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Certain Stars Shot Madly

Certain Stars Shot Madly

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Certain Stars Shot Madly

Lunghezza:
364 pagine
5 ore
Pubblicato:
Dec 1, 2011
ISBN:
9781466154285
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

A true friend will never steal your girl, your wave, or your corpse.

Rick Justin, a burned-out, Vietnam-era ex-corpsman, gets an education on friendship from his first day in a California medical school, when he meets the three anatomy partners who will shape the rest of his life.

Majoring in wave-riding, he and his trio of friends, Aaron, Jody, and Natalie, learn about the human body--and the mind--the hard way. More than once, Justin becomes a patient himself. From the psych ward at UCSD to the trauma service at San Francisco General, from an OB-GYN delivery room to the Naval Hospital pediatric ward, one calamity after another crashes down upon him. Years after the war, trouble, disease, and death still surround him.

Only through surfing does Justin find release. With his buddy Aaron, he graduates from small waves in Del Mar to the mountainous peaks of Oahu’s North Shore. Structuring his senior rotations to maximize this newly-found oceanic addiction, he finds only the pristine violence of the sea can wash clean his work-related troubles. Far from shore his conscience begins to heal, a conscience troubled by the accidental killing of a pal during the war.

After his medical training, Rick stays in Southern California, working as an ER doc before migrating to Oahu, where he runs the emergency ward of a hospital located minutes from Sunset Beach. Meanwhile, life unravels for his trio of friends, the brilliant Natalie and the newly-married Aaron and Jody, all residents at UC San Francisco.
Aaron has made a fortune pilfering body parts and fluids from fresh cadavers and selling them to
pharmaceutical companies, but he can’t get away with it forever.

Jody and Natalie get drawn into the ensuing mess--with dire results. As the incestuous relationship between the four doctors heats up, Rick finds he must not only face his own demons--he must battle those of his friends.

Pubblicato:
Dec 1, 2011
ISBN:
9781466154285
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Glenn Vanstrum’s fiction has been published in LITnIMAGE, the Bellevue Literary Review, and THEMA. His book of nature writing, The Saltwater Wilderness (Oxford), won a San Diego Book Award. Essays of his have appeared in Sierra, California Wild, and the Los Angeles Times. Vanstrum has written five novels and two story collections. Setting plays a major role in his character-driven fiction, work that often uses nature, music, or medical themes. His novels range from drama (Let Fall Thy Blade; Certain Stars Shot Madly) to historical fiction (Northern Liberties) to satire (S.I.C. Memorial). His latest work, Humboldt, a story set among the Northern California redwoods, is part roman noir, part satire, and part thriller. A Minnesotan by birth, Vanstrum majored in music at Grinnell College in Iowa and attended U.C.S.D. medical school. He has spent most of his life in California, where he practices anesthesiology. A professional nature photographer, he publishes images in numerous venues worldwide. Magazine credits include Audubon, Sierra, Terre Sauvage, National Geographic Traveler, National Wildlife, and Discover. The photographic stock agencies Animals Animals/Earth Scenes and Custom Medical Stock Photography represent his photographs. Vanstrum, a pianist from age five, still practices daily and performs works from the classical, romantic, and modern repertoire on a regular basis. A student of Cecil Lytle and the late Nathan Schwartz, he plays both solo and chamber pieces. The author, a lifelong surfer, has ridden waves in Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Bali. Still riding a shortboard, he wipes out with great regularity. Further information on Vanstrum’s writing, including book reviews; music, including concert schedules; and surfing, including a surf blog; appears at http://www.gvanstrum.com "Glenn Vanstrum is a force of nature. In addition to being a published author (The Saltwater Wilderness, Oxford University Press, 2003), he is a concert pianist (and regularly performs complex pieces by Beethoven and Mozart in public venues near his home in San Diego), a highly regarded medical doctor, an accomplished surfer, an underwater photographer who has worked around the world, and a dedicated husband and father. Somehow, in this incredibly busy life, he continually produces exemplary works of fiction and non-fiction. "I've known Glenn for fifteen years. In that time, I have read every single one of his books, and they are uniformly excellent. His fiction is distinguished by fast-paced plots, fascinating characters, amazingly realistic dialogue, and passages of great strength and beauty. His innovative treatment (in Northern Liberties) of Thomas Eakins' painting 'The Gross Clinic' was absolutely brilliant, and his collection of animal stories is par excellence--certainly in the league with such notables as Roger Caras and Ernest Thompson Seton. "His non-fiction, best exemplified in the essays of The Saltwater Wilderness, reflects his love for the sea and dedication to the conservation of oceanic resources. In summary, any book by Glenn Vanstrum is worth reading and owning, and I enthusiastically encourage all those who value contemporary literature to explore the corpus--now available as e-books or print-on-demand--of this gifted American author. " --John A. Murray, senior editor, The Bloomsbury Review (1987-present); founding editor, the Sierra Club American Nature Writing annual (1994-2005); former director, graduate program in professional writing, University of Alaska; author of 42 books; recipient of Southwest Book Award and Colorado Book Award.

