Featured in Colorado Review
Published Spring 2020
Photo by Tamaki Sono
In the second week of medical school, we’re given cadavers. We name ours Aberforth, and I tell myself I’m prepared as I’ll ever be. The classroom is underground. The halogen-lit air fills with the smell of formaldehyde and other chemicals I don’t know the names of. “I know you’ve all been looking forward to this,” the professor says.
We are supposed to study the cadaver’s chart and then follow the sequence of dissection. A rush of voices starts up as people read their charts out loud. There are five people per learning team, twelve learning teams, twelve dead bodies, seventy-two humans in the room. Plus the professor. I look around at my team. They’re cartoonish in their plastic scrubs and gloves, material that doesn’t wrinkle, just bends. We’ve never talked about anything personal. Instead we meet every day to go over lecture material, solve problem sets, and quiz each other on piles of facts. I’ve developed a system. I write the facts down on notecards, one fact per notecard, and stack the facts up on my desk until they form a tall and ungainly tower. Eventually the notecards topple, and I start a new tower with a different set of facts.
Huang has our chart. He’s reading under his breath so no one else can hear. Yvette takes the chart from him. “Cause of death,” she says, “heart failure.” Even though I can’t list a single intimate fact about Yvette, I know she likes to be in charge. Aberforth’s face looks waxy, but his body is familiar, like I’ve passed him on the street. Like he’s one of those guys who played college sports and stayed big, unable to lose the muscle without adding fat. I imagine he died in a game of touch football, unaware that his heart couldn’t keep up. My fingers itch, but when I try to scratch them, I can’t feel anything through the gloves. “Whenever you’re ready,” the professor says.
Rachel wants to take a moment to thank Aberforth for donating his body to medicine. Rachel wears a hemp surfer bracelet on one wrist and a tangle of beads at her throat. She’s not what I expected a med student to look like.
I can tell Yvette is impatient to cut the body open—the scalpel is already in her hands—but we all bow our heads. “We honor and admire your commitment to science,” Rachel intones, and then Yvette makes an incision along the breastbone. Everyone leans forward. I lean back, feel for the desk behind me.
Rachel looks up. “You okay?” she asks.
I say it’s the formaldehyde fumes, that I need a breather. I wind through the bodies, the dead and the live ones, to the door, ignoring the stares.
In the hallway, I slide down the wall and put my head between my knees. I press the heels of my hands into my eyes and breathe through my nose. It’s warmer out here and smells like new paint.
“You too?” someone asks.
I look up. There are bright spots in my vision, and I shake my head to clear it. It’s a guy on another learning team, Mercer or Milo or something else that sounds like a disease you could get in a shower. I’ve never talked to him before.
“Formaldehyde,” I say.
“Dead bodies,” Mercer/Milo responds, smiling.
“Who’s yours?” I ask.
“A woman, sixties, lung cancer.”
I notice his shoulders filling out his scrubs. I tell him we’ve named ours Aberforth.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Claire.” Mercer/Milo waits for me to ask his name in return. I stare at him. He meets my gaze steadily. I say I have to get back inside.
* * *
If you asked me why I wanted to be a doctor, I would say that I have a good memory and like helping people. The problem is not that either of those things is a lie—it’s that I’m not sure if they matter. What is relevant is that I never imagined becoming anything else. It’s true that I did well enough on the MCAT to get into this school. I came here even though it’s far away from my family and friends because it’s more prestigious than the closer one I got into, and I thought that was the decision you were supposed to make. It’s also true that a few months ago I was driving and crashed my car into the guardrail of a highway. My boyfriend was in the passenger seat. He died, and two months later I flew across the country to start medical school.
