Real Heart by Naz Knudsen

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The music came with a steady beat of swinging arms and staring eyes. I was a child. I felt insecure, out of tune, awkward. I wanted to disappear, to hide from the hum and the heat. You drew me out of the dark corners of family gatherings. You taught me to dance; you held my hands.

You lived with Grandma because you could never work enough hours to hold a job, because you needed a new heart, because you had a bad heart, because Grandma had you after the doctor warned her not to, because she had a weak heart, too. Still, you were the best uncle that I could wish for and a true friend too.

You used to swim and ski, but everyone worried your heart would get worse. So, you returned the ski boots borrowed from a friend, a young man with a good heart, who now had a job and a wife; he did not ski, but he still could, if he’d wanted to.

You were always at Grandma’s house, or in the green hospital room on the 4th floor, or behind the ICU doors with two round windows that I couldn’t reach. I always visited you, alongside my mom and her anxious eyes, wandering through the cardiology ward.

You and I watched your favorite movie together: Edward Scissorhands. Your hair was as dark, and your skin as pale as his. I followed his reflection in your glasses—behind them, your brown eyes looked like my mom’s. And I wished that doctors could find you a new heart.

You lent me your favorite book, The Velveteen Rabbit. When you began translating the text, I would sit at Grandma’s table and listen to you read. I would trace your words written in blue ink; your script leaned toward the edge as if ready to slide off the page. When your voice would get low, too often, too tired, too soon, I would tuck the frail leaves of paper into the middle of the hardcover book and let you sleep.

You were tall and thin, but each time you went back to the hospital, you seemed smaller, as if you were fading into the starched white sheets that I knew more and more wore on your skin. Your hands, with their swollen shades of purple, were covered with needles, IVs, scars.

I remember the last days vividly, even now thirty years later. I was finally tall enough to see through those round windows. Beyond the tubes, the wires, the needles, and the beeping machines, I saw you framed in those circles—eyes resting, quiet, soft, still. You left that frame too early; you became real too soon.



Naz is an Iranian American writer and filmmaker. Her writing has appeared in Mayday Magazine; she has a story forthcoming in an anthology by Alternating Current Press. Previously, her translations have been published in Farsi. She lives in North Carolina and teaches storytelling and film editing at the local universities. You can find her on Twitter, @nazbk.

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