A Muscular Organ, the Size of Your Fist

The colorful woman boarded wearing a bright pink coat almost to her knees and rubber rain boots that sparkled silver. She wore orange mittens and carried a yellow leather bag over her right shoulder and a wheat-colored canvas tote over her left. She held her purply-blue heart, encased in clear Tupperware, in front  of her chest.

Zhijian watched, keeping his head lowered, as she walked down the middle aisle and sat with a sighing thud in the row nearest the back doors. 

Once seated, the woman arranged her yellow bag on the floor in front of her, positioned her tote on her lap, and set her heart on the seat next to her. She removed her mittens with her teeth and began swiping her thumb over her phone screen.

Zhijian could feel himself starting to blush as the bus pulled away from the curb. He knew he should not stare. Outside hearts were rare and coveted and famously touchy. They were most often kept packed away in sturdy, opaque containers nestled within specially made backpacks. But this woman’s heart twitched away next to her, exposed to anyone who chose to look. Still, Zhijian kept his textbook open on his lap for plausible deniability. 

The bus slowed as it entered campus; students here, even sober ones, had the habit of wandering into the road without looking, perfectly confident that the surrounding world would accommodate their carelessness. On the one hand, this was monstrous arrogance; on the other, since moving here for school, Zhijian had not once seen a pedestrian hit by a car, so perhaps even if the students’ behavior was entitled, it was also not wrong.

At a stop outside the Arts Building, the colorful woman looked up, startled. Zhijian watched as she rushed to exit. “Thank you!” she called to the driver. Her voice sounded distracted, maybe a tiny bit hoarse. She waved, and as she shoved her phone into her jacket pocket, an orange mitten fell to the curb. She didn’t notice. Zhijian looked back to the row where the woman had been sitting. There, resting comfortably on the indented plastic of the seat, was the lost mitten’s mate—and the Tupperwared heart.

If the heart wanted him, Zhijian knew, it would tell him. He would experience an unmissable moment of communion, a physical pull. He waited a beat. He felt nothing. He looked around. No one else on the bus seemed to have noticed that the heart was even there. Quickly, before his rational mind could second-guess his body’s movements, he stood up, switched seats, and slipped both the heart and the mitten into his backpack. 

***

“How,” Frederick asked, “could you be so careless?” He leaned against the industrial sink in the back corner of his studio, too agitated to turn on the water. “And why were you even taking the bus? If it was too cold to walk, you could have called me; you’re not a vagrant.” 

God, how she loved him, the exasperation in his voice, the frustration in his gestures. They’d met a dozen years ago; Frederick, a sought-after potter, had been a one-year visiting professor at the coastal fine arts college where she was then teaching, and from the first time she saw him, her outside heart beat faster, it swelled, it beamed out happy electrical bursts that weakened her knees and sent shivers down her back and caught words in her throat. He’d looked her up and down and smiled, accepted her ardor without question. She’d stunned her department colleagues, stunned the local gallery scene where she’d been a regular and reliable presence, stunned herself, and followed him here, to this decently-regarded, chilly Midwestern university where he was tenured and she’d been begrudgingly hired to instruct basic painting.

She touched his arm. “I live in the world,” she said, sweetly, “not your ivory tower.”

He smiled at that. Frederick wore steel-toed boots and rolled his own cigarettes. His fingertips were stained yellow with nicotine and the hair around his temples tended toward dusty. He liked to tell people that his grandfather had been a Teamster; he mentioned his father, an optometrist, significantly less often.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just wish you’d take better care of yourself.”

“You’re one to talk.” He was everything to her, and he was also more than a few years past sixty. The age difference hadn’t mattered when they first met, and not for years after—it had barely bothered her, she had to admit, even this morning—but in the unforgiving light of his studio, Frederick’s slumped shoulders looked more fragile than careless, his still-beautiful face noticeably thinner than it once had been. As he pulled her close, she all but recoiled from his breath, skunky with cigarettes and black coffee. He never exercised, she thought with annoyance. She could not remember the last time he had eaten a vegetable.

“You’ve contacted the bus company.” It was more of an affirmation than a question, but she nodded anyway. They’d promised to deliver a push alert to the drivers, reminded her that they were not responsible for passengers’ personal effects. 

The next question, she could tell, was difficult for him, and she respected his effort in bringing it into the world. “When,” he asked, “does this become something for us to worry about?”

“Oh, Frederick.” She hoped her laughter sounded reassuring. “Please relax. It always turns up.”

***

Ensconced in its Tupperware on Zhijian’s kitchen table, the colorful woman’s heart beat slowly, steadily, curiously.

