Variations | Tao Lin | Granta


Tao Lin

The next day, Li typed, ‘Feel closer to Kay today than any day so far.’ At night, Kay texted saying she was home from visiting her mom, whom she visited on Sundays. She asked if Li wanted to get his glasses, which were in her room, or if she should bring them.

Li asked if she wanted to hang out.

‘I do. Maybe just for a little bit?’

Li went to her room at 7.15 p.m. They decided to part at 8.30, set an alarm for 8.30, and had sex twice. Kay said while biking home from the Upper West Side, where her mom lived, she’d thought that she wouldn’t see Li until Friday. She’d also thought she wouldn’t plan anything, and that Li had been obsessed with the Hutchison Effect but then had seemed to lose interest. What if that happened with her?

Li said he’d learned of Hutchison the previous month, but had known Kay for four years, and that he was still interested in Hutchison but had gotten more interested in glyphosate recently because it directly affected his body. He’d learned from MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff that glyphosate was embedded in his collagen, receptors and other proteins – in his eyes, hands, face, brain and heart – because life mistook the herbicide for glycine when building proteins.

His ongoing, deepening realization that he was very damaged compared to his ancestors from centuries, millennia and especially tens of millennia ago was a reliable source of encouragement: even with all the damage, there were times of startling clarity and poignant mystery, moments to weeks of serenity, harmony and happiness.

Kay said it would be okay if Li lost interest in her. They listened to Glenn Gould’s extremely fast, 1955 recording of Bach’s thirty-variation Goldberg Variations. Kay’s mom, who owned a piano, had gotten Kay the sheet music, which Kay felt was surprisingly difficult due to its rhythm. The 8.30 alarm went off.

The next night, they decided to meet from 7.30 to 9 p.m., a variation of the previous night. In 3A, Kay asked Li to teach her a stretch. They did ‘dry swimming’.

They went to Li’s fire escape, where they looked at a green-lit Empire State Building and considered what had transpired since it was red, six days earlier.

Kay asked Li where in America seemed to him like a good place to live. Li said Hawaii. Kay agreed and said her friend Diane’s brother lived in Kauai, where he earned money by running a rental.

One of the trees by the fire escape had the Yoshida Effect, with a bifurcating trunk. Kay said she’d told her brother about the effect, and he’d said, ‘Isn’t that just a normal feature of trees?’ Li said the Yoshida Effect was as important to him as the Hutchison Effect, or more. ‘I like variation #2 a lot,’ Kay texted after they parted.

The next night, in variation #3, they ate a cheese-avocado omelet, delayed parting thrice, and spent three hours together. Li learned Kay had all thirty-two of her teeth, and Kay said she felt both calm and excited around him. ‘It’s 11.18 and I keep thinking of Kay,’ typed Li after they parted.

In 3A two nights later, he found himself unpleasantly daydreaming about the end of their relationship, distracting himself into quiet glumness. Before parting, they talked about Kay feeling overwhelmed at work, and Li suggested she write a book. ‘Feel weirdly detached,’ he typed in 4K. ‘Maybe we could spend less time together. Or see each other when we’re not tired.’

The next day, he canceled dinner with out-of-town friends. ‘For some reason, I was critical and gloomy last night,’ he typed. ‘I kept suspecting Kay of doing things to get me to like her more. Seems insane. I should be alone when like that.’ He stared out the window, past autumning foliage, at the brick building. ‘There’s no need to feel bad about losing or changing interest. It could lead to better things.’

But in variation #5 they spent ten hours together. On the A train, they bought a drawing of four flowers, three clouds, two trees and one ground for one dollar from an androgynous child going car-to-car seemingly alone, selling art from a folder labeled ‘Positive Energy Project’. At a Renaissance fair, Li said he liked that Kay had a career, because he also had things to do; his previous girlfriends had had part-time jobs at most. Kay asked if he’d recorded her since 12 August in Stuyvesant Square Park. Li said he hadn’t and wouldn’t. Kay thanked him and said he could, if he wanted; it wasn’t illegal.

In #6, they started a book club and agreed they were addicted to each other. After #7, Li excitedly emailed himself while hanging upside down on his pull-up bar, ‘I felt we were doomed five days ago, but now I feel the opposite.’ In #8, Kay said she hadn’t been around her mom, who ‘wasn’t good at night’, for more than a day in maybe ten years. Li talked about getting massaged, seeing a chiropractor and going to a physical rehabilitation center in Taiwan a year and a half earlier.

In #9, a sleepover at Kay’s, they read some of the Nicholson Baker novel Vox, their first book club choice. In bed, Li learned Kay had a pet snail in kindergarten named Emily who ate lettuce and watermelon. Snails seemed Daoist to Li – mellow, unrushed, at home anywhere. To Kay, they seemed brave, decisive, strong-willed and resilient. As a last resort, snails could self-reproduce; selfing produced fewer eggs and fewer surviving hatchlings than mating.

In #10, they drank coffee together for the first time, generating a somewhat tense discussion regarding Li wanted to discuss its unobvious positives. He’d found Cure Tooth Decay, Surviving Evil and other illuminating books there that most media didn’t cover and weren’t in most bookstores. They decided to say ‘Amazon’ to refer to the jungle five times per time they referenced the corporation. Kay said it would be good if they had as many variations as there were bird species in the Amazon.

They biked around the Lower East Side, visiting a bookstore, two parks and two gardens. In Union Square, they made plans to fast, organize a Joy Williams conference and make raw-milk ice cream. Li had been ordering raw-milk goods, including yogurt and cheese, from a company that his friend Rainbow had told him about that delivered from farms in New Jersey. Most people were allergic to pasteurized milk, a relatively recent invention, but not raw or fermented milk, he’d read in The Untold Story of Milk.

In 4K, they got Kay’s period blood on Li’s sofa during sex, and Li praised the natural substance, saying it was a welcome presence in his nature-deficient, virtual-reality-like room. Holding each other, they reviewed their day aloud, taking turns chronologically describing what happened.

Tao Lin

Tao Lin is the author of ten books of prose and poetry, including the novels Leave Society and Taipei and the memoir Trip. He edits Muumuu House and lives in Hawaii. Visit his website at

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