Unit Cell

Lee Conell

On a Saturday afternoon in the lab, Sheila looks through her microscope and does not see the contents of her crystal trays, does not see drops of precipitant or protein sample. Instead she sees her dead twin sister.

She blinks. Steps back from the microscope. OK. She should breathe. So she breathes. She turns around. Nobody here.

Her trays, clearly, are contaminated.

A crystal is formed from repetition: the unit cell, translated over and over again in three dimensions, forms a crystal lattice, makes a higher-order thing. Every well in the tray contains different conditions—varying pH, salts, buffering components, precipitants—designed to elicit crystallization in the protein Sheila’s studying. The protein plays a role in DNA replication, and if Sheila’s attempts at crystallizing it are successful, she can analyze the protein’s structure, see how it’s put together, see how it does what it does. The process is not perfect. Sometimes gunk gets caught in the tray. A piece of hair, a shard of plastic. An eyelash, occasionally.

But not a memory of your dead identical twin.

Yet when Sheila looks into the microscope again, there’s June as a little kid, running toward waves. Sheila leans in, examines the moment. She recognizes this memory: there’s the ocean, there’s the lifeguard. It’s as if Sheila’s crystal trays don’t hold precipitant and droplets of protein at all, but little particles of past time. What if a ghost has decided to haunt Sheila’s crystal trays? No. Ghosts—if ghosts exist—haunt old houses and abandoned towns. They don’t hang out in Greiner CrystalQuick sitting drop protein crystallization plates. Which means Sheila’s hallucinating. She leans back from the microscope again. It’s almost six. In one hour she has to meet Marcus for tacos. What she should do is let the trays sit overnight. Clear her head. Sometimes trays sit for years and there’s no sign of crystallization and then one day, there is one. A sign. After years.

It’s been years since Sheila last saw Marcus, who was dating June at the time of June’s death. A couple of days ago he messaged Sheila, told her he was in Nashville for business, did she have time for dinner? The dinner will be awkward and Marcus, probably, will small-talk aggressively to make up for that awkwardness, the way he did the last time he saw Sheila, when she came by to collect some of June’s stuff: how was your drive here, how much work are you missing, was it this hot this time last year? His hands had flapped helplessly at his sides. He’d stared hard at her face, then blushed.

She knows why he wants to see her today. He’s recently become engaged—she got an e-mail from one of June’s old friends freaking out about it—and her guess is he needs Sheila to say it’s OK he’s moved on. Probably he needs her to say this because she has June’s face. But she isn’t sure what she’s going to tell him when he brings up the engagement. She isn’t sure if she’ll say it’s OK or if she’ll throw a drink in his face.

Sheila looks through the microscope at another sample, sees June, alive, at the ocean again. Another sample, the ocean again. If she’s going to be haunted by a memory in this way, shouldn’t it at least be her memory of June’s death? Shouldn’t it be the feeling of her phone buzzing against her thigh, the scrambled-sounding softness in her mother’s voice, the way the bright fluorescent lights in the lab had seemed to dim?

When they were small, Sheila and June shared a secret language. A private grammar of blinks, a classified vocabulary of shrugs and specifically timed vowel ululations. But then Sheila and June went to school, were placed in separate classes, corralled into a more collective grammar. Is that what caused them to forget their shared language?

Their mother, when Sheila asked as an adult, after June’s death, said yes, that was what caused it.

But Sheila—looking through her microscope—develops a different theory. She decides they forgot their secret language for good around age five, after the incident at the ocean that has crystallized inside her trays. It was their first family vacation. One parent vanished to pee, one parent was focused on their fat golden retriever, Ninja, and June headed for the waves, doggy-paddled too far out and got swept up in a current. Sheila, terrified of the water, turned away from her sand castle, stood up, stood straight, watching.

Something like sand sucked at her feet—she couldn’t move them.

Something like sand stuck in her throat—she couldn’t speak.

