I worked with a two-headed boy.
Or, at least, I visited him at work almost every day for five months.
A two-headed boy sits in a jar in the new Worden Gallery at Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities. His body is crammed into a too-small square jar. His two waxy faces are peering out into the rest of the museum. The green concoction he swims in does little to obscure the jagged autopsy incision that runs up his torso. Most of the objects in the museum do not bother me anymore; I have worked in the museum, on and off, since I was 16. This year—my year off before matriculating at the University of Chicago—I have spent working in both the museum galleries and the gift shop. I have grown quite used to humans with horns, compound fractures, and syphilitic skulls so ravaged they hardly resemble bone anymore, but the two-headed boy still makes my heart sink and my stomach turn.
This past summer I worked to put together our new gallery. I personally moved nearly every object from the storage room (or “tumor room,” as it is nicknamed) into the gallery space. I spent hours in storage, shifting jars, selecting wax models. Every night I would return to my empty apartment, fingers and clothes smelling of formaldehyde, and see the day ahead with an eye both curious and revolted. I felt a duty to work as hard as possible—after graduating high school with possibly the worst attendance record my tiny Quaker school had ever seen, I wanted to prove to everyone that I had a work ethic. I wanted to show that it was not by some fluke that I had gotten through high school. I wanted to show that I was capable and competent and just like everyone else. I wanted to show that I was normal.
This, however, did not happen. And as time went on I became more of a freak. I lived alone—almost all of my friends were now away or busy or already attending their liberal-arts schools. I had taken up certain compulsions—I wrote down everything I ate, every cigarette I smoked, every cup of coffee I consumed, in a little navy notebook I bought at the Mutter Museum gift shop with an employee discount. I walked five miles to work and back, every day, no matter what the weather. I slept for only three hours at a time. And every day, often before the museum opened, I went down to the basement and visited the two-headed boy. Here was someone (and I think of him as I do not think of the objects, not as a specimen, something disconnected from humanity, but as a person frozen in death) who was more of a freak than I was. I often thought of Jeff Mangum singing in his nasal strain, “I am listening to hear where you are.” Sometimes, in my most bizarrely confused and depressed moments, I would put my ear to the glass, as though longing for something magical yet real to happen.
At night, when I went home, I would sit and listen to In the Aeroplane Over the Sea and Okkervil River’s entire oeuvre over and over again. I was waiting for something. These albums were my Muzak for what seemed like an endless delay in a stalled elevator. At the time, I pinned my hopes for a change on a two-headed boy of my own, someone who needed help more than I did, who I alone could hear and understand. I was desperately unhappy with my love life; every sexual encounter was painful and awkward, similar to having fingers placed in the notches of my spine.
Then, as the summer died, something changed. It is hard to say exactly what the catalyst was, but suddenly everything was OK. I stopped keeping track of my meals; instead, I became a prolific letter-writer. I started writing terrible music reviews and even-more-terrible fiction, but I really enjoyed it. I slept through the nights, I made new friends, and my little bit of loneliness became happy solitude. In fact, I have become a truly happy person. On the exterior, I’ve always seemed content, even though my insides were crawling with obsessive anxieties, but now my outer mood nearly always resembles how I really feel. It is probably just growing up, or looking ahead to the future and being really excited by what I see. I now can’t wait for the next day, the next month, the next year. I listen to “Two-Headed Boy” with a type of nostalgia, and not with the immediate connection I once had with it. And I have stopped visiting the two-headed boy in the basement.