There is a one-armed girl sitting next to me on a bed in a hotel room. Across from us, above the TV, there is a large oval mirror that I can see us in—the girl, her feet hanging off the edge of the bed, looking out the room’s only window, and me, trying to look anywhere but at the nub on the left side of the girl’s body, where her arm should be, but isn’t.
Outside, the warm California sun has just settled behind hills of dry grass. And the girl, she’s speaking to me, even though she’s looking the other way, out the window. She’s explaining to me the anatomy of my heart like it’s a bedtime story. She’s telling me that it was the first thing in this life I was ever given.
“My heart?” I ask.
She has a pretty face and nice lips, but a nub on her left side. “Yes,” she says. “Your heart. You had a heart before you even had a thought.
I smile at her and I put my hand on her thigh, because she doesn’t have an arm or a hand on her left side for me to grab, so I put my hand on her thigh instead. And she looks down at my hand as I do it, and she peels it off her leg, and she places it on the burgundy comforter of the hotel bed, and then she pats it gently, like it’s an old dog. She tells me that this is all very important, this talk of my heart. She says that it’s a gift.
“A gift?” I ask. “My heart?”
“Yes,” she says. “A gift.”
So I ask her who gave me this gift. “Who did it belong to before it belonged to me?”
And she looks at me like it’s a stupid question, because it is a stupid question. She tells me that my heart was born a tube with four segments, and then, she says, “It folded around itself and became an organ with four chambers. Did you know that?”
“No,” I say, still trying not to look at the nub, “I didn’t know that.” And since I can’t look at the nub, I look down the plunging neckline of her sundress instead. And she catches me doing it, looking down at her tits, but she doesn’t tell me to stop. She’s letting me look. So I test the waters. I stare at them some more. They look like they would each fit perfectly in my hands. I wonder when she grew into them. I wonder when she lost her arm.
She tells me that after my heart turned into a four-chambered organ, “a muscle between the second and third chamber sent an electrical impulse down a conveyor belt of atoms, and this,” she says, “gave you your first heartbeat. Isn’t that beautiful?”
I nod. She has bright eyes and white teeth. “It’s very beautiful,” I say. “Was this still before I had my first thought?”
She thinks about it for a second. “Good question,” she says. “It was about the same time as that.”
I ask her what my first thought ever was, there in my mother’s womb.
She looks at me in a way that let’s me know that my question is another stupid one. She says, “How could I possibly know that?”
And then she stands up and she walks over to the desk across from us and she grabs the remote and she turns on the shitty little hotel room TV. She flips through a few stations of static and infomercials, until she finds the local news station. A blonde woman with just enough plastic surgery so that you can notice it when she smiles is telling us that there is a lot of traffic on the I-5, heading South. She’s saying there still isn’t any rain—lots and lots of wildfires, though—that’s for sure.
And then the one-armed girl lowers the volume until the blonde newswoman is just a whisper, and then she puts the remote down on the desk, and then she sits back down beside me on the bed, her feet dangling off the end. She tells me that everything moved quickly after this. She tells me that my heart developed rapidly.
I’m looking at the nub now—I can’t stop myself from looking at it anymore—and I realize that it doesn’t freak me out as much as it did when I first met her. I put my hand on her thigh again and she looks at me again, smiles a patient smile, and takes my hand away.
She tells me that I’m not listening. “Listen,” she says. “When you were born, when your eyes first saw the flickering fluorescent lights of the hospital, and when your ears first heard your mother cooing at you, and when your skin first felt the latex gloves that your father wore as he held you for the first time, your heart hardly noticed.” She says that it was too busy working.
“When did you learn all of this?” I ask her.
“After I lost my arm.”
“Oh—that makes sense,” I say, even though it doesn’t.
She catches me looking at her nub of an arm, and then looking away.
“You don’t have to pretend,” she says. “Go ahead—look. I don’t mind.”
“No—” I say, “it’s just—”
But now I can’t look at it because she caught me looking at it. So I look at her almond brown eyes instead. I tell her that I’m sorry. “I’ve never really been around someone with just one arm.”
“I know,” she says. “I can tell,” she says. “Do know what happened seven months after you were born? Do you know what your heart did then?”
“No,” I tell her, “I don’t.”
“It began pumping significantly more blood to your brain.”
