How do you heal a broken heart?
Mine had been reduced to shreds by Mairead, an out and proud lesbian I met at work. Mairead, all hoodies and short hair, didn’t take my feelings for her seriously because I’d had two babies – the heterosexual way.
Having a heart in shreds did not allow me to get very far. Especially, as was the case, when the heart in shreds existed in the chest of a French woman, who on top of it all, happens to have an express highway between mind and body, together with an unusual affect. Yep, as they said in Ireland years ago, I had been touched by the hand of God – and perhaps, in more ways than one. In today’s world, it means that neurologists and psychiatrists had been looking into little me.
Off to hospital I was taken, with a blood pressure so high doctors had never seen anything like it. And when the nurse on duty had asked me:
‘Have you ever had heart complaints, luv?’
‘This must be a joke, I thought. ‘Mine is broken. Glue it back together please. Presto.’
Back home, my heart promised to go on the mend. But only if you help me, it told me.
The only way to help my heart, I figured, was to embrace it all. For this, I needed to be with creatures like myself: people who can also fall in love with their own kind. I knew I was not the only one. I had to be reunited with my kindred spirits.
So I was at the Outhouse, the LGBT centre in Dublin, to see a movie. People, or rather women, started to pile in – the usual sorts: the feminine and the not so feminine. A few of them reminded me of Mairead, one being a young woman with short, brown, slightly curly, hair.
On my way out, I saw her hugging the receptionist, and I stepped outside. Several hundred meters down the street, I suddenly heard a:
‘Hello! Were you at the Outhouse?’
I stopped and looked at her. She did look a bit like Mairead. Short, brown, short, wavy hair. Glasses and broad shoulders.
‘My name is Caitriona. I’m gay, adopted and bipolar,’ she announced to introduce herself.
‘My name is Julie,’ and should I add, I’m bisexual, French and epileptic? I silently asked myself.
We chatted. We went for coffee. We exchanged our phone numbers. Then we went to meet Caitriona’s friends in Panti Bar, the gay bar in Capel Street.
We started to see each other. We went to movies, would have cups of: tea for her; coffee for me [no sugar, please] and chatted away. Who invited the other? I do not even remember.
Our pairing could have looked strange. For us, though, outsiders in more ways than one, it was engaging.
I liked to meet Caitriona well dressed. I had the feeling that – at least the first time we met up – she also had made an effort.
Once, I was wearing a dress, my latest acquisition from a second hand shop, and currently my favourite sartorial possession, when she told me:
‘You are so girly. I love it.’
So she loved it? Very well then, I would keep on wearing dresses when meeting her.
Womanhood was having the upper hand: Womanhood: 1 – Julie: 0
I quickly discovered that Caitriona was fond of sweets.
‘Let’s go to the shop,’ she would say, ‘I need to get some sweets.’
‘Caitriona, this is bad for you!’
‘Will ya ever stop giving out?!’ she replied with her broad Dublin accent.
I felt so awkwardly French with her. At times, we only understood every second word of what the other said. English would fail me, my pronunciation was awful. Yet, Caitriona was my new connection with Ireland.
‘These two were, ahem, best friends,’ Caitriona said with an ironic smile, showing me the portraits of Kathleen Lynn and Madeleine ffrench-Mullen, two women who had fought in the Easter Rising.
‘How would they call each other, then? Which words did they have?’
‘Lovers, of course,’ Caitriona said, plainly.
That time, Caitriona told me about her two mothers, the biological one and the social one. The first sounded like a bit of a mess to me. The second one… Well… After learning that she had kicked out her adoptive daughter when that latter had misbehaved [Caitriona, in a fit of anger, had thrown a stone through the front window, in true Dublin style] she had sounded to me like a woman with a no nonsense approach to life, like Caitriona herself.
We exchanged text messages. After our meet ups, she would always send me a small text, telling me how much she had enjoyed herself in my company.
My heart was enjoying this. Its torn tissues were definitely knitting again.
Caitriona was the only one I could talk to about Mairead. One day, from work, I sent her a cry for help:
‘I’m overwhelmed with grief, obsessive love and secrecy.’
Her reply came straight away on my screen.
‘What can I do for you?’
‘Be my friend,’ I replied.
I told Caitriona about Mick, my Belfast lover, who gave me a first brush with heart problems. ‘There’s nothing wrong with that,’ she had said. At least, Mick had helped me deal with womanhood more successfully than ever before. And as I was once again talking about Mairead, Caitriona had made a face, and said:
‘Her loss… and you, baby, you’ve got to move on.’
With that, she touched my nose with her forefinger.
