shrew

by Florina Nastase

It’s not about ‘if you love me’.

It’s about ‘you already love me’. It’s about the pre-existence of that love, a feeling much like an egg, self-contained and finished, perfect but breakable, and yet all the more wonderful for being on that edge of fragility. There’s no “if”, no conditions or impositions. I don’t mean to be that classical thing: a shrew. We are getting married, and we’re getting heart tattoos.

 

My mother sent your mother a list of articles she can read for further clarification. Mom is also willing to talk to her on the phone or in person. They should spend more time together, the two of them. It’s only right. I’m sure Mom will convince her. Sometimes we don’t believe in doctors and scientists, but most people believe my mother. She used to tell my brother and me that she found both of us in the cabbage patch, and she made the whole thing sound much more visceral and convincing than physical birth. I remember how she made every glob of dirt between our toes feel absolutely real. So, trust me. Mom will make her understand that the surgeries are safe.

 

Sometimes, I look at us in the mirror and don’t know where our bodies end. I don’t mean that sentimentally. We are quite attached in many ways, but I do get that impression at night, when I get up to fetch a glass of water and have to disentangle myself from you. Your arm feels like it’s sunk into the fluid of my spine, right to the elbow, and I have to fish it out. I think our bodies crave that bilateral recognition. Your name on my heart, my name on yours. They’re already there, deep down. 

Oh no, now I’m being sentimental.

 

All right, you’ve brought me to my favorite pastry shop to get back in my good graces.

The waffles are shaped like hearts, bordered neatly by a necklace of pulsing red strawberries. You’re not being very subtle.

“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I quietly ask, cutting a strawberry in half.

I spent weeks worrying the reason you didn’t really want to do it was because maybe you were saving that spot on your heart for someone else. Now I find out you already had a name tattooed there, years before.

“Luckily,” you say and squint, as if you’ve spotted the bright side, “her name was Zoe, so there’s only three letters to erase.”

I wish I had your sense of optimism. It would be very silly if I started crying over a three-letter name, so I’m just going to eat the strawberry and pretend it doesn’t bother me that much.

Maybe the letters are not very big.

 

Before I take out my phone, I make sure you’re sound asleep. Then I turn on the X-Ray app. I know we’ve never done this before. I know we agreed we’d only look into each other’s hearts after the surgeries, but I really need to see that girl’s name. I know I’m breaking your trust, but you already broke mine when you did not tell me your heart was not name-free.

I place the screen over your heart.

Inside of you, there’s darkness at first. Then gently, the beat of you sketches the outline of your heart, like a fetus. It’s so small and strong, like a fist waiting to open.

The three letters cover both right and left atrium.

Z-O-E. The “O” in the middle, like a homunculus, a baby raised by “Z” and “E” from nothing.  I am very quietly devastated, but I also know you did not mean to hurt me. I’m going to find out who tattooed this name. Whoever they are, they shouldn’t be called an artist. They should have their license revoked.

 

As a present for her 50th birthday, my brother got our mother’s name tattooed on his heart. I know Mom pretended to be very upset about it.

“You should be saving it for the girl you love.”

But she was secretly thrilled, especially when Billy said, “Ma, you are the girl I love.”

Every year she brings it up. She still cries at the memory. If Billy ever got serious with someone and had to erase Mom’s name, I don’t think she could survive that. I honestly don’t.

 

We wave at each other from across the hall. We’re wearing matching white robes. This is a kind of wedding. I show you my bare bottom, you show me yours. We grin. It’ll be okay, baby. But secretly, I kind of hope we both die.

Okay, that sounds very grim. I don’t actually hope that.

What I mean is, it would be kind of romantic if this was our last moment on Earth, if our last action as conscious human beings was a radical act of writing on the body.

The problem is, it’s not that radical anymore. Every other couple is doing it these days. And no one ever seems to die. Maybe some complications arise, but people generally go on living just fine, just like you did, with “Zoe” in your heart for so long, and I think that’s a little disturbing, don’t you?  

 

Why did I look?

Why am I looking now?

We sit on the bed and we stare into each other’s hearts.

