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Interior Decor

Oh you’re right, Sofia was saying, she told me not to change the sheets, the cleaning lady would do it, that’s what she called her, “the cleaning lady,” Sofia said to K. with a look on her face like she could not believe it. The friends were in the fluorescent-lit green room upstairs at The Strand, which doubled as the employee break room, as they were waiting to have a conversation about Sofia’s new book in front of about twenty people, a disappointing number, but it had just started to rain, and also the bookstore charged a $7 cover charge, much to K.’s irritation. The two friends hadn’t seen each other in person since the previous spring, when Sofia had taken the train in to the city, this time to appear for one of K.’s events, but they continued the conversation they’d been having over email all that month of October, when as chance would have it they were both guests in multi-million-dollar brownstones for some period of time, Sofia at the home of a childhood friend in D.C. to record her audiobook, and then staying there the night before her trip to New York. K. had somehow found herself ensconced with her family for more than two weeks in the dimly-lit basement studio apartment of a brownstone near her older daughter’s school, at the grace of a former graduate student, who lived there, on the top three floors, with her husband and child, due to a series of calamities that occurred in succession that fall, including her toddler testing high for lead exposure, which triggered a series of visits from the health department, and finally their landlord being forced to carry out lead abatement, rebuilding and repainting the walls, doors, and baseboards. It was uncanny being back in their apartment, the bright white walls and doors, made of a cheaper material, often retrofitted over the existing scuffed and chipped surfaces, the pillows on the gray couch so faded and ugly; all of their stuff had been moved back, during an exhausting eight-hour day that Monday, her usual day off from teaching, assisted by a team of movers, although nothing was on the wall, no children’s drawings, not her husband’s small paintings, none of the touches that make a place feel lived in. How could this home be so beautiful, Sofia had written to her friend in something like a panic earlier in the month, while staying as a guest in her friend’s house, why don’t I possess this art of living, everything is clean and cozy, wherever you look. As K. had now inhabited the interiors of rich people’s houses this year, for playdates with children from her daughter’s school, and having been a guest in the basement level of this modernist renovation, sometimes creeping upstairs into the light, she assured Sofia that the answer to all this was just money; rich people hire interior decorators, they outsource childcare, they don’t have to work full-time or even part-time. They all call themselves artists, K. had written, but they don’t have to produce much because of a lack of financial exigency, it drives me insane! It can’t only be money, Sofia had responded, yes they do have a lot of money, but you must care about your home, about the arrangements of your home, you must clean constantly—and I would just rather wallow in filth and discomfort on my slovenly couch. K. had assured Sofia that her friend absolutely without question hired someone else to clean her house, maybe twice a week even, the rich just hide it, they hide everything. Now, in the ersatz green room, though she was proven right, she couldn’t feel smug about it. But I don’t understand how they find out about these things, Sofia had written, to which K. responded, They spend their days on Instagram! Everyone has the same exact things! She knew from this constant research, researching their research, the exact cost of the ubiquitous dove-gray status ceramics she was served on playdates. If I went on Instagram for a second, I would kill myself, Sofia had replied, which ended the conversation for a while, the petty conversation running underneath other conversations, to be picked up again, when they saw each other.

Where does someone buy sheets that don’t cost a fortune?

