Winner: Martha Clarkson
Brittle Complications of Love
wife needs open heart surgery, they’ve decided. She’s only thirty years old but with a deviant mitral valve. And
me only thirty years old, too, and supposed to be able to stand the thought of them cutting her open. They tell her sooner
or later, you pick. No emergency, but no choice. Second Opinion turned out to be Same Opinion; a line-up of white-coated
cardiologists with one message.
They call it a prolapse, which means slipping out of place, but
sounds more like a conscious lack of judgment. Like you’re somehow at fault. One leaflet of the mitral valve grows thick,
it just happens sometimes. A leaflet gone bad. So thick it no longer closes tight, it lets more blood into the heart than
it should. The heart has to work too hard and eventually will outgrow the space in her chest. They’re going to cut her
open and show that little leaflet what’s what. Shave off that thick piece, like plastic surgery, the way it sounds.
Make it pretty again.
It is May when she agrees. A special surgeon is recommended to us. He is overweight with a round, trustworthy
face. Lena schedules the surgery for August, so we can finish remodeling our kitchen. I worry
but try to be normal, maybe to the point of being too jolly. Like a cartoon of myself. I’m scared of this surgery, this
big event we never expected. When I lay my head on her chest at night, I can hear the murmur. Instead of a beat, her heart
sounds like a waterfall. Like something you can’t control.
We gut the kitchen in June. Four friends we know from college come over with crowbars. The week before, we
took the fragile goblets and plates from the cupboards and packed them in old newspaper. It was like moving ― all that
black newsprint on your palms. Stacks of old boxes with words like “garage” and “den” crossed out
and new ones like “yellow fondue set” and “Hakasi dessert plates” scrawled on the side. I like specifics.
We drink dark beer and eat Fritos and wrench the brunette oak cabinets from the wall with the crowbars. The
cabinets screech as they come loose and the cat jumps on top of the fridge. It is okay for Lena
to use the crowbar and do heavy stuff ― she’s had no symptoms, just a murmur heard through a stethoscope and investigated.
away in our old Mazda to pick up pizzas and after she’s out of the driveway, my friend Josh says, “What a monkey
on your back, man.” He looks at me across a pile of sheared wood scraps. Now I’m switched over from simple tools
to the thing I try not to think about.
“Yeah,” I say, “it is that.”
He downs the last of his beer. “She’ll be fine,” he says, slapping my upper arm with his
palm. Then he burps.
Lena decides to spend her summer vacation week at a fused glass workshop in Oregon. The rest of the time she manages curriculum for the city kindergartens. I drive
her from our south Seattle house to a largely unpopulated area east of Portland. A series of cabins in a state park. She and thirty other people are assigned bunks
and handed towels. Who could predict the popularity of fused glass? She calls me every night from her cell phone, sitting
on top of the jungle gym, the only place her phone picks up a signal.
The kitchen remodel rolls ahead in her absence. I am doing the work, as we agreed when I was laid off at the
hardware store. I’m not a genius at construction, but I try to figure things out. When my mother heard this was our
plan, she mailed me Plumbing for Dummies and Wiring
for Dummies, from the Maui condo she shares with her boyfriend. Didn’t even ask
what areas I needed help in. She was right about the wiring, though. I have to call up my cousin Bing for anything electrical.
I could set the place on fire.
On the phone, Lena tells me her class is about the heating, fusing, and coloring
of glass. “In my case, it’s really about the projects breaking and having to start over,” she says. A mock
“But how do you feel?” I say. “Any symptoms?
Any shortness of breath?”
“Shhh, you know I don’t. Now I have to go and break some more glass.” She laughs and smacks
her lips in a quick good-night kiss before the dial tone.
On Thursday I figure out that the sink we bought is too big for the place it’s supposed to go. I drive
around town trying to trade it in for a smaller one. When I arrive home with the correct size sink, Bing has installed the
bank of five fancy light switches in baffling order so I have to turn all of them on just to get the one light I want. I look
for intuitive methodology I can memorize but find none. I’m always guessing wrong.
When Lena calls next it’s about her new glass friend Kellie. They’re
staying extra days, making a list of glass shops to visit, maybe do some hiking.
“I’ve got the days off from work,” she says to me on the phone, the last time she’ll
call from the jungle gym.
I hold the phone away from my ear, as if the words burn. “But what if you overdo?” I say. “You
should rest, take care of yourself. You know what’s coming.”
