Along the Way

step-one-cardboard-box

Who doesn’t love Sunday mornings? Well, Zoe sure did. Nothing to do, she could wake up at any time she liked – even tough she always woke early, damn habits – and, best of all, she could enjoy the long and hearty breakfast she never had time to on weekdays. That’s where she was on that particular Sunday morning. Her bed was in the exact same state as when she rose at an unfriendly 7 AM, as was her hair, an unkempt mess, her beautiful curly twirls spawning in every direction in a shape she didn’t dare look at – she made a point of avoiding mirrors in mornings like that. She didn’t want to tame her mane unless she had to. And the only thing she had to do that morning was nothing. She was wearing a long comfy jersey, only because it made her feel like she was wearing her favourite type of clothing, which was no clothes at all. But she had to open all the windows and curtains to let that beautiful sun come in and didn’t want to shock the neighbours. It was barely nine and she was on her second bagel when there was a knock at the door. Who could be so bold as to disturb Zoe’s sacred Sunday morning? No one, apparently. At her doorstep, just a box. A rather large and heavy-looking cardboard box, just wide enough to pass through the door, tall enough to not be seen through the peephole, but deep enough for her to fit inside laying down. Maybe it was a brand new rollable mattress, graciously given to her by an anonymous good person? Whatever was inside the box, it was meant for her. It had her name written in large letters on the top, ZOE.

Well, the box wouldn’t take itself inside, so Zoe got to work, exactly the feeling she didn’t want. She could have let it outside for a while, sure, but she knew the little bug inside her brain would bother her until the borderline comically huge parcel was in her living room. As expected, it wasn’t easy. For starters, whoever left the box placed it so it was almost touching the door, little to no room to pass around it and just push the box through. She pulled to the limit of her strength, trying to create some space on the side so she could get behind it and push, but it was no use. It could be said that the box was designed with the width of the door in mind. Without other options, she left the house by the kitchen door. But she wouldn’t put pants on just for that, oh no. She went outside just as she was, long jersey over nothing, hoping for no wind. Wish granted, but she still had to push quite a few times until only half the box had moved. She was leaning on the back of it, regaining her breath for the next push session, when she saw. Every house on the street had one or more boxes in front, just like hers, some bigger, some smaller, all with a person’s first name on top. One box for every person living in the houses. She ventured to go to the street to look left and right and check what she was already sure of: for as long as she could see, there was no house without a box. She wondered what would have happened to apartment buildings. Would all the boxes be in front of the building, or would it be in the halls? Thanking the housing gods and her admirable financial organization that allowed her to have a backdoor, she went back to pushing the heavy volume inside.

It was finally inside, after way too many pushes for a Sunday morning. Zoe wanted to go back to her breakfast, there were some delicious gluten-free waffles onto which let some butter melt then cover with maple syrup. But the curiosity got the best of her. After pushing so hard, the pull to see what’s inside the box was too strong to ignore. Whoever sent it to her wasn’t neat, that’s sure. It looked like a miniaturized version of a junkyard, with a bunch of used objects inside. There was something odd, though – odder than a large box without a sender’s identity appearing at everybody’s house on a Sunday morning. The more she looked at the contents, the more it all seemed familiar to her. They were not related, it seemed, but somehow the fact that they were all together in her box made sense. Then it hit her: everything that was in the box, every one of the hundreds of objects, belonged to her. Or used to, anyway. They were all things she once had and lost. All the half-used Bic pens, which outnumbered all other pens by seven to one, a lot of CDs out of their protective covers, too many keys to even remember where they went, a few calculators, stuffed animals and other toys from her childhood, scarfs and gloves and ear warmers from pretty much every winter since she could remember, toothbrushes, sunglasses, and so, so many umbrellas. Everything was in the exact same state they were the last time she saw them, as if some benevolent god of the lost objects had picked everything and kept safe. She saw one of the umbrellas still in the protective plastic package, brand new. After losing more umbrellas than she cared to remember, she decided to stop that cycle and went buy a “designer’s umbrella”, one that would cost more that an umbrella ever should, so she could be more careful with it. If it lasted, it could even have been considered a good investment, just by preventing her of having to buy other ones. It never made the way home from the store, forgotten on the bus seat without ever being used.

So, everything in there was once hers. Right? But there were some things she didn’t remember ever having, let alone losing. Like that panty, too large to be a child’s underwear. She had never lost panties, right? She reached to it to check and- What was that? She was suddenly on a lakeshore, surrounded by her group of friends from the earlier days of college, all singing and dancing around a fire on the sand, enjoying the alcohol they couldn’t yet be drinking, when someone decided to go swimming. But the water would be freezing!, one of the girls said. Too late, the boys were already running to the water, leaving pieces of clothing on the way. Yes, yes, it was then official and too late to be avoided: they were all going skinny dipping. The four girls on the group quickly looked at each other and, in an unspoken agreement, followed the guys. Blouses and shorts and bras and panties flew as they ran fast enough so their shyness and fear of cold waters couldn’t change their minds. After all the minutes the girls could handle in the lake – that was indeed cold – they ran back before the boys and got dressed again. Zoe had trouble finding her panty and to not be caught literally pants down, she just went commando and put on the shorts. Later, she was sure Eric had taken and hid it. Apparently not. It all came to her in a flash, the whole memory vivid as if she had just lived the moment again in a single second, gone as soon her hand wasn’t touching the panty anymore.

