March 20, 2020KR OnlineNonfiction

Heartbreak Nation

Every station had its resident population of forlorn supplicants, and every journey across the city entailed a descent into a Third World of helpless distress.
—Jonathan Raban, Hunting Mister Heartbreak: A Discovery of America

Part 1 – Consciousness
Every time he comes back—the memory of him, really—comes and barges its way back inside my mind, I run and find Hunting Mister Heartbreak, a Discovery of America as if thoughts had guns and my thoughts of him were aiming its weapon at whatever self-love is left, which is to say at whatever is left of me. I hurry to read in order to breathe, to see it all from the perspective of someone who doesn’t live here, or know me, anymore.

Calmer, I read and think to myself, Ha! Trust the British to see the heartbreak gripping this country in all its horror. It’s everywhere: in the mothers carrying the scars of their addicted sons and daughters, in the sweaty, middle-aged managers killing to the tune of Welcome to McDonald’s. Can I take your order? And in all the people who eat the damned, degenerated animal carcasses wrapped in fat, fast and hard at work, drenching their brains with the dripping, happy, preservative-induced colors promising a bit of quick pleasure, an easier life, some relief from the pressure of watching things happen on TV.

After the next horrifying hurricane, typhoon, cyclone, earthquake, or tornado, we’ll eat and wonder why some people are just now concerned with saving the planet from a hole in the ozone layer when there are already so many other, awfully urgent, mind-blasting, body-blowing holes to worry about right this minute. Maybe next week, they’ll finally order March of the Penguins from Netflix, see for themselves what all the fuss was about.


Part 2 – Love
Hector used to tell me not to worry. Said I did it too damn much, and why? America had always known how to mend its heart after bad loves; reminded me of racism and segregation, of Vietnam and the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, the Depression. When he loved me, he’d tell me all the time: America would be just fine and didn’t need me to worry about her. He said it’s how this country finds its heroes, promised me we’d get over the Towers and the horrible sight of gray-blue bodies falling down the long sides of buildings like so much soot and tears. How I clung to his words. They were life and helped me sleep. Now they only make me scratch.


Part 3 – Skin
These days, I’m like the British, seeing gray, my mouth always taut, tight, my scales growing in place where the softness of being with another used to be. Missing someone must create some pressure on our skins because a month ago, mine broke. My dermatologist says I’m doing it to myself, slowly stressing my skin apart at the pores. I can’t help feeling he says this because he knew Hector, or knew us back when, and it’s what Hector would’ve said if we still were.


Part 4 – Voice
To make all things worse, today I’m supposed to give a “big” presentation when I feel shrunken and small and like the hell I look. My boss says, “Bullshit!” and “This is all their fault,” to no one in particular. She called us all in for this “war room” strategy meeting, but now here we sit, in her office, staring at her thin, precise, locked-firmly-into-place alpha femaleness—ignored—as she searches for a good fat camp to send her pimply teenage son to this summer, absent-mindedly saying he’d better grow into himself soon, soon, soon, oh, he’d better because if she has to, she will call his father and then I hear myself tell her I don’t give a shit about her and, in fact, I give zero fucks about her son, as angrily as if my own “this” were all her fault.


Part 5 – The Brain
Right after it happened and for a very long time after that, I searched for relief in the form of understanding. I learned that heartbreak is a scientific issue and read everything ever written by Helen Fisher, a Rutgers anthropologist who believes we love from our brain, and all we need to do to fall out of love with inappropriate vessels for all this emotion is to dissect the connections of our minds. I wonder what she’d think of the blue orangutan. I dream of her, and in my sleep, she says this: Heartbreak is rife among blue orangutans in the rainforests of Borneo and Sumatra. The male orangutan only mates for a few days and when he moves on to the next female, the one left behind literally loses her head. The first night He’s gone is the worst for the female rainforest orangutan. Her vision blurs, her ability to gesture disappears, her sense of smell deadens as she ventures to the ground and lies in wait on purple dirt that remembers his weight, rubbing her bones into it like a crazed jungle robot until dawn comes. When it does, she’s purpled and bruised, but now she knows: He will not be coming back.


