A Broken Heart
I’ve wondered whether we’re born with a sense of beauty. I look at things and like what I see. I look at other things and I’m repulsed. When I was nine-years-old, my older brother, Skip – given name Skipard – don’t ask, no one seems to know, my guess is it had something to do with alcohol and the abuse thereof – brought home a box turtle, its head flaccidly hanging from the shell like a mid-summer’s foot dangling from a dock, the head flopping as Skip shoved the turtle in my face, the turtle dead – repulsed me.
Skip laughed. I’m sure the goal of the exercise was to draw the repulsion from me, and that’s the point. We conspired. Skip and I knew I’d be repulsed. I’ve wondered, pondered, just how we knew. Skip is a credit to the male species. Though repulsed himself, he willingly carried the dead turtle home to put in my face. I never asked, but he may have killed it.
Which, of course, could bring us to a moral ambiguity: turtle murder. Maybe with a wave of my soft hand in the air as if swishing flies, my voice two octaves higher, my nose raised toward the ceiling, I might declare an edict: “Any twelve-year-old boy-child in an urban/suburban setting that murders a turtle to play a gag on his nine-year-old sister is on the fast-track to becoming a serial killer.”
However, that summer, visiting my grandparent’s farm for a month two states over, the men managed to chase down and capture a two-foot snapper, which they killed, my grandmother making soup. I didn’t witness the capture, but I’m sure it was funny. I did witness the soup-making, which repulsed me. They – collectively, including my brother, some cousins, my mother and father, two uncles and an aunt, my grandparents – encouraged me to at least try the soup. The encouragement pelted down on me like a harsh winter rain, shouts like kids egging on two kids in a playground fight.
With the bowl in front of me, I pouted, then cried. The only way turtle soup would cross my lips is if I were dead, the rabble force-feeding my corpse. Sent up to bed, I was told the soup would sit there until I ate it. The next morning, the soup was not on the table. Mom told me I had to apology to my grandmother, which I did.
It the days to follow, I took serious taunting for not eating the soup. Skip gave me a nickname: Turtle. The name didn’t stick, not coming home with us.
Four days later, as the sun kissed the landscape, me gathering eggs for breakfast, I came face-to-face with my first raccoon, there in the shadows, eyes watching me, an unearthly hiss, like a growl.
He would have tipped the scales at about 300 lbs. Okay, maybe I embellish just a little – I was seven years old and in those short years on the planet, I’d never been so terrified of anything. I dropped my basket of eggs, backed slowly away, then, the raccoon lumbered in my direction.
Turning, gravity tried to have its way with me. I refused the invitation, running even as I fell. I don’t recall screaming. Later, I was told I screamed so loud, the neighbors called, which was exaggeration on the storyteller’s part. I bounced off the dirt lane, gaining my feet almost before I hit the ground, running blindly, stopped by a looming shadow, my grandfather over me, letting go both barrels of his side-by-side, the cascade of explosions resounding into the distance.
“Rabid,” he said, as if to himself. “We’ll have to have Vet Donner out today to check all the animals.”
Before I got back to the house, even hanging on my grandfather’s arm, the bittersweet tang of spent gunpowder still in the air, I went blue, not being able to draw a breath, my chest squeezed tight like a mournful lover’s embrace. Granddad let me to the dewed grass, his shotgun next to me, him on his knees as if praying, large hand to my chest, he said: “Quiet yourself and breathe.”
I watched the fluffy clouds dance up beyond his face, his worried eyes washing down. In about half a geological age, I was able to draw air in my lungs. Over breakfast, I told everyone about the raccoon. Granddad, with painful eyes, told my mother I had his mother’s heart.
I did not care much for Skip being a credit to the male species, yet I felt safe with him around, his willingness to kill a rabid raccoon or even a rabid spider in my room, if the spider were to choose to attack me. The turtle, I don’t know. I guess I’ll indulge myself with willful ignorance.
