Graft vs Host
“When you were thirteen,” Mrs. Herzweig told me, “instead of a bar mitzvah, you got a Jewish heart.”
It happened to be the heart of her son, Marty. He died in a motorcycle accident, a few weeks after his 17th birthday.
I learned a lot about my donor from his family, and it began when I received the letter inviting me to my first Passover Seder.
“It’s not polite to refuse such an invitation,” my father said. “It was their son who gave you his heart. Attending a dinner is the least you can do.”
Three weeks later on a Tuesday afternoon, my father drove me to Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn, for Passover dinner with the Herzweig family. Because it was a weeknight my mother and sister stayed at home and my father decided to visit an army buddy in Bensonhurst, only a few minutes away.
My father dropped me off in front of the Herzweig’s apartment building. “Just be yourself,” he said and then I noticed the whiskey flask under his blazer. Before I had the transplant he used to have his own driver–but a lot of things changed since the day I woke up with that terrible sore throat.
“Don’t forget to thank them for giving you a second chance to live.”
He pulled away in our Mercedes, and I hoped my donor’s family weren’t watching from a window upstairs.
Inside a foyer, I found the name Herzweig next to a dozen or so other Jewish names and pushed a buzzer. A loud man’s voice called me up to the seventh floor.
The elevator clicked and wobbled, each floor visible through a small porthole. It smelled of old people, of chicken and cabbage.
At the end of a hallway on the seventh floor, I heard laughter. There was a pile of rubbery footwear: rain boots and sneakers covering a welcome mat. The door was ajar.
It was hard to believe this was the home of the boy who gave me his heart. From the time I received the invitation, I imagined it would be all serious—quite funereal because their son was dead, and I worried they would find it unfair that I was the one who got to live at the expense of the boy they loved.
I felt nervous entering the apartment but my heart no longer pounded during such moments. They say this is normal after a heart transplant. The donor’s heart is connected to your blood vessels but not your nervous system, and in a way, the new heart still has a mind of its own.
I pressed the buzzer and there was a high-pitched bark and then the chorus of even louder laughter as if I walked in on the punch line of a great big joke.
A man with slicked-back hair and a pocked nose welcomed me with a smile as if he had known me for a very long time.
“Come on in, Alex. It’s so great to finally have you here.” He smiled to show me a gold filling. “You will be the star of the show! You and Marty.”
He led me into the small apartment, which smelled even more strongly of roasting meat, over a path of worn shag carpeting the color of mustard. People of all ages stood next to tables lined up with an abundance of plates and glasses. There were matzos in the center of the table and other things like a hard-boiled egg, parsley, and bright purple stuff that looked like cat food.
On the shelf were photographs. I saw a younger version of Mr. Herzweig with his wife and two children. There was a girl and a boy who I knew had to be my donor, Marty.
He had a smooth, handsome face and a smile with a confidence that seemed to grow over the years. Even from a photo, I could tell. It was a confidence I never had.
At first, no one seemed to notice me, and then a woman with a very thick neck and stiff, reddish hair ran over with open arms.
“Oh, my god,” she yelled out pulling me into her wide bosom. “You’ve got Marty inside you!” After a bear hug, she let me go with a smile, wiping away a tear with her apron.
Children on the floor ate gold chocolate coins until a fat kid noticed me.
“There’s the kid with Marty’s heart!”
Soon they surrounded me like I was on exhibit at a carnival.
A tiny kid with a beanie charged forward, stabbing me with a toy sword.
Through the crowd, I noticed a very pretty girl with dirty blonde hair sitting alone on the other side of the room.
The Herzweig dog approached cautiously, a small poodle with a fancy haircut, ribbon between his ears, and large toenails painted turquoise. I reached down to pet him. He hissed for a second, backed away, then urinated on the carpet.
The fat kid screamed. “Angel peed on the rug again.”
“Damn it, Arlene,” said Mr. Herzweig, “that goddamned dog is pissing all over the place.”
Mrs. Herzweig brought over a wet rag from the kitchen. “He’s just a little excited,” she said. “Can you blame him?”
