The Boy with His Heart on His Sleeve and the Girl Who Never Tried to Fix Him

from the book We Can't Go Home Again by Max Andrew Dubinsky

I was born with my heart on my sleeve. Despite popular belief, there were no complications in the delivery room. When the doctor handed me over to my mother, he told her to be careful.

“He’s fragile,” he said.

Mom cried when she held me for the first time, overjoyed at the prospect of raising a son who would be so in touch with his emotions. Maybe I wouldn’t be like all the other men in her life.

Dad sat in the corner, shaking his head, already disappointed in me like I had any say in the matter. Like I wanted to be born this way.

“It’s not all that uncommon of an affliction,” the doctor tried to reassure him. “A lot of men carry their hearts on their sleeves.”

“I think he’s beautiful,” Mom said, tears still in her eyes.

When Dad had his buddies over from work for the big game the following Sunday, they stood around my crib shaking their heads and consoling him with pats on the back, clinking beer bottles together.

One friend informed them, “My wife says it’s okay for men to be this way. Says the world would be a better place if more men were born like your boy here.”

The men only stared.

“My wife,” he shrugged, “she reads a lot. Is always getting these crazy ideas. But still…”

“The doctor,” Dad told them, “said this isn’t that uncommon of an affliction.”

Mom hates when people use that word.


I asked her how we should describe my condition then.

“You’re just more vulnerable than most,” she said with a smile one morning cooking eggs and cinnamon toast.

Just once I’d like not to cry when the sun sets.

In school, the kids knew there was something different about me. I’d show up to class wearing turtle neck sweaters in June.

I cried every morning I got on the bus, leaving Mom behind in the driveway like it was the last time I was ever going to see her. In high school I had no problem dating, but none of the girls took my marriage proposals for serious affairs.

“What about college?” they’d ask. “We’ve never even been to Europe,” they’d say.

“Forget Europe,” I’d tell them. “I’m going to college wherever you’re going.”

But you, you were different. There was something so understanding about you. The day we met, you had your hair pulled back and wore that awful orange jacket you picked up at the Goodwill. I wore a sweater Mom bought me for Christmas. So you didn’t know until it got good and hot in that coffee shop, and I rolled up my sleeves. When you saw who I really was, you said you were glad I wasn’t like the rest. I asked what you meant. You smiled and said, “Normal is so boring.”

You were a machine, and I was just a boy with his heart on his sleeve.

“This has tragedy written all over it,” I used to say to you again and again.

You would tell me to stop over-analyzing everything. “Just enjoy the moment.”

I was relentless. You were unresponsive.

After you left, I decided to try and see if I could live without it. Without my heart on my sleeve. So I cut it off. And I put in a box.

Then I hid the box.

Where no one could ever get to it.

No one but me.

Eventually, I forgot where I put the box.

Eventually, I stopped thinking about the box, or even wondering what life was like living with a heart.

Everything was far easier.

Then I saw you at the bar with his arm around your waist, your hands in his pockets, his lips on your ear, and I felt nothing but the place where my heart used to be.

I felt it tingle. I felt it crawl. Then I felt nothing at all.

Which was nice. For a while, at least.

Until she came along.

There was something about her. I couldn’t quite figure it out. Until she pushed up her sleeves, and I saw the scars.

I asked her where she put it. Where did she put her heart? Did she throw it away or give it as a gift at Christmas?

“I put it in a safe place,” she told me. “Where no one could ever get to it.”

No one but her.

When she asked why I acted so strange sometimes, I informed her that I couldn’t remember where I put my heart. And for the first time in my life I had finally found a use for it.

She smiled.

She offered me hers.

I shook my head. I pleaded with her to take it back.

“I can’t accept that.”

“I won’t know what to do with it.”

“It’ll only end up bruised, hurt, and worse off than it was before you left it under my care.”

She said she was willing to take the risk.

I tore through my closets, my car, my pockets, but still, I could not remember my safe place. I had to give her something in return, but nothing other than my own heart would ever good enough.

Then one evening alone in her apartment, she told me it was okay.

“Your heart,” she said, “you gave it to me. I have it. It is safe.”

I didn’t understand.

I asked her how this was possible.

She looked at me like she couldn’t believe I’d even ask such a thing. She wanted my trust. She put her hand on my arm where my heart used to be. She touched my chest where I kept hers, and cared for it as though it were my own.

She said, “You cry every time we watch the sun set.”