It was a cool day for July, a healthy breeze keeping the heat at bay, and I had immersed myself in a matrix of tomato vines, breathing in the vine-ripe aroma and enjoying the yellow-to-red rainbow of garden fruit, when I saw a man several yards away. Silhouetted by the sun, he looked like an emaciated Giacometti, until I took a few steps forward; with the sun no longer swallowing him, he was just tall, nothing special. I watched him reach up, yank off a tomato, and chomp into it with authority, the juice squirting out upon impact and leaking down his chin with a vengeance.

He shifted and saw me. He offered me a bite. I accepted. It was a fireball of a tomato, delicious, its tang flooding our mouths and trickling from our lips down to our chins, tickling our necks, tingeing our white T-shirts pink at the collars. It could have been just another tomato on a vine, stuck there round and shiny, swelling, waiting to be plucked and eaten, with brothers and sisters just as ripe, just as ample. But this tomato was extraordinary. I’d never tasted anything so rich. The stranger and I surveyed each other coolly as we chomped, and I felt the beginning of something, I didn’t know what exactly, take root in my body.

I love tomatoes. His name was Paul.

On our first date we went to Mama Mia’s, a Ninth Street hole in the wall. Paul’s idea. They knew him there. I imagine he wanted to impress me with his capacity for making quaint friends like Guillermo and Estelle, the septuagenarian owners of the place. They embraced him heartily and gave me an affectionate once-over with eyebrows raised, I believe in impressed approval. At the time, I was charmed: He likes elderly Italians. He is perfect.

We had just fallen into the rhythm of a smooth tete-a-tete when our salads were served, striking us silent with their opulence: a generous array of sliced tomatoes arranged upon rippling leaves of romaine with grated mozzarella sprinkled on top. O! And a creamy Italian sauce to die for. I looked at Paul and smiled. Paul smiled back. My heart bubbled with joy as I plinked a tomato slice into my mouth and chewed. I looked at him chewing on his tomato slice as he looked at me chewing on my tomato slice, and I knew this would be a relationship that would last.

He had felt it, too, he said many months later, when we remembered with fondness that first date, the first of many such dates, many such tomato-filled salads followed by traditional Italian dishes and slow walks along the river. He was a talker, oh yes, fond of sweeping declarations and eloquent with his hands; our favorite topics were gentrification, environmental racism, urban art, and tomatoes. I love tomatoes. Since the day we met so gloriously amidst the tomato vines at the farm, we had been back to Mama Mia’s twenty times at least, enough for Guillermo and Estelle to know our business and give us dessert on the house from time to time, usually when we were arguing, which naturally became more frequent as time wore on.

He took me back to Mama Mia’s to propose. Not marriage, but a partnership. A committed partnership. We had politics, you know. Guillermo brought out our salads, and Paul brought up that first date, that moment when we had gazed at each other with forks mid-air and plinked tomato slices into our mouths simultaneously. He claimed to have known right then, right there, that we would make it. We would commit to one another, grow old together. Darling, he said, will you be my life partner?

I looked down at my salad. He had jumped the gun a little, I thought. I didn’t want to think of such things; I wanted to plink a tomato slice into my mouth and savor its garden flesh. But looking at him looking at me like that, my heart surprised me, thumping like it wanted out, like it wanted to jump right out of my chest and nestle inside his. Our hearts would grow old together. We were in love.

So I looked up and said, yes, darling, yes, I will. Paul let out a huge breath and reached for my hand. We clutched each other’s hands and smiled, our eyes glistening, then kissed each other lightly over the table. I was glad then that I hadn’t started in on the Male Answer Syndrome baiting, a game I’d picked up from one of our femarchist friends and grown fond of over the course of our relationship. Paul might have reneged, which, by the way, should be pronounced with a soft g because it sounds better and more appropriate that way. Paul always rejected my pronunciation-as-use theories of language. I have to get them in when he’s not listening.

That night we had a long bout of polite sex and then we went to sleep. When I woke up, it was early morning, and my chest was rattling noisily. Something felt wrong inside me. I was numb on one side, and my chest was swelling visibly, as though my rib cage was expanding. I must be having a heart attack, I thought. Exciting, and highly unusual for a woman my age—but I have always been special. Then I started coughing uncontrollably, so hard I feared I’d hurl up my esophagus. That was when Paul woke up, alarmed, and started whacking me on the back, saying are you all right, darling, are you all right, and, should I call the hospital, darling, I’m calling the hospital. He made for the phone. I batted his arm away.

By that point, the skin between my breasts had begun itching uncontrollably, and I couldn’t help but scratch. I scratched and scratched, digging deep with my fingernails until, abruptly, I tore through my skin—it wasn’t painful so much as relieving. As I peeled my skin back, groaning, I felt something push at my rib cage from within. I thought, my god, I must have a tumor between my breasts, now a heart attack is one thing but cancer is just not allowed. And that’s when it happened; I don’t know how. My heart burst out of my chest. It popped through its arterial fence, it surged through my lungs and my rib cage, and ejected itself through various nervous tissues and muscle fibers with a final rip through the hole I had made in my skin. There it stopped, my heart, still attached to its arteries and veins, but exposed and sagging between my breasts like some kind of unwieldy necklace. Chestlace? If you will.

