I could easily see from the kitchen window that the sidewalk was glazed with ice. I’d always hated winter simply for the fact that I couldn’t leave the house without slipping and sliding everywhere. However, not even the heart-pounding doom threatened by the imminent possibility of falling on my ass could have stopped me from skating awkwardly across the driveway to the mailbox. Snow was heaped on top of the rusted, metal box, and my naked fingers stung when I pulled on the handle to open it.
Every day that week, often multiple times, I had braved the elements to check my mail only to disappoint myself when I found the lack of an envelope peeking at me from the confines of my mailbox. Every time, I would bend over to make sure the mail hadn’t simply been pushed far back into the box and out of sight, but I knew every time that I would find nothing.
Thus, I would then hook my fingers into any point on my car substantial enough to pull myself back up the icy hill that was my driveway. My apartment was a warm respite from the cold, but it only distracted me for so long. After a while, I’d be reminded of the mail I was expecting so that I could resign myself to waiting in misery again. It didn’t matter what else I tried to occupy my time with. Something would always remind me, and I would, again, find myself too anxious to concentrate on anything else. Each time I heard a vehicle stall outside, I’d rush to the window thinking that the postman had finally delivered my letter. However, I was disheartened every single time to find that I had just heard one of my neighbors pulling into their drives. Sometimes, it actually was the postman, but he was always pulled up in front of someone else’s box.
As time went on, I started to worry if there was any mail due for me at all. Maybe it had been lost somewhere along the way, or maybe it had never been sent in the first place. Either way, I developed the paranoid suspicion that something was wrong. Something was keeping my mail from getting to me. In the end, it turned out that the incompliant weather, surely, was the cause for the delay, because, finally, with my heart racing in excitement, I saw an envelope inside the mailbox. With another reason to hate the cold season under my belt, I snatched the letter from the box and slammed it shut.
On my way back inside, I didn’t think to use the car to pull myself along until it was too late to matter, so it was really a miracle that I made it to the front steps without falling on my face. I couldn’t open the envelope fast enough, but even in my haste, I took care not to damage it beyond all recognition. When I peeled back the flap, I found the shimmering, gold foil liner that denoted a card for a special occasion. Sure enough, when I slipped it from its envelope, I read the words “Happy Birthday” printed across the front. It was almost a week late, but I couldn’t have cared less. I was just thrilled to have received the card at all, more so because I knew exactly whom it was from.
For whatever reason, I took a moment to mentally prepare myself for what was inside. I had the strangest feeling in my gut that had to have constituted nervousness in some form or another; my stomach was in knots. When I opened the card, a photo slipped out along with something that I only identified by a flash of color before it glided beneath the counter and out of sight. I reached for the photo first, bringing it to level with my chest. My lips curled into a smile of their own volition when I saw Gavin’s gleeful grin on the glossy paper. He was standing in front of the most beautiful tree I’d ever seen. Its leaves had turned all manner of eye-catching hues in the late autumn season. I knew it must have been a very photogenic find for Gavin because he was pointing at it with both hands, brows raised in incredulous delight.
Still with a ghost of that smile on my face, I set the photo down and bent over to locate the other object that had fallen out of the card. I didn’t want to get down on my knees, so I felt around beneath the counter until my fingers settled on something foreign. Even as I had no guess as to what it was, the stiff, waxy texture felt curiously familiar. When I plucked it from the kitchen floor and held it up in my palm, I saw that it was a leaf. It wasn’t your typical green leaf, however. It was golden and mottled by brilliant splotches of red and orange. I knew it must have come from the tree in the photo. Such a gift was so characteristic of Gavin; everything had to have some sort of sentimentality connected to it.
Instantly, the leaf became something precious. It wasn’t as if I’d never seen an autumn leaf before. In fact, I’d probably seen plenty to rival or even surpass the beauty of the one cupped in my hand. However, it wasn’t just some arbitrary leaf that I had passed walking down the street or picked up outside. There was more attached to it than dirt and dead bugs. It was worth preserving. Thus, when I went to set them, the photo and the leaf, down again, I first checked for any stray drops of water or other substances on the counters that could damage them.
Then, I was finally able to read what I had been waiting for. The inner fold of the card was completely covered in messy scrawl along with arrows and things that were meant to help my eyes follow the disorganized text. I consumed the words rather eagerly, my eyes racing across the page. By that point, I was accustomed to Gavin’s barely legible handwriting. It read:
Happy Birthday Hunter!
