Structures of a Heart
In Jonah’s class, when his sixth graders dissected fish, they followed the curriculum-directed, district-approved order of operations: Start with the scales and eyes, then slice the belly to access the stomach, intestines, liver, and heart. As the teacher, Jonah always dissected his fish first, so the kids knew what to do. Today was no exception.
“Fish have only two chambers in their hearts, but humans have four. If you’re careful, you can cut into it and see,” he said, holding the dark, slick organ up for inspection, no larger than a pebble against his gloved fingers, before returning it to the tray, unopened, a mystery to entice the reluctant.
There were a few squirms and squeals as he distributed the fish and tools, but the lab partners soon became quiet and focused. Jonah made the rounds and observed. Cory and Beth extracted the interior gills with skill, then fanned them out like palm fronds on their tray. Sam and Taylor each tweezed an eye, mini-Sauron towers, and examined them closely. He passed Steve and Clarissa, heads bowed over their fish.
“Why do we even call this an experiment? We know exactly what we’re going to see,” Steve muttered, loud enough for Jonah to hear.
Clarissa peeled off the dorsal fin in a clean strip. “Technically it’s a dissection. And speak for yourself—I’ve never seen fish guts up close before.”
At the end of class, Jonah had everyone walk around and compare their specimens, the slight variations that made each unique. He hoped the lesson was memorable, that the partner work was informative, but kids were kids. He never knew what would stick and what would slip away.
When he got home from work, garlic and basil greeted him first, fragrant through the screen door. Inside, Timothy, his husband, had three pots going on the stove, stray julienned vegetables and farro grains littered the counter.
“What are we having?” Jonah said.
Timothy wiped his hands across his apron and kissed him hello. “An experiment!” he said, uncorking a bottle of wine and pouring two glasses.
One of the pot lids danced and spat. Jonah lifted it and got a whiff of soy and pepper, maybe vegetable broth.
Tall and effortless, Timothy reached up to the cupboard’s top shelf for a platter, then artfully assembled the meal across it. It seemed to Jonah the opposite of his day’s work.
They ate at the kitchen island, the main course between them.
“Did you pick up our suits from the dry cleaners?” Timothy asked, after a few bites.
“Crap,” Jonah said.
“I mean, I don’t mind if we go to the wedding like this.” Timothy gestured to his jeans and sneakers.
Jonah scooped an extra helping off the platter. “This is delicious,” he said.
The next day, he administered several pop quizzes, ran an assembly, and monitored an after-school science club meeting. He was home, shoes off, tie loosened, by the time he remembered.
Timothy sighed. “Give me your wallet. I’ll get the suits myself tomorrow.”
Jonah handed it over. Timothy found the pickup receipt exactly where Jonah had folded it.
“Thanks,” Jonah said. He couldn’t read Timothy’s expression. “What?”
“You still want to go, right?”
“Of course,” Jonah said, a little too fast.
Timothy tucked the paper into his own billfold. “I’m just saying – these are your friends. It’s no big loss to me if you want to cancel.”
Jonah smiled, closed-lipped.
That weekend, when the wait staff placed a plate of fish before Jonah at Peter and Erin’s wedding reception, he couldn’t help but think of the mauled versions he usually handled.
“Remind me why I ordered this?” he asked Timothy.
Timothy considered Jonah’s wan filet against his homely chicken breast, dressed up in a magenta sauce. “Want to trade?”
Jonah knew Timothy didn’t actually want to, that he was being considerate—and also that he absolutely would if asked. “No,” Jonah said. He watched Peter, fancy in a tux, lead Erin to their seats for the toasts.
Peter, Jonah’s oldest friend, was an astrophysicist. Erin, a rocket engineer. The speeches, from Byron, Erin’s mentor, and Elise, Peter’s frequent collaborator and co-author, zeroed in on this meeting of the minds—there were jokes about physics principles and obscure scientific concepts. Genuine laughs erupted from half the guests, those in the know, with bewildered twitters from the rest. Jonah, part of the latter category, felt self-conscious.
Timothy saw his baffled expression. “Why would you need to know about that for your sixth graders, anyway?” He meant well, but it still smarted.
Going to weddings always made Jonah revisit his own nuptials and the decisions made for that day. As an attendee, Jonah was acutely aware of the event’s importance for the bride and groom/groom and groom/bride and bride, but how for many others it was just a party, an interchangeable plate of fancy proteins, a mix of whatever was in the Top 40 that week, crosscut with the old standbys: “At Last,” “Butterfly Kisses,” “Still the One.” Originally, he and Timothy had planned a big wedding; they even asked Peter to be a best man. But one afternoon, during a boozy backyard barbecue, they made a spontaneous decision. They were married in T-shirts and flip-flops. Carmen, their Internet-ordained friend, served as the impromptu officiant. The friends who were there were surprised, in a good way. Informed after the fact, their families and other friends were also surprised, in a hurt way.
