my pretend heart

Chad Simpson

a western wear catalogue arrives in the mail and i pretend for a little while that i’m the brunette woman on page seven in the turquoise zebra print long-sleeve shirt. my face is so fresh it’s impossible to imagine what i might look like tired, twisting the sheets into knots and punching my pillow because all i want is to fall back asleep. i have become the kind of woman who hangs clothes on the line to dry. the kind of woman who knows the guitar chords for several slightly sad yet mildly uplifting songs. my hips have acquired about ten years’ worth of curves, and my jeans fit perfectly. i am accessorizing with a triple-strand turquoise and tiger-eye necklace. matching earrings. a leather belt secured by a huge silver buckle emblazoned with an ornate cross.

i flip a few pages and find a guy who does not look like anyone i have ever seen in real life, the guy i imagine broke my pretend heart.

his dimpled chin is too small for his face, and his eyes are pretty but seem incapable of prolonged attention. his sideburns, immaculately shaped, are the kind of facial hair a person could seek for years and never find in the wild. he is wearing a denim jacket and a black cowboy hat, and has hooked a single, muscular-looking thumb through one of his belt loops. i remember how he once stuck the tip of that thumb between my teeth. and then a later time, when the fat pad of that thumb stroked my cheekbone. he had just told me, face-to-face, that he wouldn’t let me take him back even if i wanted to. it just wouldn’t feel right, allowing me to forgive him.

on the opposite page, past a couple of staples, there i am again, smiling through it all: same pair of jeans; a white ruffled short-sleeve shirt with a banded collar and pearl buttons; a belt printed with mossy oak camouflage and studded with rhinestones. i look impeccable, with the smile of a woman who stars in her own series of exercise videos, but they’ve had to airbrush the tired out of my face.

there are plenty of bad things to remember, but instead, i keep focusing on something that cowboy told me about from when he was a kid.

he was eight, maybe nine years old, and his favorite toy was a remote-controlled monster truck. navy blue, with tires as big around as pop cans, decorated with all these little decals and stickers.

he used to build obstacles out of sticks for the truck to crush. houses, rowboats, miniature uninhabited cities. he went through about fifteen sets of batteries before the truck somehow got lost and all he had was the controller. he searched everywhere for the truck—under beds, inside closets—and turned up only things he hadn’t minded losing in the first place.

eventually, he started walking around outside with just the controller in his hands. he would extend its antenna and work the two knobs with his thumbs, which then were not quite so muscular; they were bony and thin as a girl’s.

he pointed the controller at his neighbor’s garage door and tried opening it. he tried maneuvering bikes other kids were riding down the street. then, a little disappointed, he saw a bird flying overhead against a backdrop of sky the same impossible turquoise color of that shirt the pretend me was wearing a couple pages back. he moved the knob that slid left and right to the left, and the bird flew that way. a couple seconds later he flicked the knob to the right, and, like magic, the bird followed.

he couldn’t remember how many days he spent lying on his back with that controller in his hands, thinking that he was directing the birds, but he was pretty sure he kept it up at least until school started. it was like i was flying, i imagine him saying to me one night just before i fell asleep with my head pressed to his chest. it was like i was god.

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Chad Simpson is the author of Phantoms, a fiction chapbook published by Origami Zoo Press. Recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in Necessary Fiction, The Collagist, Crab Orchard Review, Wigleaf, Matchbook, BULL, and Orion Magazine. He lives in Monmouth, Illinois, and teaches fiction writing and literature classes at Knox College.