A package arrived in the mail the other day.
My doorman mentioned it to me in a dubious, “I think you got a package but you never get a package” kind of way. There was no return address; just my name written in black Sharpie upon a medium-sized cardboard box.
That was all.
I shook it. Then realized underneath the box it read: “DO NOT SHAKE.”
In the elevator, I began imagining all the things it could be: a toaster, glass figurines, a package of jewels, pet fish, a decapitated head, a hand grenade.
By the time I walked into my apartment (and guzzled a soda), I was ready to rip the cardboard open like a bear on a campsite. So I did.
There, wrapped in purple tissue paper, was a miniature painting. It was frameless, half the size of an old Nintendo video game console.
Green, red, and gold filled the painting like ribbons, mimicking the swirls of the Northern Lights. Below were little brick apartment buildings sketched in mountains of snow, with neighboring caribou feasting on garbage and Thai noodles. Hovering above, instead of stars, there were bite-sized specks of brownies.
It was Alaska.
It was that night.
It was Eleanor.
I knocked on her door.
I held up the painting.
Me: This is special. There’s even pad Thai.
Eleanor: Douglas, that was ages ago.
She looked pissed.
Me: What? But I just got it today. The doorman gave it to me.
Eleanor: Huh?…Oh no, the doorman must have gotten confused because I didn’t put a last name. I dropped it off weeks ago.
Now she looked disappointed. Like her considerate, colorful air balloon of a plan was deflated with the prick of a detail.
Me: Next time just knock on my door.
Eleanor: I know, but like, it’s just more surprising… this way. More fun.
Me: No no, it is. Especially weeks later like this. I feel like I just time-traveled back to that night. You captured it perfectly.
And then I stood there in the hall, like an overdressed doofus, trying to think up something to say.
Me: Ah, come over. Help me hang this.
So we walked the five feet to my apartment and looked around the living room.
Eleanor: Can’t you splurge on some decorations? There’s still no color in here, your walls are so bare.
Me: I would if I was here more. You wanna do it?
Eleanor: Me? Decorate?
Me: No, come in and paint. Pick a color. We’ll do it together. Make a day of it.
Eleanor: You’d paint. You’d pick up a paintbrush and paint.
Me: Hey, I’ve done it before.
Me: Well, when I lived in an apartment for a while.
Eleanor: I thought you lived at home?
Me: Yeah, I did, but for a little while I lived with a girlfriend. In Hoboken, couple of years ago.
Eleanor: Oh. Right over there.
She pointed toward the window, across the Hudson. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I hadn’t thought about Avery in a long time.
Eleanor: And what happened?
I poured us some wine, and shuffled over to the couch.
Me: We grew apart, you know how it is. Just became different people.
She took a sip of the red wine, and looked up at me.
Eleanor: So what really happened.
And then I debated getting into it because getting into a story about an ex is the worst thing you can do on a date. Or whatever this was. A hangout. With my neighbor.
Me: I guess I just… fell for her potential, the best version of herself she could be if she really wanted to. And I think she fell for mine. So we never really fell for each other. We just loved visions of each other that never really existed.
She put her glass down.
Eleanor: That. Now that was introspective. Douglas the Intellectual.
I may have turned red here. I am not sure. I mean, she asked me what really happened. I thought we were going to talk about it.
Me: Well I’ve had the time to think about it. I’m over it though, but for a time I wasn’t. But now I am.
Suddenly, I wanted to press “rewind.” Maybe back to the moment I mentioned the ex. Or knocked on her door. Or shook the package.
Me: Have you ever lived with someone?
Eleanor: Well… once. With a guy I dated. We lived in the financial district, thought we’d get married. Get a dog, etc., etc.
Me: And what happened. What really happened.
She laughed, sipping her wine in that way women do when they don’t take their eyes off you. It’s a killer.
Eleanor: I couldn’t imagine being so bored like that for the rest of my life. I mean, life would just drag, you know?
Me: Exactly. Life is too long. It’s too long to be bored for so long.
Eleanor: Totally. So I left, and he’s hated me ever since for it. I felt awful – but not nearly as awful as I felt with him. So what are you gonna do.
We both looked out, sipping wine. Thinking.
Eleanor: Potential, though. It’s a dangerous thing.
Me: Boredom, too. And comfort.
Then she got up, picked up the painting from the kitchen counter, and walked into my bedroom, turning the light on.
Me: What are you doing?
For a moment I thought she was going to leap into my bed and pull me in. Wishful thinking.
Eleanor: I think I know where I want to put it.
Eleanor: I need a nail.
After grabbing some tools, I followed her inside.
Eleanor: Don’t look.
I turned around.
Me: What are you gonna do, stick it to the bedpost?
Eleanor: Oh come on, you can trust me kind of.
I heard some hammering and then some shuffling and finally an–
Eleanor: Okay you can look now.
So I turned around. And there, upon the wall beside my bed, hung Eleanor’s vision of Alaska. A tiny square on a very big wall.
Eleanor: Your very first painting.
I smiled, I couldn’t help it.
Shortly after, she left, tired from the wine and her day. I wanted to kiss her, but it had been a while. I didn’t want to ruin anything. So we hugged.
Eleanor: Next time, I want you to show me your writing. A short. Something of yours.
Me: I’m up for that.
Eleanor: Then maybe we’ll paint your living room.
Me: Any color. Your pick.
Then she walked down the hall to her apartment, looking back.
Eleanor: You’ll regret that…
After closing the door, I changed and brushed my teeth. Getting into bed, I laid on my side toward the wall, opening my eyes.
And that’s when I realized: I was face-to-face with her painting.
Hung low and beside my bed, she wanted it to be the last thing I’d see before sleep. When the day is done. When potential isn’t dangerous, and comfort isn’t boring, and the only thing left to do is dream.
So I closed my eyes, and did just that.