The first time I went to an Ikea, I almost cried, because for years I had heard jokes about how cheap Ikea was, and there I was in the land of cheap furniture, surrounded by things I would never, ever be able to afford.
I touched the bookcases that lined the walls and they felt solid. Smooth dark wood that lined the walls of the little mini-apartments in the Ikea showroom. At home in my apartment, books piled in stacks on the floor, or in teetery shelves made of particle board, left behind by my old roommate who replaced them with something nicer.
My couch was a loveseat a friend had rescued from the dump for me. Blue and green plaid upholstery, with a hole in one arm, perhaps from a zealous cat scratching. No coffee table, but an ugly side table and a dining table with only one chair. They matched each other, that was one thing, but they didn’t match the lovely white and gold bedroom set, two dressers, one being used as a TV stand, and a desk with my computer on it. More castoffs, the furniture and the computer all hand-me-downs. All things I could never buy myself.
I don’t really think I was that poor. I know every few months I would have to ask my mom to buy my groceries, and I know that sometimes at work I would sneak a roll of toilet paper home so I wouldn’t have to go to the store right away, but it’s not like I was poor: I always paid my rent on time, and they hadn’t shut off my electricity or anything. And even if I couldn’t always buy it myself, I always had food. I wasn’t hungry.
A few years before, the electricity was getting shut off. A few years before I would have weeks where I would never really feel full, not totally.
I wasn’t poor, not really, I don’t think. It feels somehow wrong to claim I was.
But still sometimes, someone makes a joke about Ikea, how cheap Ikea is, and I remember that first trip when I realized that the cheapest stuff the middle class could imagine cost more than I could ever hope to pay.
My life has changed a lot since then. For one thing, I have furniture from Ikea now. It’s nice, it gets the job done, I like it. Actually, I love it. It all goes together. I spent happy hours screwing the pieces together. My bedroom set is a lovely deep blue, and the dresser and the nightstands match. The coffee table, a brownish black, matches the TV stand, matches the side tables at either end of the couch. It looks like furniture somebody bought in a store. I have a husband and he has a good job. By those middle class standards, maybe we’re still kind of poor, I don’t know. I was investigating how much we would need to buy a house in our area, and it seemed like an absurd amount, but we live in a relatively expensive area, so, who knows. But we have things like health insurance and a retirement account, those are middle class things to have, and I’m glad to have them. I feel, somehow, simultaneously like I’m unimaginably rich (we go on VACATIONS! WHO DOES THAT?) and still, always, now and forever, somehow poor.