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FIRST PERSON Cartons of Heartbreak

Perhaps it was my fate to become the grocer of unrequited love.
By JAMES SALLIS |

STARING DEEPLY INTO MY EYES she told me, “I put your number in the Rolodex today.”

Not quite the declaration of undying love I’d hoped for- something along the lines of “I’ve waited for you all my life” would have been better, perhaps-but with age, our perspective on these things changes. We become either more desperate or calmer. More desperate didn’t seem humanly possible, so I was working on calm.

And for Susan, even though, as she pointed out, leaves were forever falling from that Rolodex never to be seen again, inclusion therein was signal. Nevertheless, it was autumn. Months later, as 1 sat on my porch pondering {Catherine Mansfield’s statement of one of the chief benefits of solitude (“Even if 1 should, by some awful chance, find a hair upon my bread and honey, at any rate it is my own hair”), it occurred to me that as time goes on, I am going through companions at an ever faster, rather alarming rate.

Of course, one gels over it all a lot faster, too. This time, for instance, I was up and about, just as though nothing had happened, the following spring. I walked into my kitchen and into a largely unacknowledged problem of the single life.

Paul Tillich said that the history of religion is a graveyard of dead symbols. My histoire d’amour, 1 realized, was a litter of drinks and foodstuffs I’d never use. Cabinets, shelves, and refrigerator were filled with them.

There were, for example, four cans of diet chocolate drink that Susan was drinking when I first met her. Naturally I’d gone out and stocked up on it. As I recall, she lost her taste for this drink shortly before losing her taste for me, and the cans had languished there ever since.

One cabinet shelf was lined with the herb teas that another companion drank. For almost a month my apartment hosted innumerable half-cups of this tea. I’d find them, abandoned, everywhere: window ledges, étagères, once in the pocket of a hanging raincoat. Freshly brewed or brewing, Gabri-elle’s tea smelted like a spring garden. After it sat a while, it smelled the way flower stems look when you pull them out of week-old water.

Not too far from the herb teas was a stack of popcorn that Gail had to have when we watched old movies together on the VCR. Two or three boxes of Familia left over from breakfasts with Barbara. Girl Scout cookies that were Sandy’s.

Non-alcoholic champagne that Linda brought for our first (and, as it turned out, last) dinner together, about an inch-and-a-half of it remaining in the bottle.

Caviar bought for someone. (I threw the Brie away before it came after me. It had begun to glow with intelligence and ambition.)

Sardines for-

Sardines?

However desperate I became, surely I would never go with a woman who ate sardines.

Anyway, you get the idea. I’d become The Grocer of Unrequited Love.

What I did was. I contacted a food bank and donated it all.

They came by, had a look, and called for another truck. When the bombs fall, at least we won’t starve: We can squat in the ruins and dine on diet chocolate soda, sardines, and Girl Scout cookies as we watch fingernails grow through the backs of our hands.

At any rate, now, at last, 1 am truly alone here. The cabinets groan with emptiness, My phone number is (817) 735-1171.

I want to add this: It’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.

In 1970, for instance. That year, in the same week, I’d published my first book and ended my first marriage. Christmas dinner occurred at a Burger King just off St. Charles in New Orleans. I went home and for company, as people living by themselves will do, turned on the TV. Mac Davis was singing “Drinking Christmas Dinner Alone.” Listen, I told myself: They’re playing our song.

A student of mine once pointed out (you’d think writers would notice these things, but we seldom do) that every one of my best stories, those I most admired and those favored by readers, was a love story.

I thought: of course. And began to consider how very- sensitive I was, how sensuous and caring, how passionate, how-

The women always leave you, he said.

Last year, still, was something of a landmark . One romance cancelled in January, a midseason replacement begun in April and concluded in May when, on the second day of a week-long trip to New Orleans, I asked where she wanted to eat that night and she said, “At home.”

Camus wrote that scientists, trying to explain the world, are reduced finally to poetry, and I want to turn the tables here by observing that love for me has been rather like the speed of light: One approaches it at ever greater velocities, yet never attains it.

And finally, my favorite bedtime story.

In the Arizona desert, there’s a curious creature called the spadefoot toad. For a year or more this hopeless romantic abides, buried beneath the parched, cracking surface, waiting for rain. And when finally the rain comes, he scrambles to the surface, plunges headlong into daylight, and dashes for the nearest pool of water. Here he begins sending out frantic calls. If he docs not mate on the first night, he may never mate at all; by morning the water will be dwindling, and his life with it.

Sitting here now, I can’t help but reflect how dry and unseasonably hot it’s been these past weeks. And looking out I see-tentatively at first, a slap or two at the window, a flurry of steps across the drive, then a breakneck fall-that it’s begun to rain.

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