I wrote this for Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s open collaboration project, hitRECord, during a late-night burst of spontaneous creation. If you missed it there, thought you might like to see it here. The prompt was to write about how being dumped can make you feel like trash. Most of the contributions on this theme were quite sad. I tried to go another way.
People who work in waste management can tell you all sorts of fascinating stories about trash. Like how you can dig into a landfill site that’s been closed for twenty years and find old hot dogs that still have teeth marks in them. In the age of recycling and composting and “biodegradable” labels slapped on the toxic brews we use to clean our toilets, we’ve accepted the premise that eventually, everything breaks down. Everything will be reduced, in time, to a safe and simple form. It alleviates the guilt we feel at buying the bottle of water in a moment of extreme thirst and carrying it home in a plastic bag. That’s okay, it all breaks down in time.
You can’t really fault us, either. Few people feel giddy at the prospect of throwing something away. Some part of us knows that yeah, that empty plastic bottle will be here long after I’m gone, compacted beneath truckloads of used diapers and orange rinds and stained furniture with rusted springs protruding from the armrest. But once we’ve tossed the bottle into the bin, once the bin goes to the curb, once the diesel-belching monster has carted it off to parts unknown, do we ever think of it again? Are we sitting in the office one Thursday morning with an idle moment or two when it comes back to us: “Hey, whatever happened to that water bottle? I wonder how it’s doing.” Hardly. And that’s normal. Nothing cruel about it.
By the strictest definition of the concept, the human heart is biodegradable. All living flesh breaks down in time, once the spark of life is gone. But when a heart is thrown away, it doesn’t go to that far-off place lined with trees where the gulls converge in swarms. It lingers in its container, emptied of purpose like the bottle drained of its single serving of water. It beats on despite its wounds. And you can’t really bring yourself to hate the person who tossed it. They didn’t need it anymore. That’s all. It wasn’t an act of wanton cruelty, or a conspiracy of nastiness directed specifically at you, no more than is directed at a banana peel once the good part’s been eaten. There was a relationship, and for a while, it was wonderful. And then wonder became familiar, and familiar devolved into predictable, and predictable broke down further into boredom. The spark dimmed to an ember and snuffed out. Little to do then but shovel the cold ash into the bag.
The waste management guys talk about finding newspapers from forty years ago whose headlines are still clear and vibrant. “Hey, apparently Nixon resigned, did you hear that?” You won’t find hearts in landfills; they remain sealed in the manufacturer’s original packaging. Though it might be sometimes treated as trash, the heart has a singular advantage: it can heal. Biodegradation, in this case, is a choice. You don’t have to break down if you don’t want to. You can love again.