"Well," said Rishi, his eyes stung to tears by the absolute white of the hospital room, "here we are," and depressed the plunger on the syringe.
five months earlier:
Excerpt from initial interview of potential test subject #2232 (BT05), 10 April, 10:04 AM, Interview Room #9, Brightman Labs, Malvern, PA. Interview conducted by Ken Lau (KL), Ph.D. (associate geneticist, Mueller Institute, Frankfurt).
KL: Final question: Why do you think you'd be a good candidate for the procedure?
BT05: Why do I....? That's a hard one. [short pause] Probably the same reasons as everyone else, really.
KL: I'd like to hear them from you.
BT05: I just ... [unintelligible] part of me that knows what you're all saying. And I get that it's not like fifty years ago, where you'd get fired or blacklisted by McCarthy, especially not in my line of work, yeah?
KL: Well, with society's growing tolerance--
BT05: No, no, I get it -- it's natural, it's normal, it's not my fault, right? Yeah, but it's also not me. I mean, I think about it, I look in the mirror, and ... this isn't who I'm supposed to be. Like you think of those guys who know inside they're supposed to be girls? Like some wires got switched coming out. And if you could switch them back to how they're supposed to be? That'd be great. Hell, that'd be a [expletive] miracle.
Dory hit the pause button on the remote, and the image on the screen froze in place, a man caught from above in the poor resolution from a cheap digital video camera. "I think we should add him to the study."
"We've got enough," said Rishi, though he knew before he opened his mouth he'd lost the battle. Dory had only been at Brightman Labs for six months, but she'd spent that time establishing herself as irresistible force among immovable objects. He peered over his glasses at the grainy view, squinting at what few identifying details made it through the low-quality digital video.
"We can always use more." She put a manila folder in front of him with enough gusto that its crisp edges made a loud crack. "And he's twenty-seven out of thirty."
Rishi couldn't help it; he let his face show that he was impressed. The team had decided on a general thirty-item checklist for screening potential participants, with a total score of at least twenty needed even for consideration, and a seven exclusion criteria. Meeting twenty-three out of thirty was enough to mark someone as a 'strong' candidate. "What's he missing?"
"No paternal medical history, though we can make a few guesses." Dory ticked the items off on her pink-manicured fingers. "Recreational drug use -- marijuana only, he says -- within the past two years. And he's two years shy."
Shaking his head, Rishi pushed the folder back across his messy desk toward her. "No go." He'd been overruled when he'd tried to insist on making 'over thirty' one of the non-negotiable inclusion criteria for study participation, but he'd nonetheless managed on his own thus far to keep the whole group between thirty-four and sixty. There were some decisions, Rishi felt, that should not get made before a certain age, like tattoos, or motorcycles, or major genetic alterations.
Dory pushed the file right back. "Just take a look at him. You do, and you think I'm wrong, you come to me and say, Stepanova, you're crazy, and that'll be the end of it."
"Can I say it now and save me the trouble of reading?" Rishi nudged his glasses back up the bridge of his nose with his pen.
"That's cheating." Dory folded her face into an exaggerated frown. She was everything Rishi had ever experienced about New Jersey, all rolled up into one pasty, heavyset matron with a halo of orange-dyed hair and an arsenal of doctorates. Almost immediately upon her arrival, she had adopted him, both personally and professionally, calculating that she'd gotten her first Ph.D when he was still in preschool and deriving from this that he needed someone to look out for him. The sad thing was, she was right. Under her watchful eye, he'd actually remembered to eat both lunch and dinner nine out of ten days for the past three months, and that was a new personal best for him.
With a sigh as theatrical as Dory's expression, Rishi flipped back the front cover. "I'll look."
She gave him a loving pat on the shoulder. "Great. When you're done looking, he's in Wilson's office, filling out consent forms."
His expression of shock and vague betrayal must have had some comic element to it, because Dory laughed when she saw it. "You put him in the study already."
"Told Wilson you were crazy about the guy." Dory patted him again, this time with a bit more condescending force, and sprouted a smile of pure innocence. "When he heard that? Couldn't sign him up fast enough."
"You're giving my headache a headache," Rishi sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose beneath where his glasses sat.
"Sometimes Mama knows best." She gave him a little wave over her shoulder as she walked from his station back into the lab, the hem of her long white coat swinging merrily with every step she took.
Official Title: Modification of Preference in Adult Male Homosexuals by Gene Therapy on Somatic Cells
Study Type: Interventional
Study Design: Treatment, Non-Randomized, Open Label, Uncontrolled, Single Group Assignment, Safety/Efficacy Study
Verified by Brightman Labs
Sponsors and Collaborators: Brightman Labs, Mueller Institute, Centers for Disease Control
Information provided by: Brightman Labs
ClinicalTrials.gov Identifier: NCT0370316
This study is currently recruiting participants.
"Rishi!" Wilson, with his southern accent, had a way of saying his first name so that it sounded like an adjective. He straightened his tie as he stood from behind his desk. "This is Dr. Rishi Shah, the lead scientist on the project -- unless, of course, you two have met already?"
"No," said the man in the chair opposite Wilson. He was the man on the video come to life -- medium-light skin, medium build, short-cropped black hair, clean-shaven face, neatly dressed, no piercings or visible tattoos -- but then he turned and stood, and Rishi realized that the recording had utterly failed to capture the pale green of his eyes. Dory, he suspected, would have a field day staring at the man's genome sequence, trying to figure out where those had come from. On his feet, he was no taller than Rishi, and when he extended his hand, Rishi noticed that his fingers were exceptionally long. "Pleased to meet you."
Rishi took his hand for a brief handshake. "Likewise," he said, though he wasn't entirely certain he meant it.
"We," said Wilson, sitting back down in his high-backed black chair and waving at both of his guests to take their seats, "were just talking about how our Mr. BT here heard about the project. Your therapist, you said?"
BT nodded and folded those long hands in his lap. "I've been with her for about six years. She told me that she'd heard about this new treatment, that it was going into trials this week. She told me that I should come here and sign up."
Wilson nodded and grinned. "Maybe we should send her a finder's fee, know what I'm saying? What'd you say her name was?"
"Dr. Mary Singer. If you want, I think I have her card in my wallet--"
"That's okay." Rishi kept a stone face, even when all he felt like doing was banging his head repeatedly on the desk. Leave it to Mary to pitch him a curve ball like this at the last minute. "I have her number." On speed dial, he did not feel compelled to mention.
"And you had a good chat with Kenny the other day," Wilson added.
BT nodded again. "Dr. Lau seemed encouraging." He looked mostly at Wilson when he talked, and had a quiet sort of air to him, one that came across more strongly in person -- friendly enough, but definitely guarded. Either Mary's therapy wasn't doing much good, or it was and Rishi could only imagine the basketcase he'd been six years ago. Still, his being in therapy was actually a point in his favour; there was no support network like one you paid.
"I want to make sure that you understand gene therapy isn't like drugs." Rishi leaned forward in his chair. "It's not something that, if you stop taking it, you go back to the way you were; it's a one-shot deal. We've had no success thus far reversing the process in mice. We've done everything we can to reduce the risks, but there could always be complications."
"I know." BT's polite smile broaded an inch, encroaching upon the territory of actual good humour. "I mean, maybe not know, not like you guys do, but I've gotten the impression. And I'm ready."
Pleasantries concluded, Wilson began making noises about giving BT a tour of the facility, and Rishi made an excuse about petri dishes' needing his constant attention before he could be roped into leading it. From the walkway just outside the Director's office, he could see the whole lab area below, a great collage of sterile surfaces, humming machinery, and white coats. Dory was sitting at his station, entering data at his terminal -- probably BT05's, just to make sure Rishi didn't renige now -- and she looked up when she saw him come out of the office. She shot him a thumbs-up and a hesitant look, and he nodded back at her; then he stepped into a deserted conference room, pulled his cell phone from his pocket, and told it in no uncertain terms, "Call Mary."
Excerpt from ABC/Good Morning America, Segment 2: 'The Gay Gene?':
DIANE SAWYER, ABC NEWS: You have to admit, it's a pretty big claim to say, yes, we've found that sexuality is nature, not nurture.
DR. RISHI SHAH, BRIGHTMAN LABS: It is a big claim, Diane, and it's not one we're entirely prepared to make.
SAWYER: Then what does your research prove?
DR. SHAH: It sugesses that there is a biological component to sexuality, just as there are genetic markers for many personality traits, preferences, and ... well, and just about anything about you, really.
CAL R. WILSON, DIRECTOR, BRIGHTMAN LABS: Think of it like alcoholism: You can have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism without becoming an alcoholic. I have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, it's down both my parents' sides. But I have a drink every now and then, used to get drunk a few nights a week in college, yet have never in my life had a problem with it.
SAWYER: So you're saying, being gay is like being an alcoholic?
DR. SHAH: Not at all. What we're saying is, humans are incredibly complex machines. Director Wilson may have the primary genetic trait we look for when trying to determine someone's predisposition to alcoholism, but he may be missing one or more of a billion other factors that we don't know play into it. We looked at the genetic sequences of a large number of men who self-identify as either gay or straight, and we have found a single genetic marker that is present in the vast majority of men who report being primarily attracted to the same sex, and absent in the vast majority of the men who report being primarily attracted to the opposite sex.
WILSON: In other words, if we look at a man's genetic structure and see this there, and we guess that he identifies as gay, odds are, we're going to be right.
SAWYER: I suppose the next big question will be: can you turn it off?
DR. SHAH: I beg your pardon?
SAWYER: Would it be possible to de-activate this marker and, well, change a person's sexual orientation?
DR. SHAH: Why would--
WILSON: That's a great question, Diane, but it's one for the science fiction writers right now, because our science fact on it is at least ten years out. There's a very controversial conversation to be had about it, I'm sure, but we'll wait to join in on it until our arguments aren't just hypotheticals anymore.
SAWYER: All right. Again, this is Cal Wilson, associate director of the Brightman Labs in Pennsylvania, and Dr. Rishi Shah, the promising young geneticist whose recent work has led to what many are calling 'the discovery of the century'. Gentlemen, thank you both for being here with us today.
WILSON: Pleasure to be here, Diane.
DR. SHAH: Yes, thank you.
"You have to understand," said Rishi, settling his slight frame as comfortably as he could in the hard plastic chair, "this is going to be a long process. We're still getting the final FDA approvals, and conducting our own assessments. It could be as many as six months before the actual injection of the viral vector takes place."
Many of the other men in the study had, upon hearing this, become agitated, speaking in tones just shy of demanding about how they'd heard this was nearly ready to go; Rishi, who'd been working on this for the past sixteen years, had been forced to explain to them that six months was 'nearly' in science terms, even if many of them had their own, much more expedient expectations. BT, however, merely shrugged and poked at his cup of coffee with a plastic stirring stick, spinning the artificial creamer into delicate spirals. "Trying to make sure I'm not just crazy?"
"That's part of it," Rishi admitted. He took BT's file off the clipboard and set it on the table between them. "We want to make sure you're a good candidate, and that you know what's being expected of you."
BT glanced at the walls, looking up in the corners. "No cameras today?"
Rishi shook his head. "Not today. I just want to double-check a few details before I turn you over to Dr. Bennett, who'll be doing your physical; psych evaluations won't start until after that. I'll be taking a few notes, though, if that's all right?"
"Fine, it's fine." BT seemed more intent on playing with his coffee than drinking it, and Rishi jotted coffee bad? in the margin of his notepad. "This is kind of weird, having so many people pay so much attention to me. I don't really do ... attention."
Rishi laughed a little, ruefully. "Neither do I. Unfortunately, sometimes life sticks us under the microscope."
"Yeah, I remember seeing you on TV a few years back."
When you were in high school? Rishi thought, but thought better of saying aloud; Dory had already given him sufficient grief that day about bringing up BT's age (or lack thereof), and he wasn't looking to invite more. "I can't tell you how glad I was when the morning shows found a new celebrity scandal and forgot all about me."
"You were kind of young, weren't you?" BT took a sip of coffee, and Rishi scrawled over his marginalia. "I mean, you look kind of young now, too. ...No offense."
"None taken." Rishi had been carded that past weekend at an unfamiliar wine and spirits store, so BT surely wasn't the only one who thought so. He secretly prayed every morning to find a grey hair in the sink, in the hope that visiting scientists might stop mistaking him for one of the graduate student assistants. "And yes, relative to most of my colleagues, I'm something of a youngster. But," he tapped his pen against the mostly blank page in front of him, "I'm not here to find out more about me."
