I wish I could say it was altruistic, that I’m selfless, that I’m a hero. But the truth is, I am a selfish creature. It’s selfishness that makes me want to save you; I love you too much to see you slip away. I’d rather risk depriving you of me than deprive me of you.
See? So selfish.
Hospitals have a heavy hush about them, especially at night. It’s like a church, all shuffling feet and muffled whispers, except instead of worshipping God we worship science and medicine and the sharp blades of scalpels. I’m trussed up in a hospital gown, one of those ones that gapes at the back, but fortunately I’m allowed to sit in bed while the nurse goes through the checklist.
“Have you been exercising?”
“Eating five serves of vegetables daily?”
“Have you smoked in the past two years?”
The nurse clicks closed her pen, slides it into her chest pocket, and pats my hand.
“It’s very brave of you, what you’re doing,” she says. “Not many people would be so selfless.”
I offer a weak smile in return, and the nurse bustles out.
I’ve already given you a kidney, part of my liver, a sliver of bone marrow, one eye. All stuff I’ve no real use for, especially without you. But for some reason, your body keeps on shutting down, and the doctors don’t know why.
I know why. It’s because somehow, somewhere along the way, our bodies decided they needed to be together. Not in a normal, sensual, life-partner sort of way. Our bodies need to be together. Permanently. Your organs don’t function without mine, and mine certainly don’t function without yours.
I’m about to be wheeled into the OR so that you can take my heart. I’ll have to be kept alive via a bionic one; hooked permanently up to a huge machine with more dials and knobs and parts than I care to name. But it’s worth it, if it’ll give me more time with you.
Another nurse glides in and, without greeting me, presses on the remote. The back of my bed is lowered until I’m lying, supine, facing a charmless ceiling. It one of those hideous institutional types, all white rectangular panels crossed asymmetrically with harsh linear lines of fluorescent lighting. With my one eye, I can’t quite tell how high it is. It could be three feet away; it could be ten. Since the last surgery it’s all the same to me.
The gurney wheels wail as my bed lurches. I’m jiggled slightly from side to side, the new nurse pushing my bed out the door and into the drab, conformist corridor. From my vantage point, I can see the underside of her chin. There’s a giant mole there, sitting proud and upside-down like some sort of large round fly. I resist the urge to reach out and pick it right off her face.
I can’t remember when I decided my body wasn’t worthy of its parts. Things started innocuously—I remember chewing my lip a couple of times as a child. Those were the first times I tasted myself. At first, the metallic tang shocked me; but once I got used to it, I found it comforting. Like, it grounded me. It made me feel like I was really there, made me feel like I was real.
Then there were my eyebrows. They didn’t take long to pull out, hair by hair. Mother freaked out, tried to draw them back on, but it looked horrible. So she scrubbed it all off until my face was burned raw and we both cried and cried for hours.
It wasn’t long before I progressed to my fingers. It was the nails at first, always feeling too sharp when clenching my fist against my parents’ words. So I chewed them, swallowed them, felt the pinch of pointy bits sliding down my throat. When I had no nails left, I started on the soft flesh by the side of my thumbnail. The angle was awkward and my teeth couldn’t gain purchase, so eventually I gave up, frustrated, and started ripping at them with my fingers.
But, remember? My nails were non-existent. I needed something else. Scissors? A knife? Neither of those implements were available to six-year-old me. I did have a little sewing kit though, one that my Nana had gifted me for my birthday, and so I’d pull the needle out and stick it into the flesh down the side of my nail. I’d dig a little hole, until I felt that sweet stab of pain, and once I’d freed a tag of skin I would tear at it with my teeth. Tear it until I tasted blood, which told me I was alive.
The feet I did in secret. Every morning, I’d hobble to school in my short white socks. Every night when I pulled them off the soles were crusted brown.
