Coffee Rings on Cardboard Boxes
A Story about Grief
The cardboard box sitting atop her coffee table table was now stained with coffee rings.
Mira had tried using a coaster once. But that had disrupted the careful balance of the mug, almost upturning the coffee and having it soak through the contents of the box.
So she stopped using coasters.
The boxes lining her hallway and blocking her access to the front door hadn’t integrated into her daily routine as well as the coffee-table-box. But, she thought idly to herself, there was still time.
She eventually had to move front-door-boxes to her bedroom. She could no longer bear the judgement of the food delivery people as she attempted to manoeuvre hot packages through the 6 inch gap that she could create between the door and the boxes.
The look in the cute pizza delivery boy’s eyes as she tried to get a pizza box vertically through her door while attempting to hand him change with her other hand had been a dark mirror held up to her life.
A problem easily fixed by the new and improved bedroom-boxes!
She barely used her bedroom these days anyways. Her couch, whilst not being made of any material vaguely reminiscent of memory foam, now held the perfect impression of her prone body that she could sink into at the start of every night* (*day).
Coffee-table-box continued to provide her the unwavering support to justify its position in its current place of honor. She could barely remember what her coffee table looked like, but now, she could leave her house. Or atleast, have the luxury of getting a pizza horizontally through a doorway.
In hindsight, maybe the front-door-box should have remained. Had she not moved it, it would perhaps have taken more effort for her sister to push past her front door and stride into her apartment. For the first time, she also considered the efficacy of using the peephole before actually opening said door.
She turned to face her sister who was looking around the living room, her eyebrows only slightly scrunching in disapproval, and her nose not even gently wrinkled up at the half-eaten container of Thai curry currently balanced on top of the coffee-table-box. Oh, Mira thought, she is Worried-worried.
“I see you’ve….partially unpacked. That’s progress.” said Saira, as she spun delicately where she stood.
“Why are you in my house?” Saira’s eyebrows drew closer together and Mira winced. That had come out far more clipped than she had intended. “What i mean is, why didn’t you tell me you were coming?”
“What would have been the point in trying?” said Saira staring pointedly at the phone lying facedown on the floor beside the couch.
She clenched her hands as she heard Saira sigh.
“Listen, I understand it’s been a lot to deal with. But you didn’t have to move to make a point. Especially if you can’t handle it alone right now -”
“I can handle it just fine.”
“Mira it’s been over a month and you still haven’t even unpacked.”
“I haven't had the time -”
“Doing what? You dropped out of school without telling anybody! You just moved out here by yours-”
“Dropped out?! What are you talking about?”
Mira tried to keep her voice even. She tried focusing on the feel of her right thumb and the way it currently pressed under her index finger when curled into a fist, as opposed to focusing on the way Saira’s eyebrows were getting steadily closer together. But Saira continued as though Mira had not spoken at all.
“And you haven't picked up any of our calls. Not mine, or your friends’ or DAD’s?. And we have to either sit back and pretend like you’ve got control over things, when you clearly don’t. Or spend four hours out of our day driving down here to have you behave like an adult for ONCE -”
“I didn’t ask for any of you to do any of tha-”
“It’s just so typical of you to make this about yourself. Force everyone around you to drop what they are doing to just come and pay attention to-”
“I am sorry. I guess not all of us bounce back so quickly from a dead mother.”
Saira’s voice had been steadily rising with the progression of her tirade, but it now shattered into silence that didn’t feel echoing so much as claustrophobic. She stared at Mira with wide blown eyes, the rest of her body still caught between the crescendo of her anger, and the sudden stillness to her movement.
Mira looked back at her with a blank expression. She could feel the crescent shaped divots that her fingernails were leaving in her palm. They remained locked in the oppressive silence, as the warm glow of the setting sun moved new shadows across the room.
Saira broke eye contact first. She reached into the tote bag slung across her shoulder and pulled out a white envelope. She moved to place it on top of the coffee-table-box, but after one look at the remnants of take-away staining its surface, she placed it delicately on Mira’s couch.
“I only came to deliver this in person.” Saira said, staring past Mira’s head to the front door, “Wasn’t sure if you had set up your mail system yet, and did not want to risk it.”
She strode past Mira, into the hallway and out of the front door. Mira stayed rooted to her spot, staring at the place her sister had been just moments ago, until the yellow glow of the apartment receded and cooled into a muted blue shadow cast from the evening sky. Only then did she move to open the envelope left behind on the grey throw blanket lying crumpled on her couch.
At first, Mira stared with uncomprehending disinterest at the cheque she now held in her hands. The words on it did not immediately register in her brain. “Twenty thousand dollars” written in a neat looped cursive, and dated a week ago. It was signed out to a “Mira Shetty.”
She read it a couple of more times.
She then put the cheque back into the envelope and pushed it beneath the coffee-table-box.
Her phone didn’t ring once for the next three days. She made a 20 hour long playlist and played it on loop for two days straight
The envelope remained trapped between the coffee table and its box for that time.
When she picked up the phone on the fourth day, it was charged to 100%.
“Hi sweetheart, how are you doing?”
