The next day Alec drove out to El Granada and tried not to think about how bad things were going. Ellis’s finance guy had asked for an estimate of costs to date for the cases that Alec was working on, including Buckley. An estimate, Alec knew, in case Ellis wanted to close everything down. The finance guy said “This is just planning,” but Alec understood what he meant. And my plan is to show Buckley a couple of pictures from five years ago, he said to himself. That’s my plan.
And then the visit with Sylvie and her friend. I screwed that up, too. Couldn’t even get a simple chat right. How did I get talking like that, like an idiot professor. Maybe I can get something, anything, from Buckley about her mother for Sylvie. I couldn’t do much for her when we first met, and last night she pulled away even more. I really need to get something for her.
Buckley was harder to rouse this time. Alec had called to him repeatedly, even as Yun was turning him and changing the sheets and taking care to not disturb the placement of the probes. Yun looked at a screen and said, “Wave activity shows unusual deep state.”
“Where do you go, David?” Alec wondered aloud. Finally Buckley stirred and without opening his eyes said, or rather croaked, “Orient me. What year?”
Alec told him. “It’s June, summertime,” he continued loudly, “in the afternoon, and we are on the coast about an hour west of San Francisco. You have been here several weeks.”
Buckley, flat on his back on the hospital bed, opened his eyes and looked at Alec. His eyes were out of focus and he waved his hand clumsily toward Alec. He expects me to vanish, he thought.
Then Buckley’s eyes got back into focus and he grimaced as if he had eaten something bad. “It’s been several years, not weeks,” he croaked.
“Just weeks,” said Alec.
Buckley glared at Alec. “Do you know…” he said, rasping, “…you know the story of Zhuangzi and the butterfly…which is the dream and which is real …in the story you can’t tell them apart. But here now, with you, this is painful. There’s no philosophy debate. It’s obvious which is real.”
Good to see you too, Alec thought. “I am just checking in, Mr. Buckley. So we can make sure everything is as you want it.
“Also to share a few photographs of an old friend, Lauren Girard.” Alec looked closely at Buckley’s face for any glimmer of interest.
“Lauren,” Buckley said, concentrating on saying the name, and hearing the name, “Lauren — why do you mention her?”
“We heard that you were friends, and I happened to come across some old pictures of you and her.”
Buckley was quiet for a moment, thinking it over, and then spoke while looking straight up at the ceiling. “Interesting that you should mention her name. I have been going through more memories, and one of them was with her. It was so clear, like I was there. These internal memories are very clear, very distinct.” There was a longer pause and Buckley pushed the controller on the hospital bed so he could sit up. At the sound of the whirring Yun looked over and followed the movement of Buckley’s head and the two probes, watching for any jostling. Does he want to talk about her? Alec thought. That could be good.
Buckley scratched the back of his hand, the one with the catheter, and said, “It was in August, it was August 14, and she was in a hiking group that was walking up Mt. Hood, outside of Portland. I was with them. We met at Timberline Lodge, the clock showed 10:05. We were going to walk up to the glacier, six of us. Cara, Armand, Lisa, and Jeff were there with us. I had taken a lunch, a bottle of Brooks Reisling and a turkey sandwich. With swiss. She wore khaki shorts, gray socks, and Salomon brand boots.”
Buckley turned to look at Alec. It’s also good that he wants to brag about his clear memories, Alec thought. I guess. “Yes, that’s a lot of detail,” he said. “It sounds like a nice time to relive in detail.” Buckley shrugged slowly, to not disturb the electrodes. “She dropped me soon after that.”
“What? What do you mean?”
“She dumped me, abruptly. I mean, as a friend. We weren’t more than that. I wanted to be closer to her but she cut me off after a few months.”
“How did you meet?” Maybe we can put off the bad part, Alec thought. It’s good that he is interested.
Buckley frowned a little and shifted around, and Alec was afraid that he had pushed it too far. Afraid that Buckley would just roll over and go back to the button. But after a minute Buckley settled back against his pillow and took a drink from a cup on the cart next to him. “Well,” he said, “it was like this.
“It was at this workshop, a workshop with a sculptor. A visiting artist. He was a Japanese sculptor whose work I greatly admired. We had used his themes with some of our designs when we could. He was visiting San Francisco and had scheduled a half-day workshop. So I had to go.
