It was settled. Her heart had turned into a furry creature. The doctors couldn’t tell her how it happened, but it was the only conclusion they reached. They couldn’t agree on what kind of animal (thing? organism?) her heart was. Nor could they agree on why or how her heart had escaped its ribcage. All she knew was that her palms were wrapped around something soft to touch and most definitely alive. It was pulsing in sync with her breath. They asked her question after question, trying to figure out this situation. One doctor kept taking notes, while the other kept checking her pulse. It formed a song of sorts—the rhythm of breath, pulse, breath, pulse, breath; the melodic scribble of a ballpoint pen and lilting intonation of questions, floating atop the steady beat; the occasional counterpoint accent of a monitor bleeping, a staccato shuffle down the corridor outside. She couldn’t hear the way her own voice fit into this song, though, although she had to talk quite a bit more than she usually did.
She told them what had happened, as concisely as she could: she had woken up, gotten out of bed. She was making herself coffee when she noticed something trailing behind her. She’d overslept, so she didn’t have the time to take care of it just then. She only noticed a problem when she tried to leave her apartment. Her breath stopped. Her head spun. She tried to stay calm. She went back to the apartment, called in sick, and went to the walk-in clinic. The furry thing had started shedding all over the kitchen counter, and she tucked it into her bag to throw away later. She forgot she put it there. She only realized her heart wasn’t beating inside her chest while she was waiting in the lobby.
Now she was here. The doctors listened. They shook their heads collectively. Everything else was in excellent shape for a forty-three-year-old, it seemed, especially given her medical history. In the end, they discharged her, simply telling her to take good care of her heart. They recommended a trial-and-error approach. See what the heart responds to, they advised, keep it near you at all times, keep eating healthy, keep going for your runs, keep calm. See what feels good for you. They gave her a sterilized carrier, so that it wouldn’t be exposed to infection—but she took it out of the case, as soon as she exited the clinic. She liked the risk of cradling it close.
The heart is a muscular organ—neither fully muscle nor organ. It is formed of muscle tissue called “the cardiac muscle,” which contracts and expands with your heartbeat; it is responsible for pumping blood, supplying oxygen, and removing toxic wastes like carbon dioxide. You cannot turn it off, but it can be jolted. If the jolt is severe, it is called heart failure. If it turns off completely, it is called death.
The first weeks were spent trying to gain some semblance of sanity.
To begin with, she needed a way to make the heart work-appropriate for the office. This turned out to be easier than expected. She started bringing in a lunchbox, her heart neatly packed atop of Tupperware containers. For meetings, she’d get there five minutes early to set up—as she usually did, anyways—and tuck the lunchbox under the table. Her heart wasn’t thrilled about this; sometimes, she could tell it was feeling cooped-up and she would get a slight headache. But it wasn’t much different from what life was like before.
She would let it get some air during lunch breaks, as she sat on a bench in Union Square. Before this, she would flip through a magazine while she ate her salad wrap, just to feel less silly about eating alone. But now she needed to make sure her heart didn’t go anywhere, although it preferred to sit docilely by her side and sniff at her food. Her younger coworkers never asked what she did for her break, anyways, and she doubted that they would change their habits now.
There were even some perks, as she adjusted. It was nice to cuddle at night, when it lay on her pillow and drowsily thumped alongside her. When she woke up, she would find that it had crawled onto her stomach during the night, and she savored the round warmness on top of her. It would trail behind her as she did her household chores, begging for pets. Strange as it was to conceptualize, her heart could be kind of cute.
Her diet also changed for the better. She had never been an adventurous eater, but it was strange to track how directly her heart would respond to certain foods. Cholesterol was bad, and so was sodium. Sugar wasn’t great. Her heart adored caffeine; it would sulk every morning, until she allowed herself one cup. Then it would jump about her, frisky, and she reminded it to calm down. She very occasionally let herself indulge in Chinese takeout and ice cream. Somehow, the foods tasted even better than before, both of them getting forbidden sugar highs. It was nice to have someone to guiltily conspire with.
Perhaps the biggest change was that, one day, she opened the lid to the upright piano. Her heart wouldn’t stop rubbing itself around and around the piano legs. She knew what it was trying to say. It had been almost eleven years since that summer day when she’d been practicing imaginary arpeggios over her stomach, fingers drumming over taut, stretched skin. The black and white keys stared at her. You’ve gotten some wrinkles, they sneered with glossy polish. So she shut the lid. Her heart sulked, but sometimes that’s the way things went.
