Jen says, “Hearts aren’t even really shaped like this. They’re lumpier, with veins.”
We color valentines on the cream-colored carpet in my room. I glue red tinfoil hearts onto a doily, then wait for the glue to dry so that I can peel it off my fingertips. Twenty-six down and five to go. I add to the pile.
“And it’s not even in the middle,” she continues. She points to a valentine I’ve made. A person with a rainbow heart shining out of their chest. “It’s over on the side more.”
I just shrug and keep coloring, then fold my valentines into a brown paper bag to take to school.
My misshapen, mislaid hearts.
So I learned early on that the heart is deceptive.
On the playground with the girls at school, I chant my allegiance to seal friendships. We whisper the most solemn of promises.
Cross my heart, hope to die, stick a needle in my eye.
We trace our fingertips across our small chests, invisible X’s over hearts.
I wonder why we mark loyalty with pain.
Maybe it’s because pain feels like the ultimate self-sacrifice.
In third grade, the woman who lives next door to us has wrinkled hands and bakes strawberry pies. She grows lilies in her side garden, and the veins bulging in her legs are thick and tangled. I can see her working in her backyard from my bedroom window.
“She’s a witch, you know,” my friend Karen says, flipping through a comic book on my bed.
“No she isn’t.” I don’t know for sure, but I don’t want to be scared.
Karen joins me at the window, our faces pressed closer to the glass.
“Well, I think she is.”
Goosebumps start prickling on my skin, and my chest pounds.
Karen smirks at me from the side of her mouth. “Maybe she eats children. Maybe she’ll cast a spell on you while you’re sleeping.”
But the woman’s just weeding her garden, on her knees in the summer dirt. I stare at her, imagining my skin in her teeth.
“She probably has a cauldron in there,” Karen whispers, her lips almost touching my ear now. “She probably has a big black stone in her chest instead of a heart.”
I don’t say anything more, but we watch until the woman finally goes back inside, a basket of potatoes slung over one arm.
A week later I see her in the garden again, her back to me this time. Three monarch butterflies hovering near her.
Monarch wings escaping from her chest.
Who’s to say what’s in someone else’s heart, anyway? Maybe cold black stones or butterflies.
When people say their heart breaks, I think of fractured lines and cracks. Not fleshy and muscular and pulsing with blood like a real heart, but something more fragile, like an egg.
In Kindergarten I took a porcelain egg to school for show and tell. I held it in my lap as we sat in the circle. Lavender and red and gold, flecks of light and magic. The kids passed it around, one at a time, until a boy dropped it and it shattered like glass. All bits of eggshell, splintered and smashed across the carpet, some of the pieces still in his hands.
My teacher swooped in, scooped up the broken pieces with her hands. She had a long dark braid, played guitar and sang us songs like “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.” She smelled of lavender and soap and earth.
“We’ll fix it.”
That day while the other kids napped, she sat with me as we glued the shattered pieces onto cardboard, into a mosaic that looked like a starburst. Transformed into a work of art. We hung it on the wall, and the parents murmured and nodded when they saw it hanging as they stuffed their children into jackets and boots at the end of the day.
I want a heart like a porcelain eggshell.
A heart that even when broken splinters into something more beautiful than what it was before.
Grad school in Southern California, and the sky is creamsicle orange when the sand starts to cool. I’m sitting against the sea wall, watching the moon glow over the ocean.
Tonight, red rose petals are sprinkled over the sand nearby. A man leads a blindfolded woman by the hands. He’s made a ring of candles on the beach, a picnic in a basket. He leads her to the middle of the ring of candles and the breeze blows a tiny tornado of rose petals against her skirt.
He takes the blindfold off and she bursts into tears.
“Why? Why would you do this? It’s over. I told you it was over.”
There’s silence between them, almost drowned out by the waves of the ocean. I press my back against the wall, wish for sunset to hide me in the shadows, embarrassed to be catching the echoes of their intimacy.
She walks away across the sand, leaves him standing there in the flames.
