His heart was pulsing to the drumbeat of panic; his fingers knotted and unknotted themselves, his entire body consumed by involuntary responses as he stared at the box from across the room for an age, willing himself to make a move.
An anchor in his stomach weighed him down. But this had gone on long enough, he knew that. He was finally convinced that it was time.
He sprung from his bed, determined, his breath held tight in his chest, and made a hasty trek over to the dark corner that he had avoided for too long. Thoughts turned to white noise as his hands gripped onto the small wooden chest that had been haunting him relentlessly. It was rough beneath his sweaty fingers, the filthy dust clinging to the dampness of his skin.
But when he lifted it, it felt lighter than he had imagined. He had expected an anchor, but instead, a brick. It made him painfully curious.
Maybe… maybe it wouldn’t be so bad? Maybe, just a quick peek wouldn’t hurt?
Forbidding himself a moment of rational thought, he dropped onto his bed again and balanced the menacing little box on his lap.
It hit him like a tidal wave when his hands fumbled with the clasp and revealed all: notes, photographs, gifts, receipts, tickets… souvenirs from a happy time that he wished desperately to forget.
First there was the paintbrush, lying innocently atop the mess of memories.
“Okay, you can take it off now,” she had said, referring to the blindfold that had kept him in suspense for over a half hour.
After fumbling to loosen the cloth from around his head, he stared at his surroundings in a daze. He was nowhere that he recognised, nor was there anything to allow for recognition. They stood in a room with bare white walls, emptied of everything but a small sea of paint pots, paintbrushes, sponges and an iPod docking station.
“This is a very odd first date,” he remarked, tilting his head as though it would help him decipher what he was now faced with.
She giggled, a sound like bells to his ears. “I thought doing something creative would be the best way to get to know one another,” she explained with a shrug and a matching smirk. “Plus my walls were looking pathetically naked.”
“I knew there had to be some reason you agreed to go out with me… I just didn’t think that reason was cheap manual labour.”
“Hardly,” she said, a warm smile upon her lovely face. “We’ve got the makings of the perfect day here: music, art materials, a steady supply of food and, most importantly, no non-smoking sections.”
He couldn’t help but grimace, although he did his best to cover it, and quietly mumbled that he didn’t smoke.
She watched him with a twisted grin as he puzzled over their surroundings, and then she decided a demonstration was necessary. She took a thick black marker out of her pocket and drew a three by three grid on a random piece of wall.
“Xs or Os?” she asked, tossing him a green marker, which he caught, just barely.
“Which do you want to be, Xs or Os?”
“You want to play tic-tac-toe on your wall?” he exclaimed, eyes wide, his mouth a perfect circle.
“We can do anything we want in here today,” she shrugged. “That’s the whole point.”
He studied her for a moment to see if she might be joking. “This is either brilliance,” he admitted, “or lunacy.”
“Or a blissful cocktail of both brilliance and lunacy.”
And it was.
By the end of the date, the walls were a fiery mess of scribbled notes, doodles, handprints, smudges, games, quotes, jokes, spills and any other sort of madness that they could concoct together.
Finally, he saw a splash of colour in his black-and-white world.
Someday, he thought as he journeyed home, I could marry this girl.
He reached past the old stained paintbrush to rummage through the rest of their collective memories. He felt a twinge at the corners of his lips, and he wasn’t sure if he was smiling or frowning as he leafed through their dozens of travel tickets. How she had convinced him that it would be fun –an adventure, she had said– to get on random buses just to see where they would end up, he would never know, and yet she convinced him time and time again. And she had been right.
One particular bus ticket made its way into his fingers.
“Just look at her. Such a show-off,” she mumbled bitterly to herself.
“She’s not a show-off. She’s only about eight.”
“Eight-year-olds can be show-offs. In fact I think they’re notorious for it.”
He laughed as his girlfriend of many weeks eyed up the little girl who was gliding away effortlessly on her rollerblades.
“Even the children are mocking me now.”
She stood in her adult rollerblades, clutching at him with little grace to support herself, yet somehow maintaining enough balance to fumble for and light a cigarette.
“No one is mocking you,” he assured her as he worked to keep her steady. He bit back a coughing spell as he silently choked on her smoke.
