Issue #6 |

A Hole in the Head

boston terrier on lawn

The first week of my first year of veterinary school started in mid-August but our first big anatomy exam was not until the beginning of October. For those seven weeks, I had thought I was doing okay. Or perhaps pretended is a better word. I probably knew everything was not fine, though from the distance of what was then the future, it’s difficult to gauge accurately the level of dissociation that fogged my brain.

The first exam was a practical, which means the students walk around from station to station with a pencil, an answer sheet, and a clipboard and try to identify anatomical features marked on a variety of cadavers. We had been told by our anatomy professor, Gupta (who had arranged all the cadavers on the tables and had gone around the night before, late into the wee hours like a pre-dawn Christmas elf, and denotated each anatomical feature we had to identify by sticking a little colored cocktail toothpick into it) that this first exam would focus mostly on dogs. He had said there might be a few cats, and possibly a rabbit or ferret here or there, but the take home message was study dogs. But I failed to do even that, nor did I study cats or rabbits, or any other species. I was too busy doing other things, like making lists of people to investigate should I be found dead in my apartment on Joy Street, on the distinctly iffy side of Beacon Hill.

The anatomy lab took up the entire basement of a square concrete building on the north side of Mass General’s hospital complex in Boston’s west end. From my apartment to the hospital complex was a fifteen-minute walk sprinkled with evidence of Beacon Hill’s trajectory-monuments from the American revolution surrounded by liquor stores and laundromats. On the day of the practical, I descended the stairs to the anatomy lab at 7:50 a.m., ten minutes early, which I figured would give me a few minutes to get the lay of the land. I was the last one of my classmates to arrive, which was disconcerting because I had wanted my choice of starting point for the exam. I had forgotten about the neurotic compulsion to overprepare that characterizes veterinary students and which included arriving for all exams at least half an hour early. Only one station was still empty so I had no choice but to start there.

The lab was brightly illuminated by glaring fluorescent lights and I could see immediately that nothing was as I had expected. There were more stations than I had anticipated and I felt overwhelmed by the sheer number of dead animals. Normally, on a non-exam day, about twenty stainless-steel tables were scattered throughout the basement, each holding a single dog cadaver that four students worked on dissecting together for the entire year. With our usual set up, there was a lot of space between each table, which helped slightly with the smell. The basement had little-to-no ventilation except box fans in the corners that blew the odor of dead things directly at you but didn’t replace any air in the space with other fresher, less disgusting air. With the tables all crowded together, the stench of dead things mixed with formalin hung more heavily than usual, increasing my nausea exponentially.

By my quick eyeball of the room, Gupta (for some reason the students called him Gupta and not Dr. Gupta, as they did other professors) had added at least forty additional tables to create a circuit for the practical, and some tables had more than one cadaver on them. My brief panicked survey also noted a few monkeys, at least three on three different tables, which threw me off as I had not even looked at the monkey cadavers during the brief hours of studying for this exam between headaches. I remembered Gupta ushering everyone into the cold room at one point and gesturing in the direction of an oil drums stashed in the corner and saying something like “monkeys are in that one” but that was the only time he had mentioned monkeys. The drums smelled awful and looked like something out of a cartoon drawing of a toxic waste dump. The cold room was a gigantic meat locker chilled to about thirty-eight degrees with metal doors that had handles only on the outside, so you could be trapped inside—potentially losing your life if no one knew you were there—if you let the door close all the way.

I had not spent much time in the cold room. I had spent a few minutes in it, though, the week before, and pried up the lid of one the drums, shivering in the frigid air. I always positioned myself facing the door so if someone tried to close it, I could stop them. When I lifted the lid of the drum, the first thing I saw was the miniscule face of a baby vervet staring up at me, its all-brown-and-no-white eyes open and its tiny features surrounded by a fringe of matted hair. The monkey, a male, floated on his back in the vat of formalin, a substance that closely resembles amniotic fluid in color and viscosity. His arms were spread out to the sides and his tiny penis flopped to one side despondently, never having had a chance to experience a more glorious state. Fishing the monkey out to look at him up-close was beyond what I could stomach and I closed the lid quickly. I was eight weeks pregnant. It, the fetus, he/she, whatever you want to call it, still had gills and I spent most of my day trying to quell a rising tide of nausea and counting the hours until I could take more Tylenol to dull the splintering headaches that started at the back of my neck and spread over the top of my head, then across my forehead to my eyes until I could no longer keep my eyes open.

