He shouldn’t have been hoping what he was hoping. Although his mind was muddled, and his energy flagging, Simon knew in any other context what he wished for would have signified a deep, underlying disturbance. A circumstantial psychopath, he reclined in his multi-purpose bed, one part entertainment center, another part cafeteria, library and pharmacy, but mostly incarceration on a Posturpedic. Simon had grown to abhor pillows, discomforters, scratchy sheets, and the flat bouncy surface of his mattress. When he survived this ordeal, if he survived, he would eliminate beds from his life. How, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps he’d live in a yurt and sleep on the cold, hard dirt.
It wasn’t just the fact that his grey hairs had overtaken the auburn ones and that his sideburns and beard were so wizened that his grayish pallor blended with his skin tone, but that he was one layer of skin away from becoming a Day of the Dead dancing skeleton. With his glasses on, he was a Dickensian scholar-ghost hybrid. So as to not spook himself daily, Simon draped sheets over every reflective surface in his house.
Simon spent untold hours peering at the medieval-style stained gold and ruby glass panel Sophia had hand-crafted for him while studying mosaics in Florence. It featured hands reaching up, cradling a winged heart on the verge of releasing it. When the morning sun shone through, he was convinced the heart was just about to take flight. But when darkness fell, the heart was firmly ensconced in the hands; if they had let go, the heart would have plunged into an abyss of defective hearts. He was irritated with Sophia for designing an image that planted doubt in his mind. But she had crafted it, and they had installed it together, when a winged heart had a completely different meaning. Simon considered obscuring it with a tapestry, but he couldn’t bear to stamp out Sophia’s presence completely.
As the weeks wore on solitude had downgraded to solitary confinement and his bed, which he had once joked was a pleasure palace of carnal delights, was now the loneliest place on the planet. “The only thing sharing my bed is a medical alert beeper,” he would tell anyone willing to listen, which were, at this point, mostly medical types who were paid to care.
Being a prisoner in his own bed left him in the company of ruminations and what-if scenarios. With each passing day and each emerging symptom—bone-deep fatigue, heart murmurs, dizziness, and swelling in his fingers and toes—his thoughts ventured where no man’s mind should go. He envisioned all the mountain biking, kayaking, rock climbing, skateboarding, drag racing, and motorcycling going on outside as he laid in wait. Simon willed one such activity, just one, to go awry in the nick of time. He was a vulture of a man, circling his prey, waiting to swoop down to a strewn-out carcass on an empty expanse of highway.
In seconds, a nameless, faceless beating heart would be plucked out and plunged into deep freeze.
Which is what he imagined could happen to his fragile heart if he continued to bestow it to his precious Sophia with waist-long gold-spun hair, intense green-blue eyes, and calloused artisan hands. His Sophia, the atheistic glass-artist who was commissioned by churches and temples and cathedrals to create windows to the world for believers. He kidded her about making Jesus, Mary, and Moses glass when she viewed them as false prophets and posers—objects of worship that made people rise up in rage-filled intolerance. Composition in beveled stained glass through which the sun’s rays created fractals and lulled worshipers into a sense of goodwill toward men—if only for the length of the service.
That’s what she adored in Simon; he was pure goodness.
Pure goodness, and a heart broken not by love or life, but by pure bad luck.
In an act of self-preservation, after hours of deliberating and watching Sophia sleep, Simon walked out on her on a blistery, rainy night without an umbrella or slicker or wellies and plodded for miles along a deserted beach littered with sea-carved driftwood and tangled strands of seaweed. He resisted returning to her arms, despite her tearful pleas. She reassured him that she would stay no matter how debilitated he became, but he didn’t believe her. Sophia was a gypsy at heart, not a homebody, and certainly not a bedside nurse. She would soon tire of caregiving; stifled resentment would taint their bond. What had brought them together—a spirit of adventure—would drive them apart. Simon knew for certain that her wish list did not include camping out at his bedside, willing a beeper to go off before he reached the point of no return.
He had to be preemptive, protective of his failing pump. Just how many beats were left in it, he didn’t know. Any beat could be its last. He couldn’t risk his heart with anyone, not even Sophia. His mantra became, “better an ache than a break.”
* * *
When his friend, Lola, and her version of the British invasion, strode into his home-bound medical unit on a bi-weekly basis, armed with Kentucky Fried Chicken, cream-filled donuts and hours upon hours of British comedies tucked in her satchel, Simon got a reprieve from the roulette wheel guessing game.
