Edging Ever Closer

THE CURE  |  CHAPTER 2

Nine months later . . .

The moment of truth had arrived. At his small but hypertechno lab in New Orleans’ warehouse district, Ridge monitored several computer screens, all linked to a server which was interfaced with two high-powered electron microscopes.

“Be clean, baby,” Ridge spoke to his specimens. “No nasty little bugs.”

His entire universe was squeezed between thin layers of glass, magnified a hundred thousand times and illustrated in digital blobs of color. Vacuum sealed in a dozen sterile chambers, a series of RNA viruses were being attacked by Ridge’s formula. The electron microscopes monitored physical changes, which were uploaded through the computer system, translated by his software into a digital language and displayed for his trained eye to decipher. This type of electronic testing was no match for animal or primate or even human test subjects, but it could eliminate non-performing drugs and, more importantly, isolate promising ones. And for the moment, nothing else existed as Ridge leaned closer to the computer images. Suddenly the phone rang. He slammed his face into the monitor.

“Ouch! Hello, this is Ridge Hails.”
“Ridge, what are you doing? You said you’d be home by six.”
“Hi honey. I think I just cracked my nose.”
“What have you been doing all this time?” she ignored his injury.
“The phone rang, I jumped and bang! Right into the computer screen.”
“Okay, Ridge. I’m sorry about your nose but I wouldn’t have called if it weren’t so late.”
“Maybe it’s not broken but I’m in for a black eye for sure.”
“Ridge, what have you been doing all this time?”
“Yeah, definitely a black eye.”
“Hel-lo, Earth to Ridge. Are you listening to me? Enough about your nose. Why are you still at the office?”
“Oh yeah, honey. Sorry. I guess I got involved. Anyway, it’s only . . . uh, wow is it really nine-thirty already.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying. I’ve been calling for two hours. I thought you’d run your car in a ditch.”
“Sorry sweee-tie,” he oozed his apology. “I’ve been online.”
“I figured. And you didn’t check your voice mail. I left like five messages. Here I am worried sick and you’re playing with your microscope.”
“Wait a minute. Is that a sexual reference? I’m working. In fact, it looks like my formula is working too. This could be it, Tracy – the big break.”
“Ridge, you know I believe in you. But you’ve been saying that for years. And each time it’s something else. At some point you’ve got to move on.”
“Listen, Tracy, I know you’ve heard it all before but you know this takes time. I keep getting closer and closer and I just can’t give up now. I can’t throw away ten years of work. The wine has almost matured; we can’t smash the bottles now when the cork is almost ready to be popped. I can’t do that. It’s just silly.”
“Fine. But you can put the wine away for tonight. At least try to get home before I go to bed. Is that too much to ask?”
“Of course not and I’m sorry, again. I’ll leave right now.”

Ridge sped down Tchoupitoulas Boulevard in familiar conflict. His emotions surged. The experiment was working and this could be his breakthrough. But Tracy was mad again. Sometimes he felt more acceptance from his viruses than his wife. Balancing work and home life was a struggle, especially since he’d been working long hours for months. But if this was the real deal everything would work out. Their relationship, the money, he could even handle a certain level of fame.

In recent years Ridge’s life had grown into a complex puzzle with a few pieces perpetually lost in the couch. More often than not, the right one would fall into place and his sky would turn blue, like meeting Tracy or getting his PhD. But occasionally, all his efforts would get jumbled. This time, he prayed for a pretty day. He needed a breakthrough.

He and Tracy had met at the Audubon Tavern when he was in med school. He’d landed in New Orleans after falling in love with jazz and cajun cuisine during frequent Mardi Gras jaunts. That and a top-notch biological research department made Tulane Medical School his top choice. Tracy was back home from college and working as a newspaper photographer. Serendipity landed them in the same bar that night.

She and some co-workers had been trying to wind down after a particularly grueling week of deadlines, while Ridge and his future doctor cronies were drinking heavily and getting loud and obnoxious. She spotted him right off. Easily the most handsome guy in the bar, Ridge was the centerpiece of his crowd. Besides his strong build and good looks, she quickly noticed a carefree air about him. With his disarming smile, tousled blond curls and unpretentious clothes, he was obviously comfortable in his own skin. And his friends looked to him for direction, the next joke or what kind of beer to drink. He happily obliged. It was a role he’d played all his life and he performed it well.

That he didn’t have a clue Tracy was sitting just twenty feet away, pissed her off. Normally, the first sight of her reduced men to stuttering jelly rolls. With golden blond hair streaming down her back and perpetually tanned, regal features, she could have been the poster child for Bavarian tourism. But Ridge and his medical school boys were only into each other and more booze. To make matters worse they kept repeating a joke about the local girls that grated on Tracy’s ego.

“What’s the mating call of a Southern Belle?” one would blurt out. And in unison, they’d all scream, “Oh my goodness . . . I think I’m drunk.”

As the night wore on the doctors-to-be began a juvenile game of spraying beer on each other. Ridge grabbed a pitcher and tried to hit two guys at once. They saw it coming, ducked out of the way and the entire 128 ounces hit Tracy squarely in the face, knocking her to the floor. They all froze, except for a bit of giggling, and stared at the dripping beauty. She calmly stood up, stepped up to Ridge and cold-cocked him right in the nose. Blood squirted from his nostrils as he fell to the floor with a thud.

Looking down at him angrily, she said, “Oh my goodness. I think I’m drunk.” When he looked up at her beer-matted hair and twisted face, he broke into his patented boisterous laugh which was as contagious as it was loud. Seeing this guy lying in beer, bleeding and laughing was too much. Tracy joined in, took him home to mend his nose and six months later they were married. That was ten years ago and his nose was never quite the same.

The past decade had been exceedingly happy. They had become best friends and went out socially more out of obligation than desire. If they had their way, they could have been the only two people in the world. You wouldn’t say they were rich, far from it, but they had enough money coming in from their combined incomes to make ends meet. At least they weren’t tied to jobs they hated. Lots of their friends seemed to roll in money but were deep into job burn out and stuck under a mountain of BMW payments, mortgages and private school tuition. Ridge had his research and that’s what he loved. Tracy’s reputation as a creative photographer had propelled her little freelance business into the city’s most respected photo company. These days she had the luxury of picking the cherry assignments and leaving the rest to a throng of freelancers fighting for scraps.

Mostly they had each other. They shared tastes in music, food, travel, art and they continued to built dreams together. One day they wanted to live in New Zealand, at least for a few years, and tend a farm along the rugged coastline. A modest sailboat was part of that plan. Something big enough for weekend camping and sailing beyond sight of land where they could wear as few clothes as possible. There was something about being on the open sea with the sun beating down and the wind blowing across their naked bodies that they both loved.

Often their minds worked in eerie synchronicity. Offbeat subjects, old friends or ideas would pop into their heads at the same time. They’d laugh yet marvel at the cosmos working overtime. Growing old together was a given, something that brought them peace. Over the years, their partnership had become as warm and cozy the down comforter on their sofa. The smell, the feel and the safety made them realize how lucky they were.

The only missing element was kids. They wanted them and they didn’t. As the expression went, “If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” Even though she’d just turned 30 and her biological clock was starting to pound, she worried secretly that kids would throw their relationship off balance. Ridge worked and traveled too much and the money he generated was thin. Any radical change might spoil the mixture.

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