When you come home from work, the living room is littered with a grease-tattooed pizza box and dented cans of beer from your husband’s favorite local brewery. You find him in the bedroom, on his laptop, playing a game. Lasers and explosions emanate, muffled, from the tiny speakers. A hundred seams knit the center of your husband’s brow. He is home early, which never bodes well. Standing in the doorway, you think about ignoring him, pretending like he wants to be ignored. But you think of the mess in the living room, containers covering the floor like a carpet of landmines. If he wanted to be ignored, he would have been more discreet about his frustration.
So really, your only option is to crawl onto the bed, next to him, and ask him what’s wrong.
But he merely shakes his head, clicks his mouse about a hundred times, and says he doesn’t want to talk about it. Well, you think. There’s that. You tried and he doesn’t want you. Might as well leave him alone and go clean up the house. But then you think of how your mother used to baby your father, tiptoe around him, make sure everything and everyone behaved in a way that would assuage him. Her deference left a house haunted by a too-easy calm, liable to shatter any moment.
So, you ask again, tiptoe your fingers up his thigh and tell him it’s not good to keep it bottled up inside. For a moment, his face lit by the green glow of the screen, you think he’s going to brush you away. But then he sighs, drags a hand down his face, and closes his laptop. He lowers it to the ground, and lets you take his other hand. With his other hand pinching the ridge of his nose, he looks like he is about to sneeze. But then, you realize, there is a tear cresting at the corner of his eye.
“Hey,” you say, kissing his cheek, tasting the salt as the tear slides down. “It’s okay to cry.” But, really, you’ve never seen him cry—not more than a wet tear-duct after a war movie—and so you don’t really know if what you say is true. Is it okay for him to cry? This expulsion of emotion in so unfettered a manner is a little unseemly, isn’t it? You sense that this is not a scene you can ever share with anyone else. But, as he tries to speak, you sense his shame. You know, already, the real truth—it finally happened. His boss gave him the news this afternoon. Apologized, maybe, spoke of severance pay and recommendations, those terms you know he’s been dreading for months now because of what they really mean: the economic stability of your marriage now falls wholly on your shoulders. Wife as breadwinner. It’s not the kind of thing either of your fathers would approve.
“It’s going to be okay,” you say, as if in defiance to those outdated, sexist assumptions. The two of you have always said you were different. The two of you will get through this together. You are not embarrassed of him. He’s still a man.
But as you speak, he lets out a deeper sound, guttural and almost animal-like. Before you can pull him into a hug, he tears at the center of his t-shirt, forcing a ragged hole. He presses his fist, the knuckles glowing white, against his sternum until the skin of his chest turns translucent, blue and red veins are spider-webs beneath flesh like dough stretched too thin. The skin breaks, collapses really, and he shoves his hand into his rib cage while the blood cascades in rivulets down his arm, pooling onto the hand-me-down duvet. There is a sound like a joint popped out of place, and his hand emerges from his chest cavity holding a pumping mass of flesh. It takes you a moment to realize what it is. As he holds it out to you, the smell is metallic and yeasty, simultaneously repugnant and intimate.
At first, you start to pull away. You think to run to the bathroom and gather up some towels to try to clean up the blood. But then he pushes it toward you, asking you to hold it. So, you open your palms and he places his heart there. It is surprisingly light—pulsing, pulsing, pulsing—beginning to change colors. It grows a sickly purple exposed to the stuffy air of your apartment.
You hold his heart awkwardly, like the time you held your best friend’s newborn, and felt like you would break it if you simply twitched a muscle the wrong way. You look back at the cavity left between his ribs, the other organs pumping furiously inside him. You think to put his heart back and press the torn flaps of skin in place. But you know that’s not what he’s asking.
You think: your father never trusted your mother this way, never believed she was capable of bearing the weight and rhythm of a man’s troubles. (Though, God knows, she bore much worse.)
So, you pull open your own chest, blood and mucus staining the new blouse you bought half-off at T.J. Maxx. You pull open the space between your ribs with one hand, and with the other you lodge his heart into the same cavity that holds yours. The pressure is extreme as your hearts begin to beat against each other, and you wonder how long you’ll need to hold his here. But then he looks at you, his eyes still veined but full of gratitude, admiration.
So, you bend your ribs back into place, smooth out the bumps as you pull your skin closed and press your hand down the seam left by the opening. You fold back his chest, and then begin to button your blouse, but he stops you. He unbuttons it the rest of the way, and pulls off his torn t-shirt. As you make love, you realize the arteries and veins strewn between you, like tangled shoe strings.
In the middle of the night, you feel a sudden pressure as his hand reaches inside you. He is trying to be discreet, you can tell, so you pretend not to wake as his fingers probe your chest. But when he pulls out the organ, you can’t tell if it’s his or yours. You can only tell that the pain is excruciating. Rather than relaxing with the release of pressure, your rib cage constricts, the bones tightening around your lungs. You try to sit up, to get more air, but as your husband lays back down, you realize he has strung another set of cords between you. They keep you tied to the bed, tethered to him even more closely. He seems not to notice your pain as he rolls over. He seems to feel nothing as he breaths in and out, in and out. How can he sleep? When you try to shake him awake, he only brushes your hand off and rolls further away, tugging you along with him. It is as if he can hold your heart and yet not feel it straining in his grasp. As if he can give you all the pain of his, and none of its notorious strength.
How can someone live like this? you think, realizing, of course, that it’s the question your mother asked herself every day.
Alexa T. Dodd is a fiction writer, essayist, and book reviewer. Her work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, River Teeth Journal, The Write Launch, and elsewhere. She is a Tin House Summer Workshop alumnus and a recipient of a Hypatia-in-the-Woods residency for women artists. She has a Master’s in Creative Writing from Texas Tech University.