Anteprima del libro

Certain Stars Shot Madly - Glenn Vanstrum

1976

Chapter 1

Good morning and welcome to School of Medicine!

The owner of the booming voice had a thick mustache. While it covered much of his mouth, it failed to filter out a thick Hungarian accent. I turned and winked at the blonde sitting next to me, a svelte woman whose eyes were riveted upon the figure at the podium. She ignored me.

My name is Nicholas Liszt. I am kidney transplant surgeon. I also head anatomy section that will begin your first year.

The crowded hall fell silent as Liszt plunged into the anatomy of the chest, telling us about the pectoralis major and the pectoralis minor. He expounded on the whereabouts of the nerves that innervated those muscles. He wisecracked about the birds of the thorax—the thoracic duck, the esophagoose, the azygoose, the vagoose. After each joke came a clinical pearl.

If you should be unfortunate enough to cut thoracic duct, chest fills with lymphatic fluid—chylothorax. You must repair it. If you damage esophagus and don’t suture that, patient may die of mediastinitis--rampant infection of chest.

And so on. I sneaked a second look at my new classmate. She raised a single eyebrow, and her upper lip trembled.

Graphic slides from the operating room accompanied each organ. We scribbled notes. Three hours passed. We covered much of the thorax—nerves, blood vessels, muscles, esophagus, and bones. The heart and lungs, Liszt promised, would come later.

At noon I escaped to a quiet lawn warmed by the southern California sun, a meadow rimmed with eucalyptus trees that smelled like cough drops. After mulling over the morning and downing my brown-bagged cheese and avocado sandwich, I joined ninety-nine other virgin medical students under the high ceilings of the anatomy lab. Twenty-five shining steel tables held twenty-five still forms. White plastic-impregnated burlap covered each body. At the foot of the tables technicians set out chrome Mayo stands and packs of dissecting tools. Glutaraldehyde hung in the air. Nervous energy and tittering from my classmates broke the chill of death emanating from the stiffs.

Please, come in. Don’t be shy, boomed Liszt, a bright smile on his face. Find your cadaver. Commence.

I walked to my assigned table, took a brief look at the body bag lying there, and sized up my partners.

Aaron Amos had the muscular build and tan of a surfer. Hi, he said, with a sly smirk. He seemed more interested in our two female partners than in the dead man before us.

Jody Jacob was the lanky blonde I’d sat next to at the morning lecture. She looked even better standing up: her legs went on forever, and the summer dress peeking under her lab coat shimmered with curves.

Hey, she said, to all of us and none of us.

He looks like The Mummy, said the second woman, laughing. The voice of Natalie Hendrix had a silver-coated, zaftig huskiness.

I wonder if we can figure out, I said, exactly who we’re operating on.

Amos flipped over a tag wired to the burlap.

Ernest J. Crump, he said. His wry look reappeared. We’re going to work in Ernest.

Natalie made the first incision, slashing the burlap wide open with a flourish. Ernest J. Crump’s shriveled corpse appeared, with the notable exception of the head, which had its own burlap wrap. Every rib showed. The veins bulged with blue dye. Following Grant’s anatomy text, Natalie made a tentative midline incision over the pale sternum and carried it down to the right, over the ribs. She barely scratched the skin.

