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Necessary Heartbreak


“Let’s save each other some time today, Elizabeth. What are you wearing?”

“In a sec, Dad.”

Michael sighed and looked in the mirror. His head was pounding from a few glasses of pity wine the previous night, and he noticed a web of inflamed capillaries spreading across the corner of his left eye. I look awful, he thought.

Disgusted, he retreated to his bedroom and pulled open the top drawer of his worn dresser. A thin layer of dust was across the top, and absentmindedly he brushed it away. He stared down sullenly into the contents of the drawer and pushed aside a few pairs of socks. There it was at the bottom --- a simple gold band. He turned it sideways to read the inscription: I’M GLAD I FOUND YOU. LOVE, VICKI.

Michael sighed and rubbed it gently against his T‑shirt. He rarely wore it, except when he wanted to prevent any awkward encounters with unattached women. One look at the ring and they would be sure to leave him alone.

He slipped the ring on his finger and rubbed his stomach, uncomfortably aware of how his belly was gaining a foothold over the worn elastic waistband of his pajamas. He was beginning to understand why women complained about feeling bloated all the time. Adding to his misery was the humidity of the April day, so he chose a simple white T‑shirt, light gray sweats, and a pair of his favorite old sandals. He pulled the sweats above his belly and sighed. Now I look like Fred Mertz.

He dressed conservatively these days even though he was just forty. With his daughter now a teenager, he believed he needed to set a good example. Michael had seen what the kids wore at the local middle school, where Elizabeth was in the eighth grade. She was becoming a young adult, and sometimes he felt alone against the world in protecting her. No matter how hard he tried to be open, there was no way he could agree with belly rings and low-cut shirts.

I hope she doesn’t come down in another skimpy tank top. He was well trained by this point. She would wait upstairs until they were miserably late, with no time to spare. Then it would be a last-second struggle: he would barely see her run past him on the way to the car, leaving him time to register only the most horrific thing she was wearing. Today, though, he felt ready for the dress-code war.

His determination was swayed by the startling ring of the phone. “Elizabeth, are you going to get that?” Michael shouted upstairs. He chided himself for waiting for an answer; her friends called almost exclusively on her cell, meaning that she wouldn’t waste time picking up the house phone.

He ran into the living room and saw the phone out of its holder, along with the empty wine bottle sitting on the side table near his recliner. He bent down and dug furiously along the cushion of the chair. “Got it,” he muttered. He noticed the caller ID said un known . His stomach lurched and he threw the phone back onto the recliner. Probably the bank again. Why can’t they leave me alone?

Elizabeth, sandals on her feet, T‑shirt tied up to her navel, and oversize shorts hanging low on her waist, sprinted down with the upstairs phone in her hand. “Sure, he’s here, hold on.” She glanced up and saw her father scowl. “Oops,” she whispered as she handed it to him.

“Hello?” He paused, looking annoyed. “Yes, I understand my financial obligations. I’m working as hard as I can and as fast as I can to keep up. I need a couple more weeks. My boss cut my salary in half, sir. So I’m trying to find other ways to make it up. Can you give me more time?”

Elizabeth stood motionless on the stairs, watching her father’s brow furrow. For the first time, she noticed some strands of gray hair peeking through the sides of his head, near his ears.

“Good-bye.” Michael sighed. He clicked the phone off and looked down. I really need to clean this carpet, he thought randomly.

“Everything okay?” Elizabeth asked, noticing the shiny gold ring on his finger.

Michael gazed at his growing daughter, undeterred.

“No. Change the shirt.”

“Why, Dad?”

“Change the shirt. Change it or we won’t go.”

In this rare case, Michael knew he held the upper hand. She needed him to take her to this event to receive the proper credit for school. Every student in the honor society needed a certain number of community-service points, and she was still short.

“Oh, fine. Whatever.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes dramatically but then scampered up the stairs back to her bedroom.

Michael was aware that Elizabeth was gradually becoming less attached to him, which meant that the most positive aspect of his life was slowly eroding. He tried hard not to think about it. But on this Saturday morning, he didn’t mind the power-broker role for, if nothing else, it kept her with him.

Elizabeth walked down the stairs in an oversize, faded-white Springsteen concert T‑shirt. Michael was slumped in the recliner, still clenching the phone and staring off into space. She smiled, trying to cheer him up. “Hey, Dad, does this shirt go down far enough?” The shirt fell past her shorts, well below her knees.

He looked up. “I see you were in my closet. Did you ask?”

“No. I wanted to pick out something you would approve of.”

“So you took one of my favorite T‑shirts?”

