By Jessica Barksdale
Sometime in early July, her heart began to blubber. At least, that’s what Minna decided to call it, blubbering, as it wasn’t flutter, something light and dreamy as a summer butterfly. It wasn’t just a skip, like a stone thrown for hop scotch. It was a deep, lumbering growl, a blubber of movement, action plus blood, a flop in her heart like heavy gas, enough to leave her stunned and pale. But still alive.
The first time it happened, she was sitting with Stephen’s two daughters in the kitchen. They had just finished stuffing and stamping and addressing all 56 wedding invitations. Minna found it hard to believe after the ordeal of online ordering (the hundreds of options, the calls to the help desk, the incorrect proofs) the invitations had arrived without mistake. But then the question was who to invite, exactly, and how many could fit in the backyard and house and decks question, which was really more about the emotional content of having all the people at the house rather than logistics. But finally the invitations arrived, Stephen’s twin 20-year-old-daughters Sarah and Naomi came over and, in about two hours, all the invites were complete and ready to go, sitting in a box on Minna’s desk.
That’s when her heart started to belch and gyrate like someone overlarge and overfed, some sad bulbous thing trying to pull itself to safety.
“What is it?” Naomi asked. “You look weird.”
“Kinda like startled,” Sarah said.
What was it? Minna thought. This heart lambada had happened to her before, though she couldn’t remember when. There was another time she imagined she was near death, a long ago near death experience when she was much younger and clearly not near death at all.
So she imagined she couldn’t be near death now, even though she was forty-eight and could probably afford to lose fifteen pounds. And should, at least before the wedding. In fact, since Stephen proposed in December, and despite the fact that she knew she would be standing in front of 56 people in a white lace halter wedding dress, she had slowly put on weight, eating small, repetitive bowls of peanuts in the evenings. Drinking red wine. It had to be the evening red wine. And the peanuts. And the fresh, French bread. All three at the same time.
“Really, are you okay?” Naomi asked. Minna put her hand to her sternum, willing her heart to stop, but just not all the way.
“Fine,” she told them both. “Just gas.”
They had accepted that explanation and gone back to their pasta, something saucy and creamy that Minna had whipped up for them as a reward for helping out.
Now, Minna is in bed next to Stephen who is sleeping, his breath deep and full of sound. She has turned on her stomach because it’s only in this position that her heart stops the dance.
I’m dying, she thinks, imagining that she’s gone into heart failure, a failure that has lasted for weeks. She imagines that it’s a particular kind of heart attack that only middle-aged women can get. She’s read about this in More magazine—how women are different. How women don’t grab their left upper arms and fall on the floor dead, shut down, stroked out, gone in a flicker of moments. No, women die for a lot longer than men, veins slowly closing off, arteries inching together over weeks and maybe even years. Women die forever.
That’s what I have, she realizes. Long time death heart syndrome. Her heart pounds against her ribs like a failing prisoner. Let me out of here. Please, for the love of god. It’s my last chance.
In the morning, she forgets about her heart and makes Stephen breakfast. Perfectly dressed, he stops to eat, his silk tie flapped over his left shoulder, his new Danish eyeglasses perched on his nose. He’s reading the Wall Street Journal and eating toast, crumbs on the paper like extra punctuation.
“Did you call the wedding planner?” he asks, flipping the pages, scanning the headlines. “Did you tell her how much we hated the food?”
“You hated the food,” Minna says, moving to face him, standing at the counter with a glass of juice. “I thought it was fine.”
“Fine is fine,” Stephen says, looking up at her over his glasses. She notices a crumb on his shirt. “But it’s our wedding. It should be at least good.”
All things should be at least good, she thinks, drinking down a glass of orange juice, standing still at the sink except for her swallowing. When she’s done, her heart lurches.
“It will be good,” she says, putting her glass in the sink.
“It better be,” Stephen says. “At those prices, it better taste like gold.”
