The chair entered their home in the color dark horseradish. It came with the splayed legs detached, but they were easy to screw in. The husband and the wife took turns sitting in the West Elm chair and agreed that it was very comfortable: not comfy like an armchair that you could curl up in to read for hours, but a nice chair to sit up straight in. The upholstery had a heathered texture, and it had the elegant curves of a concert hall famous for its acoustics. There was a keyhole in the back like a cutaway in a cocktail dress. The chair was meant for a dining table, but they could not afford a whole set of them, and anyway, there was no dining room. After they had tried out the chair, the little blond dog hopped onto it, turned once, and lay down, curled like a croissant with her paws and nose hanging off the edge.
The little blond dog was a rescue, part dachshund, part who knows what, but the wife noticed a subtle change in her dog sitting on the West Elm chair: she looked well-bred. She looked cohesive and familiar, like a dog that you could look at and say, “Oh, there’s a French bulldog,” or “there’s a Shiba Inu,” instead of “there’s a little blond dog.” The little blond dog avoided the West Elm chair after that.
She came home from running errands and placed her tote bag, which was from a literary magazine, on the West Elm chair. It’s so funny, she thought, looking at the vignette she had created. It looks like a catalog, but it’s a corner of my apartment. It’s my life, but well-staged. The same thing happened with a stack of library books waiting to be returned; they looked so appealing and well-lit, it was a shame to return them. She did return them, of course, and replaced the books with a draped throw blanket, which made the room look cozy, like the heat had just clicked on. Then she took her husband’s acoustic guitar off its hook and leaned it against the chair. Her husband put the guitar back later without mentioning the stylish composition.
The mail came: bills, mostly, but there were also several holiday cards, and a package from Amazon. Rather than opening them, she assembled them on the chair. Oh, don’t move them yet, she said to the husband. I’m still enjoying them.
You’re enjoying the unopened mail?
The little blond dog spoiled her fun, too: the wife had placed the newest and most attractive dog toy on the chair and hung her leash over the back, but the dog removed the toy and buried it between the couch cushions. Fortunately, there were other objects to place on the chair, like a framed print that was waiting to be hung on the wall and the Settlers of Catan box before their friends came over. You don’t have to stage our game night, her husband told her.
I just got it out to have it ready, she said. They both knew that was not true, but they left the box there. It did look nice.
A good set of headphones appeared on the chair one afternoon. She had only turned her head away for a moment, and there they were: black, new, laid down carefully-casually. When she put them on, they played Vexations by Erik Satie for her.
On Sunday, several sections of the New York Times appeared – the magazine, the book review, and the travel section – with a pair of reading glasses unfurled on top of the stack. She tried them on. They looked great on her, but even better on the Sunday Times. The lenses seemed not to be prescription. The crossword puzzle was impossible to complete.
Are you buying things to put on the chair? the husband asked. I don’t know where they came from, she said. Things don’t just appear, he said. Maybe they do, she said.
Who would balance a chess set on a chair like that?
One morning, there was another newspaper, folded on the chair, free from any dirt, as though it had never been outside. On top of the paper was a scone on a bone-white salad plate with a gilded rim. The newspaper was for a town they had never heard of; neither the state it was from, nor the date of the paper were clear. There was a surprising amount of decor-related news, but something about the paper repelled reading, and neither of them could bear to do anything more than skim the headlines. The scone, however, was seductive. It had a crisp topping of demerara sugar, and smelled buttery and fresh. They argued about eating the scone, and in the end decided to split it, so that if it was poisoned or cursed, they would suffer the consequences together. Of course, they did not give any to the little blond dog. It was cranberry orange and was delicious. It could be delicious and poisoned, said the husband, still eating it.
What if it’s too delicious?
I think we would taste the poison.
And who said a curse can’t be a good thing, she thought.
An iPad appeared, the newest model, propped up on its neat stand. It had no battery life, and disappeared when she turned away. She couldn’t find that pretty salad plate either, which she had washed and stacked with their other dishes.
