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Picture it. A dresser. An old fashioned bureau. An antique, to say the least. White paint, battered and scratched at the rounded edges. Peeling around the brassy handles. It smells old, like it has had its share of mold on the smooth back of it. Like maybe it has had its share of face powder on its once-shiny surface. It’s downright old. It’s undeniably beautiful.
One hundred and six years ago, a man made this dresser in his barn. He made it alone. He and his saw and his square of sandpaper. He and his little Swiss knife. He and his determination to get this over and done with before he died. One hundred and four years ago, that man did die. His name isn’t important. Only the dresser. The dresser is important. Remember the dresser.
Three years ago, this dresser was in an antique store in Spain. A woman walked into that store in an abaya, covered in that black envelope, and she bought it for seventy five euro.
She had a name, but no one called her by it. She had a face, but no one cared to see it. She had an identity, but it was given to her, put brusquely into her hands as though it were her number to hold in a mug shot. She was the youngest wife of Imam Ben-Fahd. She was a prominent Sunni royal in Saudi Arabia. She was the owner of a beautiful villa on the coast of Spain, because she was a princess. But she had no real name. Adina had no real name.
Rewind. Thirty four years before Adina was even born, a woman far too thin for her immense height bought the dresser. She was pale. She had dull hair. She was French. She had a Coca Cola bottle in her left hand and pearly pretensions in her right one. She had a cigarette hanging precariously from the corner of her mouth. She had a title. Her title was plastered along the forgiving walls and the soft railings of her existence. “NORA! NORA!” The dresser screamed her title, but she had no real name.
Go back. Go back fifty one years before Nora. Go to Patience. Patience has a name, but she would rather die than live another day under that name. She would rather die than live another day in her life. Patience was born with a curse. Patience was born with the worst curse that a woman thinks she can be cursed with. Patience was born beige. I know you understand this. Beige. Mousy eyes. Mousy hair. Ashen skin. One-toned. Plain. Patience was cursed with being plain. Her father died and he left her a dresser. He left her a beautiful, ornate dresser with a beautiful, ornate mirror. Every time she looked at it, she wanted to kill what she saw in it. But what she saw in it saw her. She killed the mirror instead.
It’s time to revisit our self-absorbed friend Nora. She has the dresser. The dresser is in her apartment. She is in her apartment with the dresser. She and this inanimate dresser are not alone in this apartment. There’s a man. And he’s looking at Nora. And Nora is looking at him, looking at her. She only cares how he’s looking at her. Because that’s just how Nora is. Nora is just like everyone else.
It’s time to revisit our beautiful friend Adina. Nora is already dead. Nora has been dead for thirty years, and Adina is fourteen, and Adina is waiting for her husband to show up at her villa. But she’s occupied. She’s occupied with the dresser. She’s occupied with the dresser and a very big box, stock-full of letters. Every letter is labeled the same. “Dear Adina,” at the lovelorn beginning. “Love, Isaac,” at the still unsatisfied end. They all smell like Tommy Hilfiger cologne and salt. They all evoke memories that twist and rub at Aida’s sensitive insides. Yet every time he writes, she writes back. The box was too suspicious. She would be killed if her husband found them. And so, the dresser. She hides the letters in the dresser. She gives a little laugh-cry over each epistle before tucking them away in the back of the bottom drawer. She drapes a few abayas over them. Then she walks out to see the man that gave her sickening title to her. She goes to see her husband. She goes to see Imam Ben-Fahd. Imam Ben-Fahd is fifty. Since Imam Ben-Fahd is fifty, and her husband, she pretends that he is Isaac.
It’s time to revisit our dejected friend Patience. She was sitting in her room, on the dresser. She was sitting in her room on the dresser that now had no mirror. She didn’t even remember the mirror. She didn’t even remember where she is. She only remembered what was in front of her. Who was in front of her. Joseph was in front of her. Joseph was two years her senior. Joseph was asking her if she would be so kind as to take a walk with him this evening, the air is so cool and my do you look lovely in yellow. Patience’s heart was about to stop beating, just like her father’s did. Then it does. Then it starts again. Because her heart knew that Patience still had a little good to live through, before she kicked the bucket. So her heart kept going. And Patience was thankful. And the way Joseph looked at her, and the way she looked at him looking at her, she didn’t feel any need to break the mirror.
In two thousand and three, Adina was twelve. In two thousand and three, Adina met Isaac in Jeddah. She wasn’t in her abaya, because she wasn’t a woman yet. She hadn’t learned what it was like to be a prisoner yet. She was free. She was free in a skirt. Her hair was visible, black and absorbing far too much sun. Isaac saw her from across the street and smiled, so she smiled back. He was attractive. She was attractive. She had not been anywhere close to royalty at the time. She wasn’t guarded by all the servants. She wasn’t watched by an overbearing husband. So she crossed the street. She and Isaac talked for thirty minutes on that street corner. They walked to a coffeehouse, which were ubiquitous in Jeddah back then, and proceeded with that talk. She found out after a six hour talk and a two second kiss that he was Jewish. Go figure.
Adina didn’t care about the cultural acceptability of her actions. It would be silly for her to care. It would be silly for us to expect her to care. She was twelve, she was vulnerable. Isaac was looking at her. But Adina, she was one of the better ones. She didn’t care about that either. She was just looking at him.
