Agent Heartbreak and the Misery Muse meet cute on a lonely-hearts cruise.
Their gazes lock above the brunch buffet.
She—let's go with "she" for Agent Heartbreak, inaccurate though it is—she is a vision in a silk robe, bathing costume high to her neck and cut open just below her sternum, cheekbones like a jewel-thief's kit. She is spooning a single deviled egg onto an undersized plate, objectively the most awkward food to serve at a buffet, but her muscular arms move it the way the hired dance virtuoso whirls an ingénue across the ballroom floor.
He—let's call the muse "he," although, at least by percentages, this is dead wrong—looks like nothing more than the most fuckable elf-prince of Mars. Iron-oxide skin, understated jewelry. His hair is platinum from root to tip and flows over his collar and down to his chest. His shirt is open to his navel. He is buttering a bagel.
They stare deeply into each other's eyes, which are utterly unalike in appearance: light and dark, wide and narrow, round and sharp. They do, however, have one commonality. To stare into either pair of eyes is to feel oneself drowning in a tank of cement.
They hold each other's gazes for a long, long time. Everyone on the cruise, from crew to captain, hold their breath. Every seabird wheeling in the sky and dolphin leaping alongside forgets to exhale.
Finally, as one, they look away, the same quick flash of eyes that so coyly invites pursuit.
They do not look back. He finishes buttering his bagel. She eats the deviled egg, standing right there at the buffet table, and gets a big fat blob of mustard and yolk right on her chin.
They stomp out of the dining hall by opposite exits. Though neither of them knows it, they are thinking the exact same thing.
"Who the hell was that asshole?"
Agent Heartbreak is the crowning glory of a secret government research program. At least, that's what her handlers tell her. When they come to her they wear sunglasses and thick mittens and noise-canceling headphones that render her voice flat and robotic. They are always in pairs, and when they leave, at least one of them is always weeping.
Her handlers tell her that back in the fifties, after the war—they do not say which fifties, whose war—the government saw the rise of the three-headed dragon of the cosmetics/beauty/advertising industry and sought to conquer it. They tell her that for a decade or more, men in plain gray suits and shuffling gait bombed fashion runways, advertising agencies, television studios, hair care counters, while apprentice models in fashionable shifts slit throat after bureaucrat throat, smiling smiles that never reached their eyes.
After Armistice, both combatants joined their energies toward a single purpose: the strategic use of sensuality. They bred It Girls and rugby players and hypnotists and lifeguards with each other, with the frantic enthusiasm of a child who finds that smashing two dollies' groins together causes a different sort of warmth in its loins.
And that's how they made her. When the military-cosmetological complex loves itself very, very much …
The last one she loved was a mistake. It was a woman, this time.
Agent Heartbreak usually dates men. Not from any personal preference; if she had her druthers she'd date nobody and spend a lot of time with dogs. But like everyone, she has a job, and like quite a lot of us she can't really quit, and in her case the job is to seduce the enemies of the three-letter agency that has bred her into existence. Most of those enemies are men, and so Agent Heartbreak's dance card waxes phallic. Nothing to be done about it.
This target was a woman, a mid-level project manager in a hostile nation's nuclear power industry. She had a husband, kids. She had a flawless reputation for romantic reserve and sexual continence; she had never had an affair, a fling, an indiscretion.
Agent Heartbreak met her at the opera. During intermission. The soprano ingénue had sung "Lost, lost, lost!" and broken down into melodramatic tears on stage and the curtain fell and the bourgeoisie, petite and otherwise, poured out into the lobby. The target was wearing an undistinguished string of pearls and last season's evening dress in a respectable shade of gray and standing aimlessly by the bathroom, sipping a plastic cup of wine, waiting for her husband to finish up.
Agent Heartbreak strode by in a three-piece suit tailored to every curve of her body, the color of midnight on midnight on midnight. The target's eyes followed her. Even when Agent Heartbreak is moving incognito, she draws eyes out of the crowd by the dozens; when she is on a mission she can bring a bar-brawl to silence with a single crook of her eyebrow.
