Before dumpster diving became an art form, my twelve year old hands were sifting through garbage heaps until I was waist high in trash.
The story begins in a clean, spacious orthodontist office, DeSoto, TX, 1988. In an effort to correct my sideways forming, crooked teeth early on, my parents generously spent, I don’t know how many thousands of dollars that they didn’t have, to keep me in rounds of protruding, silver braces, retainers, and shiny metal headgear.
Somewhere, on the front half of my sixth grade year, I rolled out of 1 1/2 years in braces, and I moved onto the plastic, removable retainer. It was a win-win for everyone. I looked a little bit less like a dork, and my parents didn’t have to hear me complain so much about “my stupid braces that make me look like a dork.” And so it was time.
We had the talk. They preached to me, “Please don’t lose your retainer. Always remember to put it back in after you eat. And, if you do lose it, you won’t be getting another one.” And I believed them.
It’s just I’ve always had this way of misplacing things, especially when I’m eating. I’ve never been the organized, Trapper Keeper sort of girl with a laid out plan. I’ve spent most of my life living in the moment, distracted by interesting people and their stories, and leaving the dining table with a missing earring I didn’t feel fall off or the credit card back at the restaurant, distracted by the alluring smell of yellow curry or basil infused marinara or garlicky-fajita meat sizzling in wilting onions on that lovely, steamy cast iron serving dish.
Looking back, I remember the guttural pain that sank my stomach the first time I realized I had lost my retainer, somewhere in the school cafeteria. Similarly, my spirit sank, when I lost it a second time, about a year later. Partly because I felt guilty, but mainly because of real life trash digging that ensued after school, in both instances.
My mother, the first time, alongside me. My father the second. Both experiences equally queasy.
Untying the knotted bags, we opened the thin white trash liners, one at a time. The stench and filth of lunchroom refuse overwhelmed my senses as I picked through the pieces of half eaten student leftovers. Half-full, crunched milk cartons mixed with squishy grape juice boxes. Bolgona-cheese sandwiches, spattered with ketchup and french fry scraps had mixed together just long enough that I had to turn my head to recover any semblance of fresh air. There wasn’t a set of gloves handy, so the syrupy disposable breakfast trays stuck to my hands, forming a thick film of crumbs on my fingertips the further we dug.
And both times, it was at the end of the search, after all of the trash bags had been sifted through, that I finally found my paper sack, the retainer wrapped in a crumpled napkin.
One of the best things my parents ever did was follow through on the promise of not doling out another hundred bucks as soon as I announced my retainer loss. Sure, they probably were wondering, during the hours of filthy investigative work, What will we do if we don’t find it? Will we go back on our promise? All the while, they continued at my side, refusing to give up.
The older I get, the more I’m believing that never giving up often requires us to sift through the unsightly — trash, refuse, waste, and filth. It requires us to endure a process of examination and truthful confession. When I started this writing journey to uncover the messy choices of my past, especially concerning my unhealthy relationship with my body and the food that I hate to love, I pledged to leave no stone unturned. So, expect to see some future self examination and confession unravel — in all its unseemly pieces.