Justine was at my lab table, pulling at the ends of her black bob, shoving her hair into her mouth. I sat down next to her. She smiled at a spot slightly to the left of me. The sinews stuck out of her neck. The teacher circulated through the classroom, placing graded test papers face down in front of us. She adjusted her glasses and nodded at Justine and me as we both flipped our papers to reveal the letter A. I felt the sticky tap of Justine’s patent leather Mary Jane against my shoe. Warmth surged up my leg to my groin.
‘You all know what today is.’ The teacher smiled, sitting on her desk and swinging her legs. Her calves bulged in suntan nylons, her swollen feet ballooned from her low block pumps. She had a thickness that I could never tolerate in myself but that I found reassuring in her – a solidity, like Grandma had before she got so old.
Justine squeezed my shoulder and jumped up. She was the first to get a silver tray from the front of the room, like a baking sheet with a rubber bed, piled up with what we’d need for the dissection. She moved with a wiry efficiency, short hair swinging at her chin, lining up the scalpel and tweezers, counting the dissection pins with the seriousness of a surgeon.
I got safety equipment from the back of the room. Justine craned her long neck, and I lowered an apron over her head. She strapped on goggles and pulled gloves over her long hands, snapping the latex at her wrists. Her black hair bulged above the goggles strap. She picked up the scalpel and sliced open the plastic, dumping the scrawny cat onto the rubber. It landed with a light thud, stomach up, arms, legs, and tail outstretched. Fluid leaked from the plastic, drizzling onto the tray and over the cat, which was matted, flattened, and smelled fermented.
Justine swatted my arm with the back of her latex-covered hand. She grabbed the tweezers and pretended to pluck her eyebrows, eyes flashing behind the glare of her goggles.
‘We’ll start by examining inside the oral cavity.’ The teacher looked on, narrowing one eye and pressing her lips together. ‘Use your scalpel to cut the membrane that connects the hinges of the cat’s mouth and open it wide to examine the inside.’
Justine sliced open the cat’s mouth and tore the jaws apart.
‘You should be able to see and label the esophagus,’ the teacher continued, ‘which connects to the stomach, and the glottis, which connects to the lungs.’
Justine took hold of the cat’s tongue. It stretched at least three inches. I labeled ‘tongue’ on the lab report diagram, disgusted.
‘We’ll use a basic X cut to open the specimen’s abdomen.’ The teacher drew an X on the chalkboard. ‘Make one slice across each leg and connect them with a single cut up the girdle.’
Justine made the incisions, used the tweezers to lift the abdominal muscles. She peeled back the skin, affixed it to the rubber bed with the dissection pins. I labeled the lab report diagram: esophagus, glottis, stomach, lungs. Late afternoon light came in through the half-drawn venetian blinds, striping Justine’s face, her long arms and fingers, wrapped around the stainless-steel scalpel. The school day was almost over. She sliced the spiderweb-like peritoneum membrane. I wrote our names next to each other across the top of the lab report. She watched out of the corner of her eye, smiling slightly, and pulled the membrane loose. Horrible bright yellow tubes fell from the cat’s abdominal walls like little fish tank plants.
‘Those are the fat bodies,’ the teacher said.
This is an excerpt from Justine by Forsyth Harmon, out with Tin House Books.
Image © Rookuzz