“Welcome to our Seder, Alex,” said Mr. Herzweig. “Let me introduce you to everyone. Listen up!” he yelled out. “This is Alexander Warrel, the boy who received Marty’s heart.”
I shook a lot of hands and received a few more hugs. I imagined this is how it would be if you ran for mayor. Then it was time for dinner.
They sat me with the adults, across from Mr. Herzweig on the end and next to Marty’s older sister Lanie, who always seemed annoyed for one reason or another, as if she wanted me to feel guilty for taking her brother’s heart.
There was wine for the adults and grape juice for me and the other younger kids who sat at a separate table.
“I bet you never thought you’d make it to a Seder,” said a woman next to us. She chewed the same piece of food continuously and smelled like mothballs.
“He’s Catholic,” Lanie said, and Mr. Herzweig corrected her.
“No Lanie,” he showed the gold filling again. “He’s Christian but not Catholic. Isn’t that right, Alex?”
“Yes sir,” I said. “I’m Episcopalian.”
“Did he have a bar mitzvah?” the little kid with the sword asked, and everyone laughed. The nicest, whitest smile came from the blonde-haired girl at the far end of the table, the one they introduced as Val: short for Valerie. She had blue eyes and dimples rippled when she smiled.
Then Mrs. Herzweig made her famous comment.
“On his thirteenth birthday,” she said, “instead of a bar mitzvah, Alexander got a Jewish heart.”
Next Mr. Herzweig passed out stained pamphlets and everyone took turns reading. I tried to follow along. There were parts of the Old Testament from Exodus, but it seemed changed like a cartoon version and there was all that Hebrew, which sounded a lot like people clearing their throats. The small kid with the beanie recited a long passage in a sort of chant, and when he was done, everyone clapped.
“Ira, that was a wonderful four questions,” said Mr. Herzweig and Little Ira beamed with pride. Then he stabbed the poodle with his sword.
Before it was time for dessert, I had to go to the bathroom, so I asked Mr. Herzweig where it was.
“Next to the kitchen,” he pointed, but on my way over, I was stopped by Mrs. Herzweig. “You better not use that one,” she said. “Lanie’s having diarrhea. Use the one in our bedroom.” She called over to Mr. Herzweig. “Darren, show him where our bathroom is.”
Mr. Herzweig was busy setting up a towering coffee percolator and that was when Val stood up.
“I’ll show him where the bathroom is,” she said. “Come on.”
It wasn’t as if the apartment was large. It was maybe a quarter the size of the main floor of our house, but I followed Val in her tight-fitting black dress through the small master bedroom where coats where heaped on a small double bed.
“The bathroom’s here,” she said. “When you come out, I’ll show you Marty’s room. She pointed to another door down a short corridor. “I’ll wait for you in there.”
I closed the bathroom door and pushed in the small lock on the doorknob. It smelled like Ben Gay, and there were stockings hanging over the shower curtain.
Ever since I was sick, I always felt safe, even in a strange house, when I could lock myself in a bathroom. Often, I would sit on a toilet and stare at the grouting around the floor tiles imagining they were roads and that I was in a helicopter, able to guide people; to show them the shortest distance between where they were and where they wanted to go. But this time, it didn’t feel right playing the helicopter game, especially when I was a guest at a Seder, and it started to feel a bit creepy in Mr. and Mrs. Herzweig’s private bathroom, so I quickly peed, washed my hands, and stepped out.
Marty’s room was a closet-sized square with black and white plaid wallpaper and a bare wooden floor. I found Val inside staring at mementos on his bulletin board. The calendar was dated August 1983: the month and year I received his heart.
Val pointed at a high school graduation photo of the two of them. Marty looked partially at Val and partially at the camera. He wore a crooked graduation cap and the same cocky smile.
“Look,” she said. She reached around her neck for a heart shaped locket. Inside was a miniature version of the same photo.
“That’s really nice,” I said.