Even as young as nine-years-old, I took people’s breath away just showing up. I never, ever express this opinion in public. I don’t wish to be called conceited and then have to explain why I’m not. Firstly, I have mirrors. My hair is white/blonde, the color of sun-bleached winter wheat, flowing in waves down and over my shoulders. My eyes are the color of the Caribbean Ocean. My completion is like that of a noon’s beach under a cloudless sky. If Plato were to graze upon me, even with his deference for boys, in speaking of my features, Plato would declare I must be the ideal from which my ilk is manifest.
Okay. On to secondly: I know I am beautiful, pleasing to look at, not repulsive by the way people look at me, by their reaction. I grew into this, if not, such attention could crush me. I’ve wondered about that, Cinderella at the ball, all her life, no one thought she was anything special, even herself, then she gets all dressed up and blows the room away. I think she would have run from the ballroom with the second click of her glass pump inside the door.
This takes me back to: Why am I considered beautiful? Is it inherent or something we learn? We’re told thousands of times in our formative years not to judge people by their appearance, but everyone does, all the time. I have eyes. I’m paying attention. In any first-year psych book, in the chapter on perception, they cite a study where they show babies pictures of faces. When the face’s elements are askew, the baby screams. We must have an inherent sense of how things should be and are repulsed by things out of order.
Fifth grade: I turned ten in October. The summer before, after shaking hands with the Grim Reaper, having my great-grandmother’s heart, I was told I needed to avoid getting overexcited and I needed to avoid physical exertion.
“Can I run up the steps?” I asked for clarity.
Granddad nodded. “Likely. You will find your limits.”
The suggestion was made I should learn to enjoy reading, which I did, finding a home in my brother’s text books, comic books and corny paperback novels. The stories in the novels made me laugh, often giggling aloud. I was afraid to make friends, or have close friends, that they might wish me to play kickball and I’d be facedown halfway between 2nd and 3rd, greeting the Reaper again. I didn’t want to – or know how to – explain I had a broken heart.
One boy in the class stood out from the rest. He, like me, always had his nose in a book when not otherwise occupied. I wondered whether he had a broken heart, too. The other kids didn’t like him, the only reason I could fathom was that his face was damaged. Even the teacher wouldn’t look directly at him. I wanted to know what had happened to make the left lower side of his face look as if the flesh had been removed and haphazardly stapled back on.
I studied him when I thought he wasn’t looking. We, he and I, played a game, because he studied me, too, when he thought I wasn’t looking.
His was a good face – I’m sure many, if not most people would add: “Despite the horrid scarring,” but that’s not what I mean to say. His was a good face because of the damage, making his features unique, powerful, something beyond the other human beings around me. He repulsed everybody, to a person. I wondered whether his mother could look at him, his father. Siblings.
Like me because of turtle soup, at times he took some hits, taunting, from the kids in class, maybe six, sometimes eight kids. I understood. I took taunting because I wouldn’t eat soup like everyone else did. He took taunting because he was not like everyone else. Lisa, a redhead baby doll got taunted for her red hair. Larry, because he was overweight. The list goes on.
I was pleased no one knew about my heart, my damage, my uniqueness.
Friday morning, the week before Thanksgiving, the teacher delayed, I busied myself with a trashy paperback I borrowed from my mother. I’m sure if the teacher knew what I was reading, she’d send me to the office and a note home.
The kids, the usual rabble, tried to whistle high, then low. Somehow, they figured they got it right, circling my desk. Standing tall, they whistled high, then low, leaned their faces so close to mine, I could taste their collective breath.
In unison, they yelled: “Mable! Black Label! Calling Black Label beer!” Standing erect, they attempted the whistle again, leaned in and yelled: “Mable! Black Label! Calling Black Label beer! Mable! Black Label! Calling Black Label beer!”
I tried to stay calm, my hands over my face, tears forcing out clenched eyelids. I felt the sorrowful lover’s hug around my chest, unable to get air in my lungs, even with the classroom door opening, Mrs. Stevens entering and my antagonists scurrying back to their desks. I thought I might die, that my forehead would bounce on the desk, which made breathing even more difficult.
Then, from across the room, the scar-faced boy said: “Carling, not calling. Carling Black Label is the name of the beer, assholes.”
