Keeping Trace’s Heart - John Lavelle
So I’m lying here covered in the soft hours of the night, sinking into post-coital indifference, a girl with patched-up dreams. Every ten minutes or so a car drives by on the street a couple of floors below and I imagine a couple, a man and a woman driving somewhere, metaphorically to their dreams. The tires roll out a sticky hum echoing loneliness against the pavement like the murmur of a man deep asleep. Even the square window-patch of light skitters across the opposite wall as if running from the silence.
I’m thinking about all that’s happened; it’s a good time for it, all the time that’s passed, all my effort and sacrifice. It‘s not that I don‘t deserve this, a man in my arms, that strange empty warmth in that little sphere of a place inside your gut where only pent-up sexual frustration used to be. I think I should get up and do something, clean the place, run ten miles. But he’s snoring. Actually it’s a pre-snore. His head is propped up against the pillows, his sparse hair spread about like broken trees in a forest after some horrific devastation. He has that nasally breathing thing going on, and pretty soon I’m going to have to elbow him. I’m thinking we may need a bigger bed.
In the still air I smell his sweat and the faint detergent odor of his fluids mixed with the musky smell of mine, feel him breathing and with my ear pressed against his chest, hear the sound of the strong thumping of Trace’s heart, the one he gave to me.
This story really starts with Trace, a lifetime ago. I met him at the club. He was the sort of guy that makes a girl feel liquid in the knees just watching him. You know, one of those guys you only have to look at for a second and you know he’s got it all together, style, money, and good taste, carries himself as if he knows he’s going to be a CEO before he’s forty.
I’d run the score up ten to seven in a revenge match of racquetball with Chelsea Gunner, her revenge for me beating her so badly last time. The two of us are killer players. Nobody in the office, man or woman, can hold his or her own against us. Chelsea is a close second to me, but still only second. Some people might say I’m a driven person, but I know what I want and I’m willing to work hard to get it even if it means a few scraped elbows or pulled muscles. But I digress.
There we were in our racquetball outfits, looking hot, just working up a sweat, banging the ball hard off the walls, she wearing that little pink outfit that makes her look a bit flat chested. I’d tell her but we aren’t that close. Trace was running on the track above, around the top of the courts. Normally I give the runners only a second’s glance, to see who’s looking and who’s worth looking at. A girl needs to know where she stands in the mating jungle. Is she top lioness of the pride or just another chimpanzee?
He was a fine specimen of a man, not one of those muscle-bound apes you see posing in front of the mirrors by the free weights. He’d jog into view about every minute or thereabouts and I’d miss the shot. I mean you’ve got to have your priorities straight. I started looking for him, could hardly wait until he came around again, meaning that Chelsea got in a point or so. He kept it up long enough that I lost the match, but what‘s a match when the man of your dreams shows up?
I ran right up there to see who this guy was, leaving Chelsea to shower by herself. I mean there’d be no living with her or half the office for the next week.
I found Trace walking a cool-down lap, every once in a while peering into the racquetball courts as if he‘d lost something. I had a pretty good idea what it was he might be looking for, and it sure the hell wasn’t going to be Chelsea. Like I said, a person needs to have her priorities straight. He wore a cut-off sweatshirt and running shorts, a white terrycloth towel stretched around his neck, very street looking, very cool.
I walked right up to him and said, “You made me lose my match and Chelsea is going to blab it all over the department.” I wanted to say, God you’d make handsome children. Between you and me our daughter would be gorgeous.
He told me later he’d noticed me while running his ten kilometers, training for a marathon, and I’d thrown off his stride, which meant he needed to find me too. I knew from that moment on we were meant for each other. Fate had brought us together.
Trace ran long distances, not a champion but a good amateur, and he approached his life with the same quiet confidence, always calm and relaxed and in time, he knew, we’d get to where we were going, which, of course, meant marriage, exactly what I’d been looking for all my short adult life.
He had a beautiful apartment. I know I’m jumping ahead, but that’s how thoughts go sometimes. He had very good taste for a man, and I moved in after three months. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not that kind of girl, just that it was love at first sight, with a bit of a delayed reaction, making sure he didn‘t have any little skeletons in his wardrobe like crazy aunts, having been exposed to massive doses of radiation, an ex-wife.