Her heart has kept pumping through all number of intense, difficult, scary, and tragic events, beat on through her father’s and sister’s deaths, through her divorce. She pushed two babies out of her body without anesthesia, both children weighing in over ten pounds. She carried both in her womb and then later in packs and slings and in her arms, rocking her heavy, oldest son Michael to sleep long after she should have taught him to fall asleep on his own. She has been chased by a would-be murderer/ kidnapper/rapist/thief down College Avenue in Oakland. A small pug that sounded like a Rottweiler nipped at her heels as she ran at high speed on Sacramento Avenue for three blocks. She has lived through her Michael’s rehab—and then relapse, nights of sitting by hospital gurney as his body processed LSD, heroin, marijuana. Her heart has beat on through thousands of workouts and hikes in the Bay Area hills; she has lived through arguments in board rooms, her boss’ office, and with colleagues in the office bathroom. Her heart has kept ticking through orgasm after orgasm. Her heart has beat steady and strong through panic attacks and slasher movies.
So why this now? Why now? Finally, she remembers the first time, maybe the second. Almost twenty years ago, she sat in the cool green examination room, looking up at the doctor.
“Here,” Minna said, pressing her on her ribs, just above her heart. “It hurts here. All the way through to the other side.”
The doctor—a calm brown-haired woman with wire-rimmed glasses and a thin slash of almost purple lipstick—pressed her stethoscope on Minna’s chest.
“Does the pain come in waves or is it constant?” she asked.
“It’s constant,” Minna said, scared to breathe lest the doctor miss the fatal diagnosis just there under fingers. “All the time. For ten straight days.”
“What happened ten days ago?” the doctor asked, moving around to Minna’s back, telling her to breathe in.
“M-y,” Minna breathed. “My-y.” She waited until the doctor pulled away the scope. “My sister died.”
The doctor didn’t say anything for a while, and all Minna felt was the cool metal round of the stethoscope on her back. Later, just to be sure, the doctor sent in a tech with a portable EKG machine. Minna lay back, let the tech place several sticky flexible rounds on her chest, realizing she was bare breasted in front of a very large Latino man, who didn’t seem to notice or care, focused only on the pattern of electrodes and wires.
“Your heart,” the doctor said later as she wrote in Minna’s chart. “Is not compromised. But you. . . . ”
The doctor looked at Minna, and at that look Minna began to cry, seeing all the hospitals she’d been in lately: the one where her sister Tish was disconnected from the machines that were keeping her alive, the ones before that when Tish had her various procedures and stays—toe amputation, ovary removal, skin grafts from the burns she gave herself from leaving a heating pad on her legs too long—with the neuropathy, she hadn’t felt the sizzle.
Then there was the time the police called a 5150, the ambulance taking her to a psychiatric facility. Tish had called Minna from the ward pay phone and said, “Look. I know. Sam was right to call the police. I was a mess. But listen. I may be depressed, but I’m not crazy. This one guy here went out to his front lawn naked and began his Saturday chores. His neighbors finally called the police when he started mowing the street. Minna. Really. Get me out of here.”
“It’s not up to me,” Minna said.
“It’s up to someone. If I could get myself out of here, I would.”
“But you told Sam you wanted to die.”
Tish was silent, Minna hearing her breath against the big receiver. “If you were me, wouldn’t you want to die sometimes? I’m a mess.
Really, Mins, wouldn’t it seem all too much?”
At that time, Minna hadn’t almost lost Michael to his own wild life, so she didn’t know that things could fill up to a point where she might want to spill out and slip away. Back then, she wasn’t even sure what Tish had said to her husband Sam when she threatened to kill herself, but Tish had stayed alive, and she stayed in lock up until police released their hold.
Finally, it wasn’t suicide but total system failure, nothing in Tish’s diabetic body working any more, her heart shutting everything down all at once.
“Swimming,” the doctor had said to Minna as she stood up from her little black-seated stool. “Yoga. And call the mental health clinic and make an appointment.”
She handed Minna a card, a written name on the front. “Ask for Dr. Stanley. He’s fabulous.”
The doctor turned to leave, and then looked at Minna one last time. “Your heart is trying to tell you something. It’s best to listen.”
Minna sits with her ex-husband, a man who is now someone else’s husband. Neal and his new wife are both elementary school teachers, popular at their school, and they were married in the middle of the kickball round before the school day started, in front of the students and teachers, all of it caught on video Minna’s mother sent her.
Neal and she are sitting at a picnic table at a park near his school, a lake lapping at its manmade shore. She sneaks glances at him, recognizing the slight scar on his left cheek, the texture of his light brown skin, the whiteness of his teeth. But in six years, he’s turned almost completely gray, and he looks more like his father than the boy she married over twenty-five years ago. Nearby, children play on the structure, whooping as they slide down the curly plastic slide, and Minna swallows down sadness and turns her head to stare at the water.