BT smiled into his cup, his eyes downcast. "Mary tells me I do that a lot. Someone wants me to talk about myself, I dodge it by asking them a personal question, and I'm off the hook. Unless, well," he nodded in Rishi's direction, "they notice."
Rishi set the end of the pen against his bottom lip, and, before he could register his intention enough to stop himself, did something totally unprofessional: "She told me that too, more than once."
"About me?" BT frowned a little.
Rishi shook his head. "About me."
There was a small, awkward pause, and then BT started to laugh, tipping his head back enough that Rishi could see his adam's apple bob beneath the smooth skin of his throat. His speaking voice was a low tenor, nothing remarkable toward the extremes of pitch, but his laugh was rich and dark, and came from deep inside his chest. The sound was infectious, and Rishi felt the corners of his mouth rise in response. "I hate to tell you, but if that's what we've got in common, we're not going to cover much ground here."
"Maybe not," Rishi said, "but we'll at least keep each other entertained." He busied himself on shuffling through the pages of BT's file, looking for the few areas of clarification they needed, and all the while, he felt BT's green eyes on him, patient and observant, and heavy like lead.
Date: April 8 at 4:25 PM
I know you don't like the morning shows, but Today wants to know if you'd be available for a spot in October, after we start getting back the first numbers. Think about it? This one's such a big newsmaker, better if we're the ones directing the cycle.
The brown glass bottle sweated in his hand; he refused to turn on the air conditioning if the temperature was below 75, and the Weather Channel stubbornly insisted it was only 74 out tonight, and he knew for a fact he could be more stubborn than the weather. He couldn't remember which of the local microbreweries he'd picked this particular IPA up from, which was a shame, because he really liked it. "Is there a reason you haven't been returning my calls?"
"Spring break." He could hear the kids behind her voice as they went tearing through the house, chased by their father's booming, jovial laugh. "Took the kids to Europe."
Rishi sighed and settled down on his couch, settling his bare feet amongst the pillows at the other end. "For three weeks in the middle of the school year?"
From the distance came the kind of horrified shriek that could only be uttered by a six-year-old just swept off her feet and held aloft over someone tall's shoulders. "It was very educational."
"I'll bet." His old house was thin but tall, and in the distance he could see the lights of Philadelphia burning the sky artificially pink long past sundown. Except for that, and the glow of the muted television, the living room was dark. "So, tell me about this patient of yours--"
"Hold it." In his imagination, he could see Mary raise one delicate-boned hand, palm straight forward, symbolically halting him in his tracks. "You're not going to ask me to violate doctor-patient confidentiality, are you?" Her smile was audible, her words spilt forth from between perfect straight teeth and rum raisin lipstick.
"Of course not." Rishi rolled his eyes. "But hypothetically, if you were going to send one of your patients my way, what would that patient be like?" He took another drink and tried to see if he could raise the outside temperature that last degree by sheer force of will.
"Hypothetically, you'd already have medical history on him that's got everything down to his blood type and when his last bowel movement was."
"Blood type, yes; feces, not my concern. But that's not what I'm asking. I just...." Rishi pinched the bridge of his nose between his fingers, a gesture of annoyance that was wasted on her being unable to see him, but which he hoped she could sense nonetheless. "You know how serious this project is, right?"
Mary sighed quietly. "All right, hypothetically, any patient I'd send you would be someone with no major past trauma or anything that justifies regular medication. He'd be a reliable guy, someone you could trust to show up five minutes early to every meeting and treatment you scheduled for him. No suicidal tendencies, no history of abuse, no risky behaviours, no family in the area anymore, no long- or short-term relationships of note since I've started treating him." She paused, and Rishi held his breath, waiting to see if she'd continue. "He'd also -- hypothetically -- be unable to reconcile his understanding of male homosexual identity with his own self-image."
"Meaning he really just ... doesn't want to be gay. He's had this idea about who he wants to be, who he should be, and it's a good, healthy image. But every time he starts a relationship with a woman he likes, it ends quick because she can tell he's not that interested sexually. He's hamstrung by his own biology."
The readout in the corner of the television screen dropped to 73, and Rishi wiped a thread of sweat from the side of his face. "This is unusual for you, choosing medical intervention over clinical."
That made Mary laugh a little, in her dry, quiet way. Rishi hoped her patients found it comforting, because he always had. "We've tried clinical, believe me. He's a diligent, honest guy who's never skipped an appointment or tried to bullshit me, and we've still hit a wall. Really, you talk long enough to a blonde who wants to be a brunette, pretty soon, you stop talking self-image and send her to the hair salon."
"Mary, this is about the most invasive dye job you can imagine."
"Okay, okay, bad metaphor. Let's say, you talk long enough to a severely obese person who wants to be thin, who's tried everything but still can't shed the pounds, there's no shame in sending them in for a gastric bypass consult."
Exhaling slowly, Rishi sank lower onto the couch, until his head was flat against the cushons, and his feet stuck up over the far arm. "So you think he's a good candidate?"
"I wouldn't get a hypothetical patient's hopes up if I didn't think your research had a good hypothetical chance to help that hypothetical person in a way I can't."
Rishi laughed. "That's a lot of hypotheticals."
"That's why I'm a psychiatrist, and not a real scientist," she quipped, which made them both chuckle. There was a commotion from behind her, though a fairly jovial one, it sounded like. "I've got to go; Brenna's declared it's family cookie-baking time."
"Well, I won't keep you from chocolate chips."
"Perish the thought." Mary was quiet a moment. "We should get together again next time you have a free lunch hour. You sound ... tired."
He hadn't really been aware of his exhaustion before she said it, but now that she did, he could feel it deep in his bones, a low ache that reminded him he'd spent every waking moment on his feet, on the telephone, or squinting into a microscope. "It's been a long" -- week? month? year? lifetime? -- "day."
"You give me a call when it's good for you, and I'll move heaven, earth, and my schedule to be there."
"Kiss the kids for me," he said, and eased his cell phone shut.
Her uncanny ability to read him worked just as well over the phone as it did face-to-face. It had always mystified but never annoyed him, and hearing her say it reminded her how he missed having her around all the time. In the twelve years since she'd moved out, nothing and no one else he'd found had ever filled the house the way she had; alone, he rattled around inside it, the last ball bearing in the box, ricocheting aimlessly off bare walls and inherited furniture.
At least no one missed him him on the nights he didn't come home from the lab, he'd told all concerned parties, who laughed along with him at his workaholic tendencies. Problem was, he was beginning to realize as he got older, no was happy to see him when he did.
Date: May 13 at 2:21 PM
I've finished going through the list, and attached my recommendations for exclusion on medical grounds. Some of these guys are borderline, but I erred on the side of caution, and figured you can make the final cuts.
If I'm counting right, this should reduce your selection pool from 600 to around 200. You can buy me a beer or twelve later to show your gratitude.
Sorry the thing with Nina didn't work out, by the way -- too soon off her divorce, I guess you'd know how it is. I've got another friend I told all about you, though, and she's dying to meet you. If you're free next weekend and you feel like spending time with someone who doesn't have her hand permanently fused to a test tube, let me know!
Rishi jumped when the heavy fire door behind him pushed open, and his cigarette fell from his fingers, hissing to death in a puddle of rainwater gathered on the asphalt. A heavy rainstorm had swept through the night previous, and everything that morning was damp and green. "Hey," said BT sheepishly, peeking out from behind the dark grey door, "I thought I saw you come out here."
The alley was a tight fit, and Rishi had to move aside so the door could open enough to get BT through. "Come on," he said, pressing up against one of the large hazmat disposal bins. "Before somebody sees you."
With some exaggerated, slightly comic haste, BT slipped into the alley and pressed the door shut as quietly as a huge rectangle of metal would allow. "Smoker's corner?"
"Something like that." Rishi nodded vaguely toward the door as he went hunting in the pocket of his lab coat for his pack and lighter. "The closest thing we have, anyway. Management pretends not to notice, so long as we re-attach the alarm when we come back in." Accoutrements located, he tapped the pack until the end of a single cigarette popped up and extended it in BT's direction.
BT shook his head at the offer. "Thanks, no, I don't smoke. I just ... needed a little air, you know?"
The half-sated nicotine craving in Rishi's blood went to war with his guilt about secondhand smoke, and guilt won; he tapped the pack back down and stuffed it and the lighter in the innermost pocket of his coat, making a mental note about their location he knew would probably have abandoned him by the next time he went looking. "Nice weather," he said, trying lamely to make conversation.
"Well, anything's better than in there." BT pushed up the cuffed sleeves of his dark blue dress shirt, revealing a half-dozen pieces of taped gauze stuck in the pale bends of his elbows. "The last one that came after me, I told him I didn't have any more blood left to give."
"Didn't work, did it?"
BT indicated a particular patch of gauze inside his right elbow, one whose tape stretched over all the others. "Are you sure this whole place isn't just a front for vampires?"
Rishi laughed and shook his head, leaning back against the grey cinderblock wall. "So, which do you hate more: having us drain every bodily fluid you have, or having to answer a million personal questions?"
"Oh, definitely the blood." There wasn't much room to move around before the alley dead-ended into high chicken-wire gates, but BT sauntered over toward them anyway. He hooked his long fingers through the diamond-shaped grating, and the interlinked metal shimmered at his touch. "It's actually nice to talk to you guys. I know you're not judging; you're just trying to get us down to the final four, or however many it is you want."
"The goal's forty, give or take," said Rishi, watching BT watch the world beyond the Labs, the nearby parking lot that gave way to a perimeter of landscaped grounds, all monitored around the clock to prevent scientific espionage. Brightman Labs touted an ethic of inter-organizational cooperation, but still maintained a round-the-clock, highly trained security force. "And no, we're not judging, not like we're trying to decide if you're good or bad. We just want to make sure we've got the right forty people. Believe me, at this point, there's nothing you could confess to we haven't heard already."
BT tilted his head just enough that Rishi could see a smile playing on his young face. "It's nice. Even Mary judges, a little. I mean, it's what I pay her to do, it's what I want her to do, but ... still."
"Not in a bad way." Rishi shrugged. "She speaks highly of you."
"Does she?" BT turned back, folding his injured arms across his chest. He and Rishi stood eye-to-eye, both on paper and in practice, but BT just had an air about him that made him look taller, gave him the impression of being long and lean beyond his actual dimensions. "So, how do you know her?"
It was the question Rishi had been both dreading and expecting since the moment in Wilson's office when he'd recognized her name, and now it was here, he couldn't see a reason to lie his way out of it. "We were married once. For about four months."
"Really." BT's exclamation of surprise managed to sound more like a statement than a question, as though he didn't want to doubt Rishi so much as confirm that he'd heard correctly.
"Is it so hard to believe?" With a shrug of his shoulders, Rishi pushed off from the wall and walked over to the chicken wire. This late in the afternoon, they were in the building's shadow, but the sun still shown off the light spring green of the trees just yards away from them. He wished he had the combination to the padlocked gate, so he could walk out into what remained of the daylight, feel it on his skin; he'd been spending too long in the lab lately. The main reason he didn't quit smoking entirely was that it still got him outside once in a while.
Appraising him with a careful eye, BT paused for a moment, considering the question -- and then nodded. "Yeah, I definitely can't see you two together."
"Well, neither could we, don't worry. It was largely a classic case of insurance fraud. She and my oldest sister were college roomates. When I got hired at Brightman, the job came with great benefits; Mary was trying to start her own practice at the time, and couldn't afford health care for her employees, much less herself." Rishi paused, letting himself fade back into the memory. "And then one day she found a lump in her breast."
BT's smile melted away, sinking into a grey sorrow. "I didn't know she--"
"And she wouldn't want you to know," Rishi interrupted, "so don't let on that you do or she'll know who told you." He pointed a finger straight at BT, a playful accusation, and BT lifted his hands like a bank teller caught at gunpoint. "So, a quick marriage, and a quick divorce after a quick segmental mastectomy and several subsequent biopsies that came up clean. Long enough to figure out we're better friends than lovers."
