cordata by E. Tomaszewski
I’m pumping the way I’ve been doing for the past minute. I remember some exercise tip, something about being able to talk but not sing when it came to achieving your optimal heart rate, and I forego my mechanical counting for a mumbled cover of the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive” like how they advertise on stupid morning news programs.
My rhythm hiccups and, still counting in my head, I yammer on to my students about the click they’ve been hearing. The American Heart Association tells me it’s a sign of effective compression depth. That’s really the ribcage, I want to tell them. Those might be ribs cracking. See, the heart is behind the ribs, cradled and hanging there, and proper cardiopulmonary resuscitation essentially involves punching through the white picket fence that orbits the damn thing. In order to help, you have to hurt a little. Break a few things. Fortunately, your victim will most likely be so grateful for your service that they won’t mind taking off work for the next few weeks to heal. Each of their pained inhales reminds them of that blank, fleeting, forever time when their breath reeked of a stranger’s CO2, when interlaced hands lured their heart into functioning. They’re wide awake now.
My father apologizes to his colleagues when I’m around. The CPR Nazi, he calls me. I narrow my eyes and return to my duties—slow down those compressions, we need full chest recoil, get a good seal on that pocket mask, let me help you get a good seal on that pocket mask, let me get out the Ambu-bag to test out those lungs, maybe whoever put this mannequin together got the lungs twisted up under the chest plate. That happens sometimes when you don’t look at what you’re doing, you know. Things get twisted up. In the time it takes to complete a full sequence of CPR, someone else in the country is going to die of sudden cardiac arrest, and if you have any good bones in your body, you’ll want to make those two minutes the most important two minutes of your life. The mannequin doesn’t care that you’ve just eaten lunch or that your old tennis injury is acting up, but you can’t afford to be sloppy when the real thing comes around. I won’t let you.
I have to remember to drown all the plastic later. Warm water and dish soap and bleach and sometimes more bleach inside an empty white bucket labeled “doughnut glaze.” I want everything nice and clean, my father says. I don’t want people to think our equipment is anything but that.
Sam says that every time I text him, his heart flutters. That’s called ventricular fibrillation. He might need CPR. He says it’s called being sweet, you ass.
The Egyptians claimed that the heart was the intellectual core of the body. After the brain was broken apart and removed through the nose with a sharp object during mummification, it was discarded with the day’s trash. The heart was safe from extraction—it was too valuable to be removed by human hands. It and its owner’s earthly actions would be weighed against the feather of Ma’at, and only then could the soul pass through to paradise. Failure to pass this test resulted in the heart being gobbled up by a female demon, a second death of sorts. A heavy heart has no place among angels.
What they don’t tell you is that the mouth of every mummy is open, capable of breath.
In the middle of his sentence, Sam reaches out to adjust my necktie. He plants his knuckles over my heart as he levels the black Windsor knot with his thumbs and subsequently corrects the trail of silk leading from it, wordlessly sliding down to the southernmost point of my sternum, my xiphoid process. I’d learned from my first day of CPR training that compressing too close to this ossified lump can puncture a lung, yet I stand a little straighter and let him smooth out what he wants, trying not to think of what his hands could do to me if he knew all that I did.
The only defibrillator is in the nucleus of the shopping mall—I’ve checked. It’s not one of those dramatic paddle ones. It’s a plain-looking gray box that would make it look more like an oversized answering machine if it weren’t for the red cross emblazoned on its cover. Maybe it’s showcased in glass with an emergencies-only hammer hanging by a string. If it’s a pre-2000s model, its shock pads can’t be adjusted to suit an adolescent victim, and it might give three stacked shocks instead of one. No matter; it could still save a life. I can’t imagine a normal citizen being able to find this box quickly and bring it to me as I’m compressing a store clerk’s chest, though, my stiff jeans and the cracks in the spotty gray tiles digging into my knees. The life expectancy of a cardiac arrest victim decreases exponentially with each passing minute.
I’m always thinking about the people who surround me slumping over and, next, how I’d help and how much help I’d actually be. That food court pretzel could have clogged that one crucial artery, or maybe they have an undiagnosed heart condition. That pregnant girl, that man on the bench, that distracted teenager, no one is saved from my imagination. This is how I keep myself sharp. In my mind, in my prepared, paranoid mind, everyone collapses.
