It was like an impulse. I just grabbed the phone and dialed her number, as if that was the most logical reaction to the situation. I lost count of the tones, which is when I realized this may not have been a good idea. I had lost track of time before I found the box, so now it could have been any hour of the night. It could still have been 11 pm on Sunday, or 4 am on Monday, God knows. I always lost track of time when I went digging through old things, but I rarely called anybody at those times, really. And I’m sure they’re thankful for that, even if they don’t know it, since I’ve been doing it at increasingly weirder hours since the divorce, and now I was jetlagged to boot. So it might as well have been 12 pm or 6:30, I really could not care less.
I listened to the even tones coming from the phone’s speaker as my gaze followed the eyes of the kit-cat clock on the kitchen wall. Why did I come into the kitchen again? I often wandered around the house with my mind blank whenever I needed to concentrate on some mental task, so that shouldn’t be too surprising for me. The kitchen wasn’t also that weird a room to be. I mean, my place is tiny, and the kitchen was probably the least cluttered at the moment. A peek beyond the archway revealed piles of unwashed laundry just pouring out of the bathroom and bedroom. I really should have done some of the cleaning back in Paris. That seemed to have happened so long ago, though. In Paris, I was surrounded by the coolest bunch of people and every night was a party. And now here I was, alone, standing in an empty apartment, phone in one hand, weird gift-wrapped package in the other.
Someone finally picked up.
“Hello?” came a raspy whisper.
“Hi, Cath,” I said.
“It’s three in the morning.” I could tell she recognized my voice just by the subtle shift in tone. Even when she whispered, Cath’s voice had the distinct ability of making every bone inside me swirl around in panic. I missed this, I think?
“Really? Well, that’s good to know.”
I heard the sheets rustle on the other end. She was up. Sitting up, at least. “What is it?”
“Oh, right. I’ve been digging through some old things in the closet.”
“In the middle of the night…” she said slowly, enunciating every word.
“Yes,” I continued, my voice picking up the pace. “I couldn’t sleep either way so I just decided to look through stuff, to see if maybe…” I stopped for a second. For some reason the following words were hard to say. “Maybe you forgot something.”
“Aaaand,” I tried to sound jovial again. “I found a package I don’t recognize. So I’m pretty sure it’s yours, because who else could it belong to?”
For a second I heard nothing. I was worried she’d fallen asleep again. But then I heard rustling noises and I could almost see her stand up and stretch, and then rub her face with those clubby hands. She sighed and her tired voice came back to ask me: “What’s it look like?”
“Oh, I dunno. It’s kind of ordinary looking, I guess? It’s got some kind of a cat theme going on. There’s a blue and black ribbon. Oh, and there’s a card! It says: To Franco. You brought this on yourself.”
“Who the hell is Franco?”
“You tell me. It’s your package!”
“I told you, it’s not.”
“Well, anyway, whoever he is, he sure brought this on himself, I guess.”
“And you woke me up just for this?” Her voice shook every piece of my body again.
“Yeah, sorry. I wasn’t sure what time it was.” I really wasn’t. I mean, I just spent a good couple minutes staring at a clock, but I couldn’t tell you what time it was. There are times where I just look at something – intently, even, fully concentrated – and don’t see it. Cath used to say I just don’t want to see it, but why would I not want to see it? I mean, it’s just the time.
“Well, maybe you should ask Iris, then?”
“Oh, Iris is working in Paris now,” I said.
“I know. But that has nothing to do with anything. She still might have left it there, right?”
“Maybe you’re right. I’ll give her a call then.” I was just about to hang up, but another question came to mind. “How are the kids, by the way?”
“They’re asleep, and very disappointed their dad was on a trip to Paris last weekend instead of spending time with them.”
“Yeah, sorry about that.”
“Anyway, if I don’t go back to sleep now, no one will be up on time to wake them up and take to school in the morning. So if you value the education of your children at all, you won’t mind if I hang up, will you?”
“Oh, sure. Tell them I said hi! Bye!”
The call ended and I was standing in the silence of the night yet again. I felt as if the kit-cat clock ticked in synch with my heart. Why cats, I wonder. Who thought cats with eyes that look left and right with every second was a good idea for a clock design? Not that I have any right to complain – I mean, I own one. But it was still something to think about. An easy, empty thought. The kind that kills the silence, but doesn’t shake you up too much. So I contemplated the kit-cat clock as my phone let out a few tones, until Iris finally picked up.
