Boxes of Junk

Boots’s Pick
Alex Myers


When they turned off the interstate and were on the familiar suburban lanes that led to Dan’s parents’ house, he began the litany. “Don’t let my mom bully you about the wedding,” he said, his eyes locked on the road. “And don’t agree to any of her ideas. And don’t promise her anything because she never forgets.”

Rachel nodded, though she wasn’t sure Dan could see her. In truth, she liked to hear his frustration about his parents. It made her feel like a conspirator, like it was us against them, like Dan was hers.

“My dad wants to help with our move, even though I’ve told him a dozen times that we don’t need help,” he went on.

Rachel watched his profile as he talked, the way he leaned his head forward away from the head rest, as if with eagerness or tense annoyance. His hands moved needlessly on the wheel, tapping and sliding, motions unrelated to the direction of the car. They had been engaged for almost two months now, and she felt like this was the perfect moment in a relationship: commitment and security without it being over, as she thought a wedding would make it over, too complete. There was still time, she felt, to get everything just right between the two of them.

Dan continued, “My mom’s been trying to get rid of some junk up in the attic, and I don’t want it. So don’t let her talk you into taking any furniture or boxes from up there. I’ve told her that I’m not interested.”

“Sure. Of course.” She reached over from the passenger seat and squeezed his leg. He smiled at her, but from the side the smile looked a bit like a grimace. “I’ll behave,” she said. Anyway, it was good to be out of their apartment, which was mostly in boxes now, awaiting their move at the end of the month to a real house, a mortgage instead of rent, all settled down. She knew from overhearing Dan’s half of phone conversations that his mother thought they were doing it all wrong, that they should get married and then move. “I promise I won’t take any boxes, and I won’t let your mom plan our wedding.” She squeezed his leg again, but this time Dan didn’t smile.

They made the turn onto his parents’ street, and Rachel noted that Dan’s grip tightened a bit on the wheel, his head leaned farther forward, as if he were trying to see something just off in the distance. It had been a long drive, but suddenly she didn’t want it to stop; she wanted to stay in the car with Dan, just the two of them, driving around, no one but each other to talk to. She wanted to turn the radio off and just listen to him, let topics come up that they hadn’t had time to discuss, all the issues and conversations that never surfaced at home, when they were tired or distracted. But then he was turning the car into the driveway, unbuckling his seatbelt, and before she knew it his parents were at the door, coming out to greet them. He was back in their world, and Rachel knew what that meant: the subtle differences, the way he talked to his parents with a keenness, as if wanting to prove himself, the way he flopped on the couch in the living room, a sort of pure relaxation she never saw in their apartment. She’d seen it on earlier visits and wondered whether this was how he would act when they were married, once he was comfortable and at home with her.

Through the windshield, Rachel saw her future mother-in-law approach, waving, and drew in a breath. She readied herself for the greeting, for the official arrival in this other world, a world in which she was still an outsider and in which Dan was not hers, at least not fully. She let the breath out. Maybe this trip would be different.

The first time she’d met his parents, she and Dan were only dating, just free of the tentative stage of who would call whom, and into the segment where they each claimed a drawer at the other’s apartment, somewhere to leave an extra change of clothes. At the time, it felt like moving in together. At her first dinner with his parents, it reaffirmed this sensation that something serious was starting; the continuity of her relationship with Dan began to feel inevitable, as if in seeing his parents in front of her she could recognize the full dimensionality of him, the past stretching backwards out of these two people, and the future heading forwards, like a mirror, only slightly warped.

A few months later, she’d gone home with him for the fourth of July, a barbeque out back by the pool, his dad flipping burgers and cracking corny jokes. That weekend, Rachel had slept in Dan’s sister’s room, empty because the sister was across the country, somewhere in California, doing an internship at a biotech lab. It was just the one night, a hot summer night with a box fan in the window inadequately pushing the air around the room, Rachel sweaty and glad to be alone in the borrowed bed, falling asleep despite the firecrackers outside. She wondered then about Dan: would they end up together? What would it be like to really live with him?

It was in the wake of that first trip that Rachel had realized the depth of the difference when Dan was at his parents’ house. It was normal, she told herself at first, of course a person would be different around his parents than around his peers or girlfriend. But it was more than that. In a casual comment as they drove home that hot summer weekend, Dan said to her, “I never sleep so well anywhere as I sleep at home.”

Rachel thought of the hot, sticky night that had just passed, thought of the roomy queen-size bed in his air-conditioned apartment and said, “I can’t believe you were that comfortable. It was hot.”