At one of my well-baby checkups, the doctor hears something in my chest. He leans forward, adjusts his stethoscope, scrolls through his mental Rolodex of heartbeats as an eight-week-old me with large wet eyes, one of which would be operated on at thirteen months, stares up at him. I hear something, he says. I’m not sure what it is. My mother’s face falls as she starts to reach out and touch me. In a month they’ll fly me to Bethesda to see a pediatric cardiologist; in the meantime they’ll say I have a murmur. A whisper. A mumble. Maybe my parents hold me tighter, hold me more often, to make sure my heart is still beating. I don’t know. Here they’ve barely named me and already I’m wasting no time in causing them stress. Jaundice had come upon me shortly after my birth; the result of my strange little body valuing sleep over sustenance. The yellowish tint in my skin has since faded, but my heart? That sort of thing doesn’t fix itself.
A second EKG reveals nothing but an overly cautious doctor. I’m sent home.
I know Sam’s floormates can hear us. He hasn’t covered my mouth, and I haven’t occupied his with anything other than my breath, so I suppose it’s both of our faults that his standard-issue dorm room is filled with the empty language of lovemaking, a thick humid swirl of color and air, syllables sliding up and out of our throats like bile as we fulfill our biological need to intertwine and extend our DNA to the world. He hasn’t turned off the television or the lights, and under them my pale skin is made fluorescent, and I’m glaring on the surface, and our hearts as supposed to be beating as one but all I can feel is something in the way. Release isn’t the problem here; it’s the illusion of hope.
The first time you hold a cow heart in science class, gray from death and formaldehyde, you’re reminded that there’s one of those inside you; a wrinkled, rubbery, complicated, struggling, efficient mess. You think about what it’d be like to crack open your own chest and switch out your perfect heart for this one; you wonder if it’d feel cold and clumsy like how you, as a child, might have taken your freshly-pulled baby teeth and re-inserted them into their sockets. You peer into the organ’s various tubes—the entrances are lined with strange little fronds, like the gills on the underside of a mushroom, and those are all you can taste even after you hand the heart back to your teacher and wash off all that death in the sink. Your teeth, once you removed one living thing from another, somehow that’s when you first knew you’d die one day, with your heart in someone else’s hands.
“I can hear your heart.”
Sam raises an eyebrow. “My heart’s here,” he notes a bit hollowly, tapping the middle of his bare chest.
“I know, but I feel something else.”
I dig my left ear further into his upper arm. I can hear beating. Lub-dubbing. Blood is sucking around in this impossible place. I don’t see Sam roll his eyes as he lurched forward and peeled his skin from mine, just like I won’t see his girlfriend’s photo as he opened his cell phone. Now across the room, still half-dressed, he asks if I want tea. I want to ask where he keeps his heart.
My father, a retired Navy lieutenant, is a nurse anesthetist. He puts you to sleep and brings you back. That’s how he explains it, with emphasis on the last part. He gives you the gas. He keeps one eye on you and the other on your heart machine. As soon as your life starts to slip, your soul a helium balloon rising up toward the tile ceiling, he’ll grab you by the string and yank you back down to the operating table, trapping you back in your open, broken body.
One day, we’ll run out of heartbeats. My soul-holding father will fall, and my mother’s screams will have jagged edges, and I’ll have to be the one to break my arms pounding his massive form back to life. And maybe I won’t even be there. I’ll be shaken awake at 3 am. I’ll be in the next room. I’ll be drunk. I’ll be abroad. I’ll be shelving books at work. I’ll see the fourteen missed calls as I get out of class. And in all of these, even before any words are spoken, I’ll know that I missed my chance.
E. Tomaszewski is in their early twenties. E was born into a military family overseas, and spent childhood primarily in coastal North Carolina and central Pennsylvania, where E currently lives and works as a library assistant. E studies creative writing and the German language at a small liberal arts university there, and expects to graduate in the spring of 2014. E is in love with traveling and holds a special place in their heart for Germany, where E studied for a semester. E is as obsessed with CPR as this piece suggests and is also terrified of dolphins.