“What the Heart Does” by Jessica Lee

Jessica Lee


If I told you a child taped two Band-Aids across her heart 
and one Band-Aid across her cheek,
you might not believe me, 
as I did not believe my friend, a preschool teacher, 
who described how Aila went on to pour glue 
into her hands and rubbed the Elmer’s between her palms, 
creating a potion to make no one you love leave you ever
while her classmates built towers with yellow blocks
in a separate corner of the room, 
towers they knocked down moments later, 
laughing at their own power to make and destroy 
as Aila continued staring into her small hands, 
the glue hardening in the palm lines that might
tell her future, this girl who already knew 
more than we knew about suffering,
or maybe she just knew how to solve her heartache 
more practically than we ever tried to—
after all, Elmer’s is fast-drying, multi-purpose—
and my friend told me all of this over coffee, 
her eyes as glazed as the china we were drinking from 
because she was being left, too, by the man 
she thought would be the father of her future children, 
a man who didn’t want to have children after all,
and when she finished explaining 
how Aila used the entire bottle of glue 
we sat in silence as our coffee went cold, 
wishing what we loved could stick 
or else for heartbreak to be quicker, 
rather than the trap door it is, the door we fall through
that returns us to our knees, on the floor 
of our very first loss, where my friend is now, 
remembering when she was four, the same age as Aila, 
and how her father was always leaving the room 
for the Crystal Geyser bottle filled with vodka—  
and I want to tell her this is why I don’t want children, 
because there’s no way to escape making
their first imprints for loss, like boot prints through snow, 
even if the action is out of our control, 
as when my mother, pregnant, was wheeled 
into the elevator at Mercy General 
when I was seven and knew without knowing 
I might not see her again 
after the gray doors closed and she went up, 
up to the cold table where she was sliced open 
under the operating lights while I watched Bambi
on my great aunt’s waterbed, miles away, 
and though my mother lived, the blinds were drawn
for a full year and everything was dark—
but you can’t tell a woman who is grieving the loss of a lover
and the children she imagined they’d have 
all your own reasons to not have children, 
so I just held my friend’s hand
and later we walked together through the woods
where we found deer hoof prints in dirt
and noticed how each impression split at the center.

from Rattle #77, Fall 2022


Jessica Lee: “‘What the Heart Does’ is indebted to my friend’s student, who really did tape Band-Aids across her heart and cheek, rub glue between her hands, and declare she was making a potion ‘to make no one you love leave you ever.’ For privacy, I decided to give the girl the pseudonym, Aila—the name I hoped to give my own daughter.” (web)

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