tagRomanceLove in the Age of Chemicals Ch. 07

Love in the Age of Chemicals Ch. 07


Chapter 7

I'd like to once again thank GaiusPetronius for his editing of this series, which went far beyond the "scaffolding" and whose suggestions considerably improved some of the weaker sections of the plot and narrative.

After turning into the very monster I had wanted to protect Miranda from, I needed to get away and think. To do that, I needed my car. My car was waiting at the shop. And so I pedaled furiously, finding myself much more capable of the six kilometer trip than I was when I had begun biking the week prior. Still, it took me over twenty minutes, and I arrived breathless and thirsty.

The mechanic who welcomed me handed me a water bottle from a small fridge nearby. He looked at the chart for my car and said, "Oh, it says I have to get the owner. Hold on." He disappeared and a few minutes later, a friendly-looking man in his late thirties came out. Wiping his hands on a rag tucked into his pocket, he then washed them in a nearby sink before coming over and shaking my hand. The name embroidered on his coveralls identified him as Andrew, who I remembered to be Dom's father by adoption. In his grease-stained work clothes, he only slightly resembled the family man I had seen in the photos on Miranda's phone.

Andrew had the signs of gray hair establishing itself around his ears, and there were evident wrinkles behind his bespectacled eyes. But he otherwise seemed youthful, especially when he smiled.

"You're Deke? Miranda's Deke?" he asked.

Uncomfortable being identified that way, I cleared my throat and said, "I'm Deacon Kirsch."

He had earlier explained over the phone what had needed to be done to get my car running again -- not that I understood much of it -- so all that remained was payment. He looked for a moment at the carefully detailed repair order that listed the services performed and that also itemized the parts and labor that had been expended, then handed a carbon copy of it to me.

"Alright," he said. "You're good to go. Just... next time bring it in as soon as Miranda tells you something sounds wrong. She'll never say 'I told you so,' but I can tell you... she told you so."

I looked over the page and saw that the balance owed was zero.

"There are no charges on here," I pointed out.

"Yep," said Andrew. "Just like on Miranda's tuition bill. You take care of her, I'll take care of you."

"But..." I tried to object. I wondered how much he knew about my "marriage" to Miranda.

"Look," he sighed, glancing up at the clock, "the birth mothers of my kids get special privileges in my shop. It's not a lot, but it's something. And if Miranda says no charge, then it's no charge."

"But this should have cost me hundreds... thousands..."

"OK. You want to give me something?"


"An hour or two of your time," he said.

"Excuse me?"

"I was just waiting around till you got here; I'm done for the day. You... look like you need to talk. And I don't see a bike rack on your car. Throw your bike in the back of my truck, follow me to a place where we can get some quiet, and let's talk. Then I'll follow you back to your place with the bike."

"That's... odd," I said, trying to gauge how serious he was.

"If I were the kind of guy to manipulate you, I would say something like, 'You owe to it Miranda to do this.' But I won't say that."

"But you did just say it," I pointed out.

Andrew just shrugged. "You coming or not?" he asked, walking around the counter and handing me my keys. He pulled out a set of his own, then leaned out a door and shouted into the garage area, "Hey Franky! I'm out of here! See you Thursday, OK?"

"Thursday, got it!" a distant voice hollered back over the noise.

Andrew walked out of the building. I looked around. I knew I wanted to go think. But for the past few weeks I had done little else. Perhaps it was time to talk. And listen.


I followed Andrew out of the college part of town, through the suburbs, and down a lonely road. He began to slow down when there was nothing in sight, then engaged his turning signal. I followed him down a service road and onto a large open field. Andrew's truck stopped in the middle of the field. I sat with my car still running and watched him get out. He pulled my bike out and set it on the ground, then climbed into the bed of his truck. He signaled that I should join him.

I paused to consider my situation -- was it foolish of me to follow this near-stranger to such a remote place after dark? But Andrew seemed nice enough. Miranda knew him and trusted him. I didn't think I would be exposing myself to any danger by sitting with him. So I turned off my car and joined Andrew in the back of his truck. He was just opening up a cooler and said, "I worked through lunch. Mind if I eat?"

