A brown sludge oozes from underneath the refrigerator. The air conditioner won’t condition shit. It rattles to life and harrumphs its protest, then falls silent. The shrubs around the balcony. It arrived on my doorstep yesterday. There was no knock on the door, no ringing bell. I went outside to check the mail and there it was.
The box was large enough to hold a refrigerator. Or a child's coffin. Its sides were pale brown. Silvery duct tape lined the edges. I looked for a label, something that might tell me who sent me such a gift--if it was a gift. There was nothing. I felt along the sides, dumbly, as if a tag or lettering not apparent to my eye would reveal itself under my touch. It was a hot day. The white sun bleached the summer sky. I wiped the sweat falling from my forehead.
Then, it occurred to me. I tipped the box so I could see its top. I lifted my heels from the doormat and looked. Written in block letters, in thick black ink, was a message. The message was meant for me. It read, Thomas, it's me. I'm inside.
I knew it was you.
Using a dolly from the main office, I wheeled the box inside my apartment. Color prints littered the coffee table, the floor, the desk. You remember how I love to take pictures. The recent shots were taken at a sprawling swap meet in Canton. It's held at the start of each month. At the mouth of the printer sits a shot of an old man, the labyrinth of lines web his hand as he shows off his flock of wind chimes made from shredded soda cans. You should have seen how those wings of tin captured the light.
I wanted to set the box in my bedroom. It has been so long since I slept next to you. But there wasn't space. The living room had to do. I closed the blinds across the sliding glass door. I couldn't let anyone see my box.
With the blinds closed, it was dark in my living room so I turned on the lamp in the corner. It was one of those tall pole lamps with a fixture at the top and no lampshade. The box with you inside cast a long shadow that stretched all the way into the dining area. I kept waiting for you to make a sound, but you did not. It occurred to me you might need air, but every instrument I considered for poking holes in the box might have damaged you--knife, scissors, icepick. I would never hurt you
Rafe thinks I should open the box. He came over last night unannounced. I had been staring at the box, wondering how you were positioned inside, when he knocked on the door. I didn't want to answer, but you remember how I am. I believe in door-knock karma: every unanswered knock at the door means another visitor arrives when you're not home. I'm sure that's how I kept missing you, toward the end.
'I think he's stalking me,' he said.
'That psycho you brought by here last time?'
'I thought he was cool.'
'You were high.'
'Well, you know how it is. You tweak and things get crazy intense and you think you've known each other all this time when really you haven't and--'
I sat back down on the couch and waited for Rafe to shut up long enough to notice the box. I've told him about you, he knows one of the pictures on my wall is of you. I doubted he would remember which one it was, though. Rafe only thinks about himself, that's why I keep letting him in. He lets me forget about myself.
'No shit. It's big. What's in it?'
'Something I ordered.'
'I wanna see.'
'I'm too lazy to open it right now.'
'Do you have something I can smoke this with?'
I let him get high while he chatted with random guys on my computer. I don't do that anymore, not since we were last together. I loved getting wired together and letting you caress me in the bathtub while we listened to the moan of the air conditioner until dawn finally peered into the window. Once you were gone, I didn't want anyone to touch me. I waited for a knock on the door.
Rafe found a trick pretty fast, made some excuse I pretended to believe and left and I was alone again with the box. I was alone with you. I carried in two pillows and a quilt from the bedroom and camped out on the couch in front of the box. It's been so long since I slept next to you. The moonlight shot through the cracks in the blinds and bounced off the soda-can wind chime hanging from my ceiling. It was beautiful. I wanted to show it to you.
Morning came and I awoke to hear a knock on the door. In my excitement over the box I had forgotten that my father was coming that morning to take me to the doctor. He would ask about the box, just like he always asked about you, kept asking about you when I no longer had an answer.
So here I am. I'm a man with my father at the door and the man I love in a box. I should open it. I should let you out, throw open my door and scream, Here he is! I'm not alone! Here he is!
But what if I cut open the box and you're not inside? What if the box is empty?
My father calls my name, keeps knocking. I step around my coffee table to the box and embrace it, the cardboard rough against my arms. Let him keep knocking, I will not leave you.