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The $5,000 decision to get rid of my past (update)

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When your games become your ghosts

chair in empty room with shelves Henry Burrows/Flickr

I noticed that she started wearing a T-shirt between the shower and the bedroom.

That’s how these things begin. You build up a small barrier between people, and the tiny intimacies of living together fall away. You close the door when you use the restroom. You roll over and fall asleep before the other person gets in bed. You get dressed in the bathroom so the other person doesn’t see you naked.

She was gone, along with most of the furniture, about a week later.

These things happen, and there were good reasons why they did. I came up with some of them, and she came up with the rest. That’s how things fall apart when you live with someone in your 20s. You barely understand your own heart, and that makes it very hard to be what someone else needs. I went on a trip for work, and when I returned, there was a note where a person used to be. I sat very still for a very long time.

Someone broke into my apartment and stole my video game collection exactly four days later. A dozen or so systems, and over 600 games, all gone.

This is the story of what happened next.

You can tell a lot about someone by their garbage

It was the first time I had ever walked into a crime scene. My ex-girlfriend was standing in the kitchen. The police were in the living room, surrounded by empty racks of what used to be my life’s work.

The collection included most of the important Dreamcast games. Boxed Nintendo 64 games. Rare, even at that time, PlayStation RPGs. Sega CD games in perfect plastic cases. I had the hardware necessary to play them all.

It had been a simple crime; I lived in an old building, and the hinges on my door were on the outside. The thieves had simply tapped the pins out and walked in. It must have felt like Christmas. I doubt they even knew what they had stolen, and my gut lurched as I thought about my carefully curated collection being sold for a buck a game at some random pawn shop.

I made a mental note to begin calling all the places the collection could be fenced in the area. This thought felt very responsible and adult as I threw up in the sink.

The landlord must have called my ex, whose name was still on the lease. It was strange to see her back in the apartment, with so much of her personality removed from the space. She could tell how much this all hurt, and took half a step forward to maybe hug me or say something comforting.

That’s when she remembered we were broken up, and those moments of unguarded closeness were behind us. It’s also very possible she saw my garbage, which was filled with pizza boxes and empty bottles of scotch. When someone becomes a void, it’s never a good idea to get too close. It’s too easy to be sucked in, especially when it’s someone you care about.

The police asked me about renter’s insurance, which I didn’t have because I was young and invincible. They asked me if I knew anyone who knew about my collection, and I gave them a list of names. They said they’d call around, but these crimes were rarely solved.

It all seemed like something out of a television show. I asked the police if they were going to dust for prints, and they said they could if it would make me feel better. I asked if they had one of those special flashlights.

“Son, the only things that happen if I turn on the blacklight in here is that you get embarrassed, and the games will still be gone when I turn it off,” he said. I nodded. It later occurred to me that he was probably joking, but I was too numb to read social cues.

The cops left soon after, and she left once again after that. My ex asked if I was OK before shutting the door behind her. I told her I wasn’t. There wasn’t much for her to say to that.

It’s easy to make a bathroom feel lived-in and complete, even if nearly everything else is missing in your apartment. That’s why it was so easy to cry in the shower.

The tyranny of a collection

I was never not collecting video games. When I was younger, it was just a matter of buying video games, and it never occurred to me to sell any or to trade them in. As I got a bit older, I liked the way they looked on my shelves. By the time I was in college, I was actively looking for the rare stuff, while using my discount and connections from my job as a video game store manager to get stuff for much cheaper than the going price online.

One afternoon, I wired all my systems to a single television, and a month later I bought a nice CRT for the classic games. I purchased metal and wood racks to display it all. My collection was the primary decoration in the apartment, dominating everything else. There was just so much of it.

empty room electricnude/Flickr

They weren’t games as much as they were the story of my life. This is the longbox copy of Resident Evil I purchased on the game’s release day, before the franchise became a dynasty. This is the copy of Mars Matrix someone traded in that I bought before it could be stickered and put out on the shelves.