Val nodded. “He took me to the prom. That summer before I went to college we were supposed to take a motorcycle trip down to Florida.” Her voice trailed off and for the next minute or so in a heavy kind of silence we continued to stare at the pictures on his bulletin board. She was very close to me, her perfume the same spicy musk that Miss Germano, my seventh grade math teacher used to wear.
“Marty and I smoked a lot of pot,” Val said, “and sometimes I gave him blow jobs in the back of my father’s station wagon. He loved listening to Black Sabbath.”
I didn’t know what else to say, so I said nothing. But from then on, I couldn’t stop thinking about Val and the guy who gave me his heart and them doing drugs together and having sex, and I was very attracted to her, but at the same time, she really frightened me.
“Time for dessert,” said Mrs. Herzweig. It was a welcome interruption.
Back in the living room the table was now transformed into a bakery. Everything looked good, except all the cakes were made with matzo and tasted terrible.
Soon the buzzer sounded, the dog yelped again, and a couple walked in about the age of my parents.
“Hello, Aunt Miriam,” the kids yelled out. “Hi, Uncle Bennett!”
Miriam was Mrs. Herzweig’s sister and Bennett was a heart doctor, and they had to go to a Seder at his parent’s house.
Miriam had a high-pitched voice, and used it a lot to yell at her husband, Dr. Bennett.
“We just came for dessert,” she announced, “dessert and photos. Where’s Bennett? Bennett, do you have the machine? Has anybody seen Bennett?”
Mr. Herzweig helped Dr. Bennett roll in a machine from the hallway the size of a small hot dog cart. Once they got the machine inside the apartment, I immediately recognized it.
“You wouldn’t mind if I took a nice family photo of Marty, would you?” asked Dr. Bennett, and before I could answer, he plugged the power cord into an outlet, flicked a button and the machine hummed to life.
“Actually, it’s an echocardiogram,” he said, “and it would be best if you took off your shirt.”
The first time I ever had such a picture taken was just after my 11th birthday. The coughing at night was so bad that my father told me I had to stop playing baseball.
They brought me to a heart specialist and then to that machine and where a nice woman technician rubbed jelly onto my chest.
“It’s not going to hurt,” she said. “It’s only ultrasound, gentle enough to look at babies in the womb.”
I remember how her smile faded from amusement at seeing how young and cute I was to concern, as she couldn’t believe the picture on the screen in front of her.
“Is something wrong?” my mother asked.
But the technician was suddenly serious. “The doctor will go over the results with you as soon as he can.”
Aunt Miriam stared at my chest and toasted Marty.
“Dr. Bennett is my brother-in-law,” said Mrs. Herzweig proudly. “He’s also a cardiologist. That’s a heart specialist.”
“Arlene, he knows what a cardiologist is!” interrupted Mr. Herzweig. “I’m sure he’s been to enough of them. He’s had a heart transplant for Christ’s sake.”
Mrs. Herzweig covered her husband’s mouth for a second as if to remind him that he should not use our Lord Jesus Christ’s name in vain.
“Let’s give them some privacy,” said Mrs. Herzweig. “Everyone else get out of the kitchen. I’ll bring you more dessert.”
Aunt Miriam helped me out of my shirt and laid me down on a few folding chairs.
Dr. Bennett came over, squirted the cold jelly onto my chest and pressed the probe into my ribs.
A few of the adults surrounded the monitor as if watching a great movie broadcast from my insides.
“Look!” yelled Aunt Miriam. “It’s Marty’s heart–alive inside him!”
I glanced away in time to see Val sliding off the plastic cover protecting the sofa, rolled my eyes and she smiled. It was a naughty kind of smile—reminded me of Madonna. Then, I felt a skip in my heart—or should I say—Marty’s.
Over the next few days, my house seemed quiet. It bothered me that my parents never asked about the Seder. I wanted to share my thoughts about Marty, but I think they were freaked out that my donor was a Jew.
Then the weather got warmer and as always, I tried to forget that I ever received a transplant. But, I couldn’t forget about my donor’s girlfriend and soon I began to feel guilty. Guilt was probably something I inherited from the Jewish heart.
