Ever since I was a small child, I have been burdened by an almost pathological sense of empathy for inanimate objects.
My closets and cupboards are overflowing with items I haven't had the heart to throw away -- old rugs, a toaster that almost electrocuted me the last time I tried to plug it in, a television set with a picture tube that flickers with the regularity of a '70s disco strobe -- simply because they served me well for many years and I don't think they deserve to be tossed out unceremoniously with my ordinary household trash. I just can't shake the horrific mental image of the trusty old Mr. Coffee that saw me through many a last-minute term paper (yes, I still have it -- shut up!) sitting broken and unloved atop a giant trash heap in some anonymous landfill, or, worse, being ground into powder inside an enormous compactor as it squeals in agony, wondering to its last breath what it had done to warrant such a grisly fate.
Unlike most of my other obscure neuroses, however, I know exactly where this one originated. It’s the lingering aftereffect of my greatest childhood trauma.
Now, I know many people have had horrific events happen to them in their childhood. Believe me, I’m not trying to compete. For the most part, my childhood was a relatively tranquil one. Yeah, my mother spanked me once because I told a lie; our next door neighbors’ dog used to chase me home on a regular basis; and in third grade I was terrorized by a classroom thug for an entire week before the teacher noticed and shipped his ass off to detention. But none of those events holds a candle to the one that has haunted me into adulthood: The Incident of the Green Toothbrush.
When my sister and I were little, my father was charged with overseeing our dental hygiene. He supervised our nightly brushing ritual, made sure we rinsed out all our toothpaste, and, every so often would procure new toothbrushes to replace our old worn-out ones.
One night, when I was four and my sister was six, we were getting ready for bed, as usual, when my father came into the bathroom and unveiled his most recent drugstore acquisition: two shiny new toothbrushes, one pink and one green.
I will reiterate. I was four. My sister was six. We were girls. It was the sixties. For us, pink was IT. There simply was no other color for spoiled little girls back then. So, when confronted with the choice between a pink toothbrush and a green toothbrush, which one do you think we went for?
We both dove at the Pink Toothbrush. My sister insisted she should get it because she was older, but I (quite correctly, I believe) informed her that I had “called” it first, and therefore it belonged to me. A squabble broke out, which my father decided to resolve in accordance with the tried-and-true Talbot Conflict Resolution Handbook, Section 3: Effective Use of Guilt and Emotional Manipulation.
He picked up the unwanted Green Toothbrush, took it out of its box, set it on end on the edge of the sink, and began to bounce it back and forth.
“Oh,” he falsettoed, jogging the Green Toothbrush up and down with each syllable. “I’m the poor little Green Toothbrush and nobody wants me! I was so excited to come home and help these little girls keep their teeth clean, but they don’t love me! I’m all alone! I’m going to get thrown into the trash and ground up into dust, all because I’m not as pretty as the other toothbrush! Oh, boo-hoooo….”
By the time he got to the part where he made the Green Toothbrush cry, my sister and I were already bawling uncontrollably. Shaking with hysterical sobs, we reached for the Green Toothbrush, our little hands grasping and flailing at empty air.
“I want the Green Toothbrush!” I howled, snot dripping out of my nose and down my chin. “I love it! I do! I do!”
“No!” wailed my sister, who was crying so hard the tears were actually shooting straight out of her eyes. “I want it! I want it!”
Faced with the unintended consequences of his disastrous peacemaking effort, my father backpedaled ferociously. He decided to try to fix the mess he had created in a manner similar to the way he had started it. Picking up the Pink Toothbrush with his free hand, he set it on its edge on the other side of the sink and began shimmying it in time to the Green Toothbrush’s gyrations. “Now I’m all alone,” he intoned in a slightly deeper falsetto. “I thought these little girls liked me! Now I’m the one who’s going to end up getting ground up with the trash!”
Eventually, our shrieks of childish angst drifted down to the kitchen, prompting my mother to come upstairs and end our torment by snatching both of the frenetically dancing toothbrushes away from my father and disgustedly handing the pink one to my sister and the green one to me.
That night, I fell asleep clutching the Green Toothbrush so tightly it left a dent in my hand that lasted the entire next day.
I should also point out here that both my parents completely deny the entire Green Toothbrush Incident ever occurred, and even my sister has heard me re-tell the story so many times over Thanksgiving dinner she is no longer able to say for sure whether it actually happened or if it’s just False Memory Syndrome manifesting itself forty years after the fact.
But I have never forgotten. Besides, how else to explain my horrendous dental bills and general disdain for all things mint? Not to mention my continued oversolicitousness toward the feelings of objects that, technically, have no feelings?
A few years ago, when I bought my condo, I got a new sofa and was faced with the trauma of having to dispose of the old one. This was a bigger problem then you might think. I couldn’t just stash it in the basement because, well, I was the basement. Plus, to be honest, I felt sorry for the old sofa. It hadn’t done anything wrong. It was a good sofa -- comfortable, well broken-in, and its festive, floral slipcover had brightened many a dingy apartment for me over the years. A lot of exciting things had happened to me on that sofa! We’d been through hard times together, and I wanted it to go to a good home where it would be loved and appreciated for the stalwart companion it had always been. So, reasoning that no one would welcome my trusty old friend more than an indigent family struggling to make a more pleasant home out of some barren tenement in the heart of the ghetto, I called up the Salvation Army and offered it up as a donation. Surely, I thought, the poor would line up around the block for the chance to partake of my generosity.
