She held up the level parallel to her mouth, her arms straight, moving the plastic ends on her fingerprints. Facing the window across the small bedroom, she squinted. The natural light drew her lashes closer together, bending the creases between her cheekbones and eye corners. Levels always made her think of tiny lava lamps, or the toxic ocean you swam through once you reached the polluted water level in Donkey Kong Country, and she was never able to hold them completely straight. She watched the bubble rock from side to side, finally landing in the middle. Her arms were beginning to tire, and it still looked crooked. Everything always looked crooked.
Her boyfriend stood behind her, nailing shelves from his middle school wood-shop class to the wall. She wondered if the pounding would upset Steve, the neighbor below, or Amber, the girl with the short hair next door. She had never met them but knew that Steve had pet birds, and Amber had a bike and kept a cactus by her front door. She turned her head to watch her boyfriend’s shoulder blades tense and relax with each hit, under his light grey t-shirt.
She listened while he told her that because of the red tint, the color of the stain on his shelves was the least popular pick in his eighth-grade class. She stretched back toward the window with its white light, thinking that this was why she loved him. She did like the color of the shelves, after all, for it reminded her of a small cedar box that her father kept in his finished basement. When she was younger, she liked to sit cross-legged on the dim grey-blue carpet; the softness of the fibers tugging at the thin hairs on her thigh while she placed the tip of her nose on the top of the box and slowly opened it, drawing in a breath so quickly that it burned her throat. The scent was what she imagined trees would smell like if someone gave them a bath with soap that old men used, the kind they sold in drugstores. Her father told her that the smell was cedar, like the box. As far as she knew, the scent had only ever truly existed in that finished basement.
As she continued staring out the window, thinking of the wooden box, she felt her boyfriend’s calloused hands on her half bare shoulders. He pressed his lips to the top of her head and spoke into the soft skin where her part fell. She felt his words vibrating through her skull.
“I want to plant flowers in your hair,” he told her. “I want to create a garden on top of your head that I can walk through, barefooted.” She felt him smile, although she couldn’t see him, and she smiled too.
The sun eventually made its way from the window, and she decided to leave for her father’s house. After running barefoot down the stairs to his finished basement, she found the cedar box in the corner and blew off the dust. Before leaving, she kissed her father on the cheek and told him how much she cared for him.
Upon arriving back to her boyfriend’s apartment, she walked into his room with the box and placed it on the floor. She went to the windows where she stood on tiptoes and took soil and African wild violets from a planter on the sill in her palms, and carefully planted the roots in the box, patting them down gently. Sweat gathered at her temples, and she rubbed at her face, painting cats whiskers with the dirt.
She looked up to see the colors of her boyfriend’s eyes following her and told him to take off his shoes. He did, slowly, and placed them beside the box neatly, both facing the same direction. She then took his still rough hand with her dirty palms, looked into the box, and decided that they couldn’t take the red tinted shelves with them.
“I’m sorry,” she shook her head. “They’ll have to stay.” He understood. He always did, even when he didn’t. They stood in silence, thinking about Steve’s birds and Amber’s bike, and her small cactus outside of the door. “Okay,” he spoke finally.
“Then let’s go.” She calmly whispered, as they both climbed inside the cedar box and shut the top.