He didn't often tell the story of his and Mary's brief relationship, mostly because most people had no idea how to respond, whether this was a tale that required sadness or joy, humour or seriousness. BT, however, seemed to navigate all those extremes with ease, sailing through on a sad little lift at the corners of his mouth. "Thanks," he said, after a moment's thought; that's what Rishi was coming to like about him, that he was not a man who rushed into anything, not even emotion. "For telling me, I mean."
Rishi shrugged, trying to shake away the weight of the past as casually as he could. "Well, I've got a list somewhere in my office of every sexual encounter you can remember having had since you were fifteen; I figure it's only fair that you know something about me."
"So, you're not...." BT tapped his own bare left-hand ring finger.
"Not since then, no." Rishi lifted his left hand, knuckles-up, turning it over once for BT's consideration. "A lot of the others take off their rings when they're here, especially if they have to wear a lot of rubber gloves or work with contaminants, but unlike them, I don't have one to put back on when I go home."
"I guess Mary's a tough act to follow." BT's eyes followed Rishi's hand.
Rishi shook his head. "She's an impossible act to follow," he started to say, but before he could quite make it to the end, the cell phone in his pocket began to buzz. He glanced down and saw Dory's name on the display. With a sigh, he sent it to voice mail; she wouldn't leave a message, but at least she'd know that he knew she was looking for him. He gave it a shove back into his pocket and started for the fire door. "Well, duty calls. Come back in, and I'll see if I can't convince the vampires to drink someone else's blood."
"You should come to dinner at my restaurant," said BT, utterly without preamble, remaining in place by the chicken wire. "Even scientists need to eat, right?"
A far-off piece of data bubbled to the surface of Rishi's brain: somewhere, in the mad stack of paperwork that was BT's life, had been a blank for 'occupation' followed by the words 'restaurant owner/chef.' It had seemed vastly irrelevant at the time he'd read it, mostly a novelty piece of trivia, but now, he was glad he hadn't tossed it away for some more promising-looking nugget of information. "I should?" he responded, unsure about what protocol should be in a situation like this.
BT produced his wallet from the back pocket of his slacks and pulled out a dark brown business card with the words Café Legba and two crossed keys printed in bright ochre ink. The address, in smaller type, located it in University City, in an area Rishi recognized as being just on the border of UPenn's campus; he'd passed it once or twice on his way to give lectures there. "Come this weekend," BT said, handing it over.
Rishi held the card between his fingers, wondering what any ethics board in the world would make of this. "...You know this won't influence my decision on if you get into the trials or not."
"I know, I know, and I don't care." BT tapped the edge of the card where the phone number was printed. "But you've been so good to me here, you in particular, and I just ... don't really have another way of saying 'thank you' for everything so far. So I've got this."
"BT, I'm the one who should be thanking you--"
BT held up a hand, cutting Rishi off. "Call the number, tell the staff when you'll be there. Let me cook for you."
Rishi knew when he'd been beat, and so he tucked the card into the same pocket where (he was pleased to re-discover) he'd left his cigarettes earlier. "All right -- but you have to let me pay for my own meal."
BT sighed, but apparently knew enough to know when he'd been beat just as well. "If that's what it takes to get you there."
Later, thinking back on the invitation, Rishi would realize that if he'd known what was going to happen, he probably would have stalled, made all manner of vague promises, claimed work as an excuse, even found a way to rope Mary into being his date-cum-chaperone for the evening. But at that moment, all Rishi could think about how his Friday night was completely free of obligations, and how BT's smile looked when Rishi agreed.
Excerpt from Time Magazine, 'Gay No More?', January 30:
Shah and his colleagues vehemently deny that their work implies that homosexuality is a defect that should be corrected, or that anything that comes from their research should be labeled as a 'cure'. In fact, one of the lead scientists on the program, German-educated virologist Dr. Ken Lau, is openly gay, and has no intention of undergoing the treatment himself.
"[Dr. Lau] has the same stake in this as anyone," explains Shah, who with his rumpled hair and battered loafters looks less like a headline-making geneticist and more like a sleepy college student. "Everything we learn tells us more about all of us. We could just as easily have structured the trials in the opposite manner -- turned the gene on instead of off."
Which leads to the next question: why didn't they?
"Well," admits Shah, "there's not a lot of call out there for procedures to turn straight people gay. However, a lot of money -- literally millions of dollars -- is spent each year in the US in treatment programs and therapies to turn gay people straight. Basically, we figured we'd have a larger volunteer pool."
It turns out they were right. Shah says he and his team received more than 30,000 applications, which he and his team are still wading through patiently, cutting down toward their goal of 40-50 study participants. If the trials are successful, even more than those 30,000 may get their wish, and designer sexual identities may stop being science fiction, and grow closer to becoming science fact.
Café Legba was not Rishi's typical haunt, but then again, it wasn't a typical anything. Sandwiched between a bank and a bridal boutique, it looked so small and nondescript from the outside -- copper-painted front, menus posted discreetly in dimly lit shadowboxes, two huge brass keys crossed over the doorway -- that Rishi would probably have walked past it had there not been a line out the door and halfway down the block. Excusing himself past the waiting diners, Rishi worked his way up to the hostess, and barely had time to say his name before she dropped everything else and gestured for him to follow her. "Chef Taylor's been waiting for you!" she told him brightly as she wound her way through the dense-packed customers, back to an empty table that was practically in the kitchen. Already on the table was an opened bottle of red wine and a half-filled glass.
He was neither given a menu nor visited by a waiter, and was therefore surprised when the first dish showed up in front of him without preamble or explanation. The plate was stacked with five small, flat discs that looked and almost tasted like fried bananas. No sooner had he finished those than the plate was gone, replaced by a bowl barely the size of a teacup, filled past the brim with rice and beans with scallions. After that came a small portion of fish in white sauce, and then something he couldn't recognize at all that might have been a kind of seafood with a red sauce, and then a pork slice that nearly burned his mouth off with its heat, each set in front of him and cleared away by cheerful, apron-clad waitstaff who never said anything more than 'excuse me' to him.
Rishi couldn't see any of the actual food prep from where he was seated, though he could see that same staff come and go past him with heaping trays of dishes full and empty. At first, he'd wondered if being seated alone would be awkward, but he quickly came to appreciate the bustle of the restaurant as good entertainment. It was difficult for him to imagine BT running a circus like this; a busy restaurant seemed a strangely frantic setting for a man who always seemed so calm. Maybe, Rishi thought, he actually used that to his advantage, remaining the eye in the center of the hurricane. Otherwise, he didn't know how BT survived.
As the evening went on, the pace of the service wound down somewhat, and somewhere around his second hour of dining on unidentifiable-yet-delicious tidbits, he noticed that his original bottle of wine had been replaced by a second, full one. Knowing nothing about wine, Rishi could mostly tell that it was somehow different from the first, though he couldn't quite say how. Still, it seemed impolite to refuse what had been placed in front of him, so he served himself out another glass. And another. And when he'd decided not to have another, one of the servers swooped by and poured for him, and he supposed it was doubly impolite to refuse that.
Thus, when BT slid into the seat next to him some hours after Rishi first walked in the doors, Rishi was absolutely, unquestionably drunk and staring at a white custard with a blackberry crown. He gave the dessert a poke, and it gave him a little jiggle. "What's that?" he asked, and his question was fuzzy around the edges.
"Blackberry blanc manger a la Legba." BT picked up a curl of lime rind from the edge of the plate and balanced it carefully on top of the blackberry; he, obviously, was stone sober. He looked a little tired, though, and smelled of food and sweat, though in a good way. "You eat it, in case you were wondering."
"I don't know if I can." Rishi patted his stomach, then burped as politely as he could manage into his napkin. "I'm stuffed. You know, I don't know what half the food I ate tonight even was."
BT took one of the other forks from the table and sliced off a sliver of the blanc manger. "Just your usual Haitian food, yeah? Bat blood and cow tails and jellyfish livers and...." He took one look at Rishi's horrified face and cracked up. "Kidding, kidding."
"Don't be mean to the poor drunk scientist whose idea of dinner is usually Lean Cuisine a la my microwave." Rishi took the fork from BT's hand and ate the custard slice before BT could get to it. It tasted delicious, rich with coconut and cinnamon and what seemed like thirty other things he couldn't have hoped to name even while sober. "That's fantastic. This has all been fantastic. You made everything I ate tonight?"
"With my own six little hands." Rishi raised an eyebrow, and BT smiled. "I've got two other chefs helping me keep up. It's a workout back there."
Well, as long as he had the fork, he might as well keep going; Rishi made a stab at the blackberry and, after two attempts, ran it through. "I'm glad you could fit me in," he said, pushing the backberry down into the custard before popping it into his mouth. "God, that's great."
BT made a sweep at the side of Rishi's mouth with the edge of his napkin, and as it came away tinged purple, Rishi realized that his aim must be worse off than he had originally estimated. "If you make that face every time you eat something you like, I'll have to sit you right in the kitchen next time. Bliss like that is good for my chef's ego."
"Alan!" someone called out from the back of the restaurant, and Rishi was surprised to see BT's head turn. A young man with bright blue hair stuck his head around the corner; he was wearing the same black chef's jacket as BT was, only his was buttoned fully to his neck, while BT's hung open, exposing his throat to the air. "Everything's down and off, so I'm gone."
BT lifted a hand and gave a loose little salute. "Nice work tonight, Steve," he smiled.
"Thanks." Steve glanced quickly at Rishi, then turned his attention back to BT, as though he had realized that asking for an explanation would be more than he really wanted from the situation. "Marisol took the shopping list, so if there's anything you want her to get that's wasn't aready on there, give her a call."
BT nodded, and Steve disappeared back the way he'd come; Rishi could hear his footsteps echo through the presumably empty kitchen, followed by the sound of the back door's closing. Then even that faded from the air, and was replaced by a silence that, to Rishi, felt very sudden. The whole evening had been set to a score of dishes and feet and voices and soft, heavy drums through the sound system, and their absence was nearly as audible as their presence had been. In the stillness, Rishi laughed, then felt self-conscious about how loud even that sounded. "This place clears out pretty fast, doesn't it?"
"Well, people need to sleep, if they're just going to come back and do this again tomorrow." BT glanced at his watch. "It's after one, anyway."
Forgetting his manners, Rishi reached for BT's watch, and squinted at the dial for a few moments before being able to process both hands' hovering around the 1 on the circle. "Hell," he breathed, rubbing his other hand across his face; his fingertips smelled of curry, which made him think fondly of his mother.
BT chuckled and did not pull his wrist away, not until Rishi realized their continued contact and let go first. "Let me finish locking up."
He scooted out from the seat and stood in front of the table, and only then did Rishi get a good look at the white script embroidered on his chef's jacket: Alan Taylor, Executive Chef. Rishi squinted, but there was nothing wrong with his glasses, nor with his eyes. "I think you've got someone else's shirt on."
Frowning, BT checked first the cuffs and length of the jacket, then finally followed Rishi's gaze to the words over his left breast pocket. "Oh," he said, his face lifting with dawning awareness, "people call me Alan, usually. It's my middle name."
"But Wilson said...." Drunk though he admittedly was, Rishi could remember clearly their introduction -- and could piece together what Wilson had probably been explaining to BT seconds before Rishi had walked in, namely the designation system for subject identification: first initial, last initial, two-digit designation indicating the order in which the candidate had come into consideration, relative to the other candidates; by that math, there were four other BTs out there, all of whom had been disqualified through some previous screening step, and Wilson had just been identifying the young man before him as their fifth. "Why didn't you tell us?"
"At first, I thought it was some sort of protocol, where you were just supposed to call us all by our super-secret code names. You know, some sort of scientist thing." BT shrugged and stuck his hands in the pockets of his loose, dark pants. "...I don't know. I liked it."
There was a strange intimacy to the moment, a heavy, confessional connection that was utterly destroyed by Rishi's sudden awareness that if he did not urinate in the immediate future, bad things would happen. With a grunt, he eased himself out from behind the table. "The restroom?"
"Second door on the left." BT pointed down the short hallway that led past the entrance to the dining room, and Rishi staggered off down with about as much grace as he supposed could be expected.
When he emerged, much relieved, the restaurant was dark as well as quiet, and BT was leaning against the wall, his arms folded across his chest, lit only by a dim glow coming from the direction of the back door. "I live just upstairs," he said, gesturing toward the way the young chef had disappeared earlier. "You can use my phone book to find a cab, if you want." When Rishi opened his mouth to protest, BT just shook his head. "If you drove, you're not driving home like that, and if you didn't, SEPTA trains don't run this late anyway. Unless you plan to walk all the way to Germantown."
