Sem Megson

Sem Megson’s work currently explores how people both raise and lower themselves to deal with our ever-changing world. Sem’s fiction has been published in American and Canadian journals and has been produced on stage in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Toronto.


The Cadaver Would (February 20, 2011. Issue 25.)

In the Friday morning traffic the intercity bus rocked forward then reeled backward. Forward then backward. It seemed that two cities, one ahead and one behind, were pulling us in opposite directions. My spine attempted a neutral posture in this tug of war but certain muscles would not remain impartial. I went forward then backward.

My mind was also engaged in a partisan battle. There was the side that wanted to relax into the coming weekend and the side that demanded attention to the looming autumn semester.

A truce was needed. A class of pre-med college students were allowed to take the floor and declare their right to be instructed on the two hundred and six bones of the skeleton, the origin and insertion of muscles, and the structure and innervation of organs. When the students finished I assured them their right would be maintained, if they would just get out of my head until the official start of class in a couple of weeks.

This interval of time – especially the coming weekend – was essential to me for gaining equanimity to face another cycle of lecture and lab. During the last semester I had begun to resent Basic Human Anatomy. I expected more from the framework of the body, as an anatomy professor and as a woman half-way through life.

On that Friday morning, instead of taking the usual commuter flight from Hartford to Manhattan, I had climbed aboard an intercity bus that a friend claimed was an easier means to travel the short distance. With my canvas hat hiding my hair and most of my forehead I took a seat next to an older woman who was reading a yellowed copy of The Maltese Falcon. The book was a hopeful sign she would not want conversation. I was making this trip alone from a notion there was a better chance of gaining equanimity by remaining silent and concentrating my thoughts.

When the bus broke from the traffic jam I took out a pen and calendar, preferring them to an electronic daytimer, and began scheduling the following week. Organizing my activities gave me a wonderful sense of freedom. However before completing three days the pen dried and scratched disjointed lines into the paper. I felt betrayed by it. I knew this was ridiculous but it was the only pen with me and I tightened my grip and held it captive, refusing it the freedom it had taken from me until we reached New York.

It was noon when the bus arrived in Midtown Manhattan. I checked into the Library Hotel at Madison and 41st then came out and stood in the street, putting on and taking off my canvas hat, an activity that baffled the doorman who asked if he could be of assistance. Thinking it best to start walking I made it over to Broadway where the humidity pushed me into an air-conditioned deli. I bought a sandwich and sat down at the counter.

Nearby several young men were sharing boisterous anecdotes about the city’s latest Gay Pride Parade. I was pleasantly eavesdropping on them when a man working the coffee machine said to me, “How come guys like me don’t get a parade for sleeping with women?” I shrugged and said nothing. On public shows of affection I did not qualify as a scholar.

On private shows of affection I was remedial. Poor Kaden who had been my only lover since my divorce. One evening as we lay naked together he said, “Margaret, I don’t understand why you’re selfish in bed.” He was referring to my stillness. Each time his body moved toward mine I forced myself not to respond with a sexual routine created during my marriage. Those routines were developed with my husband and perfected to our mutual satisfaction. They took up residence in my muscle memory and refused to move out, even when my husband did.

Perhaps I should have reused those routines with Kaden but it was simpler to be considered selfish than to endure an intimate reminder of a belief in happily ever after. In any case the relationship with Kaden collapsed. He felt he was getting the short end of the stick; in some relationships there is no long end.

I left the deli and decided to give my body some much needed exercise.

Turning south on Broadway my legs responded to the challenge of the pavement, with the quadriceps pulling from the front and the semitendinosus pushing from behind. Soon I would be dissecting those muscles on a cadaver in the Anatomy Lab. They would have the same fibers, the same origins, the same insertions as every other cadaver. There were no discoveries to be made in Basic Human Anatomy, no controversial theories to argue over. At that thought resentment began to slow my pace and I tried to think about my own muscles, not those of a cadaver.

After passing Grand Street I noticed small groups of people were gathering together here and there. It was late afternoon and many of the groups were gently moving around each other in a manner reminiscent of square dancers practicing for the night ahead. I had been raised in a Massachusetts town where my grandfather called out the steps at the local dance hall. He was a practical man and he liked that the Caller was an American innovation brought in when square dances became more complicated.

To amuse myself I pretended that my grandfather was calling out the steps to those people moving about in the streets . . .

“Gypsy! Walk around your partner but don’t be touching, ladies and gents.”

“Balance! Face your partner and join hands – it’s two steps toward them and two steps back.”

“Turn alone! Each person up and at it. Take a turn around on your own.”

In Lower Manhattan I purchased a bottle of water and drank it to quench a sudden thirst. Then I walked west on Cortlandt Street until in front of me was a metal link fence that I had seen before when visiting the city. Looking through the links and into Ground Zero I could not make out any definite form. I had never been able to put a shape to September 11th, 2001.

On September 12th, 2001 I had needed distraction from the newscasts and declined to cancel my morning class. The students who attended stared blankly at the overhead showing a sagittal diagram of the human eye. Tapping my pointer on the oval nested at the top I began the lecture.

“The lens of the eye. The lens is a transparent body located behind the iris. The lens is –.”

For a second I forgot the most basic facts about the eye.

I apologized to the students and began again, “The lens is a transparent body located behind the iris. The lens is . . . .”

It turned out that all I knew about the human eye on that day was that it was focusing on a new type of landscape, and I ended the lecture.

Now, standing near that metal link fence, I prayed for the dead and for the living.

Afterwards I walked around the Financial District but my energy was spent. In the cab on the way back to my hotel the driver suddenly disclosed that his son had been diagnosed with cancer. His sad predicament made my tears flow and when I tried to tip him he refused to take the extra money. It was not until shutting the cab door that I saw he was shaking his head in anger.

