This is the second installment of an ongoing weekly series. The first installment featured a mini-Christmas tree, used tea bags, and a very rare (or possibly extinct) bird.
IV. She’s Like, “Can I Use This?”
Observer: Jean Kyoung Frazier on May 6, 2020, in Los Angeles, CA
Object: Paper towel roll with a bow on it
Level of Affection: Sassy coworking pal
I’ve never been a big birthday person. I think the last big birthday thing I did was my sixteenth. My mom threw me a surprise party and even then I was, like, mortified.
And so I just am not very much into gifts, and my family, we don’t really do that. My mom lives forty-five minutes away from me, but I haven’t been quarantining with her because she’s a little older and I was worried that maybe I would get her sick. So it’s been weird not seeing her very often since we spend a lot of time together, generally.
She called me a couple days before my birthday and told me to come by. She’s been trying to feed me. She drops off kimchi and other snacks at my apartment, like Shin Ramyun, all this stuff that I can’t find at my grocery store, but she knows that I enjoy. She is very right to want to take care of me—I’m just, like, a woman child.
But yeah, she told me to come by to her place and she left outside for me this box of goodies. It was not an extravagant gift, like an Xbox 360. It had a teakettle, some gummies, this Korean card game Hwa-tu, and then also a paper towel roll, wrapped with a little bow. It was just a goofy sweet gift, but she didn’t really make a big deal out of it. She just sort of knew that I needed a little boost at that point. It’s honestly, and I’m not trying to be cute or anything, kind of the best birthday gift I’ve ever received.
It’s funny. I didn’t even intend to keep the paper towel. I just brought it in and sort of kept it on our counter. Every day I walked by it and as we started running out of paper towels, it felt weird. I was like, “I don’t want to use this just yet.” So one day we’re out of our current roll and my roommate Emily starts to pull the ribbon off.
She’s like, “Can I use this?” And I just blurted out, “Wait, no, no, don’t use it.” And she’s like, “What?” And I’m like, “I don’t know. I think I want to… keep… it?” And she’s like, “OK. I mean, I guess?”
So that day I started looking at it more and more. You see what I mean, right? There’s a human quality to it. There was something about the bow and its placement. I’ve been in quarantine for a while now, but there was something very lifelike about it to me. We made jokes, tossed around names for it, got some suggestions from friends on Instagram. We settled on Dolores. It seemed to really fit her vibe.
The paper towel roll is now a “she,” by the way. There’s something very sassy and feminine about her.
I view her as a sort of friendly reminder that I still have a sense of humor, if that makes sense. Because this is such an unfunny time and it’s just nice to have a simple laugh, you know?
And I think that’s what I so appreciate about my mom doing that. I told her that I was chatting with you today and she was like, “That’s amazing. Let me find some more ribbons, if you ever want to change her outfit.” My mom works in fashion design, and so she has fabrics over at her place all the time.
This is such a weird time. Of course there are varying levels of how people’s lives have changed, but everyone is spending more time in their homes. And so we’ve had to ask ourselves how our home space influences our moods. Does your space make you feel trapped, relaxed, anxious, productive, lonely, etc.? There’s a lot of ways to feel. Sometimes you feel all of them in one day. It’s really up and down. But if the worst thing you can say is that you’re bored, you’re doing pretty fucking good.
So I feel really lucky in that way. I’m bored and a little stir crazy, plenty of dark feelings and low days, but I have my health and thankfully all my family members and loved ones have their health too. And now I also have a paper towel roll named Dolores who makes my home feel a little warmer.
I’ve never really felt connected to objects before, although I have a funny object story from when I lived in New York. I was on the subway once coming home from work and it was a really packed train and every seat was taken except this one seat that just had, like, a single grape sitting in the center of the seat and it was just fascinating to watch. Like, no one was moving the grape to sit.
And so, stop after stop, no one’s sitting and I’m like, Love this. And then this guy comes along eventually and hits the grape off so he can sit. And in my head I was like, Oh my God, why would he do that? But also why wouldn’t he do that—it’s a fucking grape.
I asked if Dolores is a part of her day.
Funnily enough, I do move her around occasionally. It depends on where I’m working. Sometimes I’ll be on the couch and she’ll be on this little table near the couch. Sometimes I’ll be at my kitchen table, so I might move her to a different table. I like her at eye line, so if I look up, she’s kind of there. There’s something comforting about that.
Maybe it’s a writer thing, but I kind of like the idea of her always being a reminder of this really strange moment in history. Kind of like, the way someone might collect a vial of sand from a beach they visit once.
I was a little embarrassed. Like, I almost didn’t tell my roommate. I almost just let her use it. But then I was like, Wait. I feel this way, why is it embarrassing that I want to keep this paper towel roll, this nice gift from my mom? I’m going to tell her not to use it.
