Blackheart

LaTanya McQueen

It was almost a year after Andrea had been given his heart before she learned about the kind of man he’d been. She’d found a blog of his, of all things, where he’d posted his rants—how he hated immigrants, Jews, but most especially blacks.

Andrea had stumbled upon the blog late one night. She sat beside Micah’s sleeping body holding the computer on her lap. It had not taken long to find it, and she wondered if his family even knew, if his mother knew and didn’t think it mattered that it was still up.

Micah had warned her about this. “Don’t go down that rabbit hole of knowing,” he’d said when she’d pondered about who the once owner of her heart was. “It won’t change anything that happened, so why does it matter?”

This was the boy who’d given her his heart. Or, rather, this was the boy whose heart she had taken. Andrea had needed the heart due to complications from a congenital heart defect she’d had since birth. Until recently, she had not known anything about the donor, not even his name.

Now though, she knew his name. She saw it clearly at the top of the page. Billy Millbrook. She had Billy’s heart.

Andrea leaned closer to the computer screen’s glow. She scrolled down the page and read. It was only after she was close to finished when she thought to look again back at his picture. She’d glanced at it when she first came to the page but had then quickly became consumed by his words. Billy looked like one of the hundreds of students she used to teach. The boy in the back with the slumped shoulders, a sweatshirt hoodie pulled up over his head in an attempt to hide his hangover. Or the preppie looking kid with his crew cut and polo shirts. He looked like the student who’d shown up at her office at the end of the semester begging her to pass despite being absent for over half the class. He looked like the kid she had once whose mother was battling cancer during his freshman year. Or the kid who still lived at home to save money and drove two hours each way to get to school. As she stared at the boy’s picture, she realized he could have been any of one of them, any one of the students she’d once known.

She closed the laptop and sank down in the bed, closed her eyes, but even then all she saw was the boy’s face staring back at her.

“Don’t go down that rabbit hole of knowing,” Micah had said, but what he couldn’t understand was that it did matter. She’d wanted to know, felt a deep need to know, and moved by this desire she’d decided to make contact. Per the hospital’s communications policy, she was allowed to contact the family of her donor, but the letter couldn’t have any identifying information. She could say her first name but not her last. She could say the state she lived in but not the city. She could talk about her hobbies and interests, but should be careful of any religious remarks. Her letter should be concise, in simple language, mainly explaining how the donation has helped her life.

The hospital had offered sample letter templates to use. She’d copied one almost exactly—It has now been three months since I received a heart transplant. I am sorry for the loss of a loved one. I want you to know that I think of you and your family, and I know how hard it must be to live without him/her. I hope you can find some comfort in knowing my life has changed because of your generosity and compassion. It would be great to meet you one day if you feel comfortable with that.

She signed her name and the next morning mailed it without thinking further about it, but less than a week later she’d gotten a reply—

My name is Anne and my son Billy was your donor. My family and I live in Florida. Billy has two sisters, Megan and Marie. They are 23 and 30 years old. Billy loved fishing and playing baseball. Although he was only 20 when he died, he had the opportunity to travel to many places. He had many friends as he was growing up. Our house was often where kids would get together. I hope you are doing well and on the way to a full recovery. We would like to continue hearing from you and one day I’d like to meet.

For six months the two of them corresponded with each of them gradually offering more particulars into their lives. Andrea soon learned that Anne was divorced, that while her children lived in the same state as her, one was in college and the other was married and worked long hours as a lawyer so she rarely saw her. The only person who’d been in her life was Billy, who’d lived with her at home with her while taking night classes at a nearby community college.

After six months they were allowed to disclose contact information. Anne had gone first. My full name is Anne Millbrook, she’d written. My son was Billy Millbrook. He died from a car accident driving home. His car hit another one in a head-on collision.

That was the night Andrea had searched for Billy. She’d meant to find more information about the accident, but in her search had also found the blog. She stared at the photo, at the dark-haired, blue-eyed boy looking back at her.