The growl of my stomach reminded me that I had missed dinner. I felt foolish for having chosen to argue with Miranda before eating the meal she had cooked for me. "Go ahead," I told him, staring longingly at his food.

"Hungry?" he asked.

"Yes," I told him. He tossed a sandwich to me, and it slipped through my hands. I picked it up from near my feet and opened the wrapper. As I started to eat, I saw Andrew was looking at his napkin and smiling.

"Note from my wife," he said, holding up the napkin, which seemed to have writing on it, though I couldn't make out the words in the starlight. "She's got a sense of humor."

"So what are we here to talk about?" I asked.

Handing me a bottle of water, Andrew said, "Come on, Deke. Even you can't pretend you don't know the answer to that."

I took a drink, then said, "Miranda. And me."

"Just so you know," he said, "I don't really know what's going on. My wife probably has some idea, but she keeps those secrets well. I do at least know that Miranda's been upset lately. And I don't know you from Adam, but you walked into my shop looking like your world is in turmoil. It's not my business, exactly, what goes on between you and Miranda, but I care about her, and she's special to my family. If there's anything I can do to help her, well, I'd go so far as to spend my weekly stargazing night with a stranger."

"You come out here every week?" I asked.

"Just about," he answered. "It's a long story for another time. But my wife gets how important it is to me, and since she's actually the one who's usually working outside the home full time, it's OK by her if I take a few hours on Monday nights to get away. I was planning on cutting it short tonight, though, because Dom and Estelle have strep and Gina just gave birth to number five a month ago, so she's not at full capacity."

"Oh, I see," I replied, not knowing what else might be appropriate.

"But enough about my clan. What's happening over in the Kirsch household?"

"It's... it's a little complicated," I said.
"Then simplify it for me," he challenged, offering me one of his two bananas. I took one and began to peel it.

"I just feel angry lately. Some things at work didn't go as planned... in a bad way. And I can't help but think that if Miranda wasn't in my life, things would have gone differently." I paused to reflect on my summation. It seemed so inadequate to the complications involved.

"Of course they would have gone differently," Andrew said after a moment. "Marriage changes everything. But those changes aren't always for the worse, right?"

"But... it's more complicated than that," I protested. "Our marriage... it's not exactly what you might think."

"You're legally married, right?"

"Yes, but--"

"And you live together?"

"Of course, but--"

"And you spend time together, share some meals together, talk, watch TV, that kind of stuff?"


"You've made adjustments, right? Changes to yourself and to your environment? Personal sacrifices, that sort of thing, because of her?"


"And... Now, this might be too personal, but I don't really care: you have sex with her, right? You share a bed?"

"In a way. Technically, yes. Although--"

"I'll take that as a yes on the sex question. So what you're saying is that you are legally married to a woman you live with, spend time with, share your life with, adjust your life to, and have sex with." Andrew straightened up and swept his hands outward as he concluded, "That's a pretty standard marriage."

"Look, Andrew," I retorted, slightly agitated by his flippancy. Or was it by the unsettling truth he was pointing out? "I don't know what all you know about us, but... the only reason we got married was for Miranda to have free tuition. There, I said it. The whole thing was supposed to be just something on paper. But we were forced to take it further in order to maintain the illusion. Sex entered the equation as a sort of... attempt to relieve some of the natural urges we had, since neither of us had recourse to pursue other options."

"So you'd prefer to not be having sex with her?"

"No! No... I... I can't believe we're talking about this."

"Look, whatever the road that got you here, it doesn't matter. Where are you now? How do you feel towards her, how does she feel towards you, what do the two of you want out of this?.. Those are the questions you should be asking. The past doesn't determine your future. It just puts you on the road to it."

"But... but be reasonable! Can you seriously imagine a marriage that began under such circumstances actually working out? Doesn't that seem strange to you?"

Andrew smiled and looked off into the distance. "I've heard of stranger things, believe me."

"I think you're just saying that."