The Soulless Bureaucrats at the Salvation Army saw my gesture a little more cynically, however. They seemed to be under the impression I was trying to pull something over on them.
Soulless Bureaucrat: How old is this sofa?
Me: Um, about ten years old. But it’s in really good shape! It has a pretty floral slipcover, and…
Soulless Bureaucrat: Did you purchase it new?
Me: No…my sister gave it to me. But it was new when she bought it, and she has really good taste! And she’s rich!
Soulless Bureaucrat: Are there any burns, holes, or tears in the fabric?
Me: I don’t think so. It’s a custom slipcover, so --
Soulless Bureaucrat: Well, you’ll have to make sure. We won’t take it if it’s damaged in any way.
Me: It’s been in my living room for the past five years. I’ve let my guests sit on it! Do you mean to tell me that IT’S NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU?
Soulless Bureaucrat: If it’s in such good shape, why are you so desperate to get rid of it?
Me: I’M TRYING TO HELP POOR PEOPLE!
Soulless Bureaucrat (sighing): Oh, all right. We’ll have a truck in your area on Monday. Please leave the sofa on the sidewalk and we’ll pick it up sometime that afternoon.
Me: Well, that’s the thing. I live on the garden level and I can’t get it upstairs to the sidewalk by myself. Will someone be able to help me?
Soulless Bureaucrat: No. We don’t do that.
Me: The guy can’t just hop out of the truck for two seconds and grab an end?
Soulless Bureaucrat: Lady, we’re a charity, not a moving company. If you can’t make it readily available for us, we can’t help you.
Me: Funny. I thought I was helping you.
Given that the Salvation Army were ingrates and hence unworthy of my benevolence, I decided to sell my sofa, determining that someone who paid for it would appreciate it more. I took out a free classified ad in the local paper, offering it for a hundred bucks. I got exactly one call, from someone who was allergic to cats and backed out when she found out Eliot had made a semi-permanent home on one of the cushions. By this time, my new sofa had arrived and was arranged prettily in my living room, glaring haughtily at the old one, which I had to tip up onto its side against the back wall to get it out of the way. I spent many a sleepless night imagining the two of them going at it after dark:
New Sofa: Ha, ha! Look at me! I’m new and fluffy and I match the rug! You’re old and ugly and nobody wants you!
Old Sofa: That’s not true! She loves me! She won’t throw me away with the other trash! We’ve been through too much together!
New Sofa: Hmph. Look at you! You think that stupid slipcover is fooling anyone? I know what’s underneath there -- rips! Tears! Burns! You’re so ugly even the poor people don’t want you!
Old Sofa: That’s what you think! I’ve lived in three different apartments with her! I was here for her when she was poor and couldn’t afford to buy new furniture! She’s cried into my pillows! I even let her cat puke on me once and didn’t complain! She won’t forget me now!
New Sofa: That’s what you think. I come from Domain! I’m expensive! I’m down-filled! You’re just an old hand-me-down who’s going to get ground up into dust!
Old Sofa: Shut up! Shut up!
New Sofa: Nyah, nyah! Welcome to Landfill City, Population: YOU!
Old Sofa: She’ll change her mind and send you back! You’ll see! You’ll see!
I couldn’t bear it anymore, so I finally decided I’d just give my old sofa away to anyone who could get it out of my apartment. I hung up signs all over town: FREE SOFA! GREAT CONDITION! WON’T LAST!
Still no takers.
Eventually, two guys who were friends of a friend of mine expressed an interest and made arrangements to come get the sofa. They showed up on a cloudy Sunday afternoon and I helped them haul the old sofa out onto my patio and heave it over the back fence to their waiting car.
Then disaster struck.
“Gee,” said the Honda Civic Brain Trust, gazing stupidly at the tiny hatchback they had expected to accommodate my six-foot behemoth, “I guess we won’t be taking it after all.”
I stared at my sofa, defeated. It looked at me pleadingly, knowing exactly what was going through my mind: tomorrow was Trash Day in the Back Bay.
Please… it begged. Don’t do this to me. Don’t throw me away with the trash. Don’t let them grind me up into dust.
I stared at the ground and finally croaked, “Can you guys help me get this to the end of the alley? The trash guys come tomorrow and a lot of junk trucks come around in the night and pick up old furniture. Maybe they’ll take this.”
We carted the old sofa to the end of the alley and left it there just as the wind picked up and the drizzle began to fall. The guys drove off and I walked slowly back to my apartment, turning around to look just once. It looked so brave sitting there on the sidewalk, its cheerful flowered slipcover flapping valiantly in the cold November breeze.
Kind of like it was shivering.
I gulped back a sob and kept walking.
I’d like to think one of the junk dealers cruising the Back Bay after dark picked it up, took it home, gave it a good steam cleaning, and decided to keep it. Maybe someone is sitting on it right now the way I used to, curled up on one side watching TV with her cat nestled in the crook of her arm.
But it was raining pretty hard by the time I got to my back door.
I sat awake on my new sofa for a long time that night, enveloped in the gigantic downy cushions with my feet tucked beneath me. Presently, Eliot jumped up with me, nestled into the crook of my arm, and fell asleep as I turned onto my side and rested my head on the fluffy pillows.
It was pretty damned comfortable.
After a while, I got up and trudged into the bathroom to get ready for bed. I put on my robe, scrubbed the tears from my face, and dried my eyes with a fresh towel.
Then I brushed my teeth slowly and carefully with my new green toothbrush, staring at it for a long time before quietly setting it down on the sink and going to bed.