The therapist carries her heart in a small paper sack. Like a lunch sack, crumpled and brown. Her heart is pulsing inside it. Her heart leaves a red splotch on one corner, like a strawberry stain. She thinks of it like an emotional transplant. With her heart in her body, the therapist can’t stop crying. With her heart in a sack, however, the therapist can take everything easily — the slash of sunlight in the rearview mirror on the morning eastward drive, the river choked up with cherry blossom petals, the stray cat making love loudly beneath her back porch — like she is taking in the blankness of a wall.
Transplant, she thinks.
She’s lying to herself but it’s a good lie.
The therapist climbs the steps to her office and sets her heart-sack on her desk. She shakes a shawl off her arms, punches the couch pillows into plumpness. Plugs in the side table fountain. Draws sheer curtains across a south-facing window, smooths the wrinkles out of her skirt.
She cracks open her heart-sack and observes.
So rhythmic, she thinks. Like it’s flinching. Like it’s being kicked.
There’s a notch in the cement wall behind her desk, a bullet-hole divot, or so she likes to think. She likes to think there was a woman once in this room, pistols blazing. The therapist likes to imagine this woman aiming at a man. Ping! Right past the hair by his ears. Ping isn’t the right word, the therapist thinks. The heart in the bag starts to palpitate.
A client knocks, and she stashes her heart in the desk drawer before letting him in.
Come in, come in, the therapist says, and ushers him to the couch. He perches on the edge of it. His hair is thin, and he clamps his hands around a throw pillow during the session, squeezing like he means to deflate it.
I’m not happy at my job, he says. I’m obsessed with landfills. I have a collection of sixty plants. Is that a hobby? I don’t have any hobbies. The therapist nods thoughtfully and is making marginalia on a legal pad for nearly an hour when he blurts out, I keep having this dream where I’m fucking my daughter.
He looks at her, then around her room.
The therapist says, Tell me about these dreams.
He tells her about the way, in the dreams, his daughter is shoving him off of her, but he is bigger and buckles her down.
She listens, smooths her face. He says he has these dreams nearly every night. He says his daughter is sixteen. That he pins his body down to the bed when he wakes up and refuses to walk past her room, even for a cup of water.
I’m not that kind of person, he says, nodding to himself, breathing heavily like he needs a respirator. The therapist blinks. It is easy to not react emotionally with her heart in her desk beside the paperclips.
Yet a thumping comes from inside the desk’s top drawer.
What is that? asks the client.
Oh, the therapist says. She touches her hand to her throat like she means to clear it, or like she felt a fly land there suddenly. She blushes. The therapist says, Excuse me. I can put it on silent.
She fake-rummages in her desk even though the heart in the sack is right there, on top of the Post-its.
She squeezes it, and the heart punches back. And she squeezes it. And the heart punches back.
Then the little bell dings and time is up.
The client leaves.
The therapist wraps her arms around herself like she is willing herself to become a building crawling with ivy.
She imagines that pinging sound and feels a snowy calmness settle on her shoulders.
The therapist asks her hairdresser to surprise her. She gets a plunging shampoo. A thousand snips. She is blow-dried so hot her scalp burns. Her new hair is angled, lopsided. The therapist frowns. She touches the edge of her hair and says, It’s different.
That man is coming back today, she thinks, looking at her head and neck cut-off at the cape. The dream-fucker.
She tries to pin back her new hair before he arrives, but one side is too short and falls out of its bobby-pins. She leaves her hair down. She holds her heart in a cloth tote this time when he knocks. She’s wrapped a paper towel around it like you would wet lettuce. Got to keep it healthy, she thinks, even though part of her wants it to shrivel up like a raisin. She massages it through the tote bag, wonders if maybe this time she can work it like a steering wheel.
It’s spring. Some kind of purple flowering bush in the neighborhood is surprising her suddenly — purple pinch-blossoms everywhere. Are these lilacs? she wonders. She never learned the names for flowers.
Her client shuffles in and sits, shoves his head in his hands. He says, I’m absolutely mortified. The way I feel — it’s like being hungry all the time.
The therapist wants to tell him these are thoughts, and thoughts are not realities. Thinking about choking your wife, for instance, does not mean you will choke your wife. Thinking about burning a building down does not actually cause it to burn. These are passing thoughts. But it’s been weeks and weeks of these dreams. She can see the purple-bruise of sleeplessness around his eyes when he looks at her.
I’m sorry, she says. You feel like…?
Like I’m starving, he says.
Starving, the therapist repeats. Let’s explore that. She watches the dust motes spin in the sunlight. She watches the client tap his feet inside his shoes.
Therapists shouldn’t reveal their hearts, she knows. It’s like the first thing they teach you. But after weeks of no progress, the therapist feels herself opening the cloth tote bag to the client as cautiously as though she were parting a dog’s mouth. He peers in. The heart cajoles to one corner.
Uhh, he says. What?
It’s my heart, the therapist says. She clenches her teeth together.
