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Watching Shadows: Part I

From the LabLit short story series

Harrison Bae Wein 25 November 2007

I often come home late from the lab. How could she know this night was any different?

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the first episode of a four-part short story about an unusual laboratory relationship.

I suppose reality is somewhat elusive. I deconstruct the events in my mind and go over them again and again, trying to put them back together in a way I can understand. I wonder what I leave out, or what I add that wasn't there before. This is what worries me.


The thick black polyester curtain blocks the light from the main lab and deadens the sound into a dim jumble of background noise. The cool, air-conditioned air coming through the vent above chills the dark enclosed space. Maybe I should go get my jacket, I think, but am reluctant to move. As much as every cell of my body longs to encounter her, somehow I also dread it.

The battleship-gray microscope I work at is the size of a person's torso. I carefully adjust the fine adjust knob and the field begins to come into focus. The bright uniform blue first divides into overlapping halos, which then shrink against the black background until they are quickly sucked into focus, congealing within the radiant red diatom cells, long thin cylinders that taper to a delicate, bulbous point at each end. Seven or eight cells are visible in this particular field, each in a different orientation. The one at the center of the field, tilted just left of vertical, has a brilliant, glowing blue barbell within.

Light floods the enclosure as the polyester partition is pushed aside. I look up to see Nancy's silhouette with my dark-adapted eyes, her body a black shadow in the shrill light from behind. Her arms are suspended, hands shoulder-high holding the curtains steady on either side. Her turtleneck dives sharply into her waist, stretched like a bat's wings under her arms.

"Anything?" she asks.

"Well, it could be better."

"Can I look?"

"Be my guest."

Nancy allows the curtains to fall back together as she comes toward the microscope. "Oh, don't bother getting up," she says as I begin to roll my chair backward. She nudges me aside and leans forward, clasping her hands behind her back, to peer into the viewing lenses. A small hoop hangs from her earlobe. In the hushed light, it looks like gold.

"What am I looking at?" Nancy asks.

"The permeabilization," I answer. "It didn't seem to do us any good."

"The cells are still fluorescing bright red," she confirms with a frown, the chlorine smell from her morning swim drifting through the cool air of the enclosure. She lowers her right hand onto the table next to the microscope.

"The chloroplasts are still there, all right," I say dreamily, my mind distracted by her strong hand on the table, her long fingers twitching as if in thought.

"Hmmm," Nancy says as she continues to peer through the lenses. "Looks like we're going to have to think of something else." As she rotates the two knobs on the left side of the stage to scan through the rest of the slide, I study how her turtleneck hangs loose around her neck, dropping to gently graze her taut breasts before narrowing into her waist. The cloth is pulled tight by her belt so that I can even see the subtle ridges of her lower spine along her back.

"I've already ordered some other detergents to try," I answer distractedly.

Nancy keeps moving the slide around with the two silver knobs, her lips barely parted. Her leg shifts slightly and touches my thigh. Her cool, pungent chlorine scent now fills my nostrils. I wonder for a moment if Nancy knows she has this effect on me, if this is why she comes so close to me all the time, lets me study her lips and the way her soft shirts graze her breasts, lets me drink her sensuous scents, lets me innocently brush against her and gently increase the pressure until she shifts away, seemingly unaware of the charge she has sent coursing through my body.

"We'll get there," Nancy finally says in her lilting alto voice as she breaks contact and stands up. "We just have to keep plugging away at it."

In that dark space, there is only a faint jumble of background noise from the main lab. I am acutely aware of the fact that, effectively, we are alone.

"Yup," I agree simply, and then turn to look down into the viewing lenses myself, so that I don't have to look at her anymore.


When I became a scientist, I was very idealistic. I thought you asked a question, figured out ways to answer it, and then got your answer. I didn't like in-betweens. Things were or things weren't. Things happened or things didn't.

But after years of being a scientist, I now realize that science is much more complicated than that. The universe, the environment, the cell – practically everything scientists study is inexhaustibly complicated to our limited brains. Once you think you understand one thing, there are just twenty more that you realize you haven't figured out yet. You don't really understand at all what you've briefly fooled yourself into believing you had a grasp on moments before.

