Brokenheart is out of love, but wants in again. Brokenheart sends soul-revealing e-mails in which she wonders why her heart breaks all the time. I write back (shorter missives, less revealing), but Brokenheart and I never speak. What we do is trade calls. Each day, her recorded voice says, “Tag, you’re it.” When I call, Brokenheart never answers. In one message, she even squeals delightedly, “Missed again. You and I definitely get an A for Effort.”
“And an F for Execution,” I say, trying to make my voice sound lighthearted. But the truth is, if there were a grade lower than F, I’d give Brokenheart that. I think this might scare Brokenheart away, but she persists, she loves phone tag so much.
When we finally meet, I say, “I tried calling your cell to confirm.”
“Oh,” Brokenheart says, “I hardly ever answer that thing.”
Just now, there’s ringing. Cell phones make my blood boil, and I feel my face going red before Brokenheart finally digs into her purse. “No, not at all,” Brokenheart says into the phone. “I’m just at lunch.” Brokenheart chews in the person’s ear. I don’t like people chewing in my ear. If I were that other person, I’d tell Brokenheart not to chew in my ear. “Oh, honey, I’m sorry,” Brokenheart says. “That’s so rude, I can’t believe anyone would do such a thing. People just don’t have manners. Huh uh. Just a sec.” Brokenheart snaps her fingers at me. “Ask our waitress for bread. Nobody,” Brokenheart says to the phone. “Really, I can talk.”
I think I could go to the bathroom, climb out a window, and never come back. Brokenheart might not notice. I make a hand motion, mouth the word ‘bathroom’ and she nods okay.
I feel guilty and I don’t. I’m getting old, I can’t waste my time. The window above the toilet offers daylight, a chance to escape. I step up. Maybe I can squeeze through. But when I try, the window won’t budge. This will be my excuse: ‘The window was painted shut. I had no choice but to go back.’ I observe myself in the mirror. “Idiot,” I say.
“Well, I had fun,” Brokenheart says when she finally hangs up her phone.
“Yes,” I say.
“What now?” Brokenheart asks after I pay for coffee and scones. Twelve dollars is what loneliness has cost me today. Still, I won’t settle. Whatever’s next will not include Brokenheart, but I don’t say this, what good would it do? We’re leaving, the wind seems nearly to blow Brokenheart away. She looks like a woman whose heart will never be whole. Gravity tugs her smile into a frown. “I’ll call you,” says Brokenheart hopefully, leaning her frail body and her even more fragile heart into the wind.
“Sure,” I say.
Maybe because I’ve been searching so long, I hug Brokenheart (and she appears to hug me), but I feel nothing. No skin, no bones, no breathing, no beating of hearts.
After this, I walk away. I notice the hollowness of my shoes tapping the earth.
[Robert McGee’s recent stories have appeared in Carve Magazine and in the NPR/Paul Auster National Story Project, I Thought My Father Was God. Earlier work received recognition from the North Carolina Writers’ Network, the Robert Ruark Foundation, and the Esquire/Absolut fiction contest. “Fats,” his story about mobsters and Little League baseball, is currently being developed for a feature-length film. Although he’s spent most of the past 12 years in California and South Africa, McGee has considered Western North Carolina his permanent home since moving here from Texas at age 10.]