It was the meat that made me do it. The evening was supposed to be like the candlelit rooftop dinner scene in Kate & Leopold, but instead it turned into something straight out of Hannibal. See, that evening, making dinner before my ex-boyfriend arrived, I finished stir-frying the vegetables, peppers, cauliflower, carrots, okra slimy green; I steamed the rice fluffy and sticky, but I overcooked the chicken. Again. Always. The fire alarm didn’t go off this time, but the kitchen was so smoky that I almost felt the urge to stop, drop, and roll. I managed to pull the tray from the stove onehanded, coughing in my arm, and opened the window above the sink. I surveyed the damage as the air cleared. Black and crunchy and smelling foul—ha, that’s funny, fowl—and it would be just the way Loch liked it, I’m sure. Not.
This was a big deal. It was the third time, out of only four attempts, that I had burned the meat for his dinner since I’d known him, the first two occurring when we were still a couple. The first time, years ago, I was only twenty years old, and it was cute, you know, but now? I knew Loch wouldn’t mind, he never did, and he wouldn’t even be mad. When he came over later all he would do was laugh and put a hand on my cheek, say, “Same old Ariadne,” and perhaps brush my hair out of my eyes, just enough to catch my breath but not enough to call it a caress. Then we’d order Chinese or pizza or both, and he’d pay for everything. Wouldn’t even get the meat lovers’, so I wouldn’t have to pick the toppings off. Even after the break-up—perhaps spawning from the guilty conscience of the heartbreaker, like Chris does to Lorelai in Gilmore Girls—he was still kind. And I was still a bad meat cook.
But that night was different; it had to be different. I looked at the clock on the stove, realized I had less than ten minutes until Loch was expected to arrive, and panicked. There was not enough time to run to the store and buy another main course. Not enough time to make anything like raw chicken, which I didn’t have on hand and wouldn’t have time to thaw even if I did. I needed something warmer, unfrozen, something that I could prepare in an instant, something of nutritional value but pre-made, which is why I took the knife from the counter and cut out my heart. I removed my heart from my body with a kitchen knife. What I’m saying is, I carved a hole in my chest and pulled out my heart. See, at school, I always tell my kids to think outside the box, and I like to practice what I preach. I bit my lip as I removed it, not because it hurt, but because I thought it was what I was supposed to do in that situation. I held the still-beating heart over the sink and washed it off, the water flowing off it pink and pretty. I wondered if it was beating because it was still connected to my blood flow or if it was a reflex, like heads that keep blinking after they’ve been decapitated. I stuck the heart into a pot to boil and quickly changed; I toweled off the hole in my chest, the sea-green towel turning blood brown, and covered it with a T-shirt featuring Loch’s favorite band. So much for that low-cut dress featuring Loch’s favorite cleavage I’d been planning to wear. That was okay, though. He’d seen it before, and, if things went my way tonight, he’d see it again soon. I imagined the look on his face when he’d see the new cavern in my chest, wide-eyed like a kid, and how gently his fingers would enter, probe, caress the inside.
Those kinds of thoughts keeping me distracted and happy, I only took a deep couple of breaths to ensure that I felt fine without my heart and then carried on getting ready. With the exception of perhaps that initial moment of knife entering bone, the wound was surprisingly painless. Funny how I barely felt a thing, but that was good. The dinner needed to be at its best tonight, physically, intellectually, emotionally, romantically. Think Lady and the Tramp. Definitely do not think Temple of Doom. I covered the pot with a lid.
The buzzer rang just as I put on a smear of lipstick and tussled my hair one last time. I checked on my heart before I buzzed him up; it seemed to be simmering nicely. The water was rolling softly over it by now and it had a sweet smell. I smiled. I had never cooked a heart before but this looked promising. I’d set the oven on low to ensure it boiled slowly rather than running the risk of letting it get too hot too fast and scorching it forever—a lot was riding on this; I had only this one heart, and not a lot of time, and I had to get it right on the first try.
I heard Loch’s footsteps on the stairs outside my apartment and opened the door before he had the chance to knock. I wanted to play it cool, which I can only guess is the reason why I raised the wooden spoon in my hand as a kind of salute and said, “Hiya,” with a grin so wide my eyes probably look closed. Spending your workday with five-year-olds really takes a toll on your people skills.
