On Saturday Amber woke up in her new apartment from her first deep sleep in months. When she ambled over to the kitchen to make some coffee she happily felt like it was her millionth morning there and not her first. But when she ran the tap, the water did not swirl downward. Instead, it filled up the sink with a defiant quickness that startled her and when she ran the disposal, it only churned in a way that was taunting not helpful. It was then Amber came to realize that her drain was clogged.
Amber texted the landlady who told her to call the super who then called a handyman. Unavailable until after the weekend, the handyman called a man he knew who could fix the problem. The man’s name was Stan and the handyman knew that Stan would be the perfect man for the job.
Stan showed up an hour later. When Amber let him in, she felt a touch of pride that everything was in order in spite of it only being her second official day in her new home. (She was also quite relieved that her closets were big enough that they could hide most of the mess she still had left to organize into oblivion.) Stan hardly noticed. Stan knew it didn’t matter what was laid out in front of him. He was a man who had seen the inside of a lot of places and reserved his judgments for elsewhere. (He had also heard the slam of the closet doors as he waited for Amber to let him in.)
But Stan was there to help and Amber had the look of a woman who needed more than just a little bit of help.
Now fully caffeinated, Amber chirped and whistled while retelling her morning discovery and the alarm that she felt about her new drain. Stan nodded silently; only asking for a plastic bag when he thought Amber was done. (In reality she was only pausing for breath but after seeing his blank look, she decided less was more in this particular case.)
Stan opened up the white plastic bag beneath his large black boots like the underbelly of a flayed fish.
He pushed up his sleeve and reached down into the murky water until he touched the disposal. Grunting, he began to pull out a thin shiny black string of some sort that seemed to go on and on and on; except it wasn’t a string because it was flat with a kind of metallic sheen. Stan was careful not to get tangled up in it and Amber wondered out loud if he had ever seen such a thing. Stan did not reply. He knew the question was more a comment than an inquiry and that his answer did not matter. After what seemed like a shorter version of forever, a clear case with pink, blue, and yellow graphics emerged like the tip of an exclamation point dangling from the bottom of the polyester plastic film. The Memorex logo still legible, Amber knew what this endless strand was.
It was a mix tape. Specifically a mix tape that a boy in high school had made for her during her Freshman year. The boy was named Tony and, well, Tony hadn’t actually made it for Amber but for himself. He had given it to her out of guilt a few days after the two had played a game of quarters that resulted in Amber & Tony drunkenly “doing it” on the unmade basement bed of Amber’s best friend, Lissette. But the simple “groping-gone-too-far” had been made even more complicated by the untold truth that Tony was secretly in love with Lissette who, unknowingly to Amber and Tony, was secretly in love with Amber. Tony had felt saddened by the whole experience and, inspired by the potential loss of two friendships, had made this tape he proudly titled, “Two Sides of the Same Coin.” Filling one side with heartbreak and angst and the other with anger and angst. Having not seen the tape in years, Amber suddenly remembered it had meant the world to her back then. She would scan the music and the lyrics (and especially the angst) for some insight into Tony but found the deeper she dug the less she saw.
The plumber dropped in onto the white plastic like the pile of nothing it had really been.
Oh, now I feel foolish, she said.
Don’t worry about it, said Stan.
You’d be surprised how often I see this kind of thing.
Stan returned to the sink and dug even deeper; his arm seemingly impossibly long as it disappeared down the drain. Slow and steady.
Next Stan pulled out a book. Amber, mouth open and still in shock at the resurfacing of Tony’s synthetic offering, recognized the well-worn copy of Nietzche’s HUMAN, ALL TOO HUMAN immediately. She had purchased the book on the recommendation of some unidentifiably handsome boy. He had brought it up one white winter morning while they stood huddled about sharing cigarettes and witty quips in between classes, making her run to her college bookstore straight away to buy it with her student loan voucher. For the rest of the year it lived inside her bag so that Amber could diligently pull out the dog-eared copy whenever she felt appropriate. She would open it up with dramatic nonchalance, wrapping the cover around itself and staring intently while pursing her lips over a cup of black coffee (or feeling existentially deep, around a smoke) but never actually reading a word. To be honest, Amber had no clue what it was all about, as she hadn’t even gotten past the foreword.
