This story first appeared in my collection The Finest Ass in the Universe, Ticonderoga Publications, 2015.
That loser suckup lab assistant Eugene something had begged Libby Purfouy to watch how she worked. Sure, he’d been a bit creepy with all his obsequiousness, and so unambitious-acting that she’d had suspicions; but he had proved himself to be so careful to label scrupulously, store everything in its proper place, and keep out of her way that she had given in and let him know that she did her real work late at night, really late, “so if you’re willing to watch and keep out of my way, you can come.”
It was the watching that she hadn’t properly thought out.
He was so attentive to her that he could have been a guide dog. It was unnatural and a bit nauseating. But this silent undemanding waiting-upon her every need was so damn useful and hell, both flattering and unthreatening. He couldn’t have learned anything much from watching her. And washing up after her wasn’t anything any other lab assistant saw as a path to glory.
She was working with a type of bacteriophage that had played a key role in a tubeworm’s digestion mechanism when the phone in her pocket rang. At 3am, there could only be one reason. She fumbled for it, feeling scooped out in her gut. If only she had convinced her parents to move into her apartment. He could have been resting here now on a couch by the wall where she could keep an eye on him, pop a nitro under his tongue when he turned grey.
“Mom?” she said, to some reply she couldn’t make out. Maybe from her mom’s most celebrated on-stage self, the ostrich-tailed Lady Carlotta LaRou.
“Las Vegas General? Intensive Care?”
“We are sorry if this is a wrong number. We are looking for Doctor Libby Purfouy.”
“I’m Doctor Purfouy. He’s not . . .” She couldn’t say it.
“Doctor Purfouy, we are sorry to disturb you at this hour.” The foreign accent and manner would have been charming at another time, maybe a palace ball, but now the formality infuriated her as much as hospitals and their euphemisms always had.
“Disturb! He’s my dad, fuck it. You’ve got him stabilised?”
“Doctor Purfouy, I am sorry to hear that your father is unwell, but we are calling you from the Royal Academy of Sciences in Stockholm. My name is . . .”
* * *
The solemn Swedish man, she didn’t catch his name, must have been used to inane reactions, and had been very gracious about ignoring her crudeness when she thought he was a hospital drone. But she used all her roused skill in repressing her real thoughts once she realised that the call wasn’t a prank and that in hours the world would know her (and Kadambini Bhattacharya) as the newest Nobel Laureate(s). The Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Freedom and respect. She would no longer have to pretend that the scorn of other scientists didn’t hurt. After all, it’s only so long you can pose as someone who doesn’t give a shit when people sneer at your work, call it pseudoscience--when they damn you by your associate. Now she could walk the halls with her shoulders back, and throw herself into research that might be loopy as anything Hawkins would spout, and she would never again have to worry that her work might be considered not worth considering for funding. Hell, she could start her own institute, but what to study next?
Of course she had hoped. What scientist doesn’t? And though she knew that her and Bini’s discovery could, would change millions, hundreds of millions of lives, this Nobel had to have been singularly argued. She couldn’t help thinking of the headlines. She would have to be the youngest recipient ever at 31, but then that worldly board that made the decision might have had a wry chuckle at her joke in that interview in Science, “amoebic dysentery isn’t anything that a body can ignore, any body.”
All this flashed through her mind as on another level, she maintained a short and dignifiedly friendly chat with the man in Stockholm. It seemed like she’d been covering for her whirling brain for an hour but it was only three minutes later that she thanked him politely, expressing again her surprise and humbleness, and then ended the call by saying that she must get back to work. “I usually work now when I can be least disturbed, though you can disturb me this way any time, hah hah.”
He apologised again for disturbing her in the midst of an experiment, saying “I always seem to interrupt scientists in the middle of the night, and the middle of an experiment.” Then he said he’d look forward to meeting her plane when she arrived for the December ceremony, that he liked to meet all the laureates personally, and then hung up to save her the awkwardness.
She thought for a moment about Bini in Mumbai, who was probably now having a party surrounded by her department at the institute, and would later be stuffed with sweets by her extensive family.
Maybe I should ring her. No, if she wants, she can ring me.
She dropped the phone in her lab coat and took her feet off the desk, jumped out of her chair, dumped her coat over its back, and danced--eyes closed, arms close to her sides so they didn’t hit equipment, but otherwise her whole body in play.
Her ass wasn’t just bossily leading her dance as it tended to. It was a real mutt of a dance in its swishes, sways, rolls and bounce--a cross between a deliriously happy dog and Las Vegas showgirl.
