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art by Ron Sanders

Because My Heart Is Pure

***Editor's Note: Adult story, with adult language and situations***
While I shower, I hold the golden heart-shaped pin in my left hand. I was wearing this pin when I first met James. Most of the pure-hearted get their pins at a support-group meeting. I ordered mine off the internet. Whenever I'm not wearing it, my stomach juices boil over and my heart twitches. Without it, I am naked and anonymous. With it, I am pure of heart. Sometimes, at the meetings, I am tempted to ask the others whether they feel the same. But I don't. After all, why should they feel dependent on a piece of metal? They carry their identity in their genes.
When I get out of the shower, it's nine p.m. and James still isn't home. On my fourth dial, he finally picks up and says, "Can't talk now, I'm at an orgy. This place is amazing. I'll tell you all about it in the morning! Oh, and have fun at your meeting!" Then he hangs up. I consider redialing, but I know that the phone is probably nestled amongst his wadded-up clothes in a metal locker just beyond the door of some anonymous SoMa warehouse.
And besides, if I get too frantic, then even someone as self-absorbed as James might begin to suspect that I'm not as pure of heart as his last boyfriend.
James will fuck anyone, but he'll only date the pure of heart. James is not pure of heart, but he hates jealousy and drama. He says that only the pure of heart are truly mature. I think that whenever he says this, he is hoping that I will interrupt him and tell him that he's as mature as any of us (any of them). But that will never happen.
No one would ever mistake James for one of the pure of heart.
While I drive to my meeting, I repeat to myself, again and again, "It's not his fault. It's not his fault. It's not his fault." It's my mantra. Without it, I'd start to hate him. But it's true. It's not his fault. He doesn't know that I am capable of being hurt.
The meeting is in the North Bay mansion of a millionaire venture capitalist. It takes me almost an hour to drive there. Many other meetings are closer, but I go to this one because it's the one that Henry, James' ex-boyfriend, attends.
I arrive just before the start of the meeting. Seven other people are sitting on couches and overstuffed chairs around a low table with a perfectly lacquered black finish. The millionaire is bustling about, dispensing beers. Henry has one leg crossed over the other. I cannot stop looking at his angular, slightly unshaven face. His straight black hair hangs down to his shoulders and he periodically flips it out of his eyes with a slight snap of the head and neck that, God willing, will someday cause some sort of whiplash injury that will leave him paralyzed and drooling.
Usually, meetings begin with an expectant silence--the pure-hearted tend to avoid putting themselves forward--but today the floor is immediately taken up by a pregnant woman who shifts uneasily in her chair and grinds out words between slow movements of her hips.
"The amnio results came back today," she says. "He doesn't have the gene. We always knew there was a chance... but... I had to come here. My husband was upset too, of course, but he kept looking at me in this fearful way. That's how he is. He's always waiting for me to pull off my mask and start yelling at him."
A moment of silence, then Henry says, "Well, do you want to yell? We're allowed to feel angry, you know."
"No, no, I'm not angry. I knew when I married a clouded heart that this might happen. It's just... my little boy isn't even born yet, but I already love him so much. And it makes me so sad that he's never going to be able to love himself in the same way. It makes me sad that he's always going to be so insecure and confused and angry and envious and... I mean... even my husband makes me upset sometimes. If he could only see himself the way that I see him, then I just know that all his problems would vanish. But that's not possible. My boy is going to drift along in that same mire, and no matter how desperately I love him, that love is never going to touch his heart. And who knows, maybe he'll turn to drugs or gangs or... god, I don't know... they contain so much sorrow. I just hoped that he would be free from all that."
Nodding heads and a hum of agreement.
Her face settles into a more neutral expression. "Thank you... I already feel better. I think I just needed to let it all out."
Inside, I sneer at her. Her sorrow will be gone by morning. They are like automatons that are trying to program themselves to feel having human emotions.
I say, softly, "At least you'll be able to give him the kind of love that a mother with a clouded heart never could." A love that was unmixed with resentment or disappointment.
Eyes narrow. I've hit a sour note. Even in private, the pure of heart don't like to admit that their performance is in any way superior to those with clouded hearts. Everyone ignores my comment.
The discussion moves on. A young man openly wonders whether to put his status on his resume. Employers love the pure of heart, but he doesn't want his coworkers to resent him. Opinion in the room is evenly divided. Only three of the attendees are wearing heart-shaped pins.
