Natural Red

C.I. Nwodim

You chose the medical school with the anatomy lab on the fifth floor. Most of the other schools keep their bodies in the basement. It’s weird enough to be surrounded by corpses six hours a day, so when you saw the aboveground lab with the full wall of windows looking out onto the campus quad, you thought, Okay, I could do this. But when anyone asks, you say you chose the school because of the city and the people. Oh, the people were just so lovely! Everyone was so kind and welcoming. I just really connected.

Now, standing in the lab, it doesn’t seem to matter that much. It’s still a lab, full of moderately preserved dead bodies, in a building on a campus of a medical school you didn’t want to attend in the first place. You look around, it’s still early. You can probably skim the chapter on thoracic and brachial anatomy before the other students get here.

Yes, they covered this in class two days ago. Yes, you were supposed to read it three days ago. Yes, you waited until the last minute, hoping maybe you’d have the guts to drop out before the first day of lab.

To be fair, you’ve been hoping for a while. You’d hoped to have the guts to not be pre- med in college, to not apply to medical school at all, since you’ve known you didn’t want to be a doctor since middle school when every relative—in true Nigerian fashion—declared with absolute certainty that it was your future, and the guts to not attend medical school even after you got accepted at a premier program with a full scholarship AND LIVING EXPENSES!!!

You’d even deferred admission, turned down the scholarship and moved to Florida, as far away from the school as you could get, hoping the distance would make it easier to send a letter, an email, or a carrier pigeon withdrawing from the program. You’d gotten a job as a stuffed, floppy-eared dog in the happiest place on earth. You’d felt neither goofy nor happy.

A year passed, then another. Long enough that the dean of admissions called you personally to find out if you’d had a change of heart. Even then, with the shackles loosed, the door wide open, a getaway car in the driveway, and keys in hand, you couldn’t do it. You’d laughed, said, Of course not. I’ll be there in the fall, promise. Yes, you’d promised. Twice.

And now here you are. As if the whole thing was out of your control. As if the path had already been shaped for you and like a cockroach trying to swim out of the toilet water as it swirled, you were the only one unaware of your fate. You stand by table six, as assigned. Anatomy book in hand. Dead body on the table. Cadaver. The technical, science-y name for a dead body, a body that should be burnt into ash and scattered to the wind, or at least boxed up and hidden in the ground, was a cadaver. You resolve to be more professional and refer to it as such.

You open the textbook, same that every medical student since 1862 has used, Gray’s Anatomy. Everyone knows this book. There’s even a new show named after it. You flip to page 898. Thorax. You try to care. You really do. You remind yourself that you like science. You like books. This is a science book. Twice the liking! This line of reasoning fails.

You retreat to the back of the lab, push against a window that doesn’t budge. Everyone is always worried that medical students are going to kill themselves. Get a B on a test and jump out of a window or in front of a train. This happened once in undergrad. Twice, actually. Your biochemistry professor had responded by asking students to see the teacher’s assistant if they were overwhelmed and then assigning sixteen chapters to prep for the midterm.

You sit in the windowsill, pull your feet up in front of you so you can prop your notebook against your thighs. You draw the quad outside, empty at six in the morning, even though the sun is already up. You draw the giant honey-locust tree, reaching towards the chapel. The leaves are just beginning to change, but you can only capture a small portion of this using shading. You trace the ivy creeping up in front of the student union, hovering below the third story, soon to claim its supremacy over the north wall of the building.

You begin the Gothic details on the building when the door swings open, three students enter, laughing loudly. As expected, your lab partner is one of the three. He always shows up early. In two minutes the entire lab is full. The professor welcomes everyone to the first lab. Get comfortable, this will be your second home. His voice is low, deep, soothing. He tells everyone how important it is to respect the bodies. They were alive once.

Your lab partner unzips the body bag on the table. You’re surprised it doesn’t smell worse. This body looks younger than the other bodies. A shock of still-red hair falls around the head, the eyes are almost closed. Almost. You look towards the abdomen and your partner unzips the bag the rest of the way. Wow, a natural redhead, he says to the students at the other table. They wonder why your body is younger, firmer, better looking than theirs. You wonder if they realize that all the bodies are the same amount of dead.

You look at the unshaven legs and wonder if anyone is ever really prepared to die. This body is young enough that it wasn’t a death by natural causes. Something inside it just stopped working. It might have taken days, years, or just a split second. And all the hoping to be different, hoping to be better tomorrow, would just end. You would end up on a hard metal table, cold, naked, with half-opened eyes, and a body that no longer responded to your impulses.