Although Zhijian had moved into this apartment several months ago, the heart was his very first guest. He had met so many of his study abroad goals—his grades were good; his language skills improving—but he had not done so well at making friends. In the dorm last year, he’d been paired with a local roommate, but the boy had spent most of his time playing videogames by himself and left at the end of one semester. No one else had moved in. 

Zhijian had known, when that roommate left, that he should try to attach to one of the large friend groups he often noticed around the building’s communal kitchen and laundry room, big laughing clusters of both local and international students making popcorn together or washing great piles of t-shirts. He’d known that he should tell them hello, offer his name, comment on the delicious smells of the food or the inadequacy of the dryers. But instead his face would get hot and his stomach would clench. He would smile and avert his eyes and stand by the door until a microwave or a washing machine was free, then quickly complete his task and return to his dorm room. 

His off-campus apartment, with its full kitchen and in-unit washer/dryer, had put an end to such awkward encounters. Now, though, he tried to imagine what his beige carpet and cream-colored walls might look like to the heart on his table, and he began to feel boxed in by ugliness. This was a hopeful sign. He had stolen the heart—it had not chosen him—but even still, perhaps it was trying to help him. Perhaps he should let it.

The hardware store assistant, a boy with floppy brown hair and a red polo shirt, offered a friendly smile. Zhijian’s true heart, the one inside his chest, constricted nervously, but there was, he realized gladly, no way for the assistant to know this; the outside heart metronomed along with a steady, perfunctory tick.

“I would like,” Zhijian said carefully, “to locate the best quality interior house paints.”

The boy directed him to the store’s back corner, where a many-pocketed cardboard display case took up two whole sections of wall. Paint squares in every gradient of the color spectrum offered themselves for his choosing. The outside heart began to beat faster, to puff and swell, to strain up against the cloudy plastic of its container.

Zhijian moved closer to the display. The heart sizzled at Shrimp Creole, a coral orangey pink. It shimmied and twitched to Bold Canary, a not-quite-but-almost-neon yellow; sputtered and lunged toward Fresh Cut Grass, a joyful, vibrant green; pulsed and buzzed erratically in the direction of Hello Sailor!, a silver-sparkled purple-navy.

Zhijian held the Tupperware to his face. “Do you like them all?” he whispered. “Which ones?” His own heart pounded fearfully. Hurry, he thought, hurry, hurry. To catch his breath, he stood in front of the grays. The outside heart quieted to a hum and his own shoulders relaxed. He moved quickly, darting to grab sample pots of the heart’s choosing, then relaxing back among the neutrals. He worked in this way until his cart was full.

***

Sheila had met her outside heart two days before her twelfth birthday, when it flew through her open bedroom window while she sat at her desk doing homework and listening to the radio. The heart, beating hard, landed on her open history textbook, and her entire body responded, every cell vibrating as though perfectly tuned for the first time. The heart had chosen her, and from the very beginning she wanted it.

But what the heart wanted from her was less clear. She did her best to listen, let the heart urge and cajole and push. She tried things: wrote some terrible poems, joined the theater club, sang along to the radio. And then, on her way home from school one day, she stopped at an art supply store and bought a sketchpad. By the time her parents discovered the heart, two months later, their bond was secure and her sketchpad was full. No one, Sheila announced with pride, could separate them, and no one ever had. Her adult personality—her whole self—had been bonsaied within the container of the heart’s passions, and she’d grown to love the resulting shape.

Professionally, her devotion to the heart’s whims was an asset: if she succeeded in capturing some small piece of beauty in a painting, her heart was already pulling to start something new, to bring into the world something that only existed just beyond her fingertips, that formed just beyond her thoughts. Her studio was a large, airy room on the top floor of the house she and Frederick shared. They’d installed ceiling track lights so she could work at all hours and cork flooring to protect her knees and feet. She liked to have several projects going at the same time and always arranged her in-progress works in a loose circle around the space, so she could stand in the middle and move wherever her heart led her. 

Personally, her heart had done the equivalent of an eye roll at the men she’d slept with before Frederick. This wasn’t to say that she hadn’t enjoyed herself, only that she’d always been able to distinguish between sex and love. With Frederick, to her heart-leaping joy, the two had overlapped, and her heart had thrummed along in relative peace. She’d been happy, in love, her life settled. But then, her awful, stupid, traitorous heart had begun clamoring for a baby. The longing had started as an occasional itch, grown to a persistent thrum, and deepened, recently, to a howl.  

“No,” had said Frederick, very reasonably, the first time she’d brought up the idea, and he’d continued saying no for the better part of a year. 

