“I feel sorry for you,” the doctor says as he moves the electrodes over my bare chest, trying to find the optimal location above my breast to establish baseline heartbeat.
A thousand miles from this exam room in Miami, Donald Trump is being sworn in as the forty-fifth president of the United States. For weeks, I’ve done my best to ignore this hideous truth, but today, it’s impossible. This morning, the feeling of impending doom made it hard to get out of bed. If I didn’t have this echocardiogram scheduled, I’d still be under my covers with a pillow wrapped around my head.
At the start of the appointment, the doctor asked the compulsory “How are you?” His pause and inflection led me to believe he genuinely cared. I thought I owed the man who was monitoring my heart the truth: it had been a bad morning. In addition to trying to tune out Trump’s bloated face on every news channel and social media outlet, I hadn’t realized the sound I’d heard in the hours before dawn was someone vandalizing my car. They smashed the side window of my Hyundai to steal less than three dollars in change from the compartment between the seats. I drove here a few minutes ago delicately perched on opaque remnants, trying to avoid the biggest chunks that had congregated in my thigh indents on the seat.
The chest pains have been a minor concern for years. Intermittent arrhythmia left over from a childhood virus announced itself every month or so, then disappeared for no apparent reason. But a few weeks ago, while outlet shopping with my sister, the chest pains returned and have persisted since. I’ve been unable to find a correlation between potential triggers such as long runs, interval workouts at the gym, or even illness. Like so many other inexplicables, the cardiac occurrences have fallen into the category of “No known cause.” This makes me uneasy. There has to be a cause; every effect has a cause.
The doctor stops moving the transducer. “I really do feel sorry for you,” he repeats.
I say nothing because I don’t know how to reply to a statement like this. It implies an understanding he hasn’t earned, ownership of a chain of events that has preceded the here and now. Proclamations such as this take a person out of a context of her life. Even my parents, who perhaps understand my causality better than anyone, refuse to say “I’m proud of you” because they insist it isn’t their place to take credit for my worth.
“It’s not my first break-in,” I tell him.
When I bought my house, I didn’t know that a month down the line, on a rainy morning before work, a tall, homeless man in a yellow rain slicker would stare back at me from outside the French doors in my living room, hands cupped, scoping out the interior. I didn’t know that a week after that would be the first robbery: laptop gone from bed, iPod and camera gone from living room. I didn’t know that two years later, a man would walk on my roof one night, depositing stolen costume jewelry and foreign coins he couldn’t pawn. I had no way of knowing that on year three, there’d be a call from ADT when I was an hour away at work, telling me that the robber had cut the power to the house, taken my roommate’s laptop, kicked the dog, and left a trail of blood along with a wailing alarm. When I signed the deed to the house, I never suspected that on Christmas morning, seven years later, a burglar would be in my bedroom nosing through my jewelry box. Or that just three weeks thereafter, on Inauguration Day, I’d be cleaning broken glass from my driver’s side passenger window, wondering why someone steals pocket change and leaves both Garmins.
“If I were you, I’d take precautions,” the doctor says, his eyes oscillating between the screen, my chest, and my face. “With your house.” Before I can interject, he offers me the same to-do list so many others have provided: Install cameras. Put bars on the windows. Get a dog. Buy a gun. I try to shift my attention to the computer screen a few feet away or the framed pictures of flowers to my left. Instead, my eyes settle on my “Not My President” t-shirt balled up with my bra in the corner.
The doctor tells me where he and his wife hide their jewelry. How robbers know to look in kids’ rooms first for valuables, so they store them in a file in the office desk. He says he can monitor his house remotely with his phone. This approach has worked very well for him and his family. His house, for example, has never been robbed. None of the houses in his gated community have.
The thing is that the doctor isn’t me. I don’t live in a gated community and likely never will. I live near a busy intersection on the “good side” of West Dixie Highway, in a house whose selling price was reduced because it sat empty and in disrepair for so many years. My neighbors on both sides, who have bars on their windows and expensive security systems, have been robbed more often than I, despite the ever-growing cop presence in my neighborhood. This doctor doesn’t know the ongoing investment I’ve put toward home security or how with each improvement comes a new robbery. I’ve already purchased a comprehensive security system. I installed a PVC fence too tall to jump over. I own two dogs. And there is a gun here, in case it comes to that.
I wonder if my unease with the trajectory of the conversation is registering electronically. Is my heart betraying this angst? The more he talks, the greater the disconnection I feel— not just from the conversation and the exam room, but also from everything that led me here today.
I think back to the places I’ve been hiding my laptop when I leave: in the cooking supply chest in the family room, packed in a fold in the Papasan chair, or under a cushion on the couch. Spots that anyone wishing to steal things would most likely immediately fish out as obvious hiding places. Previous break-ins have taught me that robbers open drawers, look in closets, and retrieve items from blankets on beds. Prior invasions have indicated that there are no good hiding spots in a house like mine or in a neighborhood like mine, which is constantly being scoped out and monitored.
Maybe it’s this root vulnerability that robbers sense—this uneasiness I have about being observed. I wonder if this is why my house and car have been targeted so often. Anyone who has known me for even the slightest amount of time can perhaps sense this vulnerability, despite my efforts to cloak it. Maybe I advertise it as blatantly as I do political slogans on shirts. I can’t help but shiver, my nakedness registering the cold exam-room air.
