On his way home from work each evening, Wilson Fortunato picked up take-out and a copy of the Post-Standard. He’d eat and read it at the kitchen table under the anemic light of a small florescent fixture he had long planned to replace.
The work he’d brought home with him would wait until after he finished the paper. He underlined articles of interest, cutting some out neatly with an Exacto, intending to send them to his sister in Milwaukee, and then he’d set to circling with a red magic marker each promising WSM singles ads in the Plenty-O-fish personals column.
Wilson worked at Genie Inc., a small human genome research and development startup on the outskirts of Syracuse. The company was home to a small group of young, smart, tech grads, and each hoped one day they’d get bought out by a giant biotech and make a million and retire to Tahiti.
One woman who posted an ad in the Just Looking/Not Desperate section, and who was about his own age, perhaps a little older, met him after work for a drink at Café Kubal, an all-night coffee shop on Harvard Place.
She was an instructor at the university, working on her dissertation in Comparative Eastern Literature. Her thesis was an analysis of Bhutanese-Nepali literary criticism before and after 1999, the year that television first came to Bhutan.
Her name was Cymbal. It was originally Cynthia Orenstein but she changed it when she turned 21 after a dream she had in which it was revealed that she was, in a past life, the fifth daughter of a simple and poor Tibetan farm couple.
Wilson did not believe in reincarnation, and he told her so. However, each time he saw her he believed more and more in Cymbal. There were secrets of Tibetan mountain agriculture she knew that could not be found in any textbook. She remembered the names of all of the wives her husband had and the colors of the scarves they wore so that he could tell them all apart.
He was almost convinced. More so, though, he was intrigued by the possibility that there might be some telltale epigenetic evidence of her Tibetan past hidden deep within the unseen strands of her DNA.
One evening they were having a late dinner at his place, and when she left the table to go to the bathroom he picked up her napkin and swabbed it along the edge of her teacup and slipped it into the plastic sample bag he had in his pocket for just such an opportunity.
The next day at work he placed tiny squares of her napkin into an array of test vials and he ran the batch through the company’s mitochondrial genetic sequencing analyzer and human genome research database.
He was standing, he realized, at the nexus of science and seance. If it all worked out, there was, no doubt, a Nobel Prize in this for him.
It took several days for the base pair analysis to be completed and several more for the bio-geo-ethnographic report to be returned from the scanner.
In the meantime, over savory native dishes of Ko–Chana-Tarkari and Keema Bhutawan, which she cooked for him in his kitchen, he became more and more unsure of the objective reality he believed in and more and more sure that there were things in this world that he might never ever come to understand.
He was enthralled with the stories of her past and enamored with her present, intoxicated by her confident self-knowledge, and captivated by her capacity for unconditional love.
What was real to her was becoming reality to him.
And, when the test results arrived in a large manila envelope, he set it aside, unopened. For weeks he was tormented. He questioned his motives. He was deeply in love with Cymbal and she with him. How, though, would he feel about her DNA? How could he explain to her what he had done?
One weekend when Cymbal was at a conference in San Diego he opened the envelope.
In the unsparing light at his kitchen table, the results were clear.
There were no Tibetan genes to be found. No Bhutani or Nepali. No Eurasian, No Mongol or South Asian; no East Asian, no nothing. There were only Eastern European alleles with traces of North African ancestry. Nothing even remotely Tibetan.
He creased the sheets of paper down the middle and carefully tore them in half. He slid them into the envelope and he secreted them in a drawer beneath some old socks and underwear he no longer wore, and he vowed never to look at them again and never ever to show them to her.
When the last of their three children graduated from college, Wilson and Cymbal decided to downsize to an old shepherd’s cottage in the High Sierra mountains. They’d be cultivating yartsa gunbu, the rare and costly Tibetan aphrodisiac harvested from the parasitic caterpillar mummy fungus.
In cleaning out his old socks drawer, there was the envelope he had hidden away. He had not looked at in over twenty years.
He opened the envelope. The printout was gone. In its place, on a small sheet of college-ruled notepaper, were written, in Cymbasl’s simple script and firm, confident hand, the words of the Buddha, “What you are is what you have been. What you’ll be is what you do now.”