By Seana Lymer
[The following fictional story is inspired by Mary Karr’s arresting, matter-of-fact memoirs. Any resemblance to real persons or events is coincidental — but the anxiety-inducing qualifying exams are very real indeed.]
Memories of the months leading up to my quals are distorted and stormy, like a sick dream. I had been on edge for nine months, brimming with tension and nowhere to put it. The previous year, five days after arriving in New York, I found out my father was dead.
He had been missing for two weeks. Then he was found, and I was alone. The loss, the uncertainty, not knowing what really happened and feeling pretty sure I never would, was more than I could hold onto. My OCD came back to smack me right in the mouth. Obsessions ignited overnight, and working in a lab gave me plenty of raw material for concocting spectacularly elaborate phobias.
Preparing for quals was the perfect excuse to descend even farther. No one expected me anywhere at any specific time, so I went off the grid to wallow. I brought one poor sucker down with me, a girl from my cohort who was set to take her quals at the same time on the same day. Cam had some sickness too, which she expressed by cutting parallel lines along her thighs and forearms.
On the morning of the exam, I chose my outfit carefully. Something nice but plain. You know, something I wouldn’t be embarrassed to cry in. On the walk to campus, I fantasized about hopping in a cab and disappearing to nowhere in particular. I arrived 20 minutes early, even after stopping to yak in a public trashcan.
The exam itself felt like a long deflation. Like I’d sprung a microscopic leak, and was quietly releasing air. Everything I knew or thought I knew or kinda remembered reading came out in long, directionless sentences. It was exhaustive, it was exhausting, an inelegant scientific monologue presented to three austere and silent figures.
With only a few minutes left, I hit a mental wall. The silence panicked me, and soon the nerves were bubbling up my throat. I squinted, hoping to avoid the on-ramp to tears. To distract the six eyes that were burning into my skin, I sniffed dramatically.
“I have a tissue here if you need it,” one of the three offered.
“Sure, yes, please,” I said. Smile (grimace) to signify gratitude. She offered me a fresh travel pack of tissues from her purse.
“Oh yes, this time of year is terrible for me.” The woman had offered me a lifeboat, who was I to turn it away? I almost laughed out loud.
And then it was over, and the trio congratulated me. One of them shook my hand, which I limply accepted. Another told me it was time to call my mom and let her know the good news.
I texted Cam instead. PASSED, I wrote.
I assumed she had bee-lined straight to the pub to celebrate, so I walked to our spot and pressed my nose in the window. No Cam. I stood on the sidewalk and stared stupidly at my phone.
My relief had metabolized quickly. As it waned, something darker crept in its place. I shuffled home.
I should be happy, I told myself. Right? I sat quietly in my room, watching my rowdy teenage neighbors through the bedroom window. My phone screen was still blank. Nothing from Cam. I hadn’t really planned what I would do in this situation. We were supposed to celebrate together. Instead, I opened both bottles of $15 Prosecco we had set aside, and drank them alone.
Later, I found out that Cam was cowering in the ladies’ room when I’d texted, too devastated and ashamed to walk out of the building in case she ran into someone she knew.
The next weeks were unremarkable. Without realizing it, I had assumed that passing quals would fix whatever was wrong with me.
It’s a few years laternow, and I’m preparing to defend my thesis. Cam left school and moved away, but she’s much happier. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about my defense, my insides twisting and anxious, begging me to just finish, finish, finish. But that’s an instinct, nothing more. I’m not expecting anything vibrantly green on the other side. Soon I’ll have an anticlimactic defense of my very own, and the next day my life will be (almost) exactly the same.
Seana Lymer is a Ph.D. candidate in neurobiology at New York University.