A Heart Removed

by Rachelle Larsen

For my first love on our first Valentine’s Day, I crafted a card resembling a human heart. I labeled its different pieces—aorta, atrium, ventricle, valve—not only with their official names, but also with the ways he had taught my heart to flutter. I can’t remember what I wrote, but I remember the way he twisted our fingers together. How our eyes met spontaneously across crowded conversations, our faces flowing into secretive smiles. The way I felt when he said I love you, his voice almost reverent, as if I were his entire world and he were mine.

I loved those early days. I was eighteen and so confident in love, unaware of the risks it carried. I knew love’s flutter but not its possible toll.

Punched walls, smashed cell phones, throbbing flesh—these were rare, but the first time they happened, my love’s eyes bored into me, his hands clutching me, warning me to still myself into a thing like all the others he had broken: a fragile body with a heart that still fluttered, but also fled, ached, and raced. Our relationship became nebulous, undefined, and the day before my twentieth birthday, I was replaced with a newer model—as happens to broken things—and was informed by phone call. My mom said, He made out with a girl from church—her mom called me. Do you know anything about that? I responded, I’m sure there’s more to the story. And there was. When I asked him what had happened, he told me, I love her and she loves me, claiming that he had taken our nebulous relationship as nonexistent, and his words led my fluttering-fleeing-aching-racing heart to cry out until it suddenly quieted six months later, about two years after learning to flutter.

I imagine the pain stopping when he threw my crafted card away, and while I’m grateful for our separation, it means that my heart is in a far-off landfill, moldering into something both fertile and unpalatable. I wonder if it lives. I wonder if I can live without it.

I think of Montezuma who caused thousands of hearts to be placed on the altar of Huizilopochtli, the Aztec god of war. Those hearts were the desire of his gods and had been for centuries: payment for good fortune, the sacrifice for splendor. Most often, conquered enemies were chosen for tribute, their hearts forcibly excised. It didn’t matter that their lives were unwillingly given, because even as symbols of Aztec devotion, the hearts were not metaphoric; when Cortez came to the Americas, Montezuma showed him literal hearts, still red and wet and firm, piled on top of each other on a platter.

I don’t know if Montezuma explained why the Aztecs called themselves “the people of the fifth sun”; in their theology, four worlds preceded ours, destroyed because the people would not pay their debts to the gods. Our fifth world was created when the gods Nanahuatzin and Tecuciztecatl gave their lives to become the Sun and Moon, an ultimate sacrifice that demands ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know if Montezuma clarified that human sacrifice was not just a matter of devotion, but of survival, even if those who were sacrificed couldn’t survive.

I do know how Cortez reacted to the piled hearts. As he plowed his way through the Aztec empire, he entered sacred temples and threw out their gods, replacing them with his own. I imagine the horror of the Aztec people. What are you doing? they might have thought. You’re killing the entire world. They might have looked up, waiting for lighting to strike or storms to descend or floods to rise. And as days passed, and no destruction came, they might have wondered, Have our sacrifices been for nothing?

When my devotion was rendered mute, replaced by another, I waited for my world’s collapse. I waited in heartache, which I had always taken as a metaphor until he said I love her and she loves me, and it felt like my rib cage collapsed in. Another kind of violence, another sunk cost compelling the thought, You broke it, you bought it, thank God to no avail. I ached for days, even months, before the reason for this heartache didn’t make sense and I began to wonder if my heart was bleeding for nothing.

I don’t miss him anymore, or even think about him often, but he taught my heart distance. In my darker moments, I worry that when the ache in my chest disappeared, it wasn’t because my heart came back to me, but rather because it bled out on a platter.

The surgeon and religious leader Russell M. Nelson reversed Montezuma’s offering, taking hearts from platters and putting them in chests—even as a symbol, it’s not metaphoric. When his medical career began, there was no such thing as heart surgery: Never touch the heart, he was told. A touched heart will stop beating. Through painstaking research, he discovered that a heart doesn’t mind being touched, or even held, under proper conditions. Can you imagine it? A heart uncaged, pulsing in your hand. He went on to cut hearts, stitch them, bind them, unblock them, uncage them and cage them again. The instrument he invented—the heart-lung machine, made with metal he melted and glass he blew and a plastic nipple he took from his own baby’s bottle—rendered possible the transplanting of hearts: the taking of a healthy heart and placing it in the chest of someone else’s mortal temple, thereby saving a life.

Heart transplants sound magical to me, almost like necromancy: it takes the heart of one dead, puts it into one dying, and somehow creates new life, though there are restrictions, of course. There must be similarities between the dead and the nearly so: They must be geographically close enough for timely transport. Their blood types should match to decrease the likelihood of rejection. Their hearts should be about the same size, because a heart too big crammed into a ribcage too small can lead to convulsions, comas, and death.

I think about my first love, and how I would lay my head against his chest, listening to his heart. He told me about his parents’ shotgun marriage in high school and their divorce by the time he was two. About his mother taking him to a bar shortly afterward where she met his eventual stepfather, a man who she told that night, If you’re going to rape me, then just do it. My first love talked of Plato’s cave as if it were a literal place, describing its stone and quiet, saying with regret, The light is too bright for me. I remembered his cave often and cherished the moments he said things like loving you feels like the spirit of God, not just for the cheesy moment, but to acknowledge that love is how we feel swept away in what is both good and powerful, and it often takes two before it takes one.

