THE SUMMER OF ROTTING LASAGNA
By Zack Kotzer
The rest of the furniture had been moved out. The mattress, the bedframe, the desk. All that was left was a lamp and the dresser. Each drawer was taken out to ease the weight, but the last, bottom drawer hit a snag. On each tug you could hear a sharp plastic flick from whatever it was caught on. After rigging the drawer up, then out, we saw it. A secret roommate I had unknowingly shared my space with for the entirety of the sublet.
Tupperware, the size of an alarm clock, with something blackened inside. It had grown dark, its edges red, like a meatball of scabbing. “I think it’s lasagna,” said one of my roommates. It had been a hot summer. My room got the least of the air conditioning, which was already pretty muted on this floor, and my window didn’t open, it was just a big pane of glass. There wasn’t a joke made. No one egged or challenged or asked to crack it open. It was quickly, carefully, taken out of the room, tossed into a metal garbage pail like a live hand grenade.
Gross. Absolutely foul. It had been there for four months, if not longer. Left there by the previous tenant, who owned the furniture I was actually in the process of hauling out. We didn’t talk about it too much, it was something heinous we all wanted to go on from. It became a dirty secret.
I didn’t ask her, when I saw her, how a whole wad of leftover lasagna ends up under the dresser. Could have been placed on top and fell. Could have been on the floor and kicked under, but it was bigger than the gap between the floor and the Ikea furniture. It seemed implausible through any scenario, but these are semantics, and I am a man about results and conclusions. The fact of the matter is: I had lived with some rotting lasagna over the course of the summer.
It was there the entire time. Hidden from my sight, an unknown, tucked into the furthest corner from the bed where I slept, smoked, kissed, and played video pinball. Across from the desk where I worked, stressed, looked at pornography and videos of video pinball. Every moment of hope and satisfaction, I was near some rotting lasagna. Every moment of loneliness and confusion I shared with some rotting lasagna. This rotting lasagna got to know every part of me.
It’s hard not to be revolted by the revelation. Some of us have nightmares about the secrets and skeletons about the places we live, what may have happened years before our times in these aged manors. Do actions linger on, are things hidden in the walls or under the floorboards. Do incidents have their ghosts? Weapons, drugs, forgotten mementos, litter, liquid, corpses, toenail bits. In March a Forest Hill couple discovered a live hand grenade stored in the ceiling of their new home. That’s a one-off, I’m hoping, but now I know we don’t have to be so dramatic to be so disturbed. Just food, hidden oozes and goops. The leftovers. That’s enough to keep you up at night, wondering.
But, in a way, I’m thankful. This summer was nice, but it also lacked purpose. There was no bonding agent. Things can be worse. The previous two summers have been marked by tragedy, a garland of deaths in the family, and a stark cynic inside me awaited for that cycle to begin again at any moment. News, hospitals, waiting, hospitals, funerals, shivas. Hearing the phone ring after 8 pm becomes frightening at a certain point in your life.
The summer before that I travelled, ten European countries in three months. Seeing the scope of other countries, discovering other time-zones will learning to be jealous of some culture and infrastructure and learning to be more thankful for things Toronto does provide.
For those summers, the themes are clear. They have genres that can be easily parsed on an Indigo bookshelf. This summer, the Indigo clerk would put it on that miscellaneous magazine shelf, along with a few bird watching journals, those tattoo punk bikini babe ones, and an issue of Dazed and Confused because I guess the employee thought it had something to do with weed. But after swallowing the vomit back down, the truer purpose became clear. This was no ordinary summer after all. This was my summer of rotting lasagna.
During a short conference trip to New York, I discovered I had allergies. When I arrived back home, I discovered a Jeopardy! contestant broke up with me. Don’t worry, she didn’t win. The fourth Tinder date since the break was a surprising success. She, let’s call her Jess, was still enthusiastic about meeting up despite it being 1 am. We met up at Disgraceland, which serves food until closing. She was passionate about gardening and social politics, but zero interest in pop culture, putting me at a disadvantage in a bar that was playing Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. She was much more attractive than me, though that happens when you meet with .jpegs from dating apps.
