We are drinking red wine at a restaurant when Beau tells me that the inventor of the modern-day stethoscope was a doctor too in love with a patient to put his ear up to her chest and listen to her heartbeat. I am drunk and silly, the smell of the wax candle melting down between us reminding me of birthday parties and celebrations. And Beau knows I am a sucker for stories of secret sacrifice: owners chasing off their beloved dogs, mothers spying on the children they only pretended to abandon. The idea of doing the right thing without the promise of praise or credit always makes me cry because I know that I am incapable of it.
The figure of the Doctor begins to take shape in my imagination. He is from a long time ago, a hundred years or more. He wears a waistcoat and a pocket-watch, but he always forgets his hat at home. He drives a Model-T if he’s wealthy, but, no, I know he is not. He rides a bottle-green Schwinn bicycle to work. There is a woven basket smack in the middle of the handlebars and a shiny silver bell on one side, both gifts from his married sister. He is too shy to ring the bell, to draw attention to himself in that way or any way. For a moment, the Doctor feels as vital and real to me as Beau, who has let go of my hand to pour himself another glass.
The Doctor’s love affair with invention begins when he can no longer monitor the quiet murmur of her heart without inhaling her sweet musk, enjoying the feel of her breath tickling his ear. He spends all his spare time sketching, building, and testing while wondering if other people notice his preoccupation. He worries that, without thinking, he will sketch a diagram onto the prescription pad, and even as he eats his lunch, it is a screwdriver, not a sandwich, he feels in his hand. When he is finally free to go to the workbench at the end of the day, he envisions flawless, fluid movements between object, pen, and tool: he will be a conductor, a wizard, a god. But, in fact, the process is difficult, even painful, the rubber tubing stiff between his fingers. He drops a handful of tiny screws and spends twenty minutes picking them up and putting them in a jar. As it grows late, he will begin a task only to realize he has forgotten why he is doing it, how all these smaller details fit together. How will he know when he is done? What if he hits the mark and does not realize, only to tinker until he has nothing more than the pile of junk he started with? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Some nights, he vows to abandon the entire endeavor, return to eating three square meals a day, take his nephew for a walk by the creek as he promised ages ago, finally let his sister introduce him to a nice girl. But most nights, he toils on, fueled more by self-loathing than anything else, eventually falling asleep slumped over his desk.
One of these evenings, the Doctor dreams that the woman comes to him. She is barefoot, auburn waves cascading down her shoulders and back, wearing a dark brown gown that matches her eyes. Lie down please, he says, as he always does when she comes for an appointment. He guides her onto the exam table by grabbing her bare arm, which is, at first, fluid, responsive to his touch, then, suddenly, rigid. His grip intensifies, matching the tightness in her limb, and now her arm is a crank, and he turns it, each click of the gears clear and enunciated. Between full cheeks, above her pointed chin, emerges from her lips the horn of a gramophone. He continues to turn the crank – there is no noise, then something – a scratching, a series of pops and cracks. The sound changes once again, not into music, but, instead, into the deep, muted sound of a heartbeat.
Beau starts waking up in the night, sweaty and shaking. He tells me that his heart is pounding, but it feels just fine when I put my fingers to his wrist. I tell him to go to a doctor, but he doesn’t. He tells me that he can’t sleep at night, the bangs from the radiator are so loud and irregular. Those distant clangs don’t bother me in the slightest, and I think that makes him angry. He takes increasingly long bike rides to settle his nerves. I can’t join him, because I never learned to ride a bicycle. This goes on for months, until finally he admits that he doesn’t love me anymore. This confession seems to be the cure to his ailment. I see his body relax as he recites a list of my worst qualities, like a plaintiff performing for a jury of his peers.
A few weeks later, Beau starts to call again. He leaves brief, glum voicemails about how it has started up again: the shortness of breath, the racing pulse, waking up to sheets that he has sweat through right down to the mattress. He begs me to pick up but seems to assume that I won’t. When I finally answer, he sounds shocked by what he has done and betrayed by my begrudging consent. Are you calling because you want to be friends, I ask? Do you want to get back together? Do you just want to say you’re sorry? In response to each question, Beau’s “no” is more certain, definitive. He announces, at the call’s end, that now he feels much better. I am a poured-out carton of milk; I am the empty space between blocks on a sidewalk.
The Doctor finally cracks it, assembling a prototype of what he tells the woman is an “aural cardio-phone” but that, privately, he has named after her. He has given this instrument everything he would have given the woman, had he the nerve: his attention, his care, his worry. Without placing on her a single hope or demand, he has watched the woman marry, have children, grow older but no less beautiful. Sometimes he thinks of the warm, tired looks the woman shares with her husband, the half-smiles they stifle, as their sons misbehave, run screaming in the yard or fidget in the church pew. These glimpses of life between a man and his wife transpire so quickly that any casual observer would miss them, but the Doctor is no casual observer. The woman does not love him, because he is practically a stranger to her, and the aural cardio-phone cannot love him because, of course, how silly, it is just a thing. Is this what it means to be a man, he wonders? To feel and feel but show nothing, ask for nothing? Is this what it means to be noble? These are questions the Doctor cannot answer, and it is not as though anyone else could hazard a reply – no one, after all, can read his heart.
It isn’t until months after Beau has ended things that I discover the truth: the modern stethoscope was, in reality, invented by one Rene Laennec, a French doctor in the 18th century who died from tuberculosis after treating a series of patients with the ailment. Laennec was a pious man, married later in life. There is no reason to believe he pined for the woman whose plump figure and heavy breasts made listening to her heart such a challenge. His notes suggest he was embarrassed, not enamored. My first impulse is to call Beau, even though we are no longer speaking, and reveal that we have been deceived. But then I am filled with rage and shame, as I realize that Beau might be the one who made it all up. And I know, I do know, that no story is entirely true or real.
Now, when I start seeing a new man, I find a quiet moment to put my ear up to his chest and whisper, “I can hear your heart beating.” It is a piece of small talk that only reads as intimacy. I have done my share of experimentation and discovered that, no matter how neutral or even chilly you make your voice, those six words land on the ear like a tender confession. After I speak, I observe his tense muscles and quickened breathing with the remove of a skilled clinician. His body knows what his mind cannot: that I have caught him in the lie he hasn’t told me yet.
Annie Berke is a scholar of film and television, a freelance writer, and the Film Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books. She lives in Maryland.