In the passing headlights, gnarled branches look like hungry fingers reaching down for me. It’s late, past seven, I’ve been running along Mem Drive, over the Longfellow and back but Phoebe’s hurt eyes chase me down the streets. Jesus, one lousy birthday card and it’s over.
My feet make soft, slapping sounds on the brick pathways. At the campus perimeter, I veer left through the Quadrangle past the chemistry building and hit black ice. My knee wrenches, it hurts like hell, and I almost cry, this day is such a goddamn disaster and, for a nanosecond, I toy with the idea of heading to Dunster, to score some Vicodin. For the pain, of course. But I banish the idea, I’ve been good, so good these last three years.
I sprint up the landing and into the foyer, dig in my back pocket and find the forgotten mood charts folded in the wad of ones. Three bucks buys me dinner: Hostess Ho-Hos, nacho Doritos, and a can of full-octane Coke.
In the animal facility, it’s humid but the sweetish scent of rodent piss and cedar shavings calms me. My six subjects swarm my hand when I reach into the glass cage. I pick up number 43, a black, brown-eyed male identical to thousands of his siblings populating this lab.
“Hey you.” My thumb strokes his neck. “Hope you had a better day than me.”
The mouse snuffs my wrist, wriggles up my sleeve. I pull him back by the tail and drop him into the cage.
I pull down the plastic feed container from the upper cabinet, refill the water, then lean against the wall to observe my subjects eat their dinner. My ‘practice’ mice, the animals I feed, inject with placebo, watch for reactions, then inject with three different anticonvulsants, giving them the maximum exposure to the study agent. One day, soon I hope, I’ll remove them, unsuspecting, from their glass house, guillotine them, and make carpaccio-thin brain slices to view under the ‘scope, and puree the rest of the grey matter, chromatograph the mess, and write up the experiment. Then, Tien and Doctor L will give me the expensive guys - six identical rodents genetically-modified to lack the glutamate-inhibiting protein – and I’ll repeat the laborious process again, this time for real.
My stomach rumbles. I haven’t eaten since the morning cupcakes. I leave the animal room and ascend the stairs. The burnt-match smell of propane fills the lab. A couple of pre-docs slump over their benches, extracting compounds in gallon-sized Pyrex beakers. They nod as I pass through and down the hall to the closet of an office I share with four other undergrads.
No one’s here, even though the single computer whirs and the bald fluorescent tube strobes an irritating ice-blue. The flickering intensifies my caffeine-withdrawal headache. God, I hate these headaches, they last all day and nothing touches them. I crumple in the wood chair, tilt back with my feet on the desk, and down the now-warm Coke in three swallows. A thought pricks - I’m forgetting something - but it flits away, so I open my neuro text and flip to Chapter Five. Antipsychotics. The cake dissolves in my mouth, too sweet, the disgusting faux chocolate waxes my tongue, and as I chew I sing ‘Happy Birthday to Me’ in my head, over and over again.
I hate my goddamn birthday.
Thioridazine, prochlorperazine, perphenazine, olanzapine. All these fucking ‘zines. Nasty names. Nasty drugs, these mind numbers. Thank God I’m not schizo. The chemical structures blur, so I try to remember them by pharmacologic class – phenothiazines, thioxanthenes, butyrophenones – but my eyes twitch from the headache. Jesus, I’ll never get these blasted drugs straight. Wish I could ask Phoebe, she’s a whiz at the drugs.
When I rip the bag of chips, tiny brown balls bounce along the desktop. Mice turds. Disgusted, I sweep them off with the back of my hand and remember seeing similar pellets yesterday on the kitchen counter, near the half-eaten loaf of stale bread. I gotta clean up my place, it’s been a shambles since finals. Like me.
Then, it hits me, a miracle; all these disparate threads on antipsychotics and cleaning and winning back Phoebe converge. Time to purge my house. My self. Time to clean up.
I jump up, brush rodent shit and phosphorescent orange shards from my lap. My cell buzzes. I’m so excited about my new course of action I ignore it, but then I think maybe it’s Mother telling me she deposited the tuition money today, oh, and happy birthday son. So I grab the phone, glance at caller ID but it’s not New York, it’s local. Althea. And then I remember what I’m forgetting - my own birthday party.
The Ides of March is a big day for me, bigger than green beer day. It's the day I defended my dissertation, the day I got engaged, the day medical students get matched to residencies. The Ides is also my character Ben's birthday, a day almost as lousy as Julius': betrayed by a friend, dumped by Phoebe, and a head session so angst-filled he fires his shrink. This, the hereafter...
Excerpted from Brighter than Bright, a novel of loss and love and taking your meds -- or not.
(Yeah, yeah, I miss you flashers... the mountain top gets lonely...)