I Saw The Pink Pieces of My Little Heart
Love and illness intertwine in this essay from Adina Talve-Goodman’s posthumously published collection, “Your Hearts, Your Scars”
Introduction by Halimah Marcus
Adina Talve-Goodman had the kind of exuberant, playful, perfectly weird personality that made you want to be in cahoots, to follow her around town and maybe start a comedy duo or do a low-stakes heist. For me, that mostly manifested as attaching myself to her at literary parties. I remember a particular evening spent in the basement of some bar in Williamsburg listening to her tell me about the Cadillac she drove around St. Louis as a teenager. She’d named the car; I wish I could remember what. The story was hilarious and somehow bordered on physical comedy, even though she was only talking. I had met Adina many times prior—she was the managing editor of One Story—but on that night I left the bar gobsmacked, thinking, we must become great friends. (Then: maybe we already are?) We had dinner a few weeks later at a magical restaurant in the West Village, that you approached via a cobblestone alleyway strewn with fairy lights. Could it be real? Adina chose it, and I’m sure I could find it again, but I don’t want to. I prefer to think Adina conjured that enchanted place.
When we had dinner, I knew nothing about Adina’s medical history: the heart transplant she had at nineteen, which she writes about in her posthumously published essay collection, Your Hearts, Your Scars. Under romantic lighting she told me she was leaving New York to get her MFA in nonfiction at Iowa, and I thought, Damn. We were just getting started.
Adina passed due to lymphoma, an indirect complication of her transplant, in 2018. I still knew very little about her medical tribulations. We weren’t yet the great confidants I hoped we would become. At times, I’ve felt hesitation in joining her inner circle in mourning her, and honoring the enduring imprint she left on this world. Reading this essay, and the others in the collection, witnessing her enormous wisdom and talent, I again had the feeling that we were just getting started—this time with me as her reader. And I realized that even those much closer to her must have felt the same—whether they worked together every day or knew her from the moment she was born—like they were only at the beginning of something, full of joyous potential.
I wish this wasn’t the first and last book by Adina Talve-Goodman, but I am so grateful for it. Convention is such that we discuss written works in the present tense. Not, “Adina wrote.” Adina writes. Adina writes about love. Adina writes about courage. Adina writes about family. Adina writes about surviving. Adina writes.
– Halimah Marcus,
Executive Director, Electric Literature
“You Should Hold Me Down (Go On Take It)” by Adina Talve-Goodman
Will I feel it?” I ask the doctor as I do a slight hop onto the operating table. He turns to me while pulling on his gloves. “Latex allergy,” I say, lifting my wrist to show him my plastic bracelet that says just that.
“What happens when you come into contact with latex?”
My eyes meet the resident’s gaze and he quickly looks away, blushing. He’s about my age, I guess, and suddenly I’m conscious of the sheerness of my hospital gown and the outline of my breasts. If he looks closely enough, he might be able to see my new heart pounding, my chest rising and falling from the beat, my skin pulled tight like a drum over the new instrument. I think about telling the doctor the truth: If I take it in my mouth, nothing happens, but if I have sex with latex condoms, it burns for days. Instead, I look at the floor and say, “Rash.”
The doctor switches his gloves and tells me to “lay down.” It’s lie, I think.
Instruments start moving, metal-on-metal sounds, and I whip my head from one direction to another, trying to see. The nurse pulls my hair back into a shower cap and tells me that I’m so pretty, she didn’t think I was a patient when she came out to call my name in the waiting room. I smile at her and resist the urge to ask what other patients look like. She means it as a kindness, I know. But pretty is the wrong word, I want to tell her. The truth is, we don’t really have a word to describe a woman who comes through something a lot like death and remains light. We don’t have it for boys, either, so we say strong for them. We say pretty when we mean you look a lot like life.
I thank her and ask, “Do you strap me in? Should you hold me down?”
“Haven’t you had a lot of these?” the doctor asks.
“I was always asleep.”