She sang as she danced, used stirrers as drumsticks against the glassware.
When Security called through the door, she stopped.
“It’s okay, Charles.”
“Roger, Doctor.” He was her favourite, and as she told him, might have been a scientist if brought up in another family. “Discover something?” he asked.
“No such luck tonight.”
“Can’t have that every night,” he said reassuringly. “Still, I’m glad to hear you keepin’ up your spirits.”
She left the lab and walked out into the balmy Santa Barbara night. Charles walked out with her and watched her unlock her bike. He was unhappy that she didn’t let him call her a cab. “Can’t have anyone followin’ you,” he always said. He was sweet, but old.
She answered back with “Who you kiddin’? I’m a lady scientist,” which he accepted without further comment. It had become a routine between them. Anyway, Santa Barbara is such a village of a place that she would have jogged home if it didn’t make him way too nervous.
The moment she got under the covers, she remembered Eugene, and shrugged. He’d heard other phone calls from her, reminding her dad to take his pills. Other phone calls with hospitals. He must have left as soon as the phone rang.
Sleep was impossible and it was too early to ring her dad and sister. Her stomach felt like a filled and tumbling washing machine
She made herself a cup of coffee and dumped in, after a hunt, a dash of vodka that someone had given her. It was--interesting. As interesting as any of her own cooking.
So she got on the web, to distract herself with something mindless and silly.
And wow, this should be good. Something that from the headlines looked to be more viral than H5N1:
Who Says Scientists Don’t Have Big Brains?
Do This To My Test Tubes, Baby!
By the time she got to Lab Laureate Shakes it Up, she was gasping for air.
That little shit! His name was there in the brh corner, copyright. Sure, he’d been pirated probably a million times by now, and America hadn’t even woken up, but he’d sold the first rights to someone, or tried to. She tried not, but couldn’t help but read an interview with him.
“She’s a really nice lady, you know . . . Yes, she IS kinda weird . . . No, in regular work hours she doesn’t wear shorts to the lab . . . No, honestly, I haven’t noticed that about her . . .”
All the stories had the same quotes, so she gave them a break and looked instead, at that thing that you couldn’t avoid. It streamed now into the room from her laptop, phone, and pad.
She felt sicker than when she thought her father had just died.
The screens were filled with her wagging butt.
It was apparently being sent around (when do people sleep?) stirring up a storm of words. Tweets were turning into headlines, posts, the stories that spread because they spread, turning more virulent the more they infect, changing strains to keep infection lively.
The Bump and Grind of Science
Book a Laureate-o-gram for your Bucks Night!
Chickflick makes Nobel the butt of jokes
Crap queen drags Nobel into muck
High honor, low morals
Too Young to Know Better
The Tail that Wags Science
What can you expect from a copraphiliac?
Gen Why Makes Alfie Nobel Roll in Grave
This Nobel Laureate will take her Prize money in 20s, in her G-String
She forced herself to pick up a scalpel, plunge it into her arm, and strip out her veins. Actually, she forced herself to go offline. It felt like all the pain of a torturous death without the result one should expect: the peace of oblivion.
She hid in bed, even from devices that she couldn’t cut off.
People rang to be let up. She put cotton in her ears. Tried to read a biography of Madame Curie, a stupid idea; then a collection of Judy Horacek cartoons, which didn’t work. Then had such a long shower that her skin pruned but still didn’t feel clean. Slept, woke, took a lot of food to bed, ate till she felt worse, tossed cartons and wrappers to the floor, curled up and passed out again. Had another shower, got in bed and tried to sleep again.
At 3pm she gave in and peeked. Some pollster sleaze “news agency” that would make the most of it, was making headlines with its snap poll.
Not only had 78 percent of women said that they would rather be known for having the “finest ass in the universe” but that they’d prefer that to getting a Nobel in Medicine.
The top headline in Google News.
Experts debate latest laureate’s lack of visible pantyline
At six she rang her parents in Las Vegas. He answered the phone. “How’s tricks?” same as he always did, making his little joke at the expense of science. He’d been an electrician and off-season magician in the casinos, and had come out of retirement to work himself to a heart attack, so proud he’d been of his daughter going into science, and not only that, but performing “tricks” that could maybe make real magic, as antibiotics had. He had followed as well as he could, the scientific basis of her work, as well as the social side; her lead role in the development of what one report called erroneously, “beautiful poo.” He had always believed her brilliant. “My little rabbit,” he’d called her, and she would wiggle her imaginary puff of a tail.
