The Saturday Rumpus Essay: A Brief History of a Bad Heart

By

You do:

two grams of cocaine.

Immediately your heart thunders in your ears, and you go cold. Your hands tremble and before your roommate notices you heading to the bathroom. You sit on the toilet and put a finger to your carotid artery, but it’s so loud you can count the beats in your ear. Panicked, you stop when you’ve reached a hundred in thirty seconds. You stand up and the bottom falls out of the world. Your pulse slows so much you get dizzy, and you lean over the sink, certain you hear a clatter of voices behind you that aren’t really there. You can’t call 911. The embarrassment, the questions. You can’t.

It will pass. It will pass. It will pass.

Your roommate says goodnight through the door and you mumble something to him. With shaky hands, you pull a receipt and pen from your pocket and write: “Cocaine OD. Tell my Mom and Dad I love them and I’m sorry.” And then suddenly you’re crumpled over, falling towards a bathroom floor you’ve never noticed is so bright.

You wake not knowing where you are. There’s a woman screaming and the only light is from an open door leading to a hallway. Machines wheeze and beep like in movie hospitals, but when the woman screams she drowns it all out.

“They’re in my hair! They want the blood in my brain!”

She says it over and over, and you see she’s on a gurney ten feet away, except she’s handcuffed to hers and you’re not. You’re the only two in the room and you sit up partway, heart still fast, head throbbing. She’s got gnarly, thin dreads like tree branches after a forest fire, and she screams and screams but no one comes. She lies back, breathing raspy and fast and rolls onto her side facing you, eyes gleaming in the half-light. She studies you, still panting with an energy that consumes the room, and whispers in a reedy voice: “They say you fucked up your heart.”

 

You lose:

your best friend, your heart, the only girlfriend you ever truly loved, the one who wanted you to love yourself like she loved you, who is really far too beautiful, intelligent and successful to have wasted the time she did. It was a no-shit-Hail-Mary-Mother-Teresa-level display of patience before she finally gave up.

a left ventricle: necrotized.

an apartment in Seattle, alley-adjacent, street-facing and sometimes filled with mice. But still, it was yours.

guitars, basses, amps, a harmonica, a PA, microphones, mic stands. Craigslist, all. RIP Love of Music, 1985-2014.

personhood. “You’re an interesting case,” the cardiologist leading the medical team in the ER says, a half dozen med students gathered around your bed taking notes on clipboards. “Tracking your progress may greatly benefit our study.

your father a job. Maybe if he had spent less time focusing on finding a rehab for you, less time hiding the Crown Royal in a milk crate under a blanket in his trunk, less time asking his boss—a lifelong acquaintance and himself a former alcoholic—for advice about you, he might have realized that this boss would not abide losing $200,000 in advertising revenue. Maybe he would have understood that all loyalty has its limits.

your voice. “Dear friends and social media followers: Would you like to hear about my day spent vomiting blood into a plastic grocery bag inside my closet? The unexplained bruises forming on the skin over my kidneys? Stealing Xanax from my grandmother to avoid the shakes? No? Okay, best to just shut the fuck up and disappear then.”

words, synapses, memories. Constellations of each that no longer come when called, that lead to the following conversation with your mom one afternoon, months after you are forced to move in with your parents.

“We should go to that… you know… thing outside… near the community college… where they sell food and stuff they make themselves and it’s fresh and stuff.”

“You mean the ‘farmer’s market?’”

“Yeah, that.”

 

You gain:

a trip to Kansas to live with your family, all expenses not included, for 287 days and 286 nights.

a lawn to mow, which you do, obsessively, because in the earliest stages of sobriety, it’s the only thing that gives form to the sweltering summer days.

a 2002 Ford Focus that once belonged to your dead sister that you hope, in the brightest of futures, to purchase from your parents and drive back to Seattle, where you could, if necessary, live inside it.

a guest room in your parents’ house (adjacent to your grandmother’s room), where you spend night after night awake, listening to your grandmother snore obscenely loudly, praying it doesn’t stop.

tachycardia, brachycardia, panic attacks, awkward explanations and lies whenever questions about the nature of your mysterious heart affliction are posed, terror during all physical exertion (especially sex, when you have it, which—who are we kidding—is rare).

a friendship with Willie the Wildcat, the chimerical mascot of Kansas State University. Willie, who is now a member of your recovery group because he wandered into an apartment that wasn’t his during a blackout and groped a stranger, still has access to the giant wildcat head. He once let you put it on and spell out “K-S-U” at midcourt of Bramlage Coliseum late one night when all the lights were dimmed and no one was watching.

Antabuse: a draconian medicine to curb drinking that, when taken with alcohol, causes palpitations, blood pressure crashes, and death. Of the first two side effects, you can attest. Of the third, you’re not sure.

an intimate knowledge of the Clay County Correctional Facility, where Tuesdays are Salisbury steak night, Grizzly costs $4 a can, and possession of even small amounts of marijuana can earn you a felony.

protracted, cold sweat-inducing withdrawals, hallucinations, psychosis, suicidal ideation, even at the most benign of times: See that rabbit hopping adorably in the back yard? Makes you want to put a 9 millimeter to your temple, doesn’t it?

gastritis, esophagitis, a hiatal hernia:

“Did you know these are all dangerous precursors to esophageal cancer, an incurable and gruesome disease?”

a tie around your neck, hanging in the closet while your carotid artery constricts and the pizza you made for your grandmother blackens in the oven.

and finally, a trip to Pawnee Mental Health where

 

you choose:

to take an assessment for entry into a treatment program, during which you tell the therapist you took the GRE high on crystal methamphetamine.

Somehow, you had forgotten.

The therapist, Mr. Wisdom—unbelievably, his real name—asks why, and you tell him because your graduate program required it.

“The University of Washington made you take crystal meth before the GRE?” Mr. Wisdom says.

“It’s a very competitive school,” you say.

And Mr. Wisdom says, “It’s good to laugh. It is a very good thing to laugh in early recovery. But it’s good to be honest about yourself too.”

So you say to Mr. Wisdom:

“Every day is a good reason to die.”

“A left ventricle should never necrotize like a liver should never be transparent.”

“Exhausting the love of a good woman is the leading cause of insanity in my state.”

“The ligature marks on my neck could be beautiful if you didn’t know why they are there.”

“And to be honest with you, Mr. Wisdom, may I call you Bob? I drank a pint of vodka before I came here.”

And Mr. Wisdom, who will become Bob to you (a man who smokes, and fishes trout down by Joplin come spring, and who loves the Royals so much sometimes you feel he single-handedly willed them out of their near three-decade vortex of suck), and who, if he judges you for becoming a train wreck, alcoholic, sociopath that lives with his parents, does a really great job of hiding it, does help break the cycle, does help save your life, or what’s left of it. Not all at once, but gradually, incrementally—like you’ve never had the guts to try. First, by signing a few papers to help you find a bed. And then by rising and shaking hands, his lingering on yours, the simplest act of kindness you’ve never shown yourself.


Paul Vega is an editor for Pacifica Literary Review and received his MFA from the University of Washington. His work appears or is forthcoming in The Pinch, CutBank, The Collagist, Hobart, NANO Fiction and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter at @paultvega. More from this author →