A Box of Things
Nathan Alling Long
"She's a difficult pleasure," I said of my ex-wife. I was standing at
the front door of her house talking to her new partner, Sammy, a woman.
My ex-wife, Lily, was not there.
We both took in the complex and awkward implications of my statement
before Sammy smiled, her illusive lesbian I've experienced more than
you'll ever know and I don't need to prove it to you smile.
I smiled back with a polite, You're probably right smile.
Then her lips curled up into something genuinely happy—I
guessed she was remembering a moment with Lily or connecting some dots
into a picture that pleased her. I imagined her saying, "Sometimes the
difficult is worth it."
And I imagined responding, "Yes. Sometimes."
And in that brief conversation that we didn't have, Sammy and I
resolved the differences and tension between us and came to understand
that we were never in disagreement but were simply choosing to look at
Lily from two different perspectives.
At least that's how I saw it.
"Well, thanks for dropping these by," Sammy finally said, which seemed
to confirm that we had said much more than we had said, that everything
was clear. I'd come over to drop off a box of toiletries Lily had left,
which I'd only now gathered up in a spring cleaning, six months later.
"No problem," I said. "Enjoy this spring day."
"You too. And I'm sorry Lily's not here. She just ran out to do some
"No problem," I said. "I just wanted to drop these off. That's all."
This was the end of the conversation, but still, I somehow didn't turn
to walk back to my car right away. I stood amazed at how much we could
say without saying anything and how much we could share without talking.
I looked at Sammy, her unrevealing face, and then past her to the
hallway of their house, where the box now lay on the floor, like a
Trojan horse I'd forgotten to load with men.
Of course I had thought I would see Lily, thought I would see the
appreciation on her face when she saw how I had gathered her things and
bothered to drive across town to give them to her. Now, I'd miss seeing
her reaction when she finally saw the box of things, miss sensing if
she appreciated me at all, respected me, not as a partner but as a
human being—the relationship we had been reduced to.
Seeing each other as human is not a bad consequence to all this, I
thought, and I glanced at Sammy one last time, realizing that I could
as well see her as human rather than the woman who stole my wife.
But now it seemed she was staring me down, daring me to stay there a
millisecond longer. The natural thing—or at least the
civilized thing—would be to thank me again as a way of
sending me off. But Sammy stood there silent. Maybe we hadn't come to
an understanding at all. Maybe she would hide the box and only tell
Lily about my comment. "He said you were a—what was
it?—a difficult pleasure."
Lily would shake her head and they would both laugh at my phrase. Then
Sammy would add, "Oh, and he dropped off this box of half empty shampoo
bottles." And they'd laugh some more.
I turned from the stoop then, unable to look at Sammy any longer. She
had won, told me all the things she had wanted to in her silence,
namely that my delivery wasn't worthy of a second thanks, that I wasn't
worthy of it.
As I took the three steps off the landing, I recalled that phrase,
esprit d'escalier, a French term for that ability to think of what to
say in a conversation when you are already walking away and it's too
late. Why do the French always have words for such subtle and accurate
states of mind?
Only I didn't actually think of what I should have said in the
conversation we didn't have. I only churned over failed possibilities
as I walked along the sidewalk to my car. I wanted to turn back, to see
if Sammy was still there, guarding their door, making sure I left
before Lily returned. But I couldn't look back, and didn't want to give
her the satisfaction of seeing me do it, that Orpheusian gesture of
doubt and weakness.
I stepped into my car, closed the door and started it up. I sat in my
own silence, where I felt I could not be watched, where I was protected
by the glass and metal of the passenger door. I was about to pull out
when I saw Lily's car approaching from down the street. Here it was,
coming right toward me, the chance to see her, to step out and explain
what my visit meant before Sammy could tell the story her way.
I put my hand on the door latch, ready to open it, when I reconsidered.
You will look like a fool, a desperate fool, I told myself. Not only to
Sammy but to Lily. If you drive out now, you will pass her, and she
will see you, and she will see that you drove on, either aware of her
or not. She will not know if you passed her without waving on purpose
or not. She will then see, no matter what Sammy says, that you offered
this gift, no strings attached. She will appreciate that. She will
admire you for it.
And so I put the car in gear and drove off, willing myself to keep my
eyes on the road as I passed Lily's car. It was difficult to do, but
once I was past her, I felt a kind of pleasure, greater than I would
have had from any conversation I had imagined.
Nathan Alling Long's work has appeared in Tin House, WhiskeyPaper, The Sun and many others. He lives in Philadelphia.
Detail of photo art on main page courtesy
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