by Joe Pitkin
“The lunatic, the lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact”
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Leah Krohn was sitting on the floor of the most furnished room of her apartment, a tiny bedroom which appeared to have been re-conceived as a living room and then, later, as a professor’s office. She preferred sitting on the floor, preferred the comfort of drawing her knees up to her chest, of perching a coffee cup on the little table formed by her flannelled kneecap. Even if she had wanted to sit elsewhere, a clutter of printouts and photocopied articles and old textbooks filled up both the couch and the chair. A Beethoven piano sonata, its chords alternately voluptuous and lean, poured out of the sleek coffer of Leah’s high-end stereo, swirled and eddied around the stacks of books and papers. The room felt strange—probably, she thought, because of the angle of morning light through the window. It occurred to her that she had never sat in this room at this hour of the day.
Friday morning, exactly 24 hours ago, the executive assistant to the vice president had called into Leah’s lab, summoned her to the administrative offices of Goroxin-Mercy Pharmaceuticals. Leah had always thought of the vice president, Ms. Sullivan, as an oddly steely person. Ambitious as well: Stanford MBA, inexplicably a vice president of research and development at 40, all this without any kind of science degree, so far as Leah knew. The vice president also seemed to have read deeply in the managerial literature one finds at airports, books on becoming empathetic, or sympathetic, or supportive, or whatever. Leah was grateful she hadn’t been doing clean room work that morning and would not have to decontaminate a second time after being called out of the lab.
Ms. Sullivan—Kathy—perched aside an enormous monitor which stood as a graceful slim curve on her desk, like a sail by which her office reached along some ancient trade route. However, she had trained not to be looking at her email the moment a visitor entered her office.
“I appreciate your coming in to talk, Leah,” Kathy Sullivan said breezily, as though the visit had been unsolicited.
Leah plopped into the chair opposite Kathy Sullivan’s desk, staring at the desktop just in front of Kathy’s small hands. Leah had never been any good at looking people in the eye: it was as though the eyes had a language of their own that she was deaf to. The many varieties of facial expression gave her the creeps. “What did you want to see me about?”
Kathy Sullivan’s hands stood like tense spiders on the desktop. “It’s nothing bad, Leah. I just thought we might take a minute to talk. How’s the OCTI project coming?”
They had been working on the OCTI project for more than a year, combing through the gene polymorphisms of different ethnic groups and how they expressed the OCTI cell-membrane transporter. Those ethnic groups with one form of the protein readily took up the company’s very lucrative diabetic medication into their cells; those groups with a different form got little from the drug.
“We’ve had to re-run the sequencing of some of the African-American samples. It turns out we’d made some faulty assumptions that we weren’t aware of until we’d done about a week’s worth of affinity chromatography.” As though a long-dry spring within her had spontaneously begun flowing anew, Leah took to describing at length the anomalies of the first batch of affinity chromatography and how she and the lab techs had revisited each of their initial assumptions in turn.
Kathy Sullivan nodded along with a shrewd pursed smile which intended to convey that she knew all about affinity chromatography and the ways it can go astray. Leah continued for several minutes, Kathy Sullivan nodding and nodding until, like a beautiful tailored bobble-head doll, she seemed to be nodding reflexively.
Leah paused, deep in her description of the last week’s lab processes. She paused midsentence, casting about for a word she wanted but which would not spring to mind. It pained her doubly to know that the word, whatever it was, was a common one, the kind of word a dull 10th grader might have on a spelling test. The word was “irregular,” and Kathy Sullivan knew it, though she thought it wiser to withhold that word and instead step in while she had a moment. “Leah, I called you in here because I need for you to take a couple of days off.”
Leah puzzled over the wording of what she had just heard: how could my taking time off possibly be one of Kathy Sullivan’s needs? “Is there a problem?” she asked in her low, flat voice.
“No problem—” Kathy Sullivan’s voice was soothing, like that of a narrator for a cough syrup commercial. “We’re just going to do some HVAC work this weekend and we’ll need everyone out of your lab. It will be good for you to take a couple of days off anyway. When was the last time you stayed home for a whole day?”
