I was joking the first time I said it to my friend Bethany, after the second glass of wine and the third lame text breakup with a guy from Match.com. “It shouldn’t be this hard to find a boyfriend.” I finished the glass and looked at the bar tender with a raised eyebrow. It was happy hour and the drinks were half price.
“I guess that’s why people used to marry their high school sweetheart.” Bethany uncrossed and re-crossed her legs. She always said you had to show off the goods a little. “They knew it would never be easier to find a man.”
“I’m pretty sure Nick still lives with his parents.” I leaned an elbow on the bar. “But I wonder if I should’ve made it work with one of the others.”
You had good reason to break up with all of them.” Bethany set her glass down too fast and it made a clinking noise as it hit the bar. She was one drink ahead. “I mean, could you have really lived with Rob?”
I can’t love a man who refuses to close the bathroom door, no matter how good he looked in a suit.” I took a long swig of my wine, the house white. I didn’t see the point in paying more for something I couldn’t pronounce. “At my parents’ house, even.”
“You should be dating a doctor.” Bethany swirled her glass around and some spilled over the side. She was never too good at classy. “Isn’t that the whole point of working in a hospital?”
“Doctors date other doctors and occasionally nurses.” I’d already explained it to her a hundred times. “But nobody likes a P.A.”
Bethany shrugged and took a drink.
“I should just take the best parts from each guy and put them all together, then I’d have the perfect man.” I smiled my evil genius smile.
Bethany laughed. Because it was a joke.
* * *
Once it passed through my lips, the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. I spent hours online searching Facebook for all of my exes. Every time I’d been in love, there’d been something great about the guy. Joe was smart and funny; he made me want to do and be better, and he could order food in four different languages. But the first time he saw me smile at the guy behind the deli counter he left deep purple fingerprints in my arm. Jealousy and ager came from the heart; I just wanted his brain. Christof had the most amazing hands, strong and gentle at the same time. His fingers made a map of my body and knew how to take me to ecstasy fully clothed, like in the movies. He was always broke and looking for a job, but he brought me trinkets he’d carved out of wood he found in the park. It had all seemed romantic until he took me to Chick-fil-A for my birthday. Brett had played soccer in college and still had the butt to prove it. A sports caster on the local news during the day, he volunteered his time coaching at risk kids on the weekends. Even my mother said he was nice to watch walking away when he came to church with us one Easter Sunday. It just wasn’t enough to make up for the uncomfortable silence while sitting at the table, or on the couch, or in the car. The man had nothing to say and couldn’t carry on a conversation without a script, not even about soccer.
Andrew had the perfect peter. I hadn’t believed the rumor about skinny guys until I saw for myself. Perfect length, perfect shape, and he knew how to make it work. What he didn’t know was how to keep it in his pants. That made him the easiest to find. The first night I looked he was downtown, at the bar so busy the crowd was spilling over onto the sidewalk and their voices dripping down from the rooftop deck. I wove and squeezed through all the plaid shirts and low maintenance facial hair until I found an opening at the back of the bar. He sat at a table in the corner, his arm draped around the shoulders of a girl smiling a drunken smile. Andrew wasn’t clever or funny. There was nothing remarkable about him in clothes; he needed the help of alcohol for that.
It had been Long Island Iced Teas for me, at whatever bar was the hot spot back then. A lot can change in two years: the downtown bar scene, technological advances in cell phones and online dating, fashion trends, and smoking habits. But not Andrew. He was the same guy with the same moves. The girl laughed and let her head fall back against his arm. He scooted his chair closer, she leaned her body into his. He had her, and the way he narrowed his eyes showed he knew it. But the night was just getting started.
I remembered the exact feeling, that acidic rot in the bottom of my stomach, when he would turn his head to check out other girls while his arm was around me. I walked toward their table, my head turned to the bar, obviously looking for someone else. My hip bumped into his shoulder and the next thing I knew his beer had spilled all over me and I was sitting in his lap. I couldn’t have choreographed it better. He needed both his arms then, to wipe me off and make sure I was okay. Not a hint of recognition, as if his eyes were seeing me for the first time. He dried me off the best he could with cocktail napkins and mentioned a chair before he said he preferred the current seating arrangements. I didn’t even notice when the girl walked away. I just looked over and she was gone.