Life is like that too, I realize. I once thought that life was a simple series of rational decisions that people made. I thought that people and emotions made sense. I don't think that at all anymore.


I open the incubator beside the entrance to Nancy's office and the unwieldy door swings to the left. Inside, fluorescent lights illuminate the stirring walnut-colored diatom suspensions in the carboys. There are twelve of these tall plastic jugs in the chamber, six on a metal rack and another six on the bottom, each about three-quarters full with eight liters of liquid. Each carboy sits on a metal stir plate that magnetically rotates a white, plastic-coated bar inside the carboy to keep the contents stirring. As the bars spin, they click against the seams at the bottom of the carboys, causing an arrhythmic, chaotic clicking that is amplified in the chamber's stark metal interior. Glass tubes descending into the swirling liquid emit bubbles of carbon dioxide every half second or so. They flatten upon their release and drift upward in a loose spiral.

Everything seems to be working fine. This is really just a pretext for looking at Nancy, of course. I leave the incubator door open and step gingerly to my right.

Through the open door, I see Nancy writing at the center of her broad, black wooden desk. To her left is a computer; to her right a stack of four white plastic letter trays. She pauses and stares down at the white paper with a slight frown, biting her lower lip with her front teeth. After holding the lip for a few seconds, she releases it, leaving a white imprint. She scribbles a few more words and, when the sentence is finished, resumes staring at the paper.

She puffs her cheeks out in a sigh, signs the letter, and folds it into one eighth of its original size. She holds the compacted paper in the upright palm of her right hand as if weighing it, then pushes her chair back and stands. She tucks the paper into her back right pocket.

I have been ready to dash back to the incubator at any moment, but Nancy never moves to look toward me, never notices I am standing at the edge of her doorway peeping in on her. Instead, she turns and steps toward the wide window along the left wall of her office. Gazing outside, she digs her hands deep into her front pockets and leans back against the edge of her desk, crossing one leg in front of the other. She wears pleated olive-green pants, a thin, hazel-colored leather belt swimming loosely in its wide loops. Her white cotton blouse is pulled tight into her waist. She always wears her shirts tucked in like this, thinking it gives her boxy frame a more feminine shape. I can see the ghost of her brassiere through the thin fabric.

I think for a moment that maybe she can see my reflection in the window. Maybe she extends her back ever so slightly in order to draw the thin material closer against her skin and make her brassiere more apparent to me. But it is daylight outside; she couldn't possibly see my reflection.

Most people would notice someone in their doorway ogling them, but Nancy is always looking straight ahead. If she doesn't think to notice something, it often just passes her by. It can be a strength, but also a weakness at times.

I decide not to push my luck and move back to the incubator for a final check. The clear concave bubbles look like corneas of human eyes. Blind, they are drawn erratically along the swirling brown liquid in twelve processions drifting upward in spiral, all swaying jerkily to the mechanical symphony they cannot hear.


As I lower myself onto the corner of the bed, the springs sound their protests in a shifting chorus of high-pitched tones. I take a deep breath and look around. Here I am.

Within an arm's reach sits a large television with old fashioned metal knobs. It is bolted onto a metal cart which, in turn, is bolted to the floor. To the right of the television is a small desk with a creamy sky blue ceramic lamp and a digital alarm clock with greenish-blue numbers.

I hear some voices through the wall. The people in the room next door are watching TV.

A squat, unwieldy tan telephone sits beside me, leaning toward the depression I make in the bed, its tightly coiled cord flush against the base because of the tilt. It has a dirtied clear plastic rotary dial and a flat, lighter tan wire that runs a crooked path up the navy quilt and over the night stand to the right of the bed.

The bedsprings squeal as I shift my weight and lift the receiver. I place my finger into the first hole and start dialing. As the dial turns, it creates a loud, satisfying clicking sound. There is a pause after I finish dialing, then I hear the soft tone of the ring through the earpiece. The sound is comforting for a moment, but then I notice my agitated breathing echoing awkwardly. As the third tone begins, I abruptly drop the receiver into its cradle.

