Striding down the long corridors of the hospital to meet the Chair of Alternative Medicine, Max encountered Clara coming the other way, and remarked on the polystyrene coldbox cradled in her arms. “Is that a human head in there?” he quipped. The box was just the right size, and conformed to best practice for transport of clinical tissue between labs. Max had in mind an image of Judith and Holofernes, sanitized for contemporary times. Clara, in a white T-shirt and jeans, her hair gathered in a pony-tail, glanced at the box and said with a smile, “No head, Max, just an orchidectomy specimen for pathology.” No doubt she recalled their conversation a few days before at Diesel, a one-time gas station that was now a lively bar and grill. She had been offended by comments of fellow-students and faculty when defending her doctoral dissertation wearing high heels, a tight skirt and a soft silk blouse. “Killer,” they’d said, and “You rock, girl.” Over a beer, Clara had told Max of her dinner encounter a year or two before with a visiting professor, who had leered and played footsie while debating fine points of cell signaling over she-crab soup. Max had mentioned “Lean In”, a manifesto of female empowerment by a Facebook executive, while gazing dispassionately at her smooth crossed legs, the gentle undulation of her breasts, and the vexed look in her eyes.
Max’s vision of a disembodied head arose from a painting he had noticed in a gallery wine-and-cheese a few days before. The artist explained that his blood-spattered canvas depicting a vulture perched on the bannered proclamation “Gran Baile del Internado”, was inspired by masked balls celebrated by Buenos Aires medical graduates in the 1910s and 20s. Back then, Tango was the lingua franca of the dance halls, and the best composers vied for prominence through violin and bandoneon ensembles like Orquestra Pirincho. The music, the dance, and fine Malbec all conspired to fuel indiscretion. The interns scandalized and terrified the ladies with body parts spirited from the anatomy labs. No excess was considered excessive. The tender embrace of a lady’s waist by a dessicated skeletal arm was fair game, as were more intimate caresses by a rigid leathery hand.
Things came to a head when a certain intern, innocent and full of bravado, dancing with the beautiful wife of the Orquestra’s manager, and seeking to trump all previous excess, swept off his mask and revealed the severed, formalin-stretched head of a cadaver. The grimacing skull leaned in to nuzzle her cheek to the strains of Francisco Canaro’s “La Cumparsita”. The lady’s husband, portly and enraged, confronted the couple in the center of the dance floor. She was flamboyantly indignant, enjoying the attention accrued by such an outrageous Gran Baile stunt. The intern was amused but solicitous, cooling her brow with a bamboo fan. He turned in surprise when challenged by the husband, who had now drawn a pearl-handled Derringer from his waistcoat pocket. The interval between one bar of “La Cumparsita” and the next was marked by a single sharp crack and a second of shocked silence. The intern collapsed without a sound, a spreading puddle of blood over his heart, a smile still engraved on his face and his eyes just beginning to startle. The macabre head followed him to the floor and seemed to kiss his cheek momentarily as his colleagues rushed to administer fruitless first aid. The poor intern and his youthful bravado bled out on the dance floor, and he and the Gran Baile were never revived.
The Chair of Alternative Medicine was out to lunch, and as Max retraced his steps he once again encountered Clara, just across from the hospital morgue, where a polished brass plaque on the door proclaimed “Hic Locus Est Ubi Mors Gaudet Succerere Vitae”. She was conversing quietly with our hospital safety officer, who had placed the polystyrene box on sterile drapes on her stainless steel cart. Max nodded politely and went on his way, elaborating fantasies of Judith and Holofernes, the Gran Baile del Internado, and the inevitability of death or redemption in the pursuit of love.