After the breakup, I only asked for one thing back: the photo album.
Every advice blog I Googled said that to take the gift back was to miss the point of giving a gift in the first place, and I saw the sense in those words. But I wanted that album, and badly. Months ago, I had placed it in my then-boyfriend’s hands and said, Here, keep this, because I wanted to give him a peephole into my childhood. He and I had fallen in love in the months leading up to the heady optimism of college graduation, meaning he’d never known me as a painfully self-conscious eleven-year-old or an elfin four-year-old. So I gave him a half-filled album, one that I’d found while cleaning out my old room before moving to the city to be with him post-graduation.
The album was robin’s-egg blue, with the word ANGEL stamped on the front in bubble letters: a kid’s photo album, the kind you buy at the Hobby Lobby for five bucks. Inside were plastic sleeves that a much younger version of myself had filled with pictures developed at Kodak between 1995 and 2005. In one, my sister and I sat in the bathtub, laughing and rubbing foam into each other’s faces. In another, I hunted for Easter eggs. In the last photo, I was twelve and holding a tennis racket at an outdoor match. My lips were bright red from the cold, and I looked driven, determined to win.
I didn’t remember getting the album as a Christmas or birthday present. I didn’t remember begging my mother for the photos, or what kind of story my younger self had been trying to tell by choosing these pictures in particular. But the album seemed like the most authentic way to say to my ex-boyfriend, This is who I was.
Thank you, he said when I gave him the pictures, and I knew he meant it.
After several months in the city, and without warning, he dumped me over FaceTime during a weekend away in the Poconos. I don’t love you any more, he said. I was blindsided and furious – didn’t he want to wait to see if his feelings changed? – but I had loved him for his kindness and his introspection. He would understand, I thought, if I asked him about the album. I gave him clear, concise instructions. Throw away all the handwritten notes, I wrote. Give me back the photo album. Do whatever you want with everything else.
I’ll give it back, he said, and that was the last I heard from him. When I realized he would never answer my phone calls and emails, I texted his roommate in desperation.
Can you remind him to drop the album off? I wrote.
He threw it away. Must’ve been a miscommunication, the roommate wrote back.
The photos were irreplaceable. There were no copies. While I held back tears until they came out of my nose, I tried to imagine what my ex-boyfriend had been thinking when he tossed the album into the garbage. Had he looked at the pictures before he did it? If so, was it a series of glances or a study of each photo? Had his thickly-muscled athlete’s hands left fingerprints on the photo sleeves?
Maybe the images of the self I had been then – a shy, neurotic girl – had revealed some key reason why he had decided not to love the self I was now. And, having solved the puzzle, he could put all of me behind him: every promise I’d made, every gift I’d given, every text, every message, every photo.
I peered in through these imagined windows to his mind, waiting for the answer to be revealed to me too, waiting. And I thought of the twelve-year-old with the tennis racket, the girl who had wanted to win every match, the girl whose image lay in a landfill somewhere outside the city. But already I couldn’t quite remember the look in her eyes.
Elizabeth Ballou is an editorial assistant in Philadelphia, PA. While not editing, she writes and designs video games for Green Willow Games, an indie studio she co-founded while getting her English degree at UVA. She is currently working on accepting that crying jags are okay.