Nick Liszt, watching with a glint in his eye, leaned over and made a suggestion.

Use belly of blade, Natalie, not point. Press firmly while you do it.

Armed with this advice, she made a decent cut and dissected back the dermis. Jody started off on the other side. Amos was happy to read instructions to her as she worked, and I did the same with Natalie, trying not to brush against her any more than necessary. It wasn’t easy. Parts of her burst forth from beneath her lab coat with every nervous giggle.

Hours later, we’d laid out the basic musculature and nervous system of the chest. The lights flickered, time to go. We closed Ernest as best we could, washed up, and headed across the street to St. Germain’s deli for a beer. As we walked into the crisp San Diego air, most of the odor of embalming fluid evaporated from our clothes--but not all of it.

We collected four cold Mexican beers and looked for a place to drink them. St. Germain’s was the kind of store where they stocked over a hundred brands of beer, where they served fresh bagels and lox, where you could buy a hot pastrami sandwich with mustard, pickles, and fresh baked bread. The place had counters crammed with caviar, cheese, sausage, racks of wine—but zero ambiance. Outside, though, up a concrete stair above the parking lot, melalucca trees swayed in the breeze and surrounded a redwood balcony. Here you could watch people below coming and going. You could savor your brew in tranquility. The four of us sat at a round wooden table under the shade of an umbrella. The beers tasted like Mazatlan and lime, we had finally started medical school, and we were working in Ernest.

Where’re you from, Natalie? I asked.

Homer, Alaska, she said, her voice a musical laugh. An auburn-haired woman, her skin shone with the pale luminescence of that northern climate. Boy, is it good to be down here in sunny San Diego!

Alaska, Jody said. Where there’s ten guys to every girl.

The odds are good, Natalie said, but the goods are odd. You got your survivalists, your hunters, your wildcatters, your gold miners—but normal, nice guys up there are rare as palm trees.

Normal guys. Amos grinned. Like us.

Right. She rolled her eyes.

Turned out Natalie, a research genius, had published national journal articles on petroleum-eating bacteria. Behind those giggles lurked a powerful mind—and ego. Jody was no slouch, either. A San Diego local who finished first in her class at UCSD as an undergraduate, both her parents were professors. Amos, like myself, had a more checkered past. It took a second beer for his story to come out.

I’m an Angelino, he said. With his chiseled cheekbones, steel gray eyes, and longish black hair, he could have modeled in some cologne-impregnated magazine. I majored in music at UCLA, moved to New York, worked in the film business for several years, wrote scores for a TV series, chucked all that to sign up for medical school.

Why would you leave such an exciting life, so much creativity? Jody asked.

I loved New York. But in the end, my life there was, ah, too...fast. He laughed, looking up at the paper-barked melaluccas with an evasive look. Besides, I always did well in science, I love people, I had all my pre-med requirements done before I focused on music.

I doubted if the changes in Amos’s life could be blamed on fast women. My suspicion: fast drugs.

How’d you get into med school? Jody asked.

The admissions department loves people with high test scores who major in the humanities, Amos said. There aren’t many of us.

Natalie turned to me.

What’s your story, Rick Justin?

I’m from the Midwest, from Michigan. I spent three years… I hesitated, unsure how to phrase it. Out of academia after high school. Went to college in Iowa. Did pre-med on the side, got lucky on the MCAT. After college I moved to California, worked in San Francisco for a couple of years, gave it up, here I am.

That’s all I told them.

Gave it up? said Natalie. She looked at me with interest. Her eyes shone, lanterns of deep green, her teeth gleamed. A touch of peach fuzz on her cheek caught the failing light.

Gave up trying to make a career writing, I said.

You gonna write a novel about med school? Natalie said.

Doubt it.

How’d you like San Francisco? Aaron asked.

Water’s too cold.

You learned to ride waves there?

I tried.

