By Susan Ito
The night before I start medical school, my mother, in her mama-san apron and mom jeans, squeezes my arm and smiles. “You ready for gakko? First day of class!”
I’m twenty-three, and my mother makes me feel like I’m five, heading off to kindergarten. She’s made me a lunch: three onigiri wrapped in tin foil, a package of chocolate cupcakes, and an orange. The same thing in a metal box for Dad. I ride with him on his NJ Transit bus over the bridge, then take two trains up to the Bronx. He drives the same route he’s had for decades. I bet I’m the only one in my class still living with my parents, commuting from Jersey to school. Most of the other students live in the hospital complex, but I’ve pared down the expenses to the barest minimum: no rent, no cafeteria meal card. Nothing but tuition and books.
I bend down to kiss her forehead. She’s only four-ten, and I stoop to reach her. “Later, Mom.”
She blinks from the front step. “You pay attention to the sensei. Be good.” I guess that means: get good grades.
My sensei for anatomy class is Dr. Alexander. He wears a paisley surgical bandana over his wild gray curls and chews on toothpicks from his lab coat pocket. I open my fresh notebook.
Dr. Alexander tells us that we will start with the bones. I had worried that they’d be scraped of flesh, boiled, dried out and hollow like Thanksgiving wishbones. But no, they are molded from heavy, ivory-colored plastic, and are pleasant to handle, like chunky puzzle pieces. Dr. Alexander hands out a typed list, so we can identify and check off the two-hundred odd pieces, the humerus hinged onto the radius, the thick discs of vertebrae stacked one upon the other.
Our task is to name each one, and put it in its place, from the hefty pelvis down to the tiny jewels of the inner ear, the cochlea like miniature seashells. My sort-of boyfriend and classmate, David, cradles the pebbles of hand bones in his palm. “Look, the hamate really does look like a ham.” We lay them out on the floor, next to our spread-open volumes of Grant’s Atlas of Human Anatomy and create whole people-sized skeletons. Alexander comes around with his clipboard to check us off. If we’ve got it right, we scoop the bones back into their boxes, and move on.
I don’t want to move on. I know it is going to get worse. I have been doing pretty well until now. Physics, organic chemistry, cell biology, all the dry sciences have been easy. It is the wet human science we are entering now, that frightens me. First dead people, then living ones, with pain and disease, looking to me for answers.
After identifying the bones, we are each assigned a yellow rubber apron, the strings damp and foul smelling. On the other side of the swinging metal doors is the cadaver lab. I have peeked through the windows of wire-crossed glass already, seen the long steel tables with the little troughs around the edges, the bodies covered in rubber sheets. I can smell that room even with the doors locked shut, a burning green smell that sets the back of my throat twitching. We enter tomorrow.
Dinner is gohan and string beans and eggs. I slouch over my plate and scowl like a teenager. My father doesn’t say a word—just shovels it down, slaps his transit hat over his head, and walks out. He’s signed on for the night route this week.
My mother tries to make conversation. “Nori-chan, did you see David at gakko?”
Of course I did. He’s the only one, besides me, from our class at City, who got into Albert Einstein. We’ve been clinging together ever since we got there, like two kids lost in the woods, Hansel and Gretel. “Yeah,” I grunt. “Yeah, I saw him.”
I don’t tell them that after we finished the bone class, we went up to his studio apartment at the hospital complex, and we fucked for an hour. I don’t tell them, nor did I mention to him, that I didn’t come.
My parents think David is a dream. It’s their dream that we both graduate medical school, that we open a His-N-Her family practice somewhere, and have a bunch of cute little hapa kids. It’s not a bad dream. It has its own seduction. There’s something beautiful and easy about it, a greased lane into success and happiness. But I don’t know if it’s my dream.
In the morning, we put on our stinky aprons. Alexander passes out dissection kits: the scalpel with its packet of tiny blades, the long metal probes, scissors, the fine ridged clamps. In the women’s room, I test the scalpel for sharpness, pressing it into the thick skin of my thumb. I’m shocked to see the crescent of blood, how it wells up so quickly. The red trickles down and forks along my wrist before I can wash it under the faucet. I am fascinated that it disappears when I wash it away, only to pulse up again instantly. When it starts to throb, I wrap it in a brown paper towel and press it down, hard, until the wound stays clean. I think about the next morning, when we will make our first slice into human flesh, with no answering flow of blood.
