*Image: “The Knot of Moonlight” by Bill Wolak, 11″ x 8″ Digital Collage, August 2015
We Have Commandeered Our Bodies to Science
By Jacob Guajardo
We are confined to a room day and night while the doctor runs tests, while we run out of stories to tell each other. We do not remember arriving. We remember only our lives before and not this room. Today the doctor hammers a bottle of lotion against his palm until it hisses, then gives up.
“That’s enough, right?” he asks, showing the specks of lotion. It is an amount that George decides is not enough.
“I can do it myself,” he says. The doctor rubs the lotion into George’s hands anyway. The sight of two men touching hands sends Karen into a tizzy. She rolls her eyes and pulls her sheets up to her chin. Outside somewhere is a creek. Jeff says it babbles, writes it down in his journal for later, but Karen corrects him.
“That’s a gossiping creek,” she says between kisses to her cigarette, which the doctor lets her smoke inside on Thursdays. “That creek is sharing secrets.”
The doctor leaves when George’s hands are soft and pink. He does not say goodbye but hangs his starched white doctor’s coat by the heavy wooden door. He takes care of us passively, the way you feed and house cattle. We listen to his footsteps and take bets on which exit he will take.
“I say same way he came in,” Karen says.
“Back door,” George says. “He’ll want to go for a walk.”
“Side-entrance, facing the terrace,” Tammy says.
It’s only Tammy who has a good view out of the window.
“No fair, you cheat,” Karen says. The men throw up their hands. “You saw which way the squirrels were looking.” Tammy can tell the time of year, she says, by how skinny or fat the squirrels are. “They’re falling off the branches,” she said the other day as the doctor pulled a brush through her hair. From one end of the room it sounded like Velcro being pulled apart.
“It has been getting cold in here,” Jeff adds. None of us says anything. We are getting colder every day.
On Mondays, the doctor lets us a pick a record. It’s George’s pick this week. The doctor has explained that we don’t have to alternate our picks, but we need the routine. We savor the mundane. George surprises us all with Michael Jackson. We bob our heads, we sing along. Amy, the girl in the corner, the youngest of us, doesn’t know Michael Jackson. George will make fun of her for weeks. She turned nine a few weeks ago. The doctor brought a cake and gave her the first slice. We sang a round of happy birthday, but when George tacked on a customary “and many more” Amy started to cry.
We are careful not to upset the doctor. Karen did once. We each tell a different story, but the outcome is the same: the doctor moved her bed closest to the door, where the cold blows in from a gap underneath. She’s done a good job pretending it doesn’t bother her, but we hear her teeth chattering all night. She complains all day about her migraines.
There are days the doctor does not come in at all. When we are sure it’s just us, Amy gets up from her bed and steals sweets from the cupboard. We split the candy evenly. We gather up the foils for Tammy and she presses them between the pages of her Bible.
The doctor has allowed us each a Bible. Jeff is the only one who reads it, and not because he’s spiritual or anything. He says he’s made a game of it. “When I read Jesus what I say is James Dean. So what we got is James Dean turning water into wine. James Dean spends forty days and forty nights in the desert with Satan.”
“What do you call him?” Karen asks.
Karen and Tammy cackle, a sound like someone breaking a window.
We all answered an ad in the newspaper. Even funnier is we all answered on a Friday. Different Fridays, but we will laugh at anything in here. The ad called for Early Organ Donors. It was better than what some people call us. We answered because we hated our families, or our cats had died and left us alone, or we couldn’t afford the rent anymore.
We are terminal. Karen likes to say definitely fucking going to die, and we tell her to watch her mouth. But does she ever? The ad said Room And Board. Most of us enjoyed the way it sounded when we told someone—free room and board, a velvet chaise in every room, Victorian architecture. We exaggerated, of course, and the exaggerations got worse until we arrived one by one and had lied ourselves into forgetting that we’d come here to die.
We were assigned different beds in the beginning. We found our names written on pieces of folded paper and left on the thin sheets, next to welcome baskets. We argued about this arrangement in that polite way only strangers can argue.
“I’ll need the bed by the window,” Karen had asserted. “I grew up near an aviary; bird songs calm my nerves.”
Tammy had denied her request by promptly falling asleep on the bed by the window.
We’d come from the usual places. Cranky suburbs with board game roads, names like Gumdrop Lane and Honeycomb Avenue. Tammy is from a city in Michigan no one has heard of. She had a grocery store and left it to her daughters.
“Can I ask you about your daughters?” Karen says.
“They’re nice Midwest girls,” Tammy says, “they swim only in one-pieces, same pew every Sunday. Marianne gave me the most trouble, started with asking about orangutans for Christmas and got worse from there.”
