A stream of cars whisked quietly into the school’s small lot. Everyone came alone. Shrill squeaks chirped the evening air as the drivers double-clicked their lock buttons, keys dropping into pockets. Everyone was early. They lingered outside the gymnasium’s double-doors, heads down, hands stuffed in their coats, scruffing lazy infinity signs with their toes on the sidewalk.
Sam Irving stood off to the side, close enough to be considered a part of the group, but not close enough for anyone to think that he might think he was actually one of them.
Someone arrived with a key and opened the doors. The group clicked off their phones and stubbed their cigarettes and wordlessly shuffled through. In the middle of the gym, they creaked open fold-out chairs and arranged themselves in a loose circle. There was a bin of basketballs in the corner, the rubber goosebumps fading from overuse, the maroon surfaces shiny in the humming light blaring from checkered tiles spaced across the ceiling. A pine door and a curtained window opened to the PE teacher’s office, flanked by a laminated chart denoting the pull-ups, push-ups and mile times necessary to meet some arbitrary presidential standard. Various sidelines and baselines overlapped on the floor, color-coded like some enlarged subway map.
Nobody could sit still. Everyone made constant minor movements. Arms were crossed and uncrossed. Ankles stacked and unstacked. Wristwatches shaken down the arm as if playing a tambourine.
Sam was determined to sit stiller than the others. His fold-out chair was just as uncomfortable, just as beat-up, but Sam knew there was no perfectly fluid way to sit, that to constantly contort and rearrange was to search for a satisfaction that would satisfy no longer than a few seconds, before the lumbar would trumpet in protest or the left knee would thump in rebellion, and to once again find relief would require yet another reconfiguring, and the cycle would repeat until the hour had past and all you did was run away from something you could never escape anyway. Better to arrange the arms and legs at ninety degrees, soles flat on the floor, and wait to go numb.
Some seconds later, the double-doors to the parking lot were swung shut, the hum of the city silenced.
‘Phones,’ someone said, and anyone who hadn’t tapped their screens to silence them.
Sam’s toes tingled despite the effort to wiggle them inside his shoes. He felt like a layman in a room full of priests or a priest in a roomful of sinners. He couldn’t tell which, or which he wanted to be.
A man unzipped a backpack. Sam did not remember the man announcing himself, but everyone had turned to watch. From the backpack the man extracted a doll. A male doll, like something plucked from an abandoned toy chest, something you dressed up in GI Joe outfits when you were five. The doll was naked. There were no genitalia, only sewing lines between the stuffed thighs and torso. The head was plastic. The eyes were open, unblinking, the blue paint of the irises fading. The doll was tossed into the center of the group like a reluctant ante, the hand undealt. It landed on its side, cheek to the hardwood.
A man in a hoodie, 3 o’clock to Sam, immediately rose and picked up the doll and sat back down with a speed that invoked musical chairs. He wore basketball shoes, untied laces tucked into the heel. His knees clapped. He squeezed the doll with two hands, as if preparing to take a bite. He cleared his throat and peeked at a few faces to his left and right before centering his gaze in the middle of the circle.
