The Ikea problem comes to a head in the bathroom section, where I have what I can only describe as an existential crisis. Who am I? Has it come to this? What does this medicine cabinet mean?
The crisis is not allayed by my awareness, as my friend J. likes to say, that this is a “First World problem.” I know that millions of people all over the world get by on the dollar equivalent of one fifty-fourth of the price of this Ikea medicine cabinet. I know this is trivial. I know the cabinet we have is dropping splinters and small metal parts into the sink. I should replace it, consider myself lucky to have running water, and go home. Why do I care?
And yet I am crushed by a self-lacerating Ikea paralysis.
The vortex goes like this: We can’t afford to redo the whole bathroom, but the medicine cabinet is getting dangerous. So while we’re at it, should we replace the light fixture? or maybe get something to fill the space above the sink with its ugly unfinished edge? And don’t forget, we have to fix that gaping hole in the wall. Should we move the towel ring? And if we’re going to do that, maybe we should think about how we want the whole thing to look? Is this cabinet a temporary fix, or part of a master plan? Do we have a master plan?
The idea of a temporary solution sends me into a further tailspin. I know temporary solutions. They last forever. They become living reminders of the fact that you have not yet arrived.
You go to Ikea because you need something to hold your tylenol and toothpaste, now, and the price is right. But then, it adds up, and what seems reasonable for one medicine cabinet starts to seem like too much money to spend on a temporary solution. So we have to decide, right now, in front of the Godmorgon cabinet and the good Lord himself, that I am going to become someone who makes more money… so that we can redo the bathroom with those fancy little glass tiles that we like. Either that, or I have to now, in the bathroom section of Ikea, make peace with my life choices not made for the sake of money, and in that case, maybe we should just live with the threat of cabinets falling onto our child’s head because that is our lot in life.
Or maybe we should just get the fuck out of here — it’s all disposable furniture, all these cabinets that mimic permanence and wood with veneer. It can’t be good for the earth. And I know it shouldn’t bother me, but it does, the idea that I will walk into someone else’s home and see the same damn Godmorgon cabinet. I’ll even know its self-consciously twee and Swedish name, “oh and you also have the Flurtvang Stöol!” Isn’t that why Ed Norton got a split personality and started Fight Club? Because the book of his life had become an Ikea catalog? Let’s find something vintage at a thrift store — but who has time? and all that stuff is overpriced in Los Angeles — and it’s Labor Day week, screw it! Let’s take the money and go out to the desert, we can still make it to the playa before the burn, or let’s go back to Indonesia, because what are we doing here? What are we doing here?
At this point in the cycle, I turn to P. in despair. He is watching H. cheerfully open and close all of the drawers in a 10-foot radius. I ask him:
–Why is this so hard? How do other people do this?
And because he is saner and wiser and more patient than I am, and not yet quite as hungry-angry, he tells me it’s OK, it’s just the money thing, we’re just frustrated. Let’s get this one.
I remember an Ikea trip just out of college, when I lived in an apartment in New York with four friends. We all went to Ikea together on a lark. Just getting there was heroic. It was in another state. In my memory, there were checkpoints. But that can’t be possible.
Part of what makes Ikea so hard now is how clearly I remember thinking, on that earlier trip, that someday I would no longer shop at Ikea. Someday, I thought, the state of being grown-up would descend upon me and wash away all the plastic and particle board. Heirloom Amish cherrywood furniture would appear out of the sky.
Back then, I remember looking through glass panes at a small boy, maybe H.’s age, standing in the play area where they let you drop your kids. He moved slowly, because he was in a vast ball pit. His stare bore down on me. He was like an emissary from another world — the world of houses and parents. Three years old. Adrift. Alone. Contemplating his existence, in Ikea, in a sea of plastic balls.