What Bruce did
Bruce Burton sat in his chair, trying to ignore the sound of his heartbeat echoing through the house. Ironic, really. Considering how dead everything else in there was.
It made him think of hospital rooms. He hated those. They were white, and empty, and depressing, and he swore he could smell the tears clinging to the walls, as imprinted in the air as the awful words spoken.
I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.
He had to stop thinking like this.
Bruce stood up with a sigh, stretching his arms in front of him. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d moved.
“Shameful,” he said to Petunia, their cat. “It’s unhealthy to be sitting down too long. It can lead to cancer because of the flow of blood to the brain…” He could hear the same droning in his voice that always made his colleagues’ faces take on a blank, glassy smile that they reserved just for Bruce. Boring old Bruce, they’d think. Rattling on about whatsit again. Bruce spent a good ten years feeling utterly alone in the world.
Until he met Mary. It was love at first sight.
Utterly boring, regular, old-person bodies (actually he’d only been in his twenties, though he didn’t look it) coming together for utterly boring, regular, old-person love, old-person beans on toast while reading each other the nutritional facts, old-person crossword puzzles and seminars about dinosaur fossils and regular, quiet sex on Monday mornings, because for the rest of the week they were both too tired for such thrilling and sweaty action.
Bruce loved it all.
Utterly boring old-people can have love, too.
So stop judging and listen.
What Mary did
Mary liked to tease him about the word ‘utterly.’ She said he said it too much. She said some things didn’t actually have to be deemed ‘utterly’ for them to be fantastic. She said by putting ‘utterly’ in front of everything, he took away the meaning of the word.
Bruce said, “But I’m utterly attracted to you!”
That got him sleeping on the couch for a week.
Don’t laugh. Boring old people can get in trouble with their spouses too.
‘I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.’ said the nurse, with the kind of smile that said she had told a million people this, and the kind of smile destined to stick in your head years later, because the pain never, not really, goes away.
This time, Bruce would make sure it never came.
‘Find it,’ Bruce said. ‘Find the heartbeat, for God’s sake!’
He shook her hard until her eyes bulged out of her head and her neck began to turn purple. ‘Find it, goddammit! ‘
‘Bruce!’ said Mary. ‘Don’t hurt the nurse.’
Bruce turned to her, utterly bathed by the light of the room, and Mary’s eyes stretched wide at his God-like figure. She was radiant too, suddenly, her usually thin brown hair lustrous and blowing behind her, her foggy gray eyes storm-filled oceans to get lost in. The nurse, a mere mortal, sank to the ground with one hand clutching her neck in pain. Bruce’s bold and daring actions had removed the threat.
‘There is a heartbeat,’ Bruce said. ‘There is a heartbeat, and we’ll find it, Mary. Together. Let’s go, Mary.’
‘I’m sorry I said you were boring,’ said Max, Bruce’s former student. ‘You’re not boring at all, really.’
‘You’re so interesting,’ said Dolly Patrice, head cheerleader at Bruce’s high school.
‘An incredible specimen!’ said Mr. Tuesday.
‘Oh, Bruce,’ said Mary, even as her eyes grew blacker and blacker until they took over her face and she crumpled into darkness in Bruce’s arms, ‘I’ll never leave you.’
Who Mary was
Mary was the real-life Amy Farrah Fowler, which he supposed made him the Sheldon of her life. He loved her even though she seemed like a broken toy, the ones he used to pass in the used shop on his way to work. It was supposed to be for books, but people had started dropping whatever they wanted off their hands in there, and the owner never stopped them.
Ugly dolls with the eyes poked out, Jack in the Boxes that leaped against the window, dented puzzle pieces and legos scattered over ripped teddy bears. His favorite had been the porcelain doll at the back, with her tattered yellow bonnet and her once-beautiful glassy face, and the hair that had hung in ringlets around her cheeks. Her expression was the same-- quiet, gentle, maybe a little bit wistful, maybe a little bit sad. Bruce had always wondered what she made of her pitiful existence, whether she missed the little girl who had left her there.
Yellow was Mary’s favorite color.
Mary, as ‘utterly’ as she was, hated the label more than she did. She had always wanted to break out of the ‘utterly,’ to be the sort of person who wasn’t forgotten about. She used to go out and try the latest styles and fads and makeups and shoes (god the shoes) but eventually she’d give up and strip it away and go back to being Mary, to being as ‘utterly’ as she truly was. Bruce thought she was happy. Bruce thought she loved him.
Bruce wished he’d told her, just once, that she wasn’t ‘utterly’ to him.
Utterly boring regular old-people can have complex emotional issues too.
In the house, a poem by Bruce
In the house I counted your breaths,
Until they stilled and sank into Petunia’s fur.
In the house I swear I can feel you,
Just the same as you once were.
