A Natural History: Laura Newbern


A Natural History of My Heart

By Laura Newbern

Fig. 1

I have an ex-boyfriend who says I broke his heart on Oakland Avenue, in a little cinder-block house, in the Five Points neighborhood of Athens, Georgia. I say he broke mine, long before I even got a kick at his. I also say that he’s the only ex-boyfriend I actually miss. I say this often; it’s such a plain truth. I miss talking to him.

The little house we lived in was set way back off the street, and behind another house, and just above a slow creek. Even in winter, everything was green and a little bit wet. And the house was painted yellow, and the sky above all the water-oaks, often enough, was a very pale shade of lavender. Inside, mildew grew in our shoes, and in some of our books. We ate our supper at a bright red Formica table. We fought. And I broke his heart.

Once I saw my heart in a sonogram. I listened to it, too. I was struck by how small it was, and how much it sounded like a tiny washing machine. Sort of sad and determined. With all my heart, I saluted it.

What was it we fought about? I half remember—I was depressed. We’d left all our friends in New York, where we’d met in the back of a bar on Houston Street. For me, it was love at first sight. The first time we slept together, he told his roommate, as we appeared sheepish in the morning, that we’d gotten married. We stood there grinning in silk bathrobes, like idiots. I loved him. After a rocky year or so, during which I moved away, and came back, and he cheated, and I cheated, we decided to leave New York and move to Georgia. It was my idea.

He did not tell me I was pretty; he asked me if I knew I was. I found this gritty and impressive. One Valentine’s Day he gave me an anatomically correct heart-drawing, with valves and tubes and arrows. Again, gritty and impressive. And sad and determined.

Recently I had a little scare with my heart; in a mall, in a dressing room, it began to beat so hard and so fast that I had to sit down. This resulted in a doctor’s visit and all the alarmist tests— a stress test; another test that meant wearing different colored wires attached to a black box overnight; another test—the big finale—that sent me inside a machine with some kind of liquid injected beforehand that made me hotter than I’d ever been. It all came out fine. Nothing wrong; nothing at all.

When I think back, I remember how beautiful we were, and how young. How he worked to make the house habitable; how I worked, behind a closed door, at corresponding with everyone except him. I wanted the closeness, but I couldn’t handle it, and things broke. I remember a plate hitting a wall. I remember staying up half the night one night watching the movie Sayonara on cable, alone. Cable was new to me then—that’s how long ago this was.

I don’t remember him moving out, but he did, taking his sleeveless shirts and his books and his French press. And there I was, with the house to myself. Which seemed to be what I wanted.

When I was in college, a doctor on the Upper East Side told me I had a heart murmur. Years later I saw her on television: spectacled, elegant, commanding. She was big in the heart world. I used to love the trips to her office; how intently she would don a white coat and get close, and listen. But I’m not sure it was real. No doctor these days can hear it.

We’d lived in that house with animals – my cats and his dog. And a sizeable population of crickets: huge ones with striped legs; they’d pop out of the basement in their novelty socks. Outside, box turtles scraped around in the yard. Bats hung in a nearby shed. One evening I found one of the cats standing over a bat: a seemingly wounded bat, flat on its back, breathing hard. I panicked and shooed the cat in. Like a beating heart flung out of a body, that bat, on the ground. And, when I checked on it later–gone.


Laura Newbern still lives in Georgia, with no idea whether her heart murmurs or not.



“A Natural History of My Heart” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>

Laura Newbern, an Assistant Professor of English/Creative Writing at Georgia College & State University since 2005, teaches graduate and undergraduate poetry workshops, poetics, and other creative writing and literature courses.  Laura is also the Poetry Editor of Arts & Letters.  Her poems have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Black Warrior Review, and elsewhere; her collection, Love and the Eye, won the Kore Press First Book Award and is due out this fall.


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