“The Colonel’s greasy bits again, Lo?” He attributed her obsession with KFC to her lack of it as a girl growing up in the English countryside, and to its similarity to greasy, paper-wrapped fish and chips.
“Simon, you might as well live it up now; if this is it, why not enjoy it? And if it’s not, you’ll have a new ticker to replace the one that you’ve subjected to grease and grime. It’s a win-win.”
Lola was furiously texting while setting up their picnic on his bed. She belonged to the new breed of multi-taskers that Simon frowned upon—never able to enjoy simple pleasures, one activity at a time.
“Is my company not enough for you, Lo? Must you do that low-life activity in my presence?” asked Simon. “What are you saying that just can’t wait? I’m about to eat KFC with a shut-in? Rescue me!”
Lola looked from her phone. “Simon, stop! You need to get with the program. It’s basically text or die.” And then when she realized what she had said, she froze. “I didn’t mean it like that…I just mean, hop on the train to the future.”
“If that’s the future, I’ll stay on the platform, thank you.”
Their friendship was still fresh; they had only known each other for a few months when Simon’s condition had deteriorated to bed-ridden with a beeper. He prepared for Lola to jump ship, like most of his friends, but amazingly, she endured without evenings on the town, adventurous escapades, and meanderings through the cityscape. Just bed, bath, and no beyond.
Even before she plunked down in the uneasy chair, as she called it, Lola was munching on an extra-crunchy chicken leg, posing provocative questions between bites. “Simon, do you think you’ll have a change of heart?”
“That’s the whole idea, Lola.”
“No, about life and love and matters of the heart, you silly goose.”
“It’s just a slab of meat in my chest. So, no.”
“I don’t recognize that work. Which American poet are you quoting, Simon? It’s got to be one of yours; we Brits would never be so vulgar.”
“The beefniks, of course.”
“Word to the wise; don’t try to seduce anyone with that line.”
“It may be a slab to you, but I cherish it.”
“Do you want me to have them pickle it for you? I’m sure that could be arranged.”
“Good thing I’m on to the donut course. I couldn’t stomach this while eating breast meat.” Lola rolled her eyes while reaching into the donut box for one with colorful sprinkles. “So I was reading about this middle-aged white chap who received a heart from a young African-American guy. The recipient was surprised by his new-found love of classical music. What he discovered was that the donor, who loved classical music and played the violin, had died in a drive-by shooting, holding his violin case to his chest. What if you start having random cravings or new-found talents, or even a new personality? Cool—huh?”
“That’s a fairy tale, Lola. A heart is a just a heart.”
* * *
In the early morning hours on his 57th day of bed rest, when the sun had yet to make its flashy debut and nearly launch his winged heart, Simon’s sleep was interrupted by an insistent electronic beeping. In his dream, he was hooked up to a heart monitor. “Don’t let it flatline! Don’t let it flatline!” he repeated frantically to Sophia, who was standing at the foot of his bed modeling a sexy nurse’s uniform circa 1950, not a live person, but a mannequin who couldn’t save him.
When Simon realized he wasn’t perishing in the company of Sophia, the figurine, he discovered the source of the interruption—his beeper flashing, vibrating, and beeping like a mini emergency unit. At long last, his sole constant companion, his promise of restored health, his lifeline was doing what it was meant to do. The time had come. A part of him hoped it never would.
Don’t ask for whom the beeper beeps; the beeper beeps for thee, looped in his mind as he was whisked in the ambulance to the cardiac transplant unit.
Once in pre-op, events unfolded like a film clip in fast forward. IV in, anesthesia mask on, Simon went under. For seven hours. Split open and splayed out on a table, the cardiac surgery team, detached the old and reattached the new.
Four days later and finally strong enough to breathe on this own, Simon was transferred from the ICU to the transplant unit. The pain medication had dulled and a searing pain ripped down his sternum, leaving him breathless and motionless on an electric bed, which, if it had any more functionality, might actually fly.
In the transplant unit, nurses scurried, hovered, and positioned devices. They turned dials up and turned dials down, switched regulators on and switched them off. It took all Simon’s energy in reserve to utter, “More pain medication. Please.” His words came out in a raspy whisper, breaking the silence after four days of intubation.
A shadow crept over him, obscuring the greenish white florescent light pouring down. When the shadow’s presence persisted, Simon squinted his eyes to discover the cardiac surgeon towering over his bed, poised to deliver his ebullient post-op report, “How are you feeling? You did good, Simon. You did really, really good, old boy. And you’ll be happy to know I got you a good one.”
