Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Me and My X Part 1 - Stealing from Dr. Sun

We made her when were undergraduates, in secret. Me and Chuy. Choi, Chuy, Chulee, maybe Chuk. I have trouble understanding him. He’s Pakistani, or Chinese, but he speaks broken English; and he has a speech impediment. We’re gods now, though, a god doesn't need a name. We wanted to re-make Chuy's cat, we ended up being gods.

I met Chuy in botanicals lab. Every genetecist starts with botanicals, even before fruit flies. They're simple and clean. You learn how to use the parser and the incubator, and you learn to get it right. Thirty years of debate on bio-ethics came down to three simple rules: first, if you get it wrong you have to destroy it. Second, don't make anything you're not willing to destroy. Third, if you have to kill something - even once - you lose your license and the police keep a close watch on you for the rest of your life.

That's why you start on botanicals instead of fruit flies. You can destroy a plant, but a fruit fly you have to kill. Chuy taught me how to get it right; which genes you could tweak, which feedbacks to look for once you made a change. I trusted Chuy because he was brilliant. I went along with his plan because I was curious.

He told me the university had a mammalian lab, and that all you needed to get in was a clearance card. He told me his parents had an old cat that they loved very much - as much as the loved him - but that they were too poor to re-make it. He told me he'd seen a clearance card on one of our professor's - Dr. Sun - desk. He told me he wanted to give his poor, old parents a Christmas present. He told me we wouldn't get caught. When he wasn't lying, he was always right.

We went to Dr. Sun’s office-hours in the afternoon together. Dr. Sun had two PHD’s, maybe three. He honestly couldn’t remember. He should’ve traded one of them for a maid. Tall piles of ungraded projects, half-written proposals and god-knows-what-else littered the room. Going to see him was like going spelunking. I miss Dr. Sun, I liked him.

I peeked around in his office. He never closed the door. He didn't need to, he got all the privacy he needed behind towers of boxes and cabinets. It took a few seconds before I found him sitting behind his computer, behind a few trees worth of final exams. I knocked tentatively on the wall, but Chuy just strode in, beaming.

"Hya, Docca Shun”

Dr. Sun looked up at Chuy from his desk, then looked over at me. He always had a look of bewilderment on his face, as if the more he studied life the less he understood it.

“Hi, boys. How’s the assignment coming?” I probably had more of an accent than Sun. I think he told us once that he grew up in Hawaii.

“Oh-hooh”. Chuy bobbed up and down and shook his head for emphasis.

He put his backpack on a miraculously bare corner of Professor Sun’s desk and made a show of looking through it. Now I just had to distract Dr. Sun.

“Dr. Sun, it just seems like no matter what filter I use the data doesn't fit.”

I had the homework in my hand, ready for Dr. Sun to examine. He took the paper and put on a pair of reading glasses. He glanced at it a moment before he spoke.

“Which series?”

I stuck a finger on the paper - the B-series. I watched Chuy out of one eye as he searched Dr. Sun’s desk. Chuy found the keycard. With a magician’s grace Chuy pulled out a dummy-card from his backpack, holding it tight underneath his homework paper. He put the paper on the desk, on top of the real keycard. A simple switch now; Chuy dropped the dummy card and picked up the real one.

Chuy pocketed the card and made his version of an “Aha!” sound.

“Gra!”

Maybe this was really why I called him Chuy, he sounded like Chewbacca every time he got inspired. Chewbacca was an old movie-alien that sounded like my friend Chuy, but Chewbacca was an eight-foot dog on two legs. My grandpapa made me watch the movies.

Chuy pointed earnestly to his paper.

“Drong Jada!”

Dr. Sun looked even more perplexed. I helped with the translation.

“Wrong data. You’re right Chuy, this was from last week’s assignment.”

Dr. Sun checked my paper again.

“Yes. Astute eye, Chulee. See here? Almost no jumble of numbers is completely random, is it? Each has some characteristic noise in them. Was there something else?”

“No, that covers it. Thanks, Dr. Sun. Sorry we didn’t have a more interesting mistake for you.”

“No, no. Just glad someone’s doing the work. It looks like you two are almost done.”

Chuy shot me one of his buoyant grins and patted his pocket. I backed out of the office.

“Yeah, almost done. Thanks again.”

Chuy and I walked down the hallway to the elevator, nervous and giddy. Chuy jammed the down button. He waited, as if expecting the elevator would instantly jump up to get him. He jabbed at it three more times.

“Chuy, relax. It’s coming.”

The elevator doors finally opened. Chuy and I stepped inside. The instant the doors closed Chuy pulled out the keycard, brandishing it like it was some kind of magical relic.

“fee kot zit! Kot-tam ind gell ya!”

I laughed.

“Goddamn, hell-yeah and fucking-A Chuy. Now put it away. I’ll meet you downstairs, 1:00 A.M. Don’t forget the card. We’re gonna do this.”

The elevator opened. We looked out anxiously. The whole time we were expecting to get caught. Getting the keycard was the hardest part. That’s how easy it was.

I gave Chuy a ride back to his parents’ house. They lived in a lower middle-class neighborhood. The houses were big, but dilapidated. Chuy told me he thought they were palaces compared to where he came from.

He didn’t say anything as he got out of the car, he just patted my shoulder and bolted to the front door. I watched him get in his house. I could see his father inside, hunched over and indifferent to Chuy's arrival. I could almost hear his mother's high-pitched nagging. Chuy always told me they had to love him very much to bring him here. I had my doubts. Chuy waved and shut the door. I drove off.

