Sometimes, straddling my husband in bed, I drag my fingertips down his chest, over the smooth pale skin of his torso and then up again to his collarbone, down the center, over the scar. The scar is seven inches long, shaped like an exclamation point with its period floating an inch below, pink like his nipples, fat and flat like an earthworm that has been slowly sinking, over the last year and a half, deeper into his body. It is a little wider in the middle — I think, perhaps, from the rib spreaders. Maybe that is where the surgeon's hands went in.
"Does it look okay?" he usually asks.
"It's sexy," I say. The Christmas tree lights hung above our bed reflect off my wedding ring. He had the open-heart surgery seventeen days after we were married, when he was twenty-five and I was twenty-three.
When it was new, the scar was puckered from the stitches on the inside; they'd sewn him up like the seam of a pillow. His sternum had been sawed in half and wired back together with twistie ties. He wasn't allowed to drive for six weeks for fear of damaging the bone before it re-knit, but when he came home from the hospital five days after the surgery, we had sex anyway, me precariously perched on top and making sure not to touch his chest. I was afraid I would slip and cave him in like a trap door or the flaps of a cardboard box. Everyone would say, "Well, what did you expect to happen?"
But I was leaving in nine days — I had to fuck him while I could. We had scheduled both the wedding and surgery during my winter break from grad school. One plane ticket, that way — I was living in New York and he was still in Kansas, and I had to get back for the spring semester.
When he came to New York to interview for jobs three weeks later, he was still in his recovery period. You couldn't tell with his shirt on. In bed, I pulled his undershirt off and studied the new ridge running down the center of him, the new skin — soft and hard at the same time, both alien and him.
"Are you still attracted to me?" he asked.
I kissed his belly and licked the scar from bottom to top, dragging my body across his newly healed chest.
He moved to New York and we moved into our own apartment and I watched the scar sink into his chest. With my nose pressed between his pecs and the scar under my lips, I could feel his heat rising against my face and smell him all around me — the same smell I fell in love with when I first met him, when I was sixteen and he was eighteen and his chest was hard and flat, like skin over slate. He had been 5'8" and 113 pounds and rebelling flamboyantly against his parents and adolescence and I had thought him sophisticated and eccentric and some sort of embodiment of sex. When he told me the aortic valve in his heart was deformed, I considered it the metaphorical root and physical manifestation of his unhappiness — and a turn-on. He was doomed, the Byronic hero I had been looking for.
Back then, he lived as if he wouldn't live long, with a fast little sports car he drove at parked cars and cement pillars, dodging them at the last minute, and a propensity for feuds and conflict. He was the first boy to introduce sex matter-of-factly when making out with me, rolling on top of me one night as we kissed in his bed, his body between my bent legs, the possibility of the act both unspoken and unsubtle. I felt light-headed panic when I realized I was about to do too much, and yet there was the opportunity to do even more. My fingers and feet and head were numb and seemingly inoperable as all my nerve-endings shrank inward toward my stomach, the nausea of over-stimulation coursing upward, catching in my throat and making it hard to breathe, hard to say no, to say anything at all, especially when there weren't any questions being asked.
We didn't do more than kiss that night, but it was the first time I spent the night with a man, slept in the same bed as if we were lovers, and I fell asleep with my head cradled comfortably by his hard chest in a way I could never get right with anyone else after, no matter how many pillows I propped around us or how many times I positioned my head. We were lovers soon, but there was an after, and others. Byronic heroes might be good in bed, but they can't be bothered with routine relationship maintenance, and it wasn't long before it had been a long time since we had spoken.
