Matt Mullican, Untitled (brain), 2011. Acrylic, oilstick on canvas, rubbing, 48 x 48 in.

In the early seventies, I began sleeping with a married doctor who wanted to cure homosexuality. I was twenty-one. In our hotel room, he showed me black-and-white photographs of patients’ brains like they were Kodak color snapshots of his own children at play: cooing over the cerebellum’s left lobe, marveling over the funniest reaction some area had had to electrical stimulation. I’m exaggerating a little, but not much. He pointed out, very tenderly, the deep brain and surface electrodes, his finger pads leaving sheeny traces of grease on the photograph.

I’d admitted to the doctor that when I was a little girl, I myself had wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to save lives, to rewire hearts and brains. My mother had laughed at me. She’d told me to marry a doctor instead, or a dentist at least. She’d told me I was going to be beautiful and shouldn’t waste nature’s gifts and where would the money come from, anyway, and don’t be silly. Silly girl. The doctor, though, saw that I genuinely wanted to learn and he knew I didn’t have money for college. So he tried to explain things to me. What the different parts of the brain might do. How memory worked. I don’t remember much from his lessons now. What I do remember is that during the second week of our affair, before we left the hotel, he talked to me about the action of electroshock at subcortical levels and then he held out some money for me. He said he knew my mother had medical debt, he said he knew I didn’t make much waitressing. But I knew really he was trying to tell me something about this transaction, trying to define it himself before I could have a say in labeling the thing between us.

When he held out the money to me, I breathed in deeply. The hotel smelled like apples. Outside were rooftops, a collection of water towers. It was a nice hotel room, though the drapes were an ugly Paleozoic brown. Central Park was not far away. Sometimes, after I saw the doctor, I took walks there. Maybe today I’d take a walk there.

I took the money. I placed the bills carefully into my wallet. I thought subcortical subcortical subcortical. A new word to understand. A new understanding.

We left the hotel and walked in separate directions: he to his apartment overlooking the park, me to the subway tunneled under the street. I did not feel dirty, not even on the subway. I felt clean with new knowledge. Subcortical, I whispered to myself, to help with remembering.

* * *

I met the doctor again and again and again. I was learning about bodies, about brains, I was learning the names for different regions of the parts of myself I couldn’t see. I was learning more about the medical world than I’d ever known before. If I had to play up my own sexuality, my own girl-ness, in order to keep the doctor interested, to gain this knowledge, well, fine. The doctor was a broad-shouldered man and not unattractive. When we were apart, I’d sometimes think about his patients, I’d wonder how they were doing. I wondered about them more than I wondered about the doctor or even myself.

The doctor’s favorite patient, the one he always told me about, was a 21-year-old homosexual male who wanted to be a woman. “You’re the same age as him!” the doctor exclaimed to me sometimes. Of course the patient and I (the doctor said) were very different. The patient—the doctor told me we’d call him Patient C—suffered from depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicidal rumination. Under the doctor’s direction, stainless-steel electrodes were implanted into a number of subcortical sites in the patient’s head. Soon, the doctor told me, his team of researchers would begin to passively stimulate these implanted sites. They were going to determine which region of the brain was associated with pleasure.

“You figure that out, you program the boy back the way nature intended, stimulate the subcortical sites while you show him pictures of pretty women, and the alcohol and the drugs and the thoughts of suicide and the dick loving?” The doctor touched my side. “All that goes away. Name in the history books.”

“Whose name? Patient C?”

“Don’t tease. My name.” He put his hairy hands on my stomach and examined my belly’s flesh through the interstices of his fingers. “My name in the history books. And you can say, ‘I knew him when.’ Just don’t tell my wife about all that knowing.”

I was interested in opening up a brain and cataloging the wildness there.

He laughed. I didn’t. I said, “Do you respect me much less than your wife?” I had half hoped the words would come out sounding insecure—even guilty—so that the situation between the two of us might start to seem more normal, less deviant, so that our exchanges could return to a more regular script, like something that might be on TV. But my question came out flat and cold; I sounded more like I was posing a scientific hypothesis, speaking about myself with dispassionate interest.

