The image would intrude upon my brain all the time, but it was more like a video than an image. It went like this: my heart, beating so fast in my rib cage, finally decided it had enough. It was beating so fast all the time. It was so tired. It was beating so fast and finally it exploded, so I exploded, bits of my flesh and organs and blood flying everywhere so that the room was covered in me. I imagined this happening everywhere. In my classroom, at the grocery store, the living room of my apartment. I imagined what my students would say if I exploded in the middle of a lesson. I imagined the trauma they would carry with them for the rest of their lives. I imagined strangers in the grocery store watching a stranger explode, and the headlines that would be written about me. I imagined exploding all alone in my apartment, my principal finally sending someone to come check on me after days of struggling to find a substitute teacher to cover my classes. I imagined her anger over my unexplained absence. I imagined the closed casket funeral that would follow my catastrophic demise, and the eulogies that my mother and friends back home would give. I pressed my hand over my rambling heart and asked it to give me just a little longer to live. I didn’t know why I wanted a little longer to live.
My heart started beating too fast the year after the year that my father and his mother died within months of each other. She had gone first, ninety years old, in her sleep. He had gone a few months later, had keeled right over from a heart attack and was gone just like that. I was twenty-one when he died, just months away from graduation and age twenty-two. After he died, I almost dropped out of college, but I didn’t. I ended the semester with straight A’s. Then I graduated, and my mother, who was an elementary school vice-principal back home in inland southern California, told me I should take advantage of the teacher shortage and apply to be a teacher. I didn’t have any better ideas. But all the schools around my northern California college only wanted me as a substitute because I didn’t have a credential. I ended up finding a school in Middle of Nowhere central California, about fifty minutes from Monterey, that said they’d take me on as a full-fledged teacher without a credential. Beggars can’t be choosers, I guess. I packed up all my things and moved down there and three months after earning my bachelor’s I was a full-time English teacher. No training, no credentials, no experience. Just vibes.
It started over Thanksgiving break. I had been drinking because if I wasn’t teaching I was drinking. I laid down to go to bed around midnight and I couldn’t fall asleep because my heart was beating so fast. I could feel it beating, could hear it, almost. I started thinking that I was going to die. I started preparing myself for my inevitable death. By 10 a.m. I still couldn’t fall asleep and my heart was still pounding in my ears and so I peeled my body away from my pale pink bedspread and drove myself to the nearest emergency room—thirty minutes away. They did an EKG and told me I was fine, but to follow up with my primary care doctor. I didn’t have a primary care doctor. I told them I would follow up, and they let me go. They said I should probably work on lowering my stress levels.
I wasn’t a good teacher and I knew that. I treated my eighth graders like they were little college students. I lectured all period and got upset when they threw paper airplanes with staples on the tip at the ceiling instead of listening to me. There was one day when my entire classroom ceiling was peppered in those paper airplanes. They made them out of yellow sticky notes that they stole from my desk when I wasn’t looking. I wanted them to shudder at Poe’s short stories and cry over Steinbeck’s vision of the Salinas Valley—which was where this school was located—but instead they sent each other Snapchats and went live on Instagram in the middle of class and told me that I wore my pants up too high and that I should do something about my messy hair.
So I wasn’t a good teacher but I had fans. A lot of students said they liked my class because I was nice and never yelled. I had a few kids who actually liked reading and writing, and devoured anything I had them read and wrote novels when I asked them to write short stories. There were two kids in particular who came in to eat lunch with me every day, Salma and Charlie. Charlie was a trans boy and had asked me early on in the school year not to tell his parents what his chosen name was. He felt safe asking me this because I had a rainbow flag hanging on the wall behind my desk. Salma and Charlie were best friends and they were my top two students and we talked about all kinds of things. Mostly the merits of various superhero film adaptations. I thought Andrew Garfield was the best Spider-Man, whereas Salma went for Tobey Maguire and Charlie went for Tom Holland. My walls were covered in superhero posters, Star Wars posters, Star Trek posters, X-Files posters, anime posters. We talked about what cosplays they dreamed of doing and what cosplays I had done in the past. We talked about their friendship drama and their various gripes with other students. I shouldn’t have been gossiping with my students but I was addicted to being trusted with that kind of information.
