It was secured with a thin line of baby pink ribbon. The bunny ears of the bow were fastened haphazardly, a result of the box being opened and enjoyed. I turned the dust-laden box over in my hands. The bottom of the innocent heart shape had sharpened over time, proving itself to be quite a threat. It’s interesting, I thought to myself, the corruption of something once so well-intentioned.
I stood in the shallow closet, bowing my head under the clothing rack. Everything else had already been taken care of; I could hear the rumbling of the moving truck from up here. I had just come through for one final look, not to seek forgotten items but rather for a last-ditch opportunity to chase sentimentality. That’s when I came across this little box, tucked behind the highest shelf of the closet, its darkened red exterior teasing my curiosity.
When I picked it up, a pang of melancholy came over me. I’d never been one to disturb the past, to wonder about “what could’ve been”, to rehash old romances that would never be the same anyway. Still, the muted red hue reminded me of her old lipstick. The baby pink was a perfect match for her favourite bracelet. Even the sharp edge, however irrelevant, brought about a reminder of how it all ended.
When I turned around, straightening my head and cracking my back on the way there, the room had transformed. It was no longer an empty space; it was my bedroom again. My king-sized bed sat in the middle of the room, equipped with dark grey sheets and jet-black pillows. My nightstand had been returned to my bedside, complete with the half-empty glass of water on the corner. It wasn’t an exciting space, it had always taken on a coolness; a darker disposition that I couldn’t seem to get away from. On any normal day, it looked lonely. As I stood, however, reliving this mirage or fantasy or hallucination or whatever it was, the room was bright. A golden light spread itself out onto the sheets, the windowsill, even reaching the closed door on the opposite end of the room. I glanced from the door back to the bed, fixing my gaze on the right side. The pillow had rotated so that it sat vertical, a peculiar position that I could only attribute to one person.
The door flew open, and there she was. “Cal,” She giggled. “Come on! I told you I hate surprises, don’t make me wait any longer!”
It was like I was in a dream, yet it felt so real. She was there, she had thrown herself onto the bed in anticipation, she was waiting for the old me to reveal whatever surprise I had in store for her. Everything was accurate, right down to the details. Her straight black hair was pulled into a low ponytail like it always was, her delicate fingers drumming her knees like they always did when she was waiting for something, her lips painted with that same red lipstick she loved so much.
“Are you ready?” I could hear my voice from just outside the room. She sat up smiling.
My old self entered the room with a huge grin and two hands behind my back. I looked younger, the scruff I’d now grown around my lips was still invisible; I was still shaving every other day. My hair was far shorter, too; it’s funny that the more hairless I was, the better I was taking care of myself.
Once in the room, my old self revealed the surprise by bringing my hands forward, presenting a stunning array of flowers in one hand and the same heart-shaped box in the other. She jumped up with excitement, leaning over to smell each flower one by one. “It’s so beautiful,” She clasped both of her hands to the middle of her chest. “Thank you.”
And then she kissed him. Well, me. She kissed me. This was a hurt I couldn’t have imagined, because when she did this, my heart sank. My real heart, not my past heart. It sank because I could remember the feeling so vividly. The pure and unadulterated display of affection that was a simple kiss. I longed for her in that moment, clutching the old heart-shaped box close to my chest. I wholly envied my younger self.
They tore open the box of chocolates and laughed together. I had bought dark chocolate, our absolute least favourite kind of chocolate (well, everyone’s least favourite kind of chocolate). Instead of eating them, she and my old self tossed them around playfully. The laughing never ceased. The doorbell rang.
“Our first round of guests!” She exclaimed. “Oh my God, come on, I’m so excited.” With that, she pulled my old self out of the bedroom, the door slamming behind them. I remembered our first house party, Valentines Day, twenty years ago. We were so madly in love.
Just like that, the room changed. It was no longer bathing in sunlight, but rather replaced with a sort of unexplained gloomy overcast. My eyes shot from the bed to the window to the door and back again, seeking some sort of explanation. The air that filled the room was of a turbulent nature, and I didn’t want to wait and see what it would bring.