“This artist, Toshi, they call him just Toshi, was over 80 then and almost blind. But he was still active and working every day, he said. And so the workshop was all about touch. All about understanding shapes, and creating shapes, with just your sense of touch. I’m there in a suit but soon I have my coat off and sleeves rolled up and I am feeling with my hands and fingers, and even with my lips, solid shapes, different materials, trying to tell the difference between quartz and marble by touch. The difference between cherry and oak wooden boards, blindfolded. We’re all sitting at these square tables, with the stone and wood shapes and all on the table. And Lauren was there. She had been sitting behind me at another table and had come in after me. I had looked back once or twice to get a better look at her, but it was too obvious to do that. But I remember she had on a shirt with a big sun on it. I remember the sun.
“Toshi is walking around the room, lecturing about how your fingers can detect shapes a fraction of the width of a human hair. How women have better touch than men. How your fingers don’t forget a shape. Well, I am feeling male, thick-fingered, with not particularly retentive fingers, so I don’t exactly know where this is going.”
“David, is this a … an internal memory, or a ‘real’ memory?”
Short laugh. “No, I’ve always remembered this day clearly. You’ll see.
“Then we got to the shapes of hands and faces. The main exercise of the workshop was to sculpt a person’s face out of a plastilina clay block, with your eyes closed, after you have felt that person’s face, with your eyes closed.”
Buckley closed his own eyes and paused. “And?” Alec asked, not wanting to prompt but not wanting Buckley to stop remembering either.
“The idea was this: half of us would be blindfolded, and the other half would be models. Toshi and his assistant went around and matched up the blindfolded people with models from another table so that they wouldn’t already be familiar with their faces. We would have time to explore their faces with our hands and fingers, and then we would work on the clay block to reproduce that face. Then everyone would switch roles. There were maybe 25 artists there, a real mix of ages and types. There were some older people and I thought about how to get the wrinkles and skin sags into the clay.
“I put on a blindfold and I felt somebody’s hands on my hands, gently guiding them up to a face. ‘No talking!’ Toshi demanded. ‘No talking! No visuals or sounds to confuse touch!’ My hands felt like bear claws and I tried to softly feel the forehead, the cheekbones, the nose, the mouth. Her mouth. Because I knew who she was. When I touched her face I knew it was her with the sun.
“And it knocked me over, right there. That’s where I fell for her. I shivered, touching her hands, her face. I got goose bumps all over and I was horrified that she would notice them.
“Toshi called ‘Time’ and she took my hands away and put them on the clay, and then she had me feel where the tools were. Toshi kept lecturing, ‘One touching is all you need’, he said, ‘the mapping by your fingers is permanent. You must learn where mapping is stored.’
“I was still blindfolded and trying to concentrate on the clay, but not able to focus at all. I didn’t know if she was still around, watching. It made me nervous and sweaty to think of her next to me, observing. I was just trying to get an image on the block that was half-way decent without making a complete mess. All I could think about was her face, touching her face, but it didn’t help at all, it made it worse for the sculpting.”
Buckley stopped talking and looked up at Alec, waiting for some reaction. “Yeah, you were hooked,” said Alec simply. I know what he means, he thought. I could be there. How am I going to tell him about Lauren?
Buckley nodded slightly. “There’s more,” he said. “Toshi was going around the room looking at the clay sculptures and checking them. He got around to mine and was instantly critical, displeased. ‘This cannot be real face,’ he said. ‘We’re not doing abstract. Where is model?’ He had Lauren come over and made me go over her face again. ‘How do you not get the cheekbones here?’ he cried out. ‘How do you miss this line of jaw to temple? Feel again, remember with your fingers!’
“I was utterly embarrassed. She was so nice about it though, very serious and professional, as if nothing was unusual about the situation, as if I was not acting like a moonstruck teenager, this 50 year-old guy. But she knew. She had a little gleam in her eyes, she knew.
“God, it was mortifying. After the workshop I mumbled around and got her name, and then pretty much ran out of the workshop as soon as I could without talking to her more.”
“Why the hell not?” Alec asked, absorbed in Buckley’s story.
“Because I still had the ring on my finger, that’s why. I had just separated from Melissa. I didn’t want to talk to Lauren about anything while I had a ring on my finger. So I took the ring off and spent the next six months contriving to be near her any way I could.”
“Right, that’s not like stalking or anything.” Alec was taking liberties with this statement, by assuming a familiarity of guys talking about girls that he and David did not have. But maybe it would keep this conversation, the conversation about things in this world, going.
