Possible side effects to an artificial heart transplant include not just severe foreign body rejection, but pneumonia, coronary artery disease, decreased brain function, cancer, and death. I, however, seem to have responded to my own with flying colors. (Red, mostly. That’s a joke.) It’s a relief, considering the capricious circumstances of my getting the machinery in the first place. I didn’t have a murmur, any pulmonary disease, cancer, what have you. The heart I was born with, the heart I’d had since before I was conscious, before I breathed air, was a healthy and beautiful organ that worked just about perfect. No, my reasons for getting a synthetic ticker were, let’s just say, personal.
It was just last year, the week before Christmas. I had this fiancée. Marianne. Younger than I by a few. She was this new sort of person, a type that’s emerged in the last several years: smart, but macabre. Super hot, but a nerd. Very much into dark, spooky things—and not in a trashy, Hot Topic way. Marianne was a collector. Empty chrysalises thin as cobwebs lined her bedroom windowsill. She kept a row of iridescent blue beetle armor on her vanity. A framed bat skeleton in her bathroom. In high school she’d apprenticed at a taxidermy shop. She wanted to wed at the Mutter Museum, where our witnesses would be skulls and scarabs. I ordered a pair of custom wedding rings, casts of the hollowed-out vertebrae of child corpses found in a bulldozed Native American burial ground. She told me I knew her better than she knew herself.
So you’ll understand that for Christmas I wanted to get her something really terrific. Something that would take her breath away.
The surgery wasn’t cheap, but due to some smart investments I happened to have some disposable income. A friend of a friend was a surgeon at Mount Sinai. He hooked me up—and not just to an external cardiac resynchronization device! (That’s a joke.) He told me, “I’m going to give you the Cadillac of artificial organs.” Believe it or not, I was only out for eight hours. The recovery period was a couple of weeks, though; I told Marianne business would be taking me to London. After the surgery I called her to let her know my fictional plane had landed safely. It was late. As we spoke I watched myself, blissed out on Vicodin, in the mirror in the bathroom of the ICU. I ran my fingers over the gnarly scar, a long pinkish gash down my sternum laced with black thread. Because of the drugs, I felt no pain. Powerful new machinery pumped hard and regular in my chest cavity, the bass drum in my blood’s marching band.
My original heart, meanwhile, was flushed with ice cold preservative solution, then packed intupperware surrounded by sterile icy slush. I brought it home on my lap on the subway, careful not to slosh it. It was beautiful, a bruised brick red. I kept it in the freezer until Christmas Eve, when I transferred it into an antique silver ice box, and wrapped the whole thing in velvet and lace.
You’ve got to understand. Marianne was this new sort of girl. I expected she’d recognize the wild romance of my gesture. I expected she’d unlace the ribbon and gasp with astonishment, moved at the lengths I had gone to for her. But when she unwrapped it, ribbon by delicate ribbon, I could see from her expression I’d misjudged her.
What followed was no less than a nightmare. The best way I can put it is she extracted herself. From our relationship, from my life. She was kind enough not to break up with me on Christmas, but that evening at the party we went to, I made myself scarce behind the egg nog, and watched her. She was faraway, across the crowded room, but if I’d been a mile away I would have known what was coming. All our friends looked so glad and exhausted, as if the holiday had drained them entirely. Marianne, though, chatted and smiled, rigid and soulless, her face a mask of ice.
She left. It was awful. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried. She took everything I’d ever given her—the bobcat rug, the stuffed sparrows—and good riddance to most of that junk! But I knew she wouldn’t be able to keep my heart. Over the weeks that followed, the fact that my heart was somewhere out there began to torture me. What would she have done with it? She wouldn’t have just destroyed it. Could she have? No. No, by fleeing she’d proven she was nothing but talk.
So I spent the next few months hunting my heart. I checked all the hospitals, all the organ donation centers. I checked the organic waste disposals. Then, I happened to be talking about it with my friend, the bartender at my local bar, when an acquaintance overheard and told me about Frances Kellerman. “She’s this four-and-a-half-foot-tall Queens native who runs a kind of organ pawn shop out in Long Island City. Strictly word of mouth. Understandably cagey.” He gave me her number. The first two times I called, she hung up on me immediately.
Third time was the charm, though. I managed to make an appointment one April Sunday. I took the East River Ferry out to Long Island City. Kellerman runs her operation out of a basement office space at 37th Street and 37th Avenue. It’s not much to look at, just a bunch of styrofoam coolers, stacked floor to ceiling and labeled in Sharpie. She didn’t recall Marianne, but she keeps detailed records of every organ she acquires. When I described my heart she pushed up her thick glasses and consulted her notes. Mine was Human Heart, December 26, cooler seventy-seven. Getting it back cost me an arm and a leg. (Figure of speech.) But it was worth it.
I cannot describe the relief—no, the joy—that flooded through me when Kellerman reunited me with my old heart. True, when it was inside me it was hardly a fraction as powerful as the Cadillac I’ve got now, and now it is perfectly still. But there’s something about holding a piece of yourself, a part of your own body that you’ve been separated from. Holding it, I felt how a woman must feel when she takes her own infant in her arms the first time, a tiny warm creature that, just moments before, was a part of her. I felt overwhelming tenderness toward that heart. Kellerman scoffed at my incipient tears, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t mind.
I rode the ferry back to Manhattan at sunset. The pink light was palpable. The water was quick. The glare of the sun sharp and clear. I had my heart back. That was a relief. But as I stood on the deck at the back of the boat I considered: what inherent value had the treasure I carried? What good is beauty if you can’t share it? Last Christmas, giving my heart to Marianne had been like sharing pure gold with a jackdaw, who would be just as happy to decorate its nest with a scrap of tinfoil. This year, now that I have it back, I’ll give it to someone special.