At the October meeting of the Harvard Medical School Writer's Group, 12 students collaborated to write the following collection of serial stories. Each student wrote two to three sentences before passing the story to the person beside him. The next person wrote two to three sentences before passing the story on again, and so on. The results were surprising.
Writers: Sergio Alfaro, Avraham Cooper, Alejandra Ellison-Barnes, Shaan Gandhi, Matthew Growden, Carla Heyler, Vipul Kumar, Eric Lu, Samyuta Mullangi, Adeola Oni-Orisan, Aakash Shah, Shara Yurkiewicz
The patient he had come to know over the past ten years had finally died. He was at a loss for what to do next. Yes, it was a quiet death, one that followed naturally at the tapering edge of a long life well spent, a death that was rare in this over-medicalized world that insisted on prolonging something meritlessly – and yet, Dr. Suarez felt it as a shock to the system. A death is never just a death.
He picked up the phone and began to dial Mr. Coren’s daughter’s work number. He paused over the last digit, finger hovering mid-air. Withdrawing his hand, he hung up the receiver.
She wouldn’t be blindsided by the news, he knew. Over the past decade, she had been in touch. There had been the emails, the phone calls, the letters between them. Yet, she had never come to visit him in prison.
Pushing his medical charts away from him, Dr. Suarez stood up from his desk and stretched his arms. He walked to the desk, intending to make a house call to Mr. Coren’s daughter, bridging the gap for the first time in years.
Leela sat on a wet rock by the river, trying to skip stones over its silted surface but failing. It was a lethargic summer morning. The stones sunk cleanly into the water and she sighed.
Walking away from the water’s edge, Leela studied the cracked pink nail polish on her toes. Yet another sign that she wasn’t keeping up, she thought. She found a warm rock and flopped onto its flat top, closing her eyes against the glare of the sun. Moments turned into minutes, and minutes into hours. Scenes from the summer floated in and out of her stream of consciousness.
The sounds of the river called out to her, bringing her back to moments only alive in her memory. She wondered if another summer of lumber and logging, a summer spent swinging from trees, would ever again be possible.
“Mom! Look at me!” A young boy suddenly whooshed by her and plunged into the river. Leela snapped out of her stupor.
“Hey,” she said, with a smile. “That was pretty good.”
Eliza brushed her bangs away from her eyes with the back of her wrist, leaving a streak of flow across her forehead. She stared down at the recipe on the tile countertop and heaved a sigh. She could not continue.
There was simply too much on her mind. It needed to taste good, up to his standards. She hadn’t seen her father since 1997. Honestly, that was more than enough for a lifetime. He was a bit of a jerk, really.
Staring at her dough-covered hands, she considered the options before her. Perhaps there was a way to continue to forge from this devilish recipe a peace offering. She would make the braided cake her grandmother always made. That would be sure to touch his heart.
She pushed the dough resolutely into a round braid and covered it with a towel so it could rise. While it sat on a warm spot on the counter, she went to the mirror and surveyed her face.
She saw the girl her father left behind.
Sitting in a room, surrounded by his pears, he realized with absolute certainty that he had no idea what to write. In fact, that was the only thing he knew for sure. That was the problem with passion: it came to him of its own will and volition. If only he knew how to call it and make it stay.
He tilted back in his chair and imagined plucking strands of creative thought out of thin air, braiding them into manageable coils of narration and storing them in a jar with a secure lid. He smacked himself on the forehead. Even his creative longings were shamefully insipid.
He found it ironic — the harder he reached for an idea, the farther it seemed. Maybe that was the beauty of creativity, he thought.
The door slammed shut. John, donned in a white coat, bounded from his home to the car, for he was late for work. It wasn’t the first time this had happened – John had been late nine times in the past fortnight. Hopefully today would not be one of those days.
He started his rusted Ford Fiesta, and the engine sputtered to life. Unfortunately, so did his coffee. He looked down at his not-so-white coat, which had an overwhelming tendency to attract colors of all sorts – the red and yellow of yesterday’s lunch and the blue of the raspberry slurpee he loved so much from 7-11.
He decided to go to work as he was. He drove down the rutted driveway, his creaking suspension doing little to absorb the jolts. The main highway was empty, so he rolled the stop sign and hung a right. The sun was just peaking over the mountains ahead, obscuring his view.
Slowly, he pulled over to the edge of the mountain road. What was the rush? He looked up at the rising sun, down at the valley below. Arm by arm, he shed his jacket. He tossed it clear over the edge of the cliff. It shone colors – coffee, lunch, blinding white – as it settled into the dust below.
