This story is by Jan Johnson and was part of our 2022 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Desires of Her Heart
Dorothy heard the metallic click of her own heart, the valve opening, the rush of her blood, the closing click. She had had open heart surgery at fifty-six to replace the damaged valve.
“You’ll get used to the noise,” the doctor assured her. She never had.
The first night after the diamond valve was inserted, Dorothy didn’t sleep. In the silent bedroom the valve clicked repeatedly, obtrusively, amplified by the darkness. It brought to mind hands knitting bulky sweaters on metal pins at inappropriate times. As sleep refused to meet with such an inconsiderate couple, Dorothy was ferociously clawing at her own chest in a futile attempt to remove the foreign noise from her heart.
Over the years, the ferocity ebbed, and the click became an uninvited but tolerated companion. Except this valve knew secrets and thought nothing of revealing, almost with pleasure, these secrets to anyone. Dorothy’s embarrassment was never given away by the flush of her cheeks but by the increased and rapid sound of her valve as it tapped out the tune of her humiliation.
Once she was standing in front of the magazine rack at the grocery store. Her eyes searched the shelves for a knitting magazine. Finding one with a promise of dog sweaters, she took it only to realize she held two magazines. The first with patterns, the second brimming with seminude firemen. She was suddenly aware of the closeness of others but could not bring herself to release the sensual magazine to the rack.
Would she never forget that one night that had changed her life?
As she returned home, one look at her dying flora indicated the garden was in need of some serious intervention.
Taking the garden clippers from the shed, she began dead heading dahlias. They bounced on the soft loam below, petals becoming food for future slugs.
She brought out a bag of assorted bulbs and dug. The sun wrapped her body in warmth, her soul in memory of that October so long ago.
“Let’s go to the river.”
“Swimming is for summer, Son.” She tussled his mop of red hair.
“But it’s hot right now!” He grabbed her hand, his nose squinkled surrounded by pleading blue eyes.
“Okay, get your shorts on.” The river flowed near the house.
Mikey grabbed his shovel and GI Joes and hopped on his bike. Dorothy kept pace with her six-year-old.
A distant motorboat made its way down the river towards them, a gentle wake following it like a feathery tail.
Mikey tossed his backpack in the sand.
“Don’t go in yet.” Too late. He had already jumped and plunged into the water. She needn’t have worried. He was a fish in water.
She dove in as well. The water embraced her, air bubbles cascading in thin trails up her legs to the surface of the river.
Mikey bobbed up beside her, all arms, legs and wet smiles. She splashed water on him, encouraging a battle. He giggled and dove underwater to avoid his mother’s assault.
That was the last time Dorothy saw his freckles, his red hair, heard sounds of his laughter.
The boat passed and the large wake that followed pulled him under. Divers spent hours culling the river. His body was never found.
She mindlessly dug a new hole for a bulb. Her trowel hit something. She dug the soft loam and extracted a small item. A GI Joe. She held it to her heart, unbid moisture forming in her eyes.
Checking the mail, an invite for a class reunion caught her eye. Should she go? What if he was there?
Out of college, she had traveled the world and seen many things.
But what she had desired most was a baby. Which didn’t seem to be in the cards. She daydreamed about that perfect guy which never materialized. She should find a sperm donor. But how to make that happen…
The how came in the form of a five-year class reunion.
Dorothy sat in the reunion lounge. Just as she took a sip of her mojito, Michael stood before her. The same guy with the curly red hair and amazing blue eyes she fantasized about as he sat in class typing on their IBM Selectrics.
“May I join you?” Dorothy nearly choked on her drink.
She cleared her throat. “Yes, of course.”
This was unexpected.
“I never got to know you in high school. We should change that.”
“Should we? What do you do?”
“I work as a cartographer.”
“Interesting. Do you enjoy it?”
“Yes. I love to travel. And you?”
“I bought a bookstore.”
“I should check it out. To make sure you have the most current maps for sale.”
“I would love to show it to you.”
“Shall we go now? There’s time.”
In her store, books climbed on top of each other. Every corner of the shop held foreign trinkets and posters of the cobbled streets of Mont-Saint-Michel, blue-footed boobies of the Galapagos.
Hours passed as she shared memories of typing 75 wpm. Him sharing how Dorothy was the only reason he kept coming to class. Why hadn’t he let on?
“Better get back.” He stood. Dorothy reached for his hand.
“Just a little longer.” Her voice was soft but convincing. He pulled her up and into a gentle kiss.
His fingers roamed her neck and she slipped her hand slowly down his spine. She led him deeper into the shop. They leaned against the shelf marked Travel, and she ardently pressed her lips to his. They kissed their way across Europe and into Southeast Asia and ended the night on an old, worn sofa in the Gardener’s Delight section surrounded by books picturing cross sections of flowers, suggestive stamen, and petals. The seed had been sown and Dorothy’s hopes for motherhood were on their way to becoming a reality.
She never saw Michael again. Never told him about Mikey. If she went to the reunion this time, would he be there? The clicking of her heart echoed the tap of her keys on the Selectric. Would she have the courage to tell him? It had nagged at her—that secret she folded away into the corners of her soul; one she had no right to keep.
Yes, she would go. She held her hand over her heart.
Outside in her SUV, she waited and watched with her motor running. She should drive back home.
The event was packed. She breathed a sigh of relief. She could get lost in the crowd.
A live band played, and tables were decorated with fall décor.
Dorothy swam through the crowd searching for him, moving to the beat of the click of her wavering heart.
Her search was not yielding results, so she sat, heart clicking from exertion and nerves. Couples moved onto the dance floor. Dorothy felt a tap on her shoulder.
“Dorothy? I’ve thought of you often. I’m glad you’re here. Dance with me?”
Dorothy placed her hand on her clicking heart. Perhaps if she covered it, he wouldn’t be aware of the accelerated beating. He led her to the dance floor, placing one hand around her waist, the other clasping her hand.
As John Lennon sang to not be afraid, go out and get her, Michael’s eyes met hers.
“Michael, I need to tell you something.” He looked surprised but led her outside.
“Is this about what a horrible dancer I am, because if it is, I apologize now and won’t ever ask you to dance again!”
She wished it were that easy.
“No.” She bit her lip.
“Do you remember the last time I saw you?” Maybe by some luck of the gods he’d forgotten.
“Yes. I’ve felt horrible I never contacted you again.” He looked vacantly across the lawn. “I never did get married.”
“Michael, if you had contacted me, I would have told you that. . .” She paused. Swallowed. “We had a son.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” he asked softly, pain filling his eyes.
“It was foolish. I just wanted a baby.” Tears slid. “I used you, Michael. You were cute and had that red hair! I wanted that!”
“I wish I had known.” Michael pulled her close.
“Does he have red hair? I bet he has your dimples.”
“Mikey drowned. When he was six.” Michael swiped at his eyes.
“You had to bear that alone? We would have made good parents. Made a good couple.”
“Is it too late?”
“To be ‘a good couple’?”
The organ began to play. People stood as Dorothy walked down the aisle, her wedding dress covering the scar on her chest. Today she headed towards Michael with confidence.
“Do you, Michael, take Dorothy to be your lawfully wedded wife?”
“And do you Dorothy, take Michael to be your husband?”
“I do!” Dorothy beamed.
Michael leaned to kiss her, then whispered in her ear. “What is that clicking?”