When she was growing up, Lily kept a list of things that she didn’t know. She was big on lists then – she liked knowing the top ten most valuable beanie babies, or the five most destructive earthquakes in history. She liked knowing things, and she liked not knowing things, and she wanted to keep track of both. She was the kind of kid who kept a journal (not a diary) and wrote down what she had for lunch every day at school, and the names of all the girls in her cabin at summer camp.
And that didn’t explain the List of Unknowable Things, either. To be honest, she didn’t remember when she started keeping the list. When she realized that, she added it on. Number 12. She never told anyone about the list, but her mom found out anyway. They had a serious talk about it and how she couldn’t control everything. Somehow, it reminded Lily of when she had to talk to her mom about her period, how uncomfortable it felt for both of them. Knowing that neither of them wanted to be sitting there on the edge of the tub in the bathroom, pretending not to be distracted by their reflections in the mirror.
The last time Lily added to the list, she was in high school. It was even a little weird for her then, like picking up Barbies and not being able to tell stories with them anymore. But she wrote it down anyway, feeling like she should be careful with the paper, like it was a leftover from when she was a kid (she was not a kid anymore, of course). I don’t understand DNA, she wrote. She’d been having trouble in science. Mrs. Freeman had been talking about the double helix in Chem, and she’d been comfortable with that. She got it. But at the end of the class, they’d started talking about the melting point of DNA, as if it were aluminum or copper. As if you could melt it down and mint coins out of it. Thinking about the strands unhooking themselves, separating from each other felt like thinking about space, or infinity, something endless. So she wrote it down on her list, and that was enough – the fear was catalogued, and she could be done with it.
She didn’t start keeping her list of things that she didn’t know again on purpose. It started out more like a diary (not a journal).
That worked for Lily, for a while. She left her lists at home and graduated high school – not at the top of her class, but pretty high up. She went to a good school (her second choice) and she did well there too. She made friends and acquaintances, people she would use as professional contacts. She didn’t think about the number of things that she didn’t know, or how many books there were in the world, or how many tickets, or telephone poles.
She met her husband in college. Wallace. Mutual friends introduced them at a party, and the first thing he said to her was that he knew he had an old man’s name. She told him that most of the Lilies she knew were dogs. He thought that was funny, and he told her so. That was one of the things that she would like most about him. Wally always said something when he wanted to, like if he liked her outfit or thought that she really should have gotten a better grade on that essay (which she should have). She liked him, and she liked that he liked her.
They moved to Connecticut, where Wally was from. He was in his medical residency and she was going to grad school. They rented a little apartment and they were happy together. Lily’s parents kept asking her when he was going to propose. How many kids she wanted (she didn’t). And nothing was wrong, nothing she knew of, but she knew that if she tried to make a list of things that she knew about herself, it wouldn’t be long. Sometimes it felt like the air was unscrewing itself around her, molecules snapping off, atoms unwinding. She said something once to Wally and he told her that wasn’t possible, which she knew. It was just what it felt like.
She didn’t start keeping her list of things that she didn’t know again on purpose. It started out more like a diary (not a journal), somewhere where she could talk to herself. She kept on coming back to the last thing she could remember writing in her old list. She looked at the list and looked at it, and she decided that she had to know how to do at least that last thing.
So Lily decided that she would dissect her DNA to see what was in it.
So Lily decided that she would dissect her DNA to see what was in it. She wanted to see what of her was coded in her body and her brain, and what in her life she had decided herself. She wanted to prove that she was made of more than double helixes, and that she could read whatever bible her body was built by. She was tired of unknowable things.
Lily had gotten the idea when she was watching the news last week. It was one of those commercials that played during every break, repeating so often that she would usually have tuned it out. For whatever reason, she was paying attention that Tuesday night, and for whatever reason, she called within the fifteen minutes and got a 15% discount with her purchase of a DNA testing kit. Here was a way, she thought, to unwind herself: a way to find a melting point.
She wouldn’t have told Wally anything if he hadn’t seen her. His life was all schedules and compartments and appointments – he had no room for letting go. She couldn’t remember the last time he’d done something just to do it. Yesterday, when they were walking to the grocery store together, Lily got the urge to start running; she said so to Wally and he looked at her and said something about ice on the sidewalk.
So she hadn’t wanted him interfering with this. He wouldn’t get it, wouldn’t think it was worth it to waste money on something that you couldn’t do anything with. But Wally walked in as she was spitting into the collection tube and he wanted to know what she was doing. Lily sat down at the kitchen table and sealed the tube into the envelope before she said anything.
Lily doesn’t remember what she said next, but she’s sure that it was a lie. Wally knew it and she knew it and Lily knew then that she loved knowing something for certain.
Part of The Learned Pig’s Wolf Crossing editorial season, spring/summer 2017.