When it's impossible to distinguish true love from passion induced by an illegal chemical, does anyone really care? Original fiction by Nayomi Munaweera, published exclusively by CNET.
Nayomi Munaweera's debut novel, "Island of a Thousand Mirrors" was long-listed for the Man Asia Literary Prize and the Dublin IMPAC Prize. It was short-listed for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature and the Northern California Book Prize. It won the Commonwealth Regional Prize for Asia. The Huffington Post raved, "Munaweera's prose is visceral and indelible, devastatingly beautiful-reminiscent of the glorious writings of Louise Erdrich, Amy Tan and Alice Walker, who also find ways to truth-tell through fiction." The New York Times Book review called the novel, "incandescent." The book was the Target Book Club selection for January 2016. Nayomi's second novel "What Lies Between Us" was hailed as one of the most exciting literary releases of 2016 from venues ranging from Buzzfeed to Elle magazine. Her non-fiction and short fiction are also widely published. www.nayomimunaweera.com.
The police have broken up another dimly lit production den. She watches as they bring out the "donors" in handcuffs. They are all women; everyone knows women are a purer source, easier to induce and extract. Outside her window as the city enters its final and deepest slumber she has been awakened by the dread that grips at her throat in the mornings. Gary, his arm slung across her waist, stays submerged in sleep. His face is inches from hers, immobile except for a minute twitching of the skin around the mouth. As if he were smiling in his dreams. She wonders at his dreams. Ten years of marriage, but this part of his life, locked away from her. She hadn't wanted to wake him. Lying there pinned by his body she had wriggled her arm enough to grab the remote and turn on the TV.
Now she watches the blue-green underwater glow of the screen as they bring out the women. A stream of brown-skinned women. Women just like her. When the camera catches a face, for a brief illuminated second she sees something desperate, something not even animal but beyond animal, the gaze deadened and blank.
She switches off the TV when the policemen start bringing out the babies.
This is why her shipment is late. The police have cracked down on production and distribution all over the country. There have been giant raids like the one she just watched. The government says Eros is destroying the family, the basic ways that human beings are connected to and love each other. She doesn't care about any of this. She just needs her meds.
Every trace of magic is ebbing out of her bloodstream. Each time she pisses, a bit of it is gone, dissolved away from her soft tissues. The colors of her life are being diluted and swirled away in the toilet bowl. Now the painful symptoms have come. In the first week there had been only the mildest itching on her arms, legs and on the sensitive skin of her scalp. But then the itching had moved, had seemed to creep inside her until it is everywhere under her skin.
Gary had asked about the deep raking marks on her limbs, the shakes and the jitteriness. She had said she must be allergic to something and more than that she was tired, it had been long days at the gallery recently and she just needed to rest. He had chosen to believe her and had not probed deeper. He trusted her; he would never think not to.
Now she stares at him over the dinner table. His eyes, which had been green, glint amber, like those of some menacing reptile. His teeth are blockish again, the way they had been only in the early days of their meeting. She remembers thinking then that his jaw motions were like those of the cow that was posted outside her childhood home. Then of course the meds had come, and quickly he had turned into himself, into the Gary whom she loved, and she had been thrilled to let him rescue her and bring her into this fairy-tale house on the hill.
Now it is all different. Now when he looks at her, her stomach responds with a panicked twist. Who is he? Why is she here? She can't remember.
Later, when he comes into the bedroom, she is lying in a corner of their wide bed, entombed under the snow-white duvet, and he, knowing that she has these periodic bouts of darkness, does not reach for her, and for this she is grateful.
By Friday, her meds have still not arrived. She puts on the glasses and scrolls her eyes through the numbers to call Jake. When he appears, she tells him she cannot come into the gallery, he'll have to manage everything by himself. He looks wounded. But the Harings are coming in today, he tells her. She tells him she wishes she could be there too but she's too busy. She says goodbye and rests her throbbing head in her hands.
She knows it's futile, but she needs to call anyway, to hear it from the horse's mouth, or in this case, the dealer's mouth. She pulls the glasses over her head again, moves her eyes through the numbers and is surprised when he picks up immediately.
"I need my meds. They're a month overdue." She tries to keep the shrill out of her voice and is unsuccessful. She tries again: "Please. I need them. I don't know what will happen if..."
