On the day I first called Jacob, I was out looking for dachshunds. I chose dachshunds because they were some specific thing I could probably find in this city that was not my ex-boyfriend.
Without them, my mind didn't wander so much as hone in. It used to be like this: Every pair of forearms I passed could have been his forearms. I'd check strangers' wrists for a faded racing-flag tattoo—Art's—like a customs officer looking for the right passport stamp. Deny, deny. Art, who had lived up to the exact opposite of his name, leaving me gracelessly some average day of the week while we were both sitting on the couch.
My mind was racing then with thoughts of dogs with little legs. Perhaps I'd even find one playing fetch, which meant incredible luck for the rest of the week.
Instead I ran into Jacob's sign.
GOT DUMPED? It said, so forcefully, the visual equivalent of getting very close to someone and shouting in your ear.
The second line: GET DUMPT! I inched closer. Dumpt!: removal services for the brokenhearted and bereaved. Burn it, bury it, ship it—we can help!
Dumpt!: removal services for the brokenhearted and bereaved. Burn it, bury it, ship it—we can help!
When I got home, I pulled out my cell phone before my brain could stop me. No one will pick up, I said. This has got to be performance art.
Jacob's disembodied voice promised he could come by and rid my apartment of all the things that had reminded me of Art. I responded that I didn't normally call strangers' numbers off telephone poles. Seeing his, it must have been a sign.
"I'd call it a flyer, really, but sure," he answered. I remembered the strips of paper at the bottom, waggling like fingers. Introductory offer: first session free, they promised. Then: "So next week, at four?"
Now this guy's in my doorway, medium-height with a thick mustache, like he's recently had a full beard and lost a bet. He has a tote bag slung on his shoulder and several enormous cardboard boxes in his hands, empty. There's a baseball cap on his head with two words embroidered on it: Get Dumpt! I think of the whirring machines at the mall hat kiosks, spelling out Number-One Grandpa or I'm With Stupid while you wait.
He adjusts everything, manages to stick out a hand, and says, "I'm Jacob. Are you ready to work through this together?"
I think of what my mother might say, me allowing a stranger into my apartment, living alone. Perhaps: "Lucy, the only way to forget a man is to bring in a new one." The loneliness had started to become comfortable, good, even. I told myself this every quiet afternoon in the apartment, every dish I would wash and put back exactly in place.
I think of what my mother might say, me allowing a stranger into my apartment, living alone.
My plan was to continue on as if certain parts of my apartment didn't exist: the corner next to my nightstand, the kitchen shelf where he kept breakfast tea, the whole right side of the bed.
It's a second before I realize I’m explaining this out loud.
"Let's sit, and I'll tell you how this works," he says.
I motion to the couch and we both do as he suggests, settling in with the throw pillows. Jacob looks at the clipboard, then back at me. I imagine him as a reporter and me, the bystander who just happened to see a crime, like they do it on late-night cop shows. Could you describe the perpetrator, ma'am? No, I barely got a look at his face. But here, I managed to memorize his license plates.
"Now, tell me, did you share your dwelling with…" Jacob flips through the papers on his clipboard. "…Art? People are still named Art?"
"Yes. Well, yes, people are still named Art, and yes, he lived here. Maybe about like, eight or nine months." He'd made it from the end of his lease to the end of mine. It doesn't sound very long at all. I don't feel like looking up at Jacob anymore. I become very interested in my fingernails.
"So it was yours until he moved in?" Jacob asks, making notes on his clipboard. I nod. Was yours, I think, knowing my allotted 400 square feet was caught somewhere in the middle, no longer mine and Art's, but not quite mine again. And I had let it happen.
"We broke up in this apartment, too." I say, my fingers now working a loose thread on the couch. I pull it until it snaps. Maybe now would be a good time to pull the curtains closed and turn a flashlight on my face, like I'm telling a ghost story. Jacob turns towards me.
"Tell me more," he says. "This is important. I'm here to listen." I am a celebrity, and he is a columnist from People magazine.
I tell it fast and quick, a Band-Aid rip of a story: caught off guard on pizza night.