She passed in front of the target, letting herself be seen, letting the target's eyes follow her, and she disappeared into the whirl of evening wear, and she waited the length of the target's longing, lonesome sigh.
Then she appeared at the target's elbow, cocking her head toward the arched glass doors.
When you're good at something, it rarely holds your interest. Agent Heartbreak played this target like all the others: catch and release, catch and release. Stolen moments at a cafe, stolen kisses in the alleyway outside an underground synthpop club, all tectonic beats and rainbow strobes. Long weeks of silence, long weekends of uninterrupted lust.
The lab guys call it intermittent reinforcement, operant conditioning. Agent Heartbreak has a natural sense of rhythm and no need for such jargon.
Eventually she gets the target to steal. Small things at first, then bigger ones. She is cruel, demanding, heartless. She giveth and she taketh away. It is like boiling a frog, like cooking a pot roast. A long, slow, growing simmer.
Agent Heartbreak begins to meet the target at an apartment. It is a third-floor walkup, unfinished and under-furnished. They make love on a futon amid low-thread-count sheets. All of the good sheets have stayed at the house where the target's husband lives and where Agent Heartbreak is not welcome. Together, Agent Heartbreak and the target eat greasy delivery dumplings and drip oil on the crooked hardwood. The target says I think this is love.
Agent Heartbreak makes a noise.
People have killed themselves over Agent Heartbreak before. Like, a lot of people. How do you think they started calling her "Agent Heartbreak"? When she started out she was just Agent 86.
So, she's used to it.
Well, no, she's not used to it. It's not, you know, a good feeling. But it's like a chronic gastric condition or something. It starts with that familiar low burn deep in her gut and then she spends a day holed up with the pukes or shits or, if she's especially lucky, both, and then she gets over it and she keeps going. What's she gonna do? Stop eating?
Her handlers are familiar with this affliction and they are magnanimous with half-holidays and weekends of R&R and bottles of antacid.
Agent Heartbreak hadn't figured this target for a suicide. Too sensible, too composed. Exactly the sort of woman who could, piece by careful piece, reassemble a shattered life. If not into the same shape, at least into something serviceable.
And you know what? Agent Heartbreak was right. The target didn't kill herself, didn't even cry.
No, what fucked Agent Heartbreak up was the kid.
It's the last day of the mission and it's got that wind-whipped last-day feel, where are the keys, where's my hat, have they blown my cover, what's the extraction window, and Agent Heartbreak goes to the target's house, not her new apartment but that family house, a three-story brownstone in a tony neighborhood with a nice shiny streetcar tootling by on restored rails.
Agent Heartbreak is dressed to travel and made up to stun for one last time. Her faked accent is sagging like a beat-down porch; she is already forgetting how to conjugate the target's language.
It's a good neighborhood and the door isn't locked. Agent Heartbreak lets herself in. She's after just one more set of documents, one final sheaf of papers the target has left at her family home rather than the apartment.
Nothing special about these documents; they weren't the lynchpin or the turnkey or the keystone. They wouldn't solve a mystery, win a war, broker a peace. It was just another ordinary manila envelope full of treason.
Agent Heartbreak lets herself in and she stands in a foyer. Dining room on her left, den on her right, staircase spiraling up ahead of her, voices murmuring down from above. She calls up to the target.
"One second!" comes from upstairs, followed by louder, more accusatory murmurs.
Agent Heartbreak was raised by doctors, not parents, but that doesn't mean she can't recognize the sound of mommy and daddy fighting in voices they think don't carry to the children. It sounded like that when Doctor Hansen and Doctor Roberts had their first arguments about whether to give her botox. (She was seven.)
So, okay. The target's upstairs, having it out with her husband. That's good; Agent Heartbreak doesn't like to deal with spouses. And they're fighting quietly because—shit—
All the hairs on Agent Heartbreak's neck rise as one. She whirls around.
