There were three of us in the lab, and our goal was to extend the life of white mice. To be more precise, we were researching the flaws in the DNA of each mouse, and finding ways to repair them. Ultimately, we hoped to find the secret to giving mus musculus a longer lifespan. We would selectively breed them, observe them over the reproductive cycle, their behaviour and their growth, and test whether the next generation came out a little more healthy.
Mice are universally recognized as the best experimental model for human physiology. If this study could take us a significant step toward lengthening the lives of China’s people, then the mice which died along the way could rest easy. If I give you a one-line description of our work, it will probably sound like some kind of inspirational motto, but this really was what we were doing: making every generation of mice live longer than the last! Helping each generation of Chinese people live longer than the last!
After we were selected for the lab, the three of us (the project director named Peng, Chen Jin, and I) all signed a very strict non-disclosure agreement prepared by the HR department. This experiment was a state secret. All calculations, drafts, and laboratory data were the property of the state, and must never be taken out of the laboratory or disclosed to anyone outside of our team. We read through the restrictions, and the consequences if we were to breach them, and each of us solemnly signed our names. Following the Chinese custom, we also inked our fingers, and imprinted the thick contracts with our fingerprints.
Looking at my bright red thumbprint, I thought of my grandfather. He lived to the age of eighty-nine, making him the longest-lived member of my family. In life sciences terms, his 89 years was the best lifespan outcome among the members of our lineage. At the end, he rang his own calling bell, in the most extreme way possible: by refusing to eat. “Even Chairman Mao… passed away… I have lived long enough… I want to go now…” These were my grandfather’s last words. The way he chose to die left a mark on me. Even today something unnameable jolts through me when I think of it.
I didn’t much like our director, Peng. He was vain. He enjoyed firing obscure biology questions at students and young researchers, and a sickly grin would slowly contort his face as they struggled to answer. Chen Jin didn’t speak much. She had just returned from doing a doctorate in the UK. On the day we signed our contracts, she seemed to be arguing with her boyfriend on the phone. I happened to be passing, and I heard her hissing, “I’m not saying I want to split up. I just don't know about going back to Chengdu. Can you just let me think about it…” The next time I saw her, she looked very unhappy.
It was the third day of our project. In the lab, Jin was working with her back to me, and seemed to be wiping away tears. The mice closest to her had shrunk into the opposite corner of their cages, and were blinking their pink little eyes.
“No crying in front of the mice, please, Miss Chen.” It was Peng. “You’ll affect their mood. You know that moods can be contagious. If the mice are upset, they won’t eat or sleep properly, and it will throw the calibration of the experiment.” His eyebrows arched so fiercely that they looked like little fishhooks.
“I’m not crying. I haven’t cried for years…” Jin left the room. I was starting to become interested in my new co-worker.
That afternoon, Peng called us together for a meeting. Chen Jin leaned against a work surface, her finger poking in through the side of a cage for one of the mice to nibble. I murmured to her, “It’s good to be working with you.”
She glanced at me, and said, “You too.”
“We should go and get something to eat sometime,” I said.
She smiled without immediately replying.
A hundred or more white plastic cages were ranged on the lab benches. One white mouse would live in each. (Though the word “live” was a pathetic joke.) We first numbered every cage: the odd numbered cages housed male mice; the even numbers held the females. We named the mice after their cage numbers for ease of reference: Male One, Female Two, Male Three, Female Four…
We checked the sex of every mouse, and paired them off into Mr & Mrs Mouse couples, whichever ones we felt would get on well together. Director Peng, who loved inspecting the reproductive organs of the mice, called Chen Jin over to stand next to him and take detailed notes. It made me feel sick.
Observing the mice was a major part of our work. Over the last few years I had dissected several hundred mice, at a conservative estimate. Now, alone in the lab, I stood staring intently at one of our specimens. Every second I stared at that mouse, its lifespan ticked one second shorter. Of course, mine did, too. But that second didn’t matter to me. The mouse and I had lost the same physical time, but the biological time was very different for each of us. In one minute, the mouse’s heart beat 650 times, and it breathed 160 breaths. At three months, the mouse was mature and could parent its first litter, it could be a grandparent at six months, and at two years – well, two years was all the life a mouse had. But it didn’t know that. When it wasn’t sleeping, a white mouse would spend almost all of its time scurrying frantically around (they love those little wheels), burning through its energy and its cells, scampering towards death. Whereas I could think. I knew that I would eventually die of illness or old age, knew that I would turn into a pile of bones, or a pot of white ash. But in the face of death, there was not much difference between me and the mouse.
No, no, there was. I could dissect the mouse. I could watch it struggle, see its paws twitch, its eyes bulge, feel its breathing gently cease. But I felt no guilt.
