Authors: Theodore Roszak
DeLeon was his own best advertisement, especially in his native habitat. He radiated a kind of lush, frankly sensual physicality. In another era he might have qualified as the quintessence of Aryan manhood. Athletically muscled, with movie star good-looks and a mane of white-blond hair, he seldom wore more than a sarong as he walked his lavish estate. When Julia met him, he claimed to be over seventy years old — more than a slight exaggeration. Later she discovered he was a bit over sixty. Those who trade in the life-extension marketplace frequently add a few decades to their age, the better to claim amazing preservation. But even at sixty, DeLeon was an impressive physical specimen, and very much the ingratiating ladies’ man. That turned out to be one of his trade secrets, the key to the DeLeon Method. Three days into her sojourn at San Lazaro, Julia discovered the unsavory reality behind the scientific facade. The place was a sexual swamp. Partner swapping around the pool, all night bacchanals on the beach. There was no attempt to conceal the matter; the Lord of Longevity insisted on the therapeutic efficacy of non-stop promiscuity. The glamorous crowd he attracted — international socialites, film stars, business elites — welcomed the fun and games. Julia was invited to participate — as part of her research, of course. If she slept with the doctor, he promised to share everything he knew with her. Nothing special about the offer. Dr. DeLeon was out to sleep with every decent-looking female who passed through his spa. He was used to seeing his offer meet with eager acceptance.
Peter DeLeon cried out for debunking, but Julia was loathe to inspire skepticism in her patients. Hers was a field that tempted practitioners to take big risks with desperate people. And the bigger the risk, the bigger the promise the healer might want to make. Eternal youth has been in the snake-oil business long before Ponce DeLeon, the voyager who sailed the seas in search of the fountain of youth — and was at least honest enough to admit he never found it.
“I’d like to meet Clara.”
“Isn’t that your mother’s name? Clara?”
“I’d like to meet her.” As far as Julia could recall, she had spoken of her mother to Aaron only once. He had asked about the photos Julia kept on her desk, pictures of Clara Shapiro before and Clara Shapiro after. “She’s still here in the clinic, isn’t she?”
“May I meet her.”
“That might not be a good idea.”
“She isn’t easy to be with.”
“Why? Because she has Alzheimer’s disease? Maybe she won’t even know I’m there.”
“That’s likely. But I’m thinking about you. You might find it too depressing.”
“I don’t have Alzheimer’s. I’m not even at risk. If I were, you would have found out by now.”
Aaron was being intrusive. Julia disliked that. Her mother was her private concern, deliberately kept to herself. Other than the nurses, nobody visited her except Julia. Other members of the family were grateful to have Clara out of the way and well-cared for. Julia was content to keep things that way. She believed she was doing what her mother would have wished, sparing a once-brilliant woman the embarrassment of having her helplessness exposed to the world. But then Aaron was right: Clara would probably not know he was in the room. And he did seem sturdy enough now to meet with someone dying of advanced aging.
“Let me think about it,” Julia said.
I’ve entered a new zone. It happened suddenly, from one day to the next. I can tell by the light. It’s dimmer here, sort of underwatery, and it feels clammy. Reminds me of Duke Orco’s Grotto in HyperionQuest — one of the most treacherous traps in the game. If you didn’t turn back at the first warning, the walls of the cave came alive and digested you. End of game. I was good at recognizing traps. After a while there was no trick to it at all. Traps always looked inviting, as if they offered a great reward if you just kept right on going … and going. And then all of a sudden a steel net fell over you, or the ground opened up under your feet and you fell into one of the hells, or a herd of murderous clones rushed out to surround you. I had an intuition for that.
That’s what I’m feeling now. Wary, afraid even. It’s the sense of a hostile presence lying in wait, trying to take me off in the wrong direction. I feel something bad going on in my body, a kind of deadness creeping through me, sucking the feeling out of my skin. My eyes aren’t seeing so well, my senses seem to be closing down. Except for one thing that makes me forget everything else. I have this hungry need for something that only somebody else can give me. A girl. I look at girls all the time, look and look. I don’t even realize my eyes are on them sometimes, and then they glance at me and I realize I’m staring. Staring at their shape, their breasts, their legs — as if I could see through their clothes. I want to see them naked. I want them to undress for me. The nurses and women doctors here at the clinic. I walk by where they change clothes, trying to see in.
