And we are so fragile,
And our cracking bones make noise,
And we are just
Breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys.
I was twenty two years old the first time my own heart tried to kill me. I would like to believe it was premeditated…an intervention if you will. It nearly ended my life, but restarted it all over again in the same moment.
That morning was really no different than any other. It started with the gentle trace of a hand down my back. I opened my eyes and squinted at the clock. It was a quarter to seven, and I was thoroughly exhausted. I had just gotten off a twenty-four hour shift only three hours ago, and I was hardly ready to get up. I heard my girlfriend laugh softly next to me and I turned my head to look at her. She was smiling. Her hair was done up in curls and she had already dressed. Before I could speak, she leaned forward and kissed me.
"Good morning," she said. She played with my hair briefly, trying to flatten a cowlick. I closed my eyes and sighed. My chest ached with heartburn and I immediately wrote it off on the Chinese takeout I ate around midnight. "How was work?" she asked.
I shrugged. "Fine. It was actually great because we didn't get very many calls."
Hollis smiled and laid down next to me on top of the covers. "Good. Well you have a couple days off now so you can rest."
I wrapped an arm around her and pulled her to me while I yawned, "You all packed?"
"Yeah. It's all in my car. Are you sure you don't mind driving me to the airport?"
"Not at all. Just let me get dressed and brush my teeth before we go. Did you need me to check on your apartment while you're gone?" I asked as I rubbed my eyes and reached for my glasses.
"If you wouldn't mind that would be nice." She kissed my cheek and pushed herself off of my bed, moving to the window to pull open the blinds.
After I had gotten ready, I went out to move Hollis' things into my car while she finished her phone call with her mother on the porch. She had made herself a peanut butter sandwich, but she hardly ate three bites before she had to put it down. This was the first time she would visit her family since she finished college, and she would be gone for almost two weeks. And she hated flying. The anticipation was wearing on her nerves and it wouldn't take long for her to feel queasy.
While she was away, I would spend a lot of my time working and sleeping which, sad to say, wasn't much different from my routine when she was there. I was going on my second year working for the Gillespie Ambulance Service, and although I was so sleep deprived, it was a miracle that I could even function, I did love my job. I was fairly close to my coworkers, and although it sounds hokey, it felt good to help people. Even if some of those people are drunk and delusional, chasing me out of their front yard with a broken off beer bottle. I had many close calls, but for the most part, after the shock wore off, sometimes we came in contact with a good laugh or two. But sometimes, laughing was absolutely the farthest thing from my mind.
Every now and then we would get called to a scene that would haunt us for the rest of our lives. My first week on the job, we were called to the scene of an accident involving a drunk driver that floored it through a red light and struck a teenage girl on her way home from work. She was eighteen years old and already by the time we arrived, we knew there was little we could do. There was blood coming out of her nose and mouth in the form of a froth, which is a terrible sign of serious internal injuries. The fire department began cutting the twisted metal of her car to reach her, but only a few minutes into their rescue, my partner, Nate, reluctantly called it off. She had died, and her high school graduation was less than a week away. Her parents made a huge effort to find us and to contact all the people involved in her attempted rescue. They asked us to come to a memorial held for her on graduation day. The girl's name was Isabel. She was beautiful and talented and well loved among all of her classmates. She played volleyball and sang in the school's top choir. She had received a full ride scholarship to the University of Seattle, and she was planning on becoming a nurse. I would like to think I am pretty calm and level headed. But that day, I had to excuse myself and I went into the bathroom and was so distraught, I vomited. I still sometimes dream of Isabel's face, and to this day I try my hardest to accept that she was taken for a reason.
Hollis had always been as understanding as she could. Some nights when I would get off of my shift, she would come over and try to listen if I had something to get off my chest. Sometimes she would cry when I shared a day's event that I just couldn't shake, and she would be quick to ask me to stop. To say she couldn't hear anymore. More often, she would rather laugh at a random absurdity I had come upon during the day. But mostly she hated to hear it, and some nights, when we were each on the verge of sleep, I would hear her whisper, "Graham. I wish I had your stoic heart." If she only knew how much of a curse it could be.
My left arm ached profusely as I loaded Hollis' things into my Kia. I knew right away what this might entail, but I kept telling myself "no, no way." It couldn't be possible. I'm way too young to have heart problems. I knew it was a constant struggle in my own life to keep my inner hypochondriac in check. I was trying to be logical. Thoughts like that would drive you nuts, anyway. What are the chances I'd be so unlucky? I shook my arm out, quietly cursing to myself.
Hollis called my name from the porch and when I looked up, she was pointing to a house down the street. "Do you mind helping Alison?"
I glanced down the block and watched as my neighbor, Alison Trosper, coming up the street with two very heavy bags of groceries. I made my way quickly to her and when she finally noticed me, she smiled, relieved. Her face was bright red and she was perspiring heavily. One of the bags was slipping out of her arm and I trotted to her to lighten her load. As I took the bag from her, she smiled gratefully and said, "Hi, Graham. I am so glad to see you!" she chuckled lightly and pushed a damp lock of hair from her face. "Hey, you look a little pale."