* * *
At home, I stand in the shower for a long time, trying to scrub away the slimy, metallic smell that lingers on my fingers and the ends of my hair. I live alone in an apartment ten minutes by bike from school. There’s a fraternity down the street, and when the wind is right, it feels like the party is in my living room. The frat boys are predictable; they blare incessant Top 40 and shout their conversations. After long nights spent awake in bed, I’ve learned to differentiate between the splatter of someone vomiting onto pavement or into bushes. I bought earplugs, but the bass of the max-volume speakers and the squealing tires of vehicles piloted by drunk kids penetrate the foam. I’m down to the last of my emergency Xanax. Mornings I wake up groggy, eyes puffed with dreamless sleep, anxious that the stuff I’m supposed to remember has drained away in the night.
I’ve always been a bad sleeper. As a kid, I would get up after being put to bed, sit at the top of the stairs, and listen to my parents talk about work and bills. I wasn’t listening for what they were saying, more for the reassurance that they were there. When they stood and put their wineglasses in the dishwasher, I’d go back to bed and wait for the click of their light. Later, I lay awake at sleepovers and on camping trips. After that, in the beds of boys I was seeing, jealous and mystified by the ease with which they were able to disconnect, disappear into sleep.
* * *
When I get out of the shower, I’m surprised to find a text from Rachel saying they’re at a bar near campus. I’ve been spending my nights at home, studying and reminding myself to take it one exam at a time. I brush my wet hair with my fingers and stare in the bathroom mirror at the purple crescents under my eyes. I look exhausted. One drink, I tell myself. I put on my jeans and the same T-shirt I wore to lab, before taking it off and finding a clean one.
Everyone is already at the bar. They shout my name and move over to make room. I slide into the booth, and Yvette pours me a plastic cup of beer from the pitcher on the table. Huang says I look tired, and I tell them that the frat boys are still doing their thing across from my apartment.
“Undergrads,” says Brian, shaking his head, though he’s barely twenty-two, straight from college. We laugh. The beer and the booth and the press of their friendly, determined faces give me a feeling like I can take a break from myself.
An hour later, we’re outside. It’s been raining, and the streets are slick and bright in the light spilling from the restaurants. We duck down some stairs into another bar. There’s loud music playing, and we’re enveloped in the steam rising from people’s wet clothes and moving bodies. Somehow, I’m not surprised when the boy from the hall approaches. “Hey,” he says, only I can’t hear him because of the music. “Claire,” he mouths.
I’m surprised when I smile. We edge toward the bar, and he orders more beer.
“Martin,” he says. He shakes my hand and then doesn’t let it go. He’s wearing a gray T-shirt, and again I notice his shoulders. He asks where I’m from. “California,” I say.
He nods and says he was stationed in California, in Joshua Tree, when he was in the marines, between tours in Iraq. I’m surprised. His shoulders make more sense, though.
“Why did the cadavers bother you, then?” I ask. And then I realize what I’ve said. “Sorry—I’ve been drinking.”
“No, it’s okay. I didn’t expect them to either.” He pauses to think. “I guess it was strange to see them in this context, like something from there had come here.”
I sip my beer. I look at him over the rim of the cup. He’s smiling slightly, but there is something serious about him, focused. I imagine he was the kind of kid who diligently completed all his homework as soon as he got home from school.
I become aware of my unbrushed hair and baggy eyes. I try to remember if he came up to me or if I approached him. “You don’t have to keep talking to me, you know.”
“Let’s dance,” he says. We dance. I see Yvette over his shoulder, and she gives me a thumbs up. He puts his hand on my waist, moves it up my back. I close my eyes and forget myself for a second. I’m just another moving body in a scrum of moving bodies. Eventually he asks if I want to leave.
We walk near the river. The sky is clear now, and the moon reflects off the blocky glass buildings of the medical school. As we walk, our breath moves into the distance.
I tell him about my notecards, the way they pile up and fall over. He tells me how dust would collect overnight in his shoes and helmet in Fallujah, how sometimes he’d forget to shake it out. I ask about his family, and he tells me he has a little brother and his father owns a horse farm nearby. Our shoulders touch as we walk. His fingertips brush mine.
