Olivia and her boyfriend broke up on a Sunday morning. It wasn’t a surprise, really. Olivia had offered her boyfriend an amicable break up twice before by yelling, “Do you just want to split up?” two times. Although he had asked to stay together then, he had behaved otherwise by disappearing for hours and returning drunk without any explanation. As a last attempt at repair, Olivia had called his parents for help. His father had assured her that he would force his “idiot son” to propose if he only could.
After the break-up, Olivia reconsidered this conversation while packing her things. She pictured her boyfriend’s father forcing his son onto bended knee, putting a ring into his hand, and coaching his proposal. She imagined her boyfriend’s father moving in with them and, in her mind, she saw him doing the taxes, making large purchasing decisions, and serving as a life coach while her boyfriend took her dancing and to movies based on comic book characters. She labeled this fantasy “Tiger Parent” and mentally filed it away for later.
Olivia moved back in with her mom and told herself it was because the house was close to Olivia’s lab and the fruit flies she studied must miss spending more time with her.
“I have missed spending more time with you,” her mom said. So, Olivia had her mother and her fruit flies. She also had her best friend Jill.
At the lab, Olivia maintained cages of flies labeled as Population A, B, C, and so on. Her job was to place subsets of them beneath a microscope on a small platform and dissect them with tweezers, saving the important organs for analysis. After the break up, as she was preparing her microscope, she caught sight of her reflection in the eye pieces. She felt astounded at the wrinkles around her eyes and within the ridged surface of her irises. She wished that she could put herself onto the microscope’s tiny platform for analysis at ten thousand X magnification. The biology of human relationships was beyond her. At work, her scientific focus was at the simpler end of the genetic spectrum, literally down the hall from the relatively complex zebra fish with their ideas of beauty and intensified mating rituals. Olivia wondered if her traits could be linked to her character and then be matched to a man’s. What had gone wrong with her recent relationship was surely only waiting for thorough examination and explanation.
Olivia started going for very long walks. She listened to Kelly Clarkson. She became used to the feeling of sweat beneath her underwire. She looked down at her sneakers and pictured running from an imaginary attacker. She visualized her heroic escape, her ability to pick the villain out of a police line-up, and her dramatic testimony during the court trial. “Yes, that is the man who tried to kidnap me,” she knew she would say, pointing at the defendant with enough fear and courage mixed into her voice to win over the jury. In her mind, Olivia had an interview on Good Morning America where Katie Couric asked what she was thinking when she escaped her attacker and Olivia said, “I was just glad I was wearing my sneakers.” The camera panned to her Nikes and sales of high heels plummeted nationwide. Then, her ex sent her a sorrowful email apologizing for his absence during her time of need. “I was not man enough,” he wrote.
Olivia labeled this fantasy “Just Do It” and mentally filed it away for later.
According to Olivia’s lab mates, online dating could provide her with a perfect match. She admired those “social apps” that reduced relationships to one simple variable of attraction with a binary outcome of swiping left or right. Still, if her eyes alone were wrought with so much complexity, she doubted these apps could help her. She selected an online site that asked her questions about her age, profession, and tastes. Then, Olivia’s mother took a photo of her sitting on a picnic blanket. She was sure it said, “I am marriage material.” Jill took a photo of Olivia holding a martini at a happy hour (Jill’s martini, since she had to hold the camera) that Jill was sure screamed, “I’m hot in bed.” Olivia put up both photos along with, “I’m seeking the Ross to my Rachel only without the drama and hair gel.” She sat back and waited for the messages to flow in.
The first messages were from men ten years older than her. One had four kids and was in an “open relationship.” One lived 5,000 miles away but wrote that he would move in an instant for her.
Olivia decided to take initiative. She focused on Candidate A, a 35-year old journalist from the East Coast who wrote that he preferred dark over milk chocolate.
“I can’t tell if you are lactose intolerant or like dark women,” she wrote. “Care to fill me in?”