The child standing there comes up to the hem of Agent Heartbreak's impeccably fashionable coat. It is holding, of all things, a toy hippopotamus.
"Hello," it says.
"Oh," says Agent Heartbreak. "Hi." She does not have a lot of practice with kids. This one is paler than its mother and its hair is long and looks almost tangibly soft. There is a crust of mucous on its hairless upper lip. It is barefoot, still in pajamas. Its eyes are wider than any pair Agent Heartbreak has ever seduced or worn.
The child rubs its nose. Agent Heartbreak fights the urge to pass it a handkerchief. Her handlers have always told her: leave no trace.
From above, peaks in volume in the argument, single words furious enough to drift all the way down the stairs. Agent Heartbreak glances up, then back at the child.
It rubs its nose again. "Are mommy and daddy fighting because of you?" it asks.
It's one thing to do an ethically questionable job with a certain amount of interpersonal collateral damage. It's another thing for a tender-hearted child to show up at your place of work and rub your nose in the human cost of everything you've done like you're a puppy that's just pissed on the carpet. How do you recover from something like that? Boom, headshot. Right in the guilt.
Agent Heartbreak got the papers and she got out of the country but it was already clear in the debriefing that a couple of important gears had gotten knocked loose in her machinery of seduction.
They sent her out on another mission. She was supposed to meet the target—a millionaire of mixed sympathies—at the opening of a gallery exhibit and seduce him into defecting.
She went to the opening, got shitfaced, threw a sculpture at a painting, and howled about the meaninglessness of deconstructionism until she was dragged off by security. The underground art zines were thrilled. Her handlers, less so.
(The millionaire defected anyway, for business reasons. Agent Heartbreak's handlers don't tell her that sort of thing. She has no need to know.)
When a knife is blunted, you send it to the whetstone. When a pot is broken, you fill its cracks with mud or gold. Agent Heartbreak's handlers got her a single cabin on a lonely-hearts cruise.
The reservation is for one, but the cabin is big enough for two. Agent Heartbreak supposes that's the point.
Agent Heartbreak does not take a lover. She makes excuses to get out of Singles Bingo and Singles Dancing and Singles Bridge and Singles Champagne and fireworks. She attends Singles Bocce and plays with monomaniacal intent. Agent Heartbreak has only ever had introductory weapons training, but then, she's been hunted by counterintelligence agents and angry ex-lovers, ex-ex-lovers, and ex-ex-lover's ex-lovers, and in one case a decorative pond's overactive swan, and so she is pretty good at running and winding up and throwing things.
Bocce is okay. People try flirting with Agent Heartbreak and she has to work so, so hard not to flirt back, not to fall lazily into professional instincts and bad habits, but she manages to conjure up a cold stare and a silent shake of the head and folks get the message.
She's almost starting to like the cruise when, one day at brunch, as she's serving herself a deviled egg, she locks eyes with the Misery Muse.
The Misery Muse is as old as time. Well, as old as art, anyway, which has been around for all the really interesting bits of time.
At least, he thinks he's that old. His memory is a little like the library of an ancient manor house; nothing has been lost but it's not exactly organized, either. He remembers that breakup, the catalyst for the Venus of Willendorf. She, the paleolithic sculptor, carving an image of herself, ruing the day she ever met the Misery Muse. Maybe. There have been a lot of sculptures.
There have been a lot of sculptures, and a lot of odes and tapestries and operas and, well … just about everything. You can see the cut of his boyish chin in Michelangelo's David, hear the untamable tangle of his curls in Morrisette's "You Oughta Know." He was Shakespeare's Dark Lady—and his Fair Lord, too.
The Misery Muse is older than tame dogs and beaten bronze, older than bread and pots and rope. And yet, for those revolving millennia, his methods have not changed. First they love him. Then he leaves them.
You could call him a Manic Pixie Mean Boy. It's true as far as it goes, but it's kind of like referring to Babylon the Great, City of Cities, Mother of Empires, as a "premodern metropolitan statistical area." Something has been lost in translation.
