I remember when Ex moved from Alexandria to Georgetown, we spent a weekend or two unpacking all of his crap. He was downstairs figuring out where to put what in the kitchen and I was up in the third floor loft determining the best way to organize boxes that didn’t need to be unpacked. Things labeled office I stacked under the dormer. Things labeled miscellaneous I stacked on the far side against the wall. Toward the end, I came across a suspiciously large box that had no label. The corrugated edges were tattered and the tape keeping it together had yellowed from time. I broke open the crisscross fold of the top and cautiously peered inside. In an unorganized shuffle were business cards. Stacks and stacks of them. I plucked one free. Sharp black ink dotted crisp white card stock. My eyes carefully traced the lettering naming Ex and his law practice from way back when. I was sitting on the top step balancing a card on my fingertips when I heard the creak of floorboards approaching.
“Paigie, you done?”
“Sorta. Hey, um, I found your business cards,” I announced, my words hanging in the air with uncertainty.
“Oh yeah,” he said with a sigh as he turned the corner and settled in on the second step up.
“I don’t know if this makes sense but I’m really proud of you. That you even tried to strike out on your own. I mean, it must have been difficult doing that down here. I hope you know that this stash of cards shouldn’t be a reminder of failure but a reminder of trying,” I said, my words drifting off until the only audible noise was the low hum of the air conditioner in the window.
“Let’s go get something to eat,” Ex said as he backed down the stairs and retreated into his current life.
I reassembled the top of the box and pushed it under the dormer. Because even though the contact information on the business cards was three residences and two states ago and the career of note was no longer accurate, Ex felt a need to keep the past within reach. And that was it. I understood. He didn’t need to explain. And so the box and his past remained tucked in the shadows. We never spoke about it again.
This past Sunday, I set out to tidy my apartment. Bags and shoes cluttered my entryway. Dress slacks, a fleece and my golf skort draped across the chair in my bedroom. An unsettling amount of dust coated the better part of my furniture. With a Swiffer sheet in hand, I set out tackling the gray hue that separated air from wood. I wiped down my nightstand, moving the clock and plant out of the way instead of lazily cleaning around it all. And then I went over to my tall dresser and cleaned there. I moved the ceramic Tiffany box, a gift from Allison, to the left. I scooted the silver piggy bank I bought at Banana Republic to the right. I lifted a small stack of books to swipe underneath. But before I could drag the cloth across, I noticed a piece of paper. A two by four inch white sheet with Alaska’s name formally printed across the top and chicken scratch filling the space below. It was the score sheet from our first Scrabble game. His name was scrawled on the left and mine was on the right and a collection of numbers noting our efforts scrolled down to the bottom.
It was late May and a rainy afternoon, the afternoon falling just before my scheduled red eye back east. We settled in on his sofa and alternated turns with the board. Later, when we packed up the game, I told him I never wanted to see that piece of paper again. It noted his victory or, as I liked to claim, his cheating. Adding an ‘s’ to an already existing word? That’s lazy play. Anyway, when I got home the following morning and pulled my things from my bag, I found the paper. Two corners were creased from the way he had hurriedly tucked it into the outside pocket when I was off doing something else.
When I went back to visit in August, we wound down my visit yet again with a game of Scrabble. Just like before, we used the same personalized notepad to keep score. The one big difference was this time I won. And at the risk of gloating, I fucking killed. When the game was over and he was collecting the tiles and folding the board, I tore the score sheet free and handed it to him.
“Here,” I said with my hand extended.
He looked blankly at the paper in my hand, tiles clanking against tiles as they dropped into the bag.
“You have to keep it. Like I kept the one from before. When you cheated,” I joked.
“Okay, though I didn’t cheat before,” he said with a chuckle as he took the paper and placed it down on the coffee table.
“The rules in your box are wrong. Simply making something plural is totally cheating. But listen, I forgive you. Just promise you’ll keep it,” I asked or perhaps pleaded.
“I promise,” he said with a warm smile.
Standing in my apartment, dirty dust cloth in one hand and Scrabble score sheet in the other, I halted everything. I eyed the way his writing and my writing collided on the page. I reworked the math of the last few plays. And instead of crumpling it up and dropping my past in the trash, I pressed the pads of my fingertips against the wrinkles in the paper. Without thinking it all through, I placed the cloth on the dresser, gathered the books that needed to be shelved and rested the paper on top. I scuffed my feet against the wood floors and worked my way out to the living room. Standing in front of my bookcases, I hunted for free space. One by one, I slid the books onto the shelves. The only thing left was the Scrabble score sheet. I looked at it one last time before tucking it between the firm wooden edge of the bookcase and the soft paperback cover of a book pressed tight against it. I slipped it safely into the shadows of a small space, letting a corner remain visible. Nothing noticeable. Nothing that would be immediately identifiable. Just a crisp white triangle ever so slightly poking out. And then I got back to cleaning.