I got your last letter. I’m sorry you’re bored! It won’t be long till I’ll be coming back home. I’m really having a great time though. I sent you a picture of the tree me and Jen found. It looks so much more amazing in person, but I got some really good photos of it so I’ll show you when I get back. It’s nice and cold here, but it hasn’t started snowing yet. I guess you wish you were here then huh? I kind of wish it would snow because this place is so beautiful and I know it would be so much prettier with snow.
Anyway, I left you a little present with my card. I know it isn’t much, but I thought it was really pretty so I hope you like it. I’ll get you something better when I get back! I’m excited for your next letter. Miss you!
Smiling wistfully, I tucked the card away, happy to have read it but disappointed to have reached the end. Even as I moved on to making myself something to eat and settling in front of the television, I couldn’t stop glancing at the leaf and Gavin’s cheerful face in the photo. At that moment, I wished so much I ached that Gavin hadn’t forfeited all basic amenities—cable, internet, telephone—to be able to travel the world, but I knew he was passionate about what he did. His photo collection was impressive enough, and if it truly made him happy to abandon everything in order to afford the luxury of traveling, I could wait for him to return. But that didn’t make waiting any less painful. Despite the fulfillment of reading the birthday card, I was already anxious for his next letter when I hadn’t even written a reply.
A week or so later, Gavin was finally back in town, and he called me when he arrived to say he’d be stopping by. It was difficult to wait the remaining couple of hours before he finally came to visit. When the doorbell rang, I nearly jumped out of my skin getting to the door, jerking it open somewhat carelessly.
“Hey,” he greeted with a strangely arrogant tone. “Miss me?”
The brunette invited himself into my apartment, sidling right past me. He had a six pack in one hand and a plastic bag in the other, weighed down by whatever was inside. I watched him welcome himself to my sofa, plunking the box of bottles onto the coffee table carelessly and dropping the plastic bag in his lap. He motioned me over with an eager grin, so I joined him on the couch albeit with a skeptical look in my eyes.
“What’s that?” I mumbled, not really trying to peek into the bag but keeping my eyes pinned in that direction.
“You’ll see,” Gavin responded slowly, punctuating the syllables with his motions. He seemed to be unfolding something and, surely enough, he pulled a t-shirt from the bag a few seconds later. He lifted the shirt like a hung tapestry before my eyes. Obviously, he was vying for my approval; the self-satisfied excitement in his eyes assured me of that. My gaze shifted to the t-shirt, and I read the bold typeface printed across it: “I have CDO. It’s like OCD except all the letters are in alphabetical order, as they should be.” I suppose he thought it reflected my personality. I really wasn’t the type to wear shirts like that, but I would never turn down a gift from Gavin.
“Thanks,” I offered with a chortle, reaching for the shirt. I started to fold it back up as neatly as Gavin had handed it to me—no doubt it had been folded in the store that way—when I noticed his green eyes watching me expectantly.
“What?” I froze.
“Put it on,” he demanded as if it should have been obvious.
“What? Now? Why?” I was already wearing a shirt, of course, and I hadn’t put it on very long before. I felt that taking it off would be a waste.
“I sit here and hand you a shirt, and you can’t even wear it in front of me?” Gavin retorted, sounding offended. It was all an act. “I know you’ll probably never wear it again, so at least let me see it on you now. Do you know how much I spent on that?”
“Yeah, yeah… You can quit your nagging.” I sighed as my fingers found the bottom hem. “I’ll put it on.”
“That’s what I thought,” Gavin replied triumphantly, smirking. He crossed his arms over his puffed-up chest and watched me remove my other shirt before slipping the new one over my head. He must not have wanted me to know the price because he seemed to have ripped any tags and stickers off before presenting it to me. It felt cold from having been carried through the frigid air outside, but it was comfortable and fit me loosely.
“How’s it feel?”
“It’s nice,” I replied a tad enthusiastically. I was already planning to wear it only around the house and to bed, but I could smell Gavin’s familiar musk in the fabric, a mixture of cigarette smoke and the very cleanly scented shower gel he used. Even if I didn’t care for the joke printed across my chest, I could already tell then that I’d be wearing that shirt a lot.
“Good,” Gavin responded flatly as he leant forward to grab two beers from the box, passing one to me. I was never one to drink, but I always had at least one if Gavin was the one offering it to me. I twisted the top off and followed his lead, taking a generous swig. It was cold, which I didn’t fancy considering it was sprinkling snow outside, but I bore through it.
“So what did you get up to while I was gone?” he drawled suggestively as if I’d done anything more exciting than working and staying huddled up in my apartment.
