I try to remain calm as I intermittently scan the audience and review my valedictorian speech. Today is the 175th graduation of Stanford University and the auditorium is sweltering. The air is pregnant with the enthusiastic anticipation of the graduates and parents. After seven years of both undergraduate and graduate work, I am graduating with a doctorate in biomedical engineering. I have lived my entire life in California, but now my life will change, hopefully for the better. I just have to go through the motions of graduation first. Unlike most of the other graduates present, I have only a few emotional connections to the other students.
I am considered a prodigy in genetics and I have suffered the blessing and curse of the prodigy. I have an I.Q. of 189 and I never fit in with other children my age. Other students resented my intelligence, no matter how hard I tried to conceal it when I was younger. At least that is what my mother tried to explain to me. My mother also says I am physically striking, but I don’t see it. She is my mother, after all, and likely biased.
My teenage years were unconventional. While others my age went to football games and proms, I spent most of my time in the genetics lab. At times I wished it would be easy for me to join the other students in their downtime, but I was always too young. I learned to suppress those feelings. I would not permit myself to acknowledge how much the loneliness crept over me like a shadow, particularly at night. Only in the last two years did I become friends with Ella in my dormitory, with whom I took dance classes. We were only two years apart in age. Otherwise, I was always the youngest in my academic classes, by years. In my childhood and adolescence, the age difference might as well have been in light years. The neighborhood kids, who were my own age, always regarded me as an oddity, and the chasm between myself and other children just deepened with each passing year. I compartmentalized my feelings to the point of extinction. It was less painful that way. I know denial is a defense mechanism and I hope the new opportunity to make friends in New York will lessen this overwhelming sense of aloneness. Fortunately, I have my mother, who is my bedrock. I am crazy about her.
When I was classified as a prodigy at the age of four, I was placed in a program for the exceptionally gifted until I entered college. I graduated high school at the age of eleven. During a summer internship before I started college, I discovered a new method for splicing genes. This garnered the interest of many biotech companies, the most prominent being the Lucas Institute. The Lucas Institute outbid everyone else in the form of scholarship money and funding for my graduate research. Or so I was told by the special college advisory board that handled my curriculum and college finances. My mom never seemed terribly excited by the amount of attention I received, but that could just be because my mother is rather quiet and retiring with strangers.
At age eleven, I was admitted to the school of genetic engineering at Stanford. After completing my bachelor’s degree in two years, I started my doctoral studies. Based on advanced work in genetic splicing, I mapped chromosome 17 and discovered the gene implicated in psychopathy. The gene was first identified in association with psychopathology decades ago. I had hoped that by identifying the exact sequence of the gene, it would be possible to target therapy to alter the gene sequence.
The discovery led to reform programs adopted throughout the country. Current felons, who possess the gene, are now directed to regional housing facilities that prevent them from interacting with society, presumably for the duration of their lives until the gene therapy is operational. I learned that because of this intervention, crime rates are plummeting. The homicide rate is less than one percent in most major cities, including New York. Based on my work I received commendations from major police forces in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Miami. The chairwoman of the Lucas Institute has even invited me to the New York regional facility’s opening ceremony. I detest the minor fame that came with this discovery, and I wish I could take a pass on that invite. I’ve picked up small snippets in the news that the drop in criminal activity unfortunately came at the expense of individual civil liberties. My work was never intended to incarcerate people, but only to have a more positive effect on society.
Despite the air conditioning, perspiration clings to my back. The walls look like they are sweating. The auditorium is packed with graduates and their families. I’ve always considered graduation day to be the anticlimax. Hours of lab work and intense study get summed up in a short spate of words that can’t adequately describe what each individual experienced. My valedictorian speech does not resemble the usual drivel spoken at these ceremonies. I don’t have the memories of college life that most graduates possess. Most of the graduates likely have no idea who I am outside of what they read in the papers. The graduation ceremony is merely an empty formality for me.