“Oh, don’t be silly,” she says, like I’ve made a joke. “I’m fine. I’m
The man delivers and installs the gas cooktop, which has a silver label that reads Chef’s Edition.
He’s not in the door five minutes and drops a wrench on the new hardwood floor. First gouge. He doesn’t think
I’ve seen it, thinks I’m too enthralled with stainless steel and the fancy knobs with their orange cooking indicators.
I want to scream at him but I don’t. That night I cook my first dinner on it. Pancakes and bacon. It’s a good
time to do this, because Lena doesn’t understand having breakfast for dinner. The flame
is so hot that the bacon grease showers left, right, up, down. More and farther than grease should, or anyone would want it
to. I wonder if one of our boxes is marked “spatter screen.” The phone rings and it’s a survey company asking
about sandwich bread. The bacon burns while I expound on the merits of caraway. I drive to IHOP for dinner.
the train home. She loves the train and reads books and counts how many people on the track sides wave to the train. Twenty-seven
is the average for the Portland to Seattle
run, but one time she counted sixty-two.
I meet her at the station. I always stand back at the doorway and wait until I see her. Then I run up through
the people, parallel with the train. I like to pretend we’re old lovers reunited. That we’ve been released from
some horror after our countries have been ransacked by frivolous war deaths. She always goes along with it.
When I drive around alone and a song comes on the radio that reminds me of something like our first kiss or
a full-moon night at Moclips Beach, I imagine
Lena lying on the operating table. Those rooms in my head are always liquor-store green tile
and shiny with silver tools and wall trim. I see her naked on her back and think of the masked and sterilized doctor poised
with a knife ready to split her open. Another doctor hangs near with a saw like the handsaw hanging on my workbench, ready
to sever her sternum. These are the times I can start to tear up right there in the car, on the overpass or at a red light.
Once I told her, “I just don’t think I can let them cut into you.” We were lying in bed
and I had the covers over me but she had her half of the sheet at her ankles. I didn’t mean that I would stop them from
fixing her valve, or that I’d call the doctor in secret and say she’d moved to Nairobi, I just meant I suffocate under the idea.
“Don’t worry,” she said, palming my thigh but still reading, “it will be fine. I think
it’s worse for you than me.”
She returned to her Glass Monthly magazine like I’d just told her the temperature outside or
that a fly was on the ceiling. I put my head on her breast and listened to the waterfall of her heart.
A lot of transformation happened to the kitchen while Lena was gone fusing
glass. I hold onto her so long at the train station, she starts to wriggle out of my embrace, like a child smothered by a
perfumed aunt. We drive home and she jabbers about glass. I pull into the driveway and I’ve barely stopped and she’s
out of the car. No special glad-you’re-back-moment for me to take advantage of. She walks in our entry hall and covers
“Do I want to see?” She says this laughing because I have given no bad reports to her as she sat
on that jungle gym calling me from glass camp. “But wait. First.” She reaches into her pocket, then holds out
a closed fist. I cup my palm under it, knowing she’s brought me something from the trip, because this is what we do
when we travel apart. A floating pen, an accordion of scenic view postcards, a bronze Golden Gate
A small shape drops in my hand. It’s a piece of bright green glass, shaped, sort of, like a four-leaf
clover. The curves are not symmetrical, and the yellow dots she’s tried to decorate it with are different thicknesses.
I’m reminded of a papier-mâché penguin I brought home to my mother in second grade. I’d thought
it was perfect but later I realized his orange beak was almost over on the side of his head. Still, I like the idea that Lena remembered to bring me something from her trip. That she remembered we need good luck.
“It’s the one thing I made that didn’t break,” she says, laughing. I tell her thanks,
I love it, because I do. I put it in my pants pocket and hear it click against the quarters.
I pick her up and carry her across the kitchen’s threshold. I sit her on the edge of the stone counter,
breathing hard from the lifting, reminded of the fifteen pounds I should lose. She jumps off because the granite is cold on
her legs bare in khaki shorts. I tell a white lie and say I haven’t cooked in the new kitchen yet, that I’m waiting
for her. It isn’t really a lie, I’ve only burnt in it.
She touches everything. Turns knobs and gas flames go up and down. Pushes microwave buttons to hear their
plinking sounds, which are really just the same as our old microwave. She even puts her hand in the ice the freezer makes,
like she can’t believe she won’t have to twist blue trays anymore. Lena loves
all the new things like she loved them in the catalogs and showrooms.