All of this longing toward perfect objects and interiors reminded K. of Mild Vertigo, the 1997 novel by the Japanese writer Kanai Mieko, that the two friends had spoken to each other about for years, largely speculating on its contents by what they could gather online, before it had been translated from the Japanese, by Polly Barton, for which K. was supposed to write something for the New Directions edition. Though she was expressly asked not to share it with anyone, she immediately forwarded the Word file to Sofia in September, so that they could read it together, so that it was inhabiting both of them, during the time of this exchange. The narrator, a housewife named Natsumi, also regards other people’s apartments with an investigatory gaze, as gleaned from catalogs, including knowledge of the Ginori 1735 teacup with a fruit pattern that she’s served tea out of by the childless and wealthier married neighbor in the second section of the novel, which is divided into eight sections with each part structured around a conversational encounter, and was originally published in installments in a women’s magazine. While living in that unfamiliar basement studio apartment beneath the brownstone, on her days off from teaching when the toddler napped on the bed beside her, K. had tried to read the printout of the translation that the publisher had sent, although she found it difficult to focus, and soon her daughters had scattered the pages all over the heritage quilt, which was extremely cozy, as was the bed, much more comfortable than theirs at home, which was about fifteen years old, their white duvet so yellowed and shabby her husband was too ashamed to bring it along for their stay—it all felt in some way like they were temporarily living at one of those extended-stay hotels for traveling businessmen, because of the chaotic nature of the interior decor and the rather sterile setting, in such sharp juxtaposition to the curated light-filled spaces upstairs they entered rarely. Where does someone buy sheets that don’t cost a fortune? Sofia had wondered to her in that same earlier thread, and K. sent her a link to the Amazon-brand organic sheets she had purchased when they had subletters in August, along with new towels, Nothing fancy but fine, she had written. The shame we feel over our dirty houses, she wrote to Sofia then, it’s class shame, when the movers came and took all our furniture away and I could see the cloudlike gatherings of dust bunnies under the girls’ beds, the horrible guilt and shame I felt at my dirty house, at my daughter’s lead poisoning, I try to sweep, but I’m too busy to do anything more than pick up toys and trash and wet towels and pajamas off the floor morning and night, run around like a crazy person picking everything up. In Mild Vertigo, the wealthy neighbor complains to Natsumi that her home is a mess, but the narrator observes that it looks like a showroom, impossible for her own home, with her two small children, when everything is always in chaos. As the two friends sat there at the bookstore, talking aimlessly, both of them extremely tired and overworked, K. from the move and childcare and teaching the past week, Sofia drained from the long train ride after a morning of classes, along with the demands and exhaustion of that first week of a publicity cycle, K. wondered whether she knew Sofia well enough to discreetly wiggle out of her tights in front of her and put them in her backpack, but decided against it. The Wolford tights that she found in the back of her closet, which she must have purchased before having her children, or at least before having her last baby, pinched at her waist, as did the control-top underwear—she only wore undergarments like this when doing an event and while wearing a dress—and K. had tried to steam her black silk dress for an hour in the shower, underneath she wore her one black nursing bra that her husband assured her passed the sniff test, all of the wilted black clothes that had lived rolled up in her suitcase for weeks while they had to be out of the apartment. She was probably so bloated because she was finishing up a heavy period, still crampy and bleeding lightly on a medium pad, one of her first periods since having the now two-year-old, the pad that she checked, in the employee toilet, before going on, although it had been since before being pregnant that she had been able to spend any time or money taking care of her body, had thought much of her body at all. They take so much care with their health, Sofia had written to K, in wonder at this alien species. Not only yoga, she continued, they swim every day, they eat superfoods I’ve never heard of, they look amazing, they will never die, Sofia had written her in her hilariously fuming way. Well, everyone dies, K. had written reassuringly in reply, although as usual enjoying Sofia’s resentment and irritation. You too would be good at life if you had any time, K. assured her friend then, if you had leisure, if you had money. But K. understood this irritation too—the parent-child class at her elder daughter’s school where she had taken her toddler that morning was full of beautiful women with long shiny hair and glowing beautiful skin, and, like Natsumi’s gossipy neighbor, they wore the most impeccable casual wear, earth-toned matching knit sets for both themselves and their beautiful children. Many lived in the multimillion-dollar brownstones, which formerly contained several apartments but were converted into bespoke single-family homes, displacing artists and families of color over the previous decade, a fact that K. was only now realizing, finding out the addresses through Zillow, Streeteasy, or Realtor searches and researching buildings’ histories, a new hobby born of gently simmering rage. The moms would sit on the tiny wooden chairs made by Quakers and eat the warm rolls kneaded at the beginning of class by their drippy-nosed toddlers, and talk about how it was all so hard, while their nannies waited with strollers outside, and everyone brought knitting to keep them busy as they watched their children play together with the handmade knitted animals and wooden toys, except K., who wrote books and had no talent, patience, or time for crafts, so she also sat, helping fold the cloth napkins, in a class that was so very calm and happy but left her with a clawing and weeping sensation in her chest, as she wore her toddler in the carrier to the station, where they would take a shuttle and then transfer to another train home. Maybe this weeping sensation was because of the cognitive dissonance of their wealth, and the resulting class irritation, despair, and occasional rage that had been omnipresent all fall, since the lead poisoning situation and then more recently when her kindergartener was diagnosed with a mouthful of cavities on her first dental appointment since the pandemic.