Rishi frowned. "How did you know I live in Germantown?"
"Dr. Stepanova told me."
Well, as personal information went, which neighbourhood of Philadelphia he called home seemed vague enough, and he made a mental note not to chide Dory for sharing. Instead, aware that he'd been soundly beaten in the logic department, Rishi nodded and followed BT out through the back door. On the way out, he idly thought that maybe the dark, empty kitchen should seem scary to him, all stainless steel and shadows, but instead all the smells and cooking implements made him feel safe. His father, who had always been the superstitious one of the family, would have pronounced it a 'good place', somewhere spiritually and psychically comforting. No wonder the restaurant was popular, if all the food came out of a room like that.
The alley into which they emerged was cleaner than Rishi generally associated alleys with being, and barely more than the width of a single car. "Watch your step." As BT started up a narrow wrought-iron flight of stairs, Rishi followed cautiously, making sure his feet landed where they should every time. At the top landing, BT undid two separate locks with two separate keys before pushing the front door open and ushering Rishi in.
Inside, the light was warm and rich, illuminating the apartment's single, large room with a soft glow. Everything was painted the same yellow and brown tones as Café Legba, and all the furniture and fixtures had copper worked through and around them. The place's most notable feature was its fairly sizeable kitchen area -- appropriate, Rishi thought -- which dwarfed even the large bed along the wall opposite the front door; a large flat-screen TV sat atop a long, low bookshelf, set up presumably so someone could watch it while in bed. A few scattered articles of clothing and sprawling towels cluttered various flat surfaces, topping off the place's curious bachelor-pad aesthetic, making it seem less like an Ikea floor model and more like a home.
He tried to ask where one might locate a phone, only his mouth wasn't working right. It was moving against BT's mouth, in fact, and somehow his lower lip had gotten caught between BT's teeth, and he couldn't precisely say how that had happened. Moving backward didn't seem to be an option, since his back was already pressed up against the door, and moving forward also didn't seem an option, because BT's body was there, and anyway, he couldn't have moved without unclenching his hands from the back of BT's jacket, and that didn't seem like any fun at all. In fact, provided that what was happening kept on happening, staying right where he was sounded like the best course of action.
The analytical mind that had made Dr. Shah so famous kept plugging away in spite of its body's dalliances, though even it was so gobsmacked by the development that all it could do was cough forth a very sincere what the hell? Maybe he hadn't seen this coming, or maybe he had and had just ignored it so he could pretend to be surprised, but now -- and this was a big step for him -- seemed hardly the time for critical reflection. Instead, he wrapped his arms around BT's waist and pulled their bodies closer, letting his mind instead wonder over how fortuitous it was for their kissing that they were the same height.
In the warm night air, everything seemed warm to Rishi, which led to the logical conclusion that BT would probably be warm too, which suggested the polite course of action of helping BT out of his clothes. He felt a gust of cooler air at his throat, and glanced down long enough to see that BT was two steps ahead of him, already unbuttoning the collar of Rishi's dark dress shirt. Possessed by a need for experimentation, Rishi tilted his head down and caught one of BT's fingers between his teeth; he sucked on the trapped digit, tasting the sharp saffron he'd smelled earlier on his own fingers (though this time, memories of his mother barely bubbled to the surface), and the salt of skin beneath. BT groaned quietly and pressed his forehead to Rishi's for a moment, catching his breath. "This wasn't why I asked you here, I swear," he whispered, the desperateness in his voice edging his words with a slight accent Rishi had never heard before.
And a good thing at that, because under more rational circumstances, I probably would have declined a more explicit offer, Rishi's brain compiled and presented proudly to him. He could only imagine that he disappointed gravely it by ignoring the carefully constructed comment in favour of simply nodding. "I swear," BT repeated, as though Rishi had shown some sign of doubting his sincerity. "I just want to..."
Of all the immediate possibilities Rishi identified for making BT stop apologizing, the one that seemed both the most efficient and the most pleasant was to kiss him, and Rishi did, biting gently at BT's lower lip the way he'd held his finger earlier. BT gasped air into the kiss, then started back into it; his hands slowly descended down the front of Rishi's shirt, leaving a trail of open buttons in their wake, and when they were finished, he pushed the shirt off Rishi's shoulders, pulling as he did so both their bodies away from the wall and deeper into the warm-lit apartment.
The distance between the door and the bed had seemed rather large on Rishi's initial observation of the room, but their bodies crossed the space in a matter of seconds, until Rishi was on his back, his bare skin pressed into the soft jersey cotton sheets. BT was over and on top of him, though braced on his own hands and knees, leaving Rishi's field of movement almost completely clear. Maybe BT was concerned about the difference between their respective masses -- they were both of similar heights and builds, after all, but BT had more muscle on his frame, and more muscle meant more weight, of course -- or maybe it was just one last opportunity to convince them both that no one was trapped here, that nothing happened against anyone's free will. BT hovered over him for a moment, suspended like a held breath, before Rishi reached for him and pulled him down.
He didn't even bother trying to justify himself to his internal medical ethical police -- he was guilty, pure and simple, of doing just about everything all his ethics classes and internal review board decisions had told him that doctors and scientists were absolutely not to do under any circumstances. However, he reasoned, were he to take that opportunity to construct a defense, he'd feel compelled to point out how it didn't feel much like an abused power dynamic when the subject started molesting him. All the example scenarios of impropriety had hinged strongly on the researcher's active exploitation of a passive participant, after all. Maybe that was splitting hairs, he didn't know.
What he did know was that someone was removing his pants, and Rishi hadn't had anyone do that particular favour for him since ... well, it hadn't been as long as since Mary, but it had been a long time nonetheless. His fingers searched out and found BT's hair, which was too short by far to grab, but the touch of which still provided a good anchor as BT took Rishi's penis into his mouth in one swift move. Though he'd never prided himself on the scope and magnitude of the organ in question, Rishi still found BT's ability to swallow him at once abstractly impressive. Then BT's tongue stroked hard against the underside of his cock, and he decided he had better things to do than mentally summarize the situation for later publication.
Working his way slowly back toward sober, Rishi shut his eyes and let his head fall back against the bed, letting sensation overtake him. BT's mouth was hot and talented, and seemed to know just how and where Rishi wanted to be touched. He didn't tease, though -- he was direct and insistent, and left no room for either protest or begging. Such was fine by Rishi's estimation, though, since he didn't know how he'd compose the latter and wasn't about to mount the former. Instead, he only spoke in gasps, quiet little catches to his breath that he could hardly control, half-muttered half-words that circled the edges of please and more and yes; when he came, it was so sudden that didn't manage to give voice to an ample warning.
Fortunately for them both, he supposed, BT seemed more than up to the challenge, and not only kept Rishi's cock in his throat through his orgasm, but sucked him clean afterward, his mouth moving against Rishi's oversensitive skin just on the gentle side of too much sensation. One of his hands stroked the bare skin of Rishi's hip and belly, petting smooth strokes with BT's curry-tasting fingers. The thought of how BT's hand had felt and tasted in his mouth made Rishi's cock rise again with interest, ultimately a feeble effort against exhaustion, and BT let it slide wetly from between his lips. "That wasn't enough?" he teased, planting a kiss on the inside of Rishi's thigh.
"Definitely enough," gasped Rishi, draping one of his arms across his eyes to block out the light. He'd ended up mostly naked and crosswise on BT's bed, and it was slowly dawning on him that no matter what happened next, he'd have to find a way to rectify one of those two states. "Any more might kill me."
"I'll keep that in mind." With a soft thud, BT plopped himself down on the bed next to Rishi, resting his head in the crook of Rishi's upraised arm. He spread his hand flat across Rishi's belly, and his touch was warm and steady.
With his growing re-acquaintance with reality came a similar awareness of BT's body, and Rishi frowned a little, not entirely sure how to ask what seemed a very pertinent question. "Did you, um...?"
BT laughed, his shoulders shaking, but he turned his face against Rishi's body as he did, hiding in a way that suggested a touch of embarrassment. "Oh, yeah." He took one of Rishi's hands in his own and brought their joined fingers to the front of his own pants, which had a telltale damp patch over an even more telling softening bulge beneath. "I took care of myself, since I didn't know if you...." His voice trailed off, leaving heavy on the air the sentence's unspoken conclusion: want to touch me like I want to touch you.
Rishi, who had never been one for dirty talk, felt his cheeks flush as he said, "Well, next time, you should let me." He could feel BT turn his head sharply upward, presumably to look at his expression, and Rishi was glad that his face was still covered, because if he couldn't see BT, he could make believe that BT couldn't see him. It was a lame deception, but he was willing to go with it.
"All right," said BT after a moment, his voice soft. "Next time, I will."
They lay there for a moment as their respective heart rates slowed, descending from the thrum of activity back toward resting rate, though the butterfly flutter of nerves kept Rishi's from ever settling properly. He turned his head so his lips and nose were pressed into BT's hair and took several deep breaths -- memory breaths, committing this moment to recall, like taking a photograph -- before exhaling through pursed lips. "So, uh, you were going to have me use your phone...."
BT laughed again, propping his head up on one hand and pulling back just enough so Rishi could see his face. "If you still want," he shrugged, returning his hand to the plane of Rishi's stomach. Rishi had no idea what BT found so fascinating about that particular patch of human real estate, but he wasn't about to complain. "....Or I could call you one after I make breakfast tomorrow morning."
Only through great strength of will did Rishi, instead of saying yes yes yes yes yes immediately, turn slowly on his side and prop himself up so his body mirrored BT's. "I guess it depends on what's for breakfast," he said, as casually as he could manage, and was gratified when BT did not call him on his lack of success in the endeavor.
"Well...." BT glanced over to his kitchen, looking thoughtful. "Maybe french toast in orange juice and cream ... or omelette with apple and brie...." He looked back at Rishi and winked. "Or if you're really good, breakfast the way my mother used to make it."
"And how's that?"
"Cheerios and milk," BT deadpanned, which surprised Rishi into laughter. "Hey," BT said, his voice still mock-serious as he curled closer to Rishi, encouraging their heads closer to the pillows, "I could even put a banana on top. I don't do that for just anyone, you know."
"I'm sure you don't," said Rishi, intending his response to sound as though he were playing along with BT, only it came out sounding both like playing along and somewhat dirty, which -- to his surprise as much as anyone's -- he found he didn't mind. "So is this how your invited guests usually pay for their meals?"
"If I say no, will you stay the night?" BT reached up and tugged at a curl of hair that had strayed into the middle of Rishi's forehead.
Rishi batted his hand away playfully, mostly to give him an excuse to direct his bashful gaze elsewhere. "...Okay. I'll stay."
He allowed BT to guide them both into the bed, though as soon as Rishi had gotten settled, BT stood up and began removing his clothes. As attractive as he was with them on, he was downright beautiful with them off, solid and strong, with dark tattoos tracing whorls across the brown skin of his shoulders and back. Rishi felt bad at first about staring, and then decided that since BT'd probably gotten an eyeful of him earlier, it was only fair to give back.
After tossing his clothes in the corner pile Rishi supposed might hide a laundry hamper beneath, BT flipped the switch that took off the room's only overhead light and padded back over to the bed. The apartment's windows let in just enough light pollution that Rishi could make out the shape of his body as he crossed the room, circling to take the side of the bed farthest from the door. For a moment, Rishi wasn't sure what to do or where to put his body, but BT pressed close and draped his arm around Rishi's waist, and Rishi took from that arrangement that he was expected to be the little spoon. However, rolling himself on his side away from BT first ended up with his heel in BT's shin, then his elbow in BT's chest. "Sorry," he murmured, wishing that he could will the ground to open up and swallow him whole, even all the way from the second story. "It's ... been a while."
"For me too," said BT, his lips brushing against the back of Rishi's neck in a way that could indeed be read as very forgiving.
"Longer for me." Rishi settled more cautiously against BT's body, letting his hand rest just above BT's, until his fingertips alit on BT's knobby knuckles.
There was a small pause, and then BT chuckled warm air against Rishi's skin. "I guess you'd know that, wouldn't you?" he whispered, punctuating his sentence with a kiss.