The queasiness of pregnancy, in combination with the headaches and the fact that, thus far, vet school had been an inescapable and constant immersion in death, had made studying difficult if not impossible. The development office had, understandably, omitted the death-immersion aspect of our education from their promotional materials. Every brochure I had received from them before arriving on the admittedly pretty campus contained glossy photographs of smiling students—tall and fit outward-bound-leader-types, mostly women, dressed smartly in functional-yet-fashionable khaki-and-polar-fleece outfits, standing in verdant fields and surrounded by cavorting goats or foals. If the students were pictured indoors, they wore pristine white lab coats and were clustered around gleaming stainless-steel tables as they shined pen lights down into the warm eyes of alive and grinning golden retrievers. The students looked well fed and relaxed and the dogs and cats looked happy to be there, not either dead (the vast majority) or trying to bite me. In contrast, our actual lives were spent, day after day, cutting up dead things; not only dead, but rotting two months into the semester, due to poor tissue perfusion by the formalin that was supposed to prevent this decay but hadn’t. Our tired faces, our tense expressions, even our lab coats, looked nothing like the students in the pictures. Our coats were filthy because we had no time to wash them; I had no washing machine and the laundromat was always full unless you went at midnight. We had seven months left to go with those same cadavers, what difference did it make if your coat was smeared with blood and intestinal contents and why bother washing it when the next day it would just stink of formalin again and some other gunk—a piece of eyeball, a shred of muscle, a gob of brain—that would attach itself to whatever was already on there? I started leaving my lab coat outside my door so I wouldn’t have to smell it in my apartment, and also as a talisman to ward off my upstairs neighbor because I was afraid of him.


It just so happened that the empty station was at my own lab group’s dog, Rufus. I felt a little reassured by that, because I thought I would likely recognize whatever structure was pinned on the dog I was the most familiar with, and that starting with Rufus would give me a boost of confidence. I caught the eye of my friend and lab partner, Pierre, across the room and he raised his eyebrows and grimaced, then mouthed good luck. I nodded distractedly. Rufus had been donated to the anatomy course when he died; he was not what Gupta called “purpose-bred” which was a euphemism for “purchased from a breeder to be killed and dissected by vet students or medical researchers.” The purpose-bred dogs were mostly trim little shepherds and beagles; no fat on them—their whole lives had been spent preparing to be cut up or experimented upon. Some of the vet students refused to dissect a purpose-bred dog because they objected to animals being killed for the sole purpose of dissection, and Gupta had let them swap dogs with other students who didn’t care or who preferred a lab-bred dog because it was easier to see the anatomical structures since the animal was young and skinny.

Rufus was a shaggy old golden that had gone deaf and been run over in the driveway by his owner’s boyfriend because the dog had failed to hear the car. He had come with a note tucked inside the garbage bag he was in explaining how he had died and his name. When we had dissected his mouth and neck, these spaces were filled with wine-colored blood, now congealed so they had taken on the shape of the inside of his mouth and throat, entirely occupying the space of his oral cavity and making those structures impossible to see. The blood was dark and thick, almost black, and nearly unimaginable as a substance that had once zoomed around his veins in liquid form, giving life in the form of oxygen, salt, and metals. I found the dog’s bloody mouth particularly disturbing, as though he had been dining on his own bodily substances for his last meal. It had gotten to the point that when I started to eat something, I became distracted by picturing the little journey my food was making, and then the image of the retriever’s blood-clogged mouth popped into my mind. I felt as though my food couldn’t get past some similarly solid blockade, and then I had to stop eating for fear everything would come back up. As a result, I was always either hungry or nauseated and nothing in between.

We had ninety seconds at each station and there were sixty tables and a total of seventy-eight questions, which meant the entire exam would take one hundred and seventeen minutes. The alarm, which was a tomato timer, would ring again at the end of ninety seconds and then every ninety seconds after that. Once the exam started, you were supposed to proceed in order of the questions. That is, if you started at question fifty, you would go to fifty-one next, until you got to the last number, then go do questions one to forty-nine. This way, every station would have only one student and every student would get to every station by the end. There would be five minutes at the end to revisit any stations you had struggled with.

Gupta rang a little bell to signal we could begin, then twisted the tomato to give us ninety seconds. I looked closely at Rufus to see what had been pinned on him and it took me a few seconds to even locate the pin. It was stuck into a part of Rufus that our group had not gotten to yet; so much for the confidence boost of starting with my own dog. Gupta had peeled away the skin and muscles on Rufus’ mandible to expose the bone, and stuck a pin in a small hole about a third of the way from the front-end tip of the lower jaw. I knew that all animals with hinged jaws have these holes and I even knew what these holes in the head are for: they allow the cranial nerves and arteries to thread up through the jaw bone to reach the teeth, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember what these holes were called. Somehow other things than studying had seemed more pressing, including making an alphabetical list of all the people who ought to be questioned immediately should I be found murdered in my apartment. The list was longer than I thought it should be and creating it fed into a fantasy that frequently distracted me: that if someone did murder me there would be a side benefit, which was that I would not have to make a decision about the pregnancy. To be clear, I did not want to be murdered or harmed or feel any pain. I wanted someone or something to end my existence but in a painless, helpful, and nonviolent way. I wanted an option available only to vets, which was to be euthanized, “put down” as the veterinary industry calls it, a term that strips all agency from the doer to create an inevitable and merciful nonevent.

Since I could not come up with the correct term for this hole, I described its purpose, figuring Gupta would give me partial credit. I remembered one of the anatomists holding up a mandible and saying that in order to prepare anatomic skeletons, bones with tissue on them were placed in a closed terrarium full of beetles. After a couple of weeks when the bones were completely bare, they were removed and the terrarium was restocked with new, freshly fleshy ones. I wondered if people who donated their bodies to science were aware that some percentage of them were going to end up in terraria full of ravenous beetles. Random thoughts like these continued to eat up my ninety seconds at each station. At my second station, I lost track of time and was still staring at a twisted piece of muscle with a pin jammed in it, wondering how I was supposed to distinguish this muscle from the surrounding muscles when they all looked like beef jerky, when the tomato went off: BRRIING! The bell seemed to have gained about ten decibels since it last went off and my pulse raced, then jolted to a stop, and I dropped my pencil. I left that spot on my answer sheet blank.


