If you’ve read the purple issue of the Strange and Mysterious Creatures, you’ll know that when I was in my early twenties I dated a guy who was not the greatest. In order to somewhat protect his anonymity, but mostly because I found it amusing, I referred to him throughout the work as “The Shitbag”. When I was thinking about next month’s pink and red holiday, I remembered a Valentine’s that I spent with him and wanted to share the story as an opportunity to dissect my feelings around February 14th.
The Shitbag was an artist. That was the key reason I stayed with him despite the fact that I mostly hated him. He wrote poetry, took photos, made glitch art and dabbled in theatre and music. I’m not entirely sure how this specific V-Day scenario unfolded, but I do remember that we agreed that we would make gifts to give to each other. I don’t remember what I made him, but as it was when the big day rolled around we met up to exchange our creations.
When I say that The Shitbag was an artist I feel the need to clarify that he was deeply inspired by Dadaism (and sadism, but that’s in my zine.) We had originally connected over a shared love of Hannah Höch, and thus I was not surprised that dreary winter day when his gift to me was a piece of absurdist art. For the most part, I appreciated absurdism; it was a viewpoint I could relate to as I examined my lived experience. Considering that an alligator purse could cost more than a Tesla, the skewed horizon of a bizarro world starts appearing linear. Mix in the fact that I paid about the same price in student loans and the sense of vertigo becomes more personal. Through absurdist art, I saw a reflection of life as it sometimes is, not beautiful or awesome but fragmented and nauseating.
On the day celebrating romance, however, I was surprised to be sickened by my Valentine. It was constructed mostly out of refuse. Affixed to some sort of backing was a cutout portrait of me which The Shitbag had taken. He had surrounded it with the chewed up leaves of strawberries, bitten off from the fruit, teeth marks intact. Interspersed were the cold, ashy ends of cigarettes, likely from his roommate’s preferred brand of Pall Mall. The method of attachment was a thin layer of cheap school glue, which leached the yellow stain of nicotine yet left the fruit’s green fronds exposed and drying. Other details are lost on me, my recollection fades. Yet despite spending only a few minutes with this gift, I can recall the stink, a deep odour of tar combined with the bright sting of ammonia. Anyone who has emptied an ashtray after a kegger knows the dirty waft well, it is unfortunate that scent is our strongest memory.
One of my greatest flaws (that I’ll admit) is that I have no poker face, I can’t lie to save my skin. A big challenge when I was regularly hosting an open mic in Toronto was gracefully transitioning to the next reader after a performance I hadn’t particularly enjoyed. It was hard not to stare wide-eyed into the spotlight and thank folks for their “interesting” performance. Still, years later, I store fragments of my reactions within the muscle memory of my face.
At the time of unwrapping my present, I was repulsed. The Shitbag was well aware. A nicer, more polite person would’ve camouflaged herself with a saccharine smile and tried to soften the blow. But I couldn’t. What followed next was a drama typical of his bruised ego. With huffing and puffing, his lips curled down, exaggerating his jowls while he performed verbal cartwheels regarding his unappreciated genius and the misery it caused him. The theatrics concluded an hour later with him noisily cramming the wide piece of art through a thin flap of a garbage can. This was much to my chagrin, as the rubbish bin was located inside an impossibly quiet coffee shop at which I was a regular. The baristas who bore witness to his sensational act of stuffing knew me by name.