2003, I move into an apartment, one with a tiny view of the Empire State Building, and I can barely get enough money together for the broker's fee and the security deposit and the first and last month's rent, but I do it, and it's a triumph. I can't afford furniture, though. I have a mattress and a small kitchen table that is basically a card table and two chairs and that's it. I end up dumpster-diving in the neighborhood. Two blocks away, outside a senior citizens' home, I find a decent bookshelf, real wood, no nicks.
Briefly, I imagine death on it, a resident passing away in the night, her children picking over the china, the jewelry, the sepia-toned family photo albums. Does anyone want this bookshelf? No. I hoist it on my back and head home with it, stopping every 30 seconds to rest. It's tall, this bookshelf, and it almost hits the ceiling of my apartment. I dust it, and then paint it white while standing on a stepladder. When I'm done, I wipe my hands on my jeans and smile. Overnight the bookshelf dries. I move it against the back wall of the apartment, and I put all my art books in there, organized by color. Then I invite my mother over to see my new place.
The first thing she notices when she walks in is the bookshelf, bright white, and she asks me where I got it. I tell her the truth. "It looks nice," she says. "I just need to do that ten more times and then I'll have a whole apartmentful of furniture," I say, and then I regret it, because I don't want my mother to feel bad that I live that way, even though we've always lived that way, on the edge of broke. She sits down at the kitchen table. I pour some wine into a jelly jar and slide it toward her. For a few minutes she riffs on being alone, missing my father. My mother has been a widow for fifteen years, but she still likes to moan about it whenever her love life gets a little dull. Before she leaves she says, "I can give you furniture," and I say, "Mom, it's fine," and she says, "No, really, I have a few pieces for you," and I don't even know what she's talking about, a few pieces, she's got nothing to spare in her life, and I say no again, and then she gets a little hostile about it and says, "I can give my daughter furniture for her new home if I want to," and finally I agree, and she says she'll send a guy over with it. After she's gone, I drink the rest of the bottle of wine by myself.
After she's gone, I drink the rest of the bottle of wine by myself.
A few days later a man shows up with a van. I venture out to the street to see if I can help him carry anything. He's wiry and all jazzed up, with this lean, electric, weird energy. His hair is in tight little curls. He introduces himself as Alonzo. "I'm a friend of your mother's," he says. I ask no questions. My mother has had a lot of friends in her life. She's been a political activist for more than thirty years, involved with every possible shade of leftist organization. We had people coming in and out of our house all the time.
A woman exits the passenger's side. She's a healthy, big blonde, probably twice the size of the man, both taller than him and wider. "This is my girl visiting from Virginia," he says. She waves at me. He does not mention her name. He opens the back of the van. There's a lamp in there, a small end table, another bookshelf, nothing too impressive, but also a lounge chair with an ottoman, actually gorgeous, black leather with a wood base, an Eames, or a good knockoff, anyway. I haven't been home in a while, but I'm pretty sure my mother just gave me half her living room.
Alonzo and the woman move all the furniture except for the lamp, which I carry myself. The woman seems to shoulder most of the weight of the furniture while Alonzo quietly directs her. When they're finished, she says to me, "If y'all ever want to sell this chair, let me know. I love it. This is just my kind of chair." There's a genuine hunger in her voice. This thing would make me happy; this object would please me. How lucky she is to know what satisfies her. I nearly give it to her then, but I'm too strapped; I need it for myself.
How lucky she is to know what satisfies her.
Instead I scrounge in my purse for a tip, but Alonzo waves me off. "Your mother took care of everything," he says. He hands me his business card, which has a bunch of job titles on it. He's a carpenter, a deejay, and a motivational speaker. He also does bodywork. "You call me if you ever need anything," he says. "I do it all." I feel like he has everything figured out. I put his business card in my kitchen drawer: my first business card in my new home.
Three years pass. I'm nearly 32 years old. My mother gets a new boyfriend, and eventually they break up because she finds out he has another girlfriend in Miami, and she says, "That's it. I'm done. That was the last one." During that time my brother gets married to a wonderful woman, and she looks like a princess at the wedding, and it makes me believe in the possibility of love. Even if it doesn't exist for me, it could exist for someone else, and I take comfort in that. I sleep with one of my brother's friends at the wedding and he sneaks out early in the morning without saying goodbye and we never see each other again, until I happen upon his picture in the wedding-announcements section of the paper a few years later and I think, Good for you, but also, Fuck you — even though I am not entitled to the feeling at all.
Also during those three years I get two raises at work. Eventually I'm able to pay off the debt from the graduate program I never completed. After that, I buy proper wineglasses and new bookshelves and a kitchen table, but I keep the lounge chair and the ottoman because I like them. New furniture feels grown up. Also I mostly stop doing drugs, which feels extra grown up. Not in any twelve-step kind of way. I simply couldn't take the hangovers anymore.
But one night I do some coke at a stupid birthday party for one of my old drug friends. I walk into the apartment and everyone's high already and I smell it and I see it on their faces and I want it too because this is the land of no repercussions, this community, this group of people, this loft in the nethers of Bushwick. I don't even do that much, and I leave before midnight and things can get too dangerous, but then I'm up, I'm fucked. I take a Valium to bring myself down, but it doesn't work — or it works, but it works against me, and I'm racked with terrible sleep. I have a nightmare right before I wake.
I take a Valium to bring myself down, but it doesn't work — or it works, but it works against me, and I'm racked with terrible sleep. I have a nightmare right before I wake.