Did you leave me, truly leave me?
Did you perhaps linger for a day?
I could make-do with you sticking around,
But I wish you’d chosen to stay.
Things to buy
I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.
They’d been so excited too.
Bruce and Mary bought a crib-- a fancy, new-technology type that would keep Little Guy (they’d decided they hadn’t picked a name yet, even though secretly they had) wouldn’t go rolling out and tumbling all over their floor. “He could hit a wall!” said Mary fretfully, even though they’d already baby-proofed the walls and the floors and under the cabinets and under the dressers and every single corner or edge in existence-- even when there was no corner or edge.
It turned out there were a lot of things to buy, and a lot of things that needed assembling. Bruce had kind of figured, stepping politely into the role of moderator for his hysterical wife, that they could buy a crib and some diapers and be done with it, picking up everything else along the way. But oh no, there was a process to these things.
Diaper trash cans and changing tables and baby-proofed toys (“Why give it to the little tyke if it’s already proofed against him?” said Bruce,) with big happy faces on them. Blankets and stuffed animals and Winnie the Pooh sheets, paint to dye the crib and splash over the walls (“It’ll be like falling asleep inside a daisy,” insisted Mary, when Bruce raised an eyebrow at a shade of egg-yolk yellow.) Baby wipes and powder and food and parenting classes and books on baby names and pregnancies and hormones, and even a funny little one Bruce used to hide under his pillow about how to manage a difficult wife.
I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.
He’d brought one of those old video recorders to every sonogram, for god’s sake.
What Bruce bought instead
A chandelier. Because it was pretty and their apartment was big enough and they needed a distraction. Mary used to stare at it and say it was like fractions of her soul were being bounced around. Bruce kept it in case some of her soul was still in there.
Bruce went to work on a dull gray Tuesday, with the taste of burnt coffee in his mouth and cat hair on his pants. His coworkers nodded to him as he passed then averted their gaze in the same polite manner as you’d show a corpse. He wished they wouldn’t. He knew they thought they were being kind, but it would be so, oh so much kinder if they would just act normal again. He’d rather see them whispering about how boring he was, or catch them doing impressions in the hallway, or even have the feeling of being judged for his looks wherever he went.
Bruce held back a sigh at the quiet and annoyingly respectful silence that had fallen around the workspace, and made his way to his office. He’d taken the job years ago because it had a better income. For the baby that hadn’t arrived.
He looked up. Kathy, his secretary. Her red hair was pulled back in a neat clip and she smiled at him, handing him a stack of papers. “Mike just dropped this off for Friday’s morning meeting. Do you need anything?”
“No problem.” She paused. “Also, I found something the other day that I think you’d like to have. I was cleaning out my desk, and…” Her voice trailed off and she dropped a folder on the table. “I found this. You must’ve given it to me ages ago.”
Bruce opened it and there were pictures. He and Mary at a Christmas dinner with Mary’s mum, he and Mary at a birthday party for Bruce’s friend Harold, he and Mary at their trip to New York city years ago. He flipped through them slowly, blinking hard so he didn’t cry. There were family portraits and ocean view selfies and Petunia the cat and Georgie the dog. At the end there was an image of he and Mary, hugging each other, the day Mary found out she was pregnant. Her protuberant gray eyes were full of tears.
Bruce shut the folder with a sigh and looked at Kathy. “Thank you.”
Kathy nodded, shooting him a small smile. “You’re welcome. And… I’m sorry Bruce.” She touched his shoulder lightly and was gone.
Bruce watched her, the way she moved as though she were at a funeral, the way she glanced back as if to make sure he was okay. She doesn’t get it, he thought.
He threw the folder in the trash and got up to use the bathroom.
I just want it back!
July 18th, 1984
Mary had been different lately.
It had to do with the pregnancy. He could feel it. Something heavy hanging between them. Something that changed the way they viewed each other and the world, both of those views blackened and burned and broken.
It was grief, he supposed. Or some form of it. How could you grieve something you hadn’t met?
Bruce never knew if his behavior had changed because of it. He only knew that he went about his day with something hard and small buried in his chest that he never tried to uncover and never told anyone else about. That was how he coped, he supposed, in the utterly boring old-person way of not making a fuss of things so the shinier people could.
Mary’s heart had been broken, that was the best way of putting it. She didn’t speak, didn’t sleep, didn’t cry, wasn’t ever in the mood for anything except staring at a wall. Bruce didn’t know how to snap her out of it. He didn’t even understand it, entirely. It hadn’t happened for them. What was the point of dwelling?
He tried to cheer her up by painting the bathroom a bright, daisy yellow, the same one that would have been used for… for another room, but she just turned away. He bought her Petunia. He made her ice cream sundaes in bed. He booked readings, and plays, and carried home books but she was never in the mood.