"No... not at all. I swear," he objected, looking serious again. "Dottie, for instance. You've met Dottie, right? Dottie married her second husband -- the guy she was married to before Thomas -- mostly so that he would pay for her graduate studies. It started as that, but the two of them ended up deeply in love for the rest of his life. And I know a, uh, friend, whose wife originally entered his life by renting a room from him in exchange for cleaning his house and having sex with him on a regular basis."

"My God. That sounds awful. He sounds despicable!"

"He's got his flaws, no doubt, but it was a complicated situation. Eventually, though, they ended up very happy together. And that's my point. Sometimes it's weird things that bring you to the right person. You can't focus on those weird things. That's like not enjoying a trip to the beach because you drove an ugly car to get there. You've got to focus on hanging on to that right person. Hanging on at all costs."

Looking up at the stars, which were so much more visible out here than in town, I asked him, "How does one know when they've found the right person? It seems to be such a subjective thing."

"Well," he chuckled, "for some of us, it's just finding a woman who seems happy to put up with us once they know all our secrets. Once they've seen all our scars and smelled all our bullshit."

I considered the ways in which Miranda had adapted to my "condition." The way she was sensitive to the things that bothered me and the way she seemed to be a student of my behavior.

"But another good sign," Andrew continued thoughtfully, "is when you find yourself really, really mad at her -- like storming out of the house kind of mad, like 'this chick has serious issues' kind of mad. And once you get far enough away, you realize that all you really want to do... is go back." He took a long drink from his water bottle, then stared up at the stars awhile.

"But I still feel so angry," I said after a few silent minutes.

Andrew continued looking up a moment, then turned his pensive gaze towards me. "Think about what's below that," he said.

"What do you mean?"

"Whenever I'm angry, it's usually just covering up either pride or fear. Sometimes both."

I knew without needing to think about it that my anger was an expression of fear. Fear over the way my life was out of control. Fear over never achieving what I had set out to achieve. Fear that as a scientist I would be insignificant, that my life and work would count for nothing. Fear of letting Miranda deeper into my life only to lose her next year.

"And is there anything beneath fear?" I asked, shivering at the chilly winter air.

"Probably," he said. "We're usually afraid when we're exposed. When we feel vulnerable."

"Vulnerable," I mused. "That's exactly what it is when someone has the power to hurt you."

"And we're never more vulnerable, never more exposed to being hurt, than when we love," Andrew concluded.

I looked for familiar constellations, but found none. Astronomy has never been my brand of science. I pondered Andrew's suggestion. "So you're saying I'm angry because I love Miranda? How counterintuitive!"

"Maybe," he shrugged. "I'm not saying anything for sure. But does that feel right to you? Does that seem like it describes what's been happening?"

"Yes, it... but, no. No! That's the problem. I'm a scientist. My field of expertise is the chemical patterns in the brain that account for things like fear and shame and anger and love. They're not real to me. They are just chemicals."

"Well... shouldn't they be more real because they are chemicals? I mean, you, of all people... you can point to love and anger and happiness. Who else can actually touch emotions? That's pretty cool if you ask me."

"You're missing the point," I argued, not sure how to explain such things to a simple mechanic. "I can't believe in love or fear or shame or any of those things. They're only pre-scientific descriptors given to identifiable chemical reactions in the brain. If you consider how--"
"Let me ask you this," Andrew interrupted. "It'd be safe to say you believe in evolution, right?"

"Yes, obviously," I snorted.

"Have you considered why the human brain evolved to include those chemical reactions? Why they're not aberrations or artifacts, but rather essential components of human survival?"

I felt blindsided. I didn't expect my mechanic to ask such a question. Especially a question that zeroed in on the very heart of my life's work, one that called my research into account. This was not something I had given thought to. I had assumed the weakness of emotions, the problem of passions. Andrew was suggesting the opposite: that feelings were not a nuisance, but rather a necessity.

And with that revelation, my thoughts pursued two paths. The potential implications for my research was one path. This was a glaring hole in my approach. I was considering the reactions in isolation from other functions, as if the whole system would perform better without them. But if the body had evolved them for a purpose... The implications were... wow.

The second path was Miranda. Once again, my reasoning moved faster than my conscious mind, and I knew I would need time for the two to come together. I only hoped I could attain some clarity before I saw Miranda again.