A baby, she would say. A child. A dumpling, an angel, a roly-poly, to which he’d respond, a black hole sucking away her ideas, her time, her freedom. 

Newly cut teeth and giggles and ringlets and sweet spitty fists, she’d reply, to which he’d counter, diapers and doctors’ appointments and laundry and the need for nutritious dinners and piles and piles of plastic entertainments spilling across their floors. 

He would smile patiently through these arguments, and she knew what he saw: a woman knocking on forty’s door, riding out the predictable last gasps of her relevance-seeking uterus and attention-whoring ovaries. But he was wrong. Her heart was very clear on this point; it held no desire for the creation aspect, no longing to make and feed a being with her own body; rather, her heart wanted her to hold a baby while it folded in on itself, its little knees to its little chest. Her heart wanted her to sway with that baby in a dark room, her lips to its soft temple, and feel its little body relax against her into sleep. 

If this was what it wanted, she’d told her heart, if she truly would have no peace until she at least tried to follow that path, then she would leave Frederick and sleep around, look into sperm donation, in vitro, try to grow a baby from a packet of seeds bought at the grocery store, whatever it was that people—all right, she amended her thinking, women—did when they found themselves in this predicament.

But, oh, when she thought of leaving Frederick! Her stupid, stupid heart began to ache. It thrashed away in its sturdy container and she could feel its angry, betrayed pulse in her stomach; she grew pale, nauseous. Her palms and forehead felt cold and sweaty at the same time.

All right, then, she told it. Fine. She would stay with Frederick. But, oh, cried her heart, the baby, the baby!

Ad nauseum.

And so she’d finally jettisoned the damn thing, unceremoniously dumped it into a cloudy Tupperware before abandoning it on the bus. Her puny little inside heart worked just fine to keep her alive, thanks, and she possessed both a perfectly good brain and a very strong will to guide future decision-making; the outside heart, despite their long history, was causing her more pain than it was worth.

Now, heartless, in her studio, she stood in front of a new work and breathed deeply. She could see that she’d overdone the blue, that bringing in some more red in the upper right-hand corner might help to balance things out. But was that the goal? Or did she want to say something about imbalance? In which case, maybe the color wasn’t the problem, and she should instead think about texture? As though the painting were a grid, she took inventory of each cross section, running through its current iteration and potential solutions. The piece was emotionally cold, clearly unfinished, but no obvious next steps came to mind. That click of rightness was missing, that nod of approval from her heart when the brain came up with the solution to translate what the heart wanted to say. 

She stepped back into the center of her circle and took stock of her older work, piece by piece, three minutes in front of each. She felt as closely connected to her paintings as she did to hotel art, to hold music.

Well, she thought, stumped for the first time in her career, now here was a pickle. 

***

Zhijian’s kitchen wall was blotchy with rejected paint swaths: deep purply-undertoned charcoal; cloud-like, smudgy-looking blue; bilious yellowy-green, and still the heart was not satisfied. It had begun thrumming with impatience after Zhijian tried the first two colors. With each subsequent attempt, the thrumming had deepened into a consistent, buzzy whine. His poor brain could not make a decision under such pressure. He reasoned with the heart: all of the colors were fine. They all were very nice colors, and any one of them would be entirely adequate covering the walls. And in any case, Zhijian tried to explain, paint was not that important. It was only paint. His apartment was only the place he lived from, it was not a part of him.

The heart, however, was not satisfied with his monologue. It began, somehow, to scream, a terrible sound that seemed to come at Zhijian from all directions, beginning as a high-pitched frequency that hurt the very front of his brain, then descending and rounding to a tremendous volcanic rumble he could feel in his belly, before rising and sharpening again to the sonic version of a sharp knife plunged right above his eye.

He staggered forward, his head in his hands, to shut the Tupperware’s lid. This, of course, was when his laptop chirped, cheerfully alerting him to his parents’ weekly check-in video call.

Thinking quickly, he opened his refrigerator and shoved the heart into the empty vegetable crisper. This muffled the sound of its scream to the low, humming roar of a vacuum cleaner, a welcome relief. Breathing heavily, he sat down in front of his screen and greeted his parents, 7,000 miles away and so full of pride for how well he was doing, how happy he had convinced them he was.

His mother just wanted to say a quick hello; she was on her way to a dance class that she’d taken up recently and was really enjoying. She kissed her fingers to her lips and waved. With the outside heart finally quieted, Zhijian could understand his inside heart more clearly. He yawned to cover the sudden, embarrassing tears that stung his eyes as his mother moved out of view. He did not want her to go to a dance class. He wanted her to come here, to his lonely apartment, to pull him in for a hug and smooth down the back of his hair, just the same way she had ever since he was a little boy worried about exams or small problems with his school friends. 

