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Aleida Duende

Some months ago, the conversation that unleashed the series of events I now undertake to retell took place. Let us begin there. I was, as I may still be considered, a recent college graduate. After four years passed, somewhat opposing the university—and somewhat at ease, in the clarity of that movement against—I found myself… drifting. I landed the mediocre first job, which sucked away 40 hours of my weeks while having me use three neurons—on the better days—and oceanic amounts of emotional energy—always; the same many of you have heard me speak of through gritted teeth. I spent my free time, which felt scarce, in social engagements, housekeeping, reading, tango...

Toward the middle of September, I finally arranged a meeting with my friend Ziad, who I had spent much of my waking—and sleeping—time with only a couple of months before. He had gone straight into the graduate pursuit of medicine after college, and remained uptown and busy for that reason; I had gone back home to Colombia for a couple of months to visit family, and moved to Brooklyn upon returning to New York; so we had not seen each other since moving out of the dormitories.

We spent the day walking, for since freshman year we had found each other to be wonderful companions in that beloved endeavor. The time and leisure allowed us to delve properly into the lives we’d found ourselves in, apart and newly degreed. I described to him the spreadsheets and their columns; the disappointment at arts organizations for the life one was led to lead within them; the disturbing posture of my coworker, whose spine, although scarcely older than my own, was beginning to acquire a static hunch below the nape. Ziad recounted tales of love with Momo, his new roommate’s dog, and of spite—nay, hate!—with Margara, his co-rent payer, the dog’s owner. By the time we were spit out of the park, he’d started to recount his coursework. I had always had a passing interest in anatomy due to my flirtatious relationship with the world of dance, and so I inquired thoroughly into Ziad’s undertakings in this field of thought and practice. The description of his typical Monday took us from 44th and 5th to the northern edge of Cobble Hill and was interrupted only by the appearance of Café Yemen on Atlantic Avenue.

Now, friends, despite the slightly meandering road I have thus far taken you along, and the ones we have all travelled in our particular friendships, I still feel much too reserved—prudish, even—to provide you with the details of what those wonderful kilometers enclosed. Suffice it for the moment to say that Ziad’s descriptions brought a sensation, as that of ants, between my legs—akin only to the feelings I’d had, when young, in going to or playing dentist; and that the conversation extensively featured a lady of German origin (middle-aged, of longish once-blond hair and floating gestures), whom I began to think about with frequency. I found myself in the coming week toying with the idea of trying to meet her.  

It was in this—playful—spirit that I, the coming week, took a sick day off and embarked upon my first trip uptown.

I spent the previous Sunday evening in liberal deliberations—great pains—over what to wear for the occasion. I sought a professional, easygoing, a formal-casual look, that, while discreet, would guarantee me the attentions I desired. I narrowed my wardrobe to three choices and alternated them over my body. The added factor of the medical coat decided the matter, in the morning, in favor of heavy maroon wool pants, which held to my waist with ease and, in a subtle pattern of arabesques, descended my legs straight. These pants fit wide at the leg and fold at the very bottom, so that, after tracing the curve of my cul, the weight pools down lusciously; they are well loved, and so have (I had recently discovered) a hole big enough to admit a thumb through, back between the buttocks—but this would be concealed. The top was simple, complimentary in its tightness and the thinness of its fabric. My nipples in both cold and heat molded it slightly. Anyhow, with leisure befitting this description I waited until eleven, then set out.

Ziad and I met at the stairs of the building that held his classes. He handed me a lab coat—which fit me (quite sadly) quite funnily, introduced me to an unremarkable couple of friends, swiped his card, and guided the way into the lab.

There, the small talk of standing students was rhythmically interrupted, or balanced, rather, by the presence of four flat metallic trolleys with bagged bodies lying upon them. The opening of one of these initiated the course: the zipper went down slowly, even becoming slightly stuck along the way, so that the doctor—a short man with a nose bulging his mask excessively, had to grab his left hand to the lower part of it and give it a little jerk, not devoid of violence. The resulting aperture spanned only from the solar plex to the point above the genitals, so that it was difficult to tell whether the donor was an anatomical female or male. The doctor went through explanations, I suppose. To be frank I know not, for I was being pulled in by the hole.

