Chapter 24

Cool Yule

The Miami Chapter of the Mensa Society was having a Christmas party. I had sorely neglected them, having missed every monthly meeting since July. I had gotten tired of going to a Chinese restaurant in Coconut Grove and listening to everyone talk about their hobbies (usually exotic), their jobs (usually dull) and their relationships with their colleagues (usually problematic).

     The party was two days before Christmas in the Coconut Grove townhouse of Arnie Green, a 37-year-old psychiatrist and Mona, an artist. Sheís his third wife and heís her second husband. I RSVPed and showed up at 8:30 ó unfashionably punctual. A small number of guests were sitting in a "conversation area," a setup Iíd known from previous visits. It consisted of four overstuffed sofas boxing in an oversized coffee table on which sat Arnieís "quadravision," which he had "invented."

     Arnieís quadravision consisted of four smallish TVs, the type you can buy for $150, arranged in a quadrilateral fashion, so that the screen of each faced outwards towards its respective sofa. The screens were set low and were angled slightly upward so that you could get a comfortable view of both the picture and of your fellow viewers on the other side.

     Arnieís thesis was that TV is too much of a solitary pastime, and that itís more interesting when you can see other peopleís reactions to whatís happening on the screen. His friends had mixed opinions on the experience, but he swore by it. It wasnít only sitcoms that he played. He also played video tapes of art movies and other "visual materials." So what kept him from installing four video cameras to track his guestsí eye movements and pupil dilation for subsequent analysis?

     "Ben!" Arnie called from his sofa. "Long time no see!" He put a flattened hand to his forehead like an American Indian peering into the distance across the Great Plains.

     "Youíre right, Arnie. Hi, everybody! Sorry I havenít been around. Iím in graduate school now. Pharmacology at Bryan Medical School."

     "I see you donít have your ponytail anymore."

     "I see youíve still got yours," I replied.

     Arnie was pretty "hip" when it came to dress. Evenings, he pulled four inches of curly hair from the back of his head, and produced a ponytail. Mornings, he let it pop back and none of his patients noticed. He had a well-proportioned face with a Sephardic nose and an athletic body. His major flaw was his wise-guy, know-it-all attitude. He was a compulsive sacher macher, Yiddish for a guy whoís always putting together deals.

     "Well, well, well, Ben. It sounds and looks like you are getting quite professional." Arnie had a dual personality with respect to "hip" versus "professional" life. He was something of a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.

     "Yes, pharmacology has been keeping me busy. Iíve kept my old job at the M.E.ís Office part time, and the Pharmacology Department lays it on pretty thick during the first couple of semesters."

     Arnie let out a big yawn, telling all that I wasnít conversationally clever enough. Clever monologues and verbal sparring were his hobby. What a bore, this Candidi, walking in and falling flat on his face. In self-defense, I quickly thought up a gambit:

     "I think that the profs make it extra hard in the first semester in order to weed out the mediocrities."

     "If they donít want any of them, then why do they accept them in the first place?"

     "Because itís not legal to ask for an I.Q. score for entrance into graduate school," I said. Realizing that this wasnít witty enough, I added, "And because too many of them have gone to Stanley Kaplan courses to raise their Graduate Record Examination Scores ó just like the medically oriented mediocrities go take courses to raise their MCATS."

     My reference to this medical school applicant screening device hit Arnie pretty close to home, causing some titters among the guests. I pressed on.

     "And some of the graduate students are Peopleís Republic Chinese who speak such bad English that it takes ten years to figure out anything about them." The "house" started to warm up.

     "Well, Ben, how do you like your studies?"

     Now I had shifted him from his jocular sarcastic mode to a more conversational mode.

     "My studies are very interesting, Arnie. It is all very molecular and mechanistic. It keeps both your hands and your brain busy all day. It gives you a good all-around workout."

     "Well, that sounds great, Ben," Arnie said with a sly look to the guests sitting around the couches. "Is there anything else that gets a Ďgood workout?í"

     "It isnít atrophying," I said, without a pause. Now our audience was hot.