"Don't call here. Don't you know what's happening? They might be watching." The screen going black.
She rips the glasses off and flings them across the room. They hit the wall but don't break. In the other room, Gary calls out, "What's that?" and she, taking a moment to calm her breathing, says, "Nothing love. I just dropped a book." She hopes it is enough, hopes he will not come looking. When he says, "The President is about to address the nation. Come listen," she breathes again.
She walks in and sits on the edge of Gary's chair. He snakes an arm around her waist. On the screen the President says, "We are doing everything we can to apprehend the violent criminals who are extracting and synthesizing these dangerous drugs. We are liberating the women. We will destroy this illicit trade."
Then a shot of the crowd outside, thousands of people holding signs that read, "Return to Real Love" and "No More Eros."
Gary strokes her thigh, and she forces herself to stay very still. He says, "I'm so glad we never needed those things. I'm so glad we did it the proper way." He looks up at her, and she tries to smile, but she doesn't feel anything.
She lives in one of the most expensive cities in the world, in one of the most economically extravagant moments in history; she feels like the most desperate street junkie. If these were the old days, she could have gotten a divorce. It would have been easy. People used to do that all the time in her youth. Not her own parents of course, they were from a part of the world where divorce was never possible, but her classmates in college, all of them had divorced parents. Now the drug has made divorce archaic, shameful even. Divorce is something poor people do. Instead, you pop a little pink Eros pill every day and you are blissfully happy with your partner. "In love. True love. Forever love." Just as it says on the box.
At first she had used the drug only to make it bearable. To make Gary bearable. Eros had made her not shy away, not run as she wanted to. With it, a man like Gary could be soothed into the dream that he was loved and from there into the dream of marriage. He could remain blissfully ignorant of why his beautiful young wife did not shy or run. He could assume it was for the very best reason: She was in love. She would stay in love as long as necessary.
This morning, the sight of those other women on the screen had been jarring. It was frightening to see their faces, only something vaguely simian left. Yes, she knew about the extraction process. She had read about it. The tubes drilled into the skull, those small red tubes like capillaries diving deep into the brain stem, pulling out the most human of substances, the most miraculous liquid, that particular chemical cocktail made only in the recesses hidden behind the smooth case of the skull. Yes, it was painful; she knew that. Yes, it was dangerous. What happens to people when they are deprived of the chemicals that make them love, that make them bond, that make them human?
But -- and this was important -- these women had chosen this life. Perhaps they did it to support their families. Perhaps it was the least grotesque choice they could make. In that case maybe it was OK.
And anyway, these days everyone takes the pill. And everyone knows everyone does. People don't talk about it openly, but this is how love works, how sex works. It makes life easy. It makes heartbreak obsolete.
From the other room, the glasses emit a string of tones. She jumps up; "My mother." She walks away from him, closes the door carefully behind her, gets the ringing glasses, and then goes upstairs to her study with them. Gary always watches the whole news program; still, she has to be careful.
She doesn't go to Amma anymore. The house she grew up in feels too crowded, the street outside too teeming. So instead her mother comes to her. She puts on the glasses, and Amma reaches out her hand from across the thousands of miles, and she can feel Amma's hand on her own, a ghost sensation like being touched by a firm force of air, not quite human.
Amma doesn't beat around the bush. She says, "Is this thing that is happening affecting you all? I saw it on the news. All those people in the streets screaming. What a mess. Are you OK?"
She can't help it; she is crying. Amma says in a shocked voice, "Darling. What's the matter? Does he suspect?"
"No. I don't think so." She says in a quiet voice, "He thinks I love him."
"It's just. He just... he feels like a stranger..."
"He feels like a stranger? You've been married to that man for 10 years. You have everything. You want love too? Do you know what life is like here? For the girls you grew up with? Some of them go to America and end up in those places. With tubes in them. So you can get your medicine." She's silent, picturing it. The girls she went to school with, their bodies used to synthesize the drug that makes her marriage work. She shakes her head to make the images go away.
"I know... It's just. With the meds I'm happy. I love him. But without them... I don't even know him. I don't know what I'm supposed to do with him, with my life."
Amma says, "When I married your father I had seen him twice. We got married a few weeks later because he liked how I looked. That was it. I decided to love him. He decided to love me."
