Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Hidden Monsters

Violet sat two rows over from me in my Women's Literature class and I’d labeled her a Greek, most insulting. I'd seen her in two of my other English courses - we were both English majors. She was pretty, thin, wore blond hair to her shoulders in a style with bangs, dressed in preppy clothes with a little flair, and I thought her too white, too snobby, for me to ever engage her in conversation.

I was attending the University of Southern California. My father was a professor there - he taught biochemistry, specializing in genetic research and microbiology, and he had a laboratory. While I may have learned to walk on the lawns of Cal Tech in Pasadena, I learned to run on the grounds around the Colliseum and to climb on the steps of Tommy Trojan. I got my teeth fixed in the basement pediatric offices of the USC dental school. USC was my home.

When I started attending classes, I spent a lot of study hours in my father's office, right next to the lab. I was always careful to stay at the extra desk, careful not to touch anything. I had learned early on that there was nothing more dangerous than clear liquid in a beaker or spilled on the countertop. I used to come and go, always reading the warning signs on the door, on jars, on the cupboards, on the refrigerator: Radioactivity. I kept my hands in my pockets to prevent errors. But I wasn’t afraid – the ominousness of the lab was nothing more than color to me, something like paint on a wall.

Far different than the Greeks. The fraternities and sororities were a community of people who seemed to care only about things I cared nothing for. Drinking and partying to excess, abusing those who weren’t like them, abusing their own. We had nothing in common. Any shred of interest I might have had died during summer orientation when a girl told me that if I wanted to "rush" and try to join a sorority, I should leave my Jewish star pendant at home. I had smiled, gave her idea the finger, and never looked back.

So with my own prejudices firmly in place, Violet surprised me when she sat next to me and started talking. She was nothing like I had thought. She was vegetarian, German-born, and a bit of a loner. She hated the Greek system as much as I did. I grew to adore her. We used to sit on benches on campus, eating our lunches from the cafeteria, talking about our work, our professors, and enjoying our private mockeries of "those across the way." Her father had been a professor at USC's medical school who had died several years before. We were part of a priveleged group. We attended USC for free. Tuition remission.

I couldn’t believe how completely mistaken I had been about her.

She met my father many times on campus - he was funny, witty, flirtatious, handsome. He was an Iraqi Jew and so he had just enough of an accent to make listening to him particularly interesting.

One morning after class, Violet asked to see his lab. I said, yeah, let's go. We can meet Papa’s students. They're always fun and interesting and happy to show you what they're working on. She was excited to see science in action, excited to venture into a laboratory.

We carried our novels and poetry books and binders in bags and walked the distance to one of many brick-faced science buildings. After dumping our coffees into the trash outside, we pulled open the glass doors and felt the shush of air-conditioning as we walked the few steps to the elevator. The place already smelled of chemicals - a sour smell. There was a sense of cleanliness in the place, the floors seemed cleaner than in most places, the windows wiped, the walls free of scuff marks. We got into the elevator and in a few seconds we were walking the hall of the third floor. Heading to Room 325, around the corner. This floor smelled like chemicals only much stronger, more intense. There was the continuing sound of machinery - centrifuges spinning, the clicking of special cameras. Faucets ran, refrigerators hummed, opened and closed. People in lab coats with open notebooks focused intensly on their jobs. One lady waved to me - a secretary.

There was a table in the hallway and Violet lit up: rabbits in cages. So sweet, she said. She wanted to pet them. She loved animals...cats, dogs. Anything. She was...vegetarian, after all. She hoped the rabbits would be okay and I said, oh they're fine.

We walked into my father's lab and he smiled at us and introduced Violet to the students. He talked with us, with me. While we were talking, I saw Violet's face. She'd gone paler than her usual pale. The nice student of my father's, a post-doc actually, John, was doing something that in my own mind was perfectly natural. Perfectly usual. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe some people might find this work objectionable.

John was picking up little white, wiggly mice in his hands, the round body in one hand, the head in his other, and pulling them so their necks would break. He'd flip them over, now dead, scalpel them open and take out the liver. He threw the furry, limp bodies into a box. He had already done about ten and had about twenty to go. My father was oblivious to Violet's trauma. I found myself subtly silenced. Violet looked at us and her face told me she thought us to be monsters.

She smiled a funny smile, turned, and left. I heard her hurried footsteps turn the corner.

Papa shrugged, perplexed. Utterly mystified. He glanced at the mice and said, we have another shipment coming tomorrow, John. Very good. The results will be very good.

The mice, I said. She doesn't like the killing of the mice.

Do you want to have lunch, Adriana? I'm so hungry!

Yes, Papa.

We were nothing like Violet envisioned us to be.

Papa, Circa 1965, Cal Tech, Pasadena


nappy40 said...

Ugh. That gives me a funny feeling in the stomach.

Adriana Bliss said...

LOL, nappyforty. Yeah, using creatures for scientific research definitely takes getting used to - but these animals are used for great things, great accomplishments. I only wish my father could have continued working - he passed in 1995 at age 56 - he had so much left to do. I still feel bitter for his lost time.

nappy40 said...

My parents died at an early age too; I know how you feel.