“She was tolerant, and even a little amused,” Buckley said after nodding and thinking it over. “It was almost always in a group, another creative thing, or an outdoor thing. She would make you feel good hiking out in the woods and I don’t like that at all.”
Buckley shrugged again,slowly, not jiggling the wires in his head. “It felt right at the time. But I was separated, not divorced, I know. That was part of it.”
“Part of what? Her ending the friendship?”
Buckley nodded, “Yeah. I still don’t know what happened. Maybe she just got tired of me hanging around. But it seemed like there was something else.
“We were at a sculpture exhibit, in San Francisco. I mean, I found out that she would be there so I went too. More stalking I guess. I couldn’t find her and I was wandering around not really looking at the pieces. I remember getting caught up talking to another friend of mine who was there. I was listening to him and looking around, and hearing something in the background, something familiar amid other conversations. My friend is still talking at me and I suddenly realize that it’s Lauren’s voice I was hearing. I excused myself and turned the corner, and there was Lauren.
“She saw me and didn’t say ‘Hi’ or anything, she just said, ‘David, please stop being at the places where I am. We can’t be together in any sense.’ It caught me off guard completely, I didn’t know what to say. I stammered something about being just friends, about me getting divorced, and I don’t know what nonsense. I mean, how would I explain following her around? But she shook her head and stopped me. ‘Don’t. Don’t say anything, let’s just part now as it is. Let’s not see each other, even in a group.’
“She was so definite, so resolute, I couldn’t say anything else. I stood there, dumb. She walked away and I never saw her again.”
“Wow,” said Alec softly after a pause. “What did you do?”
Buckley glanced at him, as if he was deciding whether to answer. “In the short term, I found a chair and collapsed in it for a while, not knowing what to do. I felt like I had been hit in the head, like with a bat. I needed to sit down to sort things out.
“Longer term, I told Fisher to stop getting the divorce papers together. Tried to make it work with Melissa.”
“So, you were getting a divorce?”
Buckley nodded. “Yes, but not soon enough. Not soon enough. I was too timid, I wasn’t all in, with work and Melissa and all. She was right to say what she did. I wanted to be with her but I never felt that I would be the one for her, you know? I was just … half-way.
“There is a down-side to looking back,” he added, “with these internal memories. There is a lot to stay away from.”
Alec waited a moment too long to respond. Buckley suddenly stiffened and looked thoughtful. He said in a flat voice, “There is all this equipment in the room…all this preparation. This whole house. You’ve gone to so much effort, so much detail, for my benefit. And you have a few old pictures of her. That’s all you have.”
I’ve also got a scarf, Alec thought, but I won’t be bringing that out now.
Buckley looked directly at Alec. “She died, didn’t she?” Buckley had been animated and more expressive while he had been remembering. Now he was impassive again.
“Yes, David, she died earlier this year.”
There was a long pause. “Is there anything I need to respond to, or attend to?” Buckley asked. Alec shook his head.
Buckley kept his gaze on Alec for a moment and then powered the bed down and turned away. “Well, there was no reason for her to think about me anyway.
“We can talk again later,” he said curtly. Before Alec could reply Buckley added, “I don’t need the photos. I can see them with a lot more detail if I want.” He reached for the stimulator button. Alec waited for just a moment before walking away, past the monitor showing the 3-D image of the brain lighting up, and feeling Yun’s impassive eyes on him as he left the room.
On the drive back to the city, Alec got a message from Jerry. We owe the wife an update on Buckley. Cruel for her not to know. Just giving you a heads up. Damn teenager, Alec thought. But why not. Jerry doesn’t know where Buckley is. Let him. I’ve got Buckley’s conversations about Lauren recorded — maybe Sylvie will want to hear it, if she ever speaks to me again. Probably not though.
The next message was from Ellis’s office, postponing their next meeting for three weeks. That’s a “See you never” message, he thought. And then another text from Jerry: Wife’s lawyer is stepping up efforts to locate him. Maybe something in it for us. “Meaning for you,” Alec said out loud.
He turned his phone off for the rest of the drive back. He could get the rest of the good news later.
Alec didn’t turn his phone back on until he got back to the California street office. Soon after that his phone buzzed and he answered, uncharacteristically, without looking at the caller ID.
“Alec? Hi, it’s Sylvie.”
In an instant, Sylvie’s voice pushed everything else out of Alec’s mind. He was suddenly alone with her, and Buckley and Ellis and Jerry were all distant, barely within hearing, as if through a weak intercom. “It’s really good to hear your voice,” Alec said immediately, without thinking.