The client leans forward, like 95% off his seat.
This is an experimental therapeutic process. Remove the trigger. In this case, the heart, she says.
You think the problem is my heart? It isn’t my mind or…like, my libido…or something?
The therapist is unblinking, says, The heart is nearly always the problem.
She tells him to lie down.
So he lies down.
Take deep breaths, she says.
He breathes and she says think of something peaceful, so he thinks of ocean tides. He breathes and thinks of snow white clouds. Blades of grass waving. A rotating fan. He loosens his tie. He breathes. He breathes.
Now, she says. Open. Retrieve your heart.
He closes his eyes and winces as he unbuttons his blouse, like he’s taken a scalpel to his skin. And underneath his shirt his chest is already open a slit. He’s exhaling in slow shudders. A tear jams inside the wince of his eyes, and stays there, as the slit in his chest gets wider.
Picture a popcorn seed. It isn’t hurting you, but it’s a nuisance, the therapist says. Reach in and extract it.
The client reaches into his body. And there’s a loud slurp-sucking sound, like his body is a vacuum, has a strong gravitational center. His hand comes out soaked in juice. And what he holds — that heart of his — is small and wriggling, alive as a salmon, pink-red as a salmon… I must be getting hungry, thinks the therapist, tugging on one side of her lopsided hair. She starts craving tartar sauce. She can imagine a fork plunging through that heart.
The client gasps suddenly as the split in his stomach reseals, and his heart squirms out of his hands and lands with a SMACK on the hardwood floor, tapping wildly.
It’s a resonator! the therapist says.
It hurts, says the client.
The therapist nods. Yes. This is the work. She massages her heart sack.
A bell dings.
The session is over.
The therapist helps the man collect his heart, covered in a filmy layer of dust and crumbs, from the floor. His hands are shaking. His heart is punting, soaking wet. He wipes it on his tie.
Nothing is ruined, says the therapist.
Nothing is ruined, says the client, and stands.
If you want, I can keep it here, she offers, and so he does, right in the sack next to hers.
When he leaves, she kneels down and massages the heart-stain out of the floorboards.
Without her heart in her chest, the therapist floats a little. She feels lighter. When she walks, her steps are long, and her feet lightly brush the ground. She can think about her mother without feeling like a plant withering up.
Maybe I’ll even visit her, the therapist thinks, without any internal organ twisting, without breaking any bones.
Ahh, she says to no one in particular, walking up towards the grocery.
She picks up a peach and eats the whole thing, down to the pit, in the produce section. A woman near the limes watches the therapist surreptitiously. Drops a lime. Picks it up. Starts to nudge the peel back with her thumbnail. The therapist sucks the peach juice from her fingertips.
She pockets the pit.
When she sees her mother that evening, the therapist makes poor choices.
Cooks her client’s heart in brown butter instead of her own.
Her mother waits in front of the TV with a tray, while Benson and Stabler on TV track a pedophile into an abandoned library.
The fork plunges in exactly as the therapist pictured it. A heart is surprisingly soft. For a muscle, it shreds easily. Has a pulled pork quality. The therapist meanwhile nibbles on the edges of a peanut butter sandwich. Concentrates on the scraping tines, the dark tablecloth, her mother’s cavernous mouth. Afterwards, her mother eyes the therapist clandestinely.
Mary, said the therapist’s mother. Always withholding.
She licks the plate clean.
I wonder if I’m going to hell now, the therapist thinks the next day, rolling the peach pit back and forth across her desk. I wonder how many hearts it takes, the therapist thinks, and it’s crazy how she can think this without the acids in her stomach roiling, without tearing out her hair.
That woman has always wanted a piece of me, a big piece, she thinks.
Meanwhile, her clients are having unhappy sex lives.
Her clients are struggling with their kids who won’t eat anything but bathwater.
Her client wants a pet tree-frog but her boyfriend thinks animals are childish.
Her client wants to correct various parts of her body, sometimes her chin, sometimes her belly, sometimes her nose.
Her client sits, arms-folded on the couch, completely stonewalled, while her client’s husband pools on the floor in front of her client, weeping.
Her client feels like her body is on fire all of the time.
Her client keeps track of every man who ever loved her and when and how he stopped.
A bell chimes.
She says, Thank you.
She says, We’re out of time.
She says, See you next week.
When the man returns — heartless, now — he says he feels completely different. He says, well, he doesn’t really feel anymore.
And the dreams? the therapist asks.
I don’t have them, he says.
And your daughter?
She’s good. Happy. I take care of her. I leave her alone.
He leaves without asking for his heart back, which is a relief actually. A relief the therapist wasn’t exactly able to feel, her own heart in the back of the freezer for preservation’s sake.
Why am I preserving you? she wondered as she stacked bags of frozen strawberries around it like a fortress. But sometimes it’s good to have questions without exactly knowing the answer.
