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A Stroke Can’t Break Your Heart

by E. P. Tuazon

“Today is a day where you need to be in the room.” Joy says through the bathroom door, but George is unsure if any of it is for him. He is hovering over the sink, staring at himself as his wife’s voice gets further away. “What? No, What are you bringing today? We got some loaded potato salad… No, store bought… wings from OK Chinese? I hope you picked up a gallon of Thai tea with that too.” There is silence, and before he thinks she is gone and he can relax, it continues, back at the door again. “Pucha! I think we forgot one. I thought they said no gifts.”

She knocks. “George, do we have a gift?”

“We can pick some flowers up.” George says but he can’t think of any for the occasion. What kind of flowers does one get for simply being alive? Are they red roses for congratulations? Or are they white and blue and full of sentiment?

“That sounds cheap.”

“Expensive flowers.” He adds but doesn’t know their costs either.

“I don’t think they have anything like that at Ralphs.”

“How about one of my unopened bottles of Hibiki. Roger loves that shit.”

“It’s supposed to make Helen happy.” Joy says, but George knows she has settled for that answer in the way her voice fades.

George thinks of Helen. He thinks of the two of them in high school. The flower he gave her then. “Helen’s happy when Roger’s happy.” He says but his wife doesn’t hear. Her talk disappears further into their home.

He mouths the words again without sound. He watches the way his lips move, the stubble around his face he hasn’t decided to get rid of yet. When he is with his patients, he knows they are watching his mouth when he talks. He has decided it is from worry and not infatuation. The next word draws them to that point, not the present ones. It is life or death to them. Relief for some. Making plans for others. His friends are no different. His wife hates it when he brushes it across her neck.

He smothers his hair dry with a towel, applies deodorant, and puts on his clothes. When he gets out of the bathroom, Joy is ready to go, his bottle of Hibiki in her lap. It drags her skirt up so he can see her knees. There are decade-old scars there left by volcanic rock from their honeymoon. He can’t remember if it was on the big island or Honolulu. A wave or a fall.

“Maggie?” George asks, tucking in his shirt.

“Charmin.” Joy says, rapping her fingers on the bottle. The sound is like a tiny march. “Her and Boy are bringing a tray of chicken wings from OK Chinese.”

“Great. We got dessert and potato salad.” He says, and starts putting on his belt. He misses a loop. “I still can’t get over Charmin’s name. Like, is she super absorbent? Will she pick up any spill? Does she have a sister named Charmin Ultra?”

Joy doesn’t smile. She looks at his belt running through the buckle. “She thinks Roger’s cheating on Helen.”

George stops before fastening it tighter. As it drags his pants down, he thinks of Helen again. “Why does she think that?”

Joy leans forward and tugs his pants up and fastens his belt. “She saw him out with another woman. Some British bitch.”

“Maybe it was his relative or something.” He says and jerks up when his wife pulls the belt tight around his waist.

“Do relatives make out?” She says and finishes his work.

He steps back and adjusts. “I don’t know. Maybe some British do things like that. How does she even know the woman was British?”

“She said she had an accent like Roger’s. Too tight?”

“No, just gotta readjust my shirt.” He lies and unfastens the belt. “She heard her voice? Does she know what they were talking about? Maybe she was South African?”

“She wasn’t South African and it doesn’t matter what they were talking about! Don’t you think it’s cruel? After everything Helen’s gone through.”

He refastens the belt but still doesn’t feel right. “It’s cruel if it’s true.”

Joy gets up, bottle in tow, dangling it by the neck in her dainty fingers. George’s heart palpitates with each of its swings.

“It’s cruel not to think it’s cruel.” She says and exits the room.

And, in the kitchen, when he pulls the potato salad from the refrigerator, she slips a humane rodent trap under his arm, “Don’t forget to return this to your brother when you see him there.”


At the party, George finds himself in the bathroom again, but he is not alone this time. Charmin has her back to him and she is pulling up her shirt. She stares at him in the mirror but he pretends not to notice. He knows she is looking at his lips. His stubble buzzes.