“I don’t know,” Leah said, eyes fixed on the desk. She wasn’t sure whether she was supposed to feel ashamed at such a question, or at not knowing the answer. Though the question discomfited her, she couldn’t tell whether she should feel ashamed.
“There you go, then,” Kathy answered, the matter apparently having been resolved. “Why don’t you get the lab ready to be offline for a couple of days, and then we’ll see you back here Monday morning?” She offered a momentary, competent little smile and stood up. Leah always failed to take this cue to leave, and so, with a more brittle smile this time, Kathy Sullivan added “Head back to your lab now.”
Thus Leah found herself now in her living room, at loose ends with the Beethoven. In the other room—what would a real estate agent have called it? A living room? Sitting room? Conservatory?—a grand piano dominated the space like a glowering black bull. Leah’s grandmother had left it to her, the only one of ten moderately talented grandchildren to have practiced with true seriousness. That, and Leah had seemed while growing up to have had so few resources at her disposal. She had had none of the charms of the other grandchildren, none of their flip ease in talking with adults or in whipping up impromptu movies with the camcorder when they all got together at Thanksgiving. The wit and sauce of the other grandchildren had always seemed impossible for Leah to follow; as a girl, she seemed incapable of speaking of anything except the piano.
It had seemed for a time that the piano would be Leah’s door into the world. As a teenager she practiced mercilessly, working over phrasings and fingerings as though each one were a new knot that she was learning to tie and untie blindfolded. And if it didn’t precisely win her friends in school or prevent better-favored children from calling her a cipher, the principal sometimes featured her playing at pep rallies and assemblies, and teachers who had some understanding of her talent were more protective of her than they would have been of a typical outcast student. The music director at the school had once played violin for the San Francisco Opera—few in that little Utah town had been urbane enough to wonder what he was doing teaching orchestra in the county high school—and he sat long hours after school listening to Leah discourse on music theory with all the seriousness of Aristotle. It was unclear to all how Leah had come by her music, precisely: beyond a few cursory lessons from her grandmother when the family visited, Leah seemed to have picked up everything on her own, between hours spent poring over performance clips from YouTube and the many nights she fell asleep at the piano after having played long past her bedtime.
It was the orchestra teacher who had first shown her the Beethoven piano sonatas, how they were a world unto themselves, passing from the crystalline early works, shapely as Greek columns, through the rambunctious, sinewy forms that appeared with the Waldstein Sonata, through to the end, to the odd coils and folds and spirals of the final works, as strange as anything Schoenberg or Hindemith would write in the modern period.
Had she been a person whose thinking traveled along such paths, Leah would have wondered at how suddenly she had stopped playing the piano altogether. Once she left the conservatory in the middle of her second year she had never again sat down at the keyboard for more than a few seconds, always out of boredom more than curiosity or any fertile desire. She had accepted her grandmother’s piano into her apartment only because, as her mother had protested, there was no other place for it, and because that room had been utterly barren in the first year that Leah had lived there. Now it was an empty white room with a grand piano planted in the middle of it like a lunar lander.
On the couch and chairs of the tiny second bedroom, now her living room, Leah had stacked in disarray all of the monographs on molecular genetics and protein synthesis that she was reading, or intended to read, or that she had read in the three years since she had taken the apartment. Normally after work she would sit on the floor just as she was doing now, a huge, shapeless bathrobe draped around her blocky shoulders, head bent over an article with its strange graphs scribed as though in cuneiform, its phylogenetic trees and confidence intervals and analyses of variance.
That she was not reading now might have puzzled her, if she had had the habit of being puzzled about anything beyond genetics. Had it so undone the script of her life to stay away from the lab this morning, to sit on the floor with the sunlight slung low in the window, at a time of day when she had never in three years paused over the angle of light in this book-stacked little room? What might have made her wonder, were she the type to wonder about such things, was that she was thinking about sex at the moment: not about sex as a method for genetic recombination, as the great flywheel of Mendelian inheritance, but rather in the sense that it was one of the few absolute goods of life and that she had to have it.
