The Pony Problem
As most New Yorkers have done, I have given serious and generous thought to the state of my apartment should I get killed during the day. Say someone pushes me onto the subway tracks. Or I get accidentally blown up. Or a woman with a headset and a baby carriage wheels over my big toe, backing me into some scaffolding which shakes loose a lead pipe which lands on my skull. What then? After the ambulance, the hospital, the funeral, the trays of cheese cubes on foil toothpicks…
Back in the apartment I never should have left, the bed has gone unmade and the dishes unwashed. The day I get shot in a bodega (buying cigarettes, naturally) will in all likelihood be the day before laundry Sunday and the day after I decided to clean out my closet, got bored halfway through, and opted to watch sitcoms in my prom dress instead. I have pictured my loved ones coming to my apartment to collect my things and I have hoped that it would only be “lived-in” messy—bras drying on the shower curtain rod, muddy sneakers by the door. But that is never going to happen. My dust balls have a manifest destiny that drives them far beyond the ruffle of the same name.
I like to think that these hypothetical loved ones would persist in their devotion to dead me no matter what. They would literally be blinded by grief, too upset putting sweaters in boxes to notice that I hadn’t dry-cleaned them in a year. That is, until one of them made his or her way to the kitchen.
“Where are you going?” my father would ask.
“Packing up her bedroom’s much too painful,” my mother would tell him, choking back the tears. “I’m going to start on the kitchen.”
This is the part I dread. This is the part where my mother would open the drawer beneath my sink only to discover my stash of plastic toy ponies. There are about seven of them in there. Correction: one’s a Pegasus, blue with ice skates. The rest vary in size, texture, and realism. Some are covered in brown felt, some have rhinestone eyes. Some come with their own grooming brushes; others with the price sticker still on their haunches. If they arrived in plastic and cardboard packaging, they remain unopened as if they will appreciate like Star Wars figurines. Perhaps they are not the dirtiest of dirty secrets, but they’re about as high as one can get on the oddity scale without a ringer like toenail clippings.
I’m not exactly sure how the ponies happened. Though I have an inkling: “Can I get you anything?” I’ll say, getting up from a dinner table, “Coffee, tea, a pony?” People rarely laugh at this, especially if they’ve heard it before. “This party’s supposed to be fun.” a friend will say. “Really?” I’ll respond, “Will there be pony rides?” It’s a nervous tic and a cheap joke, cheapened further by the frequency with which I use it. For that same reason, it’s hard to weed out of my speech—most of the time I don’t even realize I’m saying it. There are little elements in a person’s life, minor fibers that become unintentionally tangled with our personality. Sometimes it’s a patent phrase, sometimes it’s a perfume, sometimes it’s a wristwatch. For me, it is the constant referencing of ponies.
I don’t even like ponies. If I made one of my throwaway equine requests and someone produced an actual pony, Juan Valdez-style, I would run very fast in the other direction. During a few summers at camp, I rode a chronically dehydrated pony named Brandy who would jolt down without notice to lick the grass outside the corral and I would careen forward, my helmet tipping to cover my eyes. I do, however, like ponies in the abstract. Who doesn’t? It’s like those movies with animated insects. Sure the baby cockroach seems cute with CGI eyelashes, but how would you feel about fifty of her real-life counterparts living in your oven? And that’s precisely the manner in which the ponies clomped their way into my regular speech: abstractly. “I have something for you,” a guy will say on our first date. “Is it a pony?” No. It’s usually a movie ticket or his cell phone number or a slobbery tongue kiss. But on our second date, if I ask again, I’m pretty sure I’m getting a pony.
And thus the pony drawer came to be. It’s uncomfortable to admit, but almost every guy I have ever dated has unwittingly made a contribution to the stable. The retro pony from the ’50s was from the most thoughtful guy I have ever known. The one with the glitter horseshoes was from a boy who would later turn out to be gay. The one with the rainbow haunches was from a pot dealer, and the one with the price tag stuck on the back was given to me by a narcissist who was so impressed with his gift he forgot to remove the sticker. Each one of them marks the beginning of a relationship. I don’t mean to hint. It’s not a hint, it’s a flat out demand: I. Want. A. Pony. I think what happens is that young relationships are eager to build up a romantic repertoire of private jokes, especially in the city where there’s not always a great “how we met” story behind every great love affair. People meet at bars, through mutual friends, on dating sites, or because they work in the same industry. Just once a guy asked me out between two express stops on the N train. We were holding the same pole and he said “I know this sounds crazy but would you like to go to a very public place and have a drink with me?” I looked into his seemingly non-psycho-killing, rent-paying, Sunday Times-subscribing eyes and said, “Yes, yes I would.” He never bought me a pony. But he didn’t have to.
If I subtract the overarching strangeness of being a grown woman with a toy collection, I like to think of the ponies as a tribute to my type—I date people for whom it would occur to them to do this. This is not such a bad thing. These are men who are creative and kind. They hold open doors and pour wine. If I joined a cult, I like to think they would come rescue me. No, the fulfilling of the request isn’t the problem. It’s the requesting that’s off. They don’t know yet that I make it all the time and I don’t have the heart to tell them how whorish I am with my asking. They give me the pony and I laugh and hug them. For them, it’s a deleted scene out of Good Will Hunting. For me, it’s Groundhog Day. They have no reason to believe they’re being unoriginal. Probably because they’re not: I am. What am I asking when I ask for a pony but to be taken for more unique than I probably am?
