Sunday Pages: "A Strange Unspecific Desire"
A dispatch from the road by Diana Spechler
This morning, Titus the cat knocked my glasses off the nightstand at 5:45—my daily wake-up call. But the joke was on him, because it was actually 6:45. Take that, Titus!
“The clocks change soon,” my wife said hopefully a few days ago. “Oh, good, it’s Spring Back!” Alas, while Titus the cat springs back when he hears the vacuum, clocks only spring the other direction: ahead, to the rose-tinted future. Today is the Great Leap Forward.
Time was, I dreaded Daylight Savings, because I lost an hour of sleep. In my fiftieth year on this planet, Spring Forward means that when I wake up for no good reason at four thirty, I will now wake up for no good reason at FIVE thirty, which seems more manageable.
Happy Daylight Savings, to all who celebrate.
Since the Season Two PREVAIL podcast finale dropped on February 25, I’ve been on a scheduled hiatus, to recharge my batteries. On the two Fridays, I reprised old podcast episodes. On the two Tuesdays and one of the Fridays, I featured an “index” of material previously published here, and ran a piece by William E. Becker. And, yeah, I wrote the thing about The Batman.
The universe does not like when I take breaks. A few years ago, we went away for a week to a lovely beach in Maine. I turned off my phone and tried to avoid Twitter all week. That was when Charlottesville happened. We were down the Jersey shore, on another family vacation, when the Mueller Report was released. And while I didn’t go anywhere this time—save for a night spent in the very cool town of Catskill—my hiatus almost eerily coincided with Putin invading Ukraine. But I’m back at the controls now, ready to Spring Forward, so maybe the universe will take note, and a certain Botoxed dictator will spontaneously combust? Hope springs eternal.
My friend Diana Spechler has been featured on “Sunday Pages” previously. She is one of my favorite writers. She can write about literally anything and make it interesting. She’s very funny, in a self-deprecating way, and her stuff tends to stick with you after you’re done reading. So I was delighted to learn that she has a new Substack, called “Dispatches from the Road,” where she writes about her travels (and, because of the pandemic, her sudden lack-of travels).
Here is a piece from this new project:
By Diana Spechler
When I moved into my Dallas apartment in October, I owned three pieces of furniture: a brown couch that had belonged to my ex, a mattress, and a nondescript coffee table. The couch was delivered from my storage unit with one of its three base cushions missing. “It was like that when we picked it up,” a mover told me, avoiding eye contact.
Because I’d long worshiped at the altar of everything-I-own-must-fit-in-a-suitcase, I felt a little judgy of those who beautified their homes. Decorating struck me as Artistic Expression Light. It seemed ingloriously bourgeois, a manifestation of Capitalist brainwash, like planning a “fairy tale” wedding. Of course, deep down, I envied the wedding-dreamers, the home-beautifiers, their throw pillows fluffed, house plants vibrant, emotions regulated, but I couldn’t afford to want what they had. Now, however, with my three pieces of furniture, I was fantasizing about living inside a treasure chest.
The couch was obstructing my dream. If I stretched out, my feet rested in the hole, as if on the gums where a tooth had been. My ex had sat on the thing for years—with previous girlfriends, with his dog, with his laptop. I could feel him in the sag of the remaining cushions, the shade of brown he’d chosen to hide stains and imperfections, or to hide himself via absence of color. It was the couch of a tightly guarded man. That was not the vibe I wanted. I wanted an open treasure chest, gold coins and pearls overflowing.
My first New York rental, where I spent the final years of my twenties, had no room for a couch. I lofted my mattress to make space underneath for a mini fridge, hot plate, and love seat. The building was filled with artists, all of us living in these “single-room occupancies” that the landlord had fashioned by chopping each 600-square-foot apartment into three. His income-tripling business model was illegal, but New York accommodates such vultures. When I once called him to report my suspicion that my downstairs neighbor with the dream catcher on his door was dead in his apartment (long story), he responded with a heavy, put-upon sigh.