The next morning I ate a healthy breakfast, covered any bare skin with sunscreen, put on my canvas hat, then went out. With a firm destination in mind I strode with purpose through the Saturday shoppers on Fifth Avenue up to Central Park. There on an empty bench by the pond I sat with my hands folded in my lap. I was determined to pose like Buddha performing the dhyana mudra in order to gain equanimity to face the autumn semester.

Almost immediately a young woman walking a Chinese Crested came and sat beside me. The woman did not greet me but the dog sniffed its tiny nose in my direction. It was a pretty thing with a hairless brown body. Just like Ling’s dog.

It had been ages since I compared anything to Ling. “This is Margaret,” my husband had said to Ling after we stopped to pet her dog at our park. It was the first time he did not include the words “my wife” when he introduced me to someone. It was to be the first of many firsts involving Ling on the path to the end of my marriage.

Now why was I thinking about that nonsense instead of meditating? I glared at the pretty little dog with its nose in the air and blamed it. Just like Ling’s dog. I wished the woman would let it off the leash and that it would run far away. Of course the woman, and the dog, too, probably wanted me to leave so they could have the bench to themselves. Well good riddance!

I no longer cared whether or not the wisdom of Buddha descended on me.

I left the park and wandered along Fifth Avenue for hours, browsing in the various stores. Then on a whim I flagged a cab to take me to Macy’s. I was about to enter the department store when someone grabbed my arm with a great deal of force and shouted, “Margaret! What are you doing in the city?”

I had been accosted by Amelia, a colleague. She removed her powerful hand from my arm and pointed at a man fidgeting behind her. “You remember my husband, Lenny, don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said. “I remember him. Hello.”

Amelia and I had taught at the same college before she took a position at Columbia. The last time we saw each other was at a Faculty Club event where she complained her husband had quit his job ten years earlier to raise their twins and had never returned to work.

The discovery that I was alone in New York City must have reminded Amelia of the signs everywhere that read “Be suspicious of anything left unattended” because she was adamant I join them for dinner.

In the restaurant I sat opposite Amelia and Lenny and made the mistake of asking how they had spent their day.

“We went to the Museum of Modern Art to see the Dieter Roth Retrospective,” said Amelia. “It was brilliant.”Lenny put down his fork. “It was bullshit!”

I admitted not being familiar with Dieter Roth’s work.

“The man had this obsession with optical effects,” said Lenny. “He thought he could use them to obliterate things like hierarchies and the past but that’s impossible.”

“Is it?” I asked.

“Yes, and I’ll tell you why it’s impossible. No one can obliterate the past. No one can escape it. No matter how much art they use!”

I wanted to change the topic but Lenny was too quick for me. “I’ll tell you something else,” he said. “We actually build the past into the future to make sure we never escape it.”

Amelia put her powerful hand on her husband’s back. “That’s enough, honey.”

“No,” he said, “I don’t think it is enough.”

Lenny looked at me and continued, “Even technology companies that are supposed to be all about the future build the past into it. I’ll give you an example. What icon pops up on a computer when it’s busy doing some new function? An hour glass! An old symbol of the past!”

“You’re right,” I said.

“I know I’m right,” said Lenny. “I could give you lots of examples of how the past grabs the future by the balls and says, where the hell do you think you’re going!”

“Maybe there is no past or future anymore,” I said. “Perhaps it’s all the middle.”

“The middle!” Lenny threw his napkin on to the table. “I’m sick and tired of playing monkey in the middle!”

When we left the restaurant Lenny stared back at his reflection in the window while Amelia invited me to their apartment for a nightcap. I declined the invitation and said something about how nice it was to see them and how we should keep in touch.

Hurrying away I had the feeling they were following me until I remembered how easy it was to disappear in Midtown on a Saturday evening.

The streets were crowded but it felt terrific to be in the company of happy strangers and I kept smiling to myself. I passed a tavern patio and a man wearing a ball cap said, “There are some great women out tonight.” With no other female close enough to catch the compliment I grabbed it like a nimble infielder and carried it all the way to my hotel room.

Sunday I awoke from a peaceful sleep and pulled back the drapes to see that it was a beautiful morning, as Sundays often are with quiet moments to adorn them. After taking a shower I wrapped a towel around myself and looked at the shelf of books in the room.

I had not requested a category of books, as guests can do at the Library Hotel, and had been put in a room with a selection of poetry. I picked up a slim volume with a purple dust jacket, opened it to a random page and read the lines:

Tunes are dead in this desert of cells.
Partner, darling, you must dance me,
as the winds waltz Aeolian harps.
My rhythm, my measure have trebled down
into a sound discordant, a sandy strum.

I closed the book and put it back on the shelf. Tunes were not dead in me, not yet.

Dressing to go home I realized the events of the weekend were already forming memories of “that time I ran into Amelia and Lenny”, “that time I cried in a taxi”, “that time I walked the main artery of Manhattan”. But there was no memory forming of “how I gained equanimity to face the autumn semester”.

As I walked toward the intercity bus it occurred to me that equanimity may not solve the problem anyway, only defer it. Perhaps the solution was to learn a new way to approach the framework of the body that would keep it interesting to me. This might require becoming a student again myself – but could I take such action?

I boarded the bus and sat across from the driver who bid each passenger a rousing, “Good morning!”

Once out on the highway the bus moved steadily. Through the front window the cars in the distance resembled shiny marbles. I watched them rolling along and tried to decide whether they looked as if they were flung from the hand of a giant gamester or if they were moving ahead by their own volition.