Vapor, p.21

Vapor, page 21



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  “It’s a great idea. It’s the only solution.”

  A few days later, workmen came and dismantled the cage and took it away. A locksmith came and took off the lock.

  Damon and I walked to my apartment in grave silence, our hearts pounding. We arrived at the door to my building, walked in, walked up, did not stop at any point. I unlocked my door. The sight of keys made us both shiver with dread. Damon actually looked away, at the wall, until the door was unlocked and the keys were out of sight.

  I gave him a nervous tour of my remodeled apartment. He approved. We sat on my couch and drank tea, making polite conversation. After forty-five minutes of this, I got carried away by excitement, because my plan was working: we were actually existing in the same room together, not separated by bars, not protected from each other by the presence of other people, and not threatening each other in any way. I flung myself around his neck and kissed him and said, “I love you.”

  He smiled, and laughed, and told me he loved me too, and pushed me back against the sofa and became passionate, like in the rest rooms and the movie theaters, but of course even more unrestrained.

  For a week we stayed in my apartment, doing only a small range of activities, but doing them over and over: conducting sensual and erotic experiments, renting movies, eating all sorts of things. The only times we went out were to buy more groceries. I would put on my boots and my winter coat, not bothering to get dressed underneath, and he’d wear his usual transparencies.

  The days passed and I still didn’t tell him about his brother, because I felt more days had to pass before I could.

  So more days passed. We started going outdoors a bit. We had sex between moving subway cars a couple of times, for old times’ sake, despite the danger, and dangerous it was: Damon would hold me firmly, and I would jokingly remind him not to let go of me. But once, which understandably turned out to be the last time we did it there, he did. I caught myself in the nick of time, while simultaneously getting a vision of what would have happened to my body if I hadn’t. He said he was sorry, that the jerkiness of the ride had made him lose his grip on me. He seemed very upset that I had almost been squashed, and for a while he wouldn’t stop hugging me and burying his face in my neck, even as we walked away from the scene of my near death.

  I still worked a lot, but also managed to devote much time to Damon. I would leave the sets as soon as the scenes were shot; I didn’t linger to socialize with the other actors. I never had dinner with them.

  I’d spend time studying my lines while Damon did his research. Sometimes, he would ask me if I needed help, but he was always very careful because he knew it was a touchy topic. He tried to be very delicate, and very respectful of whatever answer I would give him, which was no thanks.

  One time, to make our relationship as normal as possible, and so that he wouldn’t think I resented him too much, I casually asked him if he could help me with my lines. He tried to respond calmly, and said okay, and sat near me, but it was clear he was a bit nervous. I recited my lines while he looked at the script, and I got them right, so he had nothing to correct. He just smiled normally at me when I was done. I pushed it a step further, because I couldn’t resist, and I was curious.

  “Do you have any suggestions? Any thoughts on my delivery?” I asked.

  He cleared his throat. He must have known I was torturing him on purpose. “I thought it was very well done.” His voice was gentle. “Very subtle and interestingly nuanced.”

  I waited to see if he would say more. He sensed this and added, “I’m only a scientist. You’re now at a level of acting that is way beyond the realm where I can offer any useful opinion.”

  I think he was afraid he had said too much, that he had been presumptuous, for he looked down at the floor humbly, as if wishing he could go under it.

  I observed him, amused. However, not wanting to be excessively tormenting, I breezily said, “Well, thank you for your help,” and changed the topic.

  He seemed relieved.

  One day, I started having a new urge, that type of overpowering, irrational urge, like wanting to enter your assailant’s cage or be thrown off a diving board: I wanted to introduce Damon to my parents. I had told them I was dating somebody, and they had expressed great interest in meeting the person, asking if he was an actor too. I told them he was a scientist. When they asked what kind of scientist, I changed the subject until I could think of a good answer. I discussed the possibilities with Damon. He didn’t hesitate as to which scientific profession he wanted them to think he had.

