Kane watched, too, as the world pulled away from Harry and left him behind. Then she turned toward what was ahead. She liked Harry: he had not been nearly as bad as she had expected, meaning as sleazy or cynical or whatever agents were supposed to be. She sensed a fatherly affection on his part, or was it a wintry crush? With older men it was hard to tell. Maybe it was all wrapped up together; we were all like Ulmer, she thought, except we learned to express our identities in stages, in the manner of a military parade: first, you unveiled your soldiers, then your missiles, then your tanks. Who knew? No matter how much we tried to comprehend, replicate, and perfect people, so much of them remained flawed and in flux. Anyway, Kane could not afford to be slowed down by musings or misgivings; she had a job to do, as Harry did, as in fact did Ulmer.
“It’s on the right, please,” she told the driver.
Kane was a mystery to herself, so young that she didn’t know what she really wanted or really was and so felt insecure about doing or saying almost anything. An agent was the character she was trying on today, but how long she would want to wear it she didn’t know. There was something about the star and his countless cascading identities that attracted her, as it did millions of others. Was she the same as them, admiring him from the outside? Or was she actually someone who could jump in and steer Ulmer’s runaway train, always shuttling up and down different tracks? And would doing so allow her to find her own path, carved out of every possible direction? She hoped so.
Their first official meeting was the next day. Harry prepped her and she paid attention, even took notes, feeling like a child on her first day of school. When Harry “saw her off,” she whined a little, wanting secretly to go home. His gaze was still one of either fatherly fondness or aging ardor. She left the limo and approached the townhouse Ulmer occupied as undercover as he could.
At the door, Kane did the face recognition eyeball and ear canal scan, or whatever it was: she was happy to see she was already in the system, like the star’s new cells. The bodyguard opened the door and she entered clumsily, walking on heels she feared would show off her ass too much: or was this what she should want? Would the male Ulmer be attracted and the female Ulmer sympathetic with the annoyance of this wardrobe?
“Let’s make it fast,” she heard someone say.
The bodyguard vanished like a mist burnt by the sun, and the star stood before her. While Ulmer’s clothing was demarcated—a Victorian vest over a ruffled shirt on top, a fifties poodle skirt on bottom—his parts as a person were completely merged. It was impossible to say that one of him did this, another that. Kane stopped her stumbling and ass-extending.
“Okay,” she said.
Kane pulled up Ulmer’s schedule: she was supposed to confirm it with him, an easy enough assignment for her first day. She looked at the week ahead, the calendar on her device smeared with obligations like a windshield covered in leaves. As a courtesy, she turned the tablet and showed him it. Ulmer turned away, as if from a horribly bright light.
“Oh, God,” he said.
All the expectations unnerved him: he passed through every possible reaction—anger, fear, revulsion, even pride and pleasure, if you were keen enough to catch them—and landed at last on unhappiness. Tears fled down his bustling face and were immediately caught and absorbed by his second skin, picked off like prisoners going over the wall.
“Sorry,” he said. Then his voice shifted an octave lower, and he voided this apology with a hostile, “It’s stupid.”
Kane stared at him, amazed that he could be both an emotional child and disapproving parent, could express and then shut down his sense of being overwhelmed. While many envied his helpless ability to be all things, Kane saw just the agony he must feel, a multiplication by millions of her own uneasiness with the emerging sides of herself.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll take care of everything.”
He glanced up, like a dog at a squirrel. “Will you?” It was obvious Ulmer trusted few people and liked even less. He squinted, as if convinced he could see Kane most clearly if she were reduced in his estimation; otherwise he’d have hopes which might end up hurting him. Still, there was optimism, evidence of another Ulmer.
“Yes,” she answered.
While he watched, Kane highlighted all of his engagements, appearances, and whatever other responsibilities were oppressing him. She touched delete, and they disappeared, leaving his future blank, as if in an operation she had removed compromised organs killing him. Then the “save” button sewed him up. Kane looked at Ulmer and, for the first time that day, his face showed one thing, relief.
“Thanks,” he said, in a tone also uncomplicated, only grateful.
Ulmer asked for her after this. He told Harry that the “new girl” should come to the house more often, accompany him to interviews and even provide his wake-up call in person (or at least appear on his computer at the designated time).
Kane went with him to meetings with directors and costume fittings and even the doctor for his monthly check-up. Each visit demanded she be different: steely (with directors), stylish (costumes), inquisitive and protective (doctor), and Ulmer saw she could be all these things in their proper places, which impressed him.