Standing at the podium, Dean Thompson beckons me forward. Tentatively, I force myself to walk with measured steps toward it. Dean Thompson introduces me as the youngest valedictorian in the history of Stanford. I am actually receiving both my college and doctorate degree simultaneously, which is why I was chosen to be the valedictorian. I am not comfortable with attention and wish I could have skipped the ceremony. But, I owe my mother this memory.
“Good Afternoon, Dean Thompson, distinguished faculty, parents, friends and my fellow graduates.”
Today marks the end of one chapter and the beginning of a new one. Congratulations on all your achievements. We live in a complicated time with constantly evolving technologies designed to improve the future of society. But our mission is simple: to go forward, take what we have learned and apply it. We have been given the gift of an extraordinary education at Stanford; an education we will all cherish. It is now incumbent upon us to grow our potential, to find our passion and make our contribution to society. I would like to extend my best wishes to all of you in your future endeavors. You are an extraordinary class.”
I descend from the podium to an overwhelming ovation. I did not expect this, as my speech was rather flat. Everyone is probably applauding the brevity of my speech. Once the ceremony concludes, I search for my mother in the crowd.
I live with my mom in Montecito. My father left the family when I was a baby and we have not heard from him since. In fact, my mother never mentions my father. During rare moments when I would refer to my father in conversation, my mother’s eyes would reflect a deep pool of agony. I’m not sure if I imagined this, but I stopped talking about my father, as I did not want to cause my mother pain. My mother has always been the rock in my life, but sometimes I wished for a larger family. Because Mom is the epicenter of my small world, I negotiated with the Lucas Institute to relocate both of us to New York and give my mother a job at the Institute.
It was tough to leave my mom when I went to college. The first two years, I commuted by town car. When I started graduate work, I stayed in the dorms and went home to Montecito on the weekends unless my work in the lab made it impossible to leave. We lived in a small, yellow bungalow near the ocean. It was the perfect size for our needs. My mom had cultivated an immense garden that resembled the garden of my favorite fairytale when I was five years old. It was the drawing point when mom listed the house for sale. For most of our lives, we spent our time in the garden or at the beach. My mom lived quietly, socialized infrequently with the neighbors and worked as a textbook editor from home. I am grateful she is coming to New York. The Institute had offered us complimentary housing on their campus, but I want a real home, after living in the dorms for four years.
All of a sudden, I am snapped out of my reverie when I see the dean awarding diplomas to individual graduates. It is almost over. After we finally switch the tassels on our graduation caps, I finally spot my mom seated towards the back of the auditorium. On my way towards her, I thank a few of my professors. I feel like an insect in a jar as people stare and point at me as I make my way through the crowd. I know I will have to become accustomed to attention in the next phase of my life. I just wish for a few more years of anonymity.
I give my mom a hug. She is the only person with whom I feel free to express emotion. “Hey Mom! I can’t believe it is over. Did you like the speech?”
“You’ll think I am just saying this because I am your mother, but it was fantastic. Poignant and thankfully short. You held the attention of the audience, Analia.” Mom gives me another hug and whispers. “I am so proud of you.”
I laugh. “Glad you appreciated the brevity. I deliberately cut it short when I saw the temperature would climb to a hundred degrees. We should probably drive home and finish packing up.”
“Honey, don’t you want to see your friends and say goodbye?” My mom scans the room as if she is looking for my friends to suddenly materialize.
“Mom, you know I have been at best an anomaly here. I already said goodbye to Ella before the ceremony. My closest friend besides her is the computer in my lab. It is time to go.”
“Oh Analia, I’ve always wished you had a more normal childhood and a better college experience. Girls your age should have more friends. College is more than just studying and preparing for a career.” We head for the exit in the auditorium. It is slow moving as everyone is mulling in the atrium. A storm has just opened up.
“Well, I guess when I move to New York I can actually start the business of life.”