“Where’s your heart?” he shouts at her back. The hoarseness in his screaming lungs like skinned knees and it makes me cringe. “What happened to your fucking heart?!”
As if you can somehow just misplace it.
I imagine lost hearts spread all across the world suddenly, left accidentally on park benches and countertops, with keys and checks to deposit.
Where is that fucking heart?
We both watch her walk off into darkness, rose petals scattering across the sand. Breadcrumbs to remind him of her misplaced heart.
When my son was born, my chest stretched so that it could make room for my expanding heart. It tumbled there inside of ribs, thumped out a new territory of space to hold all of the love.
The week before my daughter was born, I held my round belly with my hands and called my mom on the phone. Late July, and three full baskets of ripe plums on the counter from the tree in the yard.
“I can’t imagine being more in love than this. Like, splitting my love between two,” I say.
My mom has four kids. I think of her just then holding a four leaf clover, slicing her heart into four equal quarters to pass around.
“You’ll see. You think your heart can’t reach anymore, but it does.”
Inside my belly, my daughter’s unborn heartbeat is wild, a galloping horse.
My mom had bleeding hearts in the garden when I was growing up. Tiger lilies, Black-Eyed Susans, roses in varying shades. The bleeding hearts were my favorite, the way they dripped from the stems like jewels. The way their name felt both magical and dangerous.
I plucked the buds and gently peeled them, turning the petals into two rabbits, then a pair of slippers, then earrings, the way a friend had taught me. There was a rhyming song that went along with peeling the blooms apart. I’ve long since forgotten.
A friend gave me a plant a few years ago as a gift.
“Dicentra for you,” she said. I realized as I took it in my hands that it was a bleeding heart, and I replanted it in the garden.
It made me happy to see it there, the dangling pink buds, the slope of the stem. Nostalgia from my mom’s garden. Forgotten rhymes and rabbits.
That plant came up year after year, even when other seeds didn’t make it. Always forcing its way up through the ground.
I search for information on superstitions of the heart. Swallow a chicken heart whole to bring true love. Pierce the heart of a pigeon to send a curse. Carry heart-shaped rocks in your pockets for luck.
Everybody has an answer for something.
My daughter comes to me at breakfast one morning.
“I made up a new rhyme for cross my heart,” she says. She has on a red tutu, a silver unicorn charm on a chain. “Better than the old one. You know, about—a needle in your eye.”
“Oh, right.” Playground promises. I sip my coffee. “Let’s hear it.”
She clears her throat.
“Cross my heart, hope to fly, smash a cupcake in my eye.”
I tilt my head and consider it. “Hmm.”
It’s still not particularly appealing, but better than jamming a needle into your eye. And the thought of flying is always nice.
I take another sip of coffee.
“Yours is definitely better.”
She nods and twirls off down the hallway to her room, little dancing feet.
A raised red scar winds down my grandmother’s chest, curving towards her breasts.
She called it a pig heart because it made us laugh. When we were older, she explained that one valve was replaced with a porcine valve.
“Grandma has a pig heart,” we’d tell everyone.
When my mom and I drove to visit her in the hospital after the surgery, I held the map while my mom navigated looping mountain roads lined with spruce and white pine.
My grandma and I still played Scrabble on Saturday afternoons after that, and when she bent forward over the board to place letters, my eyes always wandered to the raised scar on her chest, wondering what it felt like to be cut that way.
I wondered if her heart felt different.
What happens when part of your heart is just gone?
There’s an old framed photograph of my grandmother. Younger, standing on the beach in Atlantic City. Smiling in a swimsuit. I look at her smooth chest in the photo, wonder if she ever thought that a red scar would slash across her heart one day.
I look down at my body, my heart, wonder what scars I’m still waiting for.
Anna Doogan is a writer, dancer, and mother of three. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Hip Mama, MUTHA Magazine, The Literary Kitchen, Arcadia Magazine‘s Online Sundries, and Threadcount Magazine. Her short story “Fires” was the 1st Place winner of the Hip Mama/Unchaste Readers Writing Contest in 2015. She lives in Portland, Oregon.