First they love him, then he leaves them. And afterward they make masterpieces —or not. It's not a golden ticket to glory. He's not doing it for them; he is not the finger of destiny. It's just an effect he has. On some people. He has always attracted those of an artistic temperament.
The day before the cruise, the Misery Muse left his most recent boyfriend with a nonchalant wave and a blown kiss and a cleaned-out cosmetics closet. He took the shared bicycle too; he left the boyfriend with … well, with a lot of free time to work on that spoken word hip hopera he was always talking about.
The Misery Muse ditches the bike and catches a late-night bus to the coast. It drops him at the ocean at sunrise. Seabirds are wheeling overhead and in the distance cranes stoop over container ships like the fingers of primates grooming out lice. The Muse decides to go on a cruise, so he does.
Before the horn has finished its first blast, as the great propellor screws of the leviathan ship have just begun to turn, the Misery Muse has already broken into some guy's cabin and stolen half of his wardrobe. Neither Man nor Muse can live in hoodie alone.
It's a lonely-hearts cruise, the Misery Muse learns, which merely moves his job from easier to easiest, from shooting fish in a barrel to dropping a tactical nuke on a tin of sardines. By brunch on the sixth day of travel, the Muse has had eighteen lovers of all sexes and genders. He has whirled from partner to partner at Singles Dancing and traded chaste kisses of incredible promise at Singles Bridge and at the after-party for Singles Bingo he laid nude on the mass-produced carpet and let three frantic souls cover his torso nipple to waistline with bingo stamps.
Every one of his ephemeral paramours is an artist. They are failed poets and amateur DJs and weekend watercolorists and one actually quite talented flautist who hasn't played a note since a nervous breakdown in graduate school and who will—after a whirlwind three-hour romance with the Muse, involving a very suggestive lunch discussion and an abortive elevator tryst—go on to compose a groundbreaking woodwind concerto.
And then, on the sixth day of the journey—Sunday, the day that God set down the burden of creation and spent all afternoon on the couch thirst-texting Her exes—on the sixth day, at brunch, the Misery Muse crosses paths with Agent Heartbreak.
The Muse has made love to the beautiful before. He has slept with zaftig novelists and punk frontmen with heroin hipbones. He is no stranger to the penetrating stare or the soulful one. Papa Hemingway may have been shooting blanks in the basement, but the want in his eyes was a five-alarm tsunami, complete with undertow; take it on competent authority.
The Muse has fucked the beautiful and the charismatic and even the famously seductive—Anna Wintour and Jimi Hendrix's whirlwind romance had a third, you know, though you won't see his sly smile in the magazines or history books—or was it hers, that time? The Muse has never said.
In short, the Muse knows love. This isn't it.
It is said: love is an ocean. But if love is an ocean, then this is a box jellyfish: half-seen, deadly to the touch. Lying in wait. It is said: love is a battlefield; love is as terrible as an army with banners. But if love is bold charge and hot blood, if love rides a steed into battle, then this is a landmine.
It should, the Muse thinks, be banned by the Geneva Convention.
But for the Misery Muse it is already too late.
Even days after their chance encounter he cannot get Agent Heartbreak out of his head.
She can't get him out of her head either.
But for a different reason. The Muse's obsession lingers on what he saw of her, what he dreamt and smelled and tasted. But Agent Heartbreak has a different problem: she can't remember his face.
Agent Heartbreak never forgets a face. She can pick up languages and put them back down like a dilettante trying out perfumes in an indulgent department store; she can memorize a dossier until she's word-perfect in ten minutes, hold it for six months, and then forget it all in the space between two swallows of whiskey. But she never forgets a face. Not a lover, not a stranger. Not even if she wants to.
And yet, when she thinks back to that encounter in the buffet line, all she sees is static.
Now you and I know the reason. Do you think that Emily Dickinson and Hafez, arch-poet of Persia, had the same taste in objects of desire? They did not. The Muse looks like what he has to look like: boy, man, woman. Occasionally an implausibly shapely horse. His appearance slides from point to point like that glob of mustard did down Agent Heartbreak's chin at brunch. Of course, she cannot hold onto his face.
