Save the Heart, Save the Girl
She only used Prismacolor pencils. I think she had the same twenty-four-count set as I did. She only drew women, too, though better than I did, even at my best. She left pencil outlines unfinished, but lifelike enough to captivate anyone who looked. What I’d given up years ago to pursue a more “realistic” vocation in writing, she’d kept at, planning on eventually working at a tattoo parlor. She was just getting the hang of the stick and poke. The first time I met Celine, she showed me photos of people she’d inked.
“See, the lines aren’t totally straight,” she started, pointing at a photo of her friend’s wrist. The ink had settled even and neat. Deep, unwavering lines held their own.
“Stop,” I replied. “It’s so good.” I paused, looked at her cautious eyes.
“It looks perfect."
Our bodies are always trying to protect us. Pain is a response to damage. When touching a hot frying pan, the skin sears and flares up. Neurons travel to the brain, telling the hand to let go. Most people heed their brains’ instincts.
The things humans remember, too, affect how they perceive pain. The brain recognizes familiar hurt; when a person has a chronic ailment, the brain anticipates a certain level of discomfort and warns the body accordingly. Scientists say it can work one of two ways: chronic pain can lead a patient to lose sensitivity and slowly build a tolerance, or it can prompt a patient to feel pain more intensely. For the latter, injuries that would normally go unnoticed become unbearable. Our brain develops a pattern. It knows what to expect.
Prisoners of war who are tortured have stated that, over time, their bodies become numb to being beaten. Long-distance runners collapse upon reaching the finish line. Boxers go down after taking as many hits as they can take. Their bodies shut off. They stop hurting. The body is resilient. It wants to live.
The Wednesday before Celine died, I’d gone to her place to pick up blow and ended up hanging around for a couple hours after. She’d put in extensions and dyed her platinum hair back to its natural black. Her almond eyes were ringed in liner, and she wore fishnets beneath a dark dress. She’d been getting ready for a concert. We sat on her frameless bed, portraits she was working on scattered around. Blankets were draped over the open windows. We talked about the ex-boyfriend who she still lived with and loved. He’d just told her that week that he was interested in seeing other people. Celine was visibly distressed. Her hands shook. She chain-smoked cigarettes.
We left and cruised up Willey Street, looking for an ATM so she could draw money out for the upcoming weekend. She and I both planned on getting lit. Routine bouts of drinking had made it harder for both of us to get there.
Her arms were covered in fresh cuts. Every time she shot a winning cup of beer pong or got up to show me a picture she was working on, I saw them. When we first met, I tried to be discreet. Whether or not she noticed my staring is impossible to tell. For a while, they seemed to slowly fade into scars. These looked recent.
She parked the car outside her house. “I can’t believe,” she told me, “I haven’t killed myself yet.” I paused. She couldn’t be this upset over a boy.
“It’ll get easier,” I tried.
I went to unbuckle my seatbelt. I hoped she was exaggerating. She was too young. Her plans were not coming to fruition in the time she’d expected, but she had time. I looked away, trying to come up with the right words that would get me out of there quickly without looking insensitive. I had plans for that evening. I didn’t have hours to spend nursing irrational thoughts. She, like me, was prone to theatrics, even though, in the moment, we both believed in our hysteria. Her hurt looked familiar—the advice I offered was more hope than attention.
“Think,” I continued. “Will this matter in a month? Will you even remember this conversation?” I reached for the car door handle. “Probably not. Promise.”
She smiled weakly. “I hope you’re right.”
Experts claim that loneliness has the same effect on a person as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day. Celine already did that. Scientists haven’t figured out exactly how having a support system or social life can protect against heart problems, writer Ray Hainer states, but can assert that “people who are socially isolated are more likely to drink, smoke, and get less exercise.”
I remember: Celine, on the front porch, whiskey and smokes in both hands. Celine, holed up in her room, drawing all those beautiful, distant women. Celine, on the couch, gunning down digital characters on a screen who wanted her dead. Swivel the joystick. A to aim. X and release.
“The brains of lonely people are on high alert for social threats,” PhD John Cacioppo says. Lonely people have been shown to produce higher levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, than non-lonely subjects. This hormone, research has found, is persistently produced due to the ongoing state of stress lonely people endure. The constant onslaught of cortisol, in turn, wears down the cardiovascular system.