As it turned out, Amos and I had a lot in common. Both of us were novice surfers who viewed UCSD as a dream come true—a place to study not only the human body, but also the sea. We made plans for an early session the next day before class, then the four of us left to read up on the anatomy of the thorax in our mutual apartments.

§

The morning fog hung close to the ocean in Del Mar at oh-six-hundred hours. I met Amos at 15th Street and we paddled out through a warm, four-foot swell. Neither of us grew up surfing, and it showed in our technique. We struggled to get to our feet, stuck our butts out too far, and lacked the fluid body language of the young beach rats.

But it was good to feel the salt spray, to watch the sun burn through the fog, to see a pod of bottlenose dolphins swim by outside the impact zone. Amos grabbed a wave. I paddled into it, too, both of us riding together.

Hey, bud, my wave! he yelled, not at all serious, banging the rail of his board into mine. One wave later he cut me off, too. I screamed at him. Asshole! Barney!

We fell from our boards laughing.

From the beginning I’d surfed alone. To have a pal was a good thing, even if it meant fewer waves to yourself. In the last six years I’d had a string of girlfriends but no real buddy. Brownley and I used to swim at Vung Tau when we were lucky enough to get in-country R and R. The two of us raced each other into the tepid sea, bored club girls watching from the veranda on the beach. We body-surfed one-foot ankle-slappers, downed cool beers, and had wild romps in the bamboo huts before going back into the water for another session. There was something magical about the ocean—it had a way of washing away the smell of death, the sour tinge of bought sex.

Hair still wet, Amos and I hurried to campus for Nick Liszt’s next lecture. I had a corpsman’s understanding of the heart and lungs, that is to say, not much.

Give ‘em O’s ‘n give ‘em red cells, was about as far as it went—ventilate with oxygen, transfuse to replace heme loss. I’d seen my share of thoracic organs, too, only in pieces, reeking of hot blood and cordite.

Pulmonary system works like bellows, said Liszt. Remember. Diaphragm creates negative pressure as it descends because of rigid ribs and chest wall...

The lungs. Three lobes on the right, two on the left. In the center of the chest, the column where most of the nerves and arteries and veins and organs live—the mediastinum. In the center of that column—the heart.

Il pleure dans mon coeur, Verlaine wrote. Broken heart. Heart of the matter. Cold-hearted. Heart of gold. Heart of stone. El corazon. The target for your rifle, the beating pump you could still with an upward thrust of the bayonet.

Conduction system runs across atrium here, Liszt said, tapping on the slide screen with a wooden stick, not far from coronary sinus, vein draining heart...

Liszt droned on, flashing slides from the operating room of various cardiac and pulmonary operations.

Fresh blood. Jugular. Type O. Vena cava. Universal donor. Aorta.

Rick, Amos said, nudging me. You all right?

Yah, of course. Shhhhhh. I don’t want to miss this, I said.

Lecture’s on break, he said. You’re lost in the ozone, pal.

§

The four of us met to work in Ernest again that afternoon. This time Amos and I dissected as Jody and Natalie directed. The black specks covering the lungs proved Ernest had been a smoker. We worked on the chest wall anatomy before poring over the old man’s heart, tracing the paths of his coronaries. Deposits of cholesterol lined each of the three heart arteries. In prepping the cadavers, before permeating them with embalming fluid, they injected the veins with blue plasticine goop, the arteries with red. All that distorted the tissue, making it hard to figure out what killed the guy.

D’you think he died from a heart attack? Natalie asked.

Wasn’t lung cancer—he’s got all five lobes. I can’t feel any masses, Amos said.

We’ve still got to find the thoracic duct, Jody said.

After lab Amos and I went surfing again. The swell picked up and we caught some screamers. The ocean felt good. It washed cadaver juice off my hands and out of my mind.

We waited for a set, peering at a red fireball of a sunset, trying to figure from where in the Pacific the next peak would rise. Amos waxed on, blathering about how perfect life was, what gorgeous female lab partners we had, how good the surf was, what a gas it was learning about the human body—on and on.

To me the pulchritude of Jody and Natalie or the joy of surfing were beyond question. Something about medicine, though, unleashed more than a few misgivings.

