One to the Head, One to the Heart
(AARON, 42, stands in the dark. He’s blunt, not pleased at anything, and hasn’t been for years, if ever. The room is dark, bare except for a desk and chair. After a moment the lights come up. Perhaps he wears a white shirt and a black sports jacket, pants, tie and shoes.)
This is not a happy story.
(Looks down, quieter) Someone dies at the end.
So if you feel the need for . . . nice . . . (Shrugs, not sure what to tell them) Well, as we used to say in kindergarten: You’re shit out of luck.
I don’t trust happiness. Not after how I grew up. Family of piss-poor immigrants. Only thing lower than their net worth was their IQ.
Figured the way out was to get smart. (Proud of himself) So I was a persistent little bastard. Never gave up. Got my bachelor’s, MBA, PhD. Slaved at an accounting firm, taught on the side at the university, now do that full time.
Saved my money, always scared of goin’ broke. Then looked for a wife.
She was in the nursing department. Beth. Clever. Cute. But too big a heart. The ‘pick up a stray dog’ type.
We all got flaws.
She was good for me, I guess. But that ‘heart’ thing. That... sympathy...
(Looks away, shakes his head, annoyed) Crummy little store, my family had, growin’ up. You took sympathy on people, you didn’t eat at night.
Three goons once tried to shake us down. We said, we don’t make enough to feed ourselves, how we gonna pay you?
They shattered my brother’s kneecap, said if we opened our mouths they’d burn down the store.
Next day they walked in. My brother, behind the door: a crutch in one hand. A chrome automatic in the other.
There’s only one thing you do to people like that. You get tougher. So my brother shot holes in their legs.
That made them easier to hold down while we punched out their teeth.
(Beat) See, that’s the way I was raised: (Uses his finger for emphasis. Louder, a declaration) To make the toughest decision, then stick to it. This world is hard. So you gotta be strong. And persistent. Never give up.
(Beat. Quieter) That’s why someone dies in the end.
(Lights down on AARON and immediately up on BETH, 38-40, who sits on a bed at the opposite side of the stage. She wears a cute pair of pajamas, something colorful and cozy that reflects a friendly personality. She’s not exactly naive, but she starts out pleasant and nice before becoming somewhat downhearted. She gives a slight smile.)
Aaron is rough on the surface. But he has the deepest heart of any man I know.
He had to be tough, the way he grew up.
It’s almost like . . . he built a wall, and he hides his tenderness behind it.
(Realizes she may be getting sappy, waves it away with a smile) Anyway. I guess I’m getting poetic. That’s not smart when you’re a nurse. You don’t recite Longfellow when you’re using a rectal thermometer.
(Quieter. This confession hurts her) I think I may be the opposite of Aaron.
I try to be nice. Friendly. But underneath . . .
(Beat. A change of tone, sadly) A few months ago, I did something . . . deceitful.
And all this time I’ve been wondering: If you’ve always been good, and you do something bad . . .
Will that one thing change who you are forever?
Beth couldn’t get pregnant. Needed this fertility drug. Zyclomid. They shoulda named it ‘Make me bankrupt.’ Drained our savings, insurance didn’t cover. But it worked.
You know what I figured, about having a kid? (Beat) Besides the tax write-off? (Inspired) Maybe life wasn’t so shitty after all. Maybe I’d build a dynasty. People’d look at me and say: that guy persevered. Started out the son of a storekeeper. Became a college professor. Then his kids: who knows how smart, how rich they’ll be. (Smiles) I’d walk around smiling, thinking about it.
(A different tone as his smile fades) Being in the delivery room. You think you know things? You look at the doctor after your wife delivers. And when you see the . . . puzzlement . . . on his face . . . The expression that says something’s wrong with the baby but he don’t want to let on . . .
You see that look, then you can come to me, say you’ve seen everything. (Beat. Even quieter) Until then, you don’t know shit.
(Beat. Looks down) A daughter. Beth named her Emma.
Brain and lung impairment. Other complications.
Blame god. If you believe in one.
(Beat. Looks around) Beth stopped working at the hospital, spent her time teaching Emma to walk a few steps, say some words, hold a spoon. Year or two of that’s fine, I guess. But three, four more pass, we’re not getting any younger, plus you have trouble gettin’ pregnant Beth. What’s the problem?
She said she didn’t think she could take care of another child, not with all the help Emma needed. Said we should be ‘happy with what we had.’