One sunny-white day, a set of binoculars arrived on the chair. She looked through them out the window, but couldn’t get them to focus for a long time. Finally, she saw a bird she thought was a dark-eyed junco. Then the chair caught her eye: it now held a guide to birds of her region. She sat in the chair to flip through the book. Things became quiet around her, and there seemed to be no temperature. She sat in the peaceful neutrality. Maybe it was a slate-colored junco. She felt soothed and began to drowse.
She woke seated in the chair, next to a table covered in stacks of art books, like a bookstore display. This was not her apartment. She heard soft Gregorian chants. There was an excellent stereo system behind her, and a record collection, but she couldn’t see where the speakers were hidden. She had never wanted a record collection, but had often thought she and her husband were the type of people who would have one. She stood. This was how she had always dreamed her home would look once they achieved all the objects they wanted. The bird book and binoculars were gone. She called the little blond dog, and she did not come. She called her husband, and he did not answer.
From the windows, she could see lawns, trees, and distant houses across several acres. It was the kind of country you’d put boots on to tramp through. There was a neat shed in the yard, rose bushes, and a gnarled apple tree. The back door would not open. This was the thing that alarmed her, and she ran through the rooms, looking for a front door. There was no front door. There were no hallways either, no connective tissue, only swift transitions between living and dining and bath and bed, a glossiness and brightness, but such a stillness she couldn’t breathe. It was so stylish, this place, and she wanted all the things here, all the blankets, and mirrors, and window treatments, but she couldn’t have nice things. Everything she had always got stained or chipped. She tried opening windows but they did not open. It wasn’t really a house.
There was one thing here that did belong to her: the dark horseradish mid-century modern style chair. She collapsed in it.
She found herself back in her apartment, and her husband was there.
How can you have appeared in the chair? he asked.
I came from somewhere else. I moved through it to get back here.
Where were you?
It wasn’t like anywhere. It was almost like being in a house, but it was more like being in a furniture store. It looked like a catalog.
We have to get rid of that chair, he said.
But they did not.
She began letting the chair transport her while her husband was at work. To begin with, she would go about her day as if he were there, watching. She would walk the little blond dog, do a HIIT workout, shower, make lunch, peruse job sites, and then … what? She would be tired from exercising, and there she was, always in the apartment. A listlessness would descend, and looking for jobs was so exhausting. Better to disappear for a little while. Rather than the couch or the bed, she sat in the West Elm chair for an afternoon nap. A doze, a giving in, a waking, and then there she was with the Gregorian chants and the overlapping carpets and the bright sunlight. To return home, she simply had to sit down in her chair. Then she would go for another walk and maybe read a book or bake some scones.
On each trip, she sat on a different piece of furniture, just for the pure experience. She would close her eyes and run her hands over the upholstery, wood, and leather, contacting each sensation one at a time. She also liked to run her hands along the spines of the books on the shelves, the percussion of her hand hitting each book sounded like a prayer wheel, she thought. When you sit in a swivel recliner, only sit in a swivel recliner.
She went to the library and checked out a stack of art books. She flipped through them in the evening, while drinking a glass of whiskey. Once, she did that. The rest of the time, she kept them stacked next to the West Elm chair. Are those books overdue yet? Her husband asked. I’ve been renewing them once a week, she said.
In the bathroom, she took off her shoes, but was worried about putting them down. They were scuffed and unstylish, and they did not belong in wherever this was, this catalog. They might vanish. She held them, dangling the heels from her fingers like she was wading in the surf, but instead of the ocean, she waded onto the bathroom floor tiles, which were a watery blue and cool. Starting with the left foot, first the heel, and then the toes, letting her foot sink into the floor walking calmly and steadily, with, she thought, poise and dignity. She concentrated on her breath and her feet on the tiles. If only she had a bathroom like this. She would be so grounded.
From the kitchen drawers, she pulled botanical salad servers made of stainless steel with an antique brass finish. She would make salad every day if she had these and this solid wood salad bowl. She carefully folded minimalist linen napkins with a canyon red stripe, and for the plates, she chose white organic shaped porcelain. There were candleholders and tapers, and those elegant long matches in a slim jar.
