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The Unintended Consequences of a Broken Heart

30 Mar 2024 | Posted Under Emotions

The Unintended Consequences of a Broken Heart

My college roommate Joanne was bodacious, funny, and deeply insecure. Her father had abandoned her mother when she was a baby and her mother’s drug problem resulted in Joanne being raised by her grandparents.

We got along, until we didn’t, and the fireworks could be explosive. But there was a bond we learned to recognize and respect, even if we didn’t always agree.

Every couple of weeks in the final semester of our junior year, Joanne became giddy when she received a letter from her old high school boyfriend. Jimmy was on his Med Cruise, a six-month naval deployment, aboard the USS Eisenhower.

They’d dated while in school, but after a particularly nasty break up, and him asking her archrival Kim to the prom, they stopped speaking. Jimmy and Kim dated for a year or two after graduation, but evidently, they’d split, and this is when he began writing to Joanne. She didn't hold him accountable for breaking her heart, but rather saw it as her classmate’s sin, and his interest was all she needed to fall back into the fantasy of believing they were destined to be together.

When she learned the Eisenhower was returning to Norfolk in April, she insisted that Karen, one of our other roommates, and I go with her to Virginia to visit him.

With the exception of seeing other humans in the few ports they docked in, Joanne knew that he and his fellow sailors would be starved for comfort and connection, and she was determined to be the one he connected with so she could provide some comfort.

None of us were old enough to rent a car. But our fourth roommate was a student at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, so she doctored Joanne’s driver's license, changing the 3 in 1963 to a 0. Somehow Hertz bought it and rented us a 1984 wood paneled Chevy station wagon. 

When you’re twenty, all you need for a trip is a couple of pairs of underwear, a cute outfit or two and plenty of weed and rolling papers. At that age, you also live in the moment, so we didn't make a hotel reservation, but left Pittsburgh at 6:00 am, hopeful and high.

Over coffee and mini-mart pastries, Joanne regaled us with stories of happier days in her relationship with Jimmy. It was clear she was in love with him. At least using the definition of love specific to a 20-year-old.

Five hours later we arrived in Norfolk.

Our assumption that we would easily find a place to stay detonated when we realized that there were about 5000 sailors on the USS Eisenhower, many of whom had family and friends also in town to welcome them home. The difference was they had prepared and there wasn’t a vacant hotel room within thirty miles.

There were no cell phones, and I don't remember how we connected with Jimmy, but Joanne was over the moon to see him. We had a lovely afternoon exploring Norfolk and enjoyed a delicious dinner. We each paid for our own meal, including Joanne.

Without a place to stay, Joanne came up with the brilliant idea of sleeping in the car, which was parked at the naval base. Having no idea how illegal it was or how much trouble we could get in for doing it, we placed all the luggage on the two front seats and hunkered down. I slept on the back seat and Karen and Joanne squished into the “wayback.”

Even though it was spring in Virginia, the nights were still cold. We kept ourselves warm by piling all the clothes we had brought on top of our torsos and threw our jackets over our legs. A couple of times the naval police came through, shining spotlights over the parked cars. We held our breath and prayed they wouldn't see us.

USS Dwight D Eisenhower: All you need to know about US carrier heading to  Middle East

Jimmy had instructed us to meet him the following morning at the entrance to the ship so he could give us a tour. He neglected to mention they would have drug sniffing German shepherds next to the officers who checked IDs. Karen and I patiently waited while Joanne ran back to the car to deposit the bag of weed she’d forgotten was in her purse.

Finally on board, we weaved through the bulkheads and partitions, stepped through narrow doorways, and climbed ladders to ascend to the next deck. Jimmy thought it would be fun to parade us through the cafeteria at breakfast time, and we endured the hoots and cat calls of hundreds of sailors as we walked through. He thought it was hilarious. I did not.

The highlight of the tour was a stroll on the flight deck. The USS Eisenhower is an aircraft carrier and I have never seen anything like that runway, endlessly stretched out before us with the ocean on the other side. Karen and I took out our disposable Kodak cameras and took pictures of everything, getting some of the sailors to pose not realizing it would get them in trouble with the higher ups. 