     "Well, it sounds like youíre fully satisfied on all three points," Arnie said with a grin, apparently visualizing the use of my anatomic third point. "Are you looking at this pharmacology stuff as a career or as an interesting pursuit?"

     You always had to defend everything you did with this Mensa group.

     "A bit of both. Iím not sure about the career path, but itís very interesting. Back at the M.E.ís, I was hitting my head against a glass ceiling. Old Man Westley was always calculating the cost of keeping me to service his instruments, versus bringing down some square-head factory-trained repairman from Atlanta on a case-by-case basis."

     Anti-economic, antiestablishment quips usually played well with this crowd. As if looking at his watch, Arnie pulled up the sleeve of his unstructured Italian sports jacket.

     "Oh, yes! Westley. I read about him in the Miami Standard about fifteen years ago. He did some medical archaeology thing with the Egyptians a long time back. And he solved a big murder case for an upstate coroner."

     Now we were on firm ground, with real Mensa stuff: the out of ordinary, the romantic, the occult. As if on cue, I told everyone about Westley, his Egyptian caper and his Rolls Royce. I even described his piece of England on the 43rd floor of the Faire Isle complex. My verbally rambunctious psychiatrist friend even started to show genuine interest. Gradually, everyone was smiling. Ben Candidi was back in good standing in the Miami Chapter of the Mensa Society.

     More guests came, and the party livened up. Alcohol flowed freely, and everyone was drinking or smoking himself down to the detested level of mental mediocrity. The Christmas tree was jokingly referred to as the "Hanukkah Bush." Merry Christmas became "Have a Cool Yule." All three levels of the townhouse plus the back patio filled up. Where had they parked all the cars? Circulating, and trading stories with a dozen old acquaintances, I started getting back into the groove of "us-against-them" camaraderie. We really were a crazy bunch.

     The last four months, Iíd struggled hard in the outside world and had earned this chance to unwind. After my second gin and tonic, I had a funny feeling that the townhouse was a coral reef, with all different types of fish swimming around taking stock of each other. The townhouse layout did actually resemble a coral reef, with its three levels and wide open space under a cathedral ceiling. Some guests sat on the stairs. Some lurked in nooks like Dr. Gordon Taylor in his mop-closet office. Some sat backwards on desks and tables. Some sat on convertible guest bed/sofas. And some stood in doorways leaning with one hand on the casement so that I had to swim under them to pass by.

     A coral reef has grunting and clicking fish noises; the townhouse had a continuous babble of conversation. How interesting it was, just to sit and listen to two or three conversations simultaneously. Invariably, Mensa people are good talkers: No inarticulate Rambo types are allowed. Everyone was working hard on being different. Woe be it to the poor soul who was just ordinary, with ordinary tastes, routines and desires.

     Coral-reef fish display every conceivable color and marking pattern; Mensa people display every intellectual and sartorial stripe. As I made my way down to the bar for my third drink, I saw hats of all types, exotic earrings, incongruous combinations of brass belt buckles and velvet jackets, business suits with pony tails, unstructured jackets over designer T-shirts, and Oshkosh bibbed working clothes (washed and starched) with a Boy Scout neckerchief. One or two guys came with just a pair of slacks and dress shirt, but they were musicians.

     Why are we under this compulsion to prove ourselves different and brilliant? It must have begun when we were "gifted" kids in school, head and shoulders above our classmates. Our teachers loved us, our parents fawned over us, and we got by in school without having to work too hard at it. Intellectually gifted and socially retarded.

     The magic spell lasted until we graduated from college. Outside of academia, we commanded less respect and no one came around handing out gold stars. What you got was what you grabbed for yourself. Our erudition, which went over the heads of most people, was treated as quaint and irrelevant. In the real world, you had to get an angle and play it through tenaciously.

     Many of us had our careers blocked by loudmouthed Southern-drawling Good Olí Boy types who didnít know Shakespeare from Socrates. We got the Aís in advanced courses, they took the easy courses and still got Cís. But if we were so smart, why werenít we rich? The Game of Life turned out a lot different from what they taught us in school. We could beat them in chess, but not in poker. And many of them came to the game with a sleeve full of cards and a killer instinct for bluffing and reading faces. The only thing we excelled in was mathematical formulas for calculating the odds.