You look so proud, your smile bright and clever, like you’re the only kid in class who got the answer to the teacher’s question. You like the way your name looks inside me. You trail your thumb over the patch of skin, as if you could touch it.

I try to mimic your reaction.

I should feel the same thing. My name shines like jellyfish in your chest. We are each other’s script.

But mine doesn’t look right. It looks a little crooked, a little tacked on. I can see faint pencil marks underneath. They didn’t rub off “Zoe” completely. The scratches are visible between the letters of my name. I’m not imagining things. I take a screenshot and send it to my best friend and we talk about it for a few hours, going back and forth on it until, ultimately, she agrees with me. It looks great, but just a little bit wrong. Like a sticker over another sticker on a used car in a vacant lot. Nobody wants it.

 

We go ahead with wedding preparations like nothing happened and I try not to think about it, but I guess it shows in my face.  You ask me what’s wrong. Why don’t I want to look inside you anymore? Why do I hide my heart away from you? Mine’s not the problem, I want to say. It’s hard when it’s not me who has to change. It would be easier for me to improve, to make things better. But it’s not up to me.

We talk around it, never about it.

I stay at my mother’s place for the weekend, just to get away. Of course I tell her everything. We cry about it together because she understands completely. She can’t imagine her name scratched from Billy’s heart. A name over another name is just another way of saying it doesn’t matter.

You come get me on Monday and we sit together in the garden and sip ice tea on my childhood swing.

You tell me, almost jokingly, because you can’t believe we’re fighting about this: “If you want us to be even, you could write another name on yours, scratch it, then put mine over it. Hey, you could write your brother’s name.”

You expect me to find that funny, but this only tells me you still care about Zoe, since you’re saying that Zoe is to you what my brother is to me. And I guess that’s fine, that’s platonic, isn’t it? But it’s also family, and we’re supposed to be family too.

You notice I don’t even crack a smile and your own smile peters off, sinking back into the softness of your cheek. 

“What if your name had been Zoe?” you ask, all serious. “What would you have done then?”

I can’t believe you’re asking this. It should be obvious to you. Every heart is different, every name is different, and every name on a heart is different. What a cold world you live in if you don’t see that basic, life-affirming difference.

I don’t have to say it. You know what I would’ve done. You lower your head in defeat. “Okay. How do we fix this?”

I want to put my hand on your shoulder. I know you really want to make me happy, but what I want is too big, too far-fetched, almost.

Mom comes out with a batch of cookies from the kitchen. She spells it out for you because I’m too sad and too shy.

“The best thing would be for you to get a new heart, honey,” she tells you sweetly. “That way, my little girl’s name would finally look right in there.”

Do you see why this is so hard?

 

It’s not about “if you love me”.

It’s about “you already love me”.

You remind me of that daily. I shouldn’t have doubted you. My egg is perfectly smooth and unbroken. My egg is on the donor list. We’ve postponed the wedding until you get to the top of that list. I have faith in you. I think it won’t take long now. I don’t care about the wait, as long as you don’t either. Your mother refuses to take my calls, but that’s okay. We both know what we want.

You sleep next to me, still. Tonight, you’ve got your knees to your chest, like you’re still inside her womb. I put my arms around you. I sneak my hand under your arm and place it over your heart.

Soon, I think, and you moan softly under your breath. I imagine that cavity being emptied, I imagine the surgeon taking out your old heart and placing it on a cold tray. Where will the old heart go? Probably to someone who needs it.  They’ll be grateful to have me and Zoe inside them, but they won’t know the history. Did you know “Zoe” means “life” in Greek? I looked it up.

As I stand behind the surgeon and peer inside your open body, I admire the velvet home of the heart before a new one is set in. I want to tattoo my name there too. I stop the image there, before you’re made whole again.

I fall asleep to that loop: you on the operating table, me, the all-seeing spirit carrying you across.  

About the Author

Florina Nastase is an Assistant Professor at 'Alexandru Ioan Cuza' University in Iasi, Romania. She holds a PhD in American poetry, and spends copious amounts of time writing online. She has been published in Kajet, Gasher Journal, The Decadent Review, La Piccioletta Barca, High-Shelf Press and others, and hopes to publish more.