Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Today Ben, my favorite character, turns 31. So young, though I feel I have known him for a long, long time. A bit of sadness with this birthday -- I sense him leaving me, I sense myself leaving him, thinking of new characters, like Kay, who will leave all that's good for a pipe-dream, and Jesse and Luke, two high school kids trying to fool the neighbors and the social workers into thinking their parents are still alive. Below, an excerpt from Ben's 20th birthday, definitely in the vein of the March of Ides after a humiliating morning in front of his love interest...


Passing headlights make the gnarled branches look like hungry fingers reaching down for me. It’s late, past seven, I’ve been running up and down Mem Drive, over the Longfellow and back for two hours, trying to lose this morning’s demons, but Phoebe’s hurt eyes keep chasing me down the streets. Jesus, one lousy 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 a 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 warm, humid; 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 his thousands of siblings populating this lab.

“Hey you.” My thumb strokes his neck. “Hope you had a better day than me.” He 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. 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. Then I’ll puree the rest of the grey matter, chromatograph the mess, and write up the experiment. If my technique satisfies Tien and Doctor L, they’ll 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, reminding me I haven’t eaten since this morning’s cupcakes. I leave the animal room and ascend the stairs. The burnt-match smell of propane and acid fills the lab. A couple of pre-docs stand humped over their benches, extracting compounds in huge 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. The single computer whirs and the bald fluorescent tube strobes an irritating ice-blue on the ceiling. The flickering intensifies my lithium 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 at me - I’m forgetting something - but it flits away, so I open my neuro text and start to read about 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.

I return to the chapter. Thioridazine, prochlorperazine, perphenazine, all these fucking ‘zines. Nasty names. Nasty drugs, numb the fuck out of you. 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 start twitching 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 my 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.

Heartened, I jump up and brush the 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 money today, that she paid the tuition. 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 birthday party.


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  1. Bittersweet birthday for Ben. It's funny how you get so attached to your characters. I feel like I know Ben too, through your excerpts.

  2. Seems like Ben's work goes home with him in the form of little presents.

  3. Thanks for celebrating with me and Ben. He's the reason I write. Really. It all started with him. Peace...