K.S. ANTHONY: Toaster Breakups and the Theatre of the Banal.

22 May 2021

Toaster Breakups and the Theatre of the Banal.

(Originally written/published 04/07/2013 8:41 PM)

My first "serious" girlfriend and I broke up over a toaster.

I don't remember what, if any, the argument was or even if the argument was about a toaster, toast, or anything toast-related, but I remember looking at the toaster in her kitchen and thinking to myself "we're breaking up over a toaster." That is what the memory, now faint, is anchored to: an image of a toaster and the hazy recollection of one of those fights where one of the combatants begins laughing because of the sheer absurdity of the battle, because of the realization that the fight is not at all about what the pretense is, because of the realization that all fights with people we're in relationships with can be boiled down to stupid minutiae that point to larger misunderstandings, ever-widening gaps in communication and momentum that starts to drag thanks to the dulling power of unmet expectations. 

As a relationship decays, the final stage is absurdity. All you can do is laugh. 

The fight in the kitchen was poorly acted drama and my laughter kicked down the fourth wall. It was the umpteenth break-up and at that point, I simply didn't care. We often force ourselves to pretend to care about things we don't feel all that strongly about. All feelings are, at their core, feelings of ambivalence. Nothing new there. 

Still, there is the toaster: the object of indifference. The silent bystander. The man on the street uninvested in the two people arguing loudly in front of a restaurant or in a parking lot where their voices echo and sound like metal.

I've had other toasters since then and all of them remind me of this. That's not to say I am emotionally invested in them. I'm not. Occasionally, however, I'll be cleaning out the crumbs or making toast and I'll think about that fight and how the retrieval of memory alters it a tiny bit every time. Sometimes it is a toaster oven. Other times it's a plain white or chrome toaster: two slots for bread and an internal timer sensitive to people manually popping the toast up before its allotted time. 

Don't pour any meaning into the crumbs or the idea of timing. I'm talking about toast. There's no larger metaphor. Like the break-up, this is not an essay with high stakes.

I moved to California less than a year after the break-up. Like or unlike a lot of young people who leave home,  once I left, I stayed gone. My next break-up was far less dramatic: I was in a relationship with someone I liked but didn't love and who became more annoying and less attractive to me every day. 

The next one was more dramatic: more bad theatre. As were the ones that followed.

Maybe that's a smug re-imagining of the narrative--I'm sure it is, actually--but I'm also pretty sure I know bad theatre when I see it. 

The tropes are all there. I once wrote a list of all the reasons people give when they break up. It took up several napkins. Unfortunately, I lost them or used them as napkins or, more likely, realized that even reducing everything to a series of acknowledged (or not) clich├ęs doesn't prevent one from having to participate in them or their enactment.

This has come up in my History of the European Novel class lately. It ruined Flaubert for me.

Among the tropes were the obvious:

"It's not you, it's me."
"I'm just not ready to be in a relationship yet."
"I love you, but I'm not in love with you."
"I love you as a friend, but..."
"I always drive people away..."
"I need someone that can/will..."
"We're not good for each other: this is unhealthy..."
"It's not you, it's me..."
"I want to see other people..."
"You deserve someone better..."
"We're just too different..."

and the slightly-less obvious:

"I'm allergic to your pet."
"I've just been cast in a movie out in Hollywood/New York"
"I've just inherited a castle in Scotland."

and so on. 

I don't remember which one was invoked during the toaster episode or, really, any of the ones that came after. They're not always singular. They're often combined. The person leaving often wants to seem magnanimous and kind, as if they're doing the other a favor. The person being left often wants to take up the cross and ask why they have been forsaken. The variations on "why" often contain elements of martyrdom:

"I wouldn't have done this to you..."
"How could you have..."
"You'll never do better than me..."
"This will come back to haunt you..."

etc. etc. Anger is concealed. The bruised ego swells to Christ-sized proportions. The leaver shrugs and leaves and the one who is left can't believe their one and only isn't listening to them rage against what invariably amounts to

1) An incompatibility of personal neuroses. 
2) A matter of choice. 

I've uttered variations on both sides of these dull dramas. So have you. So has everyone. They're a permanent part of the social matrix. Break-ups don't take place on on some exciting futurist stage: they take place in the theatre of the banal. Expired domesticity curdles into sludge. It doesn't ferment into wine. It's not even the opposite of the agitated, unsure excitement of new love. That, too, is prone to bad, equally banal theatre of its own and attaches itself to things just as surely as break-ups do: one reason why couples that break up tend to avoid places and things that they associate with the dead relationship until the context for those places and things eventually frees itself from the association. Again, nothing new here. 

Toasters eventually become toasters once the curtain closes, once the fire dies down, once the screaming match ends and the names fade to the past tense: when the is becomes was. There are few, if any, props all that are all that interesting on the stage of the banal. Occasionally someone does something ugly and it splatters the headlines, but there's really nothing new or shocking or of any interest to whatever indifferent power pushes the show along, scripting the highs and lows of couples in turmoil, singles in transition, the world on its axis. Blood and ink dry quickly. The audience moves on. No one is surprised. 

On the stage of banality, there's just a dull, scripted humanity that we share with people we either recognize or decide are nothing like us...and who make the same choices about us. Dress it up in labels. Apply significance where you see fit. Make fundamental attribution errors. Rewrite it. There's not much happening on stage: you might as well amuse yourself by embedding meaning where you might otherwise just embed sliced bread. 

The answer to the question "why" isn't answerable when it comes to asking people about their motivations. I don't think people really know why they do anything they do. The answer, despite whatever transient value we place on it in relation to our outrage, our heartache, our joy, or our bliss, might as well be a toaster.