“Hey, honey, what’s up?” she asked. Whenever she spoke I felt as if my very essence was touched by the sweetest honey, each particle in my body relishing in the sweetness.
“I didn’t wake you up, I hope?”
“No, don’t worry. I actually just got to work.” I could see her walking down a modern, spacious office with glass walls and lots of sunlight, with a view on the Paris spring. In my mind she was wearing a dangerously short skirt and a plain, pale blue blouse that hung loose on her shoulders, with ample cleavage. The sunlight bounced off her breasts, bringing the constellations of freckles on her smooth, radiant skin to life. She smiled a full smile, exposing sparkling white teeth surrounded by red, red lips. Her chestnut curls swirled in the wind as she greeted me with a tempting gaze.
“Oh, uh,” I started after coming back from my daydream. It was three in the morning – can I still call it a daydream? “That’s good. I keep forgetting about the time difference, you know.”
She giggled. “Well, no wonder. You flew quite the distance.” She let out a sigh. It was a gentle sigh, one that melted me from the inside, quite unlike the passive aggressive sighs that Cathy gave me. “I miss you.”
“And I miss you, too” I said.
“So what are you doing up in the middle of the night?”
“Oh, right,” I said as I looked back at the kitty box. “I was looking through some old things and stumbled upon this weird box. It’s wrapped in gift paper with cats on it. The card says To Franco. Ring any bells?”
“Franco, Franco…” she said and fell silent, lost in thought. I pictured her putting up her thumb to her lips and biting on it as she pondered. “I don’t think I know anyone by that name, no. Did you talk to Cath about it?”
“I did, actually. It’s not her box. And she has no clue who Franco is.”
“That’s really weird. And you don’t know a Franco either?”
“Well, I wouldn’t be calling you guys if that was the case.”
“I suppose so…” she paused for a second. I imagined her chest raising and dropping as she breathed in and out. I could almost feel it as I ran my imaginary hand down her unbuttoned blouse, undoing two more buttons along the way. “So what do you think is in it?”
“Hmm?” I shook myself awake.
“What do you think is in the box?”
“I dunno.” I shook the box gently. There was a sound, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Nothing hard hit the box from the inside, but it also wasn’t empty. It was as if there was something soft and relatively light filling up most of the box. After I told Iris about it, she giggled again.
“Maybe it’s a cat? I mean, the box is covered in cats, so it seems logical.”
“I’m pretty sure the cat would be long dead. And it doesn’t smell like anything.”
“C’mon, I was joking,” she chuckled. “It just kind of reminds of that thought experiment. Schroedinger’s Cat, you know?”
“About the cat in the box and how it’s alive and dead?”
“That’s not how it works. Until the box is closed, it holds a certain amount of potential. The cat has a chance of being dead and being alive so long as the box is closed. But once you open it, it is either alive or dead. You no longer have the potential you had when it was closed.”
“And where did you learn all this?”
“At school, of course.” She laughed and then sighed again. “Anyway, it was a really nice of you to call me today. This long distance thing is kind of hard on me.”
“Yeah, I know. But it’s only for a little while, right?”
“Right. Now I gotta go back to work. This is my dream job, after all!”
“It is! Go show’em who’s boss, sweetie!”
“Love you too.”
I stared at my phone’s screen for exactly 34 seconds, if the kit-cat clock was to be believed. Apparently, Cath called me twice while I was talking to Iris, so I called her back.
“Sorry, I didn’t think you’d call Iris right away.” Her voice sounded different. She was no longer whispering, and there was a strange echo in the background. For some reason I pictured her in the kitchen, wrapped in her bathrobe.
“Well, I did. Not like I have much better to do. I can’t sleep anyway. It was nice.”
“Glad to hear it. Listen, I just remembered something. Well, maybe remembered is a big word for this.” She fell silent again and then exhaled a lot of air. I knew that sound.
“Hey, are you smoking again?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You’re smoking, I just heard you. We were married for eight years, you can’t fool me.”
“So what if I’m smoking?” she said in that flat tone she always used to annoy me.
“Well, you shouldn’t. For your own health, and remember the kids live with you and second-hand smoking is also super bad for your health.”
I heard her dip the cigarette in the ashtray and sigh. “Sorry. You’re right. I usually don’t smoke now, it’s just… I’m kind of having trouble sleeping.”
“Because of me?”
