Nine Boxes

Katherine Bell

1. Kitchen Items
Pots and pans. Mugs. Beer glasses from various bars across the country. Matching plates and bowls with plums, pears, grapes, lemons, and leaves lining the rims—cast-offs from her mother’s old kitchen, cast-offs because they didn’t match her mother’s new kitchen, the redesigned kitchen—but it didn’t matter to Alana, she needed a set of dishware anyway. She’ll need a set of dishes in the future, in her new apartment—after she finds a new job and settles somewhere in the DC suburbs—and this set has crossed the country many times already, from its first home in Maryland, south to Tennessee, where Alana first lived when she got it—where she inherited it back in college—then north to New Hampshire, where it filled historic district apartment cabinets with additional dishes—her then-boyfriend’s dishes—then west, to Spokane, Washington, where it stayed, for a while with the then-boyfriend’s dishes. Up until she broke up with him. Now, the dishware waits in the box for its return trip across the country, back to Maryland, even though the shelves it once graced, those shelves upon which it was placed straight out of the original box, have disappeared from her mother’s house completely.


2. Clothes
Underwear. Pants. Shirts. Favorite dresses that make her body look better than she could have ever expected. Especially since she lost weight after the breakup. These are the dresses she knows she’ll wear for her guy friends back in Maryland who will praise her for finally breaking up with the man they never liked. They never knew, really. Ben and Jason and Brendan and Tim will lean back into their old ways, back when everyone was sleeping with everyone else. She’d slept with Ben one night and Jason the next and Brendan the night after that. The other girls came and went, but never stayed longer than a few weeks. She lasted. She knew how to act like these men. She knew how to keep up her friendships while sleeping with them. She knew how not to fall in love with them: that’s what did in those other girls, their feelings for those guys. She overheard tearful confessions. “Why can’t we have something more? I don’t understand,” which would lead Ben or Jason or Brendan or Tim to back away, to lose their phone numbers, to find someone else for a few weeks—until the cycle began again.
Even though she did have feelings for Brendan, she never told him. They were friends. Friends who slept together. No matter how much more she wanted from him. No matter how much she wanted to be one of those girls she laughed at: crying to him, making her own confession in his bed after a night of great sex, she knew it would scare him away. And she wanted to keep him close. The best way to keep him close was to never say, “I love you.”


3. Shoes
Some strappy sandals, some black slippers—or house shoes as her grandmother calls them—sneakers, everyday heels, fancy party heels, a pair of running shoes she hasn’t worn in years and should throw out, but can’t, because what if she starts running again? Brendan is a runner. He runs seven miles a day, around his Rockville neighborhood, and Alana has promised him she’ll start running once she moves back, but she’s not sure she can keep the promise, not sure she can see Brendan as much as he wants to see her. He’s bought a plane ticket, a one-way ticket from Reagan National to Spokane and he’s going to help her take these boxes back across the country. Just the two of them in her car for four days. They’re going to sleep together again when they stop in hotel rooms along I-90, and her old feelings are going to come back, or, more likely, they’re going to show her that they never really left, that she just suppressed them.
Alana found her boyfriend after she couldn’t handle sleeping with Brendan under the weight of her feelings for him. The only way to eliminate those feelings was to find someone else, and she did, when she chose to move to New Hampshire for her first job out of college. She found the boyfriend in a Durham bar as he strummed his guitar and covered Steve Earle’s Galway Girl. He stared at her in the crowd because she matched the lyrics: “Her hair was black and her eyes were blue.” They connected after his set and he bought her a beer; he told her his life story: he was a musician and an artist, pursuing his MFA in painting at UNH. He was originally from Connecticut, but had no strong feelings about the town he’d grown up in. He only played these gigs to make extra money—the stipend they gave grad students was piddling.
That night, she’d gone back to his apartment to look at his paintings and ended up in his bed. In the morning, he asked her to date him, and even though she knew it was too soon, even though she knew it was probably a terrible idea, she said yes, because then she could rid herself of the feelings she had for Brendan, and how she’d left him back home with everything unsaid.


