Sometimes, when he opens that shoebox in his head, he remembers her.
It’s just like a real shoebox, he imagines, in this day and age of shoes being bought in bags, of shoeboxes slowly becoming obsolete, of shoes that are made to fit you exactly so that you can take them home under one arm.
It’s just like a real shoebox, that little garden of mementos in his head.
He has her picture in it. She is young – or she looks it, and is older than she appears. She is smiling, a picture of youth that has not yet passed through disillusion, but is made to appear almost so by makeup and muted light.
She is looking straight at him, as though to say, “I was once like this…”
He pushes the thought out of his head. But still, there’s the shoebox, the rest of it, with its memories. There are letters, in her illegible handwriting. He can read her penmanship. He thinks he’s special, because people complained about how bad her writing was. Scratch that: she wrote beautifully, but she needed a computer. Still, he treasures things that she wrote down, because it takes effort – it takes much, you see, to stop and write.
And then there are little trinkets, things to remember about their time together. There are receipts from the restaurants they ate at. There are stickers; He never remembers where they came from. There is a notebook, pencils, paints. This is a magic shoebox. It can store everything.
He wishes it could have kept her.
The picture is always going to be there. “I was once like this…and I’ll never be here again.”
He never even had the chance to hold her when she breathed her last. Sometimes, he wonders how different his life would have been if that had happened. Maybe he wouldn’t be so bitter. Maybe she would have felt that she needed something to live for and she could fight to expand her lungs, breathe through the blood that was rapidly filling them – maybe she would be here. She would be weaker, but she would be here.
When he opens that shoebox in his head, he can see her. He will give anything to actually see her, hold her, tell her how sorry he is, how he wishes he had been there, how he wishes that he could have turned something around. He could have talked to her and kept her in place so that she didn’t have to cross the street in that split second of fate. He could have kept her in her place and talked to her, even idly, so that she did not have to run out and calm herself.
Sometimes, he thinks it is his fault. At other times, he tries to stop blaming himself. Maybe it wasn’t meant to be, everyone once tried to tell him. They thought they were comforting. They made things worse.
You see, the concept of “meant to be” lays too much power in the hands of fate. It tells you that you have no control over things that you could actually manipulate, on hindsight. It tells you that you have no power at all – it tells you that at the end of the day, ten years, twenty years, thirty years – so many years later –
It tells you that all you will ever have is a shoebox.
He sees her when he opens that shoebox in his head. Sometimes, he wishes that she’s coming for him, fetching him, bringing him home with her. Maybe she will, one of these days.