“A Heart, Beating”
Excerpt from Chapter One of The List, a novel
forthcoming from Scribner, March 2007
Published in The Kenyon Review, Winter 2007
She dreams about hearts, when he isn’t there. About one heart, actually, a seemingly average and healthy human heart, cone-shaped and hollow, embraced by a colorful network of arteries and veins. A textbook heart. The typical human heart is fist-sized, she was taught – tuck your right elbow to your side and place your right arm at a diagonal across your breastbone and there you are, your clenched fist roughly the size, shape, and correct placement of the muscular, double-pumping organ of Valentine and black velvet torch song fame: the heart. During the average lifetime the average heart, at seventy-two lubb-dupps per minute, will beat two billion times – Think McDonalds’ hamburgers sold, Al said to her, once, Picture two billion patties being pumped out to poison the world – and spurt on its way enough blood to fill one hundred swimming pools. Picture it like that, Al said. One hundred swimming pools of blood, circled by one hundred film executives in lounge chairs, reading screenplays, dipping their toes in from time to time. The heart’s intricate choreography, balancing nerve impulses and muscle contractions – Just picture Martha Graham’s eurhythmics, he said, danced by women in red satin, picture them flowing around in sync. He was trying to help her study and being no help at all, just messing her up with his silly, pointless facts. He thinks visually, she knows, he has to get the image printed, framed. Everything’s a movie in his mind. Eidetic. That “organ of Valentine and black velvet torch song fame” is his silly picture, not her professors’, not hers. Marlene Dietrich’s face, singing “Falling in Love Again” in a throbbing voice, that’s heart, he said. Look at that quivering throat. And look how the shadow under her nose shapes a butterfly, look at the agony bleeding in her eyes. Now, you want to see heart and soul, look at Falconetti’s Joan of Arc. Look at that cinematic face, torn between spirit and flesh, shadow and light. Look.
I don’t need your pictures to appreciate the facts, the important facts, she told him. There’s no metaphor here. There’s no such thing as a soul. A heart is just an organ. A heart is just a heart.
A sigh is just a sigh, he crooned, stroking her hair, the fundamental things applyyyy –
All right, she said, hitting him with a textbook. Please take your movies and hamburgersand red satin out somewhere, and let me study.
Sweetheart, you’ve been studying. You’ve been studying for eleven hours. You need to take a break. He kissed her hand, held her fingers to his lips.
I have an exam tomorrow.
You’re all clenched. You’re going to snap. And not in a good way.
I don’t snap.
You need to engage in a fun and mindless activity, Isabel.
Please, she begged, tugging her hand away. She was trying so hard to focus, and here he was, with torch songs and pools of blood. Her hand was shaking. Please, Al. Go. Go do something. Don’t you have to be at your little job? Don’t you have something to do?
This, he said. This is all I have to do.
You are a waste of a human being, she announced. She’d never said that one before, and it sounded, even to her at that second, too harshly excremental and conclusive. But she was so tired.
And we didn’t break up that time, she remembers. I think he just left to buy a newspaper. Or maybe a pumpkin. It was fall, I think. We’d been together maybe six months. He probably went out to buy a pumpkin. Yes, she remembers his walking out, the familiar, punctuating slam, recalls her heart rate jumping to brisk, then rapid. And she’d felt asthmatic, a sudden, panicked dyspnea. She’d sat on the couch and tried to stay very upright, raising and dropping her shoulders and chest. She was scared she would suffocate, and that only makes it worse, the fear, that’s what keeps your bronchi in spasm when you’re not really a true asthmatic person. Which she isn’t. But then he came back with a pumpkin, and a bottle of tequila, and all the air came back into the room, the apartment, (inhale), her lungs, her blood. (Exhale, deep.) He hacked out a crude, gruesome, screaming face with a sharpened spatula – It’s a Munch pumpkin, he’d said, Look – and she carved in the detail with a scalpel she’d been meaning to return to the hospital. That she’d let him make her steal, once. She let him pour her shots. She let him make her down them. She will let him, let herself, do anything at these moments, Just stay, please, so I can breathe. They’d stripped off their clothes and threw handfuls of slimy orange pumpkin guts at each other. They rubbed slick strings of it onto, into each other. The next morning, during her exam (Cardiac Structure and Function, with Clinical and Procedural Application and Protocol, got there late, his fault), she’d felt a pumpkin seed slide out of her.