“Well, yes, I think. It has to do with that thing I remembered.”
She didn’t say anything yet, but I felt a lump in my throat, as if my body knew what was coming before my mind could even register it. “What is it?”
“It’s not anything specific, more like this nagging feeling at the back of my head. I don’t know who Franco is or what he brought on himself, but after we disconnected, I had some sort of epiphany.”
“Yeah, you know, like a-“
“I know what an epiphany is, Cath. So what did you see?”
She fell silent for a second and I heard her lean on an old kitchen stool. “I’m going to hang up now and you take a look at your contacts. See for yourself.”
“Okay,” I said nonchalantly, though I felt a chill run down my spine. “You should go back to sleep then.”
“I don’t think there’s a point now. I better take a shower and start preparing the food or something, just to get my mind off things.”
“Well, whatever works for you. Take care then.”
Sure enough she hung up. The light from the phone was much more blinding than I remembered it being, and the apartment seemed darker than it was before. With shaking fingers, I located my contact list and scrolled down. Sure enough, soon I found a ‘Franco’.
You brought this on yourself.
I didn’t even let myself think before pressing the call button. I put the receiver to my ear, watching as the kit-cat’s eyes moved in slow motion. What was I doing? Who was I calling? Why did I have his number? What’s going to happen now?
But he didn’t pick up. I waited there for what felt like hours, but he didn’t pick up. I then reminded myself that it was still, in fact, the middle of the night, so he might just be asleep. I was suddenly very aware of the fact that I had held my breath and could only now breathe freely again. I was about to give up my search and call it a night, but then I noticed his contact information in my phone was actually quite robust. I had his full street address. And I knew exactly where that was. So I did the only logical thing. I put on my coat and stepped out in the dead of night to deliver a package to a total stranger whose full address was in my phone, for some reason.
Walking down the dark lane with only a couple of streetlights to disperse the blackness made my mind wander into places I’d rather not tread. I tried to come back to the kit-cat clock, to Iris’ undone blouse, but instead I kept returning to the gift-wrapped box. There was no doubt in my mind that I knew Franco, and that I knew what was in the box. But why couldn’t I remember it?
My footsteps echoed down the empty street, but soon another pair of feet was added. The unmistakable click of high heels was coming in my direction. I saw a young woman draped in a large coat, but her legs were left exposed. I smiled at her, but she only ignored me as she passed by. I probably shouldn’t be surprised that the response to unwanted attention from complete strangers in the middle of the night was not considered a positive thing, but I couldn’t help but feel my confidence dip. By many, I was still considered attractive for my age. Though my gut has expanded in recent years, I was still very active, and my hair, though graying more and more, was still thick, strong and wavy. That one disinterested look tonight made me feel bad about myself. Although maybe it wasn’t just that. Maybe I was trying to convince myself that I’m angry, so that I could stop thinking about the box.
It was starting to drive me insane. I was angry that I forgot, compelled to open it, but at the same time I had a weird fascination with this Franco person who I could not remember for the life of me. It was almost perverse, how much I wanted to see him while at the same time dreading the consequences of that. What would I see if I actually found Franco? Would everything change, or nothing at all? What would I remember then? Maybe it was better to leave it all and resume my normal life, ignorant of what may have happened, never knowing what I could have missed, but also never hurting the way I potentially could.
You brought this on yourself
What did he bring on himself? What type of punishment awaited this poor man in this box? Was it really right to deliver it to him?
I stopped. I was standing right in front of the house. It was a beautiful, Victorian-inspired building with modern elements. The lights were out, so I knew that I would wake him up if I just rang and left him the package. I did not want to wake another person up in the middle of the night, considering what happened to Cath. I could just leave it in the mailbox. But really, did I want to leave it? Did I want to risk leaving something for this person I didn’t think I knew that could potentially cause him great pain?
What’s in the box? Should I open it?
I stood there, watching the windows, hoping to at least catch a glimpse of this stranger that I probably knew long ago. But there was nothing to see. I felt as if my head could explode at any second. My blood was boiling and my hands were shaking. Whatever was happening to me, I wanted to distance myself from it as soon as possible. I laid the damn package on top of the mailbox and walked away.
It was better this way, I told myself. It was none of my business. I didn’t even know the guy, so he might as well have not existed. It made no difference. Better him deal with whatever that box was than me. And I can just carry on with my life.
Goodbye, Franco. Have a nice life, whoever you are.