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.
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.