Brandon Taylor

Real Life

The other labs on the third floor of the biosciences building are empty, as if after the rapture. Strangely, it’s also not dissimilar from catching a glimpse of someone undressing when they think they are alone, the twin thrill and shame of the voyeur. The air carries the salty scent of yeast media. Wallace’s mouth waters. Below him, the atrium is filled with gauzy light. Dry yellow vines wrap around the railings, the floor glossy with wear. If he jumps, he thinks, he will plummet, a slow sweep through empty space, a horrible way to die. He feels, momentarily, the heat of the impact, the ghostly wet of his skull collapsing. The illusion of weightlessness gives way.

The elevator rebounds shut with a clang. It’s a little after ten a.m. on a Saturday.

At the end of the hall, light spills out of  Simone’s lab.  Katie stands  at the table centrifuge. It is an enormous grey machine, emitting a high whine that rises in pitch until it bleeds into the mechanical noise of the lab: rattling cages and clinking glass beakers strapped to agitators, mewling coils behind the incubators, the dull roar of the air conditioner overhead. Standing there is like being in the peristaltic system of some large animal, amid the sounds of a body adjusting itself. Katie does not look at him. She’s blonde with quite small features, as if someone had wiped away her original face and painted in its place a delicate, miniature facsimile. She balances a green ice bucket on her hip and she’s slapping a pair of pale blue nitrile gloves across her thigh. Impatience. Boredom.

Wallace walks quickly by her, as if he might slip her notice, but she says, ‘Let’s get this shit done.’

‘Let’s get it done,’ he says gingerly. He’s been caught, he knows. From up the lab – for it is really three rooms linked end to end, two benches per bay and five bays per room – a chorus of Let’s get it done comes back at them. The others sweep in and out of his line of sight as he makes his way to his bench. They are all here in this bright cluster in the middle of a cool dim building, for a moment its vibrating core. A minor comfort.

In the lab, there are only women: Katie, Brigit, Fay, Soo-Yin, and Dana.

Katie is almost feral with a desperation to graduate; she emits a kind of  raw and blistering energy. They all look away from her. She is their senior, just ahead of Brigit and Fay. Brigit is a natural, curious and dynamic, but with a preternatural memory that feeds on whole bibliographies of developmental biologists. Fay is awkward and nocturnal, short and so pale that when she pipets, you can almost see the shadow of blood sweeping up her forearms to her muscles. Her experiments are precisely designed if inconclusive, with minuscule error bars, something Wallace admires to the point of envy. Once, in lab meeting, Simone commented that Fay was trying to deduce some subtlety too fine to matter. Soo-Yin lives in the small lab among the chemical reagents and the tissue culture closet. There she plates thousands of tiny cultures, clumps of greyish cells that grow and divide, or else die, in pools of brilliant red media. Wallace once found her there, like stumbling upon a spirit in a myth. She had been dabbing tears from her eyes with her bare forearm, dabbing and pipetting simultaneously in one unbroken motion. She had a heavy scent to her, like salt water. The youngest is Dana, taken in the year after Wallace. Their adviser has not taken another student in some time. Every couple of months, the group hears whispers of rumour: retirement, migration to the Ivy League, leaving for an adviser position in government, consulting work. Rumours as insubstantial as they are numerous and temporary.

For the most part, the lab is quiet. Clipped questions dart through its cool, bright air: Do you have any 6.8 Buffer? Did you make new TBE? Where is the DAPI? Why are we out of scalpels? Who forgot to order dNTPs?