Back up. Let’s go back to Nora. Nora is lying in bed with a bruise on her cheek. She’s looking at the dresser. She and the dresser are alone now. This isn’t the first time that that’s happened to her. The man comes. The man takes what he wants. That usually involves a little tonic. A little tonic turns into a lot of tonic. A lot of tonic turns into a bruise. Then he leaves. And Nora knew the truth because she lived the truth. The truth was that he wasn’t going to call her.
And between her and the dresser, all the words said, that was all the truth that mattered. So Nora took out a cigarette. She had a cigarette in one hand, and her pearly pretensions in her other hand. The pearls were looking a little grey.
We’re going to move on. It’s getting confusing, but I didn’t say it would be easy. Now, don’t forget the dresser. It’s easy to get caught up in all these other things, but I’m telling you, they barely matter. The dresser matters. The only thing connecting these three girls that have no name is the dresser. Just the dresser.
Patience met Joseph for that walk. She felt like she was in some sort of scandal, walking right out of her house at night like that. After all, this was nineteen-oh-five. This wasn’t something that happened everyday. And this was Patience Smith. This was certainly the first time a man had even given her a second glance. Needless to say, she was shaking like the devil by the time she had met him on the path.
She was a fragile leaf right then, shivering even though there wasn’t even a breeze, pulling her sweater around her even though there wasn’t even a chill. She wasn’t a fragile flower, because she wasn’t pretty. She wasn’t some fungus growing on a log though, because she was a woman. She was a woman, and women naturally have worth. Joseph saw that worth, and he held the trembling leaf like it was the most delicate thing in the world. And he didn’t care who saw. He kissed her.
When Patience Smith became Mrs. Joseph O’Malley, she gave the dresser away. It reminded her too much of the time that she beat her little fists against her own face in the mirror. She didn’t need mirrors anymore. She didn’t need memories. Joseph looked at her and she looked at him looking at her. That was all she needed.
God alone knows how the dresser made it from Patience’s Ireland farm to the high-class London furniture boutique that Nora visited, but it did. It was just looking for someone’s life to improve again, is what you can suppose. It was looking to support someone that would rather sit than stand until they could stand. Until they had a name.
Nora wasn’t a very intelligent person, because she threw everything away. When she found real, honest-to-God pearls, she couldn’t imagine that they really came from a clam, that they really took five or ten invaluable years to make. She only saw that they weren’t perfect, and she threw them back where they came from. The fake pearls, she kept in her right hand. They began to look sickly. And then they started to disintegrate. She realized that no one real was around her, that everyone that hovered in her reach was artificial. So she did something smart. She was twenty five and all by herself, but she finally did something to fix that. She dropped the pearly pretensions.
Of course, she still tried to imitate Audrey Hepburn. She still smiled when she was sad. But she told people what she felt sometimes. She voiced what she meant once a week or so. Thus, a loyal imitator of Fred Austere sparked her interest. He looked at her and she looked at him looking at her, and that was all she needed. He didn’t leave any bruises on her face and he always called. That was enough for her. She had low standards, but she was happy.
The dresser. It must mean something. It’s enchanted with something that gives people happiness. It gives people a name. It blesses them with something beyond a title. It makes them who they were really made to be. Right?
Adina read the letters from Isaac again after her husband had excused her from his presence. She had stripped herself of the black sack, and sat in a tee shirt, feeling free with her bare arms ruffling through drawer after drawer of envelopes. She was flushed. Isaac was in the room, because Isaac was in the letters. She opened her favorite letter. She read her favorite letter. Isaac was in her favorite letter.
“Dear Adina, [same lovelorn beginning]
I miss you terribly. Blah blah blah. You are the most beautiful person I have ever known. Yadda yadda yadda. Our differences do not really matter. Lies lies lies. Forget your husband, let’s just run away together. Jokes jokes jokes.
Isaac [same still unsatisfied ending].”
But Adina loved it. Adina ate the useless words out of the letter’s paper hand. Adina looked at the letter, and she only looked at it for looking’s sake. That was her mistake. That was the only mistake the poor thing made. She looked at something that couldn’t look back. Until she became aware. She became aware of another hand. A literal hand. A strong, brown, old, literal hand. The hand happened to be attached to an arm. This happened to be attached to her husband. Who happened to be laughing at her sickeningly terrified facial expression. He yanked her away from the dresser by her hair. She cried out. He had a fistful of that black hair in his hand.
How did he find out? Let’s be honest. Who cares? He’s fifty five. She’s fourteen. Who’s going to win? Who’s going to walk out of that room, swearing and muttering under hot breath? Whose carcass is going to be lying in that room for three days without tending? Who’s going to be buried in the ground, and who’s going to live on? Who’s going to burn the dresser later, using the letters as kindle?
The dresser. Why did the dresser matter? The dresser was a dresser. It was dead. It didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that there were three of them. Three women. Two of them were self absorbed. They were only looking because they were being looked at. They lived. They got the contentment. We didn’t learn much about a single one. Only that there were three, and that the stupid one died. The stupid one looked at someone for the sake of looking. The stupid one looked at someone to escape her situation. The stupid one isn’t going to be escaping anywhere anymore. She’s in the ground. At this point, the dresser is more alive than her. The dresser is ashes. The ashes floated around and broke themselves down. The dresser is in the air. You’re breathing in the dresser.
The real point of the story is that the story is how it goes. End of story. Two thirds of the world will be made happy by being worshipped. They aren’t the ones with the big ideas. They get the happy endings. The other one third, we just scrape the gum off the floor. We take what we can get.
Who ends up on top?
I’ll tell you who ends up on top. The dresser. The dresser ends up on top. And that’s how the story really ends.