The Broken Parts

He hadn’t slept in two
days and held a human heart between his palms like clay. This was the last painful
hurdle before bed. He worked his magic, the frail man on the operating table survived,
and the lights all faded out like dying constellations as the staff left the sterile
room. Alone, he ran his hands beneath scalding water and watched the crimson
streams from his gloves finally run clear. A cough erupted from deep inside his
chest. The noise echoed against the walls and flew back at him. When he looked
into the mirror ahead, his grey eyes drooped, and his lips tightened around his
teeth. Here, each night, he was presented with the same choice. The same test
he usually failed.

“Get rest, old man,” the young nurse playfully called to him
from behind the counter where she shuffled patients’ files like playing cards.

It was all the same game of luck, really. The doctors tried
their best. The nurses tried their best. But the universe played out its hand
each time and if the cards were low, there was nothing to be done. He liked
that freedom. Each and every time he could simply do his best. He put his heart
and soul into the surgeries and prayed silently beneath his paper mask. But the
choices he made were clinical. Decisions he was trained for after years of
school, practice, and intuition. As he got into his car, hours before anyone
else would reasonably get up, the street lines blurred and he slipped his phone
onto the seat next to him.

She had texted three times. His wife, however, hadn’t messaged
him once all day because she was busy with the children and a dying mother and
knew eventually her husband would return to her. His mistress, though, enjoyed
no such security. At least she didn’t think she did, so she piqued his interest
with stories of her day. A man had hit on her at the corner bodega, offering to
buy her the ripest peaches. The doctor pounded his steering wheel a little,
jealous. She mentioned a job offer in Arizona where the air was dry. He gripped
the wheel, digging in his nails, as if he could grip her hands, too, and keep
her from leaving Philadelphia.

The last text simply said “I need you,” and he swerved off the
freeway, making a quick turn back towards the city whose lights were harsh against
his eyes as a headache pulsed up from the base of his neck. He took medicine.
He sipped water. He thought of texting his therapist who sometimes, not
usually, but sometimes convinced him to get back on the freeway, but tonight he
had no strength left. His shoulders ached beneath the bones. The city pulled
him back as if he were caught on a string. Soon, he entered her parking garage
and used the spare key, letting himself into the slick apartment where she had
presumptuously set two plates and poured bourbon.

She knew his last surgery ended at one and that he had two
luxurious days off. His wife had no idea, because he never gave her the real
schedule. Doing so would mean he would be forced to make the right choices. The
real luxury of two days off was being able to choose what to do with his time.

“You never messaged me back,” the mistress scolded.

“No time,” he mumbled, taking the drink all at once and pushing
the glass forward, a silent request for another.

“So you make time. I worry when I don’t hear from you.” She
unwraps her hair from its bun and lets the burgundy curls hang over his
shoulder as she embraces him and presses her cool lips against his neck.

“Never worry. It’s frantic on surgery days and if I’m not
careful, a nurse could see my phone and our messages. What if they told my

She withdraws and moves to the kitchen, picking up a peach as a
silent threat, now pressing her lips against the soft fuzz. See? the action says. Other men want me
just as much as you do. And they are not tethered to wives.
This is her
punishment when he brings up his wife, but he is compelled to do it each visit
to torture her … or himself. He isn’t sure.

“You’re pale. Eat the dinner. I’ll get you another drink.”

She is a masterful cook. The food anchors him to the table and
the room. There is no space for his confused thoughts between the meal and the
way her body moves as she tells him about her day. He feels the heat return to
his own dogged frame and soon he wants nothing more than to be next to her.
They met accidentally seven years ago in the train station. She dropped her bag,
and its contents scattered along the cement cracks. He picked up each piece to
help her, and he felt needed. He felt like he was getting to know her with each
item, gently placed back in her black gloved hand. It was a scene from a film.
It was the moment the hero, or the villain, wakes up to the world.

In her apartment, after they eat and make small talk, he
delivers the line perfectly that he must say each time.

“I’ve got to get home soon. I can’t stay the night.”

She shakes her head. Not yes or no but an understanding that
their time is finite, and she should know better than to hang her hopes on this
relationship. But she’s become too fond of him to let go and when they kiss,
she’s back at the train station, too. He is neatly picking up the scurrying pieces
of her scattered life and handing them back to her. Love is strange that way.
Never kind, in her experience. At least, he is the kindest man she has been
with in some time.

This man, she tells herself, is built to save lives.


In the bedroom he is precise, undoing her dress and bra, folding
them and placing them into the hamper. She rolls on the bed, wrecking the
sheets before he gets in, not allowing him to be precise there. She is his
tornado, and he releases his fears and frustrations, moving with her the way a
grain of sand navigates the stormy dessert. He is utterly enthralled and
despite his best intentions, he falls asleep in her tangled arms, exhausted.

His wife is used to his absence, he tells himself. She is better
when he’s not there. Perhaps happier.

In the morning, after sleep and coffee, his life comes into
focus and his mistress is wound tightly again. She is dressed for work and will
not look him in the eyes because he is leaving, and they never share two nights
in a row. He won’t go to the hospital now. He’ll drive across the bridge and
find his small neighborhood where the morning has raced along without him. He
will shower in the basement, then climb the stairs and emerge a new man to his

“I’m taking the job,” his mistress announces as he laces his
shoes and stretches out a cramp behind his shoulder blade, readying himself to
find his way again.

“That’s a shame,” is all he can muster. He has already left her
apartment in his mind and second-guesses the space his absence leaves in his
home. He is imagining the bed his wife slept in alone. The sheets are barely
crumpled, and half of it is desolate because it is unused. He swore he wouldn’t
stay the night here, but he always does.

“You’re sick,” she says to him.

“I hope Arizona is beautiful,” he lies, because she won’t go and
he won’t let her go. He may know the mechanics of how a heart works, but he is
utterly unaware of the magic it can hold over someone.

“I’ll send you postcards and pictures that will make you ache,”
she swears, slamming the door behind her.

On the highway, he plays old music. Loud music that reminds him
of reckless days when so much wasn’t at stake. His muscles are sore, and his phone
vibrates against his hip.

I need you the message says,
only this time it is his wife, and a string of mundane items from the grocery
store follow. Except he ignores the rest and clings to the first three words. I
need you.

After running the errands, he enters the basement and steps into
the scalding shower. In his mind he recites the rest of his week. Four surgeries.
Four card games where he can only do his best. When he turns off the water and
stands naked, dripping, and confused, he realizes what a shame it is that he
can equally fix and break hearts so easily. The mistress. His wife. His own.