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The Broken Hearts Club (Conrad Voort Novels)by Ethan Black
"Grief? I'll tell you about grief," says the man in the dark suit. "And pain so bad you think you will die from it, so horrible you didn't imagine it could exist. Pain that hurts without visible wound. But it lashes you to a bed, it won't let you move, it reduces your imagination to an endless series of replaying images. You've all experienced it, or you wouldn't come here to tell your stories every week."
The other three men acknowledge the truth of it by nodding, silently. They're at a small round table, in the private room, in the back of Mackey's Steak & Ale Tavern on Twelfth Avenue and Forty-fourth Street in New York. The plaster is peeling and the room smells of beer. There's a plank floor, and a draft from the tar-papered window. There's a pus-green glass fixture over the 40-watt bulb on the ceiling. Steam hisses in a pipe, somewhere behind the merry British coachmen driving horses, decorating watermarked wallpaper on the wall.
"It's the supreme grief inflicted by one sex upon another. It's the grief of a broken heart."
"Amen to that, brother."
"We should be grateful that our doctor got us together, chose us for this club. Men aren't supposed to feel like us, but we do. They're supposed to get over unhappy love affairs, but we can't. Maybe we're more sensitive than other people. Maybe there's something wrong with us. All I know is, after all this time, I wake in my bed, and the living room looks a thousand miles away. I can barely make my own breakfast, and I can't eat it if I do. I tell myself to go to work, but close my eyes instead, wanting the pain to stop. Wanting to be asleep.
"When I leave my apartment, every sensation I experience--sight, aroma, taste--reminds me of her. And when I make it back home at night, if I sleep at all, I have dreams. I can't stop."
The man in the dark suit, a banker during the day, sips beer while the others nod in sympathy, in the brotherhood of pain. There are four steak dinners on the table, thick porterhouses with mashed potatoes, and long serrated knives on linen napkins. The meat is rare, and blood runs onto the china plates. The foam on the beer steins has shrunk to patches. There is a fifth seat for a member who has not shown up. The room is old and smells of mold and hundred-year-old wood. Of mice in the walls. Of sewage under the floor planks. The table is gouged with names of people who have eaten here before. Tiny Richie. Eddie the Squeeze. Edna loves Brian. Edna fucked Sam.
"I have horrible dreams," whispers the Banker. He's looking at his psychologist, Ian Bainbridge, a stooped, gentle-looking man who urges him on, smiling, supporting. The Banker's neighbors and coworkers would never imagine he carries such agony inside. In public he's all smiles. He seems to love children. He invites women to the Hamptons for weekends. He gives away subscription theater tickets to the secretaries at the office, on nights when he has to work late. He owns a beautiful top-floor co-op on Gramercy Park.
"What a catch," the secretaries whisper as he walks down the hall, tall, handsome, patrician, rich.
I want to be like him, think the men.
"In the dream I had last night," says the Banker, "I went into her bedroom. We'd broken up weeks before, but I still had the key, and hoped to change her mind. She was asleep, under the covers, and the moonlight came in through lace curtains and fell on her bare shoulder, and she was so beautiful, so small and lovely, that my heart filled up. I went into the bathroom. I had to take a piss in the dream, I was a little nervous because I was afraid she might ask me to go away again. But in the bathroom the toilet began flooding and I saw that a skull was clogging it, rising, with the water, to the top."
Overcome, the Banker cannot speak. He waves away help and dabs tears off his cheeks with a monogrammed handkerchief, an expensive Venetian brand bought at Barneys.
"If it hurts too much, you can go next week," says the Psychologist, the one who never tells his stories, who simply listens each week.
"Thank you, but no. I think about her all the time, so
I might as well go on. Just give me a second." The Banker breathes slowly. In. Out. He continues, at length, "She was a poet. She wrote verses. A banker and a poet is a good mix, I think. It gives balance to the world. I'd spend my days adding figures. She'd spend a week trying to come up with a single right word."
The Banker smiles, drifting back. He speaks in a stiffer, more formal tone than the others. Perhaps it hides more pain. "I was worldly, she ethereal. Niana was her name. Niana Embers. I asked her once, in bed, is that your real name, or one you made up?
