MUSED
BellaOnline Literary Review
Shades of Rock by Jill Florio


Fiction

Heart Surgery

Jennifer Tiszai

Your fingers are cold.

It was dark when I made my way downstairs, still in my robe, gingerly holding my side. The pain was always worse in the morning. The coffeemaker performed its ritual, the aroma guiding me, the pot holding my addiction. I walked to the machine and, releasing my side, poured myself a cup. Reaching for the Splenda, I could have sworn I felt his shoulder bump mine, his voice in my ear.

"I can’t believe you don’t take sugar in your coffee."

"It makes it too sweet, like candy." I didn’t want to think about how much I liked him that close.

"No it doesn’t. Taste."

He held out his cup, and I took a sip. Damn, he was right. The bitter was gone but it didn’t taste sweet.

Splenda packet still in my hand, I leaned against the counter and closed my eyes. When I opened them, it would all just be a bad dream. Right?

I opened my eyes and flicked the packet before tearing it and dumping it in my cup.

A few minutes later I slid my toast and coffee across the counter, got myself up on the stool at the breakfast bar and opened my computer. The sky was already lightening and the kids would be up soon.

As my e-mail downloaded I scanned the senders, taking a bite of toast, a sip of coffee. I stared at the screen. It took me a minute to realize all the messages had arrived. I hit the Send and Receive button again. It beeped at me. No e-mail, but my heart hadn’t gotten the message. I guess the transmission might be a little garbled when the receiver is shattered into a thousand pieces.

Pushing open the French doors, I stepped out onto the patio and watched the sky. It was golden now, the sun just behind the mountains. I was hoping for a red sunrise. Today I needed the reassurance.

The air was cold with a faint scent of sage. The desert had retreated into an icy shell, denying me the comfort I usually found. I, Lady of the Perpetual Cold, loved its warmth the most. If I got too cold I could always just step outside. In the desert the body reacts and adapts, creating more capillaries at the skin’s surface to release heat. Making it more difficult to be in the cold.

It wasn’t until I’d been here awhile that I learned the desert strips away everything superfluous. Desolate, alone, stark, hard edges scrape away any comfort. Like now.

Yet a beauty emerges. An austere loveliness not apparent at first glance. The sculpted red earth lit by an angel-painted sky. The very ground awakens after a lightning-pierced rain, exploding in short-lived color, flowers giving their lives to the heat, only to bloom for a day. The air hangs heavy with creosote, sage, and damp red earth. I wondered if there was a lesson there for Jeff and me.

You have a beauty that’s all-encompassing, an inside-out thing. It’s staggering and frankly takes my breath away.

I blinked. And searched for Jeff’s reflection in the panes of the French doors, almost convinced I’d heard those words out loud. But of course I hadn’t. I’d never heard them spoken. Only seen them written.

I closed my eyes against the fresh wave of pain. When I opened them then sun had crested the mountain ridge with an eye-stinging brightness. A time to laugh, a time to mourn, a time to get ready for work and get the kids up for school.

One more look, long enough to make my eyes water, or at least allow me to blame the tears on the sun, and I turned and went inside.

***

You look very lovely tonight.

Jeff held his hand to his face then dropped it again, lingering where Jessica’s fingers had lingered. His open schedule spilled in front of him like a vast wasteland. He’d always loved being his own boss before, making his own hours, arranging his schedule to mesh with Jessica’s.

He’d started it by opening his mouth at dinner one night after a second glass of wine.

She’d ended it.

His head tried to tell his heart it was for the best, but his heart wasn’t listening. It was like a two-year-old in a tantrum, kicking and screaming and pounding too hard against his chest. It wouldn’t hear any logic.

He flipped open his laptop like every morning. He sat at his desk, working his way through a bagel and his second cup of coffee before the phone started ringing.

As if his thoughts had made it happen, his cell phone chirped. His hand shot out for it, jostling his coffee cup. A jumble of thoughts collided, the first was that he’d left his phone on vibrate because it was shaking. No, he’d heard it ring. It was his hand. A glance at the screen. Not Jess, one of his clients. He probably should get it. But he didn’t.

He turned back to his computer and let the e-mail filter in, wondering if he could have done anything differently. He felt so helpless it seemed like there should have been something. They’d met through a project that he’d helped put together. He was stunned by her beauty, the way she carried herself, and how well she expressed her design ideas. She translated two-dimensional drawings into real life buildings that he could see in his imagination.

Of course he hadn’t missed the diamond on her finger either.

