You find out just how bad a shape you’re in with the first stress test. Not five minutes on a flat treadmill, and alarms start going off. You pay attention. The cardiologist says take this medicine. You do what he says about the medicine. Not the cigarettes. Not yet.
You go back in two weeks and handle thirty minutes uphill. This time, there are no alarms. The doctor still wants to do that multisyllabic cardiac test. Same-day surgery, just a camera able to travel your arteries and take snapshots of your heart. When your daughter was young you told her about little green men inside the radio who made the sound come out. You picture microscopic people, Japanese with Minoltas, coursing through your bloodstream and photographing the damage.
The doc tells you this kind of chest pain is not uncommon for men your age. Men your age who play tennis twice a day, maybe not. But men your age who’ve smoked three packs a day for thirty years, sure. So it evens out. You’re pissed at your college roommate who teased you into Marlboro Country. Like virginity lost, you can’t go back.
You find out about the medicine you’ll have to take if it’s bad. You pretend to laugh when you ask the doc how’s a guy supposed to give up sex and cigarettes in the same decade. He switches the talk to cholesterol levels, says let’s not worry until we get the test results. Cross that bridge when we come to it. You know that if “we” have to cross that bridge, only you will be unable to fuck.
Not that sex is an everyday occurrence. Your wife complains to your daughter about it. Your daughter thinks that because she’s a college senior everyone wants to hear her opinion. In her opinion it is abnormal for a husband and wife to have no sexual relationship. In her opinion you and her mother should be in marriage counseling. In her opinion a man who says he plays tennis twice a day is really out cheating on his wife.
You do play twice a day. You don’t need tennis for an alibi. There are other times. The women you see are modern and don’t require much. No cameras on the heart, just that flash of connection that happens sometimes. You phone one of the women, the married psychologist you think of as “nice.” She lives enough area codes away that you can tell her everything. She is good at sympathy and easy chatter.
You talk about cities. New York, the city you love and hate, like family you know too well. The American cities that feel foreign: New Orleans, San Francisco, Seattle. She doesn’t agree about Seattle. Then Canadian cities. How Toronto is like Chicago; Quebec like Paris. You say you’d like the two of you to go to Montreal together sometime. Sure, she says, sure, the same way your wife says sure when you tell her you’ll take her on a cruise next year.
You turn the conversation back to your heart. It’s nice how she’s concerned. She says not to worry about the side effects of the medication; kissing and touching are enough. For a woman, you think. She understands how hard it must be to give up smoking. She asks if you know that nicotine is second only to heroin as an addictive substance. She has never smoked, but tells you there are times even she craves a cigarette. Isn’t that something.
You say you really wish you could quit. You tell her how your college roommate got you started. You say you have to quit, it’s too hard on your heart. This is when you find out she’s not so nice. You picture her sitting primly behind a big shrink desk, hair pinned into place, when she says it doesn’t really sound like you want to quit. She says it sounds to her like you can’t accept limitations. You tell her you have to hang up. She asks you to call her when you get the results. Sure, you say, sure.
You drive alone to the hospital. You don’t allow your wife the waiting-room drama; you don’t need it. A pretty nurse shaves your arm where the cardiac catheter will enter. She keeps calling you sir. When you say you bet she’s a hell of a cook, she looks puzzled and says, not particularly.
You remember the times that line was a great starter. The stewardess in first class who lounged on your armrest and challenged, with a face and body like this, do I look like I need to cook? The women’s studies professor from Radcliffe who couldn’t wait to have you over for stir-fry. Even the psychologist, offended by what she called a sexist come-on, warmed up when you confessed how well the line had worked with a stewardess. One of the first things you found out about women is that they like it when you tell them about women from your past. They mistake confession for intimacy.
You are waiting in Recovery. Your chest still bears little red rings left by the devices they hooked you to. You think of leeching cups, of how helpless men were in other times when their bodies began to fail. Your arm is bandaged and aches dully. A different nurse, older than you, you guess, asks if she can get you anything. You want to say a cigarette and somebody to love, not necessarily in that order, but instead you reply, how about a new body? She laughs appreciatively. Don’t we all, she says, when we start pushing fifty. You wonder whether she knows from looking at your face or your chart that you are forty-nine.
You are used to looking younger than your age. You were carded clear through your twenties; the other attorneys in the D.A.’s office called you Baby-face. Now when you could use the youth, it suddenly leaves you. You can still work the arms and legs into shape, harden the biceps, calves, and thighs with enough tennis. But time is showing on your face, in the soft of your belly, in the failure of your heart.
The nurse tells you the doctor just called and is on his way. You make a joke about your pictures getting back fast from Quick Photo. She laughs. You wonder if the doctor told her anything.
You know all about death. You see it, you work it, you put it on trial. Other people’s. But death isn’t what’s got you worried. It is consequences, limits. Up until this heart thing, you figured you always would be able to eat and drink and smoke and fuck as you please.
The door to Recovery swings open as the doctor enters. He is younger than you, and not practiced at keeping his face neutral. After twenty-five years in the courtroom, you only have to look at the foreman to know a jury’s mind. The doc’s expression tells you what he has found out about your heart.
You feel too sorry for yourself to hear him say you’re lucky to be alive. He is telling you what you must do and what you must stop doing to keep your heart going. You say, what’s the point of giving up everything that makes life worth living just to keep alive. He says he’s a cardiologist, not a psychologist.
Your psychologist friend always tells you to take care of yourself. She says you need to make it to old age because then you’ll settle down and really love someone. You know she has herself in mind. The idea that you might finally connect — not necessarily with her, but with someone — comforted you. You were going to be different when you got old. The cardiologist is telling you that old is now.
You need Mrs. Brocato. She was your ninth-grade English teacher. You were tough in ninth grade, nobody to mess with. You wore a black, imitation-leather jacket and combed your dark hair into a mean ducktail. Mrs. Brocato pulled you aside one day and said you were getting too old to pretend to be a hoodlum, soon enough you were going to be one unless you cleaned up your act. The phrase wasn’t clean up your act, but that was what she meant. She said you could be somebody else; it wasn’t too late. She told you exactly what you needed to do to change. That day you cut your hair, threw away the jacket. When you got into law school you called her with the news before you called your wife. You haven’t thought of Mrs. Brocato in years; she died about the time you were studying for the bar exam.
You need somebody like her now. Somebody wise and understanding. Not your wife. Not your daughter who thinks change is easy. Just because she stopped biting her fingernails, you were supposed to stop smoking. It takes a damn Ph.D. psychologist to figure out you don’t want to quit a lifetime habit. Turns out the psychologist isn’t so smart either. Here you are with an old man’s heart and still not a clue how to settle down and love someone.