My mom considers my comment for a minute. “I really hope so. Never count on living your life in the future; you have to live it now. Should we make a run for it?”
“Why not? This auditorium is like a steam room. We look like we have been in a shower anyway”
Five days later, my mother and I arrive in New York. Mom sold her car and the new owner came to pick it up the day before we flew out of San Francisco. It feels strange to give up access to a car, but stringent laws in New York City make it prohibitively expensive to drive in the city unless you are ultra-rich or are granted governmental privilege. After we disembark at JFK airport, a car service provided by the Lucas Institute delivers us to our new apartment on West 135th Street. We had put our large furnishings into storage and had shipped our personal items in boxes. Once we arrive in the apartment, mom calls the shipping company and has our boxes delivered to our new apartment. It seems strange to me that a person’s entire life can be contained in something as commonplace as cardboard.
The apartment is a five-minute ride by train to the complex on 160th Street where the Lucas Institute is located. The Institute actually owns our apartment building and rents the apartments to highly-valued employees. At least that is what the human resources representative explained to us when we flew out to look for an apartment a few months prior to our arrival. Although the apartment is well appointed, it is clinically sterile. Our house in California, while not a piece out of Architectural Digest, was comfortable and warm. We had basically lived a simple existence out in California, mostly outdoors, but that is no longer possible in New York. As a consolation prize, we have panoramic views of Central Park to the south and a small balcony.
Ever since the North American continent merged under a central government, New York has been designated a major regional economic and political center. Apparently, the pipeline that stretched from Canada to Mexico contributed to a drastic increase in carbon emissions. The volatile consequences of climate change and the rise in terrorism at the time led to vast political instability and numerous, simultaneous wars in the Middle East, Indochina and South America. The threat of nuclear destruction led to a shift in government alliances and the world was divided into large, geographical political alliances. In a bid to retain superpower status, the United States had formed an ‘ultra-nation’ by aligning with Canada, Mexico, and Central and South America. The individual nations still retain their own leaders, but they report to the democratically elected American president in Washington D. C. The President of the Americas dictates military and economic policy for both continents. It is an uneasy alliance.
The massive geopolitical consequences that resulted from this seismic shift, led to New York becoming even more of a major, dominant force in global finance. Consequently, this created an explosive housing demand within New York. High-rise luxury buildings replaced most of the apartment buildings in what were formerly Harlem and Queens. We are now living in one of those buildings. Our building has an indoor pool, enormous fitness center, media room, and a formal ballroom. Every aspect of our new life sharply contrasts with our former lives. Strangely, the only thing familiar in our new surroundings is the concierge, George. Apparently, he came from Palo Alto with our belongings. George had worked the front desk in my laboratory building at school. I do not know him except as a passing acquaintance but it is odd to encounter him when we first arrive at our new home.
The Lucas Institute has decorated our apartment. It is furnished but cold and impersonal, like a laboratory. The floors are granite and the living room is navy blue. The entire kitchen is chrome. I fear I will offend someone if I leave a fingerprint. It reminds me of hotel rooms I stayed in when I travelled to conferences around the country to present my findings over the last few years. The rooms are well decorated but unapproachable.
After the shipping company delivers our boxes, we start unpacking. We need to add some personal touches to our living space before we start work tomorrow. I discover my favorite throw in the first container and throw it on the couch. Underneath the throw I unearth a box of art projects from my childhood at the bottom of the box.
“Mom, I can’t believe you saved my artwork from childhood.” I usually don’t harbor a lot of nostalgia for the past, but I am happy to have some reminders of childhood.
“You worked so hard on those projects. They remind me that underneath your brilliant exterior existed a happy, precocious child. I love to look at them.”
I wince. I appreciate Mom’s sentimentality. I just shun any feelings that make me feel vulnerable. I move on to another box of books and start stacking the bookcases with them. At the bottom I finds a Harvard yearbook and start flipping through the pages. My mom’s graduation picture stops me cold. “Mom, why do you have this?”