“Joyce,” the doctor said. “Don’t be silly.”

* * *

Every time we met after that, I heard a little more about Patient C’s progress. I was interested in learning about the inside of Patient C’s brain, in learning the names for all the parts, in understanding my own brain better through his, in understanding all brains better. As far as Patient C’s homosexuality went, I had no strong feelings one way or another. I’d gone to a conservative church every Sunday as a kid and I won’t pretend I was some wildly open-minded person. Nor was I particularly interested in being wildly open-minded. I was interested in opening up a brain and cataloging the wildness there.

But, to my own surprise, I developed a kind of attachment to Patient C. I supposed Patient C, like me, was sinning and so felt myself in company with him and liked him better than most men, even though I’d never met him. Sometimes I thought about what the doctor said, about how the patient and I were the same age. I didn’t know his birthday, but I enjoyed imagining the two of us as babies screaming in the same hospital at the same time. We wouldn’t just be screaming in the hospital, we’d be screaming at the hospital, at its borders and walls, we’d be screaming at how someone had checked boxes already saying what we were, what we should be shaped into, what we were allowed to become. He could not become a woman. I could not become a doctor. To deviate from these ideas was silly. I knew this fantasy was mostly based in fiction, but I couldn’t help thinking about it sometimes. The two of us screaming together.

The doctor must have sensed the frisson I felt thinking about Patient C, because he had taken to telling me about the patient’s progress always before sex, so that the updates began to seem like a kind of foreplay. One day, he told me his team had determined that the septal region alone was associated with pleasure. That day, during sex, I thought over and over, “Septal region septal region septal region.” I was conducting an experiment, trying to see if calling to that space, articulating it in language, might somehow make my feelings more intense. It worked. I know it’s not scientific, but it worked. I shuddered all over. I broke out in a fresh sweat. I didn’t moan more loudly, but the sounds I did make seemed to come from a more centralized place, caused vibrations in not just my spine, but the doctor’s—I could feel those vibrations in my finger pads. The doctor thought he alone had triggered this reaction in me, and he looked inordinately pleased. He ordered two gigantic meals from room service.

We sat for a time, silently gnawing at sheeny chicken thighs. Then I asked, “What happens next?”

“Dessert? You want pie?”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

“Do you mean what happens next with us?”

“No.” I laughed. “I mean with Patient C.”

“I kind of want pie.”

“Tell me what happens next to Patient C. Are you close to curing him?”

“Well.” The doctor looked down at the chicken as if its fried skin would show him the words he needed. “Well, now that we’ve determined the region of pleasure, we’ll start up regular periods of septal area stimulation. You understand that?”

“I understand that.”

“The patient himself will at times be allowed to take the initiative, to stimulate this area himself with the push of a button. Joyce.”

“And then?”

“You’re not like normal girls.”

“You mean I’m not what you think a normal girl should be. In the surface parts of your brain.”

“Joyce. Put down the chicken and come here.”

The whole way home, even though the doctor’s smell was all over me, I could not stop thinking about Patient C. I struggled to imagine his face, but I could easily imagine his hands: thin and hairless and hovering over a button that I decided would be big and colored green like a streetlight saying go go go go go.

* * *

Not too long after that the doctor made an announcement. Fingering the thick brown draperies in the hotel, he told me that Patient C had reported increased interest in female personnel and feelings of sexual arousal.

“You mean he’s starting to like girls?”

“He’s starting to like girls. We even showed him a film.”

“A film.”

The doctor came close to me and whispered about it into my ear. I’m sure he didn’t use the clinical language I remember now. What I remember now is his telling me the subject had watched the film, become aroused, and masturbated to orgasm. The whole time, the doctor’s researchers had recorded the electrical activity in the patient’s brain. I wanted to know if the doctor had watched. Was there a screen or something? Was Patient C alone? How did it work?