He had two beers to each of my gin and tonics, hold the gin. I winked at the bartender and left a nice tip on the bar. When I got back to the table there was only one chair and he patted his lap. He liked a girl who bought the first round. Then he told me all about his job at the bank and his golf swing, much improved after time at the driving range. Not a single question about me and my life. It was better that way, less to keep track of. He suggested we take a taxi back to his place, but my car was right around the corner and I was fine to drive. I gave him the Girl Scouts’ honor and pinky swore to prove it. He didn’t want to let go, so he held my hand on the way to the car. He moved it to my leg as I drove and leaned in to kiss my shoulder at the red lights. His lips were not worth saving.
* * *
It was easier than I expected. The shot knocked him out and the clamp helped slow down the blood flow. I Lorena Bobbitted him in one quick move— like a surgeon, gloves and all. Maybe my mother had been right about medical school; I should’ve at least applied. I put the best part of him directly into the plastic bag from my purse. The cooler was already set up in my trunk; it was only ten steps out to the curb. Less than five minutes and I had what I wanted. He’d never even asked my name.
The next one took more planning. Jason recognized me as soon as he saw me at the grocery store where we used to shop together; those beautiful eyes followed me down the aisle and all the way out the door. The break-up hadn’t been good. He said some terrible things; I yelled and threw stuff at his head. I couldn’t remember what it was about anymore, but the feeling was still thick at the back of my throat. I dreamed about his eyes for months after he slammed the door in my face, and heard Debbie Gibson sing every time I thought of him. So I waited in the parking lot, behind a column, out of sight. When he got into his car I followed him home, leaving two cars between us for cover. A reconnaissance mission, that’s what it was.
The next night I knew exactly how to get there. The window on the side of the house wasn’t open anymore, but the nail file I’d left on the dusty window sill was wedged between the pieces of wood. Just enough space that the latch didn’t close. I slid the window up and crawled inside. The house was dark and it took my eyes a minute to adjust. Shapes appeared in front of me in a range of dark greys: sofa, desk and chair, bookshelf. A gleam along the wall became a metal doorknob. I felt my way to it, hands first. The door led to the hallway which led to Jason’s bedroom.
I stood just inside the doorway and took a deep breath. The room smelled like menthol-infused sports cream and baby powder, nothing manly about it. He’d always wanted to stay at my place and I never thought to argue, even though he always had an excuse for leaving in the middle of the night. Early morning meetings and something important in his briefcase; it wasn’t that he was afraid of cuddling. He always kissed me before he left, right on the neck. I found the same spot on him and that’s where I stuck the needle. Quick so he didn’t wake up, couldn’t scream or cry out. His head fell to the side and his body relaxed.
In the movies they’d have used a melon baller, or something equally mundane, and I’d never actually seen a corneal transplant performed. I held his eyelid back with one hand and plunged the scalpel in with the other. I was thankful for the dark. It would be worth it in the end, but the work was gory. Like getting a turkey ready to be stuffed on Thanksgiving. No one wanted to stick their hand up there, but it had to be done.
I dropped those beautiful eyes into the specimen jars I’d taken from work. The gel at the bottom cushioned their landing and would keep them moist until I got them home. I tightened the lids and slipped the jars back into my purse. Hours had been known to slip away while I was staring into those eyes. There’d be time for that later; I needed to get out quick and quiet. My body remembered the way in the dark, but I kept close to the walls just in case. I closed the window behind me and heard the latch click shut. No turning back.
* * *
The body parts started to pile up in the basement freezer and the news was always breaking about another man found dead in his home. The woman with the microphone made them out to be good men, full of potential. Not one mention of all the broken hearts they’d scattered across the city, women they left wrecked and alone. Innocent victims were better for ratings. Nobody cared about the truth. I wrote the dates on the plastic wrap and stacked them back to front, like chicken at the grocery store. Lips, eyes, hands, heart, and brain. It was a good start, but even put together they weren’t enough to make a man. I needed the vessel, the foundation to build on. Someone strong and tall, with good muscle definition and a deep voice I could listen to for the rest of my life. A look through my diary narrowed the pool down to a handful of names. After that, it just took a bit of action research to pick out the right one.
