Basically, in an exploratory and perhaps even defensive manner, I wrote “Davenports and Ottomans” with the intention to explore the roots of anxiety and oppression in an American child around the same age as myself.
The 70’s were a period of tactile cataclysm: vinyl, acrylic, naughahyde, polyester. The closest thing to soft might have been the ubiquitous rabbit’s foot keychain. You did not hear tranquil terminology conjuring comfort and relaxation, like organic cotton, Egyptian thread count, or mulberry silk. Instead there was a move away from natural and pleasant: kids wore Toughskins – jeans made with Dacron Type 49 and Dupont 420 Nylon. Salty tin-tasting Campbell’s soup leftovers were kept in red-staining Tupperwear and society dove hairsprayed-head-first into the beginnings of an environmentally-naive avalanche of plastic we’d later regret. We soaked ourselves with Off, ousted our oxygen with Lysol, slayed our ants with Raid, and by golly we weren’t going to wear sunscreen.
For a child of this indoor scratchy, stinky, linoleum, shag-rug society, in my memory, I was bombarded with physical revulsion. There was nowhere to recline in coziness. Outdoors one could find the freshness of spruce, pine, mint, lavender, green grass. Outdoors is where a child belonged, feet in the creek, mud on the legs. Thus, as the reader can guess, there is a bit of run-from-proper-childhood-rebellious-Maribel in my history (as in, the too-short white tights). Every generation has its fashion crosses to bear–corsets, hoop skirts–but the 70’s offering to the list would be pantyhose.
For Maribel, her claustrophobia surpasses fabric. Adults urge her to bypass little girl and go straight to lip-pursed lady. Her only outlets–fresh air, a tantalizing sweet, and the ability to rid herself of abrasive clothing–are forbidden, so she broods upon how she could be like the only unrestricted person she knows, an alcoholic aunt who balks and embarrasses the family. She sees this ill-fated role model as embodying the solution: freedom. Maribel is trapped from all sides and we envision a future of disquiet for her; the building of a bulging bag of restlessness.
I knew when a first reader’s response was “I became uncomfortable when I read this,” I’d hopefully hit on something, suggesting unease in the reader and a wish for relief.
Why wish for relief? Let us take myself for example. I’d like to be within my indulgent blue cashmere scarf, sipping on a cup of aromatic oolong tea while walking slowly in the woods on an inch or so or fresh snow, viewing the morning from a down parka, inhaling the cabiny smell of conifers, and knowing I have the next several days to do just this. If I hadn’t been so uncomfortable in a percale patent leather childhood, I might not appreciate cashmere and snowy mornings like I do. It is as simple as that.
Add to the restriction of the body the restriction of the spirit and we have the beginnings of a suppressed Mirabel explosive. For Mirabel, she will need to go through a lifetime of sorting through the prickly, confining unease caused by her adults with their dos, don’ts and shoulds; painfully difficult for a girl who needs air. Which is why I stopped the story right there, where Mirabel isn’t going anywhere at all, except the place she has been told to sit.
Read “Davenports and Ottomans” in our current issue.