At home, she did her best with mismatched cloth napkins, some inherited Fiestaware, and their Chemex. Are we having people over? he asked when he got home. Then why are you setting the table so nicely? I’m just trying to appreciate the things we have. We do have some nice things. We do.
All she had to add to the waffle mix was milk and eggs. She found both in the baby blue refrigerator. The milk was in a glass bottle, the kind brought by a milkman. The eggs were large and brown, and she cracked them into a red mixing bowl, beat them with a sturdy metal whisk, and poured in the milk and mix. There was butter and real maple syrup for the waffles, and she ate them off a large dinner plate with a reactive green glaze. A waffle, she thought, is like a mall, with all the stores connected by corridors, if all the stores of a mall were flooded with sugary tree sap. It’s like Vermont and a mall and it’s always Sunday morning.
Have you been looking for a job? he asked. I have, she said. But there isn’t much to find, unfortunately.
Across the overgrown field, there was a stately house with peeling paint and ivy creeping up the walls. She peered at it through the binoculars that she had found hanging on the coat rack, and oh she wanted to go there. The West Elm chair brought her to a practical and stylish catalog world of luxurious and useful things with a mid-century modern meets Scandinavian design, but that house was different. There was a decorative ladder hung with drying bundles of flowers and herbs, Liberty of London wallpaper, candles on every surface, a gallery wall of mirrors, masks from Bali, and a map of the moon. The loveseat didn’t look exactly comfortable, but it looked like a designer dress, like sitting on it would make you look great. There was a careful, riotous stack of pillows on the floor, a distressed bureau with rose-quartz knobs topped with a reed fragrance diffuser, and a spinning wheel. Filled with longing, she unconsciously moved toward the house, bumping the binoculars against the window pane. That is where she would live if she lived alone, if she were single and an artist and didn’t have to work. She wanted to invite people back to that house; even more, she wanted to wear that house and its old-world shabby-chic bricolage contents like jewelry, so that whoever she met would know. It wasn’t fair that she couldn’t.
She needed to fall asleep in the chair at home in order to wake up in the catalog, but all she had to do to return home was to sit down and close her eyes. She opened them and saw her husband standing across the room looking at her. She felt like he had caught her masturbating and he could see the scenario in her head projected onto the wall, like he was on a walk through her search history. She took a breath and tried to tell herself not to be ashamed: everyone masturbates, everyone imagines having things they don’t have, everyone has a fantasy life inside a physical manifestation of a West Elm catalog.
I just saw you appear in an empty chair like the blink of an eye, he said, standing in the doorway. She remained seated, the cushion becoming more real beneath her. I thought you weren’t going to go into the catalog anymore.
I tried to stop, she said, but I couldn’t. It makes me feel warm and calm. I want to keep going back.
How often do you go into it?
Every day you go to work.
What if you can’t come back? What if you get stuck? It’s not a real house. What if the doors break and you can’t open them? What if someone throws the catalog away? What will happen when West Elm changes their inventory for the season?
I think then the house would transform, but I would be ok.
How could you possibly know that? He walked to the chair, took her by the shoulders, and pulled her from her seat into him. I want you to feel warm and calm here with me. I want you to be happy with our life, and proud of us.
She looked up at him. Do you still love me even though I’m weird and I like to hang out in a catalog? He nodded and pulled her close.
Maybe the catalog wants you because you’re beautiful. You make the chair and all the other stuff look so much better.
She didn’t have her laptop here, so she couldn’t work on her resume, but she could think about it and then work on it later. She wanted her resume to look like this desk, she realized, running her index finger along the felt of the wooden box that contained creamy blank envelopes. A resume should look minimal, inviting, and useful. She went into the kitchen, which was flooded with light, brewed coffee in a glass French press, and then carried it back to the desk on a little tray. That looked nice. She had forgotten to bring a mug, but didn’t notice. She just enjoyed the aroma, the sunlight it seemed to have brought with it, and the way the coffee’s brown complimented the desk’s leather writing surface. She enjoyed it all and thought about her desk-like resume. Then she grew sleepy.