She was only wiggling now with shame. “I’m so sorry, Dad,” she blubbered.
“What’s that, Bunbun?” he said. “You can do it. If that experiment failed, you’ve got to . . .”
He didn’t know. He didn’t look at trash.
“Dad, shut up before the waterworks come again. Mom, are you on the other phone?”
“Of course, Libby. What is the problem? You can always come home if everything’s bad there. Horrible place, California.”
“Geez, Mom. I wonder what you’ll say when you go to Sweden. And Dad . . . Dad,” She stifled a hacking sob. “You’re forbidden to have another heart attack until at least next year. You’ve got to see me on stage, picking up my Nobel Prize.”
One phone dropped, and Libby heard her father whooping up a storm, stamping on the linoleum floor. She could only imagine his saggy butt flopping in its trousers.
The other phone went dead after a quick “Love you, Libby, Gotta make sure Dad doesn’t overdo.”
Libby laughed till she cried. The most unreal thing in her life had just pulled her mom, for the first time in years, out of unreality.
Her mom had never understood why she wanted to work at what were often lower wages than a hotel maid in Las Vegas, let alone with “even more dangerous filth.” And Libby’s father had been so proud of her wanting to be a real scientist, but never understood how she could “do experiments with someone in another building,” so she hadn’t mentioned to them now, had never mentioned Kadambini Bhattacharya. She could just imagine her mother’s reaction: “How can anyone live with a name like that?” Anyway, Libby didn’t know what even her father would think of her working with someone in India, especially after she brought back at 18, not that boyfriend he had warned her about (Todd dumped her the first time she couldn’t hold her shit), but a case of the runs that almost killed her, and certainly changed her life.
She and Todd had been on the Grand Trunk Road, in a bus that was so crowded that she was sitting on her pack on the floor in the back, when it happened. She’d been trying not to vomit from the heat, the diesel fumes coming in the open windows, the jerky way the bus driver sped, swerved and hit his horn; the miasma of India--crushed-together humanity, an intimacy of natural body odours and spices; and on this bus which must have carried three times the stated passenger limit, one passenger limit at least (and most of the floor) filled by huge bags of onions that many of the passengers were carrying to market.
Suddenly she forgot her nausea. She desperately needed the bus to stop. She had to get out. Todd was jammed in beside her, sitting on his own pack, his face streaming sweat but his head bobbing to what was streaming through his earphones. She grabbed his arm and he looked at her with annoyance--not that he could have done anything with that mass of people, goods, and those hundreds of kilos of onions between them and the door.
With a slight grumble that only she would have been able to hear, her bowels didn’t wait. Like a silent fart, the air was blasted with stench. But this hadn’t been a fart, and the smell wasn’t rich. It was unbelievably acrid, poisonous. And it was wet. People turned to look accusingly at Libby and Todd.
Libby’s seat felt horribly warmed. Before she had a chance to think about whether the shit had gone through her underpants and into her khaki cargo pants, her bowels spurted out another liquid explosion. She clenched her sphincter, but that was as effective in stopping the flow as trying to shove a cork back in a bottle of champagne.
She squirmed but couldn’t really move, and neither could anyone else.
Someone nearby yelled a few urgent or angry words, and they were passed up along the passengers till they must have reached the driver. He beeped his horn even more wildly than he had before, and slewed to a stop cutting in between a camel caravan and a lorry.
All around her, people shifted. Bags of onions were pulled aside, and she saw that the bottom of one of them was soaked.
The bus door opened up front with a rusty sigh.
Todd jumped up and space was somehow made for him. “I’ll get you something,” he said, rushing out. She couldn’t see him but heard him say “Excuse me” a few times, and then a bunch of other people got up, more and more of them in the front. She couldn’t get up. Anything she could clean up with, cover herself--it was all in the pack, the pack which was now soggy with stuff that had run down its sides and wet the backs of her legs. She’d moved her legs away from the pack though that moved more stench out into the air, and now some short hairs on the back of her calves were being lightly pulled, as from a drying facepack.
People were saying things to her, but no one spoke English so she did all she could think to do--smile shamefacedly at them and motion an apology. She had to wait till Todd came back with a sarong or something, something to cover her and her pack so she could get off the bus and somehow, clean up.
Her gut cramped again, and her bowels let go again, this time with a long hiss and series of pops.
She almost slipped off her pack, and couldn’t look at anyone, but the whole bus erupted in yells.