There are lots of places on the Web where I can find girls doing sexual stuff, showing themselves. Some of them are really ugly with ugly bodies, but I don’t care. I just want to see them, I want to see their sex parts, I want to touch them. I want that so much, my hands just ache. I can’t think of other things. My mother isn’t very good looking, but I wish I could see her naked. Or Julia, who is good-looking. I saw her almost naked once, changing her clothes. Alice, the woman who lives across the street from the clinic is really pretty, with a big bust. Sometimes when she’s in the garden, she doesn’t wear much, just a halter and shorts and you can see down her front when she bends over. I watch her every time I can. I wish I could see her undress through the window.
There are some websites that are for queer guys. At first I found that disgusting. But now I like looking at those too, just to see how far guys will go with each other. Would I want to do those things with a guy? I don’t know. It gets me worked up, but I don’t know. But why not? There’s such a need. If I didn’t relieve myself, I’d burst. I would. I can feel myself swelling with urgency, wanting, wanting — as if all the brightness inside me were shrinking down to one hot burning point.
Would she do it if I asked her — Julia? Would she let me touch her?
Twenty-seven months after his treatment had begun, Julia offered Aaron Lacey back to his parents cured. Not only cured but repaired. By then he had been so transformed that they might not have recognized him had they not followed his progress week by week. In every physiological respect, he was a normal eleven-year-old boy, but his looks were far from normal. He had become as flawlessly beautiful as a work of art. Underneath the layers of aging tissue that had weighed him down through his bleak childhood, there was an astonishingly handsome youngster still in the process of taking shape. His eyes were wide and sky-blue, his lips full, his cheeks glowing with vitality. His once-bald head was now covered with a shaggy growth of white-golden curls that seemed to shine like a nimbus around his face. Julia had allowed it to remain uncut as if in compensation for the years he had spent hairless. From the rough stone of a dying child, Julia had carved a youthful beauty, someone who might have modeled as a cherub for one of the Renaissance masters.
The transformation was so great that people commented upon it with hesitation and only furtively, trying to be as politely tactful as they would be about a terrible blemish. They were hushed with an amazement that had about it a certain air of trepidation. Could this be true? Could it last? It was so far beyond their expectation that Aaron’s parents seemed to be holding their breath. Dare they take him home from the clinic? Was this perhaps an enchanted realm he must never leave like the legendary Shangri-La?
Julia dismissed their fears. “I’ve run all the tests I can think of. I can’t tell you for certain, but I believe this is more than a temporary remission. I’d like to see him on a monthly basis, but otherwise there’s no reason you shouldn’t take him home. He needs that, a normal domestic setting. But I’d like to have him here until late Friday afternoon. There’s someone he’s asked to meet.” When she explained what she had in mind, the Laceys agreed.
Aaron had not asked again to see Clara, but Julia remembered his request and decided to risk a visit. An hour before his parents were due to take him home, she led him to the apartment at the top of the clinic. There she gave him a place to sit and watch as she stroked her mother’s hair and spoke to her in a low gentle tone. The three-room suite on the third floor had been designed for her mother; it was the most comfortable residence in Julia’s clinic, a sunny and generously furnished apartment that looked roughly thirty years out of date. Most of what filled the rooms were favorite things from Clara’s past, some items dating back to her girlhood. There were chairs, tables, books, pictures, bric-a-brac that had been hers for most of a lifetime, but which she had stopped recognizing years ago. There were a few dolls she would pick up and hold, childhood treasures that might still evoke fading memories. Though it tore at her heart, Julia found time every day to visit her mother, sometimes staying over for the night. She could not be certain her presence was any comfort to Clara; it was years since she had received even a glance of recognition. But she came anyway to feed and clean and comfort the person she now thought of as her mother’s ghost.
