The first day of medical school, I spent the first half-hour in the bathroom, patting myself dry with paper towels and waving my button-up in the air, locked in a stall so no one would see me shirtless.
Turns out, there wasn’t any parking close to the university that day, so I had to park a mile and a half away. Took about twenty minutes of walking in the hot, sticky, Minnesota-summer heat before I arrived at the front door. I had made the poor choice of choosing a light blue denim button-up which now had a large circular stain in the middle front and back of my shirt, and two baby wings which trailed down like dark, shadowy glimpses of hell down from my armpits.
I ran straight to the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, took of my shirt, and flapped it until it was dry.
That is my first memory from medical school.
A few months later, and ten-thousand memorized facts later, I came in on a Saturday to finish our dissection of the hand. I had preserved the delicate nerves, the arteries which wrapped like pale vines – that subtle life which grows in the moist corner of an empty basement – up and along the sides of each finger. Each tendon white, mother-of-pearl. To test your dissection you would tug each one in turn and watch as each finger would bend and curl.
I remember not the particulars of those two-and-a-half hours alone in a room on the third floor, but the very end of it. Finishing, filling a bucket with water, and, like baptism, washing the body in it, from toe-to-head, spilling the last of it along the arms. Taking the cloth to keep in the moisture, pulling it up the body, where the head was kept in a black bag so we would not feel too much emotion. I remember her hand – her hand… isn’t it strange to give a gender to a thing no longer alive? – and the way it protruded from the cloth. And I remember hesitating before I closed the top, laying my hand on top of it and feeling… I don’t know what I felt. I know only that it was the only time in that room I felt a sort of resonance inside myself, the same sort you get at dusk, running through a forest, that sort of spiritual vibrancy, that sense that time and space have the flush and tone of personality, and…
It was just a body. Nothing more.
Just a body.
A month later, I was driving to meet my boyfriend at his place in St. Paul when I suddenly got a call from him. He sounded ill, detached. “You need to get here now. I’m a block away. Find me.” His words filled me with dread and I pushed my car up to 85mph as I cruised eastward on 94.
When I found him, he was standing twenty feet from a man, face-down, his face smashed in where his nose had collided with a balustrade. I ran up to his prone frame and felt the skin of his neck for a pulse. He was ice cold. It must have happened at least an hour earlier. We called the police.
My boyfriend still stood on the sidewalk in shock, unable to function. I felt nothing inside, and it frightened me. I thought of the body at school, the scalpel tearing through flesh. Death now had the aura of the mundane.
I suddenly noticed a woman pacing back-and-forth on the sidewalk, eyes vacant, nearby. I walked up and began to talk to her. She was the man’s girlfriend of two months. They had met at a tango class. He would invite her over once a week to cook her a dinner. He was a phenomenal cook. Or as she worded it to me then, “He is such a phenomenal cook.” She referred to him throughout the entire conversation in present tense.
My boyfriend could not function, but I told her there was a coffee shop nearby. I asked her what she needed. I wandered to the shop and bought a tea, grabbing an extra sugar, as directed, and just a splash of cream. I walked back to her form huddled on the front lawn, the police swarming the area now, red and blue and white flashing lights, like a fireworks display but without the pop of the flares, the noise, just a heavy silence, and those dark forms speaking with authority and demarcating the event like a work of fiction, detaching themselves through acting in roles and not seeing the humans, the human huddled drinking her tea on the front lawn.
I put my arm around her and we talked about a man she knew, talked about him in the present tense.
That summer, the last real summer of my life, I made two trips. The first was to Montana, to the mountains. On the second-to-last day, we made the six-hour hike to the peak of the divide. The first half of the trip we walked through the burnt shell of a forest. The twisted limbs, the shortened, charred spires, the scent of ash. In between, needle-like wildflowers bloomed, this foot-high prairie of life spreading lush-like between the trunks, those scars. Thirty switchbacks…
The scent of pine. A forest of evergreen. In the center, a small clearing covered with white wildflowers. A breeze, glacial. You could taste the snow of the peaks in the chill. An eagle coasted a foot above the ground, flew off without a sound. I left my two friends, went to the overlook, where the peaks stretched far into the distance and sat alone. I heard the wind in my ears. There were no other sounds.
The second vacation was a backpacking trip through Europe. I drank with the other solo backpackers in London, wandering and dancing through the crowded streets. The bus driver hated us but we just talked louder. We sat in the lobby of the hostel talking until 6am.
Later, in Berlin, a hostel mate took me out to see the city at night. We explored in the haze, neon glow, the graffitied twilight that is Berlin. I only slept four hours the three days I was there.
When I landed in Rome, it was late afternoon and I wandered alone with only my backpack the hour stroll to my hostel. When I walked in, the owner greeted me, offered me a tray of nutella-filled pastries and an espresso. He gave me a map, showed me the route to take over the next few days to see the whole city. I met two of my roommates and we agreed to meet in four hours by a cross-section in the Vatican.
I wandered alone into the muggy, humid air of Rome. I wore shorts, some boat shoes dirtied from a dozen-cities wandering, a light-blue vneck, that, well-chosen, did not show off my sweat.
As I wandered among the people who did not meet my eyes, I became conscious of my own anonymity. Without the social milieu, the familiar, the penumbra we call the known, the popular, the desirable, who was I? No one knew my story, the point A to point B successes of my life in the states, the years scramble to know more, run faster, play better, party harder, network broader, be MORE than, MORE to excess, MORE to identify yourself, to be wanted to be desirable to feel like you matter because you’ve checked off all the boxes for God’s sake look at me look at me and know who I AM…
I ate alone, some gnocchi, stared at the lovers, the couples sharing wine around me. I felt a sense of completeness then, a sense of belonging that only someone who’s been entirely alone in a country, alone where no one knows his name, could feel.
I wandered the streets aimlessly. The Pantheon appeared out of nowhere between streets with nameless boutiques and cafes. The doors were locked past dusk. A woman, mad with illness, played an accordion without rhythm or melody, yet smiled at me as I passed. A homeless man with a cup in front of him laid prostate on the ground. I put a euro into his cup. I left a man and a woman behind knowing I would never know their stories.
Across a bridge I wandered into the golden lights of the Vatican. The obelisk at the center. I walked slowly up to it. Small groups of people huddled around their cell phones. As I approached it, a woman next to me clutched a rosary between wrinkled fingers and, head bowed, muttered mussitations to her God. I thought of Dostoevsky’s Sonya, a prostitute who needed faith not to be healed, but simply to live, who needed faith because it is the only way to live a life of sin and still burn with innocence, an openness to love and to the world.
As I stood next to her, this spiritual interlocutor, I was overcome with emotion.
I thought of bodies, a head wrapped in black, a hand beneath shroud which I touched, an ice-cold neck in the present tense, the scrambling feet up switchbacks, the heat of forms in Berlin, the taste of sweat, warm, as it drips down your face and breaks its weary salts upon your lips and…
My eyes were full of tears.
I did not believe in God.
I do not believe in God.
I bowed my head and beneath the golden light began to pray.
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Internal medicine resident at NYU in New York City with an interest in heme / oncology (cancer care).