A History of Heartbeats

by Tori Malcangio

My heart rate in utero was around 130 beats per minute. Slow for a girl. A girl’s heart rate in the womb typically beats faster than a boy’s—usually closer to 150. This isn’t meant to foreshadow gender reassignment or a turn with women or spite for men. Just the opposite. I’ve since fallen in love with every man I’ve met and in the process of doing so, mapped futures that never panned out. Maybe my heart had decided at conception to beat like a boy’s, to conserve for the crushing demands later on. Maybe it was clairvoyant.

Baby birds fell from the eaves of my childhood house. Since the saguaro cactus supply in Phoenix was dwindling and the cactus wren population booming, the birds were forced to squat in the eaves up around our patio. Close to half survived the fall, but we didn’t own a ladder tall enough to return survivors to their nests. Anyway, a ladder wouldn’t have helped their cause. Once a momma bird detects human scent (a scent that translates as plague and disease in Birdish) she’ll stop feeding her chicks.

I’d walk the perimeter of our patio and collect the alien, translucent fleshy masses, tumor-esque. Their beaks the only part of them birdlike. I’d hold each of them up to the white desert sunlight and watch the blinking red hot of their hearts. Mom’s friend Paola, aware of my plight, brought shoeboxes from the children’s shoe store she owned. I’d pad the cardboard insides with bubble wrap and a layer of gauze, then lay a bird down until it was time to bury it in the box, along with a sprinkling of golden paloverde buds and a creosote sapling to neutralize death. After a March of going through eleven Stride Rite shoeboxes and five rolls of gauze, I stopped searching for the fallen.

A bird’s heart rate in flight beats about 1000 beats per minute.

Touch and go’s earn a pilot his wings. The pilot lands briefly, throttles up, wing flaps at fifty percent, then full forward to take-off. It’s a form of pilot calisthenics and what Dad did to keep his skills sharp, to escape the squeeze of a wife and a baby when they probably felt more claustrophobic than flying through thunderstorms.

In my baby book, there’s a photo of me sleeping belly down on the floor of Dad’s single-engine Cessna. He’d written 3 months old in the gutter, and on the opposite page he’d taped a flourish of a poem apparently penned after a sweet afternoon of flying with me, his “patient hush.” He’d practice touch and go’s until I’d wake, petulant for a feeding. A radio alert into Mom and she’d rush to meet us on the tarmac, then retreat to a private corner in the pilot’s lounge to nurse me. I imagine her scarf billowing like a windsock, her sunglasses as insanely glamorous as Jackie O’s. I imagine them kissing and not wincing and nothing else.

We flew over my elementary school during recess. It was a Tuesday in February and the sky, according to Dad, was “clear as a dipshit’s brain.” He’d called me in sick. Since Mom had stopped waxing wonderstruck over his flying, I’d been upgraded to co-pilot.

We gained clearance to descend to 2,000 feet and swooped almost low enough to shear my classmates’ spiked bangs. They all pointed, straining on their tiptoes to touch me, my show. Hands grabbing at air, frenetic waving, their sycophant smiles and desperate attempts to join our private party was wildly pathetic and thrilling. I etched the collective awe into memory forever. Desperate as I was to mean something, I finally did. No matter how fleeting and overdone this celebrity tribute, it was everything I could hope for at eleven.

“So where do you hang out, Rey?” Dad asked. Nothing in his eager voice suggested I tell the truth.

“Over there.” I pointed to the center of the field, where a crowd had pooled, the field I’d never wanted any part of but knew I should have. The normal progression for the socially ambitious was from sidewalk hopscotch, to sand, to perimeter grass, to center field. Instead, I read Dickens by the classroom, or if our teacher Mrs. Mortimer came outside with us, I’d ask about her big family.

“Looks like the place to be,” he said and winked at me as if I’d deleted a whole file of worry.

“It is.”