Someone poked her in the kidneys. Another pulled her arm. People pressed away as she was poked and shoved to a standing position. They gave even more space for her pack that she had to pick up and carry, dripping, toward the door. Someone pushed her out, and she fell to the dust beside the road, her shit-frosted pack hitting her head.
Todd was nowhere to be seen. His pack! The bus took off with his pack while he’s looking for something he can buy, something to help me off the bus, but then she remembered a detail of him leaving--he’d casually slung his pack over his back.
Oh yes, Todd and shit were inseparable--and they certainly had changed her life. As had the kind doctor out with his family in his funky old Indian car that had been cared for with love but that he poo poohed with an Indian headshake, saying, “Increase of material comforts, madam, does not in any way whatsoever conduce to moral growth.”
For a few more minutes, she forgot about her current disaster. But she had to call her sister in New York.
“Calm down, Juliette,” she said, which only opened up a fresh onslaught of accusation.
Juliette Adorina, an opera singer in the chorus at the Met, had been having her late breakfast, with headlines. She was livid. “Do you remember that tomorrow is Saturday and you promised to take Clare for a week while I tour?”
Libby had forgotten. Clare was due in LA airport at 11 pm. “I’ve not forgotten at all,” she snapped. “Don’t worry about her, and have a good tour.”
She hung up cutting her sister off in the middle of something that sounded nasty.
* * *
The stewardess met Libby, Clare in tow. “Such a beautiful child,” she said. “She was such a pleasure.”
Clare smiled shyly at the stewardess and took Libby’s hand. In Clare’s other hand a theatrical mask dangled from a cord. She was wearing a cloak that matched the mask, thick green velvet with an elaborate gold toggle. She might have stepped straight from the stage at the Met.
Libby snorted when they were out of earshot. “You should be illegal, you’re so enchanting.”
She stopped and blew up a red balloon, handing it to the child. It was really something she had done for herself, thinking it might make her feel more festive. But she’d forgot to bring string, so it looked more than anything, like something biological.
Clare took hold of the balloon. “D’you bring anything decent I could change into?”
“Sorry,” Libby said. “C’mon. You’ll just have to suffer the looks till we get to my car.”
“You should know, sweet cheeks.”
Libby swung round.
“Has your mom--uh,” She tried not to badmouth her sister even though Juliette obviously felt no such scruples.
“Mom wouldn’t have known. I saw it first and showed her. I didn’t know she’d go ballistic. It’s a hoot.”
They were walking fast, and had almost made it to the car park. Libby looked down at her ten-year old niece, a strange one, that. The halogen lights were so strong now at midnight that they made human skin take on the sick gleam of hot dogs in a gas station. Yet the girl was, even in this setting, almost impossibly beautiful, as innocent looking as a day-old chick. Her talk, however. She could have posed online as a thirty-something with too much experience to remember. Libby could almost believe in reincarnation, listening to this child. Clare had the rather bored mien of a 19th century courtesan who wore her victims like a train. Her wit was channelled through a 21st century Mae West. Libby hated thinking what the girl would grow up to be. Life was so full of falseness that Clare couldn’t help but have a face creased by total cynicism before she was 17.
At 10, however, she gleaned from the meanest nastiness, the most sophisticatedly innocent fun. She was a hoot to be with. She broke from Libby’s side and pulled the mask on. “What level’s it on?”
“C3. Be careful.”
“I’m a nutcracker.” Clare tripped ahead, leaping and twirling as she ran. With that mask over her eyes, her glossy hair streaming over the snap and flow of her cape, she could have been a prima ballerina on Mars, so misplaced was she in this mundanity.
* * *
“You mean you’ve just hibernated? Like, been literally in the dark? Not communicated?”
They were sprawled on pillows, polishing off a package of oatmeal cookies.
“Give me a break,” Libby said. “Tomorrow I’ll catch up. Work my whole life for what? To be turned from a fool who disgraces science by my crackpot ideas, to now, a chick with an ass.”
“Will you grow up already?” Clare rolled over, her child’s bottom covered in faded flannel. With her thrift shop pyjamas she looked like some Christmas appeal poster. It was one of her affectations, a fad that Libby catered for, their little secret. In New York Clare was always dressed in the most theatrical getups. She was already a fashion chameleon in the pages of Vogue, and not in children’s clothes. Libby was her escape in so many ways.
Libby changed the subject. “Want to do microscopy now, or sleep?”
“I’ve got some disgusting stuff to look at, yeah. But that’s for later in the week, if there’s a chance. But I don’t think there will be.”
“I’ve got enough food for us to stay here till you leave.”
“But you won’t have the time.”