The frat houses are quiet for once, and in the dark they look inoffensive and grand, as if families of aging aristocrats are trapped inside.
“This is me,” I say. A light I forgot to turn off illuminates the inside of my room. I can see coffee cups crowding the desk and papers strewn across the bed. The walls are white and bare. “Want to come in?” I ask.
Shyly, he nods. I stand on my toes and lean forward. He puts his hand on the side of my face, runs it through my hair to the back of my head, and kisses me.
My boyfriend didn’t want me to move across the country for medical school. We’d been fighting constantly since I was accepted. Asher was a thin and angular person, and there was a shadow of mania that sometimes flashed through him. I need you, he would say. I can’t live without you. The night I told him I was leaving, we were in Portland for one of his gigs. He played guitar and sang in a band, and sometimes I traveled from the apartment we shared in Oakland to watch them perform. After the show, I saw him talking to a girl. He was leaning toward her, touching her shoulder, her upper arm, laughing. So often he had baselessly accused me of cheating on him. Seeing him flirting with someone else upset me. The plans I had made to tell him calmly and rationally about my decision were driven from my head. Outside the bar, I told him I was glad I was leaving for medical school.
He grabbed my arm and pulled me toward him. “If you loved me at all, you’d stay,” he said, his face twisting into an expression that felt inevitable, though I’d never seen it before. I tried to pull away, but his grip was tight.
The door of the bar banged open then, and the feedback from an electric guitar spilled into the street. Even though I was upset, even though I was trying to get him to release me, I moved to shield us from view. I didn’t want anyone to see what he was doing, to think this was something it wasn’t.
When he let me go, I collapsed into his chest and began to cry. I was sorry, I said, though my wrist was throbbing with pain. Of course I loved him. In the morning, driving back to Oakland, exhausted and hung over, I crashed. Now, months later, sometimes I catch myself feeling relieved, as if now that he’s gone, I have all the time in the world.
* * *
I wake to find Martin sitting up in bed. “I like that,” he says, pointing to the Matisse print on my wall—women dancing in a circle against a blue background. It’s the only decoration I’ve managed. I brought it with me from my childhood bedroom, hoping for something from it, some continuity with who I used to be. “Last night was fun,” he says.
I nod and get up, cross my arms over my chest. His sandy hair is tousled and his long limbs make the bed look miniature. I pull on a sweatshirt and sit down on my desk chair. He doesn’t say anything more, but I can feel his gaze on me. Part of me likes it. Another part of me is panicked, wishes he would disappear. When I look back at him, his eyes slide away, and I think he must be nervous too. “Are you hungry?” he asks.
“I need to get back to it,” I say, gesturing to my desk, to the piles of cards and textbooks.
“Okay,” he says. “No worries.” But he looks disappointed. During the night, he fitted his body against mine and held me close. Now he kisses my cheek and leaves the apartment. From my window, I watch him walk down the street. A man is hosing off the sidewalk, and he pauses to let Martin pass. Martin says something, and the man laughs. I replay the feeling of his arm around me. I smile. I put a hand to my mouth to cover the smile.
* * *
In lab, the professor projects a picture of a healthy heart at the front of the room. We take turns massaging Aberforth’s heart the way we would if he were alive and we were trying to resuscitate him. When it’s my turn, I can feel that the muscle is hypertrophic, the ventricles through which the blood is supposed to flow are swollen almost shut. The heart is smooth to the touch, but also harder than I expected, more like the cartilage of an ear than a chicken breast. Today it’s Rachel who’s queasy.
“Before our last class, I’d never actually seen a dead body before,” she whispers.
“It’s easier if you pretend he was never alive.”
She nods. My hands are still inside Aberforth’s chest cavity. All I remember from the accident is my hands, cut up by pieces of glass that lay all around me. I remember reaching down and pulling a shard from the pad of my thumb. Blood pooled when the glass came out, red against white. I found out later that the glass shattered because Asher flew through the windshield, but in the moment I was afraid to turn my head and look around. Instead my eyes traveled slowly from my hands to my arms. I saw that my forearm was swollen and discolored. I registered that this was not from the accident, that this was the place Asher had grabbed me the night before.
