Love From a Broken Machine


I hadn’t wanted to go to the estate sale, but John had insisted. Those sales bothered me; the shadows of the dead flitted across each object while throngs of bargain hunters calculated their worth. John was one such bargain hunter, though he wasn’t very good at it. Half the time he’d walk away with some ungainly curio, only to sell it at a loss weeks later.

The house was already swarming with shoppers, it’s small two-story frame seeming to burst with them. Inside were the normal estate sale goods: old afghans that smelled like mothballs, gaudy costume jewelry, and furniture that still retained its showroom stiffness even after decades of use. To say that there was nothing particularly interesting about the house was an understatement. I guess that’s what makes estate sale shopping so sad to me: a whole life lived in this place, and it’s the same as any other.

Still, I didn’t want John to see my displeasure, so I did my best to join the sightseers and browse the goods for sale. I had already passed through most of the house when I saw it: a small box on a table in the upstairs bedroom.

I don’t know what compelled me to pick it up; it wasn’t anything special, just a wooden box with tarnished brass legs and a keyhole in the middle. I held the box in my hands, surprised at its heaviness. I didn’t know if it would open, since the key was nowhere in sight. I slid my fingers up the smooth surface until I found the place where the lid met the body and lifted up. To my surprise, the lid raised easily.

I nearly let out a yelp of surprise when the lid opened to reveal a figure of a ballerina en pointe with her hands above her head. It rotated effortlessly to the tinny sound of a tune I didn’t recognize. One leg of the figure had been broken off at the knee, but still it turned, making graceful loops in the center of the box. Something about the music box made me smile, and I knew I had to have it. A price tag was affixed to the velvet lining inside the box. It read “Free.”

I couldn’t stop smiling the rest of the day. The estate sale, for me at least, had been a greater success than I could have imagined. John was less successful, though I couldn’t convince him of that fact. He was sure he could resell a mass-produced coffee table from the 1960’s for a profit. He asked me what I planned to do with my music box.

“What do you mean, what do I plan to do with it?”

“Well, you could fix up or replace that ballerina. Maybe sell it to a collector?”

I looked at the box in my hands. The thought of selling it made me feel sick to my stomach.

“I’m keeping it.”

“Okay,” he said, “but, I think you could get some money out of it. Lots of people love that creepy shit.”

“How’s it creepy?” I asked, indignant at the thought of this beautiful box being in any way unsettling.

“Music boxes just are. They’re like dolls or rocking chairs.”

I stared at John. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to dissect his phobias. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to be getting rid of the box any time soon. It spoke to me in a strange way that I didn’t understand at the time.

When we got home, I sat the box in a place of honor on my bedside table. I sat it right next to my favorite thing in the world--a photo of John and I. In the picture, we’re standing in front of a baseball stadium. I’m standing awkwardly next to a statue of a famous player, and John is crouched down beside me with his arms around my legs, as if he’s about to lift me straight into the sky. We’re both smiling and happy. I might not remember everything about that day, but when I looked at that photo, I felt the rush of positive emotion that accompanied it.

The box seemed to just fit in there, sandwiched between that photo and my alarm clock. Before I went to sleep each night, I would open it, watch the ballerina, and smile. The music soothed me to sleep, and the one-legged ballerina twirled through my dreams. From the music box, I felt a comfort that reminded me of childhood security. The stresses of adulthood dissolved and my mind became light and unbothered. It didn’t take long for the tinny music to invade my dreams, providing a soundtrack for everything that happened there. When I woke up, that same tune would be stuck in my head throughout the day.

One night, a week or so after I’d first brought the box home, I picked it up and studied it. I had made it my habit to touch the box before opening it up to hear its song, and that night I let myself linger over the solid gloss of the wood. I ran my fingers over the outside, and opened the box to reveal the velvet-lined interior. Amid the plush coolness of the velvet, I felt a small bump. I pulled the box up to my face to look more closely.

Something was sticking out behind the velvet. I scraped at it with my fingernail until I was able to pull it loose. It was a small square of paper, folded neatly upon itself and yellowed with age. Inside there were words, written in careful penmanship and devoid of flourish. It read:

Which is better?

Indifference from a perfect vessel

Or love from a broken machine?

I felt a tinge of sadness as I read those words, but I couldn’t tell you why. My mind immediately conjured up a vision of a young girl, maybe in her early teens, but possibly younger. She sat alone in her pink and white room crying, writing the words I held in my hand. The image was so vivid that it seemed more like a vision in front of me than something from my imagination. I shuddered and slid the paper beneath the music box.

I brought it up with John that night before bed.

“You know that music box?”

“The one you’re obsessed with? Yeah.” John said, smiling to let me know he was teasing.

“That’s the one. I found this really weird poem stuck inside of it.”

“I would expect nothing less. I told you they were creepy. Whaddit say?”

“Something about love from a broken machine being preferable to indifference from something perfect.”

“Seems like something an emo teenage girl would write.”

I looked at him intensely. “Why would you say that?”

John furrowed his brow at the change in my tone. “I mean, don’t you think?”

“Okay, but why would you say that. Why a teenage girl in particular?”

“Well, because they write bad poetry. And are more likely to own a music box. Seriously, what’s your deal?”

I took a deep breath and tried to calm myself. John was right, of course. It made sense that I would have put two and two together earlier when I had my “vision.” It didn’t change the fact that in that moment all I could think about was my anger. I felt dismissed, even as I knew it was irrational. John and I didn’t talk much more before bed, and we drifted off to sleep in uncomfortable silence.

I awoke in the early morning hours to the tinny twinkling of the music box. I sat up and looked around through bleary eyes. I wasn’t in my bedroom, and John wasn’t beside me. I was in a girl’s room. Pink pops of color bounced off the walls and the carpet was almost blindingly white. A young girl sat on the floor with a music box. My music box. I tried to speak to her, but I found that I couldn’t produce a sound.

