Kirk Marshall

How To Unfuck Your Heart:


She will leave the house. She will travel overseas to attend her half-brother’s wedding (in the ten-and-a-half years of your relationship, you never once met him: this is a good thing; she is recovering the family your presence prevented her from renewing). She will move in with her best friend and that best friend’s partner upon her return. She will agree after hours-long circuitous discussion that cannibalises most of a day that it is better that you claim the apartment. She will enlist her sister (whom you will likely never see again, though it was the sister you knew longest of anyone, when you met her at a house party in the city where you were born which you reticently agreed to attend, though you were loath to go, because you knew no-one but the hosts, and you were emerging broken at the age of twenty from a long-term relationship that constituted a form of sustained physical and psychological abuse; but still you salvaged what remained of yourself and mustered the pretence that you could socialise, though you felt alien and bereft in your own skin, and that is when you met the sister, and you felt as though you were welcome company for the first time in too long, and now you will likely never see the sister again) to pack her possessions in boxes, her life in neat and keenly-calibrated array, and commit them into storage until she can divine a more permanent residence for herself now that you have asked her to leave.

She will ask how you intend to split the possessions you own together: the furniture, the whitegoods, the computer, the TV, the microwave, all dutifully acquired over the course of a decade living together (for it must be remembered that you moved in together within six months of romantic entanglement, and so you never truly knew each other with any degree of separation, nor guessed that plunging into a commitment in this way would unknowingly impose hardwired “roles” in the relationship which you could not divine nor conceive to reframe at so young an age), and you will wave it off, for you can discern no benefit to contending ownership of inanimate artefacts one way or the other, so you will pay for it all, and repay her bond, and pay an additional month’s rent to her directly because she will need it, and offer to pay for her storage because she would not require it if not for you, and proceed to pay double rent from hereon at your own choosing, for you must learn to pay your dues. She will not make reference to the house deposit you had been saving on your collective behalf and which now has been surrendered to this civil farewell; you will not allow it. She will leave the house. She will access the property to retrieve the last of her neatly itemised boxes while you are at work. She will leave her keys for you to find on the dining table you once shared and now own outright. She will leave the house, but she will also stay, for she haunts it when you are least attentive to it. She will keep you company in your sorrow though she is no longer there to witness it, and she will cause you to weep because she is not where you suppose she is. She will leave the house, and time will prevail, but you will not regather what you lost for you found her keys on the dining table one evening while returning home from work, and the gesture was not symbolic, not talismanic, not a riddle for deciphering. There is an end to things, even if their ghosts rage to defy it. There was no note with the keys. She always left a note when you weren’t the people you became, one note a day, for every ten-and-a-half years together. She will leave in silence. This is an end like any other.


You will adopt a dog. You will submit multiple adoption applications while you and she are together, and these will not be successful, and in time she will purport to suggest that this means you should not get one, but now that you are broken again, and untrusting of human hearts, and in need of company that lives and breathes and abides warmth and does not merely haunt, and must now resolve yourself to claiming occupancy of the house as its sole remnant body, you will pursue the adoption of a dog like it is the only viable solution to anything. You will receive word that you have been successful — finally, on the week which marks the anniversary of your childhood dog’s death, and you will rejoice for you have not had a dog since that boyhood pet’s passing, and she did not ever quite apprehend why this was important to you (this is a good thing: you will recover the wonderment for an animal companion that her presence prevented you from renewing). You will persuade yourself that here harkens a new beginning. You will comport the spare bedroom, heretofore used as a study for you both and now divested of her trove of neglected objects, as the dog’s room; and you will rigorously administer yourself to the task of helping her pack, of moving her furnishings, of dismantling bookshelves, to make things easy, to demonstrate that you still possess the capacity for courteousness, to ease the sundering into an exercise in etiquette, but it is really to accommodate the dog’s arrival.

You will be enthralled at the dog every day, when you are not alternately miserable, horny, overworked, untellingly traumatised, or occupying the intervening space as if in a lithium haze. You will adore the dog, and no-one will quite know how much, appreciate the valence and pale whispering fire with which you forge this kinship with your sweetly untoward hound, because albeit it has reckoned with a past history of abuse and familial rejection, the dog is not a complicated personage: he requires no role other than that which you arrive as: master to an animal in need of compassion. You do not have to “become” something, anything, retain an inflexible augmentation, be required to conform to the needs of another without possessing any purchase to recall that you might also have a set of subsumed and shrunken needs. You do not have to promise you will not change in order to keep a dog; the dog does not care, if you are still its master. You are allowed to be an imperfect match with the dog; it does not, for example, require you to conform to a role you have long outgrown, and disdain your attempts at self-betterment as misguided, and feel unspeakably threatened by your desire for self-reliance, because the dog accepts you whether you change or not. You can be alive with the dog, for it harbours passions, appetites, a craving for spontaneity, a delight in risk, a daily elation in physical pleasure, a social competence to meet anyone at any time and be at peace in their company. You can be at peace now, with the dog, because it likes you to be uncomplicated as well; it does not need you to hide yourself to be happy.


