Hex - Rebecca Dinerstein Knight


I am a woman who wakes up hungry. Tom touched only coffee till noon. You do what you’re capable of at some point, so Tom and I left each other. I wanted breakfast, he wanted liberty, and who could blame either of us. I live alone now in a large rancid blown-out loft in outer Red Hook, where I pad around the soft wood floors like a toddler: I’ve taken my pants off, my rings, earrings, it is quiet and bright, I haven’t gotten any lamps, I can hardly move, I’m drunk and I take a probiotic. My name is Nell Barber. I’m five foot five and 130 pounds which is not in any way remarkable. My daddy was a nice Jewish boy who married a nice Christian girl and raised me in Kansas and got on with it. Neither of them observed anything ever again. I was born observant. They gave me the original, fearful, organized minds of their childhoods and no religion of my own to honor. I suppose I turned from the celestial to the dirt. I study plants and I live in order.

Just because Rachel Simons made sustained contact with thallium and absorbed its toxins through her potassium uptake channels and died, the university expelled all six members of our lab. They couldn’t tolerate another ounce of our hazard! The disciplinary committee stood in choral formation and issued what sounded like whale tones run through a vocoder. Be-gone, be-gone, they groaned. Our experiment in toxicology had taken the life of a valued graduate student and would no longer be institutionally condoned. I wore a hazmat suit to the hearing, to promise future caution. The chairman found this disrespectful and I could hardly see his apoplectic face through the scratched plastic front of my secondhand helmet.

Columbia couldn’t accuse us—Rachel had oxidized the thallium of her own volition, at her own risk, and to her own demise—but it could close down the environment in which she’d endangered herself and rescind our schoolwide welcome. We had broken the contract of care and common responsibility that characterized the Columbia student. If we couldn’t study safely, we couldn’t study. It made good sense but it deleted me. The finalized verdict came via a specially assembled summer committee, via Priority Mail, to Tom’s address, which I’d just kissed goodbye without any tongue. August is supposed to be a lazy month but it pummeled my partnership and my PhD.

The biggest loss is you: my chime, my floorboard. You are my night milk. You are my unison. You believe in the periodic table. Your book sold eight thousand copies in its first week. Columbia will separate you from the Simons case and nurture your celebrity. For five years I have been your smaller self, your near-peer, your sane challenger, your favorite. For five years I’ve trailed you as you approached success. Then Rachel reached for the rat poison and Whole Thing reached its readers and my room lost its pillars in one coordinated catastrophe and neatly fell down. You and Tom have both conclusively shaken me. Look, Joan, I’m shaking.

Tom and I lived in a rectangle of jewels, his mother’s. A small palace they called an apartment on the Upper East Side, a good all-weather walk across Central Park to the university. Each morning I’d emerge from that snow globe and enter the open air feeling forward-moving and weightless. Each morning I’d be a beetle creeping over the park’s grass blades without bending them, so light was I. Now, when I step onto Van Brunt, my entire body weight rests on the sidewalk, but only and exactly my weight, not lifted not burdened. I’ve returned to my skeleton’s original fact. If you asked whether I like it, I think I’d tell you I do. When you climb out of something you’re very deep inside, the daylight is first a blank, and then it reveals itself to be life as you knew it before you climbed into that thing.

Everything has come around. Against the huge solitude of my schoolwork came the romance of Tom; against the romance of Tom came our utter lack of sex; against our nonsexual partnership came our easy, childlike living together; against our shared life, now, again, huge and unschooled solitude.

How undercutting, how generous of the world, to provide each thing with its inverse, to test each version of life we choose with a vision of its opposite. How perverse, and unpeaceful. I want more than anything to love the choice I