After the whole Thanksgiving racing heart thing I started wearing a watch that kept track of my heart rate, and I would show it to Salma and Charlie sometimes in the weeks leading up to winter break.
“Look,” I’d say, lifting up the purple watch, “my heart is at 113, and all I’m doing is sitting here talking.”
“That’s not good, Ms. Suárez,” Salma would say. She was very practical. I wasn’t old enough to be her mother, and I think she saw me as an older sister. She had a wary tone when she said, “You need to take care of yourself. What would we do without you?”
And I would shrug it off, and tell them they’d be fine without me. They wouldn’t have anywhere to eat lunch, but they’d be fine.
You could say I was something of a daddy’s girl. When I was ten my parents divorced and I spent the rest of my adolescence bidding for as much time as I could with my father. I also had a one-girl defense campaign against my mother. I would throw tantrums whenever my mother tried to shit talk my father to me. I did this up until I was eighteen and left my mother’s house. She had all sorts of complaints about my father’s emotional unavailability and addiction to work. I would call him up in tears and tell him that she was at it again, she was trying to disparage his name and I wouldn’t stand for it. She would pick up the other landline and scream into the phone and we had fun like that, screaming at each other while my father listened in and tried, weakly, to mediate.
He had me on the weekends whenever he wasn’t working. That wasn’t enough time for me, but it was what I had so I worked with it. We would go to the movies and the mall and then hang out in his apartment eating chips and drinking diet Coke. I told him long winded stories about my friends. I was always getting into drama with other girls. I always had one very close girl friend at a time, and that friendship would inevitably end in heartbreak and tears. I was gay and I’d known that since I was eleven and my parents had known that since I was twelve but I didn’t know how to navigate relationships with other girls. I couldn’t differentiate well between friendship and romance and these twisted friendships of mine would get nasty, full of backstabbing and crying and sometimes, cyber bullying. One memorable experience resulted in the other girl making a fake Facebook profile pretending to be me and messaging older boys flirtatiously. I told my father all about this and he would shake his head and tell me I needed to focus on myself, that I needed to stop feeding into all this conflict.
“You’re letting them win if you’re letting them get to you,” he’d say, and I would nod and tell him I understood then I’d go to school and the cycle would start all over again.
He was getting up there in years when he died. I’d always had to bear the burden of having a father who was a lot older than a lot of other fathers. The night he had the heart attack I was working on a midterm essay. My father had been living with my aunt because he had cataracts and couldn’t drive anymore, and my aunt called me to tell me that he was gone. When I got off the phone with her I poured all my Platinum vodka down the sink and swore to God that I would never drink again if he would somehow bring my father back. Then I cried myself to sleep and had a dream where I was with my father in the hospital, and he was fine, and we were laughing. We walked out to the parking lot so he could go home and then he stopped me halfway to the car and hugged me. Even in the dream it hurt, and I woke up gasping and clutching my ribs. I drove down to southern California that morning. I planned the funeral because I felt like it was my duty—I was his only daughter. I took care of everything, and when it was all over, I went back to my college town and bought more Platinum vodka and ignored all of my friends and family when they called and texted to check up on me.