     I drifted back to my dark Nietzschean mood, last experienced at the helm in the storm with Rebecca. Measured by normal standards, most of us Mensans never made an all-out try for success. Instead, we cloaked ourselves in our individuality, collectively decided we were too good for this world and practiced communal commiseration at monthly meetings. As I finished pouring myself another stiff gin and tonic, I felt a light tap on my shoulder and heard a female voice.

     "I hear you are Ben Candidi . . . that you live on a sailboat, ride a bike and are working for a Ph.D. in pharmacology, while working part time for the Medical Examinerís Office."

     I turned slowly to face a thin, medium-height, dirty blonde about my age.

     "Hi," she said. "Iím Alice McRae."

     "Alice McRae ó who lives in an apartment, drives a car, gets by with one job and has all her formal education behind her," I replied, without a secondís hesitation. The two drinks had not yet driven my I.Q. down to a mediocre level.

     "Right on the first three, but wrong on the fourth," she said, offering her hand. "Working as a journalist is a formal education in itself. And a never-ending one."

     She punctuated her last sentence with an almost masculine handshake. She had what my grandfather called "umph" and wasnít bad looking, in a slightly tomboyish way. She was sensibly dressed and slightly made up. Did I detect freckles under a touch of powder?

     She definitely rated a second look. If I hadnít been in love with Rebecca, I might have been quite interested in Alice. But could I count on Rebecca? Why go back to worrying about that right now? You go to parties to meet like-minded people and have a good time, donít you?

     "Youíre a print journalist. Right?" I asked on a whim.

     "Yes, Miami Standard. How did you know?"

     "Just my masculine intuition, I guess. Whatís your beat?"

     "County government. Where did you pick up the lingo?" She spoke with an educated Southern accent. She moved a step closer.

     "I had some journalism in high school. I was in Quill and Scroll and wrote for the school paper. So I know about beats, leads, the five Wís, scoops and that stuff."

     "Well, professional journalismís not much different from high school journalism, except that the deadlines are tighter, the bosses are meaner and the management is stingier. And your most important subjects donít want to be interviewed on the things you want to know." Alice spoke with a self-confident optimism that I had to admire.

     "So youíre an investigative reporter."

     "Thatís what Iíd like to be, Ben. But if you get too investigative at the Standard, you find yourself without a job."

     We continued talking about journalism. Alice liked her job, but she suffered a lot of the same frustrations I did back at the M.E.ís lab. Then she got off on Dade County government: their stupidity, their blundering, their kickbacks and their political infighting. In a certain way she was a mirror image of me, with my low opinion of lawyers, pompous bureaucrats and people who try to get something for nothing.

     Alice told me she was 27 years old ó four years out of Emory. She had worked for two years on the Atlanta Constitution and then had "graduated" to the Miami Standard two years ago. As we talked, I realized Alice was the most levelheaded woman that Iíd ever met in Mensa. She probably hadnít been blessed with fawning parents. Sheíd probably pulled herself out of the red clay around Atlanta.

     "So, all in all, how do you like Miami, Alice?"

     "Itís an interesting city, but itís kind of a shame with all these Latin Americans. Things are pretty chaotic."

     Here, she had trouble seeing the forest through the trees. Dios Mio! Dade County is Latin. Over 50 percent of the population and over 70 percent of the growth is Spanish-speaking. If you donít understand that, youíre lost. The few Miami-born, die-hard Southerners who you still might find here are all planning to move to Tampa ó as soon as they can line up a job there.

     Alice proved a spirited conversation partner who didnít give me too much time to reflect on her background. She was an intelligent extrovert who listened carefully, interpreted quickly and gave an appropriate response. It was like a friendly tennis match with a spirited woman who gives her best and expects the same from you. Was it out of mere curiosity that I found myself wondering if she was also spirited in bed?

