by Stacey Margaret Jones
“What did the doctor say?” Evan asked. He meant to sound casual, interested, but Ada knew him well enough to know he was anxious. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose then wished he hadn’t. She’d know that was a nervous gesture.
“She said …” she stopped talking, and closed her eyes. Her 60-year-old preserved Violent Femmes t-shirt pulsed up and down with her breath.
“Ada?” He stretched his arm across the table of the café, navigating their latte cups and her iPad, another gesture to her Hipster past. “Just tell me what she said. Then we’ll go from there.”
“We can’t mate.”
“We can’t procreate. … Did I say ‘mate’?” She looked up at him and met his eyes for the first time since they sat down. Her blue eyes narrowed. He noticed hazel or green flecks in them for the first time in – what? – eight years since they met?
“Yeah,” he made himself look back at her, though her gaze seemed somewhat over-stimulating. “That statement felt kind of sci-fi.”
“We have bad companion genes.” She saw his question coming. “That’s what she said, the geneticist, Dr. Weeder.”
“Weeds.” He interrupted. She looked annoyed. She hated to be interrupted. “Frank Lloyd Wright said weeds were an excessive use of good material.” He laughed, but she continued to look annoyed, and then an expression of absence flashed across her features, but she rallied and cleared her face of any negative emotion.
“I’m not good material.”
“What?” He prodded. He knew the answers already; he was just tense about her reaction. He wanted to get it over with.
“We have gene splays that indicate the probability of several conditions they categorized as a 9 out of 10 on the Taxing to the Health Care Economy scale,” she explained. He knew she was going to say something along these lines. His health identity profile had been updated earlier in the day, and he had his setting calibrated to alert him of such changes. But he acted surprised and upset, because he knew she wanted him to. The most serious relationship in his adult life before her had been with a woman who didn’t want children; she said it was because of the new Corporate Health Protection Act, which prohibited geneticists from giving permission to couples who wanted children if they scored over six on the Taxing Scales. But that woman, he knew, just didn’t want kids. He was cool with that, but he wasn’t cool with her, and they had split. Ada he was cool with, and they had made the radical step of getting married before the geneticist’s assessment. Most couples—or rather, most individuals who were serious about having children—didn’t do that anymore.
“Did they give you specifics?” He knew this, too. He’d read it through Google MindsEye during his office hours. He knew their likelihood for several genetic issues earned them the undesired rating: childhood-onset blindness, juvenile diabetes and a rare, untreatable form of blood cancer.
“I have the report. I just, I can’t…” she trailed off, but cast her gaze around to make sure she wasn’t making any kind of scene. She was pretty self-conscious, Evan thought. He wondered if those kinds of traits showed up in the genetic report.
“It’s a possibility for everyone,” Evan said, patting her arm and scooping his neck to move his head toward hers over the table and catch her attention. Ada sighed, shook her head. He realized she was trying to shake off tears before she cried them.
“I didn’t want theoretical children over a real you,” she said, her voice tinged with a “why-me?” whininess he’d never heard before. He noticed how skinny both their arms were, overlaid on the burnished titanium table installed in all the Starbucks locations.
“Ada. Be Ada here. Now. Now is the time to be Ada.” He smiled. “What is our next step? I know you.” He patted her arm again, tenderly, almost sensuously. She looked up at him, responding, encouraged. “There’s always a next step, and you always come up with it. … Shit! You came up with it before you finished talking with the doctor, didn’t you? You did! You did! I know you. I can see it in your eyes. You did!”
The green flecks were even brighter than when he’d first noticed them. How could he not have noticed them until now? She was electrified – and frightened by something. Her hair was standing on end.
“I’m the problem,” she said, but she didn’t seem upset. It was no mea culpa.
“Well, the cancer and the diabetes come from way back with me. Shit! If this legislation had been enacted 30 years ago, I wouldn’t be here.”
“But you are here,” he reassured her. She was so beautiful. He was suffused with gratitude that she was, indeed, here, and here with him. He’d heard that in every relationship one member of the couple was the bird and the other member was the hand. If this was true, he was sure he was the hand, and he wasn’t above being grateful for some fateful circumstance like this to hold on to Ada. Just look at her, he thought. She could fly away any moment. I could look up, and she could be gone.
“But you are not the problem,” she said, her voice very quiet and low.
“What about the blindness thing? If the other two are from you, isn’t that from me, from my side?”
“It’s from us together,” she said, and wilted just a little.
“You aren’t any kind of problem to me,” he said. He moved around the table to sit next to her. She shifted forward and then back, uncomfortable with the unconventionality of sitting side-by-side at Starbucks. But she also rested into him, too. He put his arm around her shoulder comfortably, without tension.
“I know, Evan. No, we have a gene match-up that makes that kind of blindness very likely. If you had a child with someone else, or if I did, that wouldn’t show up, but … it’s just the way we are together.”
“But the other stuff, that’s just … in there.” He was trying not to say, “That’s in you” because he really didn’t care. When he’d gotten the alert, a couple of hours ago, he’d been disappointed, but not viscerally. Mostly, he’d just felt sorry she wouldn’t get to be a mother when he knew she wanted it. Until he’d read the specifics, he’d been scared, because if the problem were his, she might leave him for someone else, but when he saw that it was mostly her background that sent up the red flags, he’d relaxed. It was their problem, and he was fine with it. It was all right with him not to get permission to have a child. He just wanted her.
“I have to use the bathroom,” she said, jerking away from him and rising. “Do you want anything else?”
He appreciated the gesture but shook his head. She wouldn’t have to bring him anything. He could audio direct the café staff from the voice-activated Jeeves Module at each table. He shook his head and she bounced toward the bathroom. No matter how upset she is, she still bounces when she walks, he thought. Her head moved through the aircast music and video clouds around the tables. Her hand cut through a hologram snowman a child was manipulating by the coffee bar as she turned the corner. He stared at all the images, vacating his thoughts until she returned.
