Heartless by Teresa Milbrodt

It was easier to sleep with my heart outside my body, resting on the nightstand. I told my wife it was so I didn’t have nightmares, and while I worried she’d think I was a sissy, she nodded and didn’t comment. She knew I fretted about everything—finances, home repairs, people at the assisted living facility where I worked—so I guess it made sense.

I made up the lie about nightmares because if I’d told my wife that she was the reason for sleeping without my heart, she wouldn’t have cared, and that would have been worse. Still, I didn’t expect to wake up one morning and discover my heart was missing. I couldn’t find it under the bed or behind the nightstand. My wife was not sympathetic.

“It was a matter of time before something like this happened,” she said at breakfast. She always made the coffee and I told her how much I appreciated that. “You lose things all the time. I bet it’s beside the bed under your dirty underwear. Or maybe the cat knocked it off. You’ll find it again.”

I drank my coffee and was surprised I didn’t need sugar like usual. I wasn’t sick or sore, just a little empty, but more than that I had a detached sense of worry. What if my heart had fallen into the wrong hands? What if someone had come into our house in the middle of the night and stolen it? My wife told me not to be silly, since there were no signs of breaking and entering.

I said, “There doesn’t have to be breaking, just entering.”

“You’re being dramatic,” she said, implying my heart wasn’t that important. “Eat your toast and look for it later, when you have a clear head.”

But my head was clear and my heart was not under the dirty underwear. My wife’s heart stayed in her chest, so she didn’t have to worry about these things.

“My job gives me enough worry,” she said. She was a pediatric nurse, so I knew those words were true.
After eating her toast, my wife left for work. I finished my coffee and stared out the window. For a moment I wondered what I should do, but I picked up my car keys from the table and drove to the assisted living facility. That was the most dutiful course of action, and when you don’t have a heart, perhaps it’s easier to concentrate on duty.

I’d been sleeping without my heart in my chest for three years, maybe longer, since my wife stopped kissing me in the morning and before bed. I didn’t know what else to do. What was the correct course of action when you loved someone, yet had a feeling that they were settling for you? I didn’t understand the transition, how we started out in love and ended up as co-owners of the same house who happened to share a bed. The best thing I could say about my marriage was that it was mostly polite.

My wife was resigned to the partnership like it was a car she’d bought and didn’t like but didn’t want to sell. She didn’t seem to care that I loved her dearly, or rather loved the person she’d been, who was intelligent and funny and cuddly and thoughtful. Now she was tired, and quiet, but bodies at rest tend to stay at rest when they have gainful employment, a mortgage, and two car loans.

Usually I put my heart in before I went to work because I needed to be delicate there, delicate and caring since I worked around elderly people and stressed-out nurses and stressed-out family members though I was in the finance department. I ordered supplies for the facility and paid bills and sometimes acted as on-demand muscle when someone called me from the hall to help a patient who needed assistance getting into or out of a wheelchair.

Most of the residents had meals in the dining room. I had lunch with them, and sometimes dinner, since my wife didn’t care about eating together and said she’d have a can of soup or a peanut butter sandwich. She ate a big lunch in the hospital cafeteria where she and the other nurses conferenced about their small patients. That world was intimately hers, and one I did not want to enter.

“Those folks at the assisted living facility need company,” she told me, meaning she did not need company, at least not my company. Thinking about that was hurtful on the days when I had my heart in, but now that it had been lost, I was okay. I worked on budgets and spreadsheets, gave my assistant Amanda a couple inventory tasks, and wondered if someone was trying to do something evil with my heart, like enchant it to make me devoid of a soul. Or perhaps they were gluing lace and sequins to it, or cooking it with rice to make soup.

I was not excited for lasagna at lunch, and wondered if I should have taken a sick day, or a heartsick day, but that would be more trouble to explain than it was worth. Part of coming to work without my heart wasn’t bad. Everything struck me as a cool breeze, passing information about the number of cans of tomatoes and beans we needed to order, and the bottles of ibuprofen we had in the medications closet, and that Helen needed a hand getting into her wheelchair for a doctor’s appointment. I wasn’t cold, or unhelpful. I gave people hugs. I smiled.

When I sat down at my desk after lunch, I wondered where my heart had gone, and in the same absent sentence reflected on how suggesting divorce to my wife wouldn’t be worth it. She’d look at me and say, “Why would we do that?” ending the discussion. We didn’t have kids but I thought we needed a crisis to split, something to tell people so separation would seem legitimate. But neither of us felt like having an affair or racking up a ridiculous amount of credit card debt. Telling people my marriage had fizzled out would result in a lot of shrugs, and co-workers saying, “Yeah, so much for romance. Welcome to married life.”

I’d heard someone say that you should have at least three marriages, even if they’re to the same person. When you look at it that way you can’t avoid having three marriages, probably more, and it makes sense that you would like some of them more than others, but if you hit upon one that you didn’t like, what were you supposed to do? Wait for the next phase?

For the first several years of our marriage my wife had asked how my day went, but I didn’t ask how her day went because then she’d tell me. I thought sometimes she should take her heart out, too, since it would have helped her to be less stressed. She brought the shadows of her child patients home from the hospital. I saw them standing around our kitchen table, looking like they wanted to ask for a cookie or a hug. It was difficult for nurses to find the right-sized heart, not too big and not too small. Maybe they couldn’t fit everyone inside their hearts all the time. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Or upset. And I wasn’t upset, since my heart was still missing.

