A Field Guide for Heartbreakers

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For Al Young and Stuart Dybek—
my Prague mentors

Chapter One


I
s that dust?” Veronica asked, reaching inside my giant duffel bag and running her finger along its flat bottom. She removed her hand and stared at her index finger’s powdery white tip. I turned back to my notebook and my story. My protagonist had just entered a truck stop bathroom, and I was searching for the perfect adjective to describe the wash basin:
graffitied
. “My mom used it to carry supplies to her master baking class,” I said. “It’s probably flour.”Veronica picked the bag up, hoisted it above her head, and then threw it onto my bedroom floor. A white cloud escaped from the bag in one giant puff. “You’ll look like a drug mule,” she said. “Let’s go to the mall. You’re going to want something with wheels, trust me.” And I did. We were leaving for Prague in six days. And it wasn’t going to be a small stay. We’d be gone a month, attending a writing workshop led by Veronica’s famous literary mom, for school credit. Unlike Veronica, who’d spent much of last summer in Rome, I rarely voyaged anywhere. A senior in high school, I still hadn’t managed to leave the Midwest.As soon as we were strapped in, Veronica threw her car in reverse and peeled out onto the road. Lakeland Parkway spread its uninspiring gray mass out in front of us, and we rolled along on top of it. Small swatches of greenery stuck to its asphalt borders, while a sad plastic grocery bag blew like a tumbleweed across the scene.“What are you thinking about?” Veronica asked.“Fulmars,” I said.“Is that a fruit?” “No. They’re seabirds. They mistake plastic bags for food and they eat them and die.”“Gross. Near the mall?” I shook my head. “Mainly on beaches in the Nether-lands.”Veronica pulled to a stop at a red light and exhaled a frustrated breath. “You’re not lying to your inner self right now, are you?” She adjusted her rearview mirror with one hand and reclined her seat back a few inches with the other.“I don’t think so,” I said. But that wasn’t entirely true. It had been almost a month since the dumping. And even though I tried hard not to think about him, when darkness came, or long periods of silence, I became consumed by memories of my first love. Hamilton Stacks.“It’s pretty common in the early stages of heartbreak for the dumpee to fixate on the dumper, and concoct all these crazy scenarios about how the two of you are going to reunite. Under streetlamps. On park benches. Riding bareback on the beach.”“Do you mean on horses?” I asked.The light turned green and Veronica slammed on the gas. Then she steered the car off the road into a bank parking lot. “Listen, Dessy.” She turned to me stiffly, as if she were going to deliver the worst news of my life. “Normally I don’t interfere with people and their heartbreak process, but I feel like I’m being asked to deliver an important message to you.”“From Hamilton?” I asked. “No, that creep is dead to me. Mess with my friends and it’s over.” She spit on her fingertips and wiped them on her jeans, I guess to communicate her “overness.” “This message is being sent from an entirely different power.” She scooped my hands up into hers. Then she dragged them onto her lap. “I know that you love Hamilton. You went through a lot of important milestones with each other. You picked buckshot out of that owl together. And his was the first man-stick you ever saw—”I pulled my hands back and held them up, making the universal sign for “stop.”“I never saw Hamilton’s man-stick,” I said. “I’ve never seen anybody’s man-stick.”“Are you serious? My god, you dated for a year. I swear you said you’d touched it the night of the big power outage!”“No. It was too dark to see anything clearly, Veronica. I touched it through his jeans. How is this related to the message?”“Yeah, okay, listen. I know that you love Hamilton. And his was the first man-stick you ever touched
through his jeans
, but there’s no way on God’s green earth that he’s ever going to change his mind about this.”“Maybe you’re right,” I said. Veronica exhaled dramatically and ran her fingers through her thick brown hair over and over, until the gesture released crackles of static electricity. “Hamilton is on his way to college. He’s entering a whole new league.”I didn’t say anything. I didn’t like to think of Hamilton leaving the state of Ohio without me. It made our future (which, even though I refused to admit it publicly, I still held out considerable hope for) seem kaput.“Seriously, Dessy. You know me. I’m a total optimist, but Hamilton is very decisive. He wears that stupid T-shirt that says ‘UNWAVERING.’ And he’s the only person I know who’s declared himself a vegan and then stayed one. Not even cheese or bacon pulled him to his senses. And those two foods generally doom any vegan. He’s made up his mind on this one.”I hated it when Veronica latched on to something with total certainty. She pulled back onto the road.“I don’t think his T-shirt is
