The old mahogany night stand had been surgically excised and bruised, yet it survived in the elegant bedroom, standing out like a fly on a wedding cake. It had been in their daughter Tessa's room until she moved out for college. Meridee intended to take to the dump, but Kevin insisted on using it next to his reading chair in their bedroom. Meridee had objected, of course, since it would ruin the elegant look she had achieved there.
But that day, sitting in her now ex-husband's chair, she breathed in the faint smell of his aftershave and musky body odor. He never liked this room. But this little nightstand, for some reason, he loved--"for its sincerity", he'd said. When she asked him to explain how a piece of furniture could be sincere, he brushed her off and muttered something like, if you don't know, I can't explain it.
He took nothing other than a suitcase full of clothes and a bag of books when he moved out.
On Sunday evening Tessa prepared for what had become a weekly ritual. She moved the empties to the left and opened another. Never mind the chilled mug, she drank out of the bottle sucking up the froth. The beer loosened her nerves. She picked up the phone and pressed Meridee’s number.
“Hi Mom, how are things?” Tessa said.
That’s how these calls always began. In the three months since her parents split up, Meridee had become needier than ever. Tessa put the phone on speaker and laid it on the wooden cable spool that was her coffee table.
“Tessa! How nice of you to call,” Meridee said with fake surprise.
Tessa slurped the brew; a bubble rose from her stomach and she covered her mouth with her shirt to muffle the burp. Keys jingled outside of her apartment and she knew it was her neighbor Lucy, back from the mall. Shopping bags rattled against the door before it thumped shut.
“What are you doing?” Meridee asked as if to say, I know you’re doing something fun without me. “Is there someone with you?”
“I’m talking to you, Mom. No one’s here.”
Meridee’s voice lowered to a normal tone. “Well, I’ve ordered some things for the new house. Wait till you see. I spent three days going from one furniture store to another. Exhausting.”
Tessa left the room and came back with a frosted mug, her mother still talking.
“So, finally there it was. A dream come true. A real four poster bed, not like the one I have now with the shorter posts. The new one’s off-white like I wanted. You know what I mean, the distressed look. At Ethan Allen of all places. That Carrie person was there with her new girlfriend. Cute as can be. But the girlfriend, not so much. Kind of frumpy looking like her clothes come from Goodwill.”
Tessa picked up her sketchbook and her pencils. She flipped passed her rendition of Westminster Abbey with its soaring arches, passed the snowcapped mountain she’d drawn last week, and landed on a blank page. She put the graphite point to the paper.
“Uh, huh. Sounds nice Mom. You used to talk about a ‘real’ four poster. I have no idea what the attraction is, but if that’s what you want, well I’m happy for you.” The pencil made languid whispers with each stroke. “What happens to the old four poster? Does Daddy want it?”
“Oh, hell no. Os-ten-tay-shush. Don’t you remember the way we used to fight over that bed?’ Meridee noticed a chip in her red nail polish. Only one day old and it's already ruined! She went to the bathroom for polish remover, holding the phone to her ear.
“Mom, I never knew what you guys fought about. I didn’t listen. I played my music loud. Disturbed was a good one for that. Shook the windows. Remember how I’d slam my door? I always hoped you’d hear me and stop the yelling. On her sketch pad she had drawn a bed with broken posts scattered on the floor. Her throat tightened but she refused to cry and cleared her throat instead.
“Oh, honey. Get a grip. Your d--,” she paused, inhaled a long breath and continued, “Your dad and I. I hate to say this to you, but we weren’t any good together. We started out too young. Then we got old, or I guess I got old. Your father likes the young ones as we both know.” She rubbed hard on the stubborn polish.
“Mom. Please don’t start.” Tessa took a long drink. The Victorian room she'd rented had a bay window, the only light in the place. It was dark out now. She rose to pull the shades down and felt the room move like a boat on rough water. A few deep breaths later, she slapped her face, once on each cheek. The hard slaps hurt, but in a good way. Could she have kept her father from leaving? She staggered to the kitchen where she opened a bottle of Aquafina.
“Mom, just don’t get rid of the night stand.”
“You can’t be serious. That piece of junk? Why would I keep that?” Meridee lifted her drink and frowned at the wet mark it left on the old wood. Out of habit or something else, without a thought, she wiped the water with a tissue, took a coaster from the top drawer, and placed it under her glass. She'd only cleaned up one nail so far but put the polish remover away.
