I saw an ad online for a beautiful wooden bureau with a drop-down top. It was free, which in itself was intriguing. So I drove down to Portishead in my van to pick it up. I told Alex that I just wanted to make the journey, the desk could be his. We’d had a fight the night before and I wanted to please. Maybe some nice wooden furniture would smooth over the ruptures. Maybe it would help him forget he was with someone who was evidently unstable.
I waited for her outside her garage, as instructed. I wondered if we’d get along. The other day I’d followed another online ad and picked up a bag of around eighty matchboxes, and the woman had seemed a bit pissed off when I said I wanted to use them for an art project. I guess she’d hoped I’d continue the collection. (I didn’t even do the art project; I’m slowly working through them, lighting the wood burner in the van. The box I’m using now has Cardiff Castle on it.) I wanted this woman to feel that her bureau was going to a good home.
Down she came through the garden, and I liked her immediately. She was wrinkly, with a reddish nose, wispy hair and a multicolored woolly hat that seemed out of place on her narrow face. It was the kind of woolly hat worn by surfers, with a big label on it and some sparkly bits. I didn’t think she’d know it was the surfer kind. She seemed too shy to have worn it on purpose. Not that she was awkward—she was just reserved, and there seemed to be a slight tremor about her. She didn’t smile, but I felt like we recognized each other, gave a glance of understanding. I asked her why she was giving away the bureau.
“It was in the garage when I moved in,” she explained. “Now I’m leaving, and I want to get rid of everything as quickly as I can.” She offered me some broken camping chairs too. I was in a receptive mood. She explained she’d moved to Portishead to be near her children, but that it was too boring. Portishead is a mudflat, we agreed, which pretends to be a seaside town, but you can see Wales right there across the wide rivermouth. So now she was going to rent in a nearby town before she started the next thing. She was waiting to see what that was, she said. It seemed she’d had an adventurous life. She’d had a sheep farm in the Black Mountains, near a ruined monastery, apparently alone.
“That’s where I was this morning!” I exclaimed. Alex and I had had our fight in Wales, and driven through the Black Mountains on the way back. It’s wild there. Windswept grassy plateaus rising up through mist, rough horses, bracken, and a small old church guarded by fat yews.
She knew that church. She said she missed the Black Mountains terribly. There were other coincidences too, with me and her. Other places shared. I looked more closely at her face. I wondered if her red nose was from drink. I wondered if she had been lonely.
The bureau was in fine condition. The lid opened smoothly to make a table, and there were all these little drawers inside, for my pens and things I’d found on beaches. If it was mine, that is. Underneath were sliding glass panels, striped clear and gold. “Very seventies,” she said. We hefted it towards the van. I was parked with the side door facing the traffic, which was inconvenient, as we had to carry the desk into the road. We paused to let a car come past, putting the desk down onto the tarmac. I’m not sure how it happened, but somehow it was my responsibility to hold the desk upright, and I didn’t realize quite how necessary that was. I stood up and let go, and the poor little desk fell flat on its face. There was a great smashing sound. The car saw the broken glass and changed its mind, making a hasty three-point turn. I apologized profusely, even though the desk was mine now. I still wanted her to think I’d take great care of it. She didn’t seem to mind. Suddenly my apology seemed evidence of a silly need to please. We cleared up the glass and put the now panel-less desk in the van.
“I’ve been thinking I might get one of these next,” she said, looking at my beaten-up white Transit. “Maybe this is a sign that I should get on with it.” She meant my coming to get the desk, us having been to lots of the same places. Maybe even the desk smashing on the road, who knows. Sometimes things have to break to make us notice. We looked at each other steadily, and this time she almost smiled.
It’s strange to be a sign in someone else’s story. As I drove away, the desk rattling in the back, that’s how I felt—oddly two-dimensional, just a conduit for information from the universe, intended for someone else. If that was what today was for, if I was meant to get that desk just to show a stranger the course of her life, then that’s an odd thing indeed. I’m not saying the bureau wasn’t lovely, but what if all the decisions I’d made that morning—seeing the ad, taking the drive, going to the Black Mountains, fighting with Alex, hey, even buying the van in the first place—were all for the purpose of showing her what she should do next? The idea of playing a supporting role in Life in General made me uncomfortable. I decided I’d go for a walk before I drove home.
She’s right, Portishead’s dull, but I have a thing for it all the same. The view from the waterside is almost universally brown, and you don’t get that in many places. Brown rocks, brown mud sinking into brown rivermouth, brown Wales, brown clouds. You wouldn’t expect it, but I find it conducive to thought. I walked along the rocks, looking at barnacles, and my brain began to unspool itself with my steps.