Mom peers up from the box she is unpacking at the dining room table. “Sorry, what did you say?”
“This yearbook. It is from Harvard. And you are in it. I always thought you went to Santa Clara Tech, worked as a chemical engineer, and then became a full-time mom. Why didn’t you tell me you went to Harvard?”
“Oh, I guess it never came up. You know, I am feeling lightheaded. I think I need to eat. Do you want to go get a bite at the deli on the corner?”
My mother’s face looks ashen. “Sure Mom. Are you ok? Mom sits down suddenly as if her legs buckled. “Why don’t you hold on to my arm? Would you like me to order takeout instead?”
“I am fine. I just need some fresh air and a bite to eat. Grab the keys on the table, please.” Mom grabs her bag from the kitchen.
We ride the elevator down to the lobby and exit through the front door. The streets are warm and muggy. Since the testing for the psychopathy gene in past and present felons was instituted along with the recent policing tactics that veer just south of martial law, the streets are quite safe. When we were initially given a tour of the neighborhood two months ago, we learned that over three decades ago it had been dangerous to walk the streets after dark. There had been riots between the police and the residents. That was up until the construction companies had moved into the area, razed the buildings, constructed modern apartment buildings and ejected the former residents. Giant companies like the Lucas Institute and several other multinational conglomerates had underfunded this initiative. Most executives now live in the former boroughs of Harlem and Queens. Sadly, all the civil workers in the city were forced to retreat to the suburbs or the Bronx. The tour instructor said they are affectionately called B &T’s, which is short for bridge and tunnel. I don’t think those residents find it funny.
More recently, there have been mass round ups of individuals with the chromosome 17 anomaly that I had discovered at Stanford. After my research was published, the attorney general ordered a review of all DNA on file for past and present felons and they were placed in prison camps, even though they had served their sentences. I can’t quite understand the legality of forcing people to live in concentration-style camps just because they carry a genetic mutation. Environmental influences also play a huge role in behavior. Whenever I have tried to discuss this with law enforcement personnel or the people at the Lucas Institute, they have evaded my questions and changed the subject.
I hook my arm through my mother’s elbow and we walk a block towards the local deli. The availability of all types of restaurants at any hour amazes me. It is a smorgasbord for every type of palate. The city pulses continuously as if a heart beats beneath the eight square miles of concrete. I love the energy of the city even though I miss the greenery of Northern California. After a few minutes I glance at my mother and discover her skin is decidedly less gray.
“Hey Mom, you are looking better.”
My mom stops before we reach the deli and looks up and down the street before she replies. “I wasn’t ill. Analia, you have to listen to me. I have to warn you to be careful when you go to work at the Lucas Institute. Some of their practices are, well, questionable. Never talk openly with anyone about what you learn there. Ever.”
My mouth gapes open in shock. “Mom, you’re scaring me. What are you talking about? Does this have anything to do with that yearbook I found? And come to think of it, are you scared to talk in the apartment?”
“I am so sorry, Analia. I have tried to protect you as much as possible. I have a lot to tell you about our family history. I kept it from you as long as I could so that you could have a normal life. Or as normal as possible. You will have to grow up sooner than I would have preferred.”
“Mom, could you please talk in specifics?”
“Years ago, I was trained as an obstetrician and a geneticist. I discovered that fetuses were aborted without their parent’s consent. The majority of the fetuses in question had minor genetic abnormalities that would not have prevented them from having normal and productive lives. I questioned what was happening and that angered some powerful people. I learned that there was a secret government policy in place that was selectively trying to create a perfect society in target populations. You were only a toddler at that time. Influential people in the government threatened to imprison your father and me if I spoke out. They planted incriminating, subversive evidence in your father’s office. For my silence, they allowed me to raise you and not go to prison. However, I could never work as a physician again.“
’I can’t believe this. Are you telling me that our lives have been a lie?”
