At happy hour, my coworker Sarah and I bond, in the way of women, by cataloguing the flaws of our internal organs. We discover we have a lot in common. Our carotid arteries are of similar diameter, thicker than the feminine ideal. Both our spleens are mildly engorged. We both have always wished our small intestines were a few feet longer, like those of the world’s top fashion models. We have longed also for smaller, daintier kidneys. Sarah tells me about her high school rival, Betsy, whose kidneys were the size of a toddler’s fists and perfectly shaped. Betsy was the darling of all the renal boys, who in Sarah’s school were the cutest.
But Betsy never had anything on my liver, Sarah says. She tells me about her abnormally slender liver, only eight centimeters thick. I am jealous, and say so. In eighth grade I tried to slim my liver to win the affection of Peter Brookshire, a precocious hepatic fanatic. I consumed nothing but cran-water and flaxseed oil for weeks, until I was so malnourished I could hardly get out of bed. It didn’t work anyway. The one time we made out, in a Wendy’s restroom, Peter immediately put his hands under my shirt. His fingers pressed beneath the right side of my rib cage, probing until he could feel the lower edge of my liver. He pulled away, disappointed by my liver’s breadth, and we avoided each other for the next five years.
But that was junior high, twenty years ago, when many boys were liver crazy in their unsophistication, having barely hit puberty, mimicking the liver mania that was at that time ubiquitous in music videos and the centerfold pages of men’s magazines. I play up my jealousy of Sarah’s liver because I’m eager to gain her trust.
We’re sitting at a round metal table outside a boardwalk restaurant a few blocks from our office building. The sun is setting over the ocean and we both have our backs turned to it. I asked Sarah out for drinks because she just started working at our office, and I could use a new friend—a real one, not just a coworker. My female friends have all coupled up with men who are feeding off their organs and whose organs they are feeding off of, a process that will continue until they break up or one of them dies. If and when they return to me, single again, they’ll be diminished in body and spirit—feet swollen from renal failure, or eyes jaundiced, or breath coming short, a piece of their lung or liver or kidney on a shelf in some man’s house.
Sarah tells me it’s the same with her friends. They all claim it’s worth it to be in a relationship, despite the risk of permanent deformity. I know how it is, Sarah says. You’re so relieved to escape a relationship more or less intact, and then you get lonely and jump right back in for another round with someone new. You think, if only you could find a partner whose desire manifests in a relatively noninvasive way. But of course it’s a foolish hope. The more someone loves you, the more he’ll want to take parts of you, and vice versa. The only way to not hurt someone is not to love him enough, to remain unmoved by the thought of his organs pulsing beneath a thin layer of skin.
I’ve never heard it put so well. I nod dumbly and peel open a packet of crackers. I tell Sarah how I’m always on the lookout for a heart man who will appreciate my lopsided ventricles. I thought I found one last week, on a first date with a thickset mathematician who wore unfashionable straight-leg jeans that somehow suggested sexual competence. His eyes flared at the mention of my left ventricle, which is three millimeters longer than the right. I continued, with cautious hope, to detail my circulatory system. My blood is type O. My red blood cells are on the small side, with a diameter of six micrometers. I described my aorta in lurid detail. His mouth had fallen open. Later, in his car, I drew back my hair and allowed him to press his thumbs along my external jugulars, which are unusually pronounced for a woman.
My date, it turned out, was a classic vein man. Sarah rolls her eyes and says vein men are tedious. They all want to be vampires, she says, it’s pathetic. I disagree. I’ve always preferred the attentions of circulatory men. In my view, a vein man is simply a heart man whose development has stalled. Sarah asks if I’ve heard from the mathematician since our date. I admit he hasn’t called yet. Shouldn’t have led with the jugulars, she says with a shrug.
The sun has slipped behind the docks. We order a dozen oysters and another bottle of wine. We’re quiet while the waiter sets the platter of oysters in front of us. He takes his time arranging the paper napkins and miniature forks. He is young, tall, voluptuously handsome, and he lingers over our table, staring at our abdomens while he lines up our forks and tops off our wine glasses. A gastro man, typically shameless.
Sarah picks up an oyster and loads it with horseradish. I ask her what she’s into, and she blushes. I always say I’m into livers, she says, just to see what a guy will do for me. I know he’s committed if he’ll go under the knife to get me a tissue sample. I’ve got jars at home in a minifridge. It was like a sport in my twenties. Once I had a piece of their liver, I lost interest, I knew I had them. Anyway, my real thing is spines.
She rushes on—I know, I know, and believe me, I wouldn’t expect anyone to do it who I wasn’t really sure about. I’ll spend months feeling a guy out. It’s hard to find a partner who’s open to the idea of even localized paralysis. That’s sort of what the whole liver thing was, like a test of his devotion. If he’s not willing to give me a liver sample there’s no way he’ll go through lumbar puncture to get me a vial of spinal fluid. And that’s only the beginning of what I want from him.
Our heartthrob waiter has turned on the heat lamps. When he comes to check on us he forgets himself and asks an awkwardly phrased question: How are your stomachs responding to the oysters?
Fine, Sarah says, shooting him a look meant to contain him. He retreats, humiliated. You can never pick out a gastro man anymore, Sarah says. They used to all be pervy little dweebs in their mom’s basement. Now they look like that. She sips at her wine, and for a moment I dislike her. Her disdain for the waiter seems hypocritical, given her own extreme tastes.
What about you? Sarah says. What’s your thing? I pause, considering whether to give my usual, tame answer of kidneys, or tell her the truth. Like Sarah, I’m into the nervous system, but my passion is the brain itself. My ideal relationship would be with a heart man who possesses a powerful, methodical brain, preferably an expert in some STEM discipline. My dream is that we will marry and he will allow me to take his brain from him, year after year, a tiny bit at a time, through shock treatments and partial lobotomies, until he can’t function on his own and I have to take care of the drooling husk of his body until it expires. It is only for this that I’d surrender pieces of my literal heart.
In my whole life I’ve told only a few people about this desire; brain play remains the ultimate taboo. Sarah waits for my answer. I know that she doesn’t really care about me, doesn’t find me interesting. If anything she might use my deviance against me in the future, when we are both vying for promotion. So I tell her I’m into kidneys, and she shrugs and says, popular choice.
The waiter brings our check. On my way out I slip him my number. We meet under the boardwalk when his shift is over. We lie on the sand and he runs the cold diaphragm of his stethoscope over my abdomen, listening to the oysters and crackers and wine work their way through my digestive tract. I stare at the moon and imagine it looks down on my love, the human casing of the brain I have dreamed of ever since I was a girl crouched behind the refrigerator door, fondling heads of cauliflower without knowing why.