I was rinsing off my hair when I heard someone knock. No one ever knocked on my door except for my ex. I imagined him waiting and then walking away. I turned off the water, threw on my robe, and ran. But, instead of Alex, a lanky, tween boy flashed me a toothy grin, holding up a box of chocolate bars.
“Ma’am, would you like to buy some candy to support my basketball team?”
The word ma’am grated against my ears. “How did you get in here?”
“My sister lives in the building.”
“Where is your sister?”
“Ma’am, will you please buy some candy?” He pulled out a photo of his team and shoved it in front of my nose.
“How much for the Twix?”
“Five dollars, ma’am.”
“It’s for my basket—”
I shut the door on his face. Then, after drying myself, I took out the cigarettes I had hidden in my sock drawer. I knew I shouldn’t, but I couldn’t shake the ritual: Pick one out of the pack. Stand it up on its filtered end. Two light taps. Light with a match. Always with a match because I liked the sound, the friction, the fleck of warm fire.
Before I came to medical school six months ago, I was just another idealistic twenty-three-year-old recent college grad. I worked at a homeless shelter for next to nothing, believing I could fix the world when I could barely take care of myself. Then, by what seemed to me like a great clerical error, I got into medical school with thoroughly mediocre scores. I was ecstatic until, on the very first day, they handed me a scalpel and told me to skin a cadaver, lifeless yet unmistakably human with remnants of memories and habits marked on his body. This did what it was intended to do. It stripped me of my falsehood: I wasn’t trying to save the world; I was doing this for me, to become somebody. And I learned, if you want something badly enough, you can do just about anything. Knowing this broke something in me.
To say the least, I did not adjust well to this new life, to this new me. And Alex had been my one reprieve. Though not much younger than me, he was still in college, making up time for the lapse of his teenage years. And in addition to being sensitve and troubled, he was achingly beautiful. We lived on the same floor of an utilitarian dorm built in the ‘60s. For someone like me who always needed something to rescue, he could not be more perfect. I clung to him the same way I clung to the idea of my former self. But for him, it was a slow burn that never raised to a fire. More than a friendship but not quite love. We went on like that for a few months. Then, caving under the mounting pressure of our ambiguity, we fought about small things instead of telling each other how we felt. It ended abruptly by him moving out. I only found out when the name plate on his door changed, and a quiet engineering student moved into his old room. Since then, much of my life has been spent staring blankly at whatever was in front of me.
I opened the window and pulled myself up on the ledge. And I smoked leisurely against the current of crisp air rushing in. I noticed, across the street, picketers. They were aggressively stopping pedestrians and forcing something into their hands. What could they be peddling? Briefly, the signs I had seen on the side of cornfields flashed through my mind: ‘Guns save lives.’ ‘Guns stop Crime.’ ‘Keep calm and carry a gun.’ Another dreadful reminder of where I was—the Middle America, where land was wide but people narrow. I threw the lit cigarette out the window, hoping to hit one of the picketers. It missed and landed on a mound of dirty snow.
Half an hour later, I ran into the same picketers on my way to school. And I was surprised to find that they were pimply college students, wearing homemade cardboard signs that read ‘STOP AIDS.’ Yet their enthusiasm was no less intense than the NRA. They stormed smug couples with hands in each other’s back pockets. I thought, being alone, I’d be safe. Yet one of them caught up to me and forced a condom into my hand. Startled, I stopped and looked up at him.
“Happy Valentine’s Day!” he shouted and then scurried away.
The first sense that The Morgue offended was taste. The formaldehyde mixed in with the putrefying adipose tissue; it remaied ubiquitious, in the air and on my tongue. The room, being long and windowless, gave no relief. And the stark white walls only added to sense of stifling. I walked towards the back of the room where my cadaver lay on a cold, metal table.
Bob. That’s what I called him though I would not admit it. Bob was not like the others. While the others reeked of decomposing softness, his lean and beautiful body maintained all of its humanness. And with certain toughness, he resisted being reduced to a specimen. So I tried to piece together a narrative of his life from the little we knew: Fifty-two at the time of death, done in by esophageal cancer, and, by the faint paleness left on his ring finger, once married. He was also in great shape too for his age, so I suspect that he was the kind of man who took care of himself. I’m sure he wanted to be an organ donor, but the cancer precluded that possibility. So he donated his body to “science,” not understanding what that really meant. And for someone to have such proclivity to give, he would have been well-educated, liberal, and intellectually curious. He probably didn’t go to the doctor right away, thinking that he was just getting older. Then, by the time they found the culprit, it was too late.
In many ways, Bob was my one true friend in medical school, our relationship being a simple one: He gave generously; I took. I spoke; he listened. My feelings about the living, however, were more complicated.
