(A rough, messy account of an actual event, occurring April 22, 2021)
The last thing I should be doing at 9:00 p.m. is starting to build a nightstand. But here I am, all the pieces dumped out onto the floor. Dust tickles my nose and flakes of Styrofoam speckle the carpet.
It’s not like I haven’t done enough today. I woke up, graded assignments and answered emails for work, sat through class, and spent the next two hours working on my homework: peer reviewing pitch documents for my other class. Then, as if writing all morning and afternoon wasn’t enough, I went shopping with my husband too. We returned a blender that smoked on us (another story for another time), picked up a new one, a laundry basket, and the aforementioned nightstand that’s now scattered on the floor.
My husband’s worried about me because it’s late and he’s tired, and he knows I’m tired, but I stubbornly proclaim that I’m going to build the darn thing. I want to use my hands and complete something—have something to look at when I finish. He tells me I’m perfectly capable of doing it, but is now the best time to do it?
I unroll his tool kit and dig out the screwdriver tips.
My stubbornness refuses to let me back down and my feminist side feels like I have something to prove, like I need to prove that I can do this.
“Which one do you need?” he asks.
I consult the instruction manual and try to pry the tip out of the rubbery strip that refuses to let it go. He takes it from my hand and wrestles it out. “You’ve got to be strong.”
I glare, letting out a huff of air. I know he doesn’t mean it the way I’m taking it, but it doesn’t help the stubbornness and I take the tip and settle it into the screwdriver.
“I’m going to do it!” For some reason, tears are gathering in my eyes. And I hate it.
“Are you okay?” he asks.
“I don’t know.” I look at the moving boxes, broken down, leaning against the couch, waiting to be used in just a week. “Maybe it’s the stress.” I look back up at him. “Maybe it’s nothing. I’m just going to do it.”
He goes to bed. I make my tears dry up and turn on some music, settling on the floor with the pieces of nightstand. I still feel like I haven’t accomplished anything today. All writing did was make me feel tired. But this, this will get my hands dirty and possibly make my back ache. Plus it’s a distraction. I keep telling myself it’s because I want to feel like I accomplished something today, but it might be something else, and I don’t want to deal with the “something else” right now.
Nightstand dust coats my fingertips and the inside of my nose. It takes a minute, but I find a rhythm, enjoying the strain it takes for me to focus and work with my hands. It keeps my mind out of my mind, out of my own thoughts.
I get hot and get a cup of water. I get hungry and get an applesauce crusher. I sit on my knees and go as long as I can before I need to take a drink, take a mouthful of applesauce. My neck has started to ache but I ignore it, paying attention to the dirt and grit smeared across my fingertips, trying to hammer as quietly as possible so I don’t wake up my husband with my stubborn, desperate late night project.
Late night because now it is kind of late. 11:00. Later than I usually try to get to bed. But I’m not quitting until it’s done. I told him, “You’ll wake up tomorrow and it’s going to be finished!” All with tears in my eyes and my throat burning, trying to keep more of the emotions down.
That proclamation drives me, even when I have to unscrew the drawer runners I already put on the inside of the nightstand and switch them out for smaller screws. But it’s fine. Just a small little fix. Then I can finish the drawer itself and go to bed. Proud, accomplished, something to show for myself.
Stretching my back, realizing it’s starting to ache too, I finish the drawer. Lining everything up was kind of a pain, and I can feel the grains of the fake wood in the grime on my fingers, but I don’t care. I slide the drawer into place and smile at the gentle whir of the wheels as it rolls back. I scootch away from my handiwork, reaching for the manual. There has to be something I’m missing—a shelf to go in the open space below the drawer. I’ve already put the supports in for it.
That’s the end.
I screwed it up.
I refuse to cry and reassess my situation. I put the bottom piece upside down, so now the legs are sticking up into the nightstand in a nice little “H.” They’re supports for the bottom of the nightstand, not for a shelf.
But it’s fine. Everything’s fine.
I twist out the long screws that connect the bottom piece to the sides. I pull on the bottom thinking, “Success!” But it catches and stops. The back has already been nailed in and now I can’t get it to move.
I glance up, realizing I’m facing the bedroom door. I can hear the whir of the fan inside and think I hear my husband adjust in the bed. All I can think of is that he better not come out and that I’ve got to get this fixed. I can’t have just ruined this $50 piece of furniture.
I try to slide my finger in the space between the backing and the edge of the bottom piece. No success. I get the hammer and try to pull the nails out. The backing is flush against the nail heads and the hammer can’t catch the nails.
Growing increasingly frustrated and overheated by the second, I grab a small pair of scissors from my husband’s tool kit and try to pry it in between the pieces.
Nothing is working.
I shift, glaring at the nightstand. I could have been done by now. But no. I had to ruin it. How could I fix it?
I pick up the bottom piece again and bend the backing as I move it. With another glance at the bedroom door, I level the piece and tug. One by one, I get the nails to pull through the thin backing, not all the way, but just enough. There’s enough space now for the hammer to catch the nail heads.
My back and neck are still aching, but I stay on my knees and work. I line up the bottom piece the way it should be and twist the long screws back in. Besides the one nail that ripped a bit off the backing, I’m able to nail them all in the same spaces. Everything is fine again.
Except for the legs.
I keep my teeth clenched, focusing on the tension in my jaw instead of the hopelessness and exhaustion creeping in. I line up the “H” shaped legs on the bottom of the nightstand and re-screw the bolts into place.
I finally flip the nightstand upright. I roll the drawer in, rather unceremoniously, the moment anti-climatic at this point. I take a step back and look at my work.
I finished it. I did it!
I toss the manual and the extra screws and other assorted bits on the top. I can’t wait any longer to clean my hands and get the dirt and dust off them. I retreat down the hall and scrub in the stinging hot water. When I walk back out, I move the nightstand closer to the couch so it’s out of the way.
I’m not full of the satisfaction I thought I would be. I’m proud, yes, but not particularly happy or satisfied. I’m still tired and now my back and neck hurts, just like I predicted.
I survey the room around me. The moving boxes are still there, waiting. I know the closet is full of more boxes, waiting for our dishes and cookware to be packed up and shipped off with us.
I can’t sit still, and I can’t go to bed yet. My discontent is too great. Building that nightstand did nothing. But now my fingers itch so I go to my laptop and write, write while the nightstand watches me without eyes, sitting silently just out of reach.
But now that I’ve written, I know why I’m still not satisfied, why I felt like getting the nightstand built right that very moment. Newly built, still covered in dust, sitting in the carpet with Styrofoam bits, the nightstand has become a symbol of completion, of something in my control.
The moving boxes can’t be touched until next week. After we move, we won’t settle in for at least a few days, and who knows how long it will take for me to emotionally settle into a new place, a different state, a small studio apartment miles and miles away from family and friends.
This is the only home I’ve ever known. How long before the new place feels like home? I guess it will just take time, as much as I hate that answer.
But it still wasn’t the nightstand that helped me work through my emotions. No, it was writing, writing about that stupid nightstand at 12:41 a.m. and crying a little bit more, sniffling.
So while there is a kind of pride for finishing a physical project, with a physical form, one that you can leave manuals and screws on, it’s still not as complete as finishing a writing project. It doesn’t help complete me, but writing does. I might still bemoan the fact that some days it feels like I have nothing to show for my work, but at least writing can keep me sane. I’m coming to realize that writing may be the only thread that helps me process life and emotions. And you know what? That’s fine. It’s a whole lot nicer than building a nightstand all night.