It was meant as a tease, Rishi knew, but it brought him back from the brink of sleep with an icy clarity. He lay perfectly still and let his respiration even out until his lack of a response could be attributed to his having fallen asleep, and presently thereafter he heard BT's soft breath relax into a light snore. Rishi's eyes, however, remained wide open, sleep a thousand miles off. Of course he knew how long it had been for BT, because he had BT's entire sexual history accessible with a click of his mouse, because BT was the subject of his ongoing study, because BT had put himself through intense scrutiny and evaluations as a part of volunteering for a trial procedure that would attempt to change him at the genetic level, because that's exactly how much BT wanted not to be gay. More than he could cook or be charming or give spectacular head, BT wanted not to be gay. In the whole history of doomed relationships, there had likely been fewer that had been more doomed from the start than this.
Of course, the last round of cuts from the study was still in progress, and that meant anything could happen, anything from finding a valid point of disqualification in his profile to sudden and catastrophic withdrawl of funding from the Labs to even just BT's changing his mind. But even knowing that did nothing to eliminate the growing pit in Rishi's stomach, the one that was rapidly swallowing the quick, delighted butterflies.
Maybe this was just a one-time thing, Rishi thought, trying to console himself, only to find that thought somehow was even worse.
Date: June 23 at 7:49 AM
Subject: final study selection
Thank you all for all your hard work. Please pull all relevant samples and data for the following 44 subjects and send them to Ken for compilation:
-click to show full message text-
Of course they hadn't planned this. Planning would be admission of both desire and intent, and those were the things that got people into trouble, not accidents and circumstance. So nothing had been arranged in advance, no secret signals, no coded communications; in fact, if someone else had happened to be there, it would probably never have happened.
But the corridor had been empty, and they'd both just happened to be passing that way at the same time, and if Rishi kept a close eye on what study participants were supposed to be where when, well, wasn't he the chief scientist and in charge of that sort of thing? And there was really no way to establish blame, either, or to track whether Rishi's hand had gripped the doorknob or BT's hand had gripped Rishi's shirt first. Therefore, it could only have been by mutual determination that they ended up like this, and since the lack of planning had been established earlier and the conditions had been so uncontrolled, it could only be an irreplicable accident, and all scientists knew that anything that couldn't be reproduced had no scientific merit.
Unfortunately for the results, this was getting past the point of replication and on into recidivism. Rishi counted this as at least the fourth time they'd wound up like this while still on Brightman premises, tucked together in some tiny broom closet or supply room, bodies and mouths pressed against one another, hands working frantically for maximum effort while disturbing as little clothing as possible. Of course they could get caught here -- locked doors would raise even more suspicion, and people needed brooms and supplies all the time -- but the threat seemed somehow unable to stop their unique circumstances from repeating, again and again.
"You look good in a tie," BT breathed against Rishi's ear as he undid the top button of Rishi's slacks. "Very professional."
"I look like a tool," Rishi murmured in response as he bit a very unprofessional red mark over BT's throat. His own fingers had already found their way down the front of BT's criminally tight jeans, around the beautiful stiff cock Rishi had missed the first night they'd been together, but had learned to love the feel and taste of since. He loved how it responded to him -- how all of BT responded to him, the scruffy little nerd in a lab coat who, through the magic of irreplicable conditions, had come to command enthusiastic response from someone so handsome and charming and all-around perfect.
BT's quiet, breathy laugh made his adam's apple bob against Rishi's mouth. "A sexy tool." He wormed his hand into the gap between Rishi's underwear and body; Rishi's skin was so flush that BT's fingers felt almost chilly, and when they touched his cock, he gasped, which just made BT laugh again. "Say, look what I found."
So what are you going to do with it?, Rishi almost said in response, only by the time he put the words together, BT had made his intentions more than clear. His strong, wide thumb teased at the head of Rishi's cock so effectively that Rishi was glad that BT was leaning against the shelving unit, and that Rishi was leaning against him, because otherwise he might just have gone right ahead and fallen down. Instead, he stayed on his feet, and stroked BT's cock with renewed interest, grinning as he heard BT bite back a low groan. Feedback, after all, was an important part of any good experiment.
Neither one of them lasted more than a few minutes pressed together like that; BT came first, with a quiet shudder, and Rishi followed shortly after, bucking against BT's hand in a way that (he only realized later) made the shelving creak. He couldn't have cared less about the noise at the time, though, wrapped up as he was in the feel of BT's body and the taste of his skin. BT was dangerous like that most of all -- not that he made Rishi forget about his professional obligations, just that he made Rishi not give a damn about them.
After they'd both calmed down, Rishi reached for a packet of gauze from the shelf and handed them both a few squares for cleaning up. "How do I look?" he asked, fastening his trousers up again.
"Great," answered BT, and though Rishi knew his opinion was biased, it would do. "Nervous?"
"Not anymore," Rishi said, and they both laughed quietly. With a deep breath, Rishi wiped down his fingers one last time before running them through his hair. "Okay, I'll poke my head out and see if the coast is clear."
"Hey, wait." BT tapped Rishi on the shoulder, and when Rishi turned, BT grabbed him for a heavy, long kiss that Rishi was sure managed to muss his hair again. At last, BT pulled back and gave Rishi one last peck on the tip of his nose. "Go knock 'em dead for science."
"I'll let you know how it went." With one last quick kiss, Rishi turned and stepped boldly into the corridor, on the assumption that if he didn't look guilty, no one who saw him would just assume that he'd been in there for anything but supplies, a perfectly normal errand, nothing suspicious about it in the world. Best case scenario, he saw no one, he flagged BT out, they went their separate ways and arrived at separate destinations so no one would notice that their detours had been shared; otherwise, BT would wait a few minutes and sneak out on his own. For such unpredictable encounters, they certainly had definite exit strategies.
Despite his hopes, the corridor was not empty -- Dory stood at one end, flipping through a series of charts, looking about as uncharacteristic in a nice pantsuit as Rishi was sure he did in a tie. When Rishi emerged, he saw her face flicker from surprise to something that looked like vague amusement. "Are you ready to go face the suits?"
One of the things that Rishi hated most in the world was justifying his work to other people in the hope that they would continue to give him money. "As I'll ever be." He fidgeted with his tie again, wishing instead for his lab coat and loafers.
Dory batted his hands away and fixed it for him with the efficiency of a mother of three boys. "You know, Rishi," she said, dropping her voice to where even invisible eavesdroppers would have had a problem hearing her, "you've got to be very careful with things like this."
She could have been speaking about the study, or about the upcoming meeting with the pharmaceutical representatives, or even about his tie, but somehow, Rishi got the impression that her concerns lay elsewhere -- and that chilled his blood. True, she was unusually perceptive about Rishi's mental and emotional state at any given moment, but her noticing seemed an ill omen.
"I know," he answered quietly; he wanted to say I'm being careful, but he couldn't, because it wasn't entirely the truth. He swallowed, feeling his expanding throat press against the tight loop Dory had knotted around his neck, straining against it as though it were a noose.
Excerpt from The Advocate, '10 Questions With the Man Who Might Make You Straight':
7. Many in the queer community feel like you're feeding into homophobic stereotypes, or treating homosexuality like a disease; some have even accused you of secretly accepting funding from sources like Focus on the Family or Exodus International. How do you respond to them?
Dr. Shah: I respond badly, I guess, because I've denied those allegations so many times, and yet it seems like I keep hearing them again and again. As for the second part, I can tell you that all of Brightman Labs' funding comes from government grants, non-political science foundations, and pharmaceutical companies, and as all of this is a matter of public record, they can look it up for themselves. As for the first part? Well, I can't be responsible for how my work gets read after it leaves my lab, and I'm sure many people are going to interpret it like that. However, I've actually had conversations with gay people who thank me for the work, because it acknowledges that there is a biological component to sexuality; I know my initial research was used to support Senator Briggs' bill to add sexual orientation to all federal anti-discrimination laws, and I support her work. My job isn't to interpret the data, it's to find them.
8. Do you think most people with same-sex inclinations should undergo this therapy?
Dr. Shah: Absolutely not. I've compared it to sexual reassignment surgery -- just because it's possible doesn't mean everyone, or even everyone who wants it, should get it done. There are many gay people who live openly and comfortably with their sexual orientations, and if they are happy like that, they should continue to do so. This also isn't meant to be a 'quick fix' parents push on a questioning teenager. All of our study participants have sought psychiatric and clinicial treatment for years solely because of self-image issues related to their same-sex preferences, and we consider this therapy an absolute last resort.
9. What if it doesn't work?
Dr. Shah: That's kind of a misleading question, since we feel any result will mean that it 'worked'. We might not get the results we were expecting, but any outcome will yield more information. Any hypothesis that can't stand up to testing, after all, isn't worth keeping.
As the lights came back up, forty-four pairs of test subject eyes blinked up at the three scientists at the front of the room, who were also reeling a little against the sudden brightness. Rishi, who had controlled the switch and therefore had the most preparation, recovered first. "So, that's the procedure, in a nutshell; your packets all have the much more detailed explanations, just in case you're ever out of sleeping pills." A low hum of laughter rippled through the room. "If there's any questions, I'll take them now."
A grey-haired man named Sam ('SR18', read the sticker on the front of his folder), the oldest participant in the study, raised his hand. "All right," he said, his blue-collar Pittsburgh accent chewing at all his vowels, "I know you explained this, and maybe I'm just a little slow, but ... you sure injecting us with herpes is a good idea?"
"Don't worry." Ken stepped forward, happy to share from his field of expertise. "Think of this like we're shooting you with a gun where we've replaced all the bullets with Aspirin. The gun's not going to hurt you, but the Aspirin will help, if you can take it out the right way. We just need that gun -- in this case, the herpesvirus saimiri -- for the delivery system."
"You won't contract the live virus, and you won't be able to pass it on to anyone you come into contact with," added Dory. "And if -- by some freak accident that happens in a way we can't even really imagine happening -- you managed to transmit the virus to another person? By that point, it would be like shooting someone with a gun where you'd replaced all the bullets with Aspirin, then gone on and taken out the Aspirin too." That earned another rumble of laughter from the men, who on the whole tended to love on Dory as they might on their own mothers.
Another participant raised his hand -- Andrew (topping the list of participants as 'AS30'), a heavyset investment banker, one of the sourest of the bunch. "How long are we going to have to be laid up?" he asked with same the snippy, antagonistic tone that had made him every lab tech's least favourite customer.
"We'll want to keep an eye on you for a few days, at least." Dory folded her arms across her chest and gave a look stern enough that even Andrew backed down a little. "Two days absolutely minimum -- though we reserve the right to hold on to you if something happens we don't like."
Miles ('MZ02' on his stickers), a middle-aged man with a prominent gold wedding band, raised his hand as well. "Can you talk a little more about the risks?"
"Page thirty-six," said Rishi, indicating the packets in front of them. "There's a list of every forseeable side effect, the probability that you'll experience them, and what to do if you do. Most of the risk is from the anaesthesia used for the procedure, not the procedure itself. Believe me, we would never have let you get this far in the selection process if we'd seen anything in your medical histories to indicate the possibility of a negative reaction."
"The biggest risk is nothing," Dory told them. "The most likely 'bad'" (she made air quotes with her fingers) "outcome is that absolutely nothing will be different in three months from the way it is right now -- neutral, not negative, impact."
"So how will we know if it worked?"
Rishi didn't even need to look to see which of the participants had asked that question, and was grateful when Ken jumped to the answer before Rishi's silence could become telling. "You'll come back," Ken said, to the room in general and to BT in particular. "We've got a series of tests and interviews scheduled, much the same as the ones you had at the beginning. The results will mostly be subjective, of course, so we'll want your feedback more than anything else."
"That means you're gonna hook us back to that penis-measuring machine and make us watch all kinds of porn again?" asked Sam with a mischevious grin.
"Only if you're good," Dory shot back at him, and that effectively ended the discussion, as the participants' laughter broke them shortly into smaller conversations amongst themselves, which Rishi took to mean they were all satisfied with the procedure as it had been presented to them. He busied himself settling together his papers, shuffling them into folders, closing his PowerPoint presentation off the computer attached to the projector -- in short, anything he could find to keep from having to interact with the study participants in general, and one participant in particular.
