A HEART FOR KNOWING
In September 2010, daytime soap opera As the World Turns aired for the last time after a 64-year run. In one of its final episodes, Dr. Oliver, the town of Oakdale’s newest surgeon, dies when his car stalls at a railroad crossing and is hit by an oncoming train. The doctor was headed to the airport to obtain a heart from another hospital some distance away. The heart was for his colleague Dr. Chris Hughes—young, handsome, and stricken with a rare disease.
Dr. Oliver held on long enough to request that his own heart be donated to Dr. Hughes. The dying surgeon’s makeup was flawless: cheeks tinted with bronzer created a sunken-in effect; plastic scar tissue erupted on his forehead and under his eyes. Just before Dr. Oliver got in his car he had kissed his partner, Luke, and admitted for the first time that he loved him. Luke sat by the doctor’s bedside in his final moments, stroking his bloody hair.
Dr. Hughes knew exactly how to use his new heart. He proposed to his girlfriend and bought a tall white house they talked about filling with children and furniture. Luke reunited with his first love. Like wounds, all the town’s fraught relationships mended themselves for the sake of a grieving TV audience. To the people of Oakdale, a transplant meant the removal of one’s most vital part for maintenance purposes, the passing of something old to someone new.
When my mother’s friend Judy was told she needed a liver transplant, she was also informed that one was on its way from Maine. The liver of a 21-year-old man was winding along the New England coast in a windowless medical van. The nurses smiled down at Judy, held her hand, and told her she was lucky.
After the procedure, my mother and I visited Judy in the hospital, where she showed us the fresh scar, a pink fault line across her stomach. Her corner room had two windows; the amount of light that touched the gray bed linens and biohazard bags seemed strange for such a sterile place.
She wondered about the young donor from Maine. “His mother and I agreed to meet after I get out of here,” she said, wincing as she propped herself up in bed.
Judy and the boy’s mother met for lunch a few weeks after Judy was released from the hospital. Over decaf tea and gluten-free muffins (doctor’s orders), the boy’s mother said her son’s name was Ryan. Ryan was a war veteran; he'd returned from Afghanistan a few months before his death. What happened was he’d been drinking. He argued with his parents in a way that rattled windows and woke neighbors. What happened was he ran out onto his parents’ lawn, past ceramic gnomes by the front stoop. What happened was he shot himself there on the grass, when they followed him thinking he would get in the car and drive drunk.
Judy told this to my mother, hand circling her scar, and noted that, in an odd way, the liver itself had tried to save the boy, to rid his bloodstream of toxins—but there had simply been too many of them.
Ten months after As the World Turns ended, I moved from my hometown in Connecticut to Chicago for graduate school. My mother made the trip with me. We didn’t take much: a suitcase each and Hector, my cat.
I unlocked the door to my studio apartment for the first time since seeing it cluttered with someone else’s furniture. A young agent for a free apartment-search website had curated that first visit, placing her hands on crown-molding and sliding up blinds so I could get a full view of the neighboring house the studio overlooked.
This time, the room was bare except for the sheen of power-washed hardwood and the same peeling shingles of the house outside the window. I thought perhaps the previous tenant might have left something—a photo, a hairclip, a note. But this romantic notion left me as I circled the room and realized I was an adult. I now had my own kitchen and bathroom, no matter how small. The departed girl had known this, too, and so she left no clues of herself.
My mother and I did our best, hanging dresses in my closet, red to purple, tacking up a print of a giraffe behind my bed where it would gaze down at me as I slept. Hector slunk low to the ground, surveying our scattered luggage before choosing the bathtub. We hadn’t brought much at all, but what we did bring we carried like gold, and when I sat on my bed I sat in the middle of a city: trains rumbling in and out, everyone looking.
In my hometown Driver’s Ed class, we’d watched a video about a North Carolina student who was killed by a drunk driver. The boy had been the school mascot, pictured in the video sitting on bleachers, dressed to his neck in light blue fur, a large scowling ram’s head on his lap. After being struck by an SUV while walking home from a game, his organs were distributed to patients all over the U.S. Someone even got his eyes.
A group of twenty recipients met the boy’s mother in her North Carolina home, where they stood in a circle and held hands. The man with the boy’s heart talked about his pulse moving from one palm to the next. The woman with one of his kidneys said they were all tar heels, feet fastened to the same ground. They went back to their homes and rooted for the UNC Tar Heels during basketball season, remembering their connection.
I didn’t understand I was on my first date in Chicago until the boy held my hand. We were standing in front of a stage at Wicker Park Fest, the people around us skinny and sun-tanned, nodding languidly under straw caps. I felt his wet fingers around my palm and he asked if it was okay. Something about the way the drummer tapped his brush across the snare like child-footsteps made me say it was.
My mother sends packages of the things I left—objects I’d hoped to see again and others I’d hoped to forget. She sends them all, a box at a time, and I carry them up to my apartment, navigating the staircase with caution. I resist the urge to shake these packages in case there is anything fragile inside. But my mother, her nest empty, has become an expert packer, and when I open a box, slicing through tape with a jagged key, I admire how neatly the contents are arranged, glass things tucked inside soft things. For a moment I don’t want to disturb it all; to remove something would be to undo her masterwork.
On the last episode of As the World Turns, long-time-on-again-off-again couple Holden and Lily, converse for the last time on television. Lily worries about her mother, who in the previous scene embraced an old lover. She asks Holden, “Do you think it’s enough? Just loving each other?” Holden responds, “I do. Sometimes it just takes a few times.”
Most viewers were disappointed. For years, they had been disciples, pausing their vacuums and dishwashers to tune in to a wedding or the rampage of a mystery serial killer. The drama had never failed to leave them wanting more. But, at the show’s close, they needed to know something for sure—that Holden and Lily would get back together—yet now these fans were suddenly left to their own devices, forced to invent an ending for themselves.
The boy who took me to Wicker Park ended things after two dates in which we got lost in each other. On our second date we stood hand in hand on the bottom step of a staircase in a grocery store. I was surprised that for a long moment, neither of us reached for the comfort of words. After a bit of silence he looked at me and said, “Well, this sure is a slow escalator.”
On my first day of graduate school, the Dean of Students addressed the incoming class. Her main words of advice to us were “Don’t get involved in bad love affairs.”
As she spoke, I received a note folded accordion-style from a writing student seated next to me. The top flap read: This is an exquisite corpse! Read the sentence that appears below, respond with your own, fold over and pass along.
“Exquisite corpse” is a game of addition, successful if, when the paper is unraveled, sentences create a narrative, no matter how absurd.
The sentence I received was: The woman sat on the stoop outside her gray house, crying into her hands. I knew I couldn’t leave this fictitious woman crumpled on concrete when there was so much to see. I wrote the next sentence: From the trees came songs of birds—she lifted her head.
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