Alaina Symanovich studies creative nonfiction in the MFA program at Florida State University. Her work has recently appeared in Sonora Review, Santa Ana River Review, Entropy, and other journals, and she is the winner of a 2016 Best of the Net for her nonfiction essay The M Word.
Out of the Box
For one summer, a girlhood summer that stretched out as sticky-slow as saltwater taffy, I believed I was going to be an actress. I hung my long-term hopes on Hollywood, on cameras that would flash like fireflies and red carpets that would trump Heaven’s golden walkways, but I knew a thing or two about “being realistic,” as my mom called it. She was always harping about being realistic—when I hatched plans to start a breakfast restaurant on our patio (Dad would fry eggs, I would waitress; it was foolproof), when I penned letters to my favorite celebrities (Abby said she knew Hilary Duff’s address and a real fan wouldn’t lie about something like that), when I daydreamed about attending military school (like Hilary Duff in Cadet Kelly). A month-long acting camp at the local university seemed like a realistic place to launch my career as an actress. I gave myself two years to be cast as an extra in a Hilary Duff movie.
The first day of acting camp, the directors gathered us hopeful young thespians in a circle and instructed us to read several lines of the script. We went one at a time, butchering foreign names we didn’t recognize. In hindsight, Pandora’s Box was an odd choice for the eight- to ten-year-old age bracket. The directors had to explain the Pandora myth to us, sighing and tightening their mouths when none of us knew it. It bothered me that I knew so little, that it was a problem. I considered myself smart—I knew Pennsylvania meant “Penn’s Woods,” knew how to draw a proper cursive z; I even beat David Lee on our timed multiplication tests. I’d had to memorize each of the four versions, but still; he ended up at Harvard.
The first setback of my acting career came when the directors awarded the coveted role of Pandora not to me, but to Ellie Michaelson. To be honest, I would’ve cast Ellie over myself, too. She was the first girl I ever looked at and thought: lovely. No qualifiers, no “if only her hair were more this, her nose more that”; she floated across our makeshift stage, a goddess in her own right. Pandora’s supposed to be extraordinary, graced with Athena’s clothes and Aphrodite’s beauty and Hermes’ eloquence, and Ellie fit that part. When I first read Song of Solomon as a teenager—all those verses about bodies like alabaster and ivory, hair like doves, eyes like milk—I thought of Ellie. How she would talk with her hands, sweeping gestures from such fragile fingers, movements that made me forget my lines as Villager #2. How her lips, startlingly dark against her pale skin, drew my sight from across the darkened theatre.
But I spent most of the month chasing a boy, one of those perfect boys—blond hair, blue eyes, generic name like Josh or Nick that I forgot years ago. (Yet I remember Ellie Michaelson, trussed brown hair and tight cotton t-shirts, like hard-studied facts for an exam.)
If I’d compartmentalized my life into cardboard boxes, Josh/Nick would have fallen in the most pristine box, the one with extra bubble-wrap and brown paper to protect its contents. Josh/Nick epitomized the boy a young girl should fantasize about, should eventually date. Josh/Nick would have pleased my mother infinitely.
One day Josh/Nick and I loitered in the upstairs hallway, full from the slurpees we drank instead of proper lunchtime sustenance. He carried the conversation, seemed interested in my company. I craved his attention; I knew my mother would see it as a stamp of approval, and I longed for that affirmation. So much of me went unapproved: the paunch of my stomach, the wrinkles furrowing my khaki shorts, the way I put my elbows on the dinner table and twirled my hair when I spoke to adults and left my clothes strewn across my bedroom carpet. But I sensed that Josh/Nick’s judgment mattered, could turn my luck around.
But we were eight—going on nine, we’d tell adults, as if that made a difference. We were eight and scheduled to spend just twenty days together before returning to our respective elementary schools. We were eight, and the day Josh/Nick bolted out of rehearsal to vomit his half-digested slurpee all over the lobby—a mess that smelled, inexplicably and putridly, of cheddar cheese—was the day I knew I’d never love him. We were eight, though, so I didn’t worry about love as I watched Ellie flit across the stage, haloed by the spotlight as she opened her box of evils.
