HAIRPINS AND NEEDLES
Staring at specimens of the Ebola virus was not how Anna had envisioned spending her birthday. It was already early evening, and she'd wasted the entire day in this dingy office looking at slides of diseases. She wanted challenging exam questionsthese were her advanced studentsthough of course nothing as obscure as this hemorrhagic fever. Most of the medical assistants this junior college graduated would be funneled into plush suburban offices in Massachusetts, not the Ivory Coast. Still, Anna had never been able to resist a visit with cell pathology.
She looked through her chosen slides: Six diseases of white cells and two of red-sickle cell anemia, and the good old-fashioned pernicious kind. That ought to do it. For the sheer beauty of the cytology, she added acute lymphocytic leukemia as the last and final questionan easy one. She peered at this slide, adjusted the focus for the lens. Microscopically, this was one of the loveliest illnesses around, the cells plentiful and shapely, as festive as confetti from a burst piñata.
She turned off her desk lamp, started to pack up, but got sidetracked again by the rare specimen box. Why not? Better to look at Rift Valley Fever than fifty-plus candles on a cake. Her friend Greta had tried to talk Anna into a party, but Anna had never allowed a celebration in her honor, and certainly didn't want one now, three years past the half-century mark.
Anna supposed she'd had more than her fair share of what made for a wonderful life, although she'd never have imagined thisan instructor at a junior college, widowed, estranged from her only child, living in a townhouse that was, as of yesterday when the Goodwill truck came, completely empty except for a desk, her cello and chair, and a bed. She didn't have so much as a saucepan or a throw cushion now.
When Anna moved into the townhouse a year ago, the previous owner had abandoned all of her belongings and moved to Korea. The realtor promised to have everything cleared out and cleaned if Anna took the place, but Anna wanted everything left exactly as it was, down to the dead hyacinths and tacky collections of pirate cookie jars and clown figurines. At the time, she couldn't bear to have her things there, the beautiful china and furniture that had filled the Tudor home she'd shared with her husband on the North Shore. After Hugh died, Anna stored nearly all her household goods and rented a series of furnished apartments.
The townhouse was full of cheap and tacky things, which Anna had found comforting at first; everything here was expendable and replaceable, and nothing around her carried the burden of memory. Nobody she loved had ruined the finish on the coffee table with a hot mug. The stray socks behind the dryer would never be paired to anything in her drawer. Even the photographs were of strangers, clumps of women in self-conscious groupings at a ski lodge, andAnna guessedthe previous tenant herself with a man probably a brother-in-law, or husband of a friend. She had the uncertain smile of someone asked to a party at the last minute.
Two weeks ago, when she remembered her upcoming birthday, it seemed even more depressing to be fifty-three with paint-by-number velvet clowns and pirate cookie jars that declared, Aye, aye matey! every time the lid was opened. She'd called in the Goodwill truck.
"Now what?" Greta had asked when she walked into Anna's empty apartment after it had been cleared. "What are you going to do about this?" The kitchen was absolutely and completely bare. Not so much as a salt shaker. "You can't live this way, either."
Anna shrugged. "We'll see." But Greta was right, of course, and for the past two weekends she'd been dragging Anna out to estate auctions, though Anna didn't want cat-clawed sofas or scratched-up tables.
She opened her desk drawer and found the hairpins she bought with Greta last Saturday. Twelve of them, morbid brooches made of the deceased's hair to adorn the dresses of the living. She didn't want them, certainly, and bid on them only out of suspicion that the hair of all twelve pins was from the same DNA pool. That interested her most of all: how the woman who wore them bore such prodigious loss. Most women would have stopped at one brooch, letting the first death stand in for all the others. Anna admired this long-dead mother, the fact that each death was particularly commemorated and not swept under one general heading of grief.
She turned the microscope back on and slid a few strands of what was surely baby hair under the lens. Blond and feathery, the cuticle smooth as a quill. Definitely infant down. The child had either died at birth or shortly thereafter; this was hair that had never been exposed to the sun. Not one telltale pit in the shaft or cuticle. She looked at the remaining eleven. Nine of the samples undoubtedly came from one family, and all twelve, she hypothesized from the minimal UVA damage, were under the age of ten. Illness, probably, a devastating turn-of-the-century disease that took all of this woman's children.