The doctor drew the curtains around the bed to try to provide some semblance of privacy. The curtains really weren’t long enough, and when he pulled them all the way to the wall so that the patients’ roommate wouldn’t stare directly at them, the curtain left an opening to the hallway. Even after teasing the curtains in both directions, there remained a small gap that could not be helped. The patient would have to be exposed.
The doctor shuffled over to the patient’s roommate to ask him to avert his eyes. Staring blankly at the sterile hospital form, the doctor uttered, “Mr. Johnson, I’m Dr. King. I’m wondering…” The doctor stopped and looked intently at the roommate.
After a pause, he cleared his throat and tried again. “Mr. Johnson, I’m…”
But he stopped again. He could have sworn… “Mr. Johnson…”
Was there laughing?
The doctor wondered at the source of his confusion and shame. He had been a practicing hospitalist for the past twelve years. What about the tan elderly gentleman in the FCUK shirt and tweed trousers was making him stop and stutter? Was it a classic case of “it’s not me, it’s you?”
And that’s when it dawned on him — one of them simply did not belong in the room.
He looked up at the audience with trepidation. It was tough to perform knowing that many of them would not be alive the next time he returned.
His job was to make them forget that fact for a few hours and transport them to a sunnier spot with laughter as a magic carpet of sorts. He always started these sessions with physical humor; for some reason everyone always laughs at a fall.
“Ouch!” he said, as he slipped on a strategically–placed banana skin. “That hurt!”
No one laughed. He was puzzled — in the ten previous occurrences, someone had always managed a smile. What was wrong here? Their eyes… they were transfixed on something else off in the distance. He looked.
What he saw outside those windows was a dog with its head in a plastic trash bin. It had been running in circles and now was headed toward a busy street. The cars were flying by and the dog was getting closer and closer.
It stepped off the curb, and a red coupe came screeching to a halt, horn blaring. It missed the distraught dog by a few inches, and the audience breathed an audible sigh of relief.
“Well, how do I follow a performance like that?” the comedian asked the audience, laughing nervously.
When he woke up, he couldn’t recognize any of the people surrounding him. He tried to remember the last thing he remembered, but he couldn’t even remember that. Had it begun with a deafening roar that had thrown him and his comrades against a wall?
The room was flying around him. The sound of sirens trickled into his ears. Then the cracking of timber and a hollow thud. He realized that he was walking, but the half-faded memories clung to him. Suddenly he was truly aroused by the urgent touch of hands on his shoulder.
“Wake up!” an unfamiliar female voice called out.
Everything in his body blazed with pain and he had trouble seeing. He realized his own blood was blinding him. Was this the end — was he dying? There was no white light, no tunnel — just pain and fear. He pulled her hand toward him, realizing this was his only chance.
“Where am I?” he groaned. “What happened?”
“Wake up!” she screamed again.
He felt it pulling at him, that unfamiliar tug of tension between sleep and waking.
He gave in, let go, and opened his eyes— to nothing.
He spoke in a way that was halting, stiffed, and unnatural — as if his sentences were being pierced by bullets. He begged the question: what had he seen?
His wife gazed steadily at his lips, urging them to emit sounds that resembled her husband’s. He had been gone for nearly a year, and she still couldn’t believe he was lying only two feet from her. Her mind roamed to the first night they’d met: he’d seen her dancing at the Paradise with a date, a cocksure cowboy from Loyola named Jim. Jim had been none too pleased when her husband cut in.
But that was all she could remember. She focused her attention again on her husband, who was now trembling. “Honey,” he said, “what happened to you?”
“I can’t do this anymore,” she said.
His eyes opened wide, and his mouth started moving rapidly.
“What do you mean?”
“How can you say that?”
“After all we’ve been through!”
She merely shook her head, gathered her purse and wallet, and stepped out of the house.
Jim was waiting out there in his F-150, the motor roaring. The sky was grey and the air damp.
It was about two years ago that I began to lose my mind — first words, then larger concepts. Now I write to hold things together.
They began as just simple things I did during the day but gradually grew to include my feelings of sight, sound and touch. Words are my life, giving me great pleasure as I examine the shape of each letter and the feeling of the word’s sound as I roll it around my mouth and mind. And I create words too – to amuse myself.
You know how if you say a word enough times, it doesn’t even sound like a word anymore? That’s how it is for me, only all the time. I don’t even know what “I” means anymore. Who is this “me” and what does it want with “you”?
Perhaps man was created not of clay but of breath. If pronouns are out, so it goes with identity. I speak, therefore I am.