We set up home together, yuppies in love, nouveau cuisine, healthy, of course. We ran on misty Saturday mornings before most people bothered dragging their petrifying hides out of bed, watched the sunrise on Sunday still dressed for a late dinner and a night on the town. God, we were beautiful, like and ad from an expensive woman’s magazine, all glossy, and in full color. We met every night at the club after work. We made the plan: investing long term, saving for a down payment on a starter home, maybe a little two-bedroom condo, something that would appreciate, just outside the city but close enough to take in a ballgame or the theater. We became the couple I knew we could be, invited to dinner parties, special tables at our favorite restaurants. We’d wear blue jeans at a blues club one night and the next be dressed full-tilt-boogie at a swank little nightspot rubbing elbows with the best of them. After the marathon we planned to take a vacation to Europe or a long weekend in Cancun, pick out a china pattern etc.
I remember I’d just gotten home from the club having worked out alone a bit sweaty and lonely not having my Trace with me. He’d had a doctor’s appointment, a checkup two weeks before the Boston Marathon. The doctor said Trace had the strongest heart he’d even seen.
The sun had set and through the kitchen window we could see the lights of the city twinkling on as the night shift, the janitors and cleaning ladies, worked from room to room in the office buildings.
I placed our environmentally-responsible, canvas shopping bag on the counter and kissed Trace hello. He pulled out the fresh, organically grown vegetables that I’d purchased at the food co-op while he told me the doctor‘s prognosis.
“I knew that,” I said. “I listen to your heart every night.” I messed up his hair a little, just because I was so happy with our life.
He smiled like he does when he’s a bit embarrassed by a compliment. Trace started to fix his healthy stir-fry for dinner, pulling our handcrafted wok down from where it hung above the island sink—fashionable for upscale apartments at the time—adding pure virgin olive oil.
In the middle of chopping up the broccoli, as if he’d been thinking about what I’d said, he turned around and blurted out, “Our love makes it strong.” He kissed me. “I give my heart to you,” he added. His face flushed a little pinkish hue. I hugged him and so forth, until the oil crept to the verge of overheating.
Yes, it was hokey. He knew it was hokey, but sometimes lovers just say things like that when they get to know each other and are contemplating a wedding and family.
So when the call came the next day telling me he was dead, I couldn’t believe it, a ten-car pile up on the expressway. He died of head injuries.
I remember screaming “no” into the phone, disrupting the calm of the office, but I didn’t care. I was shocked. I was angry. I had a little blue outfit on and had been feeling a little naughty. My hair had been very cooperative that morning. My face had just glowed. Maybe I was ovulating, but all day I’d been visualizing a night of nakedness and cuddling.
This couldn’t be happening I thought. If you had known Trace, had experienced how full of life he was, his strength, the way and the length of his lovemaking, the power and the beat of that heart, the one he’d given to me, you’d understand.
They had him laid out on a gurney in a room painted in that hospital gray that some moron must have thought would make it cheery, but only made you realize, even more so that you were in a hospital. Cabinets with glass fronts, full of medical things wrapped in sterile packaging, took up one wall. The room had that disinfected smell. Large upright compressed gas tanks stood guard like morbid ghouls. His silk DKNY tie lay in pieces. His nice Calvin Klein shirt had been ripped apart. Electrodes protruded from his chest and head. Streams of clotted blood clung to his face under his nose and eyes so that he looked like some rocker from the eighties. His hand was still warm and about every one-and-a-half seconds a line on a machine, among other machines on the wall above his head, jumped. I counted the beeps, around forty-six beats a minute, a great resting pulse rate. Another line ran straight across its screen.
An older black woman, grossly overweight, dressed in a nurse’s uniform walked in through a set of double doors, not really walked, sort of that side-to-side stroll where you think they’re going to tip over any second. She laid her pudgy hands on my shoulders and said, “You have to go. They have to prep him.” Her hand rested gently but the weight of her arm let me know who’d win a shoving match.
“For what?” I asked, looking up into her dark face, seeing eyes that’d looked at death way too often.
“Donor,” she said, as if she‘d said syringe or mop. Then her face softened in a practiced look. “He was a donor, dear.” The nurse started pulling things out of the cabinets, little packages, stopping for a minute, stretching her back, wincing in pain. Nothing losing one hundred pounds and some aerobics wouldn’t cure. “His family gave permission.”