"And she replied, gentlemen, a little dramatic in character, but it gave her fire, 'I am a burning ember. I will burn you.'"
The Banker's smile drops away. The skin stretches tight on his skull, showing the shape of it.
"And she did."
"Start at the beginning. Tell us how you met her," says the Mechanic, the youngest man present, sitting at his traditional seat, on the Banker's left.
"Yes. Of course. It was a set-up date. Can you believe it? A secretary in the bank, a married older woman, had a niece.... She saw me admiring the photo on her desk one day, and the secretary--she'd always liked me--said, 'Do you want to meet her? She's single.'
"Well, I hate blind dates," the Banker says. "But I was thirty-one and nothing special had happened in my life in a long time. New York can be lonely, as you gentlemen know. You have activity every minute, but it doesn't bring joy. After awhile it's mindless. Anesthetized time. You go to a restaurant. A party. I was lonely, and the photo--how can I say it?--seemed special to me. Some extra quality emanated from it. Most photos are only two dimensional, mere approximations of a surface appearance, but I felt, looking at this one, that her eyes, so bright and blue, so incredibly blue ... and her hair, glossy and black, somehow blacker than regular black ... I liked her lips ... I felt as if--and I know this is impossible, but I'm just telling you how I felt--wherever she was in the city at that moment, she could feel me looking at her. I even felt embarrassed, the way you feel when someone catches you staring. And then I found out she was a poet, and I knew I really was seeing something special in that face. I
believe a person can have premonitions about other people. Don't you agree it's possible, every once in a while, to presage some great event?"
The Mechanic says, "What's 'presage' mean?"
"To know that something is going to happen," the Banker says, "even though it didn't happen yet."
"Yeah," the Mechanic says thoughtfully, chewing. "Presage. I presaged."
"Tell us when it's your turn," says the Psychologist, the guide.
The Banker, agitated, talks faster.
"Of course you presaged. Brains, human brains, doctors don't even know five percent what they're capable of. And I'm telling you I knew, looking at that picture, that when I met her it wasn't just going to be one blind date."
"Fuckin' blind dates," says the Mechanic.
The Literary Agent pipes in. "I go on about one a week. You walk into the wine bar, the girl is pretty, you talk about your deals, you ask about her family, you make another date, maybe you have dinner, maybe you climb out a window to escape, like the story the Banker told us a few weeks ago, about the girl doing it to him."
The Banker is growing irritated at being interrupted. No one dares interrupt him at the office. But he knows interruptions are permitted at the Broken Hearts Club. Anyone can contribute anytime. And the truth is, when the others tell their stories, he interrupts them.
"When I walked into the coffee shop, her back was turned, but I knew it was her," the Banker says. "She gave off a--well, a feminine emanation. A ... a rightness. A beauty in the way she held herself. She was very small. Later, I would pick her up and carry her around my apartment. She would sit on the counter, in the kitchen, and she'd be telling me some story about a poem, or a reading she went to, or a fight she had with her mother, and I'd be overcome, gentlemen, with lust. I'd pick her up, by the waist, and she'd lock her legs--she worked out and she had strong legs--around me, and I'd just take her into the bedroom, or kitchen table, or couch on the balcony. She used to wear this silk robe, with orchids on it, a gold silk robe, and if it was open, even a little, and I saw her breasts ...oh God, I miss her. I can't believe it ended."
Tears stream down the Banker's face.
"Take your time," says Dr. Ian Bainbridge. He is studying these men, and their inability to recover from love, for a book he is writing. He writes articles on them, gives lectures on them. "There's no rush. We have the room till eleven. It's only nine-thirty now."
"We all have plenty of time now," the Banker says bitterly, through his tears.
"The coffee shop," the Psychologist says, kindly.
"The coffee shop. She smiled at me when I sat down, and I swear to you, I'd been with other women, lots of them, but that smile, when I saw it, it just went through me, and I felt like I was falling down a hole, a long hole, and more than that, I wanted to fall down it."