Because Paul has fucking weird dreams, naturally he assumed this was one and promptly went back to sleep. After a moment, so did I. When I woke up, the problem had unfortunately not remedied itself. My chest bore a small open wound, from whence my heart dangled, snug between my mammary glands. I was more fascinated than alarmed—fascinated because my heart, now visible to the world, looked remarkably like a tomato, a tomato whose rubbery skin steadily palpitated with soft th-thumps. When Paul woke up, he had an identically similar reaction. Your heart, he exclaimed animatedly, it looks remarkably like a tomato! Then he stopped staring and looked at me concerned. Darling, he said, we really should take you to the hospital, with that patronizing look like he knew what was best, and I certainly didn’t. By that point in our relationship, however, I knew better than to cry condescension. He would invariably pull out the card that said, I have a master’s degree in women’s studies and a four-year background in anti-rape activism. What do you have, Christine?

Fuck you, Paul, I said with a yawn, and got up gracefully. I’m fine. I stepped in front of the mirror to examine myself more closely. Not only did my heart look remarkably like a tomato, there was no arguing that it was, in fact, a tomato, and large, at that, even when contracted. Indeed, it took great effort to resist taking a bite out of my heart. I gasped and covered myself, thinking of Paul’s similar tomato-lust. I must keep my heart away from Paul, I thought, or he would surely eat it and kill me.

After I put on a loose sweatshirt, I began to feel somewhat lightheaded. Well, I thought, maybe I’ll go to the emergency room after all. I wrote a note and stuck it on the refrigerator, then left the apartment and stepped onto the street. By now I had a severe craving for a big, juicy tomato, so I thought, why not stop at the local farmer’s market on the way to the hospital. There wasn’t any rush.

It was crowded for a Tuesday morning, with everyone tossing around barked numbers and bulky bags of produce. I made my way past tables of green peppers, lettuce, jellies, and cucumbers before catching sight of the tomatoes at the end of the market. Cherry tomatoes, plum tomatoes, slicing tomatoes, ah. The shiny bright skin, the friendly round shape, the thirst-quenching blood.

Luscious, I thought. Pure lusciousness.

I needed a tomato, right then, right there.

My eyes locked in on an especially large specimen with a quirky asymmetrical stem. This, I thought, this is the one. I felt a twinge of guilt at my independent tomato-hunting. Although Paul and I tried always to prevent any development of co-dependence between us, so much so that we each made our own salads standing side by side at the counter, tomatoes had always been our thing. Now, not a full day since we had made our commitment, I was already acting selfishly. But what can you do about severe tomato cravings, I asked myself, except eat a tomato? Besides, you are selfish.

As I was beelining towards the tomatoes, lost in my thoughts, a woman with an elbow bumped into me. She elbowed me right between my breasts, right in the heart. I sucked in my breath and stopped still. The woman didn’t bother to apologize, just stalked off indifferently as my blood went rushing to my head. Had it burst? Had my heart burst? I needed to sit down and check without flashing my breasts at anyone. I needed to sit down and catch my breath. I needed to sit down and … I sat down. I looked down my shirt. My heart had ruptured; juice was running down my abdomen. I reached down and cradled my broken heart. Realizing I was in a busy public area, I looked up alarmed. No, I calmed myself, no one had noticed me with my hand down my shirt; I had my heart to myself, and rightly so.

Having skipped breakfast, my hunger pangs were intense, and heightened by the smell of ripe tomato. I would need to eat soon. And what more delicious than…? No. I knew better. And yet my stomach was turning itself inside out with hunger. So I grabbed my tomato heart lustily and tugged it experimentally towards my lips, finding that its arterial vine had some give. I sucked my heart’s juice. And…I couldn’t help myself. I bit.

Immediately I felt stronger in the stomach and brain but weaker in the rest of my body. My chest hurt badly; pain shot all through. I mustered up all my strength and walked the two blocks to the hospital. The nurse in the emergency room took one look at me, gave me a clipboard, and said, take a seat. Although the pain was excruciating, I told myself to be patient. Other people needed doctors, too. But I couldn’t even fill out the application form; my stomach was yawning noisily. What was I to do? So I lifted up my heart and took another bite. The nurse sighed. Well, now you’ll need a transplant. Doctor!

I recovered fully. Paul and I decided to take a break. I feel sure it is a permanent break but know the decision is his to make. He will not be at peace unless he gets the last word and can legitimately justify the break-up on grounds not related to my heart.

I no longer eat tomatoes. When I see them now, I feel a phantom lurch in my chest. My new affair is with grapes. Cold, hard grapes. I like the white kind, the seedless kind, the ones that look like eyeballs. I like to plop a cold, hard seedless grape in my mouth and suck and suck before biting and feeling all the juice squirt out inside of me. Sometimes, I like to peel the skin off before chomping on the fleshy interior. But it’s hard to find the time for that. We’re all so busy these days.

Megan Milks is in the Ph.D. Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.Her work is forthcoming or has been published in Thirty Under Thirty, an anthology of innovative writers under the age of thirty; Kathy Acker:Transatlanticism and the Transnational; Fist of the Spider Woman: Tales of Fear and Queer Desire; Wreckage of Reason: An Anthology of ContemporaryXXperimental Prose by Women Writers; DIAGRAM; Pocket Myths; and MildredPierce. Her short story “Kill Marguerite” is coming out as a chapbook through Another New Calligraphy in May.

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