Antique Medical Slides

Specimens of my past and future self

Leslie Jamison
Illustration by Katrien de Blauwer

Objects of Desire is a new column in which we invite a writer to meditate on an everyday item that haunts them.

Shortly after I turned thirty, I moved in with my best friend, Colleen. We’d been close for years but had never lived together before. The home we shared was a railroad apartment in Crown Heights, perched above a smoke shop on Franklin Avenue, just a few doors down from the fancy pizza joint where Colleen regularly held office hours for the men she’d met on dating apps.

Our apartment was a theater of restoration: we’d both recently emerged from long relationships that might have ended in marriage but had not. A few nights a week, the two of us ate together in a kitchen with steamed windows and walls Colleen called “barn red.” We made roasted broccoli and the boxed grains we loved from Trader Joe’s (“Ancient Grains,” read the package) and fed each other stories from our days: our students’ tender essays about their siblings and their self-harm; strangers we’d seen crying on the subway; thrilling dates and terrible ones. (One man asked if I knew my IQ ten minutes after meeting me.) Colleen and I treasured our time in that apartment, and for all the years since we have called each other Franklin, my Franklin, as if the bond we’d forged there was something slightly beyond friendship: a place we could still visit, even once we lived elsewhere.

Those long dinners Colleen and I shared in our apartment on Franklin felt like acts of preservation and witness, too.

The year before we moved in together, I had received a gift from my aunt: a heavy wooden box full of hundred-year-old microscope slides she had unearthed in a London antique shop. Each slender rectangle of glass bore a circular specimen above a small handwritten label: Stomach of Frog. Hair, human. Cancer of Axillary Gland. Exuvium of Prawn. My aunt had always been my wonder-dealer, a fairy godmother who delighted in bringing me things she found beautiful: collections of Edna St. Vincent Millay, photographs of snowflakes. The slides seemed like items you might find in a witch’s hut or an old apothecary shop: supplies for potions and spells. They were meant for a microscope I’d never own, one that perhaps no longer even existed. Tongue of Cat was a brittle crust of dark red, shaped like a tiny flattened hill, on a translucent yellow film. The handwriting beneath read, Striated muscle. The slide labeled Scale of eel looked like an empty circle of glass, but I trusted a microscopic flake of flesh was in there somewhere, perfectly protected, awaiting witness.

Those long dinners Colleen and I shared in our apartment on Franklin felt like acts of preservation and witness, too: we brought the world back to each other in miniature. At the end of each meal, we chose a specimen from my wooden box of slides and attached it to the corkboard hanging above our table, a little mascot of what we’d shared. We tried to choose a slide that somehow matched that evening’s conversation. Proboscis of blow fly showed a splayed insect like a crushed kernel of barley with long antennae; we chose it for the guy Colleen dated who wouldn’t stop talking about his misunderstood genius. Embryo Oysters featured a circle of glass with a squiggle in one corner that looked like it was trying to swim free; we chose it for the night we wondered aloud about whether we’d have children.

We called these dinners our “Specimen Nights.” (At the time, I was reading Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days, a motley collection of the great poet’s short autobiographical jottings.) Marking each dinner with a slide was a way of saying: This time mattered. It existed. It was not just a purgatory between the end of our prior lives and the beginning of our next lives. Like the slides themselves, our conversations were premised on scrutiny and magnification, on taking something from the day—an ambiguous text message or a student conference—and saying, Here, look at this. Under the microscope of the other’s gaze, we would find something new in it: not a glinting scale or bloated cell but evidence of shy desire or barely submerged mother-craving—things we couldn’t have seen on our own.

In the decade since Colleen and I lived together, I’ve carried these medical slides with me, first to the two apartments I shared with my husband, including the one we brought our daughter home to from the hospital, and then to the home where I moved with my daughter after the marriage ended. I had brought little to this new place besides my daughter’s crib and changing table, a few bookshelves, and my wardrobe full of dresses. It felt important to bring along something impractical—an item whose only purpose was making me feel a small tingle of awe, an object granting me access to prior versions of myself.

In the early days of furnishing that new life, I found a strange contraption called an atomic bubble hot plate, a casserole serving trolley from the 1950s sporting a defunct hot plate and an impressive a dome of plastic. It was obviously impractical and utterly essential. The second I saw it, I knew what it was: a home for my slides. Some people had bar carts, but I was sober. I had a slide cart.

It was not just a purgatory between the end of our prior lives and the beginning of our next lives.

The slides sat beneath their dome of plastic, beside my kitchen table, next to a window overlooking a broad American elm, another specimen through the glass, the world beyond. Whenever anyone came over—friends, romantic prospects, former students turned babysitters— they eventually found their way to the slides. One babysitter said she liked the feeling of my living room so much that she sometimes wrote there, after putting my daughter to bed; a few years later, when I read her first novel, I found that the slides had made their way into it: “I took a job babysitting the small daughter of a woman who lived down the road. . . . I liked her apartment, above a corner coffee shop . . . her living room filled with anatomy books, antique medical slides in a glass case.” I loved seeing them there, protected and preserved by the atomic bubble of her prose. They had been given to me, and now they’d passed to someone else, another member of our secret sorority of attunement.

During my Specimen Nights with Colleen, the slides had helped us imagine a future. They offered a way to stay curious, to remind ourselves we hadn’t yet seen everything, back when our lives felt shadowed by endings. More will be revealed, they said in my recovery program. In those days, I felt like I was peering behind every curtain, incapable of waiting patiently for what was in store. But as I kept carting the slides with me from apartment to apartment, life to life, they started to feel less like a way to keep believing in the future and more like a conduit to the past. They bring me back to Colleen, those long nights in our red kitchen, taking turns doing the dishes, keeping the winter at bay. The slides feel like proof of a certain transmuting continuity: we are constantly becoming slightly different versions of ourselves, but we never leave ourselves behind. The past stays in the room with us, preserved, eavesdropping on a future it couldn’t have imagined.

Leslie Jamison is the author of Splinters, The Recovering, The Empathy Exams, The Gin Closet, and Make It Scream, Make it Burn. She directs the nonfiction concentration of the Columbia University MFA program.
Originally published:
March 20, 2024


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