Her dad’s voice came through the speaker for the first time in five weeks, and Mira felt her legs ache from the effort of keeping her standing. She sank onto the hardwood floor, gripping the phone in her hand.
“I didn’t drop out of school.”
Her father let out a quiet laugh.
“I wouldn’t have blamed you if you had honey.”
“I just deferred it by a semester.”
“That’s good Mira”
“I just needed some time.”
“I know Mira.” Her father sighed at the other end of the line. A very different sigh from Saira’s. She could feel tears gathering at the corners of her eyes. “I need you to know that nobody is expecting you to do one thing or the other. Whatever you do...well I know you’ll do what’s right for you jaan.”
“But I don’t know what to do.”
“Well if you’re taking suggestions I would start by apologizing to your sister maybe.”
“How are you?”
“Well I am currently trying to find a pair of kitchen scissors, which I am sure we own but I have no actual idea of its current location.”
She could hear the sounds of drawers opening and closing in the background. She imagined him moving through the house all by himself, and felt a gnawing hollow ache somewhere below her ribs.
“I imagine it’s in the kitchen.”
“You know the kitchen less than I do Mira and it’s saying something”
“Dad. How are you?”
“I am doing alright,” he said gently, “your aunt has been coming by everyday to make sure I am eating something that is not frozen sympathy casseroles, and your sister comes in every weekend so I am used to having people around almost every day. The guys have even been talking about a fishing trip next week. I have never actually gone fishing but I have seen it a lot on tv so I am pretty sure I have it figured out.”
“I think it mostly involves a lot of sitting around.”
“And I have years of practice with that.”
“Is Aunt Leila’s cooking actually better than sympathy casseroles?”
Her dad laughed out loud. A surprised bark of genuine laughter that she hadn’t heard in the last several weeks. The hollow pit in her chest seemed to shrink slightly at the sound.
“Well, beggars can’t be choosers but don't tell her that.” He sighed quietly to himself again. “I got very spoiled by your mom I guess. I have to learn how to take care of myself.”
“None of us know how to do that I guess.”
“Well maybe it’s a good time to learn. You can’t live off of take out for the rest of your life.”
“I mean I could, but it just wouldn’t be a very long life.”
“Don’t joke about that.”
“I am sorry.” She pressed a finger to the corner of her eye, trying to stop the wetness forming there through sheer force of will.
“Mira you need to call your sister. What you said to her was cruel and unnecessary.”
“I know. I will.”
“Maybe call some of your friends too. They are worried sick.”
“Hey Dad? I’ve been dreaming of Mom almost every night. Is that normal?”
She heard the sounds of movement through the kitchen stop. She could imagine him standing in the middle of the room in his customary polo shirt, brushing the corner of his grey mustache as he spoke to her.
“Yes I think that’s very normal.” His voice was lower than before, she had to lift the phone closer to her ear, “I sometimes forget that she’s gone for a few minutes when I wake up. And then I remember.”
The tears were no longer obeying the barrier of her finger and were now flowing freely down her face.
“Did you find the kitchen scissors?
“God no, I think I’ll just use a knife.”
“I love you Dad.”
“I love you too.”
“Wait. So what do you think you’re going to do with all the life insurance money?”
“Jesus CHRIST, Neil.” shrieked Cecilia over the conference call.
“It’s SO much money Cece.”
“This is NOT the time for that.”
Mira grinned briefly to herself as she heard them bicker. She had missed her friends.
“Actually, I haven’t even deposited the cheque yet. It’s still on my couch.”
“Ok but why though! You could pay off your student loans and actually finish your Master’s with less debt. OR you could buy a car finally.”
“And then I drive around forever in my dead-mother-car?”
“Well, when you put it like that.”
Mira shook her head. “Forget about all that. What have you guys been up to”
1 Message from Dad.
“Hey Mira, any chance you took your Mother’s recipe book with you when you were packing? I have searched everywhere for it and can’t seem to find it.”
She unpacked every box in her house in one hour.
It was in the coffee-table-box, because of course it was. It was just a little black book, the leather cover worn and frayed, and the page crinkled and slightly yellow from years of use.
On the inside she ran her fingers over her mother’s messy handwriting, precise recipe proportions and substitutions scribbled on pages alongside detailed individual notes. There were even a few interpretative sketches on the pages to help her two very inept daughters navigate the choppy waters of beginner level cooking.
A going away present first to Saira and then to Mira, when they left home for college.
She closed the book after the first teardrop splashed onto a tiny doodle of boiled eggs.
Saira picked up on the third ring which Mira was not expecting.
“Yes?” Her voice came through clipped, and Mira winced. She definitely deserved this.
“I did something.”
“I bought something and I want you to come over and look at it with me.”
“You want me to drive for 4 hours cause you want me to look at something you bought?”
The oven was MASSIVE. It took up most of her tiny kitchen space and looked completely out of place amidst the rest of her shitty utensils. It was also cherry red. Mira and Saira stared at machine putting the rest of her apartment to shame.”
“You spent the whole $20,000 on this?”
“Yes. Want to help me make something?” she said, pulling out the little black book from her kitchen drawer.
“Yes. Okay yes”