She bought the furniture at Sears

In science fiction movies people from the future are always popping up in the present. In The Terminator one of these time travelers warns, protects, and impregnates our heroine. In a seminal episode of the TV series Roswell, “future Max” comes back to prevent his younger self and then-lover-future-wife from marrying. Apparently their relationship will inadvertently bring about the end of the world. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, a doppelganger version of one character is invoked from an alternate universe. This “evil” Willow confronts our nerdy Willow with disdain. We don’t realize until much later that, though this other Willow is exaggerated, the power of her magic, sexuality, and confidence is closer to the true woman Willow will become as she matures. This dark Willow is a visitor from the future as well, this time to foreshadow rather than act as harbinger.

If I could go back to myself as a younger person, what would I tell her? What would I thwart? What would I make sure happened exactly as intended? What glimpse of my grown-up self would I dare give my girl self early on: to comfort or inspire or scare the hell away from?

This past Wednesday was my birthday. On Monday I went to the first class in a writing workshop that my sister enrolled me in as a birthday present. I walked to the studio in fluffy falling snow, Chicago at its most cinematic. Like a kid on the first day of school I had bought a new orange spiral of paper and Pilot gel tipped pens. Everything felt fresh—the snow, my supplies, being a student. I was anxious.

My reaction to these types of situations is always the same. I manage it like a golf handicap, subtracting a few strokes, resigned to my role as the player who will feel out of place and irredeemably awkward. I assume everyone will be hipper, smarter and, because my birthday is in two days, certainly much younger. The instructor chats, we chat, and then he gives us an in-class writing assignment: “Describe your first bedroom.” I pull out my shiny notebook and chew on the pen cap. I hear the Jeopardy music somewhere in my head, tick tock, a clock counting down and a tiny voice intoning to the beat: “Write brilliantly . . . write brilliantly . . . write brilliantly.”

First bedroom, stuffed animals, a white dresser, then another bedroom, brown pine furniture from Sears, liked the desk, then another bedroom, the furniture, still brown, then another bedroom, still brown, maybe a poster, another bedroom. I start to drift. I think of bedrooms that I have read about in books. I begin to merge my vague memories with imaginary memories. I try to refocus. What color was that shag carpet? Was it red, was it blue? Loved my bookshelves, they were brown. What was it with furniture? Why couldn’t I conjure up at least one sentimental wallpaper pattern or knick knack or theme sheet set? The time limit gonged and I reluctantly read my paragraph aloud. “What details do we remember from Pandora’s piece?” the instructor asks. “She bought the furniture at Sears,” they respond.

Throughout the next hour I silently deconstructed my struggle with the assignment, obviously designed to illicit vivid detail from the writer’s vast store of vivid memory. What I could not remember was far more telling than what I could. I moved six times between the ages of three and fourteen. There was always another bedroom. The only constant was the brown furniture from Sears. The walls, the rugs, the curtains rotated like a color wheel. Objects went in and out of boxes, some ending up unopened in a closet. I often forgot in the interim what treasures they might have contained. Once I found Malibu Barbie after two states. New schools, new friends, new playgrounds—I was a trooper, but there are blurry parts, chapters where the stories in books offered more permanent settings than the backdrop of real life. I believed this upbringing endowed me with resilience and pluck yet a clunky disconnection jangled my nerves, an insecurity that undermined the hard work of belonging. I looked around the classroom at women I had cast as sensationally superior in all ways and reminded myself that they were peers and fellow students, just like me.

If I could visit my ten-year-old self and warn her of this future assignment, would she have taken the effort to walk around one of those bedrooms with special care? I might say to her, “Rub your fingers on the yellow flocked flowers decorating the walls, lie face down on the carpet, and feel the roughness on your cheeks, imprint the smell and touch of this moment.  You are going to leave it soon, don’t forget, you are here.” Would I stand next to her in the hallway and point out how much these kids are just the same as the kids that she just left? Would any of this have changed the way I felt walking in to this class tonight?

Social scientists have found that when people are shown two versions of their own image, one that is a true-to-life representation and one that is in reverse, they will choose the reverse image every time. This is the image that looks back at them from the mirror each day and, therefore, from their perspective, the more familiar. We watch without awareness the imperceptible changes that happen day to day and the culmination is infrequently noted. Sometimes on a birthday or modeling an outfit for a special event or staring at red-rimmed sadness, we think, here I am now. Then we promptly stop tracking until next time a white hair catches the light or we hear ourselves remark an insight so wise we realize a shift has occurred, time has finally connected two grooves where before we had confusion. Who we are is a moving target, our past informing the future of every present moment.

