I didn’t mean to give the antique bookseller my heartbeat. It simply came out of me one day, an electric spark, and it was his.
I went to the rare bookshop in the afternoons, pouring over leather spines and golden embossed titles. The bookseller spoke of them like beloved children. The way his eyes would glitter stirred a quiet part of me, like a once-struck dog pet gently for the first time.
I kept visiting the shop and my fascination with the bookseller grew. He sat at his desk in a donegal sweater, focused intently on lines of faded print through a magnifying glass. That is love, I thought, to observe something so closely. At night I imagined us reading together, reciting passages, making love on top of tea-stained pages. Be careful not to crumple the Thakeray, he would say. It’s a first edition. And we would laugh, deep throated, and reach for each other across the hand-colored fold-out plates.
In reality I was much quieter. The bookseller probably wondered if I ever meant to buy anything, but everything was out of my range. I had only a small salary as a teacher’s assistant, setting out crackers for screaming children midmornings, drawing gentle circles on their backs until they slept.
On each visit to the shop my heartbeat thrummed a little louder, crept its way by inches up my chest into my throat. I could feel it pulsing underneath my tongue, taste it like an over ripened strawberry. There was a signed edition of The Yearling covered in green cloth with gilt-edged pages that I admired each time I came. One day the bookseller approached me, close enough to touch.
The effect of his gaze was soothing, as if it was a habit to take in whatever he was looking at with tenderness. He smelled like sweet tobacco and Irish Spring. Take the book, he told me. I didn’t know if he wanted to be rid of me or if it was me he meant to keep instead. Either way, that’s when it happened. I opened my mouth to say I couldn’t possibly, it’s far too precious. Instead of words my heartbeat came tumbling out, falling from my mouth like a kept jewel.
He caught and cupped it in his hands. It illuminated his rounded palms like a firefly-filled globe. I told him to keep it in exchange for the book. Be careful with it, I said. It’s the only one I’ve got.
At work he keeps it in his pocket. My heartbeat tries to be quiet there, so as not to disturb him. From Monday through Friday, ten to six, he smooths antique pages with gloved fingers. He selects obscure titles and tells his clients, yes, this is the one that you’ve been looking for. My heartbeat makes soft, wing-like patterns against his leg.
At night he sets my heartbeat in a small glass jar where it whirs and sparks. He uses it as a lamp to write beside. He writes me long beautiful letters. Each letter makes me tell him, keep it for one more day.
One night as he undresses my heartbeat tries to look away but it’s too late, it already has sensed him, smooth ripples of skin and forearms taught from lifting stacks of books. My heartbeat crashes wildly against the glass until it almost shatters.
When the transmission on his car needs work, he carries my heartbeat in the glass jar down to the garage, sets it next to him underneath the aging Volvo and pulls down parts, fluid dripping on his cheeks. The light is a little dim. He flicks the glass with his fingers and my heartbeat races again, sparkling.
He takes my heartbeat everywhere, nudges it next to the warmth of his morning coffee, steam swirling around the jar as it glows cotton-candy pink. He perches it on the end table while he reads and my heartbeat dances in time with the inflections in his voice.
As the days go on I notice that I’m growing tired. It takes longer to set the juice and crackers out for my eager students. My arms feel heavy as they work to quiet fussing limbs to sleep. In the afternoon, I barely have the strength to make it to the bookshop.
My heartbeat feels so far away, I tell him. He says that we should put it back. How? I ask. We’ll need to slip it underneath your tongue. I steady myself on a bookcase, open my mouth very wide and shut my eyes. For a moment he does nothing, and I wonder if he’s changed his mind. For a moment, I hope he has.