“Bruce wouldn’t mind, right?” asked Elizabeth as she flashed an angelic smile.

Michael smiled weakly. “Bruce isn’t your father, I am. But this time I approve. C’mon, let’s scoot.” He slapped his knees before standing up.

Opening the front door for her, he was happy to see that the rain had finally stopped. “Who’s my baby?”

Elizabeth didn’t answer, knowing from experience that it would only encourage him to ask it again.

Michael smiled as they climbed into the car, deciding it was probably best not to tease her more. He had finally upgraded to a Camry a few years back because it gave Elizabeth more room in the backseat to keep her video games, DVDs and CDs. However, Elizabeth had now taken a liking to sitting in the front. He still couldn’t get used to it. He watched as she put in the white earbuds and began playing with the iPhone. Michael once again felt a mingled sense of pride and worry as her fingers rapidly began moving.

“Who are you texting?”

“My friends.”

“Boy? Girl?”

She looked at him. “Both.”

“What’s the boy’s name?”


“How old is he?”

“I’m not sure.”

“You’re not sure?!”

“Okay, okay, he’s a couple of years older than me. So?”

Michael grimaced and took a deep breath. “Is that perfume?”


“Where did you get it?”

“Mommy’s drawer. You said I could have anything in there.”

He glanced over at his daughter and noticed how much she had grown up over the past year. Her hair was neatly brushed, the once girlish curls now straight and pulled into a tightly wound ponytail wrapped in a simple green elastic band. The smell of sparkly nail polish filled the car.

“You’re not meeting him here, are you?” asked Michael.

“He might be here later. Do you want to meet him?”

“Um…no…ah, yeah, yes…I don’t know.”

Elizabeth laughed. “Well, which is it?”

“Let’s just get through this day first, okay? I can only manage one crisis at a time.”

Boys, he thought as he turned onto Ocean Avenue, watching a few teenagers pushing and shoving each other playfully on the adjacent street corner. Michael remembered he used to be one of them, though he had been quiet and shy when he was fourteen, not outgoing like Elizabeth. Plus, when he was young, there was none of this texting immediacy in getting a girl to like you: you spent days, months even, trying to figure out how to bump into her in the hall, or to find the right friend of hers who would deliver a note for you. At that age, it was all about trying to be alone long enough to just kiss a girl. Well, one special girl.

He shook his head, thinking of her again. I wonder if Valentina is married, he thought, remembering his first true love back in elementary school. He drifted off briefly, only to be distracted by Elizabeth’s feverish texting. Her phone chirped and she giggled as she read the new message.

Michael nudged her shoulder with his hand. “Who’s that?”

There was no response. Unfazed, Elizabeth kept swaying to the beat of My Chemical Romance. It was so loud Michael could hear every lyric that leaked out through the tiny earphones. The scary thing was that he couldn’t be sure exactly what they all meant. He could see in the far distance the boats docked side by side in the harbor. The wind had stopped its howling and a shaft of sunlight struck the cross atop the old church, casting a long shadow across Main Street. Children were pulling their parents into the local toy store, where another birthday party was about to begin. Old men and women were rummaging through the contents on an outdoor table, searching for the best bargains at Perry’s Five and Dime. Just another ordinary Saturday morning in Northport.

“Elizabeth? Elizabeth Ellen!” Michael gently lifted his daughter’s chin upward while she kept up with her digital connections.

“What, Dad?” Elizabeth asked, pulling out one of the earbuds.

“We’re here.” He scowled to himself in the rearview mirror, for this was the last place he wanted to be.

Michael parked the car near the corner of Main and Church Street. From there he could see scores of young kids and adults pulling food off trucks parked awkwardly on the sidewalk in front of Our Lady by the Bay Church. They were all there to help organize the food-drive donations.

The next thing he knew, the passenger-side door swung open and Elizabeth threw her phone back onto her seat before jumping to the curb. “Elizabeth!” Michael said as he climbed out quickly. “Wait…”

Elizabeth was already across the street heading toward her best friend, Laura. He sighed as he locked the car. “Always following, always following…”

“Hi, Laura!” Elizabeth squealed.

“Hey, Liz! Ah, hi, Mr. Stewart.”

“Hi, Laura. Hey, Liz, remember you’re here to help out and get your community-service credit for school.”

“Only my friends can call me that.” Elizabeth rolled her eyes.

Wow, Michael thought, that’s two eyerolls for today; the day’s getting off to a great start!

He watched her turn to Laura and whisper, “Fun killer.” Elizabeth had been using the phrase more often lately. Despite some residual hurt feelings, Michael had become resigned to it.

