“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Today is my first day back in Los Angeles after a long and lovely trip to Arizona to see my family. Between gift-buying, holiday-ing and general jolliness I haven’t sat down and written much in the past month. But I’m hungry. Ideas will come at me at 60 miles per hour. I’ll write full sentences then pray I can remember then at the morning’s light. Characters bubble up and recede. Moments are laser-scorched to my brain. I’m ready to eat the page.
The simplest thing I can do right now, as I sit among unpacked suitcases and bundles of gifts, is to post edits to my previous piece, which my instructor edited and for which I’m incredibly grateful (shameless plug – here’s here book).
I told myself that due to a large vet bill that I would not take another class this semester – but it’s calling. I may do it. I may not. But no matter – time to make the most of my “wild and precious life.”
Image: Remedios Varo, Sympathy (1955)
I loved the way you handled mice.
You were so gentle. Calling each one a hero for giving its life to a higher purpose. Naming each one, despite being told it wasn’t wise. Petunia. Carl. Mad Max. Spock. They gripped your fingers with their chubby pink hands. You let them weave in and out of your sleeves and pant legs, and giggled when they reached your neck. Then you’d cage them and get to the task at hand, which was to test them until they died.
The lab was a lonely place back then. Dr. Rubens in his office with the door closed, applying for grants and drinking cold coffee. That fluorescent light that flickered. You and I running the lab on our own. The conveyor belt of unpaid interns, scribbling notes on stainless steel tables.
Every Friday night we’d share pitchers of beer at Harry’s Hideaway and argue about which research breakthrough would get us the cover of TIME. Every Monday morning you wrote a fresh quotation on the dry erase board:
“Give a man a match, and he’ll be warm for a minute, but set him on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”
“One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important.”
Every other week I’d talk about some new idiot I’d been dating, and you’d sniff the air and tell me they were unworthy of my affection. One night I called you for drinks after a particularly horrific date with a manager at J. Crew.
After five beers you said “I wish I could flex my brain like a bicep, then maybe you’d be impressed.”
I kissed your cheek and drove you home.
I thought about what it would be like to lie naked in your bed while you recited compounds and formulas. You, thoughtful and nervous and I, patient and poised.
There was the day you met Henry. How you spied his big heart-shaped spot in a sea of wriggling white bodies. You softly pressed his tiny head between you thumb and forefinger and pronounced him your son. While tickling his belly you told me that microphones had recorded almost inaudible chitter in mice and rats, and that chitter was certainly laughter. We decided then that Henry would be our lab mascot, and would be spared the gauntlet of horrors that the other mice endured.
You started buying him cheap seasonal outfits from the drugstore – a tiny sombrero for Cinco de Mayo, rabbit ears for Easter. I taught him how to run mazes and walk tightrope on pencils.
It’s still hard for me the pinpoint the moment that you gave up. The moment you realized that our work was always unappreciated and hardly revolutionary. That we would never have the funding to cure a cancer or uncrack the common cold. You started questioning the value of human life, and if we deserved to be saved. You closed each mouse’s eyes after its death. You wondered how many mice equaled a human being.
One morning I unlocked the doors and walked to Henry’s cage to refill his food and water. He was stiff and still on a pile of sawdust. There was your note taped to the cage:
“Henry died. I died too. I love you. Goodbye.”
I held Henry in my cupped hand. He was heavy now that he wasn’t scrambling between my fingers. I kissed his snout and eyelids and later watched the hazardous waste truck drive away, his and a hundred other little souls inside it. I wish I’d buried him.
I asked about you.
I heard you moved to California, got a job at Stanford. Dr. Rubens wrote a glowing letter of recommendation, despite your sudden departure. Then I heard it wasn’t a good fit, that you’d thrown a tantrum, destroyed a lab, then skipped town. Your mom hasn’t heard from you.
I’ve written this letter, but have no address. Maybe someone will hear from you, and that faint ‘ping’ will disclose a location. Then I’ll send this letter, and you’ll remember all of it – Henry, late nights at the lab, the smell of our starched white coats, what we shared when we were too exhausted to lie.