The next day Jean emailed to share an update: “My roommate Jackson dreamed last night that he took Dolores’s ribbon off and used her. Dream him felt really bad.”
V. I Wish This Wasn’t a Wendy’s
Observer: Matthew McIntosh, on April 30, 2020, outside of Reno, NV
Object: Twelve-pack of White Claw Hard Seltzer
Level of Affection: Guilty pleasure
When Matthew first got in touch, he quoted Annie Proulx from The Shipping News: “And it may be that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”
Right now I’m in the mountains in Sierra Nevada, outside Reno. I don’t actually live here, but I came back because of the pandemic. I’m just holed up.
I was working in Chile on conservation projects and bringing students down from the US to serve basically as interns on research projects on Chilean National Parks and other public lands. My contract actually ends in April. They kept me on through the duration of the contract, which was appreciated. Ideally, we’d return and meet back up with all of our Chilean partners in September, after the winter’s over down there. Obviously, all of that’s up in the air right now. The quarantine notion is much more serious there. My friends in Santiago are talking about how the poor neighborhoods are facing different restrictions and rules and expectations than the rich neighborhoods. The same story that plays out here, but it looks a little different culturally.
I don’t think I’d ever had a White Claw prior to this pandemic moment. I found it in the garage here, not very intentionally. I know there’s kind of a funny, fratty culture around them. But I am pretty bored here in pandemic times and I guess I’m willing to set aside some of my standards for things that I ordinarily would not consume or associate myself with. When I tried one, I was like, “This is pretty great.” I don’t really like the lime ones, but the cherry and the raspberry are just tasty.
I have to evaluate the student interns that I work with down in Chile. They’re putting in their final proposals and their research and all their data. So, after tip-tapping on the computer for most of the day, at 4 or 5 p.m., I’ll just be like, “Well, I guess I’ll try one of those again.” And after three or four days of that, it was like, “Well, I guess this is kind of a routine.” If I was working in an office, I would go up and get a cup of coffee when I felt like I needed a pick-me-up. Or I would, at four or five, go for a jog. Just to kind of reward myself or put some sort of stamp of a good day’s work on things, you know?
When I think about my future relationship to White Claw, which is funny to think about even thinking about, I feel like it would be something that I would have maybe twice a year and fondly remember the general boredom and sense of looming unease as well as the positivity that these little slim cans provided me. Twice a year might even be a lot, honestly. I feel kind of like they might be pretty bad for you—like we’ll find this out in a few years or something.
I’ve been having a cup of tea at 4 or 5 p.m. the last few days since the twelve-pack has disappeared. So I don’t even feel that I miss it that much, but it was fun while it lasted.
This is maybe going to be a stretch, but my girlfriend is from Carson City, Nevada, just south of Reno. And it’s a pretty small town if you haven’t been there, really beautiful, right in the mountains of the desert. But there’s a lot of strip malls and she kind of pokes fun at it. That’s the situation with a lot of small towns in the US, which are becoming big-box stores and strip malls and truck stops and whatever.
But she made some comment driving around and it was definitely tongue-in-cheek, but she was like, “Oh, good old Carson,” looking at these strip malls the other day. I’m from Memphis originally. And when I drive or bike around parts of Memphis that are strip mall-y, especially since leaving, it’s still like, “That’s the Wendy’s, that’s where I would go to get milkshakes after school.” Or like, “That’s the gas station where they sell sushi on the side.”Nobody really praises strip malls and other corporate spaces for their architecture, and oftentimes they house businesses that put mom-and-pop Main Street stores out of business. But when you’re from a place, at least in my experience, you harbor this affection for those stores. It’s still home.
White Claw is the same part of me that is like, Maybe I’ll get an order of fries at that Wendy’s, just to do it for old time’s sake. I wish this wasn’t a Wendy’s—like, I’d prefer a locally owned, more ethical business. Maybe the moral of the White Claw story is to look for the simple pleasures, which I guess is probably too trite, more trite than you would want to be.
I was going to mention this earlier, but I’m also rewatching Twin Peaks right now. I don’t know if you recall the part where they’re in the RR Diner, I think in Season One. Agent Cooper says to Sheriff Truman, “I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. Everyday, Harry, just do one thing. Give yourself a little present.” That’s the White Claw, man.
Later, Matthew emailed me to say: “Since telling my quarantine-mates about doing this interview, they’ve purchased more White Claw variety packs, which have become a bit of the shared culture of our shared experience.”
VI. Let Me Go See What the Shoes Are Up To
Observer: Annabel Graham, on April 24, 2020, in Brooklyn, NY
Object: Red Converse Chuck Taylors flung over a power line
Level of Affection: Old friends
When I called, Annabel had just finished making herself a lunch of grated zucchini and mushroom with a baked egg in the middle.