4. Office supplies
Sharpies, Pilot G-2’s, legal pads—both college and wide-ruled, printer paper that she wasn’t technically supposed to take, but snuck out when no one was looking, the mouse pad she’s owned since seventh grade: a photo of her childhood cat, Boots, who was born in her mother’s living room—the living room that has since been remodeled into an office—but who died a few years ago. She likes her job in Spokane. It is the easiest job she’s ever had and she’s sad to leave it—she organizes the marketing and advertising for a nonprofit organization that provides support for women throughout Eastern Washington—but she thinks she’ll be able to find work in DC. She thinks she’ll be able to scrape together a resume and cover letter and some company will readily employ her. Her job is the best part about living in Spokane. She wouldn’t have moved to the town by herself given the choice. The boyfriend moved them there because he graduated from UNH and immediately sought another graduate degree in music performance. Alana had loved the idea. She’d supported his decision. Their unconventional relationship—her with the steady job, bringing in most of their income, her subtle control over how the house was run—had been exactly what she’d wanted and needed at the time.
Eastern Washington University was the only program that accepted him and gave him a stipend—still more piddling than UNH’s, he’d said—but he decided to go anyway. Alana decided to go with him, and she thinks she decided to go with him because she was kind of in love with him—not a passionate love, but still, love nonetheless—but now she can’t find an answer for the reason she’s in Spokane at all whenever anyone asks her why she relocated.
At her office, she is respected and looked to as an expert in her field, which boosts her confidence and allows her to walk through the hallways with her shoulders squared and her eyes confident. Except when she’s around Pete, because she has a crush on Pete and has always had a crush on Pete—but he’s married, which sucks, and nothing could ever happen between them.
She’s not sure whether he’s happy in his marriage or not. Sometimes, in meetings, she’ll catch him watching her when he’s not supposed to be, when he should be looking at the boss. They make eye contact across the oak table and he makes a silly face and she smiles in response and flicks her eyes away, telling herself to keep her gaze from straying, but the pull to look back grabs her again after some colleague makes a dumb comment and she has to start over again, repeating to herself, “Don’t look back, don’t look back.” Alana can’t sit next to him in those meetings. If she did, she knows she’d be overwhelmed with the desire to rest her hand on his knee and to slide it closer and closer to his thigh. Goddamn she wants him. She wants his light brown hair that glints red in the Spokane sunlight. His blue eyes, flecked with silver and framed with the most perfect-fitting glasses. His long legs and tight ass that look great in jeans, but better in the dress pants he wears for formal events. Just one night, Alana thinks every time she sees him. Just one night.
For this reason, she is glad she is leaving her job. She will no longer be consumed with thoughts of Pete. Out of sight, out of mind—she believes the old cliché. Yes, she’ll miss him, but he’ll never know how much she wanted him. She’s been a good girl. She hasn’t fucked up his marriage, no matter how much she’s wanted to.


