Just the Things You Need


When I look into a bag of popcorn and I see a few gnarly kernels left, I don’t think, “Well, that was good” or “I’m full.” I see those little poppy corns smiling bravely back up at me, calling out in their sweet little popcorn voices, We’re cold and scared. What’s going to happen to us? We made it this far, all the way from the stalk to this bag. Please don’t throw us away!

I pick out the last remaining kernels and shove them in my mouth. I don’t have a choice.

* * *

The signs appeared early, and were ignored.

The Christmas Eve I was six, my family got on a plane and left our flat, our tree, and our belongings in snowy London. Our “visit” to Los Angeles remains in effect to this day. Having lost our playthings in the old country, my twin sister and I adopted a large chest of toys that once belonged to our two grown cousins. Broken, ancient, smelly toys.

One day, my aunt had a job for us. “Why don’t you pick out some of those toys to give to the Goodwill?” Other jobs thus far had included sweeping the stairs or rolling pennies. None of these paid. At least this job would give us some warm satisfaction for helping Goodwill kids. “Just the things you don’t play with,” she instructed. We set to work, and after an hour we’d whittled the pile down to a Cupie doll. We didn’t have Cupies in England, and this doll was smiling way too mischievously to be nude. We presented it to our Aunt, “for the children.” It was tossed back in the chest.

We laugh now, looking back at that ridiculous afternoon. We laugh through our tears. Sure, kids have trouble parting with their toys, but these weren’t even ours. So what was the problem? We weren’t lazy; we’d hand-inspected every last item before placing it with a solemn nod of approval in the ever-growing “keeper” pile. We were just… sensitive. We two tiny Virgos, with our identical, homemade dresses and shy, British accents, who chattered endlessly but rarely to other people, were maybe just a little more in tune to things. You might say we sympathized with the toys. You might say the toys spoke to us, and what they spoke of was their feelings.

Those toys were happy in their chest. They didn’t want to go.

Unlike most twins, our special powers of telepathy have appeared to wax, not wane, over the years. It’s not just toys that speak to me anymore. It’s everything. Left-over food. The last squeeze of facial masque. Shards of taillight. Scribbles on paper. Old socks with holes in them. Shoes that stink so heinously, when I lift the Dr. Scholl’s I expect to find dead bodies stowed beneath. And their message is all the same: Love me. Use me. Just don’t throw me away.

It’s like this: I notice my toothbrush is looking old. I go to chuck it, but something stops me. The toothbrush, it didn’t know it had already brushed my teeth for the last time. It’s not ready for the cold, scary garbage and whatever lies beyond. It’s got a few more teeth to brush, and I’m the only one who can make that dream come true. I look at that frayed little head, so eager to please — it’s sacrificed its whole life massaging chunks of lettuce and turkey out of my gums. Couldn’t I at least retire it to detailing the tiles?

I run the toothbrush over my teeth and under the sink it goes. With the others.

And so it goes. Favorite sweaters live out their final days in the sewing scrap box. Socks are tied together like lovers in perpetual embrace, then gently laid under the sink as rags. The stinky shoes, I reason, have served the extent of their natural lives and are now deserved of rest without the possibility of reincarnation. They are akin to two canvas corpses pulled over my toes — and toes certainly don’t like living in corpses. The trashcan thus becomes a peaceful crypt, not a pauper’s grave. And this extends to actual garbage that maybe I’ve flung and missed. A used tissue is sad on the floor, proud in the can. So are my lifeless strands of hair.

As for general items such as ticket stubs, novelty pens, defunct cellphones, etc., other rules apply. These things find their way into one of many “junk drawers,” which I’ve come to understand is an American tradition. This invention allows one to keep their unwanted possessions without having to actually look at them. The only things I’ve ever been able to toss outright are presents from outside my family, and when I receive them, it’s like a gift from above. They just don’t speak to me. The old ribbon from my brother’s Christmas present – save. The deck of fine art cards from a stranger – gone. The purse from my mom in which I’d forgotten an orange for an entire, sweltering summer – salvageable. A brand new candle from a friend – trashed. Because I’m not a pack rat. The term is “collector.”

