Author Ted Takashima talks about what inspired him to write “The Gene of Life,” and about who were the models for his characters —the smart, brave, talented, and beautiful Katya and the genius scientist with a secret, Max.
Katya listened as she robotically brought spaghetti to her mouth. Occasionally, she drank from her glass of Coke with an indifferent air.
“You’re against it,” Max said.
“You have other things to do, Professor.”
“Exploring the Amazon is something I’ve always wanted to do. All boys picture themselves as intrepid explorers at some point.”
“Not satisfied with the jungle adventure in Disneyland?” Katya’s hand stopped in midair, and she stared at him.
“Why are you so obsessed with hunting Nazis, Professor?”
“I’m not. I just want to know more about Dona.” He searched for the right words, his eyes drifting to the dark night outside. He couldn’t find the words to explain it.
“What Dona said is weighing on my mind as well. But don’t you have more important work to do?”
“You have no intention of going?”
“That’s not what I said. I just want to know the real reason you’re going.”
“Just wait a little longer, and I’ll tell you.”
“You’ve already made up your mind to go, haven’t you?”
“How can you be so sure?”
“If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be talking to me.”
“I want you to come with me as my assistant. You’re the only one who understands what’s happened so far.”
Katya twisted her spaghetti around her fork. “Is that the only reason?”
“You’re good at what you do.”
“But there must be loads of people who are even better.”
“I’m asking you, Katya. I need you.”
“You should’ve said that from the get-go.” She brought the pasta to her lips.
“When I was at Stanford, a biologist friend of mine did fieldwork all the time. He’d go to the Himalayas or Africa in search of undiscovered microbes or plants. He even went to the Amazon. He invited me to come with him, but I turned him down.”
“I’m sure your friend was an outstanding scientist.”
“He was only able to graduate because I started writing his papers.”
“You’re a good friend.”
“If he’d been held back a year, that was another year I’d have had to look after him. Besides, we were engaged.”
Max stumbled over himself for a second. “When are you getting married?”
“We were engaged. Past tense. We broke it off.”
“You got tired of writing his reports for him?”
“I realized he hated studying. He’s the type of guy that likes using his body over his mind.” Katya’s breathing became unsteady.
“One of the species he was always hunting was human females. He collected and researched them enthusiastically. The only things he exceeded me in were his physical strength and his insatiable spirit of inquiry with regard to new species.”
“That’s the most important quality for basic research.”
“The problem is he directed those rare talents only to the bedroom,” said Katya, as she swatted her neck. A mosquito died with a bloody splat. “You’re used to mountain treks, aren’t you, Professor?”
He woke up to a faint noise. He opened his eyes and saw a black shadow staring at him. He smelled sweat and felt warm breath on his face, but he didn’t dislike it. They had a delightful sweetness to them that shook loose what had been sealed in his body.
“You’re . . .”
Soft lips silenced that sentence. Time stopped and all the voices of the forest disappeared. The room was still and silent. The shadow’s lips slowly pulled away as though waiting for Max to take the next step, and she put her cheek to his. Seconds passed.
“I must be dreaming.” Max gently pushed the shadow away. Now wasn’t the time.
The shadow stared at Max for a long time, then returned to the hammock in resignation. Max closed his eyes. He felt relaxed and satisfied. It had been decades since he felt this relieved. Eventually, he was pulled into a peaceful sleep.
“It’s not that simple for me.” Katya sighed. “Don’t rush, but keep trying. Life is deep and short, but beautiful.”
“I remember those words. That’s what I told a graduate student when I was selecting a dissertation for Nature. His idea was unique, but the proposed experimental process was too involved.”
“This is the letter you sent me.”
Katya took her wallet out of her pocket and retrieved a carefully folded piece of paper.
“If I remember correctly, that proposal came to me from a male student.”
“That was an upperclassman in the doctoral program I was in. My name was third on the list after my professor’s, but the idea was mine.”
“I sent a message because I thought you had promise.”
“I dreamed of working with you, Professor.” Katya’s glance returned to Max. “Are you surprised?”