As we were getting ready to leave, I told her that people had called me mad.
Caitriona, with a little wave of the hand, had dismissed the statement. Her certitudes only mirrored my questions.
Madness… is it nothing but an opinion others have of you? Or is it a set of feelings and behaviours which sets you apart from the world?
Was Caitriona, an Irish, gay and bipolar woman, immune to labels, hers and mine?
The bipolar and the epileptic, the gay and the bisexual, the Irish and the French. What are labels, anyway? If words can empower individuals, labels imprison them.
I wanted to tell her: Caitriona, you are not gay, adopted or bipolar. To me, you are kind, tolerant and streetwise.
I went off to France, with my two grown up sons, to visit my mother. With a smile on my face, I bought a bag of Carambars – France’s national sweets I had known all my life – these I told myself, Caitriona would love.
One of the first things I did when I landed back to my Irish home, was to text Caitriona:
‘When do we meet? I have something for you.’
The text message I received sent shivers down my spine.
‘I’ve had a mental health relapse. I’m in a psychiatric hospital. Taking it day by day. Some good, some great, some bad, some horrible.’
I set off on a mission. Caitriona had helped me with my broken heart, so I had to help her with her broken mind. I had to help her get out of that hospital.
Since she would not let me visit her in that dreaded place, and since, I understood too well, that she was cut off from the outside world, I would be the link, her link, with the outside world. I would let her know that this world was waiting for her.
I started to text her small but regular messages, sometimes just to ask how she was.
I would also send her samples taken from the strange and funny world which we all inhabit.
‘I’m reconciled with the English.’
[No mean feat for a French person.]
‘I found a live worm on the kitchen floor this morning.’
[I did not mention my well-set phobia about these yucks. After all, I had not screamed my head off.]
‘Am cleaning the kitchen. Carlos the cat on a pizza box.’
[She had never heard of my cats.]
‘I’m at the march to repeal the 8th amendment.’
While walking to make a stand on Ireland’s very restrictive abortion rights, I sent Caitriona a whole series of text messages telling her of the crowd, of the drums, of the slogans and of … the rain. We were in Ireland, after all.
At the end of the march I concluded:
‘Am back to the studio.’
[Knowing too well I had acted as a reporter.]
Small messages, sent from work, from the car, from home, from the street.
It was during Caitriona’s stay at the hospital that I learnt that Mairead had left the company where we had both worked, and where I had met her.
Indeed, I had not seen her blue car in the parking lot for a few days. That blue car where she had taken me to a Japanese restaurant, and where I had been so happy. So happy to be with her, so chatty and so in love.
So Mairead was gone. She had taken elsewhere her brown, short hair, her funny glasses, her hoodies and her blue car with the KY registration plate.
I would not see her again.
It felt strange at first.
And then, it felt like a relief. No longer would I dread meeting her in the canteen – not that was an issue in itself, but her ignoring me was. The few times she had ignored me in all her glory, it had lacerated my heart again. Was I a leper?
And how was I supposed to deal with these situations? So I had started to ignore her too.
The last time I saw her, we were in the canteen. She was just standing behind me at the till. I could not ignore her, and she could not ignore me. I made a little gesture with my hand as a way to say hello. She made a little smile, looking downwards, one of those smiles I had seen on her before, and which gave her a reflective look. Was she remembering the fun we once had together? Was she remembering the evening we spent together? Was she remembering our bond?
With Mairead’s departure, my story with her was finished. I might never see her again, but never again would she make me suffer.
Not long after, Caitriona got out of the hospital.
When I saw her again, hugging her was all I could think of. We gave each other a high five – maybe even two. I was short of telling her: I promise to feed you sweets and text messages to help you stay healthy.
I gave her the bag of Carambars along with the other bits and bobs – two issues of the Gay Community News, a congratulations card, a theatre programme – I had set aside for her, and put into a bag. My goodie bag to celebrate her joining the world again. Her victory felt like my victory too. I was over the moon.
The following week, I got a text message from Caitriona:
‘Want to meet for a chat?’
Yes, we would meet for a chat. Maybe too, we would be debating the existence of a gay identity, as I promised we would. Would Caitriona say that you are to be defined by the object of your love?
As I saw Caitriona waiting for me in front of the Central Bank, she waved and smiled to me.
‘Thanks for what you did for me when I was in the hospital. You helped, and I won’t forget,’ she said.
‘I have something else to tell you,’ she added. And then she whispered in my ear those three little words, those three little words which make the world go round. Only she said them to me in Irish.
Story by Jocelyne Rigal
Illustration by Lea Daniel