“It’s not about heat. I mean, it’s just being at home again, the smell of the sheets, knowing my parents are in the next room. I sleep so soundly.”

Cute, she thought. At least at first. In the weeks following that, she pondered more about how she felt when she went to visit her parents: the confinement, the sensation of being drawn back into a world she thought she had escaped, her mother making what she thought were Rachel’s favorite foods, her father asking her about career plans she’d dreamed up in high school and long since abandoned. It was as if she were still sixteen in their minds, and she couldn’t wait to leave, to return to her real life. What did it mean that Dan loved this feeling of returning to childhood? That to him his parents’ house and world embodied perfection, some golden age to which he longed to return? Since the visit, Rachel had tried not to dwell too much on the conversation, but now that they were here once again, the questions returned: what made this place so special to Dan? When would that shift occur, when would their life together weigh more than his past? What did the past hold that she, the present, and their future did not?

This was the first time she’d been home with him since they were engaged, and it was also her first Thanksgiving at his house, the first time meeting all the aunts and uncles and cousins who would come for the dinner tomorrow, and the first Thanksgiving not with her own family; her parents were already asking about next year so that Rachel felt herself extended between these families, a sensation she could only imagine intensifying in the years to come until both sides had stretched her long and thin, translucent like taffy.

Dan’s dad clamped his son in his arms with a grasp that was more like a wrestling move than a hug, and Dan bent to give his mother a kiss on the cheek. She squeezed his shoulder and then stepped back, waving them into the house. “Come in, come in. Get settled. Sorry to be rude, but I’ve got something in the oven.” She turned and walked towards the kitchen. Dan’s dad had taken a suitcase from him and the two of them crossed the hall and started up the stairs, already locked into a conversation that Rachel couldn’t hear. She followed after them, noting from behind the similarities, the slightly square head, even the whorl of hair at the crown that formed a perpetual cowlick, though Dan’s was still dark brown while his father’s was gray.

It was starting already, she thought as she trailed behind them, he’s taken a step out of our world and back into theirs. The staircase was lined with family photos, Christmas when Dan was four, a birthday party from his teen years. Rachel hadn’t made it yet into this family lineup, but was sure that a wedding photo would be hung, even if this Thanksgiving visit didn’t make the cut. Pictures went by with every step, Dan, Dan, Dan—his face, smiling, with his sister, with an older woman, with some dog, maybe one he used to own, all these times and places that were part of him and not part of her.

At the top of the stairs, Dan’s father opened the door to his son’s bedroom and put the suitcase down on the floor. “Mom set up an air mattress,” he said and smiled at Rachel. “I’m sure Dan will be a gentleman and let you have the real bed.” He clapped his son on the shoulder and headed out the door. “Get settled in. Take your time.”

Rachel could hear his footsteps going downstairs. She looked at the twin bed by the window, the deflated air mattress at its foot, and smiled, thinking that if she knew Dan, they’d both crowd into his old twin-sized bed and spend an uncomfortable night pushed up against each other, having to agree when they would both turn over, rather than sleep separately. She wondered whether it was because they were engaged that they were now allowed to stay in the same room; that seemed like the sort of old-fashioned value that his parents would adhere to. But maybe it was just practicality: Dan’s sister would be coming home too and there wasn’t a bedroom to spare. Well, it was just for two nights anyway.

Dan lifted his suitcase onto the bed, unzipped it, and started to unload the contents. He turned, opened the top drawer of the dresser and chuckled, “It’s funny, but I still expect the drawers to be full. Like somehow I never moved my socks and T-shirts out of here.”

The drawers were, of course, empty, but Rachel knew what he meant, knew how a house could feel haunted, even if the only ghost was your own. She sat on the bed next to his suitcase and watched him unpack.

“Some things never change,” he said, with evident happiness, satisfaction. “Same curtains, same bedspread. I always tell my mom she should redecorate this room if she wants to, but she never does. I guess she wants me to feel at home.”

He did look at home. He had a smile on his face that she seldom saw, a look like he had just woken up from a pleasant dream: sleepy and satisfied and a little unreal. She felt a flash of resentment—what was so great about this room? But he looked so content as he transferred the little piles of T-shirts from his bag into the dresser that her anger soon dissipated.

Dan had emptied his suitcase and taken it off the bed, shoving it into the closet. He turned and looked at Rachel, and seeing her there, watching him, his face took on a new awkwardness, like he wasn’t entirely comfortable having her in his room, like it might betray him because it knew all his secrets. “I’m going to go downstairs and catch up, see what the plans are for today. But you should unpack, no rush.”