As usual, I found my lab partner Walker on his side of Bob. He looked up from his work, nodded, and went back to it. That’s how he always was, taciturn and distant. I assumed he was mad at me. He had good reasons to be. For several weeks now, he had shouldered the brunt of the dissection while I was in my post-Alex catatonia. Yet instead of feeling grateful, I resented his superiority. I wished he’d just call me out; any show of emotion would have been preferable; anger, refreshing. Determined to get a reaction out of him, I snuck up next to him and dropped the condom on his anatomy atlas.
“What’s this?” he asks.
“You probably need it more than I do.”
Realizing what it is, he briefly looked uncomfortable and shoved it in his trouser pocket. It amused me to see him embarrassed. But, before I could tease him further, the lab proctor Bertha called us to the adjoining room. Usually, these demonstrations took place around a dark, shrunken body dilapidated from years of use. But today, instead of her favorite cadaver, she brought out a bucket. Curious, we all leaned in to look. To our unanimous consternation, the bucket was filled with male genitals, phalluses of different sizes and colors. I shrunk back and glanced at Walker. It relieved me to see that I wasn’t the only one horrified. But our classmates overcame their shock rather quickly. They giggled like middle-schoolers on their first day of sex-ed. ‘So it is true,’ one of them whispered. Of the many Bertha legends, her penis bucket has been most often talked about and contested.
Bertha casually picked up one of the penises. Then, she proceeded to point out its basic anatomy with a probe: the crux and the glans; the dorsal and ventral surfaces, the cavernosa and spongiosum; the prepuce and the meatus; the urethra and the bundle of artery, vein, and nerve running parallel on the opposite side.
Most of Bertha’s lecture escaped me. I was too busy counting and estimating how many male organs were in the bucket. I wondered why Bertha needed to dismember so many. Imagining the souls of those men roaming the afterlife as eunuchs, I felt blood rushing to my head. Suddenly, I felt very warm and nauseous. Unable to hold it in long enough to excuse myself, I doubled over. The yellow puke landed on the floor just a few inches from the bucket. Stunned and unsure how to respond, everyone stood completely silent. Then, a delightful canker of a laugh pierced the stillness; this was the first time that anyone has heard Bertha laugh.
“Every year, there is always one,” she said, shaking her head. She then picked up the penis bucket and moved the group to another room.
Left alone, I tried to clean up the mess. But the thin, brown paper towels ripped as soon as they became wet. And instead of picking up the vomit, they just ended up spreading it across the floor. Exasperated, I was on my knees and on the verge of tears when Walker returned with a mop.
“Get up,” he said.
“No, no. It’s my mess. I should clean it up.”
He came over to me and pulled me up. “Wait outside,” he said.
“Suits me,” he said, putting the mop to the floor.
The two losers without plans on V-day, we were the only ones left in The Morgue. We spent the afternoon skinning Bob’s privates from front to back. Then, using forceps, we teased out the elaborate network of veins enveloping the male organ. It was tedious work, requiring precision in a small space.
“You know,” I said, trying to break the ice, “I didn’t expect a man’s balls to be so delicate. It actually kind of makes sense.”
“Now, I understand why you all have such fragile egos.”
An uninspired jab. Nonetheless, there was comfort in knowing that we were safe from the garish vulgarities of a Hallmark holiday—no candy hearts, no dozen roses, no cards with puns. And instead of the clichés, we had the peaceful company of the dead. What better way was there to commemorate a martyr?
It was late by the time we finished. Neither of us had eaten, and Walker asked me if I was hungry. I wasn’t, but I went along anyway. And to my surprise, the place he chose was a chicken joint off Route 21. An older couple sat on the table nearest to the door. By their age and appearance, they were clearly townies. I found it incredulous that Walker would be a regular at such place. But as soon as my doubts crept in, I was proven wrong.
“Walkman!” The owner greeted us behind the counter. “I see you brought a lady friend.”
Walker nodded hello. “Ray, give me the usual.”
We took seats in one of the wooden picnic tables. To go with the tables, the walls also had wood paneling. Seventies cabin seemed to have been the inspiration for the décor.
The owner disappeared into the back and, after a few minutes, walked over with a tray of food. He laid down a large basket of fried chicken, plate of fried okra, a bottle of red sauce, and two large cans of PBR.
“I bought an extra beer for your lady friend,” he said, winking.
“Why does he keep calling me your lady friend?” I asked as soon as Ray left. “He knows I can see him, right?”
“This is the best fried chicken outside Chicago.”
“Meat makes me nauseous.” I sniffed my fingers. No matter how much I washed my hands, the smell never went away.