The rest of the exam did not get better as it went on. Gupta had put out several of the pre-skinned cats, which had also been stashed somewhere in the cold room. The cats must have been boiled in water and then flayed in one piece, because they had no fur except on their heads and their skin was perfectly intact from the neck down, smooth as plastic. In addition to being disturbed by the thought they had been boiled alive, because their smooth little bodies bore no signs of having been killed some other way, I found it hard to make sense of a cat’s body with no fur on it. They looked somehow—even though the shape was all wrong and they lacked wings and had four long legs—like rubber chickens. They had little tags around their necks that said “Hecho en Mexico.”

At the next station, all I could think of was how perfectly round the woman to my left’s head was; she was bending over the dog, directly in my line of vision, so I could barely see the structure I was supposed to be identifying. The alarm went off again, and I left the next question blank as well. I put a little star next to the two empty lines on my answer sheet and jotted the words come back! It felt as though all I was doing at each station was standing and waiting for the alarm to go off, my gaze caroming from pin to pin on each dog, following no particular order, desperately hoping my eye would fall on some structure I recognized so I could write down its name. At some point one of my classmates, I didn’t see who, patted my shoulder and said, “only one more hour to go.” I must have looked perturbed, strange.

In psychology jargon, when rats stop trying to get off a hot plate after they’ve been shocked repeatedly, it’s called learned helplessness. It usually takes rats a few hours of being repeatedly subjected to pain with no means of terminating that pain to achieve such a state, but with my larger brain I had accomplished it, with only a ringing tomato as stimulus, in about half an hour. At each station I stood there and waited for the alarm to go off again and it took all my concentration just to anticipate the noise and not be startled by it. I watched my knit their brows and carefully pick up little pieces of flesh with their probes, trying to identify structures around the labeled one, to arrive at a logical, correct answer. For the final five minutes, I sat on a stool and watched everyone run back and forth between the three or four particularly difficult stations, the ones that had really stumped them. I didn’t bother going back to the seventy-one questions, out of a total of eighty, I had left blank.


When the exam was over, I left quickly, not staying to chat and compare answers with anyone else. I made it a safe distance from the hospital, where I was sure none of my classmates would see me, before finding a bush to throw up into. I made the mistake of looking into the center of the bush while I was bent over it and a shiny pair of close-set eyes looked back, more challenging than afraid of me. Boston did not appear to be making a lot of progress with its rat problem, judging by my walk to and from school, and this one did not like the idea of sharing its potentilla bush with a torrent of my stomach contents.

I made it home without any more vomiting and lay down on my bed. When I closed my eyes to rest, which seemed to help with the nausea, the name of the hole in the jaw flashed across my mind—the mental foramen. “Mental foramen,” I said out loud. “What the hell is wrong with you, how could you forget that?” I didn’t really know anyone in Boston, or anywhere close by, which meant that any meaningful conversations I was having were taking place either within my own brain or on the phone with friends or relatives who were far away. As a result, I had started talking to myself as a way to calm myself down. I wasn’t even talking to Philip much, the baby’s father, who was back in New York. He was working late and I was, in theory, studying late, and there never seemed to be a good time.

My walk to school passed by the women’s clinic in Chinatown, where anti-abortion protestors marched with placards, and zealots from both sides of the issue desperately tried to make eye contact with passersby, as if an exchange of glances alone could convert someone to a particular viewpoint. Several nationalities of mostly Asian women streamed in and out of the low concrete building looking remarkably businesslike, as if they had just fulfilled one more mundane errand and now they were late for something important and really ought to be getting a move on. Rarely, one of the women would be crying. They were always alone or with other women, never with men, which made me feel better. This absence of men made me think it was proper that men have no part in the process, rather than that I had been left high and dry, which was what I felt most of the day, even though Phillip claimed to want to proceed with having a baby.

That night, after barely keeping down a bowl of corn soup from Au Bon Pain, I sat at my desk and arranged my file of people to investigate should I be found dead in my apartment. While the idea of being euthanized was appealing, I didn’t want anyone to get away with actually murdering me. On the contrary, I was creating cross-referenced lists to ensure that the person, should he take the next step, would suffer the consequence. Under “N”, cross-referenced under “U”, I put Neighbor, Upstairs, whose name I did not know. His name was not on his mailbox; either he didn’t get any mail or the mailman knew who he was and didn’t dare to, or care to, ask him to put his name on the slot. “Approx. five foot five, always unshaven, dark hair with severe dandruff, crazy look in eyes” I jotted on the index cards I had bought in order to make flash cards for studying. This seemed like a better use for them. I had already made two full cards for the neighbor. Card one: “Mutters to himself in stairwell on occasions when he leaves building (rarely); probably involved in subterranean crime world because when he plays his answering machine, one message goes on for forty-five minutes, always male voices, could only be painstakingly describing location of dead body or drug stash.” Card two: “Motive for killing me: one night at three in the morning, I went upstairs to ask him to stop typing with his manual typewriter resting on a chair because it makes the chair legs bang up and down on his floor, i.e. my ceiling. Never got my request out because he answered the door in his underwear, then slammed the door shut in my face before I could get my question out. Since then, has made slit eyes at me in the hall and refuses to move out of the way when he is blocking the stairs.”

