Colin had received the letter two weeks after his eighteenth birthday. “Congratulations!” it began. “You are pre-approved for a Breeding Marriage License! Enclosed is form MGA-1304, application for suggested partners. Please complete this form and return it to the Ministry for Genetic Affairs to request your list of genetically compatible partners.” He folded the letter back into its envelope and drew out the application. After scanning across it briefly, he set it on the table and opened the next item, another piece of college junk mail.
It sat in a filing cabinet until a biting February day three years later. As he was walking home from a senior seminar on twenty-first century composition, the woman Colin had been seeing for the past few months stopped him on the sidewalk. His fingers searched for the warm spots in his pockets as she coolly broke up with him. “I’m sending for my partners list, and I think that we should end this relationship,” she told him. “I just don’t see the point in waiting any longer. It’s not as if there’s anything particularly fulfilling about an unplanned relationship. I’ve been around, I’ve learned some things, and now I’m ready for something stable. So, thanks for the past few months. I’ll see you in class next week, all right?”
That afternoon, in his apartment, Colin searched through his old papers until he found his own request form. She had a point; why keep bouncing between temporary relationships when everyone knew there was only one way they would end up? Maybe it was time for him to find a partner. He might as well do so while he and his wife, whoever she might be, were still young; why wait? He filled out the form, entered his genetic PIN and mailed it the next day.
A few weeks later, he got his reply. He read over the list, fifty names selected from the best genetic results within twenty miles of Brighton and four years of his age. Each woman had a few facts listed with her name: one liked Rachmaninov, one majored in biology, one was an immigrant from America. He picked five names that sounded promising and sat down to begin the letters.
Those who replied were polite, for the most part, but unengaging. The first letter was from a woman two years older, a graduate of a musician’s program similar to his. She thanked him for his interest and acknowledged that his genetic profile was most impressive, but apologized for her being already engaged to another gentleman. It reminded him of being rejected from college. The other letters weren’t much better; some were distant, others desperate. None gave him any reason to hold them above the others on the endless list of names. The letters found themselves in the dustbin beside Colin’s piano.
The next month, he wrote again. Four letters trickled back to him; four letters found their ways to the dustbin. He sent out another set the next month, and so on, making a habit of filling his blank pages and disposing of the replies, until one day he found himself rereading a letter.
“Dear Colin,” it began. It was handwritten – an indication of interest, he decided – and there was no heart over the “i”, thank heaven, only a sensible dot. “I received your letter last week and have been wondering for some time how I ought to reply to it. I have never been a particularly brave or outgoing person, but neither am I the sort to let such a question go unanswered. I’m afraid that I have a rather anachronistic view of romance; it comes from reading too many dusty novels, I suppose; but it is a truth universally acknowledged that a woman who has read too many romances must be in want of a husband. One feels rather like a chord missing its tonic. You must think me terribly old-fashioned, but I am not so prim as to refuse such an obviously worthy suit as yours. The heroines of my novels were forced to scour the earth for the perfect love. We may make ours. I offer you my hand, if you will take it.”
It was signed, “Melissa”.
Days passed. Between his music classes, Colin would sit at his piano, the letter in front of his sheet music. On Friday, when he still could not think of a reason to refuse her, he replied.
After mailing his letter, he sat down at his piano and played for a while. There was something in the raw satisfaction of a chord that he hadn’t yet been able to analyze. It calmed him, though, as always – turned on the dopamine, he supposed, and gave him a sense of accomplishment. He tended to play after performing some necessary but unsatisfying task, like this letter. His mind knew that he was working to secure his future, but his brain didn’t react. The body wasn’t yet adapted to the chemosexual revolution, he supposed.
Her reply arrived shortly. “I would like to meet you for dinner,” she wrote. “I recommend Martinelli’s, on Green street. Let us meet there on Sunday evening at seven. I will lay a rose on the table. We should fill our prescriptions before then.”
He went online to examine his options and decided on Romatol, a low-key oxytocin and vasopressin supplement for male-to-female pair bonding. He rejected the idea of a “romance supplement” – he didn’t want to turn his world upside down or experience a wild romance but just to partner himself with this woman. That was the purpose of the matching service, after all: to make sensible pairings without the mayhem of traditional relationships. If he wanted the chaotic intensity of an organic relationship, he’d just ask out whatever attractive woman he happened across. He had the hospital send him an electronic prescription form.
After his evening classes, he headed to the chemist’s. It was already dark by the time he left his apartment, and the autumn cold was settling in. He wrapped a scarf around his neck and buttoned his coat up to the neck.
