Leslie Shimotakahara’s Fiction

Jan 9, 2017 by

Leslie Shimotakahara’s Fiction

Lab Experiments

 

The summer of ’94. My first time living away from home. It was going to be, I hoped, my first time for a lot of things. The problem was that I had no friends in this city; I had no one to go out with, no one to meet boys with. So here I was standing all by myself at the edge of a dark cavernous nightclub. Feeling at once invisible and all too visible, my aloneness like toilet paper stuck to my shoe. But with anonymity came certain advantages: a new sense of freedom, a desire to explore.

Lasers lit up the mass of sweaty bodies and ricocheted off neoclassical columns. I had the impression that this building had once been a bank, but now it was full of guys in black leather loincloths and studded collars. The ones with beautiful bodies were dancing by themselves, in a way that managed to look at once aerobic and sensual, their sinewy muscles bathed in light, like Michelangelo’s David had suddenly sprung to life.

After standing at the crowded bar for a long while, I gave up on catching the bartender’s attention. Clearly, I wasn’t the right sex. It’d been a mistake to dart into the first establishment I’d seen upon getting out of the taxi. I had no idea what “club district” meant in this gritty little city, this dying steel town. But the bouncer had barely glanced at my fake ID, and for that I was grateful.

I downed a shot of amber, cough syrupy liquid that somebody had abandoned by an overflowing ashtray.

“Come!”

Two bodies swirled around me from out of nowhere, and I wasn’t sure which of the pale, shaved heads had shouted “Come!” at me. Then they were pulling me onto the dance floor and engulfing me in their hot, fluid limbs, and the booze was helping to loosen my own limbs, helping me to forget that I couldn’t dance. I must’ve noticed at some point that one of the pair was actually a woman, her large eyes heavily lined in onyx, the loose black tank top slipping off her muscular shoulders. Every few seconds, her eyes flitted up my body like sparrows flying off into the night sky.

“You’re not from around here,” she said later, when we were seated at a low table in the corner, the AC chilling our skin.

“True.”

We’d both leaned forward on the edges of our seats, while the guy – her friend – had sprawled back, as though on the verge of passing out.

“A Toronto girl?”

I nodded, wishing for a more complex identity. Wishing I weren’t so easy to read. I prayed that she wouldn’t ask what a nice girl in a flowered baby doll dress was doing at a place like this.

“So what’re you doing in Hamilton?” she said instead. Like I’d come to the end of the earth.

“I’m working as a research assistant at the university, for the summer.”

As she smiled, the skin around her eyes crinkled in origami-like folds. She was a lot older than I’d initially thought.

She asked my name, which she repeated with a lilting quality – “Kate …?” – as though trying on a new scarf and glancing at herself in the mirror. “So how old are you anyway, Kate?”

“Nineteen.”

“Ah … lemme guess. Just finished your first year at U of T.”

I nodded. A slight improvisation upon the truth. “And your name is …?”

“Camille.”

I’d overheard her friend calling her “Cam.” I wondered if only those in her inner circle got to call her that. But “Camille” had an appealing softness, a fading, vanishing quality. You had to strain to catch that second syllable, a whispered secret.

“So what are you studying, Kate?” She’d leaned closer by now, smoke wafting between us from an adjacent table. There was something kind of beautiful about how her face looked veiled – not so much by the smoke, but by the delicate overlay of her loosening, aging skin. She looked like a woman who’d had an interesting life, who’d had a lot of lovers.

“Art. Art history, I mean. I’m working this summer for a prof in the Art History department.” Again, mixing lies with truth. How spontaneously they sprung to my lips, as though these lies were actually a different version of the truth.

“If you were in your twenties – twenty-five, say – I’d be all over you.”

I remained quiet, awkward.

“You’d never look at a man again.”

“The Rhythm of the Night” began playing now, and I could sense from a slight twitch in the skin under her left eye that she wanted to get up and dance.

Strange. She was a woman. And old enough to be my mother. And yet, unnerving flickers of something like attraction – could it be? – were crawling up my skin. I wondered if it was possible to lose your virginity to a woman.

I got up, under the pretense of going to the washroom, and slipped out the back door.

***

“Rough night?” Gina tossed over her shoulder, as I walked into the lab, the next morning.

Before I could reply, Yvonne stared at me with icy calmness, leaving me tongue-tied. She was a stylish young redhead who liked to make it known that she was just taking a year off, before applying to grad school. Unlike Gina, who was already well into her thirties, a mother of two, a self-proclaimed “lab bitch” for life. Needless to say, I liked Gina a lot better.

“You’re behind.” Yvonne pointed at my work station in the corner: the hard stool, the microscope, the teetering tower of boxes full of hundreds of slides. Each contained a tiny slice of pig flesh. “Just because your mom’s pals with the great doctor doesn’t mean you can traipse in here past ten!”