She called the hospital to ask about better solutions, but she gave up after five minutes of being put on hold. The doctors never checked back on her; she supposed there were more important cases. She googled phrases like “heart transformation” and “heart escaped ribcage what to do,” but nothing besides fantasy stories and love advice columns emerged. Trial-and-error it was. And the situation didn’t look like it was changing anytime soon.
There wasn’t anyone she felt would be interested in knowing, so she kept the news to herself. Her mother might have cared, but it had been a while since she’d talked to her mother, let alone seen her in person. Anyways, it was a bizarre situation that was tiring to explain, and her mother would probably tell her some religious anecdote as an explanation. She didn’t feel any desire to figure out the logic behind the metamorphosis, though. It was enough for her that she still had a heart.
Long-term muscle memory is formed from a constantly repeated movement over time, eventually allowing that muscle to perform the motion with little to no conscious effort. It is the most efficient way to utilize our motor and memory systems. Examples include, but are not limited to: walking, playing an instrument, dancing.
The heart, if you remember from previous diagrams, is formed of cardiac muscle.
Following this logic, the amount of time it takes us to recover from heartbreak is the amount of time it takes for our heart to forget its long-term muscle memory.
The trial-and-error approach was indeed learning through error.
One time, home alone, she got drunk to the point of near-blackout. This kind of event wasn’t too common—only once or twice a month, really. Or perhaps it had been a bit more frequent, but that was because it had been winter. Her heart began by having a grand old time. It frolicked about, rolling off the musty floral couch and dancing in time to the 80s hits on the radio, and she had laughed at its antics. It was nice to hear the sound resonate in her small living room. But an hour later, her heart started to seize up—tense, like a terrified dog trying to decide whether to lash out or cower away. It made one hissing noise which she’d never heard before, a piercing teakettle shriek, then bit her hand. She hadn’t known it had a mouth. Then her head fuzzed, her vision split with the sharp stench of vodka—or was it the sharp cleanness of antiseptic wipes all over and inside her? There was the rich smell of vomit from somewhere, the splintery warm wood of the bench against her thighs, pain splitting her open like a knife on a ripe watermelon and juice gushing down and out, dark seeds of blood clots spat out on green grass—
When she woke up the next morning, its fur was matted with old vomit and sweat, but at least it was still pumping. She wasn’t sure what had happened. It hurt to think. Her head pounded, but she had decades of experience with hangovers. They lay in her bed together, the curtains drawn. She drank clear broth for dinner, then carefully cleaned off her body in the shower, her heart in the sink. She had to drink less, she really did.
A few more weeks passed, and she noticed that her heart—while pumping and doing okay—wasn’t as active. She grew concerned; it was kind of nice, to have something alive to take care of. Cardio was good, the doctors had advised. She thought she could take it on a run. After all, she’d gone jogging every weekend before this happened. It had been an activity she could do alone without getting judged, something cheap and productive and regular.
But their first time together was disastrous. She hadn’t thought of how she would carry it, and it jiggled uncomfortably in the crook of her arm, a little too big to hold in one hand. It wasn’t like she could shove it down her sports bra, furry and squirming as it was. Her pockets were too claustrophobic, she remembered. It hadn’t liked being shoved in there before. So she put it down by her feet, thinking that it could follow behind her. It was fine for the first mile. It was a good-enough runner. Well, she supposed, so was she.
But then they passed another person on the path, an elderly woman with a focused face and wispy gray hair. Her heart started running in the opposite direction from her, chasing after this stranger. She had no choice but to follow, head pounding. Come back, she wanted to call out, but she didn’t have enough breath. The other woman stopped walking, surprised to find a thing galumphing by her heels. She managed to catch up, wheezing and apologizing profusely. She scooped up her heart, and silently fumed. That stranger is not your mother, stupid, she thought, that was entirely unnecessary.
She thought she’d try again. It had only been two miles, and her legs were antsy. Her heart seemed to be cooperating, rolling along. On mile four, though, it crashed straight into the calves of a young dad, one of those superparents that jogged while pushing a baby stroller. She didn’t look twice at the poor guy, who was confounded by the furry thing, but she did notice the baby’s eyes. They were dark brown, perfectly circular in the way that only babies’ eyes are, the round amazement of someone who hasn’t yet been told we shouldn’t allow ourselves to open our eyes so fully. She closed her own eyes briefly, overwhelmed by the salty tang flooding her senses, and saw pools of dripping red. Shaking her head, she opened her eyes to see that the heart had swarmed up the stroller. She hadn’t known it could climb.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, apologizing with a sincerity that took the hip, young dad by surprise.