But I told him I agreed with everything he said.

Chapter 2

We slipped into a routine that fall. Morning surf, lectures, work in Ernest, afternoon surf, study at night. Aaron and I improved our skill and strength in the waves with the daily sessions. When October came, the ocean cooled. A series of big swells started pulsing down from the north. One Friday morning, Aaron took me to a new spot.

Come on, let’s go to Blacks, he said, referring to the nudist beach in La Jolla. We left before sunrise and parked in an upscale neighborhood near campus. The two of us pulled on black neoprene wetsuits, jumped a barricade, and hiked down a winding canyon road. Mesquite and lemonade-berry chaparral grew on either side. We padded barefoot in the dark. A coyote, surprised by our dawn patrol, darted across the path and up the cliff, disappearing into the gloom. Wisps of fog draped the hollows. A black shadow shot through the air above us—a great-horned owl.

We rounded a bend to where we could at last see the ocean, a gloomy presence nestled between the twin walls of the canyon. Wide wales of gray corduroy ran to a fog-bound horizon.

The canyon continues offshore from here, said Aaron. It’s a mile or so deep right off the beach—when the waves break, there’s no continental shelf to slow them down.

As we neared the water, walking under cliffs five hundred feet high, I could hear artillery fire. But it was only surf. Nasty barrels loomed out of the mist, lips arched over green water and exploded.

The waves seemed bigger than any I’d yet surfed. When it was this large at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, I stayed on shore. But with Aaron I paddled out. After churning through white water and breakers for what seemed like hours, I stopped to rest. Bad idea. A set came booming from the north and caught me inside, driving me deep and tossing my body every which way. My surf leash snapped, my board disappeared. I opened my eyes underwater, looked around, and saw only deep shades of green. I swam toward a patch that seemed less dark to find the surface. Another wave landed on my head just as I exhaled. It forced me into a second hold-down.

I stopped fighting, letting the wave take me. Concentrating on holding my breath, I washed up next to my board on the beach. After puking my morning coffee, I sat on the sand sputtering saltwater and vomit. In the distance, a small figure paddled before an enormous peak, faltered for a moment on the tip, then drove down the face. He faded deep into a bottom turn, climbed back up to the lip, and skittered into a long traverse along a wall just inside a pitching tube. As the wave petered out, Aaron kept working it, riding right up to the beach.

Nice, I said.

Thanks. He grinned, then saw my green face. You OK?

Barely.

We hauled our surfboards up the road and watched the fog lift, the sun peering through the chaparral, slowly burning sunshine into the day.

Blacks Beach, I said, I always thought of it as a place to see naked chicks.

Now you know better.

§

Aaron and I slipped into lecture late that morning, our hair still wet. By this time we’d worked our way into the abdomen. Dr. Barnabus, a renal specialist who studied amphibian bladders, held forth on the anatomy of the kidney. He had a flat-top buzz cut, thick glasses, and a gut that made him almost as wide as he was tall. To make matters worse, his voice was high-pitched and squeaky.

Here’s a slide of the female renal system—kidneys, ureters, bladder, urethra. Now the male—note the prostate gland here, the longer urethra. The vasculature of the kidney...

My mind wandered as he droned on about the wonders of the urinary tract. Natalie sat next to me. I brushed my leg next to hers. As my eyes slipped shut, her leg moved closer. Exhausted from our surf session, I drifted off to sleep.

That afternoon we reviewed the three-layered musculature of the abdominal wall, dissected out more arteries and nerves, and slit open the peritoneum, the membrane surrounding the organs of the belly. I’d seen human chitlins before, plenty of them, but the view seemed novel to the others.

Every discovery made Natalie go off with a peal of laughter. So that’s the adrenal gland, that little thing on top of the kidney, she said. Awesome.

Adventure makes ‘em grow bigger over time, Aaron said.

Mr. Crump’s seem atrophied, I said. Musta led a boring life.

Does sadness make adrenal glands shrink? Jody said.

We worked our way down to the pelvis, identifying parts of the stomach, the small bowel, the large intestine. When lab was over, Jody announced she and her roommates were having a party that night. As anatomy partners we were, of course, invited.

