It’s a long story, but who’s in a hurry. You? Not me. I’ve got nothing but time, as the song goes. Plus, it’s a good story with a hell of a good start: a tony address and an urban zip code. I was hand picked, the perfect gift for the right kind of female person. And I’m not exaggerating when I say it was a brilliant match. We adored each other from the start. My Girl took to me at first glance and from then on we went everywhere together. We were scholars, filled with serious matters: a biology text, advanced lit papers or A+ essays on historical themes. From the beginning, we were heavy into math proofs and religious meditations. We were originals – thinkers, not regurgitators. And we were active. We joined the swim team and every day went to the gym. I waited patiently in steamy locker rooms while My Girl tore up the pool. Ditto for soccer and lacrosse season. We were versatile, well-rounded and well-known.
I admit that over time, I may have become a touch self-important, a bit conceited and braggy, but deservedly so. After all, I was your basic show-off accessory, though I’d nix the term “accessory.” Without me, she was going nowhere. I was, let’s say it, indispensible. And did I say good-looking? I had that unstructured, slouchy ‘90s look, offbeat but rakish, artsy but classic. My canvas walls were salmon pink with botanical flourishes. My straps were genuine cowhide leather, soft and bendy, with brass buckles. All her friends commented, “Love your bag.” I was undeniably hot.
For three years, we performed with all due diligence. We carried a full academic load, not to mention those extra-curricular essentials that pushed me to capacity: assorted pens, key chains, IDs, coins, intimates and cosmetics. Not that we needed make-up. My Girl had a natural sheen, a healthy glow, with the rare eruption of teenage zits that she poked and popped. “Don’t get that mess on me,” I screamed. I observed that the make-up, even when it wasn’t needed, was part of the “got to fit in” teen wardrobe. And she wanted to fit in.
Then my girl added something that made me forget about the make-up scam. She added birth control pills. They came in those ugly neon-plastic cases that looked like UFOs. Not that I’m a prude, not that I wouldn’t rather be “safe than sorry,” but wasn’t she a little young?
“This is just high school, eh? Wait till college,” I nudged. “Get some judgment,” I urged. Because here’s the kicker – for a smart girl, she was stupid, lacked perspective when it came to the opposite sex, and she was extra dense when it came to sorting out the creeps from the ordinary jerks. Okay, so some guy was handsome, a senior, “the coolest guy on campus,” but he was so not for her. A thug, not a prince. “Find a prince,” I begged.
“Oh, Gracie,” I heard some girlfriends say, “Everyone has a crush on Alex, and he wants you. You’re so lucky.” Our girl was flattered, seduced, set up. So I thought about those pills she stuck in my pocket. I considered my options. I could “lose” them. I could topple “accidentally” and dump them on her mother’s feet. And speaking of her mother, I must say it took self-control to keep my flap shut and not tell. Hell, I knew she was doing “it,” way before that mother, who was so clueless. Had to study late? Helping a friend? Weekend cleanup crew? Give me a break!
But it wasn’t so much the sex, what with all those hormones, liberal philosophy and peer pressure. It was that bully she was seeing. Once he even made fun of me. Said I was “hippy-dippy.” Then put his stinky sneakers in me, stretching my seams to the max. We didn’t say things like “abusive” then. We didn’t say “date rape,” either. Eventually, she was afraid to say no. Then one time, she did say no, No and NO again, said it loud and clear, and still he didn’t listen, forced himself on her. After that, she took us home. Said “NO and goodbye forever.” What a relief.
She recovered. Went on with her studies and sports, ignored the boys for a brief time. Too brief, I thought. Her senior year, things got even more exciting. She wrote her college essay and read it out loud. It was something about her grandfather’s life as a revolutionary and as a Communist organizer. She talked about how he died just before she was born, but she shared many of his ideals. “Whoa,” I said, “go easy on the politics. Didn’t he go to jail and stuff?” But everyone else seemed to think that, as college essays go, it was a standout piece.
Then we started to travel a lot. Did the college tours, circulated and saw places. Flew to the Midwest. Didn’t like the Midwest. We visited small, green liberal arts colleges. Liked the small, green liberal arts colleges. A bit la-de-da suburban, maybe; after all we were used to meadows and rolling hills. Way to go, I said, when she got all those acceptances and chose the one with its own lakefront. And then the unimaginable happened. Something I didn’t – no, couldn’t – see coming. It wasn’t in my nature to envision heartbreak. I missed the clues, remained oblivious.
September. She packed her trunk, including the new sheets and towels, her own music system, and some favorite photographs her mother framed for her, and drove away. The only thing she didn’t take was me. Never even looked back. Left me hanging in her bedroom closet. Hung me out to dry, so to speak. Shut the door. Just like that. Gone. I found out later that I had been replaced; I was “upgraded,” I heard someone say. By what? I’ll tell you what – a monochromatic, spiny lug with hideous zippers and chains. That’s what. Not a touch of originality. Not a touch of class.
For months and months, I lived in solitary confinement. Left in the gloom with dusty boxes and deflated soccer balls for company. What did I have in common with dollhouse furniture – those miniature kitchen cabinets, for god’s sake? I was cooped up with discards and dullards. At least she didn’t give me away or send me off to Goodwill. Gave me a little hope, it did. Just be patient, I told myself. She’ll come to her senses. But even when she came home and once in a blue moon opened the closet, it was as if I were invisible. I had become a nobody. “Hello, I’m here. I’m here.” Not a glance or a touch. But did I fade or grow mold? I did not. I was careful not to take on moisture, not to strain at the neck or lose my muscle tone. Just in case.