They are waiting there for us, eight quiet mounds. Name cards are taped at the head of each table, like at a dinner party. We have been assigned to alphabetical groups and so I take my place–Fujii—along with Friedman, Gutierrez and Hooper. Ann Hooper has the highest grade-point average in our class. She says it is because she prays to Jesus, and He in His goodness and wisdom plants the knowledge in her brain.
Ann kneels down at the side of our table, like a child at the edge of a bed. She squeezes her eyes shut and puts her hands together. “Thank you, Lord, for this blessed person’s generosity, in donating their body to our education–”
“It wasn’t generosity,” Alexander snaps.
All heads turn to look at him. Ann doesn’t open her eyes.
“These individuals who lie before you, ladies and gentlemen,” Alexander intones, his fingers held before him like a tent, “are not philanthropists nor intellectuals. They did not arrive here with your medical education in mind. Their presence here is their tragedy, but your gift.”
Ann has struggled to her feet. She grips the table with nail bitten fingers.
“These cadavers, my friends–” Alexander grins with a denturey smile, “—are courtesy of the New York City Morgue. They are bodies with no claim tickets, the unknown and unwanted. Society’s discards.”
Henry Gutierrez whistles through his teeth. His gelled hair stands up in black, trembly spikes. “Homeless people? Jesus.”
Alexander strolls through the room, patting the rubber blankets with an odd affection. “Ninety days, free rent, in the morgue,” he continues. “And if they’re unclaimed in that time…” He spread his arms out in a grand gesture. “They’re ours.”
The room is quiet as space, all the oxygen sucked away.
Alexander claps his palms together jovially. “All right now. Get out your Grant’s Atlas. Put it up on your bookstand and find the section on the axilla. Also known as the armpit.”
I feel sick. I look across the room at David, who has his dissection kit unpacked neatly on the metal tray next to his mound of very large cadaver. He winks and flashes me a thumbs-up. I press my lips together in some semblance of a weak smile.
Alexander’s voice cuts through the nervous chatter and rattling of tools. “All right, people. Fold up the plastic covering, neatly, and place it on the shelf below.” Henry G and I fold up the sheet, meeting with our toes touching, like a married couple doing laundry.
The body stretched out before us is wrapped like a mummy in layers of thick, reeking gauze, from head to toe. Alexander warns us not to let the cadavers dry out; final grades will be decreased by half a point if he discovers a body that isn’t properly wrapped and covered.
“The lab is open twenty-four hours a day,” he says, “and I encourage you to take full advantage of this liberal schedule. There is much to explore here, ladies and gentlemen.”
And then we start. We snap on our latex gloves and unpeel the gauze from his upper arms and shoulders. Henry and I gasp. Our man is minus one hand. “Ay, we’ve got a part missing.” The class laughs and Alexander nods.
“Congratulations, Gutierrez. That’s one-armed Oscar. You’ll have to double up when it comes time for the hands. He still has his armpit though, doesn’t he? The beautiful and mysterious axilla.”
Oscar’s underarm hair is sparse and tangled and I wonder if he used deodorant. If he had bathed by splashing cold water out of a sink at Grand Central. His skin is smooth as vinyl, a dusty beige gray.
Henry G hands me the scalpel, handle first. “You go, Fujii.”
I shake my head. “It’s okay. Go ahead.”
Dr. Alexander has drawn a large X on the blackboard, the shape of our first incision. “Once you’ve loosened up the skin,” he says, “fold back the four corners with flaps, like opening a box.”
Henry positions his two index fingers a hands’ breath apart and nods at me. “Here to here.” I glanced over at Ann and Friedman. They have already cut, lifted and separated, and are poking at a vein, shot through with blue dye.
I saw back and forth gingerly, barely breaking through the skin. Henry clicks his tongue. “Harder.”
