Arctic Refuge




Arctic Refuge


by E.M. Salle




He was a beautiful neuroscientist, Adrian was. That sounds like nothing. It sounds like fiction. But it’s not; it’s not nothing. It is quite something to be brilliant about the brain and also to have that brilliance reflected in the arrangement of the parts where we take information in for it, where we take inspiration; where we express and nourish it. And though it is a rare thing when a beautiful mind and face are found together, what was more striking about Adrian was that this beauty-state didn’t seem to match the half-alive feeling he felt most of the time. (Beautiful and brilliant and blah just doesn’t seem to compute. Or does it?  Well, that’s another issue, which I don’t have time for, unfortunately.) I guess the main point to understand is that this half-alive feeling that Adrian felt was a whole hell of a lot better than the dead feeling he felt every winter. Call it what you will, he suffered every January and February, because he lived in Vermont of all places, and because that was his makeup. And he had it real bad, even with the SSRI-cocktail and the light boxes in almost every damn room of the house. He cursed that place in him where Descartes said mind and body met; and his hot-blooded, sun-worshipping Mediterranean ancestors, and just in case it had something to do with it, his suprachiasmatic nucleus, as well.


At least seasonal affective disorder was now popularized so he didn’t feel so alone in his misery as he had done many years before anyone knew anything about light and mood. He knew. Actually, when he talked about the connection 30 years ago, people thought he was a bit of a flake — it was akin to talking about…like…you know, good and bad vibes, man — or auras.


One big existential problem Adrian had was, despite not feeling alone in this, he still made the same inference: “I’m unable to adapt. I don’t fit here. I’m not fit.” His depression depressed him; and it depressed him that his depression depressed him. (This depressed him, too.) But then he and Ellen started writing to each other, and…why does this always, always happen? The writing began after they had briefly met (and exchanged business cards) at a conference in Budapest. Just exchanging business cards is what they told themselves — and believed. (Self-deception’s in our nature because it’s useful to mother nature.) She was writing an article for Psychological Times and emailed him a question about brain lateralization. But Adrian was, as I told you, really beautiful, and Ellen, she was just as lovely. So after another three emails on the question of Gazzaniga’s left brain story-making/interpreter hypothesis and on mind-body dualistic fallacies in psychiatry, Adrian dumbly and smartly sent her this:


Ellen, You’ll have to forgive this morning’s attempt at trying to locate defense mechanisms in area 22 . . .Was up much of the night in this feverish, energized state after I had this baffling erotic dream that you were here in Burlington with me — at the airport. There was this crazy heat wave going on, and we didn’t know where to go because, between our guilty brains and our over-heated brains, we couldn’t think. Which, it turns out, was a good and wonderful thing for us because not thinking allowed us to just Be; allowed us to see it: A clear and beautiful sign on the airport wall in white and blue letters, “Arctic Refuge.” And I took your lovely hand and we went. It was a warm cave with pelts of polar bear fur everywhere: on the walls, floors, even ceiling.


And so . . .we’re sitting at the barstools covered in fur and you’re wearing this sealskin bikini and I’m Conan, and when the waitress asks you what you want, you say softly, ‘Adrian.’

The rest of the dream . . .about us making love on the soft white fur, I should, for propriety’s sake, absolutely keep to myself. – Adrian



 Yes, Adrian moved it in that direction. That’s what men do. And they both tried (though she tried harder) to fight it, because they were both married and both on meds. Somehow those SSRIs wanted them to stay just where they were, just like their spouses wanted.


“Oh, Adrian,” she wrote, “don't you wish you were like most people, and didn't pay attention to how others addressed you in their emails — and especially how they closed them? Whether there's a comma or a hyphen or a space, or they're one line away or right there? Whether their name's in upper case or lower case, and whether they've echoed your style precisely or left out 20 pixels? Of course, there's a good chance I'm projecting. I've been told more than once that I'm a good projection screen for people, so perhaps you are, too. (More projecting?)  But, still, I sense your awareness — and sensitivity to these things. More OCD than SAD? Or bipolar? Bipolar…Bi polar bears? Man, what a dream you had! Made me laugh! Very Barbarella-esque.” – Ellen

Her words, to him, were like little SSRI missiles; like shots of perfectly measured, perfectly fitting neurotransmitters aimed straight at his receptor sites — and his heart. I suppose another way of putting it is: her words began to rearrange him; just as his rearranged her. And the rest of the story, honestly, I can’t get into, but you can sort of imagine what happened. g





E. M. Salle is the pseudonym of a freelance science writer who lives in Maine. She has published many science articles in journals and magazines. This is her first work of fiction.


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