“So how is the new house? You all moved in?” Neal looks away from her as he asks, a finger rubbing an etched mark, someone’s name jagged in the smooth, old wood.
“Pretty much,” Minna says. “We did a lot of remodeling. And the whole yard needed landscaping. The price of home ownership, I guess.”
For a moment, the houses Neal and she owned together flick through her mind like a slide show.
“Good tax deduction,” he says finally, as if he just watched their entire married, home ownership life pass before his eyes, too.
“It is,” she says, thinking of the forms and legal papers she filled out and signed before the purchase, the potential dissolution of the contract clear before it had even started.
“How’s the wedding planning going?” Neal asks.
“Good,” she says. “And, well, that’s what I needed to talk with you about.”
“I can’t come,” he says.
“I can’t invite you,” she says, knowing he doesn’t really want to come.
They pause, three cormorants flapping across the water, their take offs low and furious, wing tips dipping into the water even as they try to leave it.
“The thing is,” she continues, “is that I need Michael to stay with you for that weekend.”
Neal stares at her across the table, and in that glance, there they are again, staring at each other across the hospital gurney. They are pale, afraid, their fifteen-year-old son between them, their son who has taken so much LSD he’s been given an elephant-sized portion of Haldol, which has necessitated an elephant- sized portion of Benadryl to counteract it. The Haldol caused a coma-like response an hour after they brought him home from the hospital. They raced back, and there as he lay flat on his back and stared unmoving at the ceiling, Minna was sure she’d lost him forever.
But ten years later, he’s still with them, and now he has a girlfriend, Clea, who likes to get drunk and scream, Michael getting angry and riled and screaming right back at her. On the New Year’s Eve prior, they did so at Neal’s house to such a degree that Neal’s now-wife Dorie told him in no uncertain terms could those two ever, ever stay with them again. Ever.
“Is Clea coming?” Neal asks.
“Yes,” she says.
“I can’t,” he says.
They are silent, Minna turning to watch two mothers gathering their things and scooting their children out of the play area. How hard that time had been for Minna, how long and boring and relentless. They’d been so broke before she got her job, and she went to every free park and museum day and public space in the Bay Area that she could find. When the boys napped, she did her homework, passing off the kid baton to Neal when he came home so she could go to her classes at San Francisco State.
Now that she’s been at the Metaphor Publishing for twenty years, it seems like a life time ago. And it was. She barely remembers what that thick grade of sand felt like in her hands, when before, it was in every shoe, every pail, every sandwich. If she could close her eyes, she could feel a grain of it between two molars, the sound of the crunch cracking in her skull.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “But they are wrong together. If he comes by himself, it’s fine. But no Clea.”
“She’s not that bad,” Minna says, though of course, Clea is that bad: loud, opinionated, and adamant about not using deodorant. Instead, she sprinkles patchouli on everything, as if scent and sweat are better than sweat alone.
But if it were up to Minna, she’d put Michael and Clea in the downstairs rec room on a blow up mattress that she would buy as soon as she left the park. She wouldn’t mind that Stephen’s mother and father and her best friend Sue and her husband Robert will be in the house, too. But Stephen minds. Stephen is in step lock with Neal on the Clea issue.
“They don’t have any money,” Minna says, knowing that Michael will have long spent his paycheck, small as it is, and his food stamps will be gone. Clea is still in college and living on grants and loans. Since graduating from college, Michael has refused to work a job that pays well, insisting on writing and focusing his energy on small social insurgencies, such as protesting the war at the Tacoma Army base.
“Motel,” Neal says. “I’ll help out with that.”
Minna shakes her head. ‘It’s my wedding. I should take care of it.”
Neal looks away, and Minna knows that both her weddings were hers. Michael had been ten months old before Neal agreed to get married, and then twenty years later, when she wanted to be unmarried, he held on so hard, she thought they’d both explode. But then the divorce papers arrived. And now they are sitting here, their lives drifting apart, two new people on the rafts. The only things that connect them are their children and the past they will always share but the past that grows smaller every day.
“It’s okay,” Minna says. “It’s all right.”