As the car whisked them away from the clinic (which had been closed to other clients to accommodate him—and had given him a clean bill of health), “Harry,” he said, “is only good for one thing.”
Ulmer rubbed his fingers together in the old gesture for money, which had mysteriously abided even though no one used bills and few remembered coins, given all the cards they carried or else had tattooed upon them.
“You, on the other hand…” And here he spread those hands, to say, you contain multitudes, or whatever the old expression was. He placed a hand on Kane’s knee and squeezed it, giving her a slight start. Then Ulmer looked at her so directly she was taken aback.
In his eyes were not different feelings but different aspects of one: desire. She saw all its variations—wistful, furious, carefree, kind—pouring through his pupils like shooting stars. Then Ulmer blinked and erased them, and his eyes (which were many or maybe even every-colored) returned to their usual flat and glassy state.
That night she was meant to be Ulmer’s minder on a photo shoot for yet another film. Kane buzzed and—was it her imagination or was she allowed in quicker these days by the electronic eye, as if it were as used to her as the bodyguard who now barely went through her bag? She made her way alone to Ulmer’s private rooms, which were also numerous and multifarious, some austere and minimally furnished, others jammed with rococo junk. He was nowhere to be found.
Soon, Kane heard what she believed to be beleaguered breathing: a casting out and reeling in of air like the metallic whirring of an old, enfeebled fishing rod. It was coming from one of his bathrooms.
Ulmer was in the biggest bathroom, which was almost as long as the hall she had taken to reach it. He sat on the floor at the farthest end, near the second door, resting his arm up on a white porcelain bathtub that spanned the room’s length. She could hear him breathe all the way from where she was.
Kane rushed to him, struggling not to slip on the polished tiles in her bare feet (everyone had to remove their shoes inside, even the bodyguards, and how scary could someone be in gold-toed socks?). Reaching Ulmer, she skidded to a stop and had to hold onto the sink (designed like an angel’s arms) not to fall.
Ulmer’s own hands were against his face, the fingers curled. He was trying to peel off the invisible lining placed on his skin, more lasting and inconspicuous than the plastic coverings on sofas in middle-class homes eons earlier. He was, of course, unable to dislodge it, to do anything except leave long, finger-shaped skid marks from his eyes to his chin. They would—due to an ingenious design feature—start fading right away.
Kane wondered: did he do this all the time? Or did it have something to do with her having come? When Ulmer gazed up, his breathing slowed and his eyes beseeched her like those of a small boy who’d messed himself. She only saw a glimmer of rage alongside his need. Kane kept her voice calm.
“Come on,” she said, “let’s clean you up. All right?”
After a second in which shame joined his other feelings, Ulmer reached a hand to be taken by hers. As if he weighed nothing, she lifted him. The way Ulmer smiled, you would not have known he could not feel her touch at all.
Harry sat opposite as Kane described this scene and all the others in which she had acted recently beside the star. She related the events professionally, consulting notes, paying close attention to detail, as if it were part of her job to provide daily reports, which it may have been—Harry didn’t remember. In truth, he had stopped listening, not because he was bored—he had never been more interested—but because it was the mere tone of her voice that engaged him, the calm and compassion that poured over her words like, what, he wondered, sugar over strawberries when there was still fresh fruit on Earth and not just fruit stamps from which you licked the nutrients? Harry was no writer, he had only ever aided creative people, for he admired their ability to find the phrases or make the faces that recreated life so you understood what you yourself loved and hated about it; he had tried to make it easier for them to do this job. Everyone considered him cold, but he had always acted out of love, an emotion he had started losing as he had begun to lose his hair, his ability to sleep anytime and anywhere—even standing up!—and his easy, almost instantaneous erections. Love had started running out for him the way time was running out; he only had a little of it left. Love was what Kane had brought to him as women once brought collateral or dowries—he always thought in financial terms, he couldn’t help it. So now he heard Kane’s love, not her words; he isolated her love as an engineer might the string section in the recording of a song. It came naturally to her; she was just doing her job.
And it was her job—and his own—that he now wished to end. Harry had made a surreptitious appointment: it would not be in the datebook Kane kept for him.
