The Museum of Broken Love
by Jacqui Corcoran
He gave her a town. A medieval town. That’s what it said on the box. Anna could never manage to put it together.
It was a beautifully presented novelty for adults, which came in a hand-crafted wooden box wrapped in a robust cardboard sleeve. Inside the box were a wooden grid and various medieval buildings. You had to take out the pieces, unfold the grid, and arrange them on the grid in a certain sequence. Assemble the puzzle. Build the town. The same year he bought his wife a Cuisinart. His wife didn’t like her present. She said so.
Anna felt enthusiastic about her medieval town, although in truth she wasn’t sure why. This present said something? She hoped it was so, and enjoyed imagining him spending time choosing it. It was an intelligent present, an unusual choice as a gift for a woman that, she hoped, said something about his belief in her abilities that was quite flattering, if somewhat misplaced.
“I love it!” she said.
“Glad somebody appreciates me,” he said, slightly pushing out his bottom lip. Maybe that’s why men need mistresses, thought Anna. It was not a thought she cared to dwell on.
She knew it had to end. The quietness had gone out of it. It had turned into something different. She thought, on some level, that he wished they would be found out. On another level she knew they could never be happy. That’s what she told herself. She realised, in retrospect, it was more of a question than a statement of fact.
On the last day, as Anna lay beneath him with the damp forest debris cutting into her back, she thought of the medieval town. She wandered its streets for a time, in the quietness.
After some time of functioning in a sort of distant serenity, she realised that something had shifted in her. It was as though her insides had shrunk a little, which made her skin seem lank and thin, too generous for her frame. She wondered what to do. For many days she procrastinated and questioned, and then one day she knew. It came to her quite suddenly in the end, after all the speculation and mirror-gazing; she simply stood up, and stepped, quietly, out of her skin. It was not difficult. It required no more effort than a little pulling at the bits that stuck. Very quickly she realised that the healing, too, would be easier than anticipated; she could bear the full-body wound if she didn’t touch. Herself. Anything.
She stayed inside. Close, but not too close, to the fire. She stood, feet slightly apart, arms held out from her sides, fingers and toes splayed like a girl about to paint her nails; and she tried to slow her heart.
After a time she could touch again, and occasionally she would take out the medieval town. She would pick up pieces, one at a time, holding them up to the light, moving them around in order to see the different angles. She would look at the grid. Sometimes she would place a piece at a chosen spot on the grid. Occasionally, a day (sometimes even two) would pass with the piece left in its spot. Then she would pick up the piece, put it back into the box and close the lid. She was careful to take out only one piece at a time. If she took out more than one piece it could be hard to get them back into the box. The lid would not close if the pieces were not put in properly. This was something she had learned in the early days when she would take out all the pieces, laugh at her own helplessness, and watch while he assembled the puzzle, and slipped it back into the box.
He admired her dignity and promised not to call.
There was plenty to keep her busy. The wound oozed from time to time. She applied salt, the quickest cure. She married a man, bore children, tried to be a good mother; she was a bad cook.
She visited the museum one week after it opened. The Museum of Broken Love; a brainchild, she speculated, of some cast-off looking to salt herself in public. It was a temporary exhibition that moved from town to town, a sort of portable exercise in solidarity. The skinned ones donated their souvenirs of private torture, the museum displayed them for all the world to see. Sanitary and modern words like: closure... meditative... sensory… featured in the publicity. Anna was partly horrified at the concept, and yet there was something compelling - an attraction that drew her in.
She booked a ticket for admission mid-afternoon Monday. The time was chosen carefully, based on speculation that visits would be at their lowest ebb and she would have some degree of privacy. She discovered she was not alone in this assumption. Efforts not to stare at the skulking figures about her proved an impossible courtesy. Anna found herself stealing glances, and couldn’t help but speculate on their shared experience. Of course everyone has been there, she said to herself, there to the place of broken love, the place of racing hearts, of peeling skin.
- Broken love. An overly sentimental notion to dwell on. Particularly so publicly. Still, it was such a kindness too - as a concept - this manufactured, travelling mausoleum. It made her tingle, become newly aware of the little slivers of wounds that peppered her body like paper-cuts that no amount of salt could heal. It brought on an overwhelming feeling of pity: pity for herself and pity for those around her. She felt it so acutely she had to stand completely still for a moment, fighting to keep tears at bay. When she opened her eyes she caught sight of another woman glancing at her. The woman quickly looked away with, Anna was sure, a trace of pity in her expression. A lick of anger moved over Anna. Or was it embarrassment?
As she moved through the exhibits she began to feel more at ease, and as she stopped at each display to read the attached notes, she was surprised to find her reactions vary: sympathy, empathy, amusement, disdain. She slipped from one emotion, and one opinion, to the next.
At the grubby teddy bear that looked a little too mauled for decency (You said I was your little teddy bear, but in the end you preferred stick insects) she laughed at the silliness of it. At the hand-written poem, neatly presented in meticulous block script (I stagger away, knowing I will never touch you again. I remind myself to breathe) she felt a shock of recognition. At the tarnished silver figurine of a gangly, lonely looking foal (It feels like giving away my child, but I have to. I can't mother these memories forever) she had to gather herself again, close her eyes, remind herself to breathe.
At home, Anna took out the medieval town. It had been stored on a high shelf for a long time now, and she had to wipe the thick layer of greasy dust from the box. Deciding not to open the box, she placed it into a cotton bag bearing the logo of a rabbit sitting beside an ear of corn. Made to last, was printed in faded green letters along both straps. ‘Made to last?’ thought Anna, as she hung the bag on the front door handle, ready for departure in the morning. In the morning she left the house early, passing the bag swinging from the handle, pretending she didn't notice. ‘Tomorrow,’ said a vague voice in her head, as she hurried up the path.
On the third day she took the bag.
On the fourth day she returned from shopping, still carrying the bag.
On the fifth day she took out the box, opened the lid, tipped the full contents onto the kitchen table.
“What's that?” said a child, newly reappeared after a day in school.
“Don't touch it.”
On the sixth day she picked up pieces, one by one. One by one.
On the seventh day she picked up the final, most awkward pieces and gently slotted them into place on the grid with surprising ease. In an unusual flash of efficiency she remembered the number of a taxi company. While she waited for the driver to arrive she placed the empty box into the made-to-last bag. She slid the completed puzzle grid onto a large tray, which she held out before her like a cooked turkey straight from the oven.
At the museum she filled in the form, carefully handed over the town on the tray, and the empty box in the cloth bag. She was about to leave when the assistant called her back.
“Don't you want to leave a note?”
“A note?” asked Anna.
“Like the other exhibits. A note. A description or whatever. It's not compulsory,” he said, holding out both hands with a pen in one, a piece of paper in the other.
Anna hesitated, then took the pen and paper, scribbled a note, left quickly.
The assistant looked at the piece of paper, looked at the wooden structure on the tray, held up the made-to-last bag containing the empty box. He placed the solid items in a large, clear box. He placed the note in an envelope. He labelled the box and envelope with corresponding codes, then placed the box in the curator’s cupboard, and the envelope in an out-tray marked: items for laminating.
The curator hung the bag, with the box inside, from a nail on a blank expanse of the white museum wall. He placed the medieval town-on-the-tray, on top of a plinth below the bag. He took the laminated note from the envelope, opened a reinforced glass box which was attached to the wall beside the exhibit, and placed it inside. He sealed the box with short strips of moulded plastic, which he coated in a quick-drying strong adhesive. He was careful not to get any of the adhesive on his fingers.