I thought about the fight. I won’t bore you with the details, except that it had been decided by us both that there were some things I needed to work on. Alex is a kind man who helps people for a living, and he was willing to help me too. My ups and downs, my melodrama, my intensity. All these things could be improved, and I had asked him to be patient with me. Now I thought about how I was going to work on myself, moderating the extremes I had been struggling with since I was fifteen. “My highs and lows don’t talk to each other,” I had cried to him. “I’m not OK.” This feeling of being not OK had been with me for a long time. When I was high, I was determined that everything would always feel this good while also terrified it wouldn’t. And when I was low I could not imagine there was any way for things to be all right again. I would see a drop in mood as the beginning of an everlasting decline. I didn’t think, Maybe I’m tired, maybe I had a bad day; I thought, There’s something wrong with me. Six sessions of counseling had shown me this was down to a basic insecurity. Without a level horizon of “all right,” I would swing from high to low, living inside those moods totally. “What do I do about that?” I’d asked the counselor, and she’d been vague.
“We’ll get to that next session,” she said.
I reminded her it was our last.
She looked uncomfortable, rearranged her feet on the furry carpet, then smiled widely. “You’ll be FINE.”
And I had been. Through meditation, the calm voice of the man inside Headspace, I was getting better at identifying moods for what they were. But I had jumped from one boyfriend to the next, afraid to be alone, in case I slipped into not-OK again, even though part of me wanted to be single. I fought that want; it seemed more evidence of my wrongness. I tried to see the best in people I didn’t fully want to be with, in order to prove to myself that I was capable of being in a normal relationship. I thought that was the final destination, having a steady boyfriend; that meant you’d really made it. Now I was with Alex, and he seemed to be the horizontal I was lacking, the solidity I needed. But compared with him, my messiness was thrown into sharp relief. “Why did you say it in that way?” he’d said the night before, after I’d flung an emotional firebomb at him. “If it was me in that situation, I would have thought about it and said it like this. You’re being melodramatic.”
I agreed with him. I was melodramatic. Look at me, crying, tipping my emotions all over the place. I didn’t even know what I was crying about. For the first time with him, with almost anyone, I was honest about how I felt about myself. “I think there’s something really wrong with me.”
Alex nodded. In my memory of the moment, I am groveling at his feet, pleading to be taken care of, but I don’t think it was that dramatic in real life. Alex listened, and said, “Well, we’ll work on it.” He is a very kind man. And very rational. He says so himself.
It’s time to get more counseling, I decided, weaving my way around rock pools. I guess I really am not all right, and I need to be fixed. Maybe one day I can be calm and rational too.
Then I thought about the woman with the bureau. Her lone life in the wild Black Mountains. She didn’t seem particularly calm and rational. And she didn’t really seem lonely, either. If she’d wanted a partner, she’d be looking for that, not a Transit van. Suddenly I thought I could understand what her dither was. It was as if she was a powerful solitary woman, but afraid of being so—afraid of her own strength and what it might mean, how she might be viewed from the outside. We’re not quite sure what to do with powerful solitary women, are we? Witches. I hoped she would go for it with the van.
I spotted something in the sand and knelt down. It was a fat piece of blue-gray sea glass, chiseled-looking, only just worn soft enough by the sea. It fit perfectly in my left hand. As I closed my fist around it, I thought, It feels like a weapon. I stood up. It was powerful, to hold this weapon in my hand. I straightened my back. A physical heat began to spread from the bottom of my stomach. I felt ancient, ancestral. Strong. Suddenly I was aware of the workings of my body, all its muscles, holding me together. Was there really anything wrong with me? Alex might think so, but only because I had presented myself in that way to him. It’s hard to see someone in a different way to how they see themselves.
It seemed I had two options. Either I was not OK and I needed to change, mold into something more palatable. Or I could decide that I was fine as I was. Maybe it was all right to be “intense.” Perhaps I could accept that my ups and downs are a little steeper than the norm, and my blacks and whites are in sharper contrast; I could push into those things, embrace them, rather than dither on the edge. It felt like I was walking out onto boards I’d always thought were rotten, only to find they held.
When I climbed back into the van, I texted Alex. “I’m keeping the bureau for myself.”
I’m sitting at it now, with my pens in the little niches. It’s cold in the studio, so I’m wearing my coat, and in the left pocket is the fat piece of sea glass, jumbled up against a long bone and a yellow limpet shell with a hole in the top. I am single, and for the first time, I’m happy to be so. Alex and I met up for a drink the other night. He said, “I think it didn’t work between us because you want something complicated. It was too easy with me, you’d prefer something more melodramatic.”
And I said no. “It didn’t work because I see the world very differently from you. Your rationality and kindness make you really good at what you do, you help people in ways I wouldn’t be able to. But I believe things you’d roll your eyes if you heard. For example, I believe that when I am being creative I am just a vessel for something that comes from beyond me, that it is nothing to do with me and I just have to let it come.” It was the first time I’d said it aloud.
Alex looked at me. “To be completely honest,” he said, “I do want to roll my eyes right now.”
And I said “I know, me too, but it’s just what I seem to think.”
The other day I was meditating in the van, and after focusing on the breath for a while I slipped into that pinhead-balance state of openness; it’s like hearing a musical note, like floating. And I felt my soul. It was a rushing feeling, moving all in one direction. I started to cry. Instead of doing what I would normally have done—told myself I was being silly, that what I was feeling wasn’t real—I let myself cry. I was crying for my soul, so long ignored or fought against, called wrong; and then I was crying for all of the souls, everywhere, trying to be souls in a world that rolls its eyes at them.