Under “D”: Danspeckgruber, the reproductive physiology teacher: “One of those PhDs who calls himself “doctor.” Very short blonde hair, toothbrush-style mustache without an accompanying beard, Holocaust-denier type. Often wears tight-fitting flesh-colored or butter-yellow turtleneck.” I have always believed that a high proportion of people who later go around the bend could have been stopped if men who owned more than one tight turtleneck were automatically locked up for a six-month observation period. Danspeckgruber drove a little yellow Porsche, in which I had seen him peel out of the faculty parking lot and almost run over a three-legged miniature Schnauzer being brought to the hospital. He had kicked me out of class one day because I rolled my eyes when he, with a large smirk on his face, told the class for the tenth time, about his and his wife’s trials and tribulations charting her vaginal temperature when they were trying to conceive. Feeling that I had been unjustly treated and in addition was way too old to be kicked out of class, I wrote a letter to the Dean, outlining Danspeckgruber’s inappropriately personal lecture material and subsequent abridgement of my student rights. I had expected the Dean to give Danspeckgruber a little rap on the knuckles by way of telling him to keep his and his wife’s sexual foreplay out of the classroom, but my letter coincided with the mysterious death of two macaque monkeys in Danspeckgruber’s lab. The Animal Welfare Committee had been pushing for an investigation and, right after my letter came, the school suspended Danspeckgruber for a year while they looked into the matter. I had been awaiting retaliation ever since.

Under “P” I filed the Picnicker. The Picnicker fell into that dangerous, shadowy realm between stranger and acquaintance. Studies have placed people in this relationship to murder victims as the one most likely to have committed the crime. I had met the Picnicker at a Boston Market near my apartment.

His icebreaker: “You’re only eating vegetables. This is a chicken restaurant.”

Me: “Yes, I’m a vegetarian.”

The Picnicker: “Good for you! I’m heading that way myself.” He stood in line next to me, averting his eyes from his tray as if not looking at the gravy-slathered chicken legs and breasts could transform them into a heap of objects that had lacked central nervous systems their whole lives. “Right after Thanksgiving,” he said, “I think I’ll go for it. I have to have turkey one last time before I call it quits.”

I nodded. This was in late September, before I’d realized I was pregnant, and Thanksgiving seemed light years away. I was planning to go home to Chicago for Thanksgiving for the first time since starting school. Outside my windows on Joy Street the heartbreaking rustle of dry leaves had already begun, and all night I heard their collusive whisperings. Once or twice a night, between midnight and six a.m. the vaguely cheerful tinkle of breaking glass entered my dreams as a Beacon Hill wino dashed an empty bottle to the ground in frustration, or perhaps in celebration, there was no way to tell. I often awoke unrefreshed, my tongue thickened as if I had been drinking alcohol or eating salty snacks at a party I had attended in my sleep, a party full of people I had absolutely no desire to talk to.

I double-listed the Picnicker under “R” for Rashid, which was his first name. Rashid had lovely, thick wavy black hair, green eyes, and gold-rimmed round glasses. He was about my height, five three, but with much shorter arms and legs, giving him a toddler-like appearance not helped by his wearing sneakers with Velcro closures. He drove a blue 4Runner which he had to clamber into because the floorboard was so high. Everything on him was small, except his eyes and their long black eyelashes; he had a short, upturned nose and a soft doughy chin, which made him look like he was made out of cookie batter and had been taken out of the oven when he still needed about ten more minutes of baking. The Picnicker was a computer programmer. For some reason, probably out of sheer loneliness, I had given him my phone number when he asked for it in the Boston Market. For our first outing we’d gone on a picnic, his suggestion, to Mt. Auburn cemetery, my suggestion. I had wanted to go to Mt. Auburn because I had a picture of it in a book. In the book, the cemetery looked murkily, shabbily beautiful, and I wasn’t disappointed when I saw the real thing. That day, the sky was purple and grey, morose in its washed-out colors, managing to recreate the scratched, broken look of the photograph, which had been printed off a glass negative and was from the Civil War era.

The cemetery was empty but I couldn’t concentrate on the gorgeous dilapidated mood of it because Rashid talked incessantly. He had prepared several varieties of grilled vegetables and wine and cheese and I was impressed at his effort in spite of myself. He had brought a whole basket-set, with cloth napkins and a wine opener, blue plates. Our second outing was also a picnic, his suggestion, and we walked the Freedom Trail, his suggestion, then sat outside the Old North Church and ate grilled vegetables, wine and cheese. Same basket. Rashid is one of those first-generation immigrants who were born in a different country and who knows more American history than you, who were born and raised here and graduated from an American high school and a first-rate American college, do. As we passed various historic monuments, he talked about who had attended the first Continental Congress and seemed to have read every piece of correspondence George Washington had ever penned or received.