“A good one?” Simon’s voice was rough. He didn’t have the energy to clear his throat.
“A good heart.”
Simon wasn’t sure of the proper response to this comment. “Oh.” Then he thought he should do better than that, given that the guy had saved his life. “Thank you, Doc. From the bottom of my new heart.” Simon was relieved he could pull off a little levity.
The cardiac surgeon lowered his booming voice to a hush and leaned in, “Listen, Simon, I’m going off-record to tell you this, but I thought you’d be happy to know that you’re now the proud owner of a 15-year-old heart.”
A good ten seconds passed as Simon absorbed this jarring newsflash. “Uh…A 15 year old?” He wanted to share the doctor’s enthusiasm for fresh organ meat, but he couldn’t prevent himself from reacting. Simon’s eyes fluttered; he felt flushed and a little faint, and tried in vain to mask his horror. “Good God.” A heart’s a heart, he reminded himself to stave off the panic.
The doctor either missed Simon’s reaction or chose to ignore it and proclaimed, “Just like that, you’re new and improved! You’ll be up and running in no time.”
“Doc, much appreciated.” Although it wasn’t the doctor’s work securing the raw goods; just the painstaking insertion. It was the handiwork of twisted fate that a kid’s unthinkable tragedy was his luck.
In a hushed voice, the surgeon said, “Snowboarder upside down in a tree well. Poor boy. Probably didn’t suffer long, though.” Then, booming again, “And shazam! You’re as good as new.” The doctor gently socked him in the bicep. If he had been able to muster it, Simon was certain the doctor would have insisted upon a high-five. “If you need anything, let Kate, the Great, know. Okay?”
On cue, a nurse dressed in green scrubs with a red ponytail, a baby face, and high color in her cheeks appeared over his bed. She didn’t fit her moniker; instead she looked more like Kind Kate.
“Simon, how you doing, Sweetie?” she asked as she prepared to shove a thermometer in his mouth.
“Sure. Try me. I’ve heard it all.”
“A little unnerved, queasy, and dizzy.”
“Open, please,” she ordered and inserted the thermometer. “The doc said everything went perfectly, Simon. The dizzy and queasy feelings are the anesthesia’s after-effects. Sometimes it takes days for it to wear off.”
He tried to talk through the slit in his mouth, but she shushed him. “We need an accurate reading. It will only take a minute.” She paused and said, “Okay, open.” She extracted the thermometer and read it. “Good. Very good.”
“Kate, couldn’t they have found a better match?”
“They found a perfect match for you. It has to be perfect—blood type, etc.; otherwise, it won’t take.”
“No, I mean someone with more life under his belt. He was only 15. Just a kid. I should have given him my heart. Not the other way around.”
“It’s not a heart match dating service, Simon. As you can imagine, the heart harvesting process is completely random. Whatever comes in that day is what you get. Just think of it as the catch of the day!” Realizing she might have sounded a little glib, she added, “Don’t worry yourself with it. That’s how it works. Anyway, the Doc shouldn’t have told you about the donor. You’re not supposed to know.”
“He was snowboarding. Just out for a day of kicks. God knows how many of those days I’ve miraculously lived through. If I had to count them, it would be in the thousands,” said Simon.
Kate’s gaze fell, and then she busied herself adjusting tubes and latches and the IV drip bag. “My boy is a boarder.”
Simon grabbed her arm with his IV-injected hand, like a corpse coming to life, “Tell him he can’t; tell him about this boy and about me. Promise me you’ll do that. If there’s anything to learn from this, it’s that.”
Kate thought for a moment and looked as though she might agree to his directive, but then said, “Simon, we can’t stop them from living.”
“No, but we can stop them from dying.” Simon held her gaze.
Kate snapped back into nurse-mode, adjusting Simon’s bed downward and arranging his table, liquids forward, pills back. “You need to get some rest. It’s going to be a long road to recovery, and you’ll need all your strength and then some. Word to the wise, don’t worry yourself sick with this—okay? You’re not out of the woods yet. Do this boy a favor by seeing to it that his heart does the trick for you.” With that, she flicked off the lights, whisked the curtain around his bed, and disappeared.
Simon drifted into a pain-medication pumped slumber.
At 3:12 am, Simon awoke from a dream in which he was trapped in a burning house. When he came to, he realized that his chest was ablaze. All he could think about was dousing it with ice water to extinguish the flame. He was convinced that this is what heart rejection felt like. He buzzed the nurse on call, holding the button down until someone appeared.
A towering African-American woman appeared. “Yes?"