"You've had it easy. But you can do it without that drug. If I can do it, you can too. Don't you dare think of anything else." She nods, dashing away the tears slipping past her glasses. Without Gary, without this house, her life would dwindle down to nothing. Worse, without Gary, their lives, Amma's and Papa's, would dwindle down to nothing. An abyss awaits them; he is the only barrier.
She promises she will try harder. She will love her husband. She promises Amma she will make it work.
The next morning, she is jumping out of her skin. The house contracts and expands like a breathing thing around her. She washes her face, dabs on lipstick with a shaking hand. The gallery and Jake. Perhaps these things will settle her. She goes downstairs and gets into the car, pushes the right buttons, leans back and rests her throbbing head against the plush cushions. The garage door eases open, the car glides out into the city. She closes her eyes against the light bouncing off the buildings, the day's white glare.
At the gallery, Jake cannot mask his enthusiasm. It's been days since she came in. She almost smiles at his eagerness. It had annoyed her before, the way he used to fawn on her, but now it's almost sweet. She can't help but compare his height and breadth to Gary's. Two bodies couldn't possibly be more different, she thinks.
She sits on a tall white bar stool and asks to see the books.
He nods, as eager to please as some oversized puppy. "Wine?"
"Yes. The white."
"There's no more. But I have Bordeaux from the Médoc."
"Red wine with this carpet?" She gestures at the plush white all around them, and he looks downcast. But her nerves are screaming. She knows what she needs to still them. What she cannot have.
She waves her hand and says, "OK, bring me the red," and he trots off. She thinks again how glad she is that she didn't hire some steely-eyed art history Ph.D. in clicking black patent-leather heels and a dyed midnight bun as she meant to, someone more business-minded but less creative. When she hired him three years ago, she had thought it would add color to the gallery if an actual artist worked there. They are a rare-enough breed now. Their work hangs on these walls, and is listed in the catalogues for millions, but they do not live in the city. Mostly they have fled across the water, further away into whatever wilderness lies beyond. But instead of a steely-eyed art historian she has Jake. He came asking, maybe even begging, for a job. She had been won over, and when he explained that he would be commuting into the city hours every day, she even let him have the basement apartment under the gallery. Without her largesse he would never be able to live here in the city of the chosen.
He brings her the wine in a fat-bellied glass. She rests it against her forehead and lets it cool her brain as he explains the numbers, the recent sales and acquisitions. She sips, nods, not really listening to the words as much as to the timbre of his voice, its cadences and rhymes. The wine runs a deep indigo down her throat. It's strong and woody, potent as the blood of a dragon.
She twists a bit on her tall stool, squirms slightly, recrosses her legs tightly. There is something in his frame, which is large yet oddly graceful; a way he talks with his hands to emphasize his words; an extra glint in those porcelain-blue eyes. All of this is somehow pleasing. She gets to her feet a little unsteady, a little wobbly, and instantly his arm is under her elbow, strong and sure. She should push him away, but it's nice. She hadn't noticed this before, how nice it might be to be held in his solid and capable arms.
She says, "I have to go."
He says, "But we just started." His eyes narrowing in disappointment. She pushes past him, outside and into the city, finds her car, heads home.
She can't stop thinking about him. In her marital bed, she tosses and turns. Wishing she could smell him, wishing she could remember exactly what it felt like when he stood next to her and touched her arm. He had always been handsome. She had known that theoretically, logically. But it hadn't meant anything because she had been in love with Gary. But she had been in love with Gary because of Eros. Now something submerged is being revealed. Jake and her, laughing in the gallery. Jake and her, sharing late meals on a picnic blanket spread over the pristine carpet. Jake and her, handling the various crises of the gallery, celebrating their victories with bottles of the best. Now, next to her, Gary drowns in sleep.
In the morning, as soon as his car pulls away, she rushes to the gallery. When Jake opens the door, saying, "I didn't expect..." she pushes herself into his arms, and with the hunger of the long starving, she pulls his mouth down to kiss hers. She forgets to breathe; there's a sweep in her bloodstream, a tremulous, glittering joy. He kicks the door closed, locks it behind her, picks her up and carries her downstairs to his basement room. They make glorious love in his tiny artist bed. She falls asleep cradled in those mighty arms and sleeps the sleep of the innocent and the pure.
