Health

Modern Love Podcast: One Man’s Trash


[theme music]
anna martin

From The New York Times, I’m Anna Martin. This is Modern Love. And I got to tell you, I am in a really great mood — a really good mood — because today, we’re kicking off a whole new season of the show. And you’re going to meet some incredible people, like star-crossed lovers in their 60s —

speaker 1

I basically hadn’t dated in 25 years. So I’m, like, really rusty.

anna martin

A daughter on the brink of discovering the truth —

speaker 2

And he found a file that was labeled, Yvonne’s Adoption.

anna martin

A boyfriend who really messed up and knows it —

speaker 3

[SPEAKING SPANISH] which means this is a mistake.

anna martin

And the very best nanny in all of New York City.

speaker 4

What was your popular dinner that I would make you all the time?

speaker 5

Spaghetti.

speaker 4

Spaghetti and meatballs, and what would we listen to when we ate?

speaker 5

Dinner jazz.

anna martin

All of that is coming up this season. But today, we’re going to meet a man who doesn’t understand his own feelings until he decides to get rid of his couch. Mike Rucker wrote an absolutely gorgeous essay about stuff, things, the objects we hang our stories on. It’s called “The Junk Removers Manhandle My Heart,” read by MacLeod Andrews.

macleod andrews

John and I bought the sofa together when he moved into my apartment on 14th Street. I say “together” even though he probably paid for it. That’s what he did with most of our major purchases back then. He made four times what I did. Our choice was the Beecroft, with low arms and wooden legs capped with brass wheels and covered in a white denim slipcover. I didn’t just feel grown up buying the sofa. I felt sophisticated.

Initially, John balked. “I’m not paying $3,000 for a couch.”

But it would last forever, I argued.

“There has to be something cheaper that we like just as much,” he said. There wasn’t. Every other sofa we considered paled in comparison.

When we moved into a new apartment 13 years later, Ms. Beecroft was still as sturdy as ever. But with an opportunity to remodel and redecorate, we decided she was due for a refresh. We took the slipcover and cushions to an upholsterer, who remade them in a natural colored linen. The result was stunning.

A few years later, our two new chihuahua puppies, Sissy and Skeeter, quickly figured out how to pull the underside burlap off the wooden frame and create a little cave to hide in. Before long, all of the burlap had been ripped from its staples, which wasn’t a good look for Ms. Bee. Sadly, things went downhill from there. The linen slipcover didn’t prove as durable as the white denim, especially with two small dogs. Holes appeared, so we flipped the cushions. The other side’s got holes.

Then one of Ms. Bee’s wooden legs came loose, and she developed a gruesome tilt. I removed the leg altogether and propped her up on a pair of books. I had her tailor patch the fabric until the patches themselves developed holes. I thought I could handle that on my own. By then, John had died, succumbing to a rare and aggressive cancer. I figured I would flip the cushions, so no one would notice, forgetting that both sides were in tatters.

I had a choice: Did I fix up Ms. Bee, provider of comfort and anchor of my home and life with John, or did I accept that she wasn’t worth fixing?

I don’t remember what made me decide to bite the bullet and order a new sofa, only that it happened fast. I knew what I wanted. It was just a matter of checking a few boxes online, entering my credit card number, and clicking “Buy.”

All that was left was to arrange to have Ms. Bee taken away. I called a junk removal service I liked because they would try to donate reusable items to charity or thrift shops. Ms. Bee had a solid frame, not to mention a beautiful heart, as crazy as that sounds. So I hoped the right person could restore her to glory.

I prepared for the haulers’ arrival by moving a huge shelving unit near the front door so they would have better access to the entry. I had recently bought the shelving unit to hold sentimental objects I had accumulated with John over the years. Before I could move the shelves, I had to remove those objects — seashells from vacations, random pottery, wasps and hornet’s nests, incense holders, pitchers, jugs and vases.

I removed John’s grandmother’s metal salt and pepper shakers in the shape of two birds and a gold vase with ornate floral etching — the one John’s mother keeps hinting that she wants back. I removed the simple wooden box that holds a portion of John’s ashes. Made by my carpenter brother-in-law, the box also holds clippings from John’s hair and beard, a few trinkets and a small bag of our first dog’s ashes, because she was John’s favorite little girl.

I moved framed photos of John, the candles I lit for him, the tiny Ganesh I bought for him in India, the incense he gave to me on our last Christmas together and the metal bird feet he bought for me many years ago and that I love so much.

After moving the shelf, I was ready — or so I thought.

The October morning the haulers arrived, I explained that the sofa would fit through the doorway, but only at a specific angle. I knew this because the movers who brought it in had an arduous time, but finally figured it out. These haulers weren’t so patient. They attempted to shove it through from different angles with no luck, and then it happened.

