Trash is Better

David Albahari

Artwork by Miko Yu

When Magda informed me that everything was over between us, trash is not what I thought of. She told me abruptly, mincing no words, during a dinner when we were supposed to be celebrating our fifth anniversary since we'd started dating. I had just stood up, raised my glass, and declared I'd be making a toast, when she said: "Put down the glass and shut up—I have something important to tell you." Her voice had suddenly become so icy that I felt my ears frost over. I sat, set the glass down, and stared at Magda. I couldn't imagine what she had to tell me and a smile was still playing on my lips. Magda moved over the bottle of wine, the salt shaker, the vase with flowers, the ashtray, everything that stood between us and said: "I think it would be better if you stopped laughing." Her voice was already so cold that I knew I had no choice. With my fingers I corrected my frozen lips and kept looking at her. "This won't take long," she said, and then she went on for more than twenty minutes. She said the things one usually says in such situations: how happy we had been together, how great it was that we had had the chance to get to know each other better, how there were moments she would remember forever, that it was such a shame we had to break up, but life has certain rules and they had to be obeyed. "In short," she said, "this is the end and now I have to go." She moved the ashtray back over between us, stubbed out her cigarette, and left. The waiter came over to the table just then and asked if I'd like something for dessert. "Why not," I said and ordered crêpes with chocolate sauce. The waiter nodded, emptied the ashtray and placed it next to me. There was no one across the table, after all. That, actually, was when trash came to mind.

It all started when I asked for the underwear she was wearing on the evening that we first made love. She hadn't, actually, been wearing any that evening, because during foreplay we had stripped off all our clothes, and when she later wanted to get dressed, I slapped my hand down on her panties and bra and said: "These stay here." Magda protested, she claimed she couldn't walk around town without underwear, but in the end she relented. "Just tell me," she said. "What will you do with them?" I told her the first thing that came to mind: "This is the beginning of the museum of our love."

So that is how I became a curator and kept close watch over Magda and myself. Every slip of paper, the paper napkins, theater tickets, postcards, items of clothing, torn stockings, used chamomile tea bags, spent ballpoint pens, a squeezed-out tube of toothpaste, a badly copied chocolate cake recipe, the bathing suit she wore for our vacation in Greece, cut-out photographs, airplane blankets, empty cans—I brought them all to my apartment and arranged them in boxes, albums, framed them, set them out on shelves. I even had a herbarium in which I pressed flowers and leaves from her plants and the bouquets she had received on various occasions, and in a box I kept the moths I had had to catch as best I could because of her phobic fear of them. In various notebooks and files I kept a pedantic record of all the items: along with their description, I recorded where and how they became a part of the museum inventory, as well as the place they occupied in my apartment. That last entry was especially important because for the five years we dated—i.e. the years the museum was up and running—my apartment had become a warehouse of bags, boxes, files, cabinets, and shelves, or, as I often said to Magda, "a magnificent labyrinth of our love."

Now I was standing in that labyrinth—from which Magda, apparently, had long since found a way out—and stared, astonished, as all of it lost its former glow. What had been, till yesterday, a welcome reminder and record of love, now became the ballast of memories, useless garbage, trash. And while my heart had previously pranced at the very thought of, say, a paper tissue Magda used to wipe sweat from her forehead, now spasms of stench wafted over to me and my nostrils from the bag stuffed with tissues she had used in one way or another and discarded. Love, I realized, is not only blind, it is also deaf, it has congested sinuses, and is bereft of the senses of taste and touch.

My apartment is on the fifth floor of a building that has no elevator. While I lugged out what had until recently been the museum exhibits, my muscles stinging with the effort, I cursed love and Magda and the destiny that brought us together and the thing, whatever it was, that separated us. Myself, naturally, I never mentioned; in the end, as far as I know, this was in no way my fault. True, as the collection grew, I had become more a curator than a lover, but I had done it all for, not against, love. If only Magda had been willing to listen, everything might have turned out differently. Now it was too late. I stood by the container, opened the last box and removed the museum exhibits: Magda's slip with a broken strap; a greasy bag of McDonald's fries (with 'Budapest' written in the corner); Magda's dirty knee socks (two pairs); a large package of condoms (unused—the used ones, at Magda's insistence, I had not saved); the pajamas that Magda had been wearing when she first said she loved me; the doctor's test results when we were sure she was pregnant (and she wasn't); the doctor's test results when we were sure she wasn't pregnant (and she was); a slip of paper on which Magda had written: And you me? (I don't know what preceded that question); and many other exhibits which, one after another, without difference, flew in a broad arc into the container, undergoing, in the process, a tragic transformation from items of museum value to meaningless ingredients of city trash. I was myself astonished at the speed with which love vanishes when the heart is turned inside-out like a sock, though I am sure this was not my fault. Trash is useful, especially what is recycled, but unrequited love is no good for anything. It is draff that can only shackle the heart, nothing more. Trash, actually, is better.

translated from the Serbian by Ellen Elias-Bursac