As I walk down the lockered rows, their wide eyes can be felt boring into the side of my head, hungry for gossip, thirsty for someone to gawk at. I hear the whispers of my fellow preteens, muted but clearly audible in the cavernous room.
“Ew… Is that her?”
“That’s that girl who thinks she’s a boy.”
“Gross, I bet she’ll try to stare at me while I’m changing…”
Quickening my pace, I finally make it to the bathroom stalls: safety. I flounder into one and hurriedly shut the door behind me, inhaling deeply.
All at once, sticky, warm tears are streaming down my face. I begin to sob silently, drenched in my self-pity and distress, covering my mouth because others are within earshot.
Why does everyone hate me so much? I wonder, throat aching from my inability to hold back the pour. Many of them were my friends before they knew.
I hate how much this hurts. I hate how weak I am. I slam my fist against my sternum. I—hate—this—stupid—heart.
I hit again, so hard I puncture my chest and grasp the source of my pain. Pulling with all my strength, I manage to wrench it free of my ribcage. To my surprise, I still am, still living and breathing with my beating heart in hand.
I stand there in awe, staring at it for a moment. It doesn’t look how I thought it would, I note.
Most obvious is the lack of color. The organ is a dull, maroonish red, rather than the bright red and blue I was shown in health class. I guess the diagrams were wrong, I think, poking its moist, shockingly firm exterior. It’s tougher than I expected.
The sound of footsteps entering the bathroom prompts me to haphazardly stuff it in the pocket of my gym shorts.
“C’mon ladies, let’s pick up the pace!” directs our coach. Typically, being called a “lady” fills me to the brim with bubbling distress, but currently it’s not boiling over. In fact, it’s not present at all. I feel absolute, blissful nothingness in my chest, a void between my lungs gracing me with its empty comfort.
I’m strong now.
I exit the stall and stride out of the locker room, shouldering several bewildered seventh-graders on the way. The revolutionary vacuum of feeling covers me with a new power; a sense of invincibility I’ve never experienced before.
It’s gym class, in the middle of a basketball game. I shoot the ball at the hoop, praying to suddenly be blessed with the ability to aim well. This yearning is, of course, to no avail, and the ball bounces off the rim, flying directly into an opposing player’s hands.
I am immediately met by a slew of unkind words from Drew, a boy who stands roughly twelve inches taller than me. I make taunting eye contact until he pauses, then respond.
His expression rests somewhere between shock and annoyance for a few moments before he rolls his eyes and shuffles off, muttering something under his breath.
Holy hell, I realize, I think I just stood up to Drew. I wait for the feeling of pride to enter me, I wait to feel the satisfaction I always fantasized about feeling after twisting the power balance in this way.
Instead I am met with emptiness, a void. No, something else, too: a sharp pain shoots through my chest. Suddenly, I‘m struggling to breathe, stumbling away into the locker room to try to find my inhaler, coughing fervently. I make it inside and to my locker but double over, violently hacking as black closes in on my vision. Reaching up, I grasp blindly in the air for my combination lock, but the darkness closing in on my vision renders me unable to access what I desperately need. I collapse onto the floor, fading away into unconsciousness.
When I come to, I’m on the floor just as when I passed out. But now, I’m met with a rather gory sight: my lungs have fallen out of me. They’re lying on my chest, and part of the right one is dragging on the ground as they inflate and deflate. Panicking, I pop them into my chest once more, scrambling to my feet and ensuring no one was around to see.
After loitering around in the locker room until class is over, I silently make my way to lunch, shuffling quietly and ignoring the sharp pains in my torso. When I sit down at my table, taking shuddering breaths, I feel the concerned glances of my friends.
“Are you okay?”
“I can go to the nurse with you if you want.”
“It’s fine, Bryan,” I reassure him.
I don’t want anyone to find out what’s happening. Not even them; after all, one of them had to be the one to spread my secret around.
I try unsuccessfully to eat. The combination of stabbing pains in my abdomen and cardboard-like texture of my chicken fills me with nausea.
I’m sure I’m green as grass as I stand up and run to the bathroom, gripping my stomach with one hand and covering my mouth with the other. Stumbling into a stall, I double over as my intestines start slipping out between my fingers. I feel them leave and desperately try to push them back in, fighting nature. After an intense struggle, I win against the desires of the cruel god depriving me of bodily function, successfully trapping my intestines in my body.
I slide down against the bathroom stall, taking heaving breaths. Everything hurts. It’s all been a mess since this morning.
Should I put it back?
I pull it out of my pocket, gazing at it thoughtfully. Maybe I need this, after all…
…No. I shake some sense into my head. No. I’m tired of being so emotional. I need this. I shove it back into my pocket and exit the bathroom. I need to be unfeeling.
By the time I return to the cafeteria, it’s time for recess. I convince Bryan to go outside with me, practically dragging him with me to play kickball. He plays a few rounds, then goes to sit by himself on the asphalt.
Noticing his absence, I leave the queue of kickers and approach my solitary friend, sitting down next to him. His eyes are red and his nose runny, avoiding eye contact with me as I speak.
“What’s up, Bryan? You love kickball.”
“I don’t feel like playing any more today.”
“My little brother has cancer.” His voice is throaty and rough, as though holding back tears.
“Oh man, I’m sorry.”
But I’m not. I still don’t feel anything but the gaping hole where my emotions once rested.
He buries his head in his knees. “I don’t know what to do.”
After hesitating for a moment, I reach into my pocket and pull out the organ. Bryan sees nothing, eyes covered as he tries to conceal his sobs. I glance at it for a brief second, appreciating my final look at the precious gem I so carelessly hid away.
Flicking away a bit of pocket-fuzz from the heart, I gently press it into my sternum, then with more effort, then more, then it’s back in my chest. I feel a sense of warmth come over me, as it resumes beating between my ribs. I hadn’t realized how cold I’d gotten since I took it out. “I’m here for you, man,” I reassure him. “Can I give you a hug?”
He nods. I wrap my arms around him, heart beating gently in my chest, and let him cry against me.
“I’m the one who told people about you.”
I feel a pang of sadness. Betrayal. “Oh.” Why?
He responds before I can say it out loud. “I don’t know why I did it. Since Marcus got diagnosed, I keep doing things and I don’t know wh—.”
The last word is cut short by his crying.
“I’m sorry, Sam.”
I give him a squeeze. “It’s okay. I’m here for you.”
I think I can have feelings and still be a boy. Bryan can, why can’t I?
He sniffles, and I know that there’ll be a wet spot on my shirt from his tears. It doesn’t matter.
I won’t ever take my heart out again.