FICTION August 6, 2021

Two Women Share a Pulse


His wife is steady, witty, and kind, replete with interest and warmth. When they fell in love, she reserved a tiny chamber in her heart for him and made it inviting and clean. She furnished it, carefully, with memory-laden things. Every morning, even now, she dresses for work, puts her hair in a chignon, and straightens the chamber in her heart. Before she leaves, she grants him access with a kiss.


He and I always meet in public, as friends do. Friends through mutual friends. He sketches buildings, and I write. I write with she’s and he’s, I’s and we’s, and he builds walls in pen. Originally the two of us were part of a group, but the group has fallen away. 

Reverently he tells me about his wife. She twists her hair back in this weird way—on our first date she used my pen to do it. I’m polite and say I want to meet her, but I don’t. She is irrelevant to my writing, as removed as the men I date, and I don’t see what role she plays in the two of us trying to make art.

Then he tells me about the chamber in her heart, the curious way it functions. A rule went into effect at a point he can’t identify: to exist, the chamber must be entrusted to someone when the two of them aren’t together. This isn’t a rule one of them made, but a condition of the room itself. So when they are together, the chamber is hers—she can enjoy it, tend it as she likes. But when they aren’t together, she entrusts it to him, and the transfer occurs with a kiss. 

I decide I want to write this down. I use she and he to do it. Initially I use you to refer to myself. But a pronoun is like a room, a space filled up with stories, and a room ought to be more than a place to hide.


He and I sit at a rusted table, the sun white and revealing. He draws his pictures and I write. 

After a while, I stop. My eyelash, or his, has fallen to the table, and it tips like a boat in the wind. I rescue it with the pad of my thumb and balance it on another finger. He asks to see what I’m writing, but I decline. I still don’t feel that I know him well enough. 

Later his page is angled, and I can see what he’s drawing. He’s captured a building near us, its base rendered perfectly in pen. As the building progresses it transmogrifies into organs, which he’s drawn in heavier, repeated strokes of ink. A window is part mesentery, a chimney becomes tongue, and the roof is wrinkled like skin. 

He notices me looking. He tells me the first time he drew like this was when he fell in love with his wife. He drew a tower for her in meticulous, realist detail at its top, but with—her idea—its lower walls bending, progressing into a fantasy of organs. 

I don’t tell him that what he’s drawn has stunned me. Liminal space made visible. Haunt of de-realization. He tells me he drew the foundation’s walls in supple folds and turns, as though the lines were contours in a brain.


He describes the chamber in her heart. First by accident, in an anecdote about their apartment. He mentions that the chamber is decorated with smaller versions of the things in their apartment: cattails she loves to collect in fall, a gray comforter he likes. 

He tries to sketch the chamber for me and explain what it is like to be inside, how long it’s taken her to set it up, how many mornings unfold in the same way—the alarm going off, her dressing for work, her hair in a chignon, the straightening, the kiss.

His wife showed him the chamber on the day she said I love you. For eleven years he is the only one she has let inside. 


He asks me what I’m writing. I tell him a little of what I like: domestic stories, though I worry they’re not feminist; the layered, muscled confusion of human connection; the blood-run body, memories, and lungs. He studies me as if he could diagnose me, or find the anomaly we share. I want to tell him I like writing about houses, but it sounds too much like flattery when buildings are what he draws. 

After this, I write better than I usually do. I write about the body, the body as a house, and the heart with rooms inside it. I furnish a room, one tender object at a time. I write this and think about him, wonder about his work. I forget that his wife is part of who he is.


We are working side by side on a park bench. There is a playfulness in his hair, the wind brushing by to say it likes him. I smile and he looks up, says what, confused. I realize, a turn in the chest, how familiar he has become to me. The shallowest wrinkle creases his right eyelid, peaks before it arrows for the canthus. Where his lips meet, the left corner of his mouth, the commissure—the left commissure reaches up now, tints me red. I should look away, but there is recognition in his pupils. I see the dark form of it, a body. It turns to me, enmeshes with my want. 