Part 6 – Being
I don’t even realize what I’ve done until after my boss postpones the presentation, tells me to take the day off, looks into my eyes as if she were giving me the gift of a son she’d like to spend time with. I don’t tell her I feel like crying all the time since he moved out. I just thank her and leave, drive into the multicolored metallic quilt of I-95 at rush hour, only traffic and skin, a mix of furrowed brows and sweaty upper lips going back as far as I can see.

They’re everywhere, forward and sideways too, hundreds of engines simultaneously running in place, fumes drifting past chalk-blue skies, drivers honking up a useless symphony of desperation, attempting to slow-motion swerve into equally slow lanes like a thousand wayward ducks unable to remember where they had been going in the first place. They, too, make me want to scratch.

And I do. I scratch and scratch until I create uplifted purple-red welts that look like maps, like isolated islands on my arms, and I want to tell Jimmy Ruffin that this is what becomes of the brokenhearted: they scratch themselves into nonbeing, each scratch a gradual erasing of skin, each welt a step closer to purgatory, months, sometimes years of not hurting too much, but not being happy either.

Maybe that’s what he saw as he wrote his song: the broken, sleepwalking through America, the pores of their skin letting everything in, like some kind of physical hyper-sensitivity, their brokenness a cheap gas-station map useful only for seeing the fuzzy, even green of tall pines along the turnpike, a frame for the nondescript lot of gray road tar stabbed straight through by that cut-up yellow line slicing a curvy scar into the highway’s heart. I imagine them grabbing at the fading pictures of the departed, the dead, the missing, the rejecting, held and distorted through time, looking for that peace of mind, settling for any piece of their own blown-to-pieces state of nonbeing.


Part 7 – Blood
Though slow, traffic flows now. My hair follicles itch, and my nails run after the tears racing down my neck from trying to tear my skin into thin strips of flesh and this strange craving to rub my breasts to pieces. I’m driving myself to Baptist Hospital for a cortisone shot when my mother calls. She’s drunk and lucid. She tells me it’s just leftover pain, says a mother knows, and repeats men over and over like my boss says bullshit. Insists “private doctors don’t know crap. Go to Jackson Memorial. They’ve seen everything there.” I tell her OK and that I love her and hang up.

In the emergency room, I sit between two prostitutes, a blind man and a teenager high on unreasonable rage. I feel free to scratch and even scratch my crotch while looking straight at the attendant and thinking of Him, but she has, in fact, seen everything and ignores me.

The prostitutes are watching Oprah campaign for a woman in the era of #Metoo. The camera pans to the women in the audience. Over a section of them, a banner reads “Wives of war” and Oprah calls them up to the stage. They’re all white, then, even Oprah, as they talk about their brothers and husbands and sons and cry for them and for themselves. They don’t look angry. They don’t give in to the urge to scratch, and I can’t help thinking maybe that’s the answer, no, the secret, to whiteness.


Part 8 – Thought
And this is where the heartbreak of this nation I love and my own might have become one once. Now it’s too late and I can’t tell them apart, and I can’t seem to hold them together either. I think back to the last time I could. It was November 2, 2004. That time, George W. Bush really was elected by fear to be president over our war and our violence against souls ripped away too soon, and my anguish was such that I’d regularly work my mind into a frenzy like mothers tend to do and imagine my great-great grandson sent off to war at eighteen by Bush’s great-great grandson and Donald Rumsfeld’s great-great-great nephew, shot to death by Dick Cheney’s cousin’s grandson-in-law, while all the president’s men talked on in this silver-lined, nonstop, musically southern drawl, claiming to know things they didn’t with the confidence, bravado, and stupid assuredness that would kill my great-great-grandson—I was sure of it then because that is how frenzies work—and I could see him in my mind, dead before he’d had a chance to live and love and scratch. It was in those days that I began to understand what all the howling had really been about. I howled so much then, I couldn’t say what a proper response would be for what is happening now.