Is this what it's really like? This swooping, grabbing clutch of blood through the body? She had read somewhere that rats have oxytocin receptors in the heart. She feels she does too and that now they are opening up like roses, like mouths. For him. For Jake. He makes her feel such things. Such gushings of the body and soul. She wants to be with him all the time. She wants to know everything about him. She wants to run away and live with him in his underground room. When they are together, she falls asleep wrapped in him, his large body a cave she crawls into. When she wakes up away from him, she longs for the day she will wake up only to him every day, every day, every day, forever.
She steals away every chance she gets. It's easier now because Gary has started spending more time at the office. Maybe he is sick of her flinching away from him every time he looks at her; maybe he too has found something else to occupy his hours. With Gary it had always been transactional. She had taken her little pink pill secretly and loved him because of it.
But now the real thing is happening. Her body and brain have done it; she has fallen in love. Jake has fallen in love. She and Jake have fallen in love. True love. Their bodies have reacted to each other, have produced the perfect chemical cocktail, untainted by commerce or technology. She is happier in this basement than she ever was in that soaring house on the hill. They lie in bed, their limbs intertwined, and make plans. They will run away. They will be poor. They'll hide and he'll paint and nothing else will matter. She hadn't thought much of his paintings before. Now she can't believe her own blindness. Now she pores over each miniature pointillist canvas in the stacks that line his room, trying to discern its hidden meaning. She is astounded by his wit. He's brilliant; he's a genius. The world will see. They will live on love and his true talent.
They feast on each other and then fall deep into the sleep of the perfectly sated. She dreams of him even as he lies next to her. Of his lips. Of his thighs, the bulky weight of them over her own. They have won the world. They will peer down on it from such great heights.
She wakes with a start, reaches for him and, coming slowly into herself, sees him at the side table, bending over her glass of wine. The vial glows blue in his hand. With a gasp she sits bolt upright and he looks at her, both of them seeing what the other knows. He shakes his head, one hand behind his back, the other reaching for her. He says, "Baby."
She says, "Let me see."
He says, "Please, no..."
She gets on her knees and pounds her thighs with her fists and screams, "Let me see!" From behind his back he draws out the vial, the liquid lighting up the room. Somehow she knows that she already knew, that she always knew but had wanted to feel it. She says, "That's the pure stuff?"
He nods, hesitant, "Baby quality..."
"They mix in the blue dye so you know it's pure."
"That's why you gave me the red wine and not the white?"
He nods, miserable as a child caught out in a game.
"How did you get it?" He shakes his head, mute, terrified of her now.
She speaks calmly, "Tell me where you got it, or I'll call the hotline. You broke the law. It's an oxytocin rape. Not once. Over and over for the past weeks. They're going to break you."
He makes a gesture towards her, "Please, baby, don't say that. I love you."
"Tell me where you got it, or I'm calling the police."
He lowers his head, defeated. "Black-market. Tenderloin. I know people." She looks at him very carefully and says, "You know I always liked you. I might have got there myself if you just let it be."
He shrugs, says, "I know. But I got tired of waiting. It happened for me right away. The first time I saw you. I didn't need any damn drugs. But I guess you did." She gets out of bed, starts putting on her clothes, pulling on her boots. She won't cry; she won't give him that. She is made of steel now. She says, "OK, here's how this is going to go. You get me a shipment every week. The good stuff. This blue stuff. You're late even once, and I call the police. Get it?" She stands up and reaches out her hand. He gives her the vial, and she slips it into her purse.
She wants desperately to kiss him again. She wants desperately to draw him back into the bed and reverse their lives, their story into the place it was five minutes ago. Her heart is breaking. She loves him so much; she walks up the stairs away from him. She knows that in a few days, a week at the most, the Jake of her dreams will coalesce back into someone she can't remember right now. Somewhere deep in the basement of her memory, a sad lummox of a man with his name awaits her. She forces herself out of the gallery, into the car, homeward. She cries the whole way home.
It takes time. Transfer doesn't happen overnight. But when Gary comes home on another night that week, she is anointed, made up, and dressed in silk and lace. She knows that he has been thinking of leaving her, and the knowledge of how close she got to the abyss makes her dizzy. She kisses him and feels the waves of desire roll over her. He kisses her back, surprised but grateful. He says, "What did I do to deserve all this?" She says, "Nothing! I just love you." And looking into her brown eyes he knows it is the truth.