  “Tell them I’m an experimental astrophysicist, that I build experiments that fly in space. Telescopes and spectrometers that are launched on sounding rockets and satellites, that kind of thing. I can tell them all about it if they’re interested. Who wouldn’t be? I think I know enough jargon to pull it off.”

  I laughed, amazed. “Why do you want them to think you’re an experimental astrophysicist?”

  “It sounds good. Nothing sounds better, in fact. Who wouldn’t want to be introduced as an experimental astrophysicist?”

  On the whole, Damon thought my urge to introduce him to my parents was insane and self-destructive, but he wanted to please me, and therefore acquiesced, despite the great peril he felt he was putting himself in.

  And he was not entirely wrong: my parents were still obsessed with capturing my kidnapper. They were constantly calling the police, asking if there was any progress, if anything had turned up. My father, especially, was persistent and indefatigable in his efforts. He wanted the monster behind bars, he said. Considering all these factors, I don’t know why I had such a strong desire to make the introductions, but I did. I simply thought Damon was wonderful, and I wanted them to see just how wonderful my new boyfriend was. I loved him so immensely, so intensely, so far.

  I tried to reassure Damon and myself: “Why would they start suspecting who you are? I’d have to be insane to get involved with my assailant. They don’t think I’m insane.”

  There was only one thing Damon and I had to work on before the meeting: his clothes. My parents knew that my assailant had worn, at all times, transparent clothing.

  I discussed with Damon the possibility of his wearing opaque clothing. He said he wasn’t sure it could work for him, because it would be like trying to breathe on very little air. He could only do it if he was extremely calm, but any slight turmoil would make him start suffocating.

  He hadn’t worn opaque clothing in years, and yet he was willing to try it now, for me. He practiced it before the dinner and did fine; we even had sex while he remained dressed opaquely.

  On our way out, however, we argued about up to where his shirt should be buttoned. I said high. He said low—preferably open all the way, as far as he was concerned; it would help him breathe. He had wanted to wear shorts and his usual sandals. I had told him it was out of the question, and that he should look at the bright side: at least he didn’t have to wear a tie. He had gone pale at the mere mention of the word.

  We had finally settled on a thin, green, short-sleeved shirt; a ripped pair of blue jeans (the holes calmed him slightly); rain boots that were vaguely translucent; and, most important, one leather glove to cover up his missing finger. My parents knew all too well that I had chopped off Damon’s finger; they not only knew it, they were delighted by it, and bragged about it often to their friends.

  The meeting was to be held at my parents’ apartment. We were to have dinner there.

  I still had not told Damon I had met his brother. He was about to meet my parents, and he had no idea I had already met a member of his family. I felt bad, but also felt it was important to keep it a secret, for now. I wanted him to be as calm and relaxed as possible for the meeting. Once we had crossed that threshold successfully, I could be open.

  Right before ringing my parents’ doorbell, Damon and I were still wresting with the buttons on his green shirt. Finally, he got me to let him keep more than the top two buttons open; I got him to ke
ep less than the top four buttons open.

  My parents were innocent and pure in their expectations, unsuspicious. They were ready, willing, and hopeful to have nothing but the highest opinion of my boyfriend. And it began well. They seemed pleased immediately. Their smiles, already broad when they opened the door, broadened when they got their first glimpse of Damon.

  He made a good impression in opaque clothing, despite showing a lot of chest; he was attractive. They took his coat, which of course he was not wearing, but carrying. My father extended his hand toward Damon’s gloved hand, to remind him to take off the glove. I noticed this just in time.

  “Andy has a birth defect,” I said. Damon and I had decided that Andy would be his new name for my parents, and we had practiced using it, to prevent blunders. “The skin on his left hand is fragile, and can’t be exposed to daylight or hard angles. It has to be constantly protected by that glove, because if it gets injured, which happens very easily, it doesn’t heal by itself: it has to be taken care of by a doctor.”