One day I show him a story I’ve written. “This is good,” he says, but heavily, as if the observation is oppressive. He returns it, wrist upturned, across the table. As he leans, a breeze reaches the page of his sketchpad. The paper flutters long enough to show penned lines of me. It’s not a full portrait, an excess, but the essential portions of my body. My brow is split as though I’m writing, my fingers are dark bronchi, become lungs.


He invites me over, to work in the chamber in her heart. Vases of dried cattails stir near the door—a valve that opens and closes as her heart beats. The walls are made of muscle—thin fibers tangled together, red and pulsing. 

On one wall she’s hung the drawing of the tower. She’s drilled it into the heart wall with an anchor and a screw, as if her heart is prone to cracking. 

Underneath it, the wall slopes into the floor, a gentle bend. The curves of the chamber, or maybe the muscle of which it’s made, are too vulnerable to support a bedframe. Instead there is a big, slouching mattress on the ground, and the comforter in his favorite shade of gray. The color is called marengo, he says. Under it the floor is patterned like the walls are, a shadowy, reddish-purple network of capillaries and coronary veins. 

We sit apart, on chairs, and work in silence. I wonder whether she can sense that I am here, and I’m careful not to touch her things. This first time I can’t focus, the walls beating loud as timpani. I pack up to leave long before she returns and rescinds his access with her kiss. I hear her heartbeat late into the night and feel guilty until I realize that it’s mine.


And still I go into the chamber each day. He and I don’t ever touch, but I’m gladder to see him than I should be. I watch his hands, drawing and building in her heart. Outside he talked compulsively, but in reality he is quiet, and inside we barely speak. 

Instead we create, writing and drawing inside this pumping chamber. His wife feels like a fantasy because I’ve never met her, but that doesn’t mean she is one. 

And still I imagine things: 
I wonder what would happen if the walls stilled.
I fantasize that the chamber belongs to me.
I pretend that we could live in here without her. 

He asks how I choose the stories I tell, and I say they choose me. He laughs, a blunt exhale through his nose, and says how nice it is to have a friend. 

For me the friendship is ending. 

Or perhaps it ended a while ago, transmogrified at a point I can’t distinguish. 


I try to write about him. Perhaps I am writing to postpone our ending, or revisit the memories I’ve stored. I’ve reserved a tiny chamber in my heart for him, and in it I sit and scrawl: The human body is a collection of organs with a shared, singular yearning to be alive. When you love someone, you exchange your bodies, and in a way their body becomes yours. I want to entrust my body to your care. There is a chamber in my heart, and I’ve set it aside for you. Its walls are veined and pulsing, purpled red. Inside I’ve put that park bench, this fiction, your pens, an eyelash retained. 


I take the eyelash from my chamber. I bring it into her heart and set it on a shelf, among the cattails, the chairs, the tower, the comforter, the bed. 

I run my hand along the cattails, and they disintegrate into particles. They float in the air and pulse once, unified, intricate as dandelion seeds. The walls slow—largo, grave. I sit down to write.

He is sitting, drawing. I put my fingers to his neck. He studies me, doesn’t say I shouldn’t. In my skin is the calefaction of his pulse. My heartbeat is all I hear, insistent thunder. There will be a transfer with the kiss.

Then there is a conviction in me, louder than my heart: A woman. Her chest. Her pulse. Every morning for eleven years, she gets up for work, puts her hair in a chignon. She learns the rules and realities of her lover. She decorates. She straightens. She gives. She leaves, and when she does, she entrusts a tiny chamber in her heart to me.

Natalie Rowland earned her MFA from Florida Atlantic University, where she served as the founding managing editor of Swamp Ape Review, and her BA in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan. Her work has appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, and Fiction Writers Review. She currently works for the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.