A few nights later the phone rang while we were eating dinner. It was Val.
“I was wondering if you guys would want to come with me to a party next Saturday,” she asked.
As odd as it was being referred to as “you guys,” it felt even stranger being invited to a party by the same college girl I had been masturbating to since the Herzweig Seder. Of course I said, “Yes.”
Val picked me up in her Ford Mustang. She had Ozzy Osborne blasting on her cassette deck and a lit cigarette in the ashtray. It also smelled from her sweet perfume and air freshener.
We parked in front of the small house of one of Val and Marty’s friends, whose parents were out of town. Once inside, we followed a pounding in the floor and passed a kitchen filled with dirty dishes. A moth danced under a light fixture.
Val opened a door to the basement and a wave of smoke and sound enveloped us. I followed her tight designer jeans down the rickety stairs to a crypt-like place full of guys in leather bomber jackets. Girls smoked and everyone drank cans or bottles of beer. Off to the side, one couple was sprawled on a cushion making out. Next to them, a girl with stringy hair vomited into a wastebasket.
We stood there for a second while Val bobbed her head to the music and took the whole scene in. She seemed a lot more comfortable surrounded by smoke, beer, and vomit than she did at the Herzweig’s Seder. There was a slight smile of amusement on her thin lips. Then she lit a cigarette.
“You want one?” she asked.
“Maybe later,” I said, and I knew that cigarettes were just the beginning.
Val squeezed through the steamy crowd and reached into a garbage can full of ice water and handed me a Budweiser. I guzzled it down the same way she did. The cold liquid soothed my throat from the smoke. I could tell that Val was looking at me, studying me, to see how much I reminded her of Marty.
“Let’s go outside,” she said finally.
We left the house, and I followed her through the bottom of a cut chain-link fence to a vacant high school yard. I used to be intimidated by such deserted places at night, but being alone with an older girl made me feel safer.
Once we were on the other side of the fence, Val flipped off her shoes and ran ahead cartwheeling onto the open space of the high school athletic field with the excited shriek of an uncaged animal.
“Follow me,” she said, sprinting across the track to the grandstand where she rumbled up the wooden steps two at a time to a top level bench as if she’d been there many times before.
“This is our spot,” she said. “Marty and I used to hang out here. One night he carved this into the bench.” In the faint moonlight, I was able to make out the initials “M and V” in a heart and below it, “Marty Loves Val Forever.”
“Wanna smoke some weed?” she asked, and I was surprised at myself because none of this made me feel nervous. I wondered the whole time if that was Val’s calming effect or Marty’s heart, still keeping its own rhythm.
Val reached into the pocket of her leather jacket and took out a shiny silver pipe. From another pocket she opened a plastic bag for a clump of pot that looked like mulch from under our lawn mower.
Her hair waved in the wind and when she turned to the side to flick the lighter, I noticed the two birthmarks on her neck that looked like vampire bites.
“It’s Thai,” she said, drawing in the smoke, and she handed me the lit pipe still holding her breath.
It tasted like Stove Top stuffing and hay. We smoked two bowls of it and at first I didn’t feel much. I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to feel, but it felt good being so close to Val.
But pretty soon, everything started to seem quite intense. For a second I saw a shadow of Val’s profile cast from one of the nearby streetlights, and her silhouette looked a lot like George Washington.
Then my, or should I say, our heart began racing. I didn’t know that was possible.
“It’s cold out here,” she said. “Let me warm up a little.”
She reached under my puffy down coat and ran her hands across my velour shirt.
“That feels better,” she whispered, smiling at me with glassy eyes. Her eyelashes were soft and heavy and the dim light gave her a golden glow. Suddenly she transformed from George at Valley Forge to a famous rock star, the lead guitarist of the female rock band that sang the song “Barracuda.” I think they were called “Heart.”
Val smiled at me. “You know,” she said, “I still believe Marty is my savior. Like Jesus Christ. I want to thank-you for bringing him back into my life.”
