After lunch on Wednesdays I catalogue monkey bones. I have catalogued quite a variety of bones: white bleached bones, yellow greasy bones, brown crusted bones. Bones suffering from osteoarthrital lipping, juvenile bones whose epiphysial lines have not yet fused, broken bones, shiny bones, dusty bones. I type up an inventory in the basement of the Yale Biological Anthropology Laboratory, in a room with garbage bins labeled “preserved monkey cadavers.”
My experience with bones began with Inuit postcranial remains from Point Hope, Alaska. Bones that came scattered in big, heavy green metal trays, 12 stored in each cabinet, six to an aisle. Bones that should have been repatriated a decade ago. Bones that I think the American Museum of Natural History probably wasn’t supposed to have.
I had never taken an osteology course and couldn’t tell a femur from an ulna, but the supply of human bone archivists in Manhattan must have been low that summer because it didn’t seem to matter. And I liked the idea of working on the Upper West Side, just a few minutes from Nick’s apartment, since the two of us, though we’d been dating since high school, were so rarely in the same place at the same time. They showed me into the lab where two women worked restoring painted pots, then up the metal staircase to the balcony where the cabinets were stored six to a row, where the space between the rows was exactly the width of one tray. There was space for only one desk, where the rib specialist worked, and a very tall counter with three stools, too low to be of any use, unless you kneeled on them. They gave me an anatomy book and left me there to sort things out.
If you are picturing pristine white bones, you probably have no experience with bone dirt, the black chalky stuff that gets underneath fingernails and stays there. At least five times a day I would walk down the long hallway, lined with glass cabinets, filled with museum overflow, in order to scrub bone dirt off my hands, off my arms, off my face. It always took more than one blackened paper towel before the job was done.
I entered the museum through the staff entrance underneath the veranda dedicated to Theodore Roosevelt, where Nick and I often posed for pictures. I turned left and walked through the green lights and cricket noises in the Hall of Biodiversity. After walking past the dioramas, untouched since the ’70s, in the Hall of Human Origins — the hut made of mammoth bones, the hairy women chewing hide — I entered through secret doors in the octagonal Hall of Meteorites.
My favorite bone is the humerus: From the proximal epiphysis (the knobby part on top) down to the distal epiphysis (the part that flares out on the bottom), the humerus is a slender and proud piece of anatomy. In children the epiphyses aren’t attached. They come separately in the box. They are nubbly and porous like sea sponges. They fit perfectly onto their long bones like caps onto a bottle.
I came home from work the first day and told Nick about the bones. I knew lots of new words now: acetabulum, hypoplasia, basal synchondrosis. Lying on my bed, I taught him what I knew. “Radius,” I said, and he kissed my lower arm. “Carpal,” and he kissed my hand. “Patella” — it took him a few guesses to find my knee. I was tired though and lay unmoving like a corpse as he explored my scapulae and sent shivers down my vertebrae.
I learned how to “side” bones, how to differentiate the right from the left. Not just the long bones (the femurs, tibiae, fibulae, humeri, ulnae and radii) but scapulae and clavicles, and all the ribs as well. The rib specialist from Iowa told me I was good at siding ribs. I was also good at identifying vertebrae: the seven cervical vertebrae, the twelve thoracic vertebrae and the five lumbar vertebrae. I knew which was the first, second and seventh cervical, the 10th, 11th and 12th thoracic and all five lumbars, each one bigger than the next.
I liked the feeling of each bone in my hand: the heft of the femur, the delicacy of the hyoid. It was exciting to be able to identify all seven tarsal bones and all five carpals. Sometimes, holding a pair of tiny innominates, or a pair of tiny scapulae, little miniature versions of adult scapulae, I would think, abstractly, about the death of a child and then continue sorting them, eager to finish at least two more trays before lunch. The bones were lifeless artifacts, to be catalogued and stored, counted and rearranged, fit together and checked off. The language took over the reality: It wasn’t a child, it was a juvenile. Not a woman, but an innominate with a large ventral arc.
One day, as I rounded off my first tray, pouring the carpals between carefully sided ribs, I thought that it wasn’t too late to call Nick, tell him I was sorry, and, at the end of the day, catch the Metro North train with him to Pawling. There was still time, I thought as I lay the femurs side by side, so that their heads interlocked. It wasn’t too late to keep everything just as it was, as it had been. I could still sit next to him on the train, lay my head down on his lap. We’d sleep in the big bed that fits six people, where he first told me I was gorgeous, where there are spiders and a stuffed angel and where the faucet makes a weird noise as if there are dead bodies stuffed in the pipes. And nothing would have changed.
When I came back to college after that summer I found my way back to bones. Gary, at the monkey bone lab, doesn’t understand why I come back every week. Why anyone would honestly want to spend her afternoon checking to see if basal synchondroses have been fused, if calculus is present on the buccal teeth. To sit in a room with garbage bins full of monkey cadavers, to hold dead things in her hand, sometimes with a little bit of tissue or even a tuft of fur still adhering. It’s a morbid pastime comparable to walking through graveyards alone. And yet the reality of it doesn’t touch me. What I see is the mess of death, the bones stuffed into boxes, mislabeled, the wrong mandible with the wrong cranium, a haphazard postmortem shove. I lay them out; I write numbers on them, and I put them back in the box, this time with a little bit of foam at the bottom. When I am done everything is clean and sorted.
It’s the way I wish I felt about Nick. Clean and clear and sorted. A little dusty still, but nicely inventoried. No more tissue adhering. No more bone dirt under fingernails. Just the bare bones of it all, lifeless, and evocative of nothing. n