     While talking about Miami, I lost concentration and dropped the ball. Alice picked it up and started asking me about my science, interviewing me in typical journalistic fashion, using a checklist of the five Wís and one H. What molecules? Where are they? When? Why do they do what they do? How do they work? Who works on them? But you canít learn science from a journalistic interview. So I gave Alice a short course.

     "How a molecule works is probably the most important part of the whole business. Who or what a molecule is depends ninety percent on what it binds to. Binding of two molecules is biology in action. It is also important what the molecules do when they bind."

     We were leaning against the wall, facing each other. Alice was smiling, but I didnít know why. I sipped hard on my third drink and continued:

     "Does one molecule bind to another and just tie it up and keep it unavailable for another molecule? Or does it cut the molecule or attach another molecule to it? The when can be any time when the two molecules are together. It depends upon how fast the molecules vibrate and what different shapes they can assume. But if the molecules are separated by a barrier or are chemically modified, the when can be controlled until other molecules determine that they are ready."

     Alice sidled a little closer and continued to listen to my spirited monologue:

     "The where is simply where the molecules happen to be. Sometimes there are Ďhot spotsí in the cell where certain molecules are kept so that they will have a greater chance to interact with each other. Thatís the problem Iím working on in the lab right now. The question why is not relevant, because the molecules themselves never question why."

     "Theirs is but to do and die," Alice summed it up quickly. She punctuated her Tennyson quote with a pat on my shoulder, but she did not remove her hand. She laid her head on her hand. I broke out in goosepimples as her hair whisked my arm to the accompaniment of her laughter. Sheíd caught me by surprise, but I didnít disengage. I stayed on track with my lecture, hoping to cool her down.

     "Yes, Alice, there are some molecules in the blood, called thrombin, whose only function is to carve each other up as soon as they get the signal that a blood vessel is broken. After thrombin gets done with his work, he leaves a big pile of dead Ďfibriní molecules filling up the wound. Thatís the clot that stops the bleeding."

     Alice looked at me like she though I might be kidding.

     Putting on a mock English accent I quipped, "Bloody awful mess, ítis. But thatís the price of soldieriní, they say. And they tyke care of us well when we is at garrison."

     It was a good answer to her Tennyson quote, but it didnít help to calm her down.

     "Oh, you scientists are so quaint," she said, turning on the Southern charm.

     This time she punctuated her words with a kiss on the cheek. She was hitting on me hard. Maybe she had interpreted my lecture as a complicated flirt. Well, her signals were clear enough. I tried to throw some water on the fire.

     I told her that individual molecules are mindless but that their hierarchies and collective behavior had been worked out by evolution over millions of years to fulfill a definite purpose. Every cellular reaction is under tight control. "For example, a protein molecule is synthesized as a long chain, but it has to be correctly folded to be useful. Its folding and movements are controlled by a Ďchaperoniní molecule. This keeps it from binding to the wrong molecules."

     "So the chaperone molecule keeps the belles separated from the beaus. Ben, youíre a funny guy! What are you going to tell me next? That there are Ďparsoní molecules who perform wedding ceremonies?" She sunk her head on my shoulder and laughed.

     "Well, we do have Ďreporterí molecules," I said, quickly scanning my befogged memory for examples.

     "What do they do? Bind to the scientist molecules?"

     Alice was far out on the limb. Luckily, Arnie Green walked over.

     "Well, Ben. I see youíve met Alice." He turned to Alice and continued, "And you two are hitting it off well together. Maybe you didnít notice, but Charlie has brought his sax and joined Steve. George is setting up his drums. Maybe you two could go over there with Ted and Carol and help set an example for the rest of us by dancing."

     The little combo played a cha-cha, which we correctly danced at armís length. The amplifiers were loud, which gave me an excuse not to talk and get myself into more trouble. We both knew the steps and set a pretty good example for the other guests. But after two fast numbers, the combo tired and got into a groove with slow fox-trots, which filled the floor with other dancers and forced us into each otherís arms.