Look at me! he wanted to scream. I can’t fix you if you don’t want to be fixed!
It was a whole month before she said a word.
“Do you know,” Mary said a week before she died, her voice croaky from lack of speaking. Bruce looked up sharply from where he’d been reading by the fire. Mary was lying on the couch flat on her back, staring at the ceiling as per usual. “That there’s a woman in my office, Sheryl, who I’ve hated since I met her?”
Bruce shut his book slowly. “I know Sheryl.”
“She’s terrible.” Mary’s voice was bitter. “She’s a terrible, terrible human being. At our wedding she stole the lead band member and danced with him so the music wasn’t playing right. She made up the office game “Did Mary Wear It?” She owns pearls twice the size of my wedding ring, and has a dozen friends on speed dial for every little drama in her life.”
Bruce waited, unsure where she was going with this.
“And yet,” Mary said softly, “and yet, she’s so beautiful. So blond and natural. Her husband is a male model. They were prom king and queen and fell out after high school, only to be reunited years later in a tragic twist of fate.”
“Mary,” Bruce began.
Mary sat up, dislodging the blanket on her lap. She was shivering, her eyes blank behind her glasses. “And she’s smart. She was at the top of her college. Her name is cool-- Sheryl Viviette Whitaker. It’s French, apparently. She’s so funny… she can make anyone laugh, even me. She’s traveled the world and I’ve barely left England.” Mary glared at Bruce. “And today she took maternity leave to have her third child.”
“Mary,” Bruce repeated.
“Why do some people get it all?” Mary shouted, and she started to cry, pounding the armrest. Her face was streaked and puffy and she made a noise like a scream, like a pillow being ripped in two, and Bruce knew she needed to let it out of her, get rid of that something they couldn’t put words, to that sat on their chest all day and night and never went away. “Why do some people get everything good in life while I get the dregs? Can’t I-- can’t I drink the tea for once?” She made a keening noise and bent over, her shoulders shaking with grief.
“Mary,” Bruce repeated. “Will you listen to me ”
She stopped crying and stared at him.
“Sheryl Whitaker,” Bruce began, walking over to guide her back to the couch, “is a bitch. She says awful things about people because she can. She’s not funny; people laugh because the things she says about them are true, and they don’t want others to know that. Andrew Whitaker is a Barbie doll who could probably be trained like a dog. All her beauty is fake-- boobs, face, nose, butt. You didn’t get the dregs, Mary.”
“Snap out of it,” Bruce said. “Please. I know how terrible this is, but we can't move forwards if you don’t try to.”
Mary exhaled, wet and sniffly. She nodded several times and wiped her face. “Okay. Okay I’ll-- try.”
He should have pushed her.
He should have grabbed her arms and looked her in the eyes and said, “No, there’s no try. You will move forwards, because you’re strong and smart and have so much to give.” She would’ve looked back at him with some of that determination in her eyes and said, “You’re right. I will.”
But he didn’t do that, because he was an idiot, and because he took her words for what they were and moved on. She cried that night for a long time, whispering over and over again, “I’m just so tired.”
He never asked her what she was tired of.
But now he knew.
The Last Of It
When Bruce got home that night, he cried for a long time.
There’s no better way to put it. He lay in bed and shook-- big, shameful tears like a seven year old. There were so many things that hurt.
If he wasn’t such an ‘utterly’ person-- utterly boring, utterly ugly, utterly sad and pathetic and alone-- he could have handled it. Shiny people had so much to live for, so much of the world spreading their hearts out to them. There were no ‘utterly’ movie protagonists. No ‘utterly’ person was going to change the world, because they were too boring to be listened to. Too useless to even get the things they wanted in life. Like children.
I’m sorry, but there is no heartbeat.
Bruce, I’m so tired.
Guess who I am! “The prehistoric age was the year I was born…”
It just wasn’t fair.
These thoughts rushed through his head-- he was spiralling, he knew. Petunia jumped onto the bed and nudged his arm, gently, and again he thought of Mary. He glared at that dumb cat, destined to eat him when he died.
“Make it all stop, Petunia,” he whispered.
She gave him a hard look, and even though she couldn’t speak he heard a voice in his head, clear as day. You can’t move forwards unless you don’t try to.
His tongue froze. He sat there a long time, slowly coming to grips with the message behind that, the realization that he was headed the same way as Mary was, that Mary’s poisonous last words had infected him, that a voice from twenty years ago telling him he would never be a father had infected him, and that it would never, not really, stop-- unless he made the effort. He was as utterly as possible, but he wasn’t broken yet.
Bruce cut off ties to Mary, he supposed you could say. He threw away their old house, their old everything, and bought a small new apartment twelve miles outside London. A pretty woman about his age smiled at him as he moved in, and, years later, he looked around and breathed in and felt as far from utterly as it was possible to be.