June saw Sheila watching and cried out to Sheila, just once, in their language. Sheila, later, would remember the word she cried as their word for help, but she would not remember the actual word’s structure, if there were blinks or shrugs or a lot of vowels involved, and when Sheila did not act, did not move, June, drifting farther and farther from shore, managed to thrust her head above the waves and cry out—not in the secret language, but in the language of Everybody Else—“Help!”

She did not cry out this word just once. She repeated the word over and over again and was finally heard by someone who could act. A lifeguard dove in and saved her.

Sheila hadn’t lost June that day on the beach, but after she had failed to respond to June’s first cry, they never spoke in shrugs and blinks and vowel-howls again.

A door slams and Sheila jumps. The lab’s usually quiet at this time. There’s a loud slapping sound accompanied by a faint buzzing. Sheila gulps in air. The source of the sound emerges: Amber, one of the undergraduates. She sometimes helps out in the lab because she thinks the service will improve her med school applications. The buzzing sound comes from Amber’s MP3 player, going full blast. The slapping sound comes from Amber’s pink flip-flops.

The first time June visited Sheila in her new job, in her new lab, June wore flip-flops, too, and the big forced smile of a despairing tourist who can’t remember how to ask for directions. June stared at the graphs on the walls, at the lists of procedures, gazed at Sheila’s lab coat with her name on it. She pointed out the window by Sheila’s desk and said, “Pretty trees!”

June dropped out of college when she got pregnant, and even after she lost the baby, she didn’t go back to school. She and a friend moved to Asheville and started a small shop, Cosmic Core, selling precious aura-cleansing stones and incense and clearing bells and flower essences. June was convinced that, in the new recession economy, people would be clamoring for aura-cleansing stones. They’d want a new beginning; they’d want to clear away past debts.

When June visited the lab, Sheila knew her sister was nervous. Nervous about all the tasks Sheila performed at work that June didn’t understand. Nervous about the terminology she didn’t know. Sheila tried to explain the images and graphs around her desk. She explained about X-ray diffraction. The X-ray through the crystallized protein is the event, she said, and the resultant image, a series of points of varying intensities, are called a diffraction pattern. She showed June a diffraction pattern on her computer: Black spots radiating outward against a white background. June said, “It looks like lace.”

Sheila said, “You figure out information about the unit cell of the crystal from this image. And the arrangement of the atoms in the protein.”

“I don’t understand a word you’re saying, Sheila.” June was still smiling, but the smile had twisted up in this wrung-sock way.

Sheila told herself to stop lecturing. But then, unable to help herself, she spoke about sending the crystals to the synchrotron just outside of Chicago, where someone would shoot an X-ray beam through the crystal. (Her voice went a little breathy here, because she still found herself excited by her work, the weirdness of it, the wildness.) After the X-ray beam went through the crystal, the resultant image—the diffraction pattern—would be converted to an electron density map. This map would help Sheila better understand the atomic structure of the protein she was trying to crystallize. She explained to June that when she looked at the image sent to her from the synchrotron, she wasn’t even seeing the nuclei of the atoms, the core of what was really there. She was seeing, instead, signs of the electron cloud around each atom.

June’s eyes, by this point, clouded over with disinterest. Sheila looked away. She’d chosen to study the tiny pieces inside most every human being, and yet, outside of a lab, most every human being squinted at her when she explained her work.

Later, after June returned to Asheville, Sheila sent June a copy of an expensive textbook, Introduction to Crystallography. When June got the package, she didn’t call Sheila, she e-mailed. “Well She-She, I made it through precisely ONE paragraph of that book. Did you know the word crystallography derives from the Greek ‘crystallon’ (cold drop OR frozen drop) and ‘grapho’ (‘I write’). Maybe I’ll give the textbook another try tomorrow. Do the words make more sense as you go along?”

When Amber flip-flops past, Sheila bows her head to the microscope again. The ocean is still there. She lifts her head, walks over to Amber, who is starting up the computer at an absent postdoc’s desk. Amber doesn’t nod hello to Sheila, which isn’t unusual, but which does for some reason, today, piss Sheila off. She says, loudly, “Hi, Amber.”