Part 9 – Empathy
Yvonne, she’s one of the prostitutes, says heartbreak is a first-world delicacy. Says hungry people don’t have the energy to suffer over one more thing they don’t have. I think she’s right. In the end, it’s about not having what you need and want, or what you were supposed to have, because not having it when everyone else seems to, makes them better than you, or you worse off than they. I tell Yvonne about the blue monkeys from Asia. She tells me a woman can’t live on the smell of trees alone, though it seems to work very well for chimpanzees. She’s bored with Oprah and will have to leave soon without seeing a doctor. She has clients to screw and wants to be done by dawn, rest her bones, watch home improvement shows on TV while eating Cheerios with 2 percent milk before falling asleep to the morning sounds of other people rushing to work. She asks me why I scratch so much, calls me “child” and I cry, tell her I’m breaking apart. She nods, says last time she broke was way back when all her good clients started moving away to escape all the “foreigners” taking over Miami. They moved all over Florida with their families, to Tampa, Saint Petersburg, Vero Beach, and even Jupiter, told her they’d miss her, but it was time to escape the possum race, find a place where they could afford to die. “So they left and you could say . . . that I became an art whore,” she whispers, her big brandy voice, sweet and gravelly, reminding me of Eartha Kitt. Her clients were then bohemian guys who drank too much to have sex but paid her to pose and look alternately worldly and innocent, devastating and devastated on the photos, paintings and films they self-importantly described as indie, cult, experimental, or underground. She shows me a four-by-six proof of herself, part of a client’s “Figures of Freedom” series. Her face is painted red and purple and pink and her big black eyes stare out above tattered red underwear obviously positioned to suggest violence. She looks helpless, or like I imagine Jesus, lovingly looking at his murderers from his place at the top of the cross. She tells me her “He” was a rocker who fed her once, made her feel safe. Says she dreams of him all the time, even fights to not wake up so she can hang on to the feeling of having. I understand so much I want to touch her, but don’t because she looks happy talking, remembering, and forgetting her clients and her Cheerios. I just listen, quietly marveling at the beauty of the bruised, and music made with broken things. Then a nurse calls her name and she dims, gets up, goes in.


Part 10 – Memory
In the end we were like hair. A rumpled French chignon, tired of being so sexy. This, here, is part of the poem he chose to leave me . . . literally chose to leave for me to find on my night table when I got home from work, titled “Polygamy,” by Donald Revell:

I married a woman, knowing I was stealing from her,
knowing what becomes of desire
in stateless times and at the blurred ends
of streets and to the immigrant music
of small operas bowed under the beams.
Understanding the economy of love
fills no shop, liberates no country.
No one ever returns after he cheats someone.

I remember reading it sitting on the reproduction Arne Jacobsen red Swan Sofa that had called to us from among the many things at the Lincoln Road Antique and Collectibles Market. I read that poem until rain began to seep in through the ceiling of our midfloor flat, until my feet were soaked and I had to open my cerulean umbrella with the indigo blue butterflies on it, until the butterflies flew off the umbrella and the flapping and rustling of minute bluish wings turned deafening. the red of the sofa blinding, and I was absolutely sure the sofa was made of blood from people torn somehow.

Every so often, I dream of myself sitting on that minimalist red sofa holding an umbrella, staring straight ahead, tempting bad luck and thinking of him. Others, I hold an empty fish bowl on my lap like an unemployed fortune-teller waiting for gravity to make me get up and off that sofa, red dripping down my thighs as I go lay where my ape used to, screaming my prayer for an internal surge of anything.


Part 11 – Spirit
The daytime rerun Law & Order’s transitional DUM-DUM! brings me back. The teenager has also gotten up and out of his chair and now changes the channels on the waiting room TV so fast he paints a pixilated Chuck Close self-portrait with the high-definition bits and pieces of unreality and people so deaf to all feeling it can’t be believed.

This should be my cue to scratch, but I’m exhausted. In the stillness, I see my brain’s fearful wayward duck driving me to the heartbreak of hanging on to things that are gone, or will be gone soon. I close my eyes and allow myself to think of Asian blue monkeys and to remember Hector reassuring me, saying that America will be fine because it knows how to mend.

Even when my skin starts to want the tip of my fingernails, I sit on my hands and cry and smile and realize I am the only one who can possibly know when to scratch so it counts. I decide, and I say “when” to pain, and then I choose to wait for Yvonne to come out and feel grateful I can offer her a ride home.

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Anjanette Delgado is the award-winning author of two novels, The Heartbreak Pill and The Clairvoyant of Calle Ocho. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review (print), Pleiades Mag, the Rumpus, NPR, Vogue, the New York Times’ Modern Love column, and others. She lives in Miami, Florida.