Greg knew this was going to take a while. He looked at the pile of banker’s boxes and plastic storage bins in the room and let out an already-exhausted sigh. The moving vans would be here in a week, he thought, and while the rest of the house had been cleaned out of anything non-essential, this one remained as a frustratingly persistent To Do still needing to be checked off.
The divorce had gone through months ago and Greg’s new apartment was ready for him. But while it was nice it wasn’t nearly as big as the house he and Cheryl had shared for 12 years. Not everything could come with him. Even after Cheryl and her new husband had come and taken everything she wanted – Greg had contested very little and was oddly relieved to be given the opportunity of a fresh start – there was still a lot in the house. He’d spent the last three weeks going through room after room deciding what he was bringing with him, what was being thrown out and what was being donated to charity. With no kids, there were no toys or other items of childhood in the house, just the accumulated detritus of a 15 year relationship that ultimately had failed.
He felt no resentment toward Cheryl. She had simply told him 14 months ago that she was no longer in love with him and sometimes actively resented him for luring – her word – her into a marriage that apparently he should have known would eventually be unsuccessful. No one had cheated or been unfaithful up to that point, though she made it clear she would start dating in the near future and already had someone in mind. Greg, he remembered, had just sat there, unable to speak as he saw what had been a comfortable, if not always uproariously happy, marriage dissolve in the length of time it takes to watch a network TV drama.
His new apartment was not far from the house. Technically he didn’t need to move. Cheryl had agreed he could keep the house in the divorce since she and Ronald – that was the guy’s name – would be moving to New Jersey after the wedding. He made enough to keep it but in the brief period of time he mulled his post-divorce life and where he might live, staying here never really felt like an option. No matter how things had turned out there were memories here that he couldn’t escape and which threated to suffocate him not because of their strength but simply by virtue of their constant presence. It doesn’t take a lot of water to wear down a rock, only a little water over enough time. And Greg was not going to give these memories the time to wear him down. Not only that but the prospect of downsizing, at least for the time being, appealed to him. He didn’t want to be here.
So today, a pleasant mid-Fall Saturday, Greg entered his study to unpack and sort through the scattered papers and other items that he’d stashed away in this, the one room of the house that had always been uniformly his, the line in the sand he’d drawn and where Cheryl had been unable to bring in a design esthetic he’d never been all that fond of. Music played from the stereo in the other room and a freshly-opened beer began to only slightly sweat in his left hand, having been removed from the fridge several minutes beforehand.
Despite his intention to turn the room into something more functional it had become an office largely in name only. A small desk stood on one side of the room with a MacBook attached to an external monitor and keyboard. Greg worked in here on the weekends and evenings, finishing whatever hadn’t been accomplished at the office during the day or week. But that was it, as the rest of the floor had always been covered by the boxes he now was forcing himself to confront. There had just never been the right time to make a full office/study happen, he thought. Never the money to buy a nice couch for the wall opposite the desk. Never the money to make other changes that would have created a cohesive, old-school look in the room like what had always played around in his mind. It was functional, but just barely. The rest was chaos.
He removed the lid from the first plastic bin, on which there were no markings that might hint at its contents. Inside, he found, were yearbooks from his high school days along with other, smaller boxes containing loose photos of he and his friends from grade school all the way through college. He smiled as he took longer than he should to look through them all, flashing back to the games they’d all gone to, the girls he’d dated and subsequently broken up with, the immature antics of a group of people who weren’t thinking beyond the next five minutes. Greg thought wistfully that he was both glad to be past this part of his life with the pressures it had brought with it and desperate to go back to a life filled with laughter, cheap beer and a feeling of lustful clinging that came with every new attachment. He didn’t want to go back and do it again. He just wanted to feel that passionate again. About anything.
More than an hour later he finally finished with the photos. There were lots of pictures that were unnecessary to keep, obviously something he’d thought was wonderful at the moment but which failed to produce a substantial memory 30 years after the fact. The once-full box was now half-empty, occupied still by the yearbooks but the only photos that survived were those that helped him remember some important time in his life. They were the ones that made his heart pound faster in his chest and filled his mind with a buzzing that was familiar but distant. He was keeping those, though it may be another 30 years before he looked at them again.
One box down, too many still to go.
Greg took a pull on his beer and wished for a cigarette, a vice he’d only occasionally dabbled in decades ago. The college photos combined with the beer must have made him wistful for what he knew to be bad for him. Still he wanted one. Just one.
He shook off the notion of going to the local convenience store for a pack and turned his attention to a banker’s box that was just as unlabeled as the first bin had been. One more pull off the bottle and he saw the box was full of manila folders. He took the first one out and saw it held papers pertaining to a job he’d not held for a decade; HR forms for direct deposit, employee guidelines and more. Ugh, Greg thought. Why have I been keeping long-irrelevant paperwork like this for so long? All of this was likely garbage and he could probably toss the whole thing. The thought danced around his mind for several heartbeats before he decided no, he needed to look through it all and make sure there was nothing important here. Dammit.
20 minutes later five of the manila folders were now off to the side of the box. A stack of papers Greg deemed important stood next to them but an even larger stack of documents to be disposed over was next to that. A dozen folders remained in the box and Greg looked at the beer bottle, now almost empty. After this box was done, he thought, he’d get another. Using this as motivation he reached back into the box and pulled another folder out.
Where he’d been used to finding mostly dry, boring papers from past professional lives so far this one was a surprise. Instead of the usual memos or official documents this one contained, of all things, email print outs. He chuckled at the flagrant violation of the entreaty now affixed to so many emails to “consider the environment before printing.” He had obviously not cared at the time. As he looked closer at the contents of the folder he saw these were almost all email forwards from coworkers at the company he worked for in the late 90s with jokes, urban legends and other humor. His mind was immediately distracted from the task at hand and drawn into this pile of miscellanea and read the first few printed emails.
Soon though he realized this wasn’t the best way to spend his time. If this was filled with random office humor – and a quick flip through its contents confirmed that’s exactly what it was, with one that caught his eye containing a series of knock knock jokes – it didn’t need to divert him from the job of cleaning out his office. He closed the folder and began to throw the entire thing in the “discard” pile to his right.
He stopped, though. Something in him was curious to continue down this particular avenue. After all, these had been so funny and important he’d printed out the emails. What hidden gems might there be in here?
Still, he didn’t have time to do this now. He needed to finish this box so he could get another beer and keep making progress on what remained strewn about the office. But, he thought, he had a flight coming up on Monday, traveling to a conference for work. That would be a good time to look through this more thoroughly. So he stood up and walked to the living room, tucking the folder and its contents into the backpack he knew he’d be taking with him. He would revisit the thick stack of fwd: fwd: fwd: papers on the plane and then find a recycling bin at his destination to deposit them in.
Satisfied and still slightly amused at the idea he once, 20 years previous, thought these memories worth keeping on the same level as his stack of high school pictures, Greg began walking back toward the study and its still imposing pile of boxes to be reviewed. Nah, he thought, I’m going to get that second beer now.