Anti-ageing and the terrifyingly vague concept of ‘wellness’ are getting their hooks deeper into our culture.
While it’s totally unoriginal to shit on Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and the crazy, unsubstantiated claims that website makes, I’ll do it anyway: Goop makes crazy unsubstantiated claims, ones that lead you to believe you could be Gwyneth Paltrow if you just, just forked out for that jade egg, and shoved it into your vagina.
Hello!ified Words like glow, thrive, shine and radiant are everywhere. They get fused with sane words, like wellbeing and health, mind and body
More and more there’s confusion between science and a lifestyle pitch. One could easily be the other.
And that’s the trap the protagonist falls into in the short story Are We There Yet?
In it, an ageing salesman (because why can’t men also be susceptible?) suffers a crisis of masculinity with far reaching and dark consequences. Originally published in Literally Stories.
Are We There Yet?
Lucas stopped because of the compliment. It came from a PR girl, who was canvassing Oxford Street’s dense lunchtime crowd.
“Yes,” she muttered, catching his eye. “Definitely.”
What ‘definitely’ meant was open to interpretation. But at 54 and going soft, Lucas chose to interpret it as a compliment. He slowed. Went for cynical despite the interested itch working over his skin. “Let me guess. You’re selling the cure for erectile dysfunction?”
But instead of laughing, as his young wife would have, this girl’s mouth twisted into a grim rictus. She pressed the leaflet into his hand, then sprang back as if he had the clap. “Not quite. We do regenerative medicine.”
Already down one, Lucas nodded and feigned understanding, though he had no clue what ‘regenerative medicine’ was. The glossy pamphlet, still host to the girl’s body heat, gave him nothing. It was full of shouty fonts and word clouds. Among the misinformation, two questions jumped out to meet his eye:
Not there yet?
Need more time?
“What is this?” he asked, curiosity besting pride now.
But the girl was already busy with another, slightly younger, male. She half-answered over her shoulder. “I told you: regenerative medicine. Clinical trials start soon. Have a look and see what you think.”
She turned her back and just like that, he was dismissed.
Lucas spent the rest of lunch beasting it in the gym: burpees, deadlifts, squats – the lot. Afterwards, he cashed in one of the few perks of middle management and cancelled the sales hustle with his team, choosing to Google the clinical trial instead of strategising new revenue streams for the app.
It seemed that ‘regenerative medicine’ was just a slick rebranding of anti-ageing; some big PharmaCorp running trials on a pill that could stop bla cells, lengthen the bla-bla of chromosomes and repair the bla-de-bla on DNA.
None of the details mattered much.
What mattered was the money (fifteen thousand big ones), and the lure of those infuriating questions:
Not there yet?
Need more time?
He put both to Ellie over dinner that night, needing to get her take. Since they’d hooked up at the Tony Robbins conference, during affirmations, she’d been the spiritual side to his sales persona – though god knew his former employee could close with the best of them.
Now, she squinted at him through a mouthful of creamed kale. “What do you need more time for?” she asked. “You’re getting where you want to be. We both are.”
“I guess,” he said, but his insides screamed at the youthful naiveté in her voice. What she said wasn’t really true. They still hadn’t cooked up a kid, or banked enough equity to buy that second flat in Brighton, even though they’d been clawing at both goals since forever.
The problem was as simple as it was brutal: his sales and energy were slowing despite investment in the Tony Robbins conference. He suspected his swimmers were slowing too, though he couldn’t bear to find out. And he wouldn’t. He had a young wife with aspirations. And if he’d learned one thing from self-help it was this: you don’t stop and mope. You fake it ‘till you make it. And if you don’t make it, well … it’s your own fault.
After dinner and some more discussion about the trial, Lucas felt exposed. He performed with the Gandhi T-shirt Ellie had gifted him (Be the change you want to see!) firmly in place. Those questions – Not there yet? Need more time?– came to his mind and nestled, silent as spiders, while Ellie went full cowgirl: gripping his ears like handlebars and thrusting in time to the affirmations: “I.Ellie. See. Hear. Feel. And. Know. This. Time … THIS. TIME!”