The night stand, a little three drawered cabinet had been part of vanity, a hand-me-down from her father’s family. An oval mirror hinged to a frame over a center table for applying face powder and on each side, the three drawered cabinets. As a girl, Meridee shared a meager bedroom with her sister where the vanity was parked along one wall, quickly becoming a catch-all for library books and dolls. Meridee’s mother went at it with a hacksaw one day while the kids were in school. She’d never seen her mother hold a saw or any tool. So determined was she to update her home, she'd pushed the saw back forth, then with a chisel chopped at the wood until the cabinets finally broke off. The mirror and center table went to the curb.
Tessa lay her pencil down. “Because it means something to me that’s why. I grew up with that in my room.”
Meridee had used it for baby Tessa as a newborn. The baby layed on a dresser top while Meridee kept one hand on her; she'd reach for a diaper from the stack on top of the nightstand and wipes from the top drawer. She thought of how much she resented using the castoff in the baby’s nursery but at the time, new furniture wasn’t in their budget.
Meridee tsked. “Anyway. Fine. Why don’t you come and get it? I don’t want that in my new place.”
“His place, Mom. And it’s not new. It’s old, remember? Like him. Why’d you have to hook up so soon after Daddy?” Her voice wobbled.
“What’s eating you tonight Tessa? Here I am, finding my footing for the first time since your father moved out. I’m sorry if you can’t be happy for me.”
“You, you, you. It’s not all about you Mom. You and your dopey shopping.”
“Tessa! Don’t you speak to me that way young lady.”
“Why, what are you going to do, ground me? You drove Daddy away with your inane talking. Gossip and stuff. Is that what you live for, Mom? Stuff? What do you think happens to the stuff you buy and get rid of? Landfill. All the clothes you buy and toss after one wear? Landfill.”
“Why,” Meridee lost her words. Tessa had never been so cruel. “What has gotten into you?”
“I’m sick and tired of dancing around you, trying not to upset you.” She opened another beer.
“What is it you want Tessa? You want me to dress up in sack cloth and live in a tent? I thought you’d be happy for me.”
“Mom, you know I love you. But I just wish—” her voice trailed off.
“What? What do you wish?”
“That you’d stop and think once in a while. I don’t know--. Wait to get married." There it was. Tessa knew she had no right to tell her mother not to marry this new man. But wasn't she replacing her father like the bed? "I don't know, Mom. Give it time. Join a book club.”
“A book club?”
“Okay, I guess you don’t like to read. But something besides how you look, how things look. Get some depth.”
“Tessa,” she was crying now. “I’m going to hang up. We can talk again when you can be reasonable.”
Meridee hit the red button on her phone and fired it at the night stand.
Kevin had taken off with his graduate student, Buffy, as Meridee called her. It killed her to have to admit Kevin’s affair to her friends; such a cliché, a punch to the ego that still brought tears. The fact that he left the household behind hurt too. It meant nothing to him, it’s just stuff. (Is that where Tessa’s rant started?) On his way out the door he had said, “Keep what you want and sell the rest, I don’t care about it.” Ideas, history, or books, or whatever his professor friends went on about, that’s what he cared about.
Meridee stood in their bedroom, arms crossed. Kevin faulted her for trying to make their home like a magazine ad; perfect, but empty. After the fights had worn thin, he moved out. Meridee supposed he’d been seeing Buffy even before the fights started. So what. At least his negative energy went with him. Meridee's fiancé loved her for who she was; he was a man who enjoyed her lightheartedness. Kevin had called her lamebrained and superficial. Fuck you, she thought now. She began to cry.
The next morning, after she made coffee with her French press, drank it from her Parisian Starbucks mug, after she’d showered and put on her makeup, dressed in her new Ann Taylor outfit, she turned to the night stand. Bright mid-morning sunlight streamed through the room. She held onto the chair and knelt on the soft carpet in front of the cabinet. Piece of crap. Meridee ran her fingers over the scars along the side. Inlaid wood of a lighter brown covered the center of the 2nd and 3rd drawers creating a perfect oval. Brass pulls, long since tarnished hung loose, one barely attached. As if seeing it for the first time, faintly visible pastel roses graced the top drawer on either side of the handle. She opened the drawers one by one. The scent of flowers, so faint that she couldn’t breathe in deeply enough. It was her mother’s perfume. The top drawer had a lipstick in it, Clinique the label said. Probably Tessa’s from when she had it in her room. The second drawer held a black and white photo of her family, her parents and her sister and brother making goofy faces in front of the Christmas tree. She dabbed at her eyes, careful not to smear her fresh makeup.
You can’t buy memories. But you can make them. And you can keep them. She laid the picture on the chair. Kevin's chair, a sincere source of pain. That, she would let go.
Meridee sat back with her knees drawn up. But this night stand, she would keep and the photograph will look good in a frame. The two will go together, she'll make it work, a perfect addition to the new bedroom.