From the beginning, Yvonne and I had gotten off on the wrong foot. She didn’t hide her view that I was totally unqualified for the job. Which wasn’t far off, let’s be honest. But I couldn’t help it that all I had was eleventh grade bio and chem. Just because my marks were high and I’d won some nerdy academic medal didn’t make me Doogie Howser, M.D. It hadn’t been my idea for my mom to call in a favour from her old university friend – the great Dr. Isobel Clarke – and weasel this job for me.

Adjusting the resolution of the lens, I peered down at what looked like smashed pomegranate seeds overtop fatty ham, juice puddling everywhere. For each slide, I was supposed to be rating the degree of bleeding on a scale of one to five.

The truth was it all looked the same to me. It all looked like a blood bath.

***

The novelty of staying in a university dorm had quickly worn off. McKay Hall had grey industrial carpet and pea soup walls, the rooms tiny and shabbily furnished. Since the place was deserted, I had no roommate, obviously. I don’t think I even had a floormate, after the two British backpackers had left.

The cafeteria was closed for the summer, but I had a mini fridge in my room and there were plenty of takeout joints within walking distance. Food wasn’t the problem – the problem was this fucking heatwave. Moisture coated the sticky walls, like even they were sweating. I lay on the floor on my back, a wet facecloth draped over my forehead, while watching the fan swirl about a windstorm of hot, dusty air. My bangs fluttered in my eyes, like the split ends were being violently winnowed.

Trying to fall asleep was pointless. The sauna-like fug made my cheeks itch like hell. Finally, I couldn’t take it. Wearing just the oversized T-shirt that served as my nightgown – what did it matter since I was the only person in the building? – I headed down to the basement. I’d seen a door marked “Library.”

To call that room a library was definitely pushing it. It had no windows, fluorescent lighting, and only one narrow bookshelf of cast-offs. Of Mice and Men, defaced with pink highlighter. The bible. A couple dozen back issues of Reader’s Digest dating back to the early ’80s.

But it was cooler here, at least. I stretched out on the mildewy brown sofa and read a few pages of the novel I’d brought with me, before my eyelids turned heavy.

I awoke to the sound of a cello.

No, it was more delicate than a cello, but still deep and resonant. Not a melody, sparser than a melody. It made me think of beams of white light ribboning down the centre of an empty cathedral.

As I sat up, the novel face-down on my stomach toppled to the floor.

A silhouette on the other side of the room made a startled motion. A tall, slender guy with a cloud of wavy hair. His face a shadowy blur. The overhead lights had been replaced by a lamp that cast only a diffuse aura. His posture tensed up, like a hunted animal. Then, as he looked me over, the muscles relaxed and he moved closer, placing the violin down on a chair.

“Didn’t realize I’m not alone,” he said.

He wasn’t wearing a shirt. Loose, beat-up jeans, low on the hips, were his only apparel. An intricate tattoo adorned his right shoulder – I had the impression of a slight girl with wings on her back, like a pixie or muse, though I couldn’t see much in the dimness. Even his feet were bare. Not that I was in any position to talk.

“The heat,” he said. “The heat made me come down here.”

I nodded, meeting his gaze. I was pretty sure that if we were out in the sun, his brown hair would have goldish highlights; it hung in messy undulations to the tops of his shoulders. His eyebrows were darker, thick and rather straight. His eyes – amber, slanted – were looking at me with amusement and an almost childlike curiosity. Although he appeared youngish – in his twenties – he was balding slightly around the hairline, in the shape of a craggy beach.

“What were you playing just now?” I asked.

“Oh, that? Nothing. It’s not finished.” He looked away.

I didn’t know how to respond, so the silence lingered. I’d never met someone like him before. Everyone in my parents’ circle was a doctor, lawyer, policy wonk or teacher. But here was a guy who was a bona fide artist. A musician – a composer, no less.

He told me that his name was Dale. He was here for the month to take part in a classical music festival. Vancouver was home to him.

I expected Dale to ask about where I was from. But instead, he crouched down and picked up the novel that had fallen to my feet. “What’re you reading?”

“The House of Mirth.” It was my second time reading it, and I missed the suspense of not knowing what would happen to the heroine.

“Don’t know the book.”

“It’s about a twenty-nine-year-old woman, who’s still single, unattached.”

In many ways, the story was my worst nightmare. Poor Lily Bart. After all those years of tirelessly dancing around ballrooms, what does it all amount to in the end? Nothing works out for her. She dies a virgin.

“She kills herself. Accidentally. Kind of. Drug overdose.”

“Over being single at twenty-nine?” He laughed.

