by Samantha Padua
Sunshine streams through the cracks between the blue curtains, casting a soft light in an otherwise dark room. It’s eleven in the morning and the sun lights the way, bringing a subtle warmth most noticeable when pressing my palm against the glass window.
It was something I always used to do– press my hand or forehead against the window, absorbing not only the heat but the view of the sea beyond. The sea with its crystalline blue waters reflecting against the side of the shore, so much so, that I swore I could see shells from the kitchen window. I wonder if I can still see them today.
My sock-clad feet scuff the wooden floor as I walk over to the kitchen from the entrance to our— I mean, his house, a habit I picked up months ago. It seems childish, but the way I can basically glide from room to room soundlessly, executing small, amateur spins on my journey made life more fun. Our—no, fuck—his house always seemed to bring out the inner child in me (he did too, which is one of the many reasons why I love, no loved, him as my partner, friend, but that’s beside the point.) I think people like me, at the too-young age of 22, should still be considered child-like. No one knows what they’re doing, even in their early 20’s. Many don’t even know who they are, what they want. The only difference is that the stakes are higher now.
There is no performance today during my walk to the small window hovering close to the sink. There’s too much weight on my body right now to do anything but drag. The open window shields nothing from my selfish eyes. Selfish to take it all in. Selfish to want a reason to stay here for as long as I can, even though I know I can’t. He’ll be back soon, and I don’t think we’re past that “awkward around the ex” stage quite yet.
The sea is calm this morning. That’s the first thing I notice when my eyes adjust to the sunlight outside. I lean against the kitchen counter, a foolish attempt to escape the quiet turmoil within these alabaster-colored walls, and move closer to the soothing presence outside. I can still hear the waves crashing against the scattered rocks on the shore, but they sound distant despite the proximity between his house and the beach. The breeze carries the sweet saltiness of its essence toward the house, and I inhale deeply, intentionally, trying to memorize the smell and sound of it all. As I release my breath, my heart beats steadily to the presence of the ocean, and I remember why I wanted to look outside in the first place. I squint, trying to see if I can spot any shells on the shore, but I can’t see anything. The divide between land and sea is covered with more froth than usual during this hour, hiding the contents of the space from view. I’m uncertain of what lies underneath, but a part of me knows it’s something beautiful. I still doubt it though, as always; trusting myself seems harder nowadays.
My gaze focuses on the vast expanse of the beyond now, admiring the different shades of blue in the distance. The farther from the shore, the darker the blue. Intermixed with the baby blue of the sky and the subtle splashes of green here and there, I know this view is a pretty picture to paint. This was the first picture he tried to capture when we had the spectacular idea to have a paint date night inside. Well, not really inside, but on the balcony. I remember how concentrated he was on capturing the image correctly, shades and all. I found it cute and could barely focus on my own rendition of “ocean kissing land” as I stole glances at him. At the end of the day, his was more intricate, but mine felt more intimate. We were happy with them both.
Warmth pools at my stomach, the peace thrumming in my veins automatically. He was so comfortable that night, I remember. His eyes, shining with mirth. His hand, trembling slightly every time he set his paintbrush against the canvas–the only sign of his nervousness at being watched.
A particularly loud wave crashes against the shore with such vastness that it jolts the warmth from my body. It’s suddenly colder in his house, causing me to shiver. The beyond looks blurry now, and I can’t tell if that’s because I’ve gone too long without blinking. I blink rapidly to bring clarity back in my eyes, but I blink too fast. I stumble forward and almost knock a mug from the counter. With the instincts of someone who constantly feared she’d do something wrong, I grab it with both hands before it shatters on the floor. Vision clearer now, I look down at the object in my hands. The mug is simple enough. It’s really just a mug. It’s his mug, though. It held his coffee and his tea. Occasionally a spiked hot chocolate. It’s a mug like anything else, but it’s also different. Unique and special to him, to us, because the design has a rather crude hand-drawn image of Revenge of the Sith Anakin Skywalker on one side and a poor drawing of R2D2 on the other. We were both avid “Star Wars” fans, (well I still am, I wonder if he still is too), so I had the brilliant idea to get the mug for him for our one-year anniversary.
… Laughter rang throughout the house as I tried to dodge his playful hands.
“I’m sorry,” I said with a mischievous smile on my face, knowing that I was not.