I let the scalpel clatter onto the steel table. “You do it then.”
We stop speaking. Henry picks up the instrument and works as if he were alone, muttering, while I stand behind him like a shadow. He makes a perfect cross through the skin.
I lean over Henry’s shoulder and watch the textbook pictures swell into three dimensions: there are the delicate white cutaneous nerves on the underside of the skin. When the metal probe touches the nerve, I jump. I am not strong enough for this. There is a creature, bristly with fear, slowly inching up my esophagus. Its long claws poke at the back of my throat. I try to swallow it down but my mouth is dry. It inches up and up. I focus on a point somewhere above one-armed Oscar’s elbow. There is a blurred, purplish blue tattoo. An eagle, ready to pounce.
Henry locates the first dozen items on the list, and I stand behind him and check them off on the paper. Brachial nerve. By lunchtime I am dizzy and hollow, reeling from the fog of preservatives. The doors open and we pour out, blinking in the sunlight, taking in great gulps of fresh air.
I haven’t gotten used to it, the way Alexander said we would. It hasn’t gotten better. I hate coming into the lab at night, flipping up the switch, seeing those picked apart bodies in a flash of brightness. It’s a quick view of hell.
We finish the axilla, and then work our way down the arms. Since Oscar is missing his, from the elbow down, all four of us crowd around his left side. Every Friday, we have a quiz, which I either pass by a margin of one or two points, or I don’t pass at all.
My parents ask me how it’s going over a dinner of teriyaki hotdogs. I shrug. I can’t admit I’m on the verge of failing.
“Dai jobu, Nori-chan,” my mother says. But I’m not sure it really will be okay.
Every class, we see a little bit more of Oscar: his back, with some grayish moles, the flat stiff planes of his buttocks. The more we reveal, peeling away the stinking gauze, the more I want to know who he was. I ask Alexander. “Are you sure we can’t know who they are? Who they used to be?”
He chews on his toothpick until it frays. “Forget it, Fujii. Concentrate on the exam tomorrow. You’re one that can’t afford to be asking stupid questions. The real question is this.” He picks up a thick blue vein. “What’s this called?”
I chew my lip. “Portal vein? Hepatic?”
He turns away in disgust. “You don’t know.” He talks to the open door. “That had better change soon, Fujii, or you’re not going to be here come spring.”
His words, the threat of them, bring a strange thrill to my thorax. The thought of not being here in the spring is both nauseating and exciting. My parents would be devastated. My father working extra shifts to pay my tuition. My mother’s dream of her physician daughter.
I peer into the department office. The secretary’s desk is decorated with fake spiderwebs, baby pumpkins, and a bowl of miniature candy bars. Her skin is sprayed a silvery green color and I can’t help but think of the cadavers.
I get right to the point. “Do you have any information on the identities of the … the donor bodies?”
“Why would you want to know a thing like that,” she says, and smiles. Two of her teeth are like little fangs.
I call the police department’s non-emergency line. “Have there been any missing persons reported recently?”
The man on the other end barks a laugh. “Yeah, hundreds.”
“This was a man with one arm. An eagle tattoo.”
“Sixties, I think. That’s my guess.” My heart is hammering underneath my shirt.
“Any other identifying marks?”
“I don’t know. He hasn’t been fully unwrapped yet.”
The man barks again and says they can’t help me.
People can get lost. They can hide. I wanted to hide. I was the one slinking around the back of the high school. I was underneath the bleachers, sucking on the nubs of joints, my hand under Vivi Hernandez’ shirt.
My mother was volunteering at the concession stand that night. She was dragging a trash bag to the dumpster when she saw us, the maroon smear of Vivi’s lipstick on my cheek. The look of horror on her face, her mouth a round O of shock. Later, at home, her palm smacked the back of my skull, the only time she ever hit me. Don’t do that, she said. She couldn’t name what it was. Just that it was bad.
I decided I could change. I could live the proud existence for my parents. I’d made out with boys too, before, in middle school. I figured I was bi. I could go back to that. It would make them happy. I found David, and pulled straight A’s in the premed program at City. It seemed to be working.