By the time of our third get together, I had realized I was pregnant. This time we had met and picnicked in Harvard Yard. While Rashid was rattling off factoids about Harvard’s founders, I thought about what was swimming inside of me. The night before I had dreamt that I’d gone ahead and had my baby, but I hadn’t told anybody. Afterwards, I kept it secretly in a fish tank in the refrigerator. The baby—it seemed like a boy—had managed, cleverly, to hang onto his embryonic gills so he could stay alive in the fish tank. When I wanted to hold him or nurse him, I reached into the water and gently plucked him out and his gills gaped and flapped in the air helplessly. When I clasped him to my chest, he was so chilly he sucked the heat right out of me, as though his tiny little body contained the entire volume of some cold briny sea. Just before I put him back in the refrigerator, I looked down and he had turned into a puppy. His head was domed and furred and his nose was black and wet when it nudged me, looking for my nipple.

Rashid had brought the same grilled vegetables and basket, different wine and cheese. This was aggressive picnicking and I decided I’d had enough. I watched affluent students crisscross the yard while I nibbled at a roasted eggplant, waiting until enough time had passed so that I could politely claim I had to get home to study. To ease the passage of my food I tried to imagine my esophagus as a long hollow tube with an unobstructed shot to my stomach, but it was useless. Food is supposed to make its way down after being swallowed by pushing the esophageal walls apart, propelled by the synergistic contraction of various muscles; but my eating apparatus didn’t seem to be working properly. I had become overly aware of the physiological processes of everyday life, and as a result some of those processes had gone on strike. I felt as though my muscles were contracting individually and meaninglessly, with no input or coordination from their neighbors, causing my food to churn and rotate uselessly, making no headway toward my stomach. Unbidden, the wad of eggplant came back onto my tongue and when Rashid wasn’t looking I held one of his neatly ironed periwinkle linen napkins to my lips and spat into it. I tried not to think about him shaking out the napkin when he got home and dislodging my secret soggy grey mass onto the floor of his kitchen.

It wasn’t just the mechanics of the movement of food that I had become aware of; there were times when I could apprehend the chemistry of my entire body, times when I could feel my baby spinning slowly and gracefully inside me, when I could hear the snap and click of molecules in my blood coming apart and back together, their movements and configurations guided by an enzyme-engineered purposefulness I could only envy. These were truly some of the most beautiful sensations I had ever experienced and I knew I would not encounter them again soon, or maybe ever.

In the 4Runner while Rashid was driving me home from our final picnic, his head barely peeping over the steering wheel—I swear he was looking through the gap in the wheel to see the road—I told him I didn’t think we should see each other again. He looked at me with disappointed eyes, hurt glittering through the thick lenses of his glasses.

“Why not?” he asked. “I thought things were going well. Was I wrong?”

“Not wrong, exactly, just not right. You know how it is when you’re in school. I have a lot of exams coming up and this isn’t a good time to be starting anything for me. I’m sorry.”

Rashid rested his forehead on the wheel, which was only a few inches away from him anyway. “I had really hoped this was going to work out,” he said. The car swerved close to a lane of traffic going the other direction on Storrow Drive.

“Hey! What are you doing? Watch the road, you’re making me nervous.”

He took his head off the wheel and looked at the road blankly as though he didn’t recognize it as a surface he needed to keep the car on. “Can I call you in a month?” he pleaded. “Will things have quieted down by then?”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

He looked at me for a second or two and his long eyelashes wipered slowly over his eyes a couple of times, giving him the appearance of a very small, very short-necked giraffe. “Are you saying you could never love me?”

“I don’t even know you,” I said. “I’m sure you’re a very nice person, but I don’t think this is a fruitful path to go down. In fact, it’s a ridiculous path.” I don’t know why I didn’t tell him I was in no state to date; or, that I had a partner, however un-partner-like he was acting; or, the mother of all reasons why I didn’t want to date him, I was pregnant.

“This is why I need you in my life,” Rashid said. He had turned his attention back to Storrow Drive. “You call me on things, like when I get carried away like that. Thank you for worrying about my safety at a time like this. I think that’s what real love is, don’t you? Putting the other person first?” I shrugged my shoulders and didn’t say anything else until we had exited the Drive and made the three or four turns that allowed us to go one way the right way down Joy Street. Rashid stopped the car outside my door. The Upstairs Neighbor was making one of his rare forays into the outdoor world and as I got out of the car he squinted at me furiously then scurried down the hill, his greasy black hair reflecting the hard sunlight like a beetle’s shiny carapace. It was about forty-five degrees out but he was wearing a sleeveless white undershirt and I could see the hairs sprouting from his underarms and back.

I got out and walked around the car, then put my hand through the rolled-down driver’s window to shake the Picnicker’s hand. He had blue cheese under his thumbnail. “Thank you for grilling all those vegetables,” I said. “Good luck with your vegetarianism and everything.” I walked to my front door and unlocked it without looking back, hoping my rudeness would dissuade him from calling me again.

It didn’t, and over the next few weeks he left messages on my phone at strange hours, hours when I didn’t answer.  At 1:00 a.m. my phone would chirp and I’d turn over in bed, half-hoping it was Phillip, and when I listened to the voice mail I’d hear Rashid’s voice saying: “Jessica? Are you awake? Call me at work, that’s where I usually am till about two or three in the morning. I hope it’s okay that I’m calling so late, I just wanted to wish you—” and he paused darkly—“sweet dreams.” It was those last two words which threw me into a panic.