You will become a cowboy. This process will appear to assume hold without cognisance or precognition or precipitation one day, and it will begin innocuously enough. Once she has left, reclaimed her possessions, relieved the space of its cluster of boxes, wrenched her many vivid art prints from the walls, rendered her exit so that what was once a home no longer contains the haunt of her attention or tenderness or hospitality or elegance, you will discover the hidden constant which had heretofore remained irreducible about this apartment you had so cosily shared: you possess walls in your house. They are now your walls. Where such space was mediated territory, terrain to which you never ascribed any previous significance — for what is a wall when all arms are open and all rooms unlocked and commodious to the passage of your love beneath their arches — there is now a vacuity that obliges you to fill it, and when you seek to fill it you discover you no longer know anything of yourself — no independent autochthonous vestige remains — beyond what you feel after the mean acrid haze has cleared. And that is this: you feel so much older than the time or marrow or biological function or bladder volume that is left in you. You feel like a melancholy cowboy sagged sawbones and snaggleteeth in a scatter of destitution, sat overlooking some forsaken sierra. You are sure there is nothing in you not already plundered past replenishment. You are a lifetime of lean years in straight-legged jeans. So you make a shrine of your rubbled interior. You hang the walls with images of gunslingers, tableaux of cattleherds, serenades to saloon goons, pastoral portraiture of mustang wranglers defeated by the rustication of their bones. You enact an inhumation in cowboy pageantry around your hundred hundred grey days. Before it is even knowable, you are then dressing the way of the ranch kings of yore.

You purchase rawhide leather boots. You purchase a belt with a floral concho. You purchase a shearling jacket with a sheepskin neckline. You purchase artisanal rings hewn from repurposed bullet nickel. You purchase a satin jacket with a viper bisecting its design. You purchase consecutive dress shirts where the diamante studs resemble raptors with wingspans in full thrall. You purchase a hand-crafted double-scorpion rockabilly belt buckle. You purchase your first deck of cigarettes in a decade: Marlboro Gold 250s, and Christ you discern as you hunch against an abandoned alley wall, in a suburban cobblestone lane, with your wheezing lungs dungeoned with a gunwale tonnage of raw smoke, it’s been so goddamn long, and there’s no call for it but to reacquaint yourself with the peppery corrosion in your throat. For it is the only way you can now feel heat in your chest. And with every drag, every thirsty inhalation, there is one less breath wasted on a life that is emptied of any need of it. You took all the breaths you ever required. They lead you to this point, in this alley, with your head cradled against this corrugated iron, gazing up at this vine-choked trellis. Now’s about time you make amends for all those expired breaths. Drag deep on that death, and let it keep you warm in a way the sorrow nested inside blithely refuses to. When you extinguish that cigarette on your heel, and sink snakily beside the drainpipe while your eyes water, you will know finally what you had forgotten in all the years you wore yourself thin of dedicated surrender. You are a cowboy. You never felt at home with someone striving to domesticate the wildness out of you.


Lamentation: There’s this facile fallacy that personal tragedy builds character. The mythic currency of the underdog. But you are less when she is gone; not more. You harboured some shamanic belief that the man you’d lost throughout a decade of tiny compromises, incompatibilities, miscommunications, missed opportunities, onetime failings that became anthemic in the way it defined you for her — that soft, sentimental, starry-eyed mammal you once were; that swoonily euphoric twenty-one-year-old kid — you expected he’d return in some way when you ended it. That you would reclaim your promise. Your baseline wonder. That she would leave, and you could retrieve the boy who drowned in time’s benthic suck, that you could recover your capacity to love — anyone, anything, any second now — again. But she left, and not only did you not commune with the repatriated shade of your younger self, but you lost much of who you were at all; and you lost her too.

Months and months and months pass, and you come to observe that your life is not better without her; it is diminished. And your pain is not lessened by her absence; it is magnified. The tragedy is in the fineprint: your life is less, and your life is truer. The harrow has not strengthened you. It has not kiln-fired a cleaner, glossier, more robust you in the location you inhabit, the skull you populate. It does not build character. It stripmines your spine. It succulates on your daylight. It trepangs your head of dreams. She was, exactly and no less, the love of your life.

And you changed over time, almost imperceptibly, so slowly she thought of you still as some twenty-one-year-old kid. And she loved that kid. But you were no longer him; he was no longer traceable in you. And you woke one day to discover that you were sharing the love of your life with a version of yourself you’d jettisoned. And when you tried to tell her, to voice it, she would not listen. Because you were only getting in the way of their perfect romance. The love of your life, wedded to someone you knew intimately, a long time ago, when you didn’t call the cacti of the empty frontier your friends.

So there are nights now where you are sure your heart is threatening to detonate in your chest. And then you remember you are just having a nightmare. That you have no heart to speak of. Just a trace memory. A phantom doom. That her face used to gaze upon your own while you slept. That you knew it because you were awake behind closed eyelids. That love is exactly that.

That there is no tragedy, because your life without her now is simply a variation of that silent compact. You are asleep behind open eyelids. And when they ask you, “How did you unfuck your heart?”, you will tell them it was easy, not really an arcane art to master, you simply stopped pretending there was a heart left in you to unfuck.

You gave it away. She can keep it. She was always better at defining its uses anyway.


Afterword: You take up whittling. Sculpting boles of jelutong with octagonal blades. They say it takes a long time for a greedy storm to strafe a prairie. You’ll discover a use for your hands while you wait. They say there’s a heart endued in the thorax of a tree, if you just hone it away close enough. Down to the bone. Somehow, with eyelids closed, you divine the direction of the grain.

You could carve just about anything. You imagine a heart like a viola. You turn the knife.

Kirk Marshall is a Brisbane-born writer living in Melbourne, Australia. He was a teacher of Creative Writing, English, Literature, and Media (Film & T.V. Studies)at RMIT University for two years, and is a former General Manager of "Going Down Swinging". He has written for more than eighty publications, both in Australia and overseas. He is the editor of "Red Leaves", the English-language /Japanese bi-lingual literary journal. In 2017, a chapter from his hillbilly apocalypse novel secured a nomination for The Pushcart Prize.
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