Home Stories Too Much Knowledge by Gary Ives

Too Much Knowledge by Gary Ives

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An anatomy student recalls being thrilled and traumatised by an extremely intimate encounter.

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Fifty years ago, and still I think about Him; the Him whose real name I will never know, but the Him with whom I became more intimate than with any other man. Ever.

Anatomy class met twice weekly. Our class of 40 shared ten cadavers, each assigned to four students. Erla Johanssen, twins Sven and Bridget Thorkelsson, and I were introduced to Him on a rain and sleet-blown winter morning. Always conscious of my size, at 160 centimeters and 40 kilos I was by far the smallest person in the class, and probably the shyest, but not timid.

The anatomy lab, kept at a temperature of 15 degrees, seemed all the colder for the sleet slapping against the high windows. The room was large enough for a slight echo and we were hit with the odor of formaldehyde and rubber. From a little glass-enclosed office appeared a short balding man of at least 60 years, a neatly trimmed beard, rimless glasses; a serious man. Did the stoop come from decades of leaning over cadavers? Dr. Lustig was a legend. His assistant, whom we later called Igor, issued lab coats, safety glasses, gloves, and dissection kits. “Arrange yourselves in groups of four and find a table, please.”

Under operating lamps, ten tables – each about three meters long by one meter – filled the room, and atop each table a cadaver covered by a grey rubberized sheet. First, a safety lecture emphasizing the importance of avoiding punctures and cuts, then rules for the care and cleaning of our materials, classroom procedures, and what to do when one had to vomit.

“You will go to your assigned tables, please.” Once there, Dr. Lustig’s voice softened and lowered. “These cadavers before you were once active human beings who, like you, experienced the myriad of human experiences and emotions: work, play, love, laughter and pain. Many have donated their remains specifically to benefit your medical education. As the direct beneficiary, you will be the steward to assure this is done properly, respectfully, and with dignity. Later, as you become familiar, you shall resist taking your specimen for granted. In this room, resist making jokes; in that respect consider this anatomy laboratory as you might consider a hospital, church, or funeral home. And you will never remove from the laboratory any souvenir. Such will be considered grounds for immediate and permanent suspension from the university. If you have questions, hold them until I visit your table. Now, remove the cover.”

Before us lay supine a once tall male, nearly two meters long and the color of ashes-tinged brown, shorn of all body hair, a numbered tag attached to the great toe of his right foot. Each of us gasped. This was the only naked man I had ever seen in the flesh. “Each of you is to touch your subject, feel the musculature, heft the limbs, feel the facial features. Any revulsion or strangeness you might feel, I assure you, will soon vanish. When you’ve had ample exploration, please cover your subject. On Tuesday we will begin with study of arms.”

Some of us met at the school’s coffee bar, chatting about the experience, all respectful and affected by the experience. Erla said that the touching creeped her out, even though she knew what lay ahead. Lars said he was astonished that our guy was not old. He had heard that the cadavers were generally older people. “Our man looks like he could have been in his 40s or 50s.” Sven suggested we call our man Adam, as he was to be a number one for each of us. I had little to say, wanting to hide my naivety.

Most of us held it together those first days, until we cut into the belly. Two buckets were placed beneath each table, one for detritus from the cadaver, the other to catch vomit. All detritus was saved and deposited in a wall locker with each individual’s toe tag number. At the completion of the course, remains would be individually cremated, and the remains returned to family. The remains would be honored at a ceremony attended by all of us.

Oh, how we came to know our Adam. On that first lesson, we were all intrigued by Adam’s right arm anchor tattoo. Adam became our sailor. Since Adam was so tall, we guessed that he was a Nordic mariner, perhaps a fisherman; Norwegian, Swede, Icelander? Later, dissecting his lungs, we learned that death had come by drowning, which for us confirmed our speculation.

I was 20 years old and had never been with a man. While I could conjure images of Adam at the wheel of a ship, hauling in nets, leaving his ship with a seabag over his shoulders, I could not conceive of him engaged in lovemaking. I fixated on Adam’s 17.5-centimeter-long penis. Other than pictures in books and statuary, the only penis I had ever seen was a glimpse of my 15-year-old brother masturbating under the shower. A prick is not a pleasing image. Not for me. Imagining the weight of this large man upon my small body, thrusting a huge, ugly cock into me, utterly repels me still. This, however, did not turn me against Adam; I truly appreciated his contribution to science. In fact, I have taken the necessary steps for my remains to go the university’s anatomical lab.

As beneficial as anatomical studies were, indeed, all of med school, the intense detail of what I learned poisoned me against intimate relations. This began with the cadaver, Adam. For this I specialized in radiology, medicine with only limited patient contact. Still, with patients, and more so with strangers, I so often conjure images of their internal and external organs: brains, esophagus, livers, kidneys, lungs, hearts, breasts, uteri, penises, scrotums, et al. My mind’s eye imagines in detail organs even though I do not want to. Once at a caf√© in Oslo a tall German tourist rose from his table, approached, and accused me of staring at his crotch. Yes, I was imagining reproductive organs.

When at last my remains lay on a dissecting table, and are uncovered, students will be presented with a virgin.

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