She swept the pins into the trash, then feeling guilty, fished them back out. She'd take the collection to an antiques store later.
Someone knocked and opened her door. Nick Mosites, an internist at the hospital who was occasionally a guest speaker here at the junior college. "Hi," she said.
"Sorry to bother you, Anna, and tell me no immediately if you want."
"Okay. No, and thanks for stopping in."
He smiled, perched on the edge of her lab chair. "I'm coordinating a support group for AIDS patients and their families at the hospital, and I need to start a second group. I had someone lined up, but she backed out at the last minute. I was hoping you could find me one of your brightest students to run the event. There would be an honorarium and experience, no real salary."
"Oh," she said, relieved that he hadn't asked her to run it. Anna didn't believe in such things as support groups. She followed Nick's glance to the nest of brooches on her desk. "Hairpins," she said, when she saw his baffled stare. "Brooches made with the hair of the dead. I bought them at an estate sale because I couldn't bear to buy a couch."
"Interesting," he said, but she could see that he wasn't in the mood for banter.
"Support groups are outside my area of expertise." She picked up the most beautiful of the brooches, a wreath of silver forget-me-nots interlaced with strands of impossibly soft chestnut hair. "I'm a med tech. I know pins and needles."
He nodded. "Exactly. And they tell me you also teach a class in medical ethics."
"Not really. It's just a one-credit class on office and hospital procedures. Glorified bedside manner. How to calm a patient who's afraid of needles. How to reassure parents when you're doing a needle-stick on their screaming baby."
"Perfect. I want someone with a working knowledge of virology. Basic medical skills and an unflappable manner. What this group will be is just overflow from the meetings at the hospital. Most of these patients know each other and just need a place to gather on a Saturday afternoon."
"Oh," Anna said. "So, it's not really a support group."
"Well, yes and no. I need someone to be there to run interference, and I'd like it to be someone who has a basic grasp of immunology and can also handle a few temper tantrums. I know you're turning out exemplary clinicians. The two you put in my office on externships were outstanding." He picked up one of the pins, Anna's second favorite. This one was smaller than the others, unadorned except for a thin blue ribbon that held the strands together. It was made from the hair of two people. From the near identical similarities in texture and shade, Anna guessed that this brooch marked the death of twins.
"And what about the running interference part? What does that mean?"
"Just that most of these patients know each other well, and can get into...well, dysfunctional family dynamics. Anyway," Nick said, "there's a psychiatric resident who will drop in when he can. All your student will need to do is commit to one hour on Saturdays, and write up a few notes about who was there and general topics discussed. The student will get a small honorarium, and of course, something to put on a résumé."
"You don't think you should ask one of your residents? Or a med student?"
"I did ask, but they're so overworked I can't in good conscience make them do it. Look, I'd run the thing myself, but Saturdays are the only day I have with my family." He paused. "I promise it's only temporary."
"I'll see what I can do," Anna said.
"Great. I really do appreciate it." He turned to go."Oh, one more thing. I know anybody you send over will be an excellent student, but I hope you'll be able to find one who is compassionate and patient."
Anna looked back at him, but before she could ask him anything further, he was out the door.
She looked through her class roster after he left. How would she gauge something like compassion from the contact she had with these kids? Compassion, in Anna's view, was a personal thing, a quality that emerged in a case-by-case basis only; what moved you about one person left you cold with the next. At least that was her experience. She circled two names in her grade book. She'd call these students tomorrow.
But enough today. She reboxed the slides. It was her birthday, after all, and what she wanted suddenly was to get a little drunka good sign, she thought, since that meant she wasn't too old to enjoy the finer pleasures of a good Scotch with a good friend. She picked up the phone to call Greta.
"What are you doing?" she said when Greta picked up.
"Well, I was about to make dinner, but Mike called and said he's working till nine, so not to bother."