Of course he looked more like Anakin Skywalker than he did Jar Jar Binks, but tonight was one of those nights when I enjoyed humbling him. I always swoon over him anyway. I never hide that from him.
Eventually he caught me, tickling my waist as he pressed me against the kitchen counter. “There’s no escape now!” he exclaimed as he teased me relentlessly, which made me laugh so hard that I almost spilled his tea all over the counter.
Before I could do so, though, he noticed. He always seemed to notice. This is why I was only slightly surprised when his hands stopped their assault on my waist and instead slid over my arms and rested on my back. He may have been protecting his mug from my flailing, but this felt like the ideal stalemate to our tickling battle. He pulled me into a tight embrace, so warm that the laughter soothed to a soft sigh, and I wrapped my arms around him in return, leaning further into his embrace.
“You almost knocked over my favorite present,” he whispered against the nape of my neck.
I shivered at the caress of his breath and smiled coyly. I didn’t bother to apologize and instead told him that I could always get him a new one if anything ever happened to it, but some part of me knew it wouldn’t be the same. Yes, I could probably do a better job at drawing now, but there was something so… so real about what I had drawn when we were 20. Or maybe I knew I would always be more of a writer than an artist and I was scared I would butcher them more. Either way, I knew any replication of that mug, now halfway filled with cold black tea, would never be the same. Never feel the same.
I pulled away from him, the warmth between us buzzing in my heart. My hands slid down to rest on his chest, and I looked at him. I took him in. Brilliant, bright brown eyes. Eyes crinkling at the corners whenever he flashed a smile. Beautiful. That’s the first word that comes to mind.
He knew. I knew he knew how much I loved him. I noticed the way his expression softened when we made eye contact, and it made me want to take his hand and run outside in the night, under the starry sky, like we had the whole world on its knees before us.
Instead, I brushed past him, taking his hand in mine. I led us to the center of the kitchen in silence. Only when we were situated in the center did I look at him again, my arms resting on his shoulders. He wrapped his arms around my waist, pulling me flush against his body.
Then, we started to sway.
There was no music, no rhythm to follow, and yet there we were. Swaying to the beat of the ocean; moving to a melody we shared between the two of us. I always felt like we were connected by different threads of life. Music was one of those threads. Even without playing anything, we always seemed to know what the other was internally listening to and feeling.
I could almost feel that thread glow golden as we danced, the love within my heart spreading pleasantly to the rest of my body. I didn’t want to be anywhere else. I was exactly where I needed to be.
If I close my eyes and picture myself in that exact same moment, I can almost believe that I can feel that same happiness again. I know I shouldn’t though. Who knows where I’ll end up if I stay in the past for too long.
I place the Star Wars mug back in the sink. There is a reason for me being here and remembering him in flashbacks reminds me why I should do what I need to do and stop lingering.
As I step out of the kitchen and head up the stairs to the second floor, my shoulders lack some of the heaviness that I had felt when stepping into the kitchen. The curtains are still drawn over the windows in the living room area, and I have half a mind to open them as I pass by. I don’t though. As much as I like the sun, I think I prefer living in the shadows for now. Besides, the light peeking through the cracks is more than enough to move around the empty house.
I reach the threshold of the bedroom but hesitate before crossing it. From here, I can see the burlywood-colored walls, the neatly made bed, the dresser that used to carry our stuff and hold my things. The walls we painted ourselves, a task that took so long that we found sleep on a couch downstairs for a night, my body collapsing on top of his. The bed we would share many conversations in, a haven for all our secrets. The dresser that was equally his as it was mine, a treasure box for all our memories. Or, at least, it used to be.
Suddenly feeling a little lightheaded, I walk in the room, my attention only on the task at hand.
Where are you, my little Pandora’s Box?
The box I’m looking for is nothing special. At least, on the outside it isn’t. I call it my ‘Pandora’s Box’ because I’m afraid of what opening it might unleash within me. Inside it lies everything tangible I have left of him and I. When moving my stuff out, I intentionally left these things. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether I would take them or throw them away. As our situation sank in though, and as I thought about the pictures, the birthday and anniversary gifts, the clothes I permanently borrowed, and the memories we created, I knew I wanted to keep them. Maybe they would be all that was left of us one day.
