Mother said you wanted to be donated. When you die. We’d just been to a museum, and all I could see was your skin peeled back like an orange to reveal muscle and dried-out bones, steeping in the heavy gaze of onlookers who claimed it was all in the name of science. The image paralyzed me. I was terrified. Could I resist every brochure for a natural history or university museum I came across, all so I wouldn’t see you there, strung out, hung up, feet dangling how you hated behind some smudged piece of smudge-proof glass? I wondered if they would at least give me a name. Let me track the progress of your corpse as it met sterilized gurneys and places it had never been while there was life still in it. The name of the museum, at least. That would have been worth more to me than the turquoise ring I was promised; or the pack of scarred and tattered baseball cards you couldn’t bear to part with and so delegated to the next generation. What do you see in those? At least the name.
Then I could avoid it.
My child mind remembered the last museum I’d been to. We’d paid more than enough to go in and see the mutated husks of baby carrots and the mouse embryos with the jellyfish DNA. They’re glow in the dark, and I was supposed to be excited. I watched other mothers paint the safety glass with their fingertips; whisper pretty things to their toddling children about what they could become someday. A scientist. They could stick their sticky fingers in the soup of evolution and come up with flowers that turned pink in the shade and watermelons bred to be wombs for other fruit.
You can help people. Make them better.
I was the child that wouldn’t let go of you. I was the child that clutched your jeans until my sticky fingers turned white as the lights overhead. What I wouldn’t do for you. I was the child you took in your arms and reassured when I couldn’t stand the things we paid to look at. I understood when I didn’t want to. I saw dead things turned into shrines for the work of men who’s explanations consisted of four-word answers.
Because I said so.
One of the rooms was dedicated solely to the exploration of the human body. I could hardly believe it when you said that statue was a man, and those feet had taken him places. That stomach had whined when it wasn’t fed, gurgled when it wasn’t given the same oatmeal-and-raisin breakfast I had forced down that morning. I was horrified. I saw arms that had once curled around loved ones, legs that had tensed and sprung in a game of leap-frog. Tell me this isn’t real. But you couldn’t. You curled your arms that could still curl around me, picked me up with the still-working muscles in your legs. The marble eyes of the man behind the glass taunted me with their life-like qualities, and my head snapped away on a whoosh of air when I realized they were the same color of yours. Amber. Except yours had things inside, little ants and flies trapped in the goop while their tiny bodies squirmed then gave up, turning to sprinkles on the cake; hard pieces of dark chocolate suspended in ice cream. The man had none of that. They were glazed, glassy.
Mother said I only calmed down when we reached the next room. It was another exhibit on anatomy. I remember squirming again when I saw the human brain in one box, a liver in another. Why? The brain was shriveled and reminded me of the craisins Mother packed in the travel bag for our snack. You weren’t allowed food in the museum, save for little things like those that could be stored away from the displays. I thought I knew why when my stomach heaved, and I spat dry air onto the floor while my sweaty palms clutched the sleeve of your shirt. You rubbed circles on my back, and smoothed my hair in soothing motions, saying everyone has one, when I refused to look back through the glass. Who would do this? My heart pounded in time to the sobs I couldn’t let surface, instead wracking my body in jerky motions until they finally died, having failed to produce tears.
Let’s go see something else, now. There’s another room over there.
It wasn’t any better. I didn’t want to know what would become of a smoker’s lungs. I’d seen you smoking a cigar once, on the back deck. Smelled it. The aroma that floated itself into my nostrils and out on a wheeze convinced me you must have been crazy to like it. What do you see in those? I sneaked a peek over your shoulder at the organ lying thick and heavy behind more glass. It looked like one of your steaks. The surface was almost black, looking burnt, charred- lacking only the uniform indentations where it would have sat on your grill. You held me tighter while I shook again to visuals of your lungs in that case. Was that what they looked like? Buried deep inside your chest, supposed to be safe behind your ribcage, deflating and expanding with each breath breathed as they struggled to forget the char that encased them? I vowed never to touch your cigars, for fear I’d end up like you.
The only time I ever wished to be the opposite of what you were.
We finally moved on to the agricultural exhibit and I felt I could breathe again. Mother guided us to a bench in a corner where we unpacked the craisins and I tried not to look at them as I ate. You exchanged looks with Mother, bending and twisting your eyebrows above my head where you thought I couldn’t see. They looked like worms, fighting their way up from the soil, unaware of the threats that await them on a sidewalk. I always tried to rescue the worms I found, there. Drying alone on sun-warmed pavement, the mucus that assured them of survival long evaporated, leaving bloated and discolored creatures behind. I used to gather them in my palms, taking them to whatever patch of shade or mound of earth was closest, reveling in the fact that I, me, I could choose where they would sink themselves back into new life. Away from the oven that was my home. Away from the silver-glinting beaks of whatever birds sighted them from their perch.
Mother shot you glares, in return.
I forgot about that day. Let it slip from my mind like the garbage we left on the curb for the trash trucks. That is, until Mother said you were going to the bank to write your will. I knew what a will was. Mother said you wanted to be donated. When you die. She chose a procession and coffin. I get the scarred and tattered baseball cards, and you’ll be shipped off to a museum when you die. I’ll beg for the name, and you’ll be stuck behind smudge-proof glass, your glass eyes looking on as toddlers print miniatures of their fingertips on its mirrorlike surface. I’ll avoid it, avoiding every one, probably, until I die of something other than lung cancer.
What did you ever see in those?