“Because I was a kid, I guess. Because I might try to run, maybe.” I smile at my small attempt at a joke. I smile and make jokes in these situations because I think that people, doctors, are more likely to want to keep funny people alive. The doctor laughs as he holds up the catheter, the small needle he plans to insert into the base of my neck, and then cast a thin line down into my heart. The nurse stands to my right and strokes my hair. I take a deep breath to slow my heart and I think about how biopsies used to be for me when I was younger. The walls of the lab at St. Louis Children’s Hospital were painted with stars. Maybe because it was comforting to think of something like this happening in the dead of night, when a kid could sleep through it, wake up six hours later still a little drugged, saying, And you were there, and you, and you. But inevitably, that kid would reach her hand up to the sore spot at the base of her neck and realize it had all been real, in some way, those minutes when someone was taking pieces of her heart.
Here, in this new hospital, the nurse tells me that during the procedure I should pick a spot on the wall to focus on. I search the wall for stars, but there are only patches of more white and less white. I choose less, just above my head.
The nurse tells me that she’s going to insert the IV now. “Better you don’t look, sweetheart,” she says.
“I’m a really difficult stick,” I say. “But this vein, this vein is good.” I point to a spot in the crook of my arm, to the veins that have held IVs successfully in the past and still retain just the faintest mark of tiny blue dots. I want to ask the nurse to count to three, to make sure I’m ready so that I can breathe deeply to try to stay relaxed to prevent the vein from contracting, and to please not dig, because, truly, it’s not the sticks that I mind; it’s only the digging around, the rooting for the vein in my skin, that sometimes makes me cry, because I had this nurse once and she shoved a needle in my arm and she wouldn’t pull it out even after I screamed, Stop. I want to give her that speech, the speech I always give nurses before IVs, but they don’t count to three here and I feel silly asking. I just point to the crook of my right arm.
“That’s the best spot,” I say. “And, if it’s okay, can I have a twenty-four needle?”
“That’s too small,” the doctor says.
“I know it’s for babies,” I say. “But anything bigger usually blows the vein.”
“I’d like to try a twenty first,” the doctor says.
“I’m sorry,” I say, “but I’d really prefer the twenty-four. You’re not giving me much, right? I’m going to be awake the whole time, right?”
The nurse laughs. “Wow, somebody’s an expert. I think a twenty-four is fine. I pulled one anyway when I saw how tiny you are.”
“Thank you,” I say.
“Are you ready, sweetheart?” she asks. I nod and the IV is inserted. I want to close my eyes, but I don’t because I’m not sure if that might be rude, and I feel like I’ve gained some clout with the needle talk. Once it’s in, I thank the nurse and tell her it wasn’t so bad.
The doctor tells me that first he’ll numb my neck using a shot. “It might burn,” he says.
The nurse holds my head firmly to the right and says, “Got your point?”
I smile and say yes, though, really, I can’t find one and all I can think is, Why did I need an IV if you’re going to give me a shot in my neck and no drugs to put me to sleep?
The shot burns and I try to concentrate on not moving, not looking around, not thinking about the size of the needle in my neck. I focus on my breathing and think that maybe this counts as going to yoga.
“I’m going to start now,” the doctor says, “threading the catheter to your heart. You might feel it skip a few beats. You might feel it, y’know, react. Inhale deep and hold it.”
I inhale. I close my eyes.
Summer. The windows are open in the attic, where our friends decide to recreate their childhood game of turning off the lights and running around the room, leaping over furniture, and avoiding whoever is “it.” I guess it’s tag, just in the dark, and slightly more erotic because you seem to grab at one another, tackle one another to the ground, and then cry out when you’ve lost. But we’re older now and drunk, and I’d rather be out driving with you on our favorite streets with the windows down and the smells of honeysuckle, humidity, and sweat filling the space between us. Instead, we’re in this attic, trapped with other people. The sky is clear, and light from the stars comes in through the window, so that it’s not quite pitch-black. I’m by the open window, just sitting because I think this game is sort of dumb. But then you find me under the window, in the dark. You grab my ankle, wrapping your whole hand around its smallness. You drag my body down beneath yours on the carpet and I reach up to find your curls, to make sure it’s you. I know you by the way you take my fingers in your mouth when I reach up to find your face. I laugh and turn my neck to the right. I cover my mouth to stay quiet. You start to kiss a line down my neck to my clavicle. I imagine you’re drawing a clear path to my heart with the wetness of your kisses. Someone cries out that they’ve been found, and you move across the room in three strides as the lights come on. I can feel your spit drying on my skin and a faint pulse at the base of my neck from where you lingered before the lights came on. Let’s play again, I say. You look down at the dirty shag carpet and blush, your cheeks turning a pink I’ve never found so pretty.
