My fingers reached for the next knick knack, ignoring the pain. I’d gotten rather good at ignoring pain over the last few years. This piece of bauble was a geisha doll from Japan. I’d picked it up there on one of my million trips across the globe. The geisha was painted with white skin and tiny red lips, her black eyes seeming to flutter in a flirty way around her fan.
I picked up the doll carefully in in my swollen-knuckled fingers to wrap her gently in a pre-cut piece of newspaper. She was marked on the bottom with a number. Number 1247. The shelf underneath bore a tiny black marking with a same number. I wrapped the piece, taped the newspaper closed with a bit of masking tape, then wrote “1247” in black Sharpie across the tape. I blew on the number until it dried, my nose curling at the scent of permanent marker, then packed it away carefully next to 1248 and 1246.
I started this numbering system in 1991. It was the year communism fell in the Soviet Union and it was the year I finally struck out on my own. The people were finally free in the USSR, and I was finally free of my family. I could do as I liked, and what I liked was a clean space that was organized within an inch of its life. No more panic attacks because the china was out of sorts or the books on the shelves weren’t in order. No more locking myself in my bedroom, unable to stand even seeing the messy rooms downstairs. No more having my brother break into my bedroom and move things around just enough to drive me crazy.
No I was finally free of all that. I was free of them.
The bric-a-brac had all been assigned their places as they were acquired. There was almost nothing in the world more important than everything in its place. It was like a miracle to come home and see everything just as I left it. No matter how disorganized the world outside was, I knew my home would be in top shape when I returned to it.
I wrapped and labelled another box of figurines, plates, and decorative teacups, all of them spotless and precisely placed. I rubbed the black numbers off of the shelves as I removed each of the objects, leaving the wood clear and unmarked.
I got halfway through the bedroom before my hands stopped working, before my head throbbed too hard to think anymore. I sat down on the edge of the bed, nauseous and unwilling to move. ‘If this is what remission feels like,’ I thought, wryly, ‘I not sure I want it anymore.’ My head spun and the room tilted, every moment a roller coaster ride. My stomach was trampled by the cavalry of my cure and I lay there, unable to move for almost an hour. I fell asleep like that, half on the bed, a half-filled box at my feet. When I woke, my feet throbbed in their attempt to keep blood pumping around in them. I stumbled to the bathroom, feeling stabbing its way back into my shins and threw up a few times in the toilet. I lay on the cool floor of the bathroom, pressing my forehead to the tile, hoping the world would hold still long enough for me to get up again. It was another hour before I hobbled back to the task at hand.
My upper lip was sweating and my hand shook as I reached for the next piece in my collection. It was a one-of-a-kind ornate ring wrapped around a small piece of seaglass. A friend with a good eye and a steady hand had wrapped wire after wire around it, making the plain piece of seaglass we’d found in Spain into something amazing. I kept it on display on a marble finger. It was a work of art, and I refused to wear it for fear of losing it. The ring was number 1262. Then there was a glass bottle, numbered 1263, filled with sand from near the Sphinx in Egypt. 1264, a carved cartouche of Alexander the Great’s name from Greece. 1265, a ceramic Chinese water lily, encased in a snow globe, gilded and dappled with semi-precious stones. 1266, a tiny replica of Le Louvre.
The knick knacks went on forever, telling story after story in deep, silent voices. These were the easy memories, my world travels in my youth. The 1300s would be the worst. I stopped packing for the day before I reached the first of those, unable to bear the thought of packing any away them just yet. I inhaled my dinner, a cheap Lean Cuisine and a half a dozen pills limned in pain and nausea, and fell asleep on the couch. I pretended the noises from the TV were real people moving about the house and that I wasn’t so totally alone here.
I woke the next morning as I had every morning for the past three years. I threw up bile, washed out my mouth, downed a massive pile of pills with a Coke and watched in the mirror as what little hair had been regrown between treatments fell out all over again. I stared at the dark-circled rag of a human in the mirror and winced, turning away from the reflection instead of facing it.
Today I would start the 1300s. Just the thought made me want to run away screaming, but the idea of a stranger’s hands packing these particular trinkets haphazardly- I couldn’t bear that thought. So I stood in front of the 1300s taking deep, calming breaths and grabbed an empty box.
I picked up the first of them and stared at it, the touch of the tiny figurine poisoning my thoughts with all manner of memories. I shook myself. It would perhaps be best if I just packed them as quickly as possible. As soon as the figurine was hidden under a layer of newspaper, I felt better. I still carefully noted the number on the bottom and marked it accordingly, unwilling to have to unwrap the most painful ones ever again. Once they were cocooned in the wrapping, the memories stopped leaking out of them and into my skin.
Then there was the tiny catcher’s mitt. I picked it up, instantly feeling my eyes fill at the touch. The tiny mitt was meant for a child. A child I would never have. A child you wanted so badly it buried the two of us. A child you would some day have with someone else.