“Too late. Nah nah nah nah NAH!”
Libby waved her iphone in Clare’s face. On it was a headline:
India explodes in rapture
Libby grabbed for the phone but Clare was too fast.
“From the Times of India,” she said. “Hundreds of thousands of Indians celebrated in the streets today as they cheered the first Indian woman to win a Nobel prize; and not only that, but the prestigious Award for Medicine. Many view this as the first time in living history that an Indian who is proud to be an Indian, in India, has become a Nobel Laureate. Today Kadambini Bhattacharya was announced to be the latest Laureate along with her co-winner who also worked on the discovery, American Libby Purfouy. Dr Bhattacharya has dedicated the past thirty years of her life to fighting the scourge of amoebic dysentery and now thanks to her, not only will the poor millions in India (and in many other countries) no longer lose their lives let alone their work from this debilitating infection, but, she adds pointedly, ‘so will many tourists.’“
Clare looked up. “Should I read on?”
“We found the modest woman, who looks like a simple grandmother, at her pocket-sized office in the venerable Institute of Sciences in Mumbai. She said that she was pleased and humbled by the Prize. She also said modestly that she couldn’t have achieved the breakthrough without the help of the brilliant young scientist who shares the Award, Dr Libby Purfouy, who Bhattacharya considers a ‘daughter of Lilavati’ and affectionately thinks of as the ‘child I never had’. For this dedicated professional had to forsake the joys of having her own children in the quest to do good for the nation and the world. She was instrumental, however, in helping other women to work in sciences in this country. And she is almost militant in her insistence that India is a place to stay in to make discoveries.
“When asked if she would move to, say, Harvard, like other Indian Nobel winners who had moved abroad years before they won, she answered with a touch of anger. ‘Why? If Indians hadn’t saved their bacon, both American IT and biological sciences would have dried up like a smear of yesterday’s dal. And any cursory glance at science papers in America would tell you that our unpronounceable names are everywhere, not just the USA but the world. We must have been doing something right, or they would not have wanted these exports of ours.’ Your reporter thought that this little woman had subsided, but Dr Bhattacharya had only paused for breath. ‘Many people have said that Harvard is heaven,’ she said, ‘but you’ve got be dead to be in heaven. Besides,’ she said, adjusting her mango-and-lime sari, ‘Heaven’s got too many rules. I’d hate to have to dress in widow white.”
Clare stopped because of a sound that her aunt made, but Libby waved her hand to continue.
“Dr Bhattacharya is a fine mixture of fiery-eyed militant and jolly joker. Every morning she can be found amongst the devotees of laughter, making seriously raucous noise for thirty minutes under the gaze of the Taj Hotel. Of her choice to not marry, she referred quite irreverently to Gandhi, by saying, ‘He devoted himself to a cause and made his own children and spouse suffer. I make no one suffer when I work through the night, nor have I needed to learn how to make good lime pickle. I’m afraid that I even burn chapattis. But as Auntie, my family gets the best from me and I can give to them, and the nation.’“
“Does it end there?”
“No, but don’t you want me to find what everyone’s saying about you now?”
Libby made a grab but Clare slithered away and continued.
“This reporter asked Dr Bhattacharya what her reaction is to the erroneous conviction of millions of Indians, that she is the ‘first Indian woman’ to win the Nobel, when in fact, as we reminded her: Mother Teresa of Indian citizenship won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 for what the Nobel committee called her ‘work in bringing help to suffering humanity.’ The good doctor raised an eyebrow. This seemed to be her comment but then she delivered what might have been a mini lecture. ‘The discovery that Dr Purfouy and I have made is only a pixel in the bigger picture. India’s problems are really no different to those of every nation’s, indeed, of the world. Clean water and sanitation can only be achieved by civil action, just as you can’t clean up corruption by scientific discovery. Did you know that France’s water was a source of disease and result of corruption until really quite current times? There is no reason why wealthy Parisians shouldn’t be yearning to drink, say, bottles of Mother Ganges water instead of wealthy Indians guzzling Perrier.’ Her eyes flash when she talks, and she has an especial scorn for bottled water, which she says only keeps an inadequate system propped up in its inadequacy while making crores of ruppees for big-business bottlers.
“Her work has been supported by grants from the National Science Academy. When asked about how much she has received in contrast to her colleague in the USA, she said that she didn’t know, but that she had done much better than the American scientist, receiving perhaps a tenth of the funds that the American would have been able to get. ‘But we cost so much less here so we can do so much more with less’ is how she explained the discrepancy.
