There was a problem with her heart, and it was an unfortunate but not uncommon event in those days that the health insurance money simply ran out just as they were finishing the operative part of the operation—the part where they’d fixed the part that was broken and had only to tidy up and sew all the bloody bits back in place before heading out for sashimi or movie night or to a fundraiser for the American Heart Association. At the exact moment the money ran out, all that was left was to put the beating, squirming, underwater-alien thing (its valves like seafloor vents, its contents untidy mysteries) back into her chest and wheel her to the big elevator with its extra-wide gurney considerations for the prone and dying and dead, into a sunny recovery room newly named after someone whose family had been inventing new chemicals for generations.
Back in those days, it was truly believed that there just weren’t enough chemicals yet on planet Earth, and humanity was perpetually preoccupied with arranging and rearranging molecules without really caring much about the long-term consequences. When they cared, most of them cared only indirectly, preferring to see the consequences dumped in other counties or countries or handed off to various solemn, scoldy, professional consequence-handlers—non-profit do-gooders desperately doing their goodest with money that often came from the sons of the sons of the original chemical makers in the first place. In those days, the sons of sons of chemical makers, and often their fathers and grandfathers too, liked occasionally to change out of their suits to go talk in tuxedoes in big ballrooms named after oilmen about the human family – each of whom was miserably dependent in some way on the generosity of the chemical makers – then stumble into the little elevators of the upright, hit the penthouses, and fix on oxytocin with various mistresses or maids.
The woman had actually been a maid once—for one of the big maiding companies of her day—until all that chemical exposure bit through her heart and she couldn’t handle scrubbing anymore. So she had been a maid once, but now she was barely anything at all—just the unemployable daughter of the daughter of a maid, coughing and chest-clutching and desperately in need of surgeons to fix her heart so that she could work again. And unless she could work again and work again soon, her insurance would run out completely; some poisonous-sounding thing called COBRA was picking up the tab, something short term and shrinking she assumed was for people poisoned by their jobs. It was the COBRA money that must have finally vanished while her chest was open and she was dark in dreamless sleep; it must have been the COBRA, she figured later, that called up the surgical bay that day and called it all off. It was because of the COBRA that she awoke in that sunny recovery room with her heart strapped to the outside of her body by blood-soaked, used-up, barely sticky medical tape. The doctors had repurposed a whole gob of it that had come off a magnificent boob job earlier that afternoon.
“Excuse me, but why did you not put it back in?” asked the woman, perhaps too politely, as women were expected to do in those days. (It must be noted here that this is merely the spirit of what the woman said—the language she spoke has unfortunately been lost to history. It was one of those weird, clattery languages anyway, and even back then there was no translator for her at the hospital, not to mention on the insurance company hotline or anywhere in their shimmering tower building with the Diego Rivera mural near the entryway.)
“Bahukhs gaboob tlabooba,” they responded, at least according to her memory, though they may actually have been saying “boob” at one point due to the involvement of the magnificent boob job. Whatever it was they were saying, she used her remaining time to sweetly ask again and again why they’d just stuck her heart atop her boob and wrapped the whole thing up with tape. It wasn’t her remaining time because what they’d done was about to kill her—they were good doctors, well-meaning doctors, not the least bit unkind, and they had done this many times before. It was simply her remaining time to ask them why.
Soon the first-generation anesthetics and painkillers her COBRA had approved would wear off completely, and after that it would be many years before the woman learned to speak through the strange, chilled pain of wearing one’s heart hoisted up by floral wire and ribbons and extension cords and, in the privacy of her own home, the leftover entrails and valves and veins the doctors had given her so that the whole thing would feel organic, less like something done to her and more like something bodies just did. Besides, it was all they could afford.
In those days, when the heart was hurting, it could be very hard to talk.
The woman’s sister sat at her bedside, squeezing her hand. They looked so much alike that, looking back on their world with the advantages of ours, it might objectively be considered a blessing that the woman acquired this new heart condition. For the first time, people would be able to tell the twins apart—even their mother had had difficulty with it for several years, back before she acquired a condition of her own.
Vision, much like our 2wenty2wenty mech, was one of the five organic senses of this particular era, and it wasn’t uncommon in those days for the loss of one sense to heighten the others. It was only after there had been an accident involving cleaning chemicals and the older woman’s eyes – a little splash of household cleaner to the eyes could lead to heighted hearing -itself a kind of blessing, for in time the mother learned how to listen for the little differences in her daughters’ voices.
It would not be long before the woman was no longer able to speak at all, at least for several years, and she used her remaining time to politely ask again and again why they’d simply wrapped up her heart with boob tape. It wasn’t that what they’d done would somehow take her voice—it was just that soon the pain would kick in, the first-generation anesthetics her insurance had grudgingly paid for would run out, and, when the heart was hurting, it could be very hard to talk. And later, when she’d learned to speak through the strange, chilled pain of wearing one’s heart over to the center from the sleeve, the average person simply looked away, spoke instead to buildings or to halfway areas of air, because it was a natural thing, back when humans still had such organs, to pretend that you weren’t essentially made up of such things, guts and spleens and oozing, squelching things that were the ones actually doing the work—and that they’d eventually run out of the energy for working, as all workers back then simply had to do. The average person liked to pretend that he or she didn’t have one of those, or guts and spleens and oozing, squelching things that were the ones actually doing all the work. Sometimes people would care—they’d guess correctly that it was because of Life Insurance, LLC or Life, Incorporated—but when they’d start their rants (these goddamn corporations!), something about it reminded her of her maid days, like with those people she was a means to an end.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that so many men used it as a chance to grab an eyeful or cop a feel. Her breasts were slimy with blood, yet the powerful play goes on, and all men, of course, are asked to contribute a verse. “Is that real?” they would ask, again and again. It was something they’d long asked of her breasts—now they asked it of her heart. She got the sense that they cared less about the truth as it applied to her than they did about what it meant about what their own hearts might look like and relieved they hadn’t been born a woman. Then they’d stumble into the little elevators of the upright with mistresses or maids, hit the penthouses, fix on oxytocin.
A breast is alien when attached to a heart. A breast isn’t meant to circulate blood. A breast isn’t meant to give milk, really—that’s something that happens sometimes, but it’s really beside the point.
So it was not long before, in some room named for some man of molecules in a wing named for a man of money in a hospital named for a chemical maker, the woman awoke to find a woman at her side cradling a whole network of tubes and holding her hand in place of an IV.
Rin Kelly died unexpectedly in late 2020, but she had completed several stories and a novel. Rin’s stories have been published in Kenyon Review, The Fabulist, Penubric, and Contemporary Magazine/Denver Post. Rin was a fellow of the Stabile Center at Columbia School of Journalism and film/culture editor of LA RECORD. Her investigative reporting and features have appeared in publications nationwide.