Again and again we dunked the plane into the fray, close enough to name names, but never too close to bring it all back to size. The monkey bars resembled a series of toothpicks, the tether ball a pebble on a string, the huge sandbox no more than a burp of grey. With my thumb pressed to the window, I squashed the four-square game and its pretentious participants. Everything too big or too bleak, too inflated or too ignored gave way to quiet command. From up there, I was Reyna Etude, daughter of Chris Etude, a pilot, a builder of infrastructure: firestations and hospitals and prisons, the man who remembered jokes from beginning to punch line, the man who flew his daughter to altitude and told her she belonged there.

The summer between sophomore and junior years in high school, the boy I loved cheated on me during his senior backpacking trip through Western Europe. He brought back a nesting doll and herpes and gave them both to me before announcing he was bisexual and moving someplace with public transportation. It’s the first time I remember thinking my heart might be alive and separate, something I hosted. It curled up inside me and twitched like a doomed earthworm until I stomped it with Boone’s Strawberry Hill and months later, hunger.

At altitude the heart rate can increase up to ten beats per minute to compensate for less oxygen.

En route to my fourth and last college interview, we brought down Dad’s new Cirrus plane in a Sacramento strip mall parking lot. Dad had decided at the tail end of my junior year that flying me to college interviews—Colorado State, Texas Tech, University of Oregon, and then San Diego State—was a more efficient way to travel, plus he was growing more and more uneasy on the ground.

At 12,000 feet the plane clicked from on to off. Dad dashed off a series of backup plans, but nothing gave. At about 7,000 feet he pulled the plane’s built-in parachute, or as Mom called it, “a built-in immortality complex.” We lurched up in a quick reversal of fortune, then began our graceful float to soil. There we were, a hunk of metal lilting and drifting across the horizon, as aimless as dandelion fluff.

“God, I love this plane. God, I love this plane,” Dad repeated all the way down. “Smooth as a practiced liar.” He avoided looking at me, smiling straight ahead at the clear sky as if he’d forged a confidential pact with the universe to save his ego and my faith in him. It was probably the same hunk of emotional detritus he’d hand-fed Mom too.

I sat silent as my heart physically detached from me and ran circles in the cockpit, pausing periodically to punch me in the chest and knock the wind out of me. At 3,000 feet, with landing fast approaching, Dad’s hands began to shake as he radioed back and forth with air traffic control.

We clunked her down in front of JC Penney.

The tower asked, You down, November-Seven-Ten-Papa-Charlie?

“Roger that,” he said, and flicked the lid off his cool coffee, smiling at me as if we’d do it again someday.

I didn’t know the perilous unpredictably of windshear or love. The dangers of moving away from home, or standing too close to first base.

The ten-year-old boy who was killed at the Spring Training game.

My parents had met him. He was the grandson of their neighbors, the Klingstons, and he’d visited frequently. The newspaper called it a “rain cloud on Venus”—those were the odds of dying the way this boy had. Just as the Padres player hit a line drive between first and second, the wind picked up, highjacked the ball and shot it straight at the boy who, because his dad was friends with the equipment manager, was lucky/unlucky enough to be standing on the grass near first. The ball struck him in the chest at exactly the right, or wrong millisecond and sent his heart into a fatal rhythm. Commotio cordis it’s called. Dad mailed the newspaper clipping and his obit to my dorm at San Diego State, with a poem he’d written about kids being as fragile as moths: These paper wings, someone make them tungsten. He refused to use email. I refused to eat. College seemed the perfect place to nurture a psychosis.

The problem with food was how it lumped and swelled long after the taste subsided, rendering the whole process and ritual a big waste of time and calories and, in most cases, money. During junior year in high school I remember a sudden and savage urge to eliminate most of my body. But not until freshman year in college, when my bracelets began sliding from my wrist clear up to my shoulder, did people begin to notice.

