The following is an excerpt from Paula Whyman’s You May See a Stranger: Stories, newly released from TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. Publishers Weekly writes: “Honest and sharply observed . . . Together, these smart, artful stories capture a woman’s life and the moments that define her.”
Mr. Pierson, my twelfth-grade biology teacher, is unmarried and has blond hair growing on his knuckles. We used to say hair on the knuckles was a sign of mental retardation, but my mother made me stop saying that a long time ago, because of my sister. Donna has no hair on her knuckles, but that never stopped the other kids from telling me my sister’s a retard. My mother said to tell them it takes one to know one.
My sister is not a retard; she’s a fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. I watch the wingless one that’s shuffling around on the food supply inside the Mason jar, its toes dipped in a loam of rotting pear, lemon rind, souped banana. If I’m to be my sister’s keeper, best to keep her in a Mason jar. I can watch her if I want, and I can put her on a shelf and go away whenever I like.
When I was younger and my friends came to visit, my mother would say, “Include your sister,” but Donna didn’t wait for an invitation. She followed me from room to room, a ghost in white tennis socks with pink puff balls at the heels and a nightgown she wore all day if she didn’t go out. On the front of the gown was a picture of the yellow-haired specter of Cinderella, peeling off in flakes like lead paint. Now that Donna’s twenty-two, it’s hard to find a Cinderella nightgown that fits her, so our mother sends away in the mail for a decal and irons it on herself. Donna has a burn on her thigh from years ago when she tugged on the iron’s cord. I was too young to remember.
Heat-trapped pheromones mean the smell in the jar is equal parts fruit and spunk, with a hint of vanilla, or maybe that’s a scent reference to the memory of my mother’s rice pudding from last night’s dinner, blanaxed by the lingering taste of my boyfriend, Victor. I just spent a half hour of my free period with Victor, inside the shed where they keep outdoor gym equipment—tackle dummies and lacrosse sticks, sod and leather and damp athlete-armpit. It was unseasonably cold, and I’d forgotten my gloves, so he warmed my hands under his sweatshirt first. I’ve never actually put his dick in my mouth, but I was curious and licked my fingers after he came. He didn’t see me do it.
To prepare the female for copulation, the male D. melanogaster licks the female’s genitalia. I think about suggesting this to Victor, but right now, I’m only that bold in my mind. We’re both virgins, and we’re not in a hurry to change that.
D. melanogaster is the perfect creature for genetic analysis. It turns out that we’re half fruit fly—the nonflying half, the half that thinks about food and sex and sex and food. In my jar, eggs are constantly hatching. Each female lays up to one hundred eggs in a day, and the eggs hatch in twelve hours. The larvae eat and molt, eat and molt, and then they pupate for a few days before emerging as adults. One of my assignments is to produce grids called Punnett squares that predict the genetic make-up of offspring of selected flies in my jar.
The genes of the fruit fly were named whimsically, according to their functions, as if the scientists felt like playing a practical joke. There is, for instance, a gene that will result in a fruit fly that’s born without a heart. It’s called Tin Man. There are three genes whose proportionate presence determine a fly’s sex: One is called Sisterless; another is Sex-Lethal; the third is Deadpan. They sound like the names of punk bands: Deadpan, opening for the Sex Pistols. Sisterless, double-bill with Black Flag. I draw Punnett squares demonstrating how these three genes interact. As a female fruit fly, I would be Sisterless. And so would my sister, in case it’s not already confusing enough. When the Sex-Lethal gene is minimized, the fruit flies are male.
I should warn Victor that I’m Sex-Lethal, but when we’re together my mouth is busy with his, his early mustache abrades the skin above my lip, and my hands are caught up in his soft curly hair. Everything about him is going from soft to hard, not only his dick, but his arms, his thighs. Not his eyes, though. His eyes stay soft when he looks at me.
Paula Whyman’s writing has appeared McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ploughshares, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Washington Post, The Rumpus, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. She is a member of The MacDowell Colony Fellows Executive Committee. A music theater piece, “Transfigured Night,” based on a story in this collection, is in development with composer Scott Wheeler. A native of Washington, DC, she now lives in Maryland.
Copyright © 2016 by Paula Whyman. Published 2016 by TriQuarterly Books/Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.