“This can’t be him,” she said, but she looked closer at the profile. The same name. He was from the same town. It was him. It had to be.

Micah had told her not to do this, and now that she had discovered the answer to who her donor was, she wondered if he hadn’t been right.

This person had given her his heart. This boy. He had decided that after he died, he would do this thing. Not only had he given away his heart but his other organs as well. He gave away his corneas. His skin tissue and bone. He gave away every piece of himself and then decided that what was left, whatever would be left, should be donated to science.

She could not fit together these two pieces in her mind, these actions belonging to seemingly two different people. What kind of person could be so benevolent in one way and so hateful in another?

“Maybe it was a penance,” Micah explained the following morning when she told him about what she’d learned. She was at the kitchen table watching him as he got breakfast ready for the both of them. He’d gotten in the habit of doing this after the surgery, even though Andrea had told him numerous times she could take care of herself, could make her own toast and take yogurt out of the fridge, but still he insisted and so she’d let it go.

“Penance for being racist?” she asked him, watching as he set the bowl of diced fruit on the table next to the eggs.

“I don’t know. Maybe he grew a heart and then decided he couldn’t live with himself anymore and then he died.”

“That’s not funny.”

“Yes it is.”

“I don’t understand it,” Andrea said as she took a scoop of fruit and put it on her plate. “He was a bigot but he donated all of his organs. How does that make sense?”

Micah shrugged. “People are complicated.”

“That’s it? That’s all you got?”

Micah shrugged. “Who knows why he did what he did,” he said. “Who knows the person he really was.”

Micah had made the comment offhandedly, but throughout the course of the day and through the next several weeks it kept coming back to her. Who knows the person he really was, he’d said, and Andrea was reminded of the night Micah told her about the affair. By then they’d been waiting close to eight months for a heart, far past the average waiting time for an organ.

Andrea thought of the way he looked that evening, a dogged expression on his face as he repeated all the things a man who has cheated was expected to—that the affair was only once, that it didn’t matter, and that he would never do it again.

The whole time she had stared at him blankly, wanting and waiting for him to just stop talking. She was tired, her whole body filled with an aching weariness.

Part of it had been from the day. Micah had decided that morning that they should go on a picnic down at Albertson Park. It was a large park they passed en route to the hospital. Once on their drive Andrea had spotted a young teenage couple having a picnic near the front entrance, and she’d remarked to Micah about it.

“Look at them,” Andrea had said, pointing. “I didn’t think people still had picnics anymore. At least outside of movies.”

“They’re young,” Micah had said then. “They have the time for that sort of thing.”

Micah must have remembered the expression on her face in response, at the way she had pulled away from him in the car, had kept silent the rest of the drive to the hospital and then back.

On the day he told her of the affair he’d brought her to that park. “I didn’t know what to bring for this so I grabbed a bunch of things from that little shop downtown,” he said, pulling out tiny packages of gourmet cheeses, a platter of sliced prosciutto and salami, and a box of crostini. He even had a bottle of non-alcoholic sparkling white wine.

“Plates?” Andrea asked as she tore open the wrapping of a wedge of Brie.

“Oh, um, well—”

Micah had forgotten the plates. Not just plates but napkins, silverware, and cups for the wine. They made do, picking bits from the packages, using their fingers, taking sips from the bottle before passing it back and forth between them.

It’d been a good day but it wore her out. She was already falling asleep in the car on the drive back even though the sun had not yet begun to fall. Micah waited until they were back in the house and she was changing out of her clothes to finally tell her about the affair.

“So you’re leaving me? Is that it? Is that what this whole day was?” Andrea asked. She sat down on the bed, another rush of weariness overtaking her.

“No, today was, today was different. I wanted us to have a nice day for once, but after the park, I realized I couldn’t keep this from you any longer.”

“I see,” she said. “Who was it?”

“A temp at work. She’s gone now, got a job at some firm. It was just once and I made a mistake. I’m telling you I made a mistake and it’ll never happen again. I’m not leaving you. I love you.”