“We didn’t watch,” the doctor said. “We watched the electrical activity, Joyce.”

“So is he cured? When does it count as he’s cured?”

“Not yet. We’re getting close.”

Before we parted ways that day, he left me an envelope full of more cash than he’d ever left before. He had to rush out for work and was already gone by the time I counted it. I had a funny feeling some of the money was a kind of down payment on some future favor, some new transaction I didn’t yet have the education to predict. And I was right. The next time I met the doctor, he told me he had a request for me.

“It’s a little illicit, but I didn’t think you’d mind. I thought maybe you’d actually like it. Because actually it’s for the good of medical science. Hell, of humanity.”

“What is it?”

“Patient C is progressing,” said the doctor.

“What’s the request?”

* * *

Central Park, once, had contained slaughterhouses. Then it contained robber barons and their offspring, strolling the park’s paths, commenting on the way a new white bridge was in dialogue with the birch trees around it. Now the place had made its pendulous move back to its old slaughterhouse roots, its greenish insides full of young kids coming through here to mug and shoot one another, at least according to the news. I walked through the park’s paths only in broad daylight, and even then I kept my pocketbook clutched close to my chest, which had the added advantage of concealing my chest. Still, despite these safety precautions, I found the park a real inspiration that day. A place could contain multiple pasts within its perimeters, play multiple roles. Could a person?

Had he been training me for this? Probably there was a psychological term for what he’d done.

Patient C had vocalized a desire to be with a woman. It was a major breakthrough, or in the doctor’s words, “a potentially key pavestone on the path to a historical achievement.”

He said he remembered what I said about wanting to be a doctor. He said despite what I thought, despite what my mother said, it wasn’t too late. He wanted it to be me with him. “With you?” I asked. He meant with Patient C. He wanted me to sleep with Patient C. He wanted that so much. He could not think of anything that would turn him on more.

“If you say no,” the doctor added, “that’s okay too. We’ll go with someone else. A professional.”

“A professional.”

“But I want it to be you. You’re articulate. You’re engaged with the patient. You know his story. You can tell us, truthfully, how it went, after. Whether it seemed… genuine.” He smiled at me. “And I’ll know I can trust what you say.”

I still hadn’t said anything.

“You can use the money for school,” he went on. “It will be a lot of money and I’m going to ask that you use it for school.” When I was still silent, he added, “You’ve already been doing this, Joyce. Taking the money from me after we’re together. A little bit more each time. It’s not that different.”

Had he been training me for this? Probably there was a psychological term for what he’d done, something to do with incremental steps toward rising stakes.

“Joyce, if this works, he’s potentially cured. Do you know what that means?”

Alone in the park, after, I felt like someone was following me. I walked more quickly, to get out of the park and re-enter the grid. Still, once I was out of the park, once I was back on Central Park West, I turned around and looked back. I was curious about what had followed me.

* * *

I don’t want to go into any details about what happened. There are only a few facts to know:

1. Patient C was tall and skinny and his ankles were bony and red. Electrodes snaked from his shaved head. He said, “They put these extension chord things on my electrodes. They said it would give me more mobility.” And I said, “Oh.” And he looked toward a wall of glass—a two-way mirror, I realized—and said to the mirror, “I like your skirt.”

2. I wore a very short skirt and a very shiny shirt covered in sequins because I thought if I wore something very different from what I usually wore—if I wore a costume—everything might seem more like a play instead of real.

3. Patient C wore nothing but a hospital gown and a big grin the whole time. The grin seemed like a costume, also. When he came, he made some signal with his hand, and I realized the doctor was watching us, and the electrical activity between us, too.

4. The doctor, afterward, wore a big grin too—not a costume grin. I was surprised at the time because I’d thought he’d be at least a little jealous. But he was in control, in charge, never more than that day. He had gotten me to obey, to come here, dressed like this, he had put two deviants together and, in his mind, placed them firmly in the roles he thought they truly occupied. He had authored this situation and he loved it. After all, the doctor loved his work, his pioneering research that made people return to the positions they’d been told from childhood they should assume.