(Beat. He grows louder, more aggravated as he continues) What did we have? C’mon, let’s be honest. Go to lunch in the cafeteria, the rest of them’re sayin’, ‘Oh, Jacob got all A’s in kindergarten’ or, or, ‘Molly looked so cute on Santa’s lap.’ When they talked to me, their voices dropped before they asked—if they asked at all—‘So how is Emma doing?’ And I know what they were thinking.
(A pause. He calms) They’re thinking how it must be to get up every night, 3, 4am, hear your daughter gasping through the baby monitor, this close to death. How it feels when some asshole teenager points at your child and laughs. How it is to see other 6-year-olds running and playing while yours . . . was messing herself in the middle of a store somewhere.
We’re arguing every night. Beth with her sympathy. Half the time interrupted by Emma’s wheezing. You didn’t shift her position, she’d choke in her sleep. What a life, huh? For all of us.
This is what I worked so hard for.
(Smiles) We have a daughter, Emma. She has handicaps, but look in her eyes, you can tell she’s her father’s daughter. It’s so deep there.
One night, when I was pregnant with her, I went to Aaron’s study. He was down there alone, like he is now.
My father once said you needed pliers to pull an emotion out of Aaron. It’s true, he doesn’t open up much. But that night he let me in. Told me he dreamed of building a big family, one to do us proud. I promised him we would.
A few months ago we were arguing. He reminded me of the promise. Said we were getting older. Said we needed to take chances.
(Unsure of herself, despite her words. Not convincingly) ‘Aaron, I’ve never been the kind to take chances. Then there’s Emma . . . and, and . . . even if we tried again, we don’t have the money for the Zyclomid . . .’
(Beat.) ‘I mean . . . it doesn’t seem like a good thing to do.’
He looked at me and said ‘Sometimes being good . . . is the excuse for being a coward. Try being bad sometime, Beth. See the courage it takes.’
Then he walked out.
I think that hurt because . . . he was right. I’ve been scared all my life of doing the wrong thing.
It was spiteful of me. And stupid, I know. But I remember thinking: (Bitterly. A woman scorned) Don’t you say that, Aaron. I . . . I can do something bad. Oh, I’ll prove it.
(Not cocky. She becomes almost scared and reluctant) I’ll show you.
(With a bitter grandstanding, a false snicker behind a great frustration) And then came the day of the glue!
They’re at my desk—where they know they shouldn’t be, all the things I keep in there. One of their little craft projects. Phone rings. Beth leaves her alone a minute. Emma goes and tips over this big jar of glue. Tries to pick it up. Keeps spilling. Thick stuff—we’re not talkin’ Elmer’s—in my keyboard, computer, files, papers. Ruined.
Kid gets upset, hyperventilates. To the hospital – there’s another bill to pay. Meantime, rest of the glue leaks, dries on everything. Even into the desk drawers, where Beth went, searching for something to clean it up.
(Clenches his fists. Builds to be as angry as he’s going to get) Came home, squeezed my eyes shut so hard I saw red inside my skull. Bad enough, six years I get no sleep. Bad enough, everyone lookin’ at me with pity. Bad enough, my own wife doesn’t want more kids. Now my things are ruined. And this ain’t the first time—no, this ain’t even the tenth.
(Beat. He settles) That night I stayed up thinking. Just like my dad and me when we had the store.
And I said to myself: (Exhausted) Let’s be honest.
Emma. Was. Damaged. Barely made it to six. Odds of her seeing ten were through the roof. (Starts marking these with his fingers) We had no life. We’re goin’ broke. And even if I could convince Beth to try again, we had no money for that drug, not with Emma’s bills.
(As rationally as possible) Would it be so bad if one night, when she was coughing, Emma just . . . let go? Beth would never consider it. But I was using my head. If it happened . . . if I let it happen . . . could I live with it?
(Gives a short nod, though not entirely a confident one. A soundless ‘yeah.’) That was that.
(Pauses to clear his mind. Perhaps he moves, or looks out the window before he continues) ‘Mainstreaming.’ Beth put her in with normal kids. (Rolls his eyes) Ballet class. Good for movement, stretch the muscles. Waste ‘a money. End of the year, a recital. Oh, I couldn’t wait to watch the rest of the kids dance around, while Emma . . . (Waves it off or looks away, frustrated)
But later, when we went to bed, I’d break the monitor. Ballet exhausted Emma, made her nights even worse. Beth would be worn out too.
And I wouldn’t stop whatever happened. (Looks off into the dark, blankly. Then, quieter) I been doing it all my life: ‘Make the toughest decision. Then stick to it.’
