Through the Hearts of Space
You drive through the August night. The swampy heat climbs the back of your neck to twine in your hair, where it clings like kudzu. Your body’s folds stay damp, and the skin at the base of your wedding ring finger has rotted, though you’re not wearing your ring because you’re divorced now. Unlike the man who lied a spell on you, the man you ran to from the ruins of your marriage--him. The man you’re running to, or maybe running after, tonight.
You chose to stay in Little Rock after your divorce, and you luxuriate in the melodies and rhythms of its summer nights. The heat, absorbed all day into the pavement, rises again in the darkness. From asphalt and concrete through rubber and steel, it radiates around your ankles on its way to your knees. Outside your car windows, in every unpaved space, weeds—lush poison ivy, exuberant wisteria—exhale damp warmth.
Your tires thrust pavement behind you, humming a tune to their own bongo-soft beat. Your blood bubbles and sings through your veins. For once, you’re a bad girl pursuing who YOU want, ignoring tut-tutting propriety. It’s taken far too many years, almost thirty, but you’ve finally leaped outside the lines—that four-bridesmaid, white-gown wedding; the picket-fence home; backyard barbecues, family holidays, pressure to have children. Instead, you caught a man who threw himself at you, though he wasn’t free to throw himself nor was he yours to catch, and now he refuses to be held, so you grasp harder.
A cold part of you whispers What about his family—his son? and you remember the nine-year-old, freckle-faced Opie in a baseball uniform. What about his daughter? and your face flushes, yet again, because she’s barely ten years younger than you are and as perfectly groomed as only an Arkansas cheerleader can be. She’s everything you’re not, as is her mother. Her mother. Her. Suddenly thousands of accusing questions swarm and buzz and dive-bomb you. You ignore their din to focus on what you want: him. You ask yourself, Don’t you deserve happiness?
Is that what this is: Happiness? You drive away from the question, stay stubborn in the darkness. Reflectors trace the highway’s white and yellow lane markers, flash your headlights back at you in warning. Haloed streetlights mark exits you can’t force yourself to take, exits that urge Turn around. Don’t do this. Just let him go.
It’s midnight between a tired Sunday and a sparkling new week. You leave the highway and patrol the dismal suburb where he lives, where his pickup isn’t at his apartment. You cruise the streets of ticky-tacky little boxes, the little pink houses—something Court and something Circle and something Cove—for a half-hour. Finally, you find the house where his wife (he promised they were separated) lives now, guessing from things he’s said at work.
Yes. You work together. An extra layer of stupid, but how irresistible he was to want you. And you believed him when he said their marriage was over. Even after everything he’s said, every-lie he’s told, you can’t quit your job because it includes your graduate school tuition, not that you’d quit anyway, because he works there, and he said…and he meant it, and you believe…and he loves you, you know he does …and you love him, and your world is all about your love.
There. At midnight, his pickup sits in her driveway, no lights on in the house, none in the neighborhood. You knew you’d see it. You know what it means: They’re back together. No. They can’t be.
Your constant, low-grade nausea sharpens, and you take deep breaths to force it to the background.
Your blood pounds throughout your body. Its beat demands action. Crying doesn’t cross your mind—you’re a strong bad girl. Should you bang on her door and shriek profanity? No, that’s trashy; it’s what she’d do, and you’re too classy. Classy, that cold part of you sneers. A classy affair, your own marriage destroyed. Right. Reeeeeal classy.
Instead, you roar past her house in second gear, revving to register your presence, your car horn a desperate shout into the night. You squeal tires as you circle the cul-de-sac and pass again. It’s a weak gesture that can’t encompass your rage, your lust, your fear, but then, what could.
You feel ridiculous so you flee to your city, loving again the big dark highway, blaring music. At last, you’ve found music you can stand to listen to: new music designated “New Age,” appropriate for the powerful bad girl you’ve found within, all pulse and thrum, no words among its swelling strings and electronic harp and theremin. For 45 minutes you drive the deserted asphalt back into your city, cruising deep into the Hearts of Space.
* * *
You grew up immersed in music—your parents devoted to classical standards, the Great American Songbook, Broadway shows, piano lessons. Older siblings introduced variety to the family’s hi-fi stereo system, from the Beatles and Beach Boys to Pete Seeger and Gordon Lightfoot. They kept other groups—the Rolling Stones, The Band, The Grateful Dead—private. Your parents wouldn’t understand those bands. And neither did you.