My eyes scan the area multiple times, the corners of my mouth tugging down into a frown, and then. . . ahh. There it is. In a little corner I can’t remember putting it in. Considering how distraught I was when I packed all my stuff, I’m not surprised.
As I walk toward the shabby-looking cardboard box, I notice something different about it. There’s something on top of it now, something I didn’t put there a few days ago when I had scrambled to put everything together while he wasn’t home. I freeze when I realize what it is, and I nearly tremble at the fact that I almost forgot it.
I’m more upset at myself for almost forgetting it than for the memories attached to it. He must’ve left it on top of the box at some point. Did he think that I didn’t care for it anymore, now that we’re broken up? I hope not, because that wouldn’t be true at all. That cream-colored cardigan, a touch frayed from overuse, had been my favorite present. I slept in it so often that I felt naked without it at night.
Forgetting the box entirely, I pick up the cardigan and carry it over to the bed. My back leans against the headboard as I plop down on the pillows, the fabric finding home on my lap. I trace the black buttons, smiling wistfully when I remember the first time I put it on.
“I still can’t believe you got me something for our year-and-a-half anniversary. I thought we decided that we’d only get each other presents during an anniversary-anniversary.”
Ever since I started spoiling him every month, and he felt bad he couldn’t match my energy. (Or so he thought. I never needed anything more from him than, well, him.)
It seemed like he read my mind because he said, “We only agreed to that because you kept on giving me gifts.”
Arms wrapped around my waist from behind as I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror, adorning the most comfortable piece of clothing I now owned.
“This is me loving you back and thanking you for all that you are and done for me.”
He pressed a gentle kiss on my temple, his beard brushing against my face so softly I tilted my head toward him to nuzzle my nose against his chin.
“You know you don’t have to get me anything to express that,” I murmured against his lips as I kissed him.
He just released a noise of disagreement as he kissed me back slowly, deeply, as if taking his time to memorize the feel of my lips on his. A part of me, the part of me attuned to his emotions, twinged, enough that I pulled myself back with effort and opened my eyes to properly study him.
As he opened his, I took note of the expression on his face. The bags under his eyes seemed heavier this afternoon, but though he smiled, the brightness barely reached his eyes. I hadn’t had the chance to properly check up on him in the morning before we both started our day, and a familiar guilt settled in my stomach. Did he look like that before I left?
“Take a nap with me?” I knew he wouldn’t say no. Not if I asked him to.
He normally fought the urge to do anything for himself because he felt like he didn’t deserve such kindness when he was, quote-on-quote, ‘not doing enough.’ I wish he offered himself the same care he gave to others. I knew he would learn eventually. Until then, I resolved to use his love for me to fuel his love for himself.
Instead of answering, he led me to our bed, our bodies falling into place once we settled in. Legs entangled, his chin atop of my head as I rested my head on his chest, allowing his heartbeat to lull me in a state of safety and peace. It was silent for a few minutes before I asked, “Are you okay?”
There was a long pause, and I almost thought he didn’t hear me until he said, “Yeah. I’m just thinking a lot about what comes next.”
I knew what he meant. After college. We were graduating soon. We both wanted different things post-grad, but there was a common struggle to move on to that next step. He didn’t know what he wanted to do next, but he knew he wanted to get into it as quickly as possible. I had a plan already formulating in my mind, but I was in no rush.
I tilted my head up to look at him.
“Is there anything I can do to help you today?” I asked.
We’ve gone through this conversation already so many times in the past. I was still willing to talk to him about it again, and again, until the path he wanted to take appeared clearer in his mind’s eye.
He looked down at me, his eyes glassy. There was devastation etched in his face, but not the kind that worried me. It was the type of devastation that he once told me he felt because he loved me so much a part of him ached. He didn’t know he could ever feel so much love. He didn’t know if he would ever deserve it.
His gaze flickered to the cardigan I was wearing.
“You’ve already done enough,” he whispered.
And as he drifted off to sleep, I prayed that it was, indeed, enough.
A long exhale escapes my mouth as I clutch the cardigan close to my body. I can feel the tears sliding down my neck. I let them go. I let it all go. I should leave. I’m not ready for this.
A soft ‘ding’ stirs the rational part of my brain awake, and I wipe the remaining tears away with the cloth in hand. My hand fumbles for my phone in my pocket, and I take a moment too long to read the notification that appeared a second before.
