9 min read | 2,117 words
It took a month after she left before I was able to empty the bathroom trash, into which she had for the final time during her final moments standing in the bathroom that was still for a brief while longer ours but would soon return, as it had been before she moved in, to being just mine, discarded bits of herself that she had for whatever reason finally decided she no longer needed. Bits of herself from when we were still an us.
A not-quite-empty bottle of hairspray. Dried-up foundation. Miscellaneous scraps of tissue and tape, and Q-tips and workout notes from her gym bag. Things she had been carrying around with her for months, if not years, but had never before felt compelled to get rid of.
(I did not, I should note, view this act of discarding these bits of herself as insignificant. I did not think it to be random; to be nothing. I was certain there was meaning to it, although I was then and am still now unable to identify such a meaning.
And: Upon seeing these bits of herself in the trashcan when I returned home the morning she left for good, I was first bewildered. Why did she get rid of these things now? Why did she get rid of them here and not there, wherever she was going, or going back, to? Was it a subconscious message to me? Or a spur-of-the-moment mini spring cleaning that meant nothing? A literal lightening of her load?
And then, I was incensed. That she would dare to leave behind in my life for me to clean up bits of herself; scraps of her mess — the insensitivity, the gall!)
For an entire month I continued to add my own trash to the pile inside the can, slowly burying the last bits of her with scraps of myself. Eyeliner pencil shavings. A dull razor blade. Entire rolls of toilet paper drenched with my tears.
The pile began to overflow onto the floor, and the air in the bathroom began to give off an odor. Faint and unpleasant. Unmistakably bitter, stale, dirty.
Yet still: I could not bring myself to take out the trash. I could not bring myself to discard so easily or so quickly the last bits of her from a time when we were still an us that she had discarded into the trashcan during her final moments standing in the bathroom that had still for a brief while longer been ours but that had since returned as it had been before she moved in to being just mine.
So I didn’t.
Each day I stood in front of that trashcan and stared at the pile that had overflowed onto the floor. I stood above it and looked down on it. I sat next to it, on the toilet, and looked into it. I lingered at the edge of the bed a few feet away through the door connecting the bathroom and the bedroom, and, once, took a photo of it. A burst of eight photos of it, in full, pathetic disclosure.
And, I kept adding to it. More eyeliner pencil shavings. Another dull razor blade. An additional tear-soaked roll of toilet paper. Until the day the landlord called and said (or threatened as my mind in the moment construed it): I’m going to put the ‘For Rent’ sign in the front yard and will begin showing the house.
Cue panic, cue outrage.
The house, in total disorder and mess, was in no condition to be shown. And even if it were, I could not fathom allowing anyone into a space so personal, so sacred; a monument to a time when we had still been us that was, very intentionally, closed to the public.
And the bathroom, with its pile of stinking, overflowing trash that I could not bring myself to throw away, a breeding ground for judgment I did not want to tempt or indulge or accept.
Never mind that I would have to take the trash out eventually. Never mind that I should have taken the trash out weeks before I did.
It wasn’t just the trash, though.
- The now-empty galvanized steel plant pot that remained near the edge of the right-side sink, which had once held her hygiene accoutrements — her toothbrush and toothpaste, her floss, her nighttime retainer, a comb, Q-tips, extra hair ties.
- The small mirrored dish I had bought for her to place her jewelry in each evening before bed, which I let sit where she had left it in the center of the nightstand that had been hers.
- The framed photo, in the corner of the nightstand that had been hers, of us enjoying a night out during happier times.
And there were:
- The four near-empty bottles of perfume she left on the dresser that I refused to move, or use.
- The two collared dress shirts and sweatshirt hanging in the closet next to a scarf still covered by the clear plastic from the dry cleaner that hung above a pair of her shoes shoved into the corner next to a small sports bag that she left behind. (Whether she left these items intentionally or not, I still do not know.)
- The dozens of photos of us, and us and the kids, displayed around the house.
- The random grocery items she left behind that I would not eat even if she had not left.
- The hours of unwatched shows — our shows — on the DVR, that I left unplayed because how could I possibly watch even a single episode without her?
I could not let any of those things go, or be moved from their place, or watched or consumed, because I could not let her go. I could not let us go. I was driven in those first weeks following her sudden and unexplained departure by an urgent and overwhelming need to preserve every piece of her and of us that I could.
When I started packing the bedroom for our inevitable departure I began by packing out-of-season clothes in suitcases, stacking the full suitcases in the same spot along the wall in the space between the windows where she had readied each evening her gym bag and backpack, both filled for the next day, in an attempt to make it feel like she was still there; that she was still part of this; that she was coming with us, too; that we were going together.