     Do people select mates like the molecules select binding partners? When an antibody finds its antigen, they make a tight fit. They have good molecular compatibility. The streptavidin-biotin binding reaction, taking place on cell surfaces, holds the world record for molecular compatibility. That pair of molecules has a dissociation constant of 10**(-15) molar. When bound, they stay together for about 110 days. If you had that type of affinity for a girl, she would last a lifetime. You might call her a "15." For me, Rebecca was a "15."

     On that scale, Alice would rate a "12," with her pleasant, extroverted personality and positive attitude. Her charm was different from Rebeccaís. She was direct where Rebecca was subtle and aggressively inquisitive where Rebecca was patiently meditative. But Alice knew what she wanted and, at this moment, it seemed to be me. She was also the second-best woman who had shown any interest in me over the last six years.

     I awakened from these musings to find that Alice had taken the lead in our box step. Yes, she was quite adaptable. I sank back to my thoughts while she kept us clear of the other dancers. My bonds with the other girls had been weak, with dissociation constants of 10**(-4) molar. For me they were only "4s." The lower the affinity, the shorter the time until the two molecules dissociate and diffuse off in their separate directions. And my liaisons with the 4s had not lasted long.

     Now I was in love with a "15" who had dissociated and might not diffuse back to me. And I was being challenged by a "12" with some pretty good sticking power. Oh, the fickle mathematics of love!

     My Swarthmore roommate, Richard Bash, had once formulated the situation most elegantly and crudely:

     "When you arenít getting any, you can never get any. Conversely, and when you are getting some, then youíve got girls buzzing around you like flies around a shit house."

     Bash came from Eastern Tennessee, and he prided himself on his crude homilies. He even codified them as "Hypotheses," "Theories" and "Laws of Nature," and had given them pompous and deliberately ambiguous names. This one he had christened "Bashís Bipolar Female Parts Access Probability Theorem." One night at the dormitory, we spent a good part of an evening discussing this verity.

     To be fair to Alice, I tried to maneuver our conversation to reveal the existence of Rebecca without being too obvious.

     "How long have you been with our Mensa group, Alice? I donít remember seeing you before August."

     "My first meeting was in September."

     "That was when I stopped coming to meetings. I got very busy with graduate school, and then I got another major distraction."

     This was a sufficient hint.

     "What sort of distraction?"

     "The human sort," I said. Aliceís lead stiffened. "It was a hot-and-heavy affair. Itís still unresolved."

     Alice glanced around the room.

     "So where is the distractor?"

     "She went back to New York for the holidays."

     "Maybe thatís part of the distraction."

     "Youíre right, Alice. But itís unresolved, and I have to see it through to its conclusion."

     This relaxed her a little more. She told me she understood. We danced a few more numbers, got another drink, went out to the patio to get away from the music and chatted to the point where the unspoken question started growing.

     "Iíve got to leave, Alice. You might say I have a long row home."

     "Iíd like to see you again, Ben. Hereís my card. If you hear about anything newsworthy at Bryan Medical School or Dade General, call me and give me the scoop."

     "I donít know much that happens there that is newsworthy. We were picketed by some animal-rights demonstrators a couple of months ago, but I wouldnít want to see that in the newspaper."

     "Well, Ben, sometimes we get science stories over the wire, from AP and UPI, and sometimes the science writer needs some background information. Maybe you could be one of my Ďresource people.í"

     I gave her the phone number of McGregorís lab and said goodbye. She squeezed my hand as she said goodbye. I was two steps away when she called back at me.

     "Say, I just thought of something that might interest you. Your ex-boss, the Medical Examiner, the Englishman. The word around the County Commission is that heís in trouble. His contract is up for renewal next month, and some of the Commissioners are talking about replacing him."

     "Thatís a real shame, Alice. Heís a good man. Whatís the scoop?"

     "Something about him not being able to solve cases as well as he used to."

     "Theyíre all wrong. Heís as sharp as he ever was. Let me know if you get any new information."

     "Sure. Iíll give you a call if there are any breaks in the story."

     I made my way to Arnie Green and thanked him for the good time. He raised his eyebrows in surprise.