Mom had come to visit me at college over Memorial Day weekend. Her suitcase bulged with hand-me-down books, a new set of silverware and six pairs of shoes to cover the social gamut she had planned: dinners out, dinners in; breakfast on the wharf; walks on beaches, marinas and boardwalks. Her reaction was as dramatic as I’d hoped. “Oh God, are you kidding me, Reyna? This is what you’ve been doing at college?” She held up my arm to inspect my progress. Her cold hands shook; the lines around her eyes slanted down like rain gutters and fed the tears straight to her lips as if offering her something to wash away the foul taste of blame.

The next day she announced, “Your dad is flying up tomorrow. We’re meeting him at the airport and all heading home to get you help.” Surprisingly, I didn’t argue. I was exhausted. I’d been up all night listening to the erratic thuds of my heart, terrified of falling asleep and dying on Mom’s watch. The idea of her reliving the moment of finding me dead—her shriek, her pretty hands at her mouth, the loose skin accumulating around her knees—was wrenching enough to get me thinking about adopting an alternative psychosis. Perhaps bulimia. In an eating world, it was less socially unconscionable. “Anyway, Reyna,” she continued, “I’m flying home commercial, so it’s a good time for you two to be alone. He has something to tell you.”

The heart rate during sex can climax at about 180 beats per minute.

I didn’t know (addendum): What it was to eat without holding every bite ransom.

How long it might take a plane to freefall from 38,000 feet.

The honest-to-God definition of infidelity. For years, it seemed, I’d confused it with infertility or impotency or indefinitely—they all sounded born from the same hiccup. Mom started the infidelity. Through a mutual friend (who clearly wasn’t so mutual), Dad found her out and while the sheets were still warm, declared payback. Despite being an atheist, or maybe because of it, Dad had no problem playing a conditional Christian. After a short consult with Jesus or maybe Abraham, he heeded an eye for an eye, ear for an ear, screw for a screw. Soon enough, they were both bona fide infidels and their relationship relegated to a trial period of apartness after twenty-seven years of marriage. They were “taking a break.”

“So don’t blame anyone, Reyna, we’ve both been children,” Dad said. The flight back home from school was otherwise smooth. Rather than fly straight home into the war zone, we sidetracked to Sedona, Arizona, to buzz red rock canyons from one thousand feet and follow the curvaceous flow of rivers cut through shale. We landed at the tiny airport and walked to Dad’s favorite diner for peach pie (I ate two pieces of fruit), then hiked a mile to a vortex. Dad mashed sage into his temples and, with his arms spread to the sky, incanted clarity for himself and an appetite for me. How badly I wanted to hate him. What had he done to provoke Mom, to cast her off into the sheets of a stranger? She was a virgin when they married; she taught home economics, filed recipe cards, sewed seersucker dresses for me. It wasn’t in her DNA to fling herself from the nest.

“You want to bring it in today?” He motioned to the plane’s control panel. The Cirrus, Dad had always bragged, practically landed on its own; you plugged in numbers, and it figured out the rest. “Maybe someone should think about engineering people like that,” he said and rearranged his baseball cap to cover the tufts of graying hair creeping out the sides. All the way down, I thought of my parents screwing—not other people. In fact, no one had faces or any indication of humanity. It was just screwing in the abstract, a highly evolved screwing that had nothing to do with other people and was in fact the most pleasurable and profound kind of screwing.

At in-patient anorexic rehab they hooked me up to an EKG machine and told me my heart was on the brink. How they knew by reading a series of blips, I don’t know.

“Muscle loss is a concern with anorexics,” my counselor explained. He wore tight suits utterly incongruous with his five feet and two hundred pounds. “Your body is cannibalizing itself; it’s devouring your muscle. Your heart is a muscle. Do the math, Reyna, you’re a smart girl. And better news: you’re also young enough to get back on track and reverse any damage.”

Was this a scare tactic, a subversive way to get me to stop ditching in my pockets, the mayonnaise packets and pats of butter placed on my food tray? I remember struggling with a conscious regard for my heart that day. A legless beggar, a destitute single mom, a struggling lounge singer—I imagined my heart as all of these desperate people, and for each of them I promised an extra bite. By the following day’s breakfast, I’d forgotten what I’d feared and continued fighting food for a few more years.