He arrived at the offices of the Muth Co. under an assumed name. His contact there was Selwyn Pogue, a former agent turned corporate flunky—and who could blame him? The post-Ulmer atmosphere had impoverished everyone except Harry, who had the only client. It had brought tough times to Muth, as well, which had to supplement its dwindling celebrity DNA business with discount packages for the genes of unknowns, like the early-bird specials once offered by restaurants on the ropes. It hadn’t worked, so now they were stooping to this, corporate spying or sabotage or call it what you wanted when you stole something from people and then sold it to back to them. Harry had heard they wanted someone to get close enough to Ulmer that a hunk of his DNA would come off in his hands.
Selwyn was surprised to see him.
“Harry,” he said, blinking as if to make sure he was real. “What can we do for you?”
After Harry offered his services, Selwyn sat forward. “We’d hoped to get someone on the inside. But we never thought….”
“I guess it’s your lucky day,” Harry said, and this was as open as he would get.
Even though he desperately wanted out, Harry wouldn’t accept just any way to get there. He negotiated as good a contract for himself as he would for a client; it was a matter of pride and, of course, fun, maybe the most fun he’d had since doing Ulmer’s original deal. As he was being driven from the meeting, Harry hoped that he had initiated Kane’s last act as his employee, which would be only the beginning of their time together.
Yet Harry didn’t tell her the real reason; he felt self-conscious for he would have had to admit his motivation (which was to leave, with her) and he wasn’t ready to do that. So he gave Kane a phony reason, said this was a quarterly ritual, a health necessity, the getting of Ulmer’s fluids or a skin sample or whatever was most available that held his DNA—which Ulmer hated, of course, and so had to be kind of gentled into doing, the way you got a cat to swallow a pill.
Harry did tell Kane the truth about the method to be used, which was a secret he hadn’t shared with anyone, except for Ulmer, and that was at the beginning and only in the vaguest way. It was an actual antidote, a squirt of a liquid that allowed you to erase Ulmer’s enclosure for a limited period of time. It was the best the inventors could come up with: they had been more at ease with imprisoning Ulmer than allowing him to leave. Harry was more at ease with ignoring him entirely now, another reason he had enlisted Kane to do this, exploiting her as any employer would. He couldn’t stop being a delegating authority; it was the curse of having awkwardly cohabitating Harrys inside him, instead of the constantly rotating and revolving Ulmers who moved in and out of the star.
“You sure I have to?” Kane asked, squeezing the little bottle of solution.
“I’m afraid so,” Harry said, all the while wishing that he could tell her why but lacking the courage. “But you’ll see, it will be worth it.” And now he wished as well that he could kiss her all over, but he turned away instead, sending the wrong signal, seeming indifferent, simply her boss. Things would be better between them, he believed, soon.
Kane was confused by Harry’s request—his demand, let’s face it. She was angry, too, even if anger for her was like a pot of water boiling with the lid on. She took the car to Ulmer’s with two tiny bottles—one full, one empty—in a plastic bag at the bottom of her purse; to her, they were like war criminals kept in a castle on an island.
Harry had had a strange attitude when he’d assigned her this, seemed peremptory, even annoyed, as if he had been told to tell her to do this, as if he weren’t the ultimate authority. It was a way of distancing himself from his desires, which she didn’t respect (she preferred Ulmer’s helplessness, which didn’t allow him the hypocrisy of hiding what he wanted). Still, Harry assured her that this would be for the star’s own good.
Kane had made no appointment, per Harry’s instructions: she would be barging in on Ulmer, something she had never done. The bodyguard was surprised to see her yet clapped a friendly hand on her shoulder; by now, she was a little sister. He tipped his head almost imperceptibly, meaning, he’s upstairs, you know where, and Kane did.
She navigated the halls without thinking of where or how she went; she was too busy being weighed down by the suddenly enormous bottles in her bag. Why did it feel wrong when it was for Ulmer’s own good? The idea of doing something nasty to him felt like a betrayal, just when they were becoming so close. Kane felt she had been on the verge of settling Ulmer, the way you tamed a skittish horse after it had thrown and nearly stomped you. And by concentrating on him, she was coming into focus herself, as if she’d been holding a magic camera in which the frame became clearer the longer it was focused on something. She couldn’t have told Harry this, and that was why she’d gone along; it hadn’t only been obedience. Anyway, it was too late now; she was at the biggest bathroom’s door.
“Who is it?” Ulmer sounded both welcoming and wary.
Kane had knocked timorously, almost too quietly to be heard. Now she tried to respond as if confident of why she’d come.
“Me,” she said, the way you say it when there’s nothing more that needs saying. This was what Ulmer was doing for her. Kane said it again, to enjoy the sensation. “Me.”