Leah was 33 years old and, in spite of her knowing more about the genetic alchemy of sperm and egg than nearly anyone who had ever lived, she remained a virgin. She had a hefty, grim look, made all the more ill-favored by the severity of her haircut, which framed her head like a thick helmet. She had never been on a date, had never flirted. When the “good breeding” craze began about ten years before, when personal genomics became cheap enough that middle class families were ordering full workups of their own genomes, an older sister had tried to propel Leah into dating by enrolling her in one of the new genomic dating sites, Eu-gene.com. Leah had sullenly uploaded her genome into the site, resenting somewhat that her family was so able to superintend her actions. Yet she did upload her genes, watching the little progress bar on the screen fill beneath the oddly compelling gaze of the company’s corporate logo, Eugene, a nerdly cartoon Adonis who strolled around the screen and sometimes regarded the progress bar with all the fascination of a young man entering a strip club for the first time.
Leah was secretly relieved when the rejection email came back a few days later. That she carried two of the known marker genes for autistic spectrum disorders seemed to distress everybody except Leah herself. She could have told her family beforehand that Eu-gene wouldn’t want her in the dating pool. When the rejection came she had only been back at school a year or so, entranced by the biology classes at the community college in a way that only the piano had held her attention before, but already she could have told the techs at Eu-gene.com that the mutations she carried in the Neuroligin-3 and Neruoligin-4 genes represented only a 3% risk that the carrier would develop autism. No matter: she carried two genetic markers for autism and so Eu-gene didn’t want her.
She had not lost any sleep lamenting that the garden of romance was closed to her. Her mind simply didn’t tend that way; rather, she kept an eerie power of focus on what she considered real problems, which is to say problems which could be resolved through affinity chromatography and phylogenetics software. The frisky, lusty yearning she felt now presented a problem only in that she had no repertoire of fantasy, no sexual memories on which she could draw and somehow give shape to her urges. In fact, she could remember only once that she had ever felt this way before: as a child of fourteen, waking early in her bedroom in her parents’ house. Her parents, professors at the state university, had hosted a party the night before for a guest lecturer they had invited. The guest was an economist like her parents, but unlike her father the guest was tall and lean, with an unruly shock of red hair. At dinner before the party they had spoken about Leah’s music and about the new computer programs that purported to compose in the style of Beethoven or Mozart or whomever. The programs were so good, according to the guest, so much better than the early efforts in the previous century, that most listeners would be unable to distinguish a computer-generated Beethoven sonata, say, from an example of the real thing.
“I would be able to tell,” Leah had said, staring into the new potatoes on her plate.
Both of her parents chuckled musically at this, as they always did when Leah would utter one of her leaden pronouncements in front of a stranger. “I dare say you would,” her father said, and then to the guest, “She’s quite devoted to Beethoven.”
“Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas,” Leah continued. “I would know if it wasn’t one of them.”
“Well, yes,” the guest answered, “but you might know what all 32 sonatas sound like. If you took a person who didn’t know all the sonatas, or who didn’t know there were 32 of them, and you told that person that in fact Beethoven had written 33 sonatas, would he be able to tell which one the computer had written?”
Leah had never considered or even imagined such a question in her life.
“That’s the Turing Test,” the guest went on. “When Alan Turing was working on the first computers seventy years ago he said that we would know we had created artificial intelligence when you could talk to a computer sitting in another room and not know that you were talking to a computer.”
Leah sat in silence, imagining a city like a great apartment tower, each tiny apartment open to her eye as though to God’s eye viewing from a just remove. In each bare cell sat a person or a black box of a computer, and each whispered one to another through the thin walls.