The Banker laughs. He's quite good-looking, the Psychologist thinks, when he is not in distress; tallest of the four, with premature gray flecks in his thick blond hair and trimmed beard. He favors British-made, pin-striped suits. He also drinks the most of all of them. "I told her, in the first second, I love you. We hadn't even had a cup of coffee yet. Believe me, such spontaneity is not my way. It's crazy. But she didn't think so. She put her hand on mine. Her skin was so smooth. And she wore rings, lots of them, on every finger. Silver ones, from those street artists in Greenwich Village," the Banker says, drifting into memory again, unable to control himself. His eyes are getting wild. "Later we'd spend Saturdays walking around the Village and I'd buy her jewelry." He is speeding up again.
"Not expensive stuff. She liked silver. Bracelets or necklaces. Israeli or Egyptian. With bangles. Heavy links with coins on them. When we'd get home, she'd light candles, everywhere, scented candles, vanilla, spruce, cream, around the whole room, like a church of sex, gentlemen, the whole tiny apartment would get hotter, and in the light of those candles she'd undress. She wore thonged underwear, tight between her buttocks. I'd get so crazy. She loved that, how crazy I got. She'd climb onto her big bed like a little girl, and lean over and tuck her knees beneath her, and her ass would be up and she'd look back at me ... coyly, you know? And she'd ... do you mind hearing this?"
"That's what we're here for," says the Literary Agent. "We can say anything in here. We can think anything in here. Nothing is off-limits. We come here to say the things we can't say to anyone else."
"Pain has no limits," Dr. Bainbridge says. "Why should memory? Why should speech?"
"Yeah, no limits," says the Mechanic. "Her ass, you were saying...."
"We'd fuck all over the apartment," the Banker says. His face is red now, and although it is winter, and the back room of Mackey's Steak & Ale is drafty, from a tar-papered window, the Banker's face has turned as red as if he has been lying in the sun for hours. A single bead of sweat trickles down the right side of his smooth, patrician forehead, out of his perfect hair, and into the trimmed Van Dyke beard. It drips onto his starched white shirt, beside the Yves Saint Laurent tie. At the New York Athletic Club, men think: I want to look as fit as he does, and as confident.
"She would do great things to my dick, gentlemen. She would sit on it, from the back sometimes, just ease onto me from the rear and ride it and buck and her hair would be flying. Or we'd go to the Hamptons and spread a blanket on the ground, outside, to hell if the neighbors saw us. We fucked in wicker chairs and we fucked on the rug and we never one time finished watching a movie we rented. We used to joke about it. I'd say, 'Remember that scene in The Picture of Dorian Gray?' And she'd say, 'Which one?' And I'd say, 'When the girl takes off her halter top. When she reaches and unzips the guy and takes his dick out of his zipper. And leans down and makes him come by rubbing her breasts, both of them, against his dick, and it feels so good.' Which of course never happened in the real movie Picture of Dorian Gray.
"But it happened when we rented it. Oh God. I love her.
"I want to kill her."
The Mechanic cuts into his steak, and the men watch the blood ooze onto the plate and stain the bright serrated restaurant knife. The Mechanic always eats the most, sometimes taking food off the plates of the others. He says, "Get back to the coffee shop."
"Right," says the Banker. "I told her I loved her and she didn't laugh! She covered my hand with hers. She nodded. She said, 'People can know things right away.'"
"Did she tell you she loved you too?" asks Dr. Bainbridge, clinically, as if taking notes in his head. He is dressed like
a farmer, in overalls and a flannel shirt, and is bald on top, with reddish, thinning hair sprouting on both sides of his bald pate. His avuncular look is accentuated by thick wire-rimmed glasses. It took him months to collect patients as extreme as these, to ask into the club.
"Later that night she did. We talked till the coffee shop closed. Two, two-thirty at night. Then we went to the all-night Polish soup kitchen, on Second Avenue, and ate a huge late-night dinner. Potato soup and Romanian red wine and bread, black, thick, delicious. I never ate so good a meal. I was famished. And when I was finished, gentlemen, I was not sated. When I pulled out my wallet to pay, my hands were unsteady, and she saw it and entwined hers in mine. I'd heard love could be this immediate, this trouble-free. I'd read books in which love came to a person so fast, so powerfully. But I never dreamed it could happen to me. Love had always been hard for me. I admit it. I held back. And now, finally, it was happening."
"The beginning's always great," the Literary Agent says.