It’s from him. The text says, ‘Leaving work soon to go back to the house to grab lunch, I thought you’d want to know.’
Despite the panic surging me to my feet and away from the slump I almost found myself in, I feel an inkling of gratitude that he’s still thinking about what I want. He will always be the sweet man I fell in love with. That’s why I can’t linger here any longer.
My desperation to remove myself from what once was should overpower any urge to be careful with my belongings, but I still take my time to put the cardigan away inside the box. I carry everything more carefully now as I descend the stairs. I don’t reply to his text, not yet. I don’t look through the contents of the box to make sure I have everything. I don't look through every room in the house, like I usually do, to make sure that I didn’t leave anything. It should irk me more, my carelessness and lack of thoroughness, but… maybe I’m just eager to leave and let the dust settle over the memories, enough to leave me sneezing every time I go near them. Maybe I just want an excuse to come back. I know myself enough to admit that.
I stop in the living room area, staring at the drawn curtains yet again. I find myself wanting to open them all now. It can’t be much later than 11:40 AM, but it looks dimmer than it had been previously. I hesitate. It doesn’t feel like it’s my place anymore, messing around with the house. What if I accidentally break something? What if I find it too bright after the fact, and I have to close them all again? Can I even trust my judgment nowadays, or will I end up making the wrong choices?
I know I’m overthinking. My heart pounds violently in my chest, and I grip the box in my hands more tightly. Ever since that conversation, I avoided staying in this room long enough to dwell on what it now means to me. But I think it’s time to face the music.
The curtains were thrown apart, the early rays of sunlight illuminating the otherwise-dark living space.
Not dark because of the time of day, necessarily, but because of the tension between him and I. I hated fighting, but I hated it more when it was the last thing we did before going our separate ways. We had made an agreement months ago never to go to bed or leave each other’s presence angry, but it was 7:30 AM now and I was almost late to my meeting. I needed to leave. Now.
That was the last thing on my mind, as we stared at each other from across the living room. He was sitting, slouched on one of the sofas, while I was standing by the windows, fidgeting with a stray thread on my coat. The fact that a lot of our conversations have been tense recently echoed in my mind, threatening to trigger wounds that I thought I’ve long since healed from. I thought now that we were done with college, we would have more time together. It seemed, though, that he had only gotten more restless. He was adamant that he wasn’t doing enough, even though he always did so much. I was in a better place mentally, having secured a full-time job in my alma mater. I knew where I was headed, and I was determined to get there.
After months of looking, he finally found a job he liked. It was close to the graduate school he hoped to attend. It was the perfect setup, the perfect place… Except that it was overseas, and it meant leaving everything behind for however long it would take.
When he told me, I already knew it would be a problem. I couldn’t leave everything I established here behind. Not only my job, but my family and friends. I was always a family person. He knew that. I wanted to help them, and he understood it somewhat. His own family never really cared about him and what he was up to, but mine loved him. His understanding came from them.
He also knew change was difficult for me, which was why he waited weeks before telling me the news. He spoke patiently, making sure he was close enough in case I needed comfort but far enough to give me space if I needed. He didn’t ask me to go with him because he knew I would say no. He just told me that they hired him, and he wanted to know what I thought.
I wasn’t shocked that they wanted him. He was so good at everything he did. I was more surprised that he seemed satisfied with this offer. There was a calmness in his eyes that had steadily dimmed since his search for purpose. He seemed happier, even if the pit in my stomach told me I was not.
I told him I was happy for him, that was true. I told him I was extremely proud of him, which was also true. I didn’t tell him how much it upset me, though. I didn’t tell him that I knew going with him wasn’t an option for me and that we had to end when he left. It wasn’t fair to both of us, having only a part of us with each other for who knows how long. It felt like a tether to something that might change with both distance and time against us.
The bittersweetness in his smile told me that he knew, but we never addressed it again. Until now. When the tension became too much. When the arguments over the little things threatened to split us up before he left. This was a conversation long overdue.
“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you everything when we talked about it,” I said once the silence turned suffocating. “You’ve always been so good at holding my feelings, even when I felt they were irrational. I just… I just didn’t want you to think I was upset at you. I was madder at myself that I wasn’t happier for you. Frustrated that me wanting to be with you had taken precedence over your own happiness and growth in that moment. I had hoped to make peace with it now, but…” I paused, breaking our stare as I glanced at the view behind me. “I already miss you.”