“I’m in now,” the doctor says. “Okay?” the nurse asks.
“I thought it would be more painful,” I say.
“Nah. I’ll take a few pieces. You’ll feel a tug, though, when they come out,” the doctor says.
The nurse asks if I’m comfortable, because she’s noticed that my cheeks are warm and flushed.
“Yes,” I say, “it’s just different.”
“Think of something else, sweetheart,” she says.
In the empty bedroom in your basement, I watch you remove each piece of your mother’s clothing drying atop towels on the unmade twin bed. I mock you as you fold the clothes meticulously because you think that one tank top out of place, one wrinkled pair of Jockeys, and she might know that we had sex. When you finish, you sit on the bed. I close the door and the windowless room is pitch-black. I open it again, just a crack, so the light can get in. You hold out your hands and pull me to your chest.
We’ve already been up all night kissing, and usually it stops there, on the couch, but I want to have sex at least once with you before the transplant. My eyelids are heavy and my lips are chapped. We take off each other’s clothes with surprising ease. We lie down together, and with my arm draped across your chest and my head in the crook of your shoulder, I understand how this works so well: your bigness and my smallness, how we fit like a puzzle.
You prop yourself on top of me. You kiss my eyelids. Don’t fall asleep, don’t fall asleep, you say. You continue to kiss your way down my neck to my breasts and finally to the jagged scar in the center of my chest. You trace the scar with your fingers. I like to think that your touch, your saliva, takes it all away, this boundary between my left and right breast. This part of myself I spend away from you in the hospital. You trace the line with your tongue, soft at first and then almost lapping, as if you really could lick it clean. I curl my fingers in your hair and tell you how I used to dream that a man would kiss my scars and how I never imagined licking would be better. You laugh and say, I’ll lick the new one, too.
The nurse strokes my hair. “Are you having any pain?” she asks.
“No,” I say, “not pain, exactly.”
“Can you feel it?” the nurse asks.
“Yes. When the pieces come out,” I say. “There’s a tug. It’s incredible.”
“I’ll need six or seven pieces,” the doctor says. “For accuracy.”
The nurse reminds me to breathe.
On the Thanksgiving following the transplant, after the turkey, after everyone goes around the table and says they’re grateful I’m still there, after the guests leave, I call you and ask if you’d like to come see my heart. When you arrive, I kiss you on the stoop. You swipe your thumb over my cheek. Pink, you say. I guide you inside to the kitchen. The rest of my family sits around the table, the wooden box in the center, a screwdriver beside it. My mother has covered the table in old newspapers, as if we’ve all gathered to decoupage. You give quick hugs to everyone and sit in the one empty chair. I start unscrewing the bottom of the box. One of the screws sticks and my brother asks if I want help. He finishes the rest and the bottom comes off. Inside, there’s a plastic container not unlike what soup from a take-out restaurant might come in. My mother tells me to wait, that we all need gloves if we’re going to touch it. The non-latex gloves appear on the table very quickly. The gloves are big on my hands, small on yours. Everyone holds their hands just above the table, as if they all need to stay sterile, as if the surgery has yet to come. I pop the top of the container and, to my surprise, there’s no smell. I smile and say, It’s in pieces. My mother explains that they biopsied it first. They sliced my heart up. Everyone nods as if yes, of course, of course they would slice it up. I pick up the biggest piece with my right hand, and it’s bigger than my fist. Maybe even bigger than yours. And it’s yellow, like the yolk of a hard-boiled egg, and pieces of what look like wet tissue paper coat the unclean thing. I wonder why it’s yellow, if it’s maybe from being exposed to the air, or if it was that color inside of me. My mother reminds me that the doctors had said it was done working, and I was lucky it came out when it did. That’s the color of a dead heart, she says. I pass the heart around the table, and when it comes to you, you set it on your palm and bend your neck to see inside.
“When you take the pieces,” I ask the doctor, “do they grow back?”
The silent resident furrows his brow and looks to the doctor as if, maybe, he’s just not sure.
“No,” the doctor answers to the whole room. “They don’t grow back.”
“Oh,” I say. “Just wondering.”
