He put his left ear lightly to the space on her chest and listened. It could be heard naked-ear.
“Do you mind?” he asked, and invited the interns.
Four men and a woman in white coats took turns listening, first with amplification, then without.
It was the most sexual attention she’d had in months. Six mouths breathing on her skin. Six cool ears, their cartilage curved against her breastbone, the almost-held breath rushing haltingly against the warm rise of her flesh. Hair brushing lightly. Whiskers, almost. She glanced down as each nose nearly touched her nipple.
“With perceptible click,” the surgeon whispered.
The five nodded, arranged in a circle that almost included her.
What could be heard.
What could not be heard.
If you knew to listen.
If you knew what to listen for.
Here is what she would tell, perhaps only what she knew to tell. But what else is there?
Of course it was enlarged. You run for 30 or 40 years, take it up when you are a teen and begin to see some things are against you, and so you keep pounding turf. Okay, you get great legs. But inside, you also grow that heart. You go distance not on leg but on heart.
This is how the body is made to work, even if there is no maker. You make muscle go faster, make muscle go longer, push its limits a little almost every day, and damn if the thing doesn’t get bigger, better, stronger.
The heart, dear friends, is a muscle. It works this way too.
Enlarged heart. Some news.
Why leap to the conclusion that enlargement is a problem? Anything beyond a norm is abnormal. By definition. (And the “normal” among us get to make those definitions. Pay attention.) This is how language works. But, damn, if it doesn’t also work some on perception.
She’d tell you. Abnormal, ladies and gentlemen, is always bad. Bad. BAD. Capital letters bad.
Bad bad bad bad bad.
* * *
Does it matter why you take it up? Does it matter why you do it over 40, 50 years? Don’t read the magazines. They won’t help with this. And there won’t be a test. Not one you’d notice anyway. Not the kind that would register until maybe much much later, when you’re already in the thick of it and there’s no going back. Then you might think this is the test. And you realize, what if…. But mostly you just think about it after it’s all over and you’re looking back—and for a minute you think I would be dead if I didn’t pass.
It’s that kind of test, a dead test.
Not from, not to.
Just to run. Or whatever it is you do.
After a while you don’t even think about it. You just go out and move. And then 20, 40 years have gone by, and, hey, inside-out you got the body to prove it.
You got great legs.
And the heart grows.
Enlarged with peculiar sounds.
This is how they find it. Maybe this is even how it comes. It’s not a thing she had all her life, at least not that anybody heard before. (Were they listening?) The whys aren’t always known. This is what they tell her, but they’re the ones searching for whys. Mostly she already knows why, and mostly why doesn’t matter. She is what she is. She’s the one got to live with it.
One night not long after the first time she became a woman alone, when she had all the kids in the bath all at the same time because she was tired and they were small and wild, it came over her. Fast.
She barely got them out, their fat little arms waving around her, before she fell to the blue rug in the hallway and lay looking up at the ceiling. They lay around her. They stroked her face and kissed her. The middle one shared her hot little thumb. Then they wandered off to their little beds. January. It was already dark. She hadn’t turned on the light in the hall. Her birthday was coming soon.
“Drug overdose,” the medics said. They’d banged the metal sides of the stretcher down the walls she’d painted not so long ago, but she couldn’t tell them to stop.
Her eyes in the flashlight beam didn’t do the drug no-dilation thing.
“Tem—praaaa—aa—ter…” a walkie-talkie scratched.
A cold thing in her ear.
“Holy shit 106 point 8.”
A lot of rushing.
She was in the cold air.
They were traveling in flashing lights.
In the heat the heart flew open. A valve flapped in a normal motion, perhaps at a normal pace, and then
She was operating on a half a heart, the rest of it waiting to be filled.
Personally, it was not a traumatic experience, she might tell you. There was a kind of peace in losing words, in having your arms slack at your sides, the only thing moving on volition your eyelids. It was a new kind of rest.
She could have enjoyed it, if they’d let her.
Oh she loved this stillness. How she loved, finally, this calm.
Leave me, she would have said. Leave me to this.
But she would have given up decades of whatever sweetness lay before her if she could have only said the kids.
Asleep in their beds. Who knew? Were they even now breaking up with fever?
Were their hearts too, one valve at a time, simply stopping?
How much heat could such small hearts take?
Okay okay. Everybody was alright. Some fluke. Something only she picked up. Who knows why. They never did figure it out. So much for modern medicine. You get older, you learn about limits. Not all things are possible. Sorry. And, oh, by the way, life ain’t fair and they were conniving bastards to let you think it might be. It’s collusion, just like Santa Claus. Get over it.
But now she’s got this murmur and once in a while they’re watching her.
Life goes on.
Things aren’t easy.
Things don’t go the way they should. For sure they don’t go the way they’re planned.
There is another man. And then another man.
And, yes, yes, yes, yet another. Oy.
All kinds of things go bad—the water pipes freeze under the house and one time a piece of the roof falls off.
Some things go okay. She doesn’t always get the car shoveled out, but they have a lot of canned beans in the pantry.
Some things are good. Like days when the kids are home just a tiny bit sick and she makes them tea with honey and they snuggle together under blankets in the middle of the afternoon and suck each other’s thumbs.
And some sweet things are very good indeed. Those babies for one … oops, for three. Yes, those kids for sure for sure for sure.
Those kids those kids those kids.
Oh for sure those kids.
Life went on.
The men came, the men went. The men came, the men went.
And then, one day, life paused. It stopped when she wasn’t paying attention, mostly when she wasn’t thinking, when she was kind of almost thinking everything would go on being pretty much okay.
While she was almost thinking that, another huge something went still inside her: One day, the oldest child went to stay with her dad and did not come back.
One day, one day, one day.
Again. And again.
The rest of the world moved and she was way behind and almost totally gone: The child did not come back.
And by then it was too late. By then, everything had gone too far.
The world left her. For years and years. And she was pretty glad to see it go.
Sometimes the heart sped up.
Sometimes the heart slowed down.
Lots of times she wished it would simply stop. Quietly in the night. Maybe while she was driving, making the car slam into a tree and do it good, do it right, make her dead twice.
She wished too much for that heart to stop.
How she coped—she ran.
For years and years, she ran herself right into a numb oblivion.
And holy cow she was in good shape.
Holy cow she had a good strong heart.
The heart blipped. But good.
More than once.
On its own?
Because of yet another loss?
Because she made it?
Does it matter?
This was her great fault.
This heart did not work right.
This heart was abnormal.
This heart was way too big.
This heart loved way too many too fast too soon too deep.
This heart made peculiar sounds.
This heart pumped wrong.
But this heart could go
a very long distance.
This then was her great strength.
That through hard use,
her heart had grown
her heart had grown
Hey, life goes on.
* * * * *