Another Morbid Tale.
By the time you’re sixteen, you realize that most people hate when you dump on yourself. They simply can’t stand being part of your pity party. After all, last thing anyone needs is to be dragged into someone else’s bummer. Before your high school sweetheart, Junior, hangs up on you, he calls you a cry baby, which foreshadows that there will be no ever after—not for you two, anyway.
When they tell you about the car crash, you feel around for grief or sadness to match the horrific news but all that comes is a sense of something gone from the world. You remember Junior’s last words to you: cry baby.
In his memory, you decide to trade your Drama Queen crown for some nerves.
On Career Day, you tell your teacher you want to be a surgeon because, all things considered, someone has to handle all the bloody mess, and there’s no reason this someone can’t be you. The teacher nods—your confidence is apparently really convincing.
That same night, you call Uncle Adrian, who’s an orthopedic surgeon. “I want to see an autopsy,” you tell him. “May I come to the hospital?”
He says, “No problem. I’m teaching tomorrow. Why don’t you stop by?” And you’re amazed at how many people actually believe that you’re brave enough to face a dead body. Maybe you’re not a cry baby after all.
The hôpital général is in downtown Port-au-Prince, where garbage rots in mounds along the sidewalks. Schoolboys hike up their pants to jump puddles. Girls in tight braids, crisp corsages and knee-length skirts, hold hands, their faces freshly scrubbed. There are people everywhere, closed in by cracked asphalt, gray concrete walls and repressive heat. Pate kòde vendors chase away flies, and fresko merchants push their colorful carts.
An elderly gentleman dozes in the entryway with a shotgun balanced on his thighs. The hospital is old, decrepit, falling down. In place of the faintly sweet smell of disinfectant, the air hangs heavy with the foul odor of a slaughterhouse. There’s a waiting room inside, but the wait line spills onto the front yard. Patients are lying on straw mats or leaning against the concrete building, sweltering in the tropical heat. Women mumble incoherently or weep, hands pressed to their faces, tears running between crooked, callused knuckles.
Next to the admissions office, the body of a man is parked in a wheelchair, the head fallen back, as flies buzz about. Is he dead? Every day brings a bullet. Every day brings a body.
You’re wearing old jeans and running shoes. Uncle Adrian is waiting for you in the parking lot, white coat over blue shirt and imprinted red tie. He hands you a lab coat and gestures with one hand, “In there.”
You’re taken aback by the pungent smell of formaldehyde and concentrate on not breathing through your nose. You brace yourself for whatever gruesome sights you are about to see.
You pass in front of a huge door, and Adrian says that’s where they keep the dead. The whole building is very quiet. There are bodies in the hallway of the morgue—a teenager lying in fetal position, as if sleeping quietly; a baby so tiny, she’s kept in a shoebox and wrapped in a Ziploc bag.
You think about Junior, then, and the moment his body probably went limp.
You didn’t attend his funeral, and the longer you think about it, the harder it is to imagine him in any way other than this one: laughing—a joint the size of a sausage hanging from his bottom lip, a fragrant pillow of blue marijuana smoke hanging above his head.
The room where the autopsy occurs is not exactly what you imagined—it is not large nor is it brightly lit. The windows are open, letting in the lemony sun and sweltering heat and the dust stirred up from the nearby street. Five medical students are chatting softly, as if afraid to awake the dead whose body is covered with a white sheet; they wear hip-length white coats over their skirts and heels, dress shirts and ties.
“Ready to start?” Adrian asks his students.
They all nod silently and you hold your breath as he whisks away the sheet. You feel your jaw tighten, the saliva pool behind your teeth.
She is a skinny woman in her thirties who’s had a heart attack. She’s black, almost purple, with dark hair, and her mouth and eyes are open wide, horror crystallized by rigor mortis. There’s a nametag hanging from a cord laced around her big toe. Her name is—was Mireille.