“Any boys?” Jeff asks, making eyes over his glasses.
Tammy says no, but we can tell she’s hiding someone. She’s been writing letters on a legal pad she found inside our welcome baskets along with old pencils, hotel soaps, and a bag of our favorite candy—which we had listened on an application prior to our arrival. We take turns asking who she’s writing to. Karen asks like it’s a lover, asks who’s the lucky guy? Jess assumes she’s writing her mother, calls what she’s doing cute. George insists it’s a friend, asks us to give her a break.
“Leave the woman alone,” he says and works at a crossword.
When Tammy is in the bathroom Amy whispers to Jeff that she’s done a bad thing.
“Might as well,” he says and gets a sour look from her. “What’d you do that’s so bad?” he asks, the rest of us not paying attention. She looks away for a moment before pointing to the letters at Tammy’s bedside.
“I looked last night,” she says. “Don’t tell.”
Jeff puts a finger to his lips.
“Quiet as a cucumber,” he says. “So, who’s she writing?”
“Someone named, Derek.”
Sooner or later we all know the name Derek and can’t stop thinking about him. The way we all have ruined a vacation wondering if we left a lamp on, and for most of us this is a vacation.
We invent Derek in the lonely corners of our brains. We give him hair like Tammy, not as dull, limp, and dying, but fair and unyielding like so many boys his age. His age is guessed at. The name could come from any year but was most popular in the ‘80’s, Karen tells us. She is full of useless information. We give him a good smile, eyes the color of our curtains, or the bed sheets, because they are the colors we have. We put him in our living rooms, making friends with our pets and asking where the bathroom is. He’s a nice enough boy, the kind of boy who takes his shoes off at the door but would sleep with your daughter under your roof and make eggs the next morning.
When we all have him the way we want him, Karen asks the hard question: Who’s Derek?
We had taken Tammy to be the kind of woman who would laugh and tell us the story, but instead she’d crawled inside herself and stayed.
How can someone feel so betrayed by the people who are dying all around her?
“If we’ve got any secrets, we’ve got no choice but to take them to our graves,” George says.
The doctor is not so kind that we forget we are his patients. We each vie for his attention with coughing fits and nausea. We have bruises healing up and down our arms where he sticks his needles in, not before a joke though.
“It’s just a little prick,” he says, “Nothing you haven’t seen before.”
We find shapes like states in the purple, blue, eventually yellow bruises. New Hampshire has shown up on all of us.
Today he is fitting Amy for a helmet, asking her to hold a flimsy measuring tape against her forehead as he loops the thing around her.
“It’s has to be precise,” he mutters.
Amy has her tongue stuck out in a look of concentration. We think she will be the first to go, which is why the doctor has been spending so much time with her. He braids her hair and paints her nails. Were she a pig he might be fattening her up. None of us are sure what the helmet will do, but the doctor seems sure and his surety could calm a storm.
He tells Amy the helmet should take a week to complete. He is working out some kinks. Then he starts her on a strict diet of sandwiches without mayonnaise and yogurt with cultures. George says he sees Asian cultures, Spanish cultures, maybe one or two lost cultures. Amy doesn’t understand and feels bad for eating the yogurt.
She gets a colostomy bag and is told not to leave her bed, the rest of us still waddle over to a tiny bathroom and, so no one can hear us, run water from the sink.
The helmet returns at the end of the week, silver and quaking in the doctor’s excited hands, beeping and blinking. A woman we haven’t seen before wheels in a machine. A curly, black cord connects the helmet to the machine. The woman’s brunette hair is pulled back, and her face is nice. She says nothing to us and speaks only when the doctor asks her a question. He gives her instructions.
“Insert the IV,” he says, and the woman finds a vein in Amy’s skinny arm. A clear liquid shoots through the tube and into Amy’s body. Her eyes get big and it’s the last time we see any kind of emotion change her face. The last look was fear, and her mouth opened and no sound came.
We say her name sometimes, hoping she might hear.
Days later Amy starts to spasm as the machine flat-lines. We tense up. The noise of the flat-line is the loudest thing we’ve heard in months. It takes us by surprise, us, who have been given terminal diagnoses.
When the doctor comes in, white coat cracking behind him, it is not to try to resuscitate her, or even to offer some dull comfort in what we see will be her last comatose moments. Instead, the doctor pulls up a chair, grins, and watches. Tammy looks away, guilty, although she can do nothing to help. Jeff pushes up his glasses before covering his mouth, maybe praying. We expect him to; he reads his Bible after all.
When it is over, the helmet grasping Amy’s lolling head lights up like a slot machine.
