The chemicalist was an elderly man with a neat beard and a black tie beneath his white coat. Ella felt shabby in her sweats as she sat before him under the harsh overhead lights of the Health Center.
“Why did you come to see me today, Ella?” he asked. His voice was very gentle, like someone’s grandfather.
She told him.
She and Evrit had been together since their undergraduate studies at the Neuro Center, nearly two years. When he told her it was over, she was doing the pre-reading for her doctoral class in neurogenesis, which began the next day.
Rhombencephalon, she was whispering to herself. Mensencephalon, prosencephalon.
“Ella,” Evrit said.
Scala tympani, Scala vestibuli. Cochlea.
He said, “I can’t do this anymore.”
Medulla oblangata: autonomic functions:breathing, heart rate, blood pressure.
He said, “I think I’m in love with someone else.”
After he was gone, Ella thought, It’s all just chemicals, Evrit. And then, as she retched into the toilet: involuntary regurgitation: area postrema. The fact was, Ella had spent all seven hundred and thirty days she was with Evit afraid that he would leave her. She had worried that he would leave her right up to the very moment that he did.
As she said this,the chemicalist clucked his tongue. She could see the matrix scrolling across the LCD implant on his right cornea as he used his inter-link to make notes on what she was saying. His eyes never left her face. “And you’ve been very depressed?”
Ella rubbed her ankles together. “I don’t know,” she said. “I’ve been sad.”
Her roommates thought she was depressed. They said that she hadn’t been herself since Evrit left. In fact it was at the advice of one of them, Cayla, that she went to see the chemicalist in the first place. This advice came after the invitations to Evrit’s engagement party arrived: three envelopes bound together with a pink satin ribbon, one addressed to each of Ella’s three roommates. Two of them had squealed over their envelopes–hard copies with real paper and real ink, no luxury spared! Evrit’s fiancee was very very well off, very very tasteful. Only Cayla noticed the look on Ella’s face.
“I thought you knew,” she said hesitantly as Ella stared at the invitations, frozen to the spot. “Everyone’s been talking about it. It was on the Network.”
But Ella detached her cortical inter-link when she wasn’t doing research–the Network was too painful for her after Evrit left. The tiny broken heart that announced their breakup added insult to injury and she spent hours refreshing the feed to see what Evrit was doing, fearful when she didn’t know where he was and tearful when she did. Eventually she just switched off the link. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Ella didn’t know about the engagement; Ella didn’t even known Evrit was dating someone new. It was this admission that made Cayla suggest that Ella See Someone.
“It’s been a year since you broke up, El,” she said from the doorway of the room she and Ella shared. “Seeing a chemicalist helped me a lot after my father died. I bet it will help you, too.”
Ella considered this. She could hear the other roommates laughing in the common room, happiness chiming like out-of-tune bells.
After she related this encounter with Cayla, the chemicalist was concerned, empathetic.“And what kinds of symptoms are you having?”
The most important thing for Ella over the last year had been to make sure there was no time for idle thought in her day. For a year now she had been trying her best to keep busy. Cayla and their other roommates came home to find the windows in the common room sparkling, every dish washed and put away, the floors and counters spotless, digital archives reorganized every other day according to a new system. Miles of piecrust and steaming tureens of stew appeared in the common kitchen beside notes: For everyone! Enjoy! Contains nuts!
In contrast, Ella herself ate only prepackaged foods purchased from the GradMart on the way home from lab. These nutritional supplements, which were two parts protein and two parts fiber to one part sugars and came wrapped tightly in degradable plastic wrappers, were meant to sustain students through long nights in the library and were suitably tasteless, requiring no microwaves or refrigeration. She took to spending the time she wasn’t doing classwork wired into the E-Time Archives, and ate the supplements in bed as the rest of her body stayed perfectly still, eyes glazed over as she took in hours and hours of old television through her LCD implants.
She described this to the chemicalist, who furrowed his shiny brow and said: “Ella, have you ever taken anything to help you feel less anxious?”
“No,” she said. “I’ve always been a worrier.”
“And Evrit? Was he?”
Shifting uncomfortably, Ella admitted that Evrit was on antidepressants–he was one of the first she knew to start them, back when they were in the undergrad compound of the Neuro Center and the pills became mainstream.
“Ah,” said the chemicalist. “We’ve seen this happening quite a lot, a sort of feedback effect when one half of a couple has their mood tempered and the other doesn’t. We see it other places, too: for example, with young women who aren’t on their azapirones–that’s the generic for the “No Worries” that are so popular for body image, you may have seen the advertisement–in comparison to their more confident friends their anxiety becomes even worse.”
