A few years ago I lived with a woman who I thought was the love of my life. Our breakup—which was sad, protracted, eviscerating, humiliating, terrifying, shocking to anyone who knew us—was one of the worst moments of my life, and left me reeling and confused in ways I couldn’t understand. There was a gaping hole in my universe where our relationship used to be, and I had no idea how to assess that damage let alone repair it. So I skipped town, rented a new place, and set about putting my life back together.
Of course, when you move out after having spent years living with someone, you occasionally find yourself overcome by the weight of all the necessary adjustments. Some of these I expected. The most terrifying and urgent being the loneliness that loitered in every corner of my tiny new bachelor, that whispered to me as I prepared my single-serving meals, that lingered by my side as I lay awake atop the vast plains of my suddenly empty bed. When I went out, I would look longingly at beautiful women and wonder how to talk to them, how to make them laugh. I wondered if I would ever make anyone laugh again. As I sat alone in bars, drinking too much whisky and listening too hard to the giggling and banter around me, at how easily everyone talked to one another, I found myself gripped by a suffocating nostalgia for the easy conversations that once dominated my life—what I was forcing myself to think of as my “old life.” I thought about how, once upon a time, I had had someone to talk to at the beginning and ending of every day, someone who listened, someone who cared. I missed that easy companionship as much as I had ever missed anything, although what I missed about it was already long gone from my life before I moved out. Its unexpected disappearance was, in so many sad and complicated ways, why I moved out in the first place.
What I didn’t expect was how much stuff I needed to buy. Coffee maker, frying pan—crap like that. Things I hadn’t purchased in years, hadn’t even thought about purchasing, because every time I needed it, there it was, exactly where I had put the damn thing when I’d bought it years ago. But that was before stuff has been divided. Like an homage to our broken relationship, neither of us walked away with everything we needed to navigate our newly separate lives. Although the partitioning of goods seemed equitable at the time, there were moments—like when I realized I no longer had a dish rack or my favourite spatula or a cheese grater or enough towels—when all of a sudden it seemed plain fucking wrong. Like I got screwed. Of course I knew—as I’m sure she did—that we were fair and both did the right thing, but that frustration and the fear behind it simmered until I began to fit the missing pieces of my stuff together. And it was only when I acquired one final item—after first asking myself such soul-defining questions as, “Do I really need a vegetable peeler? Can I live without a shoe rack?”—that my life started coming together and a measure of peace consumed me.
For me, that item was a dresser.
I really needed that dresser. For the better part of a month, my clothes languished in boxes as my search for the perfect used dresser consumed me. I was looking for something interesting, something with character. Nothing worked out. Finally, I gave up and arranged to see two used Ikea somethings that possessed absolutely no character whatsoever aside from their unpronounceable names. The first was owned by a brilliantly attractive U of O student who, when we met, proved utterly immune to my meagre charms. (This was expected: aside from my being disastrously out of practice at the whole flirting thing, I’ve since discovered that all beautiful young women who know they are beautiful are understandably wary of men like me who smile easily and talk too much, and it’s really not their fault.) Although the dresser was, at seventy-five dollars, a bit more than I had hoped to pay, it was also sturdy, clean, and looked up to the task of containing my clothes. I told the U of O girl I’d get back to her within the hour and then ventured to see the other, cheaper, dresser. From the crisp bright photos and glowing description on craigslist, it seemed perfect. A steal, even. Looking back, that probably should have been my first clue that something was horribly, terribly wrong.
I rang the bell and was greeted by a lumpy, sweatpant-clad undergrad who’d successfully avoided his shower and razor for at least three or four days. His face was red and swollen and a little heavy from the drinking he’d done the night before, and he looked vaguely displeased to see me. I could sympathize.
“Yo, you here to see the dresser?”
“Yeah. Uh, Adam?”
His hand jutted out and we shook. “Yeah bro. C’mon in.”
I entered the… well, how shall I put this? “House” is of course the most accurate word to describe this dwelling, but it would no doubt conjure in your mind images of orderly spaces with defined areas and immovable interior walls. This? This was something else, something that more closely resembled what happened to houses after a concentrated artillery shelling. There wasn’t a single wall that hadn’t been decorated with fist-sized holes, nor a square metre of linoleum floor left uncluttered by moulding pizza boxes, dank clothing, or the relics of some unrecognizable debris. The wall that used to separate the kitchen and living room was now a sagging wreck of drywall and two-by-fours and bent nails and chalky dust piled in front of what used to be a fireplace.