The room was unchanged since his high school days, like a time capsule that had been unearthed, preserving Dan’s interests as a seventeen-year-old. She took in each detail like she was studying artifacts in a museum: the swimming trophies on one shelf (she didn’t know he’d been on the team, let alone any good), the posters of rock bands on the walls, groups that she had forgotten existed, that had long ago been expurgated from his adult music collection. Some of the names were familiar, but only vaguely so; certainly they weren’t bands that she had been into when she was in high school. And she looked again around the room, tried to do so with a stranger’s eyes, as if she didn’t know the man who’d lived here. Tried to compare it to her memories of her high school boyfriends’ rooms: was this a guy she would have been friends with back then? Would they have dated? And if they wouldn’t have, then when did he change and grow into the person she knew?

Even as Rachel felt different than she had in high school she also felt something eternal, something essential about herself. Her room at home had been redecorated by her parents after she moved away to college; it was now a guest room and more comfortable for the transformation. When she and Dan visited, they could sleep in a queen-sized bed in a room that was hotel-like in its anonymity. Looking now at Dan’s desk, the top still cluttered with old pens, notebooks, a dusty jar of pennies, she was glad that her past had been erased, that she didn’t have to face all that when she went home now.

She shoved her unpacked suitcase next to his in the closet. The curtains didn’t prevent the mid-afternoon sunshine from coming into the room, a strand of it falling irresistibly across his bed. Rachel stretched out on top of the covers, let the patch of light hit her stomach, pretending she could feel its heat even though the start of the New England winter had already leeched the warmth from it.

She put her arms behind her head and tried to imagine Dan here as a teenager, what he lay in bed and thought about, whether he’d ever snuck a girl up here without his parents knowing it. She’d never asked him about high school girlfriends, no details anyway. Her eyes trailed across the posters, across the tidy stacks of paperbacks on the book shelf, mostly science fiction, she guessed from the titles she could see. He never read science fiction now and she wondered if it was something he didn’t like anymore, a taste that he had grown out of, or a conscious decision to leave that part of his life behind in favor of more sophisticated texts. She wanted to know how the man today related to the boy who had lived in this room; she suspected that Dan missed being here, that part of him was sad to be grown up and out of this house. But she also felt that if she were given the chance to get to know his past, to figure out what made him so happy in it, she could carry that into their marriage.

Getting up off the bed, she took one last look at the room and headed downstairs. She could hear voices coming from the kitchen, and she walked towards the back of the house. Dan and his father were leaning against the counter, chatting as Dan’s mother moved among the oven, the sink, and the flour-strewn countertop, busily assembling pies for Thanksgiving.

Dan smiled at Rachel as she walked in. “All set up there? My dad’s about to head out to the airport to pick up my sister. I figured we’ve had enough driving for today, so we’ll just stick around here, help them get things ready.”

Rachel nodded. “Sounds good.”

Dan’s father took his car keys from the hook over the counter, gave his wife a quick kiss, the sort, Rachel thought, that married couples often shared. A statement less of passion than of commitment, a gesture that was no more intimate or meaningful or romantic than balancing the checkbook or doing the laundry, or anything else that long-term couples did for each other. “I’ll be back in about an hour-and-a-half, if everything is on time,” he said and headed out the door.

“So,” said Rachel, “what can I do to help?”

“Well, my father asked me to take a look at their computer. There’s some problem with the anti-virus software.” Dan gave her a tight grin; his parents’ computer illiteracy was a standing joke. They were always calling to ask Dan how to fix basic problems.

Rachel smiled back.

“I bet my mother could use some help in the kitchen, though.”

Her smile slipped a bit, and Dan’s mother piped up from the sink. “Oh, I don’t need much help, but if you wanted to keep me company, that’s fine.”

Great, thought Rachel, Dan gets to sit on the computer and probably surf the web and check his email, while I have to sit at this counter and make small talk. Yes, here it was, that feeling that had been haunting her: Dan was at home here and she was the stranger. He had retreated from their relationship, their couple-dom, and gone back to being a son. Instead of being the supportive boyfriend, the dedicated fiancé, he was the petulant, indulged child. There was nothing she could do about it now, and she repressed a sigh as he left the room giving her arm a quick squeeze on his way out.

His mother immediately began bustling about. “Now, you just sit there and relax. Tell me about the wedding plans.”

