Recently, I like to heave open the half-jammed balcony door and take my food or coffee outside. The unspoken, superficial excuse is the piece of paper on the door of the lunchroom printed “Maximum 3 persons in this room”; I pretend to be considerate and yielding. I nod at my colleages before shutting the door on them and sitting down on the narrow tiled floor like a hermit. The private excuse that I first had in my mind was Alan Paton’s phrase “…the stately indigenous trees of the Berea” still stately and beautiful six decades later; one of the little privileges of working here is a few from one of the few high-rise buildings in the Umbilo area.
But the true reason was something that my body yearned for before it was explicit in my mind. I am this weirdo who sits outside in the heat of a Durban summer. Who bakes in the westering sun pouring into the oven between a glass wall and a glass parapet. Who feels the sun draw the sweat from my skin, the tiles radiate into my thighs through the black jeans. I need these breaks from the climate-controlled lab to feel fully incarnate, fully experiencing my body. The lunchroom is also air-conditioned and still doesn’t feel like a far enough escape.
It’s not that I feel disembodied or dissociated in the lab. Something non-biologists don’t understand is how physical, how artisanal lab work is. I can do repetitive tasks over and over again, but it would be completely incorrect to say that I feel like a machine. These are human skills: delicately adjusting the pressure of your thumb to compensate while pipetting liquids of different viscosities, knowing just how fast to mix to avoid blowing bubbles, making a judgement as to when to use reverse or forward technique for measuring out miniscule drops of precious reagents. The focus required is demanding, and the demand is made hundreds of times a day. It is not a career for the incorrigibly clumsly or careless.
But it’s a different kind of physicality. It’s very much an experience of the hands and the eyes. My legs become a mere conveyance. I forget about my entire torso unless it complains. Out on the balcony, I feel everything – tendons stretching as I push my feet against the glass parapet, the muscles of my back against the doors, hair tossing in the puffs of wind that sneak through the gaps in the glass. The soundscape is nothing beautiful – merely the heavy traffic of an industrial road – but it comes through the free air from a distance, not the enclosed space of the lab with hums and beeps and whirs constantly impinging on each other.
Yellow-billed kites wheel over the school up the hill across the road. The coffee is finished and the bowl scraped dry. Back to work.