He struggled to finish. Rage took him over the line. But once he got there, the decision was made.
Four weeks later, Lucas became subject Nihil in the longitudinal rapamycin trial. Ellie continued to complain that treating age like a disease was ‘creepy’ and ‘weird’. He doubted himself. But then he understood it was just fear talking. He affirmed it away. Rationalised that the labs wouldn’t do anything that could kill him. He visualised the pay check and matching Ellie’s youth. He felt the rush that would come when everyone around him slowed while he just kept on winning.
In the end, the trial was no biggie. Just him and an intense brunette locked in a glass-walled room. The medic – Dr Flockhart – buzzed around, administering the first capsules and yanking excitedly on her turtleneck as she painted a vivid picture of his cells: “thriving but never metastasising; stabilising but never rotting.”
“When will I see and feel this?” Lucas asked her, barely able to sit still.
A shadow dimmed the doctor’s eyes. “With all due respect, you’re not Benjamin Button sitting here. This is a long game. It’s more about preventing disease than waking up fifteen again.”
She handed him four Ziploc bags. “Take these at a low dose. Once a week. No other supplements. At first you’ll feel lethargic and fluey – it’s just your immune system registering the shift, so don’t overdo it. That’s really important.”
“Why,” he asked, thinking about his routine and his ‘gym juice’ – both non-negotiables. “What would happen?”
Dr Flockhart waved him away but looked like she’d said too much. “Don’t worry,” she assured him. “Just follow my advice, okay?”
He did at first, and everything happened as the doc said. Eventually the side effects evened out to a steady increase in psychical and mental wellbeing. His visits to Kallista labs started to feel less like a clinical trial and more like a health check-up. The bloods consistently came back clean, and that was when Lucas, still itchy as hell, decided he was good to go next level. The trial itself hadn’t been the killer fix he’d wanted, but that started to change when his routine got mixed back in with Flockhart’s.
Eighteen months on, he started killing it. Gandhi lay soiling in the wash basket while Lucas fucked like a frat boy. CrossFitters half his age asked him to mentor them. Sales went through the roof. The trial check cashed. He still hadn’t produced legacy, but the money did produce enough for a down payment for a second flat in Brighton.
Everything was stellar, until he bled.
It happened at the new place while Ellie, cheeks blotchy with shiraz, manically sandpapered every surface – minus the one with an exposed nail. It tore through his T-shirt into his bicep. The pain was hot and wet and he cursed.
“Oh, Christ,” Ellie caught sight of the pouting gash on his arm. “Stay there and don’t move. I’ve got towels somewhere. Don’t drip!”
Lucas obeyed, wary of the nurturing display that was about to hit. He’d come to enjoy it, even if he did sometimes fear its intensity.
But when Ellie came back, she didn’t pamper him. She stopped dead in a pool of sunlight that showed the murky expressions shapeshifting across her face.
“What? he asked. “What is it?”
“Your skin … it’s – it’s …”
It was healing.
Blood was still pooling in the crook of his arm. But the wound itself had the crusted, congealed look of a days-old affair. The pain had receded deep into the layers of his skin; mere muscle memory.
He looked at Ellie.
For a moment, it seemed like they might finally have an honest conversation. But when Lucas saw her backing away – when he thought about how hard she was already trying just to keep pace with him – he decided no. Just … no.
He forced a smile. “It’s not that bad. I’ll go clean up.”
“But I have towels here …?”
Lucas ignored her and ducked out on his mobile. It took three tries before the tremor in his hand died, and he was able to call Kallista Labs.
Dr Flockhart calmed him and helped him understand: of course he hadn’t miraculously healed – dear lord! It was his brain that’d had a blip, and not his body. His perception had wobbled (a side effect), and Ellie reacted to that. Nothing more had happened.
