Self-Portrait in Discards
May 1, 2002
Love as trash: flotsam, jetsam, scum
by E. A. Bagby
xhibit A. One Chicago Blue Bag full of newspapersmostly The New York Times, also The Onion, PerformInk, Streetwiseleaning against shelves by back door, because building does not have a recycling bin and I am hesitant to leave recyclable goods down there without knowing what will happen to them. Obviously cannot maintain this practice indefinitely. Called the recycling hotline, but no one answered. Evidently line is not so hot after all.
Exhibit B. Hanging on doorknob of back door, next to Chicago Blue Bag: one white plastic trash bag with red plastic drawstrings. Contents include clump of hair carded from hairbrush, surprisingly mousy and gray away from head; minimum two apple cores; numerous tissues (used), distinguishable as generic by abrasive coarseness and thinness of paper; one chunk of mozzarella cheese, approximately one-third of size at purchase, bearing the parallel pocks and gouges of a grater along one end and, along the other, creeping growing bull's-eyes of mold in green and white circles; one large block of tofu,
approximately same size as at purchase, slimy and vaguely orange, purchased with best of intentions; indeterminate number of flaccid coffee filters, stained and caked with mounds and streaks of black-brown grounds; one women's sock with large hole in heel, formerly white, formerly relegated to ragbag, now crusted past hope with coagulated dust and dried Murphy's Oil Soap; bitter brown tops of several tomatoes; flattened box that once held house-brand honey graham crackers; various salad greens (from mix originally including spinach, romaine, and something frilly) wilted to black slime; three corncobs, minus kernels; fragile silver wrapper from factory-made toaster pastries; paper-dry tips of numerous green onions; one wrinkled jalapeno, red; two jagged eggshells, imperfectly split, slick and probably hazardous with salmonella; one white Styrofoam container from restaurant, inside coated with orange-ish cream sauce; numerous glossy and matte pieces of mail re: adult education opportunities and Won't You Please Help the Children/Animals/World; numerous scraps of plastic wrap still bearing traces of juice or ooze or condensation; several pieces of breakfast cereal accidentally dropped on floor.
Will toss this down the chute when bag looks ready to tear under its own weight or stench becomes noticeable. Imperfect system: my olfactory powers are limited. What if other people can smell it before I can? What if this is one of those apartments with a characteristic odor and I don't even know it? Many households simply take the trash out every night. But I do not generate enough trash in a single day not to feel guilty (and stingy) about wasting bags.
Exhibit C. Slouching in entryway, next to toaster I meant to return to Sears four months ago: one large white plastic bag from Target, bearing multiple red bull's-eye logos on crumpled sides. Inside: one pair of women's shoes, thongs with wedge heels covered in embroidered red silk, lovely but brutal because thong is patent leather and eats into skin between toes (perhaps I am not doing the poor such a service in passing these on); one pair of blue jeanshand-me-downs from former roommate who was required to purchase them for retail job and never wore them after thatankles embarrassingly wide, and on the short side as well; one pair of dark brown pants that probably never fit as well as I thought they did in college, now too loose at waist, and with same wide/short ankle issue; one kite of pink, orange, and purple plastic, never flown.
Exhibit D. Several pages in blank book, under label A Letter Destined Never To Be Sent, But You Never Know; I May Surprise Myself.
Mr. David Foster Wallace
c/o Back Bay Books
Dear Mr. Wallace:
(Already wrong; thanks to your nonfiction I can't think of you as anything but Dave. Of course that does not mean I know you, or that I will conquer the consequent shyness and reserve with a breach in letter-writing etiquette [lettiquette?], but now I feel I have already introduced an unnecessarily formal and perhaps toxic element into our correspondence, which is admittedly no longer than this paragraph in toto.)
