I keep my apartment tidy. I’ve always been vigilant about throwing out old food. I take out my trash almost every other day. And I burn essential oils like tea tree and lemon eucalyptus to keep the air clear and fresh.
So I felt miffed last week when I came home and smelled something rotten. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. I smelled it in the living room. I smelled it lying in bed. I smelled it in the kitchen. Whatever it was, the smell had seeped into the vents and permeated my apartment.
On Saturday I set aside five hours to deep clean my apartment. I started in one corner of my bedroom and worked my way through the entire room, vacuuming and Windexing and using all kinds of cleaning chemicals that I usually avoid. I did the same for the bathroom. The kitchen. The living room.
Afterwards, I plopped down on my couch, exhausted. I put my feet up on my coffee table and breathed in deeply.
And I smelled it. Still. I was so perplexed.
I leaned over on the coffee table and touched the stem of a little pumpkin that was making a seasonal cameo as a centerpiece. One morning two weeks ago, I had opened my door to find this orange little fellow sitting on my stoop. My last boyfriend had left it there for me to find as a surprise. It was so sweet. After our emotional breakup, I thought about throwing it out because it reminded me of him. But instead, I kept it. I kept it to remember how much I had been loved. I kept it because it made me feel, in that crazy way, like I was still loved. I kept it because I wasn’t letting go.
I reached out to pick up the little pumpkin. But rather than grasping it, my fingers sunk in sickeningly, leaving grotesque holes in its orange flesh.
And I found the source of the smell.
I turned over the pumpkin, and saw that that the bottom was moist and clammy. I was horrified. The rot had left a putrid black circle in the center of my coffee table. The deteriorated skin was giving out, and as I turned it back over, brown, orange, white, and bluish pumpkin meat fell in chunks fell onto my arms and my lap. Dry seeds scattered onto the floor and rotted fibers became lodged under my finger nails as I tried to hold the pumpkin together. As the pumpkin hit the surface of the table it exploded, covering the books on the table and wedging into the groves of the buttons on my remote.
In a matter of seconds, I had gone from chemical clean to sickeningly filthy. The smell made me want to vomit. I was still holding the pumpkin in the air, by the stem. The top part was still. . . sort of. . . in tact. And that’s when it happened. I had the craziest thought:
I can’t throw this out. He gave this to me.
Yes. I seriously sat there, covered in rotting pumpkin filth, thinking, yeah, I can work with this.
I laughed out loud and how ridiculous that was. Of course I had to let the pumpkin go. It was a no-brainer. No negotiations. An easy choice.
But my instinctual attachment to the pumpkin was telling. It was demonstrative of the wrong view that I had been holding of the relationship I had with the man who had given it to me. Basically, I was attached to an idea of a thing–a pumpkin, or a boyfriend– more than I was attached to the lived experience of the thing. Let me illustrate.
I had falsely begun to associate the pumpkin with being loved, and developed instincts of attachment that sometimes flew in the face of logic. Thus, despite the fact that keeping a rotten pumpkin in my apartment would be bad for my health and my environment, I had a unhealthy instinct to keep it.
Similarly, I had falsely associated the idea of being in a relationship with happiness or success, and developed an attachment to this idea that had left me blind to the many ways that our actual relationship was unhealthy for the both of us. We had become very different people who were focused on very different values. We fought all the time. Our individual goals were pulling us in different directions — good directions, positive directions–but different directions. I think, despite the fact that we loved and liked each other a lot, most of the time we were making each other less happy rather than more happy. In the beginning, it had been different. But relationships, like pumpkins, are more than just a static decorations. They are life forms that grow, and change, and more often than not, decay.
I thought of our breakup as a failure, but I don’t think so any more. The only failure would have been to cling to a false idea over an actual, experienced reality. It took a rotten pumpkin all over my arms and carpet for me to really understand this idea. Throwing out the rotten pumpkin was a good thing, and it didn’t mean that the pumpkin had been bad for me the whole time. And ending my relationship was a good thing that in no way means that our time together was a failure or a mistake. It was a positive experience that came to a natural end.
So, I got a plastic bag and scooped the pumpkin mess into it. I picked up the seeds with my bare hands. I wiped down the table with a paper towel and Dr. Bronner’s. I cleaned the remote, using a toothpick to extract the rotted brown filth from between the buttons. I threw the bag and cleaning supplies out into the dumpster, and came back in and showered. It was a lot of work, and I didn’t want to do it, but I slowly and carefully extracted the rot from my environment and from myself.
Because when it’s a rotten pumpkin, it’s a really easy choice to begin the physical work of letting it go.
If only it were so easy when it came to the emotional work of letting go of a relationship.
I won’t sugarcoat it (although “sugarcoated pumpkin” does sound kind of good). It was a messy, messy job throwing out that rotten pumpkin. And it’s a messy job ending friendships that are bringing you down, or a career path where you don’t feel like your values are being nurtured, or a relationship where you don’t feel happy.
A dark circle still stains the table in the spot where the pumpkin rotted (pictured above in the the featured image for this post). If you put your nose right up against it, you can still smell it–the stench has seeped into the wood a little. But I scrubbed as long as I could, and will expose it to fresh air and, in time, I have faith that it will start to fade. In short, my table is marked, for the indefinite future, by the rotten pumpkin.
And me? I’m sure as hell marked by my relationship. I’m marked by all my relationships. It’s okay. Experiences leave marks. It’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a good thing. And it is a bad thing, and it is a good thing. It’s just is.
My apartment, at the moment, is pumpkinless. It doesn’t bother me. I might get a new pumpkin. I might not.
But my apartment doesn’t smell like rot anymore. It smells pretty nice.
Have a very Happy Halloween.