Plain China

Dissection

by Dana Diehl · Susquehanna University · Nonfiction Prize Winner
Winter, Jonathan Agee · Georgia Institute of Technology

1.

When you peel back the skin of the dead lab rat, it’s like stripping the rind of an orange. You can smell the preservation chemicals, a sweet, over-ripe-fruit smell, and it stings the back of your nose.

You lower a scalpel into the rat’s flesh, and it surprises you, how easily it gives. No resistance. You make two cuts, one from the throat to the navel, and another left to right across the base of the ribs. You keep going. When globules of fat get in your way, you scrape them out. You can’t see the rib cage like the instructor said you would, so you dig deeper. Around you, your classmates eye the rats with wrinkled noses and argue with their partners about who will make the first cut, but you find a sort of therapy in it, the careful, controlled pulling apart of a body.

From the ages of seven to eighteen, I keep an on-and-off-again diary, adding to it whenever I feel my life is worth documenting. These diary entries are controlled, cautious. I can’t shake the fear that one day I will look back on them and get the wrong impression about my past self, or that someone else will read them and see too much. When I’m seven, I write, Richelle from school is my best friend. Then I add, But my family is my REAL best friend.

When I’m thirteen I write, I think Lindsey’s talking about me behind my back. Ashley never wants to talk to me anymore. I HATE this. I feel SICK. But then, a week later, I write things like, We got out of school early because of snow. And, I’m going camping in a few days. Things that anyone could know about me. Normal things.

My mom has x-rays of her brain hidden somewhere in the house. They were taken when I was seventeen, before the doctors recognized her neck pain as the result of a dislocated disc in her spine. I’ve never seen the x-rays, and I’m not sure that she even has. When the doctors handed them to her, encased in a manila envelope, I imagine she took it home unopened and put it away. I imagine she’s afraid that if she saw them, the eerie white curve of her skull against the black background, she’d imagine things that weren’t there. She’d see the dips in her cerebellum, the ridges in her frontal lobe, and read them as cancer. But, my mom tells me, they don’t always see the right things. Or they read what they see the wrong way. I imagine those x-rays, trying to picture the bright white arches and curves that are the map of my mother’s brain. I wonder if she would show them to me if I ask, but I never do.

I show up to my friend Maddy’s fourteenth birthday party late because I’m in the marching band and there was a football game that night. All the girls have already changed into pajamas and are lounging in the living room, their skin blue in the television’s light. I slip into Maddy’s bathroom, change out of the shorts I wore under my band uniform and into my own pair of plaid pajamas.

When I return, the television’s been turned off. The girls lie in a half-moon on the floor, and Maddy waves me over. They’re playing Truth or Dare.

Amber volunteers first and asks Maddy if she’s ever stolen anything. I think of when I was six and accidentally stole a seashell from my best friend Kara’s room.

Maddy leans forward. Her hair covers her face, and at first I think she’s embarrassed. She won’t answer the question, I’m sure. But when she pushes back her bangs, I see that her eyes are glistening, watching us in a way that reveals the thrill of having a secret.

She says, Once I stole a pair of earrings from Claire’s. She looks exhilarated. For a moment, I contemplate telling the truth about my own secret, about feeling that same power and relief that Maddy does. But a second later, she turns to me and says, Dana. Truth or dare? and I chicken out. Dare, I whisper. I’d rather humiliate myself by jumping into the pool with my clothes on, or eating whatever strange leftovers they pull out of the fridge, or ringing the neighbor’s doorbell and running, than open myself to them.

 2.

You know you’ve reached the ribs when your scalpel gets stuck on something hard. Before you reach the organs, the instructor tells you, you must crack the rat’s ribs. Your scalpels and scissors aren’t sharp enough to cut through the bone, and she shows you how to do it by hand. Grip the rat by the torso. Place your thumbs on its chest. Press hard and quickly not to damage the lungs. You let your lab partner do it. You can’t bear the feel of the snapping ribs under your fingertips.

It’s only once the ribs have been pulled apart that you’re able to look again. Where crisscrossing bones once were, you now see glittering red lungs, the blue veiny heart. You think: Once, this heart moved. At some point, all of this was humming with life. You understand now what’s inside, and you want to see more.

These are things I don’t tell anyone:

When I don’t go to the prom junior year, it’s not because I can’t get out of attending my cousin’s college graduation. It’s because I’m the only one of my close friends who does not have a date, and though I’m not too disappointed about it, I’m afraid that people will look down on me.