If my heart wasn’t broken it would be now, she felt like saying, matching his litany of clichés with one of her own, but instead she held her tongue. She reached underneath her shirt, unhooked her bra, and let it fall to the floor. She slipped off her pants.

“Well, are you going to say anything?”

“I’m tired,” she told him, then crawled into the bed.

It was a week later when the hospital contacted her to let her know they’d finally found a donor.

“She wants to meet,” Andrea told Micah.

“That’s a little too far, no?” he responded.

“Maybe.”

“I mean, what are you going to say to her? ‘Thanks for the heart! It’s working just fine!’”

“I could.”

“You already said that though.”

Both of them were quiet. “You going to tell her that her son was a bigot?” he asked.

“Would you?”

“I wouldn’t have ever written in the first place.”

“You should tell her you’re black,” Micah said. “Just get it over with in case you go. You don’t want to be springing it on her there. No telling how she’d react.”

“But how am I supposed to tell her that? Put it in a post script?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I just know you should.”

At the hospital, right before she went under, Micah told her he wasn’t going to leave her side. “I’ll be here when you wake up and I’ll be there for all the days after,” he told her, and he kept his promise.

He was there throughout the recovery, and they never talked about what happened. Micah, it seemed, believed that they’d moved on from it, but it was always there in the back of Andrea’s mind. This woman he’d needed to be with. This woman he’d found intimacy with because he couldn’t with her.

She never told Micah but she knew who the woman was, had seen her once when she’d gone to his work to surprise him for lunch, but Micah had already gone out, the receptionist told her. She’d just missed him.

There was nothing particularly remarkable about the woman, nothing to warrant Andrea remembering her. She’d worn simple clothes—a cream cardigan over a slim black dress, pearl studs in her ears, and her dark hair brushed back in a low bun. The reason why Andrea even thought of her now was because she was white.

She wondered why Micah had left this detail out. Perhaps he didn’t think it mattered, but it was all Andrea thought about it now after her surgery. She thought about it when Micah touched her. Andrea thought about the way her body must have looked in comparison to her own. Perfect, thin. A blank slate with no scars. Pure.

It was enough to make her not let him see her naked anymore, too self-conscious about the scar on her chest. It didn’t matter how many times he told her that it didn’t matter to him, that she was beautiful anyway. To her even that sentence was wrong. Beautiful anyway. Despite her scar. Micah hadn’t meant anything by it, thought he was saying a good thing, but all she heard was what she was not, and in thinking of this it brought her back to what Micah had been searching to fill what she hadn’t been able to provide.

She often wondered if he’d leave her now. She was well, didn’t need him any longer, and still he remained. At night he told her he loved her. Loved. He would whisper it at night curled up beside her. I love you, don’t you know? Don’t you know how much I love you? And she would tell him yes, that she knew. Before he fell asleep. Always yes.

But love was not the thing that kept her awake at night. It was not the understanding of love but the misunderstanding of him. She’d thought he’d be a better man than he was. In the end it boiled down to this simple thing. She’d believed him to be better and he had failed her, and she did not know how to live with this truth.

Andrea tried several times but she could never get the wording right in her letter to Anne.

I should tell you that I’m black.

I’m African-American.

I just wanted you to know that I’m black.

She decided it would be better if Anne was able to infer her race from the letter. She wrote about her condition and how long she’d waited for a donor. Micah thought at first it would take me longer, that it would take longer to get a black heart, she wrote, but I had to tell him the race of the organs didn’t matter.

Andrea read over what she’d written. Black heart. Her gaze stopped over the phrase. It had not been what she’d intended but it made her laugh to see it there. Black heart.

“How about no heart?” Andrea muttered, then ripped the paper and bawled it up on the table.

Instead, she thought maybe she should try a different approach, asking about the blog instead.

I hope you don’t mind but I searched for your son’s name and this blog came up. Is this him?

Andrea read the sentence again. It was simple. Direct but not accusatory. She thought about adding about how she wanted to know more about the accident but decided against it. She added the link to the blog and for good measure printed out the first page of it and folded both into an envelope.

