Read an Excerpt
Somewhere on this Earth tonight, somewhere, I believe, not very far from me, there is a person whose heart I've touched. A person whose heart I've held in my hand.
One Sunday morning four years ago, in the early winter of 1998, near the conclusion of what was, without question, one of the longest and most peculiar weeks of my life, I reached my right hand into a man's open chest and placed it upon his beating heart.
I have no idea who this person is. I never saw his face. He was lying on an operating-room table at the time, entirely covered but for his split-open chest. I remember, now, only the look and the feel of his heart, the complete otherness of it against my palm, the beats flush and firm, like the blows of a fist, resonating the full length of my arm.
It is often at this hour of night that I think of him, the man whose heart I held: around 4:00 a.m., my "insomnia hour." When all angles and attitudes of sleep reentry-on the back, stomach, left side and right; limbs straight, half-furled or in full-foetal-have been tried and aborted, as has the book I've been reading, and, finally, the writing notebook in which I nightly record all those charged insights that I'll promptly discharge by morning.
This hour when, even as your wife sleeps soundly beside you, all that's left for you is to prop up the pillow and wait for your unattended, your unespyed brain-ruthless scavenger of sleeplessness-to move in and start making you feel bad about things. Bad enough that you'll soon be forced to turn over again, and, with one ear or the other now pressed to the pillow, there have to confront the more plodding but no less poignant protestations of yourheart, that other essential antagonist in this inherently discomIting drama of being consciously alive. It isn't much of choice we come to at the insomnia hour: whether to listen to the organ that makes us want to die, or to the one that can't help reminding us of how soon we will.
Outside my sixth-story windows now, New York City softly whirs like a huge, idling office machine. Here and there through the drifting rain, passing cars sound the two-beat clanks of manhole covers and then splay the night air, which, like mercury, quickly melds again. Stunning how quiet millions of people can be, how synchronous in the simple quest for sleep.
One, two, three . . . I count the seconds now until the next disturbance comes, and then, in seconds, it does, an ambulance siren threading its way through the neighborhood's streets. I trace the siren to its very last, slow wobbles on the horizon's rim, then turn onto my side, place my ear against the pillow and wait for it, a sound which, prior to that December night four years ago, I would have remained on my back like bound Prometheus and let my brain eat me alive rather than hear.
You often have to shift around a bit to find it, tilt your head slightly off the pillow surface, creating a small hollow between the encased feathers and the ear's cupped inner drum. Sometimes two or three tries are required. You'd think yourself dead if you weren't aware of having that thought. Then, at last, they come: faint, brief snare-beats, like bootsteps through wet snow.
One after the next, I tune into and, because I care to—or because I have cares enough to—I begin to follow them, follow, quietly, in my own heart's tracks, as though trying to skulk away from my brain without its noticing. There is no real escaping, of course. The brain is orchestrating this entire procedure—is propelling, at once, the heart's beats and the pretense of being able to follow after them. I am, we all are, that prototypical prisoner who keeps getting to the apparent edges of his prescribed confines only to be met there by some omnipresent, monitoring orb.
Still, I've found that once the brain is pushed past its initial resistance to hearing its own thrumming life source, there exists some leeway, a little breathing room wherein the aim simply becomes to keep going, to keep listening to the heart in order to lure the brain away from itself and further down toward the core of the very body it airily oversees and, especially at 4:00 a.m., so deeply disdains.
I've no real sense of how long this all takes. I am not looking at the bedside clock when I am at last about to drift off to sleep. But among the things I do consistently see in this demi-conscious nether realm is an image of myself, rattled and worn, suddenly emerging from a tangled warren of city streets out to the lulling, mist-drifted rim of a great circular fountain.
It is, even for a sleepy, stupefied brain, a fairly predictable simulacrum of the inner biological reality that I am only apparently willing, and yet it does explain why all of my actual, everyday experiences of city fountains and the peaceful trances they induce, are always vaguely marred for me by this nagging sense of redundancy.
And it is precisely at this stage of my sleep reentry—with my brain brought once again to the brink, my consciousness made to see itself again for what it truly is: a mere prismatic arc framed in the mists above its own inner fountain's flow—that he appears beside me: the man whose heart I held.
It's as though I've somehow drawn him there to my side, a feeling similar to the one I'll often have when I'm still lying awake here in bed at night, and the world is silent, and it seems that if I were just to reach my right hand, cupped, into the air and give it a slight turn, I would be able to pull this same man, wherever he is, up out of his sleep.
Or it might be that he has drawn me toward him, has brought me there to his side at the fountain's edge. This too is a scenario I've imagined countless times since that winter night four years ago: I'm walking along a crowded street when my right arm begins to tremble and then, like some built-in divining rod, pull me, irresistibly, in among the passersby, until I'm brought, once again, hand-to-chest with him.
All closed up now, he is wearing a plain gray business suit, and—because it is usually the first one off my mind's dream shelf—has my dead father's face. We stand, silently, side by side, within the fountain's thrum and spray, me all the while trying to recall why we are there together, and how it is that I've come to know this man.
It is, I now understand, a story that has no clear beginning or end, but, like the blood itself, keeps coming back around, full circle.
In each heart, at one time, two motions, the spent blood returning even as the renewed rushes out.
At one time, in each heart—yours, mine, at this very instant-two leanings, two dispositions, two emotions: the urge to go to the very edges of our existence followed by that dire sensation of having gone too far, of being way out on a limb and needing, at all costs, to get back home.
In each heart, at one time, both thrust and thrust's acceptance, an ongoing, self-contained act of inner coition that at once mimes and moves the outward one to its perfectly mindless redundancy. More and more now I know the outer world to be a recapitulation of our own inner biology.
Outside, the city slumbers along with my brain. I've just doubled back on it, followed my heart's footsteps back around to what I'd taken such pains to escape, found myself standing before some late-night, domino-lit office tower, dead migratory birds strewn at its base.
Where, then, to begin? At what point in the heart's motion to intercede without disrupting that ongoing simultaneity? It has a mind of its own, the heart, for which our minds have yet to find the words.
From the Hardcover edition.