Occasionally, I looked up from picking at my biscuit to gawk at Walker, tearing into the chicken. And for the first time in my life, I consciously thought about what a messy business it was to eat a bird. There was the skin, the meat, the bones, and the fat—God, the fat. The piano-playing, NPR-listening, LP-collecting, American-Apparel-donning Walker—that immaculate and pretentious Walker— was wrist deep in chicken grease and murderously red sauce. This contradiction made me wonder whether there may be something to him that I’ve missed.
“Where would you be if you weren’t here right now?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“If you weren’t in medical school.”
“I don’t know,” he said, “I’d be living in Greenpoint, probably in a cramped little apartment with roommates. Doing odd jobs. Working on my music. You know, the same shit I was doing before.”
“Woah, you’re way cooler than I thought.”
“What does that supposed to mean?”
“Were you in a band or something?”
He shook his head. “I loved it, but I couldn’t live like that forever.”
“Because we all have to grow up at some point.”
“That’s a terrible reason to be here.”
Walker wiped his hands and drank the rest of his beer. “My dad is a surgeon. Did I not tell you?”
“So, if your dad was a janitor, you’d be a janitor?”
“I wish he was a janitor.” He put down the piece of chicken he’s been working on and raised his eyes to meet mine. “I’m really here because I killed someone.”
“My brother, Mark. He was the good twin, always did everything we were supposed to do, everything I refused to do. He was a second-year at Hopkins. I was figuring things out in New York City. He came to visit one weekend. I wanted to show off the vintage motorcycle I was restoring. We were just gonna go around the block...”
“You can’t say that you killed someone when you didn’t mean to.”
Normally inexpressive and cold, his eyes moistened, deepening their hue. And I realized they were actually two different colors: right eye amber and left eye turquoise, heterochromatic like those of a Siberian Husky. How could have I not noticed this before? We sat across each other for half a year. And while I marveled at every faint remnant of humanity left in Bob, whose bygone life I could only speculate; I missed the wonderfully anomalous beauty of the living being before me. What else had I missed?
“That’s the thing. There was always a part of me that wanted Mark dead. As a kid, I had these sick fantasies—he’d fall down the stairs, get run over by a tru—” He opened his mouth to continue but stopped mid-syllable.
“So this is how you punish yourself.”
“Punishment implies finality. There is a beginning and an end to punishment.”
“Don’t be. It’s nothing for you to be sorry about.”
I took a swig of PBR and found that, despite its ammoniac aftertaste, I liked it. I then chugged the rest of it until the tips of my ears grew warm. “How do you do it?”
“Go on after something like that.”
Walker picked up his beer can and found it empty. “Ray, can we get another round?”
Ray returned with another two large cans of PBR. Walker opened both and passed one to me. He then sipped his beer and took a thoughtful pause, staring at the collection of chicken bones. Then, he continued…
“Even when you don’t want to go on, your heart still beats; your lungs still fill with air; your brain still tells you to eat. I lived because my body continued to function. I moved back home and lived in Mark’s room, read Mark’s books, organized Mark’s things. I didn’t go anywhere or see anyone. It went on like that for months. Then, my parents made me go see a shrink, an older lady in a pantsuit. I didn’t protest. I felt so guilty that I would have done anything they asked me to do. But I didn’t think getting my head prodded by an old lady would fix me in any way. And I was right for the most part. Much of it was lying on the couch, telling her about my imaginary childhood trauma. She didn’t want me to talk about Mark for some reason. Every time I tried to bring him up, she’d say, ‘Not yet. Let’s talk about you.’ It was pretty frustrating. Then, one day, in middle of therapy, I was telling her about one of Mark’s books I was reading—Henry James, I think— and the dreams I had about it, she stopped me. And she said this, ‘Mark has lived more than you have ever lived. You may not be dead, but you might as well be because you’re not living.’ Then, she apologized for her outburst and told me to go on. But I didn’t need to. Something clicked, and I finally understood what she was trying to make me realize all along: I had treated life as a byproduct of my health, a default state that kept me from being dead when, in reality, life is a choice. Every day, you get up and choose: Will I be undead or will I live?"
“Why do you keep saying that?”
It struck me: He knew things only people near the end of their life knew. That’s how close he had been to choosing death. I wanted to tell him that I’m sorry for all the preconceived notions I had about him; for believing that I was the only one who felt alone and out of place; for wrongly assuming he could not have struggles equal to my own when, in reality, he was fighting a much harder battle. But, in place of words, the dam broke. I cried hot, ugly tears that turned my face all kinds of red and purple.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Is it something I said?”
I kept shaking my head and repeating inaudible apologies. It went on like that for a while. Then, when the flood finally leveled, I felt a pang of hunger return—the same hunger that I had known in the days before The Morgue, the same hunger that had eluded me all these months. So I wiped my face, reached into the bucket, and grabbed a wing. I devoured one piece after another. Walker, saying nothing, slid towards me the sauce.