But I was his family. Everyone else lived in upper Michigan. “You can‘t do that. You can‘t take him away so quickly,” I said.
“We have a recipient who needs his heart.” She started to unfold a cornflower-blue sheet then dropped it on Trace’s chest. She walked over to me, more of a shuffle really, turned me by my shoulders and pushed me towards a set of double doors.
I stumbled into the hallway feeling as if I’d just been thrown naked out of some guy’s apartment, although I have never been thrown naked out of some guy’s apartment. A youngish man lay on another gurney. He seemed barely alive. People walked by him like he wasn’t even there, as if he were already a corpse. What decent looking features he may have had were hidden under pale waxy skin, and his thinning hair looked like unraveling twine. Deep black rings encircled yellowing and barely open eyes. He seemed deader than Trace. A tube stuck out from under a bandage on a scrawny arm. The man turned his head in a sort of pre-comatose flop, trying to focus on me. I realized they’d already prepped him for surgery as if he’d been just waiting around for my Trace to have his accident like some ghoul waiting in some back alley, or wherever they wait for innocent people to walk by.
A smile stretched weakly across his face as he dozed off. Somewhere, someone had prepped an operating room to take my Trace’s heart away and give it to this man. I stared down at him, studying his face, his eyes, that stupid smile, the general bad health, wanting to never forget who it was that would get Trace’s heart, who I had lost to.
The name on the chart that hung at the end of the gurney was Phil Grenski. I mean I could understand how Trace’s heart could save a life, but it made no sense. Why should he have died? We’d made so many plans. Why should this man get his heart and I lose it?
A large orderly, one of those Italian, Rocky-Balboa-looking guys walked up and wrapped a big hairy hand around the rail. “Kiss him bye for now,” he said.
I stepped back and said, “I don’t know this man.”
“No?” The orderly stared at me for a minute, confused as if his peanut sized brain had shut down. He leaned hard against the rail, shoving the gurney. He smiled and did one of those awful wink things with his right eye and the corner of his mouth as he and Phil rolled off down the hall.
I left the hospital wondering who could have decided such a thing as to part Trace and me. I cried for weeks after the funeral. There was so much to do before the funeral that I didn‘t have time to break down; funeral arrangements, buy a conservative black dress, get a whole new wardrobe, one looser, longer and drabber. I took a smaller, cheaper apartment because I couldn’t afford something as grand as the one we’d had, and because it had been Trace’s and I didn‘t hold a lease and you know how landlords are. I’d sold off all my stuff, so that everything had been his, the dishes and silverware, the oriental rugs and couch. According to the law, and Trace’s relatives, I had no dibs on any of it. I could have fought to keep some, but it all reminded me of us. Every dish laughed at me. Mocked would be a better word. I’d been set up. Run to one side of the court, committed myself, only to have the ball slammed to the other wall—a drop shot if you’re into tennis. So when the vultures swooped in, I let them feast.
Still, months later I would wake in the middle of the night crying, shaking and drenched in a cold sweat. I’d get out of bed and wander the few rooms I had, searching desperately for something. I stood by the window for hours staring out at the city, now above me, the janitors and cleaning women still working the levels of the skyscrapers. A story below, single cars rolled up to the light. Silently the turned left or right. Some went straight. They looked so lonely on the street by themselves going someplace to someone. Couples maybe. A late night out rushing home to make love and fall to sleep in each other’s arms. This went on for a couple of weeks until I finally realized that what woke me was the absence of Trace’s heartbeat.
I nudge Phil onto his side to stop his snoring. He moves like a dying hippo. In a minute he flops back over again, but I’ve gotten one of the pillows out from under his head. I worry about how this relationship is going to go, knowing his love for fatty foods and his hatred for exercise. But then again, I think I did a pretty good job tonight convincing him it will be worthwhile keeping me happy.