Zhijian’s father cleared his throat. Now that his mother had stepped out, there was a sensitive matter to address. Namely, had Zhijian really spent nearly $600 on home goods and painting supplies? His father had received a mobile fraud alert. They would have to cancel the emergency credit card if the purchases weren’t his.

Zhijian swallowed. In his rush at the hardware store, he had not stopped to consider the literal cost of his actions.

He settled on a version of the truth and explained that he had intended to redecorate his apartment, to make it a more serene and welcoming environment. He should have asked his father for help and advice, and together they could have found their way to the right decisions. He was sincerely sorry, he explained, and he had learned from this mistake. Finally meeting his father’s eyes, he promised that someday he would pay his family back. 

To his surprise, his father was laughing. 

It was all right, he said. They’d gotten the credit card so that Zhijian could use it. He was, in fact, glad to see Zhijian using it, glad to see him making some decisions on his own. When Zhijian was finished, he should send pictures of his newly decorated apartment. He should throw a party, invite his friends, use the credit card to purchase refreshments. He should try, said his father, to enjoy himself, okay? They would talk again soon.

Zhijian shut his laptop and took a deep breath. He washed his hands, using extra apple-scented dish soap, and dried them carefully on a paper towel. He opened the refrigerator and removed the now-cold Tupperware. Then, he reached out one very clean fingertip and gave the heart a gentle poke.

He’d expected something wobbly and slick, like cafeteria Jell-O. Instead, to his surprise, the colorful woman’s heart was tough and resistant, a sinewy old muscle, dry and stringy like overcooked beef. He pulled his finger back quickly, and the heart kept contracting and expanding as though nothing had happened. Emboldened, he lifted it out of the Tupperware. It was not even as heavy as some of his textbooks.

In his hands, the heart seemed chastened by its time in the vegetable crisper. Poor old, tough old, ugly old thing, he thought. It was not a bad heart, necessarily—perhaps it, too, wished to become better—but it was clearly not a good heart for him.

***

There was still sex, thank God. There was still Frederick, the smell and the taste and the feel of him, the weight of his hands pushing her wrists into their bed, his smooth shoulder, the shape of the arms she could draw from memory, the muscles all moving together. A few differences, minor in the scheme of things: she took no delight in his facial expressions; she experienced no desire to press her own face tight up against his neck. Afterwards, she rested her head on his chest out of habit, then rolled over comfortably, happily, to her own side of the bed.

He lay next to her, breathing heavily, his hand on her thigh. “So?” he asked.

“Nothing to worry about in that department.”

His eyes searched her face. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This is so disconcerting. I can’t… I mean, I can’t read you. I can’t tell what you’re really feeling.” 

“Frederick,” she said. “It was wonderful, really. As ever.” She was starting to feel cold, uncomfortable. His hand was clammy. She laced her fingers over his and moved his hand gently to rest on his stomach, where it rose and fell softly with his breath. What was she doing with this old man? It wouldn’t be too much longer before she was old herself, and then what? They’d be old here, together, until she was old here, alone.

He turned to face her, leaning on one arm, and she suppressed a grimace. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I just want you to know that.”

Those big, sorrowful eyes. That stupid mustache.

He nuzzled his head under her neck. “So strange,” he said. “It’s so quiet. I mean, I can hear your stomach gurgling, but other than that, nothing.” He squeezed his arms tight around her chest, constricting her ribcage.

Sheila breathed in, let the scent of clay and her own shampoo and Frederick’s mustache wax fill her lungs. Without her heart, this man was going to be an awful lot to take.

“Stop,” she said to him, “talking,” and she brought her mouth to his, if for no reason other than to shut him up for a little while.

***

Safe inside Zhijian’s backpack, the heart beat faster as he pushed through the old metal doors of the Arts Building. He walked to the front desk and was greeted by a friendly student worker. Her nametag read “Katie.”

“Hi,” she asked, removing her earbuds. “Can I help you?”

The heart in Zhijian’s backpack began to twitch, and he saw all too clearly the potential for deep embarrassment. “I was wonder,” he said, his nervousness turning the language more slippery than usual, “about a professor with a missing heart.”

“What?” Katie asked, laughing a little. “You mean all of them?”

