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Reality Check

I’m following the crumbs I’ve left behind me, and getting all the more confused. My paper trail, rather than edifying, eddies around me muddily as I push back against its current.

And I wonder, what “mind-rotting swill” did I pay an ex-girlfriend $12.39 for, by check, back in October of 1994? I know that I did—I’ve got the returned check right here—but for the life of me, I can’t guess what might have occasioned the payment. Right there on the note line it says, “mind-rotting swill.” I flip through the other checks of that era, hoping for some contextual clue, and think, “Just who the hell is this guy?” Suddenly, I’m an auto-archeologist baffled by my own artifacts and their implied rituals.

I have really got to be more organized in the future; if not to stave off the bureaucratic nightmares attendant to my heretofore slipshod filing system, then to spare myself another existential crisis like that brought on by combing through the garbage bag of outdated documents I’d been lugging around for a decade.

That was exactly my intention when, last weekend, I dragged the bulky thing out from under my bed: to sift and sort through every old bank statement, W-2, notice of default, birthday card, MFA-program catalog, recommended-reading list, Xeroxed Harper’s article, ancient Day Runner and/or address book, ATM receipt, packet of submission guidelines, eerily accurate horoscope clipping, Mapquest printout, Dear John letter and/or Dear Jane letter draft, and college blue book—to finally get it together.

At first, the prospect was daunting, almost overwhelming. I’d procrastinated for so long—moving the accreting bundle from apartment to apartment over the years—that the collection seemed more institutional than accidental. It seemed, I don’t know, necessary. An archive, not an eyesore. It made me historical, well- documented—or something. What other subconscious motivation could I have had to cling to such trash? Did I have a vision of a future re-creation of my life in some modestly funded small-town museum? Did I picture well-intentioned parents dragging their bored and sullen tykes between the velvet ropes of my reconstituted life: “Gee, kids, isn’t that an awful lot of CDs? No, Bobby, in the past skulls didn’t have USB ports.”

Well, no, that wasn’t it.

Then maybe some buried-but- surfacing fear of an impending totalitarian government: “My papers? Oh, I’ve got my papers, Jack.” Whuummp. “Here are my freakin’ papers.”

I doubt it.

Maybe just incipient pack-rat tendencies; maybe I’m destined to be one of those people who dies days before anyone is aware. When the stench finally discomfits the neighbors they’ll find my shriveled husk at the heart of a maze of bundled alternative weeklies, gently nibbled by the dozens of cats who now rule the heap.

That doesn’t make sense either. But, whatever the psychological roots of this pathology, it was an effort of will to begin threshing through the mass—at first. As I grouped and stacked the stuff by kind—bank-related stuff here, automobile- related stuff here, grants and residencies I’ll never actually apply for, here—it became clear to me how little I cared about whole subsections of my past life. If it wasn’t important enough to open when it was conceivably relevant, what use is an 8-year-old correspondence from a financial institution now? If they need me, they’ve got the lawyers to find me, I figure.

A tiny fraction of the accumulation went into a newly purchased hanging-file box, and the garbage bag started to look like a garbage bag again—rather than luggage.

Then I hit the stack of returned checks.

It should have been a no-brainer. But the first one I looked at snagged me, like finding a page of someone’s diary in the park. It was a check from Dec. 31, 1994, made out to an expensive hair salon (not a barber, a hair salon—they cut my hair in French), with the note “New Year’s hair.” The next check in the pile was made out to an old acquaintance who ran a small catering company, whom my girlfriend-of-the-time and I hired for that very same party at which I debuted my newly continental hair. I couldn’t look away.

I flipped through the checks, piecing together a consumerist caricature of myself. Individual checks were funny—the one made out to the Parking Violations Bureau, the one with the snottily scrawled “crooks” on the note line made me laugh at my own juvenile indignation—but the overall effect was disorienting. Imagine finding a stack of photographs of yourself, all of which are individually recognizable but when thumbed rapidly reveal a cartoon of you doing something you think you could never have done. That was the effect.

I bounced checks to various landlords, universities and department stores and yet threw catered parties and subscribed to every magazine imaginable. I borrowed money from my parents, but spent recklessly in chain bookstores, record shops and warehouse liquor distributors (check No. 250, for example, made out in early December of ’95 for $115.41, went to “booze”). I paid off friends, who apparently had cash for concert tickets (Colette, I now recall, fronted the $35 that brought me to the Lollapalooza at which I got my nose pierced—my nose pierced); I bought used musical equipment from people on the edges of my social circle; and, once, I got something at Home Depot.

That last one’s a riddle.

But not so strange, so persistently gnawing, as that one check for $12.39. What on earth costs $12.39? It’s check No. 154, Oct. 14, 1994. Between drunken book-buying sprees, with the money I didn’t owe my parents, my friends, my landlord, or my college, I paid my girlfriend $12.39 for “mind-rotting swill.”

Who the hell is this guy?

—John Rodat

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