“Hey, babe? C’mere a sec,” Seneca called, a tad too loud, across the store to her husband. “What about this for the dining table? The dining table out on the terrace, I mean.”
Seneca pictured the terrace table dotted with Italian glassware, handwoven jute placemats, and artisanal trivets holding aloft colorful Le Creuset cast iron. The glazed stoneware pitcher in her hands would look perfect amidst the spread. Straight out of a catalog. Not an Instagram ad but the catalog proper.
“Baby, it’s gorgeous, but I worry it will clash with the whole colorway we’ve been building out there.” Jameson got a little hard when he said this, as if the assemblage of table decor were as basic and primal an act as constructing a hut from mud. Seneca sighed, maybe he was right, and they continued on through the SoHo Crate & Barrel.
“Oh,” she gasped, drawing her hand to her heart, “these are just the cutest. Wouldn’t they be so perfect for Friendsgiving?” She caressed a brass napkin ring in admiration.
Jameson plucked an apron and tied it around her waist. “So perfect,” he echoed, pleased by the way the gingham curved over her hips. She palmed a ceramic tart dish. “And for dessert,” she circled the vessel under his nose, “fresh blackberry pie.” Jameson took a whiff of the imaginary confection. He licked his lips and envisioned sweet berry juice dripping from the corners of her mouth.
It was a sort of foreplay for them, perusing home goods. The goods titillated them just as much as being seen shopping for them. Sharply-dressed, heterosexual, and in their early 30s, the couple knew they stirred a certain envy. At home however, things were different. At home, there was no terrace dining table, no terrace, hardly an indoor dining table unless two stools at an IKEA cart salvaged from the sidewalk counted. At home it all was microwaved dinners that never looked like the pictures on the box and farting into the same unwashed fleece blanket from Bed Bath and Beyond. There was no Friendsgiving, and there was seldom a “babe” or “baby” or any other variation of the word. A pair of adjunct professors, they were no strangers to wealth, they had simply never been in possession of it themselves. They paid their bills, albeit narrowly. Slowly, they saved for retirement. Most of the time, they had enough left over for the necessary luxury of takeout.
The conceit occurred to Seneca several years prior, as the couple left her mother’s Upper East Side apartment. Though they hardly visited as often as they promised, they thought Marianne should learn in-person that she was no longer a grandmother to be. It was the right thing to do. In accordance with the rest of her personality, Marianne took the news coldly. When they exited the building they wordlessly headed down Madison Avenue in the direction of the subway. After several long blocks, Seneca broke the silence.
“Let’s stop in here, I have to pee.” She pointed to a beaux arts mansion turned storefront. The exterior of the Ralph Lauren flagship was ornate and romantic and reminded Jameson of a New York of a bygone era. When they ducked inside, shades of white and ivory flooded their vision, punctuated by jet black wrought iron accents. The marble staircase was glittering and grand and before scurrying to the top floor Seneca briefly paused to wonder what it would be like to live in a home with stairs. Jameson wondered how she instinctively knew where to go.
As Seneca washed her hands, she inspected her face. She loved the light in this bathroom. It was common for her to stop by the Madison Avenue store after a tense meeting at her mother’s but she’d never brought Jameson, never told him about this little ritual of hers. In the mirror her complexion was radiant, her pores invisible. The kind of skin people pay for. She took a step back and pivoted from side to side, smoothing her hands over the body of her dress. She was svelte in a sleeveless turtleneck cashmere number that fell just past her calves. It had cost a small fortune and she’d had it for years but rarely was the dress weather-appropriate. Even buying it, she knew it was impractical but couldn’t resist the sight of herself in the warm dressing room lights. When she came out to inspect herself in the big mirror, the salesgirl had fawned, and for a moment Seneca believed she could see the thought behind the girl’s eyes: I wish I could be you. Sold.
Though she’d recently flushed a bloody clot of fetus down the toilet like a neglected goldfish, Seneca felt beautiful and strong. Enviable. When she left the bathroom her posture was new. She stood straighter, chest out and shoulders back. She meandered the Ralph Lauren with hands clasped behind her back as though in a museum. She studied displays resplendent with fine leathers, pewters, and carved wood. She grazed each surface with care and patted the centers of pillows to test for adequate fluffiness. She ran a waffle-textured towel along her cheek.
Overflowing with beautiful merchandise, the store made evident to Seneca all the things she did not, but perhaps one day could, have. Her keys could reside in a handcarved teak catch-all, her candles snuffed out elegantly with a douter. Her morning coffee swirled with warm milk from a copper saucepan. That every aspect of her life could have an expensive accoutrement was highly erotic. She knew, of course, that she was able to own some of these things. But there was far less pleasure in knowing exactly how many months it would take to pay for them.
Jameson found Seneca upstairs petting a shearling blanket with the affection one might reserve for a family dog.
“There you are,” he said, “do you want to start heading back to Brook-“
“Darling, do you think these sheets are high enough thread count for the guest room?” Seneca interrupted.
“They’re 600 count Egyptian cotton,” she continued, “but I was picturing 800.” Across the floor, Jameson overheard a woman asking her husband if a cashmere blanket was “snuggly” enough gift friends who had leant them the use of their private jet.
All at once, Jameson understood. “Babydoll, I thought we agreed on linen for the guest room?”
A small smile crept across Seneca’s face. Over the past few weeks Jameson had felt like a useless bystander, powerless against Seneca’s biology. But in this moment he felt heroic.
“Baby,” she pouted, “I was thinking linen for summer and Egyptian cotton in the winter?”