It took several weeks before Andrea got a response. She’d completely forgotten about it by the time it came around. Anne was usually so quick in responding to her letters, and so when Andrea didn’t get one right away she thought maybe Anne was too ashamed to respond. As time passed, she began to think Anne was never going to write her back and resigned herself to the possibility of never hearing from her again.

I’ve been so distraught since I got your last letter. Anne wrote. I did not know about this at all. I’ve been reading through the entries and it saddens my heart to know he could write things of this nature. I just—I just don’t know what to say. This was not the son I knew.

“Do you believe her? Sounds like a lot of white guilt to me.”

“I believe her.”

“Really? Why?”

“I don’t know. I just do.”

“Did you tell her you were black?”

“No.”

Micah laughed. “Oh boy,” he said.

“I don’t know how to tell her,” she said, feeling defensive. “It’s not like I haven’t tried. I just haven’t figured out a way to do it.”

“Just say it. You have to cut the band-aid off with these sorts of things.”

He came over and put his hands on her shoulders, his knuckles kneading her muscles. She leaned her head back and closed her eyes for a brief moment.

She couldn’t remember the last time he touched her. Before he cheated. Before the surgery. Even before then. She felt his hands on her shoulders and back and her body remembered.

She thought she was past this but she wasn’t.

“Okay, thanks,” she said, pulling away. “I’ll tell her. I’ll do it.”

Anne had suggested Café LaDonna, an Italian café in the bustling New Bohemian district downtown. Andrea was surprised by her choice, mainly for its location. It was in a revitalized area of the city, but despite these efforts there were still a large portion of residents who refused to come down here due to their misconceptions about its safety. Andrea imagined Anne would have had these same misconceptions which was why it was a surprise when she told her Café LaDonna.

That was the first time they’d spoken on the phone. They’d exchanged numbers but until that day neither had ever called. Part of Andrea’s reason had been because she was afraid of Anne hearing her voice. She was unaware of having any kind of dialect, Micah assured her she hadn’t, but still she feared slipping up somehow and Anne recognizing AAVE in her voice before the two of them had the chance to meet.

“So, cat’s out the bag?” Micah said after she hung up the phone.

“What?”

“Do you think she noticed?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, I guess she will soon enough, right?”

He laughed at his joke. “Hey, but really though. Should you do this? It could be dangerous, don’t you think?”

“It’s a public space. It’s not like we’ll be alone,” she said.

“Yeah but—”

“Now you’re worried?”

“A little,” he said.

“It’ll be fine,” Andrea said. There was a note of hesitation in her voice, but Micah didn’t seem to notice.

“Well, if you’re sure,” he said. “Call me when it’s over.”

Andrea told him she would, then went to go get ready.

Anne was already at Café LaDonna when she got there. Andrea recognized her immediately. Because of the time of day she was one of the few people in the café and the only one alone, sitting at a table in the far back of the room. When Andrea walked in, Anne looked up and saw her, not realizing who she was her gaze lasted on her only a few seconds before she turned her attention back at the drink at the table.

Andrea walked over and stood. “Anne Milbrook?” she asked, her voice low. “Anne?”

“Oh,” she said, and then the expression on her face seemed to shift, contorting from a brief moment of disbelief to an uneasy hesitation with her words.

“I should have told you,” Andrea said.

“Told me what?”

Andrea waited a few seconds to see if Anne would stop pretending that she didn’t get her meaning. Anne continued looking up at her with a blank expression. Finally, Andrea told her never mind and sat down at the table beside her.

“I got both of us some cake. I see a sweet and I always have to have it. A flaw, but I thought we could share it.”

Anne pushed one of the plates closer to the table’s edge. She handed over a fork and a napkin and Andrea took it, held it in her hands. Andrea waited for her to say something about her race, but when she realized that Anne was going to ignore it she sighed and took the cake.

