Open Heart

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Open Heart
The red and white chair catches my eye on the vintage shop’s Facebook page one evening, just as we are moving into our new house. I have never bought anything vintage or antique, or even vaguely non-IKEA. But there’s something about the toile fabric, the tall back, the diamond-shaped cushion: I have to have it.

It’s light enough that I carry it up the stairs by myself. I know the perfect spot—right in front of my mirrored dressing table, still wrapped in blankets by the movers. I notice one tiny brass wheel on the chair is loose, but no matter: I have romantic visions of myself sitting here, writing letters on pretty stationery, collecting knickknacks and pictures and small vases with wildflowers.

We are efficient unpackers: we get everything done in a single weekend—pictures on the walls, empty boxes broken down, beds made. We drink cold beer under the ceiling fan in our bedroom, plotting remodeling projects and more furniture and brighter light fixtures. He is exhausted, his back sore. I rub right between his shoulder blades, where the pain is most intense.

**

London. New York. Budapest. We walk around with his broken heart all over the world. We take breaks on park benches overlooking the Thames, the Hudson, the Danube. He takes our son to swimming lessons. We make love. Shop for groceries. Argue about money. Pick out paint colors. Move. All the while—it’s just a bad back. A muscle spasm. It will pass.

Nobody thinks about the heart when they are young.

**

We spend the week leading up to the surgery watching early June in Maine from a hospital window. Once we arrive at the emergency room, they won’t let him leave. Outside it’s an art festival and Little League games on the fields overlooking the bay. Inside we name his heart monitor Ernie and beg the nurses to disconnect him long enough for a shower. I bring him sushi and sorbet, a book. I text him pictures of our son using our large Jacuzzi tub for the first time, his face covered in soap bubbles before he climbs into bed with me and we listen together to the strange noises of our new home: the crickets and frogs from the marsh across the street, the planes landing at the nearby airport.

**

The day of the surgery, I get a pedicure. My mother-in-law doesn’t get in until the afternoon. I am up at 4 a.m. to be there when they shave his chest and legs, help scrub him down with the cold bucket of disinfectant as instructed by the burly nurse. I briefly thank my good fortune that this is not my job—shaving men’s bellies before they go under the knife. I stay appropriately cheerful as we walk the long, empty hallways—a defibrillator at the foot of his bed—and take the elevator to the basement already bustling with nurses and doctors and bright lights. I hold his hand as the doctor explains the procedure.

**

I don’t know anything about the heart. Well, not anything that matters right now. I know that it pumps blood and that it breaks. I know I should take care of it. My own. Others’. I know I shouldn’t give it away too easily—although I have, many times. I know it’s not always smart to listen to its demands but then I can’t think of a time it led me astray. I know that mine, at least, expands to hold more than one love and flutters wildly with the risk every time. But the true mechanics? I try not to think of the violence of being fist deep in his chest through skin and muscle and bone.

**

I get breakfast at the hip bakery just down the street from the hospital. I visit my mom at her office. I pick out a sunny orange color for my toes. I briefly consider whether I should hide my feet, whether people will think I am insensitive for pampering myself at a time like this. But his chest will be cracked open whether I do or not. I go to a furniture store and pick out a recliner—one with electric controls to make it easier for him to sit down and get up. I pay for express delivery.

**

“In sickness and in health” is a bullshit promise. You don’t really know what you are committing to when you say the words. You think it means a cold. Stomach flu at the worst. So what? Maybe once in a while you have to make a cup of tea. You don’t think it means a shrunken, pale body in a hospital bed that somehow seems way too big and wires and tubes and machines that beep in a dimly-lit room. “No, don’t touch him,” the nurse tells me just as I approach the bed. She points at the tube still in his throat: “These young guys, they struggle.”

Are we young?

“Young” was staying up too late and drinking too much vodka and grapefruit juice and making out until my lips were raw and it was time for breakfast. “Young” was flying across continents for a quick rendezvous without worrying about the status of someone’s vital organs. “Young” was not exactly knowing what “cardiothoracic” meant and being OK with it.

On my way back to my car I throw up in the visitor bathroom. Nothing about this feels young, except the urge to run away.

**

I tuck the nurse’s card in my wallet—she says I can call anytime during the night. I pick up our son from camp, my mother-in-law from the airport, groceries from the store. I make guacamole. Open a bottle of wine. I move the pile of laundry collecting on my chair to sit at the desk in the darkened bedroom. I check e-mail, pay bills. I briefly stare at the picture of an old boyfriend online and wonder about his heart. I don’t call the nurse.

**

Standing up from bed and moving to a chair: three times a day. Walking to the door: two times a day. Eating a lemon popsicle: as many as you want. Weight and blood sugar checks every few hours. Pills arriving in small paper cups.

We measure days in bodily functions: vomit, piss, shit.

Sleep.

**

He sits in the shower and I get in with him, blood and dried up iodine and sweat running under my feet, his skin raw with stubble and leftover medical tape. “I am so sorry,” he says. “You would do the same for me,” I smile. I pat him down with a towel, rub lotion on his skin, bandage the scar, help him get dressed. He needs a nap after all that.

I need a cigarette and a drink and a lover to fuck me out of my mind.

**

The morning after he comes home from the hospital, I sneak downstairs with our boy to make breakfast. The air is cool and we shiver a bit, pull on sweatshirts and close windows. He asks where Dada is as he sits at the kitchen bar. We play restaurant: he writes out a menu that I tape to the fridge and he places an order for eggs and toast and tea. We try not to make too much noise on this brittle morning.

**

The first walk he takes around our new home is to the mailbox. That’s as far as he can go. Then to the stop sign at the end of our road. Then to the next corner and the one after that. To the small neighborhood market. Around the cemetery. Up the steep hill to the hospital. Around the curve of the bay. He sets out every day—sometimes when the morning is still dark—and walks the city in wider and wider circles, mapping out routes and new paths. Our son and I go about our routines behind the brightly-lit windows of our kitchen: finishing homework, making breakfast, packing lunches.

**

“You will think about this a lot,” the cardiologist tells us at our first post-surgery visit. “But then you will think of it less and less until you don’t think of it every day.” This seems impossible, but enticing: to not think. And he is sort of right: we don’t think about it on random Tuesdays when we are making dinner. We don’t think about it when we go to the movies or fold laundry.

But we do think about packing extra pills when going on a trip. We think about hydration, blood pressure, and salt intake. We think about cutting out butter and bacon and beef and stress. We think about paying off our mortgage early. We think about high school and college, and weddings, and grandchildren. We think about life together and alone. We think about a different life where the night before surgery we didn’t have to ask nurse Irene to be the witness on his living will.

**

We live with bare floors and dim lights for another three years before we finally buy a rug, an ottoman, a loveseat. We replace light fixtures and hang new art. I buy a lamp for my desk, which I clutter with notebooks and jewelry, and hang pictures of Budapest and Amsterdam. I do not fix my chair’s wobbly wheel—I like how it reminds me to balance every time I sit.

**

“I think I am dying,” he says one night as I turn off the light. “I know,” I answer. “We all are.” “No, no, I feel it,” he insists. “My heart—I can tell it’s beating weirdly, it’s off.” I trace the scar, faint and pink, running down the middle of his chest. He is worried that what will take him will be painful, violent, dramatic. He thinks there are warning signs. I fear it will be a lot more subtle: like loneliness or hope.


Photo used under CC.

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About Author

Zsofia McMullin is a writer living in Maine. Her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Full Grown People, Pidgeonholes, Motherwell, and several other online and print publications. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize three times. See all of her work at zsofiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter: @zsofimcmullin

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