Upstream at Ikea

by Lori Ann Bloomfield

Darren had never imagined Stephanie Lawson beyond the weather report. Okay, he might have pictured her in a bikini on a beach when she read the vacation forecast, but he’d certainly never imagined her house.  Until now he’d never thought of Stephanie Lawson as a real person: as someone who bought groceries, took her cat to the vet, or did laundry.  But here she was, sitting on a blue sofa at Ikea on a Saturday morning.  It was like finding a fifty-dollar bill in your own backyard. 

Stephanie Lawson was Darren’s favourite weather reporter on the weather channel.  Except for her clumsiness she was Hollywood’s idea of what royalty looked like.  Darren loved the way she lurched towards the weather maps or stumbled on things he couldn’t see.  Whenever she faltered she’d glance down to get her bearings and the top of her golden head would fill Darren’s screen.  It made his stomach flutter, like he was a teenager again.

Darren watched as she rose from the blue sofa.  Stephanie was wearing tall black boots that were incredibly sexy.  Darren had never seen her feet before.  She walked to a red sofa and sat down, stiff and upright, her brow furrowed.  Seeing Stephanie at Ikea made Darren wonder how much she got paid.  Maybe people on air didn’t make as much money as he’d assumed.  While Darren was considering the paychecks of weather reporters, Thomas whimpered in his stroller. 

Darren glanced down at his son and saw that his brow was furrowed even more than Stephanie Lawson’s.  Thomas was on the verge of crying.  Darren immediately began thinking calm, Zen-like thoughts and sending them telepathically to Thomas.  Usually he thought of a unicorn in a forest but that didn’t feel right today.  Instead he imagined a big blue moon spinning gently though space. 

The only good thing about Thomas whimpering was it got Jess to stop staring at the fake Ikea room she’d been looking at for ten years.  But now she turned her new laser-like focus on the baby.  Since giving birth, concentration beamed from her forehead with enough force to cut steel.   Both things unnerved Darren.  The fake rooms at Ikea made him feel creepy, like he was spying on strangers, and he simply couldn’t get used to Jess’ newfound concentration.  She used to be someone who watched three television programs at once, who never finished a book and who left the vacuum in the middle of the room. 

Jess stared at Thomas for less time than it took to blink, then announced, “He needs to be changed.”

Weirdly, Thomas’ brow immediately smoothed and he stopped threatening to erupt into a hiccupping volcano of baby cries. Darren wanted to believe it was because of his big blue moon but he knew it was Jess.  It was like she and Thomas could read each other’s minds.  This also unnerved Darren.  He hoped he never met anyone who could read his mind. 

Jess scanned the retail horizon.  She looked fierce and determined.  Darren imagined her in tall boots like Stephanie Lawson’s, braced on the prow of a ship as a female pirate.

“Bathrooms are that way,” she said, her voice certain.

Darren wanted to say, “Aye-aye,” but didn’t dare.  He just followed Jess as she wheeled the stroller through the crowd. 

When he glanced back for one last look at Stephanie Lawson, she was gone.  Without her the red and blue sofas had lost their glamour, but Darren quickly took a picture of them anyway.

Jess found the bathrooms beside the cafeteria.  “Wait here,” she commanded Darren.  Then she swung the door to the ladies’ room wide open and pushed the stroller inside.  Darren turned away in embarrassment.  He was always afraid of being accused of peeping in the ladies’ bathroom.  Mostly because he always wanted to peep inside the ladies’ bathroom.  Just knowing this about himself made him feel guilty. 

Darren walked to the entrance of the cafeteria.  He liked cafeterias but never saw them anymore.  His grandma used to take him to one when he was a boy.  Just the two of them.  It was their special treat.  For dessert she always got Darren a bowl of red Jello with a fancy dollop of whipped cream on top.  Darren remembered how great it felt to put the Jello on his brown plastic tray and roll it down the steel rods to the cashier.  He wondered if Ikea sold bowls of red Jello.  He could get one for Thomas. Did they eat Jello in Sweden?  It didn’t matter.  Jess wouldn’t let Thomas eat something with so many artificial ingredients anyway.  Kids nowadays weren’t as lucky as Darren had been.  Darren was glad he’d grown up in a time of nonchalance and ignorance.

As he looked around the crowded room he spotted Stephanie Lawson sitting at a table by the window.  She was with two men.  If it had been surprising to see Stephanie on a sofa in Ikea, it was shocking to see her in the Ikea cafeteria.  Stephanie Lawson should only eat in restaurants with cloth napkins.  This was like seeing James Bond in a bowling alley. 

Thankfully she only had a white coffee mug in front of her.  Darren wasn’t sure if he could continue his fantasies if he’d seen her wolfing down a plate of meatballs, even if they were foreign.  Okay, you caught him.  It wasn’t strictly true that Darren had never imagined Stephanie Lawson beyond the weather report.  Darren hadn’t wanted to admit that when Jess and Thomas were around.  He’d just mentioned the bikini on a beach.  But Darren had imagined Stephanie’s home.  It was gorgeous, like her, and in his fantasies they lived there together.  That’s all you need to know.  This is why Darren is glad no one can read his thoughts.