“When asked again if she would consider going to the United States, she said that she is not interested in trying to find cures for mortality in the wealthy over-eighties or cures for wrinkles in the under-forties. When asked if she considers herself a radical economist, as some have labelled her for fighting all attempts to patent her and Purfouy’s breakthrough cure, that eyebrow rises again, like Shiva’s trident. Then she delivers a big belly-shaking laugh. This is one Auntie you don’t want to cross.”
Clare looked up as smoothly as a newsreader. “I always wondered why you never told me much about her before. Now I know. She’s pretty awesome. Let’s see what else--”
“At 3am? It’s way past your beddybyes.”
Clare bounced onto her feet. “How about ice cream?”
Libby blushed. She had bought a carton of Clare’s favorite, but it vanished between her bouts of escapist sleep. She picked up her keys. “Let’s have an early breakfast.”
Clare stuck her feet into a pair of slippers with a bad case of mange and pulled a hoody on over her pyjamas.
“Stop,” she said as Libby opened the apartment door. Clare tweaked the curtain. “As I suspected.”
Libby slammed the door so fast that Clare giggled. “They’re just douches out there with cameras, not a disease.”
“I can make eggs.”
“With what you make them do,” said Clare with a shudder, “I’m not surprised persuasion hasn’t worked.” She tossed her pack to Libby. “Lucky one of us plans well. Open it.”
Clare always travelled light to her aunt’s place, since Libby was entrusted with keeping all the clothes that Clare loved wearing. This time, however, Clare’s little carry-on pack was stuffed with drab used men’s clothes, a Budweiser baseball cap, a half-tube of glue and a scruffy beard-and-mustache.
“You don’t look half bad,” she said after she’d stuck the facial hair on her aunt.
“I sorta divined. Lucky I saw the stuff while I was still at school. First time I’ve ever got anything worthwhile from going to the School of the Performing Tarts.”
They made their escape with Clare bent over under a blanket--a groaning sick child being taken to the hospital by her loving sleep-deprived dad.
The paparazzi and “news teams” were on wait, not watch at this hour; but didn’t pay the two more than a glance, not even considering the man as someone who might know the woman.
Libby drove to a 24-hour donut place on Carrillo Street, and then to Clare’s favorite picnic place. Resting the cups of hot chocolate and coffee on the stones, and dipping into the big paper bag, they sat in the cemetery, taking their time working their way through cinnamon-sugar, jelly-filled, Boston cremes, and Long Johns. They ate and drank to the sound of waves, till their presence had been noted by the seagulls, who got three donuts.
Libby folded up the trash. “Do you want to walk on the beach?”
“Why would I?”
Libby wondered how Clare could bear to be out here so--naked. Clare had left her phone at the apartment, and didn’t even act jumpy. She must have left it purposely, a state of being that Libby had never reached, though when Libby thought about what she got from the thing, a new state of sick panic took over her stomach again. Clare said nothing now, seemed oddly self-sufficient. Again, Libby thought it both weird and natural that this child could possibly be her best, probably her only friend.
“Libby,” said Clare. “Have you ever been to India?”
“A long time ago. I got very sick.”
“That’s a no-brainer.”
“Hey, young lady. What’s all this about?”
“Go to a place like that, and what do you expect?”
“Eat a school lunch and get sick from FDA-approved pink slime, and what can you expect?”
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry. But what happened?”
“I got sick, is all. And it made me think of how we need to do something to stop this kind of thing.”
“Good we cleared that up.”
“No we didn’t. You’re harder to open than a giant clam.”
Libby flushed. Sometimes it seemed that life was one long series of embarrassments. The doctor--she never did catch his last name, and his first couldn’t have been Sandy, but that’s how she remembered him--the doctor must have been tortured by his quandary, where to take this foreign visitor to whom he had apologised so profusely for his country having “poisoned” her with its “unsanitaries”.
“Our hospital is having a shameful state of unrepair,” he said over the poisonous blurts of Libby into the back seat of the car. Libby groaned at the image of some hellish hospital, and the thought of being abandoned there terrified her. “Can’t you just take me to your place?” It was either there or dying, she almost didn’t care anymore. Her stomach hurt so much that she put herself to sleep, an ability she had always had when she needed to escape.
Whereever the family had set out for on their drive, Libby had never known. She was installed in a high, airy, room darkened by the huge mango tree that hung over the old house and the dense, flower-filled front garden. The walls inside and out reminded Libby of sweated-into shirts. They all had rough, ugly lines of stain where no paint would adhere, but mould and mildew congregated. The smells inside the house were such a mixture of decomposition and flowering, spice and rot, scented talcum powders and powdered sandalwood and incense, ripening fruits, mice, sewers, and warm hot bread. The whole family smelt quite deliciously edible.