Later, at the hospital where they took us, a doctor asked me about it. “Were you fighting in the car?” he asked, palpating my arm, searching for breaks. “Did he try to grab the steering wheel?” I shook my head. “No,” I said. “This is unrelated.”
Now my hands and arms are pale and unscarred against the blue of Aberforth’s sheet. They’re completely healed. There’s no evidence of injury.
“My turn,” Yvette says, and I move aside so she can put her hands on the heart. She massages it with purpose, her jaw set. I feel a rush of warmth for these people; their aim is so pure, their goals so clear and uncomplicated.
During a break, we mill around, and I chug water from a Nalgene. It tastes faintly like the chemicals that have come to line the insides of my nostrils. I can feel Martin across the room, but I don’t look at him. And then he’s there, standing against the wall, looking at me.
“How’d it go?” he asks.
“Claire’s a pro,” Rachel says.
“I’m not surprised,” he says, and I smile.
At the end of lab, the professor instructs us to spray Aberforth down so he doesn’t dry out and to leave him uncovered. We’re allowed to come back at any time to look at the body, to review what we’ve done. “But no unsupervised dissection,” the professor warns. “You only get one cadaver.” As we’re packing up, I have an urge to cover him. It seems wrong to leave him like that, his insides cut up and exposed, but I force myself to turn away, to leave the room with everyone else.
* * *
Martin asks me to help him study. I go over armed with textbooks and facts. I wear jeans and a sweatshirt, but I’ve shaved my legs and put on lacy underwear. We pretend to study, but eventually we’re just drinking beer at his kitchen table. His apartment is less bare than mine; he’s bothered to put up bookshelves, actually screwed them to the wall. There are books besides medical textbooks stacked there. Still, it feels temporary in the way that everything here is temporary except the common will to do well. We move to the couch, and I expect him to try to kiss me, but he asks about my family. I notice for the first time that his voice has a slight Southern twang. I tell him about my mom. She’s a doctor too, a gynecologist who’s done a lot of family planning work in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Tough act to follow,” he says.
“She is tough,” I say.
My mom never liked Asher. She saw through even his initial arguments that I stay with him in Oakland. He said we needed to focus on the big picture, to find a way to bring our lives and our careers together. She liked to ask if he even knew what the word career meant. Though on some level I knew she was right, I resented her, dug in my heels when she suggested leaving him.
Martin puts a hand on my shoulder and traces the line of my collarbone. He does it so gently, so self-consciously that I almost laugh. I reach for him, and then as if by prior agreement, we begin to undress each other. He pulls off my socks and undoes the button of my jeans. He kisses me, and I kiss him back, push my tongue between his teeth. When we move to the bedroom, he holds my hips and pulls me on top of him. “Does this feel good?” he asks. “Yes,” I say, hoping my voice sounds normal, that the desire I am communicating is a normal amount of desire. Yes, yes, yes.
After Martin has fallen asleep, I lie awake. The shades are drawn. The room is very dark and smells a little musty. The bed is unfamiliar, but the feeling of sleeplessness is not.
When Asher and I were together, I slept soundly. It was when I wasn’t with him, when he was traveling for shows, that I lay awake, counting the days until I’d see him or, later, calculating what I’d done that might have upset him. It was always the little things. He would reproach me when I forgot to text or call, when I talked to someone too long at a party. As if I could forget, as if the dread of upsetting him didn’t hang over me, didn’t haunt my every thought. In death, why is it the same? Over and over guilt pushes me to replay the circumstances leading up to the accident. What would have happened if I hadn’t crashed? Even after I’d committed to come here, I sometimes wavered, allowed Asher to reconvince me of the kind of future I had envisioned when I first met him, when I watched him onstage for the first time, his hair sweaty and matted to his forehead, his eyes boring into mine. That future had involved taking off with him, exploring the country, watching him perform. For stretches he convinced me that medical school was selfish, that the good things in our relationship, the travel and adventures we wanted to have together, couldn’t continue if I decided to go.