Good book, Stan commented as he threw it down amongst unfurled, and now silenced, soundtrack of her youth.
This time it was Amber’s turn to grunt in reply.
Stan turned his broad back to Amber and went back to work. He paused for second and his arm swirled as if he were noodling a catfish until he pulled out a soaking wet pile of cards and day-glo post-it notes. They dropped down with a wet smack onto the growing pile.
Amber came closer and grabbed a chopstick from the drawer. Peering down at Stan’s feet, she began to poke through the accumulation of her life’s chaos.
At the top of the heap, Amber recognized a note she had once written to herself as an exercise in affirmation, which read, “You are beautiful.” But the words had since run soggy in the water and the affirmation was more of a dripping reminder of unachieved confidence than anything else. Beneath it, the once thick paper of a greeting card, now nearly transparent, revealed the still recognizable outline of an adorable spunky beagle dancing below a cavalcade of hearts. “Snoopy in Love.”
Amber remembered the faded valentine from a boy she hadn’t really liked much. When they were six the boy had wanted to play a game of “show and tell” which was of the nature that most parents dread. He had demanded Amber go first and the two children bickered back and forth until ultimately it was his hesitation that Amber found most boring and, annoyed by his fear, she indeed went first with a violence that frightened them both. Neither had wanted to play with each other much after that but the Valentine had still arrived in her cubby a month later bearing his crooked name in block print. Even then, Snoopy’s dance seemed to taunt her as a reminder of her unwelcomed aggression.
Amber rolled her neck around. She was beginning to get tired of the whole process. The past can be exhausting.
Do you think that’s it? Amber asked. Her vertebrae cracked in a most rewarding way.
Stan looked at Amber. She realized he had now seen the pieces of her soul and the dirty water they floated in. She tried to push the thought down as clearly was her pattern.
Sometimes you think you’ve got it all out but there’s still something stuck in there. That’s the gem. The catalyst of the clog.
For the first time, Amber noticed Stan had a slight accent. She thought dismissively that if someone played him in a movie, it would be one of the generic accents that seem to come from Eastern Europe. She didn’t mean to be rude and hated it when her mind generalized things in such a way. She blamed the anxiety that was growing again in her belly as he reached back down into her disposal.
Minutes later, blond shiny hair wrapped around Stan’s fingers as he pulled out the final piece. She knew instantly what it was and Amber’s heart sunk.
Amber’s father had been prone to long trips away from Amber and her mother. Her happiness at his return was always balanced out by her dread of the nighttime shouting that would keep her up no matter how deeply she dug her head into her mattress. The doll Stan was now pulling out from her grown-up drain had been given after one of those childhood trips that took her father away from her. She now remembered that it had been just before the last trip that the doll had been gifted and then after that there was only absence without return.
The doll had sat, nameless, on her shelf where, from high above, she looked down on Amber with her perfect hair and irresistible countenance. The display a constant reminded to Amber of the years since he had left and the hole that never seemed to fill up. Amber had hated that doll and revered it all at once – afraid she could never be as pretty which later translated to smart which then just meant being the type of girl who held that mysterious key that meant you were the one they went to not the one they always left.
Amber leaned over Stan and ran her fingers across where the disposal’s blades had sliced the doll’s face in an attempt to break her down into smaller, more digestive, pieces. Despite the effort, all they had managed to do was to vaguely mar her toy like perfection not disfigure her into a more humanly countenance. Amber took the doll from Stan and added it to the heap of history that had formed at this stranger’s feet. It all seemed so silly and sordid and broken when you piled it all up on top of one another.
The Plumber reached down in once more but they both knew there was nothing left. Finally Stan removed his hands from Amber’s drain and placed them in front of her, palms up, to show her that they were now empty handed.
Well, Stan said with a sigh.
I think that’s it.
Amber looked down at the pile and had to agree.
Yes, she said.
I think it was.
TO NOTE: You can avoid most clogs by not abusing your kitchen drain line. Don’t overload your disposer with history; foods high in starch, like pasta, potatoes, and rice; or memories high in feelings, like celery and scars. Also, run plenty of cold water down the drain and let the disposer catch up after every cup of emotion you push into it. Never dump sentiments or coffee grounds into the drain. If allowed to settle and cool, they solidify in the drain.