You call me one night, walking around your cold mountain college town, and ask if we can talk. You tell me that you miss me every day but that you’re feeling lost and it’s me, maybe, how I’ve always been beautiful and you’re only now realizing your own curly hair, your own strength, your own perfect hands. You say, Maybe we should see other people. You say, I just want to be sure. You tell me that you don’t want to call each other mine anymore but that if anyone else ever did, you would die. You say, I would die lightly, as if I didn’t come so close, as if it was more than just six months ago that you sat on the edge of your college XL bed, searching for a plane ticket home at any cost while I lay in surgery. I can hear it in your voice: You’re the least likely to go and the most likely to be left behind. We hang up and a moment later my phone vibrates with your text. Please don’t forget to take your pills.
“Don’t worry,” the doctor says. “This heart is plenty big. Looks healthy, too. How old is it?”
“I guess it’s six years old,” I say. “Or, rather, I’ve had it for six years.”
“Still young,” the doctor says.
He tells me to take a big breath and hold it as he pulls the catheter away from my heart, through my chest, up out of my neck. I assume it’s safe to exhale now, but no one has told me so, and the feeling of the catheter coming out of my neck has left me breathless. The nurse is ready with gauze and presses firmly on the entry site.
End of summer. Outside of my house, we sit in the car, listening to the radio. I notice that your smell has changed. It’s been good, this time away from each other. I’ve been traveling. I’ve been happy. I think about the times I was too sick to walk up the stairs and you carried me to bed. When we were grateful just for my health. I ask how your summer was; I ask about our friends. You tell me that your summer was fine and that maybe we’ve outgrown each other. You tell me that maybe I’m just not the kind of woman you’d ever want to marry. That you hope we can still be friends. I think about all the times you’ve held me in this car with the radio playing, all the times I needed you and you carried me. I put my hand on the door handle and warn you that I’m going, the way I used to do when we were first together and I wanted you to kiss me. I’m barely breathing but ask if you’re okay. I’m fine, you say, it’s just not you. I open the door of your car. I have nothing left to say because you’re not really here. I give you one last chance to tell me that you still love me more than anything and that you’d like to lick me clean again or, rather, you’d like to try. But instead, you watch me walk inside my house, see my mother there ready to receive me with a hug, and, as you drive away, you call that girl from the summer. The girl who didn’t make you feel that when she wasn’t around, the world was fine and fun and lacking only her; the girl who didn’t make you think of all that you lack.
“Would you like to see them?” the doctor asks. “The little pieces of your heart?”
I’m surprised he asks. Maybe, like the nurse said, I’m so small and I must’ve been even smaller before the surgery (yes, I told her, eighty-six pounds), yet still such a pretty patient, and, somehow, that makes it—the scars, the flaws, the imperfections written on my body—all the more unfortunate.
I press the gauze to my neck to help the blood clot as the doctor hands me a small container with six floating pink flecks. He shakes it a bit, like a snow globe, so that the pieces of my heart flitter about in the liquid. Ho, ho, ho, little girl, I think.
“Wow,” I say. “They’re so pink.” The doctor laughs and asks what color I thought they’d be.
“It’s just that my old heart was yellow,” I say.
A silence spreads through the room. I don’t bother looking up to comfort them.
“How do you know that?” the doctor asks.
“I kept it,” I say.
I turn the plastic over in my hands and remember the old heart, how it worked so hard to be enough, how it gave all it could, how I’d held it in my hands after it was out and had planned to thank it for all it had given me, but it was yellow and I resented it for not letting me know sooner that it was cooked.
“Pink,” I say again, almost in a trance.
“If you laugh today,” the nurse says, “keep pressure on your neck so that you don’t bleed.”
I thank the doctor, I hug the nurse, and I shake the resident’s hand, all while holding on to the container.
“I’ll need that back.” The doctor laughs. “Unless you plan on keeping everything that comes out of your body.”
I give the little container one last shake and watch the pieces float to the bottom as I hand it to the doctor. The nurse starts to escort me back to the waiting area. I remind myself: This heart is plenty big.
“Did you feel the tug?” the doctor asks as I walk out the door.
“Yeah,” I say.
“Did it make you feel good?”
Excerpt from Your Hearts, Your Scars. Copyright © 2023 by the Estate of Adina Talve-Goodman. Published by Bellevue Literary Press: www.blpress.org. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.