“Collector” and “collectors item” were part of a rationale that began with my dad. Back in the eighties he was working on a number of animated shows at Marvel Studios, including GI Joe and Jem. The cult status of these shows now has surpassed all predictions of my father; at the time, he’d simply deemed their merchandise collectible. Happily, we were allowed to play with the Joes and Jems we bought, take them out of their boxes and everything, but it was strongly recommended we hold on to the packaging for posterity. He himself collected the same toys, boxes intact. They were to finance our college educations.

I can tell you know that every last Jem doll of mine has since been destroyed. Before I went away to college, I lovingly dressed them in their iridescent, off-the-shoulder dresses and bulky pumps, combed their blue and green and pink/blonde hair, and packed them neatly away. They were shortly rediscovered by my brother, then aged twelve. Use your imagination.

At least I wasn’t there to hear them scream.

* * *

The most significant development over the years is the voice. The voice is distinctly babyish and awkward, naïve and full of wonder. It gives wide, trusting eyes to that which has none. For quite a while, the voice remained in our heads, my sister’s and mine. But we quickly learned the benefits of channeling. I was just tryin’ to protect your little piggies, a confused toenail clipping cries; pleads a browning banana, Please don’t be angry, I didn’t mean to get bruised!

Mainly, the voice is used to make one another laugh… in that bittersweet way that forces one to bark Stop it! when it’s gone on a second too long.

The voice was crucial in winning my fiancé’s heart. Three weeks into dating, we were sitting in a sushi bar with one of those conveyer belts of color-coded plates. This is a great set-up if you’re near the jumping off point, but there wasn’t much albacore or fresh-water eel making its way over to us. There was, however, the same tiny octopus on his rice, coming around the bend time and again. He wasn’t getting any younger. Light-headed from hunger and Sapporo, I pointed him out. “Do you see that little guy? He was just swimmin’ in the oceans. Then he got catched and put on a rice, and he just wants to be eated in a mouth. But you know where he’s goin’ instead?” Wide-eyed, my future husband waited for my response. “In the garbages!” I shook my head sadly. “He just wanted to be eated.”

Over the next few months I amassed an ocean’s worth of stuffed sea creatures, “rescued” by my boyfriend from local toy stores. Promptly christened Lobsty, Octy, Eely, these little guys would not end up in the garbages. They got their very own drawer.

* * *

Are there any drawbacks to all-encompassing anthropomorphizing? Short answer: you have to take the good with the bad. Like the time I had an Almond Joy-sized chunk of pre-cancerous tissue removed from my back. It looked traumatized enough, floating helplessly in its little jar. But to know it was going to stay there instead of coming home — heartbreaking. My HMO said they wanted it for some biopsy or whatever.

With every friend lost, however, a thousand more are gained. And that’s a comfort. I refer you to the case of the Tooth. Given to me by my twin prior to my departure for a four-month study program in Moscow, it was a bloody wisdom tooth she’d had extracted and kept. There I was, holed up on the eighth floor of a dismal Soviet-era high rise. I hadn’t seen anyone I knew well or loved for weeks. My host family was fast growing tired of my presence, due mostly to my inability to communicate beyond the level of a two year old; in a matter of days, they would pretend I’d stolen twenty dollars so they could ask me to leave. In the lonely darkness of my room I cradled the molar. We ended up spending a delightful afternoon together, the details of which I later committed to paper. So convinced was I of having captured the tooth’s hopes and dreams that I used it open my college exit thesis. It began:

My twin gave me a tooth from her mouth. I take very good care of it all the day. When I first got it, it had lots of gums and bloods on it but I brushed it with my toothbrush and took out the gums and put them on the floor. Then I flossed it. Today I gave it another bath. First I put bubbles in the water, but then I remembered that tooths like toothpaste the best…

I never did look up my final grade for this piece of work. But I’m not worried. I’m sure Thesisy did the very best job it possibly could.

(Published  originally in the LA Alternative Press, 21January 2004)


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