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I am killing time, waiting for my friend B at the Phipps Botanical Gardens. He is observing a class for another class neither of us cares much about but would be truly devastated to fail and have to extend active indifference toward for another semester.
I came here because parking is free and, observing
- the passive aggressive signs warning against freeloaders who are trying to park for free without actually viewing the gardens &
- the parking cops roaming like the giants or monsters in a video game who walk slowly and relatively unprovoked until they notice you,
I decided to put on my keenest face and walk very intently toward the gardens, exaggerating my gait more than usual, not that anyone would notice or care, but, as humans do, I acted for the off chance.
Last night at around eleven I attempted to put together a storage bench from a box that looked unbelievably flat, and thus, impossible to assemble into something usable. I staggered while carrying the awkward rectangle through the narrow basement hallways of my shoddy apartment complex and opened the box with my apartment key, shreds of Styrofoam interrupting my neutral-patterned area rug, which I purchased not aesthetically but due to the clause in my lease that required carpeting to be on 80 percent of my already meager space, which seemed to take away from the original appeal of renting a place with hardwood floors.
I spread the variable wood pieces across the floor of my studio, critically concerned about the shape I couldn’t imagine – the direction booklet showed a diagram of the bench as if it were blasted apart and captured mid-explosion, each piece floating above its intended location within the structure.
Before beginning the assembly, I remembered S, who told me prior to moving me into my first dormitory in college that the only things I need straightaway when moving into a new place are
a) cookies (for friendship) &
b) a toolkit (for construction…and bribing others into friendship).
This is one of those pieces of advice that I always had in the black box of my brain, that thing of mystery that contains some items forever and rejects others even after repeated exposure, and yet I found myself on the floor of my apartment lacking both things.
And yet, night always seems like a good time to begin a project, as if constructing this cheap wood-veneer bench without a screwdriver might be more possible somehow than if I attempted it during the day.
I admit I was slightly inebriated. I would like to think this was not due to my own poor judgment but instead my tepid politeness, though both and either could be (and are) true. K and M and I somehow made a habit of frequenting a dive bar between our three-hour classes each week, buying two-dollar Lagunitas IPAs and baskets of French fries with honey mustard even when the only thing compelling us to do so was ritual, not any kind of physical need for food or drink or even the warmth of a social outing, though this was all a comforting bonus.
A human can make anything a habit by performing it for six weeks, my father told me when I was a child. He did
- 25 chair-sits
- 25 push-ups
- 50 jumping jacks &
- (?) other miscellaneous exercises
in front of the television every night, eyes focused on the golf match being quietly narrated by a man who could get an equally important job at NPR or perhaps as a narrator for children’s audiobooks, but chose golf, of all things.
The habit of frequenting this exceptionally mediocre bar, named after some literary hero or another, brought with it a sense of comfort and responsibility – to say no would disrupt the energy of everyone’s week, the rituals we all made over cheap beer and carbs.
So I obliged, even though I didn’t quite feel like drinking, but the comfort of it compelled me to order my usual (whatever is cheapest), and I suppose the tint of excitement it added to my mostly indifferent perspective toward the day was favorable, the city-smog feeling a bit more lively, my sweet friends a bit more jovial, as if my mind had gone from the diagram of atoms within a gas (slow, vast movements, a swath of space) to that within a solid (packed, tense, slightly vibrating).
I was already considerably tipsy during our evening class, my third class of the day, the one taught by the particularly eccentric and cerebral writer who makes even her absence a performance (What were your minds doing in my absence? she asked. That is poetry.)
She propositioned that we all go and get a drink together after class, and though I desperately wanted to go home and sleep off my slightly nauseating and dehydrated high, I obliged because I felt like it might be important as a contributor to the writing community, and so we decided on a place close to hers but far from all of ours, the Ace Hotel bar, which I had been to only twice before and both times had ordered cocktails I couldn’t quite stomach for one reason or another but drank anyway because:
- I was in situations that required a social lubricant (involving the question, Can you tell me a bit about your experience in the writing program?) and
- I couldn’t afford to lose ten dollars because of a capful of black pepper or a bit too much thyme or not really knowing what mezcal actually is but liking the sound of it.
