An academic’s whimsical decision to take a DNA test leads her into uncharted territory, where she discovers some extraordinary truths about herself and new possibilities for her future.
“We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you’d flunked Algebra, Griswold,” Roberts said, racking another shell into his hunting rifle and peering over our flimsy barricade. He was trying to see if the monstrous creatures beyond were preparing for another assault.
I was too busy reloading my 10-gauge to answer, even if I’d wanted to dignify his assertion. Algebra wasn’t the issue here.
Scientific curiosity was. And perhaps having had too much time on my hands.
I had to grant him that this was in every respect my fault. It was only his imprecision of language when it came to apportioning blame that griped me. And if I were being fair, that was probably me engaging in diversion, or sophistry, or whatever the technical psychological term for nitpicking the hell out of something to weasel out of it is.
Whatever: I’d been the one who sent in my spit sample to the online DNA testing folks, and I’d been the one who’d gotten curious about a weird little line item in the results, and I’d been the one who’d called up my old school buddy the geneticist to ask some pointed questions. Which—in my defense!—he’d been only too happy to investigate once his own curiosity was piqued.
And so here we were, on a strange planet under an alien sun, surrounded by twisted, non-Euclidean geometry; pistols at alien dawn with inside-out monstrosities which (presuming our hypothesis was reliable) wanted to eat our faces; and all the while attracting the wrath of dread gods. And it wasn’t even our first trip.
This time, we had been “prepared.”
My GoPro had been smashed by a lucky tentacle, so I couldn’t be sure how good our data was. But we knew where to find the gate to get us home, and we knew how to get there, and I was confident in our ability to make it. Even if we didn’t have my video, we’d have Roberts’s. And I had vials full of biological samples.
I took a deep breath of the curiously thin and unsatisfying air. Everything was going to be fine. Everything was going to be fine.
That’s a little Unfathomable Magazine! Tales of Adventure Beyond the Stars for a quick synopsis, isn’t it?
. . . Maybe I’d better start at the beginning.
My name is not Greer Griswold. I’m approximately fifty-two years old. I don’t know who my birth parents were, and my adoptive parents are dead. I have never married; I have no children; I have very few close friends. I’m a physicist at a notable northeastern US institution you would have heard of if I named it. I’m not going to, any more than I’m going to give you my real name, because I have tenure but I’m not stupid. Being a woman in a male-dominated field isn’t easy, and I’ve never been terribly interested in Performing My Gender in the fashion that gets you accepted as a mascot by the boys. I’ve had my share of gross harassment, but at least I’m not pretty. Not being pretty spares me certain things.
I spend a lot of time alone, and I’ve learned to like it. Despite that, and because of the third fact above, and because I’m not getting any younger, I thought it would be interesting to get some genetic testing done and find out where my ancestors came from. And maybe . . . if I had any close relatives around.
Nieces, nephews. Somebody I could will my extensive collection of vintage Hot Rods toy cars to when I’m gone.
It’s one thing to embrace your alienation. It’s another to wake up on the first day of spring semester classes and realize you haven’t spoken to another human being since December 23, and there’s only so long you can go on ordering your groceries from PeaPod and scooping up cookie butter with ruffled potato chips in front of Netflix until two a.m.
No matter how self-sufficient you are, when you’re middle-aged and childless and unmarried . . . you start to hope maybe you’re really not as alone in the world as you think you are.
I still might not have done it, if my department chair hadn’t stuck his head into my office one afternoon in late August to let me know we had a new faculty member coming on board, and how did I feel about being their liaison during the onboarding process? I note, entirely for the record and apropos of nothing, that I am the only female tenured faculty in the physics department. I note, entirely for the record and apropos of nothing, that I do an estimated thirty-six percent of the emotional labor in my sixteen-person department.
Female grad students and admins do the rest. And it’s not like we’re any less introverted and non-neurotypical than the dudes. We’re just forced to learn to endure more discomfort in order to have careers.
I gritted my teeth in a smile. I said yes. I waited for the door to close.
I’d gotten myself the kit for my birthday (observed, presumed) and had been ignoring its existence ever since. I dug it out of my desk drawer and unscrewed the lid on the little plastic vial while I was still fuming.
I know those DNA tests are very broad and subject to a certain degree of interpretation. But the results are improving with better data, and honestly not everything in science has to be about doing science the right way with reproducible results subject to peer review.
Sometimes science . . . or packaged, processed science food, if you prefer . . . can be just science-y and fun. Also, it might be useful to know if I had any ticking time bombs in my DNA, medically speaking. Make those family history questions a little less stymieing.
I was gratified to learn I was nearly one twentieth Neanderthal. That’s about twice as much as most modern Europeans, and according to the genetics company, it put me in the ninety-ninth percentile of their customer base.
Those redheaded Vikings had to come from somewhere. And it was nice to think of all that cross-cultural communication and exchange taking place, all the way back to the Weichselian Glaciation.
That was interesting, and fun to think about. But other than the Homo neanderthalensis and the Scandinavian, I was a pretty basic New England mix. A little Irish, a little German. A little Broadly South European, which is probably Portuguese. A smidge of Native American or Southeast Asian. And then . . .
Ten percent. That’s a pretty big error bar there, genetics company that will remain unnamed.
Curiosity is probably my defining characteristic. I want to know how things work. I want to know why they work, and what happens if you alter the variables.
Sometimes it’s not the variables that alter on you, however.
Sometimes it’s the constants.
Of course I downloaded my raw genetic data and took it to my old friend Michael Roberts. If academics weren’t constantly taking advantage of one another’s skill sets, we’d have no topics of conversation at all other than who was cheating on their spouse and who wasn’t going to get tenure.
Anyway, Roberts and I went back to undergrad, when we’d been lab partners in an organic chemistry class that wasn’t in either of our fields but was required for both of our majors. We’d somehow gotten through the class, despite the lack of any apparent common language between either of us and the instructor. Years later, we’d wound up at the same institution, in different departments in the same college, and I still liked and trusted him.
What I wasn’t expecting was for Roberts to call me up at one a.m., voice shaking as he accused me of having a little joke at his expense. “Come on, Greer,” he said. “Tell me who you got to put this data set together, so I can mail them a dead badger.”
I looked at my phone. Without my glasses, it was just a bright blur in the dark of my bedroom. I put it back to my ear. “That’s right off the Real 46 website. If you want, I’ll give you my login and you can download a copy for yourself.”
He scoffed. “Well, I knew these companies played a little fast and loose, but this result is a mess and a half. Ten percent of the DNA doesn’t even match up to the human genome. Did you chew up a tadpole or something before you took the swab?”
“Ew,” I answered. “Hey, are you busy tommor— I mean, tonight? I’ll buy you dinner and you can tell me all about it.”