Anne nodded and began cutting more of the cake. It was a German chocolate. The rich decadence of it lingered on Andrea’s tongue after she took a bite. She had a bit more before stopping.

“Not hungry?”

“No it’s just too rich.”

“Yes, yes it is.”

Andrea wondered when the conversation would switch from cake to what they both were really here to talk about. Talking about the cake was easier, and it that was why Anne lingered on it.

Finally, Anne set her own fork down. “I miss my son so much that sometimes I don’t know what to do.”

Andrea flinched at the sentiment but didn’t offer anything in response.

“I garden,” Anne said, continuing. “My vegetables, they mostly all died. They got blackheart. It’s a disease that comes from drought. It’s when they’ve been denied of something necessary that their insides begin to rot. I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately because it’s like there’s a hole inside of me, like all my insides have been scooped out and what’s left is this shell of a body I don’t know what to do with anymore.”

“That’s how it felt for me. Before, I mean,” Andrea suddenly said. “That there was nothing inside.”

“My son,” Anne said and stopped. She sighed. “Do you have children?” she asked.

“No, not yet.”

“You want them?”

“I—I think so.”

“Good,” she said. “That’s good.”

Finally, Andrea asked her. “Did you know about your son?” she asked bluntly. Anne’s face grew tense. Andrea took note of the way her lips pursed while trying to keep the rest of her expression the same.

“I found out after. After he was gone,” she said.

Anne glanced down at the table, at the last bites of cake left on her plate. “The blog is in someone else’s name. It’s a group of them that all post. He won’t take it down, and I’ve been working on trying to get access to my son’s account to delete his posts. You saw it before I could get them all.”

“I see.”

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

“I don’t know,” Andrea said. “Does it matter?”

“My husband cheated on me,” Andrea added. “When I was sick. He slept with another woman. I don’t know her.”

“How long?”

“He said it was only once but I’m not sure if I believe him.”

“You think it’s still going on now?”

“No, not anymore.”

“Do you forgive him?”

“What?”

“Do you forgive him? For what he did? For cheating?”

“I—I’m not sure.”

“Well, that’s the crux of it, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Sometimes people do terrible things, even people who we believe are good. I don’t know if my son was a good person,” she said. “I thought I knew, I thought he was, but—he was a good son to me. He was my boy. I loved him. What else can I say? What is there to even say?”

In that moment Andrea felt sorry for Anne. She believed her when she said she hadn’t known. It was not an impossible thing to imagine. Andrea realized though that if Anne hadn’t known, then every day after she lived with the knowledge that there’d been a piece of her son she hadn’t known, a piece that called to question every aspect of the person she thought she understood.

“Your son gave me his heart,” Andrea finally answered. “Your son saved my life. There is no more nor no less to it than that.”

Andrea said it not to make Anne feel better but because it was the truth. It was the only grace she could offer in such a circumstance, and she offered it because a small part of her recognized something in Anne that was also within herself.

The two of them sat in the café for the next hour. They talked until each of them had exhausted the summaries of their lives and they found that there was nothing left to say. Andrea reached to take a sip from her drink and realized the cup was empty.

“Well,” she said. “I guess I better be going.”

“Right,” Anne said, nodding.

Andrea stood up, expecting Anne to as well, but she continued sitting at the table. “I think I’ll sit here a little while longer,” she said.

For a brief moment Andrea thought to reach out and hug her. “Thank you for everything, Anne,” she said, holding out her hand to shake instead. She gripped it tight before letting go, and then left her to sit in the café alone.

Andrea knew walking out into the sun that she would not write to Anne again, and she knew that Anne too would not write back to her. She walked down the street, her pace picking up as she moved along. Even though she didn’t want to go home, to face Micah and his questions, she knew of nowhere else to go. She continued walking, the thumping of her heart increasing with each step.

After a moment she had to stop, feeling the wild thrashing within her chest. She put a finger to her chest and felt underneath the thin fabric of shirt, felt through the scar of her skin to feel her pulse. She closed her eyes and listened.