“This seems . . . fine?” I offer, brushing against leather that melts under my hand, giving it a little squeeze.
I’m supposed to be Encouraging and Providing Feedback and Being Helpful, but the air is sticky and thick and the words get jumbled as they ricochet from my brain to my mouth. I move through the simulated rooms like water, touching little, saying less. I leave as little wake as possible as I wander through the vignettes of other lives. I take note of a stuffed bunny, a magazine left open, signs that someone wants us to believe that actual human life takes place in each two-meter square. It’s supposed to help you imagine yourself in the room, I think. Someone gets paid to think up ways to make us believe people actually live in these ersatz rooms. I wonder how much that person makes. How do you write a resume for a job like that?
I look around until I catch sight of mom. She’s looking excited about a chair-and-a-half, while I stand next to a bookshelf like a Sims character whose creator was called to dinner.
Furniture shopping is an exercise in imagination: think about who you are and who you want other people to think you are, and then decide which piece fits into that image of your life. I can’t help her make a choice between the thousand mirrors, because each one refracts back a small piece of the life I was supposed to be leading. Which me is the one with the gold gilt frame? Do I require green-room style lights around all four sides? I’m not sure, but considering I haven’t worn makeup in days (weeks?) and I’m stretching the farce that yoga pants are for yoga means the dressing room mirror is probably a stretch. Am I the kind of person who leaves an open copy of the Economist laying around to impress guests? I used to be, maybe the solid oak desk is a good idea. How sexy and confident am I? Maybe this crushed-velvet Vegas-style quilted headboard is The One.
My imagined life — the one where I had the Big Job in the Big City with the Big Paycheck and could finally pick out post-college, post-Ikea furniture — feels so far away it might as well be impossible. I’m trying to put aside the person I thought I was becoming — the one who would have reasoned thoughts about the benefits of a sectional couch, for example — for the person I am. The one who occupies a secondhand writing desk, which the former owner covered in cat stickers. The one who carried a portfolio full of posters eight thousand miles, only to never put them on the walls.
All of this was supposed to be temporary. None of it was supposed to go this way. I never bothered picking furniture or decorating the walls because this phase wasn’t going to last very long. And after a year of form rejection emails, “I’m really sorry”s, and “we’ll keep your information on file”s, I can’t muster up the courage to bother imagining one more iota. My heart hurts at the thought of another exercise in imagining myself anywhere; as a result, picking a headboard feels like a bridge too far.
I am avoiding eye contact with the salespeople at the Ashley Home Furniture Center because I am preemptively ashamed. I cannot stomach conversations about sales prices, delivery options, or installation fees. At this rate, I might actually vomit. So I hold in all the thoughts that want to leap their way into words, and I let the heat fill my cheeks. I brush my fingers along crushed velvet and buttery suede. I knock my knuckles on dressers, shuffle my feet along the winding path. I move my body so that I don’t have to stop and consider anything, don’t have to make eye contact.
I look around for Mom. Maybe she’ll give me clues as to which pieces I’m supposed to like so I can provide the requisite encouragement. Maybe she’ll decide without me, and I can wander next door to the bookstore. Maybe I can sneak outside where it isn’t so hot, and I can wait it out until all this is over.
Someday, I’ll be able to hate furniture shopping for all the regular reasons: it’s time-consuming and expensive and so, so boring. But today, something between jealousy and grief leaks out as I say, “That one’s fine” for the thousandth time. It’s automatic, reflexive, and I’m not certain which knick knack or centerpiece I’m saying it about.
The higher-order part of my brain knows that this is temporary: the unemployment and the living with Mom and the secondhand desk. Eventually, it will be different. But the future where that is true — where I get to pick out which mirror feels most Like Me — is opaque and inaccessible. My imagination used all of its juice giving me the bravery to move continents, and then sputtered out along with all my job prospects. After my independence, my financial stability, and my dignity, my ability to imagine a near-term future has been suspended.
Of course, five years from now or so, I’ll be back on course, chasing promotions or toddlers or whatever. I’m not without confidence. But six months from now? A year? Which area rug do you choose when you aren’t sure where or when or in what context you’ll need one?
So here I am, having an existential crisis in the sea of bathroom vanities. I cannot bear to look up into my own shell-shocked face, so I choke back the emotion stuck in the middle of my throat. Then, I head back to where Mom is debating the merits of a candleholder. Now is not the time for crises. Now is the time for Supporting, for Encouraging, for Providing Feedback. For now, this is my job. The candleholder is fine. I’m fine. This entire charade is fine. Everything is fine. I nod politely, smile slightly. “It seems fine,” I manage.