“More or less. What? What’s so funny about that?”

He shrugged. “There are worse things in life.”

I wanted to ask him, “Like what?” I wanted to ask him, “Are you single?” He looked like he could be about twenty-nine. Which after my encounter with Camille didn’t seem all that old. I’d always envisioned myself with an older guy.

The book remained extended in his hands. It took me a few seconds to realize he expected me to take it. I didn’t know how to bridge that gap – how to translate the romantic passages of literature to my own life.

“Want to go outside for a walk?” he said at last.

“Now? It’s the middle of the night.”

“Actually, it’s almost dawn. We can do something cheesy, like watch the sun rise, if you’re up for it …?”

I was.

I followed Dale in a dream-like trance. Only when we got outside did I realize that I wasn’t wearing shoes, the cement frictive against the soles of my feet. I still had on nothing but underwear and the loose T-shirt that allowed tunnels of balmy air to flow up around my damp torso, my damp armpits, my damp upper thighs. We wandered onto the grass, the dark sky lightening to periwinkle in patches.

Dale plucked an old Frisbee off the ground and tossed it at me. I froze up. And watched it, as though in slow motion, quivering through the air like some goofy UFO and hitting me right in the solar plexus. It knocked me back, right onto the grass. Not that he’d thrown it hard. At that point, it wouldn’t have taken much to knock me over. Before the thing even hit, I already had the sensation of falling.

“You okay?” His face appeared above me, eyes lit with concern. “Sorry – I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“That’s okay. I startle very easily.”

He reached out a hand to help me up. Our cheeks brushed past and before I knew it we were kissing. It was like taking a plunge underwater, turning little somersaults together, then coming up for air. I’d never been kissed like that before – not even close. True, I only had one experience to compare it to, when Pete Marshall had tried to slip me the tongue at the end of slow-dancing to “November Rain” at the tenth grade semi-formal. Pete smelled of sweat and cheap cologne. Kissing him had made me feel like my tongue was a squid. In contrast, kissing Dale was more like our tongues were a pair of dolphins riding the waves together.

At some point, I must’ve opened my eyes, because I became aware that he was peeking at me, too, through narrowed slits. Something made him suddenly break off the kiss.

“By the way, Kate, how old are you?”

After Camille, I wasn’t taking any chances. “Twenty-one …?”

“Cool.” Although he smiled, he seemed tense. Maybe he didn’t quite believe me.

“Just finished second year in Biochem. I’m working for one of my profs this summer.”

“Oh, yeah? What’s the project?”

“We’re testing anticoagulants by doing open heart surgery on pigs.”

This seemed to reassure him. I really was who I said that I was, because I knew the right lingo.

His hands began exploring other parts of my body, in a way that felt strange, tickly at times. But also new, exciting.

“I had you all wrong,” he whispered in my ear. “I wouldn’t have guessed you’re a science girl. You seemed more artsy, at first.”

A wave of something like elation washed over my skin.

He gave no indication of being aware of my virginity, as he touched my body. Maybe it wasn’t always possible to tell if a girl had never done it. Maybe I wasn’t all that tight, maybe there wasn’t all that much to open up, because I was already pretty open. I kept waiting to see whether he was going to try to take things further – to go all the way. I wondered if I should let him, I wondered if I should ask whether he had a condom handy. But he just kept kissing and caressing me, then after a while seemed to lose interest.

Maybe he just wasn’t that into me.

Maybe he only went for artsy girls.

***

Although I hadn’t slept at all, I made it in on time. Thank God. All the lab assistants were on their best behavior, because Isobel had made a surprise visit. She talked with Yvonne in her office for a long time.

When Is came out, she approached me. Not smiling, not even distractedly. Her long black hair, pulled up in a messy bun, gave her the air of an expressionless samurai.

She glanced through the microscope at the slide I’d been examining. “So how would you rate this one, Kate?”

Everyone in the room fell silent.

I took a long look. “Um, there seems to be a lot of bleeding …? I’d put it at a four, maybe?”

But she was shaking her head, the skin between her eyebrows furrowing into a deep exclamation point. “You’ve got to look more carefully. What you’re mistaking as bleeding is the stain used to help the real bleeding show up.”

“See what I’m talking about?” Yvonne stood behind us, the satisfaction in her voice unmistakable.

Is pulled a textbook, thick as a phone book, off the shelf. HISTOLOGY written across the cover. As she handed it me, I nearly toppled under its weight.

“Time for some late-night studying. Yvonne, you’re in charge of helping her.” Is stared at me like she was seeing me for the first time. “If you had no clue, why didn’t you ask for help?”

