This morning I took out my heart and left it on the fence between my house and my neighbor’s. It’s been almost twelve hours, but it’s still there, still beating even, wrapped in an embroidered napkin that had been part of my hope chest, one of twelve napkins my mother had sewn for me before I was even out of high school. As I cut, I clenched my teeth so hard that I’m afraid I might have cracked a molar, but it’s out, and that’s what matters.
I’ve been watching it through the back door on and off all day, watching the flutter the napkin makes as my heart beats: ba dum, ba dum. I’m not sure how long it can keep beating out there, but it hasn’t shown signs of slowing yet. I still feel well enough to go about my day, though raising my arms makes me wince.
Maybe he wants to wait until the sun sets to come out and take it. That’d be romantic. Once it’s dark there’s no telling what might happen. I hope the raccoons don’t get it. The last thing I need is to see my heart next week, shriveled and gnawed, dangling from the telephone wires or laying in a nest that’s blown out of a tree.
Our leaving things for each other on the fence started at the beginning of the summer. Back then it was just warm enough to go without a jacket at night. He’d cut an iris and lay it on the fence post, a damp paper towel rubber-banded to the cut end of the stem to keep it from wilting. I’d return the favor by baking him a batch of my favorite peanut butter cookies. I left them in a ziplock bag so they wouldn’t get stale, and by the next morning, a late-blooming lily of the valley, surrounded by dark, heart-shaped green leaves, was waiting for me in a paper cup. And so it went. Me leaving cookies; him leaving flowers. One day there’d be a bluebell, which is actually more purple than blue, or another day, a sprig of yellow forsythia would be wound between the wooden slats of fencing. I’ve kept them all. At first I pressed them inside the pages of my dictionary, flattening the spring beauty with my fingertips under the nearly translucent “s” pages, an anemone under “a.” My husband was none the wiser. He has no need of definitions.
Now that I live alone I put the fresh flowers in vases and jam jars full of water throughout the house, at least one in every room. As I fold laundry, I can sniff the honeysuckle blossoms, taste the sweet nectar when I remove the stamen from one and hold it to my lips. At breakfast I enjoy the violets I’ve placed in the middle, without worry that I’ll be questioned about where they came from. After I brush my teeth, I pluck a buttercup from the glass next to the sink, hold it up to my chin and let the yellow glow against my skin. Steve’s not here to tell me that wildflowers are the same as weeds, and the machine answers when my mother calls to tell me I should listen to him.
While hidden flowers expanded the dictionary, my skin began to feel different; I could feel the blood flowing through my veins underneath it. I’d grown so sensitive to touch that I had to replace my pressed khakis and Mother-approved button downs with skirts made of layers of gauzy fabric that swish around my knees when I walk. Before Steve left our marriage (with a sports duffel full of shirts I’d pressed and socks I’d rolled), he’d noticed the change and touched my bare knee.
“This is new,” he said, and my skin turned pink, not from his touch, but from the feeling that someone who was not welcome to touch me had. I stood, and he pulled me to him from behind, his hands spanning my waist, pressing the loose flesh of my belly between his spread fingers. I moved away; found something to sweep up.
“You never let me touch you anymore,” he said, and slid open the patio door. “Make sure you get the dirt out of the corners this time.” I heard the door swish shut and the John Deere mower come to life, ready to cut straight, perfect lines in the Kentucky Bluegrass.
I was no longer his, hadn’t been in years, at least since our son had been born. Steve had stayed outside of the delivery room, preferring the contents of his briefcase to the smells and muck of birth. The baby was a blue-tinted damaged thing with a mop of dark hair that matched my own. Blood had flown then, too, and he didn’t make it home with us.
Without my heart the world seems very quiet, hushed, like when a storm knocks the electricity out. I hadn’t realized how loud it had been, the steady beating, the rush of blood in my ears, until it was gone. I know that the birds in the trees are still singing, and I know someone down the street is using an edger to make their lawn just so against the sidewalk. The katydids have started singing, signaling the end of summer, I know, I know, but it’s muted. The dogs two doors down—a lab and a retriever—are barking at something, but I ignore them. I’m listening for my neighbor’s footsteps through the grass, telling me he’s come to the fence. That he’s chosen me.
Usually at this time, he’s digging in his flower beds, bare hands sunk into the rich soil, the knees of his jeans getting wet from the evening rain we’ve been getting. While he transplants seedlings he’s grown in their windowsills, his wife comes out to fire up the grill kept on their patio. She wears an apron that she ties in the back with a large bow, and a quilted mitt on her hand as she lifts the lid to check on whatever’s cooking. She’s pretty, with that peachy, freckled skin she lets tan in the sunshine. The rest of the women in our neighborhood wear straw sunhats and sunscreen, but not her. She’s tanned and likes being barefoot, almost mocking us, the conservative women in our neighborhood, in her apron over her bare breasts. Her laugh reminds me of wind chimes when it carries across our yards. I met her, briefly, at the Memorial Day block party. She’d had too much to drink, and kept throwing her arms around all of us, knocking my paper plate of strawberries and cornbread from my lap as I sat in someone’s open garage. Steve had grinned and hugged back when she’d weaved over to him, both straps of her tank top sliding down her shoulders. When he saw people watching he moved his arms as if to steady her and made a show of complimenting the homeowners on their new brick driveway.
