Five Hearts

by Jaimie Pike

Content warning: graphic imagery, blood and self inflicted harm

The day I was born, the doctor pried open my rosebud fists and found them completely empty. Nobody knew why. They ran every test they could think of, but found no answers. Nothing in the ultrasounds had indicated that I might be deformed. All of my sisters had come into the world complete, each of them clutching a hot little wad no bigger than a marble, pulsing and vermilion. Yet here I was, lying in the bassinet, somehow in perfect health, giggling and cooing despite being born without a heart. 

I would have five hearts in all, and I found the first when I was eleven. I didn’t need it until then: as a young child, I was much the same as everyone else. Our mouths were all empty, still too small for our hearts to fit inside, so when I pulled the cat’s tail or smacked someone over the head with a wooden block, it didn’t attract much notice. Since none of us had our hearts yet, every other little kid acted that way too. All the parents kept their kids’ hearts in jars on top of their fridges, where they waited until we were ready. In middle school, my friends decided it was time, and they all began coming to school with that peculiar bulge of the cheek, that lump under the jaw. There was no heart for me to put there, so I made a habit of wearing a crumpled paper towel to school in its place, wadded up and damp in the too-deep cavity beneath my tongue. This became my first heart, and of my five it hurt me the least. 

I had trouble making friends at school. To me, they were all interchangeable. I had no special affection for any of them. I forgot birthdays, then I stopped being invited to them. They sent me to the nurse the day after Riley’s memorial. She’d been the closest I’d had to a friend. She was in the car with her older brother when a drunk driver struck them from the side. They asked me the next day: Why weren’t you at the assembly after school? I said, I forgot. They thought I’d better have the nurse check me for heart issues. She asked me to take out my heart and show it to her, and I was made to pull out my soggy paper towel, coiled like a whitish-gray loop of intestine, speckled with bits of lunch I’d been unable to fish out, in front of her. My friends were colder to me after the memorial. I think now they must have suspected. That was when I realized with a dropping feeling that there was a circle drawn around everyone in the world and I was standing outside it. Sometimes I lay awake at night and tried to feel what other people could feel. It was like trying to move a phantom limb I’d conjured up. The feeling slipped like sand between my fingers.

I started experimenting with prosthetic hearts. I’d take small objects (a marble, a grape, an eraser) and slip them into the space under my tongue, just to feel them roll around in there, to feel the pressure on my jaw and the roots of my teeth, and wonder if that was what kindness felt like. Maybe, I thought, it had a flavor. Would it be meaty and savory, the way flesh would taste? Sweet and lingering, like the heart-shaped candy we exchanged on Valentine’s Day? Could I simulate it with a wedge of orange, a small handful of almonds or peanuts, or a piece of hard candy that dwindled to nothing over time? I tried all of these, but never felt any different. None of my prosthetics ever lasted long; after a day or so I’d abandon them when they failed to give me what I was looking for.

My first love was confusing and contradictory. Somehow I recognized the feeling, though it had never happened to me before. I wanted to spend time with her, I wanted closeness to her, the chance to touch her dark curls. The pinch in my groin and lower abdomen left me no room for doubt: she was the one. Around her, I pretended I wasn’t heartless. She’d make out with me in her car; I felt lucky and guilty; I became entirely committed to the act. I wasn’t good at it. When she walked into the room my body lit up, but I still forgot our anniversary until it arrived, rushing to buy her limp flowers from the stand by the grocery store exit doors. Once, on a date, I made the mistake of ruminating on how bored I was, putting a hurt look into her eyes which I had no idea how to fix. Around her, I desperately monitored my every step, trying to be somebody kinder than myself. Time spent with her left me exhausted, drained. But everyone around me, those who knew what I couldn’t know, said that real love was worth doing anything for. I wanted to feel what that meant, I wanted us to be one of those countless happy couples with joy under their tongues. 

Our courtship ended quickly. We were about to have sex for the first time, and she asked if she could first look at my heart, hold it for a minute. 

“Take it out,” she said. “I want to see it.” 

I didn’t know what to tell her. I sat there dumbly. 

“Well?” she said. I still didn’t answer. 

Irritated, she started to pry open my lips. I didn’t know how to resist. She pulled out what she found there. 

“What the fuck?” 

A look of horror was blooming on her face. It was one of her scrunchies. The last time I’d been at her house, I had found it on her dresser. I’d taken it secretly, meaning to return it. I just wanted to see if it would feel like love inside my mouth, if it would feel like her. My second heart looked disgusting in her hand, in the dim light of the room, glistening with my saliva. Repulsive. 

“Jesus Christ,” she said, and threw herself off me. She ran out of the room, slamming the door. She wouldn’t even look at me after that. The breakup hit me like a thunderbolt. I felt deep, stabbing agony at the core of me, as if my chest was collapsing in on itself. As I wept, in private, trying to bring my hitching breaths down to a normal speed, I could not understand why my body was crying without me. 

I didn’t attempt another relationship after that, in high school or in college. Instead, I got a job at a café while I was looking for a career. We wrapped up our baked goods in tinfoil, and one day I decided to make myself a tinfoil heart. I balled the yielding metal up into a little bolus and I slipped it under my tongue. This was my third heart, and I wore it to work every day. I always kept it in, even when I was sleeping. I liked knowing that at the core of me was something metal, solid, enduring. Cold. It felt appropriate. I liked the sharp points of pain it produced, the pinprick lesions it scraped into my flesh. Every time I spoke, every time I chewed, every time I smiled or sighed, it whispered my penance to me in the form of little red lacerations. I couldn’t stop being heartless. But I could ensure that for each thoughtless action, each small unkindness I wrought on the world, I would be properly punished.

