“There are years that ask questions and years that answer”—Zora Neale Hurston
This is the year that asks questions. It must be, because I have no answers, no answers at all.
I have spent the better part of the past month packing boxes—writing directions with a fat black marker on rectangular white labels: “Put in storage room,” “Put in bedroom,” “Leave in garage.”
I keep thinking that, if I write out enough labels and put them on enough boxes, all the scattered bits of my life will come together like giant jigsaw puzzle pieces to form a new picture. One that is better, happier, safer than the old. One that holds the promise of tomorrow without any overshadowing threats from yesterday.
But the bottom line is that there aren’t enough labels. Or enough ink in my marker. And even if there were, no one is paying close enough attention to the words I’ve written so carefully.
It’s just as well. I have a sneaking suspicion that, despite my planning, the bedroom box will really go downstairs and the garage box will undoubtedly hold the very items I will be requiring first thing in the morning, as I stumble around the unfamiliar kitchen looking for a cup, a spoon, a bowl.
I mold my hands around the chipped mug as I sip my sixth (seventh?) cup of coffee. Despite the calendar announcing the month as July, it’s chilly in the house this early in the morning. Last night, we hit a record low of 49 degrees and the house still holds most of that untimely cold. When I went to bed last night, I had wrapped myself in your old flannel robe, huddling in its warmth.
Do you know what I remember right now? I remember how, before you came to share my bed, I used to have to pile blankets and comforters on top of me to keep warm. I was always cold in the winter. I wore long flannel nightgowns and knee socks every night. The first night you stayed, you told me at breakfast I looked like a little girl, with my hair all which-way and my socks bunched around my ankles. And when I went to make the bed, I found that all but one of the blankets had been kicked to the floor.
I realized then that I hadn’t been cold, not once, throughout that long, frozen January night. I had been warm as toast, warm as a cat’s fur when she lies stretched out in the hot summer sun. Warm as a little child, held safe and secure in her mother’s arms. So warm I thought never to be cold again.
Questions—this started out about questions, and the dearth of answers. Of course, I had all the typical questions: When? What happened? Why? Why me? The last, I am ashamed to say, was the one I repeated endlessly for weeks, until someone had the courage to answer, “Because! Because things happen! Because it was your turn and that’s just the way it goes!”
So I stopped asking, at least out loud, and instead did all the things I was supposed to do: make coffee, make calls, make plans.
Now I am packing boxes. Most of them are gone already. I gave away so many things—things of yours, things of mine, things we had purchased together. The house is sold. The new couple will be in it tomorrow. They are a nice couple, young, with two children and a third on the way. She looks tired and he looks strained, but it’s probably just the effort of moving to a new place and leaving the old one behind.
You know, you always leave a piece of yourself wherever you have been. And I have been a lot of places in these past years. I am sure, if I walked very slowly along the Lake Erie shoreline, I would find traces of my six-year-old footprints in the sand. My parents had a vacation cottage at the lake, and we used to spend weeks up there. To this day, the sound of the waves breaking on the shoreline brings back the image of dying fish and the feel of gritty sand, the smell of my father’s tobacco and the clink of the ice in my mother’s old-fashioned. Late every afternoon, she would have an old-fashioned.
“Earl, I need my drink,” she would say and my father would drag himself up from the hammock and fix it for her. I don’t know why she didn’t do it herself. She was certainly capable of it. She knew how to make, and drink, more alcoholic concoctions than any of my friends’ parents did.
But she always asked my father and he always did it. And I never knew why. Questions, always questions….
But that isn’t what I am talking about. What was I talking about? Oh, yes, about leaving behind pieces of yourself. In which case, I should be but a shadow of my former self, with all those pieces lying around in the world. Or maybe arrested for littering. I can hear the judge now: “You have been charged with first degree littering and in evidence, we bring this footprint, this dog collar, this spot of blood. How do you plead?”
“Guilty, Your Honor,” and I would be sentenced to search for every bit of me that was scattered far and wide. And once I found them all, I would have to glue them together until I made a life-size replica of the me-who-was-and-who-is-no-more.