He didn’t have time to be looking anyway. With two little boys to raise on his own, his life had to be centered around them. And she was taken.

It didn’t stop him from thinking about her. After that first project, he found a reason to bring her in on anything he could. And when he couldn’t, he’d ask her advice, get her thoughts. He loved the way her brain worked. That’s what he kept telling himself. For nearly a year.

During that year she’d become something to him he’d never expected: his best friend. Something he’d never had with Rachel. She never seemed happy with him, or anything he did, or their boys. Finally, with the last blame tossed on him like a grenade, her unhappiness had carried her out the door.

The e-mail had finished loading. Nothing from Jess. She had said she wouldn’t write, but he still hoped. Hoped she missed him as much as he missed her.

***

I wanted to kiss you last night.

This was the first day of the rest of my life, right? Well, I’d better do something productive or I was going to end up without a job and in the poor house. And now I had no one to fall back on. I leaned back in my chair and winced, remembering the fist-size bruise that tattooed my side. Nothing was broken. I just hurt. Kind of like my heart. Maybe it was bruised too. Two different men, though.

I opened the file. The file. The one I’d put off opening all morning. The one that started this whole chain of events.

Jeff and I had been brainstorming on this between paying projects. He had the idea, I had the design. We were looking for the right backer to partner with us. It was also our excuse for being alone together. I printed it out and started doodling in the margins. The plan was missing something, I didn’t know what. Swirls, swoops, circles traced across the drawing. A spiral. Then three dots.

Tears filled my eyes, seemed to be a habit lately except there was no sunlight here to blame it on. I finally saw what the drawing was missing. A small intimate area off the main courtyard to add balance. I sketched it in roughly before the vision faded like a mirage.

As my hand worked, another image came. A business banquet for one of Jeff’s clients. I knew Jeff was divorced; he’d mentioned that he was raising two boys alone in one of our first conversations. In fact, he’d had to change one of our meetings because of a soccer game. His dedication to his boys, not just leaving them with a baby sitter or a relative, warmed my heart. It wasn’t until later that I knew the whole story. And the reason for the ghost of insecurity that I occasionally got a peek at.

He was going to be at the business dinner alone. A thought had been playing in my mind ever since I got the invitation in the mail. And RSVP’d for one.

I played it off to Kyle. He wouldn’t want to go. It required dressing up, which he hated. It would be talking about my work, something he barely tolerated. All of this I laid out for him in detail, maybe too much, when I told him of my plans for that night. I held my breath, hoping it wouldn’t turn into an ugly argument. He nodded and turned to the football game on his precious plasma TV. I had a reprieve.

But when I came downstairs in a blue strapless dress, matching jacket across my shoulders, he looked me up and down and frowned. "I thought this was a business thing. You look like you’re going on a date."

Really? How would you know? We haven’t been on one in years. I said, "It’s semiformal." I wanted to get out of the house without anything happening. Especially in front of the kids.

I could see the wheels turning in his head. I needed to go before he changed his mind and forbade me. "Okay, I’m going." I hoped my tone was breezy. I kissed Bethie and Alex, grabbed my purse and keys, and headed out the door.

I hadn’t gotten two blocks before my cell rang. My stomach turned. I answered it because I was the good wife.

"Are you sure you should go? You’ll have a long drive home and you don’t like to drive at night."

"I’ll be fine. This is important to getting more business for the firm and a bigger bonus for me." The money thing should help. He always liked it when I brought home more money. More toys for him.

"Okay, be careful."

"I will."

"I love you," I heard his voice say just before I ended the call.

I blinked and came back to the present. What was I doing? I pushed the drawing aside and reached for my keys. It was time to pick up the kids.

If I kissed you, would you kiss me back?

There’s something about a man who can gently push aside the defense of humor and reach out to your heart. Most guys wouldn’t bother. They’re relieved you’re staying at the surface level, a level they can handle, that doesn’t demand something of them they can’t give, that doesn’t take them out of their depth into an area where they might make a mistake and say the wrong thing. So a man who has the courage to push past that, to dive under the surface, to see what you’re really trying to say and to touch your heart, well, that’s something special. A woman could fall for a man like that.

I should know. I did.

My car idled in the line with the other parents waiting to pick their kids up from school. Had I pulled anything out of the freezer? My brain had been mush the last couple of days. I shifted my weight. My side was still sore too. But I couldn’t go to the doctor. They’d ask too many questions. And as angry and hurt as I was by Kyle, I didn’t want him to go to jail. Besides, my ribs weren’t broken. I had my dad’s beatings to thank for that knowledge.