The doctor explains to us that what lit up the helmet was Amy’s soul leaving her body. We have souls, the doctor has hypothesized, and this was how he was going to prove it.
He says that we have commandeered our bodies to science. He says that our afterlives, from this point on, are unclear.
We have questions. We will review them like a committee later, among ourselves, and decide which ones to ask, and when.
Amy is taken, bed and all, from the room, the doctor’s assistant humming as she briskly wheels her out. Amy’s bare feet have turned red where the blood is settling.
After Amy has gone from us, out of the blue Tammy has a change of heart.
“Derek was my son,” she says. Of course we think of reasons she’d rather not talk about him, all of them sinister and not true, but we daren’t ask, and she must know we wonder. Of course she knows.
Amy has left a hole in the room, an empty space we swear we can hear wind whistling through.
A few days later, during a routine visit, we get answers for our questions.
“What’s going on here?” George asks the doctor, as planned. We had decided the first question should assert concern as well as intrigue. So George’s tone is stern, but he rubs his chin and pulls at the hairs in his beard.
“I am testing the limitlessness of the body,” the doctor says. “You are doing science a huge favor.” He explains to us the potential energy of the “afterlifed.” He’s theorized that he can harness the power of the disembodied.
“What about heaven?” Tammy asks.
“We can’t test for heaven,” the doctor explains. The test on Amy seems to all of us cruel and unconscionable but the doctor assures us it’s humane.
“Will we all go the way she did?” Jeff asks. The doctor tells us that he will be trying different methods. We are relieved when he does not elaborate.
The doctor is getting lazy. He does not slip on gloves to touch us anymore, and is liberal with his anecdotes, shelling out arduous monologues, leaving us no room to talk while he is here, room only for murmurs of agreements and nods of the head. He is lazy in ways that have worked to our advantage. We’ve gotten so used to hearing the turning of keys in the door as he comes and goes that today, when he does not lock the door, we notice and put riskiness to a vote.
“Shall we venture out into the great trombone?” Jeff says. Jeff gets things wrong on purpose. We have learned to live with it. Karen and George, naturally mischievous and coming from homes where their brothers and sisters dared them to lick cold flag poles, say aye. Tammy, an oldest sister and mother through and through, says we’d better not.
But we have fashioned out of ourselves a democracy and the votes are clear. Tammy seems excited anyway when we turn the handle and the door creaks a little. She shushes the noise, some old habit she’s brought from her life before this. We step like we are changing into our slippers, quietly down the hall until Tammy has said three times that she’s heard the doctor’s car start up and seen the squirrels turn their heads to watch him leave. We believe we are alone.
There is a stairway at the end of the hall, going up and down. So there is more. The hall is plain, unadorned, and dark, and empty. We do rock, paper, scissors, to decide who tries the handles. We had at least thought to bring latex gloves from our room, in case the doctor decided to dust for fingerprints. At least we had thought of that.
We are most excited about the window. It is the shape of the small window in our room, but extends the length of the wall and is glorious. Jeff calls it a lancet. He preoccupies himself with its tracery, running his hands along its intersecting stone lattices. He tells us his father was an architect, that he appreciates stonework like he appreciates a good woman. The rest of us are busy with the outside, with our reflections in the glass. There are no mirrors in our room. We see ourselves now and again in the bottoms of our cups, or, when the doctor comes close enough, in the blacks of his eyes. Outside it must be barely autumn, and it is beautiful. We all think so.
We all are wishing Amy could be here.
We are unnerved by any noise we hear. Tammy’s ankles pop loudly, and she shushes them too. Everyone echoes, like summers when we were kids and called out our names to the skies and listened to them repeated, bouncing off neighbors’ houses.
We find ourselves again at the stairs, cross our arms, and wish the choice would go away. The choice being, do we eat one more slice of cake when we’ve had plenty, and were not meant to have any?
“Let’s save it for a windy day,” Jeff says. “There’ll only be so many rooms to peek in, let’s not pick all our strawberries in one afternoon.” We follow him back to the room and get into our beds.
We make sure that our stories can be corroborated. We stay up with each other all night making up the details, should the doctor ask for them. Karen had the runs. She is the fastest on her feet and could make it without the mess, so the absence of a mess would not have to be explained. George had tossed and turned all night, between sleep cycles, snoring and then bolting upright, like a whack-a-mole. We decide on that metaphor despite our differences. Jeff had read his Bible until a chapter in Romans, marked the page, and slept through the commotion. He memorizes a verse for good measure and will give it the James Dean treatment, to make the doctor laugh. Tammy is not a good liar, so she plans to will herself to sleep for the doctor’s next visits, and we will tell him she’s been that way for days.
