The Box to the Left (revised draft)

It was all wrapped up so tight; no one would ever suspect it even existed. I kept reminding myself that it was better for everyone this way. And I don’t let it out very often, not just because I hate the filthy way it makes me feel, but also because I can’t stand the way it burdens others. Sometimes, though, there’s so much of it crammed into the small confines of my mind, it has nowhere else to go but out. And there are times the screaming that goes along with it is so loud; I can’t understand why no one else can hear it.

“Thanks for being such a good sport, Sweet Pea.” Mom’s words of gratitude continue to echo into the cluttered recesses of my mind as if I was still that four-year-old glassy-eyed, little girl. The look on her face every time I spared a situation by boxing up my forlorn feelings fueled me in ways even I still don’t understand. That same expression still manages to enigmatically motivate me to repress things I would love to release. Smiling and shrugging things off was the right thing to do, right? It sure felt right in the light of such appreciation.

We always moved in the middle of the night; rats slinking in underground sewer systems. Sardines in a four-pack, we’d all squeeze into another borrowed bedroom in some empathetic saps house. Days could turn into weeks, or months. But what did I know about telling time? I was just a mixed up kid trying to keep it all straight. Burning through four schools just to finish kindergarten, and another three before finishing grade school, always had me academically disadvantaged and feeling like an incompetent fool. Never could recite my address or phone number like the other kids. That’s about the time I began to lose track of which stories were real and which ones were made up. I may have been a night-crawling rat, but the heck if I was going to be a laughing-stock, to boot. Once I mastered the ability to shove the teasing and hurtful comments back into that dark corner of my mind, the tales flowed easily and in about the same amount of time it took me to fix my smile in place. Someone had to wear that smile, damn it!

Smiles were reflexive; I wore them well. I loved to be the little ray of sunshine. Yet where there’s sunshine, rain is sure to follow. There were tears, all right. And as many tears as I was able to box away, they eventually had to be shed. Silenced cries were imprisoned in mildew scented pillows; crushed into closet carpeting; blended into my unruly hair, as not to leave water marks on pretty patterned sundresses.

The happy smile that dressed me every morning was the only thing that made me feel pretty – a mocking reality that haunts me to this day, actually. As much as it pleased me to wear it, I also knew the ugly truth. It riddled my thoughts like birdshot! Leaving my heart looking more like Swiss cheese with every round. And the sorrow that continued to build up within became increasing difficult to keep from shining through my eyes. God knows I tried scrubbing it away – rubbing so hard at times – chapping or bruises were often the mocking reminder left behind. But the average eye could be distracted by the smile; even I was often sidetracked by the smile. Why was one part of me so darn happy all the time, while the other half sneered at this happiness with such contempt?

The sadness that peeked out from the depths of my hopelessness usually went unnoticed, unchallenged. Over time, I grew to loath those derisive eyes, despising the sarcasm that looked back at me from my reflection. At one point, my hate had festered to such heights; I couldn’t stand even looking at the color brown. And pouring acid on the open cut, Mom never understood how those brown Mary Janes were a torturous reminder of how I was failing myself – well, not me so much as the traitor that lived on the other side of those pathetic brown eyes. So for years, I grew from one pair of brown Mary Janes to another, endlessly sloshing in the filthy reminder of all they stood for. It was a wonder if Mary Janes would ever cease coming in the next size up!

Plenty of practice and disciplined patience helped me eventually master the art of crying privately. No one could know about the tears, or the screams being released – especially those. There were always questions to answer when tears are involved; questions that I didn’t always have an answer for. And tears are difficult to explain without using the “D” word. Not to mention the kind of guilt that’s involved with making another person roll around in the filth of failure and disappointment with me. The choice to keep shoving it deeper into that battered little box became simple when weighed against thoughts of upsetting others, or worse, losing their love altogether. My heart couldn’t afford any more loss where that was concerned.

I learned to purge the contents of the box when no one was looking.

It’s hard to say when this split personality took on roommates, but eventually the lines of selfless compromise blurred into other areas of my life. And the fact that I managed to have such a good attitude during these experiences never seemed to escape the notice of my cynical, double-minded conscience. What the hell are you so happy about? Why don’t you take charge of your circumstances? Sadly, I really couldn’t say.

Shrugging things off as an act of selfless compromise conditioned me into an eerie state of silence. And the box began to bulge from being overstuffed. At first, the silence was over little things like letting inappropriate comments go unchecked – comments often made by men, not boys, old enough to know better. My inability to speak up in the heat of feminine cattiness awarded me cancerous friendships. But in my desperateness for the cause, I welcomed in the disease.

My sunny little smile soon became more than just the gold star hung on the fridge for too long. It evolved into an invitation of sorts. And that’s probably because it has magical powers. I saw how it could change the atmosphere, alter destinies, crumble small nations. It was drawn to the underdog, the overlooked, the abused and neglected. Each NO was silenced as my smile resonated YES. The more this was fed, the more powerful it became as its own entity. Why couldn’t anyone hear the NOs that were desperately crying out, clawing toward escape? Oh, those NOs would find their way out all right in suffocating pillow sessions, or angry journal entries before even that became violated territory.

Intoxication, life on high: these were a tonic of disastrous proportions. And the sweet song of silence was contagious. Where was the smile now? Had it drown along with the NO in the moonshine now flooding my veins? I wish I could forget the memory of my limp limbs were carried away, while silent onlookers watched act one of Little Shop of Horrors wrap up – amusing to a small audience of the best-intentioned boys. The next morning I dressed myself back in that yellow smile. What was done was done (became a motto).

There were many stumbled steps up complicated stairways that would follow. I’ve never succeeded at purging the silent screams from that time I was dragged up those stairs while the onlookers watched with indifference. Couldn’t even make out the expression I wore, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t the invitation of a smile. Yet, how much could go wrong within the safety of trusted company? There were hands that pushed but couldn’t even budge. Lips that whispered “no” as loud as they could. Feet that wouldn’t do as they were told. Eyes that pleaded in vain. And I felt everything with such intensity! That was always the worst part: where was numbness when I needed it? I couldn’t figure out how to slip back into that yellow smile that night. Instead I slunk home unnoticed, quite naked and ashamed. But who could really be to blame? I was known for wearing that inviting smile. And I was good at telling stories, after all.

The box eventually got bigger. It had no choice. Pretty soon, I was the thing being stuffed into that box: a seasonal ornament; a board game for a rainy day; the once cherished puzzle with a few missing pieces. I lived in that box for a very long time – too long, in fact. It was easier to manage the internal division that way. And so much easier to muffle the screams and hide the tears. It was a yellow box: everyone likes a yellow box. Yesterday, I decided to let in some fresh air. Today, I’m stepping out of the box in pieces.

The Box to the Left (revised draft)

Jenifer DeBellis

Dryden, United States

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This is a glimpse of my journey. Today is a new day. Feedback is welcome.

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