“Hey, Mike!” shouted a woman in a pretty blue dress from across the street, startling him. “I tried calling you last night. Were you out?”

He smiled as he walked over to give the woman a quick kiss on the

cheek. “Susan, you know me better than that.”

Michael couldn’t help but notice how her light reddish brown hair touched her bare shoulders. “You look great today, Sue.”

She looked quizzically at him, casting a quick glance at the ring on his finger. “My, Mike, did you have a hard time getting out of the chair again?”

He nodded. “I’ve had a rough week, Sue. There are so many things changing in my life. I’m not adjusting at all.”

“Well, call me then. Or come by and we’ll talk.” She rubbed his right arm gently. “I know what you’ve been through.”

“Believe me, I know you know. I appreciate your kindness.” Michael meant it, too. Of all his neighbors, Susan Horn was the only one he considered a true friend. Ever since her husband walked out on her almost ten years ago, Michael and Susan had spent many hours talking about everything from child raising to life without a spouse.

Susan smiled. “I guess we’ve got some work to do today, right?”

He shrugged his shoulders. “Isn’t that why we had kids?”

She laughed and tapped his forearm a couple of times. “Good one.”

Susan walked back to the front of the church. Kids and parents were already going back and forth up the steps that led to the three big open doors of the church. To the far right stood Father Dennis, watching his flock work like little bees, and chatting with volunteers.

Oh, no, Michael thought, I’m going to be spotted.

As if on command, Father Dennis immediately saw Michael in the crowd and waved to him. Michael cringed. He hadn’t been to mass in over a decade. It seemed as if every time Father Dennis saw Michael, he would ask, “Where have you been?”

As Father Dennis approached, Michael quickly grabbed a carton of food and ran up the stairs two at a time. “Hi, Father!” he said as he passed the priest.

Father Dennis smiled. “Good to see you working so hard for the church, Michael.”

“Glad to help out.”

Michael moved past the holy water sitting on the table near the entrance of the church, quickly dipping his fingers inside the bowl. He touched his forehead with it. Inside the building, it was cool and dark, with only four lights illuminating the lip of the altar. Michael could see the gleaming figures of Jesus in the center of the altar, Mary on the left, and Joseph on the right.

Michael knew his way around a church. As an altar boy, he’d helped serve mass four or five times a week. Sometimes Michael would do a mass, funeral, and wedding all in the same day. He liked weddings the best. Everyone was happy, and he would get a big tip from the best man. Michael knew the words from the mass by heart. When he graduated from Holy Child and his life as an altar boy ended, part of him was extinguished, too.

Today the church created in him mostly feelings of fear and pain. He and Vicki always used to go to church together. She felt that she had to pray for those who needed help because someday they might need some.

Ha, Michael thought, what help did I get?

To him, church was filled with a bunch of phonies who sat inside an air-conditioned building on a wooden pew without ever really hearing a word of the mass itself. Then the same parishioners went out on the street gossiping about each other and their neighbors. He didn’t need or want any part of it.

And yet, he couldn’t escape it: Father Dennis was walking right behind him.

“Michael, isn’t this a beautiful church?”

Michael looked around the church. He saw the five arched windows along each of the two long sides of the building, under one of which were engraved the words my friend , your sins are forgiven . The stations of the cross depicted in wooden carvings were affixed to the right of each window, while big white candles with green ribbing sat below. He took in the organ situated high above the pews, the altar made of white marble, and the podium from where the lector read.

It’s beautiful, sure, Michael thought, but where’s he going with this?

“Michael, your church awaits you,” Father Dennis said with a pat on the back.

“Thanks, Father.”

“Michael, we could really use your help.”

“In what way, Father?”

“What about joining the choir?”

“Are you kidding? With my voice?”

“Michael, God doesn’t care what you sound like. He only cares what’s in your heart.”

“No offense, Father. But I think I would turn even God off with my voice.”

Father Dennis laughed and patted him on the shoulder. “What about being a lector?”

“I’m not sure…”

Father Dennis smiled. “Well, if you think you’d like to help out, let me know.”

Michael looked up one more time at those carvings of Jesus’ last moments on earth. “Well, I should go help the kids some more,” he said, walking away.

He didn’t want anyone calling him lazy. That word tore at his spine. Michael winced, remembering the dark days of living in Queens, defending his sanity against the daily verbal battering.

“You’re not even trying to find a full-time job, you lazy jerk!”