"Alison," I panted, politely ignoring her comment. I shifted the bag to my right arm and gently chided, "I told you that I can give you a ride to the store. You can't be hauling a lot of weight in your condition."
She pressed her hand absentmindedly to her pregnant belly and sighed. "I know. I knew Hollis was flying out today, so I didn't want to bother you. It's not a big deal. I'm not made of glass you know." She grinned archly, the light playing off her face.
The sunshine had always agreed with Alison. She had moved into the duplex across the street only three months ago, and I had never seen her indoors on a sunny day. It brought about a glow on her face and tempted her smile more often.
Alison couldn't have been much older than twenty, and she lived alone. As long as we had been neighbors, she had never mentioned her family or brought up anything involving her past. She was a huge mystery to everyone who had come into contact with her. She was beautiful. Not one person would deny that. She was very petit, the top of her head only reaching my shoulder, and she had flawless ivory skin. Hollis constantly spoke about her own jealously of her when we would sit on the porch together in the evenings. Alison would often be outside watering her flowers, or would wave hello as she set off on a short walk. Hollis would lean against my shoulder and sigh. "I don't understand why someone could get so lucky." When I laughed, she playfully slugged at my arm and simple said, "I'm serious. I don't think I have ever met anyone with such poignant eyes."
It couldn't be denied. Alison's dark, haunting eyes affected most quite intensely. She held a great story behind them.
As we walked to her front door, Alison paused, reached for my arm as she tried to wriggle her foot back into her sandal. Her hands and feet were swollen and I could easily see the discomfort it caused her. She spent most of her time barefoot at home. It was rare to see her feet swathed in any form of shoes.
When she got her shoe back on, her cheeks swelled into little apples as she grinned, and thanked me. We ascended her front stairs and she fished in her purse for a key, and opened the front door. Her house smelled like candles and soap. I had never been inside her house before and I wiped my feet at the door. I let the screen door fall closed behind me and followed her to the kitchen. All of the blinds were open in her house, letting in a rich light. She set her bag on the counter and took the second bag from me.
"I really appreciate all of your help, Graham," she said, making room on her counter for the bag. "I don't think you even know how much it means."
I smiled. "It's no problem. How are you feeling?"
"Oh, gosh. Just fine. Feeling more pregnant every day, I guess." (She was pushing six months.) Alison glanced at my arm, suddenly concerned. "What did you do to your arm?"
I hadn't realized I had been rubbing my shoulder. "Oh, nothing. I think I might have just pulled a muscle or something."
She was silent for a moment, but she finally bought it. She turned to her groceries and began setting things out on the counter. "Well, I know you'll be working a lot, but if you need anything, let me know. If you're ever hungry, I make a fairly decent shepherd's pie. So don't be afraid to stop over."
I thanked her, and when there was an awkward pause, I glanced out the window to see Hollis still chatting away on the phone, finishing her sandwich. We still had plenty of time to get to the airport. I couldn't bring myself to leave just yet, so I tried to change the subject, meandering into the living room. "So how do you like your house?"
"Oh, it's nice. I like it, I guess." She opened the fridge and began setting things in. "It will do for now."
"You don't like it?" I asked, surprised. I felt a heavy pinch in my arm and paused to catch my breath.
"No, I like it just fine. I'm just not so sure I'm planning on staying for very long."
My heart sank a little, but I caught myself. "Are you going to look for a bigger house for you and the baby?"
She was quiet for quite some time. This was the first time either of us brought the baby up directly. I glanced around her living room, waiting for her reply. The walls were a pale green, and all she had for seating was a small lamp table and a couple of whicker backed chairs. She had no TV, no couch, and no photos. Anywhere. There was, however, a small cabinet with glass doors. It was filled with books and art supplies. Canvases were stuffed in the gap underneath. And the surface was cluttered with candles in glass jars.
I sensed her presence in the room. I turned to her. She was watching me, an embarrassed expression on her face. She took a deep breath and dropped her gaze to the floor. "I just…" she began. "I don't think…I don't think I can keep it. The baby."
I turned my body completely to face her and stepped toward her. She cowered away a little, so I remained where I was. "If you don't mind my asking," I said as gently as I could. I paused. "Why?"
She began to nervously play with a dark lock of hair, and her eyes filled with tears. "I just don't think I could do it. And there are tons of people out there, right? People who can't have babies but want one so bad. I would be helping someone out. And the baby would be with someone who loves it and can really take care of it."
This concerned me.
She noticed the pained look on my face and shook her head. "I'm so sorry." She struggled to say more, trying to apologize for pulling me right into the middle of something I knew was a messy situation. Before I could utter a word, there was a gentle rap on the front door, I turned to see Hollis standing there, waiting. I cleared my throat and said hello. She let herself in and glanced around. I immediately understood the living room worried her also. She hid it well though. She turned to Alison and greeted her.
"What happened?" Hollis asked as she noticed Alison's fresh tears. She glanced at me. "Is she okay?"
"Oh, no," Alison stammered. "I'm fine. I just hit my head on a cabinet door. I'm fine, really."