She isn’t the heart in the dream; she’s the propelled blood. She’s venous blood, a textbook royal blue, deoxygenated and exhausted, flowing into the right atrium from the superior vena cava. The heart welcoming her home, a regular rhythm and rate, no pericardial friction, no murmur, rubs or gallops. All is well, on track. A contraction, steady, the dependable dupp of those lubb-dupps – escorts her through the tricuspid valve with a lovely systolic swoosh. Homeostatic. But the contractions accelerate, then, eighty, eighty-five, ninety beats per minute; she’s suddenly racing now to the pulmonary circuit, through the lungs, where she picks up fresh oxygen and turns the pretty bright red oxygenated blood should be. So everything is still fine, she should be happy, content. But then, again, an increasing pressure, a new sense of urgency and stress, what is that? It’s the beating heart, that’s all, pushing her along. But still speeding, going too fast. The contractions go unregulated, now, arrhythmic. The beats are unhealthy, are violent. She’s pounded and driven along by something muscular and enraged, she has nowhere to rush or escape to but forward, into a dark, wet, airless maze of veins. Racing blindly, back into the left atrium, have to feed that heart – violent contraction, angry atrial systole – flooding into the left ventricle, its striated walls of myocardium pounding at her, thick and raw and shiny-fat as Angus steaks. A cruel shove into the aorta, and you’d think she’d feel victorious now, it’s over, a good job done, but there’s no applause, no award, no chance to relax, there’s still the pressure behind her, still building, erratic, becoming a boil. And it begins all over again, her panicked hunt-and-chase from aorta to artery to capillary to vein, trying to deliver oxygen and carry away the waste products of cell metabolism but only building to her own sense of craze, of doom, everything out of control, a mad whirl, out of sync, turning to pure hot salt, and the only escape, she suddenly knows, will be outracing it, outcrueling it, she feels herself pound, she’s boiling livid and strong, she’ll explode right through this cruel and ugly trap of a heart. And then she’s awake, clutching empty sheets and choking for air, her own pulse at a mad, burning, lonely race.
She made the mistake, once, of telling him about the dream. One of the times they’d broken up, but were being friends.
The Incredible Journey, he said. Fun movie. I don’t think I have it. Let’s rent it sometime.
How many times have you seen it? she asked, chewing a fingernail.
Friends rent movies together, he insisted.
Not until I’m done with finals, she said firmly.
Look at you. He laughed.
Dreaming about hearts. You think you think in black and white, that you’re all reason and intellect, but you’re not. You’re all primal color. You’re all blood.
You’re on a journey, you’re driven, but you’re terrified of taking a wrong turn. Of getting caught up in some dark and wild ride.
You’re being very obvious, she said.
But we can learn from our dreams, he continued, in mock-professor voice. I think you want to go a little unstable and simmery sometimes. Go snap. In the good way. You just need that kind of pumping up.
No, I don’t.
You have the potential to be a wonderfully whimsical, imaginative, paradoxical person when your rational, anxious evil twin shuts up. Your dreaming gives you away. Can’t you see that?
I did learn from that dream, thank you, she told him. It’s very effective to nap or sleep after studying, your subconscious goes to work on the material and it aids retention. I use my REM cycles to organize data in my brain. That’s the beauty of sleep. It can be very productive. I scored a ninety-nine-point-nine on my cardiac exam.
She watches him sleep, sometimes. She doesn’t think he’s really dreaming when he dreams, either. He’s just watching what flickers by, passively, as if the insides of his eyelids are twin projection screens. He’s even too lazy to use sleep. His closed eyes, without his glasses, look so vulnerable, naked.
Van would understand the heart dreams, she thought but didn’t say. Al dislikes her friend Van, he’d just make some snide comment about his being a neurotic neurologist, about his reducing the ecstatic poetry of dreams to a series of electrical stimuli. Which, really, is all they are.
And then Al was talking about what starts the cardiac contractions in the first place, how no one even knows how that really works. What gets the heart beating, really? What keeps it pumping? And what destroys that force, in the end, what compels it to let go, what’s the final, extinguishing thing? And he was using words like magic and enigma, so then they wound up arguing over electrical stimuli, anyway.
Don’t, she’d said. Please don’t start talking about the Divine Spark, or the Mysteries of the Universe, or that sort of thing.
You hate that it’s unanswerable, don’t you? he said, laughing. You hate having to circle ‘none of the above’ on the exam.
You just like easy answers, she told him. Answers that let you off the hook.
Isabel, he said. He shook his head at her. He has long curly hair, thick and firmly rooted in his scalp, the custardy blond of plasma or pericardial fat.
She thinks they were at Dupar’s, that time. She thinks he saidIsabel, just like that, making a sentence of it the way he does, then drank coffee. It was last winter, six months ago, and they were in Dupar’s, where he knows all the waitresses by name, drinking coffee, eating pancakes. They’d broken up; she’d reorganized the closets as she always did, and plucked her own clothing free of blond spirillum hairs, boxed up his videos, washed his smell and skin dust from the sheets, raised and dropped her shoulders and chest and worked at taking good, deep breaths, gloated to Van. They’d been broken up for nine days, and were being friends who hate each other.
I can’t stand this, she said, chewing her thumbnail.
He took her hand, kissed her little finger. Sweet, he said. Then he bit until the finger pad went white and strained. It hurt, but she said nothing. It was some kind of victory, that he still cared enough to want to cause her pain.
Myocardium like steaks, he said, teeth clenched on her. That’s a nice visual. Eidetic. You should think that way more often. Really. He released her finger from his teeth, but she left it there, pressed to his lips. So he’d be quiet. His mouth against her hand was sticky with maple syrup.
They went home and made love, and then he stayed, and then they were back together again. It always happens that way. It begins all over again, the pounding, the being driven along, the beat.