At the chemist’s, the staff were clearly ready to close up for the night. Only one register was still open, a dark-haired girl hustling through the night’s last customers. He came to the counter and handed her his pills, her fingers just barely brushing his. His heart jumped, and he stiffened for a moment before he could process the source of the warmth growing in him as if in reply to hers. The adrenaline response identified, he was about to quash it, but he restrained his habit. Looking at the girl, he allowed the cocktails of his brain to raise a little buzz. Her black hair – probably dyed – was mostly pulled back in a rough ponytail, and she had a plain silver nose ring. Colin normally hated body alterations, but her face had a round, exotic gypsy beauty that somehow gave the ring elegance. Her red uniform somehow accented the cold softness of her skin. Looking up from the price scanner, she caught his eyes on her and grinned. A little blood rose in his cheeks. She looked him over boldly and rattled the pills at him.
“Planning to slip me a love potion?” she smirked.
“…I’m getting engaged,” he muttered, suddenly embarrassed to be caught buying a chemical crutch.
“So you stopped in at the shackle shop for a new set of handcuffs? Sounds like a strong start to a relationship. Meself, I’m not into the bondage scene.”
He hadn’t expected such a blunt interaction with a stranger, and he wasn’t sure of how to respond. Her smirk spread. “What, bitch got your tongue?”
“There’s no chemical or psychological difference between a nurtured relationship and one left to chance, you know,” he told her and himself. “It’s simply more practical and reliable to create a partnership with a genetically and socially compatible person rather than trying to hunt down some ‘one in a million’ dream that might not even exist.”
“Sure, if you want a mail-order bride,” she countered. “I prefer to do a little product testing first. There’s no money-back guarantee, see.”
Something about her brazenness caught his attention in a dangerously stimulating way. Thoughts flickered through his head, little more than random possible courses of action, and in one of them he saw himself reach over the counter and kiss her passionately, almost savagely. He lingered on this thought. No-one still spoke seriously of “love at first sight” – if love as a concept could be dignified to that extent – but attraction? Certainly.
He somehow failed to stop himself from speaking. Once he had begun, it was too late. “Listen, let’s test this out. I know it’s late, but I haven’t had dinner yet. This place is closing up, and I know a good restaurant just a block or two from here. Why don’t you come to dinner with me, and we’ll see how dating goes without the pills?” He was insane.
“You’re a bloody nutter.”
“You’re probably right. But the offer stands.”
She squinted at him: is this the face of a serial killer? “It’s past nine already. And you’re engaged.”
“Not yet. My treat?”
“What the fuck. Sweep me off my combat boots.”
* * *
She came out of the chemist’s fifteen minutes later, changed into an antique-looking leather jacket. She looked surprised to see him still there; he had thought about leaving, but every time a little jolt of norepinephrine shivered through him, he told himself that it was only chemistry and he had nothing to be worried about.
“I’m Helen, by the dubs.”
“Oh! Ah, Colin. Pleased to meet you.”
She grinned and shook his hand. “And a pleasure to meet you as well, m’Lord Colin. Where you from, the land of stick-up-my-arse?”
“Well, Manchester, but I’m studying at the New Brighton Institute.”
“Mm, I grew up here in Brighton myself. Not much to look at, but it passes.”
They walked to the restaurant in silence after that. He pulled out a chair for her and she sat down across from it. Increased heart rate, punishment response: the anxiety agitated and excited him further. He sat in the chair he’d pulled out. They ordered and sat in silence. She watched an elderly couple eating lethargically at a nearby table while he adjusted his silverware.
“The food here any good?”
He looked up as if surprised to hear her voice. “Er, yes. It’s one of my favorite restaurants, really. Nice to be able to get decent food on a budget. Not that I have any problems, I’m well-endowed – I mean, er, my parents left me well-off, but musicians don’t usually add much to their savings accounts. I mean, oh, I didn’t mean to bring up money . . . look – oh hell. Yes, the food is good.”
“Glad to hear it.”
He ran his fingers through the hair on the back of his neck and hoped that she would say something helpful. He obviously wasn’t going to.
“So – Colin, right? What’s your gig?”
“My profession, you mean? I’m attending college for my musician’s license,” he told her. “I’m a composer.”
“Now that’s sommat to write home about. A genuine, certified artist!”
“Not certified yet . . .”
“Me, I’m only working the register this week as a favour to a girlfriend. I’m a streetwalker. Five pounds a handjob, like so.” He flushed, trying to process the unexpected variable, then caught her laughing and flushed twice as deeply. “Strewth, you didn’t believe me, did you? Na, I work the counter at a deli near me mum’s house. Cor, what’d you take me for?”