Though it was against the rules, we all kept air conditioners in our windows, and because there were three times as many as there should have been, the electricity gave out every hot afternoon. We’d all gather on the roof under the grueling sun—painters and screenwriters and singers and the woman who lived above me, who wore dresses with combat boots and heavy black eye liner and screamed at night. In my memory, she screams for all of us—the actor with the dream catcher on his door, who had not not in fact died in his apartment, but who would die young; the artists whose art went ignored; the whole city wading through the wreckage of the stock market, which had crashed a few miles south of us.
I was a cocktail waitress in a tequila bar, where the bartenders and I started showing more cleavage, joking but not joking about our “recession uniforms.” The finance guys wore douchey suspenders and grim faces and kept ordering good single malts, though now they tipped less. One tipped me a Bear Stearns pen and suggested I sell it on eBay in five years. We all talked a lot about greed in those days, as if it were particular to the moment. But what is greed really? Just desire without an end.
With my treasure chest fantasy, I was trying to offset something, some Covid-era ugliness from which no mask would protect us, no vaccine would inoculate us; or some Covid-era sadness inside me. I was no longer comfortable living the way I’d always lived—as though I might have to evacuate at any moment. I wanted to let myself feel settled, if only between travels. And I wanted my walls to simulate a hug from someone glamorous.
My “apartment treasure chest” Google searches delivered me to jewel tones. Now I had language for my longing. Deep sapphire blues. Amethyst purples. Emerald greens. They say money can’t buy happiness, but we all know better. I aspired to one of those apartments from Apartment Therapy or Architectural Digest, though I suspected that my yearning exceeded my budget and that those photos were deceptive anyway. Or maybe I suspected that no matter my efforts, no matter my spending, ugliness would linger like mold spores.
In her essay “Having and Being Had,” Eula Biss describes her experience shopping for furniture: “…I’m filled with a strange unspecific desire. I want everything and nothing. The soft colors of the rugs, the warm wood grains, the brass and glass of the lamps all seem to suggest that the stores are filled with beautiful things, but when I look at any one thing I don’t find it beautiful.”
That “strange unspecific desire”, what the Buddhists call Duḥkha, had me sifting through web page after web page of bath mats, checking Facebook Marketplace for vintage lamps, buying amethyst paint for three walls, midnight-purple for the fourth, a crushed-velvet comforter the hue of rose quartz, a round gold bedside table. I bought a $15 set of seven little bubble mirrors because, in cartoons at least, treasure chests sit on the floor of the ocean. When I hung the mirrors, I saw that seven weren’t enough, so I ordered seven more.
Before Covid, I never knew the dopamine hit of online shopping; through all my years abroad, I’d ordered nothing. Six months before Covid, I gave up my apartment in Mexico and traveled the world. Then along came the virus, delivering me to stasis.
The pandemic has changed me. For one, it’s made me a consumer. I never imagined numbing myself in the ways I’ve learned to numb myself—90 Day Fiancé and its spin-offs, for instance. Decorating. TikTok. Amazon packages. I care deeply about the colors of the walls around me. I can speak in full paragraphs about the love lives of 90 Day Fiancé stars Darcey and Stacey—middle-aged twins who pursue beauty surgically and are therefore easy targets. They want to attract younger, muscular, foreign men—the personal trainers of Europe. Honestly, good for them.
Eventually I stopped ordering treasures—not because I’d filled the matching chasms in my home and soul, but because in a studio apartment, the line between treasure and clutter is fine. Regardless, Google knows my taste now. Every time I open my laptop, I see ads for jewel-toned throw rugs. My friend Anna is working on a painting for my wall. I’m in love with the background color she mixed—dark blue and bronze like a starry night. She FaceTimes me her progress. My friend Pearl gave me a salt lamp that emits a mysterious pink glow.
Back in early November, a man I’d been on two dates with had a couch cushion made for me. The gift touched me so deeply, I hugged it to my chest, feeling overwhelmed and shy. “I think this is the one you’ll want to sit on,” he said, and he was right. It’s firmer than the others, more supportive, but if you look at my couch, you’d never guess which is the new cushion, which are the old, or that anything was once missing.
Photo credit: Diana Spechler. The couch.