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Online Feature: “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours” by Marie-Helene Bertino


I am like everyone else: good at some things, bad at others. I am good at eating clementines. I am bad at drawing straight lines. I am good at drinking coffee. I would be bad at building a house. If someone asked me to build them a house, I would have to say no. Or I would say yes and worry they would not like the house I built. Why is the kitchen made of coffee filters, they’d say? Why are there no floors? And I’d say, I wish you hadn’t asked me to build you a house.

I am bad at telling stories. For example, this one is about Christmas lights and here is the first time I’m mentioning them. A person who knew how to tell a story would start with, This is a story about Christmas lights I finally got around to putting up last night and the miracle that happened afterward. You know how it is at a party when someone tells an absolute gripper that juggles different characters and lands on a memorable line and everyone holds their stomachs and looks at each other in shocked amazement, a line people repeat on car rides home so they can laugh again? I am not that person. I am the one asking the host what kind of cheese it is I’m eating.

The name of the planet I’m from does not have an English equivalent. Roughly, it sounds like a cricket hopping onto a plate of rice. I am here to take notes on human beings. I fax them back to my superiors. We have fax machines on Planet Cricket Rice. They are quaint, retro things, like vintage ice cube trays.

Human beings, I fax, produce water in their eyes when they are sad, happy, or sometimes just frustrated. Water!

I work as a receptionist for Landry Business Solutions. I have no idea what we do. When people ask I say, When businesses have problems, we have solutions. If they press me I say it involves outsourcing. A monkey could do my job better and with more hilarious results. I answer the phone, keep the candy jar filled, and monitor the bathroom key. Ten minutes out of my twenty-minute training was candy jar related. The other ten consisted of bathroom key shakedown tactics. People are always losing the bathroom key, and the receptionist before me must have gotten frustrated, because she hot-glued it to a 12-inch ruler. I have no friends at Landry Business Solutions. I assume they are too busy outsourcing and thinking of solutions. They don’t bother me and, unless they receive a FedEx package, I don’t bother them.

Human beings, I fax, fetishize no organ more than the heart. When they like someone they say, There’s a girl after my own heart. They will stand or sit very close to the person they love with their heart. When they are sad they say, My heart is broken. They will tell large groups of people things they don’t believe. But the heart is just a muscle with an important job. Just an area in the body.

Human beings with bad eyes, I fax, like to try on each other’s glasses. It’s because they want to imagine themselves as new people, not because they want to see out of someone else’s eyes. After the trade is made one human being normally says, wow, you are blind.

I am bad at asking for help. When you ask a human being for help, there is a chance they will say later: remember when you asked for help, can I have five dollars? That goes for medicine, too. I don’t like asking help from pills in a bottle. I don’t want to be woken up at night by a tab of aspirin asking to borrow five dollars.

There’s a reason it’s called alien-ated. Because I am an alien, I am alone. When you are alone, there is no one to tell: there is a bird whose call sounds like hoo where la hoo! Or, there’s a spider landing on your head. So you tell yourself. There’s a spider landing on my head. I should move.

Of course there are good days. Days when the clementine skin pulls off whole, days I don’t see anyone in a wheelchair on my way to the train.

A week ago, my mother and I were chopping peppers and she said: let them be big enough so each one is its own mouthful. I don’t like when she says words like mouthful, words that cannot be divorced from sex. Other words like that are suck, fingerhole, and cock. I asked her not to say mouthful anymore. She hopped up and down with the knife in her hand singing: Mouthful! When I got home the Christmas lights snarled at me from their ball on the couch. I ate a mouthful of ice cream and wondered how appliances can be programmed to turn themselves on. If a coffee maker can turn itself on, doesn’t that mean it is never truly off?

Human beings, I fax, spend their lives pretending their parents are people with no needs. They do not want their moms to talk about sex, or die.

Human beings, I fax, did not think their lives were challenging enough so they invented roller coasters. A roller coaster is a series of problems on a steel track. Upon encountering real problems, human beings compare their lives to riding a roller coaster, even though they invented roller coasters to be fun things to do on their days off.

Human beings in America, I fax, are separated by how they pronounce the word draw. Draw. Drawr. Drawl, with an L at the end of it. The L is for Live your life. Live your life is what the tattoo said on the lady in line at the liquor store who, when I neglected to notice an open cashier, growled at me that we weren’t getting any younger. I had been daydreaming about drinking coffee and when she growled I stared at the tattoo for a few seconds snapping out of it. In not one of those seconds did either of us get any younger.

