Ramona used to say, “When it’s on the outside I feel self-conscious.”
We did overnights at her house that summer. After finishing the sixth grade, we had stopped calling them sleepovers. Ramona had a full-sized bed, but I still felt scrunched up next to her when we were in it. We didn’t press into each other while we slept, but I think I felt pushed up against her because of what I knew about her heart. About how sometimes it flipped and somersaulted and somehow ended up on the outside of her skin, resting there on the wrong side of her body for a few seconds like a wild bird afraid to fly away but so eager to do it.
“When my family moved here, I was afraid I wouldn’t make a single friend.”
I told Ramona this while we were sitting out on her front steps at dusk, sucking on popsicles and bored out of our minds. We didn’t say it, but we were waiting for something big to happen. We were waiting for a boy to call and ask for one of us. Or better yet: for a boy—two of them!—to pass by Ramona’s house, trying to slouch their shoulders and barely nod while glancing our way. But half of the summer was dead already and neither of those things had happened.
“I thought meeting new people would be hard,” I said, chewing on my splintered popsicle stick. “And then bam, I met you.”
This wasn’t exactly true. I felt the urge to exaggerate things when I was around Ramona. I found myself making up little lies. I was the only person in the entire world who knew about her heart thing. I felt like I owed her something. I had nothing to confess, and so I made things up.
“I’m afraid of being abducted by aliens,” I lied.
“I shoplifted a bag of peanut M&Ms in the checkout line, standing right next to my mom,” I lied.
“Sheila Hastings is stupid. Her bangs are ugly,” I lied. “And I kicked her once in the hallway on the way to lunch.”
That summer, three bad things happened. Matt Gowen’s dad died of cancer. Tracy Turner’s dog Velvet got run over by a minivan. And then, at the beginning of August, Troy Benson’s little brother climbed into the baby pool and started to drown in only a few inches of water. The paramedics had to do CPR, and we all decided he’d be messed up forever after going through something like that.
“I wonder what it would be like if I started jogging,” Ramona said one night while we were sitting on her bed, painting our toenails lime green.
That’s all she said, but I knew exactly what she meant. Some girls our age had started jogging around the neighborhood in packs. It was the girls who had started to develop. They didn’t jog because it was healthy. They jogged so they could wear tight, neon-colored exercise clothes, the sudden swelling on their chests pushing out against bright elastic, tugging them forward along the streets of our neighborhood and into the rest of their lives. I knew that Ramona wanted to jog and see if her heart would push itself out while she was panting and sputtering. She’d have a bulge on her little chest then. Who cares if it was only on one side? Imagine being with a boy, in a basement or a closet, and then that sudden beating on the outside of your chest. Imagine that he wouldn’t be grossed out at all. Imagine that he’d let out a moan, some unbelievable sound, because of the way your body was being right there in front of him. Ramona never confessed to any daydreams like that, but I knew she had them. I had them for her.
I practically lived at Ramona’s house that summer. Almost every night I was stretched out there on her bed, waiting for sleep and feeling the humidity press into every part of me like a secret I figured someday I might identify and then maybe understand.
“See,” she said the first time she showed me. “It’s like this.”
Ramona pulled her tank top up and there it was: a heart beating on the outside of her chest. I didn’t scream like I thought I would. I didn’t cover my eyes or gag or laugh uncontrollably. I just looked at it. I nodded my head. “Okay,” I said. And then I blinked or glanced at her face, and when I looked again it was already gone. She didn’t have her bra on. We had each bought the same size and the same style at the beginning of the summer, even though neither of us needed one yet. We hardly wore them when it was just the two of us lazing around her house, waiting for the world to happen. Ramona kept her tank top pulled up even after her heart had disappeared. I stared at her chest. It was creamy and bare and ordinary—no trace of the bloody, glistening muscle that had been galloping there only seconds before.
I miss Ramona. It’s a simple kind of missing. It’s the way vague regret and longing pool in your stomach when you shouldn’t be feeling anything at all—while pulling laundry out of the washer, while walking the dog, while reaching for something in the shower with your eyes squeezed shut. The two of us were careless and let whatever we had dissolve into a leftover pang of almost-nostalgia. Who knows where she is now?
“Turn your stomach inside out,” she said one night.
I was almost asleep. I opened my eyes up to the dark.
“I mean, for real,” she said. There was that mean, annoyed flip that sometimes came out at the ends of her sentences.
“Like this,” she said. She turned on the little lamp next to her bed, and her heart was there again, beating and wet against the delicate V of her unbuttoned nightgown. The openings and valves and the whole mess of it sucked at the air like an angry, stranded fish.
I think about that heart late at night, my husband pressed here in bed next to me. I try to reach back into my childhood and pin lanky, eleven-year-old Ramona with eating disorders and depression and the hungry, open mouth of loneliness. But really, it was just that thing with her heart. That’s all. And I’m jealous. I still do it—lie here in bed and try to push things outside of myself. I’m jealous of any woman who has ever given birth. Think of it—something being forced out like that, gravity or fate or whatever it is pulling away at you like a stubborn, certain thing.
Sarah Gerkensmeyer‘s story collection, What You Are Now Enjoying, was selected by Stewart O’Nan as winner of the Autumn House Press Fiction Prize and longlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Her stories and poems have appeared in Guernica, The Coffin Factory, The Massachusetts Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, B O D Y, Hobart, and Cream City Review, among others.