With the help of a buddy, Jimmy found the one empty motel room in Norfolk. He scraped enough money together for he and Joanne to spend a cozy afternoon together after our tour. “I had to pay for a whole day,” he told us. “So, you guys can sleep here tonight.”

Karen and I took the hint. We grabbed a couple of joints and went off to explore Norfolk. We shopped, got lost, had some lunch and after three hours, needed a nap. At first, we were confused when our key card wouldn’t open the door to our room. We weren’t on the register at this fine establishment, so we hesitated to visit the office.

Finally tired and cranky, we climbed back down the steps from the second floor to rest in the car. It dawned on us at the same time, we were at the wrong building. It wasn’t long before we couldn’t breathe from laughing so hard.

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Being high meant our fits of laughter had staying power and by the time we drove over to the next building and got to our room, we were still hysterical. Karen slid the card in the lock on the door and we opened it, excited to share our hilarious faux pas. What we walked into was not an environment for a funny story.

Joanne sat in the bed, the sheets scrunched around her new expensive negligee, crying uncontrollably. She was sobbing so hard she could hardly breathe. Jimmy stood shirtless in a pair of jeans looking sheepish and guilty. Karen and I froze. We looked at each other and she whispered, “I’ll take Joanne. You take him.”

I motioned for Jimmy to follow me into the bathroom. “What the hell, dude?” I asked. 

“I fucked up, Staci.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Everything was cool, right? We were having a nice time. Then we started to take our clothes off and, you know…”

“I get the picture.”

“Well, I was reaching the point where I was… almost… done.”

“I get it.”

“She’s calling my name over and over. And when I got to…that point, I screamed, Oh, Kim!!’.”


I stared into the giant mirror over the sink and focused on the pimple on Jimmy’s back.

“I know. I’ve been apologizing for a half hour, but she just won’t stop crying.”

“Wait here.” I went into the other room to check on Karen’s progress. We gave each other a “this is really bad” look and went out onto the walkway to discuss how best to handle this.

“Can you believe this?” she asked. I shook my head and we both stifled a giggle. It was not the time to find humor in the situation.

“He’s gotta go,” she said. “She is inconsolable.” We agreed I would tell Jimmy to leave. I gathered his shirt and shoes from beside the bed and took them into the bathroom. I walked him out and before he said goodbye, he told us the name of the bar he and his friends would be at that night, hoping against hope Joanne would forgive him.

Back inside, Joanne’s wailing had dropped several decibels, and she was trying to sip a glass of water in between heaves. It took a couple of hours for us to calm her down enough for her breathing to return to normal and when we did, she was absolute in her decision not to go anywhere Jimmy might be.

The whole experience put Karen in “fuck it” mode and she was determined to go out and have fun that night. I felt torn. I always loved a reason not to go to a crowded, loud bar but the thought of being locked in a motel room with the weeping Joanne didn’t appeal either.

Joanne insisted we go, so we did. An hour in, I regretted my decision. I know now that my discomfort about being in places like that was driven by unrecognized neurodivergence, but at the time I just thought I was defective because I didn’t want to socialize the way my friends did and I caved to peer pressure more often than not.

We never saw Jimmy, but it didn’t take Karen long to find a sailor in need of comfort. I sat at the bar by myself wishing I was someplace else. She popped by long enough to hand me the car keys and to tell me she and her new friend were going to his hotel room. I drove back to our motel and Joanne and I spent the rest of the evening in silence watching bad movies on cable until we fell asleep.

Karen arrived around noon, just in time for check out. We loaded up the car and headed to Pittsburgh. It was the longest five hours I’d ever experienced. The joy was gone. The excitement dead and buried. The energy of Joanne’s aching heart, broken for the second time, permeated every molecule of air.

When we finally got home, Joanne went into the bathroom, turned on the shower and didn’t come out for two hours. We never heard Jimmy’s name again.


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