Michael sat there quietly in the living room recliner. Silence was his most effective weapon in the Richmond Hill house. His older sister would not get the satisfaction of knowing she got to him. Of course, she couldn’t see his knees rising slightly as his toes curled into the carpet.

“Look at me! When are you going to get a job?” she demanded.

I am working, Michael thought. He had a part-time job writing for a weekly football publication in Port Washington. Since he had no car and it was such a long trip by bus and train, on the weekends he slept overnight on the floor beneath his office desk. That’s not working?

He knew he could have tried to do something noble and become a policeman or fireman or gone back to school to become a teacher. But he really loved sports and was willing to work his way up by doing all sorts of part-time work. For some reason, to his sister Connie this just wasn’t enough.

“Say something!” she screeched.

“Okay,” Michael shouted, boiling over, “how about ‘shut up’?”

“Don’t talk to her that way!” his father bellowed, rushing in from the kitchen.

Michael instinctively stood up and pushed past him as he made for the stairs. Great, now he gets involved.

“Get down here!” his father screamed. “Get down here, you moron!”

Michael didn’t obey him; instead, he slammed his bedroom door. He listened to his father run up the two flights of stairs, wondering whether the old man was going to come through his door and finally confront him. He knew it wouldn’t be much of a match: Jim was fifty-three years old while Michael was only twenty-two and in the best shape of his life. He lifted weights constantly and had little fat on his body. Meanwhile, his father smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and spent his nights drinking scotch.

But he’s still my father, Michael thought, listening to him climb the stairs. Michael’s stomach tightened as he leaned his 180-pound frame against the door.

“Let me in. Let me in!” Jim was trying to barrel through the door.

Michael didn’t answer; instead, he planted his weight more firmly against the wood.

Thump! Thump! Thump! His father was angrily throwing himself against the door. Michael grew afraid that he might physically hurt the guy if he got in. He knew his father had such an overstated view of his own importance that he wouldn’t be expecting Michael to fight back. I’d like to punch him… although he’s my father.

Still uncertain, Michael continued to lean against the bedroom door, his hands clenched tightly around the doorknob. He listened for any movement, then cautiously opened the door. His father stood there glaring at him. Michael hesitated, then stepped aside and let his father into the room.

“What are you doing talking that way to your sister?”

“Why are you always defending her?”

“You have to stop mouthing off to your sister. Are you going to stop it?”

Michael didn’t respond. Instead, he turned and flung himself facedown on the bed.

Jim took another step into the room. “Answer me,” he demanded.

In an effort to avoid his father’s menacing stare, Michael focused on the torn curtain covering the only window in the small room.

“Do you hate me?” Jim nearly whispered.

Stunned, Michael grimaced. Are you serious?

“Look at me,” his father said forcefully as he moved closer. “Do you hate me? Are you angry about your mother? Do you hate me for what happened to her? Don’t you think I did my best?”

Michael was silent for a few seconds before turning to him. “I know you did your best,” he finally replied weakly.

Jim walked to the bookshelf, his thumb scrolling across the book spines, with his back to Michael. “Then why do you hate me?”

“I don’t.”

“Then why won’t you be like the rest of us? Why won’t you be part of this family? Why won’t you talk to me about how you’re feeling?”

Michael looked up slowly. “You’re always yelling. You never listen.”

Jim spun back to him quickly, his hands clenched in front of him.

“Stop acting like a child. Then I’ll listen.”

Michael shook his head slowly.

“Do you miss your mom?”

“Of course.”

“You’re so silent and quiet. You’re never around us. You never go out with us for dinner. It’s like you’re not even here.”

Michael rolled onto his stomach, his head resting on his pillow. Glancing down, he noticed some crumbs that had fallen from his dinner last night. He pushed himself up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed to kick the crumbs under it.

He sighed. “I miss Mom. But I love her in my own way. I’m not angry at you. Just because I haven’t cried in front of you doesn’t mean I don’t care. I’m angry at the way she died. Okay?”

“I tried, Michael. I really did.”

“I know, Dad… I guess she’s in a better place now.”

In one explosive motion, Jim whipped a book off the top of Michael’s dresser, hurling it against his closet door. “A better place? What do you mean by that, you dumb --- ”

“Nothing!” Michael shouted.

His father scowled at him. “Yeah, in a better place. Better than here. Yeah, I know you don’t like it here. You’ve made it very clear.”

Michael shook his head and gave up. “Go away. You’ll never understand. Please just go away.”

Excerpted from Neccesary Hearbreak © Copyright 2012 by Michael J. Sullivan. Reprinted with permission by Pocket. All rights reserved.

Necessary Heartbreak
by by Michael J. Sullivan