GENETIC TRIBE OF ONE
Suzanne Farrell Smith
I was feeling alone; I always do when autumn comes and the weather turns foul. Back when I was teaching elementary school, autumn brought long, talkative days and short, hard-slept nights. Now my only reason for leaving the apartment is to buy chicken and gin. But going outside with a song on my lips—“chicken, yogurt, vegetables (but no corn!), ink, paper, mail, gin”—makes me feel only more alone, because no one else knows the words to sing along.
As I finish my list-song, I heave my sack to my shoulder and pop open my umbrella, and as Iím jostled by elbows making their way back to offices, I look to the bright side of this isolation Iíve chosen: alone can equal unique. Iím part of an exclusive club of people who live in Midtown Manhattan and work from home, people who can shop for groceries in the middle of the morning. Some retirees, some stay-at-home parents... and me. And Iím the only one in an outfit made of bedroom layers—rather than change my pajamas I just keep adding new ones until I’m dwarfed, like a little girl playing dress-up.
Sure enough, as I consider this uniqueness of mine, my mood improves. After shopping, as I head up Second Avenue and cross Forty-first street, my shoulder suffering under the weight of the groceries, the two-pack of ink cartridges, along with three reams of paper and just under two liters of gin, I note the hotel where embattled Iranian leader Ahmadinejad stayed a while back, during the U.N. General Assembly. Did he enjoy his stay here in Tudor City, my tiny neighborhood at the foot of the United Nations headquarters? And did he, despite the scads of other diplomats and their entourages, feel alone?
This morning, this ordinary rainy morning, my aloneness takes on a sheen of charm. But then I notice a woman close to my age crossing Second Avenue, one-arming a burlap sack from the same market where I bought mine. With a sick feeling in my throat I glance at her legs and see, under the hem of her raincoat, then, under the lower hem of her nightgown, pajama-bottoms! Damn. I suppose she could be wearing something like the South Asian salwar kameez, but I donít stop to study the situation, not wanting to see myself mirrored, just as Iím getting used to feeling unique.
Back at my building, I ride the elevator, drop my sack inside my apartment door, then fumble in my purse for the inhaler I always need when the weather turns bad. OK, world of six billion—four-point-five percent of us have asthma! I, sucking on the inhaler, am just of one many, of three hundred million people whose airways are inflamed. (So, damn again.)
Before unloading my sack, I check for a message from my employer—a faceless company that has hired me to write generic content—while I chew on my lip and fiddle with my right ear. My right earís helix is collapsed; a triangle of cartilage sticking out like a sharkís fin. I have microtia, a congenital deformity that occurs in just one-point-one percent of the worldís population. Asthma and microtia aren’t mutually exclusive. (One has nothing to do with the other except for the word ďcollapseĒ, but that word belongs to buildings and stock-markets—and to souls, too.)
So it’s like this: of the three hundred million asthmatics in the world, three million three hundred fifteen thousand one hundred and forty-one of us also have microtia of the ear. And I start to wonder: where are the three million three hundred fifteen thousand one hundred and forty others besides me? (Surely, none are in Tudor City!)
No word from my employer. Iím in between projects, unmoored from a task-list. I return to my sack to empty its contents, stopping first to obsessively rip off one of my cuticles. As it bleeds, I remember my mother once telling me that I have rare blood—AB Negative. So rare that less than point-five percent of the worldís population has AB Negative blood. With both A antigens and B antigens and no antibodies whatsoever, I can receive red blood cells from any blood source, but can only give to other AB Negatives. Might the woman with the identical burlap sack and similar pajama-bottoms also have AB Negative blood? Of the three-million-plus people who have asthma and microtia, a mere fourteen thousand nine hundred and eighteen of us, I calculate, have AB Negative blood, too. (Yes, that’s still a lot of people.)
I ponder that there has to be something I’m not taking into account, as I slide the chicken into the fridgeís lower drawer, vegetables into the upper. Peppers, spinach, mushrooms, onions, carrots... but no corn. King Corn! I kick myself for not thinking of it sooner—Iím allergic to corn. No one knows how many people suffer from corn adversity. One website suggests that itís less than point-zero-one percent of the worldís population, and that’s a good thing, because corn is easy for people to grow and now that it has spread throughout the world is also quite popular, so popular itís been called King, and even if you canít admire its place in our fast-food industry, or its role in our ugly past with indigenous tribes, you can probably stomach it the way I canít—because it contributes to my asthma.
Now—whatís less-than-point-zero-one percent of the fourteen thousand people who also have asthma, microtia, and AB Negative blood come to? Me. A single side-specimen of the human species. So uncommon that if she—I—were to die of salmonella from the chicken, or e coli from the vegetables, or ink poisoning, or from a superbug that infects a tiny little paper cut, or anthrax picked up at the post office, or alcohol poisoning from too much drinking gin, or from heatstroke due to being under so many bedtime layers, or from a lightning strike in foul weather, or from getting caught up in some attack on any of the diplomats with a hotel room in Tudor City, the world would be robbed of its only AB Negative corn-adverse asthmatic who has a crumpled right ear.
Iím the onliest—I’m an extraordinary and endangered species! That means the next time I leave the apartment for chicken and gin, I really must be more careful.
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