     "What? Leaving so early? And alone? Hey, you and Alice were schmoozing pretty good when I came by."

     "Got to thank you for that one, Arnie. I always knew you were a sacher macher but I didnít know youíre a shadchan too!!"

     "Shadchan! Whatís that?"

     "Yiddish for matchmaker. Alice told me that you gave her the scoop on me. Thanks, Arnie. Sheís great gal, probably a 12. Itís just that ó "

     "Youíve got another one and youíre H2!"

     "Right. Hot and heavy," I affirmed.

     Arnie gave me a big, conspiratorial grin. Arnie was great friends with any guy who was doing big things or had a lot of girls on the side. Had he ever had this analyzed? Did his mother encourage him to be a sacher macher? Or was it a male-bonding thing?

     "Thanks again, Arnie. Alice gave me her card and asked me to be one of her Ďresource people.í Professionally, that is. So we may be seeing some more of each other."

     Arnieís broad wink slowly blossomed into an ear-to-ear grin. Then he burst out laughing and slapped me on the back.

     "See you later, you wild-and-crazy guy."

     During the ride and row home, I thought about my molecular spiel with Alice. With the three drinks in my system and the fourth being absorbed in my stomach, I had a pretty good buzz on. A quick mental calculation using my weight and the stiffness of the drinks gave me a blood alcohol of 0.14 percent, which was legally drunk and unfit to drive.

     But I wasnít unfit to row a boat, so I rowed back and forth around my cold, windy anchorage. Movement is good when you have something to think through. Was it just an innocent science lecture, or had I given this girl the wrong signals? Had my eyes, voice and body language been telling her something else? What did she see in me?

     The fourth drink must have made it into my bloodstream, because my thoughts came fast, fuzzy and loose: profound but meaningless mediations on the search for the perfect girl, my Quixotic quest for 15s and 12s in a world of 4s, and imaginary conversations with my long-lost college pal, arguing the relative merits of Richard Bashís Stochastic Molecular Fucking Theory versus Ben Candidiís Unfolding Molecular Compatibility Theory.

     Iíd lost touch with Richard a year after weíd graduated. His last letter told me he was working as an analytical chemist at Dupont. In the chilly darkness, sophomoric theories gave way to feelings. What did Rebecca feel for me now? Did I have feelings for Alice? What would I feel when I learn that Rebecca is returning to her boyfriend in New York?

     The wind finally chilled my alcohol-flushed skin, forcing me to row to the Diogenes. Stumbling aboard, I tied the painter onto a cleat, opened the cabin, flopped into my berth without removing my clothes, let loose a primal sob and cried myself to sleep.

     I survived December 24th by working in the lab. Christmas Eve found me walking through downtown Coconut Grove and along Main Highway, the historic two-lane road lined by giant ficus trees. I slipped into the candlelight service at Plymouth Congregational, the second church on the right. Then I wandered back to the Diogenes and went to bed.

     The next morning, I opened the package from Rebecca. Wrapped as a Christmas gift was a homemade tape cassette of the 27-year-old Brasil 66 album. Inside the plastic case, she had enclosed a miniaturized color photocopy of the album cover. Sergio Mendez and his four singers stood before a backdrop of palm fronds. She labelled both sides of the cassette with the track titles. I found our song, "Cinnamon and Spice." Her Christmas card showed a snowy, turn-of-the-century Greenwich Village scene. Under the standardized greeting she wrote:

      "For salty days and sultry nights. - R."

     Mom had given me a tie, and a silver-and-turquoise tie clip, both from a shop in Scotsdale. Dad gave me an assortment of tapes and a book by Tom Clancy. Curled up in my berth, I read about the nuclear submarines, the satellite link-ups, electromagnetic propulsion and cruise missiles with ternary warheads. The technical world offers good escape when the human world becomes too complicated. Oh! to be an Annapolis graduate, an ex-Marine officer and a CIA officer, working on dangerous, exciting and important cases. But, come to think of it, I was working on an important case.

     A few weeks later, I would complain that my life was becoming Clancy-esque.

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