Catherine dumps the contents of the box on her bed.
“My box of goodies,” James had said three months earlier. She’d found him huddled against a wall on a rainy fall day. She turned when he called her name, knowing even after thirty-five years, it would be him. He had always been the one to find her.
“I remembered where you worked,” he’d said, pulling his thin jacket around him and coughing. “I took a chance that you would still be there.”
He stumbled, coughed again and held onto the wall. Catherine waved at a cab. When it stopped she gestured for James to get in. He picked up the box and followed her. At the time, it bothered her that he’d found her. Not because she didn’t want him to, but because it meant she’d been stagnating in the same job for years. And at fifty-five, it was too late to find something else.
Now she spreads photos, newspaper articles, a notebook filled with scribbles and old university catalogues on her bed. She looks at a map and opens a high school yearbook. The first time she’d met James he impressed her with his good looks, and the fact that he wanted to date her. She was pretty, but nothing like the girls he usually dated, who were considered super cute or beautiful. She and James went out for their final year. Then, near the end of school, he broke her heart.
“I understand,” she’d said, when he explained that he’d be going away to university and it was unfair to her. She blocked the word unfair from her vocabulary and moped through the last days of classes, anxious for the bell to ring so she would never have to see him again.
A year later on a crisp fall day James phoned her. By then she was settled in a job and a new apartment. She met him for a drink. He wanted to make a new start.
“And university?” Catherine asked.
“I never went,” he replied. He took her hand and smiled at her. “I can explain.”
Catherine swallowed the lump in her throat. University was the reason for breaking up with her and he hadn’t gone. “Don’t even bother to try,” she’d said. She knew an explanation wouldn’t make a difference. She would allow him back into her life.
“It’s complicated,” he said, seven months later. “But we’ll always be friends.” He left, and Catherine returned to being one of the single girls searching for love.
“He’s like a field mouse, shows up in the fall and leaves in the spring,” her friend said, six months later when Catherine told her James had returned.
That time she tried to tell him she was involved with a stockbroker. But he didn’t want to talk about other people. Instead he promised to make her dreams come true. He swept his hand in the empty space in front of him and told her they’d travel to distant horizons. Ride camels in Morocco, maybe get married. A few months later he was gone—so much for Morocco and dreams.
The stockbroker gave her an ultimatum. He needed to know she loved him. Catherine shook her head. She told him she didn’t and had no intention of marrying him. She’d watched him pull out a handkerchief from the pocket of his navy-blue suit as he walked away. Then James was at her front door in September.
Catherine picks up the stack of photographs and shifts through the pictures of him and a girl. In one of them they’re standing in front of a university. The girl is dressed in full graduation attire, a diploma in her hand. He’s wearing a black t-shirt and jeans. They seem happy. Catherine looks at a picture of him with two small children. She checks the year at the back of a wedding picture. It matches the last time he left her. That time he’d yelled something about getting her out of his mind and slammed the front door.
She turns over the pictures, checks the dates and quickly thinks back to their times together. He’d show up in September and leave in April. It all had to do with the start and finish of university and the girl in the picture. They’d gotten married right after her graduation and had children. Catherine never had him. He was never hers. He belonged to the girl in the photo.
“Transient between two hearts,” she says as she gathers up everything and throws it all into the box. A piece of paper with a phone number written on it falls out of the notebook.
“I have his things,” Catherine says to the woman who answers the phone.
The woman says she doesn’t want them. “You must have meant something to him because in the end he turned to you,” she says. She mumbles a few words Catherine doesn’t understand.
“No,” Catherine says. She looks out her window and sees that it’s snowing. “I meant nothing to him. I was just in between fall and spring.”
Previously published in the anthology: Arrivals and Departures, November 2014