Ella was quiet. She had seen the advertisements.
The chemicalist went on. “Or perhaps you saw the Tour de France this past summer? The athlete who fell so far in the rankings because he refused to take his steroids–and then demonized his opponents for what is simply taking care of the bodies they work so hard.”
“So I’m the losing athlete?” Ella said, dubious.
The chemicalist looked at her with disappointment, “My dear,” he said. “Of course you shouldn’t take an antidepressant if you don’t feel it’s the right course for you–”
“I want Evrit to love me,” Ella burst out. This was what bothered her about the pills: the chemical compounds on the backs of the bottles were nothing but formulas for a mask.
The chemicalist spread his hands wide. “Ella, the pills do nothing but make us the best of ourselves. Now, all I can do is give my opinion, the opinion of a medical professional, and I think you would feel your quality of life improved–but I can’t help you, Ella, if you don’t help yourself.”
He prescribed Alprazolam methylphenidate, gave her a small white bottle with ninety small white pills then and there.
“It sedates the parts of the brain that are troublesome and stimulates those that are not, allowing,” he explained, “for longer-lasting function without distraction—and it counteracts the sleepy side effects that were so unpopular in less effective compounds. When you’re ready, start taking one, every day, at the same time.”
“What are the side effects?”
The chemicalist shrugged. “It’s not advisable to drink alcohol to excess while you are on the pills; more than one drink will amplify the effects to a rather uncomfortable degree. Begin taking the pills regularly and within three days you’ll feel completely at ease. You may notice an increase in your sex drive, but not to worry–this is simply your body returning to normal.”
“How long will it take to work?” She imagined days, weeks, of waiting: waking up in the morning and checking her reflection to see if it showed someone happier.
“Immediately,” said the chemicalist, and looked at her curiously. “What did you think?”
She had heard it could take awhile for meds to spread through your system, for the chemical levels of the brain to adjust. Back when Evrit started them, he described a foreign hand reaching into her ribcage, tweaking her heart. But when Ella confided this to the chemicalist, he laughed.
“Those were the old days,” he said. His tone made her think of leeches sucking blood from wounds, organs being lifted from corpses and plopped down in someone else’s chest cavity, poison pumped through veins to kill whatever cells it could find and hoping they were the troublesome ones.
Once at home, Ella stared at the pill in her palm.
“You’ll find your mood stabilized, your fears and anxieties mitigated significantly,” the chemicalist had said. “In other words–you’ll be yourself again!”
Who is that, exactly? Ella thought, and put the pill back in the bottle.
A week later was the party celebrating Evrit’s engagement to another woman.
Her roommates were getting ready for the party, sipping vodka and juice and preening like colorful birds in front of their mirrors. The night was themed “masquerade ball” and they had ordered their masks as soon as they received their invitations, gaudy things found on vintage stores over the Network, bright teal and silver studded with fake diamonds around the eyes.
Ella parked herself on her bed with the E-Time Archives queued up and watched them primp out of the corner of her eye. She wondered what Evrit’s fiancee would wear, and the wondering made her sick to her stomach.
When the roommates were about to leave, one of them poked her head into Ella’s room. “Listen,” she said. “If you end up not doing anything tonight–the bathroom has gotten really disgusting this week and I was wondering if you would mind–”
“She’s not your maid!” Cayla said.
“I know that!” the first roommate said defensively, “it’s just that, if she’s going to be here–”
“She’s always here,” the third put in boldly.
“And none of us have any time to–”
“Okay,” Ella said to shut them up. She suddenly felt very tired and the night ahead seemed unbearably long.
Cayla had one foot out the door when she turned. “I forgot to ask–how was the chemicalist?”
Ella shrugged uncomfortably.
“Did he give you something?”
Ella gave the barest nod.
Cayla sighed. “I wish you would take it,” she said. “You’d be a lot happier.”
For a few hours Ella lay on her back, eyes to the ceiling, watching old fictional friends laugh and cry on the Archives. The advertisement for the No-Worries came on, the one the chemicalist had mentioned: a pair of friends ran through a field of wildflowers like none Ella knew in real life. The two girls, a blonde and a redhead in matching white t-shirts, linked hands and twirled in the sunshine. Life’s A Ball, Why Worry? the voiceover asked, the words unfolding in neat cursive across Ella’s vision.
The ad cut to a shot of a chemicalist in a white coat with a neat white beard. Ella started–it couldn’t have been, but she would’ve sworn it was the same man she’d seen. In the shot he was leaning back in his chair, one leg crossed over the other, a pen in his hand but no paper, framed by rows and rows of little white bottles of little white pills arranged neatly on the shelves behind him.