stupid
,” I said. I crossed my legs at my ankles and looked out the passenger window at the fast-moving, blurry scenery. So far it had been a rainy summer. The fields were as green as a crayon. And it was hot. According to Veronica’s mom, the weather in Prague would be warm and sunny. She said that during the peak of the day, some women carried small umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun’s damaging rays. I wanted to see that. In fact, I wanted to buy an umbrella and try walking down the streets like one of those women. The person I planned to be in Prague wasn’t the person I was in Ohio. Seagulls squawked overhead, and I closed my eyes. Fowl always drove my mind right to Hamilton. It was, in fact, Hamilton’s personal essay on his lifelong interest in the woodland duck that had helped land him an acceptance to Dartmouth
and
a scholarship. “You’re still thinking about him, aren’t you?” Veronica said as she shifted into a faster gear.“Maybe,” I said.Veronica turned on the radio, and an old Madonna song pumped loudly through the speakers, electrifying the fine blond hairs on my thighs.“He’s gone, Dessy. It’s like a wise, psychotic woman once said on Fox News: The only way to secure a man permanently is to lock him up in a trunk in your basement.”“Don’t be stupid,” I said. “You’re not taking any of this seriously. We’re talking about my heart, Veronica.
My heart
.”Veronica sped around a slow-moving Focus, honking as she passed, and ignoring my comment altogether.“Sometimes I feel like I’m going a completely different speed than the rest of the planet,” she said. “Like me and cheetahs are the only ones who are moving fast enough to enjoy anything.” She rolled down her window and flung her arm into the wind. Damp summer air raced around me.“You’re nothing like a cheetah,” I said.“Of course I am,” she said. “Look at my hair. It’s wild!”She shook her brown locks from side to side. They swam around her thin shoulders and smacked against the low roof. The car swerved right.“Jealous?” she asked, looking at me.I was, and she knew it. I flicked her two times on the thigh. My hair was too fine and too blond to amount to the seductive mass I longed for. Fate and genetics had determined I’d have short, barely shoulder-length hair.“Watch the road,” I said.Veronica flipped her head straight. “I might have even been a cheetah in a past life.”“I doubt it. Veronica, you’re nothing like a cheetah,” I repeated. “Look at you,” Veronica said. “You take one lousy course in zoology and you think you’re an animal genius.”“It was two courses. I took a year.”When Veronica hijacked the conversation, which was often, I tried not to take it personally. Her attention span wasn’t all that stellar.“So how am I unlike a cheetah?”“I’m really supposed to answer that?” I asked.“Well, don’t bother with anatomical differences. I know I don’t have a tail.”“Okay. You’re not like a cheetah, because it’s a vulnerable species. Out of all the big cats, it is the least able to adapt to new environments.”“Sometimes new environments suck,” she said.“Also, cheetahs are difficult to breed in captivity.”“So? I probably wouldn’t be so good at breeding in captivity either. Having to do it on a cement floor with all those zookeepers gawking at me.” Veronica laughed and honked the horn for no reason. Then she roared like a lion.“Well, unlike other big cats, the cheetah can purr as it inhales, but it can’t roar,” I said.“Okay. You got me. That’s one way I’m not like a cheetah. But I was watching a show on Animal Planet and it said that female cheetahs in the Serengeti are sexually promiscuous and often have cubs with lots of different males.”“You’ve been dating Boz for two years,” I said. “And you’ve never cheated.”Veronica may have been a zealous flirt, but we both knew that Boz was her anchor.“I know. I know. But I’ve got that potential.”“To be a cheater?”“To roam.” At a stoplight, Veronica uncapped her lip gloss and smeared on such a generous coat that it made her mouth look wet. “Dessy”—she squeezed my thigh hard, clamping down on my femur with tourniquet-like pressure—“any molecule of time you spend thinking about Hamilton Stacks is a total waste of your life that you’ll never get back.” She released her grip. Her hand left bright red finger marks on my skin. “Time isn’t measured in molecules,” I said.“Fine. My point is that his molecules have divorced themselves from your molecules, and you need to build a whole new future with another man’s molecules.”I swallowed three times until the lump went down. “When did you start referring to our dating pool as men? We’re seventeen. They’re guys,” I said.“Oh, Dessy, we’re not going to waste our time on