In the event of a water landing is the most idiotic preamble this side of the English language. In the event of a water landing, you disintegrate into bits the size of zooplankton. When will the airlines come clean? The bottom-seat cushion won’t do jack. Honesty saves the world! It’s the duct tape for repairing relationships. Honesty would have spared everyone the shit-hit-the-fan period when Mom shut up and Dad took to screaming.

Eventually specifics emerged. Mom had gone from friends to flirting and so forth with Scottsdale’s most prominent country music DJ, who also happened to be the grandson of Merle Haggard. Dad went for proximity over celebrity and took in as his mistress a gym rat twenty years his junior who taught step classes where he worked out.

Two years later, after intense therapy and hideous obligation to their vows, Mom and Dad were back cohabitating in my childhood house, avoiding each other’s shadows, touching accidentally, as ready to kill each other as two Beta fish in the same bowl. I was an outpatient anorexic now. I lived at home and ate with the cautious measure of a house cat. I’d gone back to college for degree in psychology, this time down the street at Arizona State University, and learned, among far more useless things, that Dad was far better at faking hunky-dory than Mom.

Dad still had the Cirrus. Mom was more loathe than ever about strapping herself in a cockpit with him, so she stayed home and staked rose bushes, while he and I buzzed the desert floor. We chased herds of wild mustangs, fifteen large in some cases. They galloped a full thunder, splitting to dodge prickly pear cactus and wild pepper trees, rejoining with the exhilarating muscle and agility of fighter jets. At dusk we’d hunt coyote and javelina families, swoop down close enough to inspect their rangy coats and send them racing down sandy washes and dry riverbeds. If we got started by sunrise, there was time to ripple every surface of every lake, river, and puddle in Arizona. Starting with Lake Mead, then Lake Placid, to the Hoover Dam, to the tributaries of the Rio Grande, to the expansive canal system that wound through neighborhoods and into the city, we eventually found our way back home to soup on the stove and a chocolate dessert. I was twenty-three. He was dying.

Delta-fifty-five-sixty-papa-bravo was his name in the sky. To me he was Dean, my future husband, the young pilot Dad sold half ownership of his plane to when doctors told him to cut back on flying time. The few times I’d seen Dean before we met, he’d been sitting in the pilot’s lounge gulping coffee and scribbling in his logbook. Nervous as hell, as if he were flying with an engine out 24/7, Dean had lips as wide as the Grand Canyon and unblinking brown eyes. Our courting route: a movie, a run, and finally a homemade dinner at his condo that I ate without demanding a rundown of ingredients. Soon thereafter: omelets with yolks and salad with dressing and bagels with cream cheese. For some reason, I was eating again, layering flavors and condiments as a fearless fuck-you to the universe for chipping away at Dad, for forging for me a bigger worry than food. We ran five marathons and flew to Sedona often, where one night (his nerves duly numbed with three Jack and Cokes), we fell to dirt floor at the vortex and made love. Our heart rates must have climbed higher than 180 beats per minute.

The descent wasn’t gradual. It was a plummet from cruising altitude.

In the three years Dad battled throat cancer, he and I flew only twice, both times on my birthday and never for more than an hour before he’d bring us back in, so sorry he’d become a cheap date, sorrier still that he’d fallen back in love with Mom and was now leaving her for good.

He died a week after my birthday, of heartache I suspect. Too weak to fly on my 26th birthday, instead of filing a flight report, we spent the afternoon in his den writing the most hilarious, self-effacing poem for his eulogy, crying and laughing in turn until I was sure I’d rather die with him than someday relive that glorious afternoon alone.

What I harvested from him: His temper.

His fear of flying in other people’s planes.

His collection of poetry, now stashed in my fireproof box with birth certificates, passports, the title to my and Dean’s house in Scottsdale (five miles from Mom’s).

The pink organ donor dot that I scraped from his driver’s license and stuck on mine.