“From what I can tell, you’ve got the heart of a twenty-five year old,” the doctor says, his face now committed to the EKG screen. He’s referring to the once-upon-a-time self I was a decade ago, back when I truly felt in control of my body and my life. The self I was a year before I decided to stay in Miami. The self I was a year before I bought my house.
“But we’ll know more when the full results come in.”
“Why the chest pains?” I ask.
His shoulders dip into a slight shrug. “Stress?”
While stress could definitely be a trigger, it doesn’t explain everything. “If it’s stress, then why am I not getting chest pains right now?” I ask. I’ve not had a single pain all morning, despite Trump and the window.
“Stress can be stored in the body,” the doctor says. Which, he tells me, is why the episodes don’t always correspond to upsetting events, like driving here an hour ago.
The way the doctor describes stress reminds me of how squirrels store nuts. Like squirrels, we dig little, convenient holes. We squirrel away our stress, knowing at some indefinite point in the future we may come back and do something with it, like digest it or hide it in a better, farther-away spot. Eventually, we lose track of some of these nuts, which is okay. We leave them in the earth, where a few will go on to sprout unexpected growths. But other times, we become impatient and begin to crave the crops we sowed. Despite knowing it’s best to leave some nuts buried, there are times when we end up unearthing the harvest without stopping to think about what we’ll do with it when it has been dug up.
“We’re all done here,” the doctor says. He switches off the machine and removes his gloves. “Good luck with—with everything,” he adds. Then, he leaves me alone in the exam room.
I gently open my car door, hoping the lingering pieces of glass will remain stuck to the window frame during the drive home. I switch on the ignition and switch off the radio. Some things are important to ignore. Others must be dealt with. The hard part is my knowing the difference.
As I drive in silence, I recall when the chest pains began—the morning after Christmas. Not even twenty-four hours after my house was broken into. Christmas morning, as we were halfway through opening our stockings in Pittsburgh, my parents’ home phone rang. An unknown number popped onto the TV screen, and the Christmas carols that had been previously playing were muted. My dad answered. ADT Home Security had phoned my parents since my cell phone went to voicemail. The alarm was going off in my house, twelve hundred miles away. The North Miami Police had been notified and were on their way.
I think back to my parents’ expressions, the familiar combination of worry and indeterminate upset. The same look from all those years ago after the first break-in—the look of wanting to help but having no clue how and the facial struggle to tame the futility of these feelings. As I stood outside in the frost-tinged Pittsburgh morning making phone calls to friends in Miami, the rest of my family waited patiently for me to come back inside so that we could finish opening gifts and drinking mimosas. I stayed calm, even though the front window to my house had been pried open and the person who broke in had been in my bedroom. I had no idea what had been stolen or how long the house had been compromised before the cops arrived.
Stress can be stored in the body.
As I accelerate down Biscayne Boulevard, a large chunk of glass falls from the back window onto the foot mat. I will have to file a police report today—one more for my file folder that in another life could be housing hidden jewelry. I’ll have to hire someone to replace the car window. Then, I’ll have to trim back the tree under which I park. Once that’s done, I’ll need to find a way to secure my home window, which had already been repaired a few weeks before the intruder found a way to push it open. I wonder if the chest pains will continue as long as the stress does. What if they keep up until every variable manifests? Until I finally cave in and decide to sell my house?
What I don’t know as I drive home is that later this evening, my car will be broken into a second time—that someone will go in through the shattered window and again fish through the road maps and old CDs in search of drug money or something to pawn. Or that in the morning while my friends, family, and coworkers are marching at protest rallies around America, I’ll be taping plastic bags to my car window, hoping to protect the cloth interior from the impending weather front. I don’t know as I avoid the most glaring bumps and cracks in the asphalt that in a few days from now, I will get into a fight with a student after a tutoring session, that we’ll exchange heated words in the parking lot at the university—that I will leave her in tears after we shout at one another over her love of Donald Trump, a man she used to date and truly believes will make our country great again. And I don’t know that a week from now, the doctor will call to tell me he found an accumulation of water surrounding my heart—a slim buffer, a trace layer protecting my most valuable possession from the threat of the exterior.
As I drive home amid the crumbled glass, what I do know is that something has shifted internally. In the middle of the plane of my chest is a point at which the personal and mass vulnerability intersect, where the beyond registers at forty-eight inconsistent beats a minute. In this spot, my chaos collides with Miami’s chaos and crashes head-on into the collective chaos of this country. This plane—this sheet of glass my coordinates occupy—seems to be lode bearing. It tries to remain intact but senses compounding stressors that are beyond its control. Cracks form, then spread. The center does its best to hold. And when the damage can no longer be ignored, the shatterproof glass finds a way to crumble.
As I pull into my driveway, diagonally to avoid the sprinkling of glass, it occurs to me that it can no longer be inside and outside, mine and their. Internalizing the upset hasn’t worked. Neither has locking and sequestering. Instead, what I plan to do is the opposite: from now on, I’ll leave the car unlocked. That way, if someone wants to take what’s in it—which they will—they can do so without $340 in damages. This is not a decision to stop fighting but instead a plan of action to fight a better kind of fight. It’s a choice that anticipates the unavoidable. It’s knowing when to protest and rage on, and when to take a deep, calming breath to unlock and accept the inevitable.