I took a lot of pills the night I had to clear chunks of cholesterol from the valves of a still human heart. The pills were smooth plastic orange; the cholesterol rigid yellow, the texture of dried paint chips. In my semi-high state that I blamed on formaldehyde, I wondered what colors the walls would have been if this heart had exploded. Goldenrod for out-of-place plaque, crimson for blood, stormy-sunset-sky mauve for muscle. I pictured all of this splattered together vividly, but poor Beatrice didn’t die from an explosion. Her heart had simply stopped. I wondered if she had taken any pills.
Her heart fit neatly in the palm of my left hand as I nearly broke it. I squeezed the paint-like plaque with tweezers, pulling out tiny bits from the thin rubbery tubes. It seemed the cleaning would never end, that even in death Beatrice was doomed to be dirty, dirty, dirty. I would not let this happen. I was no doctor, just a student learning about the body, but I understood that she had suffocated and that this was my greatest fear. I needed to fight this through her.
I needed to learn how to breathe.
Breathing was often hard in summer heat and in hospital rooms of cadavers. I felt bad for them, splayed out on tables, looking limp and crucified. No breeze stirred the air in here, just sound waves from jazz radio pulsing and reminding me that I was the only one in the room with a pulse. It was after-hours, night-time, the rest of the cadaver class wasn’t here. I could only do this heart work when I was alone. I didn’t want anyone to see me feverishly obsessed like this. They didn’t seem to understand how awful this was, how wrong for the gold that killed the girl to still be inside her. How close it made her death feel.
I didn’t talk to anyone about this. The college counselor was fixated on keeping my own heart beating and my breathing pace steady; I couldn’t have told her about someone else’s heart. Not that I did such a good job telling her anything about mine. For some reason I could only tell her about hands.
She asked me once if I would like to be dead. I said no and it was true, despite how often I wondered whether any other state of existence might have been preferable to wherever I was. If I could have chosen, I think I would have liked to be a swan. That was my spirit animal, according to an internet quiz, even though I didn’t think I had enough grace. I had precision and compassion, probably – I was very careful digging deep into the heart I held – but I didn’t believe in love. I didn’t believe I could mate for life, not when I had been suffocated before.
Although I needed anxiety medicine to be here, in this pristine white room with imaginary internal organ art on the walls, I thought I was doing something good. I was better at breathing than Beatrice, at least, and I laughed a little, like it was a victory to win a two-person competition when one person was dead. At least I was alone here, at least I didn’t have a so-called lover’s hand or mouth over my mouth here.
Whenever I flashed back to that loveless night of silence and suffocation, I tried to somehow balance the liquid in my body by converting the tears building in my eyes to the blood that would make my heart beat and breathe. It didn’t make sense and I knew it didn’t work that way. I looked inside Beatrice’s heart enough to know that. But since I couldn’t look inside my own, I chose to believe it was different, somehow connected to the waterworks. It was a way to not cry and to breathe at the same time. It was quite a feat for me.
The counselor told me to imagine my lungs as orange balloons, inflating and deflating, but I wasn’t allowed to hyperventilate enough to pop them or hold my breath enough to wilt them into nothingness. It wasn’t hard to picture balloons but I pictured them twisted up like animals, like a swan’s long neck bent to infinity, because that was how I felt. Then I pictured myself splayed out like a corpse and someone else twisted around me and hands on my mouth and it was hard to blame the balloons for bursting.
I added orange to my mental scene of wall-art, along with the yellow cholesterol and red blood and pinkish-gray muscle. I put the tweezers on the table and the heart in the open-cage chest and I peeled off my gloves, dropping them into the biohazard bin, bright as blood. When I washed my hands I scrubbed with soap so hard that I watched bubbles burst for minutes after the water stopped running.
I never told the counselor about my obsession with cleanliness, either. I assumed it was normal and that breathing right was sort of more important, that distancing myself from motionlessness and silence was important. I could wash my hands as much as I wanted, if only for the background noise of the faucet. The counselor’s job was to help me stay calm, not clean. Breathe in, breathe out, close both eyes and meditate. Be aware of every heartbeat. I didn’t suffocate. I was alive, alive, alive.
As I took one last look at the clean inanimate heart, I pretended it was my own. I covered Beatrice with her own skin and a muslin cloth, said a silent good night, and held my breath all the way out of the all-white hospital. I pretended I had perfected the art of breathing.
Bethany Mary is from Bowie, Maryland, and she is currently studying health science and creative writing at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. She writes mostly creative non-fiction and poetry, and is the poetry editor for the 2015 issue of Green Blotter Literary Magazine.