So intentionally focused was Rishi on his task that he almost missed seeing, out of the corner of his eye, a familiar hand slip across the top of his stack of papers and glide away as though the touch had been accidental, leaving only a golden-brown business card resting face-down atop the folder cover. He quickly bent his head lower, looking as engrossed with sorting already-alphabetized papers as he possibly could, and when he looed up again, the room had mostly emptied, leaving only Dory, Ken, and two particularly hypochondriac participants asking the million questions that they could answer just as easily by reading their packets. Rishi swore quietly that the next time he did a study, he would add 'intermediate reading comprehension' to the list of inclusion criteria.
At last, he made his way over to the pile of paperwork, sweeping everything into his arms so that the card was trapped inconspicuously between the folders and his chest. Nodding his thanks to Dory and Ken, who were in the middle of explaining for at least the third time why the injection had to be administered directly into the brain, he shuffled off through the lab and back to his station, his heart pounding, half-expecting a pair of strong, slender hands to reach out from every otherwise empty room and pull him inside.
But he met no one but employees on the way back to his station, and nothing out of the ordinary was waiting for him as he returned to his own desk -- only the card. He set down the files carefully, so as not to dislodge anything at all in the stack, and as soon as he was sure he wasn't being monitored, he took the business card and flipped it over.
It wasn't the first of these he'd received, nor the second or even the fifth. As the actual date of the study neared, the participants increasingly visited the Labs in small groups or all at once instead of individually, leaving none of them unsupervised for any respectable amount of time. The first time this had happened, and BT had come and gone without so much as an opportunity to be alone with Rishi for ten seconds, Rishi had walked out to his car that evening and seen the Café Legba business card tucked beneath his windshield wiper; on the face side, in dark pen, had been scrawled the words upstairs 11:30. Not even the strongest of all men, Rishi wagered, would have been able to resist that, or any of its subsequent invitations.
This card looked unaltered at first, and Rishi had to squint for a moment before seeing the 12:15 penned just beneath the place the keys touched. His heart sped to see it, and he took a deep breath before taking the card and placing it beneath the grapefruit-sized bronze statue that kept the books on his desk from falling over. It had been his father's, and on his deathbed he'd insisted Rishi take it -- elephant-headed Ganesha, bringer of good fortune, lord of the crossroads, god of overcoming obstacles. As the card slipped from his sight, he considered the weight of the gesture, wondering if putting it there should be read as a prayer, an offering, or a little bit of both. Of course, he believed in it about as much as he believed in anything scientifically unverifiable -- which was to say, hardly at all -- but about now, he'd take all the help he could get.
Date: August 14 at 10:39 AM
Subject: will one of you come take this?
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
for some reason the CDC delivery of the HVS got routed to me and I've got better things to do than sit around with an ice chest of viruses on my desk
Date: August 14 at 10:52 AM
Subject: re: will one of you come take this?
To: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Aww, that's cute, the CDC gave you the herp
Consider it done, I need to get to work on it anyway, the stuff needs at least a week to ferment, like a good beer
Date: August 14 at 11:04 AM
Subject: re: will one of you come take this?
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Then, if there are no objections, I'll reserve the wing and schedule the test date for two weeks from today.
Is anyone else getting excited?
Presumably, this business-card invitation (this time with an added come hungry! written below the telephone number) had been for dinner and sex, and in that order; Rishi hadn't so much as gotten inside the door, however, when BT pounced on him, pinning him to the door like he had on their first night before making short work of the distance to the bed, leaving a trail of discarded clothes along the way.
After they had collapsed against the bed in a heap of limbs, both satisfied for the time being, Rishi heard a hissing sound, and before he could even ask what it might be, BT was up and over in the kitchen area, turning down the burner beneath an over-boiling pot of water. "You're distracting me from my art," he clucked his tongue at Rishi. Without bothering with the rest of his clothes, he snatched an apron from a hook on the wall and tied it over his otherwise naked lower half. "Your fault if the rice is overcooked."
"My fault?" Rishi barely bothered draping the covers over his own exposed bits; he'd never really been one for casual nudity, but BT made it look like so much fun that it was hard to resist. "Here I was, minding my own business--"
"Nope. Your fault." BT insisted, turning and reaching for something on a high shelf, which gave Rishi a nice view of his bare backside. "How can I be expected to perform with distractions like this?"
Rishi shrugged, trying to look innocent, and propped the bed's entire complement of pillows up behind him, so he could better see BT at work. "You seem to be doing just fine to me." There was something soothing about watching him cook, like watching an artist paint or a musician play an instrument, the transfixing way they made the almost-impossible look effortless. It relaxed him, that much was obvious, as the quiet tension that seemed to string every muscle otherwise melted away when he had pots and pans and a stove before him. With a little smile playing on his mouth, despite his sometimes-frantic motion, BT appeared at peace.
A little timer on the counter gave off a quiet ding, and BT poured a plate of cut-up vegetables into a hot skillet, though the two things might have been unrelated, for all Rishi knew. The resulting sizzle made it hard to hear across the small room, and so Rishi waited until the hiss died down to speak again. "I've been meaning to ask: When did you get your tattoos?"
BT actually glanced down at the inked side of his shoulder, as though he'd forgotten they were there. "When I was seventeen and stupid," he said with a quick roll of his eyes.
"I think they look good," said Rishi, who had never really considered a tattoo, largely due to a deep-seated certainty that his mother would chide him from beyond the grave if he ever so much as set foot into a tattoo parlor. He was quickly discovering, however, that he liked them very much on other people.
"Thanks." BT took a small taste from the pot of rice and began adding what looked from a distance to be salt. "I mean, I don't mind that I have them. I even kind of like the way they look. I just wish ... they meant something. If I could call myself ten years ago, I'd say, hey, you want to get something marked on your skin for the rest of your life, that's your business, but make sure it's got meaning. Otherwise, why bother?"
"Well, what would you get now?"
"Legba's vévé." BT pointed his spoon in the direction of the ornate cross-shaped design by his door, the same one that curled across all the menus and walls in the restaurant downstairs. "And my mama and grandmama's names underneath it. Those never stop meaning things." His gaze grew distant for a minute, and his mouth lifted into a far-off smile. "She actually called this afternoon, my mother did. She doesn't like the telephone, but she checks in every now and then, tells me how my grandmama's health is, asks how I am." His smile began to fade. "...Asks me if I've got started on her grandchildren yet."
In that moment, Rishi felt impossibly small. "So, uh." He took a deep breath, tucked his legs under him, tried to think of some way to ask that wasn't a disaster. "So I guess she wants you to go through with the therapy."
BT's cheerful expression melted away completely, replaced with a blankness that almost masked the hurt beneath it. He cleared his throat, though it still took him several moments beyond that to speak. "...Yeah, she does," he nodded, keeping his face trained on the task in front of him. He reached for a small metal box and tapped its powdered contents over the pan of vegetables.
Rishi began to wipe his glasses clean on the sheets, not because the sheets were any cleaner than his glasses were already, but because it gave him an excuse not to see. "So, I guess I can't talk you out of it," he said, this time much more quietly.
From across the room, the sounds of stirring stopped, then began again with renewed intensity. "This ... change is something I've wanted for a long time." BT's voice was heavy, but strong and clear over all the other noise in the room. "Ever since I knew it about me."
A lump caught in Rishi's throat, and he pressed his lips together, willing it away. "I just thought we might...." He stopped the sentence almost as soon as he heard it start, feeling childish and whiny. He didn't know what he'd thought they might, because he'd known from the beginning how this would end, and pretending that he hadn't was just that -- pretending. It might even have been different if they'd met on their own, because at least then there'd still the argument of I didn't know!, but there was no room for that here. All forty-four candidates had been questioned and tested and questioned again to determine, to a degree of absolute certainty, that nothing else could possibly make them happy with themselves or with the world. And to think that he could change everything for BT just by sleeping with him was conceited at best, and downright cruel at worst.
Besides, what they were together -- what were they together? What could anyone call this, anyway? They got together for sex mostly, and for meals sometimes, and sometimes they just lay in bed together afterward and laughed together about meaningless things, and every time they said good-bye to one another there was never a guarantee that it would happen again anyway, so what made this time any different knowing it was the end? Did Rishi actually think that just because he spent pretty much every free second of every day thinking about BT, and had stopped either being able to remember how his life had felt before they'd met or being able to imagine how he'd ever go back to being that empty again, that the opposite had to be true as well?
To be honest, how else had he expected this to end?
"So I guess," Rishi said after several minutes' worth of silence, during which he had mostly tried to negotiate his way around the great hollow that had opened up inside him, "this was sort of supposed to be a breakup dinner." He hoped that it would go unnoticed that before you could break up with someone, you probably needed to have been dating in the first place.
BT sighed and took the lid off the pot of rice. "A little," he admitted, tasting it before turning the burner beneath it completely off.
Rishi swallowed, reaching for a pair of BT's discarded sweatpants that had somehow become lodged between the mattress and the bedside table. He pulled them on, tugging the drawstring as tight as it could go; he felt naked enough inside that he didn't need it to be true outside as well. As much as he hated it, he could see the logic of the timing; after all, the trial was Monday, so when else were they going to do it? He slipped his own well-worn t-shirt over his head and took his place on one of the high stools by the kitchen island. "I understand," he said, trying to sound as relaxed as possible. "Just ... are you sure?"
BT leaned forward as much as he could across the hot stove and looked Rishi straight in the eye. "Then cancel the trial. If you don't want me to do it, cancel the trial. Or kick me out of the study. You could have done it at any time." After a moment of locked gazes, Rishi looked away, ashamed of his own weakness. "See? We're both stubborn."
"That's different," grumbled Rishi, who knew that it wasn't.
"Cancel the trial," repeated BT with a shrug, as though the course of action were obvious, as though this were somehow all Rishi's fault.
"If you want out, drop out!" Rishi snapped back, feeling anger rise sharp in his throat. "You must've signed fifty thousand pages to get into this, and every single one said that you could drop out at any second, no questions asked, no repercussions! You're the one who could get yourself out! Why are you getting mad at me for being the one who doesn't--"
"So cancel the trial!"
"I can't!" Rishi slapped his palm against the countertop, creating a sharp crack that started him as much as anything. "It's not that easy! There's years of research, millions of dollars, the sponsors, my bosses, I'd have to explain everything to--"
"It's not that easy for me either!" BT put the lid back on the rice with far more force than strictly neccessary. "I've been dealing with this since I was five years old and I knew that I was different, that I wasn't ever going to fit in with the other kids or make mama happy by being a good, nice, normal son!" He snatched an empty pot from where it had been sitting too close to a burner and stuck it under the sink tap, sending up a hissing cloud of white steam as it cooled.
Rishi pulled his glasses from his face and rubbed the bridge of his nose hard, hard enough that it hurt and brought him back to focus. "I know," he said, in a voice barely audible over the crackling air. "I know, I know. I'm sorry."
BT's shoulders slumped, and he turned back toward Rishi, still keeping his eyes on his work, still not lifting his head. "I don't want to be different," he said, after a long pause. "I've got enough different to deal with already without having this too. I don't want to be special, march in any parades, wear rainbows, always be a little bit off. I want to avoid the entire equal-rights-special-rights debate completely. I just ... want a normal house and a normal family, normal kids, normal quiet life nobody notices. Just ... be quiet and get by. Just like everybody else."
Rishi bit his lips together to keep from blurting out, But you're so unlike anyone else I've ever met already,, mostly because he was sure it wouldn't make things better. Instead, he bent his head, concentrating on his breathing so hard he barely heard when BT asked: "Why didn't you kick me out of the study?"
"I never had a valid reason to." Rishi shook his head. "You met the criteria. You were a great candidate. Everyone thought so." He settled his bare feet on the other high stool, letting his knees bend close to his chest, as the ache grew and he swallowed hard to keep it from his voice. "I kept thinking there'd be something, somewhere, someone would catch. Anything. Except there never was."
A small pause sat on the air, and then BT said, "You could've made something up, and I would never have known."
The hell of it was, Rishi knew, BT was right -- he could've used his discretion to drop BT from the study for any number of reasons, and told BT some tall scientific tale about a potential allergy, the risk of a blood clot, a chromosomal anomaly, any one of the thousand reasons all the other initial study volunteers had been weeded out. He could even have made up some utterly imaginary syndrome or genetic marker and BT, who had no expertise in the subject, would never have known the difference. Just one fudged piece of paperwork, one mislaid decimal point, and Rishi would have lost a test subject but kept a lover who would never have known it should have been otherwise.