One night, Dad and I walk from the bus terminal, over the concrete overpass to the George Washington Bridge. The sidewalk trembles from the traffic below, a sea of vehicles nosing their way across the river. He walks a little crooked these days. “One of these days, you gonna fix my ashii, ne?”
“I don’t know, Dad. I’m not sure I’m going into orthopedics.”
“What kind of medicine, then?” The edges of his eyes wrinkle and I know he likes saying it, imagining me in the white coat, any white coat.
“I dunno. Pathology, maybe. Microscopes, viruses. It’s … neater.” I hadn’t actually considered it until this moment, but the moment I say it, it is a relief. There are other options, radiology, pathology, things that didn’t involve the slime of human bodies.
He doesn’t seem disappointed, just nods, considering it. “Ah.” Just as we round the corner of our street, he stops and jingles some coins in his pocket. “Mommy and me, we’re proud of your hard work, Nori-chan.” His eyes are glistening. “Jozu-neh.”
I want to say, it’s too hard for me.
“Dai jobu,” he says. I don’t know if he means it’s going to turn out okay, or if it’s okay if I fail.
I take a long swallow and look back at the highway, the rumble and honk of traffic. “Thanks, Dad.”
At home, my mother has locked herself in the bathroom. We can hear the sound of water splashing through the door. A long, noisy bath.
When we finish with the upper arms, the legs and the back, we slice them open, throat to groin, and look at all the treasures inside—lungs, heart, stomach. We unwind the astonishing long intestines. Poke around at all the giant-sized giblets. Then we roll the cadavers over and do their backs and down the legs to the feet. I talk to Oscar as I pull the fascia from between his toes. Do you have children, old guy? Children who turned away from you? Did you refuse to accept who they were?
The bottoms of Oscar’s feet are covered in one big callous, layers and layers of pavement-toughened skin. He probably didn’t wear shoes for years. I’m shaking. I imagine faceless, armless, shoeless Oscar, pushing his shopping cart with one hand, toward an anonymous death.
David follows me around after class, his green eyes pleading. He doesn’t want to tell me he’s been acing all the exams, but I know. We go up to his apartment and have terrible, awkward sex, colliding knees, an elbow in the throat. Whoops. Ow. Sorry. He asks me to stay the night, and I say okay. All night, we can’t get comfortable. It’s impossible to sleep. We sigh and groan, moving back to back, back to front, until finally, around three in the morning, I fall into a restless dream. The smell of formaldehyde has permeated my sleep. I dream that I’ve got my arms around a corpse. It is a man with his skin peeled away, stippled all over with tiny pins. His face is wrapped in dripping yellow gauze. I wake up screaming and screaming in David’s ear, pushing away from him, backing into the wall.
He leaps out of bed in one motion, his eyes huge. “What IS it?” he shouts. “What! What!”
I can’t do anything but sob and twist the bedsheet.
I get dressed and walk away from his apartment complex, the three slim towers packed with students leaning over books, memorizing all the diseases, the terrible things that can happen to a person. There is a thin layer of snow on the ground, liquefying and turning into gray, crystallized puddles. I splash through them, kicking bits of gravel over the sidewalk, as I pass small row houses with single gables, houses like a child’s drawing, with a door in the center and a square window on each side. I pass the Italian bakery and the locksmith shop, my hands jammed into my pockets. I walk down Pelham Parkway to the subway entrance. Take the A to the 14 to the Bridge. Climb onto a bus that looks just like my father’s and sway across the bridge to home.
The midterm exam starts at eight in the morning. We line up, clutching our clipboards. There are the bodies, naked and exposed. There are dozens of little pins stuck into them, like the kind that you use to impale butterflies. Each pin with a tiny number taped to it, a miniature flag. We write a hundred numbers on our papers.
We look at the pins. Each pierced thing has a name. What is the name of this limp white cord, this blue tube? The blue is a hint. It is a vein. But is it the cephalic vein, the hepatic vein, the mesenteric vein? I don’t know. My brain has turned to mist, and I just write stupidly, ____VEIN? I hand my clipboard to Alexander, who glances at the paper and sucks air through his teeth.