It was the first time I heard such religious stuff from her, and it weirded me out a bit until she stuck her tongue into my mouth and wiggled it around like a salty snake. It surprised me, but felt warm and good, and I copied her, wiggling mine like she did, and after a while I assumed this completed the act.
Then Val opened my jacket. I still couldn’t forget her story about sucking off Marty in her father’s car. It was a bit cold, but I figured I wouldn’t stop her if she was going to try such a thing on me.
She rubbed her hand over my shirt again and then moved her head closer, but she never once touched me below the chest.
“In your presence–in your body, Marty is resurrected,” she said, and suddenly it sounded a lot more like a sermon than the prelude to a blow job.
She put her ear to my chest. “Let me hear the sounds of Marty’s heart.
“It’s hard to hear anything,” she said finally, “it sounds so much more dramatic with Bennett’s echo machine.”
Val took her hands off of my shirt and pulled away as if she was suddenly disappointed by the body around her boyfriend’s heart.
“It’s freezing and I’m really hungry,” she said. “Let’s go back to the party.”
When I was eight years old, my sister had mumps. I remember waiting to develop the disfiguring swelling around my face, and a few weeks later, perhaps it was by coincidence, I developed other symptoms instead. A severe sore throat followed soon after by a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and a cough that wouldn’t go away. The slightest effort—even a walk to the bathroom—felt as if I was climbing to the top of Mount Everest.
“His heart is failing,” Dr. Grisham told my concerned parents. He put his arm around my shoulders, but never once looked me in the eye.
Soon I was in the hospital with an IV pole and medications for a solid three weeks. It was the first of half a dozen times.
“When will I get better?” I asked my parents.
“When the Lord’s ready,” said my mother. My father never said a word, and that scared me more than anything.
Val and I got together one more time. She came over when my parents were away for a weekend—our only attempt at sex. The entire time, I felt Marty’s eyes watching through my chest. When Val touched my thighs I expected my pulse to quicken, but it didn’t, and before I could even fumble with the condom wrapper she handed me there was a mess all over my parent’s sheets.
I just couldn’t escape the influence of the foreign body I swore to protect. Only now, its presence began to disturb me.
Two weeks later I developed a temperature and severe fatigue. I went for a blood test then back to Dr. Grisham’s office with my parents.
“What’s going on?” my father asked.
“Your son has a low-grade fever and a slight increase in his white blood cell count,” he said. “Hopefully it’s only a mild viral infection, but we can’t take chances. I want to make sure we’re not dealing with some form of delayed rejection.”
He meant a rejection of Marty’s heart.
“You better increase the prednisone and cyclosporine right away,” he said. “I’m going to arrange for a biopsy next week. Until then, make sure you drink lots of fluids and get plenty of rest.”
Before I knew it, the Herzweigs showed up at our house along with Dr. Bennett. Mr. Herzweig kept making comments about the height of our ceilings and tiptoed around as if he was walking in a museum. Dr. Bennett insisted on giving me a rectal examination, and then Mrs. Herzweig force-fed me chicken soup loaded down with kreplach and matzo balls.
“Is that hot enough?” she asked. “I don’t think it’s hot enough.” And she handed the bowl back to my annoyed mother who heated it again until the roof of my mouth was scorched and I spoke with a lisp.
“Don’t worry about your speech,” said Mr. Herzweig. “That’s exactly how Moses spoke. He burned his mouth too.”
Then it was time for the biopsy. A small metallic object with a clip on the end was inserted through my neck. A tube within a tube coursed through my vessels and the silk-made bridge which connected mine and Marty’s hearts. We shared a common chamber in the upper portion. When Dr. Grisham stepped on a pedal, a wispy image of my internal organs appeared, and I saw our hearts beating as one. Then a wire entered the screen with an alligator clip on the end. The same kind of clip, I imagined Marty used to smoke all those joints with Val for so many years before he gave himself up for me.
Once Dr. Grisham stepped off the pedal the image was extinguished and that was the last time I ever saw Marty’s heart.
Two days later, Dr. Grisham grimaced from behind his desk.