Except that, too, was a lie. "No." Rishi ran his fingers through his hair, tugging through a tangle so hard that the pain stung his eyes. "You would never have known." It wasn't Rishi's loyalty to science, or his career ambitions, or his desire to see a decade of patient work come to fruition; it wasn't even how he probably could never have looked BT in the eye again knowing that his selfishness had destroyed BT's lifelong desire for normalcy. It was that he didn't how how to face living on under the constant shadow of something BT had wanted even more than BT wanted him.
With a nod, BT transferred the vegetables to the pot with the rice, stirring out a puff of steam so expansive that the edges of Rishi's glasses went a little white with condensation. "Everybody's got something to answer to," he said, just as casually as though he were making a vague observation about life in general, and not trying to explain away their respective reasons for destroying their relationship, if it could even be called that. "So I wanted to have one last nice dinner for us. Before we each have to answer to it."
"Okay," said Rishi, because there was nothing left to say in his defense.
BT bent down and pulled a tray of bread from the oven, and Rishi frowned for a moment before realizing that it was naan. Leave it to BT to say good-bye with home cooking. "I have no idea how good this'll be; I've never made Indian food before." He poked a cookbook with pictures of curries and tandoori on the cover, so new that it still had the price sticker stuck to the back.
Rishi reached across the kitchen island and pulled off a piece of naan, waving it cool before putting it into his mouth. "Tastes great to me," he said, wearing a smile he didn't feel at all.
Dinner took place in relative silence, punctuated only by Rishi's praises of BT's cooking and BT's short tales of all the preparation and making that had happened before Rishi had arrived. After the last bite had been eaten, as if by mutual pre-arrangement, they both got up from their seats at the table and returned to the place on BT's bed where they'd started the evening. Rishi lay back against the sheets, and BT stretched out over him, and Rishi kissed the spices off BT's tongue.
He woke up at first light of dawn, weary and sick-feeling from having slept barely three hours, but he knew he had to go; he untangled himself from the mess they'd made of the sheets, searching the room in the dim glow from the windows for his clothes. He found them without much effort, able as he was mostly able to remember where they'd come off the night previous. From the alley outside, he could hear the heavy rumble of garbage trucks, which covered any noise he might have made. He needn't have worried, though, as BT slept soundly on through all noise and movement, his face buried in the pillow, the silhouette of his bare back lean and smooth against the deep red sheets.
For a moment, he lingered at the door, committing everything to memory -- the smell from the previous night's dishes and cookware, the good ache in his muscles, the way BT looked from a distance, quiet and beautiful, perfectly himself. And then, without leaving or taking anything that could be counted, Rishi slipped out the front door into the warm Philadelphia morning.
Record of Treatment
Modification of Preference in Adult Male Homosexuals by Gene Therapy on Somatic Cells (NCT00370316)
Dosage: 1 of 1
August 28, 8:47 AM
admin. by: Shah, R
She lowered herself into the chair opposite his in a way that had always made him think of melting ice, smooth and precise. "Hi," she said, reaching across the table and taking his hands.
"Hi yourself." Rishi turned his palms upright, catching her fingers inside of his. Mary was always so pale, especially compared to him; the age had begun to show in her hands, especially in the looser skin around her knuckles, but she wore it as elegantly as she ever had anything. "I ordered for us already."
"How do you know I didn't want something else this time?" She winked at him and crossed her legs at the knee.
Rishi shook his head and sipped at the scotch he'd decided to allow himself; by his metric, he deserved it and more. "Because some things don't change."
As though on cue, the waiter brought over two of the house specialty hamburgers, served on haystacks of sweet potato fries. "And some things do?" Mary asked as he left, one eyebrow cocked in a way that was meant to look innocent, and which Rishi knew from years of experience meant she was asking a question she already knew the answer to.
The only way to respond to this, Rishi had learned through those same years of experience, was with another question. "Have you been seeing a certain hypothetical patient again?"
"Hypothetically," Mary answered, jabbing at her fries with a fork, far too dignified in public ever to use her fingers. "I also hypothetically know that he's hypothetically at your hypothetical lab--"
"Oh, will you cut it out?" Rishi scowled at her with a mouthful of burger.
"Fine." She reached across the table and grabbed a sip of his scotch, swallowing it with a thoughtful smile. "Yes, Alan's been seeing me, both before and after the treatment. However, I also know that he's at your place of employment today, which makes me think that if you really wanted to know how he is, you'd be there, not here."
"It's complicated." Rishi sighed and poked at his fries; he didn't know why he'd agreed to talk about this over lunch, since every time he thought about BT, he wound up losing his appetite. "...I thought he might not want to see me."
Mary's eyebrow arched even higher toward her hairline. "Why would you think that?"
Rishi's desire for discretion went to war with his need for Mary's full cooperation as an informant, and what eventually tipped the scales toward the latter side was his certainty that she, of all people, would take any secret of his to the grave. "Because we ... were sleeping together," he said beneath his breath, waiting for her shock, her dismay, anything that indicated her disapproval; when he heard none of it, he looked up at her, only to see a smug smile quirk her lips. "You knew!" he growled, accusing her with his fork.
"Of course I knew." Mary shrugged. "It's my job to know."
"Did he--" Rishi began, then remembered their location and dropped his volume a few notches. "Did he tell you?" If BT had made a habit of letting this information slip, there could be consequences; Rishi was fine with Mary's knowing, as with Dory's, but there were still plenty of other people in the world who wouldn't be so forgiving.
Mary shook her head as she took a bite of her hamburger, then waited maddeningly until it was thoroughly chewed and swallowed to start speaking again. "He confirmed it when I asked, but he didn't have to tell me. He might as well have had on a t-shirt printed with the news from the moment he started talking about you."
Rishi frowned. "Then why didn't you tell me you knew?"
"Because I wanted to hear it from you." She wiped the corner of her mouth with her napkin. "Yes, he's feeling very well physically; no, he hasn't evidenced any major negative developments since undergoing your therapy; yes, he always spoke very highly of you; no, I'm not going to tell you anything else."
"Oh, pleading will get you nowhere." Mary whacked him on the knuckles with her fork, then snatched his scotch as he withdrew his hand. "Even if he weren't my patient, I can't conduct all your relationships for you. Sometimes you have to get out there and put your own self on the line. Unless," she added with a wry grin, "I'm given permission to provide just as much information about you to him...."
Rishi's frown turned into all-out stormclouds; to say this hadn't gone the way he'd hoped would have been the understatement of a lifetime. "Don't you dare."
"Oh, stop treating everything like it's the end of the world." She reached for his glass again, but this time instead of taking it, she nudged it closer to him. "...Look, you know I can't say a tenth of what I know, and not just because of doctor-patient privilege, but because it's plain not fair for one of you to have more information than the other. I give advice, not blueprints. You fuck this up on your own."
"It's already fucked up." Rishi obliged her by taking a drink slightly larger than he'd intended, and had to cough away the burn. "He's straight now, remember? And so, nominally, am I. So it's more than over, it's over and done with and every bridge torched behind me."
"Except you're still thinking about him."
With a sigh, Rishi leaned back against the padded booth seat and shut his eyes. "It's stupid. It's not like we were dating, or anything so dramatic. We just slept together a couple times, and then he took the cure. Short story short."
Mary opened her mouth as though to comment, but quickly diverted the gesture into another bite of hamburger, waiting again before speaking; her long pauses were her danger zones, the bits of tension where you didn't know what she was thinking and she might not ever tell you. "So if it's over, why are you asking me about him?"
"Because...." Rishi exhaled a long, deep breath through pursed lips. "I just want to know if he's okay. And I know he talks to you. So I thought you might know. That's all." As answers went, it was incomplete, but he honestly didn't have a better one to give. Everything about it was still so raw, so complicated, and Rishi didn't like what he'd learned about himself from it at all. Maybe he deserved being alone, if this was the best he could muster from a relationship, from a not-even-a-relationship. He'd never even asked BT what he'd thought they were, just kept going with him into closets and into restaurants and up the iron stairs to BT's apartment, eager -- desperate -- to spend every moment they could together. Now it was gone, he wasn't sure if it had ever meant anything at all.
Mary tapped her finger against the side of her jaw. "If every 'success' that comes out of this trial is because you've rigged the world's most convincing placebo, and performing what you claim to be a highly experimental medical treatment actually done nothing more than help push these men's psyches over the final hurdle to convince them of a capacity for opposite-sex attraction, is the whole thing still a success?"
Rishi shrugged, honestly at a loss for an answer. "I just make the data. I leave the interpretation up to everyone else."
She reached across the table and took his hand again, rubbing the spot on his left hand his wedding band had once circled. "I love you so much, you poor man with all your facts and numbers and no one around to tell you what they mean."
"Love you too," he smiled sadly back at her, feeling utterly at sea.
Date: September 25 at 3:38 PM
Subject: follow-up visits and other housekeeping matters
Attached is the revised schedule for all follow-up work and tests for our study participants; please make a note of your scheduled obligations, and try to let me know at least 24 hours in advance if a conflict arises.
Otherwise, initial results are promising! One of the participants had a mild reaction to the anaesthetic, but otherwise, there have been no complications reported either from the procedure's administration or from any later side effects. Further data are still too scattered to draw any conclusions from at the moment, but individual responses to opposite-sex stimuli appear on the whole more pronounced than in the pre-tests. As soon as we can, let's get these numbers crunched and to the media. The world wants to know!
Ken-- Can you call Frankfurt and see what their readiness status is?
Lu (and everyone else in Physiology)-- The Board of Directors should get back to me Monday, but I'd say there's a 90% chance your funding request will get approved. Congratulations, guys! I know you've been waiting on this one for a long time.
Rishi-- We missed you these last couple days, and are glad you're feeling better and back with us! Come stop by my office when you get a chance; I've got some things for you to sign.
Be sure to let me know ASAP about any other matters of interest. We're doing great work, people!
The knock on the door, loud enough to be heard over the pound of the rain, startled him from a doze, and only by sheer luck did he miss kicking his half-finished bottle of beer into the three others he'd left scattered on the floor by the edge of the couch, setting them all on a collision course with a heavy stone ashtray overflowing with cold cigarette ends. Rishi didn't think he'd drunk or smoked them all (respectively) that evening, but honestly had stopped keeping track. Still a bit bleary, he made his way downstairs to pick up whatever food delivery was waiting for him, remembering only as he turned the knob that, for at least the fourth day in a row, he hadn't remembered to summon anything for dinner at all.
He was so exhausted and tunnel-visioned from staring at numbers on a computer screen all day that he barely even registered the dark shadow on the other side of the front door as belonging to a human being until it stepped far enough into the light to show its familiar face. "Hi there." BT raised his hand in a little wave, and droplets of water fell from the elbow of his sodden hooded sweatshirt.
Rishi blinked a few times before remembering his manners. "Hi.... What are you doing here?"
"Out for a walk?" BT shrugged, giving a sheepish little smile that barely lasted long enough for Rishi to notice its having been there in the first place.
"From your place?" A quick check of his mental map of Philadelphia put that trek close to seven miles, maybe more. Rishi looked out past BT, past the edge of his porch, to where the rain was coming down in buckets; the first breaths of fall had begun to crisp the edges of the air, and the wind blew chill. "In this?"
BT shrugged again, this time with even less enthusiasm. "Look, I should go--"
"Come in." Rishi pushed the door open, and BT, who looked soaked through to the bone, stepped gingerly inside. He positioned himself as best as he could over the welcome mat, presumably to keep the dripping on Rishi's hardwood floors to a minimum. "So, how'd you find the place?"
"Phone book." BT pulled the hoodie back, and there were droplets of water caught in his close-cropped hair. He looked good, Rishi thought at first -- only as the lantern in the entryway caught his face fully, Rishi could see the dark hollows hanging beneath his light eyes, making him look old. Was that a side effect of the treatment? Had any other participants reported sleeplessness? He couldn't remember.
Well, it was still no excuse to let him stand there dripping. "Let me get you a towel," said Rishi, ducking into the laundry room just beyond the kitchen, where he always kept a few spare towels for situations just like this -- all right, he amended, as he snatched two for good measure, maybe not just like this.
"I won't stay," said BT, though he took both towels gratefully and began scrubbing at his exposed skin. "I just wanted to apologize, and I wanted to see you at the Labs, only every time I'm there now, they tell me you're not."
Rishi stuck his hands in his pockets, not even bothering to try denying that one. "Apologize for what?"
