She sat behind her desk at the back of the store, watching a balding man circle an overstuffed leather sofa for the fifth time. She felt annoyed with him. Just buy the damned thing already.
A salesman approached him. She watched the exchange with an odd mix of interest and detachment. The man adjusted his black wire-framed spectacles, then lifted his hands to his hips in a slightly aggressive manner. A few seconds later, he turned his back to the salesman in what looked like disgust, and rubbed the bald spot on his head, turned around again, and muttered something.
The salesman began making his way towards Diane. She sat up a bit straighter and grabbed the first paper on the top of the pile on her desk. She pretended to be reading it intently.
“Diane, will you talk to this guy? I think I’ve had enough of him.”
“What does he want?”
“He wants to know how long the furniture will last.”
Diane stood up and smoothed her skirt. She was attractive blonde, even at forty years old, so balding, middle-aged men didn’t usually pose much of a problem.
She approached the man with her hand extended. “I’m Diane, the store owner. Can I help you, sir?”
The next twenty minutes were spent explaining the origins of the fine Italian leather, and the impossibility of determining the life of the sofa. Eventually, Diane gave in, and put the number at twenty years.
In the end, the man walked out of the store without the sofa. Maybe tomorrow, he said.
Three hours later, she closed up the store, dimmed the lights, and made an espresso from the machine in the back. She went to the cracked brown leather sofa, and sat. She closed her eyes. Even with them closed, she could see every inch of the store. The beds in the northeastern corner. The bath fixtures that were in their second week of a huge sale. The rugs. The desks.
She was growing tired.
She drove home, deliberately skipping the grocery store, though she knew that they were out of milk and bread.
When she walked through the front door, her four-year-old daughter was on her father’s lap, nodding off. He was reading her “Pippi Longstocking.” It had been one of her favorites as a child.
Diane walked up to her daughter, kissed her on the forehead, and watched as her husband cradled her in his arms, and as he walked up the steps to lay her in bed.
She went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of pinot noir. She took a sip, then turned her gaze to the wine rack. An unopened bottle of merlot stared back at her. She always drank white wine, never red. She poured the glass into the sink and filled it with the red.
Her husband came into the kitchen, kissed her on the cheek, grabbed a beer from the fridge. Diane watched him without a sound, then said, “I’m selling the store.”
Her husband spun around to face her.
“What? Why? When the hell did this happen?” His tone betrayed his annoyance.
“Today. A few hours ago. I just decided.”
“Jesus, Diane, don’t you think this warrants a talk? I mean, maybe you’ll change your mind tomorrow.”
“I won’t change my mind.”
“Look, honey, I support you and all, but this affects more than just you. Christ, think about Hailey. What are we going to do for money? Do you have a plan? Do you want me to go back to work?”
“We’ll work it out.”
“You must have something in mind. You can’t just throw away our only income!”
Diane nodded. “I’m going to paint.”
Her husband lowered his head, leaning with both hands onto the marble-top breakfast bar, and exhaled, hard.
“You’re going to paint.” His words were slow, deliberate, incredulous.
Diane looked out the window as she waited for the backlash. The roses were starting to come in. A blue jay was singing from atop the neighbor’s gutter.
“Diane, you can’t be serious. You haven’t painted in, what, fifteen years? I thought that was a college fantasy. You said it was just a college fantasy.”
“So it was.” She turned to her husband, locking eyes with him. “So it was, Jim, but why the hell shouldn’t I turn fantasy into reality?”
“Because fantasy doesn’t pay the god damned bills!”
“We’ll find a way.”
“Where is this coming from, Diane? Did something happen? Is there something I don’t know about?”
“No. Nothing happened.”
“Then what the hell is this?”
Diane held the last swallow of merlot in her mouth, letting it engulf every corner, then slowly swallowed.
“The world doesn’t know me, Jim.”
“What? What the hell does that mean?”
“Remember when you pushed me for Hailey? You insisted that we needed a child.”
“Yes, of course. You’re not saying that you regret...” Jim lowered his voice to a whisper. “You don’t regret having our daughter... do you?”
“No, Jim, of course not. Quite the opposite, in fact. I adore her.”
“Diane, I’m trying to be patient here, but I’m not following. You’re not making any sense.”
Diane was staring out of the window again. “Our daughter is the most wonderful thing we’ve ever created. She’s perfect, in fact. That’s mostly because of you. You stay home with her, you connect with her, you create her. She is your canvas.”
“You can have that, too, honey. You don’t have to sell the store...”
“Yes, I do. Don’t misunderstand me... this isn’t about Hailey. Well, it is, in part. I want to spend more time with her, but I’m satisfied with my relationship with my daughter. I’m a good mother. That’s not it. I want to create. I realized today that things are only valuable because they make us known. Hailey is so important to you because you know each other. Our marriage works because we know each other. It extends beyond people, though. Businessmen do business because that’s who they are. For those men, spreadsheets and the signing of a deal makes them known; it’s how they convey to the world ‘This is who I am, and here are the fruits of that which I am.’ Football fields speak to those who play on it. Teachers see a classroom full of kids as a medium with which to communicate with the world. People want to be known. The store doesn’t make me known, honey. I want to be known. I want my canvas.”
In an episode of House of Cards, Peter and Christina are in Peter’s childhood bedroom, lying on the bed. Peter is laying on top of Christina. He kisses her neck, slowly, then points out the crack in the ceiling, to which both of their gazes turn. Peter describes how he used to stare at that crack every night before he fell asleep. Then, with a smile, he tells Christina “I know every inch, every curve,” before turning his attention back to her.
The thrill in Christina manifests itself in her eyes. The camera, previously focused on both characters, now pans slightly to the left to capture Christina’s expression. It pans out, slowly, still focusing on her, as Peter becomes blurred in the background.
The crack, of course, is her. Her thrill has nothing to do with the crack, but with the fact that this man knows every inch, every curve of her. The crack is not important. What matters is the connection: that one human being is completely, totally known by another.
That is the heart of the human experience. That is what we crave, what we long for. Every action, every breath is working towards that goal.
Lovers fall in love in the hope of being known. A father raises his child in the hope of being known.
A businessman’s strength, his being, lies in his business acumen. At the close of a deal, his very self can be studied in the cells of a spreadsheet, in the signature on the dotted line.
A designer creates a design, then lets it free into the world, saying, “This is me. This is what I am.”
Teachers pass a piece of themselves onto their students. A great teacher is a master in the art of being known, saying “If you want to know who I am, talk to my students.”
A painter paints, a writer writes, a coal miner mines, all to be known.
Every secret of a writer's soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works.
~ Virginia Woolf
Like Christina, we are all simply waiting to be known. It’s not the adoration of the masses we seek. Rather, it’s the closeness of a true friend that we want to emulate in our work, in our relationships, in our lives. Those who succeed in their work or their life succeed in that, and that alone.