Her cover letter, she thought, would be like all the pillows on this bed. There should be two large, fluffy bed pillows, and then two more small ones propped up against those, and then a round one, and a long thin one. Some were fluffy, some were supportive, some were just for decoration but they really added to the entire effect. That is what her cover letter would be like. She sat cross-legged on the bed, and enjoyed the headboard. Their bed at home was on one of those metal bedframes that you can add on for $35 when you buy a mattress and box spring set. She took the smallest pillow and tossed it in the air. Then she tossed the circular pillow, and it spun. She tossed the two smaller pillows together, and then she sank into the crevice between the down-stuffed bed pillows.
Dear [Hiring Manager],
After four years in the publishing industry, I am switching sectors and seeking employment at a mission-driven nonprofit. My experience working with subsidiary rights contracts…
That was the first little pillow, the introduction. Then the middle paragraphs, the bed pillows, were the heart of it: she would describe her experience in publishing. She thought about what it would be like to be dual-income again. Their bed needed upgrading, but she wanted a bar cart first. She would put the bar cart next to the horseradish chair, and stock it with Aperol and bitters and those expensive cherries, and long twisting spoons. The living room first, because that’s what guests see. Then the circular pillow is the part when I say why I’m right for this job but I can’t work on that section yet, because I haven’t found the job yet.
She woke when she could no longer feel the goose down enveloping her head. She woke into a bright white light, seated upright in the West Elm chair. The bed was gone, the pillows were gone. She was comfortable in the chair, but this was the wrong part of the catalog, white as new sheets. Light cascaded from nowhere onto the chair as if the light loved the yellow chair. Its splayed legs cast just a dash of darkness across the paper-white floor like eyeshadow.
She stood. The floor wasn’t really floor. It was covered in paper that stretched forever, it seemed. Was she taken here by accident or on purpose? Did the chair want her to be here? She did not want to be. She did not belong here: it was meant only for the chair, and the light wasn’t trained on her perfectly or at all. A catalog is composed of lies, artfully arranged, and she was in a solitary lie about only this chair. After pages of cozy living rooms and laden dining rooms, there are pages of purchase-able things against white in a grid. This is where you learn the price. She was in a grid, and perhaps there were other stylish chairs above and beside her, each in their own blank infinities.
The photo backdrop paper rolled along the floor and up the wall to banish corners, but it couldn’t really go on forever; it was an illusion. She walked straight ahead away from the chair into the silence. She walked and walked, finding nothing but white emptiness that glowed like a Word document. Finding no opening or crevice, she turned to look behind her and saw the chair, only a few yards away, following but unmoving.
OK. Now she tried a different direction, faster this time, so her escape would be more deserved, but she was just moving clockwise around the chair like a second hand. Falling asleep had been a mistake.
She should be able to sit in the chair again and return, first to the catalog, and then home. There was a silence like a sustained note from a piano. The chair’s shadow looked as though it had been partly erased, and the chair looked as though it were an open palm, asking her to put something in it: herself. She had been playing a video game she didn’t know how to play. She had been mashing the buttons and winning so far, but had not understood the controls, and now was on a level she couldn’t beat. She wanted to go home to be with her husband and the little blond dog. All she had to do was sit in the chair, but what if the chair brought her somewhere else instead? She could end up in the wrong house, in a store, or a warehouse. She did not know how to steer the chair, especially through such a nullity. The chair did not look appealing, but menaced with its rich yellowness, like the glow of bacteria.
How cozy her homely, uncoordinated life seemed now, with blond fur gathering below all the furniture and her husband’s half-full seltzer cans left everywhere. She might starve, or maybe she would never be hungry again, sustained and needing nothing as if she were a chair.