Although I had moved the shelves and everything on them, I had left a small porcelain deer head hanging on the wall near the door, a Christmas gift from John that was one of my most cherished possessions. And right before, I had considered moving it along with the rest of my keepsakes, but then thought, nah, it won’t be in the way. As the haulers jostled and lifted, the sofa bumped the deer head and knocked it off!

“Uh oh,” the main guy said as I bounded from my chair. “Hold up,” he said to his partner, as I fell to my knees and scooped up the deer head and the left antler, which had broken off. I cursed as I looked at the piece in my hand, a wave of despair washing over me.

Returning to my chair, I pulled out my phone. I texted my friends Jessica and Rosella: “Trying not to have a total emotional breakdown.”

“The sofa removers broke my porcelain deer that John gave me for Christmas.”

“I’m really heartbroken.”

“It’s like John was angry at me for getting rid of our sofa.”

No response.

Meanwhile, the haulers gave up trying to figure out how to fit the sofa through the doorway. “I’m going to the truck to get a hammer,” the main guy said. Then, to me: “Do you have a hammer?”

I didn’t want them smashing up Ms. Bee, but in my dazed state, I retrieved a hammer for him. Within seconds, he was assaulting her back legs. They did not give in quickly. The hardwood frame was solidly built. I sat in my chair and watched as these two men violently attacked Ms. Bee.

I typed to Jessica and Rosella:

“The guys are still trying to figure out how to squeeze the sofa through the door.” “They’re literally bashing it to bits with a hammer.” “Can’t stop crying.”

No response.

Eventually, with much effort, the haulers succeeded in knocking off the back legs. Ms. Bee had put up a fight, her legs cracking and splitting, but not letting loose, even as chunks of wood flew across the living room.

I felt as if I had watched a family member being murdered. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. They were supposed to give her to someone, who would lovingly restore her, not butcher her in my own apartment.

Once Ms. B’s shattered legs were ripped away, the men were able to carry her through the doorway. Wiping away tears, I picked up her tattered seat cushions and carried them to the door, handing them to one of the haulers. I didn’t want those assassins coming back in. I signed for their work. It didn’t occur to me to offer them a tip. And then I lost it.

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Jessica responded to my text first.

elisheba ittoop as jessica

“no, john not angry, it’s just the clumsy removal man. glue the deer. it’s OK. john loves you. go stand on your balcony and take some deep breaths, look up at the sky and tell him you love him so much. inhale some fresh air. everything is OK.”

macleod andrews

Then Rosella.

phyllis fletcher as rosella

“yes everything she said. i’ll be home around 1:30 and i’ll come by for moral support and with some gorilla glue.”

macleod andrews

The morning saga had unlocked a trove of mounting grief within me that wasn’t, of course, about the sofa.

It was about Halloween, which John loved. It was about our anniversary, November 6. It was about another Thanksgiving without John, and another birthday without him, and another Christmas, and then New Year’s Eve. Oh, “I miss you so much,” I wailed. “I want you back. I need you here. Please come back to me.”

Out on my balcony, taking deep breaths of fresh autumn air, I realized I was dying of thirst, completely dehydrated from all the sobbing. So I poured a glass of ice water, trudged to my bedroom and collapsed into bed. Hmm. Grief and catharsis can take surprising forms. I hadn’t expected a sofa to play such a starring role in mine, but the murder of Ms. Bee had provided a powerful release. Tomorrow would be another day, and a new year beckoned. Until then, Rosella and her Gorilla Glue were on the way.

anna martin

After the break, Mike Rucker joins me in the studio with some of John’s things.

Mike Rucker, hello.

mike rucker

Hello.

anna martin

So did you bring the deer head from your essay? You did.

mike rucker

I absolutely did. This is him, right here.

anna martin

Wow, he’s a little bit smaller than I anticipated.

mike rucker

So I’d say the deer is probably around the size of a baseball. He’s really pale white, really finely etched. And then there’s a frame. It’s almost like he’s been mounted like a trophy.

anna martin

And this deer head factors really deeply into your piece. There’s this moment where the movers knock it off the wall, and you’re devastated and it breaks. But I’m looking at it now and I don’t see a crack. How did you fix it?

mike rucker

So I wasn’t sure what I would do. But I followed this — or I used to really be into this Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi. You ever heard of wabi-sabi?

anna martin

Tell me about it.

mike rucker

Wabi-sabi is the idea that the more imperfect something is, the more beautiful it is. That signs of wear and age make it more beautiful. And basically, old, worn benches and old blankets that have been repaired and things like that. So one of the elements of wabi-sabi is this traditional technique called kintsugi. Basically, it’s the repair of items — of glass and porcelain items — with many, many fine layers of lacquer and then gold, gold leaf.

anna martin

Gotcha.

mike rucker

Basically, you can see right here on the tip of the antler had to be completely reconstructed.

anna martin

I can see, yeah.

