“My Heart in His Mouth” by Lauren Dennis

I gave my neighbor a heart-shaped cookie, both for the reason you’re thinking (I like him) and a different reason (I had one left, and he was outside doing yardwork). He didn’t accept my heart cookie. He has a wife, he reminded me. He gave me the same reminder when I asked in the middle of the loneliest summer if he wanted to go camping together (in separate tents). “I have a wife.” She’s stuck in Vietnam with their daughter (who I’ve met) and a son (who he’s never met).

The cookie wasn’t obviously a heart. The shape was a circle, with a heart inside, popping through with messy jam. Like a heart does. He told me he doesn’t eat sweets in the morning.

I told him I don’t either, but I just had one, and it wasn’t that sweet. It was hard to take “no” for an answer when I was standing there with my messy jelly heart in my hands, which I most often am.

He kept looking at me and shook his head. I think he dyed his hair. I preferred his COVID greys popping through.

The day I told him that his hair was getting long, he cut it. I liked it long, but I liked it more that he did a thing based on a thing I said.

“I’m making the garden for my wife, when she comes back.” He told me.

“Yes, then she’ll never want to leave.” I smiled. He turned away from me then and went back to gardening. I think I offended him. She left the first time to give birth to their son, the one he still hasn’t met. Because she went back to Vietnam to give birth to him. My neighbor was lonely but content. I could tell from the way he inhaled his cigarette late at night in the summer, when I was in my hammock and he didn’t know I was there.

He lets me borrow his lawn mower. I didn’t know how to mow my lawn. Because I was divorced. Because my husband. He didn’t mow the lawn either. But he left me with more than half of the house debt, so I can’t afford to hire the Vietnamese person that used to cut my lawn. I hope my neighbor didn’t notice that he was Vietnamese. That all these years I have paid someone to cut my lawn. Like this rich white person. I was.

Now I cut my own lawn with my Vietnamese neighbor’s mower. Sometimes he sits in his backyard sipping iced coffee while I do it. We both ingest the fumes, and he smiles at me when I make a mistake. I hear the clink of the ice in his glass when I stop the mower too often and make up for our language difference with sighs and pluckish poses. I wear cut off shorts, just like the teenage boys that used to cut my lawn when I was growing up and my sister and I would sip the red juice on the patio and watch them. I want him to watch me like that while he swallows his deliberate sips of iced coffee. And he usually does.

When I return the lawn mower, I do it more precisely than I would if it were mine. I am gentle with it, so he can see how gentle.

His wife was never there when she was here. She would pull up in the yellow sports car that now sits in his driveway, drop off their daughter and leave.

I don’t remind him of this. I hope he gets to meet his son soon. One night, he sees me in the hammock and starts to talk to me. I come close to the fence, too close for these times, and he talks to me about his dad. How he was gone for most of his life, in a prison in Thailand, until his family got amnesty, and that’s why they were here. I listen and smell his fresh cut grass on the other side of the fence. I want to reach through the chain link to the place where it hurts him when he talks. I can see which part it is because he breathes the smoke out through his nostrils, not his mouth when he gets there. He looks up at my tree. “That’s nice, to have a tree like that.” I agree and ingest the night, his smoke, and tell him I like it when he apologizes and tries to blow it the other way.

I wanted him to take my heart cookie. To bite it and roll the jam on his tongue and look at me while biting it across our chain link fence. I wanted it to be too much for him, too dry (it was too dry) and for him to need to go inside and drink water, and when he came back out, I would already be inside, and he would be left cutting grass with the dry taste of my heart in his mouth.                                 

Lauren Dennis is a mother of two, violently fighting against the confinement that may or may not come with that title. She has been published in Scarlet Leaf Review, The Flash Fiction Press, daCuhna, and Microfiction Monday Magazine. Most recently, her writing was featured as part of DAVA’s art exhibit in New York. She has received formal critique and feedback from the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop in Denver, Colorado, where she resides.