What Does Your Partner Say About You?
A Short Story by Jim McCollum
Written using the suggestion "Columbus"
Originally featured on 11-20-2007
As part of our series "Journey To A New Word"

“When I was twelve, my family took a trip to Northern Africa. My parents had been missionaries, and for a brief time, my father travelled over to volunteer in clinics after he finished medical school. The clinic outside Khartoum really was a rather desperate affair, they lacked even the most basic medical supplies, and many died from infections that would have not even have required hospitalization here in the states. Many of the people my father treated were injured in combat; bullet wounds, burns, shrapnel, and so forth. Of course, many of the patients were not soldiers themselves. That’s why I’m telling you all of this; there would often be children outside the clinic, waiting for their parent who was being treated. I didn’t speak Arabic, except for only the most basic phrases: مرحبا (Hello), كيف انت اليوم؟ (How are you today?), اين هو الحمام؟ (Where is the bathroom?), and so I felt quite isolated, often playing by myself, and occasionally talking with one of the nurses, who like my father and mother, were occasionally Westerners. Anyway, one day I met a boy who was probably fifteen or sixteen. He immediately took an interest in me and showed me how to play soccer with the ragged ball that the boys kicked around in the dusty street. Something about him was just magnetic! He made me feel so accepted, and when I was with him, I forgot about the frantic to find beds for the bodies inside the clinic, and the distance between my father and mother and I.

“That’s the kind of man I always thought I would marry, someone strong, someone who would make me feel comfortable, someone who could make me feel the utmost confidence in him.”

Isobel waited, sitting in the plastic chair. She looked at the vomit-like patterns in the green linoleum floor. She wore a prim white blouse and a thin golden chair around her bird-like neck. She shifted her legs, the scratching sound of nylon on nylon audible in the quiet room.

“And you don’t feel that way about Chris?” The doctor looked up from reading the thick green folder with Isobel’s name and patient number on it.

“Well, yes and no, Doctor, I mean I respect him. He’s incredible; it’s just that I don’t feel that same draw. I mean, that boy in Africa had something about him.”

“You’re concerned the procedure won’t work.”

Isobel sat back in the leather chair, she sighed. “Well, yeah, I mean, will it feel the same?”

“You’ll be a new woman,” the doctor smiled, “and don’t worry, many people have doubts, women especially. It’s hard to let go of what you thought your life would be like, your ideals. For most of our lives, and for most of our parents’ lives, we all were stars in our own movies. We had our supporting cast; coworkers, friends, family. We had our enemies. Then we had our love interests, that special person who represented not just happiness, but the type of person we thought we should end up with. The type of person who we thought we deserved, who, slung on our arm, or chatting beside us at a party, showed the world that we were somebody who could be loved by someone so beautiful. The problem has always been that life isn’t a movie, and that we would eventually be disappointed. This procedure is about compromise. You can’t take someone and make them successful, financially-stable, and of ‘worldly value,’ but we can make two people like that fall in love.

“The numbers bear it out; people are not good at choosing a suitable life-partner. Look at the divorce rates; sixty percent in the general population versus less than five percent in our patients who have undergone treatment. They report being happier than they’ve ever been before, they have deeply satisfying relationships with their partners, and now they’re parents and even grandparents, and they have the kind of loving family they’ve always wanted.

“I mean, you’ve seen for yourself. How has Chris been acting since he had the treatment?”

“Well, to be perfectly honest, Doctor, he’s been acting strange. He’s just not himself anymore. He’s almost too nice, with the flowers, and the chocolate. Now, he’s thinking about taking another month off so we can take a second honeymoon in Barbados after we get married. To be honest, I don’t know how much more I can take. Sometimes I miss the bitter Chris who told me once that romance was ‘collateral damage’ in the sexual revolution.”

“You’re feeling put-off by these gestures?”

“Yeah, I mean, the old Chris would have never tried this stuff on me, he would have known I wouldn’t fall for it.”

“What’s there to fall for? It sounds like he’s being kind and loving.”

“You know what I mean. It feels so phony.”

“What if it wasn’t, what if he was completely genuine in his affections?”

“I don’t know. It would feel weird.”

“Weird because you aren’t used to it?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Weird because romance really is dead in today’s world of emails, brief lunches together, and having-to-get-up-early-in-the-mornings?”

“Maybe.”

“Weird because you don’t reciprocate?”

Isobel bit the nub of one of her fingernails. “Yeah, partly. I don’t know, I guess I do feel a little guilty. I mean, I’ve never ‘love’ loved him.”

“One thing we’ve discovered in our research is that the neural circuitry involved in love is relatively simplistic. There are areas in the brain that respond to a given face, the sound of a particular voice, et cetera, and all the aspects that make up a representation of who a person is. These areas are highly influenced by context; the circumstances under which you first meet a person, how you felt that day, even whether or not you were hungry at the time! Really, how much affection you feel for a person depends just as much on you as on them. Certain events might shut down the areas of deep affection in the amygdala, the structure in the brain responsible for emotion. It really is true that your own body prevents you from loving certain people.”

“It doesn’t feel that way.”

“Of course, it feels like the ‘chemistry is off’ or that you ‘just don’t click.’ What we can do is make you ‘click’ better than you ever would in the real world. Using a special kind of low-level radiation, we can artificially stimulate the amygdala to create the kind of profound emotion bonds that would exist if we lived in an ideal world. We’ve re-bonded children to their parents, re-bonded estranged siblings, and given many people the experience of having a soul-mate, the kind of deep love that has inspired poets and artists throughout history.”

“I’m not concerned with the safety of it; or even really doubtful it would work. I guess I’m still wondering if I would change my mind after I’ve had the procedure.”

“Our satisfaction rating is ninety-nine percent, even ten years after the procedure. It is irreversible, so there is some risk involved, theoretically, but in practice, our patients have been very satisfied. Many patients don’t even consider the procedure to have been a life changing event. They report that they love their partners for all the reasons one would expect; their beauty, charm, sense of humor, and so forth.”

“I guess ignorance is bliss.”

“It really is. If you just follow my assistant down the hall, she’ll prep you for the procedure. I’ll join you in a moment, Miss Castile.”

Isobel waited in the lobby for the medical assistant. She looked at the glossy promotional material on the small tables. Millions of People Find Happiness in Love. Can You Really Marry Your Best Friend? What Does Your Partner Say About You? She heard the sound of machinery starting, like the buzzing hum of a thousand fluorescent lights. A woman in a white dress and thick white shoes came into the room, carrying Isobel’s green medical chart.

Read More By Jim McCollum

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Portland Fiction Project

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