The next year, I met a man without a heart. I found him in a support group I joined in the city. We exchanged numbers. He would leave me on read, ignore my messages for days, and I knew this was what it felt like to be on the receiving end of my own treatment. So I was patient with him. He had been born with a heart, but he’d lost it during a football injury in college: another player had collided with the underside of his jaw in just the wrong way, and his heart had ruptured like a water balloon, blood and ribbons of flesh running down his throat and into his mouthguard. 

At the end of one meeting, he pulled me aside and asked me if my prosthetic fit properly. He said he noticed the bulge under my chin, saw my tongue moving through my cheek, prodding it into place over and over, relentlessly. Did he watch me that closely? It hadn’t even occurred to me that we could do that for one another. Barely opening my lips, so he wouldn’t see the blood on my tongue, I said no, I’ve been thinking of getting a new one. The next week, remembering what he would have done in the old days before his mouth was empty, his movements guided by the memory of his own kindness, he took me aside again and placed my fourth heart into my hand. It was a real prosthetic heart, made from silicone, smooth and lifelike, the veins and arteries intricately detailed. 

“I got it in the smallest size,” he said, “so it won’t hurt you.” Then I knew that he was a good man, and that I had to fall in love with him at once. 

We were both single; we both knew that nobody wanted to kiss an empty mouth. Even so, my hands shook when I asked him. He said yes right away. Of course he did. It wasn’t a perfect relationship; it was never going to be. He approached it with the memories of feelings that he’d lost, but which I never had. We fought often because we hurt each other often. But we were also free with our forgiveness, because we each understood the other could not help it. I would have forgiven anything he did, I wanted so badly to keep him. He opened himself up and showed me his emptiness, chose not to push me away when I showed him mine. But to him it was a relationship of convenience, a cure for singleness. There was no passion between us, but I desperately wanted to find some. I thought, maybe I had been seeing this all wrong. Maybe I couldn’t be heartless and still whole. Maybe that was what the world was trying to tell me all along.

The beginning of the end came quickly. I told him I wanted a transplant. 

“I want to love you,” I said. “For real.” 

He said, “Is this not real to you?”

I said, “Well, you’re not in love with me. That’s kind of the whole point, otherwise why bother?”

“Because I thought I was worth bothering with.” 

And I knew I was despicable, because the hurt look in his eyes told me so, for the millionth time. And I never deserved him, because that year, on my birthday, he hugged me tight and said he would get the transplant too. We could both share the love that I wanted.

So, at the scheduled time, we entered the clinic together. We sat side by side on the cold plastic chairs in the waiting room and he held my clammy hand. When I gripped back too tightly, he passed me a fishing magazine and together we laughed at the photos of red-faced guys holding up tiny trout with grins of unabashed pride. I felt myself relaxing right away. If he wasn’t nervous, there was no need for me to be. 

His procedure would take an hour. He squeezed my hand before I went in for mine. When I woke up, I could feel it in there, my fifth heart, with its latticework of stitches holding it soundly in place until it mingled with my blood, adapted to me. Despite the months I’d spent with a prosthetic, my mouth felt too big now, too full. On the drive home, I kept one hand on the wheel while I used the other to caress the curious pregnant bulge underneath my chin.

It took a few days, but I started to feel. 

At first the feelings were tinny, hollow, but then they began to flesh out, and oh God, I felt something flooding in. I wanted it to be passion with all of my being. It was affection, it was admiration, it was a fondness so deep it made my chest hurt. But the passion still hadn’t come. I waited for love, for the feelings I remember from my first relationship. And I waited. My body remained empty, no sensations set my nerves afire when I looked at him. The same was true for him. I could tell from the sad way he touches me. It was becoming clear that love has not chosen us. Our hopes for what we could become would never be realized. Without the passion, the sensations, everything we had built together was a waste, a harbor built for a ship that will never arrive. 

So it ends with a whimper. When he hugs me goodbye, I can feel his tears on my neck. He tells me he hopes I find what I’m looking for. 

That night I go into the bathroom that and I stretch my jaw wide and cram my fingers into my mouth; I grasp at it for purchase but it’s slippery; I feel its foreign pulsing; at last I dig my nails in, I dig and I dig until I feel the bite of them in its surface, and I pull and it pinches, and it hurts, and I pull, and something rips, a line of stitches, and the taste of copper floods over my tongue, and I choke and sputter on sudden fluid, and I’m holding someone else’s heart in my hand.

Now I’m crying. I’ve done something I shouldn’t have. Blood bubbles out of my mouth and down my chin with each breath no matter how much I swallow; it’s hot; I feel it creeping down the side of my neck. I should call 911. But I just sit there seeing nothing but the purple fuzz of lightheadedness. The pain in my jaw takes up all of the space in my head. I throw it across the room. It smacks the wall with a comical wet noise, then falls to the tiles. Blood creeps under my shirt collar. It runs down my chest and soaks into my tee. I look at my hands. They’re slick and red. I should call 911, but I don’t. Instead I sit there, looking at my empty hands. As empty as the day I was born.