“I’d do anything for you,” he said when we talked about it. “Why is it that I’m not enough?” And then more softly, pitifully, so that I felt his happiness was my responsibility, he would say, “Don’t leave me. Please. Promise you won’t.”
Martin opens his eyes when I move to get out of bed. “Hey,” he says sleepily. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“I’m a bad sleeper.”
“We don’t have to sleep,” he says.
I laugh. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize,” he says.
I sit back down on the edge of the bed, reach out and smooth a piece of hair sticking up from the back of his head.
“How did you know you wanted to be a doctor?” I ask.
“My mother was sick for a long time when I was little. No one could diagnose her.”
“What did she have?”
“It ended up being lupus. Once we found out, they were able to help her and she recovered.” He looks at his hands and then back up at me. My vision of him as a little boy morphs. He’s so quiet, so diligent, because he has to be. Your mother is sleeping, I imagine his father saying. “My parents got divorced after she got better, and then I went into the military. I guess I thought it would help me somehow. Little did I know.” He smiles wryly. I imagine him sidling nervously up to the soldiers that have come to recruit at his high school, gathering clothes from two houses, stuffing them into a duffel bag without folding them, his loneliness painful and bracing, like freezing wind.
“I was in an accident,” I say. “Just recently. The person in the passenger seat died. That’s why I have trouble sleeping.”
“Are you okay?” he asks, a line of concern appearing between his eyebrows.
“Good days and bad days.”
He looks like he wants to ask more, but I’m afraid that if we venture too far into personal territory, we won’t be able to find our way out. “Can we talk about something else?” I ask.
“Of course.” He must know what it’s like to build walls inside yourself, padded rooms through which memories are not allowed to move. He brushes my hair back from my face. “Have you ever been to Joshua Tree?”
I shake my head. I have friends who’ve been, who’ve done shrooms and wandered into the desert. “I heard it’s not fun unless you do drugs.”
“Not true,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe the stars.”
I smile, but when he lies back down and tries to pull me with him, I tell him I have to sleep at home, that I have to study in the morning, that we have to be practical.
“Are you sure you don’t want to stay?” he asks, and when I shake my head, I detect worry, as if he knows there is more to my story, knows I’m having trouble being fully honest. But he doesn’t protest further. He lets me go.
On my walk home, the moon is bright in the cold. Somehow it’s already the end of October. The porches of most of the houses have pumpkins on them. The jagged, internally lit faces watch me as I walk by. I jog and then break into a run, chase my shadow home.
* * *
I’ve now held Aberforth’s heart, liver, and pancreas in my hands. I take cramped notes as the instructor projects grayish X-rays of damaged musculoskeletal structures. He tells us that broken bones heal, but they never look the same as they did before. In lab, Martin blushes when we make eye contact across the room, but he sends me texts about his day. The texts are like a trail of bread crumbs leading me back to him. I go over there a few times a week. We talk and have sex. Sometimes I can tell he wants to ask about the accident, but I cut him off, tell him I’m working through it, that he shouldn’t worry. In the moment it feels good to be with him. I can forget things under his weight.
I do well on the first exam. I call my parents to tell them. My mom says she’s glad to hear I’ve developed strategies. My dad worries I’m overdoing it. “We’ll come get you anytime,” he says. “You can take things slowly.”
“I’m fine,” I say.
“We’re planning a visit,” they say.
* * *
I spill coffee all over my notes, and when I call Martin to ask to copy his, he suggests we take a break. He has a surprise for me. “Wear warm clothes,” he says.