There was a pause before Sylvie responded, as if she was the one caught off guard. “Yes, yes, me too,” she said warmly. After another pause they spoke at the same time:
“Let’s reset,” said Alec. “Another try?” said Sylvie.
Sylvie laughed and said “Then you pick a place on your side of the bridge. For dinner. Is tomorrow okay?”
“Yeah. Yes, that will be very okay,” Alec said.
* * * *
Alec arrived at the restaurant before Sylvie and watched her as she entered. Work clothes, but good looking work clothes. He liked the way the shirt draped her shoulders. It was one of the things that Charlotte had showed him about women’s clothes. Short heels, and a natural walk, not the flat-foot clumping you often see with heels.
Alec didn’t want her to look around too much, although he liked watching her. He stepped out from the table and walked toward her, arm up in the air, then brought it down again as he remembered the first time she saw him.
“I feel like I was rude and defensive,” Sylvie said after greeting him. “I would like to reset a little.”
“There is a high probability that I was pompous and overbearing, so please let me start the reset. How do you do?” he said formally, adding a slight bow, continental-style with his arms straight at his side. “I am Alec Altman, short for Alexander which is two syllables too long for me. Aries, work in health care. I’ve been in the Bay Area about four years, before that down in LA. School at UCLA. Three sisters, two in Los Angeles and one in Arizona. Various nieces and nephews.”
Sylvie curtsied, using the formal move with her right foot behind her left, and hands to the sides. She didn’t mime touching her skirt. “Sylvia Girard, Sylvie most of the time. Live and work in El Cerrito, genetic research. Libra. UC Berkeley. Been living here quite a while. Married once about five years ago, ended quickly.” She makes vague sound good, Alec thought. ” Two brothers, one in London, one in Paris. Ils ne viennent pas souvent ici,”, she added.
So you had to handle everything yourself, he thought. “Something something not much,” Alec translated, smiling, as they sat.
“They are not here often,” Sylvie concurred. “Alexander too long?” She asked.
“Way too. I would like it to be just ‘Al’ but ‘Al Altman’ is a little too ethnic. And anyway, you dropped one syllable from your name yourself.”
“Yes, my mother needed shorter vocals for us. She was often shouting the names of her three children, and the three-syllable ‘Syl-veee-ahhh’ call was too drawn out, too long. Also, that’s the call that tells you she doesn’t know where you are, but you are in trouble and better not be found. No, she used the shorter and piercing ‘Sylvee’, which made you jump, and made you think that you were in her view.”
Sylvie sat still with this memory of her mother. Then she closed her eyes and frowned. “You are thinking I am crazy, or at the least neurotic, about this,” she said to Alec after a minute, with a forlorn smile.
“No, I am thinking it was a traumatic shock, hard to get over. And hard to understand.”
Sylvie gazed steadily at Alec, not responding, and he said, “Yes, that sounded more trite than I thought it would.” She didn’t answer right away and Alec wondered: is she not going to contradict me?
“My mother died from a heart attack, caused by a torn artery,” she said after a moment. “It was sudden, totally unexpected. She was in good health. She was in great health. The doctors said it was just random, there was nothing to indicate. So it was traumatic, and it was hard to understand.”
Alec nodded. “And a stray comment about not being able to predict heart attacks with DNA tests, which at best would be superficial dinner party talk, would be a clumsy and needless jab at you.
“I am sorry for the jab, Sylvie.”
She shrugged and gave a small smile. “It’s all right. I get those jabs occasionally. The clichés. ‘Doctors once thought yellow fever was random,’ “ she recited in a pretentious voice. “ ‘ Eventually the doctors will know exactly what happened to your mother, and why.’ “
“Meaning, ‘you shouldn’t feel the way you are feeling’ ?”
“Seems that way.”
“Have you heard this cliché: I don’t think you are stuck. I think you are moving. There is just a lot to move through. Most children have 20 years to get ready for their parents’ leaving them. They see their parents at 60, 65, and they know. A little decline each day. They have years to adjust and to accept. You had no time.”
Again Sylvie regarded Alec for a moment. “I guess that’s not the worst cliché,” she said at last.
Then she shrugged. “Hey, this is not much of a reset,” she said in a lighter voice. “Let me ask about your media page. The picture of the boy – with the wheelchair on skis — you weren’t pushing him into the water, were you?”