‘So things were going pretty great.’ He gave no name, no And I’m a heartbreaker. His voice echoed slightly. ‘Like the longest I’ve dated somebody in a long time. And we’re getting pretty serious so she invites me for Thanksgiving. It’s a big deal. I was gonna meet the family. So we drove out there. Show up on the front step and I’m jazzed. My girl’s happy to be home and I’m feeling good about seeing her home. I got a little gift that I picked out and everything. I’m like, almost giddy. The door opens, and you know when you show up somewhere and everyone is playing it cool but you know they’ve been waiting for you? When they’re trying so hard to keep their faces, like, stone-faced? That’s what I was expecting, and I was going to crack ‘em all into a smile and make everyone laugh. But nobody was playing it cool. Everyone just kind of jumped my girl, hugging her and she was having like four conversations at the same time. She can do that when she gets excited. And nobody’s even looking at me. Not even out of the corner of their eyes. I’m standing there like, uh. Finally they turn and shake my hand. No hugs, man. And they’re real simple, the handshakes, like I was the taxi driver, and I’m like what’s going on? Did she even tell them she’s got a new man? Then we’re sitting around the table, eating turkey and all that. And I’m thinking that nobody’s noticing me here either. Nobody’s asking about my job or nothing or even where I grew up. And I’m thinking what the fuck is going on? Is this a prank? I mean I’ve been screwing the daughter up down and central for half a year and nobody wants to give me the once over? Real quick though I got what was happening. I was just the latest boyfriend to show up for a holiday. She’d brought so many guys home before me it wasn’t a big deal anymore. They knew I wouldn’t last so why get to know me? Why even waste their eyesight on me? Well I couldn’t handle it. I’m not some assembly line guy, you know, like I can be hired to be a boyfriend or something. So like halfway through when we’re eating I stand up and I’ve had it up to here and I clink my spoon on my glass like they do at weddings. And that just proved it right there. I mean it took like eleven clinks to get everyone to shut up. So finally everyone’s looking and my girl’s looking at me all proud ‘cause she thinks I’m a give a toast or something, say how happy I am to be there some shit like that. But I say that this has been a big misunderstanding. I’m not supposed to be here because we ain’t supposed to be together. I say that. I look at her and say, sweetheart, this just isn’t my schtick. Then I got up and was out. I dropped my gift in the mashed potatoes like fuck it. Of course my girl follows me out and she’s crying and wondering what’s going on. So I tell her I’m not going to be just another guy she brings home to her family only to be tossed out like some turkey bone. I tell her it’s not my game. I tell her that I’m not a next guy kind a guy. Being ignored ain’t fun, you know? And she’s looking so confused. She’s saying my attendance, that’s what she called it, my attendance, is all they’ve been talking about, that they’d sent big emails talking about my attendance, and that they didn’t want to overwhelm me and were trying to play it cool. She says she told them to be like that. And then she says except for her college boyfriend, I’m the first guy she’s brought home for a holiday. And anyway, she says, how about you try to get to know them. I was pretty shocked, you know, obviously, to hear that, and suddenly it was like, what the fuck did I do? I told my girl I had no explanation, I must’ve jumped out of my skin for a beat, that I was sorry, but it was too late. I wasn’t going back inside and she wasn’t going to let me anyway. She was, you know, pretty upset, and truth be told, I was, like, half-relieved I could leave.’
The hood went up now and the knees clapped harder. He’d tucked the doll into the crook of his elbow and was making DJ-like motions with his hands as he talked. ‘The thing about all this is that I knew when I showed up that I wasn’t just some random guy. I knew that. Her family was jazzed to meet me. I knew that. But that’s the thing. If it hadn’t happened at Thanksgiving, it would’ve happened soon after, ‘cause that’s my thing. I find a way to end it when things start to get real. I, you know, sabotage, that’s what my girl, my ex girl, says I do, sabotage the fuck out of myself, so there’s no chance to make it work. And so what I’m doing now’ – he gestured around the room – ‘is, just, you know, trying to work on making it work. Step by step. Thanks.’
He tossed the doll back to the center of the circle, where it lay like a corpse, unmoving.
Sam wondered what listening protocol was, if someone or everyone should get up and offer a hug, a held hand, an analysis, something. Was he afraid of intimacy? If so, why? Something about being in a family situation? There were details to flesh out. But the group stayed seated, and nary an ‘amen’ wafted across the circumference of so-called support. Everyone stared at the nonexistent bonfire or at the bin of worn basketballs or at the floor. Sam wondered next if the group didn’t reinforce the issue with the lack of responsiveness. A man had bared, if not his soul, then at least a tough story, and not a single Thanks for sharing. But, and perhaps more importantly, nobody laughed or poked fun at him either, for emoting. Nobody rejected the man’s intent to share. Nobody said, Fuck that shit man, girls just hold you down.
Sam peered around the room, waiting. There was no manual, no script, no Big Book, no mediator. Just a silent etiquette.
