published in Volume 1, Issue 1 on January 15th, 1994
Fortunately, the garbage collectors were late today.
The air was rather soupy, and I had to strain my tired eyes to see through the mist as far as the curb. But, yes, three brown draw-string trash bags sat patiently along the road. A cat worked its way between the bags, sniffing here and there, and I waited to see if it would start clawing its way into the collection of moldy crusts and wilted lettuce. I really didn't care if it did rip the bags. I didn't care about much of anything since what's-her-name left, so why would a cat tearing through my trash upset me? When the cat finally snaked away from the bags, I quietly turned the frigid doorknob and gently leaned into the door until it opened. In the distance, I heard the swish and squeal of the brakes of the truck.
The sun was now behind the row of suburban middle-class houses across the street. The first bag was knotted tightly and, after several feeble attempts to untangle the plastic web, I ripped into the three-ply lining of the bag. If the cat saw me now, it would probably laugh at the irony. If that girl saw me now, she'd yell at me for making more of a mess of things.
The inside of the bag smelled of spoiled milk. The rancid, solidified goo oozed from the rotting carton on to some old newspapers. I had bought the milk about three weeks earlier, when I had begun dating the girl. She was a coffee drinker, so I bought a half-gallon of two-percent for her coffee. I hate milk; I even eat my cereal dry. She had begun to stay over a few nights and had an incredible flare for whining so obnoxiously that it penetrated the flesh and zeroes in on the exposed nerves below. She wanted her coffee every morning, and she wanted it with milk. Or au lait, as she called it. So now for breakfast, she drank her coffee au lait, and I ate my Apple Squares (no lait). And we were content. But then she left, and I went back to an empty bed.
The newspapers, which I hadn't felt like reading lately, were soggy from the milk and felt like they were on the verge of disintegrating in my grasp. Below the newspapers were some crusty paper towels and a salty- smelling, grease-spotted Pringles can. "How can you eat that disgusting crap?" she used to ask--about basically anything I ate. I rummaged through everything but saw no sign of the letter. When I called her last night to ask her to come back, she said it was all in the letter she had left and hung up.
What a mess. I scanned the spread of rubbish around me, hoping once more I'd find the letter. I wondered whether or not this girl was really worth the trouble of digging through the waste left over from the past couple of weeks. I spotted the disintegrated remains of crepe streamers from my birthday party tangled around a few chicken bones. I remember I came home from work that day to find my house decorated with signs, balloons, and streamers, and a cake in the middle of the kitchen table. I laughed; no one had ever decorated for me before. Even my mother had never made a big deal about my birthday. When the girl came over that evening, I hugged her as soon as she stepped in, but she frowned. "Who did this?" she asked, glaring at a couple of balloons that had floated to the ceiling. "This is so childish." I found out later my cousin Stephanie did it. She felt bad because she had forgotten my birthday the year before. "Come on," I said, realizing there was no point in staying up now. "Let's go to bed." The cake could wait until the next morning.
The second bag was no prettier or more fragrant than its predecessor. It proved easier to open, however, and nothing spilled out. I held my breath upon the appearance of a stack of envelopes, the onslaught of white paper catching me off guard. But it was mostly junk mail or bills that had been paid. She always complained that I waited too long to pay my bills after they came in the mail. So this time, I paid them the day they came. I told her that one night in bed, and she shrugged it off as if she didn't care. At night, she didn't care about any of those stupid little things that she whined about during the day. She would suddenly become passionate when she got into bed. And not a complaint out of her until the following morning. I tossed the envelopes aside; the letter was not hiding among these intruders.
Tssh. I could hear the air brakes release on the diesel monster as it closed in on me. The truck was just around the bend. I just then realized how perturbed Gus and Roy would be upon seeing my garbage. They'd probably pass right by my house without a second look. Once, Roy got really pissed off at the neighbors for not fastening their twist ties securely, so he launched the bag across their lawn, leaving behind it a stream of old magazines and watermelon rinds.
