I offered to take Matt and Penny out for dinner the night after I arrived here, but the two of them adhere to the Dean Ornish diet; they had almost given up on restaurants because they usually just end up ordering salad anyway. Factoring in the kids’ predilections made it impossible. Instead, Penny made an inedible quinoa casserole. When I wasn’t picking up quinoa grains from the carpet, or restraining Dante from making a mast and sail with a broom and afghan, I watched my hosts with fascination.
“We’re out of salt,” Penny said, sprinkling the last few crystals onto the pasta.
Matt immediately drew his iPhone to record the information. “If you write it down when we’re almost out, then we can get a new box before the old one runs out.”
Penny stood on her tip toes to peer into a cupboard. “Have you seen the colander?”
“I always keep it in the cupboard with the pots and pans. Where do you keep it?”
“Wherever I can find room.”
All so mundane, so healthy. When Penny remembered she’d taken the colander – the only one they had – to use in her lab, Matt offered no criticism, just a puzzled stare. When Dante pulled a curtain off its rod, he only blinked. It was always Penny who remembered to fill my glass, who offered to rent videos for the kids, who reminded Matt to open up the sofa bed or get an extra pillow down from a high shelf of the closet. I began to develop a theory that she had domesticated him, that he depended on her to gently guide him in relating to other human beings. In return, he organized her life and plucked the leaves from her hair.
A match made in chromosomes
Fortunately, Dr. Ornish allows good wine, and I’d insisted on buying a couple of bottles on the way back from McDonald’s. Penny poured me a glass, even as she asked me if I wanted some. Then, while I put the kids to bed, she and Matt retired to the upstairs office, inviting me to follow them when the kids were tucked in. She was reading the latest issue of Cell when I came upstairs with my wineglass. Matt was at his computer. “You two seem incredibly well matched,” I said. “How did you find each other?”
“The internet,” Penny said.
A chill passed through me, thinking of Charlie and Zulya.
Penny got up from her chair. “Would you like to sit here?”
“No, please.” I made myself comfortable as possible on a file cabinet. “An online bulletin board?”
“Matt,” she said, “why don’t you bring a chair up from downstairs?” He nodded and went downstairs. “Match.com,” Penny said. “It’s very easy to meet people that way.” She took in my silence. “Sorry. It’s too easy in some cases, I guess. For me it was something of a last resort.” She laughed. “That sounds terrible, doesn’t it? Actually, Matt will tell you that internet dating is the only way to go. I don’t think he ever actually tried anything else. He just made up his mind one day that it was time to get married and booted up his Mac. It’s certainly efficient. Matt pretty much figured out we were right for each other before we even met. I needed a few face-to-face encounters to be satisfied. Of course,” the wisp of a smile crossed her lips, “then we had to go through the genetic testing.”
“You had your genes tested?”
Penny shrugged. “Matt’s a true believer. I think for him it’s a little like what astrology is for other people.”
“Penny!” Matt appeared in the doorway with a kitchen chair in his hands. “It’s nothing like astrology.” He set the chair down for me, then reclaimed his ergonomic seat at the computer. “We wanted to avoid any risk of congenital defect.”
It was almost a relief to hear him disagree with her about something. “You’re thinking about children?”
“I was anyway.” Penny’s eyes found Matt.
He blinked for a moment. “I think we both decided that our careers demanded so much energy we could never allocate an amount adequate to raising children.”
I winced at the chill in his tone.
“Plus,” said Penny, “we found out I needed fertility treatments.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. And thinking about my own situation, I truly was. If my bias against marriage had lasted a few years longer – or I hadn’t met Charlie when I did – my own clock would have run out. Whatever happened between Charlie and me, I had to thank him for Dante and Chloe.
Penny shrugged. “Anyway, I’ve got my little green babies.” She waved at the Petri dishes on the Ikea desk.
“And I bet you test all their genes.”
Penny laughed. “For a living!”
“Okay,” said Matt. “You can make fun of me now. But I’m willing to bet you within twenty years everyone’s going to be tested before they get married. Not just because of the kinds of kids they can have, but because we’ll be able to figure out some basic facts about compatibility.” He leaned forward in his chair. “Most of what we now call personality is going to be illuminated by gene research over the next few decades. Certainly all of mental illness will be treatable.”
I took a sip of Merlot. “Don’t you think parents will always be able to ruin their children?”
He smiled just enough to acknowledge my attempt at humor. “Sure if you beat someone on the head hard enough, you’ll break it. But what parents do has a lot less effect on their kids than most people believe.”
His jaw tightened beneath his beard. “I spent four years in weekly, sometimes biweekly psychoanalysis in which a very well-intentioned and erudite man tried to figure out how our parents’ sex life had affected my behavior. He applied the most sophisticated techniques known to the field of psychology. And they were totally pointless. I figured out once my parents spent more on Dr. English than they did on my undergraduate education. And they were educated people. I really wonder what they were thinking.”
As a parent, I had a pretty good idea what they were thinking. Their son was behaving strangely and they were trying to get him some help. I tried to think of someway of changing the subject.
But Matt was on a roll. “It was all such garbage! Obsessive compulsive disorder has nothing to do with oedipal fantasies. People don’t wash their hands over and over because they feel guilty about masturbating.”
Penny raised her hand, palm out like a traffic cop. “Matt –”
The truth about OCD
He scowled. “Adrienne has to hear this.”
Did I? I thought back to our last conversation, standing in the toy store months earlier. I must have said something that had gotten under his skin.
“Maybe you’ve read some of the research,” he went on. “Brain scans are identifying some of the specific dysfunctions. Population analysis has already implicated Val-158-Met substitution in the COMT gene. In a dozen years, we’ll probably have a gene therapy that can cure it. But I won’t get in line for it because I don’t have OCD.”
More than anything else he’d said this caught me by surprise. “Not at all?”
“No!” He shook his head for emphasis. “What are obsessions?”
“Uhh… things you can’t stop thinking about…”
“Recurrent intrusive thoughts. I didn’t have any. At least not until everyone started trying to convince me that my parents were driving me insane. I had unpleasant thoughts then, but not the kind in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.”
Only once before – when he got into the fight on the school bus — had I seen him so red faced and intent, his lean body tensed as if for combat, and suddenly I wondered whether he had really changed since I had known him, or whether he had always been the person I saw before me, deep inside. A person who constructed his own reality.
“What are compulsions?” he asked me.
“Habits that you can’t break. Things you can’t stop doing.”
“Senseless, repetitive acts. My behavior may have been repetitive, but it wasn’t senseless. I knew what I was doing.”