When I say I don’t like going to the doctor or the dentist, it’s not because I’m afraid of the pain. It’s because I’m afraid of what they’ll find. Uneven teeth mean I didn’t wear my retainer for that extra year like the orthodontist told me to. Stress in my neck means I don’t sit up straight enough. I find myself lying about things: Yes, I change my contacts every three weeks instead of wearing the same pair for months. No, my jaw never cracks like it did before I had braces. What’s most terrifying is the thought that they’ll misread me, or find something I didn’t know about.

When I don’t talk much at my study group, it’s because I don’t know how to say that doctors found a tumor in my pet bird’s side that afternoon and injected it with a lethal dose of pentobarbital two hours later.

When my mom hurts her back, I’m afraid it’s my fault. That year, I liked to play this game where I let my body go limp to see if whoever was closest, usually my mom, would catch me. She complained through laughter that I was going to break her back one of these days. Later, when she spends days recovering on the couch, my mom says,It was probably all that gardening I did this fall. Or maybe that time when your dad and I carried in the new couch. I only nod.

My mom and I are in the kitchen. She’s baking, talking about a businessman in our development who was caught dealing drugs. The word got out because his wife talked about it to the neighbor. Don’t air dirty laundry, my mom tells me, and I know what she means.

In AP Biology, we learn that a tree is made of layers: bark, phloem, cambium, xylem, heartwood. When you count tree rings, you’re counting layers of secondary xylem generated by the growth of the cambium. These rings tell you everything about the tree: which years there were droughts, which years it prospered, when a fire swept the forest, the climate of its region, its age. A living body’s past in physical form, enclosed in a thick layer of bark.

In the twentieth century, a science called dendrochronology was established to read tree rings. To extract a sample, the dendrochronologist drills into the tree and removes a cylindrical cross-section of the wood. The process does not kill the tree, but the hole remains, taking years to grow over. The tree is left vulnerable to insects, to disease, to the outside world.

 3.

Your lab partner tilts the rat’s head forward so you can see its shrunken eye sockets, its gaping mouth. The rat is barely recognizable, its skin peeled back like the flaps of a coat, organs exposed. The stomach hides under the crimson liver. The gray small intestines spoon the caecum. You don’t wear gloves as you peel because the instructor says the rat’s oils act as a natural moisturizer. You touch its insides for the first time, and they are cold and slippery. It surprises you how easily the skin separates from the flesh, revealing blue veins pumped with gelatin and glistening, pink muscles.

I’m sixteen now, and I sit on the creek bank with my friend Anne and her boyfriend, Travis. He’s talking and talking and I don’t know how it started. My dad’s in prison somewhere in Florida. He used to be a trucker. He’d drive back and forth between the south and the north, delivering oranges. 

We’re wet and dripping in our swimsuits, towels wrapped around our torsos, watching Anne’s brother do cannonballs off the bridge. Travis lights a Marlboro. I want to cough, but I don’t say anything. All I can think about is how strange it is to be here with him, this boy I’ve known for years but never spoken to, and somehow the words won’t stop and I don’t know why he’s telling us this.

He got into drugs and started a trade. He’d hide them in the truck and drive them all the way from Florida to New York. I live with my mom now, but she has skin cancer, so that sucks.

He looks at me like I should trade a story of my own. I think about telling him how I desperately wanted to go to a creative arts camp this summer but wasn’t good enough to get in. This is what’s bothering me right now, but none of my stories compare to his. And I couldn’t bring myself to share them, even if I thought they did hold weight against his. I don’t like the way he’s looking at me, analyzing me. I focus my eyes on the deflated football caught in the reeds and say nothing.

Later in the summer, it’s night, and I sit on the curb in the back loop of my development with Josh and Ashley. It’s mostly woods and trails here, no houses. In the darkness we lean back into the hard, dry summer grass that bites at our backs through our cotton t-shirts.

I’m better now. When I was in middle school, Josh tells us, I thought wanted to kill myself.

We both know this. We were there when he started crying in the hallways after school and got out of classes early for therapy. But I marvel at the way he’s able to come out and say these words.

It’s never quiet here, he says. The forest behind us is a chorus of crickets. When I went to Israel last summer, our tour guides walked us out into the desert one night and had us lie down in the sand on our backs. You couldn’t hear anything. It was so quiet. Have you ever felt that? Just quiet.