“In that picture? No, not in that picture. The skis make it easy to push the wheelchair across the sand.”
Sylvie looked at him, waiting. Alec finally said, “We pushed him in after the picture was taken, after the wheelchair got across the sand to the surf.”
“But how would you keep him safe? Something could happen.” Sylvie sounded critical, as if she thought there were enough hazards in the world without seeking them out.
“I was right there, holding on to him and the wheelchair. There was no risk. But you are right, we didn’t post those pictures. Manny — the boy — was laughing in the surf but I guess it did look like he was gasping for breath.”
“Of course there is risk,” she said, trying not to sound prudish. “You can’t control the waves.”
“Yes, you are right,” Alec responded evenly. “There was some risk. But there was little risk…the surf was pretty stable that day. And Manny got a tremendous kick out of it. He got to feel the waves lift him up, and set him down. He got to feel tossed by the waves, even flung about a little. It was a fabulous new feeling for him and he loved it.”
“That was part of a clinical trial?” She asked, doubtfully.
“No, he was a PT patient we met at a hospital. We were just slacking that day. His parents were fine with it.” Alec gazed at Sylvie, waiting for an objection.
She thought it over and said softly, “The work my company is doing…it feels so abstract. What I am doing feels so abstract, so academic. Like I am a thousand miles away from the actual benefit to people. You are in such an immediate setting.”
“Well, one at a time versus a million at a time when you find something, that’s a big difference.”
“A million, but over time, possibly over a lot of time. There is no emotional splash.” She looked over at Alec. “You get splashed.”
“Sometimes water, sometimes mud. Or worse.”
Sylvie looked down. “We’re just picking at these appetizers, aren’t we,” she observed.
“We are, yes,” Alec agreed. “Rather than stay here and insult the chef, I have an idea, related to the splash thing. It’s a short walk from here, if you are willing.”
Sylvie found herself receptive, and also unwilling to analyze her receptiveness much. “All right, since we’re not too interested in the food. I guess you would like this to be a surprise thing? We’re not going surfing in a wheelchair, are we?”
“We are not. But I don’t want it to be anti-climactic, either, so yes a surprise thing.”
After they walked a few blocks Alec unlocked a couple of doors and they entered a spacious gym-like room. Alec flipped more lights on and Sylvie saw a large rectangular swimming pool with a diving platform on one end. “Okay, I get the ‘splash’ idea,” she said, “but I don’t know how much literal splashing there will be.” She looked around the enclosed room. “There is no chlorine smell.”
“No chlorine. It’s got a fairly expensive ozone filtration system. So not an ordinary swimming pool.
“And, take a look at this.” Alec walked over to a panel on the wall and tapped on it a few times.
The overhead lights dimmed. Sylvie heard a soft, low rumble and saw that the deep end of the pool was agitated with innumerable tiny bubbles being released from the bottom. The underwater pool lights flashed on and illuminated the upward movement of the millions of bubbles throughout the water. It was dazzling. The bright streams rushed to the surface and each pea-sized bubble seemed to jostle and climb as high as it could on top of the foaming surface before releasing itself to the air. It sounded like the fizz from a thousand cans of soda.
“There are a hundred thousand small openings, spaced evenly in the floor of this half of the pool,” Alec said. “Each opening is pumping about three liters of air per minute. Or, to get technical, seven point five bazillion bubbles.”
Sylvie watched with delight and laughed involuntarily. “This is spectacular!” she cried. “But what is it for?”
“Sometimes spectacular itself is the idea. But in this case, it started out to be a training pool for platform divers, to reduce the impact of hitting the water. The bubbles spread the impact of the diver over more surface area.”
“They don’t use this, do they? I mean, I haven’t seen this in the Olympics or anything.”
“No, they don’t use it. It’s expensive to retrofit. It’s used now for divers coming off an injury, to soften the jolts, but that’s only occasionally.”
“So it just sits here?”
“Oh no, it’s also a big hydro-therapy pool for all sorts of different patients. And it’s just fun to make a splash in the bubbles.” Alec turned to Sylvie. “If you want, I can show you. It looks really interesting from the deck.”
“You’re going to jump in the pool,” Sylvie said skeptically.
“I’m getting a suit on first,” Alec said, pointing to a shower room. “They have a bunch of suits if you didn’t bring one. All laundered.”
