The easiest things to lose are the most important ones.
The only way to handle pain, Joanna’s father used to tell her, is to aggravate it. Push down on your bruises until they collapse into numb whiteness beneath your fingers. Pain is human. It can be bullied.
The scar on her stomach doesn’t hurt anymore, but Joanna tenderizes the skin anyway, every morning in the shower as the hot water pools the ridges where her flesh knotted together badly. She doesn’t feel any different.
“I gave my kidney away,” she tells her own face in the steam-smeared mirror. She presses up against the softer skin where someone sewed her up as something different from what her biology wanted her to be. When she closes her eyes she imagines bright-eyed children looking up at her from a hospital bed and begging Mom, please. Joanna will have to tell them I can’t. I should have saved up all of my spare parts but I didn’t and now I don’t have anything left to give you.
What happened was this: six months ago, Joanna was still in love with a man with big knuckles and small toes. He had hair that always knotted after a shower. When he smiled she could see the gap in his teeth and when he kissed her his hands were so big that they covered her cheeks entirely.
When they slept, he was everywhere, his arms across her shoulders and her stomach and his legs tangled up with hers at the ankle. He was hot. Joanna used to wake up sweating, her hair plastered to her forehead. Asleep, his mouth fell open. She could feel his puffs of breath against the back of her neck. His name was Andrew. He sang in the shower.
For her birthday he baked her a cake that said You’re Okay Sometimes And Have A Good Birthday on it. They ate the whole thing. After, when Joanna was so full that she couldn’t push off the couch and she felt cross-eyed, he had rolled over to look at her and whispered, “Hey, Jo, hey. I love you.”
“I know,” Joanna said, and reached across to tangle up their fingers while they stared at the ceiling and waited for the swell of their stomachs to go down.
She didn’t tell anybody at the school where she works when she went in for surgery. She doesn’t tell anybody now. When they ask about the absence, she waves a vague hand in the air as she says, “Family emergency, couldn’t get out of it,” and lets them think that someone died.
(Someone almost did.)
Marjorie finds her in the teacher’s lounge drinking orange juice and coffee. She doesn’t like the two tastes together but she wants both. Taste is human. It can be bullied.
“Hey, so whatever happened to what’s-his-name?” Marjorie asks, taking one of the free pastries from the counter by the sink and talking around it.
Marjorie teaches science. Joanna likes her because she swears in front of her students and forces them to love her subject because they love her. Marjorie is easy to love. Joanna has never had that gift, has always been more of an acquired taste.
She puts down her coffee mug and reaches for her juice glass as her eyes skim over the reading response that she told her students she would be grading but actually just marks down if complete. “Who?” she asks, scribbling an A at the top of the page and a check mark in her gradebook.
“You know,” Marjorie says. “That guy you were seeing.”
Joanna’s hand drifts down to her stomach. She pushes so hard against the skin that the cartilage gives a little and a tiny bead of pain blooms up. It is easy to have one kidney. There are no dietary restrictions, no pills she has to take. Joanna never played contact sports to begin with. She hasn’t lost anything. She hasn’t had to give anything up. She doesn’t miss anything about her kidney except the person who is using it.
“Not seeing him anymore,” she answers, and her voice is steady. She takes a sip of coffee.
Marjorie raises her eyebrows and shoots her an appraising look across the table. “What did he do?” she asks, and Joanna says, “Just stopped loving me, I guess.”
She gave him a kidney and he gave her five extra months for it. Joanna holds onto that and hates herself for holding on so tightly to something that boils down to pity and someone else’s good heart.
You cannot keep loving somebody just because they have given you a working piece of their anatomy and made it yours.
Her mother, who does not know that Joanna allowed a surgeon’s steady hand to cut her open and put a piece of her body gift-wrapped into someone else, tells her that every time somebody we love walks away, they take a little piece of us with them. Joanna laughs herself into hysteria and manages to gasp out, “That’s a big piece.”
“Oh, honey,” her mother murmurs. “You’ll be okay.”
Joanna says, “I know.”
Love is human. It can be bullied.
He could have died. He was going to die. Joanna hadn’t had a choice.
She doesn’t know where he is now. She doesn’t know if he was hit by a car or met a girl in a coffee shop or got lost on the way to IKEA and wound up at the international airport. She doesn’t know if he still plays soccer. You’re not supposed to do that with only one kidney, but she doesn’t have the right to tell him what to do with hers.
“Hey,” murmurs Marjorie over Margaritas after school on Friday, “you couldn’t have given any more to that relationship than you did.”
Joanna laughs. She laughs so hard that she has to put her head down on the table and cry until her shoulders are aching.
A big-knuckled man with small toes had loved her until he couldn’t anymore. She gave him something that neither of them can return. Somewhere in the world, he is walking around with a piece of Joanna nestled into a place built for something not hers. You cannot keep loving somebody just because you need them to stay alive.
Joanna goes home and buys a cake that says God Bless America on the top. She stares up at the ceiling with her hand on her stomach, looking for emptiness. It isn’t there. Nothing has changed except that there is no one to tangle her fingers up with and people get their hearts broken all the time.
She takes deep breaths and closes her eyes. The only way to manage pain is to aggravate it.
“Okay,” Joanna says, and starts to eat.