“It’s definite,” he said. “Your body’s rejecting the transplanted heart.”
I glanced at my father long enough to see his eyes swell. He turned to the window, staring at the Manhattan skyline. “There has to be something we can do.”
“Unfortunately, not too much,” said the doctor. “We’ll increase the prednisone and the cyclosporine again, but I’m afraid it’s already too late.”
“I don’t understand,” said my father. “How could this happen all of a sudden?”
Of course Dr. Grisham gave some kind of technical explanation, but I knew the answer all along. I just wasn’t cool enough to keep a heart from a guy like Marty. If saw me in the computer lab at school he never would have approved of me receiving his heart in the first place. Coming on to Val was obviously the final straw.
I wasn’t rejecting Marty’s heart. He was rejecting me.
Miraculously, a few weeks later, the pager went off again, signaling my good fortune at the occurrence of another horrible accident that left someone brain-dead.
Once we arrived at the hospital for the “explanting” of Marty’s heart, I waited the whole time for the Herzweig family to show up. I imagined they’d demand a proper burial service for their son’s dying organ or maybe even take it home in a jar with formaldehyde like kids used to do with their tonsils. Perhaps the Herzweigs would even demand to exhume the remains of their son–to have Dr. Bennett put the heart back inside Marty, in its proper place under his ribs and breastbone, in the skeleton that remained from that fateful day four years ago.
Val arrived with a less than genuine smile. Instead of reaffirming the look of love I craved, she glanced at me with the glazed eyes of someone under the influence of some serious shit.
“I have to admit, Alex,” she said, “for a while I was really attracted to you, but the more I think about it, the more I realize—it’s Marty I still love.”
She nodded clasping the heart-shaped locket she still wore with their graduation photo inside.
“I’m sorry, Alex,” she said, “I’m not going to be able to see you anymore.”
I stared at the beautiful girl who under ordinary circumstances would have broken my heart. I guessed that once you’ve rejected that organ– even if it rejected you–it hurts a lot less if you’re heartless.
To be honest, I didn’t even know we were dating.
“I’m about to go into the operating room for another heart transplant,” I said, my patience wearing thin. “This is the time you choose to break up with me?”
Val smiled a phony smile, pretending to seem sympathetic. She pulled back the blonde hair to show off her earrings and enlarge the dimples I once adored.
The genuine smile–the one I only earned glimpses of–she still reserved for Marty when he would someday magically pick her up again on his motorcycle with his backpack and his patched jeans to take her on that trip to Florida.
“I know you’re worried about the operation,” she said. “Don’t worry, Alex. Even in your next life, Marty will always be a part of you.”
I lashed out at her with newfound confidence. Perhaps it came from all the steroids I was pumped up with, but it was cooler to think that Marty’s cocky personality was finally rubbing off.
“You can reject me all you want, Val, but any part of Marty inside me is dying fast.”
This seemed to have the desired effect, because she turned to face me, her eyes welling with tears.
“That’s not true, Alex! We all know there will be a second coming of Jesus. Our Messiah is on the way and his name is Marty.”
That was when I finally lost my patience.
“Don’t you realize, you fucking idiot, that once they take out his heart, Marty can no longer live on?”
Val stared at me in silence for a few seconds. Even her dimples started to irritate me like an actress in a really crappy horror film: Innocent and sexy in the beginning. Rogue and evil in the end.
“Alex, I think it’s best if you don’t accept the new transplant,” she said finally. “I think you should die along with Marty’s heart.”
Next came the evil smile.
“Through your resurrection,” she hissed, “Marty will live forever.”
Soon my mother and the rest of the hospital staff chased Val out.
A few hours later, they explanted Marty’s heart, and I received the second transplant.
Everything worked out well.
The Herzweig family didn’t show up, and I never saw Val again.
I decided not to meet my new donor’s family.
Next year, I may go to school in Florida. I’m thinking of driving down there on a motorcycle. I’ve also considered converting to Judaism.
(An earlier form of this story appeared in “Confrontation,” 2009;104: 213-226)
© Richie Smith
© Richie Smith