Both the men sat opposite Stephanie.  Darren wondered if they worked at the weather network but he didn’t recognize them.  As he watched, an old woman with a tight grey perm stopped at the table.  A fan of Stephanie’s, no doubt.  The blonde man spoke to her, his smile sharp and confident.  He looked like Stephanie.  Darren guessed he was her brother.  This didn’t make Darren like him though.  Darren distrusted all confident people.  Stephanie was most likely at Ikea because of him, Darren decided.  Even across the cafeteria Darren could tell he was spoiled.  He probably got the most presents at Christmas and was their mother’s favourite, just like Darren’s brother. 

Then, in a scene that had no doubt been looping endlessly since their childhood, the brother stood up and stormed away.  It was clear to Darren, the father of a toddler, that he was having a tantrum.  On his way out the cafeteria he passed so close Darren could smell his cologne.  It was metallic and sweet.  It smelled like Jess, actually.  But Darren had to admit Stephanie’s brother got all the grace and coordination.  He’d cut across the room like a dancer.

Stephanie looked sad.  The dark-haired man sitting across from her looked bored.  He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his temple, then he held up a set of car keys.  For some reason this made them both laugh.  Darren wondered if the car belonged to Stephanie’s brother, but the brother hadn’t gone down the stairs towards the exit.  Darren looked over his shoulder and could see him striding into the bedroom section.  His coat flared out behind him like Darth Vader’s cape.  Darren had to admit it looked good.  His fingers tugged unconsciously at the bottom of his grey hoodie.

When Darren turned back, Stephanie Lawson, weather goddess, was walking straight towards him.  It felt like a movie, except she wasn’t looking at him but at her own feet.  When Stephanie passed she smelled clean and fresh, the way you’d expect a laundry detergent commercial to smell if you could jump inside the television.

She turned the opposite way of her brother and took the shortcut back to the living room department.  Stephanie was returning to the sofas.  Darren glanced towards the woman’s bathroom but there was no sign of Jess and Thomas.  Unable to resist, he followed Stephanie Lawson upstream at Ikea. 

That was the thing about Ikea, they were really good at funnelling people from the entrance to the exit.  Everyone moved in the same direction at Ikea.  Except for Stephanie and Darren.  Luckily, Stephanie Lawson was tall so it was easy to follow her honey-coloured head through the crowd.  Darren was glad because he had to keep looking away and saying excuse me as he dodged shoppers.  Everywhere Darren looked people clutched free paper measuring tapes and child-sized pencils.  Everyone here knew their home would never look like an Ikea showroom yet they clearly hoped it would.  It was worse than a high school dance, Darren thought, because here everyone was going to be disappointed.

Everyone except Darren. 

There was no way for Darren to be disappointed.  The only hope he’d had was to leave Ikea with less than three things he had to assemble at home.  But he’d discovered Stephanie Lawson on a sofa.  He’d watched her drink coffee.  He’d smelled her, for god’s sake!  For the first time in his life Darren felt like a guy in a beer commercial.

Which was why when Stephanie Lawson arrived back at the living room department and sat down on the most god-awful looking sofa Darren could imagine, he wasn’t disappointed.  He didn’t care if Stephanie Lawson wanted a sofa that looked like it had been designed by a drunken five-year-old.  In an odd way it added to her charm.

So Darren smiled when Stephanie smiled sitting on a sofa so ugly it would scare a cat.  And that is when Stephanie Lawson, weather goddess, looked up and saw Darren.

“What do you think of this sofa?  Tell me honestly,” Stephanie said.

It took Darren a moment to realize she expected an answer.  He had watched her on television so much he’d grown used to their one-sided conversations.

“Well, I, umm…”

Stephanie cocked her head to one side like a spaniel and waited.  This surprised Darren.  Jess always talked over his stilted, fumbled out loud thinking but Stephanie was waiting to hear his opinion.

“Is it comfortable?” Darren finally asked.  “Because that’s the most important thing.”  Darren believed this.  If he was going to bet on a furniture company lasting forever he’d put his money on La-Z-Boy.

Stephanie leaned back.  “Yes, it is comfortable,” she said.  She was still watching Darren, clearly waiting for more.

Darren remembered the paper measuring tapes.  “Is the size okay?  Will it fit in your living room?”

Stephanie’s brow furrowed slightly and she looked down.  Clearly she had not considered this.  Then, in what was the first truly elegant move Darren had seen her perform, she folded her long legs up and lay down, one slim hand tucked beneath a perfect cheek. 

“It’s a bit smaller than the one that used to be there, so it will fit,” she said.

“But it’s comfortable?”

“Yes, it is.  You’re a very practical person,” she said. Then she closed her eyes.

Darren was stunned.  He’d never been told he was practical before.  Only the opposite.  He tried to think of something practical to do next.  Then he spotted the giant, Ikea-sized container of pillows nearby.  He walked over and plucked out a pink one with a picture of a cartoon owl on it and carried it back to Stephanie. 