It was our lunchtime break. Peng was sitting outside reading his newspaper. “A bristlecone pine named the ‘Methuselah’ tree is now 4,781 years old,” he exclaimed. “It is still living, still producing cones, and still just as green and leafy as ever. 4,781 years! My goodness! Will human beings ever live that long? I would love to see that tree. I am sure people will live to 5,000 years.”
I repressed a laugh, and glanced over at Jin. Her mind was elsewhere, her eyes blank.
“Do you two know how long a sea urchin can live?” His voice floated in through the window once more.
“Do you know?” I muttered to Jin.
“150 years,” she replied evenly.
The director did not hear our answer. He chattered on, more to himself than anyone. “I suppose I should eat more sea urchin, then… Sea urchins, a century and a half, extraordinary. Must be a superfood of some kind.”
“You free tonight?” Jin asked me. I nodded, and walked out to make a call.
I chose a real Sichuanese restaurant, in honour of her roots in Chengdu. We didn’t want Peng making anything of it, so I arranged with Jin that we’d leave work separately and meet at the restaurant. Jin came in her white lab coat. She had gone to her locker to change, she explained, and the key had broken off in the lock. We both laughed at the same moment.
Jin liked the restaurant. It was in a Beijing courtyard, with a big red door set in the middle of a long grey wall, and a string of irregularly shaped windows on either side. The paint on the door was peeling, and it was lit by paper lanterns. Above the lintel, in large print, was the restaurant’s slightly alarming comic challenge: Spicy Enough to Burn Beijing.
A server in a cheongsam stood shivering in the cool autumn air. Her eyes widened in shock at the sight of Jin and she timidly asked, “Are you Environment & Health inspectors?” I waved a hand to reassure her, and the professional smile returned to her lips. “Welcome!” she said, in the traditional Sichuan dialect.
As we entered the restaurant, we came face to face with a carved, wooden frieze of the Eight Immortals. Each of the eight was picked out in great detail, but in place of their traditional talismans, all of them were brandishing red chilli peppers. Below the frieze was a long stone trough, with lily pads floating in the water. Red and white koi swam lazily among the stems. Stepping around the tableau, we found ourselves in a courtyard with covered walkways along the three sides. She ordered, and we settled to talking.
I was curious what had brought her back to China. She said, “It’s the worst recession in fifty years in Europe. A lot of people are out of work. It’s no time to be looking for a job.”
I said I wished her all the best for her new life back in Beijing. She turned to look out at the dusky courtyard, and said, “There’s not much life here, either.”
“You’ll get used to it after a while.”
“If someone could just convince me, I would quit and go back to Chengdu, where my family is. I’d go and live a different life with him.”
“What do you mean?”
Her expression was calm as she turned her eyes back to give me a searching look. “Can you? Convince me?”
“I’m not sure anyone can convince anyone of anything, these days.”
She said nothing.
“How – how long have you been together?” I asked, breaking the silence.
“Eight years.” She laid her chopsticks on the table in the shape of a Chinese character eight.
“When are you getting married?”
“He wants to do it right away.”
I smiled. “And you?”
“I want to… and I don’t want to…” She sighed. “Women really are a mass of contradictions. It’s no wonder my professors in England said that it’s much harder and more time consuming to dissect a woman than it is a man.”
“Chengdu’s a nice place to live, I heard,” I said with a smile.
“It feels alien to me now.”
Alien. The word caught something in me. Beijing started to seem alien even as I sat there, eating.
“Tell me about your life,” she said, idly. “If you want to.”
“My life…” I shook my head. “I did a bachelor’s, did a master’s degree, worked for a couple of years, then came back to do another degree to see if I could get a better job. When I finished the PhD, I just stayed at the Institute. The time goes fast. Five or six years, already, just gone in a flash. These days I only go to about three places: home, lab, book shop, round and round and round. I got divorced three years ago. She took the kid. I’m single now.”
At this point, it was starting to sound too much like we were on a date fixed up by a marriage agency, so I stopped and smiled, and she smiled too.
“Don’t get me wrong, I like being single. Sometimes, when you get used to living a certain way, you change…”
“Are you trying to use your failed marriage to convince me to leave Beijing?”
I didn’t know what to say to that. “Marriage is a gamble.”
I was not exactly experienced at persuading women on matters of marriage. But that night, in that restaurant, for reasons I can’t explain, another me stood in front me and repeated over and over: You have to convince this young colleague to leave Beijing. The city wears women down so fast. Just look at the women around you: marriage, having a child, raising it. Up early in the morning for the school run, dutifully leaving early for the afternoon repeat. Always kowtowing to the boss to make sure the job stays safe. They get old so very fast.
“Did you do biology because you liked it when you were a kid, or because your family made you?” she asked.
I told her that my father was a surgeon, my mother an anaesthesiologist, and that I was their only son. At home, my dad cut his ham with a scalpel. I grew up sharpening my pencils and trimming my exercise books with them. When I was seven, my father showed me how to do my first live vivisections, of a frog and a pigeon.