She had awakened the next morning alight with some strange new desire. She padded through the gray half-darkness of the disordered, sleeping house, crept into the guest bedroom, where the door stood inexplicably ajar. The guest snored in a bundle on an ancient twin bed that had once belonged to Leah’s older sister. She stood beside the bed some minutes, her mind whirring with a deep expectation, yet she was afraid to reach out and touch his shoulder. When finally his form turned over of its own accord and his eyes opened and his body sat up in shock, she said only in a whisper, “Tell me more about the Turing Test.”
“I think you should let me sleep some more,” he croaked. “We’ll talk more in a couple of hours.” He rolled over and became again a silent bundle, and Leah, after watching him a few minutes more, turned and shuffled out. Hours passed before the guest or the rest of the house woke up. When the guest went back to his town that evening, he left without having said another word about the Turing Test.
Why was Leah thinking about this now, this sole sexual memory half a lifetime away? As she sat the stereo passed from one movement to the next. It was an Alfred Brendel recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.15 from late in the last century, from the early days of digital. Brendel’s left hand began the Andante movement, crawling across the keyboard like a miraculous clockwork creature of many legs on an implacable march. She remembered being told by more than one person that Beethoven had also had Asperger’s. Everyone who had mentioned it—the doctor who had learned of her love of Beethoven, the well-intentioned sight-singing clinician at the conservatory, the librarian back in her hometown in Utah—had always taken the same tone of voice to tell her that even the great Beethoven had suffered as she had, even though nothing in Leah’s manner would have suggested that she was suffering at all. “I’m mildly autistic” was a phrase that usually came out of her mouth within five minutes of meeting someone. People’s reactions, whether pitying or patronizing, always distressed her more than being autistic did, though she felt incapable of dissembling and most times began an acquaintance the same way: I’m mildly autistic. Whether the great Beethoven had had Asperger’s did not concern her or make her feel any closer to Beethoven’s music, and in any case she was skeptical that the diagnosis grew out of any analysis of his genes. Probably it came from some kind of biographical psychoanalysis, which Leah regarded with the same contempt she had for astrology and tarot cards.
She had loved Beethoven’s music long before anyone had told her about Beethoven’s Asperger’s. Indeed, she had loved his music long before she’d known about her own Asperger’s. There was something about him that she had heard from no other composer: his work had a certain economy of chords, and while he was a creature of his time as much as Haydn or Schubert had been, no composer before or after had the irrepressible force of Beethoven, that sense that all the vital energy of the world had been packed to bursting into such a spare vocabulary of musical forms. It was as though God had taught him only a tiny alphabet and then dictated the world to him through those few letters.
Earlier in her life Leah had felt she knew what those letters were. Each chord seemed to her to have its own name—not just the traditional name, not A-minor or E-flat major—but a unique name that she had divined. Later she learned that autistics frequently make odd associations of this type. For some, there are good numbers and evil numbers, or a color for each day of the week. For Leah chords had represented different qualities that were as real to her then as polarity and acidity became to her later in chemistry class. Not every chord represented a unique concept—there was considerable redundancy in her system—but each chord had contours that she could see in her mind’s eye, and thus she classified chords by how the sound of them looked. Some, like B-flat minor and F-major seventh, made the same form in her mind, as unmistakable as the form of, say, a benzene ring to the mind of a chemistry student. And just as a student might look at a tiny white dusting of sodium benzoate she had created in the lab and see in her imagination the benzene ring, so Leah saw a familiar form whenever she heard B-flat minor or F-Major seventh.
She had not thought in years of this private alphabet she had once had. Remembering it now, she was struck by how similar that fantasy had been to her real life’s work. The gene is nothing more than a script, its rules as regular as the rules for musical notes on a staff. Just as notes are brought together into chords, nucleotides gather in threes as codons, and just as the chords formed shapes in her mind, each codon calls up its own amino acid, each with its own form. And those amino acids, strung together like beads on a strand, make up every protein, which is to say the neurotransmitters, the hormones, the enzymes, the molecules that drive the humors and set moving every living cell of every living thing, just as all the music that bathes the world derives from sequences of the same few dozen chords.
