MAZE OF THE GIANT HEART
by Allegra Armstrong
We took seats in the back of the planetarium. I glanced over at you, my face warm with anticipation. You leaned back and looked up. When the lights went out, would you cover my knee with your hand as a deep, slow voice described which stars we were seeing? Would I rest my head on your shoulder, at peace with the world and the universe, as Orion moved West, poised to shoot?
You kept your distance. We examined placards in Space Command. The fifty million year old meteorite, the gravity well. I asked if you were happier without me and you said you’d been lifting weights.
We came to the giant, papier-mâché heart. “Remember when we tried to have sex in here?” you said. We’d finished a late-night showing of Star Wars in the museum’s IMAX theater, and rather than leave, we’d taken our own after-hours tour. We’d made it as far as the right atrium when a construction worker had found us and sent us away. The exhibit had been under repair. “We were so close,” you said. “That woulda been legendary.”
We wound our way through the maze of the giant heart, which was crowded with children on a Saturday. You led the way, took the pace of the kids, which was slower than our natural pace. At one point you turned, trapping me too close to you, your mouth inches from mine. My own heart hammered, and I stepped back.
In the giant brain, I hid from you. The brain exhibit didn’t exist when we were kids. It was new to me that October, my favorite part of the museum. Made from translucent strands of plastic and ethereal LED lights wound around clear disks, the perfect size to perch on. You stood at the bottom and I climbed. I pulled myself to the top and ran down. I invented a jumping game with two brothers I met, under-five aspiring construction workers with neon vests. A security guard asked me to please control my sons, as we were intimidating the other children.
I returned to you. “I have to go,” I said. “I’m meeting someone at three.”
“I guess I’ll stay here,” you said. “Look at more stuff.”
We exited through Optical Illusions.
“I heard you broke a glass in the garbage disposal at Cameron and Emily’s new place,” I said. “It’s weird ’cause we got together at the same time as them, and now they moved in together and we broke up.”
“I mean, we were never gonna live together,” you said. “We weren’t on that trajectory.” I thought about you asking me—eight times? Nine? to move in with you, my soft rebuttals.
Our breakup was a surprise. In August, I had taken a red-eye home from a week-long vacation. I got a cab from the airport and then biked to your place straightaway. You hadn’t left for work yet. You made us eggs for breakfast. I gave you a blowjob in the kitchen. You left and I fell asleep in your bed.
You came home and didn’t kiss me hello. “What do you want for dinner?” I said. “I was thinking we could go for a picnic.”
You crossed to the fridge, pulled out several mini Twix bars. “Candy,” you said. “I want candy for dinner.” You smiled at me.
“No thanks,” I said. “I want to do something.”
We went up to your roof, arranged ourselves on waterlogged deck chairs. You had a clear view of the PECO building, which projects the time all day in dull neon. I sat facing you, looked out on the spires of the Baptist church across the street. I told you several long stories about my vacation, but stopped when I realized you weren’t talking. You stuck your tongue out at me like you were gagging. Clouds rolled overhead. I felt gently disconnected from the world, the product of too little sleep and all night traveling.
“I want to break up,” you said, and your voice cracked.
“What?” I laughed.
“I’m sorry,” you said. “I thought about this a lot when you went away. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
“Is this a dream?” I said. “I’ve had this dream before.” Could I win a race downstairs to your knife drawer? How badly would a leap from your roof injure me? Would broken bones postpone this feeling to another day?
“How long have you known?” I said.
“I decided yesterday.” You slipped a tiny candy bar into your mouth.
“How the fuck can you eat candy at a time like this?” I said. Mid-chew, you looked up at me. “I’m leaving.”
“Wait,” you said. “Stop.” You grabbed me, half-hug, half-restraint.
“What!” I said. “What do you want me here for?” You looked over my shoulder. Several over-forty women were watching us from a neighboring roof. They could hear every word I said.
Since the day we met we’d slept together, wrapped up like a shell around an egg, four nights a week. Two months before I left for vacation you’d moved to a new apartment, away from a roommate who hadn’t liked me, and we’d started spending every night together. I had a key to your place.
I sat back down.
“This feels wrong,” you said. “Us being together. And I was really happy with you for a while. But, I mean, we’re so different. We always said we weren’t forever.”
“You always said that,” I said. “I said I was happy. And I mean, are we really that different?”
“We’re from different neighborhoods, we’re different kinds of liberals. We think differently, we talk differently. We’re not even the same kind of feminist.” You have a spreadsheet to keep track of every girl you’ve fucked. The rows list women’s names and the columns bear different sexual acts. At the end of each row, there are “comments.”
“Yeah, but I mean, we both like going to concerts, biking, walking dogs. We do a lot of cool stuff together.”
“And that was good for a while,” you said. “I just feel like something’s wrong. I’m happy when I’m with you, but when you leave, when I’m alone, I feel—not good.”
“But I’ve been worried about that, too,” I said. “I keep telling you how I’m worried you haven’t been seeing your friends enough. And you don’t like your job, and so now it’s like, you’re gonna give up the one thing that you do like? How’s that gonna work?”
In your kitchen, I cried so loudly you came in to check on me. “I’m not breaking your stuff,” I said. “If that’s why you’re in here.” You looked at me. You went in the other room. I followed. I sat on the couch next to you.
“Legs,” you said. Nobody calls me that anymore. “I’m sorry to do this to you.” Your eyes were sad. I put my hand on your knee, my head on your shoulder. You put your arm around my waist.
“I know you don’t mean to hurt me,” I said. “You’re a nice baby.” We stayed on the couch like that for a long time.
You asked for your key back when I left. “Goodbye,” you called, and I didn’t say anything, and the door closed.
I haven’t seen you in the six months since we stood outside of that slanted-wall room in Optical Illusions, made to trick museum-goers into thinking the floor is crooked. You were wearing a yellow t-shirt, so handsome it was painful for me to look. We haven’t run into one another since then, which is odd because you chose your apartment specifically for its proximity to mine.
You want to rewrite the past. Every time I saw you, I realized, as I biked away from the Franklin Institute, you might try to change a different memory, starting with how serious we’d been, negating our favorite things about one another, what we’d done together. I wouldn’t have you back, that was clear, but did being friends with you mean the slow erasure of the love we’d had, your desperate attempt to ease the pain of the loss of me?
We texted sometimes, still, after that.
“How are you feeling?” I’d say.
“The same,” you’d say. “Fine.”
We texted about how much we could dead-lift nowadays, our weight training regimens. A poet and an engineer fall in love, what had we been expecting? Numbers, at least, could not be misconstrued. When we broke up I said I would call you when I could bench 185. In January I exchanged lifting weights for swimming laps.
In April I saw your stepdad walking your dog in the park. She hugged me, twice, her paws on my chest, crying, dog hair everywhere. It was the first of many seventy-degree spring days, global warming or urban canyon effect, or the start of an early summer. Summers for us had meant outdoor parties at the drum circle in Fairmount Park, bring-your-own-forty. Saturdays at the Italian market, searching out the freshest fruit. I wonder if you still do those things, now that you work in an office. I wonder if you ever wander up to your roof deck for a joint or glimpse of dim city stars and think of me.
Allegra Armstrong is a Philadelphia-based writer. Her work has previously appeared in Steel Toe Review, Underground Pool, and The Same. You can find her at the public library, the rock gym, or biking fast through traffic. She reads original poetry aloud at armstrongallegra.bandcamp.com.
Image credit: Kris Gabbard on Flickr