Oh, I wish there was a way I could write about all of this in my essay, K. said to her friend, now the next afternoon in the lobby of the art-deco West Village hotel that Sofia’s publisher had put her up in, as they sat on the velvet couch in front of the fireplace, which reminded K. of the orange velvet conversation-pit-style couch sectional downstairs, on the other sideof the studio apartment’s back door in the brownstone, where her family occasionally hung out basking in the light flowing into the space from the two-story wall of back windows, while the other family was at their weekend farmhouse, but that she stopped venturing up to, the light and coziness, preferring instead the sterile dimness of the basement, with the Japanese paper on the only two front windows, and the dismal gray-brown flooring always warm from the thrumming of the building’s mechanical room in the subbasement below, but still the luxury fixtures like the chrome-handled sliding closets and warming toilet and combination bidet. Kanai Mieko parodies all this, she now said to Sofia—as they sat there on the red velvet couch, everything over-warm because of the fire—the constant worry over the clean house, it opens with the narrator moving into the new modern apartment complex, with a separate kitchen, her mother’s voice layered over hers, the impossibility of getting their former kitchen clean, the worry and shame of a dirty kitchen making someone appear impoverished, connecting to her parents’ working-class roots, the worry of the interiors seen in the pages of women’s magazines an uncanny corollary to the internet now. It makes me think of my mother in our small suburban house, K. now said to Sofia, and how there would be no broom or dustpan, just like in this house I was staying in, we couldn’t find it, the idea is that one was just supposed to not make a mess, or if they did, to pick the crumbs up off the floor on one’s hands and knees.

I don’t want to make it personal, she said now to Sofia, I’m bored of writing these essays about books where I put my autobiography inside, I definitely don’t want to write about the teeth or the lead, but how else, to show the interior of an experience of a novel like this, how a novel invades you, as much as you invade it? The two writers began to talk about their husbands, who do most of the cooking at home, unlike Natsumi, who is afraid to cook fried food because she doesn’t want to get the kitchen messy, although she wasn’t a talented housewife who takes pride in bringing in homemade snacks to the kindergarten, like the others, yes, they were lucky that their husbands did the cooking, but what about organizing time, making appointments, following a calendar? K. told Sofia about the black Moleskine planner she kept trying to fill out all fall, trying to find a way to schedule appointments despite her overstuffed teaching schedule and constant conferences with students, the now-weekly dental appointments, the flu shot clinic at the pediatrician, the next round of bloodwork, let alone when she would even have time to read the entire book and write an essay about it, although she had already spent the money. That September she had negotiated up to $1,500 from $1,000 because she knew that none of them had been to the dentist since the pandemic, and that the fashionable pediatric dentist in Park Slope, which gave children balloons and tokens for plastic baubles out of machines, was $375 with X-rays, and as it would turn out, the $1,500 would pay for only part of the dental work her daughter needed done, which would take regular visits throughout the fall, as explained in emails about the updated treatment plan, with reference to a diagram of a mouth, with red Xs indicating all the cavities, the silver-capped tooth and its twin had already cost $800. All these calculations were constant inside K., and she and her friend complained to each other about these men in their kitchens, and how impossible it felt to get them to take on the organizing, the mental load. But what was the reverse, to do it entirely alone?

I don’t want to make it personal.