Henry twirls his pin with an index finger as he says, "A former lover once told me that whenever he said something in a business meeting that was even slightly argumentative or controversial, he'd worry all day about whether he'd just made an enemy. Ever since then, I've worn it just to let people know that they don't really need to worry about offending me."
Right. Of course. Everything they do is always so fucking selfless.
"What about you, Lyle?" Henry says.
I look up. "What?"
"You're a management consultant, aren't you? When you were interviewing, did you wear your pin?"
"No," I say. "I didn't want to get anything that I didn't deserve."
Another sour note. The group leans away from me. The pure-hearted value themselves too highly to seek external validation; they don't care what they "deserve." Besides, what I'd said was a lie. The weak job market was what started my charade. The first time I ever wore the pin was to an interview.
When the circle breaks up, I grab my jacket and dash for the door, but Henry intercepts me. His gaze holds my eyes.
"Good to hear you speak up a bit today," Henry says. "You're usually so quiet."
"I've always preferred to listen."
"I understand. But clouded hearts read our quietness as a lack of confidence. You should practice speaking up more."
"I speak when I have something"--something that isn't stupid--"to say."
"A lot of us feel like that. Growing up, I could never understand why my brothers used to scream and yell and fight all the time. After my diagnosis, I realized that they needed the attention in a way that I just couldn't understand."
Watching his easy animation--the rapid changes of expression; the quick, fierce hand gestures--I can't stop thinking about how this man loved James, lived with him, built a life with him: even now, they sometimes spend the night together.
Before he lets me escape, Henry gives me his phone number and tells me to call him anytime I need someone to talk to.
In the morning, our bed looks like it's been fucked by a bottle of glitter. Next to me, James reeks of semen, latex, lubricant, and sweat. I roll out of bed without disturbing him and have breakfast ready by the time his alarm shrieks.
He hums a tune to "Singin' in the Rain" while he walks downstairs. When he looks at me, I get a strange tightness in my abdomen. He sits in front of his plate and I fork over his allotment of bacon. Then he pouts at me slightly and I give him one of mine.
"Thank you, gorgeous," he says.
Not gorgeous enough to keep him next to me.
His fork thrusts are fast and precise, but he lifts the bits of melon to his mouth in lazy, spinning motions. He likes to gesture with the food-laden fork like it's a little baton. An errant bit of glitter shines next to his eye. I wet my thumb and rub it off.
He smiles, "Hey! I was trying to make a statement!"
I say, "I'm sure the senior partners would have loved it." James is the youngest partner in a private equity firm.
He waves the fork in a little circle. "I like to think they brought me on so's I could add a little sparkle to the place."
My stomach roils. Christ, he's beautiful. And successful... and intelligent, but mainly, just ungodly handsome and vivacious. When he speaks, his eyes flick across the room in strobing patterns that whip up my blood. And when he looks at me for even a few seconds, it feels like some God has singled me out as His prophet. Next to him, I am dull, ordinary, and ugly. I know for a fact that I don't deserve him. He is only with me because my supposedly pure heart outweighs my other deficiencies.
I force myself to smile as I ask: "How was last night?"
"Fantastic," he says. "Have you ever been to the Fire Station?"
"Never even heard of it."
"Three houses in the Sunset. They're all right next to each other. The houses are just a shell; their basements are all connected. You slide down into the dungeon using a fireman's pole. It was really something...."
I do my best to nod and laugh and tune him out. I know that Henry loved to hear about his sexual exploits. Henry was happy whenever James was happy.
James is talking about getting his asshole stretched by a huge black man with a French accent. I am dying inside. It's not his fault. It's not his fault. It's not his fault.
It's my fault.
And then I see the way that James is smiling at me. My swirling thoughts are kicked over to some place where they can't hurt me. My heart soars. And then I have him pressed against the refrigerator. I'm kissing him, and pulling off his shirt. My hand tweaks his nipple. He gasps. My God, I love him. And he's mine.
Later, after I come inside him, he groans and drops down onto his belly. His eyes are closed. I wrap myself around him, and we lie there, on the cool tile of the kitchen floor, for fifteen minutes. This is real. This isn't a lie. This is him and me. The rest is only a distraction.
Finally, he says. "I wonder sometimes if I really deserve you."
I whisper into his ear, "Tell me more...."
"You can't understand how rare you are," he says. "Nothing makes me hotter than when you smile and ask how my night went...."