The first thing that opens isn’t a box, but a door. The door to room 320 bucks half-open and shut from countless lost, disheveled students on the first day of the semester. Three-thirty in the afternoon: everyone’s exhausted, the balls of our feet smashed up against too-stiff soles, the roofs of our mouths dry from greeting so many friends and professors and classmates. I sit up straight at my desk even though my lower back aches; despite the endless lateral extensions and sit-ups of the summer, nothing taxes my muscles like hauling a backpack across the mountainous campus. When I covered its paths as a summer-camp attendee, its tortuous sidewalks and rambling hills struck me as fanciful, exciting, think of walking them every day! Now I do a lot more than think about it.
She walks in, twisting the knob without hesitation, winds through the disarrayed desks like a nighttime breeze. When she collapses into the seat next to mine, I realize I’m staring. I avert my eyes: the right thing to do.
But they find her. She unzips her black glittered backpack, its contours kissed with the florescent lights overhead, constellating them into a compact galaxy. I imagine the contents of the bag like the seven wonders of the world. Eventually I gain the courage to peek inside myself, my eyes diving in and out of the dark depth that yawns between us. Endless composition books: she must collect them, it seems, maybe owns drawers upon drawers full of the thick marbled volumes. A pack of cigarettes: off-putting (what did mom say?—kissing a smoker would be like kissing an ashtray?) until I watch her cradle the box between thumb and forefinger, turning it like a globe in the long minutes before our mid-class break. Yellow legal pads that she uses for taking notes in class; notes more public, I assume, than the ones she saves for her bound books. Felt-tipped pens, blue and black mostly, that bleed deep rivulets in the spaces between her pages’ blue lines. Slim chapbooks (a word she won’t teach me for a few weeks) nestled between drugstore-brand paper folders.
We write together: side-by-side during class meetings, then in the darkened hookah lounge where she chain-smokes cigarettes and sways to the background music. We are writers together, a title I never allowed myself until she swiveled her laptop screen toward me and asked for an opinion of her latest poem. I believed in her writing, just like I believed her perfume smelled like a place I wanted to wake up in every morning, just like I couldn’t process her poetry when out of the corner of my eye I saw her chest rise and fall with each breath.
I scan poems about mothers and daughters, about car salesmen and taxidermy. I peruse her work and sit like a writer next to her until my own writing bursts into existence, the prismatic heart of a geode beating its way out of hiding. I sit next to her for months, racking up publications, compliments, scholarship recommendations. I sit next to her until my advisor gives me a knowing smile and says your writing’s really taken off.
I sit next to her wanting to do so much more than sit.
The first full-length story she produces plays with the Pandora myth. She struggles to name the piece, but eventually settles for something like “Boxes.” I read “Boxes” alone in my bedroom, stuttering over sentences about inner-thigh tattoos, about sex and swollen clitorises, sentences with fucks dropped in like stray pennies. I read about the box, the box that represents story, the box that holds all the world’s possibilities in its enclose. I read how she imagines holding the box in her hands, alive and beating, how she longs to pry it open.
We hold hands. We fall asleep holding hands (I stroked the band-aid on your middle finger; another hurt I wish I could have prevented) and then we wake up, recycle the beer bottles, pick up the cigarette butts. Go to Cracker Barrel, smoke one last cigarette, return to separate apartments.
We do not hold hands again. We do not open the box.
Dad carries the last cardboard box to the van, and the lack of fanfare in the act surprises me. So little finality; he could be taking out the trash or going to change a light bulb for all the significance of the moment. But maybe, I think as I stare at the stripped walls of my bedroom, the empty shelves and dusted desk, we need the monotony. Maybe it shields us, builds walls around us that keep the pain out.
A single framed picture sits on my desk, a miniature in the most impractical shape: bigger than a wallet size, smaller than any of the standard options. Whenever I want to change the image I have to stencil and scissor its replacement just so, but even then I end up jury-rigging the mangled picture inside because, hey, perfect is boring. When do things ever fit the way you want them to.
