The writer writes a story about James. James is gay, but the story begins: “When James opened his mailbox that morning, he couldn’t have expected to find a human heart,” even though what the writer wants to talk about are sexuality issues.
When James opened his mailbox that morning, he couldn’t have expected to find a human heart. Yet there it was, beating like the faint tick tock, tick tock of a clock running out of battery.
The writer launches into exposition, noticing one cliché slip in as she types the two paragraphs, but deciding to include it anyway. When the writer is finished, James discovered his interest in the same sex during 7th grade, when he met his friend Ronald, a pale-skinned, red-haired kid with a delicate frame and grey eyes, who never smiled. There was something about Ronald.
The third paragraph explains that James has planned but stopped himself from coming out to his devoutly religious parents, and how the morning of the beating heart, he’d told himself that he’d really do it this time (later, the writer will edit the first line to: On the morning that James decided, for the 6th time, to finally come out to his parents, he found a human heart in the mailbox, beating like the faint tick tock, tick tock …).
For whatever reason that neither James nor his creator is aware of, James picks up the heart in the mailbox and squeezes it, feeling its twitches of life. He wonders: is there a soul in there? Never mind that it’s broad daylight—Americans mind their own business. As for James’ bizarre boldness in holding that thing and stuffing it into his pocket, the writer will just hope it goes unnoticed
(originally, our writer wanted to have James put it in the plastic sleeve that enshrouds local newspapers thrown onto driveways, but after ten minutes of trying to describe this process efficiently, she decided to abandon it).
The writer then describes James walking back through his front door, depicting the scene carefully with multiple senses—the cosmetic pine of a Christmas wreath above the peephole. The rub and groan of the door hinges, something caught in there—maybe years of dust. Coffee pouring into a cup in the kitchen (can you actually hear that from the hallway, though?). The legs of a chair moaning (moaning… hmmm…) against the recently mopped blue tiles of the kitchen floor. Naturally, lead into dialogue to give the reader a break from the long paragraph.
“Anything interesting?” James’ father said, unfolding the newspaper to the sports section
(Our writer forgot that James’ father can’t have it yet, since the mail is still in James’ hands).
It was Super Bowl weekend coming up; as always, James’ father would host a beer, nacho dip, and barbeque ribs party in their backyard.
“No, nothing, really…” James said as casually as he could.
His mother does an action—maybe opens the fridge and takes out a carton of eggs—it doesn’t seem to matter but the writer realizes that it does, because when she pulls out the carton, she says something like, “Half of them are already cracked. Jim, did you remember to check them before buying?”
“Oh, sorry. Always forget to do that,” James’ father said as James hurried up the stairs into his room.
The writer considers changing Jim to something that won’t confuse the reader into thinking that Jim is a nickname for James, maybe John. The J is important because it shows the father’s expectation for his son to be “like him” in some sense.
James’ room looks like the room of a mutual friend between the writer and James, relatively clean with some new-age hippie band posters pasted on a beige wall. Yes, the writer knows James in real life. To hide James’ real identity, the writer changes everything about James except who James actually is (his personality). James is Dominican, because the writer recently read The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. James has a small afro because James has either long or short hair. James is of average height, and wears contact lenses. The writer describes James in this way after James hides the heart in the back of his desk drawer and catches his reflection in the mirror.
James looked different to himself, somehow.
The heart thuds against the drawer from inside, as if growing stronger, like it wants to continue living—if only it can find a home.
The writer didn’t intend to write a magical realism story, but because she took a speculative fiction workshop recently. It keeps crawling in halfway through her stories.
The writer’s name is Hannah, and what you’ll know about her, besides her last name, Singh, which is Indian (not that it should matter! In fact, Hannah insists on making James’ family indistinguishable from a middle-class white family because she’s irked by the fact that white is default in American fiction, and that if characters of any “ethnicity” are involved, they always wear accompanying cultural traits like medallions) can be found in her author bio, which Hannah now considers because—anything to take a break from actually writing.
Bio: Hannah counsels high school kids in the day and writes in the dark by candlelight at night. She has an imaginary white cat names Estrellita, with patches of brown hair near her ears. She has been published in over 18 literary journals, including The Most Well-known Literary Review on Hannah’s publication list, The Second Most Well-known, and The Third. She has been nominated for the Pushcart prize multiple times.
Funny how little a bio says about us, and how much a fiction story reveals.
Back to James, and the still-beating heart, which continues tapping against the inside of the desk drawer like a mouse feeling for a crack.
He slides open the drawer, the thump of that muscle—that symbol of love—that gives blood and life. Thump. Thump. Slowly now, like cautiously approaching footsteps, trying to privy in on this secret.