I’ve been going on long walks around my neighborhood to stay sane. On one of the routes I take, there’s this pair of red high-top Chuck Taylors tied at the laces and flung over a power line. I often see sneakers hanging from power lines in Brooklyn, but I’ve been seeing them a lot more during lockdown.
I see these shoes almost daily on my walks, and often take photos of them. At some point I sort of started to anthropomorphize them. Something about them feels familiar—just the fact that they are always there, always spinning, when everything else around us is changing so rapidly and so drastically. When I first discovered them, people weren’t really wearing masks—and now you go outside and everyone’s wearing a mask. Everything feels pretty dystopian.
But every time I reached that particular street corner I would stop and look up and watch the red shoes spin, and feel something—stability, I guess. Nostalgia. That shoe in particular feels emblematic to me of something very American and very ’90s. They’re what I always used to wear as a kid. They feel like a relic of the before. I’ve noticed myself constantly taking that same route so that I can see them and say hi to them. Like, “Hey, there they are. Hey, old friends.” I mean, they are not. They’re not old friends—they’re totally strange shoes. I have no idea who they belong to, or who put them there.
Have you ever seen a film called The Red Balloon? It’s a classic French film my dad showed me that I loved in my childhood. Just that image of the red balloon floating through the city, and this little boy who follows it—something about the red Converse brought that image to mind. I am always looking for the color red, no matter where I am.
It’s been so gloomy lately, too, that to see a pop of color amid this wash of miserable gray is really welcome. I also like the angles of the power lines. The laces of the shoes. There is also something, I think, about photographing the shoes from different angles. Finding new ways to see them, noticing new things about them.
This is reminding me that I haven’t visited them in a little while. I should remedy that. That’s what it always feels like—“Let me go see what the shoes are up to,” or, “Let me go visit my shoes.”
I wonder if anyone else feels this way about those shoes. I think I would have mixed feelings about it. In a certain way, I think it would feel like connection. Maybe a part of me would feel possessive. Like, “Those are my shoes and this was my idea.”
It’s also been eerie walking past all the billboards for businesses and products that are now essentially obsolete. There’s this giant billboard in my neighborhood advertising Air France with this glamorous woman in a big floppy hat and red lipstick—that pop of red again—and it’s like: “Fly business class on Air France!” None of us are going to be doing that anytime soon. Walking past the Music Hall of Williamsburg and seeing all the fliers for shows that never happened. Seeing posters for movies that won’t be released. Remembering all these experiences I’ve had among crowds of people that I’ve taken somewhat for granted.
I think constancy is both comforting and a little alarming. I think we are all experiencing, in some ways, more constancy than ever before, at least on the level of the day-to-day. Maybe the right word is monotony. At the same time, nothing in the world feels constant. There’s so much loss of control right now, which so many of us have felt in different capacities. Some days I feel fine. Other days I feel totally helpless, like nothing I do makes any difference. I keep journaling and I keep writing. Sometimes I feel as if I’m writing the same thing over and over, and often I feel like I have the same day over and over and over again. So I think that’s where the shoes come in. They’re a reflection of both stability and instability, what has changed and what hasn’t.
What I’ve been writing in my journal has almost read like a log: “Today my roommate found a dead mouse.” “Today there are lots of pigeons out.” “I’ve never seen so many joggers in my life.” “Everyone was by the river today.” Things like that. I think maybe I’m doing it so I can look back on this time later and have some sort of memory of it, like, “Wow, we lived through that.”
Do you have a newly significant object you’d like to speak to me about? If so, please email james[at]believermag.com with the subject line “Objects of Affection.” Briefly describe what the object is and how you would characterize your pandemic-era relationship to it. I will read through all responses and contact you for a short interview should the object suit the series. We will be publishing these weekly through May, and possibly longer.
Jean Kyoung Frazier is a writer living in Los Angeles. Her debut novel Pizza Girl is forthcoming from Doubleday (June 9, 2020).
Matthew McIntosh is a salaried outdoor educator, recently serving posts in Chile, the Bay Area, and Alaska. He credits his marginal understanding of the human condition to a southern upbringing, a supportive family, and his recently deceased alma mater, Marlboro College.
Annabel Graham is a writer, photographer, and illustrator from Malibu, California. Her work has appeared in Bookforum, Vogue, The Rumpus, Joyland, GARAGE, and other places, and has been supported by Tin House and Disquiet. She holds an MFA in fiction from New York University, where she also taught undergraduate creative writing. She also serves as fiction editor of No Tokens, a print journal of literature and art run entirely by women and nonbinary individuals. She lives in Brooklyn.
For more installments of this series, go here.