Roommates? Thought you were married, Aaron said. What’s with the wedding ring?

A thin band of gold flashed prominently from Jody’s left ring finger.

I was married, she said. Once. She offered no further elaboration.

§

The party was a blast. Aaron prepared for just such an event during the summer, when he swiped a tank of nitrous oxide from a warehouse in LA. How he managed it, I had no clue. But we had a grand time drinking beer, tequila, and red wine while running around sucking on balloons full of nitrous. Some potheads smoked joints in a back bedroom. I found myself dancing more than once with Natalie. A ballad came on. We danced close, and her hair smelled like cape honeysuckle.

As things raged full-on, the doorbell rang. I opened it.

Good evening, officers. A pair of San Diego’s finest looked me in the eye.

We got complaints from the neighbors ‘bout the noise, the first cop said, an Asian about my age. He peered around, looking at the dancers, the balloons, the controlled pandemonium.

I knew how to deal with authority.

Yes, sir, I said, we’ll turn down that stereo immediately.

Natalie slipped under my arm, holding a balloon. For a moment I was worried she might offer the policeman a hit of laughing gas, but she just smiled.

Somebody’s birthday? said the second cop, noting the balloon.

Yes, sir.

Well then, happy birthday, he said, before walking off with his partner, their leather gun belts squeaking.

Natalie took a long puff from her balloon. She rolled her eyes, giggling. Yes, sir, yes sir, yes sir.

Taking advantage of the moment, I shut the door, held her tight, and kissed her. One of her perfect, pendulous breasts slipped into my hand. We embraced for a long time before she let the balloon fly across the room.

Take me home, will ya, Rick? I’ve had too much to drink to drive myself.

In the car, I decided to tried a little French. Not kissing, the language. "Chez moi, ou chez toi?"

"Chez toi."

I took her to my rental cottage, 200 square feet of Del Mar heaven. The owners lived in a big house above me and rented me the changing room for the pool, equipping it with a two-burner stove, a mini-refrigerator, and a bathroom.

Arm-in-arm, we navigated the walk down the stairs to my shack. The owner’s border collie growled at us. I took special care not to trip into the pool. We fell into bed with no preamble, off went the clothes, and Natalie and her Alaskan alabaster body were mine.

§

The chief of surgery, Dr. Bittme (he pronounced it ‘bit-may,’ not, as we students preferred, ‘bite me’), had the floor the next Monday. A beady-eyed man in his fifties, he had an immaculately trimmed black beard and a German accent. His specialty was the liver.

The hepar, also known as the liver, is the most interesting organ in the body, he said. Remember those first four letters—LIVE. You cannot live without liver. Patients who lose their liver, or who lose complete liver function, whether from trauma, hepatoma, or alcoholic cirrhosis, all die. They may last a week or two, but then—they’re gone.

I looked around the hall for Natalie. We’d had breakfast Saturday morning, but after I took her back to her car that was it. Man, what a night. I ached to see her again. At last I saw her slip in late, averting my glance. She took a seat far from mine.

Each cell in the liver is a factory, crammed with mitochondria and endoplasmic reticula. The liver controls your blood sugar levels, repackages protein and fats for energy or for storage, detoxifies poisons, provides bile for digestion...

Bittme went on to describe the complex blood supply of the liver.

Here is a detailed slide of the anatomy of the abdominal circulation—the aorta, the vena cava, the portal system...

The liver. Chopped liver. Liver and onions. Paté de foie gras. Brownley took a round to the liver.

Now, when a patient develops scarring—Laennec’s cirrhosis—from infection or alcohol or biliary obstruction, pressure builds in the portal blood system, leads to venous malformations here, in the rectum. Here, in the esophagus. These are called varices...

Hurt bad, Brownley didn’t talk, just whispered for water.

Twin sources supply the hepar with blood, Bittme said, the portal venous system, blood carrying nutrients from the intestines, and an arterial system, blood carrying oxygen from the lungs. Consequently, to control liver bleeding, a Pringle maneuver is the procedure of choice...