We drive out of town in his old Subaru station wagon under a heavy gray sky, the wind shuttling leaves across fields that stretch away on both sides. The radio transitions from pop music to country hits, and I ask where we’re going.
“You’ll see,” he says. “It wouldn’t be a surprise if I told you.”
He takes a left on a long dirt road, and we park in front of a farmhouse. The gray shingles are peeling, but there are two wicker chairs with cushions you could sink into angled toward each other on the wraparound porch. There’s also a man on the porch wearing work boots and a heavy coat, waving to us. “My dad,” Martin says, grinning.
“Your dad?” I say. “This is your house?”
“Don’t worry,” Martin says. “He doesn’t bite.”
When we get out of the car, Martin’s dad comes down the steps to meet us.
“Mr. Anderson,” I say, holding out a hand. He doesn’t take my hand. Instead he hugs me.
“Nice to see you, Claire,” he says, as if we know each other. I nod and look at Martin. He’s smiling, so I smile too.
“We’re not here for you, old man,” Martin says. “We’re here for the horses.”
“They’re all yours,” Martin’s father says. They look alike, have the same easy posture, the same crease between their eyebrows.
“No,” I say, putting up a hand and waving it. “No, no, no. I’m not an animal person.”
But Martin has me by the hand. He’s leading me toward two horses standing at the edge of a field. He shows me how to put my foot in the stirrup. “It’s easy,” he says. “Just swing your leg over.” I do what he says, and suddenly I’m in the saddle. Martin leads the horse forward at a walk, and I feel its muscles roll beneath the surface of its skin as it moves.
Eventually he gets on his own horse.
“Wait,” I say.
“Don’t worry,” he says. “Your guy will follow mine.” It’s true. My horse bends his head and follows Martin’s. We leave the paddock and enter the stand of trees behind the house. The ground is cold and crackles with frost under the horses’ feet. I shiver and look up at the bare branches overhead. I concentrate on staying upright, and after a while, I forget to be scared.
On the drive home it starts to snow. At Martin’s apartment, we get in bed and tangle our legs together. He tells me that sometimes, in the mornings, the sky here is hazy, particulate. For long moments he can’t remember where he is, believes he’s back in Iraq. He describes the feeling like he’s so awake he can hear the sound of his blood pumping through his neck. “I still hear it,” he says. “Even after I’ve realized where I am.” I kiss him and touch his neck, tell him his pulse is strong. When the sun wobbles on the horizon, shadows our faces and the room, he asks if we’re still being practical.
I look out the window. The snow is like a thick layer of silence. I know this isn’t the strategy my mom had in mind, but it’s warm in here. I stay the night and the next and the next.
* * *
When my parents arrive, I do the things you’re supposed to do with parents: eat regular meals, walk around, show off the campus buildings—the medical school, the university art museum. We pretend this is a normal visit. They don’t bring up the subject of Asher. Instead they look at me closely when they talk to me, stare into my eyes and nod, as if determined to see where they might find a seam, how they might stitch it up when they find it, present me to the world again, good as new. They don’t know what Asher was really like; they don’t know what happened the night before he died. Though they didn’t like him, they believe my reticence is grief, that the confusion is the confusion of loss, the guilt of having crashed. But it’s not just that, I know, as I watch them watching me. It’s the loss of the person I believed Asher to be, an idea that seduced me, a person who didn’t really exist. And it’s my shame at the lightness I feel now, the release of the spring Asher coiled up inside me, the fear that the lightness won’t last.
“Stand up straight,” my mother says. “You’re hunching.” As if it were as easy as that.
In my apartment, my dad asks if I need anything. He has brought groceries, stocked my pantry with things that don’t go bad: peanut butter and dry pasta, canned soup and beans. “Nothing,” I say. “Stop worrying.”
* * *
We have a dinner reservation at a restaurant in town, and I invite Martin. I think this will make everyone happy, but my parents eye me when I tell them not to mention the accident.