Super Mario 64 was the first game my ex and I played as a couple after we moved in, when only the TV and the consoles had been unpacked. We sat on the floor and ordered pizza. I still remember how she looked in a white tank top, holding the Nintendo 64 controller, lit from the front by the bright colors of the game. We spent my 23rd birthday playing Dance Dance Revolution on the hardwood floors. We played fighting games badly, laughing and having a good time as all the buttons were mashed. We finished every Halo game in co-op mode.

In the aftermath, it felt like the memories were gone along with the games. I had lost the woman I was living with, my video game collection, my couch and what felt like my will to do much of anything — all in a single month. My diet continued to consist of pizza and scotch. I worked at my store selling video games, and I found alphabetizing the shelves to be a very comforting exercise. Time seemed to skid along, months and then years passing in the time it took me to take the bag out of the garbage can, the bottles clinking together on the way to the curb.

I slowly began buying the games I cared about again, and putting them back on the shelves. It felt good, in a way, but it was more of an obligation than a way to heal. It felt like lifting barbells with a phantom limb. I was trying to get something back, but it wasn’t the physical copies of the games; it was a past in which I imagined I was happier.

Part of me believed that if I recreated the collection carefully enough, one evening I would wake up and she would be there, playing games in front of the TV in one of my shirts. If I owned enough of those same games, I could create a portal back to the past and never have to move forward.

I never really understood how damaging this attitude could be until I heard it explained in a movie. “All the time you spend trying to get back what’s been took from you, there’s more going out the door,” a very wise character says in No Country for Old Men. “After a while you just try and get a tourniquet on it.”

I stopped buying old video games by the time I was 30. It was my way of tightening a belt around the stump. The games were ultimately boxed up once again when I got married and bought a house.

You carry your past with you

The replacement collection, about 450 games deep when I stopped looking for the classics, was carried from house to house as I grew older. One day, short on money to buy a certain Nintendo Switch game, I took down a few Super Nintendo games hoping to trade them in. It turned out that GameStop was giving $33 for R-Type 3.

That was an interesting development.

If GameStop gives you $1 for a game, that means it’s worth at least $5. I began to price out that long-dormant collection. It was filled with good stuff, and many of the cartridge games included the boxes and instructions, with some rarer games still sealed in the original plastic. That was the secret of this collection, and why it was in such good condition: I never replayed any of these games. Many of them I never even opened.

I found a private seller soon after, and this week I plan on boxing everything up one last time while making a surprisingly large amount of money.

The games weren’t bringing me joy; they were just ghosts trapped inside jewel cases. The collection was a weight I was dragging from house to house, and opening a bin only to find boxed NES games always felt like metal poured into my gut. These games made me picture a young woman wanting to hug me when I was hurting, then deciding not to. These games were bottles of expensive, and then cheap, scotch in the garbage, double-bagged so the neighbors wouldn’t see how bad it was getting.

This isn’t a sale; it’s an exorcism. I’m about to turn a decade of bad memories and regrets into a chunk of money, and these games are going to find a wonderful home where they will be treasured for the fun objects they are. Their new owner won’t see baggage; he’ll see something to be celebrated and enjoyed with his child.

And that makes me happy. The games themselves did nothing to me, and they deserve better than what I had been able to give them.

Besides, I’m a married man now, with kids. Everything is fine, right? I can let go of the past. I decided to write this story in the shower this morning, as I slipped on a pair of sweatpants before heading into the kitchen to make coffee.

Update: Mailing this many games takes about two days of work, a huge amount of bubble wrap and a few hundred dollars of shipping fees. They have arrived safely. The money has exchanged hands and now resides comfortably in my bank account.

I used a small amount of the cash to print out about 300 pictures from recent trips abroad, and purchased some nice photo albums in which to put them. Laying everything out, complete with a few souvenirs, took about a day. It all looks very nice.

The rows of empty shelves, where the games once lived, now hold two photo albums of happy memories from the last year. My goal for the future is simple: To fill them up again.