“Alprazolam methylphenidate is a proven to reduce anxiety. It’s the safest drug on the market with the best results,” the chemicalist said on the television He seemed to be looking right at her when he concluded: “So why worry?”
The pair of girls reappeared before her, now dancing through a sprinkler, now facing each other at a crowded bar, now talking to a pair of beautiful men. “Ask your chemicalist–” the voiceover started, but Ella punched the holographic “disconnect” button that was floating in the top right of her vision and severed her link. The voice and video disappeared, and Ella stood up.
It was eight-thirty. The party would just be getting started.
She cleaned the bathroom: toilet, shower, mirror, sink. She chiseled old toothpaste off the edge of the metal basin with one of the roommate’s tweezers and put them back in the cabinet. Then she sat down to work on a reading she should have finished two weeks ago for her course topic in spinal functions. But she read the same sentences over and over again without absorbing anything, and couldn’t stop looking at the clock. The night inched forward: nine, nine-fifteen, nine-forty-five.
The invitation to Evrit’s party was buried under a pile of coursework on Catelyn’s dresser.
MR. AND MRS. STUARD G. PIERPONTS INVITE YOU CORDIALLY TO A MASQUERADE BALL CELEBRATING THE ENGAGEMENT OF THEIR DAUGHTER MISS LENA QUINDLE PIERPONT TO MR. EVRIT WASHINGTON SMITH–
Life’s a ball, Ella heard the chemicalist saying. Why worry?
Holding the invitation, she turned to the full-length mirror on the back of the door.
Her reflection showed ribs sharp enough to be counted and a collarbone like a shard of shattered porcelain. In the fluorescent light of the living compound her flesh was a sickly yellow, her eyes wide as dinner plates above sharply focused cheekbones. She reached for her favorite dress but when she put it on found yards of unfilled fabric around her bust. Once she had been plump-chested but at some point she had stopped fitting into her clothes.
You’ll be yourself again, the chemicalist promised.
She reached for the pills.
The change came in less than a minute, the first rush of drugs like a wave crashing over her frontal lobe. Electricity flickering through her brain sockets. Dr. Frankenstein could have mapped it out on an encephalogram, this resurrection. There was the voice in her head, where it had always been: neural pathways. Arcuate fasciculus. Cerebral peduncle. Corpus–
Then, a new voice:
Go to the party.
It was the chemicalist.
Ella kept staring at her reflection. Everything looked the same, but she could feel the hand on her heart just as Evrit described years ago, a hand switching a flip. Air flooded her lungs like she hadn’t been breathing true for a year.
Don’t you want to go to the party? the chemicalist coaxed.
Ella found that she did.
She shed the baggy old dress like a useless skin and turned, naked, to Cayla’s wardrobe, to the lace and silk and jewel tones. Shoes littered the bottom of the closet and on a jewelry rack that hung from the wall were faux pearls and diamonds, a glittering spectrum of rhinestones.
She dressed quickly, suddenly eager. Makeup was a haphazard affair and a long string of pearls were a laughing last touch. As she was on her way out she did one last thing for bravery: there was a half-empty bottle of vodka on the counter, left by one of the girls as they’d giggled out to the party. The liquor coated her throat like gasoline and ignited on its way to her bloodstream.
Dopamine pathways. Mesocortical, mesolimbic,nigrostriatal, dancing. Don’t you feel like dancing? She could feel the electricity in her bloodstream as it forged new pathways like lightening. So focused on getting out of the compound and on her way to the party was Ella that she was halfway out the door when she realized she was still barefoot. An abandoned pair of shoes that a roommate bought over the Network but couldn’t fit into lay in the entryway, heels higher than Ella ever wore. They fit her perfectly. She would have bloody blisters before she was out the door but she didn’t care; she should have taken a taxi but she had it in her head to save money and besides, there were people on the subway and for the first time in a year Ella was suddenly starved for company.
It was in the reflection of the dark glass of the train window that she first caught a glimpse of herself: taller and bright under the flickering fluorescent lights, swathed in silver and white lace, the enormous skirt billowing out from her waist the span of a saucer. The pearls were gaudy, looped twice around her neck but still hanging to her waist, swinging beckoningly with the swaying of the train; the mask she had made in just a few minutes from construction paper and twine, decorated with a fistful of sequins. She realized at that moment that she had never seen herself before, not really. This, she thought triumphantly as she clung to the cold metal bar by the train door, this was how other people felt.