From behind the towel came BT's half-muffled confession: "I think I broke your experiment."
Of all things, that hadn't been something Rishi had expected to hear, possibly ever. "...You broke the experiment?"
BT nodded in all seriousness, causing another tiny rain shower around him. "It didn't work. I mean, it did, I think it did, but I think it really didn't." He was just drenched, Rishi slowly noticed, his jeans dark with water, even his shoes leaking little puddles past the edge of the welcome mat and onto the floor. The storm had been going on all day; how long had he been out there?
Rishi nodded, even though he didn't come close to understanding. "Did you tell Dr. Stepanova or Dr. Lau?" he asked, prompting for any information that might shed some extra light on BT's damp declarations.
Again, BT nodded, though this time he looked less sure of himself. "Just ... not everything."
"Okay, why not?"
"Because I know you don't want even them to know about us." BT gestured back and forth over the distance between them. "You and me."
So much for any fear that BT might have been indiscreet, Rishi thought, and hated himself immediately after for the instinct that put self-preservation first. "Can ... I mean, what...?" After a deep breath, Rishi nodded and tried his sentence again. "Okay, tell me."
"It worked," said BT again. "Women, I get it now, I can see what the appeal is, I've passed all the tests they've given me, I'm straight, I'm cured. Except--" BT balled his hands into fists at his sides, looking more honestly flustered than Rishi could remember having ever seen him before. "Except I can't stop thinking about you."
This time, Rishi was caught so off-guard that he had to grab the lip of the heavy china cabinet by the door to keep from falling over. "...I'm sorry, what?"
"I can't stop thinking about you!" BT repeated, though it was no less clear the second time than the first. "About you, about us. I can't stop! It's not what the treatment did or didn't do, it's you. It's not my genes, it's just ... you." He paused, closing his eyes, collecting his thoughts. "And I can't sleep because I thought I knew what I wanted, only when I got it, I still wanted you, except now I'm afraid I've fucked that up too."
Rishi couldn't recall ever having been so soundly knocked for a loop in his entire life. He might have considered pinching himself, to make sure he wasn't dreaming, but he dreamed in black and white, and here was BT with his bright red hoodie and his dark blue jeans and his light green eyes, dripping all over his floor in a very real manner. "Um," he said, and he was sure that wasn't the proper response. He cleared his throat, but nothing bubbled up from his brain to say that made any sense at all.
With a look in his eyes like he'd just gotten punched, BT turned and reached for the knob. "Hey, I should go--"
"BT, wait." Rishi grabbed a handful of BT's hoodie, and it squished in his grip, sending cold rainwater down his bare arm. "Don't go. Please. Don't."
"I'm sorry," BT murmured, his eyes still downcast. He pulled away again, and Rishi reached for him with both hands, holding on with a grip that made his knuckles go ashen, sure that if he let BT go, they'd probably never see one another again. They might not be sure what they had together, either of them, or what they wanted to do with it, but if BT left, that would absolutely be the end of it. And Rishi, for one, wasn't about to allow that to happen.
With another sharp tug, Rishi pulled BT closer to him, deeper into the house, farther away from the door. "Don't." BT was sturdy, but Rishi was determined, and that gave him the advantage. They took two steps together, then Rishi tripped over his third, and might have fallen over if doing so had not yanked BT close enough for BT to catch him. He stood there for a minute, his forehead resting against BT's shoulder, letting the rain seep through his own shirt and loose pants where their bodies met. "...God, you're soaked."
BT shrugged, though Rishi could feel a bit of a shiver thrumming beneath his skin. "It's a long walk."
"Come on." Beyond the point of taking 'no' for any answer, Rishi grabbed BT's hand and pulled him up the narrow flight of stairs. BT followed obediently behind him, down the carpeted hallway and into the house's single bathroom. The white on the tiles made Rishi think of the last time he'd seen BT, and he fisted his hands in the fabric of BT's hoodie to keep from showing that memory on his face. "Off." He tugged upward.
For a moment, he wasn't certain if BT thought this was a good idea, or even if he'd understood Rishi at all, but at last BT reached for the hems of his sweatshirt and shirt beneath it, pulling them both off in one long, upward stretch. Rishi placed a hand against BT's shoulder and frowned when the skin beneath was far cooler than skin should be. "Bottoms too." Avoiding demonstrating how that, ideally, should work, Rishi instead turned the tap on the shower all the way to the left. The hot water in his house always took a minute or two to heat up, so he might as well get it started.
When he was finished, he stood, though before he could turn back to check on BT's progress, he felt two strong, cool arms wrap around his waist, and warmer lips kiss the back of his neck just above where his t-shirt collar began. "I still want you," BT whispered, and for the second time in five minutes, Rishi felt in danger of toppling to the ground. "That didn't change."
Rishi laughed nervously, a self-conscious exhalation of breath. "It was supposed to," he sighed, leaning back into BT's arms even as he said it.
"Maybe, but it didn't." BT's arms tightened around Rishi's body, holding him tight, but still only holding him. "More than that, though? I miss having you to talk to."
"Yeah." Rishi swallowed. "Yeah, me too." He reached up to touch BT's hands, delicate and sturdy, so much strength in the bones and muscle just beneath.
"I miss cooking for you." BT kissed the back of Rishi's neck.
The mention of food reminded Rishi how long it'd been since he'd eaten, and how little he'd had for lunch. "Me too," he said. "I mean, I miss you cooking for me. You probably wouldn't miss me cooking for you at all."
BT laughed, leaning forward to kiss at Rishi's shoulder. "But you know what I really miss?"
"...What?" Rishi swallowed, bracing his feet against the possibility the answer would be something so intensely dirty that his knees might indeed give out.
"Waiting for you. When I knew you were coming over." The hot water seemed finally to have gotten the 'hot' part of the equation right, and a heavy mist began to creep up from the shower, teasing the ceiling with its tendrils. "So I'd close up at the restaurant, and go upstairs to my empty apartment, and not have to be sad or lonely because I knew you were coming. Any minute now, I knew you'd knock, and I'd let you in, and some nights I just couldn't stop smiling, knowing you'd be there soon."
"I--" Rishi took a deep breath, considering again the option of pinching himself, and let it out slowly as he nodded. "Oh, no matter how bad you got, I was probably worse."
"I can't imagine you mooning," BT grinned.
"Mooning and worse, just ask Dory," said Rishi, who was blushing now, but figured they'd both come too far to bother stopping now. "I once knocked over an entire cart of petri dishes -- had to be a hundred of them -- just walked right into them because ... well, I was thinking about your hands."
"Your hands. God, I love your hands." Rishi brushed the backs of BT's knuckles with his fingertips. "Hasn't anyone told you before how amazing your hands are?"
BT shook his head, seemingly honestly surprised. "So," he said, his voice taking on a wicked tone, "what do you like about my hands?"
Rishi was saved from giving a precise answer, however, as the exposed shower pipes gave a noisy little shudder, and he freed himself to go set the temperature control farther back to the right. This time, when he turned back, BT was entirely naked, his clothes puddled together against the bathroom floor. Rishi's body had been up until that moment divided on where all his blood should go -- to his cheeks, which by now he assumed must have reached the exact shade of cherries, or to his penis, which had generally been upset with him ever since he and BT had gone their separate ways. This, however, solved that conundrum in an instant. "Come on," said BT, placing one of those hands Rishi liked so much against his chest, before stepping beneath the spray.
Like all of BT's other offers, this one was impossible to refuse. Rishi stripped out of his clothes as fast as he could, then pulled back the curtain and stepped inside.
He'd never taken a shower with someone else before, and could see how, as a practical arrangement, things could get complicated, especially with the logistics required to get the shampoo (at one end of the bathtub) and wash it out (at the other), to say nothing of how it might become difficult for two soapy bodies to rinse off simultaneously. Practicality be damned, however, this was nice, just to stand there beneath the warm water, with BT's body pressed next to his. He linked his arms around BT's shoulders and pressed his forehead to the side of BT's neck. "Warm enough?" he asked, spitting water out of his mouth even as he did.
"Getting there." BT circled both their cocks with his long fingers, slicking them together between their bodies. "Could be warmer."
Rishi shivered and clung to BT's body, steadying his shoulder against the tile wall to make sure they didn't both go slipping down and breaking their necks or worse. His hair fell into his eyes, so he closed them, letting himself concentrate on the softness of BT's body, the rhythm of his touch, the steady pound of the water down his back lulling him into a grey state of warmth and safety, where arousal and contentment swallowed all sense of time, and the world beyond the shower curtain might as well have ended. "I've got you," BT murmured, pressing his lips into Rishi's damp hair. "I'm right here." And the wonder of it all was, he was.
After what might have been hours or even days -- but was probably closer only to minutes, considering that his feeble hot water heater was still holding up -- Rishi gasped and came into BT's hand, feeling his own come splash sticky and warm across his belly before the water from the shower washed it away. Only a few moments beyond that, BT's breath hitched, and Rishi felt his hips jerk against Rishi's body before they settled. With the spray streaming down their bodies, BT wrapped both his arms now around Rishi's waist and just clung to him, letting everything hang unspoken, letting all the aches and grief wash down the drain.
At last, BT gave a small chuckle, and Rishi lifted his head to see BT contemplating his wrinkled fingertips with a bemused expression. "I've become a prune," he observed sadly.
There seemed only one proper response to the situation, and so Rishi leaned over and took BT's finger in his mouth, dragging his tongue across the oversaturated folds of skin and tasting the salt still lingering beneath. "Can't be. I hate prunes." He gave another lick, and was pleased to feel BT's cock stir against his thigh.
"That's because you've never had them the right way." BT's attempt to remain calm and collected in the face of Rishi's sucking on his finger was charming. "There's pruneaux d'Agen, there's stewed prunes with cinnamon, I've made a mean dark chocolate, pecan, and prune tart--"
Rishi bit down hard, just long enough to turn BT's recitation of prune recipes into a quick yelp, then turned around and switched off the water. "I still don't like them."
"You can't know you don't like them if you've never had them when I've made them."
"Some things you just know."
"Then maybe," said BT as he stepped out of the shower, grabbing both towels on the nearby rack and handing the larger one to Rishi, "your next scientific exploit should be to find the prune gene."
Rishi rolled his eyes. "With the way my luck runs, I'd fall in love with one the night before the test and skew the results anyway."
He'd meant it as a joke, a mostly harmless quip, but when he looked up from his drying business again, BT had paused, and was regarding him with a curious smile that reached all the way to his marvelous eyes. "Then I'd say the way your luck runs must be pretty good."
As Rishi grabbed both sides of BT's face and pulled him close for a long, deep kiss, he had to admit that was probably right.
Excerpt from Salon.com, 'Genome-sexuality':
in their minds. Which, of course, leads to the last question I'm always asked: Was this a failure?
I know I said this several times before the experiment began, but it bears repeating: Information is never failure. We know more now than we did before we started, and by even that small measure, this has been a success.
The greater success, however, has been the study's confirmation of that which we have known all along -- that we, as human beings, are infinitely complex creatures, born from and sustained by intricate webs of connectivity, the result of trillions upon trillions of biological games of chance. And even beyond that, our bodies are capable of compensating, learning, growing, and changing in ways that sometimes fly gleefully in the face of what we know of science.
For the eleven study participants who now identify themselves as primarily to exclusively opposite-sex oriented, what the therapy changed was sufficient to alter their biological criteria for sexual interest. For the seven who still identify themselves as primarily to exclusively same-sex oriented, it was not. And for the twenty-six who now claim territory somewhere between these two extremes, the change was measurable, but not all-encompassing.
Our response to these numbers should not be to stamp our feet angrily and wonder what went wrong, but to stand in awe of human diversity. Even if, as some have argued, we are no more than the sum of our parts, we can still take comfort in how those parts form a brilliant mess of possibilities and contradictions.
To claim that there is a single 'gay gene', at the end of the day, denies both the great complexity of the human genome and the importance of our lived experiences. Sexuality is not an either/or proposition, where sexual preference can be attributed entirely to biology or entirely to conscious selection. Sometimes we are pulled along by our genetic legacies, and sometimes we pull them along behind us, despite all odds, into the lives we choose to make for ourselves.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dr. Rishi Shah is the chief geneticist at Brightman Labs. He, his partner of two years, their two foster sons, and four dogs live in Philadelphia.
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