He did not reply. Undaunted, Olivia found Candidate B. B was 30-years old, worked in real estate, and wrote that he wanted a woman who would write him love poems and whisper sweet nothings.
“Did you hear that?” Olivia wrote. “It was the sweet nothing I just whispered.”
He did not reply either.
Olivia’s mother said, “Men want to be loved by warm women.” This inspired Olivia to post an addendum to her profile. “I can offer warmth, an open ear, good and bad jokes, friendship, and passion. I’d like to meet someone who will dance with me at a wedding, even if the DJ is playing ‘Celebrate Good Times.’”
The next morning, she was greeted by emails from men who were ten years younger than her. One was twenty-three and could not spell. One was twenty-four and didn’t work but wrote that he was about to inherit a real estate gold mine.
Hoping that her sense of desperation was not palpable, Olivia emailed Candidate C, a 31-year old doctoral student who claimed to have forty houseplants.
“I think I may have killed around forty houseplants,” she wrote. “Does that mean we have something in common? To my credit, this was across my lifetime so my average is less than two horticultural deaths annually.”
He did not reply.
At the lab, Olivia introduced virginal members of Population A to Population B, hoping they would reproduce and provide her with enough data to infer a significant outcome. She gazed at their chaotic flight patterns, the black dots of their bodies circling each other in a dance in which she could see no meaning. She wondered if, perhaps, the beauty of it lay in the lack of a decipherable pattern, the exquisite simplicity of non-configuration.
Olivia spent her weekend rediscovering Alicia Keys, going for walks, and doing arm lifts as she cleaned her room. She aimed to be fit and ready when the right man came along.
Then she got an email from a man who was thirty-three. He was an architect who liked Tai Chi and oil painting. He said his name was Theo and that he was looking for a serious relationship.
Olivia agreed to meet for coffee and overcame her disappointment with his small stature once she noticed the way his green eyes crinkled at the sides when he smiled. Theo apologized for not having had time to shave and ran his slender and long index finger from the top of his cheek to the bottom. Olivia was suddenly tempted to follow this trail with her own finger as if to decipher braille.
The conversation was so interesting that Olivia forgot she needed to use the bathroom. Jill would not believe this detail when Olivia shared it with her and would remind Olivia that she used the bathroom three times during Black Swan. Olivia would not admit that she was actually afraid to watch the whole movie and hid in a bathroom stall, reading the news on her iPhone.
Theo took Olivia to a park that weekend. They sat on a bench and he read her palm. “Such an impressive collection of stories in here,” he said, running that same index finger along the creases in her hand. She leaned forward, eager for any insight into her past or future, and then he kissed her. She felt alive and happy and suddenly full of need. Need to be held. Need to be flattered. Most of all, need to be kissed again, which she initiated by turning her head to meet his as he went for a hug.
“Oh, that maneuver,” Jill said when Olivia told her about it. “I thought we left that one behind in junior high.” Olivia did not date in junior high but nodded and laughed at Jill as if she were in total agreement. Lying about men was much more like what Olivia actually did in junior high.
Olivia spent the next week with Theo, eating, cooking, walking, and talking. Her coworkers at the lab noticed that she was smiling to herself. Jill noticed the same thing, but added, “like an idiot.” Olivia kept the secret of Theo to herself, not wanting to contaminate the film of their story by exposing it to the atmosphere.
One night, Theo lay on his couch with his head in Olivia’s lap. He was wearing sweats and a tank. She noticed that his right pectoral muscle was much larger than his left. She decided that this was cute and not alarming. Theo told her that his father left when Theo was an infant and that his mother had been angry and bitter. “She hated me,” he said. “She was always saying things like, ‘Stop being lazy like your dad was,’ and stuff.” Olivia wanted to fold Theo’s childhood self into her chest when she heard this. Instead, she told him that his stories about architecture made her think of him as an enzyme, facilitating a chemical reaction to bring about something new in this world. Theo fell asleep and she held strands of her hair under his nose in hopes that her smell would trigger a wild sex fantasy.
The next day, Theo called to dump her. “I don’t see this going long term,” he said.
