Written by: Alex Green
“Once you peel away the pericardium, which is like this double-membraned sac, the heart is right underneath it, pumping away like a little wet machine.”
Now, I’ve got nothing against the heart, but staring down at my pasta smothered and tossed with blistered cherry tomato sauce, it wasn’t exactly the thing I wanted to be thinking about.
But my friend kept going. After all, he was a first-year medical student and apparently it was heart week at school, because he kept going on and on about pulmonary trunks and third costal cartilage and sinoatrial nodes.
And forkful after forkful, I just kept nodding.
“Should I stop? You look like this is grossing you out,” he said.
“No, I’m good. Keep going, keep going. Satriani nodes—you were saying something about them.”
“Sinoatrial nodes,” he corrected. “Joe Satriani is the guitar player.”
“The guitar player with the sinoatrial nodes,” I added.
“Every guitar player has sinoatrial nodes. Every person has sinoatrial nodes. You can’t be alive without them.”
“So Charles Manson has them?”
“Even the heartless have hearts,” I said.
He wasn’t amused.
“Look, I know you’re not interested in this, but don’t you think you should know what a human heart looks like?”
“I know what it feels like,” I said. “That’s good enough for me.”
We were both grad students but while he was studying medicine, I was studying John Berryman, so it made sense that he was interested in what hearts looked like and as a poet, I only cared about what they felt like. When we said goodbye, even though it was early evening, it also made sense that he was heading back to school to do the endless homework that came from his punishing schedule of anatomy, biochemistry and cell biology and I was headed to a concert.
I’d been assigned by the San Francisco magazine I was writing for to review the Cranberries show that night. It was the early ‘90s and though they would soon be exploding, The Cranberries’ apotheosis hadn’t quite happened yet and they were the middle act on a three-band bill. I was into the first band (Belly), was totally into the headliner (Suede) and was utterly oblivious to the Cranberries.
I was way too early and had some time to kill, so I checked in at the box office to make sure I was on the guest list and once I grabbed my ticket, I thought I’d find somewhere to sit and do some reading and writing.
Down the street from the venue was a staircase leading to a courtyard, which, I was surprised to see, was virtually empty. It was late September and summer was giving it one last shot—it was warm enough not to need a jacket and it was bright enough to be able to read without needing much light.
All of that would change in a week or two. The Winter Empire was out there assembling; soon it would be dark and cold and nights like this would be remembered like fantasy.
And so I sat on the ground leaning against a concrete wall and read Berryman (“Let all flowers wither like a party”), tried in embarrassing vain to rip off Berryman (“Nobody notices you in the night with your punk car radio turned up to medium”), then ate a power bar and wondered why people ate power bars. They were a good enough reason to avoid endurance-based activities.
After a while it was fully dark and I took out my Walkman, inside of which had a tape with The Queen Is Dead on one side and The Plimsouls’ Everywhere At Once on the other.
I was about to hit play when I heard someone singing.
It was the voice of a woman and I wasn’t sure where it was coming from, but it made me forget about Berryman and the Smiths and the Plimsouls and the seasons and San Francisco and who I was and who I was trying to be and who I would end up being.
Sitting a few feet down from me was the source of that voice—it was coming from a small woman who, even in the lowering dusk, I could tell was about my age. She was wearing a black hat and a jean jacket and she was sitting with her knees to her chest.
Even though she was singing quietly, her voice rang out in that courtyard with power and grace. It sounded like the perfect mix of anguish and beauty, discouragement and desire, muscle and heart.
I stared at her profile and wondered if she knew I was staring at her. I wanted to look away but I couldn’t, because what she was singing was utterly transfixing.
If you, if you could return, don’t let it burn, don’t let it fade.
I’m sure I’m not being rude, but it’s just your attitude,
It’s tearing me apart, it’s ruining everything
When she sang I couldn’t breathe.
When she stopped, I couldn’t even remember how to do it.
For a while, neither of us moved and I knew it was for different reasons.
But l let me tell you this: Dolores O’Riordan sat there in that dusky light, that last slip of summer and I was too afraid to do anything.
She took out a cigarette and smoked it for a minute or two, then she got up, dusted herself off and flicked the cigarette away. When she walked past me, she smiled and I felt my blood blowing through my body, my pulmonary trunks, third costal cartilage and sinoatrial nodes being asked to do things they’d never done before.
I spotted her discarded cigarette, still an ember in the night. It glowed like there was still breath inside of it, like her words were still in the air, keeping it lit and alive.
I don’t know how long I sat there.
And I don’t know how the cigarette kept burning.
But I stared into that narrow glow, that little cylinder of fire and for the first time in my life I knew exactly what my heart looked like.
And nothing would ever be the same.