The doctor gave me the money. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore and he said he understood. Probably he thought he’d cured me of something. But several months later, he called me and asked me to meet him in the park. He was sitting just outside the entrance to the Central Park Zoo. When I sat down next to him, he turned around and told me Patient C had vanished. They had released him too soon, the doctor said. He had not done enough. He had failed Patient C and now Patient C had disappeared. Then the doctor began to cry. His tears were large and shiny and reminded me of glistening fat. I didn’t touch him. I got up from the bench and left without another word.

I think about what we did together and why we did those things and about where my own responsibility was limited and where it wasn’t.

Shortly afterward, the doctor’s work became well known—not for its achievements, but for its ethical impropriety. Patient C had kept a diary, written his story down. The diary was found, even though Patient C was not. While the treatment he’d received might not have been seen as unethical in the fifties or the sixties, opinion was starting to shift. Soon the doctor’s name was in the history books as an example of how the medical field could become twisted in ways that were pernicious to life and dignity. One of the articles actually said that. Pernicious.

For a while I was sick of the human brain and had no faith in my ability to understand it. But I got over that. I used the doctor’s money and went to college. I did very well. I went to medical school and did very well there, too. I was extra driven because I knew that if I didn’t succeed after what I’d already done, I couldn’t say for sure what I would do next. Maybe end things. Maybe disappear. Maybe hurt someone. But it didn’t come to that. I have my own practice now. I have a husband, also, and a child, a girl, who grew into a woman and fell in love with another woman. They recently were married. They are happy.

But for whatever reason, since they were married, I think of Patient C again, constantly. I think about all he wasn’t afforded. I think about what we did together and why we did those things and about where my own responsibility was limited and where it wasn’t. I think about his red ankles. Deviant. That word gets snagged onto something in my brain and repeats in my thoughts again and again until I’m wide awake and shivery and sweaty with anxiety.

The only way for me to fall asleep after that is to fantasize. I pretend that I have tracked down Patient C and am watching him from the observation side of a two-way mirror. The mirror looks out onto a strange green place, one that I have never seen before, a place that exists just beneath the surface of my waking mind. It looks like Central Park, a little, but it is not Central Park. It’s in another country entirely, I am sure of it, and Patient C walks down its paths with an abstracted expression on his face. My eyelids are growing heavy, but I manage to watch as Patient C spots the two-way mirror. He looks into the mirror hard. Then he looks happy. He grins, finally recognizing the person on the other side.


Lee Conell

Lee Conell is currently a fiction fellow at Vanderbilt University, where she is completing her MFA. She has fiction forthcoming in Crazyhorse, Glimmer Train, and Five Chapters.

2 Comments on “Subcortical

  1. I found this story quite beautiful, haunting and sad. And well written. I thanks to the author. First time visiting this blog and first piece I read. Look forward to reading more.

  2. There is something right about this triangle and something wrong. It was not an isosceles. She grew up, while the others remained fixed. Could it have been a golden one, with the famous equation? Something needed to be right, after all. But we are not so sure the right angle was there. Perhaps an acute triangle, perhaps not. And knowing the size, did it matter, really? Obtuse? Acute? That’s the thing about triangles; one can have all acute angles, but only one obtuse to make it work. But then, was there a triangle at all? Patient C disappears, but left a diary. Joyce grows up, has a daughter and her triangle grows into a square. But to be more precise, a four sided polygon. But what of the morally challenged nameless doctor who remains a node, but falls off the map. Perhaps he is the central park, the playground guy. Without him, there is no experimentalist with a passion for chicken, either played or eaten. And the ellipse, the great walkthrough? Whose path, orbit, or treadmill becomes the tent post for this play? Is it door C? Maybe it’s the two-way mirror, that should in reality be one-way. Is this a typo, or is this a clue to the space she inhabits. Because two-way mirrors are not at all conducive to watching much of anything besides making triangles when one wants parallel lines.

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