To prove it, the doctor offered to bring his next round of tests forward. But Lucas worried about the steroids showing up before he’d cleansed. That might get him booted off the trial, or worse – make him liable to pay back the money.
It was easier and more logical to follow the narrative. Ellie’s buy-in was slightly harder, though: he saw her watching him as the trial played out over the weeks, months and years that followed. His drive just grew and grew while her thoughts became a silent voice between them: What happened? Why aren’t you devolving with me? Softening at the edges with me? Wanting as much as ever, but learning to be content with less and less?
They avoided big discussions as a general rule. But fate intervened just before her 39th birthday, when their ‘last shot’ at children exploded in a furious flurry of IVF sessions. Complete with needles, hormones, scheduled sex (not a problem now) and then: a heavily shadowed scan that Ellie coyly presented over dinner.
Heat skittered over Lucas’s skin as he stared at the dark blob. “No?!” he said.
“No,” Ellie confirmed.
He blinked, confused. “Then what’s all this?”
“I have cancer,” Ellie said, and then she laughed; a vicious sound that made bile pool in his throat; made the questions Lucas had been avoiding for some time now (Not there yet? Need more time?) do a horrible back flip and crash down; broken, and reversed.
He never fully believed he would watch Ellie die. Even as he warmed her hands in the icy unit of the Royal Women’s hospital, linking her dry, shrink-wrapped fingers around his plump veiny ones.
“It’s not supposed to be like this,” she whispered. “Men die first. You get away with murder, but you die first. It’s a small consolation … ”
She watched him closely, and Lucas understood this was it: his last chance to come clean about what really happened that day at the beach place. When he didn’t take the bait, Ellie laughed and drifted into sleep. It was an awkward moment. Not funny enough for her still to be smiling about it when Lucas started in her bedside chair at 2am.
The doctor’s explained, though, that that happens sometimes, and he tried to make peace with it as best he could.
Lucas grieved, but found he could never fully release. He still woke at 5.30am and bounced off the white, emotionally wipeable walls of his former life like a wind-up toy soldier. He ran, pumped iron, sold, and raged. The manic energy form the trial never let up. The cycle looped on and on, as pointless as it was inevitable. Run. Pump. Sell. Rage. Run. Pump. Sell. RAGE.
By the time his wedding anniversary rolled around, a plan emerged to escape the family home, and redraw the endless limits stretching him to breaking point.
Everything he needed was already at the beach house – except the wine. He picked up eight bottles of Pinot Noir (what it took now) and started on them during the drive, buzzed more by the sight of the clear, anaemic liquid than any real effects from the alcohol.
When Lucas arrived, he was clinical; collecting the rest of the tools and running the double shower: warm, hot, hotter. The extreme heat barely pinked his skin, and that made him panic. But slowly – bottle by bottle, tab by tab, slice by slice – he calmed. His blood stopped boiling. The gnawing of his cells slowed.
The last clear thought he had was of that day, and how he would do it all differently.
If Dr Flockhart could offer the test again, he would take it. Admit that the training and the ‘roids had interfered somehow.
If Ellie could mention the cut just one more time, he wouldn’t gaslight her, or himself, into thinking she was wrong.
And when she told him she was dying, he would just say what was in his heart. I did this for you. I never, ever wanted this without you. It´s hell without y –
Lucas fell on the shower floor with a wet smack.
On the other side, he expected darkness, spliced by a film reel of memories, and then silence.
There was those things.
But then, slowly, his senses started to sharpen.
The sound of the shower pounded his ears again.
A rusty tang filled his nose as new blood reignited his pulse; detox fresh, replacing and purifying itself in real time.
He didn’t even need to look at the strategic cuts above his femoral artery to know. The memory of Ellie’s voice told him. “Your skin … it’s – it’s …”
It was healed.