I'll spare you the specific plot, but my dead father was in it. I hadn't thought about him in a while, had actually been actively rejecting thoughts about him for no apparent reason, although if I really pushed myself into a deep kind of consideration about the matter it might have had something to do with a sense of failure and discontentment with my own existence and my fear of mapping that to his personal trajectory, but that's just a guess! An uneducated, bitter, depressed guess. Anyway, there he is, not being particularly threatening or anything, but definitely not friendly either. He's sort of this light-blue color, and he's sitting in the recliner with his legs stretched out on the ottoman, a dream, a nightmare, a ghost, all at once.
It scares the shit out of me. I wake up immediately and focus on the room, looking for reality, a steadiness, a center. I stare at the recliner. It's then that I realize that this is the chair where my father overdosed. It was his favorite place to sit, after all. He nodded off there frequently. He died in our living room while I was at school. He was listening to jazz; my mother had mentioned that much. She had never specifically stated where he died. But of course it was in this chair. And now, in my own home, I had napped on that chair. Flipped through the Sunday paper while lounging on it. A few times I had sex on it, not intercourse sex, but oral sex, both given and received. Sex on my father's death chair. Cool gift, Mom.
I call my mother to confirm the truth. She doesn't answer. I leave her a message. For weeks she doesn't return my call, and when she does, I'm on the train to work, which means I can't actually pick up, which means she gets to leave a message. All she says is "Honey, if you don't want the chair then just throw it out."
I call my brother. "Mom gave me the chair Dad died in," I tell him. "And you took it? She tried to give it to me, too," he says. "Well, I didn't know what it was," I say. "I guess I blocked it out." That is a thing I've been known to do, and my brother doesn't argue the point. "I've had nightmares about it," he says. "Just toss it." "Like in the garbage?" I say. "Andrea, just throw it away," he says.
But I understood why my mother held on to for it so long, and also why she felt like she had to hand it off to someone instead of putting it in the garbage. It was Dad's chair. So I decide to sell it on Craigslist, that way I know where it's going. I look up the value of the two pieces online. The set is worth about a thousand dollars. On a Saturday morning, I list it for two-fifty. Priced to move. Looking for a good home. P.S., my father died in it.
The set is worth about a thousand dollars. On a Saturday morning, I list it for two-fifty. Priced to move. Looking for a good home. P.S., my father died in it.
A number of people reply to the ad, and I give them all my address because I feel insane. I buy a bottle of wine, and I buzz in anyone who shows up. About a dozen randoms do. Then there's Aaron, an aspiring folksinger, six months in the city, who smells like weed. Curly-haired and open-shirted. My father would have loved him for different reasons. Aaron would have listened raptly to the three Dylan stories in my father's possession. My father loved to tell those stories. Aaron tells me he's got a van downstairs, he could take the chair right now, no problem. The van is for touring, he says. He plays coffeehouses across America. Folk music, he moved here for the folk scene, he says. Is there a folk scene, I think but do not say out loud, oh wait I did. "There is," he says and he laughs. "I like you," he says. "You're a real ballbuster." This seems to me to be his way of reclaiming control of the conversation, acknowledging my critique but also de-feminizing me. He's dumb, and just another man. I don't care about his unbuttoned shirt anymore. He offers me two hundred dollars for the chair. "Bye-bye," I say.
"Come have coffee with me, then," he says. He glances at the bottle of wine, half empty. "Or a drink. Or whatever you want." He says I look like I need some fresh air. That's true. I walk outside with him. He points out the van. He says I should get in it. I do. We make out in the van for a while. "Let's get high," he says. "I don't want to," I say. "I'm already drunk. I don't need to." "I do," he says. He smokes weed from a one-hitter. "OK, all right," I say. I take a hit.
We go back upstairs to my apartment and fool around some more, and we get really close to having sex, I mean we are basically naked, I've got my underpants on, he's got his boxers on, but his dick is sticking out of them and is pressing up against me hard, and then he backs me onto the chair, and that's when I freak out. "I think you should leave," I tell Aaron. "This was too weird." "Are you sure?" he says. "We could just do it right now, super hard and fast, and then it will be over." He utters a string of filthy words, barely forming a sentence, but I get the idea. "No, go," I say. I don't feel threatened by him, but I get a little physical anyway, and I push him out the door. The action feels right. Then he disappears, presumably into the white-hot folk scene of New York City.
The action feels right.
What was all that? My home was just ravaged by strangers. My body, too. I had made out with a man in a van. I had allowed all this to happen to me. I had invited this into my home. I could have just thrown that chair away and nothing bad would have happened. I feel deeply, physically ill. This fucking chair. I want it gone. Suddenly I remember the business card from the man who could do anything. I dig in my desk drawer, I dial the number. Alonzo picks up. I remind him who I am, that I'm my mother's daughter. "Evelyn's daughter, sure. Ev-e-lyn," he sings.
I tell him about the chair. "Do you think your friend would still want it?" I say. "Now, let me think, who was that ... Charlotte?" "I don't know if I ever knew her name," I say. "Yeah, it was Charlotte. I haven't seen her in a minute," he says. "I could track her down, but I don't think she'd want to hear from me. They come and they go, you know."
"Yes," I say. This is the part I understand perfectly. (But am I a Charlotte? Or an Alonzo? Probably just an Andrea.) "Anyway, I can take it off your hands," he says. "I can probably sell it if it's in good condition and all." "It's just been sitting here," I say. "Still intact." "I'll give you fifty bucks for it," he says. "Fine," I say. "Just take it." He tells me he's up in the Bronx, but he can get to Brooklyn after eight. I sit and drink the last of the wine until he knocks on my door.
Excerpt from the novel ALL GROWN UP, to be published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in March 2017. Copyright © 2017 by Jami Attenberg. Printed by permission of the author.
Jami Attenberg is the author of six books, including All Grown Up, which will be published in March 2017.