I guess there’s really no good reason to drag out my feelings of loss and desperation, only to say that, after a time, I worked hard at recovery. The gym and beating Chelsea at racquetball became a positive part of my regimen. I’d tried to date two times, both disasters. I’d taken to driving by Phil’s neighborhood, just as a way of keeping the memories of Trace alive. You know, knowing that somewhere in that block of not-so-well-kept apartment houses in a fringe neighborhood, Trace’s heart still beat. The phonebook listed four Phil Grenskies. I called a couple posing as a telemarketer. I almost sold him a year’s subscription to a woman’s magazine for God’s sake. Once in a while I’d spot Phil on recovery walks being helped down the street by a nurse. I’d had to pull over and wait until the anger subsided and the tears cleared enough to drive. I mean, why me? Why screw my life up for someone like him?
About a year later I spotted him coming out of a bakery about two blocks from his house. In one hand he carried a box of donuts. The other hand was busy shoving an éclair into his mouth. Yes, the very same man with Trace’s heart. I recognized Phil right away even though he’d gained double the weight he’d had when he‘d been prepped for surgery. I saw the way he smiled at a bleached-blonde floozy passing by. I’d never forget that straight thin-lipped smile. The man was downright fat, though he looked a lot healthier than the last time I’d seen him. I thought, who the hell did he think he was doing that to Trace‘s heart?
I swung into a parking spot a half-block away, not bothering to put money into the meter, running back toward the guy, shoving people aside. I caught him in the act of reaching down to unlock the passenger’s-side door to give his precious donuts a ride home. Yes, a lousy couple of blocks from home as if walking might kill him.
“Who do you think you are?” I screamed at him. We stood on the street like gunfighters squaring off, people running for cover.
He uttered mostly unintelligible vowel sounds. Whipped cream stuck to the corners of his mouth.
“You’re Phil Grenski, aren‘t you?” I said. Other people stopped to view the commotion, making a little ring around us.
His gaze ran up and down me once. You know, that once over look guys who haven’t got a chance in hell with you give you. He almost smiled but forced it back, probably realizing he was way out of his league.
“What’s it to you, lady?” he said. His jacket lay open and the tail of his shirt hung out of a pair of the worst looking pants I’d ever laid eyes on, brown polyester or something. His gut hung over a belt with one of those grotesque buckles, you know with a truck or car on it. What was worse, though, is how his stomach split his shirt so you could see the hairy fat hanging out.
“What’s it to me?” I said, yanking the damn donuts out of his hands.
“Hey, give them back,” he said, as he lunged for the box behind me, being too clumsy to take them away.
I swayed from side to side, standing on the balls of my feet as if getting ready to return a serve, tossing the box from hand to hand, staying out of lard butt’s reach. I said, “Why, so you can kill yourself?”
Phil glared at me as if the donuts were paramount to his survival. “What are you, some kind of health Nazi?” Drops of sweat ran down his temples. What little hair he had stuck to his forehead.
“What are you, some sort of fat slob?” I said, ignoring the people who’d stopped to stare. “Look at you.” I poked him in the stomach. My finger sunk into soft flesh. He grasped at my hand, but I was too quick for him. “A year ago you were barely clinging to life, probably praying to God that if he’d give you a second chance and find you a heart, you’d be a better person.” I pointed at the rolls of fat around his waist. “He got you one and you’ve got no right to do this to it.” I grabbed the little fat roll under his chin. “My man died for this.”
Phil bolted to the other side of the car, jumped in and took off despite me banging on his window and screaming, “You’re a fatty. Do you know that?”
I threw the box of donuts at him, then ran to my car and started to chase him down, thinking vengeance will be mine. I tailed him to an old two-story apartment house and chased him up a flight of stairs that hadn‘t seen a coat of paint since before spandex. He had a good head start but his breathing echoed in the stairwell like a dying elephant’s. Phil made it into his apartment on the second floor just before I’d gotten a bead on him. I figured on tackling him, not caring what I’d do next. Maybe I figured if he got beat up by a girl it’d wake him up, but by the time I’d cleared the stairwell and gotten to his door, I could hear the locks snapping shut and his little whiney gasps for breath.
I stared at the door for a minute, noticing how yellow and chipped the paint had gotten, thinking about pounding on it and screaming until he let me in or called the police. Then I got a plan.
Now, I’m not a stalker. I’m a very well-educated woman. I have a degree in marketing. I’ve risen to assistant manager. Until this time, with the help of a good psychologist and a support group, I’d felt as if I’d gotten my life somewhat back together. But how could I not stalk this man with Trace’s heart at stake? I just hoped to God, as I walked back to my car, that he wasn’t one of those stay-at-home types.