A strange urge possessed Leah just then, stranger even than the long-buried urge for sex but perhaps related to it. She stood up, turned off her stereo, and padded into the bare room with the piano. She sat there motionless a moment, as though she had been drugged. Then, out of that deep that musicians call “finger memory,” she repeated the left hand bass line that Brendel had played moments before on the recording. Where Brendel’s had been crisp and tense, Leah’s after almost 15 years away from the piano came lumpy and plodding, a misshapen creature. She didn’t care: the chords were the same as Brendel had used, the same as what Beethoven had conceived.
And what if the chords were codons? She recalled vaguely the shape she had once associated with D-minor, the first chord of the andante movement: a short jagged form, like a child’s drawing of a lightning bolt, the tip of which beckoned and pulled as though magnetic. Now that she thought about it, it looked a lot like a ball-and-stick model for the amino acid glutamine. The next chord, A-minor, called up a pyramidal form like a caltrop, atop which perched a structure shaped like a sine wave. Leucine, perhaps? Leah got up and fished about in the other room for her laptop. She propped it open next to her on the piano bench, called up with her flat voice the Internet’s genome superdatabase, BIOS. Into the search box she voiced the amino acids that came to her: glutamine, leucine, serine, arginine. She played through the andante slowly, stumbling at times over passages that did not rise up clearly out of memory, or other times over shapes that left her unsure: aspartic acid or glutamic acid? Leucine or valine?
An hour later, the one-letter codes of amino acids filled up the search box. Here Leah paused. For, unreflective as she was, even she realized that she had only been goofing off, that actually searching the database for the protein sequence she had just entered would admit—what? That she didn’t have proper respect for real scientific work? That she was crazy? That she was as bad as the piano majors at the conservatory she’d flunked out of, consulting their tarot cards late into the night?
A few miles away at Goroxin-Mercy labs her real work sat in the refrigerators. The gene sequences of diabetic African Americans awaited comparison with the gene sequences of diabetic Caucasians. The company was trying to refine its diabetes drug; Leah was an integral part of that effort. Was Goroxin-Mercy using science in the service of racial equality? Or had the company’s legal department advised them it would be difficult to market a diabetes drug that only worked on white people? As Leah sat poised over the fanciful protein sequence on her search screen, it occurred to her that no one had explained to her the purpose of her work at the company. She had been hired to analyze gene sequences; what the information would be used for had been decided in other rooms, in conversations she had never heard.
She thought a moment about shutting her computer down and delving into one of the dozens of genetics articles in the other room. Still, it seemed like a lot of work to have dredged through her childhood synaesthesia for an hour without looking at whether it amounted to anything.
“Command: search,” she said to her little computer.
Seconds later the screen filled with a strange spiraled, ribboned schematic of a protein. The computer offered its brief report in the deep mahogany-colored voice that the manufacturer had given it: “Your search sequence corresponds with over 99% similarity to protein SHANK-3, also called PROSAP-2, a structural regulation protein in the dendritic spines of Homo sapiens. The amino acid sequence you have entered appears to be the product of a gene with a non-synonymous point mutation at base pair 241. Would you like a research history of the protein and its associated gene?”
Leah knew this gene and this protein. She remembered a research paper she’d written on Asperger’s back in college: some with autism had a non-functional copy of the gene, while other autistics, a few, had two copies of the gene. And there were a very few who had a single point mutation in the gene who seemed to grow up profoundly stunted in some aspects of their development, yet bright, even brilliant, in others.
What could it possibly mean that Leah had pieced together the structure of a functional protein through pure imagination? Yet it was not pure imagination: Beethoven’s andante had provided the script she had worked from. That was even more frightening, exhilarating, that from across two centuries this lonely, childless man was calling out to her, and only she had heard everything he spoke. Perhaps he had not even intended the message he sent; perhaps some unconscious voice in him had cried out as he composed, compelled to communicate, like a moth pouring its pheromones out into the night. Leah was aware of a great insistent tide of life at work inside her, as she pondered all the movements of the thirty-two sonatas.More stories like this by topic: Autism