You take out your camera and take a few shots. Nausea is crawling up your throat, but you have to be tough. If only Junior was still alive—how you would gloat on the phone tonight!
Adrian examines Mireille’s limbs and the outside of her body, and one of the students records your uncle’s observations into a microphone. Adrian’s hands are beautiful, and the way he bends his wrist is beautiful, and the way he uses the stylus as a scalpel to open the rib cage and peel back the skin. In the fluorescent light, the ribs remind you of the racks of pork ribs Mother buys at Epicerie de Lourdes.
There is little blood. Blood is life. Corpses don’t bleed. Mireille is just—dead.
Each organ is fascinating. The form and function of our anatomy is something that will never cease to amaze you. You are somewhat numb to the gruesome aspects of the experience because you are so determined to betray no shock or revulsion. But it is disturbing to see a human body that is nothing more than a shell. You know that the image of her body, or of your own self in that state, will haunt you at times afterwards, particularly when you are out running. You ponder what a gift life is, what difference a single moment makes, how just a few days ago she was very much alive, how sudden her death was—no time for “I love you,” kisses, “I’m sorry,” or goodbyes. You feel a sense of validation and thankfulness because of the frantic beating of your own heart.
A student is wiping the sweat from his brow. Another has raised a handkerchief up to her nose. She speaks to Adrian without looking over to where he is standing by the corpse.
Your uncle finally pulls the white sheet back over what remains of Mireille. The students leave. In a few years, you’ll be one of them, learning anatomy from gigantic books, tracing complicated drawings of veins and muscles.
“Want to see the morgue?” Adrian asks.
How many died today? At sunup in Haiti, schoolchildren who step from home to street hold the promise of a brighter future. At sundown, the rumors start and all the mothers and fathers and aunts and uncles rush into the streets and call down the narrow alleys: Gaspard! Jean! Amélie! Has anybody been lost today?
The freezer is not exactly what you expected either. The space is tiny, and there are no fancy drawers, only shelves. The morgue has no electricity, and bodies overflow, quickly devoured out of recognition by maggots. Dead infants lie stacked in a pile. Babies. So many of them. “All these babies,” you whisper. They are in such a state of decay, they are barely recognizable as humans. Masses of rotting flesh, greenish black.
There is a table with wheels in the middle of the room, with a mulatto man in his underwear, arms outspread, yellow face streaked with dried blood, his chest a mess of smashed bones and meat. Huge chunks of ice are scattered around the body to slow decomposition.
“It’s Mr. Valcin,” Adrian says. “His daughter Beatrice is in your class, isn’t she?”
She is. Oh lord, I hope Beatrice hasn’t seen him like this. And then, you think about how Death is absolute, insidious, and cynical. You are disturbed by your sudden, uncanny awareness of the oblivion that follows it. However loved, the man on the slab remains forgettable, a drop in the crowded bucket—only inauthentic and deceptive images will remain. Since Junior died, you’ve tried very hard, but you can’t picture his face. You remember almost everything he did or said but you can’t remember his face. You remember his high school graduation picture. He looked nothing like this picture.
“What happened?” you ask.
Your lips quiver. Adrian says Mr. Valcin was killed this morning with a machete. And Beatrice doesn’t even know yet.
That’s when you throw up on your lab coat and tennis shoes. And you are crying, snotting, and hiccupping all at the same time, suddenly horrified by all these strange corpses around you.
Somewhere, you also feel sick with disappointment—with yourself. You wanted to be strong and prove Junior wrong. You didn’t manage to take it all in, to keep your emotions at bay. You realize you can’t forget Junior, not as the person he was, but as the one he was going to be—your ever after. You pretended to, but you really can’t let him just be a person gone.
You run outside, in the streets of Port-au-Prince, away from the hospital, until you reach the park and the Palais National. You want to inhale fresh, cool air and sense it rushing through your body, purifying it. But instead, garbage smells pungent and rotten and warm.
The lump in your throat makes it hurt to swallow.