This is how a heart breaks.
Over Christmas break, before she moved up to Morgantown, Celine, myself, her boyfriend, and my friend barhopped around downtown Charleston. We were bored shitless after being home from school for a couple of days. We hit up The Copper Pint, a dive with an obnoxiously green bar and good deals on whiskey. She quickly challenged me to a game of darts, prepared to win as much as I was to lose. In the end, I outshot her. I was worried this would upset her, but I have an ugly competitive streak—once I’m on a roll, it’s hard to stop.
She smiled at me kindly. “You’re a shark,” she said.
The bouncing lights from the games lit up her face. I blushed and gave credit to the alcohol. Craft beer bottles lined the walls, and bad country music blared from the bottom floor. We drank whiskey sours until our stomachs hurt. The air was cold, leaving. Our breath billowed as we walked to and from The Blue Parrot and Pint, then back to her boyfriend’s car—little mushroom clouds coming from our mouths. We shared cigarettes and blasted LCD Soundsystem as we shot down windy, West Virginia back roads, headed to her dealer’s.
By the time we got there, I was shit-faced. We drank more and cooed at the dogs her plug had let run loose. Her boyfriend, dealer, and my friend soon went out to smoke, leaving us alone in his living room, Call of Duty paused on the television screen. Celine offered to show me how to play. Her thin fingers pointed at guns on the screen. She wore silver rings.
“This one is good for distance,” she told me. “Since you’ve never played, use this.”
Between rounds, we exchanged stories about friends from Charleston we hadn’t known we shared. We discovered we’d both played violin for the West Virginia Youth Symphony Orchestra. We talked about being left and leaving. About seeing who would stick around and prove that we were worth saving. We both sat on the floor, backs pressed against the leather couch facing the television.
“It’s always there,” she said. “That hollow feeling? I don’t think I’ll ever not be lonely.”
“Tacky as it sounds, time has a way of making things hurt less,” I replied. “Sometimes, it’s okay to lie to yourself.”
She tucked a stray bang back into place. “Nobody ever wants to talk about these things,” she said.
“It makes them uncomfortable.” I sipped from her beer. “I don’t blame them.” I wanted to ask about her arms. “Thanks for listening,” I said.
“You too,” she replied. Celine pointed at the frozen game, my simulated soldier dead on the ground. “Another round?”
“I’ll be of no help,” I replied, “but I’ll try.”
Research illustrates that chronically lonely people are significantly more likely to develop metastatic cancer, develop neurodegenerative diseases, have increased risk of stroke, and have increased risk of heart attacks. Lonely adults are twenty-five percent more likely to die prematurely.
Atherosclerosis, the narrowing and hardening of the arteries that leads to heart attacks, is caused by inflammation—the flood of white blood cells and chemicals that our immune system unleashes to ward off damage or infection, states Cacciatore. Cortisol, an anti-inflammatory that activates white blood cells, is mass-produced by lonely adults.
This process would appear to be helpful, as it would make these people less susceptible to inflammation. But loneliness also increases vascular resistance. The lonely body works against itself. Over time, the passages that reach the heart close off. Blood finds it harder to move through the body’s arteries. The body becomes a time bomb. The heart is the first to go.
“Like an empty plastic bag,” he said. “But at least her organs were put to good use.”
My face flushed. I stared past his head at the rusted mailbox on my friend’s front porch.
“She would have liked that,” I said.
Celine’s ex laughed, swaying, a half-drunk bottle of whiskey in his hand. All our friends who had once been mingling on the porch with us had either moved inside or far from us. By and large, our friends didn’t like Celine. They thought she was too emotional. She made them uneasy. Every weak attempt I made at including her when we hung out was shot down.
“Imagine the poor asshole that gets Celine’s liver,” he said. “I think that and her kidneys went to teenagers. Like seventeen- or eighteen-year-olds.”
I couldn’t help but smile. She would have thought that was hilarious, too.
“Damn, they’re in for a rough college experience if they go.” I paused. “But I guess they don’t care. They’re still alive.”
“Her heart went out to someone, too,” he continued.
I stopped, looked at him closely. “What?”
“The doctors managed to save it, I guess,” he said.
My eyes welled up. I balled my hands into fists to keep them from shaking. “She had a heart attack. You don’t save the heart and not the girl,” I said. “That’s not how it works.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t be telling you this.” He looked off, his eyes crossed and glazed.