I managed to get my handkerchief on my face, giggling, ratcheting air into my chest.
The next day along with Mom in the supermarket, Skip and I wandered the aisles aimlessly. I told Skip the story. “Yeah, Mable, try getting through any day with a name like Skipard.”
“That’s funny they didn’t get the jingle right.”
“Or the whistle.” With the diligence of a birdwatcher, I scanned the shelves a third time in the soup selection. “I feel somewhat vindicated.”
Skipard twisted his face at me. “Do you even know what vindicated means?”
I laughed. “Yeah. It was one of your ten vocabulary words last week.”
He rolled his eyes. “Okay. Why do you feel vindicated?”
I waved my hand, indicating the lines of canned soup, raising my voice two octaves. “No turtle soup.”
“It wasn’t very, eh, tasty.”
The rabble didn’t rabble, I think, because they were collectively embarrassed for being wrong, and for having their error pointed out by the class pariah. Shell shocked would be a good term for it.
The class pariah sat out two days, I learned for using the word asshole in class. I became aware of this late, or I would have jumped to his defense, maybe getting the rabble in trouble. I’d consider that: “Well, Mrs. Stevens, you see, there’s this thing on TV, about beer, where these men want to order some beer. They whistle to the waitress, Mable, and sing for her to bring them beer. Since my name is Mable, the kids though it would be funny to yell the jingle in my face.”
Mrs. Stevens might say: “Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you.”
To which I’d say: “Mrs. Stevens: I have a broken heart.”
I really wanted to take the issue to my teacher; however, their taunting stood in the shadow of turtle soup, my family’s faces shouting at me. I’d thought the rabble picked out differences, what is unique and mocked it, taunted. I crossed my eyes trying to fit having a name of a character in a TV commercial into this idea.
Turtle soup: my family wanted me to be like them.
I asked myself, what does the rabble want? I couldn’t imagine they wanted Larry to lose weight or Lisa to dye her hair, me to change my name.
After school Wednesday, I hurried into the autumn air, down the concrete steps, adjusting my pace. “That was funny,” I said.
He stopped, turning on me. “Matter of opinion.”
I held his eyes, drinking him. “I mean, not them, you.”
His gaze danced around my face, taking his own drink. “Yeah, I’m a regular barrel of monkeys.”
“I mean, you pointing out they got it wrong.”
He glanced back, up the steps as if to see the past. “Assholes.”
I giggled, his eyes returning to my face. “Is that your favorite word?”
“Only when it applies, so yes. And I don’t find it funny at all.”
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“I know.” Again, the glance back to school. “People aren’t starlings, and that should terrify us all.”
His dark chocolate eyes bore into me. “Starlings will, en masse, attack and kill any bird that’s damaged or wounded. I understand why these assholes come at me. If we were starlings, I’d be dead.” He rolled his eyes. “But John because he has straight A’s? Mary because she only owns two dresses? Lisa because she has red hair?”
“Larry because he’s fat.”
“I think they should mock themselves for being assholes.”
A giggle stole from my mouth. “Attack and kill, I don’t know if that’s the same.”
“The intent is exactly the same.”
I closed my eyes, repeating: “People aren’t starlings, and that should terrify us all.”
“You are the first human being who has ever been able to look at me for any time.”
He gave me a leisurely up-down as if memorizing me. “All the others: John, Larry, Mary, Lisa – I don’t agree with, but can understand why those people would single them out. Me, well, I should be in a bell tower. Then, there’s you.” Again, the leisurely up-down. “The most beautiful, perfect human being I could ever imagine, and they find a reason to attack you.”
My face caught fire. “Starlings only weed out the weak.”
“Human beings attack for no reason.”
“I think we’re going to be really good friends.”
“I don’t,” he said coldly, presenting a book. “The beautiful maiden loves the beast who no one can love and magically the spell is broken, the beast becoming a handsome prince?”
I smiled mournfully, a tear leaking down my cheek. “I have a broken heart. A defect. I am more like you, than I am like them.”
His eyes held me, a forever moment passing too quickly.
“Starlings,” he whispered. “We should be dead already.”