Box Houses; or, the lessons we learn from actual things

I’ll never stop finding a kinship in the words of writers, even if I’ll never truly be one myself. While the prose on the page will be the thing that draws me in, makes me love the ideas, ultimately it is the essay, the memoir, the correspondence from the source that makes me love the man.  I was reminded of this last week as I surfed some articles about the habits of novelists in creating their working hours, as well as a link to a simple letter “on love” from John Steinbeck. Steinbeck’s perhaps oversimplified (perhaps not) final thought on the entire question of love was this: “Don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

And despite my record of failures, I’m still a person who believes in things like that. I don’t wish to get into it much further than that; but I persist as a Romantic at heart. A dreamer. Naive. Hopeful. A believer.

Its this mindset that finds me in moments like I had that evening, with Kir. Truth is, sometimes (often) after a second glass of wine, I find myself playing some heavy-handed wistfully heartfelt music, and dancing and singing around the apartment. Poor Kir! She simply wishes to sleep atop a chair in the living room, which happens to be in the middle of my dance floor slash stage slash performance space. And thus she becomes the target of my affection. Slash singing. Slash dancing.

And not surprisingly, she is not amused.

There’s a rhythm to our dance, Kir and I, that I know only through years of missteps.  Mostly, there is a revving up of her patience, a widening of the eyes, a frantic twitching of the tail and whiskers that builds and builds and builds until finally – BLAM! The claws swipe out, oft for the face. As I have danced this dance before, I know to duck and bob in this moment. As she has also danced this dance before, she knows next to approach two steps forward and swipe again. Though in recent weeks she’s caught me square in the eyebrow with this second riposte, on this particular night I know to step under and then backward, so as to dodge the second blow. Given another 20 years, I wonder how far this choreography will have grown …

It occurred to me at that moment, rather morosely, that this is where Kir is like a lot of people in my life: enduring my idiocy and annoyances for a while; then not. Enjoying me for being me up until the moment when she does not. Thankfully, Kir is the only one who acts out with actual claws.

It got me thinking about a woman I once dated; she had claws of a different sort. She was graduating soon, and as her time at the school was ending, she would talk fondly of various places she may never go again, foods she’d maybe never eat again, people she’d never see again, the entire shifting of life creating an impossibility for ever going backward. Dutifully, I suggested we begin planning her final versions of things – last dinner here. Last coffee there. Last night out with these kids. One more time of just the two of us at our special place. She got angry at me; my read on her was never what she wished it to be. No, she told me. You don’t create final versions of these things, these memories. The things were important as they happened, because they happened, how they happened. You can never recapture that magic of pure form. Any attempt to do otherwise is simply pathetic. It cheapens the very thing it purports to celebrate. There are no final versions of things; only the memories of what they once were.

I don’t believe anything has impacted me so much as that statement, that broader truth, that wisdom from one so briefly but deeply in my life. In the end, I, too, was a memory of a thing that once was.

I was reminded of that moment, of that lesson, as I extricated my life from the house in Baltimore. I don’t want to dwell on it. I don’t want to talk about it. But I found that a part of me wished to hold on to things. Objects. So many items that had to be sorted and claimed. But there was no space for these items, these things. I was moving, I didn’t know where, but I was leaving, and there was no place, no room for these objects any more. And so I began to winnow, to eliminate, to literally dispose of all of these things. Books. Photographs. Knickknacks and memorabilia. Things. So many things. So many objects just scattered to the void.

In the end, it was exactly what I had learned all those years before: I carried the important parts with me in my heart.  Everything else was just an objectification of something more beautiful. More perfect.

I keep one box of perfect objects. I don’t speak about it to anyone, though no one really asks. The items in that box have some deeper meaning than I’d care to get into. It sits in a corner of my room, mostly unmolested. The box has been in use since college now, and its flaps are bent and softened. The top refuses to close, leaking out secret glimpses of some things significantly larger than a box could ever actually hold. Recently, someone I dated saw a yellow stuffed toy sticking out of the corner of the box and said in a lovingly mocking tone: “Ha! Nice stuffed animal.”