Zhijian wished that he could shrink himself down into nothing, join the heart in his backpack and disappear forever. But he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, willed his own heart to be brave. He knew he was in the right place. He had located the colorful woman’s picture last night, on the contract faculty section of the university’s Fine Arts department website.

“On the bus,” he explained. “I found one that belongs to a professor here. Professor Starling.” He began to open the front compartment of his backpack, to show the heart and prove his good intentions.

“Okay,” said Katie. “No, it’s fine. I don’t need to see it. I’ll let her know you’re here.”

Zhijian nodded gratefully. He noticed, to the right of the girl, a sturdy maroon bowl containing a steady, bluish-purple heart. “It is very nice.” He motioned toward it. “The look of the colors.”

Katie blushed and—it was not his imagination—the heart in the bowl pulsed faster for a beat or two. “Oh,” she said. “Yeah. Thanks. I like to let it out for some air sometimes.”

They both watched her heart beat, and Zhijian wondered what it might feel like to be chosen, to hold a heart that wanted to be his.

“Oh,” said Katie. She looked at her screen and clicked her mouse. “She wants to see you.” She pointed to the elevator. “Room 307.”

***

Sheila stood up behind her desk, then immediately sat back down again. She felt lightheaded, faint, overcome by an uncomfortable physical sensation like an agitated, overheated indigestion. 

She paced around her office, imagining herself a cartoon character, nose in the air, feet compelled to follow the squiggles of some fresh-baked windowsill pie. Like a word at the tip of her tongue, there was an image just beyond her conscious mind. She picked up and put down her sketchpad, the desire to capture the image growing stronger. 

When the knock finally came, it was a young man, dark-haired, eyes aimed at the floor. He wore a backpack over his chest, his arms crossed protectively in front. From within the backpack, something jumped and buzzed and buckled. Sheila sighed, sat down on the edge of her desk. “You found it,” she said.

The young man—boy, really—looked at her with horror. He knelt on the floor. From the backpack he removed the Tupperware container and held it out to her. “I take this from the bus. I…it was wrong for me to keep it. I am sorry.”

Oh, her heart. It beat with joy, it puffed, it swelled. It had missed her so, so terribly, and it flooded her now with images, patterns, color, texture that it had stored up during their time apart. It would like to see Frederick, her heart shimmied, his whole glorious self, but first there was a boy here, a boy enveloped in shades of painful gray. A boy who needed her, suggested her heart. Perhaps Sheila could be tender toward him? Perhaps such tenderness would be good practice for—the heart swelled—the baby? 

Shut up, she thought at her heart. You cannot have everything. And her heart laughed with joy. Of course it couldn’t have everything, it danced, but since when was that an impediment to wanting it?

Sheila slumped to the floor, defeated. 

She thought of Frederick, this good man she’d loved so well, this good man who, no matter how many vegetables, no matter how much exercise, was not going to be with her forever. She thought of the baby she was never going to have, the baby she would spend years creating and re-creating and apologizing to and missing in her work, of the deep joy she would find when she was finally able to tell the dream of that baby goodbye. She closed her eyes and      imagined the future, herself, alone, with her paintings, and her heart ached and throbbed and felt so terrible and full and painful and correct. 

Her heart was stupid and disloyal and entirely her own. Of course it had come back to her, and of course she would welcome it.

***

 A light snow sparkled in the weak morning sun as Zhijian left the Arts Building. Students bundled in their bright warm clothes moved in groups and clusters around him on the path. The sky was gray and the trees were brown, but under the frozen soil all kinds of flowers were spreading their roots and gathering strength for spring. 

He felt, for the first time in a long time, calm. As he had promised his father, he was going back to the paint store, to think and feel and choose a new color, to buy a little sample pot and paint a square on the wall in his kitchen, to look at it in the morning light and in the afternoon, with the windows shut and with the windows open, to consider it from close up and from far away.

Footsteps rushed behind him, and he turned around.

“Hey.” It was Katie, the girl from the front desk. “You forgot your backpack in Professor Starling’s office.” She held it out to him with both hands. “I was on my way out; she asked if I could try to catch you.”

Zhijian reached for his backpack, surprised at his own carelessness.

“How’d it go up there, by the way?” Katie asked. “Did you find what you needed?”

Zhijian’s heart—his alone—safe inside his chest, began to beat just a little faster. He considered her questions.

“That,” he said, “is a complicated story.”

Katie grinned. “Well,” she said. “I would love to hear it.”


Carol M. Quinn’s fiction has appeared in CRAFT, Painted Bride Quarterly, Joyland, Chicago Quarterly Review, and pacificREVIEW. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and often teaches first-year writing, most recently at Michigan State University.