5. Bathroom stuff
The decorative shower curtain with silver sequins she’s had since college. The rugs she bought to match in Spokane. Her shampoo and conditioner. The Bath and Body Works soaps, lotions, scrubs. Her makeup—Sephora-bought when her mother came to visit for her birthday—her nightly three-step makeup remover and moisturizing routine, which keeps her looking good and youthful and bright-faced. She hates when men say, “I prefer women who don’t wear makeup,” because they have the privilege of misunderstanding why women wear makeup. Alana never wears makeup for men. She wears it because she likes the way her blush highlights her cheekbones. She likes the way mascara emphasizes her already long eyelashes. She likes filling her lips with lipstick and choosing to paint them with different colors each day. Her femininity is an earned femininity, which she keeps track of like a bank account. These gender roles that others subscribe to, that they so easily fall into, she doesn’t, even though she wears the makeup and the dresses and the shoes.
Her body comes with all the parts for making children, for raising them to adulthood and sending them out into the world, but she doesn’t want that for herself. She wants the traditional masculine: the career, and the money, and the leisure time. Children will just get in the way. But the boyfriend, it turns out, didn’t see it that way, even though he did at the start of their relationship. Toward the end, he tried to convince her she was wrong and that they should get married and have children and settle down. He’d first brought it up one night after sex. After she’d been picturing Pete between her thighs instead of her boyfriend.
“Have you reconsidered your stance on us having kids together,” he said, trying to cuddle her closer.
“No,” she said. “I thought we’d agreed on that a long time ago.”
“I’ve been hoping you might change your mind.”
“Nope.” She pushed his arms away.
She turned off the bedside lamp.
But he kept pressuring her and asking her in different ways, until she felt like the Spokane Falls churning and overflowing. It was clear things were never going to change. He was always going to want what she’d never give him. He was trying to flip their relationship around, to take back those traditional masculine roles for himself. And she’d never give those up, not when she had them already. After a short time, she tired of coming home to constant questions, to annoyance and outrage, to his frown and looks of disappointment. She packed her things into nine boxes and rented a hotel room for two weeks, to finish out her two weeks’ notice at work.


6. Bedroom Items
The sheet set and comforter that moved from New Hampshire to Spokane, but that the boyfriend didn’t object to her taking when she stripped it from the bed and placed it in the box. Her photographs and frames of old times with Ben and Jason and Brendan and Tim, back when The Springhouse was just built. Decorative cat figurines that look like Boots, gifts from her mother she’s kept because they were gifts. The vibrator she’s stored in the back of her underwear drawer, but didn’t pack with her clothes because in her mind, it made more sense to put it in the bedroom box than the clothes box. She’s happier in the hotel room than she ever was in the apartment. The boyfriend had picked a terrible apartment. It was run-down, stinking of body-odor—body-odor that didn’t belong to either her or her boyfriend—full of lightbulbs that would burn out every other week, even though they kept dutifully replacing them.
The hotel is safe, a Quality Inn on 4th Street downtown, with an all-night security guard at the entrance, and room doors on the insides of hallways, not the building’s exterior. Which is one of the reasons she’s had a few one night stands since she’s moved in. She knows if anything makes her feel uncomfortable, if anyone tries to pull something on her she doesn’t like, she can call the security guard and he’ll sprint to her room to remove the offending culprit. So far, the men she’s met have been respectful and gentle. They have been kind and understanding. They have been submissive, like her boyfriend was when she’d first met him. She retrieved her vibrator from the box for one man, for pegging, but he was ultimately too scared and ashamed of his own desires to follow through. She finds men in local bars or on Tinder, the easiest way, and asks them back to her hotel room. The first night she was out, she approached someone, a guy who resembled Brendan a bit, but after she did, he looked shaken.
“Are you propositioning me?”
“I know what I want.”
The man backed away.
She found someone else in the bar and brought him back to her hotel room instead.
She likes to have sex now like she’s taking a test. As if she’s trying to discover answers in another person’s body, answers she already knows lie deep within her own brain, and if she concentrates enough on the question at hand, she’ll be able to get everything right and ace the exam. It’s a recent development, for her own protection, because she can’t let herself go in front of strange men she’s just met.
When she slept with Brendan, she had orgasm after orgasm. He’d understood her body and how to make it shiver whenever he would touch it. She imagines Pete might know this too, but she’ll never know for sure. Her boyfriend tried. He’d made an acceptable effort, but to bring herself to orgasm, she’d had to blank her mind and think of nothing but her body—her own body—at the expense of everything else.


