Heart Device: A User’s Manual

The monitor is designed to automatically gather information from your implanted heart device.

Your espion, your spy. Under cover of skin, darkness and duvet, it observes the moonlight streaming through the window of the root cellar, the ratty notebook and the thick pencil stained with olive oil, how you cope with the punishment by writing about the lone donkey baying outside. It measures the heat of the desert, the warmth of the sea, the depth of the snow, the thickness of the ice. It registers the bruises on your shoulders, the scars on your wrist, the tremor in your hand, the house on your back.

Place the monitor near where you sleep, preferably on a nightstand or table.

The bed is too big so we jam the door open. Indian beads hang like cartoon rain from the door frame, thundering as we move in and out of the bedroom. You want the same for the den and I yield to your desires. After you cook up a storm, I back into the beads like a waiter passing through a service entrance to protect the bounty on our plates.

We place the monitor on the floor behind the door that won’t close, next to the unhinged door from the den, and two accordion doors you don’t like. There is little room to manoeuvre around the contours of the mattress. We negotiate space as we do everything else.

Do not use the monitor near water, near a bathtub, wash bowl, kitchen sink or laundry tub, in a wet basement, or near a swimming pool.

I put the monitor on the bed, pulling the power cord taut so it hovers safely in empty space while I mop the hardwood. I’ve heard that British sailors took broken monuments from churchyards, using grit from the sandstone to scrape bacteria from the deck. You told me of pathways in Berlin embedded with fragments of Jewish grave markers, and I wonder how they wash out the dirt.

The process is silent and invisible.

We rock cautiously, fearing a sudden move could disrupt transmission, dislodge our feelings. Then we forget our fear. After, we pull up the duvet. Love is colder than death, Fassbinder said.

The date format shown on your monitor will depend on which country you are in.

At security, your silver bracelets and Tunisian birthplace always set off alarm bells and scowls. The agents treat you gently now, their hearts melted by the espion in your chest. They send you around the scanner because of your difference. You are still Other.

Your monitor is capable of receiving signals from your heart device up to ten feet away.

If the monitor can read through beads, walls and closets, it follows as we move from the bed to the salon to the den to relieve pressure on your broken ribs. You puff a dose of Ventolin before breathing into the apparatus to strengthen your lungs. I swing into the den with chicken soup because it’s all you can hold down and I want to believe in its restorative powers.

The expected service life of a monitor is five years.

We are out of range now, but they have other monitors. The second day you tell me you were dreaming of swimming in a warm sea. The third day I hold the oxygen mask a few inches above your mouth because you cannot tolerate restriction and I cannot win an argument, even with your unconscious.

My sleep apnea machine sits on a chair on your side of the room. The mask slips during the night, blocking my breath, and I tear it off and think of you. Your monitor still glows, casting light on the ceiling. Too far to see well enough to write, but close enough for comfort. The bed is still too big.

Save this manual.

Le Songe de Michka, Oolong tea scented with sweet citrus fruits

Certificate of Canadian Citizenship

Receipt, $20.00, Frida Kahlo Museum, Coyoacán, Mexico

Prière pour les voyageurs, Centre Chabad, Montreal

Longer Ago, Poems, Spoon Jackson

Heartbeat, scenario, unproduced feature film

Le Livre des Questions, Edmond Jabès

En attendant Godot, Samuel Beckett

La Vie mode d’emploi, Georges Perec

Afterword on empathy from the author: Spoon

The Concise Oxford defines empathy as “the power of identifying oneself mentally with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.” I want to believe empathy is both an emotional and mental act. I prefer the Gage Canadian’s definition, which embraces our relationship to each other, and to our experience of art. But again, it speaks of fully entering into the feelings and motives of another. I have low expectations about how well I can enter the skin of someone else. Sometimes I can barely enter my own.

Art appears to provide an easier passage to empathy, but this is deceptive. I want space to create my own meaning, and resist anything that tries too hard to gain my allegiance. I prefer the equivocal and oblique, the glancing blows rather than the knock-out punch.

In my experience of empathy with (real) people, moments of connection are partial and fleeting. They are muddied by any number of differences in language, gender, ethnicity, race, class, culture, age, demographics, sexual orientation and probably how much sleep I got the night before. My projections—confusing what I feel for what they feel—add to the uncertainty.

Spoon Jackson is a Black American, self-educated and lower class, whereas I am a White Canadian, university educated and middle class. True, he is a poet and I am a writer, but our connection is not so much about words. We find common ground in our love for my late partner Michka Saäl, the Quebecois filmmaker who wrote, directed, and produced a film about him in 2015 called Spoon.

Spoon has been serving a life sentence in California without possibility of parole since 1978. Yet in the film and in life, it is Spoon who comforts Michka. In his letters and telephone calls, he gives her courage to pursue her creative work.

After Michka passed away unexpectedly in 2017, Spoon and I met—through the written and spoken word—for the first time. The ongoing contact consoles us both for the loss, I think. I update him on the life of Michka’s films, and her posthumous book. With screenings of Spoon, I read his greetings to the audience and tell them how he’s been doing. Yes, still in prison, still writing, still hoping for commutation. More than that I cannot presume to understand.

In the film, we can “identify with” Spoon—his forceful poems, his outrage, his resilience, his humour. In life, given our vast differences and the unpredictability of human communication, all I can do is be open to what comes, to embrace what Spoon calls “realness.”

I think Michka comes closest to understanding the dilemma. Early in the film, in a voiceover spoken to herself and the audience, she says, “Spoon, you ask me how I am feeling right now in this moment. How can I answer that? We are never in the same moment together. Time is different for each of us. In English you say ‘lifers’—sentenced to life. It is hard to really understand, to feel it from outside. Maybe your question is a way for us to share the same time.”

Mark Foss is the Montreal-based author of the novels Molly O and Spoilers, as well as the short-story collection Kissing the Damned. His fiction and creative nonfiction have also appeared in such journals as The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, subTerrain and Numéro Cinq. An excerpt of a novel in progress appears in the autumn 2018 issue of Mitra.