He also said hello with a smile that was genuine but much smaller. He hugged me and I worried that, chests pressed together, he’d feel the hole where my heart was supposed to be, but I don’t think he noticed. I immediately wished I was wearing the dress, gaping hole be damned. Did the T-shirt make me appear relaxed but not tomboyish, comfortable yet casually sexy?
“Please, come in,” I said, probably a bit superfluously, as he had already stepped through the doorway. He removed his coat and hung it from the back of a chair. He was nervous; I could tell by the way he fidgeted his fingers, like a cat opening and closing its claws. Me too. I could feel my heart beating more rapidly than it ever had before, could feel it even outside of me, even from the other room. Or maybe that was the sensation of the water boiling over it, I couldn’t be sure.
Loch ran a hand through his short hair. It stuck up in a spiky bed-headed way, the kind of hair that my kindergarteners would squiggle on top of their dad’s hair with the brown crayon. He inhaled deeply. The rise of his shoulders, the fall of his chest, the silver cross around his neck—everything about him was familiar but foreign somehow, human-shaped but not human-like. I became aware that I was staring at him, fiddling with my locket. His picture was inside of it. He didn’t know that. The real thing was so much better than I remembered, though. I could feel how hard I was smiling. Of course I was. It had been—what? Three months, two weeks, four days since we’d last seen each other, shortly after the breakup—six months, one week, three days—when he had told me he was with someone else. That night, after he told me, I’d made dinner alone, spaghetti with homemade tomato sauce, deliciously warm, stirred, and un-scorched, but I’d let the meatballs turn shriveled and black in the stove, still so hot they sizzled even in the trashcan.
“So, did you skip church for this?” I asked. “Sunday nights, right?”
“Oh, no,” he said. “I mean, yes, there are services Sunday night. But not tonight. Pastor’s out of town.”
“I’m honored to be the substitute place of worship,” I said, brandishing my wooden spoon with a flourish, too late and too stupid to remember the reason we broke up in the first place. Religious differences. Never mind that we were first loves, first kisses, first where-do-you-put-your-arms, first times, awkward and clumsy (though we got quite good at it before he found Jesus again and wanted to stop).
“That was a damn dumb thing to say,” I said, and he looked at me kind of eyebrows-above-hairline style and I laughed. “Shit—sorry.” Then, “Oops, sorry again.”
“I hope you didn’t make meat just for me,” he said, suave as ever, peering into the kitchen at the covered organ in the pot. He was too far away to recognize it, obscured by the steamy lid.
“It was no trouble at all.” I smiled again, I was smiling too much.
“It smells great,” he said.
“It’s a favorite of yours,” I said.
“Can I use your bathroom?” he asked.
This was going poorly, more awkward than a dinner scene in Lars and the Real Girl.
I checked on my heart again while he was in the bathroom. It had turned a nice golden brown color. It looked tender and full and juicy and I was so proud. My heart was always doing its very best for him, and it looked like tonight would be no exception. I hope he liked it. When he’d called the week before and asked to get together for coffee, I didn’t know what to think. Was this a courtesy catch-up session between exes going through the motions of friendship? Was it him testing the waters to rekindle an old flame? I had no idea and I was terrible at guessing and I was torn between appearing bubbly and saucy so he would enjoy being around me again or letting him see me fall apart so that he could see what his absence was doing to me, but in the end I decided to do neither of those things in the moment, and instead I countered coffee with dinner and insisted it be at my place. I figured my best—our best—chance would manifest itself more naturally if we were alone, which was pretty mature of me, I thought.
I’d made all his favorite sides—the brown rice and the stir-fried vegetables, some scrambled eggs to toss in—and they were all waiting patiently on the countertop for my heart to finish up. I absentmindedly rubbed the area around the hole in my chest; it still didn’t hurt, but it had begun to ache in the way a kid falls and just sits there but doesn’t cry until you ask, Are you okay? Anyway, the kitchen smelled amazing.
I heard the bathroom door open and then Loch was in the doorway, leaning against it, watching me work over the stove. His arms were crossed over his chest and he had a soft, sweet smile on the lips I knew tasted like they looked, and the sight of him made my heart flutter so much the lid on the pot rattled. I slammed my hand on it. “Be ready soon,” I said, maybe a little breathlessly.