7. Books
The Catcher in the Rye. Breakfast of Champions. The Handmaid’s Tale. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The Collected Poems of T. S. Eliot. Mary Todd Lincoln: Her Life and Letters. Save Me the Waltz. Dune. A few of the titles on top. They’re out of order, but piled neatly on top of each other—it’s the only box she hasn’t shipped via Media Mail back to her mother’s house. Brendan gave her Breakfast of Champions after she gave him Slaughterhouse-Five. She wrote “So you’re turning a year older? So it goes,” in his birthday card and gave him the book and months later he called her, after reading it.
“I get it now. The card,” he said.
“That’s good. Did you like the book?”
“The way he handles time is genius.”
“I mean, isn’t that the point? The main character’s a time traveler.”
“He’s not a time traveler per se. Vonnegut just makes you think he is because of the unreliable narrator. It’s brilliant.”
Alana had no sense for Brendan’s writing terminology. He talked above her, on a different level with different meanings for the words she understood, but in a different way than he meant. His smarts, his brain, his ability to remember and recall important facts sometimes made her fall in love with him a bit more, back when she loved him. Even if she couldn’t engage on his level, she could appreciate how much he cared about the things he loved. “It just makes you think about war and hate and death differently.”
“Right? It’s so good. Have you read Breakfast of Champions?”
“No, never.”
The next week, she found a copy in the mail, along with her electric and phone bills. After she read the book, she mailed back to him a single sheet of paper without words, a symbol she knew Brendan would understand without explanation:


8. Technology
The Chromecast her brother bought her for Christmas, which her boyfriend was loath to let go of. Old hard drives with games, papers from college, and photos from long lost digital cameras. Tangles of cables that moved from one state to the next to the next to the next, always in the same tangle. CDs she no longer needs due to Spotify and her phone and laptop. An old phone she dropped into the toilet a month before the breakup. She keeps her laptop out, on her bed beside her, and she will pack it away once she’s ready to leave, but now she needs it. She watches The Great British Baking Show and eats Safeway-bought pastries when she can eat, though she doesn’t eat much anymore. Her mind churns with plans of leaving Spokane.
Where will she and Brendan stop along the way? Will the sex be as good, all these years later? He has remained single. On her last trip home, he told her he thought he was meant to remain single, that there wasn’t a woman out there who could become his better half. She’d been very close to saying “I think that reason is because that person is me,” but she didn’t. Instead, she sat next to him with an ache in her lungs, like she couldn’t get enough breath, and when she felt tears burn, she excused herself to cry in the bathroom.


9. Assorted decorations and knick-knacks
The curtains that hung in the living room and bedroom. Heating pads to relieve her cramps. Doorstops. Candles, scents that range from a floral and huckleberry mix to a night rain and fresh linen. The print of Dali’s Persistence of Memory, which she bought even though her boyfriend said that surrealism and surrealists were “bullshit.” He paints landscapes and portraits and “classically inspired artwork,” and believes that modern art lacks discipline, but she has never agreed with his interpretation. She pointed out that that surrealism comes from a real, philosophical reaction to the world, from a response that is just as valid as his own reaction to the world, but he will not hear her because she has not put a brush to canvas on her own terms.
When she moves back to Maryland, she will lose contact with the boyfriend. Already, she has refrained from responding to his text messages and answering his phone calls. On the road, their contact will fall away completely. She will only be able to see Brendan. Perhaps, as she’d wanted to with Pete, she’ll be able to rest her hand on his knee and inch it closer and closer to what she really wants. Maybe, on the road, she’ll be able to open her mouth and get closer and closer to saying what she really wants to say.
She wonders what would happen if she left the boxes in the hotel room. She wonders what would happen if, after she picked Brendan up from the airport, they abandoned the plan to head east. If instead, they drove west, to the coast, in love with each other, and started lives together there, from scratch, just the two of them.
From her bed, she sees the boxes, stacked three by three, and knows better. She tells herself to stop living in a fantasy world. She focuses on The Great British Baking Show and tries to fall asleep to the proper accents murmuring through her speakers.

Katherine Bell lives in Frederick, Maryland and teaches English Composition at Frederick Community College. Her work has appeared in Grub Street Literary Magazine, The Fem, and Welter Literary Journal.