He thought it was funny; his kid seemed to love the furry thing, fascinated by the pulsing. Her heart seemed excited by the attention. More than excited—it had started beating fast to the point that it was practically purring, a thrum so loud and full that it was shaking with vibrations. She had to tear it away, as it clung to the plastic edge of the stroller. Somehow, she hadn’t noticed before that it had sticky little feet like tentacles or suction cups. It sulked after they left the baby, refusing to go anywhere. She picked it up in her arms, then gave up on the run.
Alright, she thought. Trial-and-error. She would need a different method. She went into the nearest pet store she saw to buy a dog leash. She fastened a strip of cotton—hastily made from a cut-up T-shirt—around the heart and clipped the leash onto that. There was a good pun in there about heartstrings, but she couldn’t think of one—and she had no one to tell it to, anyways. So she just smiled quietly, and her heart twitched a bit.
The leash was a good solution. They started finding favorite runs to do together. Her heart got undeniably excited to see the Statue of Liberty, every time she ran down to Battery Park alongside the Hudson River. As they rounded the curve of Pier 25, it would start racing in front of her to see the grimy river, the metallic Jersey skyline, the faint outline of a woman with a torch. She didn’t have the heart to tell it off, that America had long stopped being inspiring for immigrants and the statue was extremely touristy. Her heart, she noticed, wasn’t very good at keeping its cool. It was also fond of trees, sniffing about big oaks in Central Park as if it, too, forgot it wasn’t a dog. She had to make sure to avoid broken glass on sidewalks. They also had to stop going through Washington Square, because it kept circling back to that one bench. It would slump down, refusing to move, until she coaxed it up again. That was months ago, silly, she thought to it, petting it tenderly, you’re over it now, remember?
Yes, she recognized that she might look a little funny. She got the occasional stare, but this was New York. She was grateful that people didn’t care too much. They probably thought it was a freak dog breed, something she paid millions of dollars for. She got used to dodging strollers and couples and hyper dogs, running alone with her own heart on a leash.
And after a few more months of opening and shutting the lid, she put her hands on the keyboard. Her heart had gotten bored of her dilly-dallying and kept clambering up to shed all over the keys. Fine, she thought, it’ll help clean them off a little. She didn’t bother to sit down on the bench. Her fingers bent and wound themselves into shape, an old music box crank that was coated with rust. She smelled the tang of copper again, salty and bloody, almost fragrant with nostalgia. Bach, she remembered, as her right hand traced an opening phrase. Her left hand sprang into response, ready to weave in its counterpoint—but then her brain interfered, and she forgot the rest. Something landed on her left foot, and she looked down to see that her heart had plunked down there, pulsing serenely. It looked bigger. So she spent the rest of the day hunting for her sheet music and then practicing Bach, her heart warm at her feet.
They started finding a rhythm, her heart and her.
There is a heart condition that is diagnosed as stress cardiomyopathy, or “broken heart syndrome.” The broken heart syndrome temporarily stops your heart’s normal pumping rhythm, causing effects similar to a heart attack. It is usually triggered by extreme emotional responses or situations. A broken heart is popularly associated with romantic breakups, but the syndrome can be caused by many other examples such as: a car accident, loss of a child, general trauma. Funnily enough, the broken heart syndrome is a misnomer. It does not break the heart; it only affects a part of it—the rest of the heart continues pumping normally. The broken heart syndrome is usually not fatal. The heart will remember how to work as a whole unit again. Muscle memory, as we’ve discussed, is a powerful tool that can override most conditions.
If this were a rom-com, she mused, she would give her heart to the neighbor who sang opera in the shower, or the barista who made particularly good Americanos, or the secretary with kind, sad eyes at her office. They would accept it with charmed delight, and she could get her happy middle-aged ending, ornamented with quips and banter.
She wasn’t sure any of them would want her heart. For starters, it took more work than she’d anticipated. She had to bathe it daily in warm water and soap, to make sure it didn’t get infected. She couldn’t drink more than one cup of coffee per day, nor could she smoke the occasional cigarette. She made sure that it wasn’t clinging to something inappropriate, whenever she let it get some fresh air, and she had to keep it hidden for professional appointments. She was constantly cleaning its fur off of her clothes. She played thirty minutes of piano a day and ran on the weekends, to make sure it was satisfied. Yes, things weren’t ideal, but it was routine now.
