Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
I am a woman who wakes up hungry. Tom touched only coffee till noon. You do what you’re capable of at some point, so Tom and I left each other. I wanted breakfast, he wanted liberty, and who could blame either of us. I live alone now in a large rancid blown-out loft in outer Red Hook, where I pad around the soft wood floors like a toddler: I’ve taken my pants off, my rings, earrings, it is quiet and bright, I haven’t gotten any lamps, I can hardly move, I’m drunk and I take a probiotic. My name is Nell Barber. I’m five foot five and 130 pounds which is not in any way remarkable. My daddy was a nice Jewish boy who married a nice Christian girl and raised me in Kansas and got on with it. Neither of them observed anything ever again. I was born observant. They gave me the original, fearful, organized minds of their childhoods and no religion of my own to honor. I suppose I turned from the celestial to the dirt. I study plants and I live in order.
Just because Rachel Simons made sustained contact with thallium and absorbed its toxins through her potassium uptake channels and died, the university expelled all six members of our lab. They couldn’t tolerate another ounce of our hazard! The disciplinary committee stood in choral formation and issued what sounded like whale tones run through a vocoder. Be-gone, be-gone, they groaned. Our experiment in toxicology had taken the life of a valued graduate student and would no longer be institutionally condoned. I wore a hazmat suit to the hearing, to promise future caution. The chairman found this disrespectful and I could hardly see his apoplectic face through the scratched plastic front of my secondhand helmet.
Columbia couldn’t accuse us—Rachel had oxidized the thallium of her own volition, at her own risk, and to her own demise—but it could close down the environment in which she’d endangered herself and rescind our schoolwide welcome. We had broken the contract of care and common responsibility that characterized the Columbia student. If we couldn’t study safely, we couldn’t study. It made good sense but it deleted me. The finalized verdict came via a specially assembled summer committee, via Priority Mail, to Tom’s address, which I’d just kissed goodbye without any tongue. August is supposed to be a lazy month but it pummeled my partnership and my PhD.
The biggest loss is you: my chime, my floorboard. You are my night milk. You are my unison. You believe in the periodic table. Your book sold eight thousand copies in its first week. Columbia will separate you from the Simons case and nurture your celebrity. For five years I have been your smaller self, your near-peer, your sane challenger, your favorite. For five years I’ve trailed you as you approached success. Then Rachel reached for the rat poison and Whole Thing reached its readers and my room lost its pillars in one coordinated catastrophe and neatly fell down. You and Tom have both conclusively shaken me. Look, Joan, I’m shaking.
Tom and I lived in a rectangle of jewels, his mother’s. A small palace they called an apartment on the Upper East Side, a good all-weather walk across Central Park to the university. Each morning I’d emerge from that snow globe and enter the open air feeling forward-moving and weightless. Each morning I’d be a beetle creeping over the park’s grass blades without bending them, so light was I. Now, when I step onto Van Brunt, my entire body weight rests on the sidewalk, but only and exactly my weight, not lifted, not burdened. I’ve returned to my skeleton’s original fact. If you asked whether I like it, I think I’d tell you I do. When you climb out of something you’re very deep inside, the daylight is first a blank, and then it reveals itself to be life as you knew it before you climbed into that thing.
Everything has come around. Against the huge solitude of my schoolwork came the romance of Tom; against the romance of Tom came our utter lack of sex; against our nonsexual partnership came our easy, childlike living together; against our shared life, now, again, huge and unschooled solitude. How undercutting, how generous of the world, to provide each thing with its inverse, to test each version of life we choose with a vision of its opposite. How perverse, and unpeaceful. I want more than anything to love the choice I make. Love it with abandon, proudly, building a temple upon it. But how can you do it, how can you really give yourself up and praise anything, when the world is too balanced to allow for a lopsided devotion, when each thing is always reckoning with its anti-self? Perhaps they’re all the same, your various choices, and committing to one is the same as committing to any. Your only job is to build a temple.
In memoriam to the temple torn down, to my years of studiously laid bricks kicked over, to a classmate and all her skin, I close the old books and open this one. These savage castor beans and monkshood seeds are no longer the lab’s property. Rachel’s experiment is now my own; I can destroy it or it can destroy me, as I please. I please! As with the old work, the new work is for you, Joan. What isn’t for you? More life collected, documented. You’d like that, wouldn’t you like that?