But Agent Heartbreak doesn't know this, and the not knowing makes her wild with frustration. She starts attending every fucking event on the cheery pink-and-blue printout schedule from the black three-ring binder the cruise left on her desk. She stays long enough to scan the room, check the faces, and then she goes. The Muse isn't there.
In a fit of desperation, she puts her mask back on, seduces the ship's purser, goes back to his cabin, hits him squarely in the back of the head with a convenient plastic vase, and then stands beside his unconscious form, scrolling through the passenger manifest, comparing each passport mugshot to the blankness in her own mind. Nothing.
Meanwhile, the Muse is working through his own frustrations, the only way he knows how. He makes eyes at everyone and crams people into his dance card until it boils over and names run down the carpet. He strokes chests and hair and runs his thumb across the lower lip of total strangers. He eats an entire plum in public; the last time he did that, the Iliad and the Odyssey were both written on the same damn night.
He is like an amp whose volume goes from eleven to twenty, with its dial presently hovering somewhere around forty-two. His hands start to give off little static sparks. He spills coffee and accidentally touches the hand of the waiter who's wiping it up; that man hasn't written a word since high school and within the year he's on the bestseller list with the first two novels of an erotic detective series.
The Misery Muse doesn't notice. Normally he feeds on that unrequited love shit like mosquitos on ingenuous campers. But now he's a mess. Distractible. Can't wait for things to ripen, always hopping onto the next one.
They don't meet for a long time, and then they do.
It's night. The stars are out. The lights on deck have been dimmed for effect. There's a faux-fire firepit, all smoke and fans and light. Everyone is walking around in couples or little intimate knots, wine glasses in hands. The Misery Muse is pacing up and down the deck, irritable, glowering down at his shoes. His scowl has rendered him unattractive. For the first time in a long time, passerby look away, not longingly towards.
Agent Heartbreak leaves the unconscious purser on the floor of his cabin and she comes up to the deck to get some air. Literally, not just figuratively. Spend too long belowdecks and every ship feels like a submarine, the even whir of the ducts, the stale smell. She stands by the side of the deck and looks out at the sea. Its undulating surface captures every star in the sky, but never all of them at once. She sighs.
The Misery Muse collides with her bodily and they both go down in a tangle of awkward elbows.
"Oh, I'm sorry—" said Agent Heartbreak, who, let's be realistic, is the more polite of the two by far, and then she recognizes his face.
They fucked first.
Perhaps it should have been otherwise; perhaps they should have walked the stations of the cross, the pilgrimage of love. Perhaps they should have seen a priest, tied hands, looked into each other's eyes and answered twenty questions.
There are ways this could have gone better. This story is only the truth.
They recognized each other in that tangle of limbs and without words, without further touch, each body humming like a worn out high-voltage transformer the day before it sparks the next forest fire, they went to Agent Heartbreak's room and they fucked. Kisses, teeth, fingers.
I will tell you a secret, now, the secret heart of the world:
Neither Agent Heartbreak nor the Misery Muse is all that good in bed.
Need and joy are different planets, orbiting different suns.
Plus, when usually you're with people who have obsessed about you, burned for you, bitten nails and sweated over you, you don't need much independent inspiration. You're just along for the ride.
Neither of them is very good at sex and together they are worse. It isn't a catastrophe, but it takes nobody's breath away.
They hydrate and try again. There is a slight improvement.
After the second time they're lying in bed together, completely nude, looking up at the ceiling.
Agent Heartbreak had always known she is a knife of a certain shape; sharp here, safe there; still, it was not something pleasant to confront in the disappointed grunts of the first lover she'd voluntarily taken in decades.
The Misery Muse's hand finds its way into hers. They squeeze.
