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Watching Shadows: Part III

From the LabLit short story series

Harrison Bae Wein 9 December 2007

I don't think we can survive without each other. You'd never get an experiment funded without me; I'd never get one to work without

Editor's note: We are pleased to present the third episode of an original four-part story about an unusual laboratory relationship. (Use the navigation tool above to catch up.)

When one is trying to figure out a problem, it is a basic tenet of the scientific method that one must analyze the subject as dispassionately as possible. When it comes to human affairs, however, I have come to understand over the course of my life that it is extremely difficult to achieve the emotional distance necessary to make important judgments.

In other words, it's hard to be sensible when you care.


Nancy sits behind her wide black wooden desk. She reads a journal, her teeth pressing her lower lip in concentration, her hands resting on either side of the open journal. She wears a loose, Bordeaux colored cotton Henley shirt with long sleeves. Its ribbed collar is nestled lightly at the base of her neck and its top two buttons are undone, revealing a sliver of her chest's freckled skin.

I am working at the computer, plotting some data with a graphing program, but I spend most of my time watching Nancy. I can't seem to help myself. Maybe having her in my sight is a form of possession. If I can't have her any other way, at least I will have my view of her.

Nancy takes a small plastic vial of lotion out of one of the drawers in her desk. She pushes her sleeves up, takes off her watch, then squeezes the thick lotion onto the backs of her hands. She rubs it vigorously past her wrists and up her freckled arms, and while for Nancy this ritual is casual, indifferent, for me it is erotically charged. She rubs up and down the taut skin of one arm, then the other, then rolls her fingers through each other. I watch the lotion spread into thin white streaks and swirls. I wish I were that lotion, painted across her arms, slowly seeping into her skin. I often wish I were an inanimate substance: the arm of the chair Nancy distractedly fingers; the shirt or the pants that she wears, caressing her every curve.

Nancy replaces the bottle, shuts the drawer, puts her watch back on, pushes her sleeves down. She glances toward the entrance. My eyes dart back to the screen.

Nancy comes out of her office. Her chestnut colored twill pants are pleated and cinched by a narrow tan leather belt to give her stocky frame the illusion of a thinner waist.

"Did you see the latest Journal of Phycology?" she asks as she approaches.

"Not yet," I answer casually. "Anything good?"

"Someone else is using our diatom."

"Oh? What are they doing?"

"Studying the effect of UV on photosynthetic rates. Same old story, really." She leans toward me and puts her right hand on the computer desk, her left on the back of my chair, shifting me slightly backward. "So what have you got?" she asks, looking at the screen. "Anything good?"

"This is just about finished. One second."

I have to change only one label, but I take my time, prolonging Nancy's proximity. The heavy smell of her vanilla-scented lotion thickens the air.

"So?" she prompts impatiently.

"Well, it looks like we've got a good window here. We can get about sixty or seventy percent mitotic synchrony."

"Wow. I didn't think we could get it that high. How long do we have to drug the cells for?"

"Maybe four hours. We'll have to confirm that again, but three and a half to four looks about ideal right now."

"So this is the best drug so far?"

"No question."

The snapping of the door handle. We both turn to look.

A man's head sticks through the widening doorway. He is mostly bald, but with a dense mustache and beard. He sees Nancy, then flings the door wide open and walks briskly toward the computers. "Nancy, I was wondering if I could speak to you in your office," he says in a pompous, self-important tone. His guarded expression, however, hides worry.

Nancy keeps leaning forward, her arms on the desk. She looks at him over her right shoulder as he comes to stand beside her but says nothing, allowing him to grow more uncomfortable.

"It's very important," he adds meaningfully. His flat tan golf pants bulge slightly at the waist, an effect caused partly by the green and white striped gingham shirt tucked into his elastic waistband.

"What is it, Gary?" she asks impatiently.

"I'd prefer to speak in your office."

"Fine." Nancy lets go of the computer desk and leads the way into her office. She goes behind her desk and sits down, leaning back and resting her hands on her stomach. The man settles uncomfortably in front of the desk, nervously flicking his fingers at his sides. He is about average height, but hunches slightly. I wonder why Nancy has not closed the door.

From behind her desk, Nancy fixes the man with a stony expression. "What do you want to talk about?" she accuses with a loud voice, as if she wants me to hear.

"Nancy, please . . ."

"Spit it out. I'm very busy today."

He reaches into his back pocket and pulls out a piece of white paper. He mutters something as his aggravated hands unfold the paper, but I cannot make out the words.

"You asked me to write a note," Nancy says. "I thought you'd be happy."

I cannot hear his response, nor hers as the conversation continues. She points her finger at his chest and jabs it at him in muted anger. She says something about gossip, something more about notes. They talk in hushed tones, then Nancy abruptly gets up and comes out to the computer desk again, leaving the man in her office without even glancing back at him.

Nancy leans forward onto the desk, her left hand on the back of my chair, causing it to shift slightly backward. "I'm sorry," she says softly. "What were you saying about the time course?"

The man comes out of the office and stands to our right, staring dumbly at Nancy's profile. The note quivers in his unsteady hand. "Nancy, you're not being very rational about this."

"I already said good-bye," she retorts icily. "Please get out of our lab." She turns back toward the screen. "Sorry for the interruption," she says to me, irritated.

I try to continue on as before, "Here's a graph of the time course."

Nancy ponders over the data on the screen. The man does not move. Nancy seems calm, but I feel about to burst trying to control my aggravation.

