“Juney – this is absolutely not something you gotta do yourself. You know that, right?” Roxy’s voice had the tinge of nervous energy that they got when they were truly, deeply worried about someone. June hadn’t heard it much before – the last time was when they were still in college and Rose’s old cat, Jaspers, had finally died.
“I know, Rox – I really do,” June said, trying her hardest to smile through it. “I just need a minute to… I don’t know, okay. I’m not sure!” Tears, burning behind her eyes – not quite fallen yet, but soon. She tried on another smile that died halfway out. Roxy moved closer and offered a hand – June took it without another word.
“Yeah, I… I don’t know that I understand, actually. But I’m here for you.” Roxy. Whose dad had died when they were five. Whose mom was still alive – still kicking around in upstate New York while her children chose to galavant in Boston in their relationships that smacked of degeneracy! June knew that Roxy wasn’t a fan of their mother, but their mother was at least still alive.
June’s dad, on the other hand.
The tears wanted to get out – wanted to burn their way down her cheeks in hot little rivers. Wanted to form brackish pools at the base of her eyes and make the rims around them red with grief. June fought against it and squeezed Roxy’s hand. “It’ll just be a few minutes. Please.”
Now it was all real. She was standing outside the door to her dad’s little Rochester townhome. Former dad? No, that wasn’t right – he’d always be her dad, even now. Former townhome. That made more sense, grammatically, but it had such a final feel to it. Such an air of permanence that June wasn’t fully ready to accept it yet.
No one had consulted her! No one had run this by her to make sure she was okay with it! This was a grotesque oversight and she demanded to speak to…
The tears still fought – still surged to spring forth and bubble up and be free. June furrowed her brow. It wouldn’t be today and it wouldn’t be here. She was already committed to doing the rest of this – the crying could wait. At least on the outside it could wait – on the inside it had started four days ago when she saw the message on her phone. Still there, that message – still burning its way into June’s mind because she hadn’t had the heart to delete it.
Not a long phone call – not at first. Short, maybe five minutes. To the point. Sometimes it took years to change your life. Took hard work and dedication and effort and the love and support of the people around you.
Sometimes it took five minutes on the phone with your sister.
Jade had assured June that she didn’t have anything to worry about, procedurally. Jade focused in on that – June knew that it helped her to process what was happening. Jade would be able to cope because she had something to do with herself. She would make arrangements, she would talk to the lawyer, and she would call the landlord and get someone in to move everything out. It would go in a storage unit and then Jade would help figure out what to do with it.
June told her it was fine. She didn’t want to deal with this. Didn’t want to help in the process because the process meant acknowledgement, and that meant facing that this had moved from the realm of the hypothetical and into the world of the real. Jade understood that, she thought – she’d been more than willing to fill her role as executor of the estate and more. To be there as the binding glue for the family – such as was left of it.
But this last part – that was where Jade couldn’t help her anymore. Specific instructions had been left in the will for the disposal of that last box of personal effects. Everything else was handled, and Jade had done as much as she could to keep her little sister safe from it. But there was a point where that just wasn’t possible anymore. A point where the real stopped being a hypothetical that June could avoid and started being… real.
Roxy was squeezing her hand tightly and they were both standing outside her always-dad’s former Rochester townhome apartment. And waiting for the landlord to come downstairs and let June into this place for the last time ever.
June heard Kastas Vantas, the landlord, grumbling his way down the stairs before he was even at the door. The man was easily in his nineties, a Greek expatriate who spoke of his former country in a way that was both acerbic and betrayed a deep and abiding love for it. He opened the door with a bang and smiled up at June and Roxy.
“Ah, the other daughter. And the friend – always so pretty, both. Come in, come in,” Kastas walked back into the apartment, waving a hand over his shoulder. June started forward, then hesitated.
“It’s fine – if you want me to come, I can do that.” Roxy smiled at her – all love and warmth – and June felt her heart jumping in her chest. The tears were straining against her eyes again. But she swallowed the lump in her throat and tried again to smile.
“Rox… thank you so much. I really… I need to do this myself.” She leaned in and kissed them on the cheek, whispered in their ear. “I love you, Roxy. Thank you for being here.”
June let go of Roxy’s hand. No longer anchored in the world of the comfortable past, where things stayed more-or-less the same. She stepped forward, across the threshold that led both into the past and the future at the same time. Into the apartment she’d grown up in.
Closing the door behind her, and the smell of the place hit her all at once, bringing back a hundred different memories. Slightly musty, but familiar. It was the smell of the days she’d spent playing the Nintendo Wii in the living room. The family computer in the kitchen where she’d had so many conversations about the cinematic works of Nic Cage with Internet strangers in middle school. Where she’d first learned the words that gave meaning to who she was.
“Always sorry to see the young go like this, Kastas was saying. His voice was gruff, but there was a kind of sweet sadness under it. “Such a young man still, really. Not even sixty, and still in good health, I thought.” He shuffled toward the stairs at the back of the apartment.