He flashed a photo from the operating room. Steel instruments and blood-stained gloves surrounded a liver ripped by a jagged tear.

These trauma surgeons are clamping the hepatic artery as well as the portal vein. Of course, this is a desperate maneuver, a temporary fix, one that will kill the liver quickly.

They tried the Pringle maneuver, all right. But Brownley’s liver was in shreds. Nothing they did worked.

Rick, someone said. Rick.

Natalie.

You OK?

Yeah.

The lecture’s over. You look spaced out.

Thinking ‘bout the liver, Natalie.

She sat down next to me as everyone else filed out for lunch, and soon we had the auditorium to ourselves.

Listen, about Friday night...

I knew what was coming.

I think the world of you. You’re wonderful. I love working with you, Jody, ‘n Aaron. But I don’t think we should be doing any more of those, uh, things we did the other night.

Why not?

I’m here to become a doctor. I think that it’s better not to get involved with a fellow student.

You mean, like Aaron says, I shouldn’t dip my pen in the office ink?

She laughed. I loved that ringing tone.

I wouldn’t put it that way, exactly, but...yeah.

OK, I said. I gave her my bravest smile.

Chapter 3

Our lab sessions with Ernest grew longer, more stressed, more macabre. After the abdomen came the pelvis. Exams approached, professors piled on endless amounts of subject matter, and the electric buzz of novelty dissipated. Aaron tried to lighten us up.

What’s the seventh muscle to move the eye?

There are only six muscles that move each eye, said Natalie. The superior and inferior obliques, the lateral and medial—

You forget the gluteus maximus.

What innervates the anterior two-thirds of the tongue?

Uh, that branch of the seventh nerve, I forget...

No, no, no. The vagina! While we’re on the subject, what’s the longest vein in the vagina? Give up? The deep dorsal!

Aaron got on my nerves. We made an unspoken decision to switch partners. Jody and I started working together, Natalie and Aaron became a team. When we got to the deep dorsal vein and the rest of the penis, Amos and I let the women do the cutting.

Poor old guy, Aaron said. "I wonder when he signed up for this if he knew we’d be mutilating his member.

Dissecting his dong, I said.

Trepanning his tallywacker. Jody smirked.

Don’t think that way, said Natalie. He’s gone to heaven, he doesn’t need this old shell of a corpse.

Jody and I looked at each other. She rolled her eyes ever so slightly. I hadn’t found out much about her but I could see she didn’t buy Natalie’s born-again Christian dogma. She was cool and calm, never one to get excited.

I am now exposing the corpus cavernosa, Jody said, grasping the penile skin and cutting through connective tissue with a scissors. Like the corpus spongeosum, it’s part of the venous collection of blood vessels that, with parasympathetic stimulation, causes the penis to become erect.

You’re delivering the male, I said.

Good thing for a girl to know about, she said, winking at me. She had lapis lazuli eyes, a delicate nose, high cheekbones, and moist lips—a face you could stare at in bliss for hours. If you don’t understand this thing, she said, it could drive you postal.

We met with the four students at the adjacent table to study female sexual anatomy—the round ligament, the uterus and ovaries, the clitoris. Finding the sympathetic innervation proved difficult. I leaned against Jody as we went from text to bodies and back again. She didn’t lean back, but then again, she didn’t shove me away either. I guess if you’re going to study the sex organs of dead people it’s best to do it with a dreamy blue-eyed blonde at your side.

After lab the four of us went to dinner at Carino’s in La Jolla—a funky joint run by stoned surfers who put butter in the crust and used fresh basil and provolone cheese. They never gave you the toppings you ordered—due, I think, to marijuana-induced short-term memory loss—but the pizzas were delicious. A carafe of chateau-screwtop red wine loosened tongues. I asked Jody about her marriage, trying to ignore Aaron working on Natalie.

I haven’t had much luck with guys, Rick, she said.

How so?

I married my first husband when I was eighteen. He died a year later in Vietnam, she said. "My second, to whom I’m still technically married, teaches sociology at San Diego State. At first I trusted him with all his young female students, but he came home late too many times.

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