The Rickety Table

An excerpt from my book, Almost There

The project started out small. We were being sent from Yuma to San Diego, and after house hunting for weeks online we decided to live in downtown San Diego in a tiny but conveniently located apartment. Living in the city was both exciting and daunting, not only because it would mandate the mastery of parallel parking, but also because it required a severe downsizing in furniture. 

With some creative staging, Mike and I figured the apartment had enough space for a small table three feet by five feet long, give or take. Instead of buying a table the way normal people would, Mike and I decided to build it with our own hands.

To say that this was a joint decision would be lovely but entirely untrue. Pinterest had just risen to popularity, and the ever-streaming queue of possibilities had taken over my entire life. Up until that point, I had no idea that nearly every product available for purchase could actually be made at home for basically the same cost and nine thousand additional work hours. I considered this a bargain. Strangely, Mike did not. 

In case you are wondering, no, we did not have many construction tools or any building experience. Also, I lacked the critical character traits of patience and long-suffering. But I was restless enough to eagerly swing a hammer or grip a power saw, and Mike was fresh off the heels of deployment, which meant that he was used to dealing with temperamental people handling dangerous weapons. I saw only pros.

The table turned out beautiful: a rustic tabletop stained in a gray-brown wash supported by a thick rectangular frame painted crisp white. I stood in our empty living room, admiring our work, and then placed my hands on the small table, ready to have a quiet moment of transcendence where the table would be blessed and consecrated for good use. This was my moment to stand on achievement, or at least to lean against it with two hands. 

The moment, however, was interrupted when the table began to sway against my touch.

The table we made was not actually stable. The part professionally assembled—the table top—was solid, but the frame was wobbly, swoony, prone to dancing with sporadic, awkward movements, like a suburban mom trying Zumba for the first time. After hours of work, a weekend road trip to Colorado, and more money than it would’ve cost to purchase a nice,  hard-to-assemble IKEA table, we had built a rickety one for ourselves

I know the ricketiness of the table shouldn’t have mattered—especially to friends that we had known for so long. But on the first night we all gathered around for dinner, I wasn’t as concerned about the temperature of the food or the topic of conversation as much as the movement of everyone’s knees and elbows. I hoped those bony parts wouldn’t bump the rickety parts. When anyone reached for the salt, I watched the water slosh in glasses. I even provided the unsolicited explanation that we were unable to serve steak because the collective back-and-forth motion of steak knives would certainly collapse the dining surface before anyone arrived at bite-sized pieces. 

I liked what the homemade table implied about Mike and me: that we were industrious, hardworking, creative artisans. But I was most comfortable discussing the finer details of our handmade furniture from the stability of our store-made couches or, better yet, abstractly over the phone. As soon as we sat down for dinner, though, it seemed like the ideals the table stood for didn’t matter because the table wasn’t very good at standing in the most literal sense. The table wasn’t very good at being a table. While the vulnerabilities were most charming in narrative form, in real life they were distracting, uncomfortable, and slightly embarrassing. 

Often, this is how I think of moving and starting again. In theory, it seems so charming to transplant an old life to a new place, as if quality of life hinges on a change of scenery or a larger backyard or a house with a respectable pantry. In narrative form moving can seem so adventurous, so romantic, the cure to a thousand problems. But the actual execution of it is, well, sort of clunky, namely because there is a mandatory transition phase at the beginning where you will stand out as an outsider.

What I mean is that your adjustment may begin with lots of mistakes. You may learn a city first by all the things you get wrong about it. Names you misremembered, directions you thought you knew, parking tickets you were awarded for never having heard of a thing called “street sweeping.” Maybe you adjust to new places with the poise and grace of an Olympic ice dancer, but the curve of my adjustment period lingers in the stage I’ve affectionately titled Looking and Acting Like a Fool.

When our friends Arica and Dave came to visit, I was still very much in this phase, a tour guide who smiled a lot but had no idea where she was going. So the impulse to overexplain the fragility of our table permeated more than the table. I felt the urge to explain away the feeble parts of our transitioning life, like the fact that we were still looking for local community, still using the GPS to make it to the grocery store. We were in progress, at all points still freckled with imperfection. From a distance we may have appeared beautiful and stable, polished and whole and photogenic, but up close we were quaking under the weight of starting over. 

But do you know what good friends do in this situation? 

They eat with you anyway. They move with your sway. They ask the question beneath the question, not just “what’s new?” but “how are you feeling about it?” They chase the heart of the matter, which is another way of saying they chase and find you

What we were looking for was a Dave and Arica, for friends who would sit with us in the center of our rickety life and call it valid, call it good. 

They took a large city and reminded us how to make it small, reminding us that the point is not to arrive at something perfect or polished, but to be brave enough to attempt something personal. To try. To risk. To build. 

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