Rocco thought that after five years of being with the same person, day in and day out, he would have a lot more to show for it. But even after she’d returned to him every single thing he had ever given her, the pile could just barely fill a five gallon aluminum trash bin dropped precariously at his doorstep. Six miserable days had passed since she broke things off with him; six empty days filled with pizzas, Bruce Willis movies, and brief but sudden fits of hysterical laughter/sobs. The trash bin sat menacingly in the corner of his bedroom, taunting him with memories of happier times. Six cold days had passed, and Rocco needed to light a fire.
Rocco avoided the temptation to examine the bin’s contents extensively, though he worried that it might not all burn the way he hoped. He hadn’t any lighter fluid on hand, and as the clock on his wall read 2:00 AM, he realized he’d have to improvise. Not wanting to wait until morning, he emptied the contents of his paper shredder (kindling) into the trash bin, which he set on his desk next to the open window. He turned on the fan, and took out the cheap lighter he bought for twenty-two candles that remained unopened and useless in a kitchen cabinet somewhere downstairs. Fkkk, . . . fkkk . . . fkkk. Only a couple of sparks. Rocco rummaged through his desk drawer, relieved to find an old box of matches they’d taken camping the previous summer. He drew the match along the side of the box, the smell of sulfur stinging his nostrils as the match head awoke.
In the dim orange glow he held between his thumb and now ringless finger, Rocco caught an unfortunate glimpse of Freddy sticking up at the top of the trash heap, bits of paper clippings hanging about him like confetti, as though he’d just come home drunk from a New Year’s party and fell asleep in the bin. Rocco made out the dead black button eyes and nose, and the mouthless face. She used to always comment to him how much she loved that deadpan stare; it made her feel like Freddy could be either happy or sad depending on how she was feeling that day. Empathy. Was it empathy?
The flame gradually crawled from the now charred match head, down the white stick, and licked Rocco’s thumb, reminding him that he had a duty to perform. Almost without thinking, Rocco dropped the nearly spent match on top of the heap, just under Freddy’s left paw, and on the corner of a note, whose only legible words were Sweet N. This note was the hungry flame’s next meal and it grew and grew, catching pieces of confetti along the way, shining against the smooth interior of the trash bin. Then, it died.
Rocco hurriedly lit another match, this time digging a little pit for the flame to really catch. The little glowing light started on a sketch of her face, then jumped to a woven bracelet, next a cardboard cupcake box, and finally a picture from a photobooth, each containing a memory that was slowly being purged from his mind. Rocco was convinced he’d forgotten what she looked like, that he could not quite recall the warmth of her delicate wrist, nor the subtle smile of her lips against chocolate, nor the four-framed surprise he gratefully endured when those same lips graced his cheek for the first time. As the flame grew brighter, so did his future. He was the phoenix rising from the ashes. He could start over, grow again. Then, it died, again. And the memories returned.
Something was keeping the fire from really taking off. No longer concerned with efficiency, Rocco dumped the entire 250-ct match box into the ashes. All save one, which he angrily lit and threw into the trash bin. Immediately, a plume of grey smoke erupted, and for the first time, Rocco could hear crackling. He angled the fan downward into the bin, so as to really speed things up. The trash bin radiated heat, and for a moment, Rocco felt like one of those homeless bums trying desperately to glean a little warmth from the fire in the oil drum in the alley. There was a freedom in that loneliness. But he was never really alone as long has he had the fire to keep him company. Then, it died almost completely. Little more than an orange teardrop remained, frustrated in its inability to completely consume Rocco’s past.
Beside Freddy’s now smoking remains, in the midst of burned letters, smoldering love notes, charcoaled sketches, and blackened photographs was an old glass coke bottle, cracked, and bleeding white sand. Rocco recalled the sleepy, almost dreamlike tone in her voice when she said she wished that day could last forever. The sun was a heat lamp, pleasantly incubating the beginning of something beautiful and fleeting; the waves massaged their bodies, and their feet barely touched the ocean floor; the sand . . . fine, and almost bleached. Like powdered sugar. Rocco thought it was only fitting that the sand should be housed in a bottle that was formerly sand itself. Someday, he told her, they would be like that bottle, filled with experience that would define and give character to their relationship. He hadn’t considered at the time, however, that the bottle, for all its worth, was made of glass. Maybe it was strength, or transparency. Or something.