"He left me for his improv troupe." Hearing it aloud makes it sound too dramatic, like I am reciting daytime-soap synopses from the TV guide. Art had been "getting serious" about it, as if seriousness was something you run out of easily, like singles for the laundry quarter machine. He told me this, and then told me I'd gotten some sauce was on my cheek. Not that one, the other one.
The next day when I came home from work, I nearly tripped over his suitcases. The efficiency of it all made it seem like it was always supposed to happen, for one of us, at least.
Jacob makes a mark on his clipboard. "And how long were you together?"
"Um. A year? And a half? Give or take." I shift a little, trying to remember why I ever thought this couch was comfortable. "Do you do this a lot?" What I want to ask is, How can you do this for free? But what if I do and he disappears in a puff of puppies' tails, or something? I've taken a leave of absence from risk-taking, and asking that question seems to qualify.
"It's been picking up," he says. "We should move on to the bedroom."
"This is already going better than most of my first dates." The mood feels thirsty for a joke. Jacob tucks a nonexistent hair behind his ear.
We walk in, and I try to see my bedroom as he would. It looks, from the outside, like it just belongs to me. In my head it's more like modern art: too much negative space, not enough explanation. I guess this is why you hire help.
In my head it's more like modern art: too much negative space, not enough explanation. I guess this is why you hire help.
"Let's sit," says Jacob.
"You first." I watch as he sinks onto the comforter. I make a private joke to myself: a rare sighting of the male Homo sapiens on the vast plains of a continent called Bedsheet. I sit next to him. There is a moment where I think that all it would take is moving a few inches to the left and staring at Jacob's chin long enough for him to move in and kiss me. Sometimes you can just tell who is kind enough to do that.
But a part of me knows doing anything like this would be the emotional equivalent of diving head first into a bowl of Lucky Charms. Satisfying in the short term. Bad for your teeth in the end. And that mustache.
"Where would you like to start?" Jacob asks.
The photos, I figure, should be the first to go. Above my bed, there are a handful of them taped where a headboard should be. There is the Polaroid of the sunrise from his old apartment's rooftop—you can tell, because his right pinky-toe is in the frame—and it's next to a few of faded advertisements on brick buildings from around the city that we liked to collect. Had liked to collect.
Jacob doesn't know this, but there's also the black-and-white strip of photobooth pictures that I shoved at the bottom of my mess of a jewelry box shortly after the improv pizza night. Art and I are still smiling in the dark somewhere under my necklaces and rope bracelets, still intact as my own personal what-if contingency plan. There is some part of me that wants to keep it, the part of me that smiled at blinding flashes and felt like things were finally settling together.
The pictures come off easy, the old tape beneath them creaking slightly as I pull them from their places and hand them to Jacob. I pull out books Art loaned me and never asked for back, the wig he wore to an '80s party and shoved in my closet. There might be his Parmesan in the fridge, still, probably going bad.
There's the shirt Art told me he once won in grade school as part of a math competition. Acting on habit, I put it to my face and breathe in, first detecting the expected few-days-old laundry smell that reminds me I need to drop off a wash after this is all over.
"This is the hard part. You're doing great.” Jacob says. He’s so sincere I want to punch him in the stomach, which affirms my decision not to kiss him.
He's so sincere I want to punch him in the stomach, which affirms my decision not to kiss him.
The bedroom finished, the rest of the apartment goes quickly. Even the mouthwash from the bathroom, which I thought I might use someday. The objects barely take up a box. "Now you just take it all away?" I ask. In my mind I see Jacob riding a forklift up and down aisles of photo albums and socks. On a lucky day he might get a microwave, a whole set of silverware.
"You'll just need to sign this inventory," he says, handing over the clipboard. The sheet of paper on top is crisp as a graphic designer's business card, all clever fonts and clean lines. I messily write my signature where he has drawn an X.
"This feels really good," I say. Then I start crying. "Sorry," I sniff. "I never hide bodily functions well. I once threw up right in front of a flight attendant."