Her heart was racing and she decided to catch up with it. She ran as fast as she could away from the chair, toward the nothingness that the chair’s back was facing, back where she had come from, she unreasoningly reasoned. She tumbled through the white seamless backdrop paper and into the West Elm house. The chair and the whiteness behind her, the back door of the catalog house was open, and she kept running, through the frosted field that crunched beneath her moccasined feet, straight into the welcoming front door of the Anthropologie catalog. It smelled like lavender and armoise oil balanced against rosemary, eucalyptus, and verdant fir. She let the door slam behind her, wrapped herself in a throw blanket, and threw herself onto chaise longue. She felt safe here, as in the most peaceful meadow on some estate, belonging to a certainly benevolent earl.
When the husband returned home to find his wife gone but her purse and the little blond dog still there, he knew she was in the catalog. He took the dog for a walk, and was angry when she was still not there when he returned. He made dinner for the two of them, and even set the table nicely with cloth napkins and candles. He served out her portion of pasta and kale, and hoped at first that she would come home while the food was still warm, and when she didn’t, hoped she wouldn’t come home until it was cold.
Is our life not good enough for her? he asked the little blond dog.
All evening, he performed gestures and actions to be viewed by her when she returned. He did the dishes with a balletic calm and control. He sat on the couch looking at the West Elm chair with expressions of anger and concern. He poured himself a whisky and read a book. He invited the little blond dog onto his lap and comforted her. His wife would see his concern, see his judgement, see his abandonment. But she did not see any of those things.
He stayed up late waiting, and then went to bed. He did not sleep well, and she did not return. From his side of the bed, looking at the blond dog sleeping on his wife’s pillow, he considered that she had left him.
The next morning, a letter arrived, but not in the mailbox, nor on the West Elm chair; it was in the kitchen cabinet, resting on a dessert plate that he had bought for her for her birthday, purple with an abstract dot pattern, and a little snail drawn in gold. The letter was written on fine Italian paper with a textured cream finish and deckle-edges, and had a coordinating envelope. It was addressed to him in his wife’s handwriting, with a calligraphy pen, the letters shaped with an uncertain elegance. The letter itself was composed on a vintage typewriter, the kind she had always wanted, and the ink faded in and out in places.
I had a bad scare, but I think I’m safe now. There are a lot of dried flowers here, and I have been arranging them in vases. I think I need to stay here for a while. I miss you a lot, but I am afraid of something else weird happening. I’ve gone beyond West Elm, and I think it’s better for me here, but I want to come home and I’ll get a job and I’ll be happy with what we have. For now, I’m going to water the houseplants and make scenes on trays with vintage objects. I am afraid to leave but I also like it here. I’m going to try to enjoy it. I love you.
He sat in the West Elm chair several times but nothing happened. He couldn’t quiet his mind or succumb to sleep. He felt as though he were in car or a boat that he needed to pilot. Finally, he smoked a bowl, buzzed, faded, and slept.
He heard the Gregorian chants and saw the leather and teak and the nice lines of the furniture. Everything felt cold, but a preserving cold, like the furniture would survive for millennia beneath the tundra. He called for his wife but she did not respond. With a shudder, he saw the originals of what she had attempted to mimic: the stacks of art books that echoed into their living room, the bud vase that she had approximated with a vintage bottle, the odd collection of candles. He rose and walked through the catalog, calling for her in each room, hearing nothing, and touching everything. Like a cake that asks to be eaten, all the purchasable things asked to be handled, lifted, and carried. He could understand why his wife liked it here, though he felt a desire so strong it made him ill. In the kitchen, he looked across the window above the sink, and saw out to the Anthropologie catalog house. Something moved in the house. He rushed to the nearest door. It would not open.
After trying all the doors, he found the binoculars and searched. His wife was peering at him through enameled opera glasses. She waved. He waved back. She did the writing with a pen motion in the air, and pointed at him. He nodded, and shrugged like, I’ll be here in the West Elm catalog, waiting until we can be together again. He pulled himself away from the image of his wife in the window, and looked through the record collection, selecting some Coltrane. The Gregorian chants faded as he switched on the record player and put on the record. He sat down on the leather couch across from the dark horseradish chair.
On the chaise longue, the wife picked up her knitting.
Corina Bardoff is a writer and librarian currently living in New Jersey. Her fiction has appeared in Exacting Clam, Storm Cellar, Menacing Hedge, and elsewhere.