The first few weeks, she made herself sick. She gnawed at her lip until it bled. Her hair began to fall out. Each day jolted a new fear loose, awoke a new nightmare. Her own animal body could fail so easily, could break like a church window.
Each lecture transfixed her with nausea. Each slide showed something new and horrible. Cancerous spots blooming like orchids. Shattered cranial nerves. Lumbosacral deformities. These once-hallowed halls now seemed to thrum with the inevitability of death.
There was now a steady, palpable, thrumming fear that her body now contained every bacterial infection her professors described. She woke in the cold night breathless with the memory of a dream so real in which her meninges overflowed and filled her brain, and she vomited on the hard floor as he held back her hair.
He pressed her to remember why she started, how her interests had progressed: literature to psychology to anatomy to that art-within-a-science known as medicine, the most noble of professions.
She swallowed her pills in the morning and drank her coffee black, and spent her afternoons slaving away at this impossible dream. The afternoons were golden now, as the summer slipped further away, and she spent an increasing amount of time indoors, in solitude.
She sought solace at her carrel in the medicine library, its quiet hush like her first communion; and she knew that it would be worth it, eventually, but four years felt very far away, and she was very afraid all the time.
He was never home when she arrived at the end of her exhausting days, cheeks flushed pink and hair in knots. She seemed to be alone, constantly, even when she was surrounded by her colleagues, with their trust funds, premature grey hairs, and frown lines. By her second year, she was aware of this routine, yet suspicious of it; she felt more like a martyr than a seeker of joy.
Their apartment was too small. She missed him terribly in the cold evenings, but they had made a compromise: as she worked toward her medical degree, he would persist, working the thankless graveyard shift, analyzing slides in a blank and white lab. Only three more years, and then they would buy a house in the country. She would finally write her novel. He would buy her a dog.
She filled the only clean glass with the last of their wine and slipped into a rose bath, remained immersed in the water until her nerves felt less frayed. They had brought it home from their trip to Paris, which felt now like a thousand lifetimes ago.
After, clean and refreshed, she changed into one of his old ragged cotton T-shirts, the smell of his cologne faded into the fabric after a hundred washes. There were holes in the sleeves but he never threw anything away. At times she resented his frugality, felt it bordered on self-sacrifice, but tonight she breathed easily for the first time in weeks.
Barefoot on the fire escape she watched the city lights soften, the sweetness of the wine still on her tongue. She swallowed another pill.
She flicked through the pages of her well-worn anatomical text with its vivid illustrations. There was nothing here she did not already know. Blue and red lines outlined the flow of blood through the circulatory system, lifted the mystery of the parasympathetic, loosened the poetic knot she had tied around the wondrous and magical human body. It was still so beautiful.
In the dawn she stepped off the train, following the crowd up and out into the sunshine. She never came to this side of town. She was here with a purpose: she wanted to buy a book of interest to herself, a book that was not required reading. Once, she had been a voracious reader.
He had brought her here once, many years ago, when he was still afraid to hold her hand in public and she still trembled under his gaze. He had told her that many of his undergraduate textbooks had come from here. He had often surprised her over the years with secondhand paperbacks, and they had often read erotic poetry to each other aloud. She blushed at the memory. Her scarf whipped around her face.
It was autumn and leaf litter gathered at her feet on the cobbled sidewalk. The shop looked exactly as she remembered it, with a toy carousel in the window and lights the colour of dusk around the bestsellers in the window. A tiny, charming tinny sound came from above the door: a small bell, like the sound of Christmas.
She had the immense feeling, upon entrance, that she was the first customer in many days. The clerk was reading a waterlogged copy of Les fleurs de mal and blinked up at her through round glasses, her mousy greyish hair piled at the top of her head.
The shop was crowded and labyrinthian, as curious as the metro system in a foreign city. The black ink markers — Philosophy, Spirituality, Religion, Politics — seemed to be suggestions, rather than guarantees of what you might find in the archaic relics gathering dust on these shelves.
Such a disorganized array would never succeed in the gentrified parts of town, but there was something charming about it here, and particularly now. She had not come in with any idea of what she was looking for.
In a haze she found herself staring up at a wall of spiritualist titles, and almost laughed aloud. Laying atop the books was a coffee table book, and perhaps her affinity for the visual drew her to reach out for it.
Immediately she was enchanted. She opened to the well-creased centre of the book and found that the glossy pages depicted something quite unexpected. Across both pages stretched the massive body of an angel: the blood blooming under the pale white skin like pressed flowers, the fractured shoulder blade that carried the weight of the massive wings.
She slammed the book shut, caught by the same sick vertigo that had trapped her as she learned the types of tumors. The old wooden shelves appeared to sway like lovers on a balcony. In the distance, very far away, she could hear the steady thrum of a clock older than herself.
Could such things really exist, she wondered, in a world built on mathematical constructs, where even the swinging constellations were ordered and rational? Surely not, she assured herself, even as she opened the book again, just to look, to examine the illustration with equal parts curiosity and revulsion.
She was in the final strains of her psychiatry rotation and surrounded by people who spoke of angels and demons like the weather. In the white halls they seemed very unfamiliar to her, and privately she thought the patients quite disturbed, but now she thought of the word psychosis, and wondered, and felt very unsettled.
The book was more expensive than anything else in the shop. She bought it.
She was a doctor now, technically, and still she recoiled at the site of a cadaver. Her stomach tightened, a physiological reaction to a purely empathetic reaction: this had been a person once, and now it was a flayed corpse, strung up to observe like a blue morpho behind glass.
By the final year, she had been told, it was expected that you would have learned to detach. There was no poetry to be found here. She would learn that, of course, inevitably. She would laugh and laugh and go home to her family and take vacations. She didn't know why her professor's jokes still seemed to settle uneasily in her stomach.
After convocation her colleagues shuffled into the bright hallway, their idle chatter echoing. They talked about the upcoming weekend, their relationships and affairs and egotistical dreams. She could spot the lapsed Catholics by the way they spoke about death. She did not understand why most of them had chosen this career path.
She found an empty stairwell and sat, their voices in the distance fading. The whirring of medical equipment down the hall. The thin beeping that kept someone alive a floor above. Dust was spinning in the stained-glass light; the teaching hospital was permanently painted the colour of early autumn.
She pulled the stethoscope from around her neck and examined it, turning it over and over in her hands, the sunlight glinting metallically off the silver.
She had taken organic chemistry twice just to qualify. She had scored high on every standardized test that she hated. She had spent her whole life inhaling in preparation for this exhale of finality.
Her hands, which had once tied figure-eight knots while rock climbing with her father and had completed their first suture by the eleventh grade, now shook as she drove along the freeway, wondering what the next day could possibly entail and if she was brave enough to withstand it.
In the car on the way home, she imagined driving off the freeway. She imagined the sweep of angels like white storm-dust gathering in the sky above the cold river below. She had accepted a placement in a hospice. She would begin in only a few months' time. She wept.
Carly Bush is a writer with a passion for highly visual and evocative storytelling. She strives to write quietly subversive fiction. She has worked as a professional ghostwriter for several years and is thrilled to finally share her original work.