getting it

First the Breakup. Then the Screenshots.

Pandora, with her box
Pandora, with her box Photo: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

Does it spark joy? Does it spark joy? Does it spark joy? Does it spark joy? I repeated the words over and over again in my head so fast and for so long that they were mostly drained of their meaning by the time I reached my bedside drawer. I had seen the instruction what felt like several times a day over the last several months as Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up was reforming even America’s most stubborn junk hoarders. I had put off purging belongings that did not spark joy for some time, but reading Meghan Nesmith’s article on purging objects after breakups prompted me to take the plunge. But while Nesmith’s remaining objects were mostly jewelry and other things that had a right to hold sentimental value, mine were garbage. Literally. I had kept my ex’s trash in my drawer since July 2014.   

This sounds like the habit of a slob at best and a deranged lunatic at worst, I realize. This was not a monogamous, public relationship, but a fling that overstayed its welcome before accidentally turning into infatuation and something like love and occasionally morphing into an illicit affair when he would make doomed attempts at fidelity to girlfriends. His most frequent tokens of affection were boyishly whiny text dispatches sent in the middle of the night and an assortment of quality pharmaceuticals that we could quickly snort out of worldly existence. I would often screenshot his messages begging me back. Sometimes I sent them to my friends in frustration, but mostly I kept them as the private proof that he communicated tenderness convincingly. His attention and kindness was prone to very high peaks and very low valleys. They reassured me that I was not imagining his affection.

The last time I saw him, he brought a pint of Zywiec and fresh pack of Parliaments to my apartment. After I mounted an uncharacteristically cruel and assertive fight, he left without them. The ensuing fallout happened mostly over text, primarily in the form of him sending explicit death threats and clumsy attempts to paint me as deluded. I was instructed by a social worker to avoid my own apartment lest he wait for me there, so I did some couch-hopping until I was certain he’d left the state.

When I did eventually return home, I swept the beer and cigarettes into my desk drawer alongside a pink Gander Mountain beer koozie that he had bought me in a gun store the weekend we met. Initially it was a reflex of exhaustion more than intentional keepsaking, but I let the items linger. I slowly smoked through the cigarettes, then items began to accumulate on top of the bottle and pack like layers of sediment, leaving the proof of his physical presence at the bottom of the drawer. When I excavated them a few weeks ago, I felt no attachment. No bittersweetness. Certainly no joy. There was one Parliament left in the pack, and I took only a couple of drags before it made me feel sick. I refused to do the bottle the symbolic courtesy of recycling it.

But as I moved to place the koozie, the pack, and the bottle in the trash, I could not let them go as easily as I wanted. And so I laid each item on the top of the small wooden stool that I use as a miniature desk and photographed them, first all together and then one at a time. It felt liturgical in its motions but not in its mood, which was neither reverent nor joyful. These once tangible objects were reduced to digital ephemera, like the countless screenshots of text message conversations where he promised a love he would never deliver.

I threw the bag down the trash chute with ease, but still feel a sense that keeping the photographs of the objects is cheating somehow. I am not a digital dualist; I find the idea that there is a “real” world we can touch and a “fake” world emanating from our screens to be outdated and reductive. But there is something about digital artifacts that is at once less serious yet more scandalous than a physical object. These screenshots feel like contraband because our communication devices feel so much more intentionally private than our homes and offices. These files are stored under the safety of phone passcodes and in file folders buried deep on our laptops, which we diligently close to the world when our bodies are not directly in front of them.

Our digital devices are miniature vaults where we capture intel and experiences that were meant to be experienced on other platforms and fashion them into our own devotions to our neuroses. A screenshot text message exchange is saved by one party and forgotten by the other until it emerges as evidence in a quarrel. A photo meant to live on Instagram is cropped to eliminate evidence of its origins and held captive in a Camera Roll, the subject of the photo none the wiser unless she commits the even more egregious sin of snooping the captor’s device. But we enforce digital documentation policies in relationships selectively. It is considered obsessive to screenshot texts as mementos, but retaining emails in our inboxes is considered a best practice. Teams are split on whether or not one ought to scrub the web of evidence of the relationship once it ends. In my case, this would be impossible, as I do not control all of the digital material documenting our time together.

Before the betrayal and fallout, I had a hard and fast rule that I did not write about people I knew without their permission. It came up once after listening to a segment I wrote and performed on Canadian radio. “Why don’t you ever write about me? About us?” he had asked. I explained my policy and asked why he wanted me to. “I don’t know. To prove that we mattered. To prove that we existed,” he replied. “That’s because we don’t exist,” I said. I did not want to betray the hurt this caused so I said it while staring at my phone, the treasure chest of digital trinkets explaining how we came into and out of one another’s lives.

He is the only person for whom I have broken my rule about writing without permission. I regret writing about him sometimes, wincing that he has been able to sap so much creative energy out of me and left a digital paper trail that proves how deep under my skin he had crawled. No matter how far I move on, those desperate moments are trapped in the amber of the internet archive. But these public artifacts bother me less than the private ones, the images of trash I felt compelled to create, and the covert collection of our text dispatches that turned from affection to poison so quickly.

These conversations appear in blue and gray boxes on a white background and tell a disjointed, not-quite-love story. He tried to revise the story from time to time, but the written remains refuse to stand for it. Though I can’t hold any of the other items from our relationship in my hands anymore, I can see our words glowing brightly on my screen. And they prove that we existed, even if we never mattered.