“So what do you think?” she says.

He looks at what she wants him to see. “It’s a rash. New soap?”

“Wow, you’re good.” She says and turns around. She twists the knob to the bathroom door and Boy’s head pops in.


“Walang dapat alalahanin.” She says and turns back to George. “That’s the last time I use skin whitening soap!”

Boy takes George’s hands and shakes them. “Thank you, doctor.”

“Just George is fine. Anytime.”

“Thank you, Doctor George.” He says and doesn’t let go.

Charmin wraps her arms around Boy’s long torso. “That’s enough. Pakawalan mo siya.” She says and his grasp finally weakens enough for George to pull away.

His fingers throb. Charmin kisses her husband’s cheek.

“I didn’t do anything.” George says, trying to get past them.

“You're so humble, George. That’s why Joy loves you.” Charmin winks, still in the way.

Boy holds his wife, crowding the other end of the door. “Yes, doctor. You’re a great man.”

“Thank you. Now, I have to—.”

Charmin tilts towards George and whispers. “Did Joy tell you about Roger?”

“Yes, but,”

“Those putis! You can’t trust them. Especially the English ones.”

Boy nods. “Oo naman. The original colonizers.”

“I think that’s the Spanish.” George says, although it doesn’t matter to him who was first, who colonized who. “Anyway, are you sure it was another woman? It could’ve been his relative.”

“No,” She whispers closer, “We saw them at the Americana. They were kissing on the top floor of Barnes and Noble!”

“Oo! Right past the fishing magazines and board game display!” Boy undulates his tongue at George.

“Bastos!” Charmin says to Boy and play-slaps him. They laugh and George notices something.

He reaches out and puts his hand under Boy’s chin. They stop smiling. “Hold on. Stick out your tongue again.” He says and pinches Boy’s mouth open.

Boy’s tongue unfurls in compliance and George and Charmin look at it.


“At eth et?”

“Oh my God,” Charmin squeals, “there’s hair growing on your tongue!”

“Eer? At ah uck?”

“Don’t worry. It’s just a keratin build up. Your papillae are just overgrown. Just brush your tongue regularly and you should be fine. If left unchecked, bacteria and yeast can fester in there. You don’t want that.”

“Ank ooh oker!”

“Thank you, George! You’re a Godsend!”

“No problem.” George lets go and slips by. “Remember: brush!”


In the living room, George settles on the couch facing Roger’s new flat screen. “When Doves Cry” blares from the speaker system, its lyrics crawling across island landscapes. No one is singing but the mic is on the table picking up the noises from everywhere else. In the kitchen, he can hear his wife going on about either a movie or something from the news. He can’t tell the difference anymore. In the dining room, Roger is still drinking George’s bottle of Hibiki with two of his non-Filipino co-workers from work. George had been with them before Charmin and Boy requested his services. He had left his drink but did not want to return to pick it up. Instead, he lets the music go on without words. He closes his eyes and tries remembering what was supposed to be there without looking.

When they discovered Helen’s heart problem, they had called George for a second opinion. Roger’s charming accent agonized over the phone, but it was unnecessary. He needed only to hear him say Helen needed him. That night, he passed his appointments to his partner and took them in, first thing in the morning. George touched Helen for the first time in fifteen years and he could only think of what shape she used to make in bed. They were young. He had fucked up. Now they were older and still the same, even with different people. What cruel things the heart does for no reason.

“What’s up, Georgy-Orgy?”

George tries to stay still. He tries hard to let it pass.

“I know you’re faking it.” His brother says and snaps his fingers in his right ear. It pops.

“Kenny.” He says, but he doesn’t open his eyes.

“You singing?” The cushion beside George collapses at his brother’s weight and his face bounces off his shoulder.

He rubs his eyes open. “No. Brought the cage back.”

“You catch it?”


“You let it go?”

“That’s why it’s a humane cage. You do the humane thing with what you catch.”

“You can do whatever you want, humane or not.”

