My older sister taught me how to make boyfriend boxes. She stacked them in her closet; an array of shoeboxes filled with ticket stubs, IM conversations, and pop tabs that had torn off on the right letter while reciting the alphabet.
I suspect the boxes still sit there today; different sized boxes nestled on top of each other under my dad’s old suits. The box size varies on whether the relationship lasted weeks, months, or years. Some held objects of value; a bracelet or necklace given for a several month anniversary or 15th birthday; while others held gum wrappers and odds and ends that must be explained with stories of couples skates at roller rinks and middle school dances.
I have one boyfriend box, one store of authentic relics; I had one boyfriend.
Over time, one box overflowed into two, still leaving some loose items, which acquired a carpet of grey dust.
My two-part relationship with its first part in middle school and its last part ending my junior year of college kept spilling out into the open, begging me to look at its contents.
There are few places to hide things in my childhood room, and the boyfriend boxes took up most of the space under my twin bed. I tried to shove the memories further into hiding with my foot, which always made the boxes slide out the other side of my bed.
At some point, I began to question this ritual taught to me by the elders of my family. What was its purpose? In the early days after the breakup, the sight of one of Chris’s hand scribbled cards was a sure invitation into a depressed slump.
I spent this era of my early twenties sending irresponsible text messages and fantasizing of running back into each other’s arms slow motion on a wide prairie during a rainstorm.
When I found a stray mix CD or folded note while cleaning my room, I would open and close my boyfriend box as quickly as possible, employing the technique I used when I had to fetch something from our scary basement growing up.
Quick in, quick out, no going back, close your eyes and run up the stairs.
My moods swung with the grief working itself out within me, ricocheting from longing to hatred in seconds. I sped down highways hitting next on my CD player ’til I found a song to scream to.
In fits of anger, I would threaten to burn everything in a fire, bury it in the backyard, or dump all the items into a neighbor’s trash can. My mom, always the sentimental saver, tried to dissuade me from rash action. I knew if I tried to throw out the past, she’d probably hold onto it anyway.
One night, to the soundtrack of a folk song I play when I need to cry, I downsized to one box, keeping only the most essential items from the tenure of our relationship. The rest I dropped off in brown paper grocery bags at Goodwill the very next morning.
Still not enough. No matter how much I pared down, the space under my bed got taken up by the stuff.
I cut off all communication with the past, but it only took dangling my upper body over the side of my twin bed to find a loose picture or slide on the claddagh ring he gave me. I slept over the relics whenever I came home, a dog guarding her precious bones, afraid someone will take them away from her while she sleeps.
Those days faded quite some time ago. I moved on to new places and learned new streets and people.
But the other day, I started a writing exercise, penning down vivid images from my memory. Why did I have strong memories of the cactus plant we kept behind the sink, or the purple floral print on the new outfit I stained with dandelions the first day I wore it?
Unbidden, some memories from the time capsule under my bed surfaced: the basket full of snacks he handed me before college, the copy of E.B. White’s essays hollowed to hold a locket. But this time, the images didn’t suffocate me or beg to be buried back in the hole they came from.
My stomach didn’t pinch, my heart stayed on pace, my face remained cool to the touch.
I exhaled…and remembered. No panic or sadness, just looking at the past, sketching its outline in my head. As I traced its edges, I rediscovered sweet moments that I had buried under unreturned four minute voicemails and our last kiss in the Colonial parking lot.
The idea of moving on used to frighten me; I resisted all the well-meaning encouragements of friends and family to do so. The thought of replacing what I had seemed to cheapen it.
And yet, as I move closer to Drew, the objects under my bed recede. In the distance I see that they are only just things.
An empty Skittles bag from summer camp in sixth grade—the first thing he ever gave me. Next to it, a picture of the wedding where we danced, and I marked the passing of time by the breadth of his shoulders. Nestled in between are the still images I carry with me: parking to kiss on “old crap road” or driving through the night to Oklahoma for a writing project, and driving right back when I realized I had gone to the wrong location.
I see times where I learned things, explored the reaches of my heart, and stumbled through firsts. I see moments where I was growing into my skin and sometimes stretching past it.
As circumstances got fashioned into new circumstances, the box did not occupy as much space as I thought it did. It fits quite nicely under the bed.
After all, what do we do with the sweet things from the past, before things got bad? Do we throw out the whole thing because it hurt so badly at the end? Or is there room for our ex-boyfriends, broken marriages, and former best friends in our closets, under our beds, and in our crawl spaces?
Certainly, these objects can be abused—dangled in an argument with a spouse or turned over too long in our clenched hands when we can’t stretch our arms out from under the covers in the morning.
But as time allows, we may be able put the items in the right place and start to enjoy the scenes from the past.
I just wish there were a formula for when or where or how this becomes possible…
After all, I don’t purport to know the dimensions of the places you store your baggage, but maybe today you can open up a box and find a dolphin wind chime from a shy seventh grade boy, and you can remember how special you felt that he’d thought of you all the way from Florida.
Maybe, you can recall the moment with detail, the way his eyes didn’t meet yours as he placed the souvenir in your open hands. You thanked him for the gift and the message he’d left on your parent’s answering machine. He shrugged his shoulders and you blushed grinding your lip against the braces on your top teeth.
I look at the collection I’ve kept under my bed, remembering face dives onto my freshman year dorm bed after text messages, and I am thankful. I am glad I can hold the little silver locket he gave me in my hands; it doesn’t feel so white hot anymore. I gingerly place the relics back in their time capsule.
After all, the more Drew consumes my heart, the more room I have under the bed.