He was extremely worried about her diarrhoea, but when she refused to let a stool sample be analysed, he then carefully explained that there were two kinds of this “discomfort, one of which is most serious because the little creatures, parasites that you cannot see but drink your moisture can be the undoing of you. We must keep your insides moisturised.”
“Anything, just get me well,” Libby said, mumbling “so I can get out of this shithole country.” He went out and brought back sachets of rehydrators that tasted vile but looked legitimate, emblazoned with the names of international drug firms. And he prescribed and his wife made, drinks that they begged Libby to take even though she cried into her hard pillow that she couldn’t stand the stuff: gingery, peppery salty buttermilk, some weird pulped fruit stirred into boiled water; ground pomegranate rind in milk, something so yuk that she demanded to know what it was. Rice porridge that smelled like Christmas cookies but was essentially, thin, cool hot cereal. Three days later, the doctor asked if she would like him to take her to a hospital.
“Would you like me to take you anywhere else?”
She was a sullen patient, silent when she wasn’t weeping. She felt gypped by pretty much everyone and everything. Todd had dumped her. Her dad had been right. She had no business going off with the jerk, to some dump of a country where she was probably gonna die, too sick to go off by herself to the American consulate to get help and a ticket home. Not that she knew how to do it anyway. Everything was just too hard.
The family must have bent over backwards for her. She had to be taught how to use the squat toilet correctly so as not to dirty it, and doctor and his wife had been particularly fluttery about their arrangements. “You will be so happy when you again have recourse to your sparkling American commodes.”
Everyone in the family, and the two desiccated servants, were always washing, themselves and everything else. Libby could hear the splash of water on floors, rain of water-can on paths and garden. The ambient sound in the air was a mix of birdcalls, crush of people and traffic frighteningly close on the road outside the gate, but close, inside the environs of the humble home, a constant sweep of brooms that looked like movie props for a fantasy. The doctor’s wife woke before dawn and set out fresh flowers and food gifts on the little shrines in various places in the house. One morning, Libby padded out to the kitchen and saw her praying to the elephant god. In a corner, a mouse was nibbling on a flower petal. That was when Libby realised how hard it must have been for the woman (Libby never did get her name) to gently explain so many times that Libby should be careful with her food, not to let any lay around.
Libby was getting stronger, almost able to keep food in long enough to properly digest it. One morning she squatted over the toilet and finally felt a civilised movement coming out when her buttock was lightly brushed by a giant rat leaping up and out.
The doctor drove her all the way to the American consulate in Mumbai. He didn’t let her out of his sight until the US Marines had opened the gate for her.
She couldn’t get away from him fast enough. That last look of his, a smile that showed most of his big white teeth.
The consulate had seen too many dumped teen-age girls who were also disgustingly sick to be anything but coldly efficient, not bothering to veil their disgust. A reassuringly American member of the staff got hold of her dad and advised him how to send money for Libby’s ticket home. Somehow, that added another dimension to the experience. “You come from Las Vegas?” the staff member asked, though he already knew. Then he copped such a clever and fast feel that she knew it was a game of his, one that he couldn’t lose. She was fixed up with enough Lomatils (“They won’t cure you, but will make it easier to get home. We advise you not to eat anything but bread or rice and to drink lots the water on the plane, and wear sanitary napkins. And definitely, no alcohol!”) to stop up a diarrheic horse before being got rid of on a nightmare of a flight back to the States. But the nightmare continued when she landed. American hospitalisation-admittance, a bout of hospital “care”, and then “treatment”. She never did know if she got well finally, from exasperation.
She went back to college, not aimlessly but with a passion. She felt possessed--both better and worse than boy-fever, she had never guessed how emotionally draining science would be. Her highs and lows she kept to herself, but it came out in fidgeting at school and work; and when she got home, dancing till she dropped.
The doctor began to appear in her dreams, begging her to forgive his country, himself. One night she woke up, her pillow soaked with tears. She’d seen his smile again, was just as furious as when she’d fled from it, but this time she looked upwards from his lips, and she saw his eyes, his broken eyebrows.
That face, the lying mouth, the
truthful eyes and brows--it was the same as that of a student from India who
was attending the same lecture she was. He had asked a question, one that she
had wanted to ask but hadn’t had the gumption to. “I just explained that,”
said the professor, “but maybe you don’t understand English.”