I lived in some student apartments nearby. I never thought of them as palaces, but they had everything a broke student needed. A centuries-old convection stove, a couch, even a cable-connected InterV. I ran the car into my spot and checked for a light in my kitchen. No light meant no girlfriend.

No luck. I could see Amelia silhouetted against the blinds, probably cooking.
Normally that silhouette excited me. She cooked as well as any four-star chef. All girls from the Midwest can cook, I think. She had a sharp mind, sharper than mine. Funny, beautiful. I might have loved her if I had met her a few years later. I don’t think you learn how to love someone else until you’re at least 24.

That afternoon I just wished she had somewhere else to be. I’d have to get rid of her for the night; she’d have too many questions when I left at midnight. I walked up to the door and ran through my mental inventory of excuses. She must have seen me coming, the door opened on her smiling face.

The apartment smelled good, she smelled good. It was going to be the perfect night if I could find a way to get rid of her. She slung an arm around my neck.

“Hey, babe. Gazpacho. Hot night, cold soup.”

“Sounds good. I thought I smelled something baking, though.”

“Bread. I’ve been slaving away all day for my man.”

“I love you not having any Thursday classes.”

“And what does my man have for me?”

I kissed her, almost politely, on the lips. I was too young then, but I understand now that humans have an innate, complex language hidden in the greeting kiss. Politely on the cheek would have been, “we’re in trouble”; politely on the lips is, “I’m in trouble.”

“My man better do better than that. What’s wrong?”

“Chuy and me have a big project. He’s coming over after dinner, maybe late.”

“You should’ve just invited him. He’s probably stuck eating a bowl of kale in some dank dormitory.”

“He lives with his parents. They eat... chinese food, or something. I tried it once, didn’t like it. He ate three helpings.”

“Oh. What are you two working on?”

“Evil plot to destroy the world.”

“Oooh. Can I help?”

“Um. Yeah. Listen…Amelia.”

I’ll tell it honestly. I wanted a way to get rid of her, just not too soon.

“Uh-oh.”

“You know how Chuy gets real focused on something? Obsessive?”

“Oh yes. Remember that game you ordered on the IV? He played it for 24 hours straight.”

“Exactly. He's kind of particular about getting things just a certain way. We have a botanical module…”

“A flower. Don’t be such a snob”

“It’s at the lab. It’s night blooming. He says he calculated it, it starts at exactly 1:12 A.M, lasts until morning. He says we have to get pictures for our project. I told him to pull one from the IV, he says it has to be ours, though.”

“And you have to go with him?”

“He doesn’t have a car.”

“And you didn’t want me to think you were sneaking off for some midnight tryst.”

“You got it.”

“Well, that’s in 7 hours. Don’t sweat it. I trust you.”

“Thanks.”

“I’ll go with you guys.”

She was just fishing for a reaction. I almost blew it.

“Kinda late, but ok. You might be a little worn out.”

I gave her a sycophantic little peck on the cheek.

“You might not be so lucky. You guys do your thing. I have to be up early tomorrow.”

So I got the best of both worlds. She stayed the night, I didn’t. The only thing that didn’t work out was me wearing her out. I could never wear her out. She was still up reading when I left that night.

“Get some sleep, Amelia.” I told her.

I pulled on some dirty laundry and went to get Chuy.

Chuy waited by his doorstep as I drove up to his house. He’d probably been waiting there all night. He sprang up when he saw me stop by his house. He ran up to the car, carrying a cage in his hands. The cage held his tabby, an one-eyed fossil of a cat.

I tried to get the cat's attention, “Hey Whiskey. Mrow. Tsk, tsk, tsk. Chuy, is that cat even alive?”

The cat looked at me, almost impetuously, and let out a sour-sounding mewl. Chuy rubbed her nose through the cage.

“Jeez un koot giddy.”

“I guess. Let’s get out of here."

My anxiety rose a little bit with each stoplight. There was nothing illegal about making a cat. People had it done all the time. Our final project before graduating would probably be something like re-making some crone’s beloved fu-fu. But we had a lot to learn before we knew enough not to risk screwing it up.

I had a lot to learn, at least. Chuy knew more than a lot of the professors. His brilliance irked me, sometimes. I worked just as hard to learn half of what he knew. His brilliance amazed me, too. I wanted to be around it, with a dim hope I might get a little warmth from his spark.

I never knew what Chuy needed from me. A car, I guess. He needed somebody to drive him to the lab so he could re-make his parent’s old cat. They didn’t have the money to buy him a car, or to get the cat re-made. Every penny got spent on the palace.

My nerves simultaneously screamed at me to turn around and to get going. I badly wanted to be a part of the job, but a part of me knew something would get screwed-up. Yes, it was just a cat. Even something as simple as an insect, you don’t want to screw it up, because then you have to kill it.

We arrived at the university before my misgivings had a chance to settle. I parked at the curb, on the opposite side of campus from the lab. I left the car idling and turned to Chuy.

“Maybe we can do a fundraiser or something. I’ve got a little money you can borrow. We don’t have to do it this way. We get caught, we're out for good.”

Chuy shook his head. He spilled out a stream of consonance even I couldn’t understand.

“What?”

Chuy snatched a pen off my dashboard, pulled his notebook from his backpack and scribbled fiercely. He ripped the page out and handed it to me. He had perfect handwriting.

"No. The cat is irrelevant. You don’t care about the cat. Neither do I. We have to do this now. We will be gods!"

Chuy patted me on the back cheerfully. He was right. I didn’t care about the cat.

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