Divorce is a specter in Mild Vertigo, Natsumi needs her husband to complain to, they occupy that bubble together, despite her isolation, despite him never really validating her feelings, which causes the perpetual prick of irritation, he is one of the only people she has to talk to, besides passive-aggressive mothers and the occasional social outing with unmarried intellectual friends, as in the penultimate section, “Female Friends,” which incorporates a review of a photography exhibit, possibly written by the author, in the form of a photocopied handout given to Natsumi, a conceptual trick that reminded K. of Lynne Tillman’s Madame Realism persona. Occasionally K. notices Sofia looking at K.’s waist, sitting there on the couch, and she wondered if she noticed the high-waisted wool trousers that she had recently bought, despite not being able to afford them, for the events that she would be doing that month. Black wool trousers are a practical purchase, thinks Natsumi in the novel, and wonders what she should do with her mother’s offer of a little retail therapy, or a practical bag to carry, or even a new appliance or something for the children, but instead she is talked into a tea-colored Missoni silk blouse, with which she has nothing to wear, she wears it to a fancy restaurant out with her single girlfriends, who are all dressed too casually, perhaps even she needs to find a job, outside of the house, in order to wear this silk blouse that brings her such ambivalence and yet also pleasure. Sofia always looks pretty and stylish, for the reading she was wearing an elaborately embroidered coat, she always looks like herself, K. thought, she doesn’t need fancy designer items to feel like herself, if Sofia knew how much K. had spent on these trousers, she would feel horrified, K. was certain, although the trousers had the right hang and bagginess, and almost all of her other trousers were still too snug after having the second baby, it’s really better when she was standing up, you couldn’t see it when she was sitting down. The two friends began walking, anxiously following the digital directions on their phones, through downtown Manhattan, to the ramen place where K.’s husband and the little girls would meet them, past young people lined up outside of the pop-up Halloween costume store, though they kept on getting lost crossing the street. It was one of the first times that K. had been inside a restaurant for years, and the first time they’d been out to this ramen place since before the children were born, her daughter’s mouth was still sore from having her cavities dug out of her molars that week. Sofia had gifts of pocket-size kaleidoscopes for the girls that twisted a blue-tinted stained glass, always knowing the perfect things to get her children, K. thought. Feeling celebratory, K. ordered warm sake for the adults (it was the cheapest house sake), which they drank out of tiny cups, deliberating on levels of spiciness, tonkatsu or vegetarian broth, tofu or chicken, soft eggs or none. The children shared broth and noodles and chicken out of two colorful plastic bowls, the toddler picking up the long noodles and stuffing them in her face, soft food was still good for the still-sore mouth of her eldest—they were so well-behaved and happy to be there that K. felt such love and warmth toward them, watching them. She noticed that her older daughter’s face looked slightly uneven, although her husband said he couldn’t see it. She sat there and watched her child’s lovely, swollen, uneven face, and somehow sensed with the ambient and constant feeling of dread that this meant her mouth was infected, that there would be antibiotics and even more dental work in the weeks ahead, in fact she would soon learn that the silver-capped molar would have to be extracted, but for that moment she allowed them all to feel pleasure, being with each other, seeing their friend. The next week Sofia sent her older daughter an envelope filled with two tiny blank books she made from a leftover calendar, as well as a charming drawing in colored pencils of her small house.

Mild Vertigo

One Sunday morning, K. woke up with the clocks one hour earlier because of Daylight Savings Time. She felt dizzy, perhaps overly warm, it was another mysterious and somewhat disturbing seventy-degree day in November. She was supposed to work on her notes for her essay on Mild Vertigo. All day she lazed around mostly braless, the underside of her breasts hot and sticking, her armpits stinky, with underwear she kept on changing, and sometimes a robe, with the sash her almost six-year-old kept stealing to use as a jump rope, with a distracting thumping sound. She thought about how much Natsumi, the narrator in the novel, changed her sweaty underwear or philosophized about her PMS. How radical this type of bodily realism felt in the space of a novel. The day before, she had been to a birthday party for her daughter’s schoolmate, at the park near the school, resplendent with yellow leaves. She was feeling worn out from all of the socializing. I need to be able to complain to you of my class resentment, she yelled out at her husband, in the other room. Like when that mom told me I was a supermom because I don’t have my toddler in daycare. As if we could even afford it! She felt sunburnt and depleted. Her daughter kept complaining of her stomach hurting, the likely culprit the three chocolate cupcakes from the day before, not to mention the sucker from the gift bag. She wondered if that’s what the others were thinking about them as parents, letting their children eat as many cupcakes as they wanted, the ones with the child with the rotten mouth and the other with lead poisoning. But she did worry about their nutrition, were they getting enough iron, calcium, vitamin C, all advised to combat the lead.

