First published in Trunk Volume 2: Blood | 2012
He’d forgotten all about it until the nurse slid the needle into his arm. She misinterpreted his expression as pain, not surprise, saying: “It’s okay. It’s done.” He nodded, smiling tightly. He settled back in the chair and he closed his eyes and he remembered how he used to take an imaginary scalpel to his chest.
If you sat next to him on his way to school, or you collided with him at the supermarket, or – later still, and more unlikely – you shared his bed one night you would’ve had no idea what was inside him. An apple core, or a ball of tinfoil, or an inflated novelty balloon. For years, he smuggled all these objects in his ribcage, one at a time.
His first self-surgery exposed a nest of spiders. He heard the phrase ‘web of lies’ when he was just a kid and it didn’t take much conceptual hopscotch to find him lying awake, thinking about what kind of spider would spin those webs and where they’d make their home. Another memory surfaces: staring at himself in the bathroom mirror, opening his mouth wide to swallow as much light as possible. Any half-truths or guilt caused a new infestation of lie-spiders inside him.
He convinced himself they weren’t poisonous; that they maybe wove the kind of cotton that dentists pack into mouths or coroners into corpses. He had to see for himself. He’d poked at his bone-white chest, barely ten years old, memorising the structures underneath. Then it only took a sharp, imagined stab into the skin – like popping a sausage on a barbeque. He teased the edges and watched as he peeled open. Once he’d seen more horror movies, he could picture the organs more clearly. The first time, though, it looked just like a plastic skeleton with a nest of spiders for a heart.
Once he’d become more proactive with his medical procedures, he found it comforting to listen to his heart beat. He obviously didn’t waste enough time on handheld electronic games when they were outside his chest, so he stuffed himself full of them too. He was a cyborg, of sorts, with tiny LED characters racing back and forth under his ribcage. The promise of their muffled beeping was the only thing that got him through exams. He’d race home after school, see the actual games sitting next to his bed, and they’d disappear from his chest like bloody rabbits in a magician’s trick.
Sometimes his nervous habit led to outright plagiarism. There was a villain who used to fight Superman, years ago, called Metallo. Metallo had a kryptonite heart. There were all kinds of kryptonite: the green stuff killed Superman, but there were red and gold and black versions too and they all had different effects. Superman would grow tenfold, or become human for a day, or his powers would go mad so there’d be x-rayed skeletons walking around the Daily Planet. After accidentally appropriating Metallo’s heart from the colourful jigsaw of half-remembered comic book stories in his head, he sometimes has a chunk of glowing rock inside him, too. Not kryptonite; that’s much too rare. Something similar, hard and sharp. Something belonging deep underground because it leaked an invisible radiation.
In his defence, he never mentioned his habitual surgery to anyone. He never sought sympathy as he got older, or told a girl about it at a party. That’s probably why he’d forgotten all about it – no anecdotes circulating to keep it alive. Now he can’t imagine how he ever stopped looking for the scar. He used to stand, shirtless, feeling his breastbone for shiny Y-shaped tissue. It was stupid, sure. He always knew the surgery was just pretend. But he also knew, deep down, that a full decade of thinking about his skin separating, knitting itself together, separating again, just to insert a single olive, a ticking pocket watch, a piece of rotten fruit, someone’s phone number he was too nervous to call – you’d think it’d leave something behind. A zipper, right down his middle.
His second-worst heart was an attempt at positive visualisation. He wanted to turn this routine – taking up more and more of his waking hours – into something inspirational. Some dream of attending their own funerals but he fantasized about watching his own autopsy. When doctors cut him open with their literal knives their jaws would hang slack under their surgical masks! He imagined this particular heart with the airbrushed look usually reserved for posters of unicorns: a glass sphere filled with tropical fish. Only afterwards did it occur to him that it was a sphere, idiot. How do the fish get fed? He spent entire nights trying to picture it without this design flaw but the original always crept back, reforming hard as diamond. He had dead fish sloshing around in him for most of his twenties.
He wonders if this is why he’s never said “I love you” and meant it. Or maybe science class is to blame? Tables of elements; positive charges, negative charges; where he first saw, sitting there, a regular, biological heart. Begging for dissection. He remembers thinking no fucking way. He remembers, later, refusing to sign a donor card and his girlfriend who had a name that might’ve begun with S shaking her head, disappointed. He couldn’t believe that something inside him could be slotted into a stranger and start pumping away. And once he started his surgery, he could no longer picture his body cradling a human heart – but a jar of crude oil, an old air-sick bag, what was left of a bird by the road? He can remember exactly how they looked as he smoothed his loose skin back into place.
Now he opens his eyes and watches his dark blood filling the tube. He’s lightheaded, even goosebumped. He shifts his weight against the plastic covering the chair. “You okay?” says the nurse. A pinprick, he thinks. That’s all it takes. If this test doesn’t hold any answers, and if he just keeps feeling worse, maybe they’ll order an x-ray. Maybe he’ll finally see whatever it is inside him that keeps his blood from standing still.