The pounding of the heart feels like it is going to break through her chest. Stephanie pulls at her light green gown, ignoring the tubes and pull of the needles in her hand. She’s used to the small holes in her arms from the machines.
She looks down at her chest and actually sees the heart push her skin with each beat. Bile rises in her throat and she looks away, dropping the top of the gown. I’m a freak, she thinks. The heart keeps pounding, stronger and stronger as Stephanie closes her eyes, picturing a heart on a table, pulsing and eventually bouncing off a table, like her cell phone does when it’s left on vibrate.
The door opens and Dr. Feldstein walks in angelically dressed completely in white, white coat, white hair cover and a white gauze mask over his face. She thinks he is smiling, but cannot fully tell because of the medicine.
“Finally, you’re up.” He walks to Stephanie’s bed side. “How do you feel?”
Stephanie opens her mouth to tell him a jumble of thoughts. She is sad and wants to know why she feels this way. Is it normal? She just woke up, but feels like she ran around the world. She aches, but doesn’t feel it, just knows it. When she tries to tell him this, a sharp pain jolts through her neck and she winces. Dr. Feldstein just looks at her with questioning eyes.
“Well, the heart – your heart, is working. Don’t try to talk; it’ll be hard for a while. We’ll talk later.” He jots something on the chart and walks out the door.
Stephanie looks around the blank room, hearing the beeps and drips. There isn’t a window or even a chair for visitors. Visitors aren’t allowed until they are scrubbed down or until she is moved to the intensive care unit. There isn’t even a TV to turn on. Stephanie can’t look at the white walls anymore, so she closes her eyes and concentrates on the heart, her heart.
Stephanie doesn’t sleep right away; she’s too busy thinking, or maybe dreaming. She doesn’t know what is going on anymore, even in her own head. She remembers; the heart pounds away and she thinks of her old heart, the diseased one. The one that she barely felt at times, but other times, beat so fast she thought it would explode.
She remembers the metal defibrillator and pacemaker, her life savers. The only things that kept her together. When the doctors put the machines in years ago, she joked that she was a robot. The doctor’s didn’t laugh. Her sister and husband, Ollie, didn’t laugh when she told the joke at dinner. No one ever laughed then. Everyone was on tip-toes, holding every thought or emotion they had in, while her heart wanted nothing better then to get out.
She remembers never being able to hold her child, Casey, in her lap, because it hurt too much. Casey always wanted to be held, and that was another thing Stephanie couldn’t provide her child. No lap hugs, no home-cooked dinners (only hospital cafeteria food), no help with homework. Maybe that’s why she is falling behind in the first grade and why such a little girl is so unhappy, because she doesn’t have a normal childhood of running and playing with her mother. I wonder if the owner of my heart had a child who she could hold close and rock to sleep.
She remembers the medicines, the 60 pills that controlled her moods, sleep, eating habits and mind. All of them competing for her health. The prednisone was the worst; her husband would take Casey to Stephanie’s sister’s house when they put her on it, afraid that she would damage the child with her mood swings and violent reactions. Stephanie knew she would never hurt Casey, but agreed to let Ollie take Casey when Stephanie ransacked her own underwear drawer. That was the day she left for the hospital, two months ago.
Stephanie just wanted one pair of underwear that didn’t have a hole in it. She opened the drawer and pulled one pair after another, seeing holes and rips in the silk linings.
“I can’t wear holy underwear!” she screamed, flinging the underwear onto the floor.
Ollie ran in, still holding his fork from dinner. “What’s going on?”
Stephanie held the underwear up to him. Bundles of soft pinks and blues, whites and off-whites scrunched together. “This is what’s wrong. I just want one goddamn pair of underwear that I can wear.” She waved the bundles at Ollie. “I can’t wear these. I have self-respect. What if my gown blows open in the halls of the hospital, and underneath everyone can see my butt?”
“Honey, I’ll go get you some more and bring them to your room,” Ollie said cautiously.
“I don’t want new underwear. I want my underwear. Fix them!” Stephanie threw the underwear at Ollie.
Ollie bent down and picked up a pair of pink underwear up and examined them. “I don’t see any holes, Stephanie.”
Stephanie jumped up and walked straight at Ollie, dropped down to the floor and started grabbing the underwear. “No holes, huh. No holes!” She grabbed the silk fabric and ripped the underwear so fast that a hole appeared. She went for another and ripped that one in half. She continued until all of the underwear were silk stands ripped apart. “See, holes!”
Ollie, still standing with his fork, nodded silently.
Stephanie brought her hands to her face and sobbed loudly. She looked up at Ollie through her fingers. “What is wrong with me?”
Ollie bent down and hugged her shoulders. “It’s just the medicine. Soon you will be all right.”
Stephanie leaned into Ollie and continued to cry. She was tired of the holes. Holes everywhere, getting wider and wider.
I wonder if the owner of my heart loved a man or a woman.
* * *
The door opens and Stephanie starts from her dream. Ollie walks into her room in the same garb as Dr. Feldstein, but more like angle than the doctor. He comes to her side, leans and kisses her forehead. Stephanie still cannot talk, but she moves her hand and points at her heart, hoping Ollie will understand.
Ollie looks at where she is pointing, at the pulsating heart. He swallows hard, and then looks away. It wasn’t just her; it is trying to get out. She’s sure Ollie is picturing “Space Balls”, when the alien rips out of the man’s stomach and starts singing across the counter. He loves that movie. Now it is Stephanie’s turn to look away. She hears Ollie say that he’ll be back, he’s not allowed to stay long, and he just wanted to see her. He says Casey is fine, with Stephanie’s sister, “she loves you.” Then she hears him retrace his steps back out the door.
Stephanie turns her head and tries to sleep again, but, instead, thinks of the past couple hours. She is full of confusing thoughts and feelings that she couldn’t understand, and probably never would. But this feeling of being an imposter will not go away. That she stole a life so that she would live. If you do not actually kill a person, but wish them dead so you could live, is that immoral? These thoughts race through her mind, and she has no one to tell.
Stephanie cannot stand the thought that this heart is not hers. What did this heart hold for the other person? Did it love a man, a woman, a child? Does it still hold these feelings and now that it is in her, will the heart erase those strong emotions? Stephanie sighs; she was not ready for this… this guilt. Who was the man or woman that died for her? What did this heart leave behind, while she is supposed to look forward to the future? She knows what they left behind – a big gaping hole in the hearts of her loved ones, while Stephanie’s hole has finally been closed.
Stephanie knew she died in the operating room, the doctors told her she would. They said it would only be a few minutes, but she remembered what happened and it felt like hours. She saw her body lying on the table. She felt the slow ascension to the ceiling, the wide gap of light.
She doesn’t remember seeing the other floors, or what was happening on those floors, but she does remember seeing the top of the hospital. She saw the air conditioner units, the rough, multi-color pebble gravel on the top, and a lone green gown caught on some telephone wires. It was tattered and worn. It looked tiny, like an emaciated man or woman wore it, before they, also passed on. She saw holes; many small holes making the cloth fade around the missing fabric. She wanted to touch it, to feel it. To rip it to shreds because of those holes. She reached for the tatters. She was within inches of the gown, before she was swooshed through the roof and back into her body. She almost had it, she thought. If only they would have let me touch it.
When Stephanie wakes, surprisingly hours later, she thinks of the gown, the underwear, and her old heart, riddled with holes. She imagines grabbing a hold of the silks, the harsh green fabrics, the flesh, and pulling hard, struggling to make those holes bigger.