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Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe Prologue

Her father looked like the man on television, the handsome Italian they watched sing on Saturday nights, drink in one hand, cigarette in the other. He stood shaving at the sink in his undershirt, thick black hair combed back in waves, suspenders dangling from uniform pants.

Four-year-old Mira sat on the edge of the tub watching him scrape lather from his cheeks, marveling at his movie-star good looks, then at the fog forming on the mirror. Did he create it with the largeness of his breath, the way she could make circles on the window when she peered out into the rain? Yes, she guessed. Alfonso Serafino, Sr. could probably do anything.

Mira had already learned to depend more on her father than her mother, who was quiet and always tired, even more so now that she'd had the baby. Alfonso Junior cried too much, her mother slept too much, and it was only Al Senior who brought any joy into the house. Now, for instance, he was singing along with the radio, blaming it on the bossa nova, the dance of love, and waggling his behind. When Mira laughed, he stopped shaving and smiled in the mirror.

"You're daddy's good girl, aren't you, Mirabella?" The name he usually called her mother.

Warmth flushed through her, and she nodded and stood, began to dance as Al Senior continued to sing.

That afternoon in the quiet house, Mira grew lonely. She dragged the stool she used to brush her teeth to the bathroom sink, soaped her face, and picked up her father's razor. It was heavier than she'd expected, the metal cool and smooth in her hand. She waggled her behind and scraped the razor down her left cheek, surprised when a thin red line appeared there and began to drip with blood. She ran to her parents' room and stood crying at the foot of the bed where Mrs. Mira Serafino lay sleeping with baby Fonso.

Her mother startled awake, eyes widening as she disentangled from the baby. She scrambled across the bed and took Mira into her arms. "Oh, cara, I just needed you to be good for a little while. What have you done?"

"I didn't do it," Mira wailed as her mother carried her to the bathroom. The razor lay in the bottom of the sink next to two tiny droplets of blood.

"Well, then, who did it, young lady?" her mother said, angry now, but even this effort seemed to exhaust her. She gripped the sink edge to steady herself. From the other room, the baby began to whimper, and the woman's face, already pale, drained of any remaining color.

"The other Mira," the girl cried, "Mirabella," picturing another four-year-old in a blue dress instead of brown, shiny black hair crackling with excitement. That Mira had taken her leave, a sly look upon her face.

She reached for her mother's embrace. "I'm good Mira," she insisted, knowing from that moment on she would do anything to make it so.

Chapter 1

On the Friday morning before Christmas break, twisting south on Highway 101 and engrossed in the soaring voice of k.d. lang singing perhaps the saddest love song Leonard Cohen ever wrote, Mira Serafino found herself thinking about the ropy hip muscles of a young man she'd slept with in college, shuddering in a way she hadn't in years.

Jesus, she thought, where did that come from?

A burst of sunlight slashed through the forest and into her eyes. She lowered the visor, but the sun was lower. Fumbling for sunglasses in the Subaru's console, she took her eyes from the road for what seemed a second. Beneath her, the tires vibrated over the asphalt's raised lane markings as k.d. sang hallelujah, hallelujah, and Mira sensed rather than saw the thicket of blackberry brambles flattening as the passenger side slammed to a halt against a towering Western red cedar.

Her first thought was, "Thea!" although it had been years since her daughter rode with her to school in the mornings. Her left hand gripped the wheel and her right arm barricaded the empty passenger seat. An acidic taste filled her mouth, tin and bile. Adrenaline, she thought, noting her rapid heartbeat, the tingling in her hands and feet. Her body had involuntarily reacted by inducing the fight or flight response, something that always amazed her, even after so many years explaining it to students.

The car was still running—how could that be?—and k.d. moved on to a waltz, equally as sad. "Oh god," Mira said, "oh god, oh god," bringing her cold hands to her face as if to check that her head was still there. Out of habit, she traced the thin scar down her cheek with her forefinger, feeling where the tiny ridge bumped out from a bad stitch, then receded and disappeared.

Slowly, she twisted her head from side to side, wondering if there was such a thing as side whiplash. "Holy Jesus," she said, though not in prayer. How had she let this happen? But she knew the answer. In the past year or so her mind had become foggier than the Oregon coast in December and no matter how many ginkgo and fish oil and black cohosh pills she swallowed, no matter how many crossword puzzles she completed, no matter how sternly she berated herself, she could no longer summon sharpness or clarity or speed when she needed to. Where once she'd had control, chaos now reigned. She was moody and unpredictable. How her husband, her co-workers tolerated her she had no idea. Her hormones were deserting her. It was either that or a brain tumor, and she could never decide which would be worse—losing your mind or losing your sex.

The sun disappeared as quickly as it had emerged, which meant it would soon resume raining. Mira switched off the car and the world fell silent. She pushed the door open and stepped to the forest floor to inspect the damage. Squeezing through damp brush to get to the other side, moisture seeped into her chinos and the Christmas tree socks inside her chunky red clogs.

There'd been no sound. How was that possible? The smashed side mirror dangled from its moorings, useless now. From front fender to rear passenger door, long metallic grooves striped the hunter green paint right up to and no doubt behind the girth of the tree. Exhaust fumes hovered in the mist over flattened flora and the mossy rock outcroppings she'd miraculously avoided. Mira's legs quivered and she decided to get back inside the car.