I’d prove I could take a chance.
The chief of staff at the hospital. Kip. He’s always flirting. Even when I worked there, he’d follow me around, chatting. The days I bring Emma in, he finds an excuse to drop by.
I never encouraged him. But after my fight with Aaron, about having another child—after all he said about courage and chances . . .
I flirted back.
(This isn’t pleasant for her) First a smile, then a big laugh at a little joke. Touching his hand when we talked.
I’d do those things and think: How’s this, Aaron?
Kip started to slip me corny little notes: ‘I used to like seeing you in your nurse’s uniform. PS: Do you still have it?’ Another said: ‘I have the key to every room in this hospital. PS: Where can I get one to your heart?’
Gosh, what’s that word we used in 7th grade? (Beat. Tries to remember) I don’t know, but that’s how it felt—7th grade. I’m not sure I even liked Kip. But then I’d think of what Aaron said. And let me tell you:
Never underestimate the power of spite.
One afternoon, out of the blue, Kip called me at home. Emma and I were gluing a birdhouse on Aaron’s desk, and when I heard Kip’s voice—
Yes, I wanted to take a chance. Yes, I wanted to have courage. But this wasn't me. No way. I was ready to tell him that . . .
But something happened at Aaron’s desk. I heard Emma crying.
And I had to get off the phone.
I never told Kip ‘no’ . . .
So later on, when I saw him at the hospital, he just assumed ‘yes.’
No courage, Aaron? Watch me.
(Beat) I . . . I don’t mean that literally. I didn’t want him watching me.
But you understand.
(He’s standing. A few lines into it he eases into his desk chair and sits as if in an audience. He starts out almost with a sneer)
The recital was tonight.
Place is packed with parents, laughing and smiling. I hated them. Here I am—guy who worked so hard, never gave up—waiting to be embarrassed.
One group of kids dances, then the next, another. Then last—Emma’s.
Eight kids come out. Teacher puts Emma in the back, of course. One easy move, trips halfway through it, whatever. The audience titters, but it’ll be over soon and we can leave.
It ends. (He gives a listless half-clap) Each girl steps forward to do her ballet curtsey. When it’s Emma’s turn, she tries. (He almost looks away) But . . . she don’t have good balance. Falls down, center stage.
I can hardly look. Though I see a couple little girls laughing.
Struggles. Barely makes it up. Audience gives a sympathy clap, uncomfortable. Rest of the kids leave the stage.
But not Emma.
No. She stays put. Tries again to do the curtsey. Takes another spill. And this time it ain’t a kid but some prick in the front row who laughs at her.
Emma is shaking, fighting to stand. The teacher ain’t seen her, she’s off with the rest of the class.
The kid is alone on stage, straining, and I’m hopin’ someone will take the lights down and (Looks away, angry and appalled. Cringes) stop this thing.
There she is, on her hands and knees, wheezing. What a great teacher we paid for. Leaving her by herself.
Emma, she makes it, stands. (Shakes his head. Exhales) Tries another time to curtsey. And she just. Can’t. Do it. Topples over, harder.
An eternity later the teacher comes running out as Emma is pulling herself up for the third time. Teacher reaches to take her under the arms.
But instead of being helped . . . Emma pushes at her. Teacher reaches again and it’s almost a rough move, this grunt Emma gives. She doesn’t want help. And the teacher can’t get hold.
First, I think Emma’s having a seizure . . .
No. (Beat) I . . . (Beat. A quiet, sad revelation). I know what she’s doing.
The teacher is grabbing at her but Emma is fighting it, pulling away with all her might. That’s when I stood up, pointed at the teacher and said ‘Leave her alone! And get offthe stage!’ That teacher knows I mean business so she moves.
Emma is all alone now, struggling to get to her feet. Then she stands and that place is silent and I call to her: (Beat. Almost breathless, but with some strength) ‘You can do it.’
And that little girl looks at me . . . the theater, even from ten rows back I can hear her breathing it’s so quiet. She tries to do her curtsey again and I ain’t gonna go through it, how many times she stumbled and fell, but she’s my daughter and she never once gave up, and I’ll stay here all goddamn night, you take all the time you need, honey.
Finally, she stands . . . just like she and Beth practiced at home . . . she moves her arms down, bends at the knees . . .
And she bows.
So magnificent and so pure and so . . . perfect.
And she looks at me. And smiles.
My . . . heart. Shattered into a million pieces. I didn’t even know I had one, and there it is, broken.