“You just get here?”

“Yeah. I brought flowers.” Kenny says, picking up the mic. He is younger but taller than George. He played basketball while George went straight home after school.

He watches his brother press the buttons. The song stops and a list runs down the screen. “What kind?”

“Sunflowers. Remember that?”

He thinks of when he told his brother about asking Helen out on her birthday. How they both took the plastic sunflowers from their mother’s table display and raced to school to see who could give it to her first. Of course, George won. Kenny didn’t even know who she was and ran right past her. He didn’t stop.

“You’re an asshole.” George says and gets up.

A song starts but he doesn’t recognize it. Kenny looks away as the words push on without him. “Where is she?”

“Helping George get ready.”

“You mean, George Junior?”

“Shut up.”

“It was a miracle, wasn’t it? Having a baby while going through her genital heart disease.”

“Congenital. And it happens. Her heart’s strong. What was wrong with it had nothing to do with the baby.”

“Dude, that doesn’t make any fucking sense.” Kenny says and puts the mic up to his face so everyone can hear the rest of his words. “But, hey, you’re the doctor.” He sings, but everyone already knows it.


Later, George is still on the couch, and everyone has congregated around him except for Helen and little George (much less awkward than George Junior) whose absence, one being the celebrant and the other being the baby, should be cause for concern but, to everyone else, isn’t. Joy sits on his lap, talking to a woman he’s only ever been introduced to twice and a man he’s never met before. Kenny grips the bicep of their childhood drug dealer, now clean and selling cheese on Colorado Blvd, and they belt out a long, out-of-tune note on “Africa” by Toto. He has a tattoo of a round cheese chart that looks like the sun or the Mayan Calendar. Even when they were in high school, he was obsessed.

Everyone else is either listening or talking, but George is doing neither. He is thinking about how, if he met these people now, he wouldn’t be sure he would make friends with any of them. As far as Filipino cliques went in high school, theirs was the most relaxed. There was no commitment to it. No one had to do anything. The only requirement was that you were part Filipino, or at least knew someone who was. No one was a stickler for the details. They grew up already as close as they were ever going to be. Hurt was forgiven. Gossip was loud. Advice was tallied and divided and prescribed. Drama was drama but only in the theatrical sense. At the end of the day, everyone was there for each other, no matter what they did, and George hated it. Helen had left him after he slept with Joy, but she never was far. They were in the same orbit. They were oppressed by gravity.

“Sing ‘Free Bird!’” Someone yells.

“No one sings ‘Free Bird’, you idiot.” Kenny yells back. “They play it. There’s a difference.”

“Play ‘Free Bird!’”

“Fuck you!”

The woman who has been talking to George’s wife leans over to him and pulls her collar down. “What do you think?”

“In-grown hair.”

“You sure? Web MD says it might be Lymphoma.”


“Why don’t you touch it?”

“It’s not cancer.” He says. He smooths a crease in his wife’s skirt. She puts his hand in her lap. It’s warm.

“No time to shave?” The woman asks.

“Wanted to try something new.”

“What about this?” The man he’s never met wags an arm in front of him.

George grabs it and holds it still like he’s caught a snake. “Sunburn.”

“I knew that! I was just testing you!” He chuckles and George lets go. His arm scurries away.

“Where’s Helen?” Joy asks George. She knows he would know and knowing that makes George uncomfortable at times.

“Roger says she’s taking care of George.”

“Poor Helen.” The woman starts. She’s wearing a sunhat indoors. All he can see is hair talking. “This is her party and I haven’t even seen her once.”

“Did you hear the tsismis about Roger?” The man says and George doesn’t even look his way. In his head, he is a woven basket made of the same materials of the woman’s hat. “It’s talagang crazy.”

“You’re so sweet on them, Joy.” The woman says. When she leans forward, more hair tips out of the hat. “You’ve helped them out so much.”

“I haven’t done much. It’s really all George. He’s really saved them.” She says and puts her arm around George. He knows she’s proud of him. She has never tried to stop him.