The kids arrived two years apart. A boy, Brady, followed by a girl, Lucca. Both came out a horrid purple until the nurses massaged their bird appendages to kick-start their circulation. I remember being floored by their body parts in miniature. Everything cast according to specific, predetermined measurements, all to scale. My miraculous breathing dollhouses.

Contrails don’t last more than a couple of hours and in most cases, disappear within minutes. The kids and I found this out after taking on contrail spotting as a sport. While Dean worked, we’d spend long, hot afternoons with our heads cranked back, measuring contrails with rulers held to the sky. On days too hot for contrails, we’d settle for planes and follow them until a cloud or distance overtook them. The kids’ rabid joy thankfully remained untainted by my complicated adultness. Was a plane carrying a heart, a kidney, a liver, a lung? I wondered. Was it en route to Grand Rapids, where Dad’s heart had flown? Where his heart now beats in Rich, a twenty-year-old boy who’d been born with a degenerative heart condition that eventually turned his heart tissue into a mass of fat. Rich is almost an anagram of Dad’s name, Chris, which somehow made the donation feel preemptive and destined in a new-age way Dad would have appreciated.

Clear-air turbulence started during my pregnancy with Lucca. The episodes of near fainting and black spots I’d attributed to the pregnancy continued after her birth and, in fact, only got worse. While still in the early stages of my goofy awe and nursing-mom wonderbuzz, I was diagnosed with a dangerous heart arrhythmia. Doctors said I was teasing sudden cardiac death. My heart could potentially, without warning, start its rapid rhythm and if unable to recover on its own, slip into fibrillation, a fish-out-of-water rhythm too erratic to pump blood to the brain. I was the kid running downhill whose feet can’t keep up with the pull of his body. The kid who knows it’s coming, but still can’t stop himself from face planting the pavement.

On average a normal heart beats five to ten extra times a day. Mine beats 16,000.

How to make a list: Sit down with the husband who you love, but who loves you more ferociously, and try for the evening to occupy his terrified head.

Start with what he needs to know:

How long will the surgery take?

Tell me again, how many times has the doctor done this?

So simple. His questions are so simple, exactly what you would have asked if you weren’t completely inundated with the kids. New and unpolluted as they are, they’re wizzes at sensing voids. In fact, the more emotionally estranged from them you become, the louder their demands grow. They are the living litmus tests for your fear and failure to provide. Your heart, tomorrow, will be burned into submission; doctors will enter your heart via the veins in your groins, thread catheters up and up, and using radio frequency, cauterize the areas of heart tissue causing the arrhythmia.

Move on to what he wants to know:

Will you be draped?

Will you be fixed?

What should I Twitter once you’re out of surgery? “Her heart’s been tamed?”

Where should we go on vacation? I have 45,000 frequent flyer miles.

Don’t leave me alone with them.

Is he referring to the miles or the kids? You aren’t sure.

Without Dad Mom had become a one-woman show. She tried to be strong on her own but failed beautifully. She’d cry on the phone, curse the unfairness of me being only thirty-five, a new mom. “Will you continue nursing?” she worried. To miss out on that sickened her. I wanted to move home with her, to love her like I had at six years old when she played my priestess at the cactus wren burials and validated my grieving with a sympathy card the next day.

“I’ll pump in the hospital,” I told her. So at home I practiced hooking myself up to the machine. Wondering, as milk leaked from my breasts, was it possible to sustain life and cheat it in the same body?

At 10,000 feet the American Airlines plane lost power. An overpopulation of cactus wrens near Phoenix Sky Harbor airport was to blame. Hordes of folks were craving the solitude of desert life and so had begun to build retirement dream homes in Scottsdale’s expensive rural outskirts, forcing the already home-wrecked wrens completely out of their habitat. The wren population had apparently found new digs in the saguaro cacti encircling the downtown airport. It was estimated that both engines sucked in over seventy-five birds. Everyone on board died.