It’s boiling in here, open the windows! I can’t think with the heat in here, she yelled crossly into the other room at her husband. He was getting ready to take the kids on a bike ride and to the playground. K. had decided it was her day off and she was going to sit on the couch and think about Mild Vertigo. Are you sure it isn’t a hot flash, her husband had asked her. She pointed at the thermostat, seventy-six degrees, although she was extremely hot and dehydrated, not to mention overcaffeinated and exhausted, as the two-year-old woke up at what was now 5 a.m., because of the time change. While waiting for the children to come back, she sat in the chair by the front open window and watched the gentle swaying of the Halloween spiderwebs, the brown crinkly leaves stuck inside. Those will have to come down, she thought, as she listened for the chatter of her children coming down the street, hearing instead the plaintive squeaks of a male cardinal in a bush that resembled a fire alarm with a broken battery. She was stuck there, for a second, just watching the swaying, feeling briefly ecstatic, or was it pent-up energy, which was slightly relieved by then going into the other room to masturbate absentmindedly.

I don’t want to put my life in it. My grocery list, my messy house, my messy life, my husband I’m perpetually irritated by and feel warm toward, she wrote to Sofia over email. I wonder if there’s some way to replicate the layering of voices, the novel as interior decor, the novel as apartment block, chapters as spaces stacked next to each other, gossiping about the neighbors providing the narrative momentum. A narrative like an aviary, how invasive it is, interior, the ventriloquism the novelist performs, cleverly done in the chapter remembering a childhood parakeet with her mother, the chattiness of Natsumi’s mother’s voice on a phone call. On Google Maps, with the help of the New Directions editor, K. had located the sprawling residential suburb where the novel is set, the park where the children play is near the temple of cats featured in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, which is also an essay on Hitchcock’s Vertigo, this seems to be referenced in the multiplicity of stray cats and the interludes of intrigue and gossip that they elicit from the cat ladies. In the essay Sofia had written years earlier imagining the contents of Kanai Mieko’s novel for The Paris Review, she intuitively referenced Sans Soleil, citing the scene of the Japanese woman sleeping on the train, not knowing yet the mystical ending of the novel, Natsumi zones out, overcome by the vibrations on the train and other voices. How referential the novelist is, especially about film. Her next novel after this one was named after Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her, the film sharing a modern corporate apartment setting with Mild Vertigo and also a narrator-housewife protagonist. All of the interior design in Godard films, the meditations on late-stage capitalism, even in Mild Vertigo there’s a witty digression on housewives so bored they become prostitutes, just like Buñuel’s, Godard’s, and Chantal Akerman’s. Except here in the novel nothing happens, the tedium is the only point, the potatoes are peeled, the dishes are washed, and sometimes—only sometimes—there is a meditative moment of housekeeping, a dizzy or spaced-out feeling when washing the dishes, a rope of water pouring out of the faucet hit by the sparkling of the streaming sunlight. That is the sensation Polly Barton translates as a “mild vertigo,” which is the title also of the novel’s eighth section. Stream-of-consciousness sounds so easy, like it flows, but there is something more spatial happening here, thoughts fill up the blocks of pages and play with attribution to conjure a sense of disorientation. The effect is not unlike the Bernhard narrator in Woodcutters, frozen in the wing chair, from which he entertains ugly and petty thoughts about his fellow partygoers. The calculations, the apartment layouts, all of the things needed to be bought to fill up the apartment. Perhaps Mrs. Dalloway bought the flowers herself but she didn’t have to do everything herself, she had to throw a party but not to clean everything, cook everything, buy everything. In Mild Vertigo, the housewife’s thoughts and memories and anxieties are never-ending, while the husband lazes on the couch watching TV when home from work. This is a novel of a constant mental load, all the things that need to be bought become a barrage, the litany of lists stack up on the page, birthday presents, Father’s Day gifts, anniversary gifts, a buzzing in the head that sometimes resembles the dread-patter of a buried middle-aged Beckett housewife. She swallows received language and parrots it back, it was such a good place for the children, she thinks, the area, their school, their grandparents in the country, all of the lists to get her little children when they go stay with the grandparents for the summer. As soon as one day was vanquished another sprang up, like when K. has to ready her oldest to go to school the next morning, to stand outside at the bus stop at an ungodly hour, the two-year-old up again at 5 a.m., K. is the one who has to play drill sergeant, gently rolling her child who wants to curl back to sleep out of bed, taking her to the bathroom, yanking the brush through her hair, laying out the new purple sweatsuit, now that it is finally cold enough this morning to wear it, where is her purple backpack, is the medicine packed, is the lunch made, does it have to be a turkey and cheese sandwich every morning, and leftover Halloween candy—what must the teacher think of us, with our child’s rotten teeth!—yanking on socks, packing water, washing the toddler’s face, coaxing her into a diaper, reading her a book, watching them eat their hard-boiled egg in their little bamboo bowl, come on! Come on! You have to brush and floss! It’s 7 a.m., sneakers on! Yanking on gloves, coats, to her husband, who is silent in the kitchen, Can you please take out the plastic to the recycling, it’s scattered everywhere?