guys
in Prague,” Veronica said. “We’re looking for
men
.” The moment she said this, I knew that finding a man wasn’t the solution. It’s like suggesting to somebody who just lost her beloved tabby that she should go out and track down a Siberian tiger. “The downside is that, unlike male cheetahs, female cheetahs are solitary and tend to avoid each other.”“Veronica, you’re nothing like a cheetah. We’ve been friends since seventh grade. That’s not exactly living alone.” “You’re the only
real
female friend I have.”I mulled this over. “Cheetahs can be taught to fetch,” I said.“I could fetch.”“Yeah, but you wouldn’t like it.”“Who’s to say?”“You’re insane.”“I don’t think I’m insane. Look at me. I have everything. You. Boz. Great hair. Wicked-strong fingernails.” She tapped her index finger energetically against the dashboard. “And my Audi. I’ve got it all. I’m totally thrilled to be alive.” She punched me in the arm. “I’m happy too,” I said. “Sort of.”“Dessy, you need a man.”“Whatever.”Veronica jerked her car into a parking stall, sloppily taking up two spots. “Dessy Gherkin, unbuckle your seat belt. It’s time to recycle your heart.”

Chapter Two


T
his looks like a keeper,” I said, tilting a practical-looking bag onto its rear wheels and giving it a pull.“That looks like accountant luggage,” Veronica said. She turned and walked deeper into the forest of multi-colored bags.“So no black at all?” I examined a dark gray bag that I thought could pass for non-black.Veronica lifted a yellow suitcase over her head and then set it on the floor.“That looks like a flotation device,” I said.“I agree.” And she moved on.For this trip, Veronica had already purchased three new pairs of butt-lifting jeans, two short skirts, multiple tops spanning a wide range of decency, flip-flops for our dorm shower, walking sandals designed for uneven terrain, dancing sandals designed for guy-populated terrain, and a reversible tote for carrying water and other essentials. But so far she hadn’t shown any interest in the writing part of our trip. “So have you even started writing your story?” I asked. “Veronica?” She’d disappeared. I spoke louder. “We can’t show up unprepared.”The fact that we had been accepted into the program at all had been a minor miracle. It was affiliated with Northwestern University, and Veronica’s mom had been asked to lead a workshop. This news had upset Veronica considerably because she had no intention of spending the month of July in Columbus with her grandparents. So she determined to go to Prague too. And take me with her. Behind my back she’d assembled two applications and sent them in one envelope on the day of the deadline. For a writing sample she’d submitted a collaborative essay we’d written during metal shop, about the myriad ways a girl could die in the class. “Metal Shop: Fifty-four Ways a Girl Could Go.” Taking shop had also been Veronica’s idea. She liked the potential guy–girl ratio; neither of us had contemplated the reality of working with sheet metal, auto- motive parts, or metal inert gas welders. We wrote the essay as a way to tune out our industrial surroundings. But then the acceptance letter from Northwestern arrived, and Veronica showed up at my house to break the good news: we’d each been awarded a spot in the competitive July Prague Writers’ Conference. There was one caveat. Veronica had applied for the nonfiction section taught by the celebrated American memoirist Amy Allen. Instead we’d been placed in her mother’s class, Short Fiction. Veronica wrote a charming e-mail to the dean, but it was no use. Mrs. Knox received her roster two weeks later, and there we were. While Mrs. Knox was quite impressed, she wasn’t exactly thrilled. Neither was Veronica. But I didn’t mind. I thought she could teach me a lot. And I was overjoyed when she agreed to let us go. Veronica’s mom wasn’t like my mom. Tabitha Knox was famous. She’d been nominated for the National Book Award twice, and writing conferences often asked her to teach. Mainly she wrote short stories. I’d only read one, in her second collection,
