Nice Things

Once, by some stroke of luck, my brothers and I were left home alone on a school night with homework to do and hours to spare. Eager to prove ourselves worthy of this rare, unsupervised freedom, we hunkered down at the dining room table, backpacks in tow and ready to get to work, but mild mischief soon gave way to pure silliness. Pens and pencils were laid to rest, intermittent talk turned to steady banter. Someone produced a half-deflated balloon, the color and provenance of which are now lost to me, and managed to make the thing vaguely resemble a croaking bullfrog by squeezing it just so. Giddy and giggle-prone, the three of us treated this makeshift puppet like a comedic revelation until, suddenly, the balloon popped, mid-monologue.

My tears stunned the room, myself included, and I batted them away fiercely, embarrassed and old enough to know better. One of my brothers tried to coax a smile out of me, bewildered and yet fairly certain that my unhappiness would be pinned on him, the erstwhile puppeteer, once my parents returned home. The other, incredulous, simply shook his head, muttering to himself: “Good Lord, it’s just a balloon.” This much, I knew. My behavior was childish; my reasoning was not. I suppose I’d been momentarily charmed by the unlikely utility of the object. Seemingly useless, it had served its decorative purpose at some party or other and, however improbably, lengthened its lifespan. The brevity of its second act struck me as tragic even as I fast-forwarded through the grieving process, hoping to escape ridicule from my older siblings. After all, it was, in fact, just a balloon.

I’ve long been distinctly attuned to the language of objects—the stories they tell, the signals they convey. As a child, I filled marble composition books with observational notes on various household items: the toaster, a wok, a dishrag, a broom. The plan was to publish a book, half humorous, half informational—a first-person account of a day in the life of a vacuum, for instance, followed by a nuts-and-bolts description of how to build one. The project ended when the list of things I wanted to write about grew from daunting to impossible.

Beyond the kitchen, ensconced in my own room, my childhood possessions mostly fell into one of three categories: clothing, toys, or books. A voracious reader, I made a habit of tearing through stacks of mysteries, serials, period fiction, ghost stories, classics, and, begrudgingly, biographies on a weekly basis. Those tales told themselves, and I returned to my favorite ones frequently, all the while making sure to treasure each story’s bound vessel. It would be years before I learned to love the look of a well-worn book, and I cringed at the sight of a dog-eared page.

As for my playthings, their stories seemed to materialize before I’d had a chance to craft one. I’d simply look at a doll and know: her name, her personality, her quirks. The details were not up for debate. My first, Cassandra, had dark brown skin and a permanent squint, her fingers and toes slightly curled and wrinkled like those of a real newborn. She remained my favorite until Katie came along, another brown baby doll with a Pillsbury body, molded curls, painted lashes, and improbably red lips. Cassandra was a better approximation of an infant; Katie was a better doll. I imagined the former, a bit shriveled, as an old soul; the latter, a bubbly bundle of joy.

When it came to clothing, however, I sensed a certain malleability in each piece’s narrative. Here were objects that could be arranged to speak—to others, to oneself—and dynamically, at that. At school, I wore a uniform, but it didn’t take long to figure out that there were several ways to wear it. I had no interest in the rumpled types: the girls whose maroon knee socks never seemed to stay up, the ones whose mothers had bought their jumpers two sizes too big, anticipating a growth spurt. I had my eye on the golden girls of our grade. In our class, tomboys—more Kristy Thomas than Harriet M. Welsch—were the thing, and I grew to covet their taut ponytails and the way their skirts flared out just so. Outside the classroom, I clamored to achieve their athletic casual look, even as my mother fought with equal fervor to keep me in frills and lace. Tensions flared each time the school calendar declared a dress-down day. Once, tired of trying to get me into a dress but adamant that I didn’t need new sneakers for the occasion, she told me not to worry about wearing something twice. Who would even notice, she wondered, as I stared back, slack-jawed. I could have told her right then exactly what every single girl in my class had worn on the last dress-down day, months earlier.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a child preoccupied with things, I soon began casting about for cash in what ways I could. In elementary school, I sold marked-up candy at recess. By middle school, I’d learned to capitalize on the glut of slacker boys in my grade by offering homework services. In between schemes, I simply skimped on lunch, putting aside every spare dollar in a box underneath my bed. As soon as a legitimate job opportunity crossed my path at the age of fifteen, I pounced on it, despite my parents’ concerns that it might interfere with schoolwork. That winter, armed with a paltry paycheck, I managed to rustle up Christmas gifts for something like a dozen or more relatives—I also enjoy the challenge of finding the right objects for other people. A few years later, wandering the mall one afternoon in the weeks leading up to college, bored and feeling adrift, I carved out a chunk of those earnings to buy a pair of Chanel glasses, black with a small camellia accent at the left temple, my first big-ticket purchase. Convinced that I needed something to signify maturity and sophistication, qualities I imagined would characterize the next four years of my life, I somehow chalked the impulse up to prudence, a sort of sartorial investment in my future as a Serious Woman.

There’s something about a sparsely appointed room that inspires a sense of wonder; our eyes linger on the open, uninterrupted spaces, free to roam without the disturbance of clutter. We marvel at those who can live in small spaces without constantly tripping over their own things, feel a sense of longing for well-organized wardrobes and transformed junk drawers. Naturally, there are those who can imbue a room bursting at the seams with artistry—Iris Apfel’s joyous interiors, seen in her eponymous documentary, come to mind. Unfortunately, those gifted individuals are few and far between. The rest of us exhale deeply at the sight of a simple space precisely because we cannot count ourselves among them. We simply have too much stuff.

I can recall suffering at an early age from an odd mix of juvenile indignation and ennui when considering my daily surroundings. I felt a certain frustration at the prospect of shuttling back and forth between home and school, day in and day out, trapped in rooms I had no say in setting up, plagued by the aesthetic whims of others. A peculiarly bratty disposition for a kid whose parents struggled at times just to pay the bills, I kept my feelings to myself, but during flush times, décor decisions like new wallpaper or curtains would inevitably run aground of my precocious taste. Now that I’ve been the recipient of a steady salary for a few years and have a place of my own, it would seem that at long last, I’ve earned the freedom to arrange my life just so. This much is true—with the exception of certain flights of fancy that continue to elude me, financially—but over time, that privilege has given way to a friction between acquisition and accumulation. In spite of my quirks, or perhaps because of them, I became too focused on the former to realize the latter. Furniture, jewelry, books, clothing: these are the items that I consider carefully, turning over each facet before welcoming them into my home. Still, I struggle to part with scraps of paper, religious pamphlets received on street corners, tchotchkes, ticket stubs, each them imbued with a memory as vivid as that of the frog balloon, the scraps of which still reside somewhere in my childhood bedroom.

The process of sifting through these things has been an arduous one, but rewarding, nonetheless. Had I known just how well I’d sleep with absolutely nothing stored underneath my bed, I imagine I’d have begun years ago. I still dedicate a great deal of time to mulling over objects, parsing out their stories, arranging and rearranging; I probably always will. These days, I’m learning to work my way through that ever-expanding catalog of tales with the same level of discernment, extracting the best ones and leaving the rest behind. As it turns out, I prefer a bursting collection of stories to one of nice things.