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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.