mike rucker

And then right here, where the antler broke off, is now this beautiful, little gold connection.

anna martin

It looks so seamless. It almost looks like the gold was always there.

mike rucker

Well, that’s the thing. I have to say, in a certain way, I actually like it more — there’s more beauty to this deer because it has so much more of a story in this repair.

anna martin

Totally.

mike rucker

So, yeah, I love it.

anna martin

So you did not use the Gorilla Glue.

mike rucker

I did not use the Gorilla Glue, no.

anna martin

And you’ve brought some more of John’s stuff into the studio today. Let’s talk about this one. It looks like a little wooden bear, is it?

mike rucker

Yeah, it’s a little wooden bear. Tiny, carved, wooden bear about the size of a half dollar maybe, maybe a little bit bigger. It’s really primitive. It could be a pig or something, but it’s a bear. So when John was super sick — he’d been sick for a while, but he was still able to travel, but not very much — we took our last vacation. A really good friend of mine was getting married in Palm Springs. And John had always wanted to show me Joshua Tree. I mean, it’s beautiful. Have you ever been?

anna martin

I’ve been. It’s gorgeous.

mike rucker

It’s just so pretty. And on the way back into Palm Springs, we stopped at a little antique store. And so I saw this little thing. And I mean, it’s nothing. It looks like a boy scout probably carved it. It’s not very good at all.

anna martin

Pretty simple, yeah.

mike rucker

But so John and I were together for 17 years, but we actually didn’t get married until John was sick. So we had this very last-minute — Rosella, who’s in the story, came down and was our witness, and we got married. And so Julia, my dear, dear friend, who was getting married, emailed me ahead of her wedding and said, we’d like to let you have a dance at our wedding. And so, it was a surprise to John. I picked out a song. And —

anna martin

What song was it?

mike rucker

It was “Still the One” by Orleans. You probably don’t know it, but.

anna martin

I don’t, but.

mike rucker

“You’re still the one that makes me laugh, still the one that’s my better half. We’re still having fun, and you’re still the one.” So we had this dance. It was amazing. It completely overwhelmed John. He had to go to bed afterward because it was so mentally and emotionally exhausting. But so this bear just reminds me — I’m about to start crying — reminds me of all of that, all of it.

anna martin

Grieving someone is such an emotional process, obviously, but it’s also a physical one. And I’m thinking about the physicality of these objects, you holding the bear and the deer in your hands. And I would love to know from you how these objects factor in or help you in your grieving process.

mike rucker

There was a period where I couldn’t look at anything. I didn’t want to be reminded of anything. In my mind, after John died, there were things that — it’s almost that like things became fixed in time. It was like, if I don’t change anything, then John is still with me, and he’s as close as he’s ever going to get to me.

anna martin

Right.

mike rucker

John and I had — have a walk-in closet, and it was split completely in half. It was super symmetrical. And my clothes were all on the left, and John’s clothes were all on the right. Well, I kept buying clothes. So I started creeping into John’s place and whatever. And it was a slow process. And eventually, I realized, I’m going to save a few of the things that were John’s and I know he loved that will mean something to me, and I’m going to let the rest of the things go because I need this space. It was a more practical decision than anything else.

But doing things like that and fixing the deer and moving forward in that way, I think every day is just a tiny baby step forward in the process. And at some point, practical matters start to, at least, counterbalance emotional matters a little bit. And I think that there will always be some things that I just have to hold on to. I still, still have these kind of sippy cup things that I had to get for John when he was really sick because he kept dropping his cup. I was clearing out space in a cabinet. They were on the counter, getting ready to go into recycling.

And I hate keeping things from his sickness. It’s really more about the happy times we had together. And I guess, I got this flash, this vision of John being sick and me bringing him something to drink and his, just, adoring, appreciative eyes when I — I’m going to start crying again — when I hand him a drink in this cup. And it really just made my heart clench. And I was like, I can’t do it. I can’t do it yet. So I didn’t.

anna martin

And you kept all four or five of them.

mike rucker

All five of them, yes. And you never know. It’s like the essay. You don’t know when something’s going to hit you like that. It just kind of comes up on you like a surprise. I know I’ll do it at some point. Even seven years on, I couldn’t do it.

anna martin

Mike, I am so grateful. Thank you for coming into the studio today.

mike rucker

It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

anna martin

Modern Love is produced by Julia Botero and Hans Buetow. It’s edited by Sara Sarasohn. This episode was mixed by Elisheba Ittoop. The Modern Love theme music is by Dan Powell. Original music in this episode by Hans Buetow and Chelsea Daniel. Digital production by Mahima Chablani. Special thanks to Anna Diamond at Audm, and also to Phyllis Fletcher and Elisheba Ittoop for their voices. Modern Love was founded by Dan Jones. Miya Lee is the editor of Modern Love projects. I’m Anna Martin. Thanks for listening.



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