My heart races, my breathing is quick and shallow. I want to scream. I want to let loose in a flood of tears. I want to do something! I punch my thigh in frustration. It's not even very hard; it wouldn't have been very convincing if anyone were watching.

I picture Angie at the white Formica kitchen table, crying behind an untouched setting because I have left her.

Then I think how self-centered I am. I often come home late from the lab. How could she know this night was any different? I am sure she must be asleep by now.


Across the main lab bench from me, Nancy speaks to a tall young man who is interested in joining the lab as a graduate student. At the right end of the bench's sleek black surface rises one of the dull white metal beams supporting the wooden shelves above. A pocket-sized timer held to the beam by its magnetic backing reads "00:04:34" for a second as it continues its countdown.

"We work with the diatom," Nancy says, perched on the edge of a tall metal stool. "Part of the reason people study diatoms is that, economically, they're a very important organism. They're used in toothpastes, facial scrubs, bathroom cleansers – crude oil is also a diatom product. Many oil companies even study them, but they're more concerned with classification than with biological questions."

Nancy's busy hands punctuate her words to ensure that the listener's attention doesn't wander. "Ecologically," her pleasantly disarming voice continues, "diatoms are even more significant. Diatom photosynthesis may be responsible for almost a quarter of the world's oxygen."

The angular bones of the young man's face are well defined against his skin. His large athletic body stands in a stiff pose, with his hands clenched before him, his left arm clamping a spiral notebook against his side. "So that's what your lab is studying?" he asks. "Diatom photosynthesis?" He is obviously feigning interest so he can get to work in our lab. He wants to work in our lab so he can get into medical school. That's what it's all about for most of these students.

"We're more interested in the cell biology of diatom growth," Nancy answers. "We're interested in how they reproduce." She wears a white turtleneck under a loose-knit, mango-colored cotton sweater. The dry, smooth skin of her face is speckled with some diffuse freckles. She still looks so young, I marvel.

The timer reads "00:02:36."

"Right now," she continues, "we're studying mitosis in one of the larger diatoms. We've captured the entire process of cell division on film. Unfortunately, we still have no insights into their sexual reproduction."

"But I thought you just said you had it all filmed," the student interrupts.

"No," Nancy corrects gently as if giving a lesson to a child, "I said we filmed mitosis – that is, when one cell simply divides into two. We haven't even seen sexual reproduction yet."

"So the cell division you've filmed isn't sexual reproduction?"

Well, that's it. With that one question, I know, Nancy has decided not to accept this student. It's Biology 101, which I'm sure he aced or Nancy wouldn't even be talking to him, but he likely forgot all of it right after the final. She knows the type as well as I. But she continues the interview anyway – always professional if nothing else, my Nancy.

"No," she explains patiently, ever aware of her role as a teacher, "we've filmed mitosis, simple division, where one diatom cell divides into two identical cells to reproduce. For sexual reproduction, you need two cells to get together."

The student nods knowingly. He is so assertive, you can almost believe he cares.

"Here's what happens," Nancy continues. "The diatoms have two stiff glass shells that fit together like a pill box." Nancy uses her hands to demonstrate how the two halves might fit together. "With each division," she pulls her hands apart, "the two new cells make glass shells that fit inside the ones they inherited. Now, they can't expand their shells, so from generation to generation, they get smaller and smaller. Once they get down to a certain size, some trigger – we have no idea what it is – tells the cells to undergo sexual reproduction. At least, that's the pattern in some other diatoms. We've never actually seen it happen in ours."

"But if people have seen sexual reproduction in other diatoms, why bother studying it in yours?"

"Every species is different," Nancy answers patiently. "What we know about one can't really be applied to another. Some diatoms produce the equivalent of sperm and eggs; others use completely different strategies. There's no real consistency between species, so there's no way for us to be sure how ours deals with sexual reproduction."

The timer reads "00:00:22."

"Like people," the student adds a dash of humor into his recipe for a good interview.

"Like people," Nancy affirms without a hint of humor.

"How can you have worked with them for so long without ever having seen their sexual reproduction?" he asks. "It must be pretty important; it seems like it would be easy to spot."

"It has to be happening right under our noses," Nancy agrees, "but we just haven't been able to see it." She lowers her hands to her inner thighs and shrugs her shoulders.