It isn't easy to fool Hollis, but she pretended to buy it. For now. As she tended to Alison's "injury", I informed them I had to use the restroom. Alison directed me down the hall and she went back to briefly visiting with my girlfriend. I entered the bathroom and closed the door. I glanced around in her cabinets to make sure she had what she needed. Towels, soap. The basics. She did. She was fairly well stocked. I flushed the toilet and ran the faucet to avoid looking obvious. As I opened the door, I spied her bedroom door directly across the hall. I could still hear the girls visiting in the kitchen. Pushing the door open with the toe of my shoe, I stole a glance in to see that she did have a twin-sized bed with plenty of blankets. I let out a sigh of relief. The state of her living room had left me bothered.
As I returned to the kitchen, Alison had a dishtowel filled with ice pressed to the back of her head. I immediately felt bad for her. Hollis noticed my entrance and glanced at her watch. "Well, we better go. I have to get my bags checked and I'd hate to wait in line."
Alison only nodded; all form of her previous emotion gone from her face. She looked up at me. "Thank you again, Graham."
Hollis jabbed a finger in my sore arm, causing me to wince. "You better check on her when you get home. Make sure her head is feeling better."
I agreed and we said our goodbyes as she walked us to the door. She gave me a little smile before closing the door and disappearing back into her house. We weren't even half way down the drive before Hollis whispered sharply, "What happened in there? Did you say something to her?"
I didn't feel right telling Hollis the truth. It wasn't my place. I simply said, "I think she's nervous about having the baby."
Hollis exhaled, obviously relieved. "Oh, poor thing. I wonder what ever happened to the father."
I only shrugged.
"She doesn't even have a couch, Graham. I mean, she's okay, right? Financially?" She took my hand. "Does she even have a bed?"
"Yeah. I checked it all out when I was in the bathroom. Things seem to be fine."
We made it to the car, and she let go of my hand. I lifted the suitcase in with great pain, but I did my best to conceal it. The last thing I wanted was for her to worry while she was away.
I bought a pack of Tums at a little store in the airport. I told Hollis I would wait until her plane took off before I left. She didn't want me to turn all the way around again to get her if it cancelled. I stood by the nearest window to the departure list and watched planes taxi around as I popped Tum after Tum. At one point, a man came to look out the window next to me and commented. He said, "I get the worst heartburn, too." I only looked at him and nodded a little, my mouth too full to speak. He went on, shifting his briefcase from one hand to another. "Turned out to be acid reflux. But you're too young for that. What are you, twenty one?"
"Twenty two," I mumbled. My voice was growing harsh. "Do you have any suggestions? To make this go away?"
His eyes drifted in thought for a moment. Then he laughed. "Burnt toast." I chuckled quietly and he finally said, "Other than Aloe Vero juice, I don't even know. But be careful with that stuff. Too much turns into a laxative. Are you sure that's what you have? No offense but you don't look so hot. Maybe you have the flu."
I only nodded and said, "Maybe. I just need to go home and lie down for a while."
As much as I loved Hollis, I was certainly glad to see her plan take off. I was feeling worse and worse as the time passed, and all I wanted was to go home and sleep. I had a terrible feeling of nausea and I was afraid of getting sick in the airport. I walked quickly to my car and sped off for home.
When I arrived some forty-five minutes later, I was perspiring profusely. I didn't really realize it until I got out of the car and felt the air cool the large sweat stain on my back. It was then that I knew. I couldn't pretend something wasn't happening. My heart was failing.
I leaned against my car, panting heavily, a sudden pain in my chest rendering me motionless. I tried to dig my cell phone out of my pocket but it slipped out of my sweaty palm and slid under the car. I braced myself against my car as I slowly moved to my house, wincing and wheezing. All I could keep thinking was, I'm too young to die like this. I'm too young.
I only made it to my lawn before I collapsed. I laid there for a while, encumbered with a hazy fog. The blue sky filled my eyes and I really thought I was going to die. My chest kept feeling tighter and tighter, and I couldn't get up.
I heard someone yelling my name and it echoed in my head. I continued staring up at the sky, dazed and weak. I heard my name again and suddenly Alison's face appeared directly above me. I couldn't understand her, but she brushed her hand over my hair as she tried to understand what was wrong with me. All I could do was whisper, "my heart," and she took off to her house to dial an ambulance. I felt myself smile, and I almost laughed at the thought. I didn't want to die in an ambulance.
She returned after what seemed like an eternity. Things started to grow hazy and all I could feel was the pain in my heart and Alison's fingers running through my hair. She was crying and whispering to me. I couldn't hear her. But I knew she was telling me to hang on. Her hand pressed against my chest, right over the pain, and her tears kept dripping on my face and neck. I started to grow numb of everything and I knew that I was at the end. That this was it.
But then I heard the sirens, and I felt a little but of hope reach me again. Unknowingly, I reached for Alison's hand on my chest and a surprised look filled her eyes. I squeezed her fingers as tight as I could and I drifted then for a while. The next thing I remember seeing was the ceiling of the ambulance, and briefly the sight of Nate's face as he leaned in to place an oxygen mask on my face.