Heartbeat Detected

By

Human heartbeat detected. Welcome, human.

*

In the grocery store, we try to shop together, both of us armed with a black plastic basket. We weave through my produce section, stroll down his frozen foods aisle. En route from navel oranges to cookie dough ice cream, I say, “Oh! Going to go grab some salad dressing.” He stands. I grab. I return seconds later to his face changed. Staring at the floor, eyebrows raising up and diving down, the musculature of his face in conversation with something I cannot see, something that cannot be heard.

*

We go to Caribou to get coffee because we’ve never sat down to write and study here. No camping out at this coffee shop all day, unlike the other establishments we establish ourselves at for hours, one of us plunking away at her experience, the other squinting at articles he reads on a screen that raise more questions than answers. The Caribou at 24th and Hennepin that has the fireplace and the baristas who look like us—young, progressive, educated—is our designated space to just get coffee. To just talk. We get coffee. We talk. He shows me a new app on his phone. We laugh as we play memory games, try to guess words with missing letters by their associations with a keyword. TOOTH and AC_E is easy, but BEAT brings up too many childhood memories. We switch to math, then mental agility. Back to laughs. We get up. Leave. What he says in the truck: “I’m sick of it. Sick of thinking I don’t deserve success. I can’t handle it. I’m sick of it. I wake up and it’s all I can think about. All I can think. Like my thoughts aren’t mine. I’m sick of this shit. I can’t, I mean how much can…” I wait. He ends when he puts his hands to his head. I wait one more beat, then say: “What triggered this?” Silence.

*

The book on schizophrenia says “split mind.” Not “split personality,” mind you. The two are different. He is not two different men. Though lately, I have wondered where my husband has been.

*

He built a robot that will only turn on when it detects a human heartbeat. He worked on this robot for days. Months. On and off. Taught himself computer programing and soldering, then how to tweak and tinker in various ways with various wires and breadboards and circuits and others things from companies with names like Adafruit, like Arduino, like mBot. Micro Center became a frequent destination. Still is. He worked on the robot, testing and retesting, programing and reprograming, getting it to talk and move and turn on when sensor and computer and robot all recognized the basics of life. Of being able to be a human. The heartbeat. For days, months, even now I hear the robotic female voice over and over and over as she declares my husband’s success at programming software that sparks with life, that he actually activated alive just by being alive himself. Thumbs to sensors, the robot senses his heartbeat, and then she says what he programmed her to say. “Human heartbeat detected. Welcome, human.”

*

I don’t want to say “calculated conversations.” I don’t want to say “I push my needs away.” I don’t want to admit I can’t control how our interactions go. But I don’t know how else to explain this. How else to describe what it’s like to need something—to be heard, listened to—and what it’s like to know that I have to silence the things I want to say to give space for the thunderstorm of his thoughts that aren’t really his own to rumble through, to gust away from his breath, to wait until his eyes clear so that I can have a moment when his focus is on me, on the present tense—shall I call it reality?—of the moment in which we are living, together, simultaneously, here, being heard by one another and not interrupted by blasts of thunder. I’m constantly waiting for the weather to clear. They say it’s supposed to get nice out, tomorrow.

*

What I’m trying to say is that my husband is fractured. What I want to say is that fractured doesn’t mean a death sentence, that it doesn’t mean we won’t get through this, that fractured is better than shattered, and that we’ll be okay, we just have to keep aware of the cracks. My concern, though, is that if I actually state, actually point out to him that there are cracks, that his mind is fractured, that I am starting to fissure as well because of the fear of these fractures not being attended to, then we will shatter. Superstition led me to leap over sidewalk cracks when I was a kid. My mother never broke her back. I don’t think the two are connected, but there’s something in this rhyme that speaks to presence of mind, speaks to cracks and concerns and how perhaps vigilance is a way to keep safe. Whole. I worry about what will happen if I point out to him that there are bits of him missing. I don’t know if this metaphor is working. I’m too tired to finish the figuring.

*

The book says a cold mother is no longer thought to be at fault, but I have witnessed otherwise—how memory games and the mention of “BEAT” ruptures his thoughts—reactions then erupting in our truck. A mother-made madness hammering around his mind.

*

Each time I need to cry, I wait until he’s too involved with his tinkering to want to go outside with me to smoke a cigarette in the -5 degree evening air. I smoke. Sob. Finish up the smoke, the sobs. I have to detach so his detachment doesn’t break me. Split me. I go inside with glistening ice crystals clinging to my eyelashes. He doesn’t notice. Keeps tinkering.

*

His mind is a beautiful thing. Even in the splitting. Even in what scares me.

*

A letter I haven’t yet written to him: Dear Husband, I can’t wait for the day when you read this and find these words amusing—having grown from past madness to present-day structured sanity. That day will denote growth. That will mean healing. Will mean recovery. That we’ll be back in that space in which we function together so well—where we can kick back safe, sane, stable, and let go of the absurdities of our past realities.

*

But fault lines originating in his past now ripple into our present. The source of the initial fissure beat into him by his mother. Mental illness and abuse as the catalyst for his cognitive split. Dissociation became a gateway response, one that would eventually lead to my what triggered this? wonderings—those fragmented mind moments festering within a history of domestic violence, now spread out by his schizophrenia. I am silenced by his mother, by what she did to him and how it now shapes my marriage into this static silence. Our conversations cut off when he’s triggered, when he’s distracted by the dialogue going on inside his head. Those hallucinated discussions his mother initiated years ago with a dowel rod from Home Depot.

*

Needing to cry but not wanting to be cold, I take a bath so I can weep without him hearing me. I need to sob some loneliness out of me. My husband is in the other room. I want to say, “My husband’s body is in the other room,” but that would make it sound like he’s dead. He’s not. Not really. I plug the tub. Sit down, naked. Then shiver. I turn the faucet. Fissure.

*

Human heartbeat detected. Welcome, human.

***

Rumpus original art by Aubrey Nolan.


Chelsey Clammer is the author of BodyHome, and won the 2015 Red Hen Press Nonfiction Manuscript Award for her essay collection, Circadian. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Essay Daily, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Normal School and Black Warrior Review, among many others. She’s the Essays Editor for The Nervous Breakdown. @ChelseyClammer, www.chelseyclammer.com. More from this author →