I start to write, saying things I could never say out loud. My first readers are my parents and my friends. I feel the way they disassemble me as they read. What is the rat a metaphor for? Is this how you really felt? I learn to control what they see. I write scenes and delete them. I replace one word with another, change names and roles. I never lie exactly—that would be too easy—but I control the truth that the readers see. Memoir never shows an entire life, just part of it, and I find comfort in that as I sort through my memories, finding the right angle.

In college, there’s a girl in my dorm who I catch crying, every few weeks, in her room or outside my door, crumpled tissue in hand. When this happens, I invite her into my room, and we climb up into my bunk bed together. I put my arm around her shoulders, and this is her cue to talk. She tells me about her insecurities and fears, about boys, about her family, about her looks. It’s okay. I tell her. Just talk. Tell me what’s wrong. Talk. She talks, and eventually I make her laugh. Tears still on her cheeks, she takes a deep breath, and it sounds like a sigh of relief. She thanks me for listening, climbs off my bunk bed, and it’s over.

4.

You realize as you stare into the rat’s seed-sized ovaries and pea-sized uterus that it is female—or used to be female, before it was just cells and tissue and flesh. This rat could once create life. You imagine the body filling up with tiny, squirming babies. But this rat, its veins pumped with preservation chemicals, is static. It’s difficult to imagine it in a constant state of growth and change.

The teacher encourages you to poke around, really get to know the insides of the rat, see how it all fits together. Next to you, some classmates have started pulling out the small intestines. They spiral out in an endless loop. You notice as you lift the lungs, look for the trachea, that everything is connected.

It’s the night of the winter concert, and I stand outside the band room, clutching my flute case. John, the exchange student I’ve gotten to know over the past few months, stands in front of me. His tie is slightly off center on his neck and there are beads of sweat on his forehead.

You played really well tonight, he says. I nod. I tell him he played well, too. In the third song, we had a twelve-measure duet together, and it went perfectly. Then, You look really nice tonight. I freeze. I know what’s coming next.

I’m going to the mall this weekend. With Mike. And I was wondering if you wanted to meet me there. I mean, with friends. You can invite anyone. He fiddles with his saxophone case. I just would like to get to know you better.

He looks at me. I manage to squeeze out, Yeah, sure, maybe, before running off to find my parents.

The next day, John calls me while my family is out running errands. I stand next to the phone as it rings, hand poised just above, but I never pick up. I hate myself for not calling him back. I promise myself that I’ll talk to him after band practice on Monday, but when the time comes I rush out of the room.

That evening, I make up lists of reasons for avoiding him. Eventually, I turn my guilt into anger directed at John for turning an easy friendship into something complicated. But when I fall asleep at night, I know all I have is a list of weak excuses and the truth: I cannot open up.

I have dreams about the lab rat.  At first, I’m in class, dissecting it. Then my perspective changes, and I’m the one pinned down on the lab table. Layers of my flesh fly back one after the other. Skin, then muscles, then bone. I’m being poked and prodded and I can’t hide anything.

Years later, a friend tells me I’m repressed. We’ve gotten to the point in our friendship where she wants to know more about me than what I show in public. She wants to know what makes me tick, what makes me angry, what makes me happy. I always shrug off her questions, saying I don’t know.

I want to say, I’m not repressed. I’m just afraid that if I let you peel back one layer of skin, the rest of me will unravel. 

What I do say is, I’m just quiet. I’d rather listen.

 Freshman year of college, a boy I’ve been crushing on for over a month tells me that he likes me as we walk together across campus. I reply, I think I might kind of like you, too.

We go on occasional dates, but I fill these times with words. I talk about my favorite teachers in high school, the fluid world I enter when I play the flute, classes, writing, my dad building an airplane in our garage and my mom making windows out of colored glass in our basement, funny things my roommate says. I plan conversation points hours before our dates, not because I’m afraid of awkward silences, but because I’m afraid of what emotions I might reveal if I give him the chance to ask me. I look back on these moments when we part, and I’m overwhelmed with frustration. I console myself by saying that next time, for sure, I’ll tell him how I feel.

At the end of first semester, I tell him I’m afraid of letting myself be vulnerable. I tell him that I always expect people to hurt me, to betray me.

He doesn’t understand. I’ve never had my heart broken. I haven’t been abandoned by someone I love. I try to explain but find that I cannot. People open up all around me. They tell me about the tattoo on Jess’s back. The “H” missing from my high school’s sign, hidden in a backpack. The visions one girl has of God when she has asthma attacks. A stolen pair of flip-flops.  An embrace under a pine tree during a game of manhunt. I swim in secrets and stories. But they never belong to me.

