Thursday, June 23, 2016

Carbon vs Carbon

“Carbon doesn’t like being alone,” Miss J had said to us as she held the chalk in her hand like a dart. I wondered what it would be like to be alone with her at the back of the laboratory. “And this is why we exist,” she continued, squiggling Cs and Hs and Os across the chalkboard. What atomic voodoo was this? Add an oxygen here, and there’s the very stuff your cells burn to stay alive. Remove an electron there, and the resultant acid will kill you. Coil enough of all these little buggers around each other and they will be you.

A year later, lecture halls had replaced classrooms, and Miss J’s quantum alphabet soup made more sense. I could distinguish the structure of aeroplane fuel from drain cleaner with a single gloss. In tandem, frayed striped school ties and scuffed Grasshopper shoes had made way for white lab coats hovering above Kurt Cobain Converses. My mother fought a losing battle against my weekly chemistry pracs: every baptism of bleach brought my uniform only temporary respite against whatever splash or explosion might assault me in the next session.

It would be a while before blood stained that coat, though. First there was the formalin. A molecule of only four atoms kept a body of billions preserved enough for unsteady 19 year-old hands to cut through flesh with (hopefully) increasing aplomb. My coat reeked of the stuff, sweet yet medicinal, vapours from a penny dreadful. (I dreamt once that it was raining formalin inside the dissection room until it spilled out the windows, while cadavers and medical students floated like so many cold and warm bodies.)

Third year, and the molecules became more complicated: sulphur here, nitrogen there, armies of metallic ions, even radioactive ones. The dry dead of anatomy gave way to the wet squelch of pathology. My brain was heady with itself, zooming in and out as it contemplated its likeness in a textbook, mapping out the slippery lobes and membranes while discerning the patterns of chemicals that flowed through each sulcus and gyrus.

I don’t know in what year or what ward I saw the woman’s eyes transition from glossy to glassy: all I remember was that the syringa trees were blossoming outside the isolation unit. The registrar said she’d been ill for a long time. I understood now why they used to call it consumption: she had been eaten out from the inside—so pale and so thin, a minor saint painted by an Old Master’s apprentice in a lesser basilica. She’d had all sorts of molecules pumped inside her but the bacilli had evaded their toxic ministrations.

I held her hand. It stayed warmer for longer than I thought, the atoms inside her still vibrating even though her open mouth had stopped sucking in air half an hour before.

Between my palm and hers it was, really, still carbon against carbon. And from that moment onwards, I didn’t want to be alone.