I could see Jeff shaking his head. Which is why I hadn’t told him. He didn’t know that I had asked Kyle to leave. It made no sense, really. I had broken it off with Jeff just at the time when I truly could have had him. But for once, I needed to figure my life out myself without anyone else’s input.

Of course I had no idea how I was going to do that. Physical and emotional pain, lack of sleep, stress, all of it combined to make me unable to string two thoughts together, and second guess the ones I managed.

I needed a vacation.

Sighing, I watched as the tidal wave of kids broke from the school doors and spilled over the playground and into the parking lot. I picked out my two easily, Bethie leading Alex by the hand as they searched for my car. I never got tired of seeing their faces light up when they found it.

At least someone was glad to see me.

Jeff would be glad to see me too.

If I ran to him.

If he didn’t hate me.

Remember. Everything. Yet, if you’re remembering it, you’re not living it. I wanted a future with him, but to even have a chance of that, I had to make a sacrifice in the present.

I could run to someone else.

Daisy.

It was time for a road trip.

***

I’m falling for you.

Why was he torturing himself like this? Jeff wondered that for the thousandth time today. His boys were running around the soccer field, and he had his computer open, trying to see the screen through the glare, the scent of sun-warmed grass surrounding him. His attention shifted between the computer and the field every time the whistle blew or the coach’s shouted instructions drifted over to him.

This time he was arranging pictures of Jess across his computer screen, creating a collage. The one of them at the dinner caught his eye. The night everything had changed. Funny, you didn’t usually get a picture of those pivotal moments in your life.

It was just by pure luck he had that picture. Karen, an admin and latest girlfriend of one of his developers, had been taking pictures all night with her cell phone camera. He’d been too enamored by Jess to pay much attention. But he was more than happy to lean close, put his arm around her shoulders—bare due to her strapless dress—for the picture. And he was happier still when the picture ended up in his inbox the next day. He never did thank Karen for that.

After a dinner that felt more like a date, and a couple glasses of wine, he suggested a walk. The people around them were getting progressively drunker, and it was clear no more business would be done. Besides, the hotel had a sculpture garden in its courtyard. All of those reasons were true, but none of them were really true. The truest reason was he just wanted to be with Jess.

They’d spent hours over projects, their conversations running the gamut from religion to books to music to raising kids. He’d found a kindred spirit in her, someone who loved the same things he did. Yet she had her own twist to things, her own view of the world that was uniquely Jess. She was an amazing woman. And she had no clue. He didn’t think her husband did either. She didn’t talk about Kyle much, but she let things slip. And Jeff had to bite his tongue.

She shrugged into something that was barely a jacket and they stepped outside, the air not quite warm. She shivered and he put his arm around her, pulling her close, her scent having a stronger effect on him than the wine. She snuggled closer, giving him the courage to steer them into an out-of-the-way alcove. Notes of light jazz drifting out from the hotel’s piano bar provided their own personal soundtrack.

His mind swirled into a mass of confusion, aided and abetted by nerve endings that kept calling attention to how good she felt in his arms.

But she was married. She’d already chosen someone else.

He couldn’t make himself care.

They needed to go back inside. Just one more minute and they would. Then she looked up at him, and he saw it in her eyes. Her head tilted nearly imperceptibly toward his, her tongue wetting her lips.

"If I kissed you, would you kiss me back?"

***

You have a quiet confidence about you that´s deceiving.

At home after school I started packing bags for the kids and me, the second time in two days I’d done this. The first time was when Kyle hit me. That night I had thrown some clothes in a duffle bag as soon as he’d left the house in a rage, forcing myself to hurry despite the pain. An hour later the kids and I had shown up on Alyssa’s doorstep, me barely conscious from the pain in my side. I didn’t know how I was able to drive. I didn’t remember it.

The three of us had huddled in Alyssa’s guest room-slash-office cuddled up on the futon. My bruised ribs ached with every movement the kids made, but I didn’t care. I couldn’t let them go, my arms around them all night while I didn’t sleep.

So this afternoon I forced a brightness into my voice as I unzipped our largest suitcase. "We’re going to visit Aunt Daisy and go to the beach. Won’t that be fun?" I just about made myself gag. I never talked like that, and the kids knew it. Bethie frowned and then went to go stuff her Barbie backpack.