Maybe I should have never given my heart in those early days. There were red flags, as people like to say, as if it’s easy not to love someone based on the checklist they do or do not fill. But I found something beautiful in his striving, however limited by his circumstance, and though it’s ambitious to ask what the suffering was for—as if there was some specific, cosmic meaning—I can’t help but hope that there is a consolation prize for the loss of my heart: that maybe it gave renewed life for him if not for me.

According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ symbolically placed His heart on humankind and is rumored to have literally died of a cage too small for what was inside it. It can’t be proven, of course, but Dr. C. Truman Davis speculates that when Christ was crucified, excess fluid collected in the pericardium, which squeezed His heart to the point of death. This theory explains why, when the legionnaire stabbed Christ up through the ribs, “there came out blood and water.” The water was the fluid that increased the pressure, slowly constricting, slowly completing the sacrifice of Deity. Yet Christian theology says this crushed-hearted Christ requests “broken hearts and contrite spirits” to deal out healing and redemption. The story of my God is like the story of Aztec creation in this way: gods must sacrifice for their people, and people must sacrifice for their gods, or else creation is foiled. The stability of life requires reciprocity.

When I think of Deity giving me my heart, I worry about not being able to accept it. Jesus Christ is the ultimate organ donor because He can swell His heart bigger and bigger, so big that He dies, so big that He can give it to billions of people, and yet He lives, which is why Christians call Him God: this is both the scandal and miracle of Christianity, and I think to myself, Am I similar enough? Are Christ and I close enough? Does the same blood run through my veins? Is my cage the right size? Those are the requirements of a successful heart transplant. It seems like blasphemy even to compare, but that’s what He invites me to do: to dream that He can bring me a healed and beating heart.

In my brighter moments, I believe He has. I say that I’m distant from my heart, but there are so many times I feel it. Playing games with friends. Walking in sunshine. Climbing rock walls. Listening to other hearts. Responding to their beats with love.

It’s only in romantic love where I see holes, pieces of me moldered away, inscribed with words I can no longer remember. Since my first love, I’ve twisted my fingers with many others, many I love you’s falling sincerely from my lips, but in conversation, my eyes meet eyes a beat too late. I often wait for the tell-tale tilting head in my periphery before shifting my gaze toward one that has already settled on my face. Love is sacrifice is light is synchronized reciprocity, but I resist and feel no flutter.

Like all living hearts, my heart is judged by its precision, pressure, and pace. These attributes can vary from moment to moment, of course, but should follow a specific pattern within a specific allowance. It should open and close cleanly. Blood pressure should be around 120 over 80. When at rest, it should beat at around 60 bpm; when exercising intensely, somewhere around 160 bpm; and when sleeping, as low as 50 bpm. And so my heart does, mostly. I hear it open, shut, open, shut, open, shut. Blood pressure is 110 over 70. It speeds with stimuli and slows with rest.

It functions, but I still worry about its brokenness. Too often, my heart physically hurts from metaphorically crowding beyond its cage. Even when not pained, my heart remembers pain. It races too often, too easily startled by anything from alarms to angry voices, and too long, so long that up to an hour after a surprise, it’s still racing, and the Red Cross won’t let me donate. Are you nervous about giving blood? they ask me.

It’s only now that I think of another aspect of the Aztecs: while human sacrifice was required, blood-letting—voluntary offering of one’s blood without losing one’s life—was also an acceptable form of sacrifice when coming from priests and other devoted worshippers. Death was for those who had no gratitude, or whose heart was not beating to the will of the gods, though I’m sure that there were unfair interpretations of who was devoted. It makes me think that in matters of love, unity requires not my complete destruction, and not a life for a life, but acceptance of a heart, and if my heart beats in fear, then I am missing the point.

But sometimes, I don’t miss the point.

My second flutter, my most recent love: I like you, I told him after hundreds of afternoons together, and a month later he said, I like you too. A month after that, I love you said both ways. He’s someone who was born dead, a blue baby on a metal tray, and when a doctor forced him screaming into life, that taste of death seems to have lingered, because he’s fascinated by extinct civilizations, their intricate human complexities flattened into scribbled tablets. Perhaps this is why he liked me, but in any case, we talked of hearts. I told him my musings, and he was enchanted by the symmetry of stone temples against mortal temples, of plattered hearts and hearts from platters. He offered me libbum, the word for heart in Akkadian, a language that hasn’t been spoken for two thousand years, though I falsely connect it to words like liberty. Its meanings: heart; the seat of will; the seat of emotions, thought, memory; center; iris.

I told him, I guess even two thousand years ago, eyes were the window to the soul. And though the academic in him equivocated—explaining that we can’t possibly know the connotations libbum might entail—I found myself meeting his gaze, those eyes blue as the death that almost kept him, and I felt gratitude for bleeding hearts. If to bleed is to lose blood, then a heart must bleed by necessity, and only once it stops should we worry.

Rachelle is curious about everything, especially people, which explains why she will never leave school. Ever. In her undergrad, she studied piano performance before switching to a major in physics education while minoring in political science. She is currently working on an MFA in creative nonfiction while she teaches high school chemistry and physics. In the future, she hopes to know more things than she knows now, write a book worth publishing, and be of service to others. She may also pursue a PhD which, knowing her, may or may not be entirely unrelated to her prior degrees.