It was after the third message of Rashid’s which concluded in this fashion that I started making the file because it was preferable to listening to the Upstairs Neighbor type on his chair, simultaneously waiting for Rashid to come over and finish me off while I looked at pictures of a dog’s interior in which nothing looked familiar, even organs like liver or lungs, which I certainly should have been able to identify from common sense or from hours in childhood spent hovering over the Operation board with a pair of tweezers.

My last face-to-face contact with Phillip had been four weeks earlier, when he had helped me drive to Boston and move my things to Beacon Hill. Now, he was back in New York, bartending and trying to get his band, Sputnik Ruth, off the ground. Phillip and I had lived together for two years, and we had decided to try to stay together while I was in school. I had wanted him to move to Boston with me, but he wanted to give Sputnik Ruth a chance and we had agreed to reassess at the end of the year, when I came home to spend the summer. The day before Phillip was due to head back to the City, we went to the CVS in the little strip mall at the end of Joy Street and bought a home pregnancy test because I was late, but I already knew what it would tell me.

I locked myself in the bathroom and didn’t come out when Phillip knocked on the door to ask me the result. The bathroom was so small there was no room to lie on the floor and cry, especially with the cat litter box under the sink, so I put the lid of the toilet down and sat on it and cried with my head in my hands until I got a neck ache. Phillip gave up after a few minutes of knocking and then everything was quiet except for my crying.

Later, when I came out of the bathroom and we talked, Phillip said all the right things, that he loved me and that the decision was, finally, up to me. At one point he said, “I’m weirdly happy. Happier than I’ve ever been,” which was disconcerting because I felt only a sickened panic that made my brain shut down when I tried to think through any of my options. We had five or six of these conversations in the twenty-four hours before he left, most of which I wept through, and at the end of each of them Phillip would say: “I think we should have it; I could move to Boston when the time comes. Or you could come back—we’ll figure something out.” What, exactly, we would figure out remained unclear. Then he’d look at me accusingly and say, “Aren’t you even a little bit happy?”

And I really did not know, I didn’t even know if I was the tiniest bit happy about the idea of another life inside of mine. Had I really gotten to the point where I couldn’t distinguish happiness from other emotions which were supposed to be qualitatively different, like fear and panic? Every drop of emotion ran together and the combined effect was a river of anxiety that flowed beneath every thought. I started examining my feelings all the time, trying to pick out a little flicker of happiness from the rubble of my emotions, the way you might try to pick out a satellite careening around in a sky full of stars. At the end of the weekend, with nothing decided, Phillip went back to our apartment, now just his apartment, leaving me to unpack and start classes.

There were so many things coming between me and a decision. It had taken me three years of course work to get ready to start veterinary school, and it seemed a shame to give it up already, after only four short weeks. By the same token, however, those four weeks had been miserable, and a reason to chuck it all and move back in with Phillip was attractive. Also on the minus side was that Phillip’s family had a strong vein of mental illness, more like a major artery, running through it and sometimes I thought the only reason he wanted a baby was to provide a clean slate for his whole family to start afresh with, to sort of wipe out all that had gone wrong up until then: his brother’s suicide, his other brother’s schizophrenia—there was a lot one might like to erase. But when I tried to imagine my life with Phillip and our baby, I couldn’t. Me, home changing diapers, while Phillip was at Sputnik Ruth rehearsals until three in the morning? Or Phillip home all day with the baby in my tiny apartment, trading gossip with the Upstairs Neighbor, while I sat through interminable hours of lecture, running out during ten-minute breaks to pump my aching breasts in the women’s room? All the scenarios seemed untenable, not to mention financially unfeasible.

When I finished arranging the file of people who ought to be investigated should I be found dead, it included five names: the three locals and two out-of-towners—a woman whose boyfriend I had made out with at a party in high school, right in front of her face, who had never forgiven me and later gone on to have a nervous breakdown, for which I always thought she secretly blamed me, and a Japanese guy I had dated in college who sent me threatening letters for years after we broke up, saying I had refused to sleep with him because he was Japanese, and that I must be one of those racists who believed the myth that Japanese men have small penises. This was simply not true. In fact, I had never even heard of this myth until he mentioned it in his letters. I hadn’t slept with him because he had severe garlic breath and any direct or indirect contact with garlic makes my tongue swell so it takes up my whole mouth and I feel like I’m choking.

I put the five index cards in a manila envelope, wrote OPEN IMMEDIATELY on it and taped it to the inside of the front door. Then I went to bed without studying any more. I had another headache, and I got in bed and propped myself up with pillows so I could try to fall asleep sitting up. My headaches got worse when I lay down. They often lasted all night, and I barely slept at all. I had gone to Barnes and Noble and bought all the books I could find on headaches, and I was convinced I was experiencing cluster headaches. Forty percent of people with cluster headaches have hazel eyes, which I have, and the headaches usually occur when the days start to get shorter. One of the books said that people had been known to kill themselves to escape from an acute attack of cluster headaches, that’s how pernicious they could be. Another book said they can be triggered by chemicals like oven cleaner or formalin (I spent plenty of time around the latter), the kinds of substances you always knew were malignant but hadn’t suspected were capable of actually destroying your brain tissue. There was no mention of a correlation with pregnancy in any of the books, but all of them had been written by male doctors.

