IKEA is a frightening place. Especially on a weekend. It reminds me of Jean Paul Sartre’s existential play No Exit. In other words, being in IKEA is like being trapped in hell.

It’s practically impossible to spend less than an hour in IKEA, a jungle of plastic and polyester. Do not enter the maze in any hurry. And leave your weapons in the car, lest you lose your cool and spill innocent blood on a faux-suede chaise (you stain it, you buy it).

First you drive about fifty miles away from civilization. I’m not talking about the suburbs. Not the industrial district. I mean off the grid, into a black hole, where people go when they need to make things disappear. They don’t just put IKEAs in the boonies because it’s the only place with fifteen spare acres. An IKEA store is like a Disney Land; it’s its own city, a destination in itself. When you go to IKEA, you’re going on a pilgrimage. You caravan with your whole extended family. You pack lunches. You bring a change of clothes. When you glimpse the enormous blue and yellow sign protruding out of the horizon you applaud and honk and play a merry song you know the words to. You pull into the parking lot and get butterflies in your stomach. You pray for a strong consumer performance and the grace of God to grant you the power of good decision making. You breathe deeply and observe a moment of silence for the damage you are about to inflict (on your credit card). Rare escapers mozy out of the complex with $3,000 in unassembled plywood, weary and proud like marathon finishers. “What went on in there?” you wonder. It’s time to find out.

Good luck!!!

The race begins. It’s not a speed race, but there is a track. One way. IKEA has you now. You have been swept away in the current. There is no going back. You are surrounded by sofas and shelves. Immediately you find a bookshelf you like and want. But you can’t take it. You have made the cardinal IKEA sin, the classic rookie mistake: You thought IKEA was a store, and forgot that it is actually an obstacle course. You still need the special IKEA shopping card and a writing utensil to note the aisle and bin numbers of the items you want to buy. Later — much, much later — in the colossal “collection” zone, you will attempt to locate the actual product. Where are the shopping cards? Back at the beginning. Less than ten minutes have elapsed in the labyrinth. Already you are swimming upstream, back to the mini-pencil dispenser, unlabeled and discreetly mounted next to the restrooms you will soon regret you did not use. You zig-zag through a nest of vinyl ottomans. Congratulations, you have made it back to exactly where you started. At least now you are armed with a dull, eraserless, 2.5 inch pencil and know precisely where to find the low-pro birch Malm bed of your dreams.

Not so fast. A desert of lamps. An ocean of stools. A kibbutz of office chairs and a museum of kitchen faucets. More coffee tables than the Starbucks headquarters. Newlyweds in a screaming match. Something about colanders. An obese man asleep in a leather armchair. A young girl with a coloring book at a glossy white desk, making herself right at home. Half a mile away, her mother frantically opens armoires and screams for help. There are no IKEA employees in sight. The other shoppers ignore her; they have their own tears to shed when they discover an agonizing truth: the Vallvek dresser does not come in Black/Brown.

ZZZZZZZZZZ…

Mindlessly meandering through the corridor with empty carts, shoppers have become accessories in the maze not unlike the lampshades they fondle. They have lost the desire to leave. They have forgotten the outside world completely. My condolences go out to the IKEA shopper (me) who desires to check out, just buy the damn stuff already, and go the hell home. See that shortcut there? That cut-through? Skip offices and go straight to kitchenware. Do not pass sinks, do not collect 200 spatulas. Tempting, right? Don’t fall for it. That shortcut will take you to the pick-up warehouse, aisle 68, bin 17. The bookshelf you wanted is in aisle 2. Now you’re asking a large grey-bearded man in suspenders where aisles 1-10 are. Of course he is not an IKEA employee. The only people who work there are the cashiers and pizza vendors. Did you say PIZZA??? But what about the cabinet? Do we need any mugs? Look at this skillet! Non-stick! $9.99! You go back for the candles, I’m gonna get a pretzel and I’ll meet you at the garbage bins in ten. Keep your phone on. Where’s the cart? God dammit. I left the cart at curtains. You grab the skillet. I’ll get the cart. I’ll meet you in the cafeteria. Did you write down the bin number? I thought you had the list? The list is in the cart. Just get the damn cart.

Nearly three hours have elapsed and you’re in the warehouse again, Tokyo-drifting toward the checkout lines. It took you half an hour to successfully balance two cabinets, one bed, four lamps, two chairs, and Lord knows whatever other Scandinavian furnishing delicacies on the two-wheel-drive grocery cart, intended for milk and eggs but burdened with 700 pounds of affordable Nordic DIY minimalism. Heading out to the parking lot without the faintest idea what time or day it is, now you are that weary marathon finisher and some poor bastard looking for a couple beanbag chairs for his nephew’s playroom is politely waiting for your parking spot. You made it out. You did it.

Sort of. Because now you get to go home and erroneously follow fifteen sets of instructions. Take special note of the “what NOT to do” imagery in the instruction manual. See the cartoon Finnish man whose limbs are being gruesomely severed under the weight of ten birch trees? That’s you. Patience utterly depleted, hands raw from the forcible twisting-in of over seventy-five tiny wooden pegs, you ponder: was the hassle — the seven hour debacle — of shopping at IKEA really worth it?

Keep the receipt. If you’re not satisfied, you can always go back.