She took the chance to examine her heart closely, something she didn’t often have time—or the thought—to do. It wasn’t very pretty, to be frank. The suction cups looked a bit grotesque, and its constant pulsating didn’t help. It was almost like a miniature cross between an octopus and a shaggy mutt, with coarse and tangled fur (no matter how often she’d brush it out with her fingers). It was less fragile than she originally thought it was, when she had held it in the doctor’s office. She’d dropped it a couple of times since then, or accidentally shut the lunchbox lid on it too hard, but it seemed to be doing fine. It had a bit of a bounce to its step; when it ran with her, it oddly, charmingly galumphed.
We think it had something to do with chromosomal abnormalities or a heart defect, they had told her before. But, looking at it, she couldn’t find any major problems with her heart. No dents, no tears. It was very whole. We realize it’s a tragedy, but it sometimes does happen. What had been wrong, she wondered. We’re sorry for your loss. She felt a rush of anger at it, suddenly, that surprised her. Had it been your fault? The heart didn’t answer her.
Despite all this, was it strange that she didn’t want to give her heart away? Not because she was scared it wouldn’t do well, with another person. In fact, she was pretty certain that most people would make it happier than she did. But it was the only thing she had to keep her company, and it was valuable to her. Perhaps more importantly, she had somehow produced it. It was a part of her. It was probably the only thing she could ever create again. It was a quiet epiphany—she’d known all along, really—but she realized that she didn’t want to put it back inside her ribcage.
Another name for the broken heart syndrome is “takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” named after a Japanese contraption for trapping octopuses. The tako-tsubo is a narrow-necked pot with a round bottom; the pot’s shape mirrors the apical ballooning that happens in the heart’s left ventricle during cardiomyopathy. We see that the broken heart syndrome continues to be a misnomer, for the bottom part (apex) of the ventricle swells outwards. Although there may be acute pain and shortness of breath, nothing is actually broken. The tako-tsubo’s narrow neck is to ensure that the octopi cannot escape.
She was scared to speak. She wished that she had a script; she suddenly remembered high school English drama projects, of sopping words in and wringing them out. She had never liked those group assignments; she didn’t know why she was thinking of this now, after thirty-something years had passed.
Hello? Her mother’s voice had only continued to get more vinegared with time. To whom am I speaking?
She opened her mouth, gaping like a drowning fish. Fish didn’t drown, did they? Her head spun round, and her heart followed suit, frantically circling. She felt like she was in a fishbowl. No, not fishbowl. Hamster wheel. No. She couldn’t afford to panic now. She was calling for a reason. Concentrate. She pushed the air through her lungs, forced her vocal cords and throat muscles into action. Her heart continued doing laps around her ankles.
I thought as much, her mother commented, I know how caller ID works, you know.
Oh, she exhaled. She geared up her voice again.
Her mother’s voice was no match for hers. Well, it’s nice of you to call. Any reason?
I, I wanted to hear how you were doing.
I’m fine. Your cousin brings her kids over here all the time. So that keeps me busy.
Oh, she said again. That’s nice.
Her mother was silent. That’s how these calls usually went, and that’s why she had stopped calling at all.
Mom, it wasn’t an abortion, she wanted to say. Mom, please, forgive me. I don’t know what I did wrong. Mom. It was out of my control.
Instead, she said, You’re welcome to come visit, if you’re in the area.
That city of sin? I’m doing fine here, thank you.
Alright. Take care, Mom.
The low thrum of her heart echoed the click of the receiver.
It had been eight months—no, almost nine—since her heart had clambered out of its ribcage. They had a pattern. They had a life.
So she was shocked when she woke up, one morning, to find that it wasn’t curled up by her side. She spent the day scouring the apartment, trying to find signs of a tentacles-and-fur clump in dusty corners. It was only by dinnertime, when she’d forgotten to eat, that she realized her chest was beating. It was an odd sensation. The heart’s pulsing filled her body, pounding in her ears. When it rustled around, as it liked to do when it was excited or agitated, it sent tremors through her fingertips. How had she lived before, with this cacophony inside her?
Her instinct was to call the doctor, 911, and ask them to take her heart out of her chest. She didn’t want to forget what it felt like to take care of another living being. But that would be ridiculous. She would die in the operation. She couldn’t help from crying a little, but she knew it was final—the way certain things feel inevitable, the way you know a doctor’s diagnosis before they gently break the news to you. She knew what she had to do.
A question escaped her mouth and hung in the air, a bashful fermata. Her heart purred in response, thumping gently.
It was settled. She got up and slowly ran to Washington Square, her heart pounding in her chest. They negotiated the scuffle of street noise, conducted the treble screech of a car braking and staccato of feet. They sat on the bench together and remembered.