"We walked back to her place, a third-floor rent-controlled walkup on Ninth Street. Junkies in the doorway. Some guy practicing a trumpet across the alley. I mean, four-thirty in the morning and the idiot's playing a trumpet. She must have had at least five big locks on that steel door. But inside, she'd really fixed it up," the Banker says with admiration. "There were ferns and special soaps in the bathroom, and beautiful books, old editions by Frost, and Keats. And antiques, British chests and a Mexican candelabra, really ornate stuff she got at junk shops. She had an eye, let me tell you.
"By that time we'd been talking all night, about everything. Poetry. Food. Her stupid cats that drove her crazy. She had these Siamese sisters. Anything. I ... I still remember she talked about some book her mother would read to her when she was a kid. Dr. Seuss."The Banker reaches for his beer, and drains the schooner as a knock comes at the door.
The men hear a waitress's voice, trying for gaiety, imparting only disinterest. "You okay in there? Want anything else?"
"Everything's dandy!" the Banker replies in his business voice, jaunty, happy, the devil-may-care guy. "Is that my favorite waitress out there? Is that Carrie?"
"It sure is."
"You cute thing," the Banker calls. "If I wasn't involved with a girlfriend, I'd go for you in a minute!"
"Oh you," the voice says, trying to be playful, which is better for tips, conveying only that sense of supreme boredom found in New York late at night, among the lonely. The footsteps go away.
The Banker looks around the table.
The effort at being civil has cost him. His voice sinks, grows tight with anguish. "I don't want you to think it was only sex. The sex was great, unprecedented. God, when I came with her ... But it was more than sex. It was the way she made my apartment richer, adding flowers, oranges in the bowl, a painting, a different kind of Australian wine. It was the way she took me to readings. It was the quiet stuff, sitting on the beach in East Hampton. Gentlemen, I even liked shopping with her. It was looking at her back rising and falling, in bed, at night. Hearing her breathing. She even snored and I liked it. It was incredible. It lasted three unbelievable months, and it ended horribly."
"How?" says the Mechanic, finishing his steak. "And by the way, you ain't gonna eat yours, can I have it?"
"You'll get a heart attack, with all the meat you eat," the Psychologist observes.
"I don't have a heart anymore," the Mechanic says. "Greta broke it. How much more broken can it get?"
Guys aren't supposed to talk like this, the members of the Broken Hearts Club know. Guys are supposed to be stoic. To not cry. All their lives they've heard the slogans, watched the breast-beating. Love 'em and leave 'em. If it's not one girl, it's another. All their lives they've watched tough guys weathering breakups, leaving beautiful wives or girlfriends in movies, to fight wars, to join cattle drives, to train for submarine duty, to live alone in some cave. Real Men leave women without worrying about it. Real men are tough.
To the Broken Hearts Club, the walking wounded, these movie guys are as alien as a Martian. Guys, their fathers and mothers and buddies have told them, get over the pain. Move past it.
Dr. Bainbridge calls the men, in his articles, the Banker, the Mechanic, the Agent, and the Reluctant Patient, who still has not shown up. He says, "It's 10:45. Fifteen minutes and we have to leave."
"I'll finish fast, gentlemen," the Banker says. "My affair lasted three incredible months, and then one Sunday we were in East Hampton, at my house. We were listening to a Bach tape. It was morning. We were eating blueberry pancakes, and out of the blue," the Banker chokes up, "she says, 'I think we have to slow down a little.'"
The Mechanic groans.
"And I say, 'What do you mean, slow down?'"
"And she says, 'Well, I think you're getting a little too carried away about things. I need to go slower. It's this intimacy issue I have, I get nervous if I get close to someone too fast. It's not you, believe me. It's me.'"
"I hate women," the Mechanic says.
"You can't trust them," the Literary Agent says.
"I go crazy. 'Intimacy,' I say. 'Intimacy? What the hell have we been doing for three months if it isn't intimacy? And what do you mean, get close with "someone?" I'm not "someone." I'm me. What are you saying? What did I do? Tell me what I did and I'll stop it, I'll get better, I'll be a better person. Did I do something wrong?'"
The Banker screams out, in the cold little room, "'What do you mean, go slower?'"
He's breathing hard now. His face is the color of the blood oozing from the half-eaten steak on the Literary Agent's plate. There's a spot of dribble on the left corner of his mouth. He is panicking as much now as he did back then.