Her father died so long ago, she can’t remember what her heart did back then, how it acted. All she remembered was the tired, sad man in the bed, a man who only months before seemed huge, looming over everything she and her two sisters and mother did. He was a tall man with black hair and a large nose and bigger laugh. His arm span was like an albatross’, so big he could touch either wall of a small room. His laughter could turn into a yell in less time than it took Minna to start running away from him and his punishment. Once she made it to the pool parking lot before he slapped her across the face for asking him one too many times if she could go to a friend’s house.
But Minna’s fifteen-year-old heart? All she remembers is how heavy it felt, the heaviest thing in her body, heavy enough to pull her to floor and keep her there forever.
“Did you call the wedding planner?” Stephen asks when he returns home from a late day at the office, a squash game, and a meal with a colleague. “Did you tell her about the food?”
“I did,” Minna lies. “She’s on it.”
Stephen nods, takes off his tie, unbuttons his shirt. He is a good looking man, ten years older than her father who died at 43.
Her heart does a lurch, a blubbering flip, and she brings her hand to her chest, trying to press away the movement.
“So we don’t have much more to do,” Stephen says, slipping off his pants. His underwear is dark blue, smaller than any other male underwear she’d ever seen until he disrobed in front of her the first time. Neal and Michael and her younger son Nick wear boxers. Stephen is elegant, a race horse, muscular and sculpted, and fine, like art. After the initial shock of his underwear, she couldn’t stop looking at him, and still she stares at the way his muscles insist on elevation, pushing up from bones in smooth, strong ridges and flares. Boxers would look like vandalism, like graffiti, on his white, slim body.
“Just cleaning the entire house, getting the windows washed, fixing the decks, and making sure that everyone in the wedding party is prepared.”
“You mean buying a suit for Michael,” he says, hanging up his pants.
“Suit, socks, underwear, tie, shirt. Probably a razor, too.”
Minna doesn’t say what she’s feeling, which is really only tears. But Stephen is right. She will have to buy all of that for her oldest son.
“Naomi is wearing her prom dress from two years ago,” Stephen says. “And let’s hope Sarah doesn’t borrow a dress from that little friend of hers Tia who looks like a prostitute whore.”
Minna’s younger son Nick is the only one who has a suit, who wears “real” clothes, who works at an investment firm in the suburbs where ties and shined leather shoes are the norm. But even so, they are all beautiful children, even if they look like unshaven prostitute whores.
“She’s a beautiful girl,” Minna says, though the dresses she borrows seem as slim and fine as spider webs.
Stephen shrugs, nods, smiles to himself as he smoothes his suit jacket with a fine, strong hand. “She is.”
“It will be fine,” she says, getting into bed.
“I know,” Stephen says. “I worry.”
Minna nods, understanding that.
That night, Minna lays awake, focusing on her garden because it is something that needs constant tending, something that can be fixed if she makes a mistake. Plants and soil can be dug up and replaced; she can sow fertilizers and amendments, changing everything just like that. She thinks of the agapanthus patch, the way the plants need to be separated, the tubers growing thick and pulling out of the soil. She imagines bringing new bags of rich dark earth and spreading it and fertilizer over the patch, filling in the spots from those plants dug up, fixing everything until it is smooth and weeded and healthy. She works and works, ignoring the flip in her heart, ignoring everything but the umbrels of almost purple flowers, the sun on her shoulders, face, the light breeze moving her hair.
By the end of July, Minna knows she’s dying for certain. Blood is pooling in some untoward place in her chest, sloshing around and keeping her from thinking. At work at her desk and at meetings, she counts the missed beats of her heart, the one, two, three as it flubbers around like a squid. And then it gets back on track for minutes, hours, long stretches of day. She’s gone online to research peri-meopausal heart irregularities in women or heart disease women peri-menopausal. She clicks out of Google before reading past hot flashes, of which, at least, she has none.
She makes three appointments with her doctor, and then cancels them online. Something inside her tells her that it’s nothing important; something else tells her it is. Minna doesn’t want to know which voice is right. And she can still hear the doctor from years before saying “Swimming. Yoga.”
Minna counts. Flip, beat, beat, beat, flip.
She never calls the wedding planner, but the wedding planner calls her and Minna is able to mention the food, how the caviar seemed too salty, the food served to them at the tasting lukewarm.
