My Pet Heart
My gratitude to the Ragdale Foundation, whose support was essential in the composition of this essay.
My pediatrician had one on a stick in his office, like a lollipop. A pair of suicide doors opened the front. Inside, chambers striped with muscle fibers, pierced with blood vessels, the delicate valves you could slide out of their grooves, valves shaped not like eyelids but like—and this did not startle me—the huge fake-y mouth of a giant squid in some film I’d seen.
Every chance I could, I opened that heart, traced a finger around the whole thing, the fat sewerpipe of the vena cava dumping into the right atrium, the right ventricle sending the tired blood into the stubs of the sea-blue pulmonary arteries, the scarlet-red veins bringing the blood back into the left atrium—I think we called them auricles then, little ears—into the left ventricle, the valve huge and beaky, and then here the aorta rising with its three whiskers: subclavian, carotid, and one I can’t remember, the aorta big enough for me to stick two fingers in, the inside pink and slightly rough like a cat’s tongue. In my mind I curled myself in this heart, waiting, a little nubbin that spun and spun in the movement of blood into and out of and into and out of, press, release, lub-dub go the valves, forever. That hinged muscle, that four-barrel machine.
I’ve wanted a heart like that ever since the report I wrote in the fifth grade, the one I was accused of plagiarizing and hadn’t, the one with the colored drawings, the short, vertical strokes made with a set of pencils sharpened by a purple twist-sharpener that shed curls of wood edged in a line of color. Before computers, people drew everything by hand, colored with markers or pencils or paint. The fat red arteries. The greenish-blue veins—cobalt counter-shaded horizontally with verdigris-green and slants of lavender. Exactly the colors in the picture I copied from.
My report detailed how the heart worked, the ins and outs of it. The fill, the empty, the refill. My appendix included the story of the first successful heart transplant in South Africa in which I deployed phrases I thought would convey the startling magic of it, like unbeknownst to him and they were shocked to discover. I traced Dr. Barnhard’s face and though the original was black and white, I colored mine in pink with a little brown for the shadow under his nose and bright blue for his eyes. A second appendix listed less-interesting information, like the first heart-lung machine that made the transplant possible, made all open-heart surgery possible. I left that part unillustrated. A machine. A doctor from Philadelphia. Philadelphia did not engage my imagination.
The heart did, by which I mean primarily pictures of the heart. Everywhere I looked, I found hearts. I labored over them, versions of the heart, whole and cut away, all the veins and arteries carefully tagged with names printed and then underlined with a ruler. The Encyclopedia Britannica laid it all out. I clipped holes in the long edge of the paper I traced it on and pegged the sheet into my report under the card-stock cover of serious, business-y green. The folder smelt musty, the metal pegs and slider like something grating on the teeth. The heart was the loveliest thing I’d ever seen, a fist in the chest, the muscle criss-crossed and netted and ribbed like an old stone building.
I imagined for a while that I took that heart home for a pet.
It was not like having the heart you were born with but not exactly like having a pet either. I imagined sometimes giving it away to strangers who don’t really want it, like David Cassidy or Johnny Depp or Nathan Fillion, or the freshly opened centers of tulips, or the curve of that man’s fingers. Or sometimes tossing it into the air to see where it would fall, if it would come back. It always did. It may have its own desires, I don’t know, but there was a bike once, a green bike with a banana-seat and handlebar tassels that felt just like silky hair. The heart wanted that Schwinn so badly and no doubt would have gone on in that direction forever except for noticing how other hearts had settled on clothes, and others on ideas, and so it grew up. Now and then my heart wanders off like a tomcat. It comes back later, it always comes back, who am I kidding?
I don’t control it. I may control it. I really don’t know.
I imagined my pet heart would love music, especially the drums. It has a few rhythms of its own, most of them frankly ordinary—fast, slow, tripping, tachycardia, etc. Surely a medieval chant group would want to sign with my heart, if only to have its steady thrum handy, the thrum every composer used to pace all that music, a metronome timed by God at sixty beats per minute. I imagine the musicians wanting my heart set on fire, too, the burning heart of Christ pentecostally aflame in His open chest, wanting my heart to wear a crown on top of the flames, a bright crown, golden and jeweled, rubies on the point of each of its curved and claw-like thorns. My heart would decline. It’s better off not aflame, not crowned. A plain heart, plainly intended.
I imagine my heart loving its little toys—the Cosmo sex quizzes, the philosophy problems that involve running over someone with a train or pushing a cripple out of an overcrowded boat just to keep yourself alive. It won’t like at all the unexpected or regrettable: startling flights of birds out of bushes, remembering you forgot to turn off the stove, hearing your dead father’s voice on the phone. I’m sure sometimes my pet heart will feel lonely, will need a cheap companion, a little valentine in red velveteen soft as fur. I’ll keep pictures of them curled up together, napping, stuck to the refrigerator. When my heart is sad I’ll hold it in my arms and show it these pictures, how happy it had been just the other day.
When my heart gets very sad I’ll swallow it whole, cheer it up then, let it romp around the vascular system doing whatever it wants, maybe cattle-driving red blood cells into the lungs and tumbling around afterward in the pulmonary vein, all that hemoglobin like a fizz bath or a rush of heat. Of course I’d consult the heart I was born with, make sure the new heart isn’t a bother, two in one body. Probably it won’t care, going on as it does like it’s pitching hay, in-out lub-dub forever. A stoic little fist, closing, unclosing, closing. Maybe my heart will be secretly glad for the company, maybe it gets lonely too, one job to do, not seeing anyone at all and no breaks. Maybe it’ll feel like your grandma with a new puppy, the irritation at the energy, the piddling, the way the young things need and need. Hearts especially have needs. I intend to send my heart a thank-you note after the first time it discovers my pet heart in play-stance, wagging its apex like the stub-tail on a boxer, standing astride the coronary artery, a hunk of it in its mouth like a stick for fetching.
Of course my heart knows everything already, knows my pet heart already, knows how I love it. But for a minute there, my pet heart wiggling like a puppy, the coronary artery about to burst into angina, my heart getting less and less tolerant and a little more panicked—I mean, squeezing off the coronary artery is like vandals burning the corn-crops, serious stuff—I won’t be sure it’ll work out, having them both. But then my pet heart drops its toy, starts rubbing its face against the left ventricle and rolling some secondary system of blood vessels around itself like boas, and my heart giggles. For a little while, the two match beats in harmony and my ears ring and ring.
I suspect that my old heart just tolerates my pet since, charming or not, no one really likes a rival. I depend on the heart in my chest, so of course I have to make sure it knows my pet is just a pet, that I can get rid of it any time I want.
But this is not difficult, the convincing. My heart knows that I don’t expect to keep my pet for long, though I ask it to rest, cut out the butter, quit sneaking smokes and rolling around in little dustings of leftover cocaine. Ultimately, though, I know it’s hopeless. No heart ever stays past that first real breaking. Something goes wrong, the world is like that, always breaking something. And then your heart’s just a stone in a net of clots. I don’t want my heart to break, I want to keep it intact, whole and hopeful, and always jumping at the next thing. But I know the best I can do is hope that when it goes it breaks majestically open like a dropped fruit, its center an invitation inside. I hope that when it does, I can find it in my heart to grieve for it and love it anyway, broken or not, beating or not. Because much as I’d like to think I would bury it whole like Percy Shelley’s red self, I know I will want to slice it instead, peel back the door hinged with muscle, find the sinoatrial node, that little cluster of electrified nerves that is at the heart of my heart, and discover what made it tick.