The student nods his head. Despite her affable exterior, I know Nancy cringes inside at this clod. She may as well tell him now he won't get the position, but she won't. She's too nice about things like that.

The piercing double beep of the timer.


I lift the receiver once again, and the bed's springs emit a low squeak. I dial, my heavy breathing audible in the earpiece.

She picks up on the third ring, always Angie's habit. "Hello?" comes her tired voice.

Only my heavy breathing.

"Hello?" she repeats. "Hello? Who the hell is this?"

My breathing stops.

"Forget it," she says abruptly. A click echoes in the earpiece, to be replaced only by a gentle, barely discernible background of static. I hang up.


Trying to piece together the past without distorting it is difficult enough. The future has even more possibility for error.

The main kitchen light overhead is off. One feeble bulb recessed into the ceiling above the sink illuminates the dirty dishes and frying pans stacked in its double basin. On the wide window ledge above the sink sit seven red clay pots, each with a different species of cactus displaying its own unique combination of intimidating spikes. It has been my hobby, nurturing these hostile little flora.

Angie is at the stove with her back to me. Her coiled hair, a ghostly off-white in the dim light, dangles onto her shoulders. She wears my nightshirt, the sleeves pushed up to her elbows. The thick, dark blue cotton material hangs limp from her shoulders, grazing her slender shape and ending just below her knees so that her shins protrude beneath as fragile luminescent stalks. She stands straight, stirring the tomato sauce with her right arm, moving the wooden spoon in smooth, continuous circles. Her left arm hangs languid at her side, a small diamond on her fourth finger gathering what little light it can from its surroundings to twinkle unsteadily.

"It takes two, you know," she says suddenly. She continues to stir the sauce in smooth circles, never looking up from the steel pot. "I can't keep this family together myself. Are you in, or are you out? I need to know."

The kitchen air is warm and humid, thick with the odor of tomato sauce spiced with oregano, basil, bay leaves and pepper. The fluorescent fixture overhead is dark and quiet; the refrigerator is still. I can hear the stirring of the wooden spoon in the pot.

"I should have listened to my mother," she says. "This thing with Nancy, it's just not healthy. My kids deserved better, she told me."

She won't turn around. Even if she did, I wouldn't know what to say. Did she really think we could break up the lab too?


The walls of the long corridor are mostly white, but their bottom third is a pale sea green. The flat fluorescent fixtures above cast a bright glare on the white tile floor.

The sound of people talking as I pass a lab on the right. The high pitched whir of a centrifuge in one of the core rooms to the left. I pass another professor. "Say 'hi' to Nancy for me," she says. I do my best to smile.

I twist our laboratory door handle with a quick snap. Inside, Nancy is working at the central lab bench. She turns around and says hi. I casually return the greeting and continue past her.

"Wait up," she says suddenly with a hushed voice. I stop and she gets up and reaches out to touch my hips. She starts shoving her hands down my lower back and into the waist of my pants. "You should look in the mirror before you leave the bathroom," she whispers close, her warm breath caressing my left ear. "It's embarrassing; half the time you don't tuck your shirt in properly. For a man in his forties..."

The graduate student is working at the computer desk in front of the left office. I watch the braids of her hair closely in case she turns around, but I don't resist Nancy. Nancy watches the student too, out of the corner of her eye, and tries to work quickly.

The graduate student turns around. Nancy's arms quickly recoil. The student has a reproving look, but quickly turns away again.

"There; that's better," Nancy announces with a reassuring pat on my chest. "You looked so messy." She turns around and returns to her work at the central lab bench.

I resume the walk to my office, aware of the graduate student's eyes following me. A last glance before I enter reveals a look of contempt on her face, as if what has happened was my fault.


The bedsprings squeal as I get up. I turn off the lamp on the right nightstand, then shuffle around the bed to turn off the left one.

I slide the simple wooden chair from its alcove under the desk. Its red vinyl seat croaks when I sit down. The room once more becomes quiet. The people next door have turned off their TV and gone to bed.

All I can hear is my own labored breathing as I sit at the desk, staring at the blank sheet of paper before me.

To be continued next week...