The doctor does not have questions and must not think anything is out of the ordinary, because, once again, there is no key in the lock when he leaves, and we are free to roam. We reuse the latex gloves, figuring that the doctor won’t miss a few but will start to wonder if the supply gets too low. We stuff them in our pillowcases or press them between the pages of our Bibles.
The next morning we hear more than one set of feet echoing down the hall, and something being dragged, scraping against the stone floor. We hush ourselves and wait.
A mannequin is pushed through the door. She is tall, and white, and skinny, stuck in a pose from the pages of Vogue. She is standing on a dais and supported by a metal rod. There are breaks in the skin at her shoulders, elbows, knees, waist, and hips where she can be positioned and pulled apart. She has the body most women have been made to believe they want. White, and tall, and thin, and missing the essential organs. No slit between her legs.
The doctor, this time, does not bother with hellos. The assistant with the tightly bound hair is behind him, wheeling in a machine bigger than the one that has taken Amy. They begin to set up beside Tammy’s bed, and because Tammy is feigning sleep she does not break character. The doctor and his assistant flip Tammy to her back and attach electrodes to her brow and all around her head. The other electrodes are fixed to the mannequin. The assistant flips a switch.
We have never heard a sound like this. It is over too fast for us to look away, so we look, and maybe we will never stop looking.
The doctor asks Tammy to tell him how she feels.
Tammy’s body does not move, but there is an answer.
“What did you do?”
It is Tammy, the sweetness of her voice unmistakable, even in her anger, but it is not coming from Tammy. The voice we hear, quiet and hollow, as if answering through a string of yarn fed through a plastic cup, comes from the mannequin.
The doctor is beside himself. He looks like a cartoon, huge eyes, and a piano in his smile. We are furious, and he does not seem to mind. He reminds us that we have signed a contract with science, that we have committed our bodies to certain death.
The doctor touches the mannequin. The mannequin says she does not feel it.
“Then you have inherited a perfect body,” he says.
A body that does not feel, haven’t we all wished for it once?
He leaves, pushing the machine. His assistant follows with Tammy’s body. We are left to console Tammy inside the mannequin.
There is nothing we can say.
She finds she cannot sleep in this new body. She wakes us up that first night, sounding defeated. She has no eyes to close. She says she does not even know if what they do can be called seeing. We stay up with her that first night. We move her near the window, thinking she will like it best there. We are spooked by her at first. We cannot tell when she is watching us, and she has caught us staring. She is not hungry. She wishes for food but knows she does not need it.
We decide we must go upstairs. There is no argument. There is no conversation, only our bare feet against the cold, stone steps. We disassemble Tammy. We carry pieces of her in our arms. George takes the head and cradles it. A few times he forgets and stuffs it under his arm like he is carrying a package. He cannot seem to break this habit and hands the head off to Karen. They exchange plastic sections. George now holds Tammy’s hips and can carry them beneath his arm. Jeff has her bust and holds in to his chest, both of his arms crossed in front of it, hugging her from behind. We use the bed sheets, which stink of us, and strap her arms and legs to Karen.
Karen ascends the stairs first, because nothing besides the word creamed-corn seems to scare her. We follow her up to a landing where we almost turn back.
It is George, for once, who shows some reluctance, hampering us and saying that his feet are murdering him.
“Oh, don’t goose out,” Jeff says and pushes at George’s flank.
“You’re a goose,” George says. Up we go. We find a door at the top of the stairs after the landing. It is unlocked and oiled, whining only slightly when we push. It is more of the same up here. An identical hallway, pocked with doors, the doors pocked with handles, the handles all locked, except for one, and we have never been so excited.
The room is identical to ours downstairs, and for a moment we are fearful that we have been duped, that the doctor will step out with a stern look and a wagging finger, that this mansion is smoke and mirrors, a rabbit out of a hat. The room has not been lived in. We can tell as much from the carefulness of the beds, the pillows fluffed and new. The air smells clean, like nothing. But the room is here, and like Tammy’s son, Derek, who was for weeks the only thing that filled our heads, this room becomes an obsession.
“Were there more like us?” Tammy is brave enough to ask. We suck our tongues and scratch our heads, unsure if we’ve happened upon ruins or blueprints. We are quiet; we want to leave the room undisturbed. Passing through has desecrated the room’s integrity already, we feel, but we stay. Something makes us.
We put Tammy back together. We sit down on the cold floor in a circle. We talk about ourselves.