Bringing forth tools from the wall behind, the doctor opened, like a book, the flap of skin (previously cut), held the flesh apart, and invited our hands inside. The day was dedicated to the liver; the class was to see its location in relation to each neighboring organ, to touch it with index and thumb, and to record its consistency, form, parts, and possible anomalies. It is much bigger—stately organ!—than our diagrammed representations would have us imagine, and stiff, too: a crouching animal of smooth surface. As the students asked questions and introduced phalanges, I noticed whom I deduced to be the German lady, now in the room. She paced it with ease, passing about, organizing tools, zipping and unzipping parts of the other bags.

With my eyes I traced the doctor’s hands, the students’ and my own, as they introduced themselves into the donors; and soon started tracing, too, the steps of the lady through the room. She had a long stride. The vertical movement of our hands entering the body fell into counterpoint with her movements, which horizontally traversed the space. Our hands and her body both went from a straight vector motion to hanging about, touching particulars, perpendicularly. In this—up, down, hold, right, left, sniff—came moments of such miraculous coordination that the beauty of the coincidences brought me to the verge of tears.

But this was only during the little breaks I forced myself to take. What enchanted me really was the interior: the liver like a cold sea creature that, in dipping hands in the ocean, one happens to, by accident, caress. The surprise at the touch each time filled me with giggles. Even having felt it twice or thrice before, I still met it with a start and had to take a deep breath to prevent my hand from jerking out, myself from saying, It touched me! I felt something! It tickles!

We carouselled from donor to donor. Each body, each liver, opened differently to reveal various aspects of concern to the doctor and aspiring doctors in the room. The session ended with the closing of the last bag. I was left grossed out—but too, but mostly, desiring and satisfied and seeking. The German lady, pushing with her carpals, started taking the trolleys one by one away.

The conversation with Ziad, and this first visit, had been as a packed box left—by my friend’s words, the scene, the touched—at the back of my cranial cavity. In silence the contents had begun to tickle their enclosure, to walk and gnaw it, till a pair of hands opened the box from the inside and this world, this series of visions and droolings, began slowly to crawl behind my thoughts. Its initial movements were imperceptible, posing no interference with my conscious self. Yet in the vacant darkness of that region of the mind it soon became comfortable and engaged itself in more vigorous movement, increasingly forcing my eyes to bend back and lie upon it as the creature trapezed among my mind’s anterior cables. At disparate times of the day, without warning, I would be seized by the sensation of slipping my fingers through the thick ligament dividing the right lobe from the left lobe, holding the liver between my hands. In petting a dog at the park, choosing a melon at the market, arranging cushions on the sofa, without warning, the sensation—sensations—would come. As I walked down the street, the up and down, right and left would turn into the rhythm of the hands in and out, of the lady’s steps back and forth, and I would be submerged, made to float.

Thus, marveled slowly, I was taken uptown again a mere two weeks later—lungs—and then again the Monday following—small intestine. During the second visit the German lady, Sabine, had been almost completely absent. On the third it was she who guided us round the donors, inviting us to try and travel through the whole of the small intestine as a group. This took an hour. Her movements were precise; and yet, now and again, a touch stayed a moment longer than the strictly necessary. She lingered. She let the intestine, for example, rest on the back of her palm.

That day, as she zipped in the last bagged body, while some walked away and some hung around for questions, she told me: Stay behind.

Friends, I would have been a sea of excitement if not for the fact that my presence in the laboratory was…not strictly legal. My dear Ziad, who amused himself with and supported my follies, had provided me with the lab coat, told me to come as often as I pleased, and been the one to swipe me through the double doors that opened into the locker-lined passage, that fell into this world. (This was the only room in the building for which swipe access was necessary.) The newness of the crew, and the apparent lack of interest of anatomy professors for thoroughly identifying the living cohort of bodies crowding round them, led Ziad to assure me I could just “pop in” with him—plus lab coats are equalizing garments. But now Sabine’s eyes—on me—had me believing otherwise.

Ziad ran off to his next class. The room emptied. We were left alone.