Unlikely Dogs
. It involved a three-legged German shepherd that commits arson. His name was Twix. I spotted Veronica crouching beside an upright purple suitcase. “What are you doing?”“Measuring. We need to be able to fit inside our bags.”I looked down at her, but she was completely focused on her measurements. Then I asked the obvious question: “Why?”“Because I plan on having real fun!”“Inside your suitcase?”Veronica knocked over the suitcase and continued looking. “Listen, I don’t intend to play by the rules,” she said. “We’re going to be the youngest people there. I can predict right now that there’s going to be a ton of sneaking around. Therefore, we need to be able to fit inside our suitcases. Because that’s the ultimate sneak. Trust me. It’s how Boz sneaked me into his bedroom three times this spring.”Boz and Veronica had a very exciting relationship. It was what I would call tumultuous. Except mostly the tumult seemed like fun. Separate, those two were already fearless. But together they had no inhibitions whatsoever, like nobody had ever clued them in on the fact that they were mortal. You could see it in the way they danced. And swam. And assembled sandwiches. And downhill skied. It was just like Veronica to think of something as crazy as sneaking around in luggage. I rejoined her beside a mound of bright bags. “So who’ll be pulling us around?” I asked. “That could turn dangerous. Some crazy person could run off with us. We need to make sure we can unzip ourselves from the inside.”“How lame,” Veronica said. “That totally deflates the thrill.”Veronica accused me of deflating the thrill on a fairly regular basis. But deep down, I suspected she appreciated my foot-dragging nature. It’s as if I operated as her second conscience—the one that was fully functioning.“I’m not magician’s-assistant bendable, like you. I’m five foot seven.” (Veronica was five foot three, which gave her a clear advantage in terms of making herself suitcase-size.) “I was thinking about something more like this.” I pointed to a medium-size green case. “Why do you want to limit our options before we even go? The world is our clam,” she said.“Oyster,” I corrected. Veronica licked her finger and stuck it in the air, to notify me that I’d scored a point. Then she continued her search. It reminded me of the way she shopped for bras. She firmly believed that there was a perfect bra out there somewhere, made specifically for her cup size, back shape, and skin sensitivity. She referred to it as her “soul bra.” Those shopping expeditions always lasted for hours. I was starting to worry that Veronica believed there was such a thing as “soul luggage.”“Look! Look!” Veronica’s voice was urgent but quiet.Even though her personality showed signs of volatility, she was an extremely task-oriented person. I watched her energetically shove an orange suitcase off a gigantic red one.“This one. This is my bag,” she said.It looked like you could fit three goats in it.“And here’s another one,” she said, pointing to an even larger red suitcase. “We’re set.”I walked over and took the second red bag by its handle.“I know what you’re thinking,” Veronica said. “And you’re right. I’ll climb in and give this baby a test run.”She unzipped her bag as normally as you would a pair of jeans. Then she tipped the bag on its back and climbed inside. I watched her thin, flexible body curl itself into the shape of the letter
U
. Then she tucked her head down. She fit. She even had room to flex her feet.“Zip me,” she said.In the spirit of friendship, I leaned over and yanked the zipper around the bag’s perimeter as fast as I could.“Ouch! You got some of my hair,” Veronica said. “In the future, you need to watch for that.”“I’m leaving two inches unzipped near your feet,” I said. “So if something happens to me, you’ll be able to force your way out. Do you have enough oxygen?” “Plenty,” came her muffled response. As I hoisted the suitcase upright, extended the handle, and tugged Veronica into the fine jewelry section, I felt a certain excitement tumble through me. I liked having a friend who was so into risk-taking. Because without Veronica, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have had nearly the amount of fun that I’d already had in life, especially over the last two years. “Take me to hair care products,” Veronica said.I turned the corner and steered her through the dregs of the season’s swimsuits. Pineapples near crotches. Papayas pasted right over boob areas. I only made it a few feet before I saw something incredibly disturbing.