“No, not a lie. Working as a physician is what I did. Being your mother is who I am. I made the choice to protect you above all else. That is the truth.”
“What happened to Dad? Did he really leave us all those years ago?”
“No. He was forced to accept a plea deal and could not have any contact with us. He accepted the deal to protect us. If he did not agree to the plea deal, they would have prosecuted both of us. We made the decision that he should leave. Well, actually he did. I argued that it should have been me because I was the one who spoke up. Your father loved you so much. He insisted that you grow up with your mother and without my knowledge, went and made the agreement with the prosecutor. It broke my heart.”
“Do you still love him?”
“Unbelievably so. They say time heals. It isn’t true. Your mind and your heart lay down scars to minimize the ache, but it never goes away. But I had you. Your dad and I wanted to make your life as peaceful and happy as we could. And your dad wanted to protect both of us. The only reason I am telling you this now is because you will be working for the people who did this to your dad. You have a brilliant mind but also a passionate heart. Keep your emotions under control. Do not voice your concerns and never speak about what troubles you in confined spaces, especially the apartment. Patience will be your friend. Now, let’s go pick up dinner and bring it back to the apartment.”
I grab my mother’s arm as she makes her way to enter the corner deli. “Wait. I have so many questions. Why didn’t you tell me? I would never have agreed to work for them.”
“The Lucas Institute decided you would work for them when you were eleven years old. I had to sign a contract that, in return for paying for your education, you would work for them when you graduated. If I didn’t agree, they were going to declare me an unfit mother and make you a ward of the state. They produced fictitious documents from fictional neighbors and local policeman alleging that I abused drugs and suffered from schizophrenia. I was terrified. They would have had you educated at the Institute and institutionalized me. There are some battles you have to concede if you want to ultimately succeed in your goal. My primary goal was to keep you protected.”
I feel the horror coursing through my body. “What you are telling me is bordering on insanity. Cross that out. It is insane.”
“I know it is a lot to take in. If I tell you everything now, you may not be able to act normally when you go to the Institute tomorrow. How much of a coincidence do you suppose it is that the security guard from your lab building at Stanford is now the concierge in our new apartment building?”
I look at my mother. “Have we been followed all these years?”
Mom sighs. “Employees of the Institute would visit on occasion to make sure I towed the corporate line. Unfortunately, when you were still in preschool, you had demonstrated prodigious skills in mathematics and reading. You were immediately placed in a gifted program and groomed to become a scientist, or in your case a geneticist. I considered disappearing with you, but it is so difficult to go on the run with a child. I could have left for another country, but I didn’t want to lose all contact with your father. Plus, I also didn’t want to endanger him.”
“Do you know where he is now?” I ask with a glimmer of hope.
“Honestly, no. But I have an idea about where he is. I won’t tell you who acted as an intermediary back home in California, but we exchanged letters up until six months ago. I suspect we are being carefully scrutinized. Analia, you are a very intelligent girl. You are going to have to develop survival skills, but I can help you. Now let’s go home. We have to assume that someone is listening in the apartment. We can take up running in the park as an excuse to get out and talk.”
“But I don’t run. Except for dancing, I have barely exercised the last several years.”
Mom smiles at my revelation. “I know. You mentioned on the drive from California to New York you wanted to start living your life more fully. This can be part of your plan to do just that. I love Central Park and I think you will too. Besides you might actually like running.”
“You have lived in New York before, Mom?” The surprises just keep on coming. I start to wonder if I’m in the twilight zone.
“I grew up here. But that is a story for another day.”
“At this point, I don’t think I would be surprised if I heard we were descended from aliens. This is great. Now I have to take up running.” I roll my eyes. “It is not really my sport, Mom.”
Mom laughs. “You were always my delicate daisy.” She opens the door to the deli and motions for me to precede her. ”Just remember, you are loved. More than you know.” Mom kisses my cheek and orders at the deli counter.