George was a professor for years in Oklahoma, he says. We are unsurprised. He does not carry a bag full of students’ papers in here, of course, but we have always felt he was the kind of man who would. His gait suggests the heaviness of books and folders. He is romantic. We can tell by the way he pats his pillow at night. We imagine George’s touch must be a handsome and awful thing.
“What did you teach?” Jeff asks.
“What’s it matter?” he answers, sounding incredulous about our interest. Later though, he will correct Karen as she says Me and You, and we will have an answer.
Jeff was a personality. He hosted an early morning radio show and his air name was The Sax. It sounded almost unsafe to say. We test it out in our mouths and laugh. The name is a reference to the abrasive musicality of his voice. He recites his intro for us. We close our eyes and are speeding our cars down the interstate. We ask him to introduce our favorite songs. We ask him to call us caller number one.
Karen tells us she cannot swim. We promise not to make her.
Karen tells us the story of her husband. We have no way of knowing if it is true. While most of us have been forthcoming, Karen has been caught in lies. She was from Missouri if you asked Tammy, Wisconsin if you can get it out of George, and Maine if Jeff remembers.
She tells us that she met her husband at boarding school. That she was staying in a room with four beds and two girls. Her roommate and she had pushed the beds together and slept sideways on them. Her husband turned out to be a custodian who worked nights cleaning the bathrooms.
Tammy decides to tell us the rest about Derek.
“Derek was my son,” she says. “He had limp wrists and brown eyes. It was his dad that said he should pack his bags and leave; it was me who said I already had two daughters. We didn’t hear from him until years later, when he called and said he was sick. Sick and dying. I took my car—my husband screaming I was good-for-nothing—drove to Milwaukee and held my son, called him son, and let him die.”
So this is what is killing her. We are happy she has gotten it off her chest.
“Was it a happy ending?” Karen asks. Tammy is quiet, and because we don’t understand her new body, and because Karen is too embarrassed to ask again, we say nothing.
It is getting dark when we leave the room. We stand together and watch, at the lancet window, the sun going down. For a moment, we are smiling and happy. We did not know we could be happy. We had not been allowed, as people with the kinds of illness some of us could not even pronounce, to be happy before this. But now, we had found, we were.
There are still the floors underneath us that need probing. We have saved them for last because if there is not a way out, waiting has delayed our disappointment.
We do not bother with quietness when we take the stairs tonight. We are a stampede, soldiers into battle, children kicking mud off their shoes. When we are at the room’s threshold a memory bolsters each of us. We remember this place. All of us except Tammy, which makes us think that our bodies remember and our minds do not. It is a feeling that pricks us like a mosquito. Then, it isn’t anything.
“Have we been here before?” George asks.
Duh, we think.
We are in a foyer. There is a concierge desk, and beautiful rugs and carpets we say are from India and Spain. Here are the velvet chaises from our delusions. Here are the extravagant plush furnishings covered in plastic tarps and unused. There is a door here. We have seen it from the corners of our eyes, but none of us has said a thing. We cannot imagine lasting very long outside. We can see it. George’s tired legs giving out, Karen’s migraines slowing us down, Jeff talking in riddles like a Jewish sphinx. There would no doubt be a river to cross, and we have already promised that we wouldn’t make Karen swim. If we did not freeze that first night, we would be picked off by tree roots and fruits we swore we thought were safe to eat. We cannot imagine that we have that much longer to live.
“Shouldn’t we try anyway?” Karen asks. “Isn’t anything better than living inside mannequins?”
We can’t seem to agree.
We put Tammy back together and wipe the dust off the furniture tarps. We sit on the plastic, look around the room and wait for someone to say something. Karen holds up her hand in front of her face like a mirror. George puts a hand on Jeff’s shoulder like they are two old friends at a potluck. Tammy tells us to describe our favorite food to her. She says she’s going to try to taste a distant memory. We conjure up cherry pies and pot roasts, we give her anniversary dinners with our spouses, or meals with our children when they were small and we had to feed them from our hands like birds. We might wait here for the doctor to come in tomorrow morning, dropping papers behind him comically. We might bring the record player into this room and sing the songs that say I’m sorry. For now, we are tucking up our legs and talking to each other like we are dignitaries, hosting a dinner party in this mansion, nervously waiting for our guests to arrive.
Illustrative Imagery by Bill Wolak
Collage undresses the darkness with a mirror’s secret undertow. It’s a dance done on burning kites while dreaming at the speed of light. Expectant as nakedness, collage is a door that surfaces in the shipwreck of your sleep. It’s a caress with the irresistible softness of a slipknot in a velvet blindfold. At its best, like poetry, collage is a moan just beyond delirium.
I make collages out of all kinds of materials. Most are made out of paper engravings. Many collages are digitally generated or enhanced.