“More than five pounds, apparently.”
She laughed, and every subsystem in him loosened slightly in relief. Risk and reward: it ran counter to all his learned behavior, but the programming was still somewhere in his framework.
“So they don’t squeeze all the blood out of you.” She smiled at him and he let that smile fill his vision. Simply seeing her, taking in the softness of the light across her cheeks, the wet gleam of her jasper eyes – had he ever cared before what colour jasper was? – let him forget everything but that sight, that instant of existence.
“Oi, what’re you staring at?”
“Eh, sorry. Just . . . well, it’s embarrassing, it’s so cliché. You have remarkable eyes.”
She smiled again, more softly this time. Appreciation? Suppressed gladness? A slight wind entered the restaurant with group of people and made the candlelight shiver. It occurred to Colin that the light allowing him to see Helen’s face had reflected from her skin into his eyes. Each photon he took in had touched her skin. He savoured the thought and tried not to blink.
“You are a nutter. I wouldn’t have figured a University scarecrow for a soft-headed romantic type.”
“I’m not, really. This is an experiment, remember? I’m just . . . testing a hypothesis.”
“Right. Hey, garçon!” She caught a passing waitress by the sleeve. “Lager!”
The appetizers – Helen had ordered two – came shortly, and she dove into the calamari. “You’re right, this is bloody fantastic. How d’you think they make these bread crumbs? I mean, this is far from your average Wonder-loaf.”
“I wouldn’t know. I’m not much of a cook.”
She nipped the tentacles from a chunk of squid one by one, then offered the plate to Colin. He declined. “What are you, then? Besides a licensed practitioner of the composerly arts.”
“I told you, I’m not licensed yet. I still have about a year to go. But, I suppose I’m interested in neuroscience. Literature, too, because I like to see how an authour creates effects in his readers. Every mind is different, you know, but some writers manage to produce almost-universal effects. One wonders what techniques could be so broadly evocative.”
“I take it back, you are a cold fish. Interested in things for all the wrong reasons – have you ever read a book because you like the way it feels?”
“I suppose, indirectly, I read because I enjoy the sense of accomplishment produced by exploring the authour’s methods. Without reward behaviour, really, how would we get anything done? …But what’s so cold about that? I simply don’t want to be ruled by arbitrary chemical processes. You know what they say, that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living.’ I want to know why I do what I do.”
The waitress brought Helen’s lager, and she opened it with a crack. “A cold, flopping fish. This whole country is filled with icicles. You ever gotten laid?”
“I’ve seen several women at the college, but we never got attached. It’s more doing each other a favour, really – keeping the biological imperative satisfied. But is any other country different?”
“Sure they are. Me dad comes from Venezuela, they don’t have breeding licenses there. He says I should be proud of my natural stock. Mum married him there because she couldn’t get a license back home – belligerence genes or something. We grew up in China, then – hell of a place for genetic naturals, but we kept out of the papers – but mum and me moved back here when she split with dad.”
Colin grinned. “You see? Their relationship didn’t last! If they had found compatible partners through a matching service, would their marriage have failed?”
She shook her head, brushing off the suggestion completely. “It didn’t fail, just ran out. So it didn’t last as long as they did. That’s a problem? They had fun with it, and now they won’t have to remember each other as fat, grey-haired slobs living on social security. Besides, mum couldn’t have used the matchmakers. Bad genes, remember? And what’s the point of keeping her from breeding, anyway? I mean, nothing wrong with me, right?” She suppressed a burp. “So you ever read Tank Girl?”
He hadn’t. He hadn’t heard of most of what she talked about, although he wasn’t surprised to find that the punk bands she liked were real punks performing without even a learner’s permit, or that she seemed nervous in the restaurant, which was probably a bit more posh than anywhere she spent much time. “Why doesn’t anyone in here make noise?” she kept asking. When their dinners came, after she had convinced herself that familiarity with the underground music of the 1970s and ‘80s was not a requirement in New Brighton’s musician program, the conversation stalled. Colin looked into his soup, hoping to find a new topic somewhere between the noodles and tomatoes. “I’d like to ask you something,” Helen said after a few minutes.
“You and your bride-to-be-to-be are going on the pill or whatever as soon as you meet, right? I mean, you have some kind of magic first-date pill that you’re supposed to take so that you hit it off right away, right?”
“Right. One uses the prescription just before one actually meets one’s partner.”
