The trash bag’s heavy and stinks like hell. He put off taking the trash out all day, too lazy to do it when it ought to have been done, choosing instead to push the trash into the bin, packing it in. When he finally pulled the bag out, it tore and the entire weekend spilled out on the floor: the eggshells from the pancakes he made; the prize his kid got at a birthday party, which promptly broke five minutes after he started playing with it; the wrapper from the chocolate bar he gave him to make up for the crappy toy breaking; the baby’s diapers and an empty can of baby formula. Just two days ago the baby swung his bottle and hit his dad’s nose so hard that it swelled to three times its original size, until he finally had to concede to his wife’s urging, go to the ER and admit the humiliating truth: His son, not yet a year old, had broken his nose.
He’s a battered father. The x-rays showed it was just a crack, not a full-blown break, but the dialed-down diagnosis in no way lessened the degree of embarrassment. As he quietly cursed and collected the trash in a new bag, his wife walked into the kitchen and stood over him, infuriated. The torn bag disclosed his crimes. “Why can’t you sort? Organic goes to the compost, recyclables get recycled, and everything else goes in the trash − how hard is that?”
It’s not hard, he thought silently, because actually answering was just too taxing; it’s not hard, it’s tedious. All organic trash is supposed to go into a big plastic container by the sink and from there to the composter. Except they don’t have a composter. She wanted to get one and put it on the terrace, but then she heard that the small ones aren’t very effective, so she decided to get a permit to put a big one in the building’s common area, a little patch of grass near where they park their cars. Except such a move requires all the neighbors to give their permission, and one of them is being difficult. In short, she spends endless energy and so far nothing much is actually happening.
However, their downstairs neighbors, the ones from the ground-level apartment with the backyard − they have a composter. And the neighbor-wife invited his wife to bring over their organic waste whenever they feel like it. So now you not only need to sort, you also need to go knock on the neighbors’ door and make some sort of small talk, because it turns out it won’t do to just go and hand your neighbors a bag of trash; it’s neither civilized nor community-oriented. And environmentally aware people are both.
Another result of this trash-based relationship is that the neighbor-husband really wants to make friends with him, always chatting him up beyond the required minimum. He’s a designer of something. Everyone’s designing things nowadays. Industrial? Interior? Interactive? In-something. And he seems like a nice guy, but Ben just doesn’t have the energy; he has no energy for someone new. Man, he can barely manage maintenance on the people who are already in his life. So he hates having to deliver the organics to the Composts. But if his wife goes it means that as soon as she returns he’ll have to listen to 15 minutes about how aware they are.
It’s an organic Catch-22. So this is why he sometimes sneaks eggshells and carrot peels into the general trash − his consistently conservative friend, who merely demands a non-community-oriented escort to the dumpster on the curb. But now he’s been caught and his wife would like to know what his problem is: Is he opposed to environmental awareness? Again he answers only in his head, insisting that no, he’s not opposed, as a matter of fact he’s very much in favor of environmental awareness, yet he can’t help but notice that he’s part of her environment, too, and she doesn’t seem very aware of him, does she?
And even if he doesn’t believe in it, she adds, despite the fact that they watched Al Gore’s movie together, and it’s such a shame that he didn’t get to be president, but even if he (Ben, not Al Gore) doesn’t believe in it − isn’t the fact that she believes in it reason enough for him to at least make an effort? He just doesn’t want to fuck around with trash all day long, he says, continuing to silently argue his case, knowing his silence is driving her mad and yet unable to extract himself from its protective cover.
The only thing he wants to do with trash is throw it out. He seems to be overwhelmed by the urge to throw things out lately: paperwork, kitchen appliances, toys. If he could, he’d empty the house out, from top to bottom.
Outside it’s cold and quiet. There’s that weird winter dusk that descends at 4:30 in the afternoon. The dumpster is stuffed. Weekends create a lot of garbage for everyone. He flings the bag inside, its strings pressing white creases into the reddish palm of his hand. He slams the lid shut and starts back down the alley. But suddenly, on a whim, instead of going home he turns and goes into the neighbors’ yard. Their blinds are shut and at first he thinks they’re not home. But then he hears them. A loud fight is flaming between Mr. and Mrs. Aware. Ben can’t make out words, but there’s no mistaking the intonations. Why is life not as we expected it to be?
He quietly brushes by the wind chimes and reaches the back corner, opens the large plastic cover and climbs into the composter. After all he, too, is organic trash. It’s lovely inside. Dark and warm, and the compost has a good earthy smell. And it’s quiet. Like a backward womb; instead of becoming, you come undone. Suddenly, he’s overwhelmed with longing. An eggshell cracks under his elbow and he wonders whether the eggshell misses the egg yolk and the egg white, the wholeness that once was. And he wonders whether that’s what she’s trying to do, his wife − his sweetheart whom he misses so − is she trying to block extinction?
And then it happens. He decomposes. A wonderful heat wave runs through his body and he sees his fingers become soft and moist and brown, crumbling into the compost. He hears his wife’s voice calling his name. Carefully, upward-inflected: “Ben ...?” As if checking to see if he even exists, if he ever existed, or whether she hallucinated the past decade.
Like a child in a game of hide-and-seek he pulls his shoulders in, trying to shrink himself, not sure whether he wishes to be caught or remain hidden. He hears quick steps; his wife’s feet in her soft boots. She lifts the lid and he expects to be voraciously told off, but surprisingly she smiles − a wide, loving smile. Ancient memories fill the space between them and something seems to twinkle in her eyes.
She reaches in and caresses the leaves covering him, slowly and with the same care she used to dedicate to the cotton of his underpants before exploring what’s inside them. She fondles his clods of earth, massaging them, then brings them to her nose and smells them. Suddenly her breath feels familiar again.
“Oh my darling,” she says. “Thank you, my love. You know how important this is to me.”
This time he answers out loud. “Yes,” he says, biodegrading between her warm fingers, “I do.”
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