“There is a way,” she said when she returned, as she sat down beside him again on the burnished chrome bench. She moved toward him and pulled his arm toward her shoulder and held his other hand with both of hers in front of her as if he were planning a prison back and she were waiting for reinforcements.
“We’ll go through the international Foster to Adopt system?” This wasn’t really what he wanted, but he would do it. She wanted to be a mother, he wanted her; he would do it. These children would have been born black-lined to unapproved parents and either confiscated or given up under amnesty laws so the parents wouldn’t lose their state benefits. These kids were statistically likely to have problems, but in reality, many of them were just as healthy as his neighbors’ kids, he knew, and his neighbors had gotten a 1 on the Taxing Scales. Or, at least these kids were okay for now. Other kids were just those throw-back foster/adoption candidates from couples who didn’t have permission—or think to get it because they didn’t mean to have kids and didn’t mean to be couples.
“That’s not what I’m talking about.”
He just looked at her, inquiring, eye-to-eye.
“YOU checked out great,” she said, leading him.
“What, you want me to mate, sorry procreate, with someone else?”
“No. Not exactly.”
“Ada…? What are you talking about?” He looked around, nervous. Even insinuations of Corporate Health Protection Act violations could cause real problems for people. He was willing to talk about anything at home, but he knew he couldn’t trust Starbucks. The NSA had been bugging this place for at least 30 years, since the 2020s.
“We’ve been approved for a very, very exciting pilot program.”
“You’re scaring the shit out of me, Ada.”
“We’ve rated very well on the credit score, so the government’s Family Assurance Board is interested in us as Potential Parentals,” she said, emanating pride.
He was confused. “Are you saying they’ll override the genetics report because of our financial health?”
“No, though I wish they would. That would make more sense, I mean, if we have children with medical issues, we are more likely to be able to spend money on their care, right? No, that’s not what this is about, but we can be a family, and I will be allowed to have a child, if it is not genetically mine – just genetically yours.”
His mind raced through all the iterations currently available for fertility treatments. If it wasn’t hers, but was his, it would have to be someone else’s, and the approvals process for that was Byzantine he knew, given all the genetic implications of egg donors and surrogacy. He looked at her. Her skin was so milky, so pale and sweet. He forgot what he was thinking about.
“We can really have a little you. Because of our credit rating and your genetic rating, we’ll be the first class—actually the first parents in the program of …” she hesitated and looked down at her small, white hands. Her nails were clipped short and buffed. She never wore color or much makeup. He couldn’t understand how her DNA could be anything but perfect. “ … well, what it really is, is … cloning. We can clone you, and I can carry the baby and give birth to him, and we can have a son. Just one. We can only clone you once.”
“That’s more than enough,” he said, though he didn’t know how he was managing to be anything but hysterical. He felt like gasping for air. He was so strange, so awkward, so reclusive, so nervous, so accident-prone, so … imperfect. His dishwater blond hair was already thinning and he was only 33. It had taken him seven years to finish his dissertation because he was such a procrastinator. He had so many freckles. His left foot was half a size bigger than his right. This couldn’t be, there wasn’t a need to make another one of him.
And Ada, she was so perfect, so lovely, so bright. She was 28 and done with her Ph.D. She looked like Snow White from those Twentieth Century cartoons, such pale pretty skin, almost black hair, so small, delicate, so witty and confident. He didn’t mind having a child with her because the best of her could mitigate the worst of what he would contribute, but a child that was all him?
Would he be his own father? He would be his own son? His Google MindsEye picked up his thought vortex and started flipping through photos of him when he was a child, 3, 4, 5 years old. “Desist.” He whispered. The slide show stopped.
She searched his face. She was sitting, but her feet were en pointe and every muscle in her legs was flexed.
“I don’t know, Ada.” He hated to dampen the enthusiasm that was easing her disappointment after the genetics meeting, but this was not what he wanted. “An exact copy of me? That … this just cannot be good.”
“Well, he’ll have all of your exact genetic material, yes, so he will look like you, though lots of sons look just like their dads.” She was starting to wheedle, to convince. She squeezed his hand and didn’t flinch from the sweat in the palm. “But, he won’t be you, he’ll be his own soul, and his hardwiring will have a different environment – us – to respond to.”
“He won’t have my impoverished, laissez-faire parents is what you’re saying, but he will have me, all my imperfections, and it will really be in there, with no relief from all your perfection.” She smiled at him. “Ada, we know now more than ever how much the mind and the very thoughts we think are influenced by neurobiology, which is inherited. I mean, he’ll just be my parents’ son all over again, in your womb. He’ll be my identical twin brother. I don’t think my parents should be having more kids…” She laughed, but he didn’t.
“We have an appointment with the program orientation officer Friday at noon. I am on some rapid-results hormones already to manage my cycles for implantation. I should be glowing.” So that was the difference in her eyes, the special luminosity to her skin, he thought. Drugs.
“Will he be attracted to you when he grows up? How hard-wired is that, do you think?” More questions were forming in his mind, but she wouldn’t give him space to ask them.
“You’re over-thinking all of this, and we haven’t committed to anything yet. You’re being silly,” she scolded him, putting even more pressure on his hand. “You’re so tall and handsome, so brilliant, capable, accomplished, so sweet and thoughtful. You think everything through so beautifully, so maturely. I’m a sickly mess. I want a small you, not a small me. A small me would be a disaster. And illegal.”
“And illegal,” he mimicked agreement he didn’t feel.
His mind raced to how he could ruin their credit score before Friday.