I brush her hair, the color of rot in a barn door, away from her face. I see, in the mirror, how stupid I look doing this—like some asshole in a movie making moves on a girl who just wants to talk. But I do it anyway. I put my palm against her cheek and she lets it stay.
She closes her eyes.
She keeps talking. “And it’s a good thing, too,” she says. “It’s a good thing your heart decided to start pumping more blood to your brain. Your brain needed it. It had a lot of work to do. The world was a much bigger place than you and your heart first thought. There was so much to learn. Did you know that your heart made a deal with you then?”
I lean in and I kiss her on the cheek. “A deal?” I ask.
“Yes,” she says, her voice low, “a deal. Not that you noticed, of course, but it was a deal nonetheless. Your heart said to you, ‘I will keep you alive until I am done keeping you alive, and in exchange you will show me the world through your eyes.’”
I mumble an affirmation to let her know that I’m still listening, and then I move my lips from her cheek down to her jawline, down to her neck, down to her shoulder. I put my hand back on her thigh and this time she doesn’t move it away. She lets it stay. She’s letting me look. She’s letting me touch. Her thighs, they’re warm, the light fabric from her sundress falling over my wrist, covering my hand as it disappears up her leg.
She makes a sound.
She goes on. “This deal your heart made with you allowed your heart to grow with the rest of your body. And it didn’t stop growing until you were seventeen. This,” she says, “was as healthy as your heart would ever be.”
I bring my hand to her left shoulder. I pull away the strap to her sundress until it slides over the empty space where her arm should be, and falls down her side.
She leans against me—her nub poking me in the ribcage, her head resting in the crook of my neck. She tells me that the muscles in my heart stiffened over time. “At some point in your twenties,” she says, “your heart will have a maximum heart rate of 200 beats per minute; this number will decline five to ten beats per minute, per decade.”
She turns to face me. Her eyes open, she kisses me once on the lips. She looks at me for what feels like a long time. She brings her hand up to my face. She moves her tongue carefully into my mouth, a garter snake cutting through wet morning grass, running over my teeth, across my bottom lip. She lowers her hand, brushing it against my crotch. She pulls her lips away and then with her nub she shoves me so I fall back onto the hotel bed.
She climbs on top of me.
She unbuckles my pants, and I almost tell her, as she does it, how impressive it is that she can do all that with just one hand, but I stop myself, because that would be cruel—to point out and make obvious the parts of her that are missing.
She straddles me and lifts up her dress so it’s resting on the curve of her ass. “Has anyone ever told you about the flamingos?” she asks.
“Yes,” she says. “The flamingos. The plastic ones.” She reaches her hand down to her panties and she moves them to the side. Slowly, she slides down onto me. “Did you know that there are more plastic flamingos in the world than there are real ones?”
I gasp—not because of the flamingos, but because of what she’s doing with her hips—but also because of the flamingos. I gasp for them too.
I reach up and I grab one of her tits, and I was right, it’s a perfect fit, and I’ve pretty much totally forgotten about the nub on her left side now. I mean, I’m looking at it, it’s there, but I’ve forgotten about it. It doesn’t matter like it did before. I tell her, “I had no idea there were so many plastic flamingos.” I tell her, “I had no idea you were so perfect.”
She grabs my hand, which is grabbing her tit, and she squeezes it, and then she leans down, her eyes now closed, her body flush with mine. She moves slowly on top of me, she lowers herself and then she slides back up, and then again, down and back up, her ass bobbing in the air to the sound of her breath.
Raising herself up, she places her hand on my chest for balance. I realize, then, that this will all end sooner than she would probably like. Sooner than I would like. I try to concentrate on not finishing too soon. But then she takes her hand off my chest and she reaches back and she cradles my balls gently between her fingers, and that’s when I realize that there is no longer any doubt—that this definitely will end sooner than she probably wants. I close my eyes. I tell myself, “Don’t finish. Don’t finish. Don’t finish.”
“There are a lot of plastic flamingos in the world, sure—” she says, her pelvis grinding into mine like Bear Grylls trying to start a fire with two wet sticks “—but there also just aren’t very many real ones left.”
This is a good distraction. The more we talk about flamingos, the longer I’ll last. Think about the flamingos; their bright pink feathers; their dwindling numbers. I ask her, “What happened to them?”
She’s making strange shapes with her mouth now, sounds pushing out from somewhere deep in her throat. “We killed them,” she says.
