Heart Stain

by Val Nye

The hospital doors slide open for me and I step forward without a break in my stride. I take a sharp left turn into the women’s restroom next to the outpatient check-in desk, across from a family waiting area. I know the chairs and tables in the waiting area look much more comfortable from a distance than they actually feel. They are hard and unforgiving. Today no one is waiting.

The restroom is open. Most of the time there is a yellow cart outside the bathroom indicating that it’s closed for cleaning, but today is Sunday and the hospital is relatively quiet. As the restroom door closes behind me, I realize I am alone. Passing the mirror above the sinks, I glimpse myself and notice with some surprise that my forehead is smooth, not creased with worry, and my eyes seem to smile even though they feel heavy and dark. I go into the second-to-last stall, where I have become used to hanging my bag on the door hook and balancing my cell phone on the toilet paper roll.

Alone in this small space, I admit I am tired. I am sad. My heart is broken. Tears fall from my eyes and brush past my cheeks, falling onto the sleeve of my shiny black winter coat. Still, I am grateful for this moment of silence before I go upstairs to the patient rooms.

As I grab my purse off the stall hook and prepare to leave, I look down and see a skinny little arm with a pink sleeve come under the wall of the bathroom stall. Her hand is open, holding something small and silver.

I am not alone. She has been in here all along.

“Here, here!” a small voice insists. In her hand there appears to be a piece of candy. The voice cannot belong to a girl older than six. Why is she in here by herself? Where are her parents, and why is she handing out candy? I look down and squint my eyes; it’s a chocolate kiss. I stay quiet. I don’t want to take it; I want the little girl to keep the candy for herself.

“Here, Miss, here!” She pushes her hand toward me and the wrapped piece of chocolate falls onto the tiled bathroom floor and rolls a short distance. The tiny hand reaches further into

my stall to pick it up. I don’t want it. The kiss is dirty and has rolled across the bathroom floor. No one should eat it now.

With the candy back in her hand, she insists, “Here, this is for you. Miss!” Her voice demands that I accept the gift. She isn’t offering me the chocolate; she is telling me I must take it.

“Here, take it! It is for you!” The hand shakes with the command.

Her persistence reminds me of the things I have been forced to see and try to understand in the hospital room upstairs. A small blonde boy’s delicate body is shaken by the machines that churn to keep him alive. During the darkest moment in that room, the hospital chaplain’s hands reached out to me, and they had nothing to give.

Looking down at the small girl’s open hand, I pick up the chocolate and whisper, “Thank you.” My lips pierce in what feels like a smile.

“You’re welcome,” she returns in a whisper, and her arm disappears.

She is gone.

Stopping at the sink, I put the chocolate on the counter while I wash my hands. Then, I tuck the kiss in the right front pocket of my jeans. I want to figure out what to do with this unusual gift, but right now I am out of time for such thoughts.

The kiss is quickly forgotten as I make my way to the elevator. Before the end of the day, the chocolate will melt and form the shape of a heart on the pocket of my jeans.

Doing my laundry months later, I see the stain is still here. Since that Sunday, my life has changed in unwanted and unexpected ways. I run my thumb over the heart stain, as if I can erase it like a smudge of dirt. The heart shape makes me think of the little girl. I want to believe that she knew something that I didn’t know that day, and that she gave me the chocolate kiss to help me practice gracefully accepting unwanted and unexpected gifts.

Valerie Nye was born and raised in Albuquerque and has worked in libraries and archives in Santa Fe for the last twenty years. She has co-authored two books: Posted Marked Milledgeville: A Guide to Flannery O’Connor’s Correspondence and Breakfast Santa Fe Style. Most recently, she is the editor of a book of essays written by professional librarians called Intellectual Freedom Stories from a Shifting Landscape.