“Yo yo yo. Room’s this way, yo,” Adam said, as though nothing I had just seen mattered. He led us down a narrow hallway and around a corner toward a stairwell that, God help me, would take us to the basement. It was around then that I began to have what you might call serious doubts about this dresser. I swallowed hard, inhaled a deep steadying breath, and stepped down into the darkness.
Everyone knows there are things a man must do in his life, things he is forced by circumstance to witness or endure, and that there are some obstacles he must, in a fleeting moment of Herculean courage, dig so deep to overcome that the sheer act of overcoming leaves a stain upon him that will never quite be expunged. Walking down those stairs, into the nameless blackness that awaited me, was like that. The things I heard scurrying, the rotting stench that struck my nostrils, the unspeakable feelings of revulsion and dread that seemed to reverberate from the concrete walls… I simply will not speak of them ever again. How any human being could live amid that shit is simply beyond my ability to comprehend, and I refuse to ponder it further.
Fortunately, the inside of his room was marginally better, but only because it was covered in a thick squishy carpet. Better, until I began to wonder if that carpet might actually be two inches of black mould. Suddenly, I was immeasurably glad I had “forgotten” to remove my shoes.
“There’s the dresser, yo.” I followed the direction of his finger and peered at what was lurking in the corner.
I approached the dresser warily. From the exterior, it looked normal enough—almost no blemishes or scratches in the beech veneer, no visible pools of unnameable residual goo. I reached out, my hand trembling at the memory of everything I had just gone through to get to this room and what I would have to cross again on my way out, and tugged open one of the drawers. That’s when it hit me. Like a wave of perfect heat rushing from an oven and slapping you in the face. An acrid stench so powerful, so putrid and stinging and vile, that it rose above the bouquet of other stenches that had assaulted me and nearly knocked me over.
I staggered back, screwing my face in disgust. I could barely get the words out. “Holy shit, man. What’s up with that smell?”
Smell didn’t even begin to describe it. It was like death had crawled inside my nostrils and taken a shit. I would probably never be able to simply “smell” anything again.
Adam laughed: a nervous, goofy reckoning that rocked through me and made me hate him. In that moment, as much as I had hated anyone in my entire life, I fucking hated this asshole Adam.
“Yo, um, yeah. I guess my cat kinda pissed in there one night.” He laughed again and sort of shrugged. “S’not so bad, really. You get used to it.”
I felt like hitting him. Thought about it. Didn’t.
Cat pissed in the drawer, he says. Of the dresser he’s trying to sell me. Fuck, I thought.
Several things happened next, more or less at once. I thought about my sister’s cat, Munchkin, never so much as squatting, never even bending his hind legs, anywhere except in his litter box; I thought about how pretty much everywhere in this place reminded me of a litter box; I wondered if this douche had maybe never bothered to get a litter box in the first place, or maybe he did but hadn’t bothered to clean it; maybe he was simply an asshole and had thought it would be funny to lock an animal in that drawer for so long that something terrible happened; or maybe he liked pissing in it himself after too many bottles of Lucky or Slitz or Jim Beam or whatever rot-gut this idiot could afford, and now he was trying to offload this piece of shit on me?! I guess I blacked out or something, because somewhere in there I turned and fled from the room, practically sprinted back the way I’d come, without even mumbling thanks or bye or take ‘er easy or anything, and found myself—mercifully, blissfully, finally—back amid the sunshine on the street. I gulped fresh air like it was water at the edge of a desert. I mean, holy fuck.
That dresser had way too much character.
I reached in my pocket for my cell and texted the U of O girl. “K, so that other dresser sucked monkey balls. Actually smelled of urine for some reason. Pickup between 9 and 10 tomorrow work for you?”
“Sounds perfect,” she answered in less than a minute. A flood of relief rose up my legs and swelled past my chest and settled just beneath my lips. If I had wanted to, I could have lowered my face and drank from that relief and maybe eventually drowned. But I didn’t. Not quite. It would have been a shame to pass through everything I had just endured only to end up broken on the other end.
It was then it occurred to me that an important moment had passed and everything was okay. That I was okay, or going to be at least. Yeah, I was single again and starting over, but so what? And so what if there was no way to account for the things I’d lost along the way, the lingering pain of all those stupid mistakes we both made, and the fear that maybe things could have been different somehow… none of that really mattered. What did matter was that I was going to be okay. Despite everything that had happened, despite how shitty and scared I felt about what lay ahead, I was still standing on the side of the street, sunshine beaming upon me, very obviously having survived.
I sat on the curb, looked up into the sky, and immersed myself in that welcome relief after all. Because I’d finally found my new dresser.
And because we find our peace in the strangest places.