Normally I do not write fan letters. Most of my favorite writers are dead, which makes that decision (i.e., not to write fan letters) easier. ('I.e.' Good Lord. Will stop doing a poor imitation of your style: you have clearly worked hard enough to hone it that you no doubt resent the legions of pretenders to the throne. And I'll bet you get plenty of letterssincerest form of flattery, whateveraccompanied by separate bulging envelopes just to hold the footnotes. I promise no footnotes. It is difficult though. If you have any sensitivity to words at all, you cannot read a master stylist's work and come out unaffected. You read Hemingway and suddenly you're laconic, maybe limping, wanting a drink or a good fistfight or a nurse. You read Nabokov and start assembling and disassembling, dissembling and reassembling all the language at your command, anagrammatizing. I read you and for the next several days or weeks I cannot come to my own writing without feeling as though I'm wearing a sort of psychic charm bracelet, WWDFWW, What Would David Foster Wallace Write?, the hard beads a constant reminder against my skin. [Do charm bracelets have beads? Good Lord, have I just mixed metaphors in a letter to David Foster Wallace? Abort! Abort!]) The point is that, contrary to habit and reason and probably courtesy, here I am writing you a fan letter.
Okay, no, might as well come clean: I developed what you would call a searing crush on you somewhere during A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again.
So now that I have turned what was simply an embarrassing letter into what sounds like the first step of a stalking campaign, well, yes. Your story, 'Octet.' Read that today. That is what made me start writing. You got it; you nailed it: the peculiar, obsessive, but somehow deliberate loneliness of writing fiction; the endless interrogation. Do you ever feel this way? Yes. Of course. Yes. I do. (And to the hovering question, Do you like me? Please like me, I must also answer yes. Immensely, I think.) But this loneliness shrinks a bit simply by being confirmed by someone elseeven a someone else I don't know, a someone else I feel compelled to address with a clumsy formal salutation, a someone else I don't trust myself enough to mail a first draft to.
Fuck it: Dave. Thanks. I saw myself in your story and didn't even mind, and that, I believe, is saying something.
Best. Yours. Sincerely. I hate sincerely.
Spurring the letter's tortured composition: crush refueled by reading of DFW's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, lent unasked by an acquaintance after an evening during which we chatted about DFW and only around the midpoint of which did I begin to suspect that he (the acquaintance) had actually intended it (the evening) for a date. Am deeply reticent about such things, and did not mention the suspicion, and my acquaintance never made his intentions explicit during the evening. But the book-lending, along with a hasty phone message the next day, made it clear.
Horrible subsequent realization (just as I was reading the passage on epiphanies): when my acquaintance lent me this book, there was a yellow business card tucked in it, in the story that consists of future dictionary definitions of date: was that my acquaintance's way of asking for a date?
Oh. Christ. 1) Why did I not figure this out before? and 2) Can or should one feign ignorance about this type of thing? and 3) Maybe I put the card there myself, absently, after I discovered it between other pages, but I don't know that, and 4) Maybe there's some uncompromising passagethe negative equivalent of the Molly Bloom chapter, sayand I can leave the card there when I return the book, because this would let us keep everything safely and un-humiliatingly tacit, but 5) Under no circumstances should I say that I am not interested in him because I am more drawn to men like the author of the book he lent me.
6) How again do we get ourselves into these peccadilloes?
Exhibit E. On the floor in the kitchen, on the other side of the Chicago Blue Bag, one plastic shopping bag from grocery store, full of other plastic shopping bags from grocery store, to be recycled when I remember to bring them back to grocery store. Another imperfect system.
Exhibit F. Scattered across two continents: S., first peck on cheek, notable for having told a mutual acquaintance I was boring, now married to someone else named Liz; O., first French kiss (in France!); B., not former boyfriend but former heartbreakingly massive and awkwardness-inducing high school crush, now married; S., junior prom date, now gay prostitute, which we learned when he appeared on Geraldo; J., senior prom dateI hated prom, I hated all those dances, I don't know why I went, except if you don't it proves you're an outcastnow married; J., first Thing in college, when they became Things; J., notable for having on our only date snuck two cans of Coke and an onion-laden twelve-inch sandwich into the movie theater in the pockets of his jeans, the baggy ones he had worn expressly for that purpose; K., first former Thing to remain a close friend; J./P., now on the other side of the country, and still going by the nickname I gave him; H., apparently crazy now, really and truly delusional in some messianic way; R., first serious marriage proposal (accepted in moment of bliss, then rejected in moment of blinding sanity), probably still smoking too much and doing odd jobs around South County; M., brief, beautiful redemption, now deliberately out of touch so as not to mar the memory; N., beginning of long postcollege slide into despair and regret, now married; D., P., M., Z., M., continuations of slide; A., might-have-been who probably never will be; T., first big confession; D., end of slide; S., demonstration of why one must base dialogue on something more than flirtation; L., very attractive cashier/searing crush at Whole Foods; C., near resumption of slide, notable for numerous semi-legal, dubious, and outright fraudulent activities, most of which I learned about only after our skirmish. (Partial listing.)
