a brief theory of heartbreak

That was before she said I was exerting hegemonic power over her in a totally colonial way and that she could no longer prioritize our relationship in the time-structure of her life and actually it might be better if we never talked to each other again…”

 

by becca hall

 

 

This sweet clean air feels fresh on my balls: that was my first real thought of the day, besides oh shit and where are my pennies. I was up already at 9:45 AM. It was Saturday: no class. I was riding my bicycle in only my bathrobe. It was only four blocks to the Whole Foods but four blocks is a marathon for a man in my condition. My extreme velocity was its own breeze.

I dropped my bike in the parking lot and ran straight for the toilet paper aisle. When the health freak yoga ladies in the checkout line saw me in my bathrobe with only that one roll of toilet paper they just melted away. It’s like being pregnant or something. You get to cut all the lines.

“Eighty-nine cents,” said the checkout lady, so I reached into my pocket for a fistful of pennies. She didn’t count them. She just scooped them up. She had her sleeve pulled over her hand. When a man in a bathrobe holding a roll of toilet paper gives you a fistful of pennies, you don’t ask questions. You don’t get in the way.

So I was out the door, past the stacks of grapes and the man selling the street paper. Then I was back on my bicycle flapping away. Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go, I sang out loud, because “Uncle John’s Band” was stuck in my head like usual. Ain’t no time to hate, barely time to wait, and I freeballed the hell out of that four blocks.

I wheeled my bike into the backyard, habit I guess, since that’s where it goes, though I could have dropped it on the front steps. But things weren’t as urgent as those yoga ladies believed: I’d noticed the paper situation before I sat down.

Veronica was on the patio in a lawn chair, naked.

Baldheaded and naked.

“Hi Kevin,” she said, and put down the Economist she was reading.

“Just a sec,” I said.

When I came back out she was reading again. She didn’t look up, just held up a finger. I took off my robe and sat down on the other chair.

She had shaved her head, and the scalp that showed through was real pale. Her eyes had the big circles like they always do, and her stomach, her breasts, everything about her was pale and tiny thin. If she had had clothes on, she would have looked like a cancer patient. Except sexier. I don’t know what it is, pheromones or something. Veronica’s beauty-to-hotness ratio is extremely skewed.

Then she put the magazine down. “Alright.”

“It’s been a while,” I said.

“Sixty four days. It was day nine. Today is day seventeen.” She keeps track of time by her menstrual cycle.

“What are you up to?” I tried a nonchalant gesture that would have worked better if I could have hooked my hands in my pockets after, but I didn’t have any pockets or any pants. My arms flapped for a second, then I made them be still.

“You know, stuff. Finishing my thesis. I’ve ended up zeroing in on a comparative study between Bosnia and the Holocaust, looking at the ways the international community responds punitively post-genocide. I couldn’t find one in the literature, which was problematic, so I’ve drawn up my own matrix to examine multiple criteria that influence the monetary outcome in each instance.” She looked at me coolly, utterly devoid of gesture.

Veronica’s honors thesis was about who gets rich off of genocide. Stanford had given her an undergraduate research grant to go to Sarajevo to study it; I had gotten a grant to go to Dallas to help a lesser-known elderly physicist organize his papers, and – it turned out – to hear the lesser-known details of his elderly love life. Which was okay. Veronica and I met giving our post-grant presentations to a room full of other over-achieving undergraduates and bored committee members.

“Dallas. That sounds hot,” she had said when we were all milling around afterwards eating things off of cheese platters.

“They had a lot of air conditioning.”

“Cool,” she said, and laughed.

I like a girl that laughs at her own jokes.

That was six or seven months ago. Day twelve, she told me later.

We spent a lot of time together for a while after that. It was cool and then it wasn’t. And now we were here, in lawn chairs.

“I mean,” I tried again, “what are you doing here?” I didn’t say, naked in my backyard, after you said you hate me.

“Kevin,” she said, and it was an accusation. “It’s sunny.”

It is often sunny in California, but I didn’t say that either.

She was doing that thing she does, pulling out her eyelashes and looking at them one by one. It’s a weird habit, but it isn’t as gross as it sounds – her eyelashes are sort of invisible anyways. When I first knew her, or thought I knew her, I thought that was sexy. She would lie on my bed and pull out her eyelashes and tell me about international politics while I ran my thumbs along her ribs. She had ribs like a rutted out dirt road, bumpity bump, and sometimes I would pretend my hands were pickup trucks and I was driving along back home in Idaho and had never heard of Stanford or string theory or Jerry Garcia or even Veronica and I had a gun rack and was drinking Miller High Lifes and throwing the empties out the window. Then at some point she would grab me and pull my face real close to her eyes and she would kiss me. But that was a while ago.