“I started young, too,” she said, excitement flashing in her eyes. “I dissected a frog when I was five, a live one.”
Inwardly, I applauded her precociousness.
“But I forgot about that dissection. Then when it was time to choose my exam subjects in high school, I heard the frogs croaking in the pond outside my home, and they suddenly awakened this memory of dissection. And that was it. One perfectly-timed intervention. I’ll always thank that frog.”
Now the talk was starting to flow.
“When I was doing my degrees, I always spent longer in the lab than anyone else. Dissecting the animals, seeing how their organs fit together, and the way the blood flowed. I loved it! Was it the same for you?”
I nodded vigorously.
“I would wash the body after dissection, and air dry it, then sew it up. Make it into a specimen and put it by my bedside. But there were never any good animals to do, nothing outside of the ordinary rats, frogs, pigeons, dogs, cats… We never got a chance to do a human body. Was it the same for you?”
“Exactly the same!” I burst out.
“When I was doing my doctorate in England, I finally learned what real dissection is! I got to open up a gorilla, and a crocodile!”
“I’ve never done a gorilla or a crocodile,” I hastily chimed in.
“You have to dissect a crocodile, to see just what an incredible animal it is. They crawl, but they also leap. The joints in their tails are unbelievable. They have a spring structure, all these spherical vertebrae fitting cleverly together. The tail is like a pole vaulter’s pole. Do you know how fast crocodiles can move when they strike?”
I shook my head.
“Forty miles per hour! Faster than a zebra can run!” She quickly took a gulp of beer. “It’s such a buzz, cutting open this ancient animal that’s been around for 200 million years.”
Her language and her emotion pulled me into a different level of awareness. Subconsciously, I had always thought that marrying a man who loved dissecting dead bodies must have been like marrying a cold corpse. That was how it turned out for my ex-wife. Marrying a woman who loved dissection would be the same: a cold corpse. I thought of her boyfriend, that unfortunate man. At the same time, my ex’s form seemed to flash through my mind. Had I ever truly loved her body? No… I suddenly felt hurt by the realization, but I also knew with absolute clarity that my senses were on some level numb to the bodies of women.
Her voice interrupted my thoughts. “The woman I roomed with was a fan of vampire movies. She invited me back to her home one time, this really big, really old house. It must have been as old as her whole clan. After dinner one time, she suddenly asked me if I wanted to see the vampire gallery upstairs. She hadn’t said anything about it all the way to her house. Perhaps she thought I’d be shocked. But that night I was too nervous to go and see it. I had never seen those films in China. I was scared of vampires… Do you like them?”
I watched her, expressionless.
“Later she showed me a lot of vampire films, in our room and at the cinema. It suddenly struck me how much of a gap there was between my experience and how these students in the west learned. I liked biology, and I liked dissecting animals, but it never came anywhere near this level, where it bleeds into your fantasies and your culture. I mean, I was always a bit functional about it. I did the job for material satisfaction, not metaphysical satisfaction. What I learned from vampire films is that all of these dissection techniques I had learned were just techniques. I needed to take them and turn them into a craft. I needed to make the scalpel not a scalpel anymore, but a finger on my hand, living and moving. Those fountains of blood were the symbol for another kind of life. Later, I found I’d changed…” Her excited eyes were clouding over with disappointment, but my interest in her had multiplied.
“I had to come back to China because I needed a job. Now I’m here, I think about those memories nearly every day. I don’t think I could bear going back to Chengdu. I want to leave him. I know what our future would be like. He loves me, but he loves the me from before. And I love him. I don’t want him to get hurt…”
“Have you tried?”
“I don’t feel anything when he touches me. He says I’m always scratching him with my fingernails. I can’t get excited any more. I can’t control it…”
She poured out her secrets. I empathized with every one of them. In some ways, the people who open up their deepest secrets are the ones who feel the most pain. I raised my drink to her. We touched glasses and tossed the beer back.
We were the last people to leave the restaurant that night. As we came out, a light breeze swayed the red lanterns hanging by the door. We walked in silence up the quiet alley, both waiting for the other to speak.
“Two of us who love scalpels,” I muttered.
She let out a long breath into the darkness.
We came to the end of the alley, and in silent accord, turned towards the lab.
Cars whipped by us, urban streamers of light. Tonight they had an unearthly beauty, a familiar beauty which we had not seen for too long. The pop music that blared from the roadside shops sounded sweeter.
We stood at a zebra crossing, waiting for the traffic light. Shoulder to shoulder we stood, neither of us speaking. The wind was up, and it blew her hair onto my shoulder. My right hand was just inches from her left hand. Our fingers began to move at the same moment, drew near, guiltily near, till a spark shocked them apart. Then they were snapped together by a spark of wild attraction. Finally they gripped tight to each other. At the exact instant the walk signal was preparing to flash, we strode out together onto the crossing, holding on tightly to each others’ fingers, sharp as a mouse’s claws.