 5.

Dissection is the act of disassembling and observing a body to determine the workings of its internal structure, care being taken so that its separate parts aren’t damaged in the process. You write this at the top of your written test on finals day.

Your teacher asks you to identify the different body parts of the rat. She has one of the lab group’s rats splayed out in the back of the room, small colored pins speared through the organs. You recognize A as the lung. B is the small intestines. C is the urinary tract. This rat’s bigger than yours. The insides are redder.

It looks like a Pedro, your lab partner says, unraveling the intestines. You shrug. It makes you uncomfortable, giving the rat a name. What do you think this is? she asks, prodding at a pink protrusion near the hipbone. You murmur, bladder, and move on.

Over winter break our first year together, my boyfriend and I text almost constantly. We play this game where we take turns asking each other questions: What’s your favorite childhood memory? What’s your biggest fear? 

Sometimes, I enjoy telling stories. I tell him about my childhood, my silly adolescent embarrassments, without holding back. But questions about the present day me, I balk at. I decide that telling him everything about some things will make up for my unwillingness to talk about other topics. Yet, I still feel this frustration. I’ve already told him so much, I think to myself. Why would he need to know more?

I start to wonder if all my talking, all my writing, is just a way of avoiding the real dissection. I thought I was letting him take me apart, but the rat didn’t get to choose what we saw, what we didn’t.

Senior year of high school, on the drive home from school, I watch an old lady swerve off the road, her car wrapping like a bow tie around a telephone poll. I’m the only witness, and I stay as the fire department shows up, and then the ambulance and the police car and WBRE with its news cameras and microphones. My car is trapped on the side of the road, and I can’t leave until they’ve started pulling her body out of the roof.She died instantly, one of the firemen whispers to me. I nod. My knees won’t stop shaking. I wrap my arms around myself, trying to get it to stop, but the trembling won’t go away.

That evening, my parents ask me again and again if I’m okay. Every time I nod and tell them not to worry. Eventually, I retreat to my room so I can cry without their seeing. The next day at school, everyone knows about the accident. It comes up in class, at lunch. Still, I can’t talk about it. I’m afraid that saying the words out loud will open something up, something I can’t let them see.

On Animal Planet, I watch a time-lapse of a whale carcass being picked down to nothing on the ocean floor. I watch as starfish and crayfish and snails scramble over it. Starfish move as slowly as 0.25 meters per hour over uneven surfaces. But in this clip, they fly. It’s beautiful, the green bones that remain when the starfish have cleared. This is the whale in its purest form. This is the whale without the mess of muscles and skin that do nothing but obscure its true shape. The camera lingers on the whale’s collapsing spine. This, I think, is how it’s supposed to be.

There are things I’m not telling you, things I’m holding back. I am not telling you about junior year, when someone in my family thought she had Lyme Disease. I’m not telling you which questions I could never answer. I am not telling you about the number I started to speed dial seconds after the car accident, when I knew I should be calling 911. I’m not telling you about the names I changed.

We’re sitting in Nate’s basement. There are six of us, and everyone’s crying except for me. Nate has his arm around Emma, who’s sobbing. The yearbook is open in her lap to a memorial of her mother on the last page. I know I should be crying, too. I know I should be so overwhelmed right now that my walls will break down, allowing me to cry in front of these people I have known for years. I watch their tears fall, I watch the way they so easily pull what’s inside to the surface for others to see. I wait for the welcome embrace of sadness to encompass me, too. But it never comes.

I take deep, uneven breaths. I stare at the fluorescent lights without blinking, will my eyes to water. When that doesn’t work, I put my elbows on the table and hide my face in my hands. I feel Nate’s hand on my shoulder, comforting and warm, trying to shield me from pain I can’t even feel. I think about my grandma fighting cancer, about my dog dying when I was seven. They won’t know what I’m crying about, and it won’t matter.

I squeeze my eyes shut, and I reach. I reach, trying to disassemble what’s inside.

About the Author

Dana Diehl · Susquehanna University

Dana Diehl earned her B.A. in creative writing at Susquehanna and is currently an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Arizona State University. “Dissection” first appeared in Essay.

About the Artist

Jonathan Agee · Georgia Institute of Technology

Jonathan Agee enjoys making simple compositions using natural light and shooting with primes, due to the thought process they foster in the user. In his work he uses various 35mm SLRs, a 35mm Rangefinder, and a Nikon DSLR. This image first appeared in Georgia Tech’s literary journal, Erato.