“I c-c-c-can’t. I d-d-don’t. Ohhhhh.”
“Okay, take it slowly. What’s going on?
“I, my, it’s burning. It’s not not right. S-s-s-omething’s wrong.”
She scanned the room. “What do you mean?”
He pointed to his heart.
She nodded. “Ah. Pain’s bad? Real bad? Right?” Simon nodded. “It’s not a rejection; it’s normal.”
“You c-c-c-all this? This…pain is not normal! I’m dyyyying here. In fact, I’d like to.”
“That’s crazy talk. We can get your pain down. Anything else?”
“I need Kate.”
“She’s gone home for the night. Perhaps I can help you.”
“It’s just that…This kid…I didn’t want…to do this to a kid.”
Seeing where the conversation was headed, she interjected. “You didn’t. Give this pain pump time, and you’ll be good to go. Alrighty then?”
The truth was his heart, the boy’s heart, ached for the boy, for himself.
* * *
Kate slid the curtain open with a gentle tug and let in the morning light. “Simon, you wanted to talk to me?”
“Yes! The nurse on the night shift didn’t want any part of this. I must get it off my chest.”
“I don’t feel like myself.”
“Of course you don’t; you just had heart transplant surgery.”
“No, not physically. Mentally. I’m thinking too much about this heart.”
“You see, I’ve been thinking. I don’t think this is going to work.”
“What do you mean?”
“What if it has never been broken?”
“What if what hasn’t been broken?”
Kate sighed and said, “It’s your heart now. It’s like buying a used car. The owner signs over the ownership. And you can do with it whatever you wish.”
“But don’t you see? I have what very few people have—a heart that has never been broken with the wisdom gained from a heart broken many times over. How would I do it differently if given a clean slate?”
“My guess is you wouldn’t do it any differently the second, third, or fourth time around.”
“I’m the keeper of his heart. I have to be careful with a heart so tender, a heart so young. I can’t be reckless with it.”
“How are you going to manage that in the messy business of love?” asked Kate. And then she added, “Don’t forget that you’ve arrived in this place because he was reckless with his body.”
In silence, Kate began her morning routine of checking all his vitals—blood pressure, temperature, and heart rate.
Simon asked, “What if when all is said and done, I reject this heart?”
Kate shrugged her shoulders. “It happens. Then you’ll have to get another one. Let’s hope you’ll be as lucky the second time around. But to ensure that this heart has a fighting chance, we’ll make sure your daily immune-suppression regime goes without a hitch.”
“Not my body—me.”
Kate’s eyes locked onto Simon’s and she steadied herself by leaning on his bed. “You’re kidding—right? You’re saying you might reject this heart, even if your body doesn’t?” Her whole body slumped as if diminishing patience were draining her life force. “If you’ll allow me to say this, I think you have too much time to think. You need to do something to occupy yourself—books, movies, computer games. Seriously, this could drive you nuts. It’s a done deal, Simon.” Before leaving, she added with insistence, “None of this is going to bring him back. You know that—right? It’s up to you to live your life now that you’ve been given a second chance. If I were you, I’d do something with it.”
When she left the room, he stared straight ahead. Kate was right; he should busy himself to take his mind off matters of his heart. He reminded himself that he had brought Pulitzer-prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel and Anna Karenina to polish off during his recovery. But the screen of his iPhone on the bedside table beckoned him to distraction. He picked it up and was drawn to the games and apps icon. When he touched it, hundreds of game selections displayed. He curiosity was piqued by Rhino Ball, Critter Crunch Lite, and Space Buster—all absurd sounding applications he and Sophia would have ridiculed, pointing out that it was further evidence of the downfall of modern society—the electronic equivalent of Roman frivolity and excess.
What if? A bolt of panic shot through his body.
After playing several rounds of Critter Crunch Lite and Rhino Ball, Simon found himself navigating to text messages, tempted by the ease of communication. He clicked Create New Message, scrolled down his contact list and slowed as he approached P, Q, R, S. Sasha…Sara…Selma…Solidad…Sophia.
Upon seeing her name, Simon’s new heart skipped, fluttered and then beat wildly in his beleaguered chest cavity. His torso stiffened—bracing, protecting his pump, waiting for it to seize up and falter. But it pumped with vigor; it pumped with might.
Inching further into the forbidden realm, Simon composed words he knew she would read. Her eyes, his words, her heart.
As he crafted the message, the boy’s heart safely nestled beneath his rib cage, soared, plunged, skated up and around a loop-de-loop, and landed, navigating the terrain with intimate grace.