He stood there awkwardly, trying to figure out how to give it to her, then finally said, “Here.”  When she opened her eyes he handed it to her. 

Stephanie looked surprised but took the pillow. Then her eyes filled with tears.

Darren quickly looked around.  He expected security to tackle him and knock him to the ground for making Stephanie Lawson cry.  But no one was rushing him.  No one was even looking at them.

Stephanie sat up.  She began blinking rapidly and doing that fluttery thing women did with their hands when they were trying not to cry.

“I’m sorry,” Stephanie said.  “I’ve been under a lot of stress lately and today hasn’t been the best day.”

Darren jammed his hands into the pockets of his jeans and looked at his shoes while he waited for her to pull herself together.  When her hands stopped fluttering and instead clutched the pillow to her chest, Darren looked up and said, “You shouldn’t buy a sofa today.  It’d be a mistake.”

“I have to.  I want to.  I’ve got to move on.  Besides, I can’t watch Netflix.”

Jess would have immediately understood the story buried in those four, disjointed sentences, but Darren was mystified so he stuck to his original point. “You’re sad.  If you buy a sofa when you’re sad, every time you look at it you’ll feel bad.  Trust me, I bought a car once when I was in a bad mood and I hated that Toyota.  I understand the Netflix thing, though.”

“But my living room is empty.  My boyfriend moved out and took the sofa.  I just bumped into him actually.  He was with his new… his new partner.  It was awful.  I don’t know why I agreed to have coffee with them.”

The world was often an inexplicable place to Darren but never more so than at that moment because Stephanie-the-weather-goddess Lawson had just told him her boyfriend had left her. And she said she’d just had coffee with him and his new amour.  But Stephanie had just had coffee with two guys.  So if Darren had this right, and he wasn’t completely sure he did, then Stephanie Lawson’s boyfriend had left her for a guy.  It felt like gravity had suddenly reversed.  Darren had to sit down on the sofa beside Stephanie.

Stephanie couldn’t believe she had blurted that out to a stranger.  She hadn’t told any of her friends or family yet that John had left.  And when she did she was going to lie.  She’d say it hadn’t been working for a while, that the breakup was mutual.  She would never tell anyone, ever, that he’d left her for a man.

“John decorated our place.  He was good at that sort of thing,” Stephanie said.  “I don’t even know what I like.  I can’t decide on a sofa.”

“I thought you liked this one.”

“I think I only like it because John hates it.”

They sat in silence. 

“I like this pillow though.  The owl is cute.”  Stephanie smiled at Darren.  “Help me pick out a sofa?”

Darren was about to say no, then decided if this was the task the universe had assigned him, who was he to question it. 

“You could get a sofa that matches the pillow and is comfortable,” Darren said.

“Brilliant!” Stephanie sprang up.  “That’s a great idea.  It is like matching a swatch.”

Darren had no idea what that meant but he was happy to follow her from sofa to sofa and watch as she propped the owl cushion in the corner of each.  Stephanie was making decisions now.  Sofa after sofa was being ruled out. 

Then she dropped the pillow on a dark purple sofa and even Darren could tell they looked good together.  When Stephanie sat down on it Darren actually felt nervous.  Stephanie leaned back and nodded. 

“I found my sofa,” she said.  Then she and Darren beamed at each other like they’d just won a race together.

“You sure?”  Darren asked.  He was sad it was over, but happy to have been the one with her.

“Yes.  This is the one.”  Stephanie patted it then stood up and took a picture of the tag attached to it.  While she was fiddling with her phone she said, “Give me your number.  I’ll text you a photo of the sofa when it’s delivered.”

Suddenly Darren was way beyond a beer commercial.  This was uncharted territory, even for fantasies.  He was being added to Stephanie Lawson’s contacts.  When he recited his number his voice came out high and squeaky but Stephanie tapped it into her phone anyway.

“I’m Stephanie, by the way.”

“Darren.”  He watched as Stephanie Lawson typed his name into her phone. 

When she was done Stephanie turned and lightly hit Darren on the arm with the owl pillow.  Darren could barely breathe. 

“Thanks. Really.”  Stephanie looked embarrassed.  Then she smiled her weather girl smile and walked away. 

Darren watched her go.  Then he sat down on the purple sofa.  It really was comfortable. 

He thought of Stephanie and of her boyfriend and of the man who wasn’t her brother.  He thought of her empty living room and of the purple sofa that would fill that space.  Darren wanted to forget everything she had told him and everything he had seen in the cafeteria.  But he couldn’t.  If Darren thought of Stephanie now he’d see a pretty girl watching Netflix, or heating food in a microwave or driving to work.  Stephanie Lawson had become real and that made her so much less interesting.

He stood up.  It was time to go back and find Jess.  Ikea had gotten even more crowded.  Darren joined the throng of shoppers, but it was easier now.  He was going downstream.  Darren drifted along with the crowd letting himself float on the collective dream that they could escape disappointment.