March 19, 2009

My ex-boyfriend Alan first told me about the web-site. He was always a pretty tight sort and so when he first mentioned that he regularly used a web-site where people offered unwanted possessions to complete strangers for free, I dismissed it as one of his needlessly mean penny-pinching schemes. Every week, he would stalk the street where we lived early each Tuesday morning, on the look out for jars or bottles or any other little gems that people had left by the roadside for recycling collection that day. He would turn them into small flower pots or fill them with dry pasta, a seemingly endless practice which he thought gave the flat character, but which I silently thought made it unnecessarily cluttered. ‘Waste not, want not’ was his infuriatingly smug catchphrase.

I can admit now that I never really liked Alan. When we met, he had complimented me on the book I was carrying by my side and it was at a time in my life when I thought that anything I did, said or experienced was unique to me and a select handful of other humans on the planet, who shared my truly singular worldview. It was our common reading of this book along with a half a dozen or so other seemingly unfathomable similarities, that led me marching blindly into the most pointless relationship of my adult life.

“It’s called Freecycle” he lectured me, his head held low, looming closely over the lap-top that his brother had deemed too slow to facilitate his online poker addiction. Alan lifted the computer up and held it hopefully to the window, trying to catch another stolen bar of our neighbours’ internet connection. “It’s the next big thing.” This was another one of Alan ridiculous catchphrases. His previous proclamations of it, in reference to Smirnoff’s limited edition prawn-flavoured vodka and the indie-rock band Star Sailor, had left me feeling more than a little dubious as he uttered it once more. “If you have something you don’t need anymore, you just go onto this site, post its description and if someone else needs it, they just email you and organise pick-up. You can even request items too.”

‘Oh God’ I thought ‘This is the dullest man I have ever met. He’s twenty-four but he talks as if he was… twenty-nine.’ It was at this point that I decided it to end it with Alan. He took it better than expected and went with little more than a murmur. The flat somehow felt colder without him and I spent that first night alone, missing him more than I had expected to. I thought about whether I had made a mistake ending it so abruptly, but I soon rallied and told myself that ‘what’s done is done’ and that going back now was not an option.

“Onwards and Upwards” I said out loud and it made me feel a little bit better. After the third time of repeating this phrase that night, I realised just how much I had been turning into Alan, him and his stupid idioms. I suddenly felt better about being alone.

Within a week or so I had thrown out all of Alan’s pointless brick-a-brack. His useless lap-top was replaced with a brand new one and I had finally gotten all the things his tight fist wouldn’t allow; Satellite TV, Kellogg’s brand corn flakes and my very own internet connection. Life was great. One night surfing on the internet, I came across a web-site, whose name rang a massive cathedral bell in my head. It was Freecycle, the site Alan had been harping on about on that last day we spent together. In these new days of relative decadence in my flat, logging on to this online haven of thrift felt nostalgic and kitsch, so I gave it a go.

I had planned on spending a few minutes having a snobbish laugh at these people’s vulgarity and parasitic behaviour but soon discovered that I had harshly misjudged the entire endeavour. It was wonderful. It wasn’t cracked wine glasses or stained mattresses that were being swapped and offered. It was genuinely useful items like second-hand guitars or good-as-new writing desks. Within twenty minutes I had spotted three things that I genuinely wanted and before long I was getting email responses from people who were more than happy to just give me their stuff. It was strangely invigorating.

Over the next few days I became what I can only describe as ‘obsessed’. I was on the site late at night, early in the morning, at lunch and for large chunks of the day in which I should have been working. I began imagining the lives and stories that lay behind the faceless names and crude avatars of my fellow users. I assigned them voices and opinions, pet hates and unfulfilled dreams. In hindsight, it may have been a little bit sad, but nevertheless, there was just something about this little community that thrilled me endlessly.