Dog collar—and if she hadn’t been so damned clever she wouldn’t have managed to slip free of the rhinestone-studded collar I had bought with my allowance. I never had a pet before. And with no brothers or sisters, I was lonely. Or was I? Maybe I didn’t know I was lonely. Maybe I thought everybody felt this way—as though life was one long, dark corridor filled with doors, and behind every door there was a party going on. But if you didn’t know the right words—and I never did—the door wouldn’t open and you would have to just keep on walking.
She was my dearest companion, too small to cause much trouble but not so small that you would think she was a dustball with legs. I would take her with me on walks along the shore, and sometimes I could even convince her to wade out a bit, just enough to get her belly soaked into cold wet points of fur. When she left the collar behind, I thought it was her way of telling me she’d be back. But she never did come back, not once the rest of that summer. And the next summer, when my father left to make old-fashioneds for someone else’s mother, the trips to the lake stopped. If she did come back then, she wouldn’t have been able to find me.
As for the blood, well, I expected a lot more. Veiled comments from my mother had led me to believe a veritable river of red would come gushing out and all the world would know what I had done. But the fact of the matter was, it was just a little spot or two, easily rinsed out of my panties. Nothing much. And, in retrospect, the event that preceded it was nothing much either.
Everybody did it back then. Doing it—“it” being, of course, the accepted term for losing one’s virginity, generally in the back seat of a car—was the way through the doorway leading from innocence to knowledge. At least, that’s what we thought.
“Come on come on you’ll like it I’ll be careful you want it I know you do” the words running together faster and faster as though the speed alone would push you to make a decision. And all the while, hands here and hands there and really, while it wasn’t so great, so wonderful, so earth-shattering, it was exciting enough, dangerous enough, to make the decision so much easier.
Later, of course, while the bra was being hooked and the jeans zipped, you wondered what all the rush was for, if the act itself was going to be over in a matter of minutes. What was the hurry, you wondered, and close on the heels of that question came the others: Was it me? Didn’t I do it right? Wasn’t I good enough?
Questions that never got answered back then, but soon, if you were lucky enough, became irrelevant in the context of the next duet.
Where was I? Oh yes, packing the boxes, labeling the boxes, sealing the boxes. Wouldn’t it be nice if everything in life came in such perfectly packed and labeled boxes? “Don’t open until you’re 16 and then put away in your underwear drawer.” “This is for your 35th birthday.” “To be opened only in case of emergency.”
That’s the one I need right now. A box for situations that threaten to be overwhelming. You once said that I could handle anything. But you’re wrong, you know. If I have handled everything life has thrown at me, it was only because, until now, life had been kind. It weighed each brick on some great cosmic scale and measured it against my strength.
“Not yet,” I can hear life say. “This one is just a little heavier than she can take.”
Clearly this past year life took a vacation. Or maybe the scale was broken and he had to resort to guessing, squinting with one black eye closed as he hefted the brick in his bony hand.
“Yeah, I think it’s okay. It feels a little heavy but you know, I’ve gone pretty easy on her these past couple years. Besides, I’m tired of the whole thing anyway. I think I’ll just give it a good heave and consequences be damned.”
I bet if the light was strong enough, I could even see the bruise where the brick hit me. It hurts like hell. Ah, well, if it had to be one of us, I guess I’m glad it’s me, not you. You had it easier. They told me it was just like taking one deep breath and letting it out and then not taking another. That’s what they said, anyway, but what do they know? They are still breathing.
I hear the moving van out front. I suppose they want to load the boxes now and get on the road. It will be strange leaving this house where we had spent so many years together. I take one final walk-through, opening bedroom closets and checking kitchen cabinets for unforgotten items.
Did I pack all the memories? Or would it be wiser to leave some, to reduce their painful weight to manageable proportions? But if I did that, what part of me would also be left behind?
Questions, always questions… and with them, the hope there is enough of me safely packed away in all these boxes to go on.
Nancy Christie is the author of Traveling Left of Center and Other Stories (Pixel Hall Press), The Gifts Of Change (Atria/Beyond Words), Rut-Busting Book for Writers (Mill City Press) and numerous short stories. A professional writer, she also teaches writing workshop and is the founder of “Celebrate Short Fiction” Day.