I smiled back . . . at that beautiful child.
(Beat. He recovers. He moves from an emotional tone to a harsher one) Sat here after they went to bed. Ashamed. Because this was the little girl I was gonna let go.
I saw what kind of person I’d been all my life. Yeah, I was honest. I’d seen my own soul. And it was deformed. And so ugly.
There’s only one thing you do to a soul like that. (Takes a gun, a chrome automatic, from his desk drawer) I can’t take the chance I’d ever hurt you, Emma.
(All throughout the next lines he’s checking the clip, readying the gun)
I still feel the old me, down in there. I won’t risk it comin’ back.
I seen those doctors in the hospital, flirting with your mother. She’ll find you a better father.
One who ain’t so selfish. One who cares about more than money.
One who can love you when you’re weak, not only when he sees you strong.
That’s the best love I know how to give. I’ll keep you safe—from me.
(Lights begin to come down. He pulls the slide back, then puts the gun to his temple, steels himself, and just as he is about to shoot, stops.)
No. That’s not where it should go.
(Takes the gun from his temple, then presses the muzzle against his heart.)
That’s where. (Pulls the hammer back. Lights down fast.)
The jingling of keys.
You could always hear Kip walking the hospital halls.
When I took Emma in, after the accident at Aaron’s desk two months ago, I heard the sound. Turned around. Kip’s there with a note. It said, ‘If you’re ready to take a chance, let me know. PS: I am.’
When Emma was being checked out, I told him: ‘In an hour, unlock room C16 on the supply floor. It’s quiet down there.’
Coming back to the house. Putting Emma to bed. Seeing Aaron. There I am, staring at him, and I’m thinking: I love you Aaron. But if you want me to do something bad . . . so be it.
So I tell Aaron I have to go to the market. But I go to the hospital.
And then to C16.
It’s an adjoining room. One side, linen supplies. The other side, spare beds. Kip’s there, waiting.
I tell him: ‘Undress here. Then go in the other room and get in bed. I’ll be a minute.’
And I watch him as he does.
I’m standing there, alone. (Looks down, sadly) I don’t even know I’m crying until a tear falls to the floor. My whole life, I never took a chance like this. There’s time to stop. But I’m thinking of Aaron and decide . . .
I will do this bad thing and still be a good person.
So I pick up Kip’s pants.
The ones with his keys.
March down the hall.
Unlock the pharmaceutical supply room.
And steal a bottle of Zyclomid.
Then I run out of the hospital. Really. Fast.
Only when I get home do I realize I’m still holding Kip’s pants.
He called me. Screaming I’d left. I said: (Nervously, but furiously) ‘You’re yelling because I didn’t cheat on my husband? Aren’t you married, too? So don’t call here again! PS—You’re a . . . dork.
(She’s surprised herself) That’s the word we used in 7th grade!
I started taking the Zyclomid that night, when Aaron and I went to bed.
(Beat. Feels her stomach) He doesn’t know yet. But when he comes upstairs, I’ll explain it all. How I did that bad thing for him.
Watching Aaron at the recital tonight, seeing his love for Emma . . .
He’ll be so happy.
Everything will be alright. I feel it so deep in my heart.
Everything . . . will be alright.
(She looks down at her stomach and she feels it, tenderly. Lights down. Lights up across the stage. AARON is in the same position as when he last appeared. He braces himself, breaths deep. He’s terrified, but angry and unbending. He pulls the trigger. A click, nothing more. He gasps, breathes like he just came up from under water. Pulls the gun away. Looks at it, takes the clip out and sees it’s loaded. Pulls the slide back, aims it at his heart, and after a quick, determined brace, pulls the trigger. Nothing. He puts the gun nearer to his face and examines it.)
Glue . . .
. . . clogging the firing pin.
(Huffs. Then offhandedly) How much’ll that cost to fix?
(Realizes the absurdity of the statement, but he’s still angry with himself. Then his face goes slack, close to tears. He puts the gun back in the desk and looks out into the darkness.)
Oh god, Emma.
(End of Play)
Ken Jaworowski is an editor for The New York Times. “One to the Head, One to the Heart” was first directed by Thomas Coté and starred Jed Dickson and Nicole Taylor. Many of Ken’s plays, including this one, had their premieres at the WorkShop Theater Company in Manhattan. His short story “Bowfin” appeared in The Angler literary magazine. Inquiries concerning performance of "One to the Head, One to the Heart" should be addressed to KJavieATaol.com