After work I didn’t feel like going home. I knew I needed to find my damn heart, which didn’t explain why I ended up sitting alone at a restaurant with a beer and a plate of cheddar bacon potato skins with sour cream, something my wife would have told me would lead to a heart attack. Could my heart be attacked if I couldn’t find it? Maybe it was currently under attack, so it didn’t matter if I ate the potato skins since the whole thing was out of my hands.

When we were first dating, my wife would have eaten potato skins, but now she worried about her hips and cholesterol, though I told her that both of those things were fine. Too often I found myself wishing she were more like the person I’d dated, the person I’d married. I still thought she was beautiful, but she didn’t smile anymore, she didn’t joke. I couldn’t lie and say that I’d been the same person for twenty-three years, but I kept hoping my old wife would come back. The new wife still knew who I was and retained her old memories, which was more disturbing than if those thoughts had been lost in the transition to her new identity.

I ordered another beer and wondered what to do about my lost heart, if I should hire a private investigator or scour the whole house or forget about it and focus on my job. Today after lunch when one of the nurses told me that Pearl, a longtime resident, would need to go to a nursing home, I didn’t cry. I comforted the nurse instead, because she was crying, and it struck me how many different occasions there were in which it would be nice to have my heart outside my body forever, such as funerals and budget meetings. Objectivity could be an asset.

As I drank my beer I started hoping that my heart stayed lost. Maybe when I returned home, I’d find evidence of an intrusion around my nightstand or bedroom door, a bit of hair from an ogre, shimmering green snake scales, or a thread of silver witch’s hair that disappeared in a puff of smoke. It would be nice to have an excuse to take a few days off work, get in the car, and go on a quest. I had plenty of vacation time, and my assistant Amanda was a sharp young woman with an accounting degree, a nice boyfriend, and a great heart. She could handle the office on her own for a week or two.

When I got home my wife was watching TV and gave me a nod from the living room.

I resumed the search for my heart with a new sense of purpose, scouring the floor around our window, the hallway outside our bedroom door, and the carpet around my nightstand, poking my fingers into small corners and hoping to find a speck of magic.

Instead I found my heart. It had wedged in the tiny space under my nightstand, which had short legs that lifted it an inch off the floor. I hadn’t thought my heart could fit there, but it was wide and thin and must have slid a little on the carpet. I couldn’t get it with my thick fingers, so I had to pull the nightstand out from the wall. I sat on the floor for a moment with my lint-covered heart, listening to the TV. Then I stood up and tucked my heart in my pocket and walked into the living room. I knew I needed to say something, ask difficult questions while my heart was still out of my body.

“How was your day?” I said. My wife was still slumped on the couch.

“Okay,” she said in a low tone that made it clear the opposite was true. “I’m tired.”

“Would you like some tea?” I asked. “Is there anything you want to talk about?”

“Why?” she said. When she turned to me her eyes were hard, almost accusatory.

“No reason,” I said. “I still can’t find my heart.”

“Too bad,” she said, looking back at the set. “Maybe tomorrow.”

I returned to our bedroom and sat on the edge of the bed, reading a magazine article on how vitamins weren’t that great for you, at least in pill form. After a few minutes, my wife turned off the TV and walked past me to the bathroom to get ready for bed. She came out wearing her cotton nightgown, put on her sleep mask, and tucked herself under the covers, facing the window. I slipped into the bathroom, took my heart out of my pocket, and washed off the lint and dust. I dried my heart on a washcloth, then padded to the living room to watch TV and make microwave popcorn, which was another thing my wife swore would kill me. In those dark moments without my heart, I wondered why she cared.

After finishing the popcorn, I figured my heart and I could take a drive on I-80, and head west with the big rigs. I wasn’t tired, and around five in the morning we could stop at a diner in Illinois, eat a greasy breakfast, watch the sun come up, and see how we felt. I slid my heart in my pocket. It was a durable little thing, I knew that now, but I felt it beating while I was in the kitchen looking for my car keys. The pulse was slight and insistent. It wanted to be back in my chest.

I removed my heart from my pocket, clean and pink and weary of being in the cold world. I closed my eyes, cool metal keys in one hand and heart in the other, then I slid the keys in my pocket, my heart in my chest, and crept to the bedroom. My wife was breathing heavily, the deep inhalations of slumber. Gently, so gently, I reached into her chest and cradled her heart in my palm. She’d be mad if she woke up, but I removed it so carefully she didn’t stir.

I worried her heart would be encased in stone, but no, it was huge and delicate with thin gold walls, a heart three times the size of mine, and soft to the touch. Her heart was tarnished, patchworked, and etched with too many names. My name was there, along with the names of many people I didn’t know. Her patients. This was a heart that held hundreds. There wasn’t room for any more, but I knew she would find space because she had to. Her heart beat slowly in my hand, each pulse a blush of pink light. I washed my wife’s heart in the bathroom sink, using warm water and rose-scented soap, then I buffed it to a dull shine with a washcloth and slipped her heart back in her chest, knowing it would tarnish again.

I sat beside her, on the edge of our bed. The car keys in my pocket jabbed my leg. My heart beat in my own chest, slow and steady and back home. I removed my shirt. I removed my pants. I dropped them into the darkness beside the bed and curled around my wife, cupping her body in mine, my hand over her beating heart, feeling the texture of those names through her skin, feeling my own heart try to match the pulse of hers.