Our professor ordered a steak and downed quite a few old-fashioned cocktails, chewing or sipping a bit between long-winded narratives, ones that I thought were either entirely genius or demoralizing, but perhaps I was a bit too tired and aloof at that point to decide.
A lot of first poetry books are bad, she said, but no one is ready to talk about that, and while she spoke about the publishing industry, I felt like a fool even being there, a poet of extreme non-importance, writing a first book of probable extreme non-importance, drunk and hunched in sluggish admiration of someone who has both critically acclaimed books and a hankering for steak that can be met at any time – though this is perhaps an exaggeration, and they most definitely have a life filled with problems I could never understand, there was what felt like an impenetrable space between us, and my words stopped completely short of a few polite yet self-conscious laughs and nods.
I got about three steps into the direction booklet before I realized that I would definitely need a screwdriver, which seemed mostly a suggestion against the pace of my drunken eagerness to build, and so I used my pointer finger and thumb to twist the screws into place, which was good and fine until I looked down at my action and noticed a bloodied, torn off swath of skin staining the new, aggressively clean-smelling deconstructed bench.
I remember, as a fervently evangelical high-schooler, listening to a podcast series by a charismatic Christian pastor about the Song of Songs, that one book in the Old Testament that is gleefully full of innuendo.
You need to channel the sex-energy into other activities before marriage, said the pastor, going on to explain that he was so sexually frustrated and excited during his engagement that he built an entire houseful of furniture from scratch for the anticipated union.
I don’t remember much else about this series, though my frustrated, virginal self took feverish notes that I’m sure are floating around somewhere in the clutter of my childhood bedroom, and this is something I hate to think about.
I am skeptical that the act of building is inherently sexual or primal, but the next day, in a hungover stoop, I asked B to come help and we tried to assemble the beast together after having purchased a four-dollar Phillips head screwdriver from Home Depot. I realized in our laboring how just the language of manufacturing is embarrassingly sexual:
- is it in the hole?
- O! no
- insert here? no, there…
- oops, sorry, fuck
- we DEFINITELY put the raw side up.
To even admit that this pattern came to me while intently concentrating with a dear friend over a thirty-dollar bench made me feel incredulously mortified, but I suppose this primal need to construct things is somewhere along the lining of that biblical amygdala, each IKEA desk and bookshelf a conquest that brings our historical selves back to Babel, back to the ark, back to any towering mass that we can stand aside with broke-open palms and love if not for the mere fact of knowing that we are powerful enough to create something even more powerful.
When B arrives, we will do one or more of the following:
- wipe down the table with pocket wipes to leave no residual evidence of my brief respite in the Phipps café
- pray to the city-cop gods that I don’t get another parking ticket
- drive together to one of the record stores in the greater Pittsburgh area, perhaps browsing different albums in different aisles for a while, touching things that we want and then not purchasing them
- procure some takeout dinners in some Styrofoam boxes
- take a brisk walk through the cobbled smog of Squirrel Hill
& eventually, after some/all of the above, I will go to what I’ve been calling home, where I will place my keys and muddied sneakers on the brand-new hallway bench (missing a screw or two, regrettably), and I will have one of those orienting protagonist moments where I stare at the new thing with some semblance of home-inducing gratification, and I will crawl into bed and turn on an algorithmically decided documentary about some artist’s illustrious but sad life, and maybe crack open whatever book I left propped up on my pillow, and I will fall asleep somehow in the dim light of knowing that tomorrow is another day and that
Things are constantly just happening
- everywhere &
- all at once.
grace (ge) gilbert
grace (ge) gilbert is a poet and lyric essayist among other things. their poetry chapbook, NOTIFICATIONS IN THE DARK is forthcoming with Antenna Books in 2022. their essay collection the closeted diaries is forthcoming with Porkbelly Press (2022). their work has been featured in The Adroit Journal, Ninth Letter, the Offing, ANMLY, Pidgeonholes, Hobart, Gargoyle, the Penn Review, the minnesota review, and elsewhere. now an MFA @Pitt, grace also loves cheese, macarons, their partner Boen Wang, and their cat Honey.