You found pop music all on your own in seventh grade, when on Sunday nights you struggled to stay awake to hear Casey Kasem announce the week’s number-one song from American Top 40. In your bed, your brand-new clock-radio on the end table next to your twin bed, you let the pleasures of verses and refrains, melodies and harmonies wash over you. They felt right to your body. Your family dismissed your tastes as mainstream, pure vanilla. You didn’t disagree, but you knew one thing about yourself: the wailing need in Clapton’s “Layla” scared you, but you understood vanity and revenge when Carly Simon sang.
Ever since, you’ve played music—in the car, at work, at home; through college and your marriage and now beyond.
That’s why it’s natural for you and this man you fall for to share a love of music. Early on, the two of you delighted at the Traveling Wilburys’ voices rasping “handle me with care.” Back in the spring, what seems like six epochs instead of six months ago, he chased you from your office after work, past crocus-and-daffodil gardens, to your apartment, where he handled you, all right. He heated your body with the palms of his hands in the last, blessing moments of afternoon light and whispered fresh and endless love-promises into the back of your neck, and you knew, finally, you were fully alive and blooming.
By early May, he’d broken it off and come back so many times that you stopped counting. Every workday afternoon’s parting felt final and filled your throat with panic. One Thursday, you begged for time together that weekend, a commitment for a date, but he refused. As you drove home with the Wilburys on the radio, that guitar and those voices—“baby you’re adorable,” “you’re the best thing I’ve ever found”—stole your breath. All his promises, broken in all the ways.
That too-bright afternoon in May, you pulled off the highway to cry, waves of sobs pummeling you. When you finally got home, spent and tear-stained, you turned on your radio and searched frantically for something you could listen to. Which was nothing. Not pop or rock or even metal—and AM radio wasn’t your style, country music just a sad joke, alt-nothing on the airwaves in this part of the South. Finally, at the far left of the dial, you landed on your former last resort: public radio, and its weekend New Age music. You remembered Vangelis from the Chariots of Fire soundtrack, and the station shows you the genre’s wider range. With Vangelis, you’ve “heard” Antarctica, and you learn other names—Mannheim Steamroller, Pat Metheny, Paul Winter.
Since that afternoon in May, you’ve been afraid that the mainstream sounds, once a wellspring of delight and comfort, will always hurt you. But you’re even more afraid of silence than you are of music, which makes life tricky because you’re so alone. Coworkers feign obliviousness to your affair but are obviously off-limits for socializing. You ex-husband is, too, and he got custody of all your joint friends. Other graduate students bore you. And anyway, you don’t want friends, with their questions and judgments and expectations. You want only him.
So public radio, besides giving you New Age music, also gives you friends for those long weekend days away from the office. A Prairie Home Companion, Whad-Ya Know?, Car Talk. The voices: measured and mellifluous, raucous and energetic. They keep you company while you turn newspaper pages, fold laundry, or pinball around your tiny apartment, waiting for Monday so you can go back to work, where he will be.
You hardly eat; you’re dropping weight. You’re barely paying bills, but he likes your legs; he likes bare skin, so you haunt discount stores. Finally, $20 and a clearance sale buys you shorts in a size small, a denim miniskirt, and a couple of gauzy blouses. A sufficient wardrobe for the hours you aren’t safety-pinned into your two-sizes-too-large Dressed for Success suits.
In your best moments, you know you chose this—strangled in your marriage, you chose to leave—but here you are, still Sleeping Beauty, waiting for a man to rescue you while you live down to his expectations.
No matter how drunk you are on the chance to make those choices you know are bad but feel so good, you avoid other traps you could fall into. For instance, other men would be dull in comparison. You don’t haunt bars or experiment with drugs, because nothing is as intoxicating as the fantasy love you want stay awash in.
And you’re sure it’s love. It’s love, right, because you and he talk—politics, economic development theory, rhetorical strategy, deals and management and meetings. It’s love because he asks you questions and listens to what you say, though later he admits he’s obsessed with your lips and where they’ve been and where he might persuade them to go. When he says that, you just roll your eyes and laugh, because he loves you, it’s love.
But this life you’re dancing has its limits. Your nerves wear thin by the Sunday night of a weekend without him. You go to bed early, hoping sleep will kill some time before the next workday. Instead, you lie in bed wondering why he hasn’t called, is he back with her again, is there someone else besides you.
You must doze, because you open your eyes, petrified, caught between heartbeats in a limbo where you can’t be sure of him. Sometimes you’re afraid he’s gone for good and you are too, smothering without his oxygen to feed your flame, afraid you’ll become the compliant girl you were before. Sometimes that’s who you feel the most compassion for—that good girl who almost didn’t let him kiss you until your lips bled. You might never have known how luminous and alive you could feel.
Most Sunday nights, you don’t sleep. You curl up in your one chair and brood. You try public radio, but Thistle & Shamrock and Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz can’t soothe your nervous energy.