“Not much longer now,” I said, and I said, “Have a seat,” and he sat.
“I like your new glasses,” I said. “They look really nice on you.”
What I meant was they kind of made him look like Clark Kent, but I’ll be damned if I’d admit that.
“Thanks,” he said, touching them. “I like your haircut.”
“Thank you,” I said, touching my hair also. “Inspired by the addition of bubblegum.”
“Classic,” he said, and I thought, Shit, this was shit. We were having the dead kind of conversation that always happened when people weren’t saying what they really wanted to say, like in a parent-teacher conference when you say, Johnny’s got a lot of energy, or, I think Sally is just trying really hard to make friends, but what you mean is, Your son is a disruption to class, and, Your daughter is a bully, which even then is a disguised way of saying, Your kid is an asshole, by which I mean, really, My ex-boyfriend is an asshole, but only because he broke up with me. You know, talking around the elephant in the room, so to speak. Or around a still-beating, boiling heart, whichever. It was done cooking by now, and for a moment I was distracted draining the water from the pot, setting the heart out on a scarred cutting board. I positioned my body so that Loch couldn’t see what was on the counter, and if he stared at my backside as an alternative, well, then so much the better. That always was our preferred method of communication.
“Did you watch the debate?” I asked at the same time, or maybe a few seconds after, he said, “I’m going to ask D to marry me.”
“Damn republicans,” I said in the following silence, not looking at him.
I studied my heart on a platter and worried. A wedding, okay, all that meant, then, was that our future had to play out less like My Best Friend’s Wedding, where Julia Roberts doesn’t get the guy like she spent the movie trying to do, and more like The Wedding Planner, where Jennifer Lopez does. She successfully breaks up the engagement and the fiancé does not get the guy, making the whole proposal Loch was planning moot and navigable. So eat your heart out, bitch. As for mine, I couldn’t serve it to him looking like that, all organ-shaped and valve-y. It was much too obvious. He’d never accept it.
“Like I care what your genitalia looks like,” I said, rooting around in a drawer for a clean knife, still not looking at him, eyes only on my heart, veiny and squishy. “The Republicans’, I mean.” I held the knife in my fist and lingered over the heart. It had all the attributes I find stomach-turning about meat in general—muscle, fat, unidentifiable juices. It wasn’t beating anymore, but I didn’t feel any different, so I guessed that was all right.
“How’s the new job?” I asked.
“Good, it’s good,” he said. I didn’t turn to him, couldn’t see his face. “It’s the off season, but we start preparing for summer in basically September.”
“Me too,” I said, turning my neck to wink. “I love summer, when camp gets them all and I get a break, ha ha.” I actually said that, ha ha; I didn’t make a laughing noise. I said ha ha. But what I was wondering was what would happen if I cut my heart into smaller bite-sized pieces? That would disguise the fact that it was a heart. I could survive without it in my chest, so it stood to reason that I could survive without it being whole too, right? I pressed blade into tissue, gently at first, testing it out. I took a few experimental breaths and it went all right—I could still breathe and everything—so I quickly sliced it up. Now my heart was unrecognizable, indistinguishable from the brown pieces of chicken that were usually served with rice, and I hadn’t even dropped dead to do it. Good.
I made him a plate, and, I had to admit, it looked delicious. The rice clumped together but not too much, thick, fluffy, the vegetables scattered throughout, pops of color, smelling warm. I piled all the meat onto his plate, and, I swear, you couldn’t even tell it wasn’t chicken.
I sat across the table, watched him a minute, picking at his plate with his fork. I waited to feel the prick of the fork in my chest when he stabbed at the meat chunks, but I didn’t feel anything. He said I looked blue, which momentarily caused me to panic, and I inhaled exhaled inhaled exhaled until I was certain it was working, I was definitely getting enough air, and I was absolutely fine. Then I said, “Oh, I’m not sad,” which was pathetic even to me, and to pretend like he hadn’t noticed, I think, he said, “How’s school?”
“Oh, great, yeah, those kids, you know,” I said. “I’m really fulfilled.”
“Did you hear what I said about D?” he asked, the fork with a bite of my heart on it halfway to his mouth.