I scrub my hands in hot water, let the industrial soap foam up to my elbows. Then I take the train up to the bridge terminal. I sit on a concrete bench where the buses come and go from Jersey, and wait until I see the 15A.
I climb on and sit behind the driver’s seat. Even though we’re not supposed to talk to or touch the driver, I rub my father’s shoulders through his uniform. He grunts and swings the wheel around. “Old man falling apart.”
I don’t say anything. I just squeeze his neck and watch the road over his shoulder, the same faded line he’s been following since I was little.
He stops the bus at the corner of Linwood. Our house is three blocks up the street. I stand up and turn to him for a second before I step down to the sidewalk. I want to say, Dad, I’m dropping out. I can’t do it. But the words are stuck like gauze to the inside of my throat, and I can’t pry them out.
“See you later,” he says, followed by a big sigh. Or is it the sound of the bus, sighing exhaust as it drives away?
Face Day is the day that the cadaver’s heads are unwrapped. When you can’t deny that they’re human. Alexander warns us that we might find them with frozen howls on their faces, of the still-opened, milky eyes. It’s a decades-old ritual that the first-years spend lunchtime at Clancy’s pub, two blocks from the hospital. Then they reel into the laboratory, and the formaldehyde fog is laced with beer and scotch. The gauze is pulled away from the faces with fumbling hands, and then the nightmares can be blamed on the alcohol.
I stand near the bar, order a beer and sip it slowly, letting the bitterness take the edge off my anxiety. We drink, and then lurch into the anatomy lab. Henry G’s carefully gelled hair looks as if it’s been through a blender. His glasses tilt on his face.
Dr. Alexander doesn’t mind students drinking before lab. In fact, he welcomes it in an amused, sadistic kind of way. It’s tradition. He has his own plaid thermos, and he lifts the little plastic cup in a toast to the madness.
David leans on the table, reaching out to steady himself, one hand at a time. He doesn’t look at me. Ann has her fingers on his arm.
The room is suddenly way too quiet. The sound of my rubber gloves snapping onto my wrists echoes from wall to wall. I look directly at Dr. Alexander, who squints in my direction.
“Let’s do it,” I say.
“Well, by all means,” he responds, waving his cup.
I untuck the tail end of Oscar’s gauze where it has been fastened near his neck. I cradle the dense weight of his head in my left palm and unwrap with the other, gathering the length of soft wet cloth into a ball.
The others are all watching me, swaying on their unsteady feet. Waiting for Oscar’s face.
The first visible thing is his chin, the small field of fine white stubble. Then, narrow wrinkled lips, opened slightly over a set of bad teeth. It isn’t a smile, it isn’t a frown; it is the ready position of a person about to say something.
I continue up past the cheeks, the surprising chiseled nose, its clean slope, the shallow craters above the jawline. His eyes are closed. There is a birthmark, a small perfect kidney bean, at the crest of his eyebrow.
“Hello, Oscar,” I say. “How good to finally meet.”
Slowly, gradually, the bandages fall away from the remaining seven bodies. They are completely naked now.
I lean over Oscar. Our faces are very close. Using the smallest tweezers, I tease apart the muscles around his eyebrows, his forehead. He wears a slight expression of worry. Dai jobu, I whisper, the way my parents say to me. It’s okay. I clean the fibers near his mouth, the ones that gave him language and chewing. For the first time, their names come easily to me. Orbicularis oculi. Zygomaticus minor.
Susan Ito is the author of The Mouse Room. She co-edited the anthology A Ghost At Heart’s Edge: Stories & Poems of Adoption. Her work has appeared in Growing Up Asian American, Choice, Hip Mama, Literary Mama, Catapult, Hyphen, The Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is a MacDowell colony Fellow, and has also been awarded residencies at The Mesa Refuge, Hedgebrook and the Blue Mountain Center. Her theatrical adaptation of Untold, stories of reproductive stigma, was produced at Brava Theater. She is a member of the Writers Grotto, and teaches at Mills College and Bay Path University.
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