Right when I’d got the hang of life, when I had a meaningful job and a semi-permanent man and a nice swing to my gait, and was living like a clean-haired career girl a father could be proud of, my father went joyriding and fell off a cliff, just like we’d always warned him.
My siblings and I tried to rappel to the rocks below and find his body with its crunched-up motorcycle, but there had been room for only one strongest person in our family and we gave up rather quickly, taking off our harnesses and sitting near the edge of the cliff eating string cheese and wondering how a bunch of dreamers like us would ever manage. We held a ceremony where our mother scattered ash from the fireplace, and my oldest brother Donnie said a prayer, and we all sang and danced and recited poems until dark, when we were hoarse and noodle-limbed. Even then we didn’t feel finished, so we pounded our chests, crying, “This! This!” and flung ourselves right to the edge, where, true to our mother’s histrionic genes, we ripped our hearts out to destroy on the rocks below.
I fumbled and, typically, dropped mine at my feet, where it shattered. My siblings paled as they peered over the edge to where theirs had exploded against the rocks. I stared at my pieces, knowing right then that I needed my heart not just to beat so that I could live, but to exist so that I could want to live. My brothers and sisters fell to their knees and my mother stood with her hands on her hips and mumbled about mistakes—easy for her to say because, though she had lobbed hers off the cliff, it had landed in the ice cold lake, where I am certain it stays whole and preserved.
Like they were precious seashells, I gathered my heart shards, peeling off my nylons and knotting them inside. As I yanked my suitcase toward the car, my mother called, “Get back to those sixth graders! Work is how you and your father keep from losing your heads.” Then she covered her mouth and mumbled, “Kept.” Back home, I tucked the nylons safely into the foot of the bed—stupid, because every time I nudged closer to my man, my own heart cut me and I had to pull away.
He and I ditched our social and travel plans and latched onto the dullest of butter knife lives—work and groceries and dishes and laundry, a little late-night TV. We limped around with bent spines and red eyes, sore with heart-cuts and no spooning, until finally I dropped the nylons into a plastic bag and buried that in a box that I shipped to my mother. It came back unopened, and soon I received an email from her in Beirut, saying it was time to clean out my things, to find something to do with my old toys and prom dresses because she was no longer a nostalgia-sitter—she had a life to live.
“P.S.,” she said, “Don’t lose momentum, keep moving forward, focus on whatever keeps you from getting stuck.”
Kids, kids, kids—they demanded, in reality, sixty hours a week of unadulterated attention. Teaching, grading, conferencing, coaching, praising, disciplining, counseling, and in some cases, parenting. Children are the Future, the poster behind my desk said. Why not store my heart where I spent all of my time?
I told my mother I was too busy changing lives to go home and dig through old junk, and if it mattered so much, to throw it all out.
She said, “Go get ‘em, Hon,” and for my students I planned a belated Halloween party without it ever crossing my mind that I was the one who’d been away mourning.
I bought them candy corn and plastic spider rings and when they said they wanted the real stuff, I returned with artisan cakes and vegan cookies and a piñata full of fair trade chocolate bars that cost a paycheck’s-worth of spending money, for these were Nob Hill kids.
They read their haunted house poems and sang Halloween songs and recited crass jokes about the dead and I praised them, doling out cookies and hugs one by one. This is what it’s all about, I thought as I cleaned up wrappers and piñata bits, stuffing the unwanted candy corn into my mouth.
And so the days went on, and so my heart sat in a box under my desk, and I grew fat and happy on kid candy and late-night grading sessions. My man made Internet friends to fill the evenings, and we were OK.
I tried to check on my siblings, but their phones were no longer in service and my emails went unanswered. I imagine they are still out there heart-searching, sitting on that lake in wobbly canoes and borrowed scuba gear, for by now the November rains and January snowstorms have surely washed their heart-pieces into its depths, churning them into sand.
With my class, I did Hanukkah movies and Christmas card making and Valentine’s chocolatiering and Saint Patrick’s Day games, but I worked them hard, too, and I graded hard, and other teachers and parents commented on my commitment and gazed at me without blinking for long stretches. One father asked if I was eating anything besides junk because my coloring was like a bad egg and my eyes were dull as nickels, and I laughed and said, “Why waste time eating when there’s so much to be done for the children?” and circled Easter on the calendar, starting the search for organic dye recipes right there.
May arrived. Fruit trees blossomed, lilacs bloomed, basketballs bounced, motorcycles revved to life how my father’s would not. Soil thawed, ponds thawed, I thawed. I rubbed my watery eyes, stuck my fist into the hole in my chest, paced the house, and got out the phone book to invite the kids over for a special end-of-school dinner.
“My parents want to take me out,” one said, and another: “My friends want to take me out,” and the others: “_______.” I emailed directions and a nice invitation to parents, sure that they would want an opportunity to thank me for all I had done for their children, and then lit Tiki torches, strung Christmas lights and began grilling steaks.
The sun waned as I sat at the head of the long, empty table and ate as many steaks as I could, throwing the rest to the neighbor’s dogs. I saved one for my man and it rotted in the fridge. He had disappeared to Mexico with an Internet friend, said he’d be back maybe sometime, if I could find a way to piece myself together. With a shrug, I decided an empty house wasn’t so bad—it echoed like the chambers of my heart used to, and I missed that.
For sixth grade commencement, I painted a giant banner and bought a tray of graduation cap cupcakes with homespun honey tassels. I combed my hair neatly into place and wore matte lipstick, so as not to leave smears on the kids’ cheeks when we said our final goodbyes.
Some grabbed their cupcakes, pressing in for a quick hug, but most avoided my gaze as they high-fived friends or yawned and whispered with older siblings, and I realized they were too old to care much about cupcakes, and certainly cheek kisses from teachers. Eventually, they filed out with their parents, chatting about summer activities and how badass junior high would be, and not one glanced back at good old Ms. Treat with her beautiful banner and hair. I limped to my classroom, stuffing part of my blouse into the hole where my heart once was. I wondered how my mother was doing, if her heart would ever thaw or if people really did permanently change.
With a mouthful of stale candy corn, I boxed up the colorful spring crepe paper decorations, locked the spelling books and novel sets away, and threw out dried up markers and watercolor sets. When the room smelled like Lysol, and the kids’ desks—free of cookie crumbs and pencil scribblings and hateful drawings—gleamed under a late spring sunset, I crouched beneath my desk to retrieve the pieces of my heart.
The heartbox was light; I peered inside and gave it a shake and the plastic bag and nylons floated to the carpet like old skins. I pressed my cheek against the floor among the dried bits of mud from March’s galoshes, and pollen from April’s sandals, and a crunched-up oak leaf from back in October, when it all started. There were the pieces, sparkling like glitter against the dull blue carpet, smashed to irretrievable bits.