You dusted the edges of your shelves as I picked scrambled eggs out from under my fingernails. I had expected to find your office swarmed. Being alone with you now felt supersonic.
“So what,” you said.
“Well, the whole what,” I said, wanting you to comfort me.
You hate comfort and I know that. I watched the end of your braid fuss against your collarbone.
“I have nowhere to work,” I said.
“I have no control, therefore I have no experiment.”
I had to speak clinically in order to speak passionately. At the rate we were diverging, I soon wouldn’t be able to speak to you at all. A mouse shot out from under your desk and seized the inch-long cylinder of string cheese you’d cut for it.
You clapped your hands once in satisfaction. Then you looked at me and forgot the success and moved down to study the gray, claw-footed saltcellar now resting emptily on your floor. The day flew in at us through your closed window. I wanted your inch of string cheese.
You said, “You have cold and temperate environments in your own home.”
I said, “You have cold and temperate environments in your own intestines.”
You blinked at me maliciously as if your eyelids could slap my cheeks.
“That lab was only extracurricular,” you said, emphasis on the ric. “I let you play with it because you’re a slobber toddler who needs a toy. What are you telling me—you’re changing fields now to what, to botanical toxins?”
“I’m trying to neutralize botanical toxins.”
“I thought you were generating a fossil-calibrated phylogeny of the American oak.”
“No department in the country needs an oak specialist.”
“What do they need?”
You made a face, a sanguine, unruffled pout. Your boredom made me cringe. I knew your every cue so well I might have become a bacterium in your gut. You coughed into your hand. I missed you and saw you changing into someone I would lose.
“I’ll keep to my work and you keep to yours,” you said.
“I need pizzazz,” I said to your carpet. “I’m no star.”
“Your oak work was reliable.”
“I have to blow minds to keep up with you, Joan.”
You looked at me as if I’d invited myself to your house. I looked at you as if through a screen door.
“Forget the oak work. I want to do Rachel’s work. Doesn’t somebody need to do it? We’re just going to let her die?”
“She died, Nell.”
“I’m saving her soul.” What I didn’t tell you is that I should have saved her life. That I go to bed at night certain her soul is going to grab my soul by the neck and strangle me from the inside out, because I was standing next to her and did nothing, and because why should I be allowed to keep living? “I’ve advanced her methods,” I said, to stay on your track. “I think if I keep it going, I could speed up the disarming of poison to a rate that would almost undo the fact of the poison in the first place. You would call me The Great Undo.”
“I never call you.”
“And even if I kept on with the useless oak thesis,” I said, “which I’d only do to satisfy your soul, your majesty,” I curtsied, “I no longer have a school.”
“That’s your current problem.”
You rank problems as current, finished, or irrelevant; it usually makes them smaller. This one didn’t shrink.
“They expelled you precisely to stop you from continuing Rachel’s work,” you said. Action verbs like expel aren’t spoken in Kansas and my shame swelled. You leaned toward me without any tenderness and said, “Take no for an answer. Her experiment is over.” I could smell the deep soapy center of your still wet braid and stood there with panting nostrils. “If you’re reasonable about it, and you get back to your own, unobjectionable little project, some other institution may accept you again somewhere, someday.”
The scrambled egg bits were now assembled in a little mound in the center of my palm. My nails were white and clean again. I wanted to believe that someone would pardon me. I didn’t think five years could shatter into glass shards. It’d be easy enough to complete my nearly complete thesis. But no matter what you’re working on, there comes a time when you realize your work isn’t worth doing. In my case, that time was Rachel’s untimeliness.
Rachel had joined our lab from the metals side; I’d been the flower girl, and Jason the synthetics, alongside three others whose work I couldn’t classify. We thought of ourselves as grungy, secular-age saviors who would eventually be able to detoxify toxins faster than ever before, the way microchips made computers smaller than ever before, and in doing so advance our society. Rachel worked on the binding of ferric hexacyanoferrate, picturesquely called Prussian blue, to thallium, its chemical enemy. Depending on hydration state and particle size, this binding could be praised with the name of antidote in its most successful cases. Rachel approached her venture with such American A+ confidence, such loony eagerness to do right, she turned away from thallium’s essential danger and focused on its weakness. She believed it to be a fallible menace and believed herself to be an agent of immunity. The upper bound for skin exposure to univalent thallium ions is 0.1 milligram per square meter of skin in a forty-hour work week. Rachel’s weekly hour totals exceeded eighty as a matter of pride.