“Speaking of my job, that debate really wasn’t that much different from a typical Tuesday in my class, you know what I mean?”
Both questions hung there like paper snowflakes in December, and in those few seconds I knew there was still time to take his plate from him, take back my heart, send him away, maybe forever, maybe just until next time. I could put my heart in the freezer, maybe, to extend the length of time it would still be good. Then I thought what would be the point, when my heart could never fit back into my chest now; why bother, when it was already no good to me, who didn’t even eat meat; what was the point of taking it back, when he could just keep the pieces and enjoy his dinner and leave here, for once, feeling full? So I was going to answer his question maturely and politely and then beg him to reconsider, but before I did he finally said, “They’re all fucking six years old,” rather graciously, I thought, since he rarely cursed, and I smiled and he smiled too, and that was enough to keep me hoping, to decide to never give up until the day, abstract and far away, of the wedding.
So I did nothing, and he continued his meal made of an organ from my body. He put my boiled, seasoned, chopped up chest muscle in his mouth and swallowed it. What I’m saying is, he ate my heart. I watched without eating, my mouth not quite closed, when the first forkful parted his lips. He had this way of meeting the fork at the entrance of his mouth with his tongue. I saw it poke out, fleshy and pink, and then his lips, pale and chapped, closed around everything—fork, food, tongue; the metal slid out, the food and my heart now inside of him, I was inside of him, cocooned between his teeth, warm and wet, and if I wasn’t breathing during that bite it wasn’t because I didn’t have a beating heart anymore.
I felt it when he chewed but not in a painful way. Like pinpricks, pinches, a kind of slight poking pressure, like being squeezed too tight—kind of uncomfortable, mostly just nice. I could feel it in my chest, maybe, though I wouldn’t know, like the sensation of people who have itches where amputated limbs used to be. You know, like phantom limbs. I had a phantom organ and, real or not real, I thought I could feel every groove of his teeth against the soft pieces of tissue and muscles from the piece of me I’d given to him long ago. I felt certain I could tell if he ate on one side of his mouth or the other, and if he switched partway through, his tongue running across his back teeth to move partially-chewed meat from one side to the other, I felt that, too, and could conjure up the sensation of that momentary weightlessness sliding across the top of his mouth then along the bottom, where all the saliva resided, slick and moist, and I could feel the wire retainer he’d had glued against the back of his bottom teeth since his braces were removed at fourteen, then I, or his bite of my heart, was back in the embrace of his teeth, where I knew every sharp canine and flat molar.
I watched him swallow from the outside, veins or muscles or whatever they were protruding from smooth skin, Adam’s apple going up then back down like a theme park ride. I could feel that sensation, too, from the inside of his swallow: that turn-over feeling in your stomach when you fall far and fast, the press of muscles in his throat on my unresisting heart, pushing me from all sides, farther inside of him than I’d ever been. The pieces landed in his stomach, I presume, surrounded perhaps by the McDonald’s he probably had for lunch, stomach acid, Butterfinger’s, French fries, but to me it only felt safe and warm and right, where I was always meant to be, more connected to him than I’d ever been.
Every new bite was the same—it was not an experience that diminished by repeated exposure. I felt it every time like the first time, from the top of my head to the tip of my toes, and I didn’t eat a single forkful of my own meal. Conversation suffered; he didn’t seem to notice (he never was one for talking while we ate), and I watched, alternatively forgetting to breathe and then breathing too rapidly. From his end, I couldn’t say what the experience was like—what did it taste like, my heart? It had been so long since I’d had meat of any kind I could hardly conjure a guess: dry like bad chicken, or slimy and slick like good chicken? Chewy? Tough? Tender? I wondered if he knew instinctively what he was eating, if he could feel me more inside of him with every bite, growing growing growing. He caught me looking once, smiled at me, complimented the meal, but that was it. I wanted to tell him, then, devilishly. How would he have felt knowing that he, Loch, Mr. Spirituality, religious man, cross around his neck, was eating—and enjoying, sinfully—something so secular, so carnal, as a heart? And that of a nonbeliever, no less. I understood from my years with him that Christianity was all about denying the pleasures of the flesh, and here he was, unbeknownst, not denying, all pleasure. The thought only added a level of intensity to the experience.