As a child on Planet Cricket Rice, I lay in bed trying to figure out a way I could know everyone on Planet Earth. America was easy, I could drive through it. Then I would send a letter to one person in every country and they could tell their friends and I could know everyone by association. But, language was a problem and I didn’t know every country’s name and I used to get panicky and red-eyed about it.

I have other responsibilities at my job. I seat clients who have problems and are waiting for solutions. Sometimes the person with solutions is late. When people are late to meet me, I assume it’s because they lost track of time while planning my surprise birthday party. I worry: will they remember I like chocolate on chocolate? But most human beings don’t like when other people are late. They get frowny-faced and huffy. So I entertain the clients who wait for solutions. I make the candy jar talk or I tell them I have a friend who has vintage ice cube trays. You pull a silver crank to release the cubes. I say: would they like to own vintage ice cube trays? Normally they say yes because when they are waiting human beings can be very participatory. Then I say: not me! I don’t need getting ice to be a charming experience! I pretend to be very anti-vintage ice cube tray. In this way I yank the tablecloth out from under the bottle of wine and candle of the conversation.

If you met me, you’d wonder why I do not look like aliens you’ve seen on TV. Why aren’t you green? You’d say. Why isn’t your head overlarge? To answer that I offer this: Landry Business Solutions had a Halloween costume party and Tammy came dressed for a regular day at work. She said: I am a serial killer. We look just like everyone else.

When you’re alone, you are in the right place to watch sadness approach like storm clouds over an open field. You can sit in a chair and get ready for it. As it moves through you, you can reach out your hands and feel all the edges. When it passes and you can drink coffee again you even miss it because it has been loyal to you like a boyfriend.

If you need it to be about a boy, I’ll give you a boy. In a gas station at the end of the day, the fat owner or the skinny teenager he pays counts the drawer, fills the cigarette machine and flips the closed sign. My ex was the closed sign. On that gas station, or any store that closes. He used to make fun of me for answering questions with metaphors. He’d say: how was your day? And, I’d say: if my day were a bug, I would crush it. He wanted me to say: my day was fine. He’s dead now and by dead I mean dating a stripper. Strippers are girls who can say: my day was fine. Also, they’re very good with money. My exes do well after me. I’m like a lucky penny.

Cars, I fax, are not attached to anything. They are free to collide with other bodies whenever they want and wreck each other. This would not happen with my bumper car system. Cars would be attached to poles linked to an overarching mechanism, as they are in bumper cars. The worst that can happen in a bumper car is you make a strange face when you smash someone. A strange face that makes the other person think you are uglier than they thought and that maybe there are other ugly things they don’t know about you. But they forget in the next second when they are smashed by someone else. It doesn’t hurt, though, as much as real cars. It doesn’t hurt as much.

Here’s the thing about human beings: sometimes you smash their cars, sometimes they smash yours.

One time I got my nails done and the girl held my hands so softly I wondered if she knew me. She commented on the loveliness of my cuticles, and she didn’t have to. She went out of her way, and human beings don’t like to go out of their ways. I said: I hope nothing bad ever happens to you.

Five days ago, the bathroom key went missing. Landry Business Solutions has a PA and I made an announcement over it. Why we have a PA is beyond me since only twelve people work here and they sit in one room. I could have easily walked into that room and made a medium-volumed inquiry but I don’t like to leave my desk. My announcement over the PA was: WILL WHOEVER HAS THE BATHROOM KEY PLEASE RETURN IT! Three hours later Delilah slammed the key on my desk. The door had gotten stuck, and she had been trapped in the bathroom for hours. No one heard her yelling. She missed a meeting, and still no one thought to look for her. She heard my announcement in the bathroom where she sat, hating me. Someone from another office finally heard her and climbed through a heating duct to free her. Delilah, disoriented, left early. It’s a bad day when you realize how unimportant you are.

Human beings who are squeaky wheels, I fax, get everything they want. Quiet humans who don’t complain get nothing. A squeaky wheel will complain when they have an obstructed view of a movie screen until they get a better seat. In the better seat, they will find something else to complain about. The floor is sticky. The cup holder isn’t big enough for my deluxe soda. I have to believe quiet humans who don’t complain see half the screen but are happier. But, maybe they’re not. Maybe they spend their lives sad they can’t participate in conversations about movies. Harrison Ford was in that movie? They say. I had no idea.

