Michael never asks if Hector is O.K. or how his day is going or even if he is well; instead, he asks: “How is your heart?” The first time Hector encountered this question, he and Michael were sipping wine from plastic cups, their lips puckered and red. Afraid of explaining the floating in his chest, Hector answered with a lie: “Well.” Three months later, when he was asked again on the chilly top of a Ferris wheel, Hector answered with a little less restraint. “Weak,” he said. “Like it’s giving up.” All around them the park was a cluster of lights and polyphonic music. Michael’s shaggy hair danced in the cold wind as he nodded along to Hector’s talking and talking and talking about the difficulties of walking around with only half a heart.
The fact is that for all of his life Hector has fallen asleep to the beating of a half heart. His parents believed this was due to a premature birth: two months shy of the due date his mother went into labor, and afterwards Hector spent a month inside a warm incubator while nurses pumped him full of liquids and nutrients. His lungs were developed, but his heart had taken the hit. Hector wondered if the awkward moments of his formative years could be traced back to his incomplete interior. The boys and girls he crushed on all told him he hugged limply, without any firmness in his embrace. Photographers described his smile as “crooked” or, strangely, “disingenuous.” The first time Hector had sex he rolled over onto his side after coming, his body shocked cold, and he stared into the wall for hours, unaware that the very person to whom he said “I love you” lay next to him, confused and quietly hurt.
He told almost all of his later lovers, of which there were few, about the half heart. “No, it doesn’t beat slower than a whole one,” he would say. And still, whomever he was dating would press their fingertips to his wrist to compare the frequency of their pulse with his. None of them believed him, and in this way they sought out the truth. “It’s still a heart like yours,” he would tell them. “It fills me with blood and gives me life.” He would then shake his wrist free and breathe in, hoping that if he held enough air in his lungs he could put off crying until after the other person had left.
Things between Hector and Michael weren’t horrible before, but after the Ferris wheel ride all the magic in their relationship slowly evaporates. There is another dinner or two, followed by drinks in Michael’s neighborhood. They make several trips to the bookstore, where Hector watches Michael linger in the same aisle each visit, picking up a book by an author he read but who wasn’t his favorite, and slipping it back onto the shelf before they leave. A moving truck appears to deliver Michael and all of his things to Hector’s neighborhood—not his apartment because, Hector says, it is too small for the both of them. When they’re out on the street together, Hector walks slower than Michael. And at their favorite restaurant, when Michael reaches over to stroke Hector’s knuckles, Hector pulls away, resting the untouched hand in his lap for the remainder of their meal.
Hector believes Michael will explode. He waits for a fight, something loud and frothy with harsh words. But the frustration Michael feels does not boil over. It sours into sadness, which bubbles up between the two of them, until Hector wakes one day with a sigh in his chest and the unbearable familiarity of cool sheets, and a phone no longer buzzing with text messages.
After his breakup with Michael, Hector fears his heart might devour itself. You lose what you don’t use. When this idea morphs into a source of panic, Hector searches online for a doctor who specializes in matters of the heart.
The specialist he finds is a septuagenarian with a full head of hair. The existence of all that hair, the fullness of it, comforts Hector, and he decides he might be able to trust him. In the sessions they address Hector’s anxiety and the constant fluttering in his chest. He describes the emptiness of his heartbeat. He mentions Michael with both eyes desert dry.
One day the specialists asks, “Do you miss Michael at all?”
Hector slides as far back as he can in his seat, his spine conforming to the chair’s padded arch. “I don’t know if I’m capable of missing someone,” Hector says. “I think I’m missing out on what it must feel like to miss him.”
“So you’re numb?” the specialist presses.
Hector massages a spot on his chest. A dull ache pulls downward, settles in his stomach as a hard ball. “Maybe this is what it feels like to miss him?” Hector asks. He folds his arms and his eyes dip down toward the gray carpet, which is stained in spots of yellow and a concerning blue.
The specialist flips to a clean sheet of paper in his legal pad and starts sketching a heart. Hector assumes the drawing will be of an anatomically correct one, but the specialist executes the symbolic shape with perfectly symmetrical slopes at the top, an even point at the bottom. “You know, few people are actually wholehearted. It’s more common for people to either have three-fourths of their heart intact or one-fourth,” the specialist says, lopping the sketched heart into sections with a fat Sharpie.
“What about half?” Hector asks. He unfolds his arms, and then traces over his chest with his free right hand.
“Not as common,” the specialist says. He hands the legal pad over to Hector, who receives it like a sword, palms pointed up, the pad balancing on his fingertips. The lines he sees inside of the heart are warbled, some areas denser with black ink than others, a bunch of jagged riffs. He studies the sketch for a few minutes, imagining the various ways in which his heart may have been split in two.
“If you’ll let me,” the specialist says, “we can crack open your chest. We can determine the severity of your condition.” Hector considers the offer; he sits, listening to: the clock ticking, a whirling desk fan, the whisper of traffic outside, his own heart thumping. “We may not be able to make your heart whole again, Hector,” the specialist says after too much silence. “Close to whole is all I can promise.”
Before the anesthesia fully overtakes Hector’s consciousness, the night on the Ferris wheel blinks fresh in his mind. He sees it from above, from the perspective of a drone hovering feet away from their passenger car. The subconscious has little interest in observing Hector and Michael, so it flies lower, catching sight of another couple seated in the car directly below them. These lovers are exchanging open-mouth kisses, sloppy with smacking noises. There is heat and passion between them. It is clear from this slice of their anonymous life that neither carries a defective heart. Hector wonders if maybe they were more worthy of sitting at the highest point of the park, and then he slips into a medicated sleep.
