by Max Andrew Dubinsky
I was born with my heart on my sleeve. When the doctor handed me over to my mother he told her to be careful. “He’s fragile,” he said.
Mom cried when she held me, overjoyed at the prospect of raising a son who would be so in touch with his emotions.
My father sat in the corner, shaking his head, already disappointed in me like I had any say in the matter, like I wanted to be born this way.
“It’s not all that uncommon of an affliction,” the doctor tried to reassure him. “Lot’s of men carry their hearts on their sleeves.”
“I think he’s beautiful,” mom said, tears still in her eyes.
When dad had his buddies over from work for the big game the following Sunday, they stood around my crib, shaking their heads and consoling my father with pats on the back, clinking beer bottles together.
One friend informs the men, “My wife says society deems it’s okay for men to be this way, says the world would be a better place if more men were born like your boy here.”
The men only stared.
“My wife,” he shrugged, “she reads a lot. Is always getting these crazy ideas. But still…”
“The doctor,” my dad told them, “said this isn’t that uncommon of an affliction.”
Mom hates when people use that word. Affliction.
I asked her how we should describe my condition then.
“You’re just more vulnerable than most,” she said with a smile one morning cooking eggs and cinnamon toast.
Just once I’d like to not cry when the sun sets.
I was taken advantage of in school. The kids knew I was different when I’d still show up to class in turtle neck sweaters at the end of May.
I cried every morning I got on the bus, leaving mom behind in the driveway like it was the last time I was ever going to see her.
In high school I had no problem dating, but none of the girls took my marriage proposals for serious affairs.
“What about college?” they’d ask.
“We’ve never even been to Europe,” they’d say.
Forget Europe. I’m going to college wherever you’re going.
My condition isn’t for the meek or the weak of stomach. I’ve loved and lost and lost again, more times than any one man should. It’s hard to find someone when you can’t keep your cards close to your chest. What’s the point of keeping anything close to your chest when the very thing you’re trying to conceal is exposed and dirty and bruised for all to see? There’s never been any element of surprise in any of my relationships. I meet someone, and she knows immediately how I feel.
But you, you were different. There was something so understanding about you in the beginning. The day we met you had your hair pulled back and wore that awful orange jacket you picked up at the Goodwill, and I was wearing a sweater that day. So you didn’t know until it got too hot in that coffee shop and I pushed my sleeves up. And when you saw who I really was you said you were glad I wasn’t like the rest, and I asked what you meant and you smiled and said normal is so boring.
But you were a machine, and I was a boy with his heart on his sleeve.
I was relentless and you were unresponsive.
“This has tragedy written all over it,” I used to say to you again and again.
And you would tell me to stop over-analyzing everything. “Just enjoy the moment.”
After you left, I decided to try and see if I could live without it.
Without my heart on my sleeve.
So I cut it off.
And I put in a box.
A safe place.
And I hid the box.
Where no one could ever get to it.
No one but me.
Eventually, I forgot where I put the box.
Eventually, I stopped thinking about the box, or even wondering what life was like living with a heart.
Things were so much easier.
Then I saw you at the bar with his arm around your waist and your hands in his pockets and his lips on your ear, and I felt nothing but the place where my heart used to be.
I felt it tingle. I felt it crawl. Then I felt nothing at all.
And that felt nice.
Then she came along.
There was something about her. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Until she pushed her sleeves up and I saw the scars. The same scars I now have.
I asked her where she put it. Where did she put her heart? Did she throw it away or give it as a gift at Christmas?
“I put it in a safe place,” she told me. “Where no one could ever get to it.”
No one but her.
I wanted to tell her things I wouldn’t normally say. I wanted to do things I’d never be caught dead doing.
And when she asked why I acted so strangely sometimes, I informed her that I couldn’t remember where I put my heart. And for the first time in my life I finally found a use for it.
She smiled and offered me hers.
I shook my head and I pleaded with her to take it back.
“I can’t accept that.”
“I won’t know what to do with it.”
“It’ll only end up bruised, hurt, and worse off then before you left it under my care.”
She said she was willing to take the risk.
I tore through my closets, my car, my pockets, but still, I could not remember my safe place. I had to give her something in return, but nothing other than my own heart seemed good enough.
Finally, one night when we were alone in her apartment, she told me it was okay.
“Your heart,” she said, “you gave it to me. I have it, and it is safe.”
I asked her how this was possible.
She looked at me like she couldn’t believe I’d even ask such a thing. A look that wanted my trust. She put her hand on my arm, where my heart used to be. She touched my chest where I now kept hers, and cared for it as though it were my own. “You still cry every time we watch the sun set.”