Amber doesn’t hear her over the electronic beat her earbuds emit.

“Amber,” Sheila says. “Hi.”

Nothing.

“Hi,” Sheila shouts.

Amber blinks. She takes her earbuds out. “Whoops!” She turns toward Sheila. “Did you say something?”

“You’re supposed to wear closed-toe shoes in the lab,” Sheila says.

Amber looks down at her feet. “I’m just here because my laptop is broken.” She shrugs. “So I’m using Jason’s. I’m not, like, doing experiments.”

“You still need to wear closed-toe shoes. It’s the policy.”

“Gotcha,” Amber says. “Next time.” She puts her headphones on.

“Amber,” Sheila says, but Amber’s music is turned all the way up, the same beat going over and over. The girl can’t hear a thing outside that sound.

A crystal is formed from repetition. The unit cell translated over and over again, in three dimensions, to make a higher-order thing. What if a story from childhood is translated into the present, over and over and over again? What if the reason Sheila’s microscope is showing her the memory over and over again is that the memory is trying to grow into something of a higher order? Will June’s death become structured into some form Sheila can analyze, maybe even understand?

What a relief that would be. Maybe, instead of trying to keep the memory back, she should allow it to repeat until that higher-order structure emerges. Then she will meet Marcus and tell him she understands June now, she understands the reasons for what happened, and there’s no need to talk about it anymore, all these years later, OK? She will tell Marcus this and then she will walk out. She will let Marcus pay for her tacos. She will not let him project his fantasies onto her face just because some parts of her repeat his memories of June.

Marcus and June had been together for almost three years when a gigantic fight between them erupted—an argument over who was responsible for a houseplant’s death managed to spiral into a declaration, by June, of deep unhappiness. This was several weeks after June visited Sheila’s lab and maybe that visit had made June unhappy. Or maybe June was tense because of the shop—Cosmic Core wasn’t doing well, might have to close. After the fight with Marcus, June had gone out to a bar and had a vodka tonic, and then another vodka tonic. Another drink same type another same type another same type another same type. The bartender, after the fact, had told June’s family this. Had there been cries for help? No one had heard them. Who had let her drive? No one was watching.

Sheila shouldn’t imagine that scene, June failing to turn in time. Shouldn’t try to imagine what June was thinking, feeling. She is using her work as metaphor for a personal tragedy, for feelings inside of herself, and that’s not the point of what she does. The point of what she does is to feel the world outside of herself. Its vastness, its beauty, its unknowability.

Yet Sheila can’t help it. As she looks through her microscope at another sample in another well, Sheila thinks she can spy the lime green of the lifeguard’s swimming trunks and the bright pink diamond pattern on June’s white bathing suit. She doesn’t see any angels through the microscope though. After the incident, June told them all she saw an angel when she was underwater. She talked about the angel at church, she talked about the angel at the playground. June turned loquacious with all the attention. And Sheila, remembering how quickly her sister had turned into a small, drenched, lifeless-looking thing, turned quieter. “The observer!” her father called her, still calls her.

Sheila looks down at her white coat with her name stitched on it. She takes it off and drapes the coat over the back of her chair. Placed there, the coat seems like it’s being worn by someone with rounder, looser shoulders, a straighter spine. What if she had never sent June Introduction to Crystallography? What if instead she had sent her a sweater? No, not a sweater. A scented candle for her bathroom? Something useful to June.

She walks to the exit and goes down a spiral staircase. Nobody in sight. Around her are the windows of other labs, some of the windows lit up, some of the windows weekend-dark. In a hall sits a whiteboard on which somebody has written, “JP Morgan ROX, Goldman Sachs SUX.” She hopes Marcus won’t look at her face and say seeing Sheila is like seeing the ghost of June. As soon as he brings up the engagement, she will leave. She’ll eat a taco, take stock of the changes to his face, wait for his announcement, and then leave. She’ll make him pay for what she eats and what she drinks.