“Can’t I help you? Do some dishes or something?” Rachel wished that Dan had picked a better chore to help with, something like cleaning leaves out of the roof gutters, where she could hold the ladder and they could be outside, which would smell like Thanksgiving. And for a while it could be just the two of them, domestically together, the young folks helping out with a strenuous chore. But he’d left her alone with his mother in the kitchen, the seat of her power. “I’m happy to wash those pans,” she offered.

“No, no. It’s all fine.” And she turned her back on Rachel, began rolling out another pie crust. “Have you picked a spot for the reception?”

This was just what Dan had warned her about, just what troubled her about his mother, the barely-below-the-surface pushiness and insistence that floated along veiled by politeness and sincerity. It was, Rachel thought, the semblance of sincerity and kindness that made her so difficult. Even after a year, Rachel still didn’t know what to call her. After the initial few meetings, she had wavered between calling her Helen and Mrs. Somers, the first seeming too familiar and the second, childish; she had finally asked at the fourth of July picnic which she preferred, but Dan’s mother had replied, “Oh, why don’t you just call me Mom. That’s what I answer to most.” This request, for some reason that Rachel couldn’t articulate, was impossible, and so she tried to work around addressing her at all and thought of her only as Dan’s mother—a title that made her remote, detached, that dragged Dan along with her.

Meanwhile, his mother was continuing as she bent over the oven, “If you don’t plan now, you’ll never get to book the spot you want, they go years in advance. I’ve told Danny this before. I know you’re waiting until you’ve moved into the new place, but really you should start thinking about this, and I am happy to help if you want me to.” She stood up and closed the oven door, just as the wave of heat and sweet odor wafted over the counter towards Rachel.

“That’s really very nice of you,” said Rachel. “But we’re just focused on the move.” She weighed her words carefully, thinking of Dan’s warning in the car. “I feel so useless sitting here when there’s work to be done. Can’t I help setting up tables and chairs or anything?”

Dan’s mother looked at her, sweetly and skeptically, as if she knew Rachel was just looking for an excuse to get out of talking with her. “Really, it’s all set. But you know what you could do, there are some boxes and stuff up in the attic that I’ve been trying to get Danny to take for months. It’s all his old stuff that he asked me to save for him. You should take it with you to the new place, you’ll have room for it there.” As she spoke, her fingers deftly crimped the pie crust along the rim of the pan, a movement that Rachel found mesmerizing. She was a mediocre and disinterested cook, and knew Dan’s mother was something of an expert—he idealized her cooking, at least—and so she watched, trying to figure out if this was something she could learn to do, to make him happy. Watching his mother’s fingers fly beneath her stream of chatter, Rachel thought it would be impossible.

“Why don’t you go on up to the attic and look for yourself. Just pull aside whatever boxes you want and Danny can carry them down later for you. Okay?”

Rachel nodded, relieved that she had been dismissed from the kitchen even as she felt a sense of doom descend; his mother had trapped her after all. These were the boxes she was supposed to ignore, the stuff she wasn’t supposed to take, that Dan didn’t want. Oh well. She’d just go up to the attic and not set anything aside; Dan couldn’t be upset with that.

She walked up the front stairs, skirting the den where she knew Dan was working on the computer. She hadn’t been up to the attic before, but the stairs were off the second-floor landing, the door next to the bathroom. She felt around for the light switch and headed up. Dan’s mother said the boxes were clearly marked, and sure enough they were, a tidy little stack of about a dozen cartons, all neatly labeled with his name. His mom must have been a schoolteacher; her handwriting was overly precise. This struck Rachel as exactly the sort of detail that she should know about Dan’s family: who they were, what they had done. But their world was walled off to her; they were a solid family unit and she was decidedly not a member. At least not yet, and she wondered if she ever would be, or if marriage would be a process of pulling Dan away from his family, if he would let himself be pulled.

She looked at the pile of boxes, wondering what was in them that Dan insisted he didn’t want. She imagined stacks of elementary school report cards, drawings he had done as a little kid, that had been stuck to the refrigerator for a few weeks, enough to fade them in the sunlight, and then stored away up here for years. Maybe somewhere in here was a clue that would open up Dan’s childhood world to her, allow her to see and understand what it was like. Perhaps this understanding would give her some degree of access, so that this house would not be like a foreign country, her fiancĂ© a dual citizen.