When it was over, I didn’t think I could stand. I rose to take his plate but felt wobbly, unsteady on my legs, and leaned hard into the kitchen counter to hide it. He didn’t stay long after dinner; he didn’t profess his sudden love for me; with my heart in him I still could not read his mind. That was all right. I hadn’t expected to change anything with only the modest offer of a heart or to suddenly gain magical powers from its destruction; I had only wanted to give him a good meal, and I had managed that, and that had to be enough for now. On his way out the door, he turned back once and said, “Thanks for being so cool about D. I wanted you to hear from me, you know? Not through a grapevine.”
I nodded, a half-smile I hoped on my lips, and put one hand on my chest, the other on his waist, so that my palm was flat against his stomach, where I would now always be with him. “Good night,” I said, and he caught my eye, gave me another smile, a crooked one that lifted only one side of his face and made his eyes seem uneven. It was the kind of look that would normally increase my heart rate exponentially, and I wondered if he could feel his stomach doing cartwheels, and if he thought maybe it was only indigestion.
The next day I came home from teaching and watched the end of It Takes Two, starting at the part where Steve Guttenberg is supposed to be marrying Jane Sibbett but is daydreaming in '90s video-montage style about Kirstie Alley, and at that moment she enters in the flesh and interrupts the wedding, and Jane Sibbett storms off, and then the Olsen twins are shouting, Just kiss already!, and when it was over I rewound it and watched it twenty-six more times, but I never called him or rented a carriage or hired any twins, and then a week went by, and he asked her to marry him. I felt him do it—at least, I felt the muscles of his stomach get tighter and tighter and tighter, pushing all around my heart, until it felt like that scene in A New Hope where the walls are closing in on Luke and Han, you know the one. So either Loch had eaten something that really did not agree with him that day, or Monday at 8:34 p.m. he proposed.
I was not surprised that his consumption of my heart had some kind of lasting effect. When a heart is ripped out in fairy tales, the possessor has some kind of control over the heartless, the heartless now without a certain degree of agency. That happens a lot in Once Upon a Time, a habit the Evil Queen indulges in to her advantage often enough, season after season. But I have a point, and it’s not that I’ve spent seven hours a day for the past week in front of my television. It’s only to say that that is not what appeared to be happening here—I could feel him, but I don’t think he knew it (surely he would’ve called), and I wasn’t under anyone’s control but to the heart itself, whom I have been slave to long before its ultimate consumption. From what I could gather, I could still feel my heart in his stomach when it was particularly agitated—not often, not always, but enough. I felt it last Friday when he had a stomachache, everything all gurgly and topsy-turvy in there, and I felt it when he went to the amusement park with the youth group at his church and spent all day riding rollercoasters. I felt it when he went to the restroom, every day after lunch, which is an intimacy that I bet even that fiancé of his didn’t have access to.
Which is why it may be particularly shocking to learn that I did not feel it mere days later when Loch wrecked his car on the side of highway 40 heading into the city, nor when he was taken unconscious to the Mercy Health hospital, where he was rushed into surgery, and everyone he knew—that woman, that wrong woman, his mother from South Dakota, several of his campers, all of his church family—everyone that loved him came together, and nobody fucking thought to call me. I heard about it two days later because my grandmother got her hair done every Sunday afternoon by one of the women who went to church with him, and she told my grandmother that her pastor had sent out a prayer request on his behalf and would she please pray too, even though my grandmother hadn’t set foot in a church since she was baptized at six months old, and even then she spent the whole time screaming.
And here’s how I know “heart in your throat” is only an expression, not because it doesn’t mean anything, but because you don’t need a heart in your body at all to have trouble swallowing in a time like that, a time like, for example, when you’re driving to the hospital to visit the love of your life who still hasn’t woken up. And I didn’t even get the chance to go all While You Were Sleeping because his family had beaten me there, and so had that other woman, and it was too late to say I was his girlfriend or his fiancé or anything else I should rightfully be.