Sylvie laughed and shook her head. “Jump away.” For Sylvie the setting was highly unusual but she didn’t feel threatened, for the moment anyway. After a couple of minutes Alec came out of the shower room to find Sylvie sitting at the edge of the deep end with her shoes off and her feet dangling in the water. “It’s like a huge glass of club soda,” she said. She looked up at Alec and giggled. “You couldn’t find a bigger suit?” Alec’s trunks were several sizes too large and flared out goofily from the tight belt.
“The selection was not great. It was either this tent or something for an Oompa Loompa. Anyway, here I go. Watch how the bubbles get pulled under and then scurry back to the surface. ”
The cannonball was indeed impressive. Alec plunged into the water and his momentum pushed and pulled a reverse flow of the bubbles, a counter-movement to the uniform flow upward. The underwater lighting highlighted the swirls and eddys of the disturbed little spheres as they bumped and pushed each other, trying to get back to the surface like the rest of the bubbles in the pool. And watching Alec was nice too, Sylvie considered. After the initial thump of the cannonball his movements in the water were graceful and agile, in spite of the huge swimming trunks.
“It’s like a crazy Las Vegas water show,” she exclaimed. “You could charge for this.”
“Well, then you would need mermaids and sea dragons,” Alec called out as he treaded water. “And popcorn. It’s nice to have it private like this.
“The air coming up also supports you,” he said and flattened is body horizontally. “Almost don’t need a raft, and it’s such a novel feeling from the bubbles.” He looked over to the side of the pool. “Sylvie?”
She was gone from the side of the pool. After a minute she emerged from the shower room wearing only panties and bra and she had pulled her hair back. Before Alec could respond Sylvie dove into the water.
“My God, this is different,” she said after coming up. “You’re right, the bubbles cushioned me on the way down, and now they are practically lifting me!” Sylvie splashed down with her hand to see the bubbles pushed downward and then rush back up.
“Yeah, it’s a fun pool.”
“Do you get to swim here often?” Sylvie thought about the towels in the shower room, and other people coming here, at night, after hours.
“Not as much as I would like. The pool guy — who is a chemical engineer, by the way — has been working on calibrating the filter process and has closed it off more. I was here a couple of weeks ago,” Alec said, swimming over to the shallow end so he could stand.
I can’t be the first one he has shown this pool to, she thought. She couldn’t help asking, “Did … did she like it?”
“She loved it. We were going to come here again in a few days but couldn’t.”
“What? She what?”
“She was a candidate for one of the trials. It was too late for her, though. She had severe nerve damage, chronic paresthesia. Pain, burning sensation all over her lower body. The water and the bubbles helped, really seemed to take away the pain, for a time. We rigged up a way to send a mild electrical jolt through the water, she liked that. Do you want to try that?”
“No!” Sylvie shouted. “I mean, no thank you. Electricity in a pool?”
“It’s minor voltage, even less current. You or I wouldn’t think much of it. For her it helped the pain, even after she got out. It was remarkably diverting for her.”
Sylvie swam closer to him. “Diverting or curing?”
“There was no cure. It was just for fun.”
Sylvie felt the water all around her. There was no current, she knew that. No movement of the water. The jets weren’t pushing her. But there she was, flowing into his arms, into his embrace.
* * * *
“Are you all right?”
“Well, this air mattress is not great. It’s thin and I am mostly on the pool deck anyway.”
“You’re saying I weigh too much.”
“C’mon, you weigh like 80 pounds.”
“Then how close are we to your regular mattress”?
* * * *
Back at Alec’s townhouse, on a regular mattress, Alec felt himself letting go under Sylvie’s body. Letting go of Buckley, letting go of all the petitions to Ellis, even of Charlotte. Making room for Sylvie. Making room to feel her hair brush his face, to be enveloped in her aroma. Letting go and falling into her. He heard a soft cry from her, felt tears drop on to his chest, and he lost control altogether. He felt his orgasm start and was astounded to find himself slipping into unconsciousness, unable in the slightest to resist.
When Alec recovered, his head was cradled in Sylvie’s arms. He sat up slowly and looked at Sylvie. “You’ve been crying,” he said, gently touching her cheek.
“You’ve been swooning,” she replied. “I might have said ‘fainted’ but I am going to take credit for it, so it’s a ‘swoon’.” At his expression Sylvie added, “Your eyes rolled back in your head and you went limp. Your body went limp. Not for long, or the paramedics would be here.”