“You’re a real hero, George.” The man hisses. “We should name our kid after you too!”

“The more Georges, the merrier.” Joy says.

“Free Bird!”

“Shut the fuck up!” Kenny yells back and shouts out the chorus of “Africa” in unison with the cheese dealer, his wheel held up with pride.

George watches them and suddenly can’t believe the person singing with his brother is the same guy. In high school, he was an introvert. He couldn’t look anyone in the eye and no one wanted anything to do with him other than buy weed. Now, here he is before everyone, baring it all, cheek-to-cheek with some asshole, basking in their adoration. The crowd joins in, and for a moment, everyone is one, being guided by the words.

At the end, a golden 98 flashes while horns and fake applause serenade the two performers holding their arms up in triumph. As everyone clears out to start eating, Roger enters, applauding too late to mean anything.

“I’m so tired already. I’d love to have a nap, please, thank you very much.” He says and takes the empty seat next to George.

George gets up. “You should rest up. The day is young.”

“If that’s what the doctor orders.” He says and digs into the couch. He tilts his chin down to his chest. He closes his eyes. “I’m sorry, I drank your share. Couldn’t let it go to waste. You just left it there.”

“That’s ok.” George says. He stands there and listens to Roger breathe, lids of the food trays clop off, bottles pop and caps fall to the ground.

“Something the matter?” Roger asks, an arm sinking lower than the other, his eyes still closed.

“How’s Helen?”

“She’s fine, I think. You’d know better, right?” He slurs at the last word. Half his face droops.

“Why’s that?” George says but he knows the reason already and quickly changes the subject. “It’s finally over. How’s it feel?”

“Fantastic, though my back can be dodgy.”

“Does it hurt when you bend over?”

Roger shakes like a fish for a moment then straightens out. One arm stays limp. “It hurts when I do anything! Know anything to nick the pain?”

“Downward dog.”

“That’s yoga, innit? No thanks, I mean to make it better, not worse.”

“Suit yourself.” He says and starts walking but each step feels heavy, as if Roger has him tied to an invisible chord.

“By the way, I think Helen wants you to look at something.”

“Oh?” He stops.

“Says something’s wrong with George. You’d know, wouldn’t you?”

“I could.” George says but he isn’t sure. “What I mean is I can try.”

“You’ve done wonders already. Besides, a try is a try. Aren’t we all trying?” Roger says but doesn’t explain what he means before George leaves.


In George’s room, the walls are decorated with orange and one yellow accent wall. While Helen was pregnant, she told him she had vivid dreams of orange light surrounding her and her child. A nurse had told her it meant positive change in the future, but her labs had told him it meant her blood volume had increased to 50%. All in all, believing in the color orange was better than betting on red or black at roulette, a faithful or unfaithful spouse in a marriage. It was more arbitrary and wasn't as bogged down by expectations as everything else there was to put faith to.

Helen’s heart grew to accommodate her baby and, along with surgery, fixed itself. Having George had saved her. He knows he shouldn’t take credit for that.

She is asleep on a chair beside the baby when he enters. He closes the door to the party quietly behind him and leans over George’s crib. He is sleeping and healthy and beautiful. He resists the urge to pick him up. He is not careful with fragile things. An irony not exclusive to doctors, he thinks, but he wonders how else he could explain it. Who was to blame for how things were? When he turns to Helen, she is awake again, staring.

“I thought he had a cold, but he was just having a hard time pooping.”

George turns back to George. He puts his finger by his tiny hand, like a fly next to a fly trap. “Yeah, half the time it’s that. Half the time it’s because they’re hungry.”


The trap captures the fly. George’s grip is strong. “Yeah?”

“Isn’t it wonderful not to worry about me anymore?”

“Sure is.” He says. “But you still need to watch yourself.”

“I know.”

“And you shouldn’t slouch when you sleep. It’s bad for your back. Is Roger helping with this?”

“Helping with the baby. He loves George, but he’s busy, you know.”

“Ask him to help. He just needs direction. You’re not 100%.”