Conversation turns out to be easy. Martin asks intelligent questions about my mother’s time in medical school. She tells us there were fewer women then, that often she would be the only woman on rotation. “That must have been hard,” Martin says.
She shrugs. “You get used to it.”
Our entrees arrive, and my dad asks where Martin was stationed.
“Central Iraq,” he says. “Fallujah.” He doesn’t include the detail about the sand, but he patiently answers my parents’ questions. He explains that Iraq is entrenched in tribal and sectarian structures. Often if an Iraqi dies, his entire clan is obligated to seek revenge, to kill the perpetrator. “On the ground, the war is no longer political,” he says. “It’s become so personal.”
My parents are impressed. They smile at me while he’s talking. My dad asks Martin where he’s from, and my mom turns to me.
“We’re glad to see you doing so well,” she says, squeezing my shoulder. “We know it’s been tough.”
I can’t meet her eyes. I stare into my chocolate lava cake, a sick feeling gathering in the pit of my stomach. I feel like I can’t breathe.
I excuse myself to the bathroom, and Asher appears, as I knew he would, walking beside me with his dark curly hair and plaintive attitude, asking me how I could do this, how I can sit at this table pretending to be normal.
He follows me into the stall. We used to do things like this: have sex in restaurant bathrooms, then dissolve into tears or yelling, get kicked out for unruly behavior like drunks.
I sit on the toilet. You can’t be in here, I’d say to Asher. I want you so bad, he’d respond, kissing my neck, my collarbone. I don’t know how to say no to you, I’d say.
You don’t have to.
I wash my hands carefully and walk back toward the table. In the doorway to the dining room, I pause. The lights are low, and the candles on each table flicker charmingly, cause the room to glitter like a mirage. There are my parents, smiling at something Martin is saying, laughing. He is handsome and brave and well-spoken, and they are pleased.
You’ll move there and meet someone. Some doctor. And then you’ll leave me. I know you’ll leave me.
I rejoin the table, but when my mom asks if I want another drink, I shake my head. “We have early class tomorrow,” I say.
“We’ll let you go,” my dad says. Outside, we hug goodbye and Martin says it was great to meet them. My dad shakes Martin’s hand. “Take care of her,” he says.
We wave. Martin asks if I want to come over, but I tell him I don’t feel well, that I need to go home.
He seems confused. “But dinner went so well. Your parents are great.”
I say nothing.
“I can’t help unless you tell me what’s going on.”
“Please, not now,” I say.
“Is this about the accident?”
I look away from him at the wrinkled leaves strewn across the pavement. I know I’m supposed to say or do something to allay his anxiety, to make it go away, but the rhythm of Asher’s words is echoing in my head. You’ll meet someone. The rhythm is pained and triumphant, so sure and so scared. Some doctor.
“Don’t push me,” I say. “Please.”
“I’m not trying to push,” he says quietly. “I’m trying to be patient. But it’s hard when you won’t tell me why you’re upset.”
It’s too much, the chilly frustration in his voice, the pleading look in his eyes. “If being with me is so hard, you don’t have to do it,” I tell him. “No one’s forcing you.”
His lips settle into a brittle line. “Fine.” His voice is tired. “Go home, be alone. See if that helps you.” He turns and buries his hands in his pockets. He walks away, and I stand there, unable to move until he disappears around the corner.
When I get home, the frat boys are playing music from their porch. “Hey,” I yell before unlocking my door. “Can you keep it down?”
“We have rights,” they yell back. “This is our property.”
* * *
I believe that Asher’s death released me and bound me further to him. His love was real and not real, designed to make me feel complicit, at fault. I pity him and I hate him and I still love him, a part of me still waiting for him to call, to apologize, to ask for another chance. I know I wouldn’t give it to him, but I also know I would hesitate, and because of that hesitation, I will always wonder what it was about me that settled for his kind of love.