There weren’t any markings on the boxes besides his name, so she didn’t know where to start and just picked one at random. She took a key from her pocket to slice the tape open and pulled back the flaps. Inside were children’s books, well-worn: Goodnight, Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. Books that were immediately, viscerally familiar. There was probably an identical box in her parents’ attic, and this realization comforted her as she flipped through the stack of books. Then her satisfaction ebbed a bit: weren’t these everyone’s childhood books? There probably wasn’t a person of her age who would be unable to identify with these. And she had to admit that she was slightly disappointed; she wanted not to unearth his secrets, certainly not to find the diary that Dan had kept in high school—not that he was the type to keep a diary—but something that would give her insight into what was so wonderful about his childhood, about his parents, that let him relax, be comfortable, be—she was afraid to admit it—himself, in this place but not with her.

Rachel pulled another box towards her, opened it to reveal board games—some she didn’t know, but also a couple of familiar ones like Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders. She shrugged to herself. Boring. She grabbed another box, tore back the flaps to find Lego, hundreds of nubby plastic blocks, a jumble of odd-shaped bits. Didn’t these things come with instructions, special kits so that you could build a perfect supermarket or moon station or whatever? What were you supposed to do with this mess?

Dan was right, all this stuff was useless. But Rachel was more annoyed with him than with his mother. Was this the best he could save from his childhood? It was as if she’d been promised treasure and gotten dirt. All these boxes of just stuff, the toys and games that filled rainy afternoons or sleepy evening hours, the times in between, when we need distraction from ourselves. Where was Dan in these boxes? These books, these games, they could belong to anyone, and Rachel felt cheated; she wanted truth, some vision of what he had been, what he had thought and felt and desired. No wonder he hadn’t wanted any of this; all these pieces of his childhood could be bought at some big chain store, new and shrink-wrapped and probably improved.

There were a few more boxes that she hadn’t opened, and maybe Rachel should have held out hope that they would contain what she was looking for. But the attic was large—it stretched out to dusty corners around her, and boxes and bins were piled everywhere. She was certain that those drawings, those childhood journals and pictures and stories were filed away somewhere but not in this pile. His mother would have bundled them up neatly and saved them for herself. Rachel felt resentment rise up in her: towards Dan? Towards his mother? She turned her back on the boxes and headed down the stairs.

From the second-floor landing she could hear voices, but she couldn’t tell whose. The sounds were tangled, and she thought maybe Dan’s sister and father had returned. She didn’t feel like facing them, wasn’t up to the forced cheerfulness of interacting with semi-strangers. She considered ducking into Dan’s old room, hiding there, to collect herself. But the old rock posters on the wall, the extraneous trophies on the shelf, would only reinforce the strangeness that she felt. How did one sojourn in another family? She wanted Dan, just him, as if she could pry him neatly out of this house, this family. But the past didn’t just disappear and couldn’t be captured, contained in dusty boxes. Nor could she suddenly belong here in the way that he did. She doubted that she could ever be that security, that comfort to Dan; she would always be second-best to his real home.

Slowly, Rachel went down to the first floor, where the murmur of conversation resolved into Dan’s and his mother’s voices. She went through the dining room, the table already laid out with linen and silver for tomorrow’s dinner. Through the doorway, she could see into the kitchen. Dan’s mom was bent over a sink full of dishes; he was leaning against the counter, talking to her. Rachel watched his hands move as he spoke, the rapid gestures she knew so well, the animation of his eyebrows. Seldom did she get to observe him like this—when he was unaware, when she could be sure he wasn’t putting on some act for her—only when he was asleep, and, sleeping, Dan’s face held none of the vigor, the desire that she could see as he spoke to his mother. Over the running water, she could hear some of what he said, but not everything. She tried to imagine what story he was telling so enthusiastically, couldn’t remember anything exciting that had happened recently. She felt another swell of resentment; then Dan lifted his eyes and saw her standing there. He smiled, a curve of his mouth that hadn’t been there before. Behind his mother’s back, he rolled his eyes—a boyish gesture, immature and rude, yet just what she wanted to see, confirming her place in his universe.

She walked into the kitchen and he turned from his mother, put an arm around her waist. He squeezed her gently against him and went on talking to his mother, picking up in the middle of some silly story from work that he’d told her weeks ago. The kitchen was warm and sweet-smelling, and Rachel leaned a little against Dan, felt him shift his feet to take her weight. Yes, she thought, there are parts of him I’ll never know, and parts of him I’ll share with his mother. But their new house had a large attic, empty right now, as all the rooms were momentarily empty, waiting for them to move in.

pencil

“I live and teach in Rhode Island. My fiction and nonfiction have been published in a variety of journals, including Apple Valley Review, flashquake, Santa Clara Review, and ghoti mag. In addition to writing, I enjoy playing the tuba, reading, and training for triathlons in my free time.” E-mail: AlexMyers1[at]gmail.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email