Friday I rushed home from the gym, showered and dressed in my skimpiest clubbing outfit, the no back, almost no front, leggy, sparkly thing. While admiring how, through all the adversity, I’d kept my figure, I realized the dress might be overkill for this guy, so I took it off and dressed in slacks and a shoulderless top with a blouse over it. Wouldn’t bring out the big guns unless they were really necessary. I took along a sweater in case it was a real dive. Packing a couple of bottles of spring water and power bars for the stakeout, I parked down the street from Phil’s apartment building and waited.
Phil left about nine, a bit early, I thought. When he pulled into a plaza with one of those DVD rental stores, I thought, oh, no, he is one of those stay-at-home types. He dropped off a couple of DVDs and got back into his car. He drove to a small bar in a older neighborhood that looked even less enticing to live in than his.
I waited more than an hour before I made my move. I sauntered into the place as though I’d been there a thousand times. It screamed for a good interior decorator or at least some decent indirect lighting and ornamental foliage. It smelled of old cigarettes and a damp basement. The place was pretty empty for a Friday night. I thought, maybe they ought to try a happy hour, or maybe burn the place down and do everyone a favor.
Phil sat at the bar watching a couple of guys play pool.
I slid in next to him. I said, “Hi, Phil.”
For just a second he smiled, a beginning of a leer, really. “Oh, my God,” he said once he‘d figured out where he‘d seen me before. He leaned away from me as if any moment I might take a poke at him. “It’s you.”
I touched his hand. He didn’t move it away. But then I knew he wasn’t going anywhere—like playing racquetball against a toddler.
His two buddies stopped shooting pool. They stood back, smiling foolishly at us, maybe thinking Phil just got lucky, holding their pool sticks like a couple of little boys holding their penises, not being quite sure what they ought to be doing with them.
“I’m sorry about the other day,” I said. I waited for him to relax, to get that God-awful smile back on his puss. “But you know how it is when you lose someone close.” He glanced at my hand on his and nodded, but I doubt if he’d ever lost anyone as close as Trace had been to me. “Buy me a drink?” I asked, smiling at him, batting my eyes like a little schoolgirl, then saying in my softest angelic voice, “A light beer would be fine.”
He bought two, one for himself.
It took a while to get him talking, but once he started I doubted if I could shut him up. His buddies joined us. The taller of the two, no better looking than Phil, kept trying to cut his time. I thought, I’d like nothing better than to hack you down to size, buster, but I got my hands full with Phil.
The four of us talked mostly sports, which wasn’t all that hard seeing there were three televisions in our line of sight, all turned to sports channels. I pretended to know less than I did. I waited until they showed women’s basketball on Sports Center. I mentioned that it was nice that they were showing more women’s sports on TV.
Phil’s buddy said that women’s sports didn’t really count because even men with little or no talent could beat a highly ranked woman.
“Are you sure?” I asked, like some bimbo who hadn‘t beaten every man in her company. They all nodded. I turned to Phil and said, “I play racquetball. Do you think you could beat me?” To which his buddies let out long and low howling sounds. I thought, any minute now they’re going to pound on their chests and run off to stick twigs down anthill holes.
I don’t think he figured it to be a proposition at first, rather just a request for his opinion. He said, “I used to be considered a good athlete in my day.”
I beat him every game, apologizing after each one. Phil was fairly heartbroken and body-broken by the end, even though I lied and told him he was pretty good.
“You know,” I said, after he’d walked me out to the car, limping slightly on his left ankle, more of an excuse. “You’re not so bad. I kind of like you.”
“How about we go get something to eat?” he asked, smiling that hideous straight-lipped smile of his.
I opened my door, turned around and backhanded his stomach. “Looks like you could use to miss a few meals.”
“No chance, huh?” he said, unconsciously rubbing the place I’d hit. I don’t think he’d have been all that shocked if I’d said, you got that right, tubbo. I think he’d already set himself up for failure, like he probably did for most things in his life.
I slid into the car, closed the door and rolled down the window. “I don’t know. You’re nice to be with.” I started the motor for effect. “Beat me at racquetball and you get a date.”
You could almost see his head snap back from the force of the surprise of getting another chance. He walked back into the fitness club as I drove toward the street.