“You should be more careful,” he said, while I gathered my spilled food from the cement of the garage floor.
The wife threw herself into the chair beside me in a heap, legs spread like a man’s, and then belched like one. My neighbor gathered her up and took her home, having to hold her with both arms to keep her upright. When he came back out he’d found me admiring his flowers by the light coming from the houses, my husband and our fellow neighbors off shooting firecrackers they’d bought over the state line, wives cleaning up empty casserole dishes, the children racing bikes down the tree-lined street with playing cards clothes-pinned to their spokes.
“I never bring the flowers into the house,” he’d told me. I watched as he bit into a cookie from the open Tupperware container I’d held out. “It’s because of her allergies,” he said. His eyes asked me not to mention that she’d passed out in a dramatic heap as he’d led her into their house. I’d bent down to smell the huge pink peonies that grew at the edge of their driveway, their sweetness so strong it made my eyes water.
“I hope she’ll feel alright in the morning,” I answered, and smiled, watching him as he pinched back the browned blossoms to make room for new growth. He’d called it “deadheading.”
“My husband hates flowers; he likes the grass to be perfectly green all the way up to the foundation of the house.”
“Mmm-hmm,” my neighbor agreed, “He advised me to start digging up my dandelions with a screwdriver.”
“My mother adores him. She thinks because he wears suits to work, he’s a great husband.” He gave me a lopsided grin, picked a peony, and after brushing a fat black ant from the petals, tucked it behind my ear, and took a second cookie from the container.
I don’t think his wife knows about the flowers or the cookies we leave each other, and I haven’t seen her come out to tend the grill tonight. I’m glad for that. I don’t want anyone but him to see what I left there.
The last fireflies of the season have started to twinkle. I’ve always thought of this as a magical time, those moments between evening and night when the sky grows dim and children are called inside for bed. It’s become hard to focus, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the sun going down or my blood pooling in my feet and fingertips. He still hasn’t come out, and my chest is starting to hurt. It’s too empty. All day I’ve told myself he’ll come, he’ll come, he won’t forget, won’t ignore me. He’ll see my heart; he’ll take it and smile. I don’t want to lose faith again. I lost faith the day I found out I was pregnant despite the pill, the day I found out the baby wouldn’t live past the morning, the two times after that I bled again, in the bathroom with the fan on. My mother told me that as women, we had no choice but to bear our pain in private so as not to upset anyone.
My husband just thought I couldn’t get pregnant again. He said, “Look at you, you’ve got the stretch marks and big hips of a mother, but no child to show for them.” I think he left his heart at the hospital. My chest is hollow now, too, and I’m going to have to fill it with something. I’ve given my neighbor my heart, it’s his to keep, and I refuse to take it back. This is my choice.
My head feels heavy, and my ribs are starting to sink. They look funny beneath my blouse, almost like they want to cave in. I walk from room to room, my bare feet puffy and purple; they’re heavy and sensitive. I can feel each loop of carpet beneath my toes. I gather each flower he’s given me from the cups and vases and jars, and I shake the pressed, dried flowers from the dictionary. I wind them all together in my hands, making a bouquet of blooms and leaves. The smell is heady, and makes me swoon. Resting the bouquet on the table, I unbutton my shirt and let it slide down my back to the floor.
The wound is open, but there’s no blood, just this space that needs to be filled. I pick up the bouquet and slip it past my skin, past my cracked ribs, and fill the emptiness. I press my ribs together as best as I can, gasping with the effort. Blooms and stems stick out, but that’s alright. I go back to the desk, unfold a packet of heavy paper that’s been sitting there all week. I sign my name above the line marked “wife”, petals falling from my chest and sticking to the wet ink. My mother would be disappointed. I refold the papers, place them in a manila envelope, lick the awful-tasting glue and seal it. I am no longer married.
I walk outside, wearing only my skirt, into the night. The fireflies are sparse now; just a few twinkle in the grass, the females waiting for their matches. As my eyes adjust to the changing light I see a figure near the fence. It’s him. I take a few steps closer and see that he has my heart. He’s holding it without the cloth napkin, letting it beat within his cupped hands, ignoring the mess. I come closer, and he looks up at me, his eyes taking in my naked extremities, growing darker with my sluggish blood. He has the kindest eyes I’ve ever seen. As I stand in my back yard under the trees, in the moonlight, feeling faint, he walks to the gate, my heart now in his left hand, which I notice wears no ring. He uses his free hand to open the gate and walks quickly to me, his steps making a swooshing sound in the uncut grass. He stands close and traces my cheekbone, his hands scented with geranium. His fingers follow the shape of my shoulder bones, move down to brush against my breasts. He frowns when he sees the petals falling from inside my body and bends to kiss me: first my lips, then my jaw, the hair on the top of his head tickling my nose. His empty hand rests on my waist, thumb tracing the marks criss-crossing my skin. He kisses the top of my ragged chest, holds me up with a hand on the small of my back, bringing me closer, still holding my heart, still kissing; trying his best to heal me.