Ella blazed down the sidewalk through the frosty night from the subway stop to the front door of the party, flew up the steps. Above her stretched the EState Club,the needle at the top injecting stars into the sky.
“I’m on the list,” she told the doorman, and gave her name so haughtily that he let her in even though it was a lie.
Inside there was a long buffet to one side, a dance floor in the middle of the room. It was lit by chandeliers and the floor was mosaic marble, the ceilings high, the whole room light and airy. Ella spotted Evrit’s fiance immediately by the sparkle of Evrit’s grandmother’s ring on her left hand. They were both beautiful, but not as beautiful as Ella was afraid they would be.
Or maybe that was just the chemicalist’s pills. Have a drink, he suggested. Why not? She went to the bar and then, glass in hand, wandered through the crowd.
Immediately a man she did not know was at her side. “Dance?”
This never happened to her before. At parties in school she had always clung shyly to the friends she arrived with.
Yes, the pills whispered with the chemicalist’s voice, say yes, say yes.
In the arms of a stranger a great bubbling euphoria made her skirts and head spin. After the dance they drank a drink together and when it was finished Ella excused herself from her admirer and meandered over to the food, thinking to mingle over hors d’oeuvres. There were tiny sandwiches with fish and cucumber, mini raspberry tarts and trays of fresh fruit. She took a handful of grapes with her bare fingers, lifted one to her lips.
“You look like you’re having a nice time,” someone behind her said pleasantly, and she turned. A masked man put a third drink in her hand.
Ella realized two things immediately.
First: even through the mask she could tell it was Evrit, charming in his tuxedo, hair gold in the light of the chandelier.
Second: he didn’t recognize her.
He couldn’t have. Evrit had never looked at Ella the way this masked man leered at the glittery woman in the low-cut dress who the pills had made in Ella’s form. It was the way he looked at other women when he and Ella were together, or at least the way she’d imagined that he did. But maybe that’s all in your head, whispered the pills. Either way: he’s looking at you now.
I’m losing it, she thought, raising Evrit’s drink to her lips. He left me for someone else.
Evrit leaned in to whisper in her ear.
That was before, the pills said, or was it the alcohol, that was before. What was it Evrit disliked about her? The obsessive studying, the endless worrying, the constant need for reassurance? But all those things were moot now, the pills told her. None of that was you, not like this is. You’re spontaneous. You’re whimsical. You’re carefree.
Evrit’s tongue flicked Ella’s earlobe and she smiled prettily through the mask. She could feel her grip on the night slipping and the third glass of punch bubbling unpleasantly in her gut. What had the chemicalist said about alcohol? she wondered suddenly, but she couldn’t remember and things were happening too quickly for her to try.
The EState Club was a hotel, and Evrit’s suite was at the very top. Inside a woman’s things were scattered around the rooms: a cardigan by the television, a champagne flute with a lipstick mark on the table.
“What about your fiancee?” she asked, taking care to disguise her voice, not really listening to Evrit’s answer but instead to his breath at the corner of her mouth. The most important thing, she thought with glee as the room spun around her unpleasantly and Evrit tugged at her hemline, was that he didn’t recognize her.
It was only when Evrit was kissing her with a cruel intensity her that she started to feel really sick. The bedspread spun and spun around her and finally she shrieked, “Stop, stop, I’m going to–” and jerked away and whirled around.
Her mask was askew and she ripped it off–Evrit gasped, “Ella–? What the hell are you–” and she vomited on his feet, wiped her mouth on her sleeve and brushed past him to flee. It was only when she was in the elevator that she realized that for the second time she had forgotten shoes, and it was because of that, she told herself, that she was weeping–but now she was in the lobby and it was too late to go back, too late to explain herself to Evrit, too late, too late.
The euphoria that had taken her to dangerous heights had reached its limit and she was falling now as quickly as she had risen before. Ella pushed the startled doorman out of the way and exploded out onto the sidewalk into the night, clutching her skirts, her bare feet already pink from the cold. There was a group of girls on the steps, sharing a cigarette, a kaleidoscope of colors in their gowns and masks and jewels.
“Ella?” asked a pink-masked girl, horrified. It was Cayla. “When did you get here? How much did you have to drink?”
Ella didn’t answer, just twirled on the pavement, her face suddenly flooded with tears. It didn’t matter, none of it mattered. The chemicalist’s voice was gone, the pills were wearing off and everything was a pumpkin, a pumpkin, a pumpkin.
“The Chemicalist” will be published in print by pacificREVIEW on April 31st