The last time he had seen a haul this boring was over a month ago. Leafing through discarded fruit peels and junk mail, Lionel thought that this trash day might be a bust – he did not enjoy touching half-eaten food any more than the rest of the human population did. The lack of interesting goodies left him distressed; it was not often that her trash failed to disappoint. Devastated, he pushed her disposed shampoo container to the side and took a seat on the dark floor.
It was one of his hobbies, going through her trash. A hobby which he did not find a bit out of the ordinary, at least no more than others’ obsessions with collecting stamps or playing guitar. She had a hobby, too, from what he could tell: every trash day, there were heaps of melted wax mixed in amongst her general muck, the smell of which led him to believe that she had a passion for homemade candles. She lived on the seventh floor of his apartment building, and all their trash went to the same room in the basement, so it was easy for him to sneak in. Lionel always went at the same time – 4:00 A.M. on Wednesday morning, right before the trash was taken out to the curb by Sheldon.
Sheldon didn’t mind Lionel being in the trash room, even though it was technically his job as doorman to ensure the relative safety of the residents. Lionel guessed that Sheldon himself might partake in the same kind of activity late at night, in the privacy of the sleek darkness.
While examining a clump of used tissues – she must have had a cold this week – Lionel thought of last week’s prizes. It had been one of the best weeks of his life. She had had two empty Jack Daniels bottles in her recycling bags, his first clue that something was wrong. And it only got better from there.
See, her trash was different. Interesting. Ever since he had accidentally ripped open her trash bag two years previously, he had been hooked. The sight of not one, not two, but five negative pregnancy tests spilling onto the trash room floor lit up his imagination and his hands moved without his mind’s permission to sort through the rest of the mess. After a half hour of getting lost in a half-pieced together narrative of the girl who lived two floors above him, that doorman Sheldon had walked into the room. He surveyed the scene for a few moments: there were salty tissues, punctured trash bags, and empty yogurt containers littering the floor around Lionel, who stared back at the doorman with innocent raccoon’s eyes. After a moment of contemplation, Sheldon had ducked his head in a neighborly nod and backed out of the room, avoiding eye contact.
Because of the rude interruption, Lionel forced himself to create very specific regulations under which he could indulge his craving. First off, he could only go once a week; there were technically more opportunities to sort through the trash, because she brought two bags down every week, but he needed order. He needed to know that he could quit if he wanted to. Yet he still found himself living for the small hours of Wednesday mornings, despite all the measures he took to ensure it wouldn’t consume him. Second, he could only spend an hour (at most) in the trash room. This was a practical rule, since there was a larger chance that he might be caught if he stayed longer. In addition, the strong scent of the trash room might stick to his clothing with prolonged exposure, another thing he didn’t want to risk. Lastly, and perhaps the most important rule of all, Lionel could never take anything from her trash. He could examine it for an hour, but at the end of that hour he needed to put everything back.
Last week, Lionel had dug around desperately, trying to find out why she was so upset. It broke his heart that his pretty, quiet neighbor, the one with the tortoiseshell glasses and the high brown ponytail, would feel prompted to drink so heavily, especially since it was rare for her to discard even a single beer bottle. His worry grew until he unearthed an item at the very bottom of the trash bag. There, he found the answers he he had been looking for. He fingered the slightly soggy paper of the envelope with care, recognizing its fragility. It was postmarked 3 days prior, and sent from someone named Simon. Although Lionel himself would never think of throwing out a letter, he could forgive her for this action, as it bestowed upon him the insight he craved so deeply. It was short and curt, and read:
I’m sorry we ended things the way we did. If I could go back and change things, I would. Nora was just a distraction, and I never meant for her to come between us. I know that she was in the picture for almost two years, but I want to assure you that the time we spent together was still real for me. Please pick up my calls. I still love you, and I’m willing to fight for you.
Lionel’s jaw was left ajar. Had this “Simon” been cheating on his lovely neighbor for two years? It certainly seemed that way. And she seemed hurt: the Jack Daniels and the tissues were more than proof of that. How many times had this man walked past him in the halls of their building? Would Lionel be able to pick him out of a lineup? As his mind raced to conclusion after conclusion, Lionel’s blood picked up its sluggish pace, and he felt an unnatural heat.