Anna could sense her friend's mood immediately. Six months ago Greta had quit her job as vice-president of a software firm to devote herself full-time to the business of trying to get pregnant. Her tripartite obsession these days was conception, making elaborate dinners with ingredients she drove all over Boston to find, and coordinating a music and dance group for deaf children. Greta called the ensemble The No-Tones, and had already been written up twice in the Boston papers. Both of Greta's parents, German immigrants, were deaf. Anna was awed by Greta's childhood stories, the way, without a trace of self-pity or bitterness, she described leaving the silence every morning and moving slowly into sound, "like I was the light on water, and had to reach one shore in the morning, and the opposite every evening."
Greta's moods these days, Anna knew, were a rope bridge, swaying this way and that with emotion of even the slightest weight. She spoke softly. "So, anyway, since my wayward husband is missing dinner yet again, why don't you let me cook for you?"
"Better yet, meet me in the city. Let's go get drunk."
Greta laughed. "You paranoid thing, you. You don't believe me when I said I called off the surprise party?"
"Yes, I do. Mostly. But I just don't want to go home right now." Greta's townhouse was right next to Anna's.
Greta agreed to meet her at a working-class bar in Back Bay, a place she'd never been but had noticed on one of her drives. "It's across the street from a Korean Deli," Anna said. "I'll meet you there in an hour."
By the time Anna was on her second martini, Greta still hadn't shown up. She got out her cell phone to call Greta's house, but the battery was dead. Anna ordered a San Pellegrino, to sip along with the drink, though she was less afraid of drunkenness than she was of maudlin emotion.
A little more than a decade ago, she turned forty at the summer home in Maine. Hugh had arranged for a surprise dinner partythe one and only time Anna didn't mind, since he'd invited only people she truly loved. He had taken her for a two-hour walk on the beach and when they returned, there on the front porch were their friends at tables set with snowy linens and pink roses. There was a string quartet on the lawn, and hired servers to fill champagne flutes. Sometime during that evening Anna wondered where she would be for future birthdays and vaguely imagined that it would be right in the same place, with Hugh beside her, maybe just the two of them drinking wine on the beach after a quiet dinner in town. This, this sticky-floored bar with its torn vinyl booths and damaged-looking charactersof which she supposed she was onewas the last place she would have guessed.
Greta walked in finally, grabbing two pool cues on her way over to Anna's booth. "Sorry I'm late."
"Is everything all right?" Anna said, noticing Greta's bloodshot eyes.
"No, but I'm not talking about my problems right now. This is your night." She gave Anna a pool cue. "Follow me, Fifty-three."
Anna laughed and walked with her friend over to the pool table, then watched as Greta racked the balls. The look on Greta's face was precisely the reason Anna was done with relationships.
Other than Greta, she didn't even especially want friendships. The older she got, the more any successful human relationship seemed impossible. There were men around when she needed or wanted themAnna thought of them as white cells; whenever she felt a little low, the monocycles and leukocytes attacked the virus of loneliness until she felt better. She'd had a few dalliances in the years since losing her husband, but no one had truly held her interest.
"Your turn," Greta said. "You're stripes, and we're playing slop."
"Naturally," Anna said, and her shot sent two balls thumping off the table. "Oops."
Greta gave her an exasperated look, then signaled to the waiter for another round.
"I shouldn't," Anna said. "I teach tomorrow and I still have quizzes to grade."
"Oh, bull. It's your birthday. You need to be self-indulgent. If you were a man in mid-life you'd be buying supersized SUVs with equipment racks for sports you don't even play."
Anna studied the table for a decent shot. "I need to do something out of character. I think I'm in a rut." The third martini was a mistake: Alcohol never had the mellowing effect on her that it seemed to on others. She didn't need to be stirred up, didn't want to think about regrets or mistakes. She didn't get the career she'd wanted, but she got an unexpected bonus in her husband who made her life just as fulfillingmore, probablythan if her plan to become a surgeon had worked out. She had things in her life now that satisfied herher music, her teachingand if her world was smaller and more lightly made than it had once been, it was also easier to let things go and let small pleasures step in for any epic striving after happiness, whatever that was.