Alex looked at me warily, a dinosaur—a T-Rex or some other ´saurus´—clutched in his hand. The last several days had turned their world upside down. What they needed now was probably more routine, not another change. I hesitated packing Alex’s shirts. Was I being selfish? Was this just all about me? Lord knows I’d heard that accusation plenty of times.

I thought about what Alyssa had said when I asked if I’d done the right thing. "Don’t teach your kids fear is love. Do you want them to end up in the same kind of marriage because they think this is normal?"


If we can’t be friends, we have nothing to build on.

It was still dark when we left, the stars an icily peaceful constancy. For a moment I could see why ancient travelers looked to them for guidance. There was something comforting about looking up and seeing the familiar amidst strange surroundings and an unknown tomorrow. I guess I was hoping they’d guide me too. After all it was a star that had guided the wise men to baby Jesus. Though I wasn’t sure I’d qualify as wise at this point. I was trying not to second-guess and live in regret, but it was hard to look at my present without looking back at the road that had brought me here.

I filled my travel mug then punched the button on the coffeemaker, switching it off. Having the house burn down while I was out of town would just be the one thing I needed right now. Taking the carafe to the sink, I dumped it in the plant on the windowsill. I guess that counted as watering it. I really should find out what kind of plant it was. Though, why bother? Like everything else in my life, it’d probably die on me. I rolled my eyes at myself. Stop being so morbid. It was just a dumb plant. Who knows? Maybe it liked coffee as much as I did. I thought I’d read somewhere that it was good for plants.

I hated waking the kids up, but with my sore ribs I couldn’t carry them. Sleepily they stumbled down the stairs and climbed in the car. I tucked their favorite blankets around them, pressed the button to close the garage door, and left my house sitting alone in the dark.

My hands were cold, and I took turns warming them around the travel mug. My daily ritual was out of order. I needed my toast and coffee in front of my computer. I set the mug down and happened to glance at my fingernails. Purple. Yep, I was cold.

"Your fingers are purple." Amazement colored Jeff’s voice.

I curled my fingers around his arm. "That’s because they’re cold."

He smiled and covered my hand with his. "I like your fingers. And your hands."

I always thought that was the oddest thing. Then again, Jeff and I never did have a typical relationship. But I never looked at my cold fingers without thinking of him.

A streetlight caught the diamond on my finger, casting shards of light momentarily around the car. I looked at it, really looking at it for the first time in a long time. Bracing the steering wheel with my knee, I slipped off my engagement ring and wedding band and dropped them in my purse.

I didn’t turn on any music. I wanted the dark and the silence to contemplate what I had just done. I could still turn around, but I wouldn’t. I was sure I’d be fodder for the family gossip mill and church "prayer" line for a good long time. Too bad none of them would stop to ask God what He thought about it.

I toyed with the idea of calling Kyle. It seemed odd not to. Yet . . . I knew he was still waiting for me to come to my senses. Like I usually did. I was the one who always said I was sorry first, for whatever it was I had done, eager to make amends and ease the tension. So part of my desire to call him was to prove to him that this time was different. Or maybe talk myself out of it.

Our last conversation played through my head. The day after the fist to the side Kyle had acted like nothing happened.

"Sorry, I got mad," he’d said, shrugging his shoulders.

I bit back ten years worth of festering anger and fear. "You’re leaving. Or I am. You pick."

He gave me a long look. I held it, wondering where I could hide, where the kids were.

"Fine." Jaw tight, he crammed a duffle bag with clothes.

Yeah, I knew what he was thinking. I was overreacting and I’d be over it in a few days. Keep thinking that. You’ll figure it out soon enough.

We got to Phoenix just as the sun was pulling itself over the mountains behind us. I got off the freeway to find a Starbucks.

***

I want to listen to your heartbeat, hear it slow to normal.

As usual, Jeff began his morning by opening his computer, bagel and coffee nearby. Clicking on his e-mail, he hoped against hope there was a message from Jess. It’d been the longest two days of his life.

He didn’t understand why Jess walked away from him. It had something to do with her marriage, that he was sure of. After that kiss, that perfect, complete, wonderful kiss, he’d tried his best just to be her friend. She was careful how she talked about Kyle, never purposely being disrespectful. But the things she said made him wonder if Kyle had any idea the kind of woman he was crushing the life out of. And she had no idea that wasn’t normal.

He was worried about her but also more than a little biased. His heart wrestled with his conscience, but he couldn’t encourage her in any direction. That didn’t stop him from falling for her, though.