As Hector lives in his memory, the specialist pries his fingers into Hector’s chest cavity. He peels back the folds of skin, scrapes away pockets of yellow fat, revealing the cavernous lump of a half heart. His assistant shines a light on the mass. Going into the operation, the specialist knew he would never be able to suture together a false half. He knew only more problems would arise with such an irresponsible solution, some new condition to taint Hector’s quality of life. With the pulsating organ settled in the palm of his hand, the specialist discerns at least two chambers, almost all the meat still intact. His assistant taps him on the shoulder, flashes the light closer to the heart’s surface along its rough edges where the muscle is shredded. And there, the specialist sees the pulpy meat of two remaining chambers. Though not complete, Hector has within him the elements of a whole heart. The specialist works quickly. He ignores the blood, dark and thick upon hitting the air, spurting out of Hector’s chest. He ignores Hector’s heartbeat, which fluctuates when the specialist rotates the half heart, when he connects a broken valve and applies pressure to the cavity. He ties the loose ribbons of veins and arteries together, pulling them into a tight, sinewy bow, so that what was once a grotesque half heart is now a solid muscle. Once the surgery is done, and the assistant is finished stitching Hector’s chest back together, the specialist is confident that he has done his absolute best to salvage Hector’s ability to love.
During recovery Hector moves from his bed to the bathroom, then to the kitchen where he prepares a simple meal of oatmeal in the morning or bland stew in the evening, and back to bed, where he collapses and sleeps without dreaming. He checks his reflection in the mirror everyday and tries to remember if life was always this hollow, that perhaps what was fixed was never really broken.
“Opening yourself up and examining what’s on the inside is never easy, Hector,” the specialist says over the phone. They speak once a week. “Change can begin if you want it to, but now it really is all up to you.”
Unsure of where rehabilitation should begin, Hector goes back to his very beginning. He listens to the love songs his parents played when he was a child, hoping the boldness of their love for one another and for him will heal him. He burns music onto CDs and plays twelve tracks in one sitting, memorizing the lyrics like a password to accessing a fuller life. He takes up an online cooking class. Following along with the woman on the screen he chops up raw meat for a zesty steak tartare, and he minces jalapeños and garlic for salsa. These acts of normalcy, according to the specialist, will remedy the past twenty-five years of an abnormal existence.
When his heart regains some of its strength from the music and his body is rejuvenated by an enhanced diet, he walks. If the day is snowy, he leaves a single set of footprints in the path that loops the perimeter of his apartment building, and by the time he returns from wherever he had wandered off to, the footprints are dusted over again. His journeys never take him too far. There is a coffee shop about two blocks from where he lives, in which he sips coffee and finds comfort in the clickity-clack of other customers’ computers. He avoids bookstores, but often will visit the library, a rotunda bursting with the rustling of pages and whispers of gossip. He feels now for perhaps the first time in his life no awkward glances coming his way, nobody suspicious that inside of himself he contains only a negative space.
Today Hector walks to the grocery store behind his apartment, the one with wide windows and intimidatingly long aisles. It is there, in the midst of a frenzied voyage for free samples and frozen burritos, Hector’s cart hits the back of Michael’s leg. Hector expected, in the way all broken-hearted people do, that if he ever ran into Michael again he would see him and question why he was attracted to Michael at all. He would think that there was no reason for missing him. But suddenly Hector is warm, flushed with thoughts of Michael and Michael and only Michael: his carnival laughter; how every morning he would greet Hector with a coffee-stained kiss; the way Michael spreads peanut butter on both halves of the sandwich to prevent the soft jelly from leaking out the opening between the crusts; and his belief that floating could be a beautiful thing. The memories ripple through him, fresh and exciting, but he knows that this Michael was always there. It was Hector who had been unable to meet Michael’s willingness to love with equal openness.
Now, Hector watches Michael open the freezer door. He watches him reach far into the back and pull out a pack of black bean and cheese burritos. “I thought you said these agitated your stomach,” Hector says. No formal Hello or awkward Hi there.
“They do,” Michael says, now looking Hector in the eyes. He laughs and places the frosty pack of burritos in Hector’s shopping cart. “They’re your favorite aren’t they? I was getting them for you.”
Hector’s chest tightens. Michael loosens the grip on his basket handle, which tilts from a balanced center more severely to the right. Then he says, “Hector, I’m happy to see you. I’ve missed you so much these past few months. How is your heart?”
Hector wants to say this: Living isn’t easy. On his worst days it feels like he is breathing through a paper bag, waiting for someone to rip out a hole. But he decides to say, “My half heart still aches and probably always will.” What he can’t possibly know is that Michael’s whole one feels twice the aching. Michael nods his head and Hector thinks he is going to apologize for the pain before the two go their separate ways. Instead, Michael loops his fingers through Hector’s leads them to his wrist. Hector thinks, Who’s to say that neither of us will be destroyed by this? Hector closes his eyes. He is waiting to feel the stark difference in their pulses. He believes Michael’s will feel more complete, but after a full minute, the beating feels exactly the same as his. He fears that Michael’s heart may become half before his whole. Or Michael’s might remain intact while his disintegrates. But in feeling Michael’s pulse swell under the touch of his thumb, he swears to himself that he can learn to cradle the heart of another inside of his own. Isn’t that reason enough to try?
Christopher Gonzalez grew up in Cleveland and now lives in New York. His work is forthcoming or has been published in Spit Lip, Modern Loss, The Vassar Review, and Chicago Literati, among others. A recipient of Vassar College’s 2015 Ann E. Imbrie Prize for Excellence in Fiction Writing, he is currently an assistant fiction editor at Barrelhouse. You can find him on Twitter: @livesinpages and on his website here.