I go cold inside and try to mumble something, anything, just to keep up the confessional tone. He doesn't notice my discomfort. He says, "It's not just your pure heart, either. Most pure-hearted people will listen to anything. But that's because they don't really care. You care. There's a fire inside you that they don't have."
He keeps telling me how wonderful I am, how sexy, how forgiving, how loving, how trusting. I blink away a tear. This is certainly one of the more horrible moments of my life.
It takes James forever to leave. Eventually, I have to be the stern one, and remind him that we have to go work. Once he's gone, I dial Henry's number.
Henry is a financial services consultant. He mostly works out of his home in the Richmond. After he invites me inside, I take a place on his couch and think, James used to live here.
Henry gives me a cup of coffee. "I'm glad you called," he says. Then he sits next to me on the couch. Our knees are nearly touching. He flips his hair back.
"I... uhh... I'm sorry to have interrupted your work," I say.
"Did you want to talk about James? I know that sometimes he can be a handful."
"What?"
"Of course I know who you are, Lyle. James talks about you all the time."
I'm frozen. My organs are struggling to escape from my body. "Jesus, you sat across from me during all those meetings and I never said anything," I say. "You must think I'm such a mess."
"Not at all. You just wanted to avoid unnecessary awkwardness. But our community is so small. Once you started going to pure-hearted events, we were bound to meet eventually."
I fix my eyes on an oriental lamp on the fireplace mantle and take a sip of coffee; it's horribly stale.
Henry twists a lock of his hair between two fingers.
"Why did you leave him?" I say.
"Oh, you know why," Henry says. "He's fun and attractive, but he's also a fetishist. He didn't want me; he just wanted a pure heart."
He smiles at me. On anyone else, that smile would be an attempt to hide a sea of stormy emotions. But not on him. If I could stare into his soul, I'd see calm waters all the way down.
I unclip my pin and lay it on the table. "I'm a liar," I say. "I'm not really pure of heart. I bought this on eBay."
Henry raises an eyebrow. Then he puts out a hand and traps my fingers. "My god... you poor thing..." he says.
"I swear to god, though," I say. "I do everything right. I don't show anger or resentment or envy or fear or... fuck... what makes you so different from me?"
Henry leans towards me. I'm throttled by his eyes. He says the words so slowly, "You don't need to do this to yourself. You are worthy of love. I know that you feel like--"
I spit in his face. The globule lands on his cheek. He starts backward, blinking rapidly and wiping his cheek.
"It's not me that you're really mad at," he says.
"I know who I'm mad at. Fuck you. And fuck James too."
Henry's hand is on my knee. "You must have been in so much pain. I can't imagine what you've gone through."
I've never felt this kind of love and acceptance. It's intoxicating. And arousing. I can see why James liked him--liked us.
I kiss Henry. His lip twitches and his eyes dance. And then he kisses me back. I pounce, straddling him on the sofa. After this morning's exertions, I'm slow to become erect, but I enjoy the feeling of his hard body underneath me.
And then I notice that he's smiling at me. Not a broad smile. But the corner of his lip has risen up slightly.
I put a hand on his chest.
There is nothing I can do to affect the heart underneath. If I was to leave right now, he would just go back to work. Later today, he'd see the light shining through the trees and he'd smile at the beauty of the world.
I feel sorry for him. No one will ever love him. How could they? Henry doesn't need love.
But I do.
I climb off him. He swarms around me, kissing my neck. I push him away.
"No, I deserve better than this," I say.
He laughs and runs a hand down my back.
I might be a pathetic piece of shit, but so what? There are a lot of us in the world. We're blind and confused and silly, and we grope for things that we don't even understand... but we're just doing the best we can. For a moment, I even feel a strong sense of solidarity with James. God, he's just another pathetic bastard like me.
A strong sense of relief blows through my heart. I'm completely worthless. That's the secret that I kept locked up for so long. I'm worthless, but so is everyone else. Even Henry is nothing more than a neurochemical anomaly.
I smile.
After performing some perfunctory good-byes for Henry, I drift outside. As the door closes, I feel a spasm of self-loathing: my heart-shaped pin is still lying on Henry's table.
The cloud passes in less than a second, but I know that it was a warning shot. The feeling is not gone. With my brain chemistry, all I can ever expect are a few brief moments of freedom from anxiety and self-hatred.
Christ, I'm such a morose idiot.
But, for once, the self-castigation has no sting. I look up at the flower blossoms haphazardly stacked atop the leaning branches. A breeze rumbles through the street and petals scatter around me. I cannot stop grinning.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, March 21st, 2014

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