To Sam’s right, slumped, hands in his armpits, crossing and uncrossing his legs, sat Mack Schaeffer, a work acquaintance of Sam’s, who, upon hearing of Sam’s inactive trigger finger, had invited Sam to tag along to the next HA meeting.
They’d been friends for a year or a little less, Sam and Mack. It was perhaps an odd friendship — they had little in common besides a shared workplace — until one considered what each wanted from the other: an example. Mack, who was seemingly incurable when it came to inflicting heartbreak, had perfected the art of the unnecessary and heart-wrenching break-up. He waltzed with a woman, holding her steady and smiling the whole while, until they reached some arbitrary point, at which time and for unknown reasons he dismissed the woman, and, after wading through her pulp, which he’d juiced dry, he went searching for the next ripe vine. Sam had long had a girlfriend and had never broken up with anyone, yet now needed to break Rebecca’s heart. Mack and Sam had become friends around the time Sam realized he wanted to split with Rebecca, around the time Mack realized he wanted to stop splitting with everyone he dated.
And what was Heartbreakers Anonymous, exactly, Sam had queried when Mack invited him.
‘You’ll have to come to a meeting to really understand,’ Mack said, ‘but it’s kind of like a support group for those of us who you could say have a heavy arrest record when it comes to stealing and breaking girls’ hearts.’
Sam laughed, but Mack seemed deadly serious.
‘So it’s AA for heartbreakers,’ Sam followed up. ‘I didn’t know ‘heartbreaker’ was an official condition.’
‘It’s not,’ Mack said. ‘It’s a dumb name, however accurate. Look, it’s a group of men trying to work through the kinds of things conventional manhood doesn’t really encourage us to work through, stuff a lot men would say we don’t even need to work through. And until we work through it, we can’t seem to stop breaking hearts, so.’
‘But I’ve never broken up with anyone.’
‘You might learn how.’
‘Nobody’ll be upset if I’m there? It’s not like 007? Do I need two heartbreaks to qualify?’ Again Sam smiled at his attempted humor. Again Mack remained deadly serious. ‘It’ll be a room full of men who can’t do what they most want to do with their love lives. Nobody’s more qualified than you.’
Sam finally grew sober when he played out the potential of it. What if he went, got sickly yet sufficiently inspired, and actually had to follow through?
A man on the far side of the circle shifted to the front of his chair. Jeans, light fall jacket, buzz cut. He leaned forward, balancing a forearm on both knees like an athlete on the bench. He looked left and right as if about to cross the street, then stood and walked to the doll, stooping to pluck it from the floor. Once reseated, the man opened his mouth to speak but quickly closed it again. There were several more false starts. Finally his voice gained traction and volume. He paused between sentences, struggling to translate from head-speak to spoken English.
‘Here’s the thing about me.’ Pause. ‘Here’s the thing.’ Longer pause, fiddling with belt buckle. ‘Here’s what it is. When I do something, I go hard. I’m all in. I put my whole heart into everything I do. It’s just the way I am. Dating women is no exception. I go all out. I go all out and that makes me all in. I can get real focused. I can get almost obsessive because I’m putting my whole heart into them right from the start because that’s just how I do things. The girl thinks I’m falling in love. That’s why I’m throwing so much attention at her. And for a hot minute it just might be love, and things are like, revolutionary.’
There were additional jerky inhalations, sharper now, his uneven speech sapping his wind.
‘Chronic dissatisfaction.’ He sucked air. ‘I’ve heard it called that, chronic dissatisfaction. I don’t know why it happens. One day it’s just gone, the love, the revolution, whatever. Just like that–’ he snapped his fingers and Sam jumped. ‘Just like that, and I mean really do mean like that, nothing is left and I can’t even remember yesterday when I was supposedly thinking about marrying this girl. Look, I’m talking within a day or even an hour. That fast, it just fades, and all of a sudden I feel trapped and even kind of played, like I got tricked into loving her. So I move to end it, and the girls get hurt because they don’t understand, and there’s nothing I can say because I don’t understand either. And then it’s on to the next one. And I feel awful for hurting all these girls but I can’t help it so what can you do.’ He raised his hands as if surrendering, then slapped them back down on his thighs. ‘What can you do?’ he repeated.