When exposed to air, thallium becomes clear, tasteless, and odorless. I guess even the most stringent precaution can’t protect against invisible attack. I wonder when it was that it reached her. Once inside the body’s cells, thallium binds to sulfur, damages the 60S ribosomes, and fatally disrupts the functioning of our proteins. She may have touched it, inhaled it, ingested it. She wore splash goggles, gloves, and a dust respirator. She did know the bigness of the risk.
I didn’t know her very well, as I’ve told you. I admired her so I left her alone. I liked the short hairs on the back of her neck. I liked how her cheeks collided with her goggles when she smiled. I liked that she neither wore deodorant nor shaved her armpits. That secret hair soaked up and spread a smell so rank I’ll never unsmell it. I liked her adamance, her clarity, her wristwatch, and her gusto. I liked that she had been born. The loss is serious and I accept my piece of it. But what am I to do with the seeds in my freezer, this set of toxins unremedied, Rachel’s project incomplete, and the prospect of disqualifying myself from your absolutely necessary nearness?
The university gave us an afternoon to empty our lab lockers. The only thing I kept in my lab locker was a stick of beef jerky that I’d bitten into over the summer and never finished. I chewed up that rock-hard half-jerky and then I stole Rachel’s tinted goggles from their peg on the wall, and the two giant Zanzibar castor seeds that I had ordered for the lab, and the monkshood sample we hadn’t collectively decided what to do with. These things were mine, by right, or at least I would best appreciate them.
I’d become sort of frantic thinking about the physical horror of what had happened to her. Frantic, and disgusted with myself and my humdrum studies and my whole pasty anemic priceless life. I couldn’t find any way through it except to continue her project, as if that somehow preserved or resuscitated her person. But nobody else wanted to touch it, I suppose understandably so. I wanted to touch it. Not the thallium, that’d be dumb and redundant, but the other avenues, the castor, the monkshood, the other toxins we’d wanted to unwind and to heal. Rachel’s focus hadn’t been our only option, it had only been her only option. I knew that if we could quicken a detoxification starting with any other seed, set a speed record, she’d approve, she’d even celebrate, in some breathtaking, gravityless way that only dead dancers know about.
Sam and Adrian and Jason and Evelyn emptied their nicely stocked lockers into Columbia totes and big blue IKEA shopping bags—sweatshirts and workbooks and rainboots and Nalgenes—as if this were merely a domestic disturbance, as if it were merely time to move out. They didn’t fuss, or fight, or reject the event in any way. Jason’s already been given another post in the textile fibers study. Evelyn can only function if she is doing what she’s told—she seemed to love being told to leave, it was such an easy instruction to execute. She rolled up her Science Under the Stars T-shirt so neatly it fit inside her Nalgene, and then she thunked the Nalgene into the shaft of her rubber boot. The way these things fit together seemed to hypnotize her into deep relief. Sam and Adrian were high when they came in, and in retrospect I realized they had often been high. They didn’t see or care about the beans and the seeds. I looked around the room. These were the only other four humans who knew the beans and the seeds existed, they were leaving two-by-two like the schoolgirls in Madeline, and then the lab would be professionally cleaned out and zeroed, a half hour after we left.
I guess you could say that I like revenge and they like common decency. I guess you could say I don’t approve of myself enough to protect myself. I guess you could say to each their own. The biggest difference between us is that nobody else in our lab had you to lose—you, too botanical for metals or synthetics, you, flowers-only.
They studied by the light of their own Joans, no doubt, but I live by you.
Your class continues this semester, indifferent to my absence, as if I weren’t its blood, pumping minerals and force from the second row. Admit that I make you possible. Admit, at least, that you make me possible. So much you already know. Tom is taking your class because I told him to. Because he thought we would take it together. He now gets to sit in whichever row he picks, in your presence, in your presence that suffers in its luster from the lack of me, because some destinies are kind and some are pickled.
Rebecca Dinerstein Knight is the author of the novel Hex, which will be published in March by Viking, and a collection of poems, Lofoten. Her adaptation of her novel, The Sunlit Night, premiered as a feature film at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. She lives and writes in New Hampshire.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Chitra Ganesh, Tania Cypriano, Charles Atlas, Netta Yerushalmy, Vi Khi Nao, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Andrea Hasler, and Bruce Boone, as well as fiction from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, and Lee Relvas, and poetry from Shuzo Takiguchi and Bruce Boone.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.