The ponies, if by accident, have come to represent the most overtly sentimental part of my life. Because all of these relationships have ended, they have ended more or less badly. No affair that begins with such an orchestrated overture can end on a simple note. What I am left with is the relics of those relationships.
After a break-up, I’ll conduct the normal break-up rituals. I’ll cut up photographs, erase voice mails, gather his dark concert t-shirts I once slept in and douse them with bleach before I use them to clean my bathtub. But not the ponies. When I go to throw them away, I feel like a mother about to slap her child for the first time, to cross a line she never intended to cross. She’s spitting mad. The arm flies up. And it never comes down.
Yet I feel a pressure to do something with the ponies. Statistically speaking, my chances of getting smacked on the head with a lead pipe are increasing every time I lock the door behind me. Also, a drawer full of beady-eyed toys is insanely creepy. But what to do?
Actual love letters I do in stages. I biannually clean out drawers of nonsensical items—receipts, loose Double “A” batteries, rubber bands and paperclips of indeterminate origin—and stumble across a love letter. Unable to throw it out, I stick it in another drawer, crammed at the bottom, until I clean that one out too, and finally, throw the letter out. One romantic note generally goes through a minimum of three locales before it gets tossed out for good. But the ponies are uncrammable. They’re three-dimensional and bubblegum-scented and impossible to hide, even from myself. Every time I open the drawer, it’s a trip down Memory Lane, which, if you don’t turn off at the right exit, merges straight into the Masochistic Nostalgia Highway. They are too embarrassing to leave out in the open, facing west like a collection of china elephants. They are too many to slide under the sofa. They are too plastic to wedge behind the radiator. I want to send them around the world like the Travelocity gnome, have them come back to me years from now when I have an attic in which to shut them away. As if all this weren’t enough, there is that flash of my mother dressed in black, staring aghast into the open kitchen drawer. In a city that provides so many strange options to be immortalized by the local tabloids, it is just as important to avoid humiliation in death as it is in life.
“What is it?” my father would shout, imagining of all the things you never like to think of your father imagining: flavored condoms, pregnancy tests, a complete set of Third Reich collectors’ cards.
“Look!” my mother would howl, picking up Ranch Princess Pony (with matching bridle and real horseshoe charm necklace!) by her faux flaxen mane. Just before she passed out.
My first thought is to go to the Salvation Army and donate the ponies to children. But the notion turns me into an insta-hippie—the ponies have bad karma. I wouldn’t just be giving some kid Stargazer (with the glow-in-the-dark mane) I would be giving her Manic-Depressive Simon, who talked back to billboards and infomercials and kicked me in his sleep. My next idea is to leave the ponies in the trash for a homeless person to find and sell on the street. But I can’t risk seeing them on a table with used books and polyester scarves as I walk to the subway each morning. I think about burying them in the park but have my doubts about the ponies’ biodegradability. I think about burning them, melting them into a puddle of plastic as their real-life counterparts had once been melted for glue. Maybe I’ll just sneak out to the reservoir after dark with a raft made from pool noodles and rubber bands and give them a Viking funeral.
While each subsequent idea is tilled from a progressively more unsophisticated plot, I know that I can’t simply throw the ponies out with the trash. The ponies have their roots in me, not the other person. They are my nervous habit, my odd little secret. While each serves as a memory of a specific individual, each memory is filtered through the same brain: mine. The ponies are a part of me—they deserve better than that. The keeping of love letters suddenly seems like a petty crime. I have the romantic equivalent of a body in the freezer.
So I put the ponies in a black plastic bag, grabbing them out of their drawer like a jewel thief who, for the sake of urgency, does not consider the preciousness of each object. I tie the bag in a knot, leave the apartment, and take them with me on the subway. I get on a sparsely populated car, drop them between my legs and begin casually pushing them further under the seat with my heels. Then, just as casually, I forget to take them with me when I get up. I leave them there on the N train, bound for Brooklyn.
Of course, the second the doors shut, I realize what I have done. Actually, that’s not true. The second the doors shut, I feel great. Sneaky and great and nostalgia-free.
The second after that I realize what I have done. In my effort to liberate myself from the ponies, I have given some poor girl at the end of the subway car a solid reason to think she might not make it back to her apartment that night: a suspiciously abandoned unmarked package on public transport. I wonder what must be racing through her mind as she sits motionless, unable to turn her gaze away from the lumpy plastic bag. I wonder if she flashes back to her apartment—to the dust, to the expired yogurt in the fridge, to the terrible DVDs which she won’t be able to explain were “a gift.” Perhaps she has her own holy grail of humiliation. Perhaps there’s a collection of porcelain bunnies in the medicine cabinet.
In any case, the ponies are gone. They are on their way to a borough where eventually they will hit the end of the line and cycle back into the heart of the city. Unless the bomb squad finds them first. They are finally out of my sight and not even an 8.5 on the Nostalgia Richter Scale can summon them back. I created them and now I have uncreated them and there is nothing I can do about it. Except maybe continue to look both ways before crossing the street and avoid areas with a high saturation of random violence. I breathe a sigh of resolute relief. From now on I will make a conscious effort to remember—should I find myself face-to-face or pipe-to-skull with the end of my life—that the real proof I have tried to love and that people have tried to love me back was never going to fit in a kitchen drawer.