The pause in speech released around the room a wave of ankle rotations and knee cracks, a nose blown, a neck rolled, a scalp scratched. The man set the doll on this shoulder, as it to burp it. When it got quiet again he continued, ‘I don’t know why I keep breaking up with everyone. I know I should stop but to be honest it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything quote wrong’ – he hooked twice his index and middle fingers – ‘by being with these women. I mean, if I can’t commit to these girls, why stay with them? Wouldn’t that be worse than breaking up? I’d be holding them hostage or just waiting for them break up with me. And I guess the next question is, why start dating women in the first place if I don’t have my act together, if I know I’m probably going to hurt them? I guess that goes for all of us, right?’ He looked around the room. A chorus of voices began to chime in:
‘Nah, man. You’re good, you’re good.’
‘That’s like saying you shouldn’t breathe in if you know you’re going to breathe out carbon dioxide.’
‘You do you, brotha.’
‘Would you choose not to live just because you know you’re going to die?’
‘They wouldn’t feel bad unless you’d been really good to them first. It’s worth it to them.’
The speaker with the doll shook his head. ‘Look, I don’t want to be alone when I’m eighty. I see old couples sometimes and even if they don’t look happy, they don’t look alone either. Even if we fight and cheat or whatever, as long as we can still hold hands and go to sleep under the same blanket.’ He shifted suddenly, as if realizing he was rambling, and nodded briskly at the group, shutting up. He walked the doll to the center of the circle, laying it gently on its back.
As with the first guy, there were no comments after the fact. Everyone seemed to be occupied with buttons or zippers or their fingernails. Sam thought now that it was better like this. Sick people don’t fix sick people.
Someone else quickly snatched the doll. A man with a patterned tie. Sleeves unbuttoned, folded back once, revealing an oversized watch. Hair parted smartly, a thin runway of white down one side of the head. Tongue dragging across the lips. Hands in front of his chest, fingertips tapping frenetically.
‘I’m a pretty anxious guy. I’m anxious with most things in my life, but it’s worst with women. I’m making love to a woman and I’m looking down at her and thinking, damn, how many men have hovered over her just like I am, penetrating her just like I am? How many men has she looked up at like she’s looking up at me now? I fret about what she’s thinking all the time. That’s me. I’m that guy who’s always asking, what are you thinking about? Or I should say, I was that guy. I’m not that guy anymore, at least with girls. Let me tell you how that happened. So it’s a couple years out of college and I’m at one of those parties where everyone is still hanging out with red cups but trying to talk like they’re forty-five. So I’m at one of these parties and I start talking with this girl who isn’t my girlfriend because my girlfriend isn’t even there. It was the first night we hadn’t spent together in a long time. And of course I’m fretting about it because that’s just what I do. I’m like, is she texting someone to come over while I’m gone? Is she planning on going out, too? To what bar? With whom? But somehow I forget about my girlfriend for a minute and I’m talking with this new girl who I don’t really know and we’re flirting and she’s touching my arm and I’m getting us beers and I end up getting her number too. And then before I know it we’re making out a little when we say goodbye. The next day I thought I’d feel super-guilty and I did, but it wasn’t that bad because here’s why. Even though I felt guilty, I also felt less anxious and jealous about my girlfriend. I still loved her and cared about her but it was less consuming because I had just met this other girl, which, I know, is totally contradictory for an anxious person but that’s just the way it happened. It was like the girl I met at the party mitigated a lot of the anxiety I normally felt for my girlfriend. So