Peter had been gracious with the news, Jonah remembered, although here he was now at their wedding, relegated to the general guest list, no groomsman duties, no speech to give. Was that a slight or did Peter just know him best? It was nice to be just a guest, no duties beyond attendance and a gift. And what was a best man, anyway? It was a place in line, a few extra booked dates in a calendar, a bigger price tag. As Elise finished her toast and the band’s lead singer warbled the first lines of “All I Ask of You,” Jonah had no regrets.
He pushed his plate away. “Drink?” he asked Timothy.
They left their seats and went to the bar, where Byron nursed a Manhattan. The three had met the previous evening at the rehearsal dinner, but Jonah reintroduced himself for good measure and ordered two whiskeys.
“Ah, yes, the teacher!” Byron looked wistful. “Teaching… just so important. If I ever leave this rat race, that’s just what I’d love to do.” Jonah knew Byron had been instrumental in developing satellite mapping technology, devices that now steered millions of users to their destinations. He couldn’t tell if Byron was being honest or just polite.
“Last week, we dissected perch,” Jonah said.
“And what do you do?” Byron asked, turning to Timothy.
Timothy, a personal trainer and personal chef, was considering personal stylist next to complete the trifecta. “The problem is I don’t have great style,” Timothy said. He favored cargo shorts and fisherman sandals in summer, sweatshirts and denim in winter.
“Cheers to that,” Byron said, but his lips curled up in a smirk. He offered his cocktail glass for a clink, then moved along.
“Snob,” Timothy said, just under his breath.
Peter and Erin’s band launched into a slow ballad that Jonah didn’t recognize. Timothy’s eyes lit up. He took the snifter from Jonah’s hand and tugged him toward the dance floor.
“You know I love this one,” Timothy said.
Jonah and Peter met in junior high as lab partners. Peter had luscious, heavy eyelids that gave him the appearance of just being roused from a restorative nap, and the constant bedhead to match. Jonah was pale and bookish, and prior to Peter, didn’t know any other science nerds. The first day they were paired up, he watched Peter set up the microscope, prepare the drops of pond water on the slides, and adjust the lens and light, as efficient and professional as the instructor.
“Check it out!” Peter stepped away and Jonah had pressed his eye to the ocular lens. Under the spotlight, the protozoa oozed in and out of the frame.
“What are you doing?” Peter asked, and Jonah realized he was waving, as though the creatures could see him.
“Nothing.” He braced himself, anticipating laughter at his expense.
Peter dropped his voice and leaned closer, a co-conspirator. “It does look like they’re saying hello sometimes, doesn’t it?”
At this unexpected response, Jonah felt a tumble of emotions – gratitude, recognition, fellowship – and something entirely new. His heart shook itself awake and climbed up to his throat. Dumbstruck, he nodded.
“May I?” Peter asked, and Jonah stepped aside to give him another turn.
As teenagers, Jonah and Peter would fish with night crawlers purchased at the local hardware shop or road stand. The worms would protest all the way to the hook, and even a few moments after, too. The pond teemed with perch, bass, walleye, ready to be plucked. Jonah and Peter, spoiled for plenty, would throw most of their catches back, but sometimes they’d land a big one. In those cases, they’d bring it home and sauté it in a pan with lemon and dill.
The first time they cooked their catch, Peter removed the filets, one side for each of them to eat, then extracted the heart. He bisected it, held it unfolded in his palm, and pointed out the two chambers.
“One direction for the blood—in here, out there.” He hovered over the path with his index finger. “Ours, though, can go two ways—spent blood comes in, gets sent to the lungs, then comes back fully fueled before moving along to the organs. And on it goes.”
The pan sizzled. Before he cooked, Peter went to the windowsill and tucked the heart into the soil of a potted plant. “Compost,” he said, then washed his hands.
Once, Jonah asked Peter: “What would your last-request meal be?” They sat with tin plates of minutes-pulled bluegill dredged in cornmeal, fried in melted butter, the adjacent camp stove still hot, ready for the next catch. The afternoon breeze ruffled the pond and pines. A lock of hair dipped across Peter’s brow. Graduation loomed, and there were few excursions left: Peter would soon depart for MIT, Jonah for SUNY-Buffalo.
“This,” Peter said. “You?”
“Same,” Jonah said.
Midway through the reception, Erin asked Jonah to dance. She felt like a starched collared shirt, stiff at his torso and shoulders. Jonah shifted his stance to adjust, but their embrace was still awkward. The song was slow enough that they could simply sway, which suited Jonah just fine.