It would be easier if it were a boy. Then I could say to Tammy or Grace at work: I feel lonely because of a boy. And they could say: men are like trains, there’s one every five minutes. But, if I say: I am an alien taking notes on human beings to fax to my superiors, they would have no arsenal of information from which to draw. They would not know what to say at all.

Two days ago they passed around a newspaper article at Landry Business Solutions and I realized I do everything wrong. I tie my shoes wrong and they are the wrong shoes. I breathe wrong. I walk wrong. The article was about a place far away whose inhabitants are so poor they have to eat dirt. There was a picture of a dirt-eating girl standing with a bicycle. The right thing to say was what everyone was saying: what a shame, where’s my checkbook? But what I said was: how did she get her arms to look like that? Is it from the constant bike riding?

It’s not a boy or a job or a family or a house. It’s the world. There are so many people in it.

This is the part with the Christmas lights and the miracle.

Yesterday, I stopped to collect a heads up penny and was late for the train to work. I walked fast to catch it. People who walk fast look weird and every time I’m walking fast I think how weird I must look. I still missed the train. The doors laughed at me. But, trains are like men, there’s one every five minutes. So I got the next one. I wasn’t that late and no one noticed anyway. But the candy jar was empty and I couldn’t get to the store until noon and I smiled at Delilah and she did not smile back. The day was a slippery rock I couldn’t climb. Walking home I heard a couple arguing and even though he was insisting I knew it was the end.

Then, I saw two people in wheelchairs.

You’re not allowed to feel bad about anything when you are around people in wheelchairs, which is why I don’t like people in wheelchairs. You can say: sometimes at night I wake up and my throat is filled with loneliness and I am choking. And they will say: I am in a wheelchair. And, they will win. They are the human pain equivalent of a royal flush. Then, I remembered that morning I had collected a heads up penny, and nothing lucky had happened to me. I felt swindled. Behind in the count. It was one of those days.

I got home and there were still the Christmas lights to hang. And it was time. It was not time to check how much sugar I had. It was not time to say the word rose over and over until I forgot what it meant. It was no time other than the time it was to hang the lights. So I got a ladder and a staple gun and climbed to the roof of the house I could not be trusted to build. And I hadn’t asked anyone the proper way to hang lights so I crawled around stapling haphazardly to the shingles, not a line but words. Two words to let my superiors know I was finished taking notes and to come and get me in their glorious space ships. When I was done I climbed down and checked my work. In lights I had stapled: HELP ME.

I figured it was best to err on the side of honesty. I didn’t learn that on Earth dear god, but I learned it.

I ate a forkful of cold noodles and went to bed. At 3am a commotion on my front lawn woke me. It sounded like an army of washing machines in their final cycles had congregated outside my window. My bed hummed. I looked out. Beams of ambitious light jackknifed through the yard. Aggressive, angel light. Light that somersaulted and looked like sound. Red lights and white lights.

They were cars.

More cars than I could count. The first ones pulled onto my lawn so the others would have room to pull behind them. They held human beings who disembarked holding baskets with cloth over them. I recognized my mother, the manicurist, my ex and the stripper he dates, Delilah… People filled my street and the street next to it and the cars were still coming. I could see headlights for miles. They were still coming.

I was down on my knees. One human being cannot withstand the force of that much kindness.

Do you know what I mean?


BertinoPhoto1Marie-Helene Bertino’s debut novel 2 A.M. AT THE CAT’S PAJAMAS was a Best Book of 2014 at NPR and others. Her debut collection of short stories SAFE AS HOUSES received The 2012 Iowa Short Fiction Award and the Pushcart Prize. Her work has been translated into six languages. She teaches at NYU and in the low-residency M.F.A. program at IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) in Santa Fe. For more information, please visit:


6 Responses to “Online Feature: “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours” by Marie-Helene Bertino”

  1. Earl Vickers

    Beautiful, unique voice.

  2. Taryn Hallweaaver

    Loved this.

  3. Max

    I love this story, it’s amazing. I’m a little confused by the ending. What are the baskets with cloth over them?