ticks picked it up from biting the Lyme-infested mice, allowing the ticks to infect the deer and the hedge fund managers.
New mice were engineered by a lab at MIT using a kind of genetic software that sounded like the name of a corporate salad chain. It was called CRISPR, and it let the engineers immunize the white-footed mice responsible for infecting bugs by editing their genes to introduce Lyme-resistant antibodies.
“So,” a woman with shiny black hair and two Cartier Love bracelets asked at the meeting. “This is, like, a surgical procedure?”
“Not exactly,” said the least offensive-looking of the scientists. “Noninvasive. It’s an enzyme we administer.”
“Ohhhh,” she said, nodding. “We’re familiar with injectables around here.”
She giggled with the thick-lipped woman beside her.
The engineers explained this would give the mice something called a “gene drive” ensuring the mouse progeny would also be mutated for Lyme immunity.
I glanced at Miss Massachusetts’s pregnant belly and wondered if the technology would someday be available to humans. Maybe she could give the child natural highlights.
The homeowners of East Hampton voted, nearly unanimously, to release 10,000 genetically altered mice into the dunes. I’d have voted no just because the engineers wore jackets made from recycled plastics that flouted every aesthetic principle known to man, but, even as I’d lived in East Hampton for six years, my house was a rental so I was ineligible to formally express my dissent.
“Your idealized space is a sterile cube,” my husband said when I expressed disgust at the idea of releasing a fleet of mutant rodents. “Some of us live on planet Earth.”
I was afraid he didn’t know me at all anymore. My idealized space was a sycamore-lined colonnade chockablock with daisies.
The summer after they’d released the specimens, no new cases of Lymes disease were recorded in East Hampton. The New York Times ran a piece in the Sunday Styles section headlined “Blue Blooded Mice,” which featured a tour of Miss Massachusetts’s home. There was a photo of her holding her suspiciously blonde baby in her husband’s “home lab.” The gene editing technique had apparently utilized some of his findings, so he and his grad students were contracted to edit the mice, the program housed in his corrugated steel monstrosity. The article announced that the town councils of Amagansett and Bridgehampton, following the program’s success, voted to release altered mice.
Generally, a glowing article about one of my neighbors would infuriate me, but, even as I refused to bicycle past her house, Miss Massachusetts and I had become sort of friends. One afternoon, as I walked on the beach picking up candy wrappers and other jetsam, she scurried after me and introduced herself. I was worried she was going to try to talk to me about the mice, or, even worse, her alleged neuroscience work, but we walked together in silence, hunting for plastic bits, breathing in the sea air.
Miss Massachusetts began attending the exercise class. She impressed me with her ability to vigorously plié without breaking a sweat. In fact, she always smelled like fresh-cut roses. I admired her excellent grooming, and it almost made me reconsider my opinion of her bad highlights. Occasionally, we’d sit together at the vegetarian diner, always at the bar. Her disgusting culinary preferences prohibited me from eating face-to-face.
“I eat for nutrients, not for flavor,” she once said, slathering an egg white omelette with almond butter.
I appreciated our unspoken agreement not to escalate our friendship with obligations: there were no book club invitations, personal questions, or dinners with husbands. I was especially thankful that she never asked me to watch her baby. I once watched him suck on a lemon wedge without grimacing or even reacting, which led me to believe he was full of something wicked.
In the second year of the mouse program, while picking some wild blackberries from a thicket near the beach, I was bitten by a tick. My sock must have snagged on one of the thorns, pulling it from its place inside my pants and leaving my ankle exposed. The tick had attached itself to the skin behind my knee, where it stayed until my husband noticed it the next evening. He bungled the removal, stabbing at it with my eyebrow tweezers, ripping the bug’s legs off one by one, before removing the thing engorged with my blood. I anesthetized the area with rubbing alcohol and waited enthusiastically for the telltale target-shaped mark of Lyme.
When after a few days it didn’t appear, skeptical of the gene program’s efficacy and loath to squander any opportunity to visit a qualified medical professional, I went to the doctor and demanded a blood test. I discovered that though I hadn’t contracted Lyme disease, my husband had managed to get me pregnant.
“Had you been trying long?” the doctor asked.
“As opposed to what?” I said. “Slacking off?”
I knew he meant trying for a baby, the way some married couples say they are, but I found that phrase a way to alert strangers you were sexually active with your spouse that was mystifyingly socially acceptable. I told the doctor that we weren’t “trying,” but we weren’t “not trying,” either.
I spent the winter of my pregnancy in the Hamptons. I’d become highly sensitive to noxious fumes, and the city gave me debilitating nausea. I otherwise enjoyed most of pregnancy. It complemented my personality so thoroughly, it seemed I may have been born to carry a child. The cashier at the grocery store who once cast a judgmental eye at my cart full of strange dietary supplements congratulated me on being a conscientious mother. No one forced alcohol on me, I was excused from parties, and my obsessive reapplication of sunscreen was encouraged. I usually wore loose, modest clothing, but as my stomach grew, I began to favor skintight tops that showed off my new topographical feature. There was even a special class for the expecting at the exercise studio that purported to strengthen the muscles I needed to push out the child.