anyway I kept texting with this other girl in the weeks after the party, flirty but not over the top. No dick pic or nothing like that. And then I don’t know how it happened, but it did, and I kept meeting new girls and getting their numbers, not because I was starved for sex or attention or anything like that but because the side work stabilized me with my main. It’s not even like I was dating any of these other girls. I just needed someone to text with, not even hook up with, not all that often, every now and then to remind me that there’s more than one woman in the world because the world’s a lot bigger place than the tiny anxious and jealous relationship bubble I locked myself into far too often in the past. I do the same thing with every girlfriend I’ve had since then. I get a little side something, someone to share a little excess energy with, and it works man. I’m telling you. I mean, I’m a great boyfriend. I know how to do healthy and happy and supportive, all the stuff we, you know, work on here. But it’s not sustainable. I know that. I know I can’t marry a girl if I have to go behind her back to make it work. So I keep breaking up these otherwise pretty good relationships just because I’m doing a little texting with another girl on the side. Not even sleeping with anyone all that often. Just texting mostly, and alright I guess occasionally we meet for coffee or a beer. It’s not honest in like a conventional way, but I sometimes think that if the system works for me, if it makes me a great boyfriend, is that wrong? How is relieving my anxiety this way any different than popping a pill? Is loyalty the most important thing? Or is being a great boyfriend the most important thing? I try every now and then, you know, to be traditionally committed, just to see if I can do it, and I just get super-anxious all over again. So I’m stuck. I want a long-term companion who I can be, you know, monogomous with, but I’d be too anxious without, you know, a little Miss Mashed Potatoes to help me out with the steak. So yeah.’
The man coughed, checked his fancy watch and loosened his tie further. He stacked ankle on knee. He ran his fingers through his gelled hair without disturbing the part.
The group needed a professional therapist, a recovering heartbreaker himself, to facilitate discussion, someone who could get them to stop describing the pain and start fleshing out the source. Nobody here was a heartbreaker the way they were six-feet tall. They weren’t born heartbreakers. They were heartbreakers because someone, at some point, had twisted and pinched the wrong psychological nerves in this or that forever-affecting way, probably as a child. Words like attachment and trust came to mind. But nobody was talking about the past. They were describing the street sign, not the street itself. They were mistaking the symptoms for the condition itself.
Heartbreakers Anonymous, Sam was beginning to understand, was a meeting for young boys disguised as good-looking, articulate, conventionally intelligent men, man-boys who had trouble keeping relationships with women-girls. That’s what dating really was for them, and for 90 percent of the population, probably, too. Inner children dating inner children while everyone pretended to be grown-ups. One giant, society-wide game of house, but no longer did anyone need to don over-sized clothes from the dress-up closet, and no longer did anyone need to use fake plastic houseware from Fisher Price sets. The whole city was the play station.
Several other people shared. One man-boy presented a case of heartbreak breeding a heartbreaker. He’d been cruelly dumped his sophomore year of college, vowed it wouldn’t happen again, and so broke up with girls before they could break up with him. He knew all the facts to his case, knew he was living life to avoid pain, but if he couldn’t let go of what happened, he’d let go of everyone else until he could. He spoke softly about his most recent breakup, barely above a whisper. This time several others nodded along, as if they’d heard the story before. Someone said, ‘I feel you.’