Forty minutes after last call, I wasn’t going to bat above my average. I told her it was great to meet her in person, and to have a nice weekend. As she unlocked her bike she asked if I wanted to get another drink. Maybe at my place.
We drank white wine in my bed. She showed me photos of vegetables. After about an hour of this, I was still skeptical if she wanted to get gross. I had built up a great wall between me and my reluctant optimism. The self-esteem that survived the breakup knocked and knocked, desperate and heaving to give the rest of me a reality check. She turned off the lights to go to sleep, I thought that was the way things were going to go.
Jess telegraphs. I didn’t know this the first time. A routine, like the baseball player who eats two bacon bit hot dogs with their left hand before a game. First, the feet. She’d start rubbing her feet up and down mine. Grinding her soles against my ankle hair, polishing around my calluses. She’d then start to scratch my arms. She really liked when I scratched her back, even though I bite my nails. The coarseness seems to turn her on. One time we went through all of my t-shirts until we found one with the right texture she could wear. Sometimes I wondered if it was me she liked or my linens.
This cycle was the entirety of the foreplay, from there she would verbally request whatever position she felt like, from a deck of four. Afterward, there’d be a thirty percent chance she’d purr and rub her nose against me, a forty percent chance we’d just fall asleep, and a seventy percent chance the cycle would just begin from the start.
It was a nice romance. We’d smoke and wander through Dufferin Grove. One time we sat there, she ate her first Popeyes combo, while a scrappy little poodle named Charlie broke away from its owner and circled and snarled at us from the darkness. And we cooed, and it still snarled. We’d go back home and look at more vegetables. We did this for three months, in the same room as a carton of rotting lasagna.
One time I thought I caught a cold from Jess, it turned out to be more annoying. It started like any bug, a vague grossness at the back of my throat, but it quickly, furiously, specified. A weakness, or soreness at the right base of my tongue. It felt like a toothache, except emanating from a place that was without tooth. My spit had a copper taste. My aunt, over a family dinner, suggested it could be a saliva gland infection, which she had once, slept on it, and had to receive a surgical remedy. I took this theory to a walk-in clinic. The young doctor there agreed, told me it wasn’t severe enough to use antibiotics, and suggested I just kill the pain for the week, stick to the green tea and lozenges. Because he looked the kind of person I might smoke with, I tapped my nose, mimed a jazz cigarette in my mouth and warbled my head. “Sure, whatever,” he said.
I had never smoked weed for pain before. It works, for sure. The pain isn’t radiating anymore, it doesn’t hurt. It isn’t robbing you of sleep. It’s still there. You can still feel the sensation like a tug. It’s like the tiny devils who spend all the merry day poking those muscles with their pitchforks are on lunch break. Now they’re just resting up against their post, talking about their kids and showing each other funny Vines.
I began to like the sensation. I felt my body re-categorize one of its least ideal sensations. It wasn’t pain anymore, it was an annoyance, or an itch. It was barely distracting, just something I could choose to think about. Imagine the pleasantry of having that option.
It wasn’t a bruise or a torn muscle or a virus, it was redacted. It was an X. My brain was giving my body’s sorrows the silent treatment. And I discovered this new relationship with drugs in the company of a container of rotting lasagna hidden away in the corner of my room.
I liked this apartment. The roommates were funny, cultured, active. They called me “the most consistent person” they ever lived with. Which either meant I had a set level people could depend on me for, or because I played video pinball sixty-five percent of the time.
But the window didn’t open, and I muscled through that summer. I wanted to move a few bumps south, the walk back from some of my favourite holes started to get old. That’s why I didn’t extend my stay, like they had offered. Failing to find a new place, I slept on my parent’s couch for a month, second-guessing that decision. Had I known about the rotting lasagna, maybe that would have broken the deal too, but discovering it after the fact at least gave this chapter a sense of purpose.
Also I spent a week at a cottage and got scared by a frog that made a growling noise and fell down the stairs.
Zack Kotzer is a writer and ex-carny. His work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Atlantic, Vice and Kill Screen. He likes pinball a lot and it is a problem.