The East Hampton population thinned in the colder months, and my husband stayed only for the weekends, returning to work in the city on Mondays. I preferred solitude but, while pregnant, had developed a fear of being alone as the sun set. Even if I’d made progress on one of my organic beeswax figures of history’s greatest gardeners, the sunset made me feel I’d wasted yet another day on earth with nothing to show for it. I was sure there was something primal and instinctive about fearing sunsets; only during twilight hours did I have a suspicion I should be near other people. Once it was dark, I was alright. It was the transition I couldn’t bear.
One day in my second trimester, I was overcome with the familiar feeling of dread as the sun crept lower in the sky and the light took on the evening’s foreboding, slanty character. I hated to see the modern furniture in my house bathed in golden diagonal light. I put on my toggle coat and sneakers and went for a walk down the street to see if any of my neighbors’ lights were on. We could make idle chitchat, and once dark, I could invent a pregnancy-related excuse to leave.
I walked aimlessly past the vacant Cape Cod cottages listening to Sant-Saëns Le carnaval des animaux. By the start of the ninth movement, “The Cuckoo in the Depth of the Woods,” my legs had carried me to a street where, among the row of farmhouses, I saw the corrugated steel addition of Ms. Massachusetts’s house. Bathed in the harsh winter sunlight, the lab looked sort of like a Carl Andre, which made me miss my husband. Sometimes during an argument I’d lean against the window and deadpan, “Do you want to get it over with? Ana Mendieta style?” He hated it.
I could tell no one was home: the lights were off. But the lab was windowless. I crept toward the lab to knock and see if anyone was inside. When I neared the steel door, I was overcome by the smell of roses, as if I’d encountered a wall of freshly cut flowers; there was a light sweetness tempered by wet, mossy depth. The odor emanated intensely from nowhere, a pleasant assault, and I walked around the addition, searching vainly for the smell’s source.
When it was finally dark, I walked home accompanied by the suite’s penultimate movement, “The Swan.” The rose scent paired with the cello made me feel mushy and swoony, and I swayed a bit, cradling my belly in my hands. At home, I was struck by how odorless everything seemed and made a note to buy the tuberose candle from the boutique next to exercise class.
I went to every lactation specialist in Manhattan. I also saw an old Swedish woman who massaged my nipples and said the milk would come on its own; a redhead who played a resonating bowl at a frequency said, by her, to induce lactation; and Chinatown acupuncturist. I also met briefly with a man who wore an orange and green striped tie that was so unnerving I left before I could discover his method.
The child, despite my every effort, would hardly eat. Occasionally, she accepted the bottle—not because she was hungry, but because she’d learned that once she sucked down the liquid, the irritating intrusion would be gone.
I imagined her disinterest in eating was a sign of gentility, but when she was six months old and still hardly growing, I worried there was something more structural to her self-abnegation than precociously disordered eating.
On my third trip to the Sag Harbor pediatrician, he agreed to check the baby for irregularities. After inconclusive scans and blood tests, the doctor said he had a wild idea and returned with a takeout box from the mediocre sushi place. He took out a piece of tuna sashimi and held it in front of the baby’s face.
“Don’t give her that,” I said. “I’m raising her vegetarian.”
The doctor waved a hand to dismiss me as the baby looked at the reddish sushi with an expression of beleaguered detachment. She was my spitting image.
The doctor then held a shred of translucent pickled ginger near her nose. She was unreactive to the astringent scent.
“Interesting,” the doctor said.
I inhaled, a few times, and realized I couldn’t smell the ginger and was only referencing a memory of its scent. The doctor applied hand sanitizer, its scent labeled “tropical breeze,” and cupped his palms near the baby’s head. She smiled with delight.
Ms. Massachusetts and her husband had erected a Calabasas-style bronze and glass mansion where the farmhouse once stood. The fifteen thousand snakes they’d mutated to have an enhanced appetite for mice had cost East Hampton most of its operating budget. In response, the town leveled a tax on dishwashing detergent to fund the program.
The tick-borne anosmia was selective, so I wasn’t without my comforts. A hardwood floor freshly cleaned with lemon Pledge, the brace of my alpha-lipoic-acid facial toner, blue raspberry. As an added benefit, now that food was largely flavorless, I was able to fit into the wool Armani trousers I bought when I studied sculpture in Milan junior year. I did think about the subtle sweetness of beeswax and found myself missing it as I sat in the living room molding the bust of John Adams.
“Whenever he is involved in political battles, he is yearning, yearning to be in the garden,” his biographer said on NPR.
Half the town was bitten by the ticks, and we were collected once again in the post office basement to vote on the scent for the ocean. A family with beachfront property had filed an official complaint because they were unable to smell the sea air. He’d agreed not to pursue legal action against the town if the water was artificially scented. My husband and I had finally bought our house, but, again, my opinion was disregarded. Everyone said it was spot on. To me, it smelled only like cheap hair conditioner.
That night, I dreamed of a strawberry-banana rain falling over Long Island.