  I estimated that this was more than enough information to assure that my parents would leave his hand alone. And sure enough, they politely ignored his hand. But not for more than five minutes—at least not my father. He said to Damon, “You know, I’m a hemophiliac.”

  Damon nodded and uttered a little “Oh.”

  “Are you one too?”

  “Not exactly.”

  I begged my father to shut up. My mother seconded me. So he did.

  We had drinks. My father updated me on the lack of progress the police were making in capturing my kidnapper. He turned to Damon:

  “Isn’t it terrible what happened to Anna? I don’t know if she’s told you all the details—I assume she has. For someone to do to another human being what this man, this Damon, did to her, he must be a deranged monster, don’t you think, Andy? Don’t you think it’s the most abominable thing, what he did to her?”

  Damon replied, “Anna hasn’t told me much about it, but she did tell me it was horrible. Despite the success she’s achieved in her career she doesn’t think it was worth it.”

  “Of course she doesn’t think it was worth it! Do you think it was worth it?”

  “Only Anna can decide that. And she did decide it wasn’t worth it. But I must say I have a vested interest in the issue. If Anna had not been kidnapped, she probably would not then have been at the cast party where I met her. So if you find me hesitant to condemn her kidnapper, it’s undoubtedly for that reason.”

  My mother chuckled, charmed. My father looked uncertain as to how he felt about that.

  In a misguided effort to win my father over, Damon said, “The kidnapper made a mistake in kidnapping Anna. It was poor judgment on his part, and he undoubtedly feels bad about it now, especially if he somehow knows that Anna feels it wasn’t worth it. Poor man. I pity him.” After being silent a moment, Damon added: “I suspect he was in love with Anna and wanted to make her dream come true.”

  “Yes, exactly. There is no excuse for that,” said my father.

  During dinner, my mother said, “Andy, what does your work consist of, exactly? I’m fascinated.”

  “I build telescopes and detectors to see the sky in X ray. These optical systems are then sent out of the atmosphere to gather their information. Now I’m working on a European project called XMM, which stands for X-ray Multi-Mirror. It has three co-aligned telescopes, two of which will be equipped with reflection grating spectrometers. Those spectrometers are what I’m working on. It’s really a spectroscopic mission, rather than an imaging one. The imaging missions always bring back nice pictures and are good for P.R., but spectroscopy doesn’t excite the public much. Nevertheless, it is the spectroscopy that produces the most scientific breakthroughs. Usually black holes could only be identified spectroscopically, for example. Anyway, it’s really a big project involving scientists from many countries, and it’ll be launched in two years or so. Nothing like the small homemade experiments that I launched on sounding rockets in the past. Those were like bottle rockets by comparison.”

  Damon seemed to greatly enjoy describing his fictitious job. He even added, “It’s a very sexy field.”

  “It does sound sexy,” said my father.

  “Sexy like fencing. The same kind of sexy,” said Damon.

  My father nodded, and my mother dreamily said, “Yeah.”

  As Damon continued describing his work animatedly, he became less careful with his gloved hand; he moved it naturally, as if it were not gloved, which was a big mistake. In allowing his hand to move so naturally, he was actually allowing it to look very unnatural: he didn’t notice that where the glove covered his absent index finger it remained, at all times, stiff and pointing. Damon and I had talked about this phenomenon and that he would have to be careful about it. But he was not being careful enough. To my distress, I noticed my father’s gaze rest upon the straight, frozen finger, and then, to my horror, I noticed that his eyes would not leave that finger. As soon as Damon noticed my father’s gaze, his other fingers froze as well. He stopped talking, drank, and desperately resumed his occupational explanations, trying to recapture my father’s interest: “I’m interested in observing the life cycle of stars and the gases that they’re made of. You see, stars form out of collapsing clouds in the galaxy.”

  “Clouds of what?” asked my mother.