That was before she said I was exerting hegemonic power over her in a totally colonial way and that she could no longer prioritize our relationship in the time-structure of her life and actually it might be better if we never talked to each other again.

I don’t get it, I’d said.

Exactly, she’d replied.

Now she is, you’d say, my ex. But say ex a lot of times fast and you know what it sounds like? Sex. I learned that in second grade.

“You want to go lay down or something?” I asked her. I shifted in the plastic chair, my butt already stuck to it, so she couldn’t see my crotch where my dick was kind of stiffening.

“No,” she said, without consideration, and stood up to go grab a glass of water. The chair had left red lines on her butt.

“Hey Veronica. What’s black and white and red all over?”

“Zebrawithasunburn.”

“No, your ass when you’ve sat in that chair and then I draw on you with a Sharpie.”

She didn’t even look at me. She just went inside. That’s the problem with Veronica. Just being around her I act like a dweeb. I mean, only around Veronica would I even use the word dweeb. It’s a demonstration of the universal tendency towards equilibrium, I guess: her intellect demands a counterbalance.

“I’m going to become a nun,” she said, when she came back out. “That’s why I cut my hair.”

“But you don’t believe in God.”

“Not a Catholic nun, a Buddhist. I’m going to Colorado.”

My housemate Jessie poked her head out the door. “Kevin?” Jessie looked at us like she wondered if we’d been fucking. I looked really casual, like I was trying to pretend we hadn’t been fucking so that Jessie would think we actually had.

“Um,” said Jessie, “What happened to all the quinoa?”

“Ben ate it.”

“Ok.” She went inside.

“A nun?”

“Well, that’s what I wanted to talk to you about. Either a nun or an I-banker. What do you think?”

“But you wanted to do international human rights. You were gonna be Jane Goodall.”

“She was chimps.”

“Right. I mean Florence Nightingale.”

“Oh, Kevin,” and she lolled her head back in some starlet move that exposed the blue-whiteness below her chin. “This is what I’ve learned by writing my thesis: thinking about problems that are impossible to solve is depressing, terrifying, and boring. The question is, do I hide from them completely, or get rich?”

She looked at me, and her eyes were huge and tragic.

“Get rich,” I told her. I would like to say I said this because I doubted her sincerity in the nun department, but really I thought this: if she becomes a nun in Colorado, she will never, ever fuck me again. If she becomes an investment banker, she might fuck me and she might even buy me dinner.

“Kevin,” she said again. “What are you going to do with your life?”

“I was thinking about ordering pizza.”

God, Kevin.”

She’s that easy to piss-off.

But it was a stupid thing to say. I don’t think she’s so sexy when she’s angry. She gets blotchy and she gets mean.

It was about then that I started wishing she would just go away. I had gotten up early for a reason: I had a physics proof I was in the middle of and I wanted to go to my room and spread my notes out all over the floor and stand in the middle of it listening to a live Dead show, maybe April 12th 1978, and just understand. It’s this beautiful thing that happens to me. I stand right in the middle of all of it, and suddenly I just know. Right then it sounded a lot better than sitting there getting sunburned with a woman who was halfway between pious and rich, even if she was a sexy ex. Especially if she was a sexy ex.

“Exexexexexexex,” I said under my breath. She needed to leave or she needed to kiss me. It pretty much came down to that.

“Are you praying?” She was staring at me hard. She’d leaned forward to get a good view. “Because I’ve always considered you utterly incapable of spiritual acts.”

She frowned and squeezed her lips together. She looked like she was going to kiss me. I kissed her back. Manifestation, man, I was thinking. Ask and ye shall receive. She kissed me for five and one half seconds with tongue and then pulled away.

“Kevin,” she said, another accusation, “I’m naked.”

“Me too,” I said.

“I mean, you don’t just walk up to naked people and kiss them.”

“Why not? I mean, if I want to kiss you.”

“Nudity is the ultimate innocence! There is nothing hidden, nothing to reveal, and therefore no seduction!”

She was getting blotchier. Things were not going well. I really, really do not understand that girl.