James remembers the first time he revealed his own secret—to Ronald on the bleachers surrounding their high school’s football stadium. It was a warm day, the sun large and red before them in the clear, teal sky, beaming thick ropes of light like on the Japanese flag.
Two words, snatched into the air between them. Uttered from no beginning, no lead-in.
“Wait, what?” said Ronald, those grey eyes fixed ahead as always. The mysterious Ronald. James could never tell what he was thinking unless he said it.
Silence except for a Jeep pulling out of the parking lot behind the bleachers, a faint grinding in the engine.
Hannah forgot this was already a flashback, and deletes the asterisk, and instead has a knocking come at James’ door to startle him back into his room.
The drawer is already closed again, James’ hand on the knob.
“James?” his father’s voice comes. His father has always knocked—so polite to his son even when James was a child—would he really reject James if he came out? James has never feared his father before, for anything, not even when he totaled the Civic that had been passed down from James’ brother.
“We’re going to your Uncle Sam’s. You wanna come?”
Eyes locked back on himself in the mirror, James sees the version of himself that his father sees, that his mother and his Uncle Sam sees—his Uncle Sam, a conservative clutching the right edge of the American Eagle’s wings. James sees his own eyes wavering, a smile barely traced on his lips, a smile that doesn’t widen or curl to either side but remains the same. How long has this secret been hurting him?
“No. I’m okay Dad. Thanks.”
His father remains silent outside the door for a moment, then walks away.
How long has this secret transformed into a physical pain, a murmur pricking in his chest? Or perhaps, it’d been a pain first, morphing into a secret.
“Actually,” James says, “I’ll come.”
Hannah decides to take a bathroom break even though she barely needs to go. Give her some time to pause. She already knows where this story’s headed. James will likely come out at his Uncle Sam’s, blurt it the way he did with Ronald years ago. Ronald, who James had been sure felt the same way about him. They’d shared so many similarities—that mask of nonchalance, the quiet retreat into the back corners of the quad during Phys Ed. That silence they shared, like a secret itself.
Even though Hannah is writing fiction, she imagines this to all be real. Not just imagines, but believes that it really happened, at least its essence. This is why she writes: to guess, and hopefully know—those in her life on a deeper level. Why they are themselves, their pasts, the intricate weaving sewn into the threads of their present.
Alas, Hannah’s romanticism of her real friend James is broken as she returns to work; her thoughts are pulled to the guidelines of the magazine she’s submitting to, The Journal that You Thought Would Accept Your Work but Didn’t Review, which she’d forgotten to check. Thank God there’s no word count limit, but the bio is asking for only a single sentence. Really? That’s the first time Hannah’s seen that. Guess they really don’t want to know much about the writer.
Bio: Hannah counsels high school kids in the day and writes in the dark by candlelight at night.
Bio: Hannah has an imaginary white cat named Estrellita, with patches of brown hair near her ears.
Bio: Hannah has been published in over 18 literary journals, including The Most Well-known Literary Review on Hannah’s publication list, The Second Most Well-known, and The Third; she has been nominated for the Pushcart prize multiple times.
Bio: Hannah counsels high school kids in the day and writes in the dark by candlelight at night, has an imaginary white cat names Estrellita, with patches of brown and black hair near her ears, has been published in over 18 literary journals, including The Most Well-known Literary Review on Hanna’s publication list, The Second Most Well-known, and The Third, and has been nominated for the Pushcart prize multiple times.
What’s the purpose of a bio, anyway? It’s like a cover letter, isn’t it? It seems as if it shouldn’t matter, that only the work should, but Hannah has a feeling it does matter, coloring the editor’s perspective as they open the document, thinking, “Another cat-obsessed one. How many are there? … Sheesh!”
Or… “I’ve never heard of any of those journals. She’s probably not that good.”
Maybe: “A high school counselor? Same as a teacher. They usually write stiff, and didactic.”
Hannah navigates to the magazine’s Duotrope page, the interview questions: “How much does the bio matter?”
Their answer? “It doesn’t. Only the work does.”
Hannah will figure out the bio later.
At this point, knowing what happens to James so close to the climax draws her back to work. This part, just before the end, always gives Hannah the best flow. What does that say about the reader’s experience? Do they also feel like they’re working to get through the setup, eager to reach a certain point?
Establish background: Uncle Sam’s American flag, waving stars and stripes along the roof. Inside, the thick warmth of a fireplace burning. The TV turned on to Fox News, volume barely audible, caption. Aunt Lorelai with her island-water blue eyes, tropical, warm, and welcoming.
“And so,” Uncle Sam says, lifting his glass of water to just below his lips, “Even after all that drama… Doug still decided on Yale.”
“I’m surprised nonetheless,” James’ father says. “Doug always had those Harvard posters all over his wall. I mean, he’d been talking about going there since he could speak, it seemed like.” He laughs.