When I was in college, two of the people I became closest with, who I would, to this day, call two of my greatest friends … we bonded over watching Pokemon together every weekeday. Then we’d watch a cooking show. Then we’d hit the Caf. People began to complain that we were excluding others from our clique. The absurdity of it made us squeal. We, three 21 year olds, in our minds adults … we were excluding people from entering an open room and watching a children’s cartoon with us? Somehow Pokemon was the cool kids club? This inevitably led to some secondary absurdities: techno remix of the Pokemon song being played on the dance floor, and two young women trying desperately to grind one another sexily to it. Drunk-showing of the Pokemon Movie in theaters. Forcing the newest pledges to only speak in their own first and last names for an entire evening. Trying to convince my a cappella group to perform an a cappella cover of the Pokemon theme song. Rudey’s giant Charmander pillow/stuffed animal. It marked the conception, birth and growth of some of the best friendships of my life. For graduation, someone gave me a stuffed Pikachu. He became my car stuffed animal. He was in that car on the day I got into the accident. When no one was there to help me. When I could not reach anyone. When I had to crawl out the passenger window because the driver’s side was crushed and the passenger door wouldn’t open. When I had to gather what few belongings I had in the car, and there was my backpack and there were my CDs and there was my ice scraper and there was my Pikachu. He was supposed to keep the car safe, but I guess since I was alive he did his job, and now I will bring him home and I will put him in the box with my other Objects …

“Yeah,” I told her. “It’s a cute toy.”

A long time ago, when I was someone else, I wrote a lot of stories about Simon. In the end, I stopped writing about Simon because Simon ended up being a collection of parables about my life and how I wished it were. My life never really was like Simon’s life though. He once fell in love, became completely forgotten by the world (and thus invisible), lived invisibly, sat through many diner conversations with his creator (me), worked with a bushel of crabs to save the world from the heir to the Tupperware fortune, became remembered again (and thus visible), lived a fulfilling and mundane life and then finally fell in love again. The final love story of Simon was at its heart the simplest version of what I always wished love could be: someone to be with who sees the world through your eyes, and you theirs. Briefly, it went like this:

Simon was hired to work at a warehouse. Well two warehouses, to be specific. For reaons beyond the ken of the handful of employees, Simon and the others were hired to move all of the boxes from one warehouse into the other. Upon completion of this task, they were then to move all of the boxes back to the first warehouse. Lather. Rinse Repeat. Thus is life in the business world. One of the other employees was a quiet young woman, barely noticed by anyone. One night, Simon is working late, and he hears some noises. He sees a light coming from a far corner of the warehouse currently with all the boxes. He finds a hidden entrance. Inside, he walks into a beautiful palace, lit with chandeliers and lined with beautiful artwork, giant spiraling staircases and plush red carpets. He is inside the Box House. And the young woman is here. She has created this, and Simon sees it all, and slowly, they come to understand that they’re the only two people in the world who see it this way. And over the course of time they continue to create for each other, to create worlds and to create objects and to create places that only they can know and then, of course, there is Love. And as the timeline for the building and appreciating draws towards its inevitable ending, they find a way to save their Box House and to continue to live in their own world together, regardless of what anyone says is or isn’t real and can or can not happen. And even when it seemed time to stop, neither of them went away, but instead chose to be together. Because that was love.

That was what I always wanted then.

Love doesn’t work that way. There is no instant transference of understanding. There is no moment of knowing that you finally found someone who gets you. The only one who gets you. And that you are the only one who gets them, too. Oh, don’t get me wrong – there is much of that. And it is still my favorite part of the entire ordeal. The very best feeling in the world is knowing you have someone who gets your things. Who gets your bullshit. Who has your back.

Only there’s no instant transference of it all. No way of knowing who really gets you. No real moment of stepping into the Box House.

Or maybe I have just done it wrong up until now.

I was once with someone who found she could no longer tell me what was going on. She shut down entirely, until she left.

I was once with someone when I found that I could no longer tell her what was going on. I shut down entirely, until I left. The silence was agonizing for her.

I was once with someone for whom I cared deeply, only I could not say. I found I couldn’t say anything at all. I also found the moments of her silence completely agonizing.

The things I am learning, I seem to pay forward. It all seems to move in the wrong direction.

Maybe it’s just things.

I’m saving cardboard boxes for the time being. I plan on building Kir a Box House. As I sketch out plans and ideas for tunnels and turrets and windows and sunroofs and slides, I know that the moment I begin to assemble these things, she will immediately enter the first box on the ground. And she will sit, and she will stare at me, and we will both imagine she’s in something other than a box. And it will make us both very happy. Together.


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