“There’s people from school here!” I said.“Guys?” Veronica asked.“No. Suzanne Mack, Raquel Cesar, and Gloria Fitz.” They were a trio of snobby, thin brunettes with asymmetrical haircuts. I might have expected to bump into them at the Ann Taylor store in Tower City Center, but crossing paths with them in this JC Penney took me by complete surprise. I pulled the handle forward, tilting the bag into its roll position, and could feel the full weight of Veronica fall into my right hand. It made my forearm burn.I felt like running. What if these three asked about Hamilton? It was too soon for me to discuss it. I was an open wound that hadn’t begun to scab over yet. If they asked one question, I was certain I’d bleed all over them. So I shoved my pain into a deep pocket somewhere and forced myself to look happy. Maybe they didn’t even know about me and Hamilton. How fast does breakup gossip spread in Parma during summer? Then again, how pathetic would I look if I pretended not to know about the demise of my own relationship?I waved. “I’m buying a suitcase for Prague,” I said.Suzanne, Raquel, and Gloria all abandoned the rounders of cotton shirts they were fingering and walked toward me.“It’s big,” Suzanne said. “Are you taking a lot of shoes?”“Well, I’ll be gone for a month!” I replied. “We leave in a week!”“Prague sounds cool,” Suzanne said. “Lots of supermodels come from there.”“I didn’t know that,” I said.“They’re very angular people,” Raquel said. “Yeah,” said Gloria. “It’s the bones that make the face.” As she spoke, she tilted her head, making her earrings swim in the air. They looked like silver mallards. Even though I wasn’t dating Hamilton anymore, I wanted to know where she’d gotten them. Because I knew he’d love them. They’d be the perfect jewelry to wear to our reconciliation dinner, if we ever had one.“I love your earrings,” I told her. “Where did you buy them?”Gloria shrugged. “Online.”“What Web site?” I asked.She shrugged again, a little annoyed. “I can’t remember exactly. A duck one. Hey, where’s Veronica?” “She’s around.”Gloria shook her head, making her razor-straight black hair and silver ducks shiver around her face. “I heard the police are looking for her. Will she even be allowed to travel internationally?”“I heard that too,” Suzanne said. In a display of either judgment or hostility, all three of them folded their arms across their chests.“You mean that whole warrant thing?” I asked.The “warrant for Veronica’s arrest” rumor had arisen in May regarding a traffic violation. I thought it had blown over. “This isn’t about her speeding tickets,” Gloria said. She uncrossed her arms and walked closer to me. I continued to hold the suitcase at an angle. Veronica grew heavier as the seconds ticked by.“She and Boz are in trouble,” Gloria whispered. I felt my stomach tighten. It appeared likely that whatever Gloria Fitz was about to tell me was true. Veronica and Boz had finally gone out and done something so disastrously stupid and illegal that they’d both be locked up in the big house and my trip to Prague would evaporate.“What did they do?” I asked. “They got caught last night removing construction materials from a building site,” Gloria said. “Somebody wrote down Boz’s license plate number. They’re in big trouble. BIG.”Gloria’s father was a judge. I didn’t think she was lying.“What kind of stuff?” I asked.“Building supplies,” Gloria said. “You know. Hammers. Saws. Sheetrock. Crap like that.”“Veronica stole Sheetrock?” I asked. This made no sense.“That stuff is worth money,” Raquel said.“How do you know it was Boz and Veronica?” I asked. Maybe it was simply two people who looked like Boz and Veronica, who happened to be driving Boz’s car.“It was Boz in the car for sure. Maybe it wasn’t Veronica who was with him,” Raquel said, almost smiling. Her lipstick made her mouth look purple, like she had entered the early stages of hypothermia. I didn’t have a chance to respond.“You’re lying!” Veronica yelled from inside the bag. “Get me out!”The red suitcase leaped away from me and fell onto its back.“She’s in the suitcase,” Gloria said. “It’s Veronica Knox.”Veronica didn’t wait for me to unzip her. She kicked against the bag’s wall, until the top peeled away. Then, puffing and sweaty, she punched the lid off and crawled out.“You’re insane,” Suzanne said. “You just wrecked that bag.”“Yeah, well, you three can’t walk through the women’s casual section of a store saying lies about people. That’s slander. What’s wrong with you?”“What’s wrong with us?” Raquel asked.