Out of sight and often out of mind. There is something grim about modern courtship. Well, maybe there has always been something grim about courtship. Often I think I will simply withdraw into hermitry, emerging every so often to publish impeccable and high-minded novels. Then I slam into crushes like the one on DFW. (Crush is itself an interesting term, containing the idea of destruction, of violence. I picture flower petals, broken, oozing their stained colors.)
DFW. It's tempting, falling in love with another artist. In the few cases when it works, it really works: people nurture each other creatively and also, instinctively, understand each other's special sensitivities and needs, because after all they share those needs. (Of course, lots of artists also share mercurial crankiness, a tendency to leap off into tangents, an overreliance on luck, and penury, which combined can overwhelm all that healthy mutual nourishing of creativity. But the few who succeed keep the rest of us trying. At what other endeavor do people exercise such dumb persistence? Even the folks who pursued flight by strapping Goldberg wings on their arms gave up, eventually, after one compound fracture or craggy ravine too many.)
When I read Rilke's idea of love as the meeting of two complementary solitudes, I fell a bit in love with it. How beautiful, how clean. And what enticing hope it gives me. I come back to that idea often in the early, heady days of a crush. No matter that every coupling I have been half of has ended in the discovery that our two solitudes were not complementaryonly solitary.
Exhibit G. First neighborhood in Chicago. Within ten minutes I remember why I left. Here are the girls in their long sweater-jackets and boots whose heels are too high to walk on, with their cartoonish bent-legged gaits. Here are the boys in leather jackets real and fake, slouching across intersections against the signal, cigarettes pressed behind their ears into the cropped gelled hair. Here is the money and noise and dirt.
Exhibit H. One crush on DFW. Felt it break, felt it crest and collapse and pool. It might rise again, but never in the same way, lined now with the foam of its last falling, brimmed and skimmed with flotsamnever the clean pure swell it was at first, the thing all of us, every time, struggle to reclaim. Maybe nostalgia is endemic to love (or affection, or crushing, or whatever you want to call it).
But it's not the nostalgia I'd expect to feelthe sweet, impossible longing for simpler days elapsed and gone before my birth. No, it's the longing for the simpler moments of my own life, those first uncomplicated breaths of love, before logic, before Things. It's nostalgia for what I have actually experienced. It is fierce and hard.
The people I know who are happy in love are those who have learned to enjoy the complicationsthe flotsam, the jetsam, the bobbing detritus, the old-scum suds and the tangled mysterious grasp of underwater weedsas much as the massive, unceasing swell and ebb beneath them all.
I know no more of DFW than his fictional self: his picture on the back cover; what he has written about himself. People are simpler in fiction. Fiction is reductive; it has to be, or one could never finish writing it, let alone reading it. I think this simplicity is a big part of why we like fiction. Why else would I have drafted a letter like that, made myself a fictionand a simpler oneif not to fall farther into another fiction?
Reduction. That's Rilke's appeal too. With him it is simple. I want very badly to believe that this simplicity is not fiction.
Exhibit I. One yellow business card, printed on cheap stock, removed from pages of lent book and left carelessly atop loose stack of paper (imperfect system), adjacent to ATM receipts and letters exhorting Occupant to switch long-distance carriers or use free gift of enclosed address labels or take advantage of temporary 0% rates, left and shuffled and admixed, to be lost, or tossed, or.
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