So you drive. To see what exactly, you don’t know, because nothing ever makes a difference. Every time, you mourn again the splendor of those early days: the heat, his pursuit, the sweetness. Another pain throbs beneath your sadness—you’ve lost most music, your companion for as long as you can remember.
Your drives are forty-five minutes each way, plus driving through the suburb itself. You can’t afford the gas, even not eating or drinking much, living mostly on the cans of Diet Dr. Pepper you crack open in the car. It’s worth it, you tell yourself, for this kind of love. You feel the love expanding your chest.
Hearts of Space: “a mix of ambient, electronic world, new age, classical, and experimental music.” New Age music for your awesome, pathetic bad girl self—finally learning the hard way, living and failing and trying again, making lots of bad decisions.
Like driving more than once in a night.
* * *
The uncertainty burns and surges in your blood; you can’t even sit, much less sleep. Although you know—you know he’s a liar and you’re a selfish fool—you can’t let yourself know, so you drive again. It’s now 3:45, the darkness still sauna-hot because it’s full-bore, tired summer, with all the new worn off. Gone are the barefoot mornings and creamsicle afternoons, the firefly evenings after fireworks at dusk.
The heat is unrelenting, pushing into your face, seizing your elbows, grabbing your heels. The night smells foul—funky sweat; fetid, rotting grasses that grow too fast to groom; exhaust and oil and scorched rubber.
Again the tires beneath you whisper, You deserve him. The cold voice, sarcastic: Yes, perhaps you do. You let all the voices drift away.
Again in his suburb, you go to his place this time. You shift into neutral and let momentum carry you past the four-unit apartment building where you know he isn’t, where he made you promises you still can’t believe he won’t keep.
You turn onto the cross street and park where you can see his empty parking spot, his apartment door. And you wait. You have to be there when he comes home to change clothes before work. You have to catch him, confront him—but no, you’ve caught him before, and no confrontation changed anything, so you don’t know why you’re there. You don’t think about it; you just clear your mind and wait. And you watch his door.
Even this far beyond midsummer, the night sky lightens to navy blue at 4:30, to grey at 5. A car approaches, its headlights splitting the pavement. From its front windows, newspapers catapult onto lawns on both sides of the street. As the car passes, you avoid looking at the driver.
You’re so focused on his apartment that you almost miss it. The front door of the house beside you opens. A man in light-blue boxers and a wrinkled white t-shirt picks up a newspaper, spots you, and frowns a crease into his stubbled face. He releases the door but it doesn't close; he's back a few seconds later with a pencil and paper and you realize he's writing down your description and license plate number. He can see you.
You recoil. For the first time in a long time, you wonder how you look to someone else—someone who isn’t drunk on the honeyed poison of obsession. Someone like that white-picket-fence girl you used to be.
Someone like the woman you want to become, maybe—a new, sobering thought.
That neighbor shows you the lies you tell yourself, and you hear a new truth. This man you think you love will never commit to you, and he’ll never fully leave you. He’ll keep trying to pick you up just so he can throw you away, again and again. You know this already, you knew it before, but somehow, the neighbor lets you hear it and feel it.
There in your car on that early Monday morning, you know that ending this relationship, truly ending it, will be up to you. But you’re afraid you’re not brave enough, not strong enough.
You have the urge to flee again, and you start the car. The radio fills it: Morning Edition. People doing things they’re not ashamed of. This is real life, the radio voices tell you. This is a life you could have. Join us.
In spite of the heat, you feel a chill. You’ll do it, you will. You’ll wrest your energy away from this man, this obsession, toward the rest of your life. He’ll test you. When you break it off, he’ll call you a dozen times a night, so you unplug your phone. At work, he’ll send coworkers to plead his case, so you say It’s over again and again. Of course, the first person you’ll have to tell—daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute for a while—is you.
But sooner than you think, you’ll be singing along with Bonnie Raitt, “I ain’t gonna let you break my heart again.” Your bad-girl self, a chastened but cherished, will recognize Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” with a smile. Mary Chapin Carpenter and the Dixie Chicks will make you re-think your disdain for country music. You’ll hear Clapton’s acoustic version of “Layla” and understand it; you’ll go back to listen to the raw, early version and feel that, too, without fear. Soon enough, all types of music will be the soundtrack of your life again.
That return to music lies in your future, but even that morning, there in the car, you recognize that you’ve driven all the way through the Hearts of Space. You take a breath and let out the clutch, dancing back toward your city in the growing gold of daylight.
About the Author: Marion Agnew grew up in the U.S. and found her home on the Canadian shore of Lake Superior. Her fiction and essays have appeared in journals on both sides of the border and in Best Canadian Essays (2012 and 2014). Find more information about her here.