Another man took his turn with the doll: ‘So I’d been messing around on internet dating sites. That’s how we met. Anyway, me and this one girl, we, ahem, clicked pretty good, first online and then in person. We went through an actual dating cycle, old-school, meaning I picked her up and we went to dinner and movies and then we cooked each other meals and went for walks and shit. It was pretty solid, I think. I started to like her more and more. Although in retrospect I’m not sure if my budding affection wasn’t a result of an increasingly desperate desire to sleep with her. She was old-school in that way, too. Waiting it out. Kind of like a battle of attrition. Could I hold out long enough to get there? She was smarter than I was, which was exciting because, you know, she challenged me and I learned a lot about a lot of things just by shooting the shit with her. But the problem with her being smarter was that I felt like I had to hide the parts of myself which I didn’t deem smart enough for her to like. So a lot of the time I was around her I was acting. I mean we all put on a show sometimes when we’re trying to impress someone, but around her it was an all the time thing, and it was exhausting. She kept liking me, though, regardless, and like a month in we slept together. She made me use a condom. I hate condoms. I don’t sleep around. I go to the doctor every year. I know how to pull out. But she insisted, and I pretended like I was really into safe sex too. We started spending the night, mostly at her place, in this huge bed on a quiet street. And after sex with condoms and before going to sleep we did the old snuggle and pillow chat thing. And the more we hung out in the dark before bed, the more open she’d get. She’d start talking in this really high voice, almost like a little girl, telling me her secrets and insecurities and stuff like that. I could barely see the contours of her face, but I could feel her breath and other radiances. It confused me at first, this version of her, but then I realized what was happening. She was opening up. This nighttime version of her was her most genuine self, which made me realize how much she’d been acting too, those first few months, just like I was. We’d both been putting on a show, trying to impress each other. This pissed me off, realizing this, and I ended it like within a week, right at the moment when our relationship had a real shot of assuming some real authenticity.’ He looked at the first guy who’d shared, the guy who’d talked about sabotage. The exchange was brief, and Sam noticed too late to get a read on it. ‘So I ended it because I couldn’t allow the depth of her sincerity to surface. I couldn’t stand the idea of revealing myself to her the way she was starting to reveal herself to me. I was so afraid she’d think my true self wasn’t good enough, that she’d judge me for not being as smart and capable in the world as she was. That’s been my pattern with women. I know how to act, man. I’m great at that, and for a while I can act like a totally stable and good guy, but underneath I’m so insecure and fucked up and eventually I get so fatigued that I end it just so I can breathe again.’
The longer he sat with the group, the more it felt like betrayal, Sam’s interest in these men and what they had to say. Illegal, like he’d knocked back thirty-six ounces in the back room of a forbidden speakeasy, where a platoon of ardent Eliot Nesses would any second bumrush him the fuck out of there, to a windowless interrogation room, where Rebecca — Rebecca! — would be sitting behind the stainless steel desk, a jacket draped over her cold shoulders, eyes stained with tears, demanding an explanation.
But what was wrong with being here? Sam’s preferred self-vetting method over the years, in questionable circumstances, was to imagine what he’d think if Rebecca were doing the same thing. He pictured her in a mirror group for women, training for the assassination of their relationship.
Sam was eyeing the doll. It lay like a fumbled football, unpossessed. He would barely have to move to get it. He could side-lunge and extend an arm and scoop it right up. He wanted it now, the chance to share. He wanted to stand up for himself, to defend like a dissertation the decade of his life he’d comfortably spent with “just” a single woman. He felt his muscles spasm with inaction. Another twitch and he just might.
But he was too late. Another man held the doll. Sam hadn’t seen him rise to retrieve it. It’d been there and then it wasn’t, like a trick of photography. Sam scooched back in his chair, not realizing he’d slid so far forward. His legs and arms ached.
The man spoke with a slight smoker’s husk:
‘I don’t really have a story about a particular woman. Um, I break up with them because they like me. See, I’ve always been attracted to a woman, see, who thinks she might, but isn’t quite sure, if she’s into me. This is the way I feel about myself. I would love to like myself, to accept myself, but I don’t, even though I’m fascinated with myself and think about myself all the time. So I start dating these women, and they’re a little fascinated with me too. They all want to peek behind the veil. I’m a pretty complicated guy so they get extra curious. And of course I want these women to like me so I play Mr. Charm, and, let’s just say my woo game is pretty on point. Eventually they crack. They forget the cautionary tone, see, that they carried at the beginning and allow themselves to fully like me. To actually like me like me, but, see, as soon as they start to like me, meaning the very instant I notice a pang of genuine affection coming my way, I know it’s going to end and probably very soon. See, how can I accept that they like me when I don’t even like myself? And, the question, I know, then, becomes, why don’t I like myself? See, if I could figure that out, maybe I could one day be in a real relationship, real meaning I actually like the girl and she actually likes me back. And, that hasn’t happened, so, what’s doubly frustrating is that I already know why I don’t like myself. See, my dad’s an ex-athlete. He played college and some semi-pro for a while. Baseball. He wanted me to play too, and I did for a while, but I was never any good and I quit before high school. He faked like he was proud of me for making a courageous decision and not feeling like I had to do what he’d done, but really he was incredibly disappointed, and, um, he never got over it. He, see, he never got over that I wouldn’t make up for him and make it all the way to the big leagues, and I never got over him never getting over me.’