They hold hands for a minute, too, and then suddenly and for no reason she can well articulate Agent Heartbreak is telling him everything, her whole life story, being raised by the doctors, the nice ones and the cruel ones, the way all the days blended together, the classroom in the bunker, the makeup practice, the gym, the showers, the first time she went out on a training mission, the way her hands shook in the bar, the way people looked at her, so many different faces, she remembers them all, remembers each staring expression, the bartender's slack jaw, the bus driver's smile, the first target, the first suicide, the first failed mission, every language she ever spoke, all of them coming back to her now, the feel of standing in an airport waiting for a plane to a brand new country, her dreams of retiring to a cabin with just dogs, the very best sandwich she ever had, the book she read half of on a bus once and never learned how it ended, what she'd feed the dogs in the cabin, the name of every lover she's ever had, every time she nearly died, the time she was poisoned, the time she was shot, the plastic surgery they made her have for the bullet wound, what she'd name the dogs at the cabin, the time they crashed her car into the sea, and on and on —
And in the end there's nothing left.
"Oh," says the Misery Muse, and it is a round and hollow sound.
After that they sleep. They get breakfast together. They get lunch together. They win bocce and they lose bridge. They stay up late and the Misery Muse points at the stars and recites poetry written about each one, the famous odes and the forgotten ones.
On the last day of the cruise the Misery Muse tells his story in fits and awkward starts. It's another thing he's not that good at. Doesn't matter. Agent Heartbreak is a good listener. Nods in the right places.
They kiss on that last night and it feels not quite right so they stop.
And so, the cruise ends. And they split up. No baggage, no shared taxi to the airport. There's a black car waiting for Agent Heartbreak; the Misery Muse catches the bus.
Things don't always end the way you want them to.
Of course, that depends on what you want.
Agent Heartbreak meets her handlers at a cafe in the shadow of a windowless office building. The coffee's bad but the bagels are actually okay. The handlers make small talk about her cruise in a way that suggests they may have had her room bugged. They ask if she feels she's "gotten over" her "rough patch" and is "ready to come back onto the team." They chuckle.
Agent Heartbreak chuckles too. She knows how to get along.
"Yes," she says. "I'm ready for another assignment." She wishes it weren't true but it is. Time doesn't heal all wounds but it sands away rough and smooth alike.
The handlers are wearing sunglasses and mittens and noise-canceling headphones all with the seal of their spy agency in blue on black and perhaps that is why they don't notice the Misery Muse come in. Agent Heartbreak's eyes flash up to her vacation lover as he slips behind the handlers, and one of them turns to look, and the Misery Muse slits their throats, just like that.
They go face down into their bagels, cream cheese and mortal pallor mottling their faces, and Agent Heartbreak stands up.
Somewhere, a barista is calling the cops.
The Misery Muse hands Agent Heartbreak a keyring. Four keys, one fob. Leather. Picture of a wolf stitched into it. Then he leans into her ear and he whispers with the practiced elegance of every man whose secrets have broken your heart.
They head out and split up.
When Agent Heartbreak gets to the address the Misery Muse gave her, she's not surprised to see the cabin, the log pile outside, the snowmobile that leaps to life with the third key, the door that opens with the second, the huskies that have been waiting inside and now come panting up to her. She's not surprised; she's never surprised.
She's just grateful.
It turns out Agent Heartbreak doesn't actually know shit about living rough, but she learns. The superstar choreographer whose cabin it once was mails her the deed to the place so it's hers. She kills a few bounty hunters and puts them in the ground behind the woodshed until the agency gets the message. She doesn't feed the bodies to her dogs. She wants to be a good mom.
Years later she's watching the Oscars, her one annual hit of glamor. There's a director/producer on the red carpet, got his start writing an erotic detective novel series, and next to him, in a suit the color of fresh blood and orchid throats, is his husband, a man with a face she can't remember.
Agent Heartbreak smiles.
Then she turns off the TV, pulls on her jacket, and goes to take the dogs for a walk outside in the cool spring evening.
Meet cute. Happy ending.
It's good work, if you can find it.