  “Mostly hydrogen,” answered Damon, “and small amounts of other elements, like helium, carbon, oxygen, and dust. Often the cloud material is in molecular phase. When the clouds’ self-gravity exceeds their sustaining pressure, they tend to collapse, give off heat, and when they become dense enough, they begin to burn and turn into stars. The less dense parts of the clouds might be blown away by the stars’ radiation pressure.”

  I couldn’t believe he was talking so much about clouds, a topic too close to his real occupation, which I had finally told my parents about, after my escape. I was sitting too far from him to kick him under the table, so I shook my head at him, mouthing the word cloud.

  He immediately changed the topic: “I used to work at Oak Ridge National Lab in Tennessee, doing surface physics with Dr. Dennis Zilkha. There I spent months measuring surface reactions between oxygen and this wonder-alloy nickel aluminum. For a while there was a lot of interest in nickel aluminum. It’s light, has high-tensile strength, and is resistant to heat, so there were plenty of potential applications for it as a material.”

  Damon had not succeeded in diverting my father’s attention from his finger for even a second, and now Damon was becoming distressed. How did this distress manifest itself? He unbuttoned a button on his shirt. My mother, who still had not noticed his pointing finger, did clearly notice the unbuttoning. My father, vice versa.

  Damon shifted in his seat. He was suffocating subtly, and so discreetly. He lowered his ungloved hand under the table and was doing something there with it, and because I knew him, I knew that he was trying to take off his pants. It was tragic. His gloved hand remained in sight; I’m sure he was too afraid to move it, in case it broke the spell of paralysis that seemed to have befallen my father. Damon was still talking about experimental astrophysics, which didn’t work on my mother, who looked surprised and uncomfortable, but politely didn’t say so; and which was wasted on my father, who wasn’t about to notice any undressing, as long as the finger remained rigid. Consequently, Damon was being driven mad. As casually as he could, he pushed his shirt off one shoulder. His ungloved hand was back under the table and he was clearly trying to lower his pants, but he was having a hard time of it without getting up. Out of frustration, he yanked his shirt off his other shoulder, causing the fabric to stretch across his torso, where the next button, looking ready to pop off, was holding the two halves together. Both of his shoulders were now bare.

  My father got up from his chair and went to the kitchen, saying, “Does anyone want garlic salt?” He came back carrying the garlic salt and his fencing epée. He sat down, sprinkled some garlic salt on his food,
and asked Damon if he wanted some.

  Damon said, “No thanks,” and went on compulsively: “There are all kinds of cool ways to tell what’s happening on surfaces, like Auger electron spectroscopy [AES], X ray photoelectron spectroscopy [XPS], and low-energy electron diffraction [LEED]. You can measure the chemical environment of surface atoms using XPS, literally see the surface order with LEED diffraction patterns, and get complete surface atomic composition with AES—”

  Damon stopped talking when my father took his sword, slid it between Damon’s index and middle fingers, and bent Damon’s empty glove finger backward until it was flat against the top of his hand. Everyone was silent.

  “You’re Damon,” announced my father, red-faced, full of outrage and triumph.

  Damon jumped up from his chair. He had successfully lowered his pants. He now finished taking them off, and then his shirt, and then his underwear. His boots had been taken off ages ago and were lying under the table. Lastly, he whipped off his glove, which for an instant revealed his amputation, and ran out of the apartment (which was on the ground floor), and through the lobby, stark naked.

  The stripping was what saved him: my parents were still in their chairs, too stunned to move. I grabbed a raincoat from the hall closet and chased after him. He had run past the doorman, who was laughing when I passed.

  I found Damon huddling in a doorway a few doors down the street. I wrapped him in the raincoat, which unfortunately was black and opaque. He pushed it away, saying, “I can’t.” He was crying.

  I walked with him, trying to hold the raincoat around him, to cover him up as much as possible.

  “Don’t touch me with it,” he kept repeating and punching it where it happened to touch his skin.

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