Olivia sat on the floor so she wouldn’t fall to the floor. “Of course, right, totally agree,” she said, staring at her toes.
During pedicures, Jill told Olivia that she had rebounded into Theo like an elastic slingshot. The beautician smiled and paused during her application of a color that was actually called “Save Me.” Olivia waited for the morsel of advice that would act as a balm over the burn in her chest. “You pay now?” the beautician said.
Olivia lost her appetite. She increased her walks to twice daily. She lost weight. People asked her how and she told them it was the “anxiety-and-depression cleanse” that was advertised on Dr. Phil. She started listening to Adele and burst into tears at random moments.
“Be alone for a while,” her mom said.
“Buy a vibrator,” Jill said. Olivia was too embarrassed to say that she already owned three.
Out of admiration, Olivia allowed a subset of her fruit flies to escape their cage at the lab. They flew into her face, bouncing off her skin, not comprehending their freedom or, perhaps, their former servitude. As the cloud of flies hovered around her workstation, she felt jealous of their simplicity. Yet, as she saw them somehow find and attack her leftover yogurt, she realized even this uncomplicated species had mechanics of attraction she couldn’t comprehend.
Two weeks later, Theo texted Olivia a photo of himself at a new construction site and asked what she thought of it. When she got his note she went home, stripped naked, and stared at herself in the mirror. Even her toes screamed “Save me.” She replied to Theo and asked him to leave her alone for a while. “I need to focus on my modeling career,” she wrote. He responded once by email and called twice. She didn’t answer. He sent her a Friend request on Facebook, which she ignored.
“This is a man who wants women to love him,” her mother said. “Many women.”
“You like men with mommy issues,” Jill said. “This guy probably hates women and doesn’t even realize it.”
“I thought Theo was self-made,” Olivia answered. “I don’t think I am into mommy issues.”
“If mommy issues where a drug,” Jill replied, “you would snort it off a glass plate.”
Teenage music suddenly spoke to Olivia her as it never had before. Carrie Underwood became her best friend and Taylor Swift her morning alarm. She signed up for another dating site and stumbled onto her ex-boyfriend’s profile. It listed him as 95% compatible with her. She realized she had taken all of his profile photos and that he had symbolically cropped her out of them. Looking at the photos now, she saw her ex’s prolonged youthfulness staring back at her, the way his arm was draped around her shoulders as a partner would while the wrinkles around and inside his eyes showed his internal terror at facing a future for which he was unready.
Saddened, Olivia immediately searched for and found Candidate D, a 32-year old investment banker who claimed to have invented a new reality show called “America’s Next Top Model – Geriatric Edition.”
Olivia emailed him, “I actually turned down an opportunity to compete on Top Model to focus on my passion – introducing fur to the hairless Xoloitzcuintli dogs of Mexico. “
D replied asking for casual sex. “I’m not sure if I’m interested in a dating situation, but I think you’re hot. If you’re up for something more casual, I could use a partner in crime…”
“Tell him to use his hand,” Olivia’s mother said. At this, even Jill was surprised.
In Olivia’s mind, she read to an audience from her best-selling book, “Loving Drosophila: How I Deciphered Romance by Dissecting Fruit Flies.” While signing autographs, she saw her ex in the crowd and graciously shook his hand despite the throngs of people waiting to greet her. She labeled this fantasy “Fly Love.” As she filed it away, she paused.
Olivia knew that one of the difficulties of scientific study was examining subjects objectively. In a moment of introspection, she sat down, closed her eyes, and tried to examine her own petri dish. She saw herself adrift and gravitating towards different energy sources for sustenance. She passed by her fruit flies, her mother, Jill, her favorite songs, and her carefully filed daydreams. Each offered Olivia the energy needed to grow within and then overcome the surrounding matrix. In her mind, she saw her alphabetized assortment of candidates housed within shelves of gel. She moved towards the curved edge of the glass, gazing past the bounds of the current experiment to a place where the compounds had yet to be formed and the hypothesis was not even written.
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