I already miss you.
Those words ring true, to this day. I almost pull out my phone to remind him, but I shouldn’t. I don’t.
I hear more than see the box drop to the floor. I collapse behind it, my body trembling as strangled sobs fill the room. The guilt and disgust I felt that morning revisit me at this moment, and I do little to fight against them. I know I shouldn’t feel guilty for being honest with him because I still would have encouraged him to leave. It’s his life. He should prioritize it above all else. Including me. The disgust I could identify was with my supposed selfishness. After years of conversations with people I trust, I know that feeling and wanting in that moment, and even now, is not selfish. He knew that, too. He knows that, even now.
I lifted my head to gaze at the couch he sat on during that morning, eyes blurred with tears. I imagine him sitting there, talking to me, consoling me. Like he always did.
“Even if you snapped at me and got angry, I would’ve accepted the offer anyway,” he admitted quietly.
At that, I looked at him again. He looked… sad.
“I would’ve accepted it no matter what you said to me because I know you. I know that you would’ve wanted this for me, even if your knee-jerk reaction was to beg me to stay. You’ve always been so selfless, so kind, putting others before yourself. It’s why I didn’t ask you to come with me. I was afraid you would, even if I know in your heart you don’t want to.” He held my gaze as he smiled, the sadness in his expression only deepening. “I wanted you to choose yourself over me this time, so I made the choice for you.”
The tears had been flowing down my face at that point, my love blurry, yet visible. He was always trying to take care of me. My thoughts and feelings were scrambling to form words, but I spoke freely, without giving it much thought. I knew he would understand. He always did.
“I’m proud of you. I know you said that you made this choice for me, but I saw how much weight was lifted off your shoulders when you got this opportunity. Even though I felt miserable, I saw how happy you became. And I knew you finally made a decision for yourself, thinking little about what other people expected of you–wanted from you. I know you struggled with choosing yourself for as long as we’ve known each other, and I’m glad I’m here with you now, able to witness that growth.” I had to pause to stifle a sob. “I want you to keep choosing yourself. To keep choosing what you need. I would’ve loved for you to stay, but I love you enough to let you go.”
I didn’t know when he came over to me, when we started holding each other, but I knew we were both crying. There was so much unsaid that we didn’t need to say.
“I love you,” he murmured against the nape of my neck. “I love you.”
He repeated that over and over, and we spent the day forgetting our responsibilities. We stayed with each other for the rest of the day, knowing that this would be the last time we would get to do this.
I moved back to my parents’ place the next morning.
I walked in this house knowing that I wasn’t ready to go back.
I think I’ll leave this house understanding that I didn’t have to be. I just needed to understand that our decision was for the best, and a part of me will always adore him for making the choice with me. Even at the end, we choose for ourselves together. Together, we learned how to overcome our fears and anxieties. Being together was how we discovered the strength to choose our paths separately. From now until who knows when, we choose ourselves no matter what.
That reminder of our growth consoles me, not enough to ease the sadness, but enough to keep me going today.
I stand with shaky legs and a trembling heart. I draw the curtains back. All of them. The light floods in, so blindingly bright I have to turn my face away for a second. How did I think there was enough light before?
I step back to observe the space now. How much brighter everything looks. Happier.
This place isn’t meant to suffocate in the shadows. This home has always housed dreams. A possibility for something better. A haven to those who didn’t know life could be so good to them.
May this house always remind others never to settle for less. I didn’t, and I found him.
Sniffing loudly as a halfhearted attempt to compose myself, I place one palm against the window. The sun warmed the glass to a nice temperature, but I can still feel the coolness of the sea beyond. Let me memorize this feeling. Let it be a part of me.
With the other hand, I pull out my phone. I open my messages with him, the response to his text finally coming to mind.
I type back a quick ‘Thank you’ with a smile emoticon at the end. He’ll think that I’m thanking him for the heads-up, but I’m really thanking him for everything. Maybe I’ll tell him that one day.
Samantha Padua was born in the Philippines, but grew up in Southern California. She is a fourth year Psychological Science major at the University of California, Irvine with a minor in Sociology. She has articles published with UC Irvine’s Her Campus chapter and has poems featured in The Patient Project community journal at UC Irvine as well.