“Eh, you know… The usual…”
Gavin groaned in mock frustration and rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding me?” His whining was wildly exaggerated. “Hunter… Are you ever going to do anything exciting?”
“What’s there to do here that’s so ‘exciting?’”
“I dunno… Write a damn book? Go out and meet some people? Anything is better than sitting around your house all day.”
“I don’t ‘sit around my house all day,’” I rebutted, mocking Gavin’s words with my most outlandish impression of him, accentuating with my voice how dumb I thought he was for suggesting that. “I have to go to work, you know.”
“Oh, yeah… How’s your job at the, uh, gas station going?” The interest in his voice was so apparently false.
“You ass,” I growled, punching him in the shoulder. He giggled like a maniac with that high-pitched laugh of his and scrunched his shoulders up, leaning away from me. “How’s your job at the fucking McDonald’s?”
“Hey, whoa!” Gavin held his hands up as if I had a gun on him. “That was a low blow!”
“You brought it on yourself,” I replied flippantly, turning my attention away as if the wall across from me was more deserving of my attention than he was. I took another sip of the beer as if rewarding myself for me victory. He was tittering again but calmed not long after.
“No, seriously, though. How is everything going?”
“Fine.” Was anything ever truly “fine” when one answered that question with the same simple and lackluster response? I had a dead end job and lived by myself in the cheapest flat I could find. How could I ever be “fine?”
“Really?” Even Gavin was skeptical, and I’d never given him much credit toward being an observant person.
“Yeah, I mean… Everything’s fine.”
“Well, that’s good,” he replied, but I could easily hear the doubt in his voice.
“What about you?”
“Oh, great!” A quick and enthusiastic answer usually meant that it was sincere, at least, for someone so paper thin as Gavin. “I had a really good time on my trip.”
“Yeah, you sounded like you did.” In his letters, of course.
“Yeah, I really did… And I got a lot of good shots. I’m gonna show you them sometime... But me and Jen are just doing great.”
I never asked about Jen. I never truly forgot she existed, but I usually kept her repressed in my mind.
“Oh… That’s good.”
“Yeah, man…” It was easy to tell how excited he was by the subject, especially with that stupid grin on his face. “We were talkin’ the other day about opening our own studio. She thinks we need to move away to do that though.” He seemed subdued for a moment, staring pensively at his knee. “She’s prob’ly right though. There’s nothing here.”
“Yeah,” was the only response I could muster until I realized how disparaged I sounded. “You’d probably do better somewhere else.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. He continued to stare at the space between his knees for a moment longer until his smile finally returned and his eyes were on me again.
“Well, hey, it was really great to see you, man.” He leant toward me with his arms open, so I did the same. He embraced me tightly enough to cause pain and gave me a couple firm pats on the back. It might have looked like a casual hug, but we stayed connected for longer than I would have expected, even if it was only by a few seconds. Despite the extensive length of the hug, I still didn’t want to let go when we finally parted.
“Happy late birthday,” he added with a chortle.
“Thanks.” I managed to smile.
“Sorry I can’t stay longer, but… Jen wanted me home before dinner.”
“Oh, that’s fine,” I assured, sounding a tad too sincere. Gavin didn’t seem to notice. He stood and chugged his beer before leaving the bottle on the coffee table. Then, he was pulling his coat and boots on again.
“Don’t forget your booze,” I warned with the slightest hint of teasing.
“Oh, no, that’s for you.”
“Oh… Alright,” I tittered. I knew I wouldn’t drink them, but they would be there for him when he visited again.
“So I’ll see you around?”
At some point, I had been compelled to stand a couple feet away from him as he prepared to walk out the door. It was almost as if I was trying to follow him.
“Yeah,” I replied, nodding. His ensuing grin was pleased.
“Alrighty then... See ya’!”
He clapped me on the shoulder and walked out the door to the sound of the rough wind, which drowned my final goodbye. I stood there for a moment after he left, staring at the door as if waiting for him to return. Eventually, I sighed and moved to turn both the locks. Visits with Gavin never felt like they were long enough and seemed to be briefer every time, but I always tried to keep from thinking about the distance I thought was growing between us. With another sigh, I returned to the couch to numb my mind with some more television. Halfway through whatever random program I was watching, I found myself plucking the leaf from my side table and twiddling its stem betwixt my fingers. Of course, with so many reminders of Gavin, I couldn’t simply push the memory of him from my mind. Perhaps, however, I didn’t really wish to forget. Why else would I keep stealing lungfuls of the scent that permeated my new shirt?