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Vanity Seat.

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They called her Eileen – her real name was Aveline: another form of Eileen, meaning pleasant – for simplicity’s sake, I suppose. I remember looking it up on a rainy afternoon using The World of Baby Names at the public library when I heard the ladies of the local bridge club gossip about her. Aveline was too angelic, too divine, and too pleasant for a woman like her, they said. I never said anything because I didn’t know her; the first time I caught a glimpse of her was her back while at Hofstadt’s Deli, waiting in line for the best pastrami in town. Her hair was, I must admit, unique. Her soft, white hair would eventually streamline and mush into a wispy shade of dark gray until it reached the edges of her bony yet solid shoulders.
Mr. Hofstadt – not the senior Mr. Hofstadt who died five years ago – was a plump, cheerful middle aged man who loved to stick his nose into other people’s business. In a good way, though. But not to Eileen.
“So Eileen, I saw you the other day at the antique store, examining a vanity seat. What generation are you from?” he laughed in his trademark porky voice.
Silence.
Heads were turned. Everyone responded to Mr. Hofstadt.
She tightened her grip on her handbag uncomfortably, and walked away without the pastrami.
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It’s a misty yet cool morning when I stroll through the neighborhood to find my way to Rosehill Wynd. The wind is gentle; the trees look like strands of flamenco dress edges tossed into the air, and as I turn to climb the jagged hill I repeat to myself, Just relax. Everything will be just fine. Several months ago, I opted for a gap year thinking I would undergo mature growth working at a village in Bangladesh, teaching the women and children general hygiene. Only heaven knows why the trip was canceled at short notice, and I ended up donning a blue vest at Wall Mart. Temporarily, of course. And then Mrs. Cricher, my friendly-with-everyone neighbor, calls me to tell me that there’s an old woman in the neighborhood that needs help, and who would be better to help than me as I’ve taken several psychology classes. (I gently reminded her that taking classes doesn’t make anyone a reliable ‘counselor.’) But in no time, I find myself trying to navigate through the neighborhood with the address scratched over my palm.
Her house is situated at the first bend at Rosehill Wynd, and parallel with the street’s namesake are rose bushes planted along the uneven sidewalks that have slight crevices every eight steps or so.
242 Rosehill Wynd. The one with those nasty petunias that are withered with tinted brown edges. It’s impossible to miss – it’s the fly in the milk!
Indeed.
The woman must have given up on the aesthetics of her house for it was enshrouded with pots and clumps of petunias with an array of mismatched colors hanging by the roof, planted under the big oak tree, and lined around the outline of the house. Anyone could figure what the problem was – not only a florist or a landscape designer – but anyone. Even an old chap with a Marlboro in his mouth could see what the problem was; I was sure that whoever arranged those petunias must have done so in a haphazard manner: the petunias were mixed in that the clumps shot away a violent fragrance and an aggressive glimpse of the spirit inside.
The door is slightly open – I’m tempted to go in right away – but I decide to use the antique knocker on the door, for the sake of manners. Despite the vulgar appearance of her abode as a whole, I must admit that the brass knocker was simply quite a presence: a brass belt buckle with a delicate tint. After fumbling for tissue – it was from last night’s dinner at Mario’s Kitchen and I always keep tissue handy – I managed to create a light but reverberant knock, with some gentle sneezing.
But the only reply is the gentle whispering of the summer winds.
“Is anyone there?” I gently push the door open but it bounces back at me. I peer over the door, and see a U – shaped seat with lyrical designs on the cushion – doesn’t seem like anything I would find in any furniture shop today.
…I saw you the other day at the antique store, examining the vanity seat. What generation are you from?
The gentle summer breeze no longer drifted; I could hear crows cackling crudely on the roof.
“You must be the girl that Helen sent. Call me Eileen and let’s get started – you have a lot to do.”
Me? And without giving me a chance to say anything, she whipped through the air and into the first room on the left hallway.
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“It’s the last box – we need more boxes, Eileen.” I brush away the loose strand of hair hanging in my face and make my way towards the kitchen to find her.
The last two weeks were hectic: I had gone through twenty five flimsy paper boxes of anything old – antiques, little tidbits here and there – with some help from Eileen. It was meant to be a robotic process: ideally, I would hold the relic and Eileen would silently observe and either nod her head or give a point blank “No.”
That sharp response meant that the object would be carefully placed into a sturdier – but with crumbled edges – paper box while the nod would indicate a growing pile next to the box. As we started, the pile seemed to be growing much faster than the stack of paper boxes. And yes, I found myself bringing boxes of tissues with me – to tend my running nose and these ‘relics’ covered with a grey sheath of soft particles. I don’t know if Eileen could see the difference, but every time I looked at her straight in the eye, she averted my stare immediately and excused herself.