Mohamed Ali and I share the same birthday. While I was bemoaning first bedrooms, he signed up for Social Security as a sixty-five-year-old. Would he go back twenty years and tell himself to stop fighting before he damaged his brain? Would his younger self have stopped? What would my sixty-five-year-old self tell me? “Relax. The next writing assignment will be easier.” Would that make me dread the next class less? The problem with foreshadowing and harbingers is that we long for them; convinced we need a map for the next day’s journey, we forget the color of our shag carpet today. 

13 responses to “She bought the furniture at Sears”

  1. MarleyFan says:

    Sounds like an entertaining class It’s interesting what we remember (even more so, what we don’t). We moved into our second house when I was five. My upstairs bedroom had wickedly sloped ceilings, blue walls, and blue multi-colored wall-to-wall shag carpet, but it didn’t last long. My aunt brought her family to visit for a family vacation; and her husband returned home, alone. I ended up moving down the dimmly lit basement with no windows, sharing it with my older cousin, who put up a stoplight (most likely stolen), along with his collection of beer cans. The stoplight was captivating as it cycled through the green, yellow, and red lights. I could relate to the pressure of an assignment, and especially where you felt the weight of the Jeopardy music, and the clock ticking down…write brilliantly. Well done.

  2. Mark says:

    I moved from my first room when I was two, but I had dreams of it later and I remember it being blue and having sharply sloping ceilings as well (what a coincidence!).

    My next room after that (and my first real room I would say) was also in a basement, with short brown carpet that gave wicked rugburns, two twin beds, one for me and one for my brother, and a window that looked out into a little dingy window-well always full of spiders and dead leaves. I always wondered why they would put a window in an underground room. My brother shared the room with me. I always thought he was a bully back then, but somehow when I was scared of the dark he’s let me sleep with him to make me less scared (after getting him a glass of water ).

    I know this isn’t really about first rooms, but it made me think back a bit, and that’s what is so beautiful about your work, Pandora. Thank you for this piece.

  3. Rachel says:

    You write a gorgeous, evocative meditation on the difficulty of conjuring up memories in writing. The irony is brilliant, PB.

  4. Scott Godfrey says:

    Your story reminds me of a life-painting class I once took. The class critiqued many paintings in which one couldn’t tell the foreground from the background because of the placement of objects on the canvas. Students would usually defend their compostion decisions by explaining “this is how it looked when I was painting it.” Many never got that a painting of reality was entirely different from reality itself.

    I say trust your artificial memories when writing just as much as the real ones – especially if it makes for a better story. Reality is half bullshit anyway.

  5. Scott Godfrey says:

    As far as Ali giving retiring from boxing: he may have had a Balboa-like “monster in the basement.”

  6. MarleyFan says:

    Scott’s comments always crack me up. At least I artifically remember them doing so…

  7. MB says:

    Another beautiful post. Thanks, PB.

  8. Stephanie Wells says:

    I have journals from when I was 16 and 17 with exortations addressed to the future-me of 2000, though it was impossible to imagine EVER being 35, telling my future self to remember that I was once this self I am now, insisting that I not let the old me go, that that me (the me of that moment) was real and vital and should not be forgotten by some later grown-up me. I remember how urgent I felt writing these letters, fearing that all people, even me,will turn into dead-eyed adults who can’t relate to the intense selves they owned as teens.

    I adore this post. No offense to everyone else, insightful and witty allaya, but I think PB might be my favorite TGW writer.

  9. Lisa Tremain says:

    No offense taken. I bow down (though I’ll always have Parrish).

  10. Stella says:

    This is so great. And it’s always so interesing/isolating when people assume that there is a shared memory or experience — like a first bedroom — that everyone should be able to conjure up, and then you find that you can’t participate in that collective act.

  11. Lisa Parrish says:

    Tremain, we’ll always have each other, baby. And Parrish in the spring.

  12. Tim Wager says:

    The new year is only 3 weeks old, and I’ll wager we already have a winner in the category of best bad pun in a comment.

  13. Lisa Parrish says:

    I’ll way-gur that too.