Julia led Aaron to a chair and asked him to keep silent. Then she went to sit with her mother. Clara, her head resting on her daughter’s shoulder, gazed vacantly out the window at the garden below her apartment. Her eyes seemed unfocussed, aimlessly wandering. After several minutes, she rose, caught her breath, turned this way and that, rushed off to the far end of the room, then back, then into the breakfast room, then back. On her way she brushed by Aaron but never offered him a glance. She was clearly flustered, but by what? As she passed across the room for a second time, Julia caught her hand and drew her back to her side. The old woman complied, seating herself again to stare blankly out the window. After a moment she asked, “Will she come soon?”
“I’m sure she will,” Julia answered as if the question were a familiar one.
“It’s time to go home,” Clara said. “Why doesn’t she come? We can’t stay here. They might lock the doors.”
“No, they won’t lock the doors,” Julia assured her.
“We won’t be able to get out.”
“No, see? I have the keys right here in my pocket.”
Clara stood up suddenly. “Mama said she would meet me here, by the gate. Where is she?” There was a rising note of panic in her voice.
“She’ll come,” Julia said, drawing her back down. “Now sit with me for a while.” She drew a school workbook from a nearby shelf. “Here. let’s look at your homework, shall we?”
There were tears in the old woman’s eyes. She sobbed quietly. “Mama, mama, mama,” she murmured. Julia, whispering to her as if she were a frightened child, did what she could to comfort her. And then Clara’s sobbing stopped. After a long still moment, with her brows knitted, she turned in her seat as if she had heard a call. Julia felt the sudden tautness in her mother’s body. Clara turned her head and stared at Aaron, a puzzled, frightened light in her eyes. He reached out a hand to her and she rose from her chair to come to him. When she stood before him, he took her hands in his and settled her beside him. For a long while, the two gazed into each others eyes. It was a more concentrated look than Julia had seen her mother give for many years. Aaron leaned to place his cheek to Clara’s brow. The old woman’s face brightened as if she were listening. When he was finished, she turned to look back across at Julia, offering her a warm smile, the first Julia had received from her in many years. For just that moment she was the mother Julia remembered. Then she turned to whisper at Aaron’s ear, a brief reply, as she settled back into his embrace. The two created a strange sight, the worn old woman nestling securely in the arms of a boy young enough to be her great grandchild.
“Did she speak to you?” Julia asked at once when they had left the room, almost tripping over her words in her excitement.
“Yes,” Aaron answered.
“What did she say?”
“She said, ‘Yes’. That’s all.”
“ ‘Yes’ what? Did you say something to her?”
“I didn’t really talk to her. I didn’t have to. You wanted her to know you were there, you wanted her to feel your love. I let her know that.”
“You said all that to her? That’s impossible. She hasn’t communicated with anyone for four years, not a word. She looks right through me.”
“No, she sees you. She knows you’re there. But she sees you now as if you were at the far end of a long tunnel. She can’t be sure if what she sees is in the present or the past. It’s like not being able to see in three dimensions; everything smoothes out so that there’s no depth. Time is strange for her, sort of compressed into one flat thing. But she isn’t frightened any more, she isn’t suffering. She accepts.”
“How could you possibly find that out from one encounter?”
Aaron puzzled over the question. “I can’t say.”
Julia was bursting with curiosity, but Aaron gave her no satisfactory answer. He was clearly more involved with his own thoughts. His reticence infuriated her. She felt herself balancing on the brink of anger. Perhaps he was playing some cruel joke, but then her mother’s behavior belied that. Julia was certain she had seen intelligence, recognition, even happiness in Clara’s face. Aaron said at last, “I had a hunch.”
“A hunch? About what? Aaron, are you fooling me? Please don’t. You must know what this means to me.”
“Of course I do. Clara and I, we overlapped in some ways. I knew we would.” After a pause he added, “I’ve been where Clara is — if that makes any sense.” But he knew it didn’t. “I mean … it’s like a place. And she’s stuck there, and I’ve moved on. She just didn’t have the speed.”