Through these fourteen days, I could go so far to say that I had experienced life in the mid 1900’s. Virtually, and superficially though. An ad featuring Samsonite Saturn suitcases, an illustration of the Flatiron Building in New York City by Tony Sarg, a vintage evening gown with lace embroidered on the hems…
My grandmother always told me that just as long as I spent some time with a person in the house, I would understand them in an exponential way. But Eileen: despite the gaudy gossip I heard from the ladies of the Bridge Club, I promised that I would approach this ‘job’ as objectively as possible. I tried, but there was just something about Eileen that was, distinctive. We only exchanged words due to necessity, never looked at each other in the eye – she was, after all, always excusing herself when I gave her a confused look. What bothered me was the invisible tension that seemed to be building up between and around us every time I came to help. It was increasingly uncomfortable and instead of two human beings, we were like two pressure cookers. At least I felt that way.
But not for long.
It was a rainy afternoon when I sat in the middle of the room, surrounded by mounds of useless memorabilia and agitated by all that had happened. My favorite ballet flats had been ruined because of the rain, and the air was unusually humid that I felt all sticky and irritated – at everything. As usual, Eileen and I went through out daily routine of sorting out her clumps of belongings – though that pile was still growing increasingly faster than the paper boxes – and impulsively, I voiced those confused looks.
“You’re still doing the same thing. Keeping more than getting rid of – Look at that pile,” I pointed to that mini garbage lot, “it’s just like a little hill. And at the end of all this, you are still going to have rooms filled with relics and antiques and things from the past generation covered with dirty, grey layers that should be cleaned off. What generation…” I trailed off.
Oops.
She averted my gaze – again – but got up this time, walked to the kitchen, and came back with a lighted cigarette in her hand. After smoking a few indignant puffs, she motioned for me to follow her.
I made myself comfortable sitting at the Formica counter top while I watched as she made rose tea. Even the interior kitchen was unique: plaid Waverly wall paper that gave off blue and green hues, pine cabinets, and delicate spice racks. As I immersed myself into the rose aroma that began to float in my direction, I was snapped out of the haze by a sharp and sudden plunk.
She lifted the lid of a sugar tin and gave me a distant but lukewarm look.
“Uh…one.” I stuttered. “Please.”
She took one hesitant puff, stubbed her cigarette in the ashtray, and drank a nice, long sip of the rose tea.
“See the poster there?”
I turned to the movie poster of the hit Vertigo. The background was a light but sturdy orange, but the two figures, seemed delicate and airy, as if they were going to twirl off that medium at anytime.
“You must think that I’m an antique ‘rat pack.’ All those relics, antiques, stuffed in so many rooms…and covered with…dust.” Her eyes softened and the edges of her lips shifted, upwards. “Every one of those pieces holds a special meaning for me. I co – designed that Vertigo poster, and two weeks after the film was released, I got a surprise visit from my mother.”
She took a deep breath, lighted another cigarette, and took a few more gentle puffs. I coughed at the smoke, but she didn’t seem to notice.
“My mother was always a career woman – completely ahead of her time, strong and single – minded,” her eyes gleamed with admiration, “but something is always too good to be true.” The admiration in her eyes peeled off, and she cast her eyes down on her hands.
Chapped and dry hands, yet her nails were nicely manicured with nude polish.
“I didn’t remember when I last saw my mother, but that day was one of those days where tears of happiness and sadness are shed. It was as if she recognized and acknowledged me, not my appearance, but my identity, my origins, and my roots – within her. But things never changed the way I thought it would; she was gone, back to Chicago the next minute, to that advertising firm.”
Taking a few more puffs, she added, “And that destroyed it. The last time I heard about her was ten years ago, from a young man employed by FedEx who delivered all those dreadful documents.”
“One week later, a U-Haul truck arrived in front of this house, and all my mother’s belongings were moved, one by one, in the house. There was so much that eventually, as you can see, it filled up rooms and rooms.”
She poured herself some more tea. “I hated her. And wished she never should have come. That’s why I always kept all those in the rooms, stuffed here and there, allowing them to be covered with dust.”
“But then I realized that the best thing that I could do was to recreate the spirit that her presence brought me. And buying these antiques, displaying them here and there did – it made me feel that I had finished the Vertigo poster again, and another amiable knock would happen and make things better again.”
I know that - a familiar knock using the brass belt buckle knocker.
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I push that loose strand of hair behind my ears and find Eileen in the kitchen, making a pot of rose tea again.
“Eileen – we need another box for the clocks,” I reminded.
“Oh,” she paused, “why don’t you get some pastrami along the way?” She winked – and smiled.
I opened the tin - tin box, grabbed a couple of dollars, and my coat off the vanity seat by the door.
As I closed the door, I realized, for a second that the belt buckle knocker was spot clean. Even the sidewalk looked smooth. And if I remembered correctly, there were no petunias. Not withered ones, stained ones, or even fine ones, but a beautiful sheath of violet and white lotuses.





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