The anesthesiologist is counting backward, holding a mask over my face. The entire room wavers and goes fuzzy; my vision closes in like rapidly receding daylight when you’re traveling through a train tunnel. The difference is, this time, I’m not heading back out toward the light. I’m heading toward the dark.
When I come to, it feels like no time has lapsed. The mask is still on my face, blowing bracing air straight into my nose and mouth. I cough, moan… I’ve read stories of people that wake up during operations but remain paralyzed. They can feel their surgeon’s hands inside their body. They can hear nurses quip about their excess body fat.
I moan again. Help me, I think desperately. Don’t cut!
“Relax, honey, you’re in recovery.” The nurse leans over me, stroking my hair. When I don’t stop thrashing, she slams something into my shoulder and again, the world goes black.
The next time I wake, I’m back in my usual room, although it’s more closed in than usual. Eventually I work out it’s because of the giant machine sitting by my bed. One day, I’ll be upgraded to a mobile unit, but for now, in the immediate post-surgery recovery period, The Hulk machine it is.
It has a giant valve, pumping and wheezing in time with my pulses of pain. Through the tubes and filters I see my blood—my dark red blood—spurting and sloshing, rushing out of my body and then back in again. I lick my dry lips, wishing I could taste it.
My teeth are on my lips, clamping down when the doctor strides in.
“Good evening, Katya,” the doctor says amicably. “How are you feeling?”
I’ve noticed he’s smiling more than usual, and his lips don’t move when he speaks. This doesn’t fill me with confidence.
“Okay, I guess.” I look down at my hands, the cracks and crevices, flaps of skin sticking out like dried-out petals on a dead white rose. My fingers twitch. I want to pick. Snaking my hands under my sheets, my index finger scans, finding the prime spot to pull and tug and shred.
The doctor sits down at the end of the bed, causing it to dip alarmingly. He pulls a handkerchief from his pocket and mops his brow.
“I’m sorry to say, but the last donation didn’t work. Her vitals still aren’t getting better. If anything, they’re getting worse. And the latest scan showed there’s no brain activity, not even in the part that controls her breathing or her heartbeat.”
“What do I have to do, Doctor?” My voice sounds unusually breathy in the damp quiet of the room.
His eyes slide up to my skull, where my brain resides. I can see the greed in his eyes. He wants this. Badly. To him, it’s awards, glory, a tenure track, top billing in The Lancet.
“If you want her to survive, you’ll need to donate your–”
“I’ll do it.” I cut him off before he finishes.
The doctor smiles, satisfied.
I remember them shaving my head, the long brown strands floating down to the floor.
It’s okay, I think. Soon I’ll be able to run a hand through your blonde curls, and feel like they’re my own.
Someone—an intern, I think—draws some lines and dots on my bald head with a marker. This time, I’m allowed to sit up in a chair as they wheel me into the OR. The Hulk machine follows behind me, doing its wheeze-groan-glug-glug. I have to hide a smile, because all this trouble, and for what? Pretty soon I won’t be needing it.
When I regain consciousness, it’s a disembodying feeling. I’m nestled somewhere in your brainstem, all curled up like a kitten. For the first time since I met you, I feel whole, even though it’s my own body I’m looking at on the table, all chopped up and empty and opened like a seed pod.
“What the hell did she do?!” I hear my your voice speak out of my your mouth. It’s shocked and tinged with horror.
The doctor’s platitudes sound like buzzing in my your ears. It’s distracting. And when I’m distracted I…
You’ve never done it. You’ve never understood it. So many times you’d catch me, my hands poised, half ready to tear off a strip of my own skin. And you’d slap my hand away, grab my wrist, embrace me, pin me to the bed, crush your lips to mine. Anything to make me stop.
But now I’m here, right inside your head, and I love you and I love you and you are mine and I am yours.
They’re not my teeth, and they’re not my lips, but I still feel the former digging into the latter. Chewing and chewing, until eventually, I taste blood.
Not my blood.
But it still tastes the same.