May 10, 2001
The Great Stuff Swap
In comes the summer and out goes my latest boyfriend. He was a great guy, funny, smart and possessing what my mom calls "The Big Three": a job, a car and an apartment. The only problem was that getting his affection was somewhat like getting gasoline during the Carter administration; I could seem to do it only on odd-numbered days.
So I'm somewhat relieved to be single, my fragile self-esteem out of his hands and returned to my own back pocket. There's just the matter of the Stuff Swap.
You see, about four boyfriends ago, I lost a beloved pair of purple flip-flops. They weren't expensive, but it's hard to find a pair that doesn't dig in between the toes. I left them at this guy's place and after waiting a respectable post-break-up three weeks, I phoned to see when I could pick them up.
"Oh, your shoes? I put them in a box with the rest of your stuff and tossed them in the dumpster," he said.
Hate me and never want to see me again, but why toss the flip-flops? I don't want to be that guy. Tossing someone else's property, someone you once trusted enough to leave your moisturizer in his medicine cabinet, that just seems wrong.
Or as it says in "Ethics of the Fathers": "Let your fellow man's property be as dear to you as your own."
I know we're just talking about flip-flops here, but nonreturning seems a close cousin to stealing, does it not? Perhaps my love life has crumbled, but I want to keep my integrity intact.
I don't know that the Ten Commandments had my flip-flops in mind, but what are rules if they don't apply to the small decisions of everyday life? It's not like I sit in front of a bank wondering whether or not to rob it. I don't have occasion to ponder murder or adultery, although I do covet from time to time, I must admit. Being a good person seems to come down to little things, like not taking a chocolate cluster from the bin at Ralph's or telling a clerk he's given you too much change, or returning your ex's flip-flops though you'd rather throw them off a cliff, with her in them.
This is why I've been haunted by the bag in the closet, the one containing my latest boyfriend's things -- nothing much, just some socks, sweatpants and a baseball hat or two.
Still, it's his property. My concern is this: how do I return it without seeming vindictive, or worse, how do I arrange the Stuff Swap without giving the impression that I'm just trumping up some sad excuse for contact?
It's been a couple of weeks now, and the bag haunts me.
I run this dilemma by my friend Anne, who to me is the personification of social grace. Side by side on the treadmill, I tell her I'm doing great since the break-up, that this is my best break-up ever. I tell her I've been waking up with a skip in my step, socializing, working and feeling downright well-adjusted. There's just the matter of the bag in the closet.
And to be perfectly frank, there's my dress, the one I left draped over his bedroom chair. I don't want anything else back, but that's the best dress I've ever owned, a black jersey wraparound that was made for me. Still, I wouldn't care about the garment if it didn't have sentimental value. I won an Emmy in that darn thing, and I want it back.
This particular boyfriend's bedroom was like an ex-girlfriend museum, filled with fossilized remnants of relationships past. There were candles and photos, t-shirts and underwear, lip gloss and barrettes. I don't want my dress to be the latest exhibit, hung in the closet alongside some annoying mini-MOCA billboard: "Once belonged to Teresa Strasser. Nice girl, a little over-emotional. Jersey, black, 2001."
Anne's solution was elegant. Drop off the bag with a nice note when I know he won't be home. She dictated the proposed missive, gripping the treadmill as she spoke. "Thought you might want this stuff back. Hope you're well. All the best."
No petty-sounding mention of "my stuff," just the modeling of good behavior which would likely induce reciprocity.
I love to quote Yeats when he said, "Things fall apart," because they just do: relationships, jobs, things you can't control. The only solace sometimes is that you can control your own level of mensch-hood, step by step, bag of sweats by box of purple flip-flops.