She shrugged, finally softening to the fact that she was comparatively poor at rollerblading. Resigned to their defeat, they laid down in the grassy park that they had found themselves in after stepping off their third random bus of the day, miles from anywhere familiar. She smoked and he watched.
“Let’s do this every year. Every year for the rest of our lives.” It was a suggestion but she said it like a declaration as she put out her cigarette and dropped the bud amongst the grass.
“Because that’s how long it will take you to learn to rollerblade?” he teased, discreetly fishing out her cigarette from between the grassy blades and making a mental note to bin it later on.
“So that if ever we get separated, by circumstances or situation or whatever, we’ll always know that we have another chance to get back to where we are now. We’ll have an annual second chance. I like that idea. Don’t you?”
He smiled and brushed her hair out of her eyes. “I do.”
“So it’s agreed then, no matter what. Here,” she rolled over on her side, plucked something off the ground and turned back to face him. “Take this.”
“A leaf?” he wondered, looking down at the pathetic little piece of green that had been shoved into his hand.
“I haven’t got a pen, so this is my contract substitute. Acceptance of this leaf means the acceptance of my proposal: once a year, every year, forever. Do you accept?”
“You are utterly bizarre, do you know that?”
“I do. Now, do you accept?”
“You have to keep that, okay? For as long as our contract is binding. Forever.”
Habitually, he accepted her terms without hesitation.
Someday, he thought, I’m going to marry this girl.
The dried leaf lay there in the heart of the chest, framed and preserved as a binding contract for the rest of eternity. Its neighbour, a photograph of nothing but blackness, told tales of times that they had walked until dark, getting lost a hundred times but never regretting a single move. Beneath that rested a notebook of autographs collected from their favourite bad karaoke singers and beneath that, the Rubik’s Cube that they always kept close at hand to entertain themselves during boring social gatherings.
And then there was the Valentine’s Day present.
They had agreed not to see each other or exchange gifts that day; they were both so busy, and as a pair they had no strong feelings for Valentine’s Day. They agreed that there was no need to adhere to the gimmicky ways of the rest of the loved-up community.
But he couldn’t resist.
Even though he had to be at college for a ten-hour day, he decided that he would go see her that evening, blatantly disregarding their agreement. All day he would carry with him the gifts that had been expressly forbidden.
He had immediately dismissed the traditional chocolates and flowers. Such things were too conventional for such an exceptional girl. Instead he opted for their joint favourite, a packet of banana chips, crushed by hand, just the way they liked them. To accompany his chocolate alternative, he bought her a packet of seeds so that her Valentine’s Day flowers would last in her garden for as long as she tended to them. It was just crazy enough to work.
Painfully tired, he left in the early hours to get to his bus stop, wondering how he would stay awake long enough to go see her later on. Excited thoughts of her surprise danced in his mind as he drew nearer to his stop… only to discover that she had beaten him to it.
There she stood, at quarter to seven in the morning, beside his bus stop with a giant packet of hand-crushed banana chips.
This girl was perfection; completely, utterly and entirely.
And there was more.
“What’s this?” he asked as she handed him a small gift wrapped in red paper.
“Just open it,” she smiled, delight showing in her features.
He slowly removed the paper, careful not to tear it, to reveal a new packet of cigarettes.
“I don’t understand…?” he mused.
“That’s the last pack I’m ever going to buy,” she explained through a Cheshire Cat grin. “I’m quitting.”
“But I never –?”
“I know you never asked me to, but I can tell how much you hate it.”
Someday soon, he thought, I’m going to marry this girl.
He couldn’t take it anymore. He held his breath as he hurriedly fished out the framed leaf contract and placed it face-down on the dresser beside him. Without another downward glance he closed the box and carried it away hastily, as though worried more memories might cruelly leak out from within. He left it outside to be collected by someone who would kindly remove his past from him forever.
Eight months and four days previously -two days post-breakup- she made the same trip to the bins, throwing away a paper bag full of tokens from the relationship. She dropped it down beside her discarded rollerblades, her uprooted Valentines flowers and the empty buckets of paint that had been used to turn her walls white again. She took a final drag from her millionth cigarette, tossed the bud onto the heap and walked away, never to look back again.