Your partner calls the first cut. You don’t even pretend to be disappointed. You watch as he begins to slice through the thin skin over the sternum. He goes further, cutting into the skin above the stomach, just to see. All of the other first-cutters must have had the same idea because a fog of putrid rot fills the room. The other students audibly gag. You turn away from the body, pinch your eyes and nose closed. You consider if breathing through your mouth might be safer. You decide against this. What if this smell has a taste? The professor laughs. His voice less soothing. Yes, fat smells the worst as it decays. You’ll get used to it. The professor announces that anyone who can identify the cause of death for their bodies receives ten bonus points on the final. You hope you’re not here for the final.

You divide up the dissection; he can have the thoracic cavity. You’ll take the axilla and brachium. You cut into the upper arm, a near-perfect line from the underarm to the elbow. You peel the skin back, slowly so the muscles underneath don’t tear. You see the thin lines of the bicep curling towards each other and attaching to the humerus. It surprises you how much it looks like chicken. Raw drumsticks after you’ve peeled off the skin, before seasoning them and throwing them in the oven.

No one tells you that formaldehyde makes you hungry. No one thought using a hunger- stimulating chemical to preserve dead bodies might be a bad idea. You think there’s probably a pathologist somewhere absentmindedly nibbling on a withered cadaver finger because he didn’t get a lunch break. You push the image of crispy, oven-baked nuggets out of your mind.

But then, you think of the first porno you ever saw, freshman year, middle of the afternoon, coming back from class with fried chicken strips, French fries and honey mustard sauce. You’d walked into the common room to find Foreskin Gump on the large screen above the pool table. Apparently, Mr. Gump had to run from house to house, servicing—in graphic detail—it was porn, after all—any housewives he found at home. You had giggled nervously at first, then lost your appetite and handed your lunch to one of the boys who was standing around hooting at the screen. You didn’t eat chicken for a week.

You look down at the exposed bicep and wonder how long humans have until some advanced species lands on Earth and develops a taste for our limbs, dipping us in sauces and serving humains des états-unis, with spinach and sweet potatoes. What difference would it make to them? Humans, chickens, we’re all just flesh and blood, tied to bone, wrapped in skin. And underneath the skin, we look almost exactly the same. You immediately decide to become a vegetarian. You almost instantly doubt your resolve.

You pin the flap of skin back so you can get a better look at the flesh underneath. You finish drawing her biceps, pulling gently at the fascia to tease out the blood vessels, the nerves. You make notes on where the muscles attach to bone, where the veins appear and then dive back into the tissue, recreating the image almost perfectly in pencil in your notebook. Your lab partner comments on your drawing. What’s the point? It looks exactly like that one. He gestures towards your open Gray’s and a string of fascia leaps from the tip of his forceps, landing on a brightly colored diagram of the upper arm. You nod. You know it’s redundant. But things always make more sense after you’ve drawn it yourself.

You could never quite place your finger on why you didn’t want to be a doctor. It always seemed like a good fit on paper. You were actually quite good at this. Straight A’s in school—at least when you showed up to class. Good at tests, even tests you didn’t study for, even tests you didn’t want to take. You nailed the organic chemistry, the biochemistry, even did well in physics—another easy out you didn’t take. You were good with people. For some reason it never sang to you. You could force yourself to do all the work. You just couldn’t get excited about it.

The other students pack up and rush out of the lab. The bodies on the tables remain arms and legs akimbo, fully exposed. Bits of flesh pepper the floor beneath the tables where careless students missed the tissue buckets. You walk back to your station, put your bag down, and pick the white sheet off the floor where it fell. You pull the sheet up over her unshaven legs, across the stomach and breasts and cover her face. You mouth a silent “thank you” as you pick up your bag, suddenly remembering it’s almost dark and you’re in a room full of dead bodies. Not taking any chances.

It’s a strange thing to feel gratitude to a dead body. A cadaver. But she chose this. She. She volunteered her body to science. Knew she would be splayed open while smug medical students poked and prodded every orifice, analyzed her tattoos, joked about the color of her pubic hair. She was willing to share her body, every part, for someone to learn something. For you to learn something.

You get home. Finally. Your clothes are off before you get to the bathroom. You lather up, rinse, and lather up again. The putrid smell of decayed fat sticks. You scrub hard. Eyes closed against the hard pulse of the hot water pouring through your hair and onto your back. You realize the smell might just be in your head. You step out of the shower, press a towel to your face. You thank God you did laundry the night before. The towel is fresh and even a phantom cadaver smell is no match for Ultra Downy Spring Showers. You move the towel down your body as you watch in the mirror, patting your neck, breasts and stomach, seeing it all for the first time. You stop at your knees. Stop being ridiculous. You’re not going to die today. Still, you get back in the shower. You shave your legs.

C.I. Nwodim was raised in Baltimore, Maryland, and attended Johns Hopkins University receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology and history of science. C.I. Nwodim is a 2017 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow and currently lives in Los Angeles.