I wrapped up the mitt, so tiny and still stiff. I wished that I had thrown it away even as I wished to hold onto it forever. I had a hard time just putting it into the box even after the newspaper cushioned me from the worst of the memories.
I only got through a handful before I had to break for lunch. Lunch was a new set of pills, a giant glass of orange juice, and a handful of whatever was left in the pantry. I didn’t even really taste it. The kitchen, the whole house, was already packed and gone. I’d left the 1300s for the very last. I sat across from the TV in the last remaining chair still in house, absently chewing a handful of cashews. There was almost no furniture left here, except in my bedroom. My bedroom where the 1300s lingered, awaiting my return.
When I turned the TV off, I thought I saw your reflection in the black void it left behind. I nearly tripped over the floor lamp, my feet a little unsteady beneath me. I tried really hard not to look around the house for you, but I failed miserably.
Returning to the bedroom, I picked up another bit of kit, glanced at it, then wrapped it away, singing to myself loudly to keep the little trinket from telling its stories. But my voice faltered when I got to number 1321, the glass rose.
“I’m sorry you can’t work anymore, Katty,” You walked up to me in my wheelchair. I was wrapped tight as a mummy in thoughts of death and heavy medication and a scratchy hospital blanket. “I know you loved your job. I got you a little something to cheer you up.” You handed me the glass rose and smile spread across your face to match the one blooming over mine. ‘I may be sick,’ I thought, ‘but at least I have you.’
The worst news in my life had always been accompanied by a small gift and a broad smile when I was with you. There was the tiny ballerina in glass when I broke my ankle, 1311. A tiny origami crane made of folded gold and silver when I lost that promotion, 1317. Finally, there was the tiny glass rose, for when I got sick and lost everything. Cancer had taken it all away. My independence, my job, my hair, my fingernails, my house, all of my savings, and my wedding day.
And it also took away you.
Even worse, when the tumors left, all of those things I had lost did not return to me. “I can’t do this,” the glass rose repeated. I wrapped the delicate red petals up with shaking hands, covering it with layers of newspapers until it was silenced.
I wrapped up three more things, taping them closed and tucking them away in the box without marking them. I couldn’t read the numbers through the tears piled in my eyes. They threatened to spill with every movement. I knew this would be the hardest of the packing. I should have done this first and gotten it over with. But I hadn’t.
There were still seventeen things left to pack when I ended up the fetal position on the floor, sobs tearing claws down my spine, over my stomach and up higher, to strangle me. I shook for what felt like hours as the sun climbed overhead. I grasped 1329 in my fingers, clutching it to me; it was a tiny ornament. It was a tiny Christmas tree, decked out in tiny lights, with a few presents under it. The lights were Swarovski crystals and the thin wires between the lights made of silver and brass. It was delicate and beautiful in my fingers. One of the presents under the tree was a tiny locket and it held two tiny photographs. I didn’t have to open the locket to see them, so clearly engraved were they in red hot torment on my frontal lobe. I knew them better then I knew the skinny, bald stranger in the mirror, better than all of the other memories put together.
On one side of the locket was a young woman, her eyes a glittering, smiling version of my grey eyes. She had long red hair that tumbling down to her shoulders. She was full of life, her skin a warm gold color, so unlike my grey, wrinkled flesh. I was a zombie compared to her.
And in the photo, she is standing next to you. You two hold each other. That Katty was so much brighter. That Katty had her whole life in front of her and you both shone like stars. I can’t even remember what it felt like to be that Katty.
On the other side of the locket is an ultrasound. It’s too small to see much of the baby, but I could make out the barest outlines of his body. It was my baby. My baby that I never got to meet.
When I finally sat up from the floor, it was dark out and I shook with exhaustion. I needed my pills. I needed some food. I needed to move or my leg would remain numb. But I couldn’t get up. Not with 1329 still clutched in my fingers.
I wrapped 1329 up as carefully as I could. I settled the packet onto the bed of newspapers and paper towels next to the rest of my former life. I managed somehow to wrap up the rest of the 1300s just as carefully, my eyes drying as I slowly ran out of tears. I taped the box carefully closed and pulled out my Sharpie for this final word on this final box. Tomorrow, the moving men would come and they would remove everything left in the house, moving them to their assigned locations. So I marked clearly on the top of the box where all of these memories should go.
My hands shook a little as I wrote T-R-A-S-H in careful letters. The moment it was done, I felt lighter, that heavy dread that pressed against me every day for the past year slowly lifting from the depths of my chest. I managed to stand, walk off the pins and needles from my aching legs, and pack up the few clothes I was keeping. I grabbed an overnight bag and packed up my toothbrush, my handkerchiefs and my giant ziplock filled with pill bottles. I wiped down the counter, grabbed my bottle of orange juice out of the fridge and took my car keys off of the floor by the front door.
Before I closed the door, I checked one last time to make sure it was locked, then I closed the door on that life forever.
(c)2015 Christina "Mina" Smith, with partial rights reserved for NYC Midnight