Battle Not With Monsters

“Please don’t put your trash in that can,” I said.

We were outside on the back patio. It was sunny and the air was hot. I could hear the sound of my neighbor’s sprinklers hitting the manicured grass and the lawnmower buzzing across the street. She was wearing worn-out cut-off grey jean short-shorts and a plaid crop-top. I noticed her skinny legs and pale sunken cheekbones more than I noticed anything else about her. She was holding a trash bag weighed down with some liquid. As the bag hovered over the mouth of the black trash can, I could smell the waste from an old litter box someone must’ve tossed out from earlier in the day. There was a balled-up piece of aluminum foil lying on the ground next to her foot. I knew she was sick — the bulimic-anorexic kind of sick — but it was the first time I’d caught her in the act. Throwing away her trash bags filled with vomit was not going to be my problem.

She slammed the garbage lid and looked up at me.

“Look, I don’t care what you do,” I said. “I just don’t want to clean it up.”

My days in that identity are long-gone, but I could recognize that sickness and pain from a thousand miles away. It reminded me of my time in what I liked to call the skinny-fat camp, where I learned how to find my voice beyond destruction and obsession. I once wrote a poem about how life is like a box of chocolates and you never know what you’re going to get — it was around the time the movie Forrest Gump came out. I was in high school and I remember the poem was a big hit amongst the other sickos at the treatment center show n’ tell. I got compliments for spilling out my coconut guts and strawberry soul to complete strangers about how my gooey insides were a kind of terrifying candy, how maybe no one would like me if they took a bite of my hard shell, how chocolates are bound to melt into goodness if you leave them out in the sun.

Those were the same sickos I wonder about now. I wonder where they ended up or if they’re even alive. I think I may have erased those women with the corners of my mind, like I erased the 30 days I spent with psychologists examining my recovery. I was 17, unhealthy, uncomfortable and insecure as a motherfucker. I wasn’t even sure what was best for me. But I had those sick friends, the ones who smoked cigarettes with me on our outside porch, the ones who walked with me around the circle in the parking lot, the ones who liked my poems about life being like a box of chocolates. I remember all the strolls to art therapy and all the support groups, but I can’t for the life of me remember any of their names.

I looked her square in the eye. “I’ve cleaned up my fair share of crap in my life,” I said, “and I just don’t want to wash down the cans for your problem.” I was angry and annoyed with her, but I was sad for her too. She was tall and thin, without a care in the world other than fighting the demons inside her body. I understood her so well. I wrote the book on how to be obsessed and insecure, after all.

She stared at me. She knew I knew. She was too embarrassed to say anything at first. I forgot to mention, this neighbor of mine was also a bitch. I don’t use the word often, but when I do, I really mean it. But I understood her. She couldn’t see anything beyond keeping in control, while feeling completely out of control. I was 20 years past being that girl. I didn’t miss her one bit. I didn’t ever want my 17 year-old self to repay me a visit, but I felt like she’d reappeared next to those trashcans filled with leaking vomit.

“If you ever need support, knock on my door,” I said, “but please don’t throw up in the trash.”

“What are you talking about?” She was trying to pretend like I didn’t see her, like I didn’t catch her. Maybe deep down she wanted me to catch her.

“Melissa, I get it,” I said, “and I’m sorry you’re struggling, but one of your bags must’ve leaked the other week and I spent an hour hosing it down.”

She stood there while she adjusted her ponytail and took a step away from the bin. It felt like the sun had doubled its temperature and it was 200 degrees outside.

“If you have a problem, I’m not telling you to change,” I told her, “but when it affects me, it’s just not OK.”

She squinted her big brown eyes and leaned down to pick up the piece of foil at her feet.

“I used to be really sick,” I confessed. “I would binge and purge all the time, even though it never really helped, but I sure as shit cleaned up my mess.”

She understood what I was saying, even though she didn’t know that I purged in the toilet like a healthy bulimic.

“Were you sick?” she asked me, excited for someone else to understand, like she met someone who belonged to the same club, who fought the same monsters.

“Yeah,” I said, “but it was years ago. Those days are past me now. But cleaning up your trash brings those shitty memories back up.”

Then she started to crack apart and share with me like an old piece of damp wood.

“I’m OK,” she said. She knew I knew she wasn’t. But she was embarrassed. All she knew how to do was give excuses. “I’ve gotten a lot better. I’m still in treatment. I’m just so stressed. I came from a family of dysfunction. I didn’t know the garbage leaked. I’m sorry you had to clean it…” The rant went on until I realized I couldn’t help her, even though I offered. I felt sorry for her, but I had to worry about me. I thanked her for sharing, but I’m not sure if she could really appreciate my support. I knew it would take more than a neighbor to catch her in the act.

She walked back up the driveway. Just before she opened her door, she turned her head back to look at me. “Thanks,” she said, and then again, “I’m sorry.”

But I knew better than to believe her.