In Defense of Leftovers
extra, residual, surplus, unconsumed, eaten, untouched, unused, unwanted
I’m the kind of person who likes to hang on to things. Oh no—not like a hoarder; I always throw away those old newspapers and keep my supply of spare grocery bags to a minimum. But I have a lot of stuff. Stuff that I swear “means something” when my mom accuses me of being a pack rat. Books, souvenirs, drawings, letters, jewelry, the list goes on. And even if one of these has no significance right now, I tell myself that someday it will. I hate to get rid of anything.
This even carries into my food.
Some things are just better the next day. We’re talking enchiladas, burgers, tamales, mac & cheese, carnitas, or, let’s face it, any Mexican food besides nachos. I don’t even like cookies the night they’re baked, all warm and soft. Gross.
Here’s where I’m going with this: The love I have for leftover food is like the love I have for my leftover “things.” The books, music, interests, habits, opinions, mementos, and stories of those people who are no longer in my life, the events we experienced together. This of course is nothing new or profound, but what about the “bad” things, the stuff leftover from relationships gone south, i.e. the—dun dun dun—ex-boyfriend? What do I do with all that shit? Sorry—stuff?
I’ve had two serious relationships so far, and both times I got dumped. Hard. A lot of people would advise a horrifically dumped female like myself to get rid of all the evidence, right? Pack away all those pictures, necklaces, gifts, letters, and printed emails into a large box, never to be seen again, or—better yet—burn them. Clear those songs from your iTunes, clear your inbox, delete your number. I might have even suggested this to my own friends. But who takes their own advice? Okay, I did get rid of the photos around the house, because that’s just weird, and people would start asking questions.
But that hand-painted scene from The Wind in the Willows he gave me? Next to my bed. His old T-shirts? I wear them almost every night as pajamas. That playlist I made for him? It’s still awesome.
I understand why people get rid of these things. Breakups suck. They suck so hard. And that makes remembering it painful. But that doesn’t make my Wind in the Willows painting a bad thing. It’s beautiful. And his old T-shirts are just so comfortable. And the nostalgic feeling I get when I put on that playlist is fine. When you come to the end of the rope that was your relationship, all you can do is tie that last knot and hang on. Leftovers are your knots. Okay, this extended metaphor is getting convoluted and FDR would hate me for abusing his knot quote like that. Let me start a new paragraph.
Leftovers are not bad (!) They can be much-needed nourishment for that morning-after emotional hangover when you have nothing else. Maybe a hot coffee and listening to that leftover song—the one that he didn’t even like, but it always reminded you of that one roadtrip you took up the coast—is the only thing that can get you through that first day. Granted, it will probably make you feel sick. You’re already so full of the bad stuff, like you’ve been eating nothing but cheap doughnuts and Miller Light for days, but god, your body is just crying out for something good and clean for once. (Yeah, that’s why you’re crying.) And that song is no less amazing because you are now alone when you listen to it. Embrace it. Hold it close like a cup of hot tea in January when your heater’s broken.
By the way, you don’t only have leftovers from romantic relationships. My brother moved away yesterday. My sister moved this past summer. My life right now is overflowing with their things and interests. I have a good chunk of my sister’s wardrobe in my closet and my current nighttime reading is the book I bought for my brother on his last birthday. I have photos of ex-friends and me up on my fridge. I look at them and smile as my food turns in the microwave. My bookshelf is full of souvenirs from trips taken in high school with people I haven’t talked to since. If I can leave these things out in the open and see them every day and think of those times, why can’t I do the same with the romantic leftovers? I sure as hell can.
But what about when the leftovers are your own? It’s like you spent days preparing and cooking a 5-course meal of all your favorite things, then topped it off with your beating, bleeding, disgustingly vulnerable heart. And when you finally put this huge hot meal in front of someone… they don’t eat it. What do you do with the leftover parts of yourself that, turns out, no one even wants? Is it your fault that those leftovers exist? I mean, why didn’t that person you loved want it? You offered it to him and that should have been enough. Was he already full? Did you offer too much? Is he just an asshole?
In retrospect, it could be all of those reasons and more. But here you are cleaning up after him. Yeah, it sucks.
So here’s what you do with those kinds of leftovers, and all the rest that the other people left behind, too. Keep them. Freeze them. Give them to someone who you can tell is emotionally starving. Make something new.
You do anything—ANYTHING—but throw them away.
Amy Ripley is a TV writer living in Los Angeles. Her last breakup was 7 months ago. She is not yet jaded.