The girl opened the box slowly, watching the ballerina spin on a single leg. The other leg--the leg I’d never seen before--was angled upward to the sky. I watched in confusion as the girl grasped the ceramic leg between her fingers and jerked it to the side. She looked down at the broken bit of ballerina that she held in her hand and smiled.

I could see that the leg itself was broken. As the girl twirled it between her fingers it became clear that the ceramic was jagged and sharp. What I was about to see became clear to me, and once again I tried to scream out. The frantic silence that came from my mouth did nothing to diminish the vision before me, and I watched in paralyzed agony as the girl pulled the sharp edge of the ballerina’s leg down her left wrist. Blood welled and then flowed, technicolor red on the white carpet of the bedroom. The girl looked toward me and smiled. Before she sank down onto the floor, she said the words I’d found written on the scrap of paper inside the music box:

Which is better?

Indifference from a perfect vessel

Or love from a broken machine?

I jolted awake--but hadn’t I already been awake?--and found myself sitting up in bed. Sweat stuck my t-shirt to my skin and I shivered in the cool night air. Beside me the music box was open and playing. The ballerina twirled on her single leg and I screamed. John stirred beside me, grumbling about the early hour and his sensitive ears. When I didn’t answer him, he sat up with me.

“What’s going on? Seriously, did you have a nightmare?”

“No, it was…” I couldn’t finish. Painful gasps caught in my throat as tears began rolling down my face.

John pulled me in close and let me sob into his chest. I couldn’t explain to him what I had seen or why it had upset me so much, so I didn’t bother. He might have thought I was a crazy person, but he didn’t let on. We sat like that for what felt like an eternity. Though he stroked my hair and whispered soothing words into my ear, I felt more alone than I ever had before. I kept picturing myself pushing him away and storming out of the room, all while the bleeding girl watched me with approval.

Things became strained with John after that. I can’t explain why, exactly. Hell, I didn’t even notice it when it started happening. Only now that I’m removed from it all can I see it clearly. It was little things here and there. Fights about whose turn it was to do the dishes. Jokes that weren’t really jokes at all, but veiled barbs that cut deep. I felt like a raw nerve, and I don’t think he fared much better. I tried to be patient; I tried to collect myself. But every time I tried to bridge the widening gap between us, I would only be met with a stony silence. I felt alone in a way that I hadn’t since I was a girl.

Within two weeks, we were sleeping in separate rooms. At the very least, I thought, I had the music box to comfort me. It became a ritual to open it up before bed every night, to listen to its music play. Some nights I went to bed overcome with a deep sadness that stretched beyond what a bumpy relationship could cause. The music box was a balm on those nights. That tune cut through my tears and filled my head with blissful blankness.

It was a night like any other. I had finished listening to the soothing song. I went to close the music box when I noticed something odd. The photo of John and I looked different than I remembered it. I picked up the tin frame and stared at the picture. We were still in front of the baseball stadium, me standing and John crouched beside me, but instead of goofy smiles we were both scowling. My body language was stiff and defensive, and John looked legitimately angry. I sat down on the bed and tried to remember. That day had been fun. It had been. I knew that as much as I’d ever known anything. No matter what tensions there were between us now, I knew that day had not been like this. Sure, maybe we had fought about the parking at the stadium. And maybe we had disagreed about which entrance we should go through…

Memories came back. Little sideways looks, muttered sarcasm. Had we been fighting that day? We must have been, I decided. We absolutely had been. Why did John insist on having this hateful reminder of our failed relationship sitting on the table? He must have been trying to take the joy from my music box. That was the only explanation. I threw the photo across the room, and picked up my music box gingerly. I sighed and watched the ballerina do her delicate dance.

I had been staring at the music box in a silent daze for what seemed like hours. The music had long played itself out when it suddenly started up again. The tinny sound pulled me back to myself and I focused my attention on the spinning ballerina. She smiled up at me--had she always been smiling like that?--as she rotated. There was a bump underneath the velvet stand she danced on. How did I never notice that before? I pushed at it; it was solid and slightly cylindrical. Using my nail, I pulled it from the velvet. The broken leg. It was almost in the same place as the poem I had found.

I held the broken leg between my fingers. It was so delicate, so beautiful. A surge of something like affection rolled through me and I sighed. I had been so sad, so mistreated, and all this thing wanted to do was make me happy. Why not let it? Thoughts came flooding into my mind, as if they weren’t my own:

He doesn’t love you.

Nobody loves you.

Think about all the times you’ve been abandoned. Thrown out like garbage.

I don’t think you’re garbage. I’ve been here for you, haven’t I?

Which is better?

You know the answer.

Which is better?

Indifference from a perfect vessel

Or love from a broken machine?

I saw myself pull the jagged edge of the leg across my wrist. It didn’t hurt, not like I had expected. The blood seeped from the wound, slowly at first, then more freely. I felt tired. Very tired. I was going to go to sleep, and it would be okay. It would all be okay.

From somewhere out in the fog of my room, a dark figure emerged. It was screaming my name. My shoulders shook in its hands and they felt so warm. I saw a face, John’s face, in the mist before it enveloped me completely.

When I woke up in the hospital room, John was there. He kept asking me the same thing over and over, and the answer I had wasn’t the one he wanted.

“Why did you do it?”

“I don’t know.”

That was the conversation we had on repeat, over and over again. The music box, I wanted to tell him. But I wasn’t even sure if I believed it myself. He threw it away, he said. Had taken it to the dumpster out back and smashed it to a million pieces before scooping up the remnants.

He says that’s what he did. But some nights I dream of a broken ballerina twirling before a sad-eyed girl, and I’m not so sure.