"She says I'm overreacting. She says, 'Why don't we take a few days off.'"
"I'm sorry," Bainbridge says, in his most supportive tone. He gets up, moves to his right, puts his arms around the Banker.
The Banker starts sobbing. His shoulders heave up and down, wrinkling the gray wool shoulders of his British pin-striped suit.
"I can't stand it. I can't stand it. I can't stand it," he says.
The others wait for the storm to pass, and the waitress is at the door now, knocking. The Literary Agent yells back, "Five minutes, okay? Lay off!"
"Oh God, I love her. I want her to die," the Banker says.
"You don't mean that," the Literary Agent says.
"I know. I don't. Not really. But sometimes," the Banker says, trying not to sob again, "I can't help thinking about it. I never did anything bad to her. I was perfect for her. I loved her. I would do anything for her. I would kill for her. Niana," the Banker moans, sinking into his seat.
The waitress, at the door, calls out, "Sorry, but the card game starts at eleven-ten!"
"Fuck the card game!" the Literary Agent calls. "We'll leave you a big tip. Five minutes!"
"You can't stay longer every week!"
"Yeah, yeah, in a minute, okay?"
This time the footsteps are quick and angry, going away. The Literary Agent takes a fifty-dollar bill and leaves it on the table, for a tip. Bainbridge always pays for dinner, and drinks, lots of drinks. The Banker says, "Didn't you ever think, at all, about killing them? All of them. The ones who did this to us?"
"You must have."
"I dreamt about it once," the Literary Agent says. "I woke up feeling terrible."
"Tell us next week. Now we have to go or they won't let us come back, big tip or not," says the Mechanic.
The men calm down. The Banker's story has touched all of them. They open the door. They do not speak as they make their way down the cramped, dark aisle of Mackey's Steak & Ale, past the men who turn to look, on stools. They've heard the yelling in back. Past Mackey, who stands behind the bar in a white apron, cleaning beer glasses. Past the young couples who come here after the theater, to eat hamburgers, to sit at the tables with their red and white tablecloths, and hold hands, and tell each other that they're in love, and marvel at their luck to find the one person in the world perfect for them.
"See you next Thursday!" Mackey calls out.
Another group of men, prosperous-looking, young, cigar-smoking dentists, bull their way toward the back room. Mackey takes a cut of the poker game every Thursday. They'll be in there until four.
Outside, it is snowing. Mackey's place lies across the West Side Highway from the Hudson River. The flakes are thick and there's a coating on the ground that makes the men's socks wet. The headlights of sporadic cabs barely penetrate the storm. A stiff wind clears a view momentarily for them, and they can see the black river, and the ghostlike glow from New Jersey across it, and then the curtain closes up again, and there's only the swoosh of tires, and the hiss of wind working its way around buildings, and a drone of an airplane too high up for them to see, taking off for Europe, or coming home.
The Mechanic and the Literary Agent leave quickly. Dr. Bainbridge lingers, asks the Banker if he is all right. He seems worse than usual tonight.
"I got put on probation, at work."
"I'm so sorry."
"The bank's merging with another company. They're going to have to trim the staff. I'm under a little pressure, that's all. I'll be fine. I'll be fine."
And the Banker starts walking.
I don't want to go home, he thinks. If I go home, I won't sleep. If I go home, I'll turn on the television. I'll think about the way she used to cry out when we made love. Cry out in such happiness that she made me feel like the most powerful man in the world. Cry my name.
I'm not going home.
He decides to give in to a craving he saves for the worst, the absolute worst, nights. He decides to take the subway downtown and look up at her window. He has to be close to her. He won't do anything to her, won't contact her, he tells himself. He'll do what he always does. Come up her block quietly. Let his eyes rove up the red facade of her building, where she still lives. He'll hope the light is on in a window, and maybe that he'll see her silhouette. He'll pray, if he does see a silhouette, that it is her, alone, and not with a man.
The Banker walks faster, in the grip of his obsession. He heads east on Forty-fourth Street, through Hell's Kitchen, past the drugged-up prostitutes in doorways, in tight clothes, who call out, "Hey, want a date?" He used them in the beginning, when Niana left him. He bought them and let them take him to hotel rooms and wash his dick and slip condoms on and call him honey, darling, baby, sweetie. The same words Niana had once said.