Wow. That was weird. What if she- yep, it happened again when she touched that brand new umbrella. And a Bic from high school days. Between one flash and another, she noticed an envelope taped to the inside of the box lid. Maybe the sender’s identity she wanted to know? It had her name on it, just like the box, nothing else. Inside, just a card, a thick white paper rectangle with two words: “Pick one”. What did it mean? Should she pick one object to retain and everything else would be “relost”? A little more information from time to time goes a long way, you know? It was kind of fun, those little trips in time, but Zoe had a breakfast waiting for her. It was not like the box would be going anywhere, right? The waffle had to be re-heated for the proper butter-melting effect to be achieved, and her tea was way past perfect warmth, already at room temperature; not a delicious breakfast as it should have been, but nice anyway. She read the news between a bite on the waffle and another and saw that the world was going crazy about the boxes, meaning that most everybody got one, as she imagined. She wondered again about apartment buildings and tried to find something about it just to pass the time. The breakfast finished, Zoe lingered at the table, still reading about the world reacting to the boxes of lost things. It took some willpower to clean everything up before letting herself even look at it again.

But there it was, filled with old memories, a rare opportunity to relive moments from the good old days. Yes, yes, best to brush the teeth before going in deeper. Maybe tidy up the hair? Let’s not get caught in the moment there, nothing wrong with the Sunday hair as far as she could tell. Back to the box already, to the promise of… fewer memories than before? Huh. Zoe remembered it being filled to the limit, but there was some space that second time. She didn’t take anything from the box, all objects she touched before went back in. But there was definitely fewer things than before. Like that umbrella, the brand new one. It wasn’t there anymore. And she was sure at least one-third of the Bic pens had vanished as well. She tried to make a mental inventory of the objects she saw before touching anything else when she looked at the strange card. Pick one. One. Out of all the things you lost. Maybe she should choose the one object, the one memory to keep before everything else vanished, maybe forever? So pick, Zoe! And pick fast. The more you wait, the fewer options you will have. But how to choose between so many lost things, so many forgotten memories?

Zoe started touching all objects one by one and taking them out the box to be sure she never touched one twice. It was not a particularly efficient approach, but in the hurry to have the most choices possible she just wasn’t thinking straight. She assumed that if one single trip lasted only a few seconds – even if the memory itself lasted longer – she could be trough everything in the box in time to make the best possible choice, whatever that meant. She never stopped to think about what she would do once every moment had been relived. Sure, most things in there didn’t hold any special meaning or evoked a fond memory. She didn’t mind never recalling all the embarrassing situations she lived in school, for instance. But there was more in the box than meaningless objects, and sometimes she was surprised by nice visions like the time she misjudged the weather and left home without a scarf. The kind gesture from a random stranger became one of the longest relationships she ever had, they even lived together in that same house. She was shivering while waiting for the bus back home, cursing both her misguidance and the shelter-less bus stop when she felt the warmth on her neck and saw the colorful fabric passing over her shoulders. Adam, was his name. The scarf, a comically long band of knitted wool striped in bright earth colours, was not only warm from his body but also held her scent. They had tea later that same day, when he explained that her new scarf was an almost four meters long official replica from the 4th Doctor. “Doctor who?”, she asked, to which he smiled and sipped his tea. That was not the memory she relived when touching it, though. She always thought he had taken it with him when he left after two years living together, but she found out it was left, as many things in the box, on a bench in the subway. She loved it, the scarf and the memory of that meet cute, so she sat it aside to maybe be the one she would pick.

The box was getting empty and Zoe didn’t even took notice of the stuff that had already disappeared both from it and from her “already touched” pile. Not only the effect of the travel was cool enough to make her forget about everything else, some of the memories also took her to some fun times. She wasn’t even looking at what she was taking any more, she just reached inside and took whatever was closer to her hand. She had been doing that for a while, touching, remembering and dropping, laughing and sighing along the way. By then, she had to bend inside the box to take the next item. Her fingers felt something soft, and a quick index-thumb grip threw her to the backseat of a car, where she saw her parent’s heads and heard herself complaining she had to pee. The movie in her head started slowing down to show a girl leaving the car with a child’s pillow. A small, yellowed soft rectangle with a funny owl drawing almost completely washed out. “You have to carry that smelly thing everywhere, Zoe?”, it was her mother’s voice, promptly ignored while the girl advanced towards the gas station bathroom. She still had the pillow with her when she left, but sometime between going in and out of the station’s convenience store it was replaced by a bag of chips. Zoe, the big one, felt tears coming to her eyes and expected the moment to end there. But she had another trip, where she squeezed the little thing close to her chest during a thunderstorm when five or six, the owl still quite visible by then. And another one, her tears wetting the not-so-white-anymore cotton surface because she heard the boy she liked in school talking about another girl. When she saw her favourite sad movie for the first time, she was holding the pillow. She pressed her lips hard on it little after her first kiss, and pressed it against her stomach during her first menstrual cramps. Zoe relived every moment the pillow helped her get through, and it was not just seeing that time. There was an inner warmth, the feeling that everything, no matter what, would be alright, that she was safe regardless of what was happening in the world. It was all the things that made her keep the pillow as a security blanket until she was fourteen, until she lost it in some convenience store during a road trip with her parents. She felt all that, smiling and crying at once, the eyes shut and the pillow close in her chest.

When she finally opened her eyes, it was like coming back from a washing machine. She had the pillow embraced like she did many times, and she was back in her living room, safe and warm, the world instantly a better place. With the sleeves of her long jersey, she wiped the tears from her eyes and looked around. The box, and everything inside but the pillow in her hands, was gone.

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