Outside, the air smells like honeysuckle and car exhaust. The taco place is close enough to walk. Down Edgehill Avenue, Sheila passes music studios and instrument stores and parking garages. A young man with a guitar on his back leans against a wall and doesn’t look up at her and doesn’t hum anything. Sheila can tell, just from the tight way he holds his shoulders, that he wants something.

Marcus is already at the restaurant, at a booth in the back with a bottle of Dos Equis. He’s cut his hair very close to his head. The pinkish nubby tips of his ears are now visible. He gnaws on his lower lip with his big teeth and clutches a beer. When he sees Sheila he stops chewing his lower lip and gives her a big, shaky smile.

Sheila sits down across from him. She says, “Hi, Marcus.”

“Hey, Sheila!” Right away he begins to scratch at the label on his beer bottle. The bottle is labeled with two red X’s. His neat square fingernail digs around until a corner flaps free. “Hey!” he says again. “So amazing to see you.”

A waiter comes. Sheila orders a margarita and tacos. Marcus stares at her. Sheila feels a sharp stabbing sensation in her stomach and looks away. Bring up the engagement, she thinks. Just do it, so I can tell you I can’t give you the permission you need, so that I can deny you, so that I can leave.

But Marcus doesn’t bring up the engagement. He says, “How’s Nashville treating you these days?” He says, “Have you seen any country music stars yet?”

Sheila says she wouldn’t recognize a country music star if one fell from the sky, and Marcus laughs way too hard. She tells him she can’t even read musical notation, and he says that’s not really what country music’s all about, and her margarita arrives. It comes with a little umbrella. Sheila has a big gulp and when she puts the glass down, she doesn’t look Marcus in the eye. She looks him in the teeth. Marcus begins to talk about his favorite bands, before asking how Sheila’s work is going and what is it exactly she studies again?

The tacos arrive. Some shredded lettuce has already fallen out of Sheila’s and she stabs at the loosed taco innards.

Sheila says, “I study structures.”

Marcus nods. Sheila focuses on maintaining the integrity of the taco as she eats. There are no follow-up questions about her work. The shredded lettuce spills all over the place, as do gobbets of ground beef. Sheila reassembles the taco in silence. It seems a great deal of time passes before Marcus, at last, says, “So, Sheila. So.”

From the weight in that second “so” Sheila knows the moment has arrived. Finally. The point of the dinner—the announcement, the engagement. She is ready to tell him she thinks he’s a coward for needing to come to her. She is ready to throw down her napkin, if not her drink, and make a dramatic exit. She looks Marcus in the eye again. Then swallows with surprise.

Wet drops have formed just above his eyelids. She’s imagined what this dinner would be like many times, but she never imagined tears.

She sits up straighter.

Marcus rambles: This new woman is important, he thinks maybe he’s ready, he hopes he is ready, he’s scared, he’s wondering if it’s inappropriate but it’s not inappropriate, right, it’s been years, but he’s scared, it’s been years, he’s looking for a sign that moving on now is the right thing to do. His fingernails start scrabbling at the tattered remains of the beer bottle label. Sheila almost recognizes meaning in the way his fingers are scrabbling—this is some word in the language of sustained grief, this is a language she and Marcus secretly share. A weird warmth floods her head. She doesn’t get up and leave. Instead, staring at the drops that have now moved to Marcus’s eyelashes, she feels she is back at the lab, looking through the microscope, searching for the shape of something that will clarify a deep-inside form, the cloud of a structure, if not its core.

The restaurant smells like salt and limes and frying grease. Sheila’s nostrils flare as she breathes in deeply, knowing she is responsible for her half of the meal, knowing she’ll pay for it after all, knowing that any second now, she will need to respond to what Marcus is really trying to say. She leans forward. She is listening for something in Marcus’s voice, something like the sound of June calling from the sea.

Finally, finally, Marcus asks the question he has been building to: “Is it OK I’ve fallen in love again?”

Which actually, maybe, is the same thing as crying out “Help.” And in the crowded, noisy restaurant, she almost hears it, what June shouted that day at the beach—the word June cried in their private language, the word June cried not to everybody else, but to Sheila, and to Sheila alone.

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