But the sex had been hollow, and left him feeling dirty inside. The sex hadn't touched him at all, except for a moment. A brief explosion of release in the genital region. A lessening of pressure in his groin. And a ballooning of the loneliness as he crept away, hating himself, slinking home, slinking to work the next day.
"Hey, honey, want a date?"
The Banker reaches Sixth Avenue, descends into the earth and takes the F train downtown, toward the East Village. His heart is pounding so hard. His mouth is dry. It's the way he used to feel when he was going to meet her. Against all his knowledge that this love affair is over, he is experiencing a horrible, rising hope. That a miracle will happen. That somehow she'll sense his presence on the street and look out, come down, seek him out, feel his emanations. That the sense he had of connection, when he first saw her photograph, still exists.
He can't help it. The private pain is starting up again, in his chest, the hollowness, as the train pulls into the Second Avenue station. He gets out. His heart is beating so violently that he has to lean against the dirty tiles of the wall, to calm down.
"You all right, mister?"
"Thank you, yes."
He can't be seen like this. He has a position to maintain, a standard to uphold. He makes it up to the street. The storm is worse down here, the wind blowing like crazy, from the north, driving thick flakes lengthwise down Second Avenue. Faster than the cars. They drive into his face, stinging him, punishing him. They melt on his cheeks and mix with his tears.
It is impossible, he thinks, that she ever left me. It is inconceivable that something so good went bad so quickly. It has to be a mistake. It can't continue. God doesn't punish for no reason.
And then he thinks, if God's going to punish, I might as well do something to deserve the retribution I've been dealt.
His heart steadies somewhat as he rounds her corner. Even the junkies are inside tonight. The buildings look darker, closer together, and seem to lean in toward each other across the narrow street. The twenty-four-hour bodega is closed. The Korean grocery is open. He hides his head from a man washing flowers, even in a blizzard, and reaches the middle of the block. Only now does he dare let his eyes rise, to move across the buildings, three stories up. Dark window, lighted window, dark window, dark window.
Niana's window is lighted.
She has a sheer curtain.
Behind the curtain a lone silhouette moves.
You have to love me, the Banker thinks. You love me but you're afraid to admit it. You think of me too, don't you? How can something be so good between two people, and just stop? It's against nature. It's not right. You miss me, don't you? You're just too proud to call.
That's when the urge comes, stronger than it's ever been before. He fights it off, but when she moves away from the window, it grows so huge, he doesn't even realize he is moving until he reaches her steps.
I'll just stand here a moment and leave, he tells himself.
A moment later he thinks, I'll just try the door. It will be locked and that will be that. But the junkies have broken the lock again. They steal checks from the mailboxes. The Banker lets himself into the tiled foyer. A wave of nostalgia and pain comes, so acute that he backs against the wall and clutches his chest.
"I'll leave now," he says out loud, voice tinny and funny in the foyer.
I'll go home this instant, before I do something I regret.
Outside, the storm thickens. All over the city people who have companions turn toward them in beds, hugging, kissing, holding each other while the wind hisses outside. All over the city the lonely feel more lonely. The storm is as violent as a broken heart.
The Banker turns to leave, and as he does, remembers, with a vivid flash of pain, what happened at the office this afternoon. He sees himself sitting at his desk, by his window. He sees the skyline of Manhattan, the mighty buildings tall against the gray of an incoming storm. He hears someone clearing his throat, in his mind, and watches the senior vice president walk toward his desk, the man's usual friendliness blunted and awkward. The Banker remembers the mundane chitchat because the vice president was too embarrassed to get right to the point.
You seem distracted. Your work's not as splendid as usual. You spent so much time analyzing the Blake Company Loan application that we lost it. I know you'll snap out of it, but I have to tell you, we've been ordered to trim some staff.
Buck up. I know you'll get back to normal before we start, er, dismissing people.
The Banker's vision clears and once again he is in the cramped little foyer. He sees his gloved index finger resting lightly against a bell. He hasn't pressed it. It's amusing to think how little pressure, at this point, would resume contact.
I won't ring it, he thinks.
He rings the bell.
From the Paperback edition.
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