“I used to know a woman”—Nathan looked at me meaningfully here, because of course he was talking about his ex-wife, and he was talking about her to the bartender, a stranger who neither had nor needed the full context—“from Peru, and when we visited her family there, we'd see vendors selling heart on the street. They didn’t overcook it, so it was nice and tender. But it's fatty, as most organ meats are.”
The bartender—a woman with short hair, in a black dress and hipster glasses, who’d gushed with Nathan over the jazz of Charles Mingus when it was playing in her bar when we first came in—had been talking about eating tongue. She’s from California, she told us, and the Mexican place across the street makes tongue tacos that are just like the ones she liked back home.
I was slowly getting drunk. I fixated on the act of eating hearts; it provided a focal point for the rest of the night to spin around. As Nathan and the bartender exchanged the sorts of cred-establishing bon mots that I’m no good at, I peered at him in quiet horror, thinking, “This is a man who has eaten hearts.” I couldn’t let go of the symbolism, of how a person could talk about eating hearts and have no more to say about it than that it was tender and fatty. But maybe that’s all there is to say about it.
Did he think, as he bit into a heart all those months or years ago on some street in Peru, about how it looked nothing like that red shape we all draw as kids? Did he think about how once you grow up you learn that the seat of love is not in the blood-pumping central organ at all but is actually in the mind? (And did he eat it in a sandwich or on a shishkebab or just plain or what?)
Nathan and the bartender talked about jazz, about the bar's house-made vermouth, about hip places to eat dinner nearby. I sat silent and got drunker.
I lived in California, too, and I never once ate a tongue taco.
* * *
Today at work I Googled it and learned from National Geographic that Peruvians eating hearts goes back to the days of the Spanish conquerors, who kept the "choicest cuts" of beef for themselves and left the organs to the slaves. I imagined some haughty Spaniard of yore glancing disdainfully at a pile of discarded innards and saying, "Hearts are for slaves." These are the kinds of seemingly poignant accidents that happen when a word means too much.