The living room, off to the side, where June had first decided to tell her dad the truth. Where she’d stood, nervously, with Jade by her side. Dad had been sitting in his usual spot at one end of the table. He had a cup of coffee – he’d stopped smoking years ago, but the endless cups of coffee filled that need for some kind of vice in his life.
June couldn’t help but wonder if that had contributed to what happened. Or maybe the pipes – maybe he hadn’t stopped smoking soon enough. Maybe it was all connected, tangled up in a net that would be forever knotted against speculation.
“The box – is upstairs. I will get it for you, if you want. Or you can go?” Kastas smiled at June. “He was a good man, your father. Very reliable – always paid rent on time, never caused problems. Good man.”
June tried for another smile – this one came out as a pained grimace. “I’ll go up myself, thanks.”
She set her first foot on the first carpeted, lightly-creaking stair and began to ascend.
The bathroom was the first room at the top of the stairs. It had been cleaned recently – June wasn’t sure if that was Jade’s doing or the result of her dad’s general commitment to keeping his space clean. She hadn’t been sure how diligent he’d been feeling at the end – how much he’d been able to do. He’d said basically nothing to anyone – he was always fine on the phone. Always asking about how June was doing. How was work? Had she been doing any new paintings? The last one was so lovely, after all.
The bathroom where once, a Sophomore in high school, she’d curled up on the counter by the sink and cried, because she needed somewhere that the others couldn’t see her. She’d just gotten her driver’s license the day before – and something about seeing that name emblazoned on the flexible plastic made her feel even worse. Because she knew it wasn’t quite right, but she wasn’t sure what to do about it. Because she was still just a kid, and nobody took kids seriously about these things.
Further down the hall, there were two bedrooms. The closer, and larger, of the two had once been shared by June and her sister. A bunk-bed when they were younger, then two beds on the opposite sides of the large room. Two desks – both somewhat cluttered but in very different ways. Where they set up their laptops in high school and talked to their friends. Where June had found other people like her online and become comfortable enough to tell her sister.
Where they’d cried together and hugged on Jade’s bed and Jade had told her that she loved her sister – the first time June had ever heard her name spoken aloud by another person. And her heart had felt like bursting and she told Jade how much it mattered to her. Where she’d told Jade how much seeing the license had hurt her, and how much she hated those tiny little letters emblazoned on the plastic.
Jade had suggested an alternative – it had been something off-the-cuff at the time. But somehow, it had worked. It had felt right. And now that was what was printed in the tiny ink letters on her State of Massachusetts driver's license – the errors of the past corrected.
The room stood empty now. The beds and desks had stayed even when the sisters moved away for college, but they were gone now. A man from the local church had come by with a pickup truck and collected them the day before. The only furniture left in that room were a pair of identical dressers that were going to a family friend at the end of the week.
At the end of the hallway, standing slightly ajar, was the door to the other bedroom.
The door to the room that had once belonged to her dad.
The door swung open with a slight creak – if he were still there, her dad would’ve told her to grab a can of WD-40 for him from the basement. That wouldn’t be something she’d ever have to worry about again. Those goddamn tears – they were still there, under the surface. Always lurking – waiting. Someone had left the shades all pulled down, bathing the room in a deep shadow that felt somehow appropriate. June stepped into the half-dark bedroom and reached for the light switch.
Pale yellow flooded the room – a ghost-glow that caught the last remaining pieces of furniture that had yet to be donated or thrown out. Jade hadn’t yet found anyone who wanted a two-decade-old twin bed frame and worn dresser, but the sturdy writing desk that had once sat in the corner had already found a new home and been moved out two days prior. Dad’s bookshelves still lined the walls, but the books had been donated to the local library that morning.
“Huh,” June said to no one. The sound echoed oddly in the bedroom – no books on the shelves to help dampen the sound. Just a hollow echo off the bare walls.
June hadn’t been in her dad’s room very much. It had always been his private sanctuary when she was growing up. It was his place to relax and read his books – to focus on his studies. Despite his mundane job as an accountant, her dad had been particularly fond of studying birds. He took excellent photographs of them and made detailed sketches in a series of notebooks, complete with information about the habitats and behavior of the birds that he observed. Jade had the notebooks now, safely stored in a banker’s box. She’d asked if June wanted the books, but the way she’d asked had suggested that it mattered a lot more to Jade than it did to June. So the paper-bound birds would be flying off to California at the first opportunity.
There was only one thing left in the room that meant anything to June – the box sitting on the bare mattress of the bed.
It was just a box – the kind that you could buy in Wal Mart that was designed as a “small storage box, ideal for books!” Brown cardboard with some generic printing on the side that let you know the essential facts about its dimensions, crush strength, and the fact that it was produced using at least fifty percent post-consumer recycled cardboard. Those all seemed like critically important facts to June – things that she needed to focus on at the expense of actually considering the box’s contents at all.
It was taped shut, but June didn’t need to open it to know what was inside.
It was her past life. Her life before she’d been willing to be open about herself. Her life before she’d even known she was herself. Photographs, mostly – school pictures and mementos from time spent with friends before the end of Sophomore year in High School. Some drawings too – maybe a little bit of old writing. Those parts weren’t as important.