In the hospital, I felt bizarrely like I was in an episode of Grey’s Anatomy—no, that’s not good; no one ever survives that show—picture it like House instead; he always saves his patients, and that’s what I was telling myself as I walked towards his room, clutching my locket. I didn’t go in, despite how I longed to, only sulked around by the entranceway. The room was mostly empty of guests. His mom was by his bedside, holding his hand, which I could see from here was fish-limp. The woman on the other side must be her; we’d never actually met. This was the first I’d seen her, even. And she didn’t look like Jane Sibbett at all. Her hair was brown, not unlike the color of Loch’s, long and full. I bet they looked stupid with their heads side by side in pictures, not able to tell where one’s hair ended and the other began. I was supposed to be Kirstie Alley, goddammit. I hated her instantly.
That’s what I was thinking—of all the things to be thinking—when she looked up and saw me, and, coming to the door, then asked (quite in her right, I admit) just what the hell I thought I was doing here.
I’m lying. She spoke softly, even kindly. She introduced herself, said, You must be Ariadne, which let me know he had told her about me, at least. Then I’m the one who said what the hell are you doing here.
“Come in,” she said, ignoring me. “He’s not well. The doctors said.” Her fingers fiddling with a silver cross around her neck. “Well, it doesn’t matter what the doctors said. We serve a God of miracles.” She put one hand on her stomach, then grabbed his hand and brought it to her stomach, too. I noticed then the slight bump to her belly, taut, distinctive, not like the squishy roundness of mine or others’. That bastard. I don’t think I shouted it, but I can’t promise it. Sex before marriage is a fucking sin, Loch! I took three rapid steps forward but had no plan, and I stopped in my tracks before I reached the bed. Both women were staring at me now, and I felt distinctly unwelcome. I saw D’s other hand, the one not holding his to her, was rested on his stomach, on the stomach where I already was. Don’t they know I was here first, long before they arrived, that I alone came in with him, and I alone have the right to be here? I noticed up close to her that she had little hairs growing visible on her upper lip and cheeks. I bet she had to shave. Sasquatch. Chewbacca. I’m lying. It was peach fuzz at most, faint. She was beautiful.
“Well, assuming God’s on vacation, tell me what the doctors said,” I told her, and his mother shot me a sharp look. Hello to you too, Monica. She never had liked me (religious differences). Perhaps she would’ve said something rather impolite then, or maybe I would have, but then D stopped us both with her next words, which was to say that Loch was unlikely to ever wake up again. Better that she would’ve been awful. Better that she was what I’d known she would be, the obviously awful and wrong choice in a romantic comedy, a cruel, cranky, whiny son of a gun who would’ve hit two kids out of spite, villainess uncontested. Instead, she spoke warmly to me, even as I tried not to listen, even as words like brain damage got through to my ears, I kept thinking of how awful Jane Sibbett was in that movie, how awful any woman not meant for the leading man was always, how awful that must make D. I shook my head and wouldn’t believe her—who would believe someone like her?—so she went and got the doctors. They spoke to me in their doctor-speak until they made me understand that it hadn’t gone well. He hadn’t regained consciousness since he’d been brought in; in their twisty, condolence-soft, scalpel-cold way, the doctors told me to prepare for the possibility he never would. One of the attending physicians kept touching my arm, more intimately than I’d been handled in months. I kept nodding, fighting off goosebumps. A vegetable is what they didn’t call Loch, though it’s what they meant. I thought I could feel my blood pressing against my skin, my breath coming too quickly, and I wondered if this was what it was like to feel a heart beating too fast when there wasn’t one. It really was troublesome, how unlike Jane Sibbett’s character she was.
In the bathroom mirror, I watched my hand press against the cloth of my blue-striped button-up. I could feel the bump of the scar underneath. It had healed ugly: red and swollen and tender still, raised mountain-ridge-like above the skin, crooked lines like children’s love notes. I supposed I’d always have it, and it would never look the same. It never occurred to me to show it to the doctor. I still had no pain, no symptoms. Sometimes I even imagined I could still feel it beating, and I wondered if Loch had ever felt it at those times too, butterflies in his tummy.
He died around 2 a.m. that night. His mother was there, asleep in a chair, and Annoyingly-not-Jane-Sibbett and I were also both still there, and she was holding his hand when it happened, her head bowed talking to their God, while I was in the hallway looking for a vending machine. I arrived too late with an open packet of skittles in my hand just as they were about to take him away. They said to me, Would you like to say your final goodbyes? and it would be years later before I remembered one of the nurses with one brown and one blue eye, his mother’s hair flung from her bun like a mane, D’s silent tears. I wouldn’t remember until long afterward that the room smelled exactly like the color white or that the gurney they brought to put him on had a squeaky wheel. I would never remember Loch’s face. Standing there, I was only aware of the skittles in my palm, slowly dying it the color of rainbows.