Jacob doesn’t hug me, and I'm not sure if it's because he's a stranger or if it's the fact that I am completely off-putting to the opposite sex. Or maybe I'm the off-putter. Here I am, giving away all the vestiges of my best chance at a shared life to a man with a lost-bet mustache. The mouthwash. I need a few more weeks to think about the mouthwash.
"Come on, it's okay." he says. "I bet they see that all the time. Flight attendants, I mean."
"Let me show you out," I say, grabbing my keys and the box of Art's things and pushing him, perhaps a little roughly, towards the door. I hop down the front steps and towards the bus stop, but Jacob turns the other way. "Over here." he says. "I drove."
Something compels me to hold these things until the very last second, so when Jacob unlocks the car, I put both the box and myself in the passenger seat and slam the door. Every single one of my friends would have said, Lucy, do not get in that car. Or is it every one of my single friends?
They watch all the late-night cop shows, too. But I'm not afraid. It's fall, early enough in the season that the sun is still up even in late afternoon, nagging me once again to appreciate it before it goes. The seatbelt goes over my chest and I hear it click satisfyingly. Being in a car is the ice cream cone of my adulthood. An unexpected treat. "You can just leave the box," Jacob says, staring across at me, oh shit written on his face. "I can take it from here."
You can just leave the box, Jacob says, staring across at me, oh shit written on his face.
"I want to come." I say. "I'm a paying customer."
"Actually, you aren't."
I sniff loudly, as if I am going to cry again, though I'm not. "I'm already here," I say, voice wobbling like a kitchen table with a missing leg. "I'll tell you the rest of the story. Take me to wherever you are taking me." There's the line, almost. "You're going to drop this off at headquarters anyway, right?" I lift the box a little, as if to remind him.
"Jesus," Jacob whispers to himself. There is a moment where I think he is trying to ignore me away. Then, "Well, I guess you're here already. Sure, yeah, let's go. This boyfriend really…affected you, didn't he?" His seatbelt clicks. The car departs from the curb.
"After our first date, he invited me out for breakfast," I say to the windshield, because this explains everything. Jacob turns onto a wide avenue with unfamiliar houses on each side and a bicycle lane bisecting it, a spine. It would be a good place to walk, despite its unknown dachshund demographic. "Real, 24-hour diner breakfast.” I have few, but particular, standards.
"You get it," I say to Jacob.
Out the window now I let my eyes focus in and out of the houses rolling past. I have the box on my lap, Art's belongings curled around each other like puppies we are going to abandon. "And what about you?" I say. "Was Dumpt! your idea?" I say the company name like it's spelled: with an exclamation. The thing I don't mention, but want to know: did a breakup fuck you up even more than it did me?
Jacob smiles to himself. "A couple tough relationships, you know." He shrugs. "And I'm just…I'm just interested in people's stuff. I used to be a construction worker."
"I don't think I follow."
"Last job before I quit was a high-rise hotel in Midtown. You wouldn't believe the things people in apartment buildings do with their curtains open: play cards in their underwear, microwave rice, have sex. Nobody cares." Jacob continues: "There was one couple, 12:45 p.m., like clockwork. I think the building's foundation shifted, everyone was craning for a look."
"Pervs, right? But I wanted to know—do they like each other? Does she grind her teeth inher sleep? I guess I just like the story of it."
"Are they still together?"
"That's my point exactly."
He pulls a cigarette out of his pocket, rolls down the window. The cool breeze hits us, a rush of sky and the lingering smell of salt water.
"We're almost there," he says, lighting up and pointing towards the skyline. "You see it, up ahead?" The looming, lit sign of a self-storage warehouse approaches. He turns his hands into air quotes, ash flicking off the cigarette as he says, "'Headquarters.'"
I feel a little like I did as a kid when a book ended and the ducks hadn't found their mother, that sense that things should end nicely but rarely do. I tilt the box of Art's things away from me and read where someone has written PLATES on the side. He couldn't have written that today. I didn't give away any plates. Slowly, I begin to get it.
"Jacob," I say. I pull out Art's old yellow shirt. I make my best cop-show face. "You were just going to keep Art's stuff. In a storage locker."