“I was asleep,” he continued. “If I’d just told her I loved her, maybe she wouldn’t have done as much.” He looked like he was about to cry.
“I’m glad she had you,” he continued. “You were basically her only friend up here.” All the anger I’d felt at him since I’d heard about her heart attack bled out of me. I hadn’t tried to see her that often.
“You were there for her,” I tried. “Don’t do this to yourself.”
“Asleep, man,” he sighed. “She might have gotten help if I’d noticed sooner.” He put his bottle down. “She hadn’t done that much in a while. We quit once we moved here, you know?”
I shifted in my seat. There had to be details people weren’t telling me. It couldn’t be as simple and stupid as too much coke and Twisted Teas.
“I don’t think it was intentional,” he said. He knew the question I’d avoided asking.
The sun was just touching down for the day, the sky a bruised blue.
“No,” I sighed, “she just didn’t care anymore.”
The Atlantic writer Olga Khazen states that emotional and physical pain are processed in the same places in the brain. A stubbed toe elicits the same neural response as being yelled at by a parent would. Loneliness throbs like an infected limb left untreated.
Naomi Eisenberger, associate professor of social psychology at UCLA, found surprising results when conducting a study using an online game where players toss a virtual ball back and forth to each other. At a certain point, players are ordered to stop tossing the ball to one player. When looking at the neural activity of those excluded from the game, researchers discovered that their brain activity looked remarkably like neural activity shown upon feeling physical pain.
Brain scans of test subjects who reacted badly to being cut out showed increased activity in two regions of the brain associated with physical pain—the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex and the anterior insula.
“We think this is why people talk about rejection as literally hurting—because the brain processes emotional and physical pain in similar ways,” Eisenberger says. “Because being connected is so important to us as a species, researchers think the attachment system may have piggybacked onto the physical pain system over the course of our evolutionary history, borrowing the pain signal to highlight when we are socially disconnected.”
Similarly, when mapping out the sensations of the body in terms using heat patterns, those who were diagnosed as depressed had blue-hued figures. This coloration indicates a lack of feeling in those limbs; a disconnect. Their bodies are not fully felt. They are not whole. The brain, in those cases, seems to be working against the body it’s programmed to keep safe. But I can’t help but wonder if feeling numb is, in fact, a defense mechanism, a last stab at mitigating hurt. Feeling nothing is better than being in pain, isn’t it?
I think about Celine. I wonder if she felt in control as she inched toward losing it altogether. If she felt parts of herself warming with each drink and line. The better part of me likes to think it was an accident, a reach at reclaiming the sensation of living she couldn’t find in her day-to-day exchanges. But mostly, I find myself revisiting her voice, telling me that she didn’t want to be here anymore. Here, I thought then, was Morgantown. With her ex. If I had been listening, I might have known here wasn’t anywhere at all. Here was alone with herself.
I try to shape her eyes in a way that makes them look both wide and questioning. The lines I draw are loose and light. I’m afraid of pressing too hard and finding that I cannot erase what might be a mistake. I’d initially wanted to draw a picture of her that showed her thin arms, the way sinewy almost-muscle formed along her shoulders. The photo I ended up using as a reference has a blurred background, her portrait centered and focused. She’s on a street somewhere, maybe back home in Charleston. Maybe in the Philippines, during a time she visited family. Her spiraled bangs fall around her face in a dark frame. Her slightly crooked teeth are visible. Was she going to smile, or scowl? I take my time. I wish I had different materials. I wish I was a better artist. Though I’m tempted to pull out my Prismacolors, I tell myself to be patient. That capturing the look of annoyance on her face will take what feels like forever.
Before I go to shade in her irises, I look closer at Celine’s face. They’re dark, as I remember them. She’s staring right at the camera. She looks like she’s about to say something. I want to get that pause right. I want it to be perfect.
AMANDA GAINES is a PhD nonfiction candidate in OSU's creative writing program. She is the nonfiction editor of Into the Void. Her poetry and nonfiction are published or awaiting publication in The Oyez Review, Gravel, Typehouse, The Meadow, Into the Void, The Citron Review, Yemassee, Pithead Chapel, Redivider, Ninth Letter, and New Orleans Review.