She went straight to it. This space was reserved for first-year medical students; did I know? Was I one? I started stammering explanations, and then, as if broken down to confess the truth, unfolded a life story in which I had been in my third semester of medicine in my home country—Venezuela?—and then been forced to leave. I was fascinated by the field of anatomy. The care for donors—which so many overlooked, and those who acknowledged scolded—was Polaris, my path, aspiration, call, vocation. I had been coming to the classes as one went to church, out of a desire like a compulsion. I was ashamed of my transgression of the rules, but pleaded her mercy on the basis of my passion.

She looked me over. Interweaving a lifelong tendency to lie with a candent interest in this world, and a burning fear of the consequences that illegally trespassing into the Cornell lab might bring to an immigrant, I delivered my monologue in good form, and finished convinced that Sabine would at the very least let me go in peace. Had that been the case, this tale would be a footnote to some email. Practical considerations would have gotten strongly enough in the way to chop my fancy. But friends, she invited me to sit down! With a natural air, ignoring the entirety of my story, she described the department’s ongoing crisis: they were overflowing with donors—and short-staffed. It was difficult to find the proper assistant to fulfill the job. She had someone, Emilia, Monday through Friday, but no one during the weekends. Might I be interested in, for minimum wage, coming? Initially just Sundays (she allowed herself Saturdays off), to fulfill the crucial necessities: cleaning, checking for fungi, preparing solutions, caring, assisting in dissection.

Friends, there were many practical questions to think through. I was still working a full-time job that already had me feeling pressed for time. This would leave me even more so. Would being employed require proving the origin story I had made up? Not to mention the fact that my medical education consisted in high-school biology, which I heard was equal to nothing—and of that nothing, I had retained none. All these thoughts visited me during the week, for in that moment I said yes and asked for the promptest possible start date.

Necrophiliac! I hear you say. But no, that term is not only unfortunate, but wholly inaccurate in accounting for my attraction and my decision to joyfully accept the position. Friends, you must know my inclination is toward the living. These exercises did not remove me from the waking world, but imbued me with a greater interest in it. I, at this time more than any other, would enjoy proximity—in the subway, at tango, on the street. Instead of the mere visible flesh envelope, I could, say, place my fingers on a back and imagine pushing into the kidneys, touching and holding the beans, sunset globes, feeling their meager weight, sliding my hands through the tubes that connect them and carry the warm urine down. Compared to that pleasant and intricate interior, where the hand is always passing between two things, the palmar and dorsal consistently, simultaneously, stimulated, our outer skin felt much too cold, uneventful really.

Plus, my stream of consciousness is only a realization of what seems much too evident in our common sexual practices. Is it not holes we are all interested in? The vagina and anus, the mouth—these! are the sites of our enjoyments. It is our curiosity and desire to enter other bodies. Why blame me for a more complex and refined, a more demanding and searching, iteration of this shared faculty? Would you not also, now, given this explanation, be curious to feel not only these carcasses of life, but the actually living, the behind, within? To caress the curving ribs themselves, palpate the pancreas, press the pelvic floor, the cervical vertebra, the emerald gallbladder—oh—shudders pass through me! If these visions won't grab at you, you’re immovable, incapable of fancying the most primal, living. Do you object to this statement on the basis that what I am submerging my hands in are dead bodies? Ah, friends, believe me, that pains me most! But with a concern for morality, entering the living by force is ruled out, and surgeons have so many tasks to worry about that they will not stop and feel the pleasure. In life the interior is in reality much too busy, working constantly, which is why it must remain behind closed doors; the intrusion of meandering longings would disturb. Only the still are suitable. And one finds something poetic in working with them: there are fewer transitions and interruptions; no mediations, miscomprehensions, moods. The deposition of all these appendices leaves the trance purest, loneliest—out of this world, really. And it is also about the care, the space, my body coated in a common practice, of movements and tasks, bound up in restrictions: at the lab all must be done with the hands, always dressed, standing, professional. I enjoyed the limitations and prohibitions, it being always clandestine, silent as the touching of feet beneath a table, an “I shouldn’t,” an “I so do.”

The following Sunday I rejoiced in entering the laboratory with a card of my own. I had gone through much of New York to find a lab coat that fit me right, for I wanted to feel beautiful and at ease. Sabine from the beginning addressed me with few words, her face slightly elevated, except for when she smirked in irony and pleasure, perhaps seeing in my eager eyes and trembling hands her younger self. She spoke little while she showed, over the following weeks, the tasks I was to fulfill. Rather, she demonstrated, taking me through all the details not only of the correct ways to care, but of the most pleasurable. I would take note of her motions: Uses purlicue to open dissected flaps of skin; assumes a wide stance when stitching corpses; hips swing softly from side to side. She was able to imbue pleasure in much more than my narrow field of interest, and out of the students’ and doctors’ gaze she moved with freedom and fantastic intensity.