“Ok babe. In that case 800 for sure. Let's put these back.” He placed a firm arm around her waist as though someone might try to buy his wife if he weren’t careful. She leaned into him. “I suppose we can head to Brooks Brothers then. You could really use some new shirts.”
Seneca rest her head against Jameson’s shoulder the entire subway ride home, though it gave her a terrible crick in her neck. When they returned to their Sunset Park one-bedroom he made love to her, cherished her like the most rare and beautiful item he could've purchased.
For Christmas that year Jameson had given Seneca something she’d been eyeing during one of their performances, a crystal paperweight from Diptyque. At the store, she’d returned to it over and over, picking it up, inspecting it, subtly checking the price. He knew she wanted it badly. The salesperson wrapped the small parcel in colorful layers of tissue and on his way home, Jameson would occasionally notice the extra weight in his pocket and smile. Though as Seneca stripped open the layers of paper, her face fell. She stared at the glass orb, avoiding Jameson’s gaze.
“You don’t like it,” he said, a sinking feeling taking shape in his chest.
A shiny tear quivered on her lower lash line, threatening to trail down her cheek. “I thought — “ he began, although he wasn’t sure what he thought. Then Jameson understood. Their roleplay was never meant to leave the store, no matter how beautifully packaged. He’d miscalculated so severely, he saw in her wet eyes and plasticine smile. Something had shattered and he was unsure if the damage was irrevocable. “It’s exquisite,” she said. “Really.” She made a show of putting the paperweight on her desk atop a stack of papers. "It looks perfect!" she said like an infomercial actress.
"It really does look quite handsome there."
"It complements the wall tone so nicely," she said, her smile growing wider, tighter. They took turns commenting on how wonderful it looked until both their faces were twisted into grimaces of false cheer.
In bed that night Seneca quietly reached for her phone to google Diptyque’s return policy. 160 dollars. An absurd price for an absolutely functionless object. It's what she loved most about the thing in the store. But sitting upon the desk, it was stupid. The idea was thoughtful but the tiny luxury item only proved how much they lacked. She wouldn't return it, couldn’t. She set her phone back on the side table. It's only fun if you can have everything you want at once, she thought.
The rest of the holidays were quiet. There were many things they never spoke of, Jameson added “the paperweight incident” to the list. He longed to be like the other husbands, the ones who saw their wives admiring pointlessly decorative things and said, “You want it? I’ll buy it.” The kind of husband who casually slid his black AmEx into the card reader, not one who held his breath waiting for the machine to tell him if his flimsy debit was accepted. He was past his insecurity over his height— 5’7” in shoes— but every so often wished he were one of the tall husbands, the kind who didn’t think twice if his wife wore heels. He thought of his youthful dreams of professorhood, of donning wool blazers with leather elbow patches, smoking pipe tobacco in a vast home library. His fantasy did not include overprivileged teenagers mocking the smell of his homemade egg salad because he refused to spend 17 dollars on a sandwich in Manhattan. He wanted to be a man. He wanted to be her man. And he was, proudly so. He remembered witnessing Seneca’s resilience as she told her mother about the miscarriage. Her repose as Marianne hurled thinly veiled insults about her daughter’s failure as a woman. Seneca’s head against his shoulder on the subway home, the covetous glances of other riders. They were the picture of togetherness. So why the anxiety about his minor inadequacies?
He wished he were the kind of husband who could have Ubered his wife home from the Upper East Side.
In the shower that night Jameson fantasized about fucking Seneca on a tiger skin rug. Not just any tiger skin rug, but one he had purchased. A rug paid for with a heavy black card. A card, the frequent use of which, strengthened his wrist more than the average man. With his superior wrist strength, he would swipe his card freely and pleasure his wife until she came buckets all over the tiger skin. Then they would buy a new one. Better yet, a tiger he’d slaughtered himself. He’d once read an article once about wealthy doctors paying hundreds of thousands to poachers in Africa for the opportunity to join them on an illicit hunting trip. He wanted to kill his own tiger, then fuck his wife atop its flayed pelt. He mercilessly stroked his cock, face growing redder than a sunburn under the hot African sky.
Only later did the shame set in. Not about the paperweight incident per se but of his consequent fantasizing of another life. They’d chosen this, chosen their mundane passions and small apartment. Chosen against the upper-middle-class security of their parents. They wanted to be poor. It was not politically correct to say, no, but it was true. They were intelligent and caucasian and from financially stable backgrounds. They were born into an embarrassment of options, and this was their selection. But then again, didn’t everyone want to be rich?
The paperweight sat on the desk for two weeks. It glistened, magnifying the dullness of the walls and cheapness of their other objects from the likes of Goodwill and Marshalls. Eventually, Seneca grew to resent the paperweight so much she hid it out of sight. Even sitting in the desk drawer, the paperweight’s deep swirling jewel tones contrasted depressingly against a stack of 99 cent Duane Reade notebooks, so that their covers appeared neither blue nor grey but some impoverished in-between shade. Jameson later discovered it while searching for his checkbook. It pained him, but he understood.
In time, the couple all but abandoned the idea of having children. It was less a formal decision and more of something they spoke less and less of until the topic vanished. Maybe children were too expensive, or a bandaid for a broken relationship. They stayed together though, and when things grew tense and grim, when money was scarce, when Jameson found out about Seneca’s affair with a tenured professor, they would partake in their exhibitionist domesticity. Whether in Union Square or Williamsburg, should they stumble upon the kind of store that carries French linens and marble chess sets, without uttering a word, they would slip into scene. Even after years, her nipples would harden at posing such questions as, “Bubba, how marvelous would these sconces be in the Nantucket powder room?” His cock twitched at the sight of her inhaling the scent of a 200 dollar candle. And their marriage was saved again.