The picture: to leave or not to leave it. Her face, framed in a pink-and white box; the way it can arrest me from across the room. The face I have no right to box within a frame, the face I need to forget. To leave or not to leave it?
Dad pokes his head inside the room, asks if I’m set to go.
“I think just about,” I say, squeezing the back of my swivel chair. I’m leaving it behind because my new apartment is furnished. In a month or two I’ll forget the feel of this chair against my lower back as I hunch over my laptop, the way its seat cushions me as I perch cross-legged until my feet grow numb.
“One more thing, before we go,” Dad says, glancing down the hallway and stepping over the threshold. He closes the door carefully, turning the handle so it won’t squeak. “About that story you showed me.”
The story. I blink as I smile, as I cringe, remembering it. The story born in the hookah lounge, the story that escaped from a box that remains shut. The story my advisor calls the centerpiece of my upcoming collection, the story that makes me feel like a writer. The story she brought forth though she doesn’t know it, because that box will never be opened, because I need to leave her face behind.
“Your story made me think. You asked me, one time, if there was any love I never got over. A ‘one that got away’ type of thing,” he places a hand on my shoulder. I feel it, a warm coal: a burden for a naughty girl. I sense a story unboxing itself and wonder if I should intervene.
“Her name was Joanne. My high-school sweetheart.” He looks at the ground, his hand still burning me. “I never felt about anyone like I felt about her, if that makes sense. But we were always up and down: when I liked her she didn’t like me, when she liked me I wanted other girls. After we finally broke up, she got pregnant. Married the guy right after graduation.”
I search his eyes, watery from too many glasses of red wine (he’s supposed to drive me to the apartment tonight; what if tonight’s like last week, when he was too drunk to drive, when he asked me to take him to Champs? Why did I take him?) and from the story rearing up between us. I feel it, slippery and serpentine, unfurling and inflating in the empty room. Taking on a life of its own. Reminding me why some boxes are better off closed.
“When I first joined Facebook,” he says, his voice cracking, “she found me within three hours.”
The water brims over his eyes.
“Three hours. After all these years.”
I shake my head, a difficult maneuver in the shrinking space. The snake is everywhere; it’s more than a snake, more than a spirit or legion of spirits. It’s all the pain in the world that the walls were supposed to keep out and didn’t. It’s her eyes boxed in the frame on my desk, the way I hear her exhale when I see them, the way they make me smell her when she’s nowhere near.
“We messaged for awhile, but—I couldn’t,” he looks at me in a way that reads I’m sorry. I place my hand atop his, feel the heat there. “Your mother…”
This is why we leave some things behind, I tell myself. Breathe; breathe and do not cry. Do not cry over the boxes you’re forbidden to open, the boxes who house beasts that will crush you.
“Your mother needs me. And maybe that’s why I married her: because I felt sorry for her. I did—I did feel sorry for her.”
“I guess it’s true. Maybe you just never forget your first love.” He scrapes the back of his hand across his face, sweeping the tears up into his eyelashes before sweeping me into a hug. “I just love you so much. I’m going to miss you.”
I nod into his chest. We know I have to leave; I don’t need to say it. It’s time to leave this boxy room. This box, at least, shouldn’t stay closed.
“So tell me,” he whispers onto the crown of my head; I feel his wine-steeped breath on the part of my hair. “Who is that? The girl in the picture.”
“You can tell me,” he squeezes me harder. “You know that, right? It’s okay.”
I tell him with my tears as they burn us both, bolts of lightning sent directly from Zeus, punishment for toying with the box. They spark against my cheeks, against his chest: sear stains onto his shirt, brand another memory of her into my story. This box is burning me, it’s burning me, I want to scream. I understand you, I understand your story, I understand the longing. I understand the flames.
“She looks so kind,” he says.
I flick off the lights as we exit the bedroom, watching the scene fall into darkness. And then I am out, gone, closing the door, climbing into the van.
I do not unpack the last box until Dad leaves my apartment, until I can take the final objects out alone, at my own risk.