“I’m on it,” Fay, the wedding planner, tells her. “No worries.”
But Minna does worry. She holds her hand to her chest and walks the backyard when she gets home from work. She drinks red wine—because it’s good for hearts—even though she hasn’t lost a pound despite having given up peanuts. She doesn’t call Michael, and she doesn’t reserve a motel room. Instead, she buys an air mattress and hides it in the closet.
“How’s the planning?” Stephen asks.
“Great,” she says.
“Better be,” he says.
The rest of the children do not call, though Michael finally does toward the end of July to let her know that he and Clea will arrive the first week of September.
“A suit,” he says, when she tells him of the shopping plans.
“Better than jeans,” Minna tells him. “For the photos.”
She can’t even call the photographer to make sure everything is all right. For once, she wants things to proceed perfectly without her worry or guidance or words. She wants life to push forward like a wave, natural, powerful when it should be, ending when it’s time. For once, Minna doesn’t want to have to keep track, as she did when her boys were small. And what good did that do anyway? Everything went wrong despite her constant vigilance. Everything broke despite her careful clutch.
One evening when Stephen is out playing squash, she pulls out the air mattress, unpacks it, and turns it on, the bed filling—just as the box says—in less than four minutes. She lies down and closes her eyes, realizing that here, on the third floor on a terrible bed, her heart is smooth and regular as time. As she did with her other sister Rachel when they were little and slept outside in two sleeping bags zipped together, Minna imagines she’s on a raft, but no one else is with her now. She’s in the lake, all alone.
“Did you call yet?” her best friend Babs asks. “Did you go in?”
Minna shakes her head, sighs, breathes into her cell phone. “No.”
“My god! What are you waiting for? Heart failure? A stroke.”
“It’s not my heart,” Minna says. “I told you that last week when you asked.”
“But last week you promised me you’d go in. I let you off the hook with your psychosomatic explanation. All that stuff about the past. But it’s still happening? Now I’m sure someone will find you in a stairwell or something.”
“Really, it’s not my heart.”
“It’s him,” Babs says, her voice full of accusation. “I know it. I told you that last week.”
“It’s not Stephen.”
“I may be your matron of honor, but you know what I think about him. Tasty on the outside—“
“Got it. Loud and clear,” Minna interrupts.
“Your mother agrees with me,” Babs says. “And I never agree with your mother.”
“She didn’t want me to get divorced.”
“She wants you to swoop back in and take Neal away from that control freak Dorie. What is it with the two of you? You get divorced and both of you end up with mini Attilas.”
Minna looks out her office window, all of San Francisco hidden by fog.
“Look,” Babs says. “I understand. You know I do. But seriously. You have to do something about your heart.”
“It’s not like we can go back to the way things were,” Stephen says on the last day of July, both of them sitting in the living room. He is tapping his fingers on the arm rest. “How can we live in half or maybe?”
“Trying to be something is worse than just being how we are,” she says. “I needed to tell you that.”
“How are we?” he asks. “If you aren’t sure you want to get married, how can we be how we are?”
Minna shakes her head. “More isn’t always better.”
“It’s not more I want,” Stephen says. “It’s something permanent.”
“No, it’s not,” she says, thinking of Neal, thinking of her boys when they were small.
“Fine,” he says. “But the intent is.”
“So what do you want to do?” she asks. “I just can’t do it now.”
“There are only two answers to the question I asked you in December,” Stephen says.
“I know,” she said.
“There isn’t a maybe,” he says. “It’s not like we can go on if we can’t go on.”
Minna isn’t so sure about this. She’s gone on for a long time since she knew she couldn’t go on. Since she was fifteen, she’s kept living the entire time.
Stephen stands, shaking his head, staring at her, his eyes big behind his glasses. “I need to leave now.”
That night after Stephen has gone, she listens to her heart, hears its message in code, but it’s no longer trying to tell her anything. In fact, it is so smooth and regular, she can’t sleep. Instead of thinking about the agapanthus, she remembers her two boys playing in the sand at the park. There she is, reading a textbook for class. They are sitting with their buckets all around them, the picnic lunch behind Minna in a bag. In this dream, the sun is shining and it’s so long ago that nothing new that was bad has happened yet. Her heart in this dream beats slowly, the heart of an athlete, one, two, the answers to everything so clear.
Copyright Barksdale 2011