“How ya doing?” Erin said, after a few minutes.
“Never better,” Jonah said and hoped he sounded sincere. “It was a beautiful ceremony—and you’re drop-dead gorgeous. Peter’s a lucky guy.”
Erin beamed. She tilted her chin toward Timothy, who’d returned to their seats. “So are you,” she said.
“Timothy? Yeah, I did all right.”
“Better than all right.” Erin leaned a little closer, so they were nearly cheek to cheek. “Look, I know today might not be the easiest for you, and I’m really happy you’re here. I just wanted you to know that.”
“What?” Jonah said.
“My husband might not have good eyes, but I do.”
Jonah felt his face flush. “And here I thought I’d been a good actor all these years.”
“Mainly to the audience that counts.” Erin smiled.
Jonah was thankful she was still close, so he didn’t have to look her in the eye.
Across the room, Timothy met his gaze. He abandoned his conversation and came over, just as the song wrapped up.
“May I cut in?” he asked.
“Of course.” Erin stepped aside.
After Erin, Timothy felt like a favorite T-shirt, snug and cozy. The next song was more up-tempo, but Jonah still drew him near and rested his chin on Timothy’s shoulder.
Three years earlier, Jonah and Timothy had met at the gym. Among a flurry of January newbies, Jonah had resolved he would be different, a new regular, and even paid in full for the year. He was mid-crunch when Timothy approached him.
“Hey,” Timothy said. He had sandy hair and perfect teeth, and smelled like antiseptic soap, clean and healthy. “I hope you don’t mind – I’m one of the trainers here — and with your current form you’re in for a world of hurt.”
“Oh?” Jonah stopped, halfway up, out of breath.
“May I touch you?” Timothy asked.
Jonah nodded. Timothy placed his hand between Jonah’s shoulder blades, the other at his side, just below his rib cage. His hands moved slightly, in sync, and Jonah felt something click.
“Try now,” Timothy said, and watched him press upward. “Beautiful.”
On the dance floor, Timothy pulled away a little. “You OK?” His arms were sturdy and sure.
“I am now,” Jonah said.
At the end of the reception, Jonah found himself outside and alone. Wispy clouds ribboned white-gray tulle across the dark sky. There had been a good blaze in the nearby fire pit earlier, but now the embers smoldered. Jonah thought he felt some residual warmth, although it could also have been the drinks.
Eventually Peter joined him, two beers in hand. They clinked the necks. As Jonah tipped his head back to drink, he saw a streaking flare across the sky.
“Look, look!” he said, pointing up. “A shooting star!”
Peter chuckled softly.
“That’s not a shooting star, bud, that’s a satellite. See?” Peter traced his finger along the trajectory in the air, and Jonah could now see it—a blinking orb, paused. “Give it a minute,” Peter said, and they both stood and waited.
The dot raced to a new point in the sky, its movement rapid and smooth, its pathway sure. What had looked spontaneous and celestial in Jonah’s peripheral vision was in fact earthly plotted. A controlled experiment.
“Don’t make a wish on it,” Peter cracked.
“Why not?” Jonah asked. “It’s a guide, after all.”
Peter took a sip of his beer, his voice suddenly serious. “All joking aside, what would you wish for?”
Jonah stood for a moment, his gaze going from the fire pit to the sky and back. In the nearly empty ballroom, Timothy was still on the dance floor. Erin appeared in the doorway; the sequins of her gown shimmered in the light, silvery like scales. Jonah saw Peter’s face soften. It was the way Timothy looked at him, he realized.
His own multi-chambered heart beat in his chest, his spent blood refreshed.
This, Jonah thought.
He located the satellite again, wondered if anyone could see him from its lens. He put both arms above his head and waved. Next to him, Peter did the same.
“Structures of a Heart” started with a prompt: You see a shooting star. Years earlier, I had the same experience as Jonah, my protagonist, where I mistook an earthly satellite for a true celestial body. From that memory came the idea of juxtaposing the satellite with an everyday school microscope and contrasting Jonah’s big emotions with the impulse to keep something all-seeing at a distance. I scribbled down the wedding and classroom scenes first, then put them aside for a few months before eventually incorporating them into the larger story. A big thank you to SWIG, my indispensable writing workshop, and my spouse, Andy, for reading multiple drafts, and to Diana Hardy for her thoughtful edits – and especially with her help crafting the title!
Sarah Pascarella is a Boston-based writer and editor. Her recent fiction has appeared in MudRoom Magazine, Levee, and Fiction Southeast, among other publications. She has a Master’s in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College.