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Hold Pressure

Story by Eliot Li (Read author interview) May 2, 2022

Art by Lorena Turner

  1. Ping starts to regret going to medical school

Ping’s deterioration begins on the transplant service, when Dr. Schrock places the organ donor’s beating heart into his latex gloved hands, while the anesthesiologist turns off the life support. Legally, Ms. Ishikawa was already dead, her brain liquefied days after the motor vehicle accident, but all the viscera below her neck is still shiny and warm and throbbing with pulsating blood. Yet no one needed the heart, so Dr. Schrock gives it to Ping to hold, before it takes its final beats, a sort of hazing ritual for med students like himself, forcing him to watch and feel how a body dies, from the inside. The beating heart thrusts itself against the pads of his thumb, the slick ridges of muscle sliding and bumping around, the whole thing threatening to jump out of his hands. And when they switch off Ms. Ishikawa’s ventilator, the lungs stop inflating, the forceful contractions devolve, and the heart becomes a wriggling bag of worms in his fingers, before transforming into a motionless piece of warm uncooked meat.

He’s supposed to stay and sew up the wound, but instead he lurches for the door and vomits into the metal sink.


  1. Ping has sex for the first time since witnessing Ms. Ishikawa’s heart go into ventricular fibrillation

Emily thrusts on top of him, cowgirl style, so he could see the front of her chest expand with each inhalation, her breasts spreading apart, the skin over her ribs stretching taut. It has been their go-to position for the past year. But tonight, he sees what’s underneath, a pair of heaving pink lungs. A glossy crimson liver with rivulets of black bile coursing through it, next to undulating bowel propelling the herb roasted chicken she’d cooked them for dinner.

He retches. Emily dismounts.

“You don’t want me anymore,” she says, corkscrewing her face into his armpit.

He stares at the dark bedroom walls, and takes slow deep breaths.


  1. Ping tries to tell his dad he wants to pursue a different line of work

There’s a pile of Mongolian beef between them, on the red tablecloth, grease pooling at the bottom of the serving bowl.

“In another six months, I can call you Doctor,” his father says, levering a third helping of the glistening beef onto his plate.

His father, who had cardiac bypass surgery fifteen years ago. The long pink scar etched over his wired-together breastbone. The cholesterol particles from tonight’s meal seeping into his bloodstream, sticking to the walls of his diseased coronary arteries.

Ping tries to think of something else. Disneyland. Tinkerbell in a short green dress signing his autograph book. His dad squeezing his hand during the drop on Space Mountain.

“Such an honorable profession. You’ll be saving lives.”

He’s heavier than Ping remembered, the front of his gray button-down shirt all puffed out. Ping watches him chew, and imagines his dad having an acute cardiac event. His fingers sinking into the cotton fabric stretched over his fleshy chest, eyes bulging, wheezing as he collapses onto the sticky restaurant carpet. The ambulance siren, the paramedics, his stiff middle-aged body in the morgue.

“I’m so proud of my son.”

He should have told his father over the phone yesterday. Just said it and be done with it.

His dad reaches across the table to touch his shoulder. The walls of the restaurant rattle and start to move. The painting of Buddha, the gold double happiness sign, all collapsing inward upon him.


  1. Taylor Swift teaches Ping about resilience

Driving to the hospital, Ping listens to a Taylor Swift song on the radio. She implores him to just “Shake It Off.”

Dr. Schrock wears dark goggles while he fires the YAG laser inside Mr. Peterson’s open abdominal cavity. Mr. Peterson is the new donor, brain dead by a ruptured cerebral aneurysm. Ping holds retractors, while Dr. Schrock frees the liver from its attachments. His biceps twitch with fatigue. “Pull harder,” he says.

Ping loses his grip on the retractors, and a wall of flesh snaps against Dr. Schrock’s hand. The wayward laser he was holding lacerates Mr. Peterson’s aorta. A jet of blood shoots upward, power spraying the ceiling tiles, before showering everyone below with falling red sprinkles.

“Don’t just stand there! Hold pressure!”

The scrub nurse gives Ping a wad of gauze, and he pushes down with all of his weight. The gauze saturates, a lake of blood forming around his fingers.

“Shake it off,” Ping whispers. “Shake it off,” singing it this time. The blood rushes against his palm. His fingers start to cramp. He can’t hold pressure much longer. Taylor Swift is right next to him, stamping her feet.

Dr. Schrock fumbles with the clamps, metal clinking together. The rustle and flapping of people in sterile blue gowns shuffling around the room, alarm bells going off.

Taylor Swift slants her eyebrows, presses her ruby lips together. She’s in a white tutu, wringing her hands, when Ping finally lets go.

About the Author

Eliot Li lives in California. His work appears or is forthcoming in CRAFT Literary, Citron Review, Maudlin House, trampset, Atticus Review, The Pinch, Pithead Chapel, and elsewhere.

About the Artist

Lorena Turner creates photography projects that draw from the areas of documentary, journalism and fine art. She selects image-making tools that best articulate her ideas. Lorena’s work is shown both nationally and internationally in venues as diverse as The Photographers’ Gallery in London, the United Nations headquarters in New York City, the Arc Light Theater in Hollywood and the Indianapolis Museum of Contemporary Art. Her book, The Michael Jacksons, and ethnographic monograph on the American subculture of Michael Jackson impersonators, was published in 2014. Lorena received an MFA from the University of Oregon, studied sociology at The New School for Social Research in New York City, and teaches photojournalism and documentary storytelling in the Communication department at California State Polytechnic University in Pomona, California.

This story appeared in Issue Seventy-Five of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Seventy-Five

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