I was kind of having a thing with this girl who was going to grad school in Monterey. I called her my Tinder girl the few times I mentioned her to my friends. When winter break came around we still hadn’t met in person. When it started she would text me once a day, and her messages had slowly dwindled until they came maybe every few days. Once in a while I’d get the same kind of message from her where she apologized a whole bunch for neglecting me, it was just that she was so busy and so stressed out and depressed, if she was being honest. I always told her it was fine and that I understood. I was busy, too. When I was teaching I’d wake up at 6 a.m., finally convince myself to get out of bed by 7 a.m, and be at school by 7:45. I lived five minutes from the school, so I could leave at 7:40 and be fine. Then I’d get home around 4 and fall asleep after lesson planning. I lived like that—day by day. Often I wouldn’t know what I was doing the next day until the evening before. When my students asked me what we were going to do tomorrow, I would give them vague answers. “We’re going to talk about metaphors,” I’d say. “We’re going to talk about The Pearl by John Steinbeck,” I’d say. Then I’d go home and get my powerpoint ready and be asleep by 7pm. I graded when I made my students do independent work, and I’d sit at my desk frantically marking up essays and worksheets while they went wild and made a mess of my classroom.
All this to say I wasn’t great at texting my Tinder girl back, either. But I was better at it than she was.
My heart’s been beating really fast lately, I texted her when winter break started. I might go get checked out by a doctor.
That sounds so stressful, she texted back three days later.
Yeah, I texted back immediately. How’s your day been?
She didn’t reply until two nights before I went back to work, almost three weeks later.
The day before I went back to work I had a case of the Sunday scaries. I was having this eerie feeling, thinking about how badly I wanted to call my dad and tell him about my anxiety. I had this thought that I could just call him up, and he would answer. Even though I knew that wasn’t possible I still wanted to do it. So I put in his phone number, the numbers I’d had memorized since I was in kindergarten, and held my phone up to my ear.
“Hello?” answered a woman’s voice.
I hung up, and teared up. I drank a glass of lemonade spiked with Platinum vodka and decided to walk to the local cemetery. It was a small lot, smaller than any other cemetery I’d been to before, wrapped up in black metal gates. Really this town wasn’t the true Middle of Nowhere, but I’d grown up with a dozen Targets within minutes of me and now I lived thirty minutes from the nearest one. To me, it felt like the Middle of Nowhere.
It was early January and I wasn’t bundled up nearly enough. Just a cardigan and a thin white blouse. Even my socks were too thin. But I had this idea that my heart wouldn’t beat as fast if I was cold. I thought that I might be wrong, but I still believed it. I believed it as I walked through the cemetery gates and down a trodden dirt path. I walked until I found a row that looked interesting and I read the names one by one. I counted how many of them said father on them. One, two, three. Six, seven, eight. I couldn’t breathe. I could hear my heart beating. I started another row. Ten. Thirteen.
I jumped, I couldn’t help it. I was startled. I turned to the left and looked down, and there was Luisa, one of my students from third period, with a short, stout woman behind her, her skin just as brown and her eyes as wide. I blinked at them, and realized that I was clutching my heart. I didn’t let go. I stayed like that, clutching my heart and blinking at Luisa and the woman that was probably her mother.
“Ms. Suárez?” said Luisa, again. “Are you okay?”
“Of course,” I said, and my voice sounded strained. “Of course. Hello, Luisa. How are you?”
“We’re visiting my papí,” said Luisa. “Who are you visiting?”
“Me too,” I said. “I’m visiting my papí, too.”
Luisa looked at the tombstone in front of me. “Is this him? Cesar Ocampo?”
“Yes,” I said.
“This is my mom,” said Luisa, and she pointed at her mother and her mother introduced herself to me in Spanish. I introduced myself back.
“Es un placer conocerla,” I told her. I was still clutching my heart.
“Are you sure you’re okay, Ms. Suárez?” Luisa looked troubled, her mouth etched into a deep frown. “No offense, but you don’t look okay.”
“I’ve been having some trouble with my heart lately,” I said.
“Oh,” said Luisa. I realized that in being honest I had made this encounter awkward.
“I’ll see you in class tomorrow,” I told her, and she took the hint that it was time to part ways. She and her mom waved and said goodbye, and then I was alone again. I looked down at the tombstone in front of me and pretended that Cesar Ocampo was my father because my real father was buried 400 miles far from me. And this rambling heart of mine—it rambled on.
Header photograph by Timothy Day.