* * *
I found Mark on OKCupid. Same picture with Grandfather Mountain in the background and his little nephew on his knee, same profile declaring he was “looking to settle down with the right woman.” He didn’t even hike or know his nephew’s actual name. If only I had figured out it was just a line before I saw him without his shirt on. Before I’d let my hand rest on the line of muscle where abdominals turn into hip flexors. By then I believed every sugar coated lie that left his lips, until I saw for myself. It wasn’t anything like a Cameron Diaz movie in real life. He’d been sitting at our table, at my favorite restaurant, across from a woman who was not me. He’d held her hand on top of the table and when I walked to the bathroom I heard him whisper the same words he’d said to me: he’d found the one. I had thought he meant me, but clearly he was talking about the restaurant. I wasn’t funny or charming; I didn’t make a scene. I turned around and paid my bill. Then I went home and cried.
I knew exactly what he liked in a woman; it was easy to come up with a fake profile. Creepy old men had been doing it for years. I found a smiling blond picture in a feminine product ad online. Not the type of model he’d recognize. He responded right away, said he liked my smile and that being a flight attendant sounded like a great job. We messaged back and forth a few times, talking about the basics: family, pets, hobbies, and work. Then he wanted to meet in person. He knew he liked me, now he wanted to get to know me. Even though it wasn’t really me at all.
He picked the spot, a cool bar below street level that was known for hand-crafted drinks. No coffee shops or outdoor adventure dates for Mark. It was straight to seduction with the help of alcohol and good lighting. He chose a table right under the window on level with the sidewalk. It was serendipity. I could watch him be stood up, count the number of times he checked his watch and turned his head toward the door. If he looked up and out all he could see were my shoes in the dirt. That wasn’t so unusual for this part of downtown.
It was over an hour of checking his phone and taking slow sips from his glass before he got up and tried to hit on a woman at the bar. Whatever he said didn’t work because he left alone. He headed for the street without a backward glance. When I called out his name he hesitated before he stopped, hands in his pockets. The sidewalk was empty, so he wasn’t expecting me to come up from behind. He definitely didn’t see the needle. “What the hell?” The last word melted into a slur on his tongue as he slumped against my body.
I had done my research, parked in the perfect spot. It took some effort, but I got him into the backseat and covered him with a blanket. His breath was almost silent; if it weren’t for the slight movement of the blue fabric I would’ve thought the dosage was too strong. I checked for the up and down of his breathing in the rear view mirror as I drove. If he died on the way home all my work would’ve been for nothing. I’d have to start over from the beginning or give up on love altogether, and I wasn’t ready to do either.
* * *
Once the garage door was closed behind me I let out a deep breath and the tightness in my chest lifted. We were home.
Mark was harder to get out of the car than it was to get him in. I pulled on his feet and his arms flailed out to the sides, knocking into the seats on either side of him. He deserved some pain in his life, but I didn’t want to damage the body. It wasn’t going to be his much longer anyway. I hadn’t planned this part well, hadn’t accounted for his size and weight. It took at least twenty minutes just to get him to the edge of the back seat and sitting upright. I set the wheelchair next to the open door and managed to flop him in on his side without too much damage. I turned him onto his back and lifted his feet into the footrest so they wouldn’t drag on the ground. It was lucky my hospital was so big and busy no one had the time to worry about missing supplies.
He moved through the house easily in the chair, but the stairs to the basement were steep and turned at a sharp angle. It wouldn’t work. I ran back out to the garage and grabbed the blanket from the backseat; spread it on the ground below the wheelchair like I was setting up for a picnic. Maybe we’d use it for that one day when he was complete. It’d be my own private joke. I tipped the wheel chair back and he started to slide out. I moved to the front and tugged on his legs until he was half way on the blanket and his head rested in the seat of the chair. I didn’t want to risk any unnecessary bruising; he was going to have plenty from the surgery. So I stood behind the chair again and slowly tipped it until his head was level with the ground and I could slide the wheelchair out from under him. Sweat started to pool under my arms and on top of my eyebrows. My breathing was heavy like I had just run a few miles on the treadmill. I wiped my forehead with the back of my sleeve and peeled off my sweatshirt.