How had he never figured out her name? Danielle. So dainty, so pure. After two years of filtering the garbage of this woman’s life, he had only now learned her name. ‘What’s the importance of a name?’ Lionel asked himself. ‘I’ve loved her all the same without one.’ Yes, and yet now he used ‘love’ freely, whereas before he had only hinted at it to himself. Danielle. Without even stopping to consider the ramifications, he pocketed the note and strode out of the trash room. He had broken his cardinal rule, but his joy colored the miserable sky a cerulean blue and everything he ate while the note rested in his pocket tasted like young grass – alive, vibrant, free.
After having broken this most important rule, his determination to uphold the other two crumbled like Danielle’s half-eaten coffee cake. He felt this desire to finish the puzzle, to get to the end of the mystery, to figure out who Simon was and what he had done to her. The week slithered along, Thursday blending into Friday. The weekend was the most taxing: Lionel had nowhere to go, no obligations, no work or companionship to busy his mind, and the trash room was just five measly flights of stairs beneath him. He decided to leave the apartment building to keep his mind off of the uncovered treasure trove beneath the staircase, and yet everything he saw brought images of her small, supple body dancing through his mind. There was a store with 15% off holiday candles, there was a happy couple exiting a baby goods store, there was a squirrel with a peculiar loop to its tail that reminded him strongly of her ponytail bobbing up and down as she ascended the stairs before him.
The suspense had risen too high, and Lionel could no longer deny himself the pleasure. That was how he found himself on the floor of the garbage room a day earlier than usual, surrounded by the disappointing remains of her week: an empty carton of milk, a magazine, and copious amounts of cherry pits. There was only one bag today, a curiosity Lionel did not give a second thought to in his haste. Catching sight of his watch, Lionel’s mind spun – he had already spent over an hour breathing in the unfiltered air, and was due at the office by 6:15. Driven half mad by the lack of information he had been so desiring for the past six days, he tore into the bags with earnest, his fingers quivering, his heart beating out a song of love and yearning that could not be silenced. Feverish and desperate, he resolved to find something in that one bag which might suffice. Yet still his fingernails caught on insubstantial fruit peels and pencil shavings, spirals which mimicked his blood cycling in his veins, his mind warping over and over.
Nothing was enough to satiate Lionel. Nothing ever would be.
The minute hand wrapped itself around the origin three times, four, but still Lionel could not find what he hunted for. Something in the air changed, just then, and a sliver of light painted itself across the pitch-black floor, growing steadily. Lionel was mildly angry. Why should Sheldon come into the trash room now? The doorman’s duty entailed picking up the trash Wednesday afternoon, and today was only Tuesday morning. No, Lionel decided, this could not be Sheldon. The silhouette that was outlined in the light of the doorway was too small, too gentle. Then, in the split second before she turned, it dawned on him.
Yes. There she was. As beautiful as ever. Her brown hair was tied up in a pink elastic, aside from one strand which had evaded capture and now wrapped itself around the contour of her cheeks. Her body was enveloped in a gray sweatshirt. The signature tortoiseshell glasses she normally wore were pushed up onto her forehead, so he could see that her eyes were rubbed raw. She looked even more girlish as a result, a sprite of the woods. One could never guess what Lionel knew about her from first glance. She carried the second trash bag, the bag he had not bothered to wait for in his thirst to begin.
Lionel was cross-legged, with her muck spread across his lap, cradling her now void trash bag. He had a redness in his eyes, perhaps brought about by the redness in his mind. The heat in the little room seemed only to intensify, and Lionel sensed that the only thing which would ice his steaming body was her presence, so he reached out toward her as if he were blind.
He said the only thing he could think to say.
Hannah Berman is a sophomore at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT and hails from Brooklyn, NY. Her past writing credits include publication in Blue Marble Review and Stone Soup Magazine, and in the fall, one of her short stories will be featured in the Mangrove Journal. She has won several Scholastic Writing Awards, and was one of three recipients in the NYC area of a Gold Key for her Senior Portfolio. She was also recently named a semifinalist in the Durango Arts Center Short Play contest, and another of her plays won the Region 1 competition at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.