I put my hand on her elbow. “See this?” I say, pointing to the floor in front of the dishwasher
where the gouge is.
She looks down. “What?” she says.
“The gouge, first one. It’s terrible, for Christ’s sake, the guy was an idiot!”
She pats my cheek. “Oh come on, I can’t even see it,” she says. She turns the new faucet
sprayer on and off.
We climb up and christen the counter by taking off our shorts and making love. I see her tan, smooth skin
in the V of her partially unbuttoned blouse. Think of the bumpy pink scar that will divide her upper chest. We have to trade
who is on top halfway through because it’s so cold being on the bottom. Cold back, inferno between us. I wonder how
long after the surgery until we can do this again.
The night before the operation, her sister invites us over for dinner. We like this invitation, as staying
home circling each other does not appeal.
Her sister is older ― thirty-eight ― and fixes a moist pink beef roast. We drink vintage wine
she brought from her last trip to France.
With the bread she gives us, we sop up the red juice of the beef. A second bottle of wine is opened. Later, over white cupcakes,
her sister says to Lena, “Are you nervous?”
the pleated paper from her cake. “No.” She looks out the window instead of at us. “It’s just one of
those things.” A whisper-like voice she never uses. She coughs like a noise-filler rather than a scratchy throat. She
focuses on the cupcake, but tilts her head towards me. “This guy, though, he’s a wreck. Jittery as all get out,”
I feel my face redden. Why does she have to expose me? Isn’t she just a little worried? I put my hand over hers. I think I see her smile, maybe just a little, and then her sister says
something dumb about begonias because the silence is ours and not hers.
the pre-op appointment the week before, I asked the surgeon for sleeping pills. I don’t want to be awake every hour
in the weeks before, pondering outcomes. When we get home from Lena’s sister’s
I set one out on the counter in the bathroom. It is purple and oval and by now a familiar friend.
I pack my suitcase because I’m staying in a hotel across from the hospital. What will I need? My father’s
old collection of Hemingway stories sounds like a candidate, my latest copy of Maximum
Sudoku, and the tiny photo of Lena on the Ferris wheel in Chicago
that I take on all my trips. Then the constructive things like the sleeping pills, toothbrush, cell phone charger, computer.
My bag is big and on wheels, the kind you take on vacation. Lena’s is little and red.
She’s in bed before I am. I have to think through logistics, along with The Big Thing. She just has
The Big Thing, if she’s even thinking about that, looking so casual sitting up in bed with a copy of Vanity Fair, as if it’s a regular night. I zip my bag and swallow the purple pill. I lie down next to her
then remember that I forgot to leave a note for the floor finishers, who come to sand and stain the new maple floors while
we’re gone. I have things to say about getting it right, about hiding the imperfections.
The early morning is dark and full of rain. Lena showers and dresses in jeans
and a tee shirt. I put on black pants and my Pearl Jam sweatshirt. It could be any early morning but it’s not. I take
the glass clover leaf from the bathroom counter and put it in my pocket. We load the car – my big bag and her small
red bag. We are quiet on the drive into Seattle.
In the hospital’s garage, Lena hands me her medical insurance cards.
“You might need these, who knows,” she says.
I take the two cards and turn off the engine, then open my door. I walk around the back of the car to the
trunk and Lena meets me. I lift the trunk up all the way, but before I can reach in for a
bag, she puts her hand on my wrist. “Wait,” she says.
I am slow to turn my head because it might burn to look at her right now. I do, though, and her eyes are clear.
Mine are too; this heavy wet morning is too startling for tears. She holds her wedding ring up between two fingers. My chest
clenches. I open my mouth to make audible some serious words I feel materializing, but she beats me to the punch.
Pushing it into my palm, she says, “I’ll get it from you later, when I’m done.” I
think I heard her voice break on ‘later.’ Then she turns away, walking in the direction of the hospital. Me left
behind, trunk still open.
“I’ll protect it,” I say, but not loud enough for her to turn. I lift our bags out and shut
the trunk hard for punctuation.