“Have you thought about just meeting her the first time? I mean, not using the chemicals. Just go to dinner with her. Sure, use it after that, I’m not saying that you have to try a, what did you call it? an un-nurtured relationship or whatevs, just see if you actually like her before you decide to love her. Does that make sense?”
Colin stirred his soup. “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Look, you know that if people really can’t get along, the chemicals don’t work magic. So it’s not like you’d be losing anything if you hated her; it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Right?”
“So think about it, ok? Just think about it.” She stuck some of the calamari into her burger and returned her attention to dinner.
After they had finished eating, he paid their bill and they stood to go. As they walked to the door, she glanced over at him as if unsure about something. He was struggling for a way to not say goodnight when she stopped him. “Listen, you’re all right,” she said. “You just need to unscrew your head a little bit. Let me take you out for real, ok?”
Before the smile could fill his face, she grabbed his hand and took off out the door. “We should get a taxi,” she said, already flagging one down. “It’d be a long walk.”
The taxi took them to a part of town in which Colin had never stopped before. Helen dumped a few dollars on the driver and pulled Colin up to a club, skipping past the bouncer with a wink. The man grinned back.
Colin’s protests that he couldn’t dance were useless; “No-one here can,” she said, “so don’t worry about it. Just let the music carry you. It’s like swimming.” She took his hands and pulled him onto the floor. At first, he blushed and worried – irrationally, he knew – about how foolish he must look. He’d been on his feet all day, and his shoes bit his feet, his scarf overheated him until Helen pulled it off his neck. They danced until his knees decided that they didn’t really need to keep hurting and he stopped feeling the sweat under his clothes. He began to let himself feel the pulse shudder through his body, vibrating and reverberating in his bones and organs. She swayed next to him, arms raised over her head, eyes lidded and lips smiling. Somewhere between the beats of the music, he stopped caring that the increase in his heart rate was caused by a release of adrenaline and let himself be lost in her – in the beat-mother, the electronic lover, she who gives herself to her worshippers in the temple of the dance hall.
Still lost in the space between himself and her heartbeat, he let Helen take him outside and lead him to a brownstone apartment building a few blocks away. In the silence between the door and the club, she held his hand, smiling. The settling autumn built a chiaroscuro of heat between the biting air and the firm warmth of her hand. Every few doorways, she would grin into his neck, tickling his skin with her heat, breathing a secret. He followed her, allowing himself the mystery and loving it. In his mind, he allowed himself the word “loving”.
She unlocked the door, breathing hotly. He followed her upstairs and she shut her door behind him, not bothering to switch on the lights.
* * *
In the morning, a grey wash of dawn carried his eyes open and he became aware of the room around him. There were posters on the ceiling above him of bands he’d never heard of – “Sex Pistols”, “Massive Attack”, “The Cure” – and a shelf of novels to his right with uncreased spines. The shades were half-drawn over windows looking out on nothing of note. The sheets drawn up under his chin were soft, probably made mostly of some natural fiber. The warmth on his left was Helen, still asleep.
He lifted the covers, heavy with dried sweat, and found his clothes, slipping into them as quietly as he could. His jacket and scarf were on the couch in the other room. Wrapping the scarf around his neck, he glanced back into Helen’s bedroom and watched her for a moment, her eyes closed, her fingers on the warmth he had left in her bed. He shook his head clear.
In the kitchen, there was a pad of sticky notes. He took one and left it on her bathroom door. “I think the experiment was a success,” he wrote. “Thank you. –Colin.”
* * *
That Sunday, he walked to Martinelli’s. The real chill had come, and his scarf and coat weren’t enough to keep him from feeling cold. Outside the restaurant, he looked in at the tables, pretending unconvincingly to read the menu on the window. In the back, at a table set for two, he saw a young woman sitting alone with a rose on the table: Melissa. He fingered the spray bottle in his pocket, then let it go and opened the door.
Her eyes lit up, pupils dilating as their eyes met, and he could tell that she’d chosen to use a more powerful prescription. She’d ordered the romance that her novels advertised.
He ordered pasta. They ate and discussed literary techniques of eighteenth-century novelists. He walked her home after dinner, her arm hooked in his.
For their next meeting, he used the spray. They married that December and honeymooned at Melissa’s house. The night after their wedding, they consummated the marriage with a bonding stimulant designed for a couple’s first night together.
Still panting, he reached out to her bedside table and grabbed a slim box containing two syringes filled with the stimulant. It was decorated with the words “Just Married” in pink. He opened the box and handed one to Melissa. She grinned, almost childishly excited, and slipped her arm inside the crook of his elbow. Arms entwined, they each found a vein and injected each other.
“I love you,” she whispered.