And then “just in case” happened. The mother, that clueless mother, came searching for something and found me. She opened the closet, stared in my direction, groped my torso and pronounced, “You’ll do.” As the mother lifted me off the hook, my canvas pleats puffed with hope. Okay, I thought, it wasn’t college, but the mother was a music teacher, liked craft fairs and hiked. It could be interesting. But then I noted what was going into me and it wasn’t promising: Sunscreen? Three tubes of sunscreen – for the face, for the body, and for extra dry skin. Sunscreen with numbers? What did she think I was – a beach bag?
OMG. I was a beach bag. That was it, my fate. I was a temp worker, a seasonal employee, a summer recruit. And let me tell you, it wasn’t the proverbial “day at the beach.” The sun did a number on my complexion; my pockets filled with sand; my skin got coated with greasy ointments and food particles got stuck in my crack; even my straps frayed and my buckles rusted. It was a shameful demotion and yet I had no choice. I served, summer after hot summer.
One summer, resting under an umbrella, with my straps spread out underneath me, who do you think should trip over me, almost fall on his face? It was that creep, the one from our high school days. He had those same juvenile long bangs over one hooded eye, the down-turned mouth, the predatory crouch. “Alex,” I sneered. He looked me over, then scanned the landscape looking for her. Hoping, I guessed, to see her again. I heard he tried to hook back up with us, offered a limp apology, as if nothing much had happened, but she turned him down flat. Yeah, my girl. And the best part: did I mention that as he walked away, he punctured his toe on my slightly buried buckle? He whimpered. I chuckled. “Up to date on your tetanus shots, buddy?”
In the meantime, My Girl had graduated and moved to New York, then Seattle, then Montreal. She sold real estate, went to med school, and worked with Doctors Without Borders in Africa. She almost married, but then the guy turned out to be another spineless wonder afraid of commitment. She got rid of him just in time, but she still hadn’t learned to choose the good ones. I could have warned her, but I was in the closet, wasn’t I?
My closet, by the way, had come into some changes. It received shelves, neat and orderly floor-to-ceiling shelves. On the shelves were labeled containers, each with a purpose. There were archived folders, arts and crafts supplies, toys and games. Boggle lived next door to pick-up sticks. Felt squares abutted knitting needles. Grandkids came to poke around inside. New glue sticks got sorted along with Magic Markers. Poetry lived amid the prose.
Then into the prime real estate moved a new resident, a bin that contained family photographs, four generations spilling out of black-paged albums. Broken binders, loose corners and runaway ancestors that the mother promised to rehabilitate one day. Slow to get to her projects was how I came to cohabitate with history. Which is also how I came to know a few juicy secrets and hear some terrific stories. Better than college. Heated political arguments you wouldn’t believe. Some of those folks were actually card-carrying Communists. “Reds,” they called themselves. And could they talk. Talk a blue streak:
“We should have been more open-minded, not so rough on the Socialists or even the Trotskyites,” some guy would say.
“Are you crazy? Trotsky was a madman and the socialists were all talk. Get your head examined,” muttered his cronies.
“We were the ones who stood up to fascism and Jim Crow. One out of three folks was unemployed and suffering foreclosures ‘cause of unscrupulous bankers. Where were the Socialists then? Yakking, that’s all. Yakkety-yak. Nah. We did what we had to do.”
“Remember that time we were organizing the grapefruit workers in California and got chased by the sheriff and his band of thugs?” asked the Mensch. (They always called that guy a mensch.) “It was bare knuckles then. We barely escaped with our lives. Those were tough days, all right. ”
Then they’d go on about their Harlem rent strikes, their miners’ strikes in Kentucky, and the West Coast longshoremen. No corruption in those West Coast unions, they boasted. Just hard-nosed tactics. They loved to go on about hard-nosed tactics. You’d think it all still mattered, that it was today they were so hepped up about. “Take it easy,” I’d say when they got to shouting. “It was a long time ago, gentlemen and ladies,” I said. I didn’t want to leave out the ladies, though they called each other “dames.” “We were some tough dames,” they boasted. But the worst was when they started to dwell “on their grave mistakes.”
“We knew Stalin and his purges were happening. Sure we knew. Shouldn’t have kept quiet. Shouldn’t have made excuses. Should have just broken with the Soviets. Such excuses we made.”
“Shut up. We had a great faith in Communism – the classless society, the end of war, poverty, hunger and the promise of worldwide equality. Of course there were some excesses. So we lived on hope. ”
They all got depressed then. Started moaning, conducting their own purges. “Stop,” I begged. “Tell me again about the time Paul Robeson sang for the masses. Tell that one about the garment workers and all those fiery ladies marching, waving their banners and hats, shouting: “One, Two Three, Four, We don’t want another war…”
Sooner or later, it worked and they started back with their victories. It was entertaining as hell. So, actually, now that I think about it, I’m learning to like retirement, especially when those old farts go at it.
My birthday. Twenty-four years today. My Girl turns forty. I hear she’s about to get married to a nice guy, finally. And let me tell you, the mother still goes to the beach. She’ll haul me out any day now, shake me out, give me an awful spin in the laundry and then restock me with those damn tubes of sunscreen. No more number fours, though; it’s all double digits, fifteen, thirty, fifty.
Wait a minute, what’s this? Someone just dropped a banana in me? A banana is in me, you guys. Don’t forget there’s a banana in me. Don’t put me back in the closet without double-checking. Hello? Hello? Anyone? I don’t do fermented bananas. This is no way to treat the elderly. Help.”
Author’s Comment: What prompted this story, what jumble and fragments of things prompted this story? The back pack of course. My daughter’s upcoming wedding. The way memories make themselves heard as you attempt to clean out a closet. Stop you in your tracks. Need to be heard. All those things and more.