He’d been in love with her long before that kiss, trying to preserve their friendship by not mentioning his feelings. He buried them. For some very good reasons. But that night, at that dinner, it was inevitable. Their feelings had reached critical mass beyond their ability to suppress them. And yet it was what could never be.

In the movies they say feelings are how you know you’re alive. But then so do bills, children, and a full bladder. But it was Jess that made him feel fully alive, that made him look forward to each day as more than something just to get through. She stirred emotions and brought his dead heart back to life, something he’d never thought would happen when Rachel left him and the boys.

After the kiss they’d talked. It might have been wrong, but it wasn’t a mistake.

After he saw the bruises on her wrist he wrote her a letter. Putting things down on paper was scary. But Jess was worth any risk.

Sitting in his office, going over a project, and not talking about that kiss, he brought her a mug of Earl Gray, dosed with Splenda. He set it down in front of her. Along with the letter. Then left. He didn’t watch her read it. He didn’t have to; he’d practically memorized it.

You have a beauty that’s all-encompassing, an inside-out thing. It’s staggering and frankly takes my breath away. . .

You´ll have to trust me. I know that doesn’t come easy for you. But I´m not in love with your past or your potential, your insecurities or your special talents. It´s you, nothing more and nothing less. And you can change things about you but you really can´t change you. So as scary as it will be, you will have to trust. And because I can trust you with this relationship, I can trust you with my feelings. It gives me the courage to dig down and share everything with you . . .

You have a quiet confidence about you that´s deceiving. You´d rather laugh than make others laugh. Your organization skills scare me a little. You have these little gestures and sighs and things you do with your hands that just make me grin on the inside.


He found himself reaching for his phone as he read the letter again on his computer. Had Kyle hurt her seriously this time? It was killing him not knowing. His thumb hovered over her number on speed dial.

What if, at age thirty-five, he had found his soul mate? What if he’d found the one he was created to love, who was created to love him, who filled all his holes and fixed all the broken parts?

But she wasn’t available.

Did he love her enough to let her go? To mourn the "what ifs" the rest of his life?

Could they ever just be "friends"?

He finally closed his phone and put it down.

He nearly jumped when it rang. It wasn’t Jess, but when he hung up fifteen minutes later, it gave him the excuse he needed to call her.

* * *

If there was anyway to make this happen, I’d sell my eyes for the opportunity.

I leaned forward over the steering wheel, trying to stretch my back. The tightness between my shoulder blades that enveloped my spine more often than not was finally slipping away, maybe falling off along the side of the road with the saguaros and the creosote bushes and the Mexican daisies.

Blythe was just ahead and the kids had been awake for the past half hour. It was time to get some breakfast, let the kids play, and get my wi-fi fix for the morning.

The desire to e-mail Jeff was nearly overwhelming. But I didn’t trust myself yet. I should probably work on putting my marriage back together, go to counseling, something. But my heart wasn’t in it. To be honest, my heart was shattered, and I had a feeling only one person could fix it. There was only one person I wanted to fix it.

It didn’t seem like the best way to start a relationship. But, hell, what did I know anyway?
I didn’t know such a love existed. I could have gone my whole life settling for what I had. I would have been content with that. So why did God have to show me this love? This wonderful, perfect love that awakened the dead spots in me and made them dance, that helped me remember who I was even though I never really knew, who loved me so completely and treasured my heart.

How could I have known I was capable of loving someone so wholly, so purely, so honestly and vulnerably. I never before gave myself so utterly away.

Until now.

Why couldn’t we have crossed paths sooner, before it was so complicated, before our lives were so tangled with other people?

Then I would never have to explain to my kids that Daddy hit Mommy.

I pulled into the McDonald’s parking lot and got out, checking my step just in time to avoid stepping in a puddle. Maneuvering around it, I opened the passenger door and let the munchkins out. "Go wait on the sidewalk." I grabbed my purse and my laptop and locked the door.

"Hey, Mommy. Look. A rainbow." I scanned the sky, surprised. Bethie pointed to the puddle.

"Yeah, a rainbow. Cool." Alex couldn’t let Bethie have the last word.

I stepped up to the sidewalk and squatted down to see what they were seeing. The oil slick shimmered in the morning light, giving off a rainbow iridescence. Alex lifted his foot to stomp in it. I caught his arm and pulled him back.

I gave them both a squeeze and then herded them inside.

I loved their unique perspective on life.

I could learn that from them.

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