Here and now the therapist breathes evenly. Unplugs the fountain. Can tap on her rib cage and feel a sonic ping front-to-back without stopping. With no heart, it’s like standing in a canyon. It is yawning open, a beautiful cracked-apart-then-emptied feeling. There’s a wind in her body now. Feels good.
The therapist keeps advising her patients to open their chest, empty their contents.
They do it. They do what their therapist tells them to do.
It rains. It suns. It’s Tuesday, it’s Thursday, it’s Sunday.
The therapist goes to the market each night, devours a fruit, drinks in the woman drinking her in.
She has a collection of hearts in her office now, with tiny Avery labels.
I should tell her that, the therapist thinks, sucking a pear down to its center.
She squeezes the rind in her hand, and the woman ducks into the cereal aisle.
The therapist follows her, and they both pretend to look at different soup cans side-by-side without talking. The woman reaches out for a can of lentils. The therapist reaches for nothing.
When the woman walks away, the therapist watches her. She wants to feel something — a pang of agony. A twinge of regret. She reaches into her purse, where her peach pit is. It’s coarse and sharp and solid. It’s better than a heart. The therapist goes home, undresses, splits her chest just enough to let the peach pit in.
And it lodges.
It feels stone-hard and shrunken.
I should be worried, the therapist thinks. But she isn’t.
She places her hand over her heartspace.
It doesn’t beat.
Twice a week, the therapist feeds her mother hearts. An alcoholic’s heart. An anxious musician’s heart. A divorcée pharmaceutical rep’s heart. A teacher’s heart, caved in on one side.
Her mother devours them all. Has this habit of sucking on her fork after each bite.
But the therapist doesn’t give her own heart to her mother. Her mother knows this. Calls refusal “a stage.”
So the therapist boils a pair of hearts from couples’ counseling. Dices a squash, snaps broccoli apart into florets. She salts and butters and bastes. Her mother says, You have everything I’ve always wanted, Mary. You have the life I wanted for myself.
The therapist pours so much gravy on the hearts they can’t be tasted. She stands just out of line of her mother’s sight. She leans on the countertop and eats a floret with her fingers.
Stop punishing me, she thinks in the voice of her mother.
Then she leaves.
Afterwards, the therapist goes to the butcher for pigs’ hearts. Replaces her clients’ hearts with the heart of beasts, like in Snow White. Because eventually they will need something back. Something muscular and weighty, fatty and soft. She opens up each little labeled baggie in her office. Avery. Tristan. Ethan. Emilie. Ruth and Rueben. Lily. Ted.
The therapist dreams about a lending library of hearts. Dreams about adoptable hearts, fostered hearts, hearts that are orphans or neglected or underfed.
She dreams about trophy hearts. Winter-preserved hearts. Olympic gold medalist hearts.
The moon, meanwhile, is mooning. Making a big cheeked impression through her window. It’s a swoon-worthy moon, a moon bathed in milk light.
Her clients are doing better, the therapist thinks, objectively. She’s pretty sure. They aren’t causing or in any pain.
The therapist cancels all her appointments and drives to Minnesota. It’s a long drive. Like, fourteen hours. The therapist feels a flap of skin on her thumb from where she must have cut herself, but she can’t figure out when or with what.
She keeps rolling down the windows to let in the loud sounds of the highway, and so her hair can throttle around her head with insanity.
Going back to Minnesota feels like visiting the moon, somehow. The therapist hasn’t been back in nearly twenty years. The therapist grew up in Minnesota, hillsides soaked in snow. The therapist used to go sledding in t-shirts, used to crawl army style on her stomach through blizzards in her snowsuit, used to find deer tracks on the deck and rabbit tracks through the woods.
Without a heart in her body, the therapist can handle it, this splicing in-and-out of memory. This selective memory, without something searing around the edges.
Without the dog who bit her cheek. Without her sister who ran away. Without the mother who drank and beat and drank and beat and drank and beat, so boring, like so many other childhoods out there. This trauma of mine is redundant, she thinks. Who hasn’t been hit over the head with a wooden spoon. Who hasn’t been criticized and shamed and and felt a pain radiate from the top of the head to the base of the feet and wanting to die in a forest. Who hasn’t crawled their way into the earth a little screaming. Who even has parents who love them. Who even has a heart in their body they want anymore.
Years pass. The therapist is so old her spine curves forward. She finds her heart on accident. Thinks it’s a raisin. It’s raisin-like now. Eyeball-sized. Dense.
It must have fallen out of the freezer at some point. It must have rolled under the fridge and braced itself against a wall.
The therapist doesn’t have a mother anymore. Or she does, but that mother is scattered across Minnesota now. Or she doesn’t, but she feels like she does. Even holding this raisin heart is bringing feelings wearily back.
The therapist goes into her backyard and plants her raisin-heart in the fall, like a tulip. Six weeks before the first hard frost.
Why the hell not, she thinks.
Survive, she wills into the soil.
She forces out the peach pit from her heartspace, that solid, reliable star.
She plants that too.