We had 29 bodies, almost equally dispersed across both sexes, all but two old at the time of death. She tended them excellently; most had spent years with her. I had trouble engaging when working with the exteriors. The elder bodies would be lying and their flaccid skin pooling about them: the dehydrated dermis retracted, the bones left salient. When I first walked into the back chamber where the donors, undressed of their bags, lay completely uncovered, the room appeared to me an archipelago of single palmed islands, puddles below great noses. The penises jumped to the gaze too: the formaldehyde makes them swell. Their consistency, akin to haloumi, resulted in a slight bounce upon touch. Only through Sabine’s instruction did I come to tolerate, and even enjoy, commerce with these outsides.

My candent interest remained with the interior. The playing of the organ fills the church, sounding the space with vibrations. When I touch myself at night, with fingers or with toys, I am sounding my interior, making it vibrate to my touch that explores and plays a melody to please it. Introducing my hands into the donors, I am the music that fills and rings throughout their inner chambers, chambers larger and greater in intricacy and diversity. The feel of bone against the back of palm—the thyroid’s wings—fingers passing veins, glands, nerves—the tendon’s touch—to feel, to hold the preserved brain.

Some intercourse chases climax, toils merely for the summit; this had none. This was a continuous string of pleasure, Sabine and I in exploration. The hours striding by, behind us and unknown. In certain moments an unexpected texture, the discovery of a lump or tumorous growth, did result in a particularly strong tingling, a catching of the breath, a needing to hold still or vibrate ever so slightly, for the felt added a cup of pleasure, to the pleasure filled body, threatening to make it spill. I would restrain myself with discipline: inhale and still a moment to, calm, continue, to play for hours.

It is a common practice in donor care to only sparsely disclose the faces. The students themselves do not ever see them, and we—I, most often—lay over them a cloth. The emphasis when dissecting is on the similarities, so that other than a knowing smile when coming to a slimier, more adiposed intestine or a superb spleen, our attentions were wholly democratic. We experienced no halt in pleasure when going from one body to the next, fulfilling practical tasks in the process to excuse our fancy, but knowing both, that both our mouths, behind the masks, filled with saliva. Sabine and I grew intimate, each alone with her pleasure, but generous, here and there sharing a great sight, an uncommon texture, always disguised. Is this the growth of fungi, Sabine? Would you hold this ovary so I can get the forceps, Alei?


Anyway, friends, I thought this gathering an opportune time to bring you all up to date in regard to my recent endeavors, especially because I have some news to share: two weeks ago, Sabine sat me down again, and this time offered me a full-time position to join her and Emilia at the laboratory! She has been understanding of my immigration status, and Cornell might even sponsor my visa.

Ziad, too, has been supportive.

I have been puzzling through two considerations. First, that deserting my position at the Architects and Urbanists Coalition might upset my family. On this front, I’ve figured they will not oppose themselves too strongly to my decision if I emphasize the doctoral qualities and the institution’s name, and gloss over my actual duties and title: Graduate Anatomy Lab Sub-Assistant Clerk. Matis, I trust you will help me with this one. 

Second, both my upbringing and this group have been critical to the hedonistic lifestyle. It is in fact this very attitude that has led to my hesitation, thus far, to disclose my endeavors with all but a few of you. (Ale, Santi my love, thank you for your support.) Now, faced with the decision of practicing full-time, I have been feeling the weight of the inevitable questions…Is the submergence into sensuality dulling to the intellect? Is it acceptable, morally, to gain one’s life with pleasure? Does consistent fulfillment leave one content, devoid of the drive for higher pursuits? I continue to meander around these issues and hold my doubts; though admittedly, for the time being, I figure that if I am to work 40 hours a week, I might as well try to orgasm as often as possible—preferably continuously—throughout them. Friends, I’ll be starting in April! Thank you all for listening, and please: if any of you ever wants to come, do let me know—I can probably swipe you in.