I saved in a stack to which a bit was added each day all of the mail that still came for her, arranged neatly at the edge of the shoe cabinet next to the front door where she routinely placed each evening a container of apple slices and a Quest bar to take to work the following day, in case she ever used the key she twice asked to keep and twice promised to use but never once did.
I found myself noting the cute and funny and surprising things the kids said in my phone to read back to her during dinner; saving memes to show her during shows; bookmarking articles to share with her in bed; learning of new shows to watch with her before bed; reaching for my phone to send her a photo of the kids' art projects or a text with my daughter's big soccer news.
I began wholly unconsciously to buy things of the sort that she used to use, things of the sort she likely still uses, being careful, I realized only later, to not purchase the things of the sort exactly as she uses them; being careful, I realized only later, to buy a different brand, or scent or size, in an attempt to justify my purchases, to label them “acceptable”; being careful, I realized only later, to retain the essence of such things of the sort that she used to use, things of the sort she likely still uses, so as to retain the essence of her.
I found myself waking up night after night on her side of the bed, face buried deep into the pillows she had slept with, pillows whose cases were faintly stained with remnants of mascara from nights she was too tired to wash her face and that I could not bring myself to clean even after they stopped smelling of her, unable to fall back asleep once waking enough to realize the space into which I now found myself, the space into which I drifted while asleep, was a space that had at one time, for years, each night held her next to me.
I continued to buy her cards and flowers and small packages of the candies she likes, all of the “just because” gifts we enjoyed surprising each other with, which ended up in a pile on the kitchen island instead of in her hands because she never did come home again; she never did use the key she twice asked to keep and twice promised to use; she never did reply to my texts, which I stopped sending a month before we were to leave, which was two months after she left; she never did agree, or attempt, to see me before we were to go.
And still I waited each night from the time she left until the time we were to follow suit for her to come home, momentarily paralyzed by every set of brake lights that shone outside the living room window, drowning even months later in a pathetic and suffocating amalgam of hope and grief, staring at her empty parking spot while unsuccessfully trying to will her truck to reappear in it and her into the living room, on the couch next to me.
And it wasn’t just me.
There were also the kids.
The crying spells that lasted for weeks and the waiting by the window for her to come home that lasted for months. The unsolicited comments and questions I continue to get all these months later, and which I continue to be unable to handle or answer: I miss her. When’s she coming home? Why did she leave? I miss her. Is she still our family? When’s she coming home? Will she know where to find us when we move? Is she moving with us? Why not? I miss her. When’s she coming home?
And it wasn’t just the kids.
There were also the neighbors; coworkers; grocery store clerks; the UPS guy; fellow parents from the kids’ daycare and school; the library staff; the friends of friends of friends who didn’t know she’d left me who would ask upon running into me how she was doing and when did we all want to get together; my family; and, eventually, even the landlord.
It was encounters with these people with which I struggled so severely. Alone at home, alone in my mind, I was able to retain the pieces of her and of us that I was not yet ready to let go of; to perpetuate the delusion that she was coming back one day; that this wasn't real, that this wasn't really happening. But out in the wide open world among all those other people I couldn’t pretend, I couldn’t hide. My fragility, my faults, my failure: exposed. I knew the truth was out there, yet I was unsure which version of it she had chosen to circulate. I didn't know how to navigate what felt an unfamiliar territory over which I had zero control and with which I was ill-equipped to respond.
I didn’t know what to say to most people so, often I said nothing; so, often I put myself in a position not to have to say anything. I intentionally avoided such encounters by avoiding the people and the places from when we were still an us. When avoidance didn't work I rambled off vague non-answers that were neither committal nor revealing, always feigning a degree of disinterest or hurriedness or, daringly, collectedness.
Three months later I still don’t know what to say to most people, and so three months later I still mostly say nothing, my silence still predicated almost exclusively by purposely avoiding the people and the places from when we were still an us.
Three months later and it doesn’t hurt any less, but it’s begun to hurt less often, a realization and a feeling that is, in both contexts, relieving and also startling.
Three months later and I’ve finally emptied the trash, if not once a week at least more than once.
This essay was started in late April (hence the references to it only being three months post-breakup), and its ending inspired last week's essay, Onward. This essay overwhelming received the most "please share this one next" votes, followed closely by all of the other three. I'm working on finishing up the rest of those ones and will most likely just share them in the order I finish them.