Thirty steps and a minute and a half behind them, I followed the hospital bed to the basement mortuary. D had asked me to pray with them; I told her yes, but let me go to the restroom first. I had no intention of ever going back into that room. When my kindergarteners fight, I tell them: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. When I complain about someone to my grandmother, she says: Kill them with kindness, dear.
The hallway was long like in the movies, but brightly lit like not. The speckled tiles of the hospital, blue and green, gave way to a regular, predictable beige they must save for the parts of the hospital that patients and visitors are never supposed to see. I couldn’t be sure, though—I thought it was kind of nice, the consistency of the beige tile, that you always knew what the next would look like. There would never be any surprises that way. The room itself was all silver rows of stainless steel wall coffins. Obviously I wasn’t supposed to be in here, but the mortician pointed it out anyway. I said, “Yes, I know, but the beige floor is the same in here as in the hallway,” and he kept staring at me, so I realized I wasn’t coming across clearly. It was the color of the school auditorium, the color of security, and I was certain that I could never go anywhere where that floor wasn’t underneath me again. I could smell the copper of my locket where I had been holding it in my sweaty palm but not anything else in the room.
“Excuse me, ma’am, but you can’t be in here,” he said again, like maybe I was just hard of hearing.
Damn, I hated to be called ma’am. It was always insulting even when it wasn’t, like the way kids say, Yessssss ma’am with their eyes staring at their forehead, and you just want to raise your hand and bring it down right between those same eyes. And man, does it sound old—old, not as in, “I don’t want to be,” but as in, “I’m too scared to be.” Old, not as in, “I might die soon,” but as in, “now I have friends who can.”
I dug in my heels. “I just want to see his heart,” I said. I didn’t realize until just then that that’s what I needed, but as soon as I said it, I knew it was.
“No,” the mortician said.
“Please, I just want to hold it.” He stared, so I said, “No, look at it. Just look. Please, let me see it once, for a second.”
“I’m calling security,” he said, like he had learned to speak by watching television shows. He moved toward the door—the phone was in the hall—and I followed him, and when he was close enough I slammed the door on his back and on his heels and he shouted and then it shut and I locked it and I was alone, then, alone at last with Loch, still dressed in white. Only his face was visible, but still I didn’t look at it, this time intentionally. The sight of Loch’s body under a bedsheet was a familiar one to me, but without the rise and fall of his chest I almost didn’t recognize it. His heart was under there somewhere, inside him, and I had a right to it. The heavy footsteps would come, probably quicker than I’d have thought they would. I stared at the table, contemplated the scalpel beside it. If I could just see his heart, I thought, then I would know—what was he, who was he, how did he love. If it was large or small, thin and lean or thick and soft, it would answer everything. Was his heart too small, too tough to love me back? Was it malformed, disfigured? Whatever it was, I had to see; I had to know. If I could just have a look, a touch, a taste.
My thoughts were really running now. So were the footsteps in the hall. It was always coming to this; I see that now. Her holding his hand to her stomach, that thing of his inside of her, that thing of mine inside of him; what was inside of me? A piece of him belonged there and not with her. Certainly not with her. And anyway, I had an opening for a heart, and he didn’t need his anymore, and isn’t that how organ donation works? I had grabbed the scalpel and made the cut to the bone of my beloved by the time they started pounding on the door. Whap whap whap. Using my hands to break ribs, to get inside, I could already feel it beneath my fingers, the weight of it, so light, smaller than a fist, the fleshy red of it, the slickness of it, how swiftly it would slide into the hole I’d carved for it, an easy motion, in and up, finally home. Shoved whole inside or—better yet—taken in bite by bite, his heart belonged to me. It wasn’t for God, though he told me it was, and it wasn’t for D—he might have said that he gave it to her, but he gave it to me first, before that; I’m taking it back at last, right now, to the rhythm of fists on a door, the pounding like a too-rapid heartbeat, because that is the sort of thing that you can only give away once. I should know.