When I imagined giving my heart to the man I wanted to marry, I always thought it would be a plump red thing, like a cartoon heart, or an emoji. Perfectly formed and shining with just the right amount of gloss. Instead, the heart I take out of my chest is mangled. A soft bit of meat, oddly-coloured, and misshapen. Has it already died? I prod it with my finger.
I don’t want to show it to you, but you’re going to see it eventually. I ring my Mum and ask for advice.
“Have you tried soaking it in vinegar?”
“No. Are you kidding? Gross.”
Her voice is distant, as if she’s already doing something else. “Dilute it first. One part vinegar, three parts water.”
“And then what?”
“Leave it overnight and rinse it in the morning.”
“What are you doing? Where are you?”
“Bowls, darling. Look, I’ll call you later.”
She hangs up before I can ask what kind of vinegar. I consult my kitchen cupboard. Apple cider or balsamic? Plain white or malt? Do I need to add some olive oil as well?
You’re not making a vinaigrette, replies my sister in a text message.
I measure out a cup of balsamic vinegar into a mixing bowl, emptying the last of the bottle, and then add three cups of warm water from the tap. For a moment I’m on the edge of panic wondering if it should have been cold. Instinct kicks in – lukewarm should be fine. I place my heart in the bowl and cover it airtight with a beeswax wrap. Then I put the bowl on the kitchen window where it sits grandly in the afternoon sun, like meat defrosting from the freezer.
That night I don’t let you touch me. I don’t want you to see the hole in my chest.
In the morning Mum rings back. “How was bowls?”
“We lost,” she sighs. “But your father called. He’s in East Timor – wants to know if you’ll go visit him for Christmas.”
“That’s a hard pass,” I say. “Get Kitty to go.” Kitty, the sister. Also the chef. And the eldest.
“Thought you’d say that. Kitty won’t go. John might.”
“He broke up with his girlfriend, did he tell you?”
“Yes, poor John. Maybe a holiday would be good for him.”
“What about you and Steven?”
“What about us?”
You are still asleep. I close the door to the bedroom so not to wake you.
“How did the vinegar turn out?”
I take the bowl down from the window and pick off the wrapping. The heart looks different. It’s a bit plumper, and some of the stains have disappeared. The colouring is deeper, brighter red. This time when I poke it, the meat pushes back – spongy, less dense.
“Huh,” I say. “It looks good.”
“Take it out and pat it down with a towel and you’re good to go.”
“You sure this will work?”
She’s quiet a second. There’s a man in the background that’s not my father. He asks who she’s talking to, and she says it’s no one, and she’ll get on to breakfast in a sec. When she speaks next it’s softer, as if she doesn’t want him to hear.
“It worked for me,” she says.
“No, not with your father.”
“Don’t worry, you two will be fine. Talk soon.”
“Love you, darling.”
And she’s gone. I flick Kitty a text. She gets back to me with a recipe.
Breakfast is ready by the time you get up. You yawn, coming into the kitchen with your arms over your head. Your belly pokes out a bit from under your t-shirt. Something inside me squeaks with happiness or longing or hunger.
“Smells good in here,” you say.
“It’s time,” I tell you.
Your face shifts, serious.
“Are you ready?” I ask.
You swallow. “Yes.”
We sit down at our little dining table with the spread laid out before us. Orange juice, toast, coffee, a pot of tea for me. Two plates of food. Sliced tomatoes fried in butter with tarragon, fluffy scrambled eggs, a mound of wilted baby spinach sprinkled with crushed peppercorns and flakes of sea salt.
And two plump hearts, seared in the pan and finished in the oven. They sit in little saucers pooled with pink juices. Mine is smaller than yours, but is holding its shape.
I raise a glass of juice, and you do the same.
“Cheers,” I say.
“Cheers,” you echo.
Our glasses clink and we each take a sip, nervous, I think, about what comes next. I want to break the tension, but it also feels appropriate for the moment.
“This is it,” you say.
“No turning back now.”
You put a hand over mine, raise my hand to your lips and kiss it softly. “Never.”
We steel ourselves, pick up our knives and forks.
I shake my head. “No way. Same time.”
“Deal,” you say.
I rest my fork on the top of your heart and slice down the side with my steak knife. Your heart was already tender, and the knife slides through easily. You have to work a bit with mine, but it’s soft enough so that when you raise the slice it’s still sweetheart pink in the middle. We eat at the same time, chewing slowly.
It doesn’t taste so bad. A bit gamey, but good. I can only stomach a mouthful though. By the look on your face you are feeling the same.
I chase it with a gulp of over-sugared tea. You sweep together a pile of eggs and spinach and take a few bites in quick succession.
“Is that enough?” you ask.
“I think so.”
You sigh, but smile. “It’s done.”
I smile back.
“Good morning, wife.”
I wipe the juice from your chin before kissing you. “Good morning, husband.”