That weekend, I didn’t leave my apartment. My head was wracked by waves of pain and I lay on my bed trying to hold my head upright and never to let any more blood into it, by doing things like bending over, than was strictly necessary. I had many conversations with the embryo.

Don’t you want to come out, I asked him, out into this vast and intricate world? Why do you stay cooped up in the dark with your eyes closed?

And he answered me, a little condescendingly I thought, there is no other world, I only know what I’ve experienced. And then he murmured something I didn’t quite catch but sounded like, didn’t you know I would be hard to undo?

My phone rang and I didn’t pick it up, except when my mother called. Then I cried raggedly into the phone, but I couldn’t bring myself to explain the whole situation and when she said, using her voice which is able to capitalize particular words, that I was indulging in Unproductive Behavior and that I should see a therapist as well as a neurologist for my headaches, I told her to leave me alone and hung up.

She called back an hour later and said, “We’re worried, we’re very worried. I’ve gotten a name for you. She’s a neurologist. We’ve already had Dr. Smyers,” our family doctor, “call her and tell her you would be calling, she’s expecting to see you on Monday. This is ridiculous. You could have a brain tumor or something.” Then she handed the phone to my father without saying goodbye to me. My father listened to me sob for a few seconds and then said, “Jessica, Jessica, my girl, life is too short to be this unhappy,” which, combined with my mother’s saying I probably had a brain tumor, made me cry harder.

Monday morning, I called the neurologist but she was in a meeting and I didn’t call again. I dragged myself to afternoon classes and we got our exams back, along with a little sheet of paper, a computerized printout with our names and grades. My sheet had no score, just my first and last name, then a blank space where my score should have been, and a handwritten note on the top that said, “Please see me—Gupta.”

When classes were over, I made my way slowly to Gupta’s office in the back corner of the anatomy lab. It was the first time I’d been in the lab since the exam. I knocked on his door and he opened it and gestured to an arm chair on the other side of a messy desk strewn with various bones. Gupta was slender, with dyed black hair that he swirled around on his head to spread it over his bald spot, which made his hair look flossy and aerated, like black cotton candy.

From across the desk, Gupta gazed at me sadly and a bit quizzically. “So, Jessica,” he said. “Something happened? What was it? Is everything fine with you?”

I paused for a long time trying to decide whether I could be honest. “No,” I finally said. “Nothing is fine.”

“What is wrong?”

I decided to leave out the fact that I was pregnant and that the baby’s father did not want to talk to me. “I’ve been having headaches,” I said. “When I get them, I can’t think. No information can come in or out of my brain, it’s as if every receptor in my head has been converted to a pain receptor.” What was I saying? In addition to being a veterinarian, Gupta had a PhD in neuroanatomy. “So I didn’t study enough.”

He let my voodoo science pass unnoticed or unremarked upon, I didn’t know which. “It must have been very severe. You only put down three answers.”

I watched him closely, but his face betrayed no signs of sarcasm.

“It was. I may be allergic to formalin. I knew someone who was and she had to drop out of vet school.”

“That’s a very rare allergy,” Gupta said. “Have you tried acupuncture for your headaches?”

I said no, I had only tried painkillers.

“Western medicine knows very little about the brain. If I were you, I would go for acupuncture and stop messing with these painkillers. They are probably making it so you cannot think. Pain killers do not treat any condition, they do not even control pain.” He smiled, as though he had just said something kind or supportive such as “I really like your shoes!” or “You are the best student in this class!”

“I’ll tell you what I am going to do,” he continued. “I am not going to count this exam in your grade. It will be as though this exam never happened. I will just average your next two exam scores. But if this happens again, I’m going to have to fail you. Does that sound fair?”

“Very fair. Thank you, Gupta. It’s very kind of you to understand.” I wanted to explain more fully, explain about the baby and things he said to me late at night when I was alone and sitting on the kitchen floor, but self-preservation kicked in. “I appreciate that a great deal.”

He nodded and patted my hand. His small brown palm was surprisingly smooth. I thought to myself that if he died right this second, his hands probably wouldn’t start to decay for about ten years because they spent most of the day immersed in formalin. He had been embalmed while he was still alive.

“Go see Dr. Song, on Bromfield Street,” he said. “Above that fancy pen shop. Tell him Gupta says hello. He’s an old friend.”


Dr. Song’s office consisted of one small room with ugly brown tile floors and a massage table in the middle of it. There was no waiting area, only a couple of Formica chairs lined up against the wall and a large desk facing out toward the room. Dr. Song sat behind the desk, with his back to the rear wall, pince nez half way down his nose, writing something on a poster-sized piece of tagboard in a language I didn’t recognize. Why had I ignored my mother’s advice and not called the neurologist back? I could have been sitting in a plush suede armchair at Beth Israel hospital, sipping complimentary herbal tea and leafing through Self magazine while I watched out of the corner of my eye people tremble and jerk uncontrollably, people with real neurological problems who were bound to be far worse off than I was, people who faced the prospect of continued, irreversible deterioration; people whose bodies might never be entirely still again until they were dead.

