The Rental Heart
by Kirsty Logan
The day after I met Grace—her pierced little mouth, her shitkicker boots, her hands as small as goosebumps writing numbers on my palm; the day after I met her—I went to the heart rental place.
I hadn’t rented in years and doubted they would have my preferred model. The window display was different, the hearts sleeker and shinier than I remembered. The first time I had rented it was considered high-tech to have the cogs tucked away; now they were as smooth and seamless as a stone. Some of the new hearts had extras I’d never seen, like timers and standby buttons and customized beating patterns.
That made me think about Grace, her ear pressed to my sternum, listening to the Morse code of her name, and my own heart started to creep up my throat, so I swallowed it down and went into the shop.
An hour later I was swallowing lunch and trying to read the instruction leaflet. They made it seem so complicated, but it wasn’t really. The hearts just clipped in, and as long as you remembered to close yourself up tightly then they could tick away for years. Decades, probably. The problems came when the hearts got old and scratched: shreds of the past got caught in the dents, and they’re tricky to rinse out. Even a wire brush won’t do it.
But the man in the rental place had assured me that this one was factory-fresh, clean as a kitten’s tongue. Those heart rental guys always lied, but I could tell by the heart’s coppery sheen that it hadn’t been broken yet.
I remembered perfectly well how to fit the heart, but I still read the leaflet to the end as a distraction. A way to not think about how Grace looked when she bit her lip, when she wrote the curls of her number. How she would look later tonight, when she. When we.
It was very important that I fit the heart before that happened.
Ten years ago, first heart. Jacob was as solid and golden as a tilled field, and our love was going to last forever, which at our age meant six months. Every time Jacob touched me, I felt my heart thud wetly against my lungs. When I watched him sleep, I felt it clawing up my esophagus. Sometimes it was hard to speak from the wet weight of it sitting at the base of my tongue, but I would just smile and wait for him to start talking again.
The more I loved him the heavier my heart felt, until I was walking around with my back bent and my knees cracking from the weight of it. When Jacob left, I felt my heart shatter, shards lodging in my guts. I had to drink every night to wash the shards out. I had to.
A year later I met Anna. She was dreadlocked, green-eyed, full of verbs. She smelled of rain and revolution. I fell.
But the parts of me that I wanted to give to Anna were long gone. Those shards had dissolved, washed away forever, and there was not enough left that was worth giving. The edges of my heart were jagged now and I did not want to feel those rough edges climbing my throat; I did not love her enough to cough blood. I kept what was left of me close, tucked under the long soft coils of my intestines where Anna wouldn’t see.
One night, still throbbing, Anna opened her chest. Her heart nestled, a perfect curl of clockwork.
This is how, she said.
I could hear its tick against the soft embrace of her lungs, and I bent close to her to smell its metallic sharpness. I wanted.
The next day she took me to the heart rental place. I spent a long time pressing my palms against the polished metal until I found one that felt warm against my skin. I made sure that the sharp edges of the cogs were tucked inwards, kept safe from the just-healed rawness of my throat.
Back at Anna’s, she unwrapped the plastic, fitted the heart, closed my chest, took me to bed. Later I watched her sleep and loved her with every cog of my heart.
When Anna ran off with my best friend I took the heart back to the rental place. Nothing choked or shattered or weighed me down. It looked just as sleekshiny as when I had first taken it out of the wrapping, and the rental guy gave me my full deposit back. I deleted Anna’s phone number and went out for dinner.
The next year, when I met Will, I knew what to do. The heart this time was smaller, more compact, and it clipped into place easily. Technology moves fast.
Will taught me about Boudicea, the golden section, musical intervals, Middle English. I soaked him up like I was cotton wool.
Sometimes, pre-dawn, I would sneak into the bathroom and open myself to the mirror. The heart reflected Will back at me, secure in its mechanics. I would unclip it, watch it tick in my fist. I would put it back before sliding into Will’s arms.
On our first holiday, I beeped through the airport barriers. I showed my heart and was waved on. It wasn’t until the plane was taxiing that I realised Will had not beeped. I spent the whole flight wire-jawed with my paperback open to page one, unable to stop thinking about the contents of Will’s chest. We never mentioned it; I could not stand to think of his chest cavity all full of wet red flesh.
When I left Will, I returned the heart again. I couldn’t sleep for the thought of his heart, shot into shards, sticking in his guts, scratching up his gullet.
After that I rented hearts for Michael, and Rose, and Genevieve. They taught me about Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and how to look after a sausage dog. They smelled of petrol and hair oil and sawdust and honeysuckle.
After a while, the heart rental guy started to greet me by name. He gave me a bulk discount and I got invited to his Christmas party. Soon I found that halfway between sleeping and waking, the glint of the rental guy’s gold incisor would flicker at the corners of my eyes. I wondered if he licked the hearts before renting them to me, so molecules of him would be caught down in some tiny hidden cog, merging into my insides.
The glint of the rental guy in my dreams started to make me uncomfortable, so I switched to a new rental place. There were plenty to choose from, and I preferred the ones that didn’t gleam their teeth at me. They never gave me back my security deposits, but always kept their stares on the scratched glass counter when I returned the hearts. Their downturned eyes were more important than the shine of coins.
I got older, the hearts got smaller. After Genevieve I moved away for a while, to an island where I knew no-one and nothing, not even the language. I lived alone. I did not look anyone in the eye; I did not need to rent a heart. My empty chest made it easy to breathe, and I filled my lungs with the sharp air of the sea. I stayed there for a year.
Back in the city, back in the world. Among words and faces I knew. One night, many drinks, and Grace’s number scrawled tiny on my skin. Then the downturned gaze, the scratched glass counter. The sleekshiny new heart.
I swallowed the rest of my lunch and went home to fit the heart.
Three years later, autumn afternoon, curled on the couch with newsprint on my fingers and Grace’s dozing hair in my lap. I stuttered on a small notice in the corner of the page:
Product recall: Heart Model #345-27J. Defective.
I pressed my hand – the hand holding the dark length of Grace’s hair – against my chest. I hadn’t opened myself in years, trusting the tick of the heart. I’d kept it for so long that I knew I’d have lost my deposit, but I hadn’t wanted to return it, to lose the image of Grace coiled in the center of it. I’d forgotten the face of the rental guy; had forgotten the warm weight of a new heart in my palm.
I slid out from under Grace. She mumbled half-awake, then quietened when I slipped a cushion in under the heat of her skull. I tiptoed into the bathroom and opened the rusted hinges of my chest.
The heart was dusty and tarnished and utterly empty. In the center of it was no picture of Grace, no strands of her hair, no shine of memories, no declarations. The rusting metal squealed when I pulled it out.
Kirsty Logan is the author of two story collections, A Portable Shelter and The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales, and a novel, The Gracekeepers. She lives in Glasgow and has a semicolon tattooed on her toe. Say hello at kirstylogan.com.