A Comfortable Chair
by Alexis Tener
“Oh nooo,” Louisa said, the arc of the last “o” tilting up so you knew she was really upset. Before Irma had children, this would have seemed ridiculous because Louisa was only two. Yes, two-year-olds had tantrums, but learning that they had big and real feelings had been a shock. Now, as a parent, Irma knew that two-year-olds felt many things, indeed, it seemed they felt most things with such engulfing power that it made Irma wonder if she herself had ever had such compelling feelings. Had she ever experienced the level of despair her daughter displayed when being taken too soon from the bathtub, for example?
Irma’s feelings about most things were somewhat muted, which over the course of her life had served her rather well, she thought. It certainly had come in handy as the mother of two young children. She had not suffered teenage or even college heartbreak, preferring to stay mostly away from dating until she met her husband. She had not experienced the dreaded postpartum depression that she’d heard so much about, a welcome miss that still made her shudder. She did not anger easily, or really at all. Not when her mother-in-law criticized her housekeeping or her son’s diet (mostly chicken nuggets). Not when her children misbehaved in public, pulling at her sleeves for a treat, or book or toy or whatever. Not when her husband seemed to hide away at work in order to miss the kids’ exhausting bedtime routine.
On this night, Irma listened as Louisa’s “oh noooo” from the other side of the living room morphed into a “Mommy, help please… Mommy HELP PLEASE!” Irma moved slowly to her daughter to see what the matter was, passing the sofa with a stack of neatly folded laundry that had somehow thus far survived the tornado path of her children.
Louisa had her brother’s book of stickers and was trying to pull a large truck sticker off the last page. Irma thought she’d eradicated all sticker books from the play area, but somehow Louisa had a sixth sense for them. She always seemed to find them one way or another.
Stickers were a particular frustration for Louisa. Her small fingers were not yet nimble enough to navigate the flush edges to pull them off. Nor could her mind accept the permanence of a sticker, that once placed, it couldn’t easily be removed and re-affixed to another surface. But what she hated the most was that her brother could manipulate the stickers with ease and that she could not. She was able to remove them maybe half of the time, and the other half she screamed like this until someone came to help her.
Today, Irma didn’t have the energy to stave off the impending crisis. She didn’t rush to remove the offending sticker, as she might if there were any other adults in the room. She didn’t invent a distraction. She just didn’t feel like it. Instead, she said, “Well it’s a sticker, Louisa, what did you expect?” And she watched as Louisa’s face crumpled bit by bit until she had erupted into a full-blown tantrum. It was only then that Irma relented, scooping her daughter up and stroking her hair.
“The stickers are Matthew’s,” she said, matter-of-factly. Irma had decided of late that Louisa should learn to withstand her disappointments rather than be consumed by them. It seemed healthier, if impossible in moments like these. Irma twisted a strand of Louisa’s hair that had become entangled with a train sticker. Louisa wailed louder, not because she was in pain, but because she sensed there was an outcome Irma was trying to avoid (more crying), and so she pounced, leaning into a tantrum. Tears stained red cheeks and met with snot that had congealed at Louisa’s chin. In between and over the sobs, Irma heard the front door open, and Brian’s steps sounded in the hallway.
“I’m home,” he called, to no one in particular. He came into the family room, registering the sticker book splayed open on the ground, Irma’s stoic face and Louisa’s wailing.
“For goodness sake, just give her the stickers!” he said.
And even though it hadn’t been about withholding stickers, Louisa’s tears magically stopped when Irma handed over a train sticker.
They ate a quiche for dinner, one from the store, not made by Irma. But at least it wasn’t chicken nuggets.
Pop. Pop. Pop. That was the sound of Matthew popping the bubble wrap he insisted on bringing to the table.
When they were first married and talked about what they wanted their family to be like, Brian had said he wanted to make sure they had dinner together at least a few nights a week. It was one of those things his parents hadn’t done much, if at all, and it therefore seemed important to him. Now here they were, bubble wrap on the table, one child clothed in a Batman costume, the other kicking the table from her highchair and several airplane and train stickers affixed to the silverware. Irma wondered how far afield this dinner was from the dinners of Brian’s imagination.
“Work just announced my department is going fully remote starting next week,” announced Brian, his mouth full of quiche.
Pop. Pop. Pop.
Irma was feeding Louisa peas. Louisa still had trouble wielding her fork and spoon and so Irma often opted to feed Louisa to avoid food being flung to all corners of the kitchen. Louisa refused to touch the quiche.
“What does that mean?”
“I’ll be working from home now – I can be with you and the kids more, help with some of the drop-offs and pick-ups.”
Irma nodded and waited, knowing there would be something else.
“Do you think we could share your office? I’ve already ordered a new chair.”
Irma’s mind fluttered into each room, searching for another nook for him that wasn’t there.
“Sure,” Irma said, accidentally smashing a pea on her pants. “We can share my office.”
The whole house was small, but the office was the smallest room. Irma suspected it had been some sort of storage closet, but the home’s prior owners had somehow smashed a desk in and Irma and Brian had followed their lead and kept the desk the sellers left behind.
The room had one little window and some built-in shelves where Irma had carefully placed her books and some work things – reference materials, an old award, her college diploma. When they moved in, she’d had Brian paint the room and the desk a very light blue called “Borrowed Light” and just these things – the shelves, her books, the color and the little window that looked out at a Dogwood tree that made her forget she was in the suburbs – these things made the office Irma’s favorite room in the house. In fact, she was neutral about the rest of the house – it was functional, well appointed, and vanilla enough that it could belong to any couple with kids. But this room was her own.
On Sunday, Brian’s chair arrived, an ugly, black, practical chair that replaced the white wicker one she’d been using. Her chair was singularly uncomfortable, but it had sat in her childhood home, at her desk, and it was one of the only things she’d kept from her youth, one of the only things that made her nostalgic about her life as a girl. For years she’d sat on it, mostly with a cushion, not caring that sometimes it made her back ache.
“You’ll love this chair,” Brian said, and made her sit on it, Matthew clamoring at her side, wanting to test out the chair’s spin capability. It was very comfortable. And so her chair moved to Louisa’s room.
Monday morning, Brian drove Matthew to school and Louisa to daycare. That had been Irma’s job. She stood in the kitchen after he left, not sure at first what to do with the few extra minutes of time. Every minute was so precious that an unplanned extra minute became bewildering. She sat in the kitchen and took two leisurely sips of coffee. Long, slow ones that felt luxurious compared to her normal needy gulps. But it was difficult to feel relaxed in the kitchen. The kitchen was like her third child. Always messy, always needing something. She took her coffee upstairs to her office. Now, she supposed, “the” office. They hadn’t discussed how they would split a single workspace; they were both avoiding the conversation. Brian spent a lot of his time on calls with California, so she assumed he would use the office later in the day and leave her the mornings. Irma was a freelance writer and preferred to work in the mornings anyway. So maybe sharing the space would be okay.
When Brian returned, Irma was at her desk, in his chair, playing with the same sentence, by moving it to the end of a paragraph, to the beginning, then back again.
“I have a call in ten minutes,” he said, his meaning clear. “Do you mind working in the kitchen, just for a bit?” Irma wondered how Louisa would react in a similar situation. Stomp her foot or throw her body on the ground… likely scream… maybe some tears. Irma closed her laptop and went to the kitchen. She sat at the kitchen table and wondered if she could bring her chair down here.
About Alexis Tener
Alexis Tener is a mother of three, working and living in New York City and writing whenever and wherever she can.