I hesitated at the door, and Dr. Song looked up and said “Come in,” not very graciously, as though I were interrupting something important.

“I called yesterday and made an appointment with you,” I said. “Dr. Gupta gave me your name.”

“Oh, Gupta,” he said with a sigh. “Is he still trying to put all the Halal butchers out of business?” he chuckled. “He is quite a fanatic on this subject.”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “I’m in his anatomy class at the veterinary school. I didn’t know he was interested in Halal butchery.”

Dr. Song shrugged and lifted one eyebrow, as if to say that teaching vet students was just a tedious little sideline of Gupta’s life which he pursued to pay his bills, and my ignorance as to Gupta’s true calling—the protest of Halal butchery—had instantly relegated me to the realm of the barely-worth-talking-to.

“So, what is the problem?” Dr. Song said. He came around the front of the desk and leaned his rear end on the edge of it. “You may sit down, if you wish,” he said, waving dismissively at the chairs.

I took off my knapsack and perched on the chair closest to the door. For some reason, maybe because I felt like I was at the principal’s office, I had to squash the sudden urge to tell him everything. But all I said was, “I have headaches. All the time.”

“You are depressed? Melancholy? Lacking in good appetite?”

“Yes, but the headaches only started about a month ago.”

He reached over and touched me on the left temple and then the right, very lightly. “Hmm,” he said. “Perhaps a declining kidney.”

“Why would my kidney be declining? I’m a healthy twenty-eight-year old.”

“Obviously not,” Dr. Song snapped, not hiding his annoyance at my questioning of the diagnosis. “Please lie down on the table. Take off your shoes. What’s your Chinese birth sign?”

“Snake,” I said. I slipped off my sneakers and lay down on my back.

He frowned. “Snake. Many reproductive problems. The snake is always ruled by the genitals.” He turned around and picked up an electrical box on his desk and turned a few dials on it. Then he plugged the cord coming out of the box into the wall. The box had several wires coming out of it, with small clamps attached to them. After he had placed several acupuncture needles in my temples, behind my ears, and around my eyes, he attached the clamps to some of them to deliver current through the needles. My whole head began to tingle.

I couldn’t tell how many needles Dr. Song had inserted when I realized I knew what I was going to do, and that there was no point in trying to talk to Phillip about any of it. I had long suspected but hadn’t wanted to face the fact that nothing can end well with someone you meet in a bar. The last time I had talked to Phillip, I had called him crying for the third time that week, and a few minutes into the conversation he’d said abruptly, “How long am I going to have to deal with this?” There was loud music playing in the background and I was suddenly positive he had someone over. His voice had a loose huskiness it only took on when he had been drinking, which made my stomach tighten because he was supposed to be on the wagon. I had replaced the phone in its cradle without replying and I had been waiting for him to call me back ever since, which was five days ago. But now I saw that just the question itself had blasted a canyon between us that could never be bridged because the answer, as it applied to me, at least, was for the rest of my life.

Afterward, when Dr. Song had removed all the needles and told me we were finished, as I put on my shoes I deliberately let myself bend over so blood would rush into my head. Nothing happened, no pain or dizziness or the flashing lights at the edges of my vision I had become accustomed to in the past month. I straightened up and got two twenty dollar bills out of my wallet and handed them to Dr. Song. He nodded and folded them into his shirt pocket.

As I put on my coat, Dr. Song said, “I am leaving now to go to the New England Medical Center.” He reached for his coat from a hook on the wall, a long grey overcoat like the ones Russian soldiers wore in World War I.

“Me too,” I said. Our library was inside the hospital complex and I was weeks behind on my assignments.

“We will walk together then,” he said. “I do some free acupuncture there for the Chinese community.” A scratched black briefcase was lying on his desk and he picked it up, along with a wooden walking stick with a carved head in the shape of a monkey which was leaning against the desk. I put on my knapsack.

We didn’t talk as we walked. When we came to the edge of Chinatown, he pointed to an abandoned lot catty-corner to us. “That way,” he said. “It’s shorter.”

I would never have thought to cut through the lot by myself, since it was empty and at the edge of a ratty neighborhood full of adult video stores. In fact, I had never even looked closely at the space abutting this direction of the intersection, though I had stood at that crossing many times. A highway overpass cut across one corner of the lot, and as we entered through the chain-link gate a brindled pit bull emerged from the shadow cast by the overpass. He stopped about fifty yards from us and stood and considered us calmly, with that overconfident smile on his face that pit bulls always seem to be wearing because their mouths head back toward their ears at an angle.

Dr. Song saw me eyeing the pit bull. He held up his walking stick, which had not touched the ground since we had left his building, and shook it in the general direction of the animal. “I always have this stick,” he said. “In case there come a dog.”

Oh, there will, I thought. If there’s one thing you can be certain of, it’s that there will come a dog.

Photo courtesy of pirate renee; view more of her work on Flickr

Leslie Bienen is a fiction writer, science journalist, and researcher. Her work has appeared in Ploughshares, Chattahoochee Review, Cream City Review, and Scoundrel Time, among many others. She was a James Michener Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. She was a regular contributor to Frontiers and The Environment for many years. She has published in …

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