The two of us were sitting at a coffee shop, one we had visited years ago when we were together. I twiddled my thumbs and made small talk, grinning at stories they told me of their journeys. They had become a prolific traveler, they found their calling making documentaries and I couldn’t have been more happy for them. They had this radiance about them, all the insecurities I knew in that younger person were gone. They had a place now, and we both knew it.
We chatted for a time before it was time to pay the bill. I reached down to my purse for my wallet, but a necklace I had hidden beneath my shirt slipped out. It was a tiny fabric monster attached to a clothespin via a hook on the back of its neck. I didn’t notice it was out until they said something.
“Why did you keep that?” I looked up at them, and stared. They pointed at my neck. Looking down, I saw the little totem, the little cloth on the pin.
“Oh, that.” I didn’t say anything else.
“Would you rather I had thrown it out?”
“No, I just thought you would’ve.” I smiled faintly at this.
“Of course not. I always remember.” I kept rummaging through my purse before adding, “You could call it a fatal flaw, honestly.” They tilted their head to look at me. I still remembered that mannerism: they wanted me to continue. I rolled my eyes.
“I’m too sentimental. Like I said, it’s probably my fatal flaw. I always keep these little momentos around from people I’ve cared about. They’re little snippets of past loves, past stages of my life, you know? It’s like- if someone takes time out of their day to think of me and gives me a gift, how could I ever throw that away?”
They took exception to that, picking at their food with their fork before looking up at me silently. I sighed.
“It’s a piece of themselves, given to me. Out of all the people on Earth they chose me. That’s special, isn’t it?”
“It’s a piece of cloth on a pin.”
“I know! And I think it’s wonderful! There’s a stupid little license plate on my dashboard that has a name I don’t even use anymore on it, but it’s still there, and I still think fondly of the person I was back then when I look at it. I wear a necklace–not this one–that was given to me by someone I haven’t contacted in years but I still wear it almost daily.”
“Wow is right. I have a box full of these little bits and baubles that are even less practical to my daily life, but I still have them. I just don’t let go of these things, and often? I don’t want to. Even if I did, there’d be a piece of myself with them, always.”
“Okay this is quickly devolving into a cliche rant about your inability to throw useless items away-”
“I know, I know. I really know. It’s bad, and maybe I should let go, but it’s how I am. There’s a respect for these past people from my life, you know?”
“I mean, I guess? But you need to focus on the future. Look- do you know what birds use for their nests?” I frowned.
“Birds use anything they can find for their nests. They’ll use sticks, little bits of cloth. Fabric, fur from other animals that are shedding, hair, even plastic sometimes. Either way, their nests are amalgamations of stuff that just collect in a little space so they can keep their young kids warm. You’re doing that.”
“You’re putting little pieces of yourself into all of these relationships, you’re putting pieces of them into yourself. How long before you have too many objects in your nest? And a future love you’re trying to cultivate can’t spread wings and fly because the nest is too full of all this stuff from past people? What then?”
I sat there for a while. I didn’t look up at them, but I knew they were staring at me, waiting for me to match their gaze. They were like that. Eventually, I did. Their gaze wasn’t mean, it wasn’t hurtful or judgemental, it was imploring. It was caring.
“I don’t know what happens then, honestly. I always just thought we’d cross that bridge when we got there.” They smiled wryly and sighed a little bit.
“You never stopped saying that.”
“That’s a piece that’s been there for a while. At this point it fits too well, it’s a part of who I am.”
“Yes but how long will you get these little pieces and insert them into yourself instead of inserting new pieces of your own?” I nodded, looked down at my ice water that had gained a fair amount of condensation.
“You’re right.” The waitress came by to pick up the check, and I gave her my card. They could tell I was still troubled though, and gave me the look again. I chuckled a bit and ran my hands through my hair, sighing.
“So what do I do? Do you have an answer?” They shook their head.
“No.” I blanched.
“What? Why not?”
“Because that’d lead you to doing another thing because of someone else. You need to get to the root of this alone. I can’t lead you to the answer. It wouldn’t be what you need.” I looked down to my plate, to the streaks of dressing and grease that remained. I looked up again.
“What I need, huh?”
“Yes, what you need.” I twirled my fork over the plate, making it dance beneath my fingers.
“Thank you.” They smiled.
“You’re welcome.” I stood, and they stood, too. We walked out of the restaurant side by side, I watched them get into their car before entering mine. I sat there for a time, looking at the passenger seat. They used to sit there, smiling over at me. They would laugh or dance or tell me a story, and I remember always being happy when they sat there. I sighed and shook my head at the action.
I put the tourist license plate in my glove compartment. I’d probably throw it out later.