“Yes, well, I suppose he just loves Connecticut too much. Besides, some are putting Yale ahead of Harvard in the rankings nowadays.”
“Not surprised,” James’ father says (Jim, or James’ father? What was the purpose of introducing his name if we’re going to keep calling him James’ father?)
“Say James, how’s UConn treating you?” Uncle Sam asks.
“It’s good,” James says. “Really different feel from a private school. Lots of new ideas.”
James had gone to a private high school in New Haven, and graduated near the top of his class. He’d earned the grades to get into Yale, Princeton, or Harvard, but hadn’t applied to any of them, only to UConn, baffling his family.
“Yeah, I’ll bet,” says Uncle Sam. “Be careful what you expose yourself to, though. It’s good to see what’s out there, another to get led down the wrong path.” Another quiet sip at his glass of water, then turns the conversation back on Doug.
A wrong path…?
Hannah pauses and goes back to edit the scene, sitting the characters around the sofa near the fireplace while Aunt Lorelai checks a chicken roasting in the oven. Hannah adds a purple apron with white rose patterns to make her a stereotypical housewife.
James sighs quietly, the flames crackling next to him. He holds his hands out; the heat spreads between his fingers, across his palms. There was a time when James loved to come here, when he was a child, and sit around and stare at the fire. It was something alive, was it not, those flames like fingers or feelings extending—reaching—for something—but what? James thinks about the campfire on the trip that he and Ronald made into the woods during their senior summers, more than a full year after James had come out to Ronald:
The flames were dying, shimmering into a dark red and blue as the timbers sizzled and popped, sparks glittering upwards like confetti. Something about it seemed magical, like this fire had the power to change hearts if you looked at it long enough. The smoke was hickory and sweet, flowing in a thin cloud across their faces, but James didn’t mind. In fact, he breathed it in without restraint, like it was fresh air.
“I’m sorry,” Ronald finally said, the orange glow swimming in his then-pitch-black irises. His gaze, as always, was fixed ahead and into the fire, away from James. He never looked at James when they talked. “I just don’t feel that way for you.”
James’ heart sank.
No—plunged, panged, tightened, clenched.
James felt his heart clench.
James felt his heart stutter.
“I do love you, though,” Ronald said. He placed his hand on James’, squeezing. “But I’ll never feel that way for you, James. It’s just how it is.”
It’s just how it is, James thought. But how could Ronald really know how he’d feel in the future?
Never is not guaranteed. Nothing is in life.
“Okay,” James said. “I just… wanted to let you know.”
On the ride home from Uncle Sam’s, as James looks wistfully out the window at familiar buildings off the freeway, Hannah reveals that James went to UConn to follow Ronald, purposely not applying to the Ivy Leagues to not give himself the chance to change his mind. In light of all his reminiscing, along with the returning depression that Ronald met a lover—a girl—Ronald is bisexual—James changed his mind and didn’t come out to his family at his uncle’s. He’d also forgotten, momentarily, the heart in his drawer.
It’s only when he’s back in his room and lying on his bed with his eyes closed and his thoughts melting away does he hear the faint tapping coming from inside the desk.
James gets up, walks over, and slides the drawer open. The heart is barely alive. On its last beats. Like his hope that Ronald will love him back one day. James picks the heart up, and squeezes it.
Something constricts inside his chest.
The End, Hannah thinks, but never writes it.
Ah… finished… a first draft at least. Still, nothing compares, like having run a mile, lungs burning and gut cramping. Endorphins releasing. Already Hannah is on James’ Facebook page, scrolling down the wall. Hannah hasn’t spoken to James in over five years, since they finished their one-year government service program that introduced them to each other in New York City, but Hannah still considers James to be a good friend, and would certainly call him if she were ever in New Brunswick, where James currently works at a community college as a program director.
James seems to be doing okay, actively reposting political articles about the new immigration laws.
There is one posting that catches Hannah’s attention, from a friend named Dan.
Dan: Hey. I’ll be back in Stafford around July for a couple of months. Any chance you’ll be around?
Dan is Ronald, Hannah thinks. And James hasn’t responded to the post or even “liked” it, even though James has clearly been active on his wall. He must be over Dan/Ronald, finally, after all those years in high school and college when he held on, afraid to let go. He finally took his heart back, finally got it back. Whether or not he’s showed it to his family, what it really looks like, Hannah doesn’t know.
Hannah finishes the day of writing by deciding on a bio, tossing aside those old lines about which magazines she’s appeared in and her imaginary cat, the ones she thought made her interesting and taken seriously.
Bio: Hannah writes for others.
Bio: Hannah writes to know others.
Bio: Hannah writes to know the heart of another.