“So those orange nun robes are more seductive than being butt naked?”

“The robes are not the point, Kevin, the kiss is the point.”

“What about the kiss? I mean, I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize!”

“Sorry. I mean –”

She drew herself up to her full five-two. “You are not to kiss me! Now or ever!”

“Technically,” I said, “‘ever’ includes all time, the past and the future.”

She glared.

“Well if you want to get really technical, time is an illusion anyway.”

She glared harder.

“Technically,” I said. “So,” I went on, “It’s like we’re always kissing, and never kissing. It’s endless simultaneous possibility.”

“You are so full of bullshit,” she said with real warmth.

I leaned in to kiss her again – who says physics doesn’t help you get girls? – but she twisted out of her chair and jumped up. She stood behind it and put her hands on its back.

“Kevin,” she proclaimed like a thespian, “I came here to ask you for help.”

“For help?”

“Deciding my future. But so far you have been no good whatsoever.”

“I gave you my opinion. I think you should get rich.”

“You do?” She sank back down in her chair.

“Look, become a nun now, you can never go into finance, but you go finance now and you change your mind, no problem. The Buddhists will always take you, even if you’re rich. Same with the world-savers.”

“You really think so?”

“I do.” But the real thing I thought was this: You have to be crazy to become any of the things Veronica wanted to be, but you have to be different kinds of crazy. Veronica isn’t the right kind of crazy to become a nun, and she definitely isn’t the right kind of crazy to save the world. Jerry Garcia is that kind of crazy. Jane Goodall is that kind of crazy. But Veronica is the kind of crazy where she needs to eat more food and leave her eyelashes alone. And if these are the options, I’d say that makes her investment banking crazy.
Something about how Veronica was sitting so solemn in that stupid plastic chair, like I was an oracle or a guidance counselor or a New Age guru made my dick start getting hard for real. I thought real intensely about my Great-Aunt Joan jazzercising in her living room in Boise, wearing a sports-bra with an old cotton diaper tucked like a mud-flap over her stomach to wick up the sweat from under her voluminous-and-prone-to-fungus boobs. This is the best boner prevention I know. I should put it in capsules. I’d make millions. Veronica would be investing in my boner prevention pills, bitch. And all those Buddhist monks would be buying them.
But this time, it wasn’t working. I reached for my bathrobe. “Well, it’s been nice, uh, seeing you, Veronica.”

She jumped up and gave me a naked hug. It was a long, slow hug, her ear to my sternum, her hands running up and down my flannel back. She is a cruel, unthinking lady.

I escaped for the porch and ducked through the kitchen, where in the absence of quinoa Jessie had settled for a bowl of rice with ketchup, and I went to my room and shut all the blinds. Then I sat down on my bed.

All of a sudden, the whole thing felt sort of stupid.

I bent the blinds with a finger like a spy and looked out the window. Her water glass was on its side in a puddle. She was gone.
I got dressed.

Then I got out my physics papers and lay them out in a circle on the floor. I put on April 12th, 1978. I stood in the middle and I thought. I thought about Veronica’s skinny little ribs and invisible eyelashes and blue-white scalp and thought, I don’t think she’s sexy. I put my hand in my pants and thought about her naked and it just was not that sexy.

I went to the corner store that afternoon and bought a six-pack of Pabst, because they didn’t even sell Miller High Life in that Palo Alto corner store, and I drank a couple and thought about dirt roads and Veronica’s ribs and I still didn’t think she was sexy. I listened to March 22nd 1990 and even during the awesome entrance into the Fire on the Mountain part of Scarlet Fire, which never fails to move me, she still wasn’t sexy.

I jerked off later on to the abstract purity of faceless asses, and then Jessie and Ben and I ate some of Ben’s signature lentil mush and even though I think lentils are crap because they give me rank gas, I couldn’t stop grinning.

 

(illustration: kurt eisenlohr)

 

Originally published:
Issue Seventy-Six
February 2018

 


Becca Hall’s work has appeared in Contrary Magazine, the Bellingham Review, Quick Fictions, Grist, High Country News, and elsewhere. She studied writing at Stanford and the University of Montana and is currently working on a novel.  She is the director of Frog Hollow School, a writing program for children.  More of Becca’s writing can be found at her blog thefriendlymoth.wordpress.com and her thoughts about teaching writing are found at https://froghollowschool.com/blog/    More Becca Hall in Smokebox found here.

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