Trash Boys by Nini Berndt
A trash boy is twenty-three, eternally. It has been a long time since his last meal. What’re you eating? you asked him, seeing it was the end of a sandwich you’d thrown away, and the trash boy was hungry, still growing. He’d taken it from the can and finished it off. Really, trash boy? you’d said, about the sandwich. He nodded, swallowed. The name stuck.
He doesn’t do his own laundry, this boy. He sends it out, or else, having you nearby, asks, Would you like to do my laundry? Then, rephrases, Do my laundry, getting, surprisingly, better results. It has happened more than once, this exact exchange, and this mystifies you. Is there a manual? you wonder. An assembly line?
A trash boy doesn’t need to be a boy, necessarily. Trash boys take all kinds. The shiny trash boy combs his hair to one side, wears a button up and plays something pretty on guitar. The filth trash boy burns you on the hip with a cigarette, puts Dylan on the speakers, tells you about the time he used a girl’s hand towel as toilet paper. The barista trash boy has a girlfriend who follows you around at night saying, You can have her, you can have her! and the next morning is twelve minutes late to work. Trash boys drink too much, are well-read, needy and terrified of obligation. They do not buy stamps or aluminum foil. They think too often of their mothers, miss when they came home with packages of brand-new tight, white socks. Holy moly, a trash boy says when he gets into your bed. These sheets smell great.
Still, a trash boy surprises. He is kind to your son, brings him treats, watches videos of pythons swallowing alligators with the same rapt attention. He finds you infuriating in your propensity to give and receive pleasure. Sometimes the trash boys want you dead, and they say so. Come here, they say, Come here come here come here and then when you are right in front of them they find that you are too close. A trash boy retreats. By Monday, he is back.
A trash boy, underneath it all, worries about what his mother thinks. He worries about what the girl who bags his groceries thinks, about what the professor thinks, what the other trash boys think. Somewhere, and it catches him off guard, he worries about what you think. You disapprove sometimes, you are furious sometimes, but being queen of the trash boys it is your duty to serve and protect and adore the trash boys, to let them come and go as they please, to wipe their spit from your face and throw their sheets in the dryer. It isn’t the trash boy’s fault, you think, because you are a grown up. You should know better. You should be the one to say, No, no trash boy, this isn’t how it’s done.
You are a grown up. You have a tiny trash boy, a tiny trash boy in pink Chuck Taylors who is actually defenseless and you are too exhausted to build him a fort because you were up all night with the trash boys, smoking menthols, listening to them attempt the harmonica, and you knew when you woke up you didn’t want to do that again, that was the last time, you said, you’d like to make some banana bread, you said, and watch Garden State and go to bed by ten. Help me, you say, but you say it only to yourself because who is around to help? The trash boys are in the street. The tiny trash boy, trash boy son, kid you hope to god won’t grow up to be such a trash boy, think about what it is to love a girl, to love a woman, to love your mother, kid, please, don’t grow up like the boys who bring you Band-Aids and Cheetos, this tiny trash boy is sitting in the bathtub, playing with his tiny trash boy junk. Put it away, you want to say, to all the boys. Put it away, please. But they are all so preoccupied and they will not outgrow it.
A trash boy is informed, progressive. A trash boy is anxious to vote. A trash boy is careful with his trash, he recycles. He drives an eight-year-old foreign sedan. He keeps an ironing board in the back. He forgot about the ironing board. His mother bought him the ironing board five years ago, when he left home. You would sort of like to say, I don’t have an ironing board, I could really use that ironing board, but you know what that would imply, to a trash boy.
You take the trash boys to sushi because they don’t know much about sushi and you are really fond of sushi and if you don’t want to get sushi alone you have to bring the trash boys and you have to order and you have to pay. You have fun. You have fun slurping Japanese scallops and quail yolk from a lemon cup with the trash boys for whom this is a first. The trash boys use too much wasabi. They make you laugh. They like the same 1960’s surrealist writers you do and they like to talk about how much fun you can have with a well-placed adverb. And you can teach them things in bed, teach them, Ask what she likes, doesn’t that make sense? Just ask. And then be pleased when they listen. Be pleased when after some weeks they start to pick up the things you explicitly have been putting down.
But you are tired. You are cleaning up after the kid and writing a book and teaching a whole classroom of trash kids and you’re still in love with Trash Boy Zero in Denver, who is a different kind of trash boy, the right kind, the kind you want, the only one you want, but you can’t have that trash boy right now. You are tired from having an ex-husband who is a good man but only a very recently reformed trash boy and so still disappoints too often. You are tired from having your legs gawked at but still wearing those shorts. You are tired from being praised, from being fawned over, from being eaten up like an éclair in the sun and then left, left by a smiling trash boy who doesn’t really want to leave you, just doesn’t really want to keep you.
It’s too much when another trash boy says, Hey I don’t know about this, aren’t you a grown up? I’m just a kid, I can’t do this, you know, I’m just a kid. You say to yourself, You’re right. I am a grown up. I will be thirty next year. I have a real kid, a real live human kid who needs me.
Enough with the trash boys, you say. You open a zero-percent-interest-for-18-months credit card and don’t put sushi on it.
Have you ever been with an adult? your friends ask. You try to remember. You get on Tinder. You can’t help but swipe left if they look like they pay their own car insurance. You can barely stand the sight of them when you think they may have a 401K. What are you doing? you scream at yourself. No trash boys! Remember? You delete the app, wondering what that boy with the neon swimming trunks drinking Moscato out of the bottle would look like sprawled on your rug, if he would ask to use your deodorant in the morning.
You wish you were folding someone’s socks. You wish you were watching YouTube videos of Mick Jagger’s early interviews in a trash boy’s bed wearing his t-shirt, opening up a window to have a cigarette, drinking instant Folgers made with lukewarm tap water. You wish you had the freedom to be a trash boy. You wish you could just go on and be a trash boy. You try to think about being in an accountant’s loft. You try to imagine their leather couch and the bed they make every morning and what you would say to them over short rib ragu if you knew you were splitting the bill, what they might make you for breakfast in the morning. If they would kiss you goodbye with certainty, the way a trash boy never can. You hope they would still let you pull their chest hairs out with your teeth. You hope they would still let you cry when you talk about how Stevie Nicks will always love Lindsey Buckingham, always. It’s too scary to be with an adult. It’s too scary to be with someone who doesn’t have the same reasons the trash boys have to leave. It hurts when the trash boys leave. You are lonesome when the trash boys leave. But you understand. They are just boys. If it were a grown up, if it were someone who could stay, who could and just didn’t want to, you couldn’t handle it, could you? That would be the end of you, wouldn’t it?
You make enough food to feed a trash boy army. You put on a song you like. You try to touch your toes but can’t. You wonder if you should start lying about your age. The trash boys want you to come out and play. You want to work on your book. You want to throw all this food away and eat cereal in bed. You want to sleep for a long time. I can’t, you say to the trash boys. I can’t come out this time. You watch them from your window, the long line of their bodies between the asphalt and the rim of the basketball hoop. You miss their greedy mouths. You leave the door unlocked, wait for your hunger to pass.
Nini Berndt is an MFA candidate at the University of Florida, where she writes and teaches. Her work has appeared in Blackbird, PANK, Alice Blue Review, Word Riot, and others. She is currently working on a novel and raising her small son.