Even after the thump of music has long faded away, I can’t sleep and get up, put on my coat, and go outside. The air is freezing, and the moon is a delicate sliver of itself in the black sky. I start walking, and eventually I end up at the medical school. I stare up at the building, thinking how once we’ve done something enough times, we will continue to do it without thought. I let myself into the building, surprised and not surprised that it’s open late into the night. They’re preparing us for a life of odd hours, of work unsubscribed by day and night, light and dark.
Downstairs, Aberforth remains uncovered in a sea of uncovered bodies. The chemical smell is strong, but underneath it I detect another scent, something rusty and old. Colored paperclips mark the arteries in his neck to differentiate them, but his head is still whole. I find a needle and thread in the supplies at the back of the room and begin at Aberforth’s feet. My stitches are large and clumsy, but I manage to close up the cuts we’ve made down the length of his legs. The chest is more difficult; we’ve cut away the flaps of skin. I suture where I can, closing the skin across the jugular vein, over his small intestine. The skin is rubbery, and I have to push hard on the head of the needle to get it through. Though my fingers cramp and the room is freezing, I don’t stop, and I start to sweat. Eventually it’s just his chest cavity, the hole gaping where his heart used to lie in the cage of his ribs. There is no extra skin to pull across, and I put the needle down and step back, realizing there is nothing more I can do to hide the empty place at his center.
* * *
In the morning, I wake up late and bike to school in a rush. On the way, I convince myself that no one will notice, that I will be able to take out the stitches quietly, but when I walk in, the professor is calling the room to attention, and I can tell something is off.
“It’s against the rules to deface a cadaver,” he says. Deface seems like a strong word, but as I look around at the other cadavers, I see his point. They no longer resemble humans, they are just collections of parts, bones and skin, disassembled. By contrast, Aberforth—under the fluorescent lights and the curious gaze of my classmates—looks grotesque, like Frankenstein’s monster waiting to be revived. I train my eyes on the tiled floor, hold out hope that he’ll allow us to take out the stitches and move on. “We take this seriously,” the professor says as if responding to my thoughts. “People donate their bodies to medicine, and we have to treat them with respect. They are there for supervised dissection and individual study—not for play.”
He tells us we can’t start until someone comes forward, that he’ll wait. He clasps his hands in front of him, his face expectant, as if he’s sure there will be a reasonable explanation. Doctors, all of them, seem to want this: digestible information, a prognosis, a name for the inexplicable.
I hesitate, afraid that if I come forward I will jeopardize all the work I’ve done. Panic rises in my chest as I imagine being asked to take time off, to re-do the semester, and then Martin is moving toward the front of the room, standing near the professor, speaking quietly to him. We watch as the professor nods and grimly leads Martin out of the room to his office.
“I’ll take out the stitches,” I tell my learning team. I can feel them looking at each other across the table, raising their eyebrows, but I don’t look up, don’t give them an opportunity to ask me anything. As I cut through the stitches and peel Aberforth’s skin back, I imagine Martin lying for me, pretending that his PTSD is worse than it is, that he wakes up at night screaming, that he stitched up Aberforth because he needed to fix something, to make himself whole. I know how hard this must be, how compromised these lies must make him feel. But I also know that he’s doing it because he cares, because he feels responsible, and I wonder, as I pull out the last stitch, where the lines are between guilt and obligation, duty and love.
I put down the scissors and take off my gloves. Yvette asks where I’m going, but I don’t answer, just walk out and up the stairs to the office where Martin is sitting across from the professor.
I knock on the door and then push it open. I begin to speak, understanding finally how easy it is to let this hurt curdle into blame of those who are unsuspecting, those who want to help. It’s harder, I know, looking at their surprised and concerned faces, to take it on and then, little by little, to let it go.
Alyssa Northrop is a graduate of the Brooklyn College MFA program, where she was the recipient of a Truman Capote Scholarship, a Lainoff Scholarship, and the Himan Brown Award. Her nonfiction has appeared in East Magazine, and she is at work on her first novel.