"Hmmm," Nancy says. "That hour from two to three really made a big difference, but it does look like four will probably wind up being the best."

"I agree," I try to say evenly. "I can't see going much more than four hours, though."

Ignored, the man finally turns around and walks toward the exit. I hear the sound of crumpling paper, the pat of the note hitting the floor. The door handle snaps and, after a an awkward pause, finally clicks back into place.

"Sorry about that," Nancy says. Her sea-green eyes reveal an uncharacteristic glimmer of discomfort as she purses her lips. "Well, it looks like we're really on to something," she declares, clearing her expression and looking back toward the screen. "I'm glad we're finally making some progress."

She stands up and sighs, rubbing her palms together. "Well, I'll be in my office if anyone needs me," she announces, and walks away from the computer desk, her arms swaying rigidly at her sides like a burly football player. She enters her office and pushes the door shut behind her, glancing briefly through the shrinking crack before it closes. I can't make out her expression in the glimpse I catch of her face.

The purified air hissing through the metal screen above brings me back to a day at the beach. Nancy lounges on her back in the wet sand, propped up on her elbows. Her bathing suit is cut high at her hips. The frothy water slides over her solid thighs, digging gullies around her legs as it flows back toward the ocean. Bubbles cling to her taut, glistening skin. They quickly burst before I can brush them off.


It's as if I am lost in time. I fix on certain things to keep myself grounded in the present: the blue numbers of the digital alarm clock, the lampshade with its dirty, rancid vegetable oil color, the black pen. The future shifts, changes form. But the past does the same. What kind of reality am I spinning?

More to the point, what possibilities do I have right now?


It is the same kitchen as I now share with Angie. Nancy and I are at the kitchen table eating a spinach and mushroom quiche that she has made. I have eaten one steaming piece off the end when Nancy says to me, "I want to have a talk." Her thick hair is long and straight, glimmering a copper color.

"What about?" I ask.

She looks anxious. "I think you know what I want to talk about.” Her words are laden with import. Graceful swirls of white steam rise from her quiche like cobras.

"What do you mean?" I ask naively, dropping my fork.

She lifts her hands as if in offering. "I don't want this to turn into a fight."

"We're not going to fight," I say. "We never fight."

The stress wrinkles in her face relax a little. "No, of course not." Nervous, her left finger presses the base of her fork down into her napkin, and she leans into it with her left arm and shoulder. "We work so well together in lab," she begins, looking down at her fork, her hair hanging beside her face. "When we got married, I was sure . . . I knew our marriage would succeed."

"It has succeeded."

"No it hasn't," she tries to say gently, but no one can say such a thing gently. Her eyes are watery, but she refuses to let the tears come; Nancy will never cry in front of anyone. She leans forward nervously and puts her hands on her thighs, rocking a bit to work out her tension. The wisps of steam snake upward toward her chin, but fade away before they can touch. I am completely shocked at what she's said.

"The last thing I want to do is hurt you," she continues, "but I realize it's pointless for me to keep pretending I'm happy. I'm just fooling myself."

"And me, obviously," I spit back.

Nancy has a look of pity on her face, a patronizing concern such as one might feel for an injured bird or a lost child. She stares for a few moments, then observes, "You're not talking to me."

"What would you like me to say?"

"I don't know. I don't know what you're thinking."

I look toward the far wall; it is automatic. Here I am. The entrance to the kitchen is across from me, opening into a small side room with our plants. To the left of the doorway, a dark oak letter holder hangs on the wall.

"I knew you'd do this to me," Nancy breaks the silence. "You always clam up when you get uncomfortable – and you get that weird look on your face."

"What weird look?"

"That look. Go look in the mirror. I don't have to describe it to you."

The flat, unmolded door frame is made of dark stained wood. Nancy takes my left hand and holds it between her own, but I still don't look at her. Her palms are warm, the skin smooth and dry as it strokes the back of my hand. I think to myself, this may be the last time she ever does this to me.

"Look," Nancy says, continuing to stroke my hand, "I didn't want this to happen. Sometimes, we can be fantastic together. We just have very different philosophies of marriage. Marriage for me is more than the simple, peaceful coexistence you see it as." She pauses for a moment. "To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what's wrong. I just know I'm not happy anymore."

"And the lab?" I ask, more from a fear of silence than an actual interest.

"I think we should keep working together. We're a great team. I'm good at the administrative stuff; you're good with the science. It's a perfect balance; I don't think we should destroy that. And this way, we'll still see each other every day, and we can still give each other emotional support. The only difference will be that we won't be living together."

My brain is an incoherent swirl. I can think of nothing to say. I remember noticing an envelope in the bottom slot of the letter holder drooping down over the edge of the wood.

Nancy releases my hand. "We've spent eight years building that lab," she sighs. "Grant money in our field is so hard to come by these days, I don't think we can survive without each other. You'd never get an experiment funded without me; I'd never get one to work without you. We have to stay together."

The refrigerator stands at the far left corner of the room, its surface dotted with colorful magnets from laboratory supply companies.

"I still care about you," Nancy offers, patting my hand.

Browned yellow quiche sits on the glass plate, speckled with spinach that looks like thin, crumpled shreds of paper. I don't want to lift my eyes to look at her. I don't want to see pity on her face, and I absolutely dread catching a glimpse of indifference.

"We can talk later," Nancy says, and gives me a final, emphatic pat on the arm. She slides her chair backward and stands up.

"You're not going to eat?" is all I can say.

Nancy frowns and gazes down at me with a patronizing sympathy. Then she turns away and leaves the kitchen.