The Sultry Scent of Formaldehyde



Neighborhood: East Village, Queens

My memories of high school are burdened by two deciding factors: the absence of girls and my aversion to math and science, both regrettable, given the fact that the prestigious institution I attended, Stuyvesant High School—then still in its old digs, a venerable building on East 15th Street—was all boys and all about math and science.

Numbers made me nervous.

Our chemistry teacher Mr. L., the erstwhile proprietor of a failed soap factory, managed to drain the periodic table of any zip, except for when he divided water into its component parts and made the hydrogen pop with a match.

Physics was far too abstract.

Algebra, forget about it.

Geometry, taught by Mr. S., was slightly less odious, since it involved spinning narratives with numbers, describing the nature of spaces and magnitudes.

Playing hooky from school one day, I dodged into a nearby cinema. They were showing the movie Ulysses, based on the James Joyce novel, which I had conflated with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by D.H. Lawrence. Neither was on our English reading list, the racy passages of the latter I pondered at night under the covers. I was the only spectator in the entire theater, and don’t remember much, except for the bushy eyebrows of Leopold Bloom wiggling when he got excited. I studied the screen from every seat in the house, attempting to calibrate the hypotenuse of my adolescent dismay, largely oblivious to the young hero Stephen Daedalus’ heavily Irish-accented musings in the course of his perambulations around Dublin, a locale that seemed infinitely far removed from my Jewish-inflected New York. But I was gripped by his love interest, the sultry Molly Bloom, lying in bed and getting all worked up over a run-on sentence that never would have washed in my English class: “so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

She brought to mind my biology teacher, who had a way of tossing back her hair to make a point while seated cross-legged on her desk and baring her knees. 

For her I would have done anything. For her I even resolved to do well in biology.

As part of our midterm grade, we were to be tested on our capacity to dissect and identify the inner organs of a frog. In preparation, I kidnapped one from the school lab, sedated it with formaldehyde, and took it home in a pickle jar with holes punctured in the lid.

On the subway ride back to Queens we passed under the East River and I felt the pop in my ear, a condition linked to the change in water pressure, as we’d learned in class. With my heart throbbing for my teacher, I unscrewed and lifted the lid to confirm that the frog was still alive. But the sedative must have worn off. The moment I peeked in, the frog leapt out, and a chorus of shrieks accompanied his zigzagging peregrinations around the subway car.

I finally recovered my subject. And though my makeshift sedative of vinegar, mercurochrome and apricot brandy didn’t quite do the trick and his little legs wiggled like Leopold Bloom’s eyebrows under the knife, I later managed to extract and identify each part, carefully setting aside the heart.

At our graded dissection the next day, to the amazement of my teacher, I excised and identified 11 out of a possible 10 organs. It was the only time math and science ever worked in my favor. Convinced that I had stumbled on a rare mutation, a frog with two hearts, she broadcast the finding throughout the school, and I briefly basked in the glow of my grade of A+. My dissection was left on display in the glass case outside the biology lab until the organs rotted.

The school admitted girls in 1969, the fall after I graduated. A lot of good it did me.


Peter Wortsman is the author, most recently, of Stimme und Atem/Out of Breath, Out of Mind, a bilingual book of stories, forthcoming from PalmArt Press in Berlin; The Caring Heirs of Doctor Samuel Bard, a work of nonfiction, forthcoming from Columbia University Press; and a second edition of his first book, A Modern Way to Die, forthcoming from Pelekinesis. His translations from the German of Intimate Ties, by Robert Musil, and Hinkemann, by Ernst Toller, are forthcoming, from Archipelago Books and Berlinica Books respectively. And Penguin Little Black Books in the UK will be bringing out a bilingual English-Chinese edition of his translation of the German Romantic classic The Sandman, by E.T.A. Hoffmann. 

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