Fumbling the buttons on the phone keypad, she had to hit speed-dial three times before getting the sequence right. Her husband didn't answer his cell phone or the landline at his coffee shop, Cyber Buzz.

She considered calling her father, then pictured him telling the story to all the other Elks, Moose, and Sons of Italy in Tillamook County, and so, their spouses, children, friends, and co-workers, until everyone knew, including her grandmother, aunts and uncles and countless cousins who spread and multiplied up and down the Oregon coast and inland, propagating the Serafino seed like dandelions. She winced at the grandeur with which Big Al would tell it; his recent retirement from the sheriff's department had left him with fewer stories to embellish, fewer chances to beat his chest and play silverback in their small community. There was no way she was going to be the butt of that joke every time she went to work, to the market, to the gynecologist, for Christ's sake. Life in Pacifica was lovely until you slipped up and gave people a reason to look at you differently, to wonder and gossip and speculate, especially dangerous for a schoolteacher in charge of shaping so many young minds.

Mira tried to think of someone else she could call: which uncle wouldn't be too busy? What cousin? She shook her head. She was forty-five years old. She'd taken shop in eighth grade instead of home ec. She had a Triple-A card. Surely she could handle this herself.

After buckling back in, she tried the key and the engine purred to life. Mira crossed herself (a habit she thought she'd put behind her) and eased the car into reverse. The brambles tugged momentarily at the car's under workings, then released with a snap, and this time she heard the ugly grating of metal against wood. She checked for traffic, then backed over the white painted bumps that delineated the road from, well, obviously from what had happened—from the unexpected danger and damage that lurk just outside the safety zone. Mira had crossed it and was still shaking from the experience. It wasn't that the car would be expensive to fix, or that Parker would be angry (he wouldn't), or even that she might have hit the tree head on and been seriously hurt.

It was that she'd taken her eyes from the road in the first place.

* * *

At Pacifica K-12, Mira parked in her teacher-of-the-year spot to the side of the handicap spaces and shouldered a book bag heavy with graded papers. Her pants and socks clung to her legs, never her best feature and now showcased in the equivalent of wet T-shirt bravado.

As she walked toward the building, she turned and grimaced at the damaged car. Inside her purse, her phone played "You Light Up My Life," the joke ring tone Parker had programmed so she'd know when he was calling.

"Sorry I couldn't get the phone earlier," he said. "Everybody's late this morning, as usual. What's up?"

She relaxed at the sound of his voice. Her husband never worried, never expected anything bad to happen. Even lying together all those late nights when Thea was a teenager and out beyond her curfew, Parker hadn't shared her grim anxieties about carloads of kids veering off cliffs, juvenile delinquents influencing their daughter to try ecstasy or crack, or whatever the drug of choice was in those days. At times Mira wondered if she'd manifested Thea's rebellious behavior by worrying so much, but then again there was her bloodline: Fonso. He'd been far worse than Thea at that age.

"I had an accident on the way to school this morning. Parker, I… I hit a tree. The car's pretty messed up."

"But you're okay?"

"Yeah, I'm fine. A little freaked out. I can't believe I just drove right off the road like that."

"You drove off the road?"

"No. I mean… I don't know, really. The sun blinded me, and I was about to put on my sunglasses, then all of a sudden I was smashed up against this huge freaking tree." She paused—would she have crashed if she hadn't been distracted by the mental image of a young man's privates? She sighed. "It scraped all down the right side, honey. It's going to be expensive."

"But you're okay."

"I'm fine."

"Where are you? Do you need someone to come get you?"

She felt a rush of something—gratitude, relief—until she realized that he probably meant one of the computer techs from his consulting business, or baristas from the coffee shop, should they ever show up. Young people who made coffee for a living seemed to be the most unreliable people on the planet.

"No, I'm at school already. The car's drivable. I'll just see you at home tonight."

"Not till late. Town council tonight. Then Lester and I are going for a beer. Talk about SPED." He'd been trying for months to get the mayor-elect on board with Pacifica's Strategic Plan for Economic Development—the latest in a long line of failed plans to save the former fishing town from extinction.

"Yeah, the rest of the town sees you more than I do."

"If you want me to come home, Mira, I will. I have to go to the council meeting, but—"

"No, no, I'm okay. It's no big deal."

"It's just that Lester is so hard to pin down. I've been trying for—"

"It's fine, Parker."


"I'm about to go into the school, so I'll just see you whenever I see you." She climbed the four concrete steps, stopped in front of the glass doors, considering as she gazed at her soggy reflection that maybe those five extra pounds did show. "Are you sure you're all right?"

"Me?" He laughed. "What do you mean?"

"I don't know. You just sound… different." She forced a smile at her reflection. If people asked about the car, she'd say it had been sideswiped on the beach road.

"You did just have an accident, Mira."

"God. I still can't believe I did that." Mira shifted the bag of papers to her other shoulder. "Well, I'm late. I'd better go. Love you."

"I know," he said, and she smiled. Their old game. The signal that all was okay.

"Butthead." She clicked off the phone and headed into the smell of musty books and damp child, and a frenetic day that would clear her mind of anything else.


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