Mark was easy to roll to the middle of the blanket once I tucked his arms at his sides and slipped his hands into his pockets to lock them down. Then I folded him up like a sexy burrito. Or a mummy, but the thought of that didn’t make me giggle and I needed something to take my mind off of the physical labor of it all. Back out in the garage I found the bungee cords an ex had told me to keep on hand. “You never know when you’ll need them,” he’d said. It turned out he was right. I wrapped the longer one around Mark’s blanket cocoon and attached the short one to it like a pulley. He slid down slowly, stair by stair with a little bump on each one. The bungee really came in handy at the corner where I had to steer his feet with one hand and pull the cord with the other. He slid off the last stair onto the cement floor of the basement without a sound.
I thought about bringing the wheelchair down too, but since he was wrapped so nicely I just dragged him into the back room. It was getting him up onto the table that took work. I leaned him against the side of the table diagonally and pulled on the bungee cord until his feet joined his head at the top. There was a lot of back and forth, like two kids on the see-saw. Except I had to make both sides move on my own. It was ironic, how much I could’ve used the man’s help in order to make the man. I would’ve laughed if I hadn’t been breathing so hard. Without the cords and the blanket he was a man again, beautiful in silence with his eyes closed. His chest rose and fell in the same slow rhythm. I cuffed him to the table and sat on the floor to catch my breath. Steady hands were the number one priority for surgery. One shake or tremble and things could go very wrong; I’d drained and bandaged the consequences in post-op too many times.
The blanket made a comfortable nest and kept the chill of the floor away from my skin. I thought about lying down, but I hadn’t really been sleeping for a while. Four days this time. My brain just wouldn’t stop, wouldn’t slow down, no matter how tight I held my eyes shut. Or how dark I made the room. The funny thing was I didn’t feel tired or run down; not so much as a yawn since I started the project. Even the nurses had started to notice my work ethic. They shook their heads in disbelief when I handed them stacks of patient charts, said my supervising physician must have lit a fire under me. But he wasn’t responsible for the flame.
Mark was still unconscious, his head flopped to one side. It was as good of time as any. If he woke in the middle I’d just put him back under. That was the humane thing to do. I took all of the containers out of the refrigerator and lined them up along the counter in order, from head to toe. Almost in order of importance: brain, heart, penis. The eyes and abs broke up the triad. I put on a pair of gloves and opened one of the small jars. The right eye had always been my favorite; the one he used to wink at me when he was teasing.
He would need a new name when it was done; he wouldn’t know Mark anymore, he wouldn’t see as Jason. If memories stayed intact they would belong to the brain, and I certainly wasn’t keeping Mark’s. I wanted a smart man, intelligent and deep. A man who could read poetry aloud and set up the computer. A man who was all mine. We would start over together, just the two of us making our own memories. Eventually he’d be able to go out in the world, take me to dinner, meet my friends. But not until the story of his past and our beginning was so much a part of him he never questioned what happened before me. I had it written on notecards, taped to the wall like the timelines we all had to make in second grade. Every crack in the story had to be filled. No room for doubts to squeeze in and break us up like an old sidewalk. We were meant to be forever.
I soaked a cotton ball in alcohol and traced a line down the center of his body, rib cage to belly button. My hand was slow, methodical. It was different with a patient who was more than a name on a chart. Every scar on his body would be a question to answer, a concerned look or raised eyebrow on the face of a friend. Luckily, a car accident was the perfect story; stitches and memory loss were normal and everyone said I should meet a man at the hospital. I smiled and pushed a clump of hair out of my face with the back of my arm. Surgery was always easier with an assistant to clean the instruments and wipe the sweat from your forehead. But some things had to be done alone.
Everything was laid out just like in the operating room, except on a tray designed to hold microwaved dinners for people who ate alone in front the TV. That wasn’t my destiny anymore. I picked up the scalpel, thumb under the handle and finger resting on top of the blade. My technique was precise, verging on excellence. Supervising physicians didn’t exaggerate and they didn’t give out praise often, so I knew it was true. This time there’d be more than ego behind the scalpel. Like a baker who uses a wooden spoon to stir love into their pastries, I was undertaking a labor of passion. Carving my own future out of flesh and internal organs. I lowered the blade to his chest and pressed down. The uptick of my heart beat and the tickle inside my stomach weren’t nerves, I was ready.
Emma Burcart, a former teacher and avid CrossFitter, lives and writes in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Conclave: A Journal of Character, The Citron Review, and Brave of the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life.