I was 26 and had just finished my first novel, or technically, novella. It was a crazed, pointless story about a drunken airline pilot with no discernible plot or structure. My main point, or “meta” point, was that books are mostly filler. Was it vital to know that Gary’s shirt was wrinkled, or that there were always little white blotches of spittle at the corners of his mouth, when he does nothing of consequence and we never see him again?
A person’s size matters if they have to cram themselves into an airline seat. He or she had a name if they needed one. The smear of whitewash where some lazy painter had wiped off his roller was important if it helped you to recognize a building. Otherwise, it was just crap. Words to make a book heavy or large or long enough to justify its price. The more time it wasted, the greater the value, because people are idiots. That extra heft represented the author’s effort, and most of us are dictators at heart. Petty bosses who want to make sure that we’re getting our money’s worth.
My book was different. It was maybe 70 pages long and included only what was necessary. Most agreed that even 70 pages was too much, that what little effort had gone into it was a waste anyway.
None of the characters had names. Maybe the few who had actually read it thought that was a part of my gimmick, but it had happened organically. I’m bad at making up names, there weren’t many characters, and the drunk was narrating; a lot of drunks are bad with names. In any case, nobody liked it and it was rejected by everyone.
I had already been writing for long enough to know I was doomed. No one cared what I had to say, and why should they? Who was I?
Anyway, it was at around this time that I heard about a book of grocery lists that had been published. The author hadn’t even written the lists, he’d just found them laying around parking lots or in laundromats. This was before smartphones, when a lot of people still used pens and paper to write things like grocery lists. Most of the lists were banal and had a kind of routine sadness about them. A few were ominous. One read: cheese, mousetraps, glue traps, rat poison, bucket, clorox, one dozen (12) mice, tomatoes, vanilla ice cream.
I liked it more than most of the books I read that year. All of these people we ignore or even actively avoid, a part of us wants to know them, what their inner lives are like, what thoughts are occupying them when they get that off feeling that all of us do. We want to put a reason to it in order to avoid the reason, the nagging truth that we’re really alone, so we buy a dozen (12) mice to torture while we eat vanilla ice cream.
I had an ex-girlfriend who wanted to exchange passwords, the kind of passwords you’re explicitly told to never share with anyone. Email, bank accounts, credit cards. Maybe she saw it as a sign of trust, or wanted to see the extent of our intimacy or of her power over me, or whether I even had anything worth hiding. She said it was for emergencies, that we would never actually use them unless we needed to, for what reason, she wouldn’t say. But I think it was the same impulse that makes us want to read the grocery lists of strangers. She wanted access to that banal but private place that signals an implicit intimacy, the place old couples somehow find themselves without quite knowing how they got there.
She never used mine, at least as far as I know. I changed them all immediately after giving them to her, and she never mentioned them again. I used hers to read her email about a week after she broke up with me. I knew it was wrong and tried not to, but gave in to my desperation in the end. I wanted her back desperately, and while I knew my only chance was to disappear completely, it was almost impossible. I even told her to stop calling me, to stop checking up on me or trying to be friends, and to my horror, she did.
So I read her email. What little there was consisted of a request for an extension for a term paper (a part of the reason she had dumped me was because I was “not conducive” to studying), a reminder to her mom to tell her what she should pick up before she came home to visit, and a thread of messages between her and her ex, the one she had left for me and then returned to. It was full of lovey-dovey baby talk, and the duration between the first messages and the last included the entire time we had been together. This was what she had wanted me to read when she’d first insisted we swap passwords all those months ago, to make our betrayal mutual. She had also made me get tested for STDs, but not for her safety as she had claimed, but to make sure that she hadn’t given me anything. She had known that she had herpes and never told me.
I’m still not sure whether she cared more about me, or about having to tell me about her herpes unless it was absolutely necessary, or already too late. She later told me that she was very embarrassed about having herpes, which in her mind, was a good enough reason not to tell me.
To this day, none of this really makes sense to me. Like the grocery list with the traps and the mice, it’s impossible to be completely certain of what was actually going on. Maybe I was just another item to check off her list, and the test would give her a few more days to decide for sure, or prepare for the breakup. If she decided to stay, we would have to discuss her herpes at some point anyway. She had always been practical in many of the ways that I wasn’t.