The day after my heart crashed, the doctors told me they’d have to take it out and replace it with an apple. “Don’t ask why,” the head doctor told me. “You’ll never understand.” The head nurse was nicer. She patted my hand, gave me a pamphlet to read later with tips for good apple self-care. “Don’t you worry,” she said. “An apple works just as well as a heart.” The doctors concurred. “In the future we’ll all have apple transplants!” they joked, as I breathed in the anesthetic. Just before the blackness took me, I thought I heard the head doctor mutter, “Apples…or alarm clocks.”
I woke 5 hours later, with my apple installed. That was nearly two years ago—since then it’s been nothing like I thought it would be. For one I thought it would make me sweeter, having an apple for a heart. With a crisper personality, whatever that might be (I figured I’d find out). But that’s not how an apple for a heart works.
There are advantages, that’s for sure. I can take a knife to my apple and cut away the bruises, whereas with my heart I had to suffer its accumulated injuries all times and forever. I’ve a little door on my chest now, like a small square flap with a latch that I can open, so I can view my apple every day and check out the shape it’s in. And the skin I can peel away, if the blush on my apple ever gets too deep, too bold, and threatens to spread to my face and give my feelings away. Because my feelings are still centered there, in that spot beneath my left breast, more than ever I think. You see, before a heart was just the word I used to mean the emotions generated from my mind—that and the thing that crashed on me. But now it’s become more complicated. My heart is an apple. My apple has become my mind. My mind is in my chest, beneath a small flap-door…I know I’m not explaining it well.
This is what I never expected, what the experts forgot to mention in the guide to good apple self-care—the way this would mess with what I used to call “speaking from the heart.” After my transplant I wanted to be honest, and I wanted to be accurate. I wanted to know how to juggle staying true to my experience with talking about it to the curious and concerned. So I went to a therapist. “I can help you,” he said. “But it will take at least 10 sessions, at $80 a session, to get to the heart of the matter.” I found a new therapist. I found I was the problem. “Take heart!” the new therapist would say. I’d set my jaw. “Recovery is not for the faint-hearted.” It would go on like this—sometimes I’d swear I was being set up. I’d swivel my head around, look for the hidden camera. Instead the therapist’s alarm clock would go off. “Time’s up! See you next week?” I walked out after the third session without giving a yes or no, went back to my car, and sat for a while carefully cutting away my bruises.
I have had some luck, though, in the love department. I met a woman while at a St. Patrick’s Day parade who’d had a few. So I felt I could talk to her, open up about my apple. She said: “I’ve got a friend, a big cider drinker. I’d say he’d fancy you.” I laughed, thinking it was a jest at my situation, and a rare good one at that. But she was serious, and she was meeting up with him that night, so she invited me along. Well, I knew him from across the bar. He reeked of apples (I’ve developed a high sensitivity to the smell of my stand-in heart). And his face was as red as one too. You may laugh, but a connection is a connection. It was like someone had opened up the door to my apple and held a mirror up to it. I looked at him and I saw everything I’d been through since the transplant. I saw a man who’d understand.
We went out for a while, for a few months, until the leaves began to change colors on the trees. It’s funny because I was feeling such a fullness in my apple around the time it ended. The days were growing shorter, the leaves were dying on the trees and rustling to the earth, and there was a coolness coming in the wind—but I was under the impression the world was really blooming. Our love was growing, ripening, ready…I was sure my cider man felt it too. But he ended it and moved on immediately to another girl. She came from Michigan, right over the border. Her father owned an orchard. We’d gone there only a few weeks before the break-up, for our 6-month anniversary, when the McIntosh crop had just come in. It was there I told him I loved him, and where he stripped the leaves off a branch of Red Delicious and wove them into two crowns, one big, one small. “For your russet hair and your apple heart.” He met her as we were leaving, while he was paying for our bushels. I had gone ahead to the car to open the door on my chest and fit my apple with its crown. I never saw it coming. Last I heard they’d gotten hitched and were growing an orchard of their own. I don’t like it, but I get it. Why settle for one of what you love when you can have it in bushels?
In time I got over him. I cut away my bruises, peeled away my shame, and put a lock on the latch to my apple until a new skin grew and a new year began. I kept myself busy, took on anything to ward off those feelings that I’d been eaten up and spat out, discarded like something rotten, misunderstood once again. I learned to cook, I learned to bake, I learned to garden, I learned computers. I even talked to the head nurse at the hospital where I’d got my transplant and asked if I could write a new and improved guide to good apple self-care. I found I was fit for all kinds of things—all kinds of activities, all kinds of plans and dreams.
Still I waited for some sign that I’d fully recovered. Every day I looked in on my apple, and I’d think about that time in the fall, when I felt such a fullness, such a ripening, and I wondered if I’d ever know such happiness again. The weeks went by, and I ticked off the days on my calendar seven at a time. The week of St. Patrick’s Day, I marked off the day of the parade with ink as red as the skin of a Red Delicious apple.
Then in April the head nurse left me a message. “Your guides have come in from the printer. Come in to have a look at them…and schedule your next check-up.”
I went in the next morning. The head nurse had stacked my guides on the counter where the patients sign in. She came out and placed another stack in my hand. The doctors came out too, and the staff in the waiting room and even the patients all crowded around. “Looks good!” said the head nurse, using the same tone as after she’s checked my vitals. Everyone congratulated me and took a copy, and an old man asked me to autograph his. The head doctor leaned in to me as the old man was called in by a nurse. “He’s scheduled for a transplant next week,” he said, placing a hand over his heart for a moment, before miming the act of biting into a Jonagold. I brushed off his thoughtless gesture and left with my stack of guides.
I sat in the car with them, flipped through the stack, read a copy front to back, admired the smell and visuals, and placed them all square in my lap. I stared down at them, thinking about all my effort and what I’d made. I wondered if they’d really be a help to anyone, to other apple transplant people like me. I’d never helped anyone before, never been regarded as an expert at anything in my life.
I clutched the stack to my chest and looked out my car window. I noticed a few buds on the trees and robins singing in the little park beside the health center. It was late in the afternoon but the sun was still strong and bright. The days were getting longer and spring was on its way. But it all seemed so strange to me. Because my apple was suddenly acting like it was autumn, like it was once again becoming full after so many months of waning, throbbing in the way my heart had before it crashed. I clutched my guides tighter, right against my apple. I didn’t need to open the little flap-door to see what was happening. My apple was growing. It was ripening to the red of an October sunset, shining like a skin that had never been bruised, blooming like an orchard full of brand new apple hearts.
René Ostberg is a native of Chicago and still lives in Illinois. Her writing has been featured at Literary Orphans, Booma: The Bookmapping Project, Eunoia Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, We Said Go Travel, and other fine places.