When my daughter and I first walked into this house, a little over five years ago, we knew it was our home. It looked nothing like the way it looks today, but there's a moment when you recognize the place where you'll likely spend the rest of your life, or at least a nice chunk of it. We went back and forth with the owners; one week they were willing to sell to us, the next, not so much, and so on. In the end, I wrote them a nice card, wishing them well whatever their decision, and the next thing I knew, we were moving in.
Since that day, it seems our lives have been crowded with life-changing events: five days after moving in was September 11, 2001. Soon after that, my daughter fell under the spell of drugs and alcohol and, when her dad died, she went into a nearly lethal tailspin featuring a couple scary visits to the emergency room in the dead of night. It was a chapter that thankfully ended with a flight to a rehab in Pennsylvania and the long road back to who she really is without the poison of alcholism claiming her spirit.
I got a job, lost a job, became a freelancer. Had a boyfriend, went to Paris, broke up with the boyfriend. Our house was the setting for numerous brunches and dinners and even, sadly, the memorial for my first husband. I've comforted friends in my living room, laughed with Cory in the kitchen, cried on my front porch as the vet gave our 22 year old cat, Abbey, the needle that put him out of his misery.
There's been such life in this house - so much so that it echoes all the more poignantly with solitude. I am, by nature, an isolator. Over the past twenty years, I could think of no better way to spend an afternoon than to have nothing more awaiting me than a good book and the makings of a pot roast in the fridge. But during this last month, I have sought anything but quiet alone-time. Happily, life has obliged me with work and friends, the season changing, thoughts and ideas for my next book; travel plans for an upcoming trip, just lots and lots to do. However, when I do have that odd moment where I cast about for something, anything, to rescue my mood, I've developed the habit of seeking out empty spaces with an eye to filling them.
Such is the case with the area in front of the big arched window in my living room. The sole tenant of that space is my baby grand piano, which used to be played daily but now, I'd be lucky if I can remember a few bars of Chopin. After Cory moved to San Francisco, I zeroed in on this space with my designer's critical eye. It was barren. It was unbalanced. It was screaming out for attention. Never mind that it had been fine this way, thank you very much, for five years. And never mind that the area we're talking about is miniscule.
I decided a chair was in order. But what kind of chair?
I started shopping online. I looked at armchairs, chaise longues, Stickley rockers, La-Z-boys. Although I wanted something comfy that you could curl up in, for the limited space it had to be rather narrow and not too deep. Hmmm, perhaps you wouldn't so much curl up in this chair as you would scrunch down. It was a slam dunk to locate a big, fat, sassy easy chair. But finding one that had been put on a diet was a little trickier. Shabby Chic, Room and Board, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, all were bookmarked, to be returned to again and again in my obsessive hunt for just the right piece.
One day, I even went off on a tear to Pier One, and came damn close to picking up a rocker for a fraction of the cost of the easy chairs I'd been mulling. But the voice in my head chided me, pointing out that that chair was not for settling into on a winter's night with a volume of Tolstoy to keep you warm. It could be rocked in and nothing more, and I am not ready for that to be my sole occupation when sitting down. Instead of leaving with a chair, I brought home an enormous forty-pound stone Buddha head which frightened the wits out of Biggie.
Cory had come home for Labor Day weekend and, having narrowed my search down to two contenders, I showed her the chairs in hopes she might swing the deciding vote. She right away picked my favorite. A white, slipcovered affair from Crate & Barrel. Of course, then I tried to sell her on the other one, but she was resolute. "The white one, Mom. It's just better." I ask you, does it get any more articulate than that?
After she went back to S.F., I went to the Grove to check out the chair live. It was deliciously soft. It was pretty. It was perfect. I ponied up the cash and they gave me the delivery date. I went home and looked at that empty space and felt the full flush of buyer's remorse. What if they bring the chair and it doesn't fit? I'm notorious for messing up when it comes to spacial relationships. Why didn't I think this through? Why didn't I think, period? The next few days were spent in an odd place. I recognized it as the spot I have visited in the first few days after getting married. It's kind of like panic, but wrapped in cashmere.
Finally, the morning arrived. The two burly delivery men marched my chair right into my house as if it weighed an ounce. They cut the protective plastic wrapping. They positioned it where I pointed. I gave them both a nice tip and they wished me a pleasant day. And then it was just me, and the house, and the new resident.
Contrary to my fears of spacial failure, it fit perfectly in its new space. But the cushions were in a kind of permanent state of attention: way too stiff and not settling into the contours of the chair. I tried sitting on it. Comfortable, but not in the way I remembered the chair in the store. I pushed my weight around in it. Got up, looked at it. Left the room to go get a cup of coffee from the kitchen. Walked back in as if with new eyes.
And there it was. Biggie, all white and gray fur and blue and gold eyes, was curled up on the seat cushion. Chair as feline fashion accessory. He looked up at me as if to say, "I approve," and then put his head down again, closing his eyes and effectively ending the conversation.
Hours later, just before bed, I headed out to the living room to explore the night from a new perspective. And there, on the arm and on the seat, were two brown smudges. Poop stains, courtesy the Big Man. I got the toothbrush and some liquid soap and started scrubbing, but soon realized I was making matters worse; the liquid soap was green and now the poop was gone, but there was a green stain to contend with. I got a bowl of water and started saturating the stains with it. The chair was soon soaking wet, so then I was dabbing with a dry towel and then came the blow drier. All this, and I had had the chair less than twelve hours. I stopped my frantic activity.
It's a white chair. I have a highly imperfect life. I'll do what I can to stitch those two realities together. But my new chair is not a panacea for my new loneliness. It doesn't make my heart bloom with gladness or create hilarious memories, unless you count poop scrubbing as an activity that can be featured on America's Funniest Home Videos. I doubt in my final hours I'll be thinking about how this chair made my life more complete.
I came to realize, one more time, that as much of a material girl as I am, things aren't the thing. They are pleasurable for a heartbeat, and then the heart moves on to something more substantial. My house is a repository for memories, and there is such a thing as power of place. There have been studies that show people's brains become active in very specific ways when stimulated by certain smells or sights that awaken the memory. That empty space by the piano? That's a powerful memory for me. And more proof that while nature abhors a vacuum, when humans abhor them, sometimes they get more than what they bargained for. Especially when their solution is a white chair.