“Us?”
“I wasn’t lying,” Gloria said. “It’s the truth.”“No it’s not. I wasn’t even with Boz last night!”“Well, Boz was with somebody. It’s in the police report,” Gloria said.Veronica stood doe-eyed and stunned. Then her anger surfaced, and she focused her glare on Gloria.“He’s way too spastic anyway,” Gloria said. “Kiss him good-bye and you’ll be better off.”I knew that would send Veronica over the edge. Nobody insulted Boz to her face, even with valid criticisms. And nobody told her what to do. “You have no soul,” Veronica said. “You’re overreacting,” Suzanne said.“Guys are unpredictable,” Gloria offered. “I feel like making a death threat right now,” Veronica said.By this time a few shoppers had stopped culling through sales racks and were staring at us.“Don’t say the words ‘death threat,’” I whispered. “We’re in a mall.”“You’re so hyper,” Gloria said. “Dial it down.”“But this is your fault!” Veronica said, kicking the bag toward the trio.“That almost hit my foot,” Gloria said.“We should go,” I suggested, turning away from all of them.“You are awful people,” Veronica said. “And I’m not going to leave until I tell you all the ways you suck.”I stopped and turned around. This might take a few minutes. Veronica was a gifted orator.“I know that you and your gang are lying about Boz. You are all liars! And spoilers. Always trying to ruin other people’s lives. It’s like all that the three of you know how to do is invade people’s happiness and crap on it.”“We’re not a gang,” Gloria said. “Yes you are. You’re a gang of crappers! You follow each other like horses, one after the other, looking for happiness so you can crap all over it.” Veronica took a big breath and kept going. “And Dessy and I are going to buy our suitcases for Prague and leave here and enjoy our freaking lives. And you, you three pathetic, gutless wannabe hipsters, you can watch our butts as we leave.”Veronica pivoted and walked toward the luggage section. I followed her. I couldn’t look at Suzanne. Or Raquel. Or Gloria. If they were laughing, I couldn’t bear to see it. Veronica picked out a new bag for herself and one for me. “I’ll get them both.” “You don’t have to do that,” I said.“I know. But I think I made you feel uncomfortable just now. And I didn’t mean to. So, as an apology, I’d like to buy your bag for you.”I glanced at the price tag. It cost over a hundred dollars. I really didn’t have the money to buy a new suitcase. I’d be traveling to Prague with roughly three hundred dollars that I’d scraped together in the last few months. With the new case, only two hundred.“Okay,” I said.Veronica’s face was a deep red, frustrated color. I could tell she regretted what had just happened. I’d never seen her flip out this badly before in public. It was a disconcerting development. As Veronica and I rolled our suitcases across the parking lot, she surprised me again.“I need to see Boz immediately.”“Aren’t you going to drop me at home first?” I asked. I had no desire to witness one of their fights. Sometimes they threw stuff at each other. Like lamps. And shoes. And nectarines. “I want you to come,” she said.“No. You two should work this out alone.”Veronica dropped into the driver’s seat. She was still red. “Please,” she said. “No.”She leaned over me and popped open the glove box. She took out an oversize tube of glitter lotion and flipped up the cap. “I’m chafing!” she said. “Look at me.”“I don’t think you’re chafing,” I said. Veronica loved body glitter and utilized it as often as possible. Glistening like a decorated cupcake made her feel extra special, and that was something Veronica valued.“Do you want any?” she asked.“I don’t,” I said.I watched her squeeze out a generous dollop and smear it on her arms until the cream vanished and left behind a layer of sparkles.“I’m begging you to come to Boz’s with me,” she said.I held firm. “No.” She threw the tube of lotion into the backseat with enough velocity to smack the rear window.“Dessy, I need you.” Her voice trembled with authentic dread. And that was an emotion I could relate to. “Can I stay in the car?” I asked.“Yes.” “Okay,” I said, but I regretted my decision already.“I’m really glad you’re coming with me, Dessy. Because I’m so mad right now, I have no idea what I’m going to do.”

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