It’s Curtains For Me

On what we buy and what we put off

I decided to buy curtains for my bedroom this month. I bought a set of curtains when I first moved into the apartment back in October, but they weren’t the right size and the fabric wasn’t any good and I sent them back to Amazon and got my refund.

Then I put off buying the curtains, because I didn’t really need them and I wanted to save my money for the holidays and so on.

But last week I felt financially secure enough to spend $43.98 on curtains and a rod—and I almost told myself that I should put the purchase off for another month, just to make sure that I didn’t need that $43.98 for something else.

I’m not financially insecure, and when a group of friends and I decided to see a show together I didn’t hesitate to spend an equivalent amount of money on a ticket, so it’s not the $43.98, not really. But I still felt like maybe I shouldn’t have bought these curtains; that since I had successfully lived without them for six months, I could live without them forever. That’d be almost $44 saved.

There’s one more piece of furniture I want to buy for my apartment, and it’s a bookshelf to replace the shelving unit I created out of wire blocks, and it costs $48.10. It’s in my Amazon Wish List and I’ll buy it for myself next month and then I’ll be done, my apartment will be fully furnished with all of the appropriate adult things and I won’t have any empty curtain rod holders jutting out of the wall or wire-block bookshelves.

It’s sort of fun, or at least I’ve made it fun, to joke about my less-than-standard apartments and furnishings. I spent a year sleeping on the floor on a camping futon. I spent two years washing my dishes in a bucket. I’ve told these stories so many times—and I always comment on that makeshift wire bookshelf when people walk into my current apartment for the first time, I deliberately point it out as if to say “I know I’m still not where I want to be yet.” There are pieces of my life that are still missing, with wire framework filling in the gaps.

As soon as I get that bookshelf, I’ll need to start thinking about replacing my bathroom rug and towels. Maybe my shower curtain. There’s a difference between joking about something you can’t control, like bucket dishes, and something that looks like you can’t take care of yourself, like frayed towels or a bathroom rug that never gets fully dry, not even if you hang it up after every shower instead of letting it sit in its own puddle on the floor.

Having a row of empty curtain hooks or a wire bookshelf says “I can’t afford this right now,” but having an old wet bath rug says “I can’t afford this right now and I don’t value my own comfort or the comfort of others.” Especially when you can afford this right now. I could probably buy a set of towels and a bath rug for $150, which would mean not buying something else but it wouldn’t mean not being able to pay my bills. I buy that much, every month, in clothes and books and outings with friends. Maybe it does mean that I don’t value my own comfort or the comfort of others. Or maybe it means that I can only value one thing at a time, and friends and books and clothes always come first.

I still don’t know why it’s so hard for me to invest in basic things that would improve my life; I should buy that bath rug, and I should buy a second saucepan, and it wouldn’t hurt to replace my sheets. None of these items are particularly expensive. I could make myself a budget, just like I made my book budget at the beginning of the year, and buy one thing at a time.

But the difference between having one saucepan and having two saucepans isn’t like the difference between having one book and having two books. The second book gives you something you didn’t have before. The second saucepan just means you can let the first saucepan sit in the sink a while longer. I’d rather do the dishes, especially since I no longer have to do my dishes in a bucket.

The thing that surprised me the most, after I hung up the new curtains, was that they didn’t make me feel happier. I felt like I had done something that I knew I was supposed to do, so there was a hint of accomplishment combined with “well, I really should probably take these down and iron them… except I don’t have an iron, so I’ll have to get them damp and pull the wrinkles out and hang them to dry over the bathtub.”

Compare that with, say, this:

That $16.00 shirt made me feel happy. The $16.44 copy of Maggie Shipstead’s Astonish Me that I bought last Friday (to help support people affected by Seattle’s recent Greenwood gas explosion) made me feel happy. The curtains just make me feel like I’ve fulfilled a requirement, which is probably the real reason why I waited six months to buy them.

But I have curtains now, instead of a row of empty hooks, and next month I’ll have a bookshelf, and maybe a month after that I’ll get towels and a bath rug. I still think I’ll find reasons to say “I know I’m not where I want to be yet” when people visit my apartment, because I still think that’s true. It’s better than bucket dishes, it’s much better than sleeping on the floor, but it’s pretty clear that I’d rather invest in myself than in my apartment right now.

After all, I’m the person who will get me where I want to go—and my friends and the books I read and, yes, even my clothes will all be a part of that.

And the curtains will hang on the wall, and the books will sit on that new bookshelf, until I pack them all in boxes again.