There was a pause during which she only heard splashing, either from Ulmer’s twiddling fingers or feet, as he toyed with her.
“Come in,” he said, at last.
She entered and saw him through steam. Only his head was above the water, his hair covered by a bathing cap adorned with constellations, as if Ulmer lived oppressed by the universe, which, in a way, he did. His arms were on either side of the tub, white as marble pillars, impeccably muscled but completely hairless. He looked at her with eyes at once jaded and intensely interested.
“This is a surprise,” he said, and the thing was good and was bad.
“I just had something I needed you to…” And she gave him the reason that Harry had told her to give, which sounded as unpleasant coming from her as it had him. Sitting beside him on a small wicker chair, she rustled the tiny filled bottle from her bag.
To her relief, Ulmer didn’t care. He idly brushed the water with the first two fingers of his right hand.
“What happens now?” he asked.
A thin milky film lay upon the water, barely obscuring his body, like the lilies in that painting by the Frenchman whose name Kane couldn’t remember. They had been beautiful and so was he, she thought, surprising herself, so was Ulmer. As if to answer, she took soap from a small hanging bamboo shelf behind him, the bar glistening like the gold thieves get in a robbery film. She moved it onto Ulmer’s neck and down his chest, which was as perfectly proportioned and as pristine as his arms, soaped both of his breasts, then directed it down below the surface.
Kane was leaning over so far it was silly to sit. As if entranced, she fell slowly onto her knees on the marble floor. The shift troubled the water enough that it sprayed onto her blouse, which was white, and Ulmer could see her bra and her breasts, and he slapped his wet hand against each of them, idly, to expose them further. Then he flicked his thumbs coarsely against her nipples. This was the first time he had touched her.
By now, the bar of soap had passed his stomach and was being rubbed against both his sets of genitals. Ulmer was kissing her lips tenderly as he pinched her breasts, being considerate and unkind, two kinds of lovers, more men than she had ever been with at once. Kane pushed the soap against his clitoris and then helplessly lost it in the bath before she brought her hand to his penis.
Ulmer arched his back and his erection rose above the bath, like a sea monster that topples a fishing boat, spraying her with more water, soaking her. Kane had enough wherewithal to whisper to him to wait, then sprayed her hands with the solution and with it erased his enclosure, removed his mask. He let her concentrate, and she used both hands on him, as if securing some kind of flag on a ship. She was no expert and did it only diligently; she had only ever been with one man, and he had been nowhere near this size. At last, he both cried out like a child and yanked her hair hard, and she felt spasms in him like sailors sprinting up a submarine’s stairs. It just kept coming out of him, enough that her hand was webbed with it, which was what she wanted, and the rest slid and settled on the water like those lilies—Monet, that was who made them, she remembered now.
Then Kane moved her other hand between her legs. As Ulmer watched, riveted, she performed for him, made herself climax, too, her sopping breasts pressed against the porcelain tub.
In the car going home, Kane felt dazed. She didn’t know why she’d done what she’d done, hadn’t tried to merely get Ulmer’s tears, as in the fairy tale about the beast, or his spit or even just a lock of his hair, took off his crazy hat to do it. Yet the once-empty bottle in her bag now contained his essence, the starting point of all his selves and so might solve his mystery.
Suddenly, Kane sensed it might be impossible. It might be like that whodunit in which all the suspects conspired, the whole group was guilty: there would be no one answer to him. Or to herself. She could spend her whole life investigating and come up empty; the scientists could mix and match forever and fail. Only together could she and Ulmer even come close to understanding themselves—and wasn’t that what love was, this doomed expedition? She didn’t know. Anyway, that’s what she felt now, that she loved him.
Laurence Klavan has had short work published in more than forty literary magazines, and a collection, "'The Family Unit' and Other Fantasies," was published in 2014 by Chizine. His novels, “The Cutting Room” and “The Shooting Script,” were published by Ballantine. He won the Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. His graphic novels, "City of Spies" and "Brain Camp," co-written with Susan Kim, were published by First Second Books at Macmillan and their Young Adult fiction series, "Wasteland," was published by Harper Collins. He received two Drama Desk nominations for the book and lyrics of "Bed and Sofa," the musical produced by the Vineyard Theater in New York and the Finborough Theater in London in 2011. His one-act, "The Summer Sublet," is included in Best American Short Plays 2000-2001, and his one-act, "The Show Must Go On," was the most produced short play in American high schools in 2015.