I wonder if there’s some way to replicate the layering of voices, the novel as interior decor, the novel as apartment block.

Every day it will start all over again, this Sisyphean maintenance labor, there is so seldom, as Kanai Mieko writes, a way to “punctuate the spells of everyday living.” In her notes K. wrote that Annie Ernaux’s book on suburbs and consumerism is called Exteriors. In Mild Vertigo, the exteriors are swallowed up, they become interiors, like the narrator having totally internalized the layout of the grocery store, so that in a trance-like state she finds herself moving through the aisles in her mind, reciting all the offerings at hand. Perhaps she could just make a list of everything K. worried about, was asked to do, or order online, all while trying to write this foreword over a few days. Outside of the usual student emails, publishing emails, landlord emails, doctor and bloodwork appointment emails. Looking at her husband’s shaggy hair and asking him to make an appointment at the bourgeois barber shop, then making it herself for next Saturday, or trying to figure out what to get the neighborhood kid for his sixth birthday without spending more than $10, would a boy like the same hand-painted wooden bead necklaces they’ve been doing? And why not? Two Saturdays from now, RSVP yes for four. Or nagging her husband to fill out the dental insurance form and help her sign the PDF of the teaching contract again for the spring, thinking about birthday and Christmas presents, ordering the cake for her daughter’s sixth birthday Thanksgiving weekend, and the cupcakes to bring to school, one has to be vegan for one of the children, better make it all vegan, three dozen mini cupcakes of chocolate-vanilla and vanilla-chocolate and chocolate-chocolate. And thinking about a striped floor pillow for their reading nook, that will make the place look lively, and replacing a melamine plate because her husband stepped on it, and they only had two small plates for the children, first finding the manufacturer and ordering it from them directly. She was also out of the special cotton pads for removing her makeup, and (her husband tells her, shouting from the kitchen) dog poop bags, which just arrived as she was writing this, a sad Amazon box, an econopack of unscented dog poop bags. And her daughter wanting a new dress for her birthday, and wondering how to afford that, worried about all of the money they were hemorrhaging, and thinking of getting the children an inexpensive keyboard for Christmas, and where would they put it, other children have musical instruments in their houses. And emailing the school nurse about her daughter’s antibiotics, and filling out the online bus schedule, and where were her daughter’s one pair of tights in the laundry? Were they too dirty to wear for Picture Day this week? Which was the day before the extraction. And what would that do, to attempt to live inside of it, although she was already living inside of it, these spaces layered over each other, the space of the novel, as well as the mundanities of her own life, that dizzy feeling again, of their doubling domestic spaces.