by Tal Neubaum
William’s ruthless probity in matters relating to the environment was his undoing. He would pull a dirty bottle out of your trash bin and then tell you about the cumulative effect of all the bottles that could be recycled and instead sit in landfills, and what that meant for various forms of wildlife, while he stood at the sink and carefully rinsed the bottle for recycling. People seldom minded, though, since William was about six foot four with incredibly broad shoulders, naturally pronounced musculature, and lips the color of plums. He kind of made you go gaga when you looked at him, even if you didn’t have any interest in sleeping with him.
He’d lived with Jill for some years when his misfortune hit. It was a good set-up for him. She paid the rent. She took care of things. I think she somehow felt privileged to do it. He had time to go to the library and read up on the relative toxicity of polyethylene and polyvinyl plastics.
He started talking with a girl named Beverly at the library. She was a college student who’d stayed in town for the summer, doing research for a senior thesis on cellular biology, so she was there nearly every day, like him.
When she asked him to go out for coffee, he thought nothing of it, since he had his ceramic travel mug with him. She stared into his eyes while he talked about his friend who grew mustard greens in an abandoned lot nearby. He found he liked being close to her. He liked the coffee. He liked the little vegan coffee shop more than any of the thousand times he’d been there before. He waved his hands balletically while he talked. She laughed and touched his knee.
Women were often drawn to William. He knew it was wrong to kiss them or to let them run their hands up and down his body or to finally fall into bed with them, but it seemed a petty sin compared to the mortal threats to the continued existence of the human species that he contemplated each day. Jill never found out, so the encounters disappeared without ripples and so did his regrets about them.
When Beverly said she lived near the coffee shop, he thought about Jill long enough to calculate that her shift would keep her at the office for four more hours. When Beverly sat next to him on her couch, so that their thighs touched all along their lengths, he thought of Jill enough to resolve not to kiss this girl. But when Beverly leaned close to him, and he could smell her flowery shampoo and see the avid light in her eyes, he didn’t think of Jill at all.
They writhed on the couch some time, testing how their bodies could work together, driving themselves from desire into painful frustration. Beverly finally stood up, tugged his hand, and led him to her bedroom. They undressed. He held her tight against himself. He kissed her body, from her clavicle down to her waist, consumed in the heat of contact and the logic of lust, so that serving desire was the law, and thought of possible compunctions was distant and weak.
He laid her on the bed, and she stretched and reached to a drawer in a bedside table, and then handed him a foil packet. He tore it open.
That was when the thought hit him. He hadn’t before tried to calculate the full environmental impact of what he was about to do. The foil was probably recyclable. What about the latex? No. Couldn’t be. He’d never heard of that.
But then Beverly put her hands on his hips and pulled him toward her.
He did try to breathe slowly and evenly, to minimize exhalations of carbon dioxide. The waste of excessive vigor couldn’t be justified, and Beverly seemed to like his controlled pace anyway.
When everything was over, he went to the bathroom, while she snuggled under her duvet. He looked down at the little trash can beside the toilet, holding the limp latex in his hand. He imagined dropping it into the can, and it continuing from there to a river bank where it would snag on a stray branch and leech chemicals into some fish hatchery, decimating a generation of salmon eggs. Instead, he rinsed it out in the sink and folded it up.
He put the condom, ready for re-use, into his pants pocket. He picked up the two halves of the wrapper, as well, and put those in the same pocket to be sure they were properly disposed of.
After saying goodbye and exchanging phone numbers, he made it home and put the wrapper right in the recycling, carefully burying it under some junk mail.
Jill came home. She complained about her boss and said she had to bring the car in the next day. Everything seemed normal. William’s irritation of conscience subsided.
William had long had doubts about the recycling company hired by the city. They said it was single stream, but he wondered if they really processed the papers and plastics, or just extracted the more profitable metal items and dumped the rest. He kept picturing his carefully washed plastics being emptied into the sea from a pier late at night, and eventually bobbing and journeying out to the great trash island in the Pacific.
This was a recycling night, and he dithered, wondering if he should find a private company to take their recycling, or maybe a co-op somewhere. He went as far as starting a Google search, but then it was time for him to leave for his Thursday pick-up basketball with Cliff, so he changed and ran out, which left Jill to do the recycling. She carried the kitchen bin out to the curb and dumped it into the bin there. Nothing strange about that. She went back to the kitchen and set the bin upright. Then she saw, stuck to the bottom, half of a torn blue and white Trojan wrapper.
She reasonably proceeded to next look in the jeans William had worn that day and found the neatly folded, damp condom in the pocket.