There was nothing I could say. Part of me wanted to scream, “Just fire me, okay?” But then my mom would be mad and the situation would get even worse. I concentrated on my feet, the grainy tiles, everything blurring over, pressure gathering at the backs of my eye sockets. I wasn’t used to screwing up.

“Until you’re up to speed, no point in continuing your duties. And you can sit tomorrow’s surgery out.”

It was the disappointment in Is’s voice that hurt the most, not the prospect of missing out on another pig’s massacre.

The whir of the surgical saw.

That expanding line of red.

The intense, indescribable smell of singed flesh.

That shapeless pink body splayed open on the table, a cadaver already, though its heart was still beating.

***

That night, I went back to the club. Exactly a week had gone by since I’d met Camille there. I hoped she was a creature of habit.

She was dancing in the shadows with a tall, angular woman whose face I couldn’t really see. Their bodies moved like trees swaying erratically in a lightning storm.

At some point, Camille caught sight of me and smiled, but it was just a casual, throwaway smile.

Her friend must’ve sensed the slight distraction. As she craned to look over, something in her face fired up, as though she was used to being on the hunt for fresh meat. But Camille already had her hands on the woman’s arms, a gesture of restraint. They whispered, Camille shook her head. A mere child, not sophisticated enough to belong to their tribe, I was being marked as off-limits.

Devastation – indignation – washed over me, as I stumbled through the maze of sweaty bodies toward the exit. Since there were no cabs around, I had to take the bus back to campus. The dreary cement buildings and boarded-up storefronts lurched by, as I thought about the empty room that awaited me, the histology textbook upon the desk. Now that Camille had rejected me, I had no diversion, no escape. I was destined to a life of nun-like solitude and study.

While trudging toward the dorm, I heard someone calling out my name. It was Dale, some distance behind, but I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want him to see me like this, a snivelly mess. Pretending I hadn’t heard him, I picked up pace.

As I fumbled with my keys at the front door, I had to slow down.

“Hey, Kate?”

I had to turn around now. I guessed that he was returning from a party, his cheeks flushed with booze.

In silence, we got on the elevator together. I pressed the button for the third floor, while he hit the one for the second. When we arrived at his floor, all he said was, “See ya around …?”

Following some nerved up instinct, I stuck out my foot to prevent the door from closing. “Why don’t you invite me in for a nightcap?”

“Oh, uh …” He looked confused by my sudden friendliness. “All I’ve got is beer?”

“Beer’s fine.”

We walked down the hall.

Dale’s room was exactly the same as mine, except for the violin case and pile of sheet music fanning over the desk.

I didn’t wait for him to fetch us those beers. Throwing my arms around him, I kissed him deeply, hungrily – devouring him almost. Like I’d seen women do in movies.

Our clothes fell to the floor.

Perhaps at the moment that he entered me, he felt me tense up and wince a little. If I gasped, I did a good job at disguising it as a cry of passion. The pain faded fairly quickly, similar to when you massage out a charley horse, nothing left behind but a mild, tingly ache. The feeling – the after-feeling – wasn’t exactly pleasurable, more like the premonition of pleasure. All my senses and nerve endings seemed very awake, alive.

After Dale had fallen asleep, I checked the sheets for bloodstains in the dim lamplight, but couldn’t find anything.

Getting up to use the bathroom, I noticed that the top drawer of his dresser wasn’t closed. Curious, I peeked in, fumbled around. Beneath the piles of socks and briefs, my fingertips touched a small booklet – a passport. I took it into the bathroom, where I could turn on the light.

So his middle name was David. His last name Girard. In the photo, he appeared pasty-faced and unsmiling, his hair cropped short. I barely recognized him. Something about the limpness of his shirt collar, its crushed-in quality, stirred my emotions. He was Dale, yet not Dale. Not the Dale I knew. He appeared a totally different guy – so serious, middle-aged. Old, even.

My eyes migrated to date of birth: January 5, 1954.

1954.

So he was older than twenty-nine – way older. Forty. I’d known he was old, but not that old. A breathless sensation wrapped around my skin, my clammy skin. Yet my skin felt remote and unreal, like it belonged to somebody else, and I was only trying it on for fit.

At last, I had a secret.

In a way, I’d become more interesting. To myself, in any case.

Then waves of slight dizziness began to wash over me, as I stared at my bare feet, the toes greyish-pink under the fluorescent light. I didn’t quite know what I was feeling, all sensations at once too vivid and too faraway. It was like being in the operating room, breathing through my mouth to block out the smell of cauterized flesh, just to avoid passing out. Keeping my eyes focused on the strange, clutching shape of the pig’s hooves.

Leslie Shimotakahara’s memoir The Reading List won the Canada-Japan Literary Prize. Her debut novel After the Bloom is being published this April by Dundurn Press.

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