Having habitually been given DVDs by friends and family for my birthdays and Christmases, but never having been allowed by Alan to actually purchase a DVD player, my flat was well stocked with movie and TV titles that had yet to be viewed or even opened. Out of boredom rather than actual expectation, I logged onto Freecycle and quickly punched in a short post requesting a DVD player. Within minutes my inbox flashed. I had a response. It was from a new member called Boyler12, a name I hadn’t ever seen before. However, they wrote politely and eloquently, and more importantly, they offered me one ‘good as new’ Philips DVD player.

Later that evening I arrived at the address I had been given. It was a creepy looking bungalow at the end of a dank cul-de-sac on the Western outskirts of the city. I raised my finger to the door bell but as I did I nearly tripped over the package that lay on the dimly lit front step. The note that was cello taped to the small box read: ‘Here is your new DVD player. I hope you enjoy many hours of wonderful entertainment. Kind regards, Boyler12.’

“That was easy.” I thought as I drove home. Usually a pick-up like this requires at least twenty minutes worth of mindless chit-chat, chit-chat that completely obliterates the wonderful back stories and imaginary identities that I had created for these people. Without exception, not one of the four Freecyclists, that’s what we call ourselves, I had visited since joining the site, had lived up to my expectations. Each one of them had proved themselves infinitely duller than the brand new personalities I had assigned them. I felt like taking them to one side and giving out to them, telling them how they should be acting and talking and where they should be living. Instead though, I nodded and smiled and engaged them in whatever inane chatter it took for them to surrender the promised object to me.

Every time I met a new one, they seemed more and more like Alan, boring and stingy and lacking in any imagination or class. I had just about decided to re-subscribe to my initial wholly negative opinions of the web-site and cancel my membership, when I pulled up Boylers12’s intriguing abode.

Boyler12’s deliciously mysterious note and package had bucked the trend and reinvigorated my zest for Freecycle. Like a box of Milktray, left by the enigmatic Man in Black, I carried the DVD player into my flat and took a cold shower to calm myself down. Drying my hair in front of the computer, I checked my inbox. There was an email waiting for me. It was from Boyler12. “You’re very pretty” was all it said. All my common sense, all my rational thought screamed; “Eeuugh! Creepy!” but I wasn’t thinking with my head at this point and whatever part of my body that I was thinking with loved it. I clicked on ‘reply’ and typed; “Thank you. Do I get to see you?” He replied within seconds, “Perhaps. Request something else and we’ll see.” My next request for a bed-side lamp was answered by Boyler12 accompanied by instructions to return the following night.

I pulled in to his driveway, tingling with anticipation. Fresh from the hairdressers and wearing the smartest clothes I could rummage out of closet, I was eager to impress him further. As I approached the front door I saw the lamp waiting for me on the step, with another small note pinned to it. ‘Not this time, I’m afraid’ it read ‘maybe next time?’ I drove home more excited then ever. This was the single most thrilling experience of my life. The email waiting for me at home read; ‘Wow, and I thought you looked good the last time.’ I melted.

Over the next four weeks I returned to Boyler12’s house nightly. Each time a possession or item of his furniture was waiting for me and each time there was another flirty note attached. During this period, the rest of my life simply shut down. I was by now, so enraptured with my mystery man that I now only thought of him. Thoughts of friends or work or family were put to one side and the only practical thoughts in my mind were how to make more room in my flat for his stuff. I began a clear out. I had long since began asking for items I already owned, having run out of things that I didn’t have over two weeks ago. Anything that I had not gotten from Boyler12 was posted on Freecycle and was soon snapped up by the other boring ravenous cretins that inhabited the site. I took to doing as Boyler12 did and simply left the items on my doorstep so I would not have to small talk with them. ‘Just take the stuff and fuck off’ my notes eventually ended up reading. Before long my entire flat was now completely furnished with his possessions, but we were still to meet.

After dragging his double-bed into my bedroom I rested and logged into my inbox. His latest email told me that I had cleaned him out and that he had nothing left to give me. A wry smile broke on my face as I logged in and posted one more request. “Wanted: One Boyler12, new or second-hand accepted” I clicked on ‘post’. As I did, the doorbell rang. My heart leapt. I opened the door and there he was. My home was now his and he… was mine.

…Not Also, But Only


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