“But—” I stammer. I lose my train of thought. I stare at her, brown hair spilling over her shoulders like the swollen bed of a creek in the first downpour of spring. “But why?” I ask. “Why’d we kill the flamingos?”
“Because the plastic ones are easier to love,” she says. “And the koalas, did I tell you about the koalas?”
I think: Oh no—not the koalas. “Did we kill them too?” I ask. “Did we turn them to plastic?”
“No, but we put them all in a zoo.”
“We stuffed them all into one zoo?”
“No,” she says. “We put them into lots of different zoos. All over the world. We spread them out and kept them separate. We categorized and labeled them. We made stuffed animals out of them. And did you know about their fingerprints?”
“The koalas or the flamingos?”
“The koalas,” she says, “the koala’s fingerprints. They’re the only animals with a unique fingerprint pattern, like humans.”
“And we put them in a zoo anyway? Even knowing about their fingers?”
“Yes,” she says. “We put them in a zoo anyway. Because that’s what we do.” She brings her face down to mine. “Because that’s how you make something plastic,” she grunts, “you put it away somewhere. You turn it into something different than it was before. You own it.”
I feel like I might cry; looking at her, she’s so beautiful, more beautiful than any two-armed girl I’ve ever met; and her words, they’re so sad, sadder than any two-armed girl’s words. I can only think to ask the same question I’ve been asking. I ask her why. “Why did we do all of this?”
“Because,” she says, speeding up, “plastic things—like I said before—they’re easier to love. And do you know about the blue whales?”
“The real ones or the plastic ones?”
“There are no plastic blue whales,” she says. “That’s the point. Blue whales, they’re too big and too proud and too old to be owned. But did you know about their hearts?”
“Their hearts?” I ask.
She nods. “Yes, their hearts. Their hearts are so massive that you can swim through the arteries.”
“But wouldn’t that hurt the whale?” I ask. “To swim through the arteries of its heart?”
She tells me that the whale probably wouldn’t mind.
I look at her face, really look at it, the freckles running down her nose to her cheeks, her perfect lips, her ears that stick out from where they hide in her hair. I look at her good arm, her only arm, and I think how much responsibility it must be for that arm of hers to be perfect—to make up for its missing other.
She’s moving her hips in smooth, rhythmic motions.
I am about to finish. I tell her that I’m sorry.
She lets out a quick breath, like she just got punched in the stomach, and then she digs her face into my neck and then she screams, and then she stops, and then she screams again. Through a series of ragged breaths, she says, “It’s okay—It’s—Thanks.”
I can feel the sweat from her forehead on my neck. “I’m sorry about your arm.”
She laughs a kind of sad laugh. She kisses my collar bone. Her body relaxes on top of mine. She says, “I know you are.”
I’m holding her, both of my arms wrapped around her torso, her cheek pressed into my chest. I put my hand on the back of her head. I run my fingers down the sides of her body, and then I bring them up and I trace her shoulders. With one hand I trace the length of her arm and with the other hand I trace the place, on her other side, where the arm isn’t—the skin pulled tight like the knot of a balloon. I open my mouth. I clear my throat. “Can I ask you something?”
The weight of her body on top of me, she doesn’t answer. She’s quiet and she’s still. I can tell that her eyes are open though; I can feel the mascara from her eyelashes as she blinks.
“How’d you lose it?” I ask.
There is pale light slipping in through the window’s half drawn curtain. I cannot tell if the light is coming from the moon or from a streetlamp outside. I can hear the blonde newswoman though, whispering about the wildfires in Southern California.
The girl, she tells me that she doesn’t remember how she lost her arm. “I was too young,” she says.
“And no one ever told you?”
“Even your parents?”
“They said it would be easier if I didn’t know.”
“Is that why you like flamingos so much?” I ask. “Because they only have one leg?”
She looks up at me. Her cheek pressed against my skin, hairs from my chest invading her mouth. “Flamingos have two legs,” she says, flatly.
“But they only use one.”
“That’s not the same thing at all.”
“Oh,” I say. “Yeah—I guess you’re right. So what happened to them?”
“Hmm?” she mumbles. “What happened to who?”
“The plastic ones?”
“Yes,” I tell her, “the plastic ones.”
So she starts from the beginning. She tells me that a heart was the first thing they were given. That it was a gift. That they had a heart before they had anything else—before they even had a thought. She’s looking out the room’s only window. She’s telling me to listen. She’s holding her breath, her ear pressed to my chest.