The giver of the pendant (whose name was Thomas), and the receiver of the pendant, (his lab assistant, whose name was Liza), had often shared small things. They had taken turns pressing their eyes against an ocular rubber piece that led to a much bigger world where purple and green dyes revealed circular jelly-like shapes. Inside the circular jelly-like shapes, yellow-dyed fragments wiggled their way into X-shapes.
Thomas explained. “Think of it as a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You put jelly on one side and peanut butter on the other, then slap the two slices together for a second and pull them apart. Some peanut butter gets mixed in with the jelly, and some jelly gets mixed in with the peanut butter.”
Liza sighed. “Just like that…and here we are…without our asking to be.”
“Yes, just like that. And it goes on forever.”
“Until it ends.”
“Yes, until it ends.” Thomas changed the slide. “Now look.”
Liza pressed her eyes to the rubber eyepiece. Once orderly and predictable cells had morphed into shapeless globules. Aberrant cells.
On occasion, Thomas and Liza would walk from the labs to a nearby cemetery and sit together under a sycamore tree with a view of shiny marble gravestones. They would open their lunches of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and eat in silence. With respect for the dead.
One day Thomas broke the silence. “You’re wearing a scent…patchouli and vanilla I believe?”
“Pleasant, I hope.”
“Always. But what I want to tell you is that at times I hear a sound and smell a scent.”
“Synesthesia. I’ve heard of it.”
“I’ll hear a chipmunk chirping and I’ll smell honeysuckle.”
“It must be confusing…I mean, for a scientist.”
“I figure it out. But then there’s you.”
“What about me?”
“With your scent, I hear strains of Chopin. It’s special for me. I will always remember this, even when you are gone.”
“Hmm.” She let that one go and they lapsed into silence.
All of this happened before the pendant was given.
One day, Thomas and Liza were having lunch at the cemetery.
“I’d like to tell you a little story, Liza. Bear with me, this happened before you were born.”
Liza nodded and looked into the distance, over the gravestones. “Sure.”
Thomas took a deep breath and let it out again. “I was boxing for sport in Beijing. It was the beginning of Operation Desert Shield…when the US and China were coming to terms, over mutual economic advantages of course. One day, a man by the name of Li Qiang walked into the ring and challenged me to a match. Li Qiang was a Communist, but no matter, we became friends. Willing combatants, you might say.
“One night near the end of a long match, exhausted, arms and legs entwined, I smelled his sweat mingling with my sweat and I heard strains of Chopin.”
“Hmm.” Liza had no other comment. Thomas’ stories were always complicated.
“My first thought was of Tiananmen Square. A student sang Chopin’s Funeral March, just the year before. Odd isn’t it. This has nothing to do with death, you understand, but when I smell your patchouli and vanilla, I remember Li Qiang.
“There was something sweet about our friendship…Li Qiang and me. We both felt this. We saw it in each other’s eyes, but we never spoke of it. On parting he gifted me a gold pendant. A Chinese character filled the center of the pendant. Li Qiang told me that this character stood for Longevity.”
“So, this is about death, isn’t it?” Liza said. “Longevity or death…like the cells under the scope.”
Now it was Thomas’ turn to wonder. “Hmm…one never knows.” Thomas reached into the pocket of his lab coat. “I want to give you this…because of your smell, and his smell, and Chopin. You’re leaving soon and I want you to remember me, just as I remember Li Qiang.”
Liza did leave and never returned. Years later, word came that Thomas’ body was riddled with cancer. Liza retrieved the gold pendant from a box containing precious gifts she’d received over the years. As her finger traced the lines of the Chinese character, she heard strains of Chopin.
Photos by Macy