I dug deeper into the bag and felt the gritty moistness of coffee grounds engulf my hand. I grasped a piece of paper and negotiated it through the rubbish to the opening in the bag. Not the letter, it was a free offer coupon from my Apple Squares. Two proofs-of-purchase would get me a Kellogg's squeeze bottle. It started to bother me that she just left me with nothing but my Apple Squares, a squeeze bottle, and a carton of curdling milk. With no notice; I mean, don't I deserve at least a week's notice to tie up any loose ends? Like what to do with the milk or whether to buy more coffee. I want to call her a bitch, I try to call her a bitch, but the sounds will not form in my throat and roll off my tongue. The word just sits there and ferments. I keep seeing it, but it won't emerge from its hiding place. It stirs itself around, builds up and transforms into harsher, more sinister words that don't come out either. It's always been like that. She was a bitch. But there must have been sometimes that she wasn't--something that kept me from ending the relationship. I mean, I wasn't necessarily unhappy when she was around, just...frustrated. It got to the point where I would start dinner earlier, eat faster, and get to bed quicker, because there I could be with her without wanting to strangle her.
I crumpled the coupon and tossed it aside. There didn't seem to be anything else resembling paper in the remainder of trash in the second bag. Besides, the fumes rising from the open bag were daring me to relinquish that morning's serving of Apple Squares. The grating sound of Gus and Roy's voices was penetrating the chilly morning as the groaning truck peeked from behind the neighborhood's only brick house.
The third bag was easier to explore. No flashes of white were immediately visible to distract my probing eyes. The trash consisted mostly of the familiar remnants of bachelorhood: TV dinner trays, stale beer cans, an outdated condom. She wouldn't let me wear a condom. She felt it was taking away from the purity of sexuality. She told me it was safe, and I trusted her. Just like I trusted my mother when she told me to hold my breath and dunk my head under the water. It seemed stupid at the time, but I lived through it. And I enjoyed it.
I bought the TV dinners the day after she left me. I had gone through the process of ending a relationship before, so I knew I wouldn't feel like cooking much for a while. I actually told her this when I called her to find out why she left. She laughed. "You've got some problems," she said. I thought that was strange. I thought she had the problems. Salisbury steak, fried chicken pieces (mostly white meat), and turkey dinners still couldn't make up for having someone to spend time with and--I don't know--have sex with.
I heard the crunchy sound of paper as I dug through the bag. It was a wad of wrapping paper from my birthday gift. We were lying in bed about to make love, and she said that we needed some good sex music. I laughed, but she pulled a wrapped cassette from under the covers. It was a Marvin Gaye album--an old one that I didn't have yet. "Happy Birthday," she said. "Let's screw." At least she liked Marvin Gaye. The last girl was a Randy Travis fanatic; before her, a Motley Crue groupie. But Marvin had that special way of making the right sounds, the soul, that went straight from the ear to the pelvis. After that, every night, we'd listen to both sides of the tape and fall asleep to his last song, still sweating, sometimes giggling, always exhausted. Always happy. Morning brought us back though. Back to coffee and dry cereal and whining.
I never found the letter. I suddenly saw myself sitting amidst three half-full garbage bags, the skeletal remains of dinners past and miscellaneous paper products enveloping me. The truck screeched to a slow stop, and Gus appeared from behind the truck, stopping abruptly at the sight of me. Then, with a puzzled expression began to stride slowly towards me. "Find it?" he asked without looking at me, and began to pick up the leaking bags by the ties, thereupon spilling more coffee grounds and crumpled Kleenex to the ground. "How did you--?" I began, my words grasping at the dewy air as I suddenly realized it was obvious that I was looking for something.
"You shouldn't have thrown it away if you still wanted it." He heaved the last bag onto the truck and jumped on and rode away. I knew he was right. I stood up, shaking the garbage off of my hands, and walked towards the house, ignoring the mess. I don't think there was a letter. There never was. She had nothing to explain, so she had no letter to write. I woke up that morning thinking that I had thrown it away accidentally, but there never was a letter. Just a carton of wasted milk. She's gone for good, I knew this now, and I went to the cold sheets of my empty bed.