“Two Hearts”

The baboon needed my heart. The surgery was scheduled for Tuesday.

One more week of housing my own ticker, a healthy time bomb concealed beneath layers of muscle and skin and so much hair that my girlfriend called it a pelt. At home, shirtless, I would beat my chest with two fists to make her laugh. The self-defibrillator of virility.

I had known Sunny, the baboon, for a decade. I taught him American Sign Language, how to express his wants and needs. He’d been named Sunny for his upbeat attitude and can-do spirit. He quickly took to the thumbs-up gesture and used it throughout the day. He scolded lesser primates for throwing feces. He brought over a broom and dustpan, whispering into their velvety ears. He applauded when they sought out the dustpan themselves.

His favorite sign was “more,” two hands tapping together at the fingertips. Vegetarian lasagna? More. How about a hug? More. A visit from Clara, the female baboon down the University lab hallway? More.

The work was steady, the pay excellent. Sunny stroked my hair and listened as I taught deeper communication. More + a noun. Show what you want. I recoiled visibly when he signed “more” and cupped his genitals lasciviously. My gesture was reflexive, not meant to scold, but Sunny signed “Sorry, Dave.”

We – I – published papers on the bond between human trainer and baboon trainee. My last article, Who’s the Monkey Now? Primate-Based ASL Breakthroughs, won two cash awards. Sunny was heralded as a genius for combining signs into long sentences. His slow, sweepingarms bore unexpected stories. You look somewhat peaked today, are you feeling all right? I miss my mother and cousins but never knew my father; better that way, mother said. This classy-assed bowler hat showcases my impressive brain.

Sunny and I traveled to Russia on a grant to share my – our – research. My girlfriend, Suzette, joined us. Sunny tolerated her, but clearly wanted my undivided attention over borscht and pierogi on wobbly restaurant tables. He did not care for vodka or our appreciation of it. The return flight from St. Petersburg was a comedy of misunderstanding about seating arrangements. Suzette stroked my forearm, picked lint off my shoulder, assured me that Sunny would get over sitting in cargo. When she turned to the gate agent, Sunny signed, Tell me what you love about Suzette.

After Russia, things changed. His signs retreated to monosyllables.

Sad. Heart. Hurt.

The medical team ran tests. Significant ventricle deterioration. Sunny was one of the university’s biggest assets. So was I, assured the provost: Sunny’s heart would be transferred to me free of charge.

Suzette wants to shave my chest. We prepare Sunny with scrubs, shower cap, mask. He lies in bed and asks for the TV remote instead of his books. We watch reruns of Quincy and I cringe during autopsy scenes. Sunny signs to me alone.

Love. Heart. Dave.

I nod, chin to chest, thinking about what beats in me, what moves my blood. Thinking but not signing: Goodbye.

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Sarah Layden

About Sarah Layden

Sarah Layden's debut novel, Trip Through Your Wires, is forthcoming from Engine Books. A graduate of Purdue University's MFA program, her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, Reed Magazine, PANK, Ladies' Home Journal, The Humanist, and elsewhere. She is a lecturer in the Writing Program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.