“Look at me.”


“I’m his mother. I should take care of him.”

“And Roger’s its father and he should take care of it too.”

“Why do you do that?”

“Do what?”

“Look at me.”

“I am looking at you.”

“No, I mean, refer to George as a thing.”

“Sorry. It’s a habit.”

“You didn’t always used to be this way. You were always a lot more poetic. You’d feel sorry for a lamp. You cried when they tore down the old Taco Bell.”

“You mean sympathetic.”

“I mean what I mean.”

“This guy’s not letting go.”

“He will when you pull away.”

“Oh yeah, like a traffic cop.”

“Like gravity.”

George pulls away and the fist unballs itself. He wonders what babies dream. What they want. What they can’t have. “I’ll always be here when you need me.”

“I don’t need that, Georgy. I’d rather have a friend. You know what that is, right?”

“Sure I do,” he says, “There’s plenty of them out there waiting for you.”

“You don’t have to answer their questions, you know.”

“I took an oath. The Hippocratic kind.”

“They can just google it. You don’t have to be google.”

“Yeah, but I’m a doctor. I have to be a doctor. It’s sort of my job. My life’s work.”

“Look at me, Georgy.”

“I’m looking!” He says and walks past her and to the door. George is already out of sight but he can still feel his grip. “You should get out there. This whole thing is for you. I’m prescribing you a piece of flan and a dozen lumpia Shanghai.”

“Look at me, George.” She says but he doesn’t look back to see who she is referring to.

“I’ll see you out there.” He says and closes the door.


“What’s wrong with him?” Roger’s co-worker, the engineer from the east coast with the cowboy hat asks. He pats Roger’s leg, but his eyes just roll back. “Come on buddy.”

George swoops in beside him. He points at Roger’s other co-worker, the Mexican QA with blue hair. “Call 911.” He taps Roger. “Roger, can you hear me?”

Roger wheezes.

“He just got up and fell down. Hold on buddy!” The cowboy pats Roger’s leg again. Blue hair runs into the other room to tell everyone what is going on. George hears someone repeat what he told him to do. He hears a glass shatter to the ground, rice hit the kitchen tile.

George already knows what’s wrong, but he goes through the motions anyway. “You still there, Roger?”

Roger moans.

“Can you talk?”

“Yes.” He labors.

“Good. You’re doing well. Any numbness in your arm?”


“Blurred vision?”

“Yes!” A tear falls into the carpet from one eye. The other acts as if it belongs to another person.

George speaks to the latter as if he were speaking to a mirror. “Hold on. Do it for Helen.”

“You’re still with us!” The cowboy says, crying now. George hears a whistle in his voice. “Hold on buddy. You’re still here!”

Everyone crowds the room, but he can’t find her.

Joy kneels on the other side of Roger and already George can see there’s nothing between them.

When he calls and Roger doesn’t respond, he starts CPR. He pushes with all his might. He runs through the beats per second, the memories, the accusations. He breathes into Roger’s mouth. He tastes his gift still fresh on his lips. Roger’s co-workers huddle together crying, Joy is on the phone with emergency services, his friends look on, horrified, and his brother and their old drug dealer cheer. But Helen is still not there, and he wishes, as he performs his second round, someone went to get her so she can see him fighting for his life.

He has wished a lot of things for her, even though she has only ever wished one thing for him. It is a wish he had seen the rat make last night before scurrying off into the darkness. It looked up at him in its cage and the two of them reflected each other’s oblivion: to make sure their lives went on even without the other.

He had seen her face like this once before. Like the moon after a storm, like the puddles left after the rain.

E. P. Tuazon is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles. They have work in several publications and their newest novella called The Cussing Cat Clock was released by Hash Journal in 2022. They were chosen by ZZ Packet as the winner of the 2022 AWP Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction for an upcoming book with Red Hen Press (2024). They are a member of Advintage Press and The Blank Page Writing Club. In their spare time, they like to go to Filipino Seafood Markets to gossip with the crabs.

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