Two floors up, in Cole’s lab, Wallace has heard they play frisbee together on weekends and sometimes visit each other outside the lab.  Most of Cole’s lab came to his barbecue with Vincent, and when he asked Cole about it, Cole gave him a look of profound confusion: Of course I invited them! They’re my lab! When Katie showed up with Caroline, then just a few weeks postgraduation, Wallace went to stand in a corner with them. He was drawn to them out of a kind of loyalty, although the room was full of people he knew better and liked more. Caroline and Katie talked, but only to each other, not to him. Caroline let out a sigh and said, ‘Here we are again.’ And Katie nursed her wine, looking through the glass out onto the patio, where the grilling was happening, watching a fifth-year swim lazy strokes in the pool. They languished there for hours, no more than a handful of words passing among them, but instead of making an excuse and heading off to find a friend, Wallace stood there with them the entire night – even after Caroline, having drunk perhaps too many beers, started scowling openly. Even after Katie rudely told Vincent that the meat looked undercooked and she wouldn’t be having any. He stood next to them because he had felt no impulse to leave.

Today, the other desk in Wallace’s bay is empty. This would not be the case, he thinks, if Henrik were still here. Henrik would be striding from his desk to his bench and back again, half starting a dozen tasks before settling finally on one. Henrik was a thick-necked former football player who had attended a small college in central Minnesota, where he studied chemistry and also was a tight end. It was Henrik who taught Wallace to dissect, to do it in the dish rather than on the slide because it gives you more time and range of motion; how to wait for the worms to grow still; how to time everything just right so that you could cut through a mass of nematodes, severing their heads in a single stroke, fifty at a time. He taught Wallace the perfect angle at which to slide the slender needle into their germlines, that mass of beautiful cells, like roe. He taught Wallace many things, including how to put slides together for presentations and how to calm down right before, running your hands under cold and then warm water. (Get the temperature up, Wally, bring the heat.)

Sometimes, Wallace saw Henrik’s face when he closed his eyes, or heard his voice, warm and Muppet-like, silly sounding, a man who would always be a boy, perhaps. There was something vigorous and rough about him, like he might wrap his arm around your neck and dig his knuckles against your scalp at any moment. But there were moments, too, when Henrik drew to his full height and towered over you, moments when you were suddenly aware of his strength. Wallace had once watched him fling a five-gallon jar to the ground in a rage because someone had left the lid off. Another time, Wallace had been inoculating colonies, and Henrik shoved him aside and slammed the gas off and said, ‘That’s not right, that’s not aseptic technique.’ He slapped the wooden spindle from Wallace’s hand so that it clattered with a pathetic little noise on the bench top. During lab presentations, everyone in the room could feel Henrik’s body in the dark, as if they were all keeping one eye on him, waiting, waiting. It was strange to hear him raise his voice because it didn’t lose the Muppet quality. It just sounded like an unhappy Kermit, shouting down conclusions that  he thought were facile or uninteresting: What is this, a goddamn campfire? The data do not support it! They don’t! They don’t support it! Wallace was always  a little ashamed when Henrik made him jump. It made him think of the days when he was young and his brother used to clap his hands in front of Wallace’s face, suddenly and really hard, then call him a sissy for flinching. What you jumping for? You  think I want to hit you? Wallace hated the way his body reacted to Henrik. Against his will. Again and again, like hands clapping at the edge of his nose.

But Henrik is gone now, at Vassar running his own lab, teaching undergraduates the same way that he taught Wallace. Is it envy that Wallace feels? There’s a bit of dust on Henrik’s old desk, a green highlighter; it’s no shrine. Wallace swivels back to his own desk, piled with papers: protein alignments, plasmid library forms, strain sheets, some articles he’s been meaning to read for months. His computer is asleep; an amber-tinted version of himself glints back at him. His coffee from yesterday is covered in a skin, the creamer gone rancid. He is dithering, he knows. He can’t bring himself to look at his bench, though he knows he must, and so finally he lifts his head and forces himself to look, to really look, to see.

Extracted and reproduced with permission from Real Life by Brandon Taylor (Daunt Books Publishing, 2020).


Brandon Taylor
is the author of the acclaimed novel Real Life, which has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize, longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, and been named a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice. The senior editor of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading and a staff writer at Lit Hub, he holds graduate degrees from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Iowa, where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in fiction.

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