A few titters could be heard, and the eyes of the room were on the student. He broke into a smile was almost as wide as the doctor’s. Libby felt like yelling at the professor, but didn’t do anything. Instead, this smile of the student’s made her spine crawl. The lying mouth, the honest eyes: pure shame. Not shame that she had felt in her life, but a shame on behalf of someone else, someone who needs it but is lacking. A shame that should make the other person suffer agonies of embarrassment, but it’s not meant that way, anyway. It’s a smile of almost Christian charity--I’m dying for your boorishness--without the superiority. The professor was smiling too, perhaps in relief. He’d certainly avoided answering a tough question.
But the doctor’s smile had an added dimension, Libby saw in the aftermath of her dream. Fear.
The doctor. She didn’t even know his name. She hadn’t even asked for his address, let alone his telephone number.
Sometimes she wished that she had been able to tell Bini, but she couldn’t. How could he be found again. Even if he could be, what if he was dead? What if he had died--of shame?
Ah, well. Strange how things work out. India--the whole country--had become a place of blanked-out thought to Libby, till Bini contacted her because of that “unscientific” paper that Libby had written. Libby and Bini had joked in emails that Bini had Indian foresight that she applied every morning with her finger. Bini had offered to send Libby a pot of instant foresight. Bini was, in fact, so understanding about so many things.
“You’re such a great sigher,” said Clare.
Dawn had broken. They walked hand in hand to the car. The traffic was almost nonexistent this early Saturday morning, but Libby’s street was now parked out with cars and vans. She could only find a spot two blocks away. They entered the building as unnoticed as they had left.
“Back to work,” said Clare, as if they were co-workers and this a normal day.
They searched on Libby’s laptop. The Hindu ran an interview in which the journalist praised Dr Bhattacharya for her nationalism, only to be lectured at about nationalism, a sentiment that she called “the diversion of a government that sits on its nitamb”.
“See?” said Clare. “If it hadn’t been for you, I would never had learned a new word for ass. But shit, look at this!”
India was now the top story in all media, with new stories coming in by the second. Twitter was a cacophony. The place was indeed exploding. Literally millions had taken to the streets in spontaneous demonstrations. Night must had fallen there, and the sky was alight with not just lights of many colors, but exploding fireworks. They showered millions and boomed like armies of joy--set off by civil servants, fathers, mothers, children. Libby thought it must be just like that festival she had wanted to see, but hadn’t been able to stay for, way back when. And everywhere there was dancing.
Someone buzzed the apartment, yet again. “Aunt Lib,” whined Clare, who had jumped up, only to be grabbed by the ankle.
“They can all wait.”
“Coward.” Clare pulled what she though of as an ugly face. “But no shit. I’ll scream if you don’t look through your messages.”
There were hundreds of them, but in the midst, there were five from Bini, each more worried than the last, but in Bini’s inimitably gentle way, not showing it. The last one read, “Dear child, I know you must be so busy with interviews to contact me, but let me again congratulate you on your brilliant win. We would not have achieved anything without your wonderful intelligence and creativity. And without you getting sick in the first place! Please don’t let your sensitive soul get the better of you at this important time. Remember that what counts is not what the crowd says about you, but your own sense of worth that only you can weigh. your loving Bini”
Clare was busy on her own iphone. “Cool! Wanna see this story on Fox? It’s titled Nobel Disgrace: The Anti-American and the Lab Dancer.”
Libby laid down her phone and blew her nose.
“It’s too stupid,” said Clare, “but heh. Oh you’ve got to see this.”
“Not another YouTube.”
“Not just here. It’s from some science place, but like . . . it’s everywhere!”
Under a banner that said “Daughters of Lilavati” about two dozen women stood together on a stage. The streaming subtitle said Scientists Scientists Scientists. Most wore saris or salwar kameez, but some were in western dress. They bowed solemnly, then broke their line--into dance--smiling like mischievous starlets, moving like houris. They were colourful as a garden, and in their dipping twirling dance they waved beakers, petrie dishes, goggles, rubber gloves, kidney dishes and bladders. They used lab coats like veils and scarves, and threw themselves around with joy and in such close cooperation, the riot was carefully calibrated abandon. Suddenly, in the midst of them, Dr Kadambini Bhattacharya burst through, in a gold-bordered pomegranate-red sari. She moved her stuff like an overripe Bollywood star.
Libby's eyes were already flooded, but then Bini and the troupe broke into what the subtitle streamed--The Purfouy Boom Boom.