I took to the door, twisting the knob as forcefully as possible. It wouldn’t budge. I was locked in. Behind me, the window flung open, welcoming a tempestuous wind. It blew back my longer hair, and I rushed to shut it. As I made my way across the room, the door was finally thrown open. She entered again, but she had changed.
Her eyes were wild, her hands sifting through her hair with a fervour I remembered painfully well. She paced the room, paying my real self no mind, tears slowly flooding her cheeks.
She started stammering, “What do I do? I- what am I supposed to do?” Her lip quivered with every word, her demeanor becoming more and more feverish. She placed herself on the edge of the bed, her face in her hands. “I just can’t believe it.”
As much as I didn’t want to remember, as much as I didn’t want to know what was about to happen, I knew exactly why she was so upset. I remembered it perfectly. With reluctance, I leaned myself against the windowsill and watched the scene unfold again in front of my eyes. Twenty years later, I was still so ashamed.
I watched the old me burst through the door. I was angry, unrightfully so, and I was pleading for my life. I had no reason to. She deserved better.
“She needed my help,” The old me implored. “I’ve known her since high school. I didn’t know what else to do.”
I winced. It had been date night, and I cancelled on my girlfriend because one of my friends from high school desperately needed my help. When I got to my friend, she declared her love for me. We were alone. I left immediately; I didn’t allow anything to happen, but in the end, it seemed as though I prioritized an attractive high school friend over my very own girlfriend. I understood completely, and still, I was convinced I hadn’t done anything wrong.
“You left me there,” She cried. “You humiliated me, and I still waited there for you to show up. No text, no phone call. What the hell were you thinking?”
“Listen,” The old me spoke in a patronizing voice, moving towards her. She shook me off, standing up and looking at the old me with ferocity in her eyes.
“I can’t do this,” Her voice was icy. She made her way to the door, and looked back only once to say, “I really loved you.” And she was gone.
I could feel my eyes watering as I watched from the window. I closed them, shaking my head. I was faced with so much regret. When I opened my eyes, the room was empty again. The storm had passed, and the horn from the moving truck was on full blast. I didn’t know how much time I had spent reminiscing, but it was time to leave for good.
I waved the moving truck off, instructing the driver to leave without me; I’d meet him there. I jumped into my red civic, the familiar leather more comforting than ever. Digging through the glovebox, I found the CD I’d stashed away all those years ago. I jammed it into the audio player and started listening to the same songs I listened to when I was so deeply in love. I started the car with a newfound enthusiasm. As I put it into drive, I knew I was heading straight into either the best moment of my life or the worst.
It felt like the highway was never-ending. Despite being away from her for so long, I couldn’t help myself from keeping tabs on her. She had pursued a career in massage therapy, which took her halfway across town to a quaint suburb. She never married, never had any kids of her own. I always felt responsible. How could she trust anyone after me? How could she ever find a love like ours?
I turned onto her street. A collection of tulips sat in front of her windows in little garden beds. I chuckled at this. So many things had changed, but her favourite flowers were still tulips.
I struggled to catch my breath as I stumbled up her front steps. When I reached the door, I didn’t think twice. I had made my decision. I’d come all the way here, longing to see the only one I could ever love. I rang her doorbell, my finger lingering over the button even after I heard the chime from within. I had done it.
Footsteps. A light switch. Someone rustling with the chain locks. Finally, the door slowly opened inward. She revealed her face with some hesitation. Her penetrating eyes hid behind a curtain of black bangs, the rest of her hair falling around her shoulders. She looked at me with amazement, or disdain, or simply surprise, I couldn’t decide.
Her lips were painted with that same red lipstick.
“Cal,” She whispered, as if blasphemous to say aloud. As if impossible.
I presented her with the little heart-shaped box. I looked straight into her eyes as I did this, trying to suppress my violently shaky hands. It felt like my tongue had been caught somehow, like this moment was just too surreal to bear, but I mustered the only thing I’d been wanting to say for all this time.
“I’m sorry, Penny. I’m so sorry.”
As I delivered the words, I watched as another man slid behind her. He placed his big hands on her little shoulders, he looked at me with bewilderment, and he whispered something into her ear. I felt my heart fold in on itself.
Maybe some things did change after all.