He’d joined the club the day after our first match. Over the next three months we played twelve times before I let him beat me. I saw him at the gym a couple times a week, then three to four times and finally almost every day. He’d stare at me as I worked out and I encouraged it. He’d come over to speak to me once in a while, mostly to schedule our next match. Each time he got a little better and a little fitter. Each time we played, my outfit got sexier for incentive, something I’d stopped doing since I’d lost Trace. Not that I’m a better-than-you-could-ever-hope-for kind of girl, but even if Phil was totally buff, he still wouldn’t have stood a chance, normally.
He asked, after he kissed me goodnight the first time, if he would have to keep beating me at racquetball for a date.
I said, “Of course.” I left him in the hallway. Over the next several months we had weekly dates, racquetball and romantic, and sometimes lunches where I lectured him on proper nutrition. I played him tougher each time, still letting him win, though, and watched his body slowly lose fat and gain form. He would never really have the skills or body like Trace, never be that athletic, but still the same, when the question of making love came up while we were working out, I said, “When I’m sure you’re up to it.”
“I beat you all the time,” he said, between reps on the arm curl.
“That doesn’t count,” I said, stretching, getting a little kink out of the small of my back. “Can you beat me running? Ten miles is all I ask. Trace could run a marathon. Beat me, you can have me.”
“That’s crazy,” he said, standing up and walking a few steps away from me. “Racquetball is just a game, a little ritual we do for the fun of it.” He stretched his arms out to the side, getting the cramps out of them. “Our relationship has gone too far to play games.”
“You think you’re in shape enough to go a couple of rounds with me on a mattress?” I said, smiling as if it were a joke. I continued to stretch as if the conversation meant nothing to me at all.
“That’s not the point. I thought we were in love?” Phil wiped his forehead with his towel, wrapping it around his neck.
I’d waited for this day to come. I didn’t object to the sex, but rather his implicit demand to not have to exercise, which he would want to do once he had it all. He needed to learn that, as long as we were together, he needed to stay healthy. “Love’s one thing,” I said. “Commitment’s another. How do I know you’ll be around ten, twenty years from now?”
“It’s about that other guy, isn’t it?”
I blurted out, “No.” Then, “Yes,” more slowly. “But not how you think.”
He walked away toward the free weights. I walked ahead of him so he wouldn’t think he’d gotten me to come along.
“Things happen,” Phil said, searching for a couple of ten pounders. “He was a jock, but he died anyway. Probably never tasted a glazed donut or a big juicy steak with a baked potato smothered with butter and sour cream.”
I tried not to look angry. I turned away for a minute staring at the other people running on the treadmills, working out on the machines and bikes. I blinked the angry tears from my eyes, thinking, how I’d love to slap Phil, but I’d worked too hard to lose it all now. “Yes, but if he hadn’t been killed, we’d be together for years. Oh, Phil,” I said. Now I let the tears come. “Don’t you understand?” I gently touched his cheek. He’d never be as handsome as Trace, but at least you could make out some of the bones in his face and now his chin was firm and square. “I can’t lose two of you in one lifetime.” I hugged him, letting my tears fall on his bare shoulder.
“Ten miles, huh?” Phil said.
“Just ten,” I said.
“Can’t I get a note from my doctor?”
Today he finally beats me, legitimately. I jump in the shower with him and we play around a little and then go to dinner and come home and make love into the night and Phil is rather good at it, less athletic than Trace but almost as caring.
And tomorrow will come, many tomorrows and Phil and I will make our plans. We’ll argue over houses and children’s names, when and where to take our vacations, his clothes. We’ll have good times too, find new friends, couples with children we meet at the PTA or Pee Wee soccer. We’ll put away money for the kids’ colleges and retirement and every night I will lay my head down near his chest and hear Trace’s heart beating; the one he gave to me.
John Lavelle has published short stories in diverse literary journals including, Red Rock Review, Trajectory, Stone Canoe, Pisgah Review, and others. He has also published in more than several anthologies of short stories. He is an associate professor at Florida Tech and teaches creative writing, and literature. He took second place in Synthetic Biology and Human Health: Myths, Fables and Synthetic Futures for his story “Hierophany”. His scholarly book Blue Collar, Theoretically: A Post-Marxist Approach to Working-Class Literature was published by McFarland & Co.