I am speaking now to the box, to Art's mouthwash, his pinky toe and the sunset, his dumb '80s wig. I am saying, why didn't you protect me from this. I wanted the science fiction of a company that could take the messy things out of my life in neat boxes. One neat box, rather. There is a lesson I could pull from this scene, about following a strange man on promises he can't keep.
"Better than it being in your house though, right?" I guess. "And, you know, this is just the beginning. Temporary." He takes a drag and lets it go. "This has the chance of getting big."
This has the chance of getting big.
Jacob turns left, heads into the parking lot. Finds a spot in front of a row of faceless gray doors.
"What am I doing here?" I am so angry, so foolish. I slam the box of Art's stuff against the dashboard. My right hand finds my jeans pocket, and I wrap my fingers around the keys there, making sure the pointed parts go in between my knuckles. Protection is a feeble thing when you realize you might actually need it.
"You got in the car." Jacob answers. Helpful. "Come on. I want to show you where it goes." We coast into a parking spot. We are the only ones here, one vehicular hiccup among the endless concrete. He's out of the car, walking towards a door.
"Okay," I call from my seat. My hand grips my keys harder, a squeeze of confidence or insanity. "I'm coming."
I imagine two scenarios: that after tonight, my story will be a cautionary tale, or a charming anecdote at holiday parties, the ones I tell when someone asks what it's like to live in the city. I’ll start with the bit about the flyer and end with the lesson: you're never alone, and you're never the weirdest. Whoever I’m with will laugh, and so will I.
Jacob's arms strain to lift the door, and inside I see it: piles and piles of boxes so wilted they seem to be frowning, balanced atop wooden furniture in various states of distress. Tennis rackets hang from nails in the concrete. A newspaper sits atop a stack towards the front: the day the Mets won the pennant, in 1969.
I hold my breath, wanting to sigh with relief at the lack of severed body parts, but I'm afraid it will all crumble on an exhale.
"My first customers, kind of," says Jacob, scratching his head, as if he barely remembers getting all this stuff here. From a dresser drawer, he pulls out a faded Boy Scout guide. "This was all my grandfather's. And my father's. Over there, that’s the person who called before you." He indicates a slumping laundry bag in the corner.
I nod. There is still the chance he literally means the person before me is inside, but it is growing smaller. "That's nice," I finally think to say. "It's nice that you're keeping it."
He stretches over the pile and points out a rocking chair, upturned over a dusty costume trunk. "One day I'm going to polish this up really nice, put it in my living room. I just…needed reminders to come back and see it." He turns to me. "I hoped bringing other people's junk would give it some company." He steps out, hands in his pockets. "Sorry. I don't mean junk. But I couldn't do what you're doing, getting rid of everything all at once. Takes guts."
I get an urge to hug him until I remember he didn't hug me before. We are a fine pair, a hugless duo.
I wonder if this is how it will always go. I will still see Art on my corner, at the deli, in the cop shows, and whether or not his T-shirt is in my hamper won’t make a difference. I will practice my best disaffected stare-downs in the mirror and never get to use it on him. I will want to do this again, probably, if I ever feel human enough to let someone share my comforter again. And that person will leave, and I will call Jacob again and say, don't come this time. You can lead your heart to a storage locker but that's about it.
Back at the car, Art's box is still waiting, still falsely advertising PLATES. I pull it out and run back to the locker. "For you," I say, handing it to Jacob to add to his pile of things. "You might be able to get some use out of the mouthwash."
When he closes up the locker, we get back into the car and head out. Jacob pulls something from his jeans pocket. A card.
"I have a website, you know," he says. "Write a review, okay?"
As we get in, he asks if I want to be taken home or if getting dropped at the train is better. It is dark now, the orange-glow of streetlights unfamiliar. If I squint they look like gems, close enough to grab. Jacob stalls at the exit for a second, forgetting which way to turn until he remembers.
Jillian Capewell lives, writes, and co-hosts the long-running Pete's Reading Series in Brooklyn.
Illustration by Dan Forke.