"Look, man, I'm not going to keep you out here all night," Andrew said, putting trash inside his cooler. "It's cold and I've got a newborn at home."

I paused my train of thought. "Thank you," I blurted out.

"Anytime, Deke. Just... please, try to fix things with Miranda, whatever that needs to look like for you two."

I nodded and sighed.

"And, uh... stop parking your car under a tree. You usually won't see the sap, but it's killing your wiper blades." I had been changing my blades at least every other month. How did he know?

Andrew stood up and I helped him put my bike back in his truck bed. We returned to the warmth of our respective vehicles. He followed me back to my place and dropped off my bike. Before driving away with a wave, he pointed up above my parking spot. "See?" he smiled. "Trees. I know a guy who does landscaping, if you want a number."

"Thanks, I'll let you know," I said, expressing the assumption that I would probably be seeing Andrew again.

When I walked into the house, Miranda's door was shut and all the lights were off. I got ready for bed and lay in that empty expanse, staring at the ceiling, putting thoughts together like ill-fitting puzzle pieces, sometimes pulling them all apart and starting over from scratch. I fell asleep shortly after figuring out what I wanted but before figuring out what to do about it.


I spent Tuesday going about my external routine while my mind processed the previous night's conversation with Andrew. I returned home that evening and looked around. If I went through with my plan, there would need to be some changes. I would miss the order I had always worked so hard to maintain. But it was for Miranda...

On Wednesday, I sat across from Miranda at breakfast. After a minute of silence, we both began to speak at the same time.

"I'm deeply sorry," I said.

"You got your car back," she said.

"Yes," I replied just as she said, "What?"

Miranda looked at me, and I repeated, "I'm very sorry for my words and my behavior the other night. I'd like us to talk this evening. Is that OK?"

"Yes," she said quickly. "Yes, that's fine."

"I have some errands to run before then," I informed her, "so it would be best to drive separately."

"That's fine," she answered.

Nothing more was said that morning.


I spent the afternoon visiting a few stores; it took some effort to find all that I was looking for. Returning to the house, I put everything in the garage. Then, fearing the effects of the cold, I moved it all into the laundry room. Then I washed up and started making dinner. Miranda returned a little before five and was surprised to find dinner nearly ready. We sat down to eat, her mood slightly better. Seeming nervous, she didn't eat much, though she assured me that my cooking wasn't to blame.

"I have ice cream for dessert," I told her. "Would you like to take it to the couch and we can talk?"

"Ice cream sounds amazing right now," she said, her hands trembling. In a few minutes we were set up on opposite ends of the couch and Miranda had almost finished eating her dessert. I was taking small bites, trying to determine how to start the conversation. Despite planning all that I wanted to say, I had never been able to decide just where and how to begin. I took a deep breath in, but before I could speak, Miranda started crying -- heavily. Her body slumped forward as she sobbed.

"I'm so sorry, Deke, I'm sooo sorry!"

"I thought that was to be my line tonight," I said, confused.

"No... you don't understand," she said through tears. "I've messed everything up: I should have read the warnings. I didn't know! It's all my fault! I swear, I didn't want this to happen."

Clearly, all the things I had planned to talk about that evening would have to wait until Miranda had the chance to tell me whatever was upsetting her so much.

"What warnings?" I asked.

"On my antibiotics," she answered. "For the tuberculosis, remember? It was written on the information sheets, as plain as day, but I didn't read them, even after Denise told me, 'Make sure you read all the warnings first.' And Dr. Malpan -- Thomas -- asked if I was on any other medication before he gave me the prescription, and I said 'no' because I don't even think about my birth control as medication. But the Rifampin... It can mess with the Pill. You can't take them together, but I did. I'm so sorry, Deke."

"Miranda, what happened?" I asked, trying to piece together what she was apologizing about. "Are you sick?"

"No! Well, yes, kind of, but that's not it," she babbled. "I'm going to have to drop out again and everything. And that's not fair to you because I can't just keep dragging this out when you want your life back. It's not fair to you at all."

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