Meeting him again, years later, when we had both lost some of our adolescent desire for doom, I noticed the new layer of muscle between the skin and bone of his chest and that same smell. Lying with my head on his chest in a hotel room that Thanksgiving, I listened to the blood leak from his valve, his heartbeats a steady whoosh instead of thumps, and he told me he would have to have surgery someday. His heart would harden soon, the muscle overworked from pumping harder to compensate for the leak, for the valve flaps that wouldn't seal tight. The surgeon would replace his aortic valve with his undamaged pulmonary valve, and his pulmonary valve with a cadaver valve. It would take six to eight hours. He hadn't decided to do it yet. We had sex in the shower, lying in the bottom of the tub while the water rained down on his back and dripped over his shoulder into my face, pooling beneath me while the hard white walls hemmed us in. He screamed when he came, and the water murmured behind him. He didn't fuck like a man with a heart condition. He was more like a steam locomotive. His heart doctor asked after me at his appointment the next spring."Well, I really like her," said my boyfriend, "and I like to really like her, and sometimes it gets, well, vigorous.""Ah, yes," said the doctor, looking off as if remembering someone else. He was still a young man. "How vigorous? Have you ever passed out?""No, but we take breaks.""Taking breaks is good. Do you ever feel like your range of vision is narrowing?""No, but sometimes I feel sort of dizzy."
"Well, there's one kind of dizzy, and that's good. There's another kind of dizzy, and you know what to look for with that."It was true; he had been trained since he was a little boy to recognize the signs of his own heart failing.Tracing his finger down his chest, he began to ask me, "How do you think I'll look with the scar?""Just the same," I said. "Same blue eyes, same red hair, same lips."
I was spending the summer with him, but about to leave for grad school. He decided to have the surgery that winter, during my break from school, so I could come back for it.
"I don't want to have it without you," he said.
"I don't want you to have it without me, either," I said.
I was jealous of all the girls who had had him between the first time I'd met him and the second, during the time we were apart while I was in college and we weren't speaking. I was jealous that he had touched them, even as he held back the best and worst parts of himself, and jealous that they had been there to feel even some superficial part of him while he held himself from me. He had been afraid of everything I wanted. These girls who'd lain beneath his jackhammer hips in some version of the position I had once taken, his pelvic bones so hard and sharp through his skin that they had bruised the insides of my thighs, down deep, where bruises don't show — they had wanted less, at least from him, and seen less in him. They had been there to see him grow out his hair and cut it off, change schools, change jobs, change cars, change apartments, change from an angry, over-sensitive adolescent to a conscientious, over-sensitive man, without ever really seeing inside him. They did not talk about his cardiology appointments more than they had to. I wanted to have been the one having sex with him when he was nineteen and twenty and twenty-one and twenty-two, the one sitting beside him in bucket car seats, the one moving with him from apartment to apartment, the one talking about the changes taking place inside his chest. I would have asked — I was the one who had fallen for his malformed heart in the first place. This time, the change was mine, as I felt the others should have been.
After the surgery, after the wedding, it seemed like he had been remade just for me, for the start of us. He had been cracked open like Adam and resurrected like Christ and now, after seven hours without a heartbeat or breath, he was cured, fixed, better than as he was born. His heart would claim the cadaver valve sewn into it, cover it with its own tissue and forget that there had ever been another. My husband had never been with another woman with the heart he had now, the heart I could feel beating hard and steady against my breast as he pressed against me. Only I had touched his newly marked skin, with the vampire bite scars on his neck from the multi-line IV and the exclamation mark on his chest.
The scar has sunk in segments, from the top down. It is now half-sunk. Sitting on my husband with my fingers on his chest, I report changes and progress. I tell him, "More of it's sinking," as if he can't see it. He never examines it in front of me; it is my scar to keep track of.
"It's down to here," I say, marking the spot with my finger.
"Good," he says.
He would just as soon the scar fade away; it is a strange addition for him, and he misses his unmarked chest. But I would have kept it raised a little longer, a ridge that I could find through his shirt with my hand on his chest on a subway platform, a welted line to follow with my fingertips and tongue, a more visible reminder of the changes we made together. When we were younger, I had liked him for being a little bit broken, imperfect. We have traded his malformed valve for the scar and a few extra decades, but tracing the new tissue, I see that it is a little crooked, imperfect too, still him — now us, both mended and remade.