Drive time to the airport without traffic was thirty minutes. In traffic, more like forty-five minutes. And since the hospital was in the same neighborhood as the airport, and since as planes descended, the engines’ roar probably shook every recovery, waiting and operating room in the hospital, I planned as I would have for a trip. I bit my fingernails and set out an impractical wardrobe: beanies and skinny jeans; boots and a leather jacket; lacy pajamas I’d probably find neither the inclination nor energy to put on. I did the backwards travel math: If the plane leaves at 7 a.m. and drive time is roughly forty-five minutes and we need to be there an hour ahead, we should leave at 5 a.m. to be safe. I recited our travel schedule to Dean and he played along.

“Are you packing a bathing suit?” he asked, smacking my butt.

“And condoms.”

We laughed, and the next thing I remember as vividly was watching Dean drive us. His hands gripped the wheel; he came to complete stops. He was so careful with what he loved. Perhaps he relished the control too; it’d be his one fix for the day. For what remained of the day, he’d be low man on the totem poll, the nameless sponsor in the hospital waiting room who would at some point faithfully answer to: “You Reyna’s husband?”

The unrelenting ambient clamor: metal on chassis, tires on asphalt, music on air, Dean’s breathing atop my breathing, carbon dioxide on oxygen, then all over again in one obnoxious salute to life, forced me to climb into my head and disappear into its folds like a reckless spelunker.

Disengage. Disembark. Depart. Descend. Dean. I spun D words through my head. Words were tiny, cushioned Styrofoam peanuts for my brain, meant to keep it from shifting and slamming against the walls of my skull. Ecuador, Eugene, Eerie, Etude. For some reason, the words moved from my head and out my mouth for Dean to hear.

“You want your maiden name back?” he said. “Your dad hated you giving up Etude, didn’t he?”

I nodded. But what did it matter now? Dad was gone and Mom was big into formality, and as such had probably been waiting alone in the hospital lobby for half an hour now. She was never late, and surely not if it meant missing a last look at me before a green hospital gown swallowed me up. “She’s alone,” I told Dean. He massaged my knee with his right hand, willing, I guess, to risk crashing if it meant we’d die touching.

We exited the freeway. The airport was minutes away.

A woman, a widow, a windsock, a window seat. I imagined Mom looking tiny in that glass hospital lobby, the size of a house from 38,000 feet.

Dad had always taken up more room than necessary—legs spread, arms crossed to increase his surface area—or was it to void the air space between him and Mom? Since his death, I’d seen Dad’s shadow crowd in next to her, warm her perimeter of air that often went cold. I imagined him in the lobby with her, rubbing blood to her blue fingertips, bustling a shawl to her shoulders.

The traffic light turned red. The music mix we’d arranged on my iPod the night before played now. We’d done the same thing for labor and delivery, so we figured why not mood music for heart surgery? As if the two anticipations shared a single synapse. Maybe they did and we weren’t listening.

I scrolled through songs until I found, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” Satisfied, I lifted my head and saw the two street signs we’d passed countless times before—the sign for the airport with an arrow pointing left and the sign for the hospital pointing right. Twick- twick, twick-twick, the blinker flashed its urgent red arrow. Dean looked left. My head tracked his like a tracer. Traffic clear at nine o’clock. We banked right, climbed a hundred feet or so and my heart beat like we were meeting for the first time, or the last—it was hard to know the difference.

An advertising copywriter, Tori writes super glamorous suburban real estate pop-up banners and retirement community collateral. Awards and pubs include: Winner of 2010 Waasmode Fiction Prize; First Runner-Up for the 2011 Crab Creek Review Fiction Contest; Finalist for the 2010 Iowa Review Fiction Prize; ZYZZYVA; Passages North; Smokelong Quarterly; Pearl Magazine; Literary Mama; The San Diego Reader; VerbSap; and the 2010 anthology, A Year in Ink. Her memoir, HEARTLAND [a travel memoir inside the pinkest, most crazy fist of flesh] is currently seeking a home. She lives in San Diego with her husband and two preschooler kids.