It’s before six and nurses and admitting clerks yawn like we do. Lena
is put into a blue gown with a pink robe. A nurse leads her away from me for blood tests, an EKG. A small boy is in the alcove
next to us, wearing a Snoopy robe. His knees are up, his arms around them. His glasses are thick and his parents hover like
returned to me on a gurney, a nurse pushing her into one of the alcoves. Plugs her into an IV. Fluffs the pillow under her
“Wow, already?” I say, nodding to the IV tube. I’m not ready for her to sail away on feel-good
The nurse looks at me and says, “Nothing good in there yet.” She walks to the head of the gurney
and pushes it out from the wall, the IV pole with it so they both roll. I follow them out into a white hall, thinking about
not being in this white hall. At home the men will have arrived to sand the floor. Dust will be everywhere and for a second
I try to remember if I’ve sheeted all the right pieces of furniture. Closed up all things valuable and thrown my denim
jacket over my box of quarters. I can’t trust the simple-minded sander, in my house day after day while our lives are
cut open, filling the air with toxins.
We intrude through oversized doors to a room marked Surgery Zone.
The nurse steers the gurney to a slot along the right-hand wall. A young, good-looking male appears at the bedside. He introduces
himself as the anesthesiologist. I can tell his is good-looking even with the green scrub hat. We don’t need a male
model, all I want is reassurance.
He leans over Lena and says his name, which I miss. “What kind of cocktail
do you like?” he says.
“Gin,” she says, “something with gin.” She giggles like she’s already had gin, like we’re
at a party and she’s doing what she calls “harmless flirting.” A nurse pushes Lena’s
blonde hair up into a scrub hat, just like the one Dr. Stud is wearing. Needles on trays seem to pull up magically to the
gurney sides; in his hand, the nurse’s hand.
“Okay then,” the doctor says, “I’m going to fill you full of gin and you’re
going to be so happy.” I don’t want this good-looking doctor making Lena happy.
I make Lena happy.
The surgeon walks to the bedside from a place where we haven’t seen him. He raises his hand to the people
with the needles to hold off. He looks at Lena, his jaw slack, which feels kind, at least
The ear claw of his stethoscope is around the front of his neck, the beat-disc down his backside. “Good
morning Lena. We’re going to repair the valve, is that what you understand?”
He is graying and still overweight same as the other times we’ve seen him. Somehow his fat is reassuring. This is what
I want ― to see him before she disappears. To have our collective agreement.
Lena nods and
then he nods to the stud doctor and they fill her full of happy hour. She’s giggling right away, her eyes doing circles
around the room instead of back and forth.
The nurse appears again and says to me, “This is it.”
I feel my hands start to shake. “Right now?” I say. The nurse nods. I lean over and kiss Lena on the lips. A tear falls on her nose even though I’ve been straining not to cry. If I look
as desperate as I feel, I hope she’s too high to remember this later.
I leave because that’s all there is to do. Lena is being taken from
the room and no one else in there wants me to sit by their gurney, say goodbye but not goodbye. I’ve been dismissed.
The door out of the Surgery Zone is heavy. I get lost trying
to find the waiting area. It’s a long large room at the entrance to the hospital. This could be a hotel lobby where
you meet a business associate. But it’s not. Only one other person waits, in a blue chair with red stripes.
An old man comes over to me. He is short like you don’t see this kind of short much. He wears a bright
green sport coat and right away I think leprechaun. On the breast pocket is a gold bar printed Volunteer. “Hello,”
he says, his head tilted up to see my face. His smell is spearmint. “You’re the Macon party, right?”
Party is not a word I would have used for me today. I feel like I’ll be taken to a room with a cake
and given a pointed hat to wear.
“Okay,” I say.
“You have a long wait ahead of you, son. I can give you a private room, if you have others coming.”
I think of Lena’s sister, my brother, her mother, my best friend. No
one is coming. It’s just me today. But I want that private room. “Yeah, sure. The whole family.”
He looks me in the eye, maybe thinking of all the wrought-up liars before me. He’s close enough I can
count three nose hairs spearing forward.
I step back, look from side to side as if others will suddenly appear. “Well, in and out, you know.
All morning.” I look down at my shoes, to further my effect.
He puts his hand under my elbow like I’m a patient and leads me to one of the special rooms. Inside
the light is low like a moon behind a lace cloud and the couch is long and I imagine this is heaven. The best part is the
phone on the table ― the thing that will ring with news from the operating room. That green-tiled room where they’re
He leaves me and the door shuts on its automatic closer. An airlock sealing out the world. I lie on the blue
couch and know I will not sleep. Not while the surgical team is reshaping Lena’s valve.
Not while men I don’t know are sanding our floor. I’m taking them at their word, they’re making things smooth.