An hour passed. The meeting was over. Nobody marked the end. Nobody collected dues or passed out chips or certificates. The group rose and donned jackets and scarves. Several flung their arms high over their heads, stretching, as if just waking up from a nap. They folded the chairs and stacked them on a rolling trolley. As Sam did the same, he wondered what the point was. What was the point of identifying your problems if it would take so much time and energy to correct them? These men didn’t have a broken bone or a migraine, something identifiable on an x-ray or curable via little white pills. These men were their conditions, conditions that had developed over generations, bad influences stacked on bad influences, passed down the line, a family tree of fucked up. They were here to stop the cycle. They were here to create a new idea of what a man could be. That the meeting existed at all was progress, but there was no timetable for recovery, no guarantees they’d get anywhere, and success, as Sam saw it, was unlikely, so why not accept their predicaments and not worry about fixing them and who gave a fuck about the mass graves of broken hearts they’d fill up along the way?
Sam blinked, listening to his thoughts. He looked around as if someone might’ve heard. He was rising to leave when he noticed the doll at his feet. Its proximity frightened him, as if any second it would detonate. This time Sam forced himself to close the distance. He slowly extended a palm downward. He was aware that others might be watching, but the lure was magnetic. He picked up the doll. It was heavier than expected, like it was an actual child with tiny veins and a tiny heart. He waited for a repulsive shock, for an alarm to sound, for the doll to self-destruct in five seconds. He stared into the doll’s eyes. He squeezed at the torso. He was debating his next step, whether he might take it home for a night, when Mack stepped over and gripped the doll’s neck. ‘I’ll take that,’ he said. There was a moment where Sam didn’t let go, where he gripped tighter, but when Mack started to pull Sam released.
The double-doors punched open. It felt like leaving a movie theater, walking out. A curious thing happened, Sam noticed, as they stepped out into the fall night, a night at once electric and dull, at once alive with renewal and dead with monotony. Keys were removed from pockets and twirled twice around the finger before smacking into the palm. Phones were clicked on and messages checked — many, no doubt, from the hearts next in line for destruction. The curious thing was this: as the heartbreakers fanned out, their shoulders de-slumped and shifted skyward. Their postures adjusted to more lofty alignments. Creases on the forehead and between the brows stretched clear. There was a vitality in their expressions, as if someone had turned on their eyes.
They seemed a little taller, better looking, and better dressed than they had inside. The man-boys were tilting man again, their swagger reblooming. It was like plugging in the cord all the way. Sam hadn’t realized he’d been getting them at half-power all this while. Sam wondered how many hearts they’d collectively shattered like dropped plates, how many they’d shatter still.
As the transformation unfolded, Sam felt increasingly intimidated. He pitied them yet could not deny the concurrent envy. He did not feel any taller outside than he had inside. His shoulders did not feel broader. He did not feel more confident. Still, he reminded himself, he had something that these men wanted, or something they claimed to want. He had a real relationship, one brokered with the heart, not doomed by it. He had Rebecca.
He snapped the buttons of his coat and stuffed his hands in his pockets, watching the line of tail lights disappear into traffic. The meeting hadn’t inspired him, hadn’t taught him anything. He felt just as unsure about Rebecca as he had an hour ago. If anything, breaking up now seemed like the worst idea in the world. He shook hands with Mack, who promised they’d discuss the meeting privately at work the next day. Sam wished Mack a good night and walked away. As he made for Graham St, towards home, pace increasing, he vowed to act one way or another, tonight, and tomorrow he’d tell Mack all about it. Tonight. Tonight he’d make a decision. He’d ask Rebecca to marry him or he’d ask her to move out. He didn’t know which. He didn’t know how he’d decide in the seventeen blocks and thirty minutes it would take him to walk home. But when he got home, he’d open his mouth, and something would come out.