Alec felt disoriented, as if he had suddenly awakened from a deep sleep. His breathing seemed normal, his pulse seemed high. He felt Sylvie’s pulse: slow and steady. She looked at him quizzically. “Are you feeling okay?”
He realized he felt wonderful. Euphoric even. “I … I am fabulous,” he said. “I want to say better words than that but it might take a minute.” He moved closer to her neck and breathed in again. And got dizzy again. Not dizzy…elevated. High. He replayed in his mind the last few minutes, still glowing. “I feel out of balance,” he said. “Not sure I could even stand up right now.”
“As your genetic counselor I advise no standing. I will guess that this is new for you? I mean, it is for me too.”
Alec shook his head, but slowly, so he wouldn’t lose the glowing feeling. “Are you asking whether I faint like this each time? Swoon. No, this is new all right.” Not just new, he thought.
“What is that scent?” he asked.
“It’s called Emaner.”
“It doesn’t have that smell — I know that scent.”
“It’s supposed to be unique to a person, reacts with their chemistry. And mood.”
“Hmm. Can we stay like this for a while?”
She snuggled against him. “I have a presentation in August. I’ll need to be there.”
In the back of his mind Alec knew that Buckley was deeper than ever into his stimulation world, and that Alec’s work with Ellis was pretty much over. But that was, he acknowledged, in the back of his mind. It wouldn’t get in the way for now.
Sylvie awoke the next morning to smells of coffee and bacon. She wrapped a bedsheet around herself and followed the aromas to Alec’s kitchen. “Did you have all this in your kitchen?” she asked, surprised and charmed, seeing the immoderate layout of scrambled eggs, bacon, fruit, yogurt, toast, doughnuts. Alec laughed. “I had zero of this in my kitchen,” he said, “but we are close to a cafe that does have it, and they deliver. I ordered everything.” He looked happily at Sylvie. “I am quite hungry, having had no dinner and an active night.”
“I’m hungry too, so thank you. But why so little to eat last night?”
“I was all wired up to meet with you,” he said simply. “I was too anxious to eat.”
“Well, that’s direct of you,” she answered. “Since you bring it up, I was too.”
“Are we getting you a cab? Can I drive you back? Do you need to call in?”
“I called in yesterday,” she said lightly. “Out for the day,” and enjoyed the look of surprise on Alec’s face.
It was sunny and warm outside and they ate on the balcony. “This is lovely,” Sylvie said. “I can eat, and you can tell me more about the things you do outside of the clinical trials.” Alec looked thoughtful but didn’t respond right away, and Sylvie added, “I feel like you know a lot about me, and the work I do is not particularly mysterious. Here we are under a beautiful sky, wonderful breakfast, but I am thinking only about what I don’t know about you.”
Alec regarded her for a minute. Why not, he thought. I do want her to know, and there is little to lose at this point, and maybe Buckley can help somehow. If he is not completely soured on the subject. And if she doesn’t recoil with horror at the whole setup. “Well,” he answered slowly, “we can start with some recordings you can listen to; they will be interesting. And they will make more sense if you drive out to the coast with me and actually meet this guy, David Buckley.”
Sylvie stared back, astonished. “The man who knew my mother? The one the photos are for?”
Alec nodded. “The same. He is a part of what I am doing outside of clinical trials. Since you asked.”
Sylvie lit a cigarette and thought it over. “Ánd you are thinking that I would want to talk to him, about my mother?” she said. Alec nodded silently. “You want me,” she continued, “ to jump into a car and drive somewhere with you to talk to a dying man?”
“Not somewhere,” Alec laughed, “El Granada. And after all, you jumped into that pool. Jumped right in. So there is some precedent.”
Sylvie considered how this had gone: reviewing photos with a stranger, calling him right after that, calling him again, then yes, jumping in the pool, and then last night together, and now sitting under a warm sun with Alec smiling his cute smile at her. I guess it’s going pretty good, she said to herself. Yes, I would like to see what the next step with Alec will be. And yet, and yet, to her dismay she realized that she was more compelled, more interested, by what this David Buckley might say about her mother, perhaps some fragment that could ease the knot inside her, than she was looking forward to an intriguing and romantic drive with someone she was most probably falling for. All right, then. All the more reason to go. Maybe meeting him will help. Maybe the knot can unravel a little.
“Okay, let’s go”, she said casually. “I will need to stop at a store somewhere to get a couple of things. Will there be any more surprises?”
“Oh, there will be more,” Alec said.