The tears almost got out this time.
June was torn – because this was the last thing her dad had left behind. The only thing that hadn’t been parcelled out, spoken for, sold, or donated. He’d been a man of simple means, and he’d been generous in life to the point where he wasn’t leaving much in the way of material goods behind.
This box – this mausoleum of memories – felt like it was more a part of June’s father than it was a part of her. These were technically her memories, but they weren’t her memories. They were her dad’s memories of what she’d once been.
Memories that she didn’t want to have. Because these were memories laced with the poison of lies – for every positive memory, there were a dozen associated painful ones. And they all tied back into the same thing. June didn’t feel like she could sort the wheat from the chaff in those memories, and she didn’t think she wanted to.
She wanted, in truth, to burn every single one of those photographs. To douse the box wholesale in gasoline and set it alight – to make a funeral pyre of those last staples of who she’d once thought she was.
But in doing so, she felt that she would dishonor her father’s memory in one final, irrevocable way. After all, these were his memories, and he was no longer around to have them. What kind of daughter would she be if she destroyed that last piece of who he’d been?
Staring at the box on the bed, June’s eyes finally began to water. The tears began to peel away from her eyes and seep onto her cheeks.
From under the corner of the box, June noticed something. One of her dad’s yellow legal pads had been wedged under the box – probably to keep it from being knocked aside in the careless rush to remove his possessions from the apartment so that Kastas could find someone else to pay him for the privilege of living here. Because your former tenant spending thirty years living in the same place didn’t mean anything when you had money to make.
June shifted the box and pulled the legal pad out from underneath. He had always been carrying them around – always using them to scribble down notes for work or jot down quick thoughts about birds that he would later copy longhand into his ornithological notebook. As she was getting ready to put the notepad aside, she glanced down and saw her own name written at the top of the page.
June stared at the page the notepad was folded to…
As she finished the letter and set it back down on the bed, the tears finally came in earnest. June stood there in the bedroom, immersed in the flood of memories, and she cried.
After a few minutes, she wiped her eyes with the back of her hand and tried once more to smile – it was hard. It hurt more than she’d thought it would – more than she’d ever imagined. But after a minute, she felt the corners of her mouth turn up ever-so-slightly. She reached down for the legal pad again – this time she tore off the top sheet. Folding the paper neatly into her pocket, June left the pad and the box in the room and walked back downstairs.
“What do you want I should do with the box?” Kastas asked her as she came down the stairs empty handed. He sounded more tired than anything else – June could empathize.
At the end of the day it probably didn’t matter to him one way or another. June wasn’t sure how much he even knew about what had happened in the family that had lived in the townhome apartment for so long. Did he realize even a little bit of it? The life of the man and his two daughters – and then the two daughters who’d been out on their own and the man had lived on his own for a while. And then that had ended, as all things do, and the others were left behind to mourn and grieve.
And live their lives.
He’d wanted her to be free, more than anything. Free to be herself. Free to live how she wanted. Free to rise above the chains of her past. June smiled again – it came easier this time, even if it still felt sad – and she wiped a fresh round of tears from her eyes.
“You can throw it out, Mr. Vantas. Thank you.”
He shrugged. “Whatever you say, Miss June. You keep it, I throw it out – makes no difference at all to me.”
She opened the door to the townhome, stepped out, and closed it behind her for the final time. Roxy was standing there, smiling hopefully.
“Did you get everything you needed, babe?”
June stopped and looked back up at the apartment – up to the second-floor window that she used to sit in and watch the street. Where she used to sit and daydream about who she wanted to be. Hoping, wishing, and praying that she’d have the opportunity to live. Hoping that everyone would understand – hoping that her dad would understand and be proud of her.
If there was nothing else she could say about her father, it was that he truly, genuinely loved his daughters in equal measure. Both of them.
June reached out for Roxy’s hand. Gently taken – her hand enveloped in warmth. Roxy stood closer to June – they put an arm around her waist and drew her in closer. June leaned up against Roxy’s curls. She sniffled, and Roxy reached up with their other hand to brush the fresh tears aside.
“Yeah…” June stared up at the window, then turned to look at Roxy. Their eyes sparkled in the sunlight.
“Dad… I want you to meet the person I was telling you about on the phone. We met while I was in school. This is my partner, Roxy LaLonde.” She’d been so scared. Roxy had been smiling nervously and holding June’s hand.
“Well now, my daughter’s told me an awful lot about you, Mx. LaLonde.” He was smiling, holding the cup of coffee that had replaced the bad habit that had been his pipe. “And I must say, I trust her judgement on these sorts of matters implicitly!”
They’d shaken hands and Roxy had smiled and Dad had smiled. And that was it – Roxy had been as much a part of the family as anyone.
She looked up at the window – the window where she’d sat for so many hours and looked to the future. A future that wasn’t defined by holding onto the remnants of the past.
June turned to Roxy and smiled, and this time it was joyful and alive and full.
“Yeah, I’ve got everything I need.”