They met on the IKEA ferry. If not for her, he wouldn’t have gotten on. He was number 76, the boat took 75, max. “But he’s with me,” she said. “We’re buying a sofa.”
“Max 75,” the ferryman said.
“Look how skinny he is,” she said. “You think he’s going to sink your ship?”
“Fine,” the ferryman said. “I counted wrong—74, 75.” He pointed to each of them as he said their numbers, a second christening.
On the ferry they got to know each other.
“I’m buying a bookshelf,” he told her.
“I’m not buying anything,” she said. “I take this ferry to meet domestically-minded men.”
It was a sunny day and everyone on the boat was taking postcard perfect pictures of the receding Manhattan skyline. When they got home they would post them on websites with captions like, en route to IKEA.
“Do you have a camera?” he asked her.
“I’m philosophically opposed to digital images,” she said. “They’re killing romance.”
When they reached IKEA, they stuck together as they walked across the parking lot—just in case the ferryman was watching. They tried to part ways when they got inside.
“Good luck finding your bookshelf,” she said.
“Actually,” he said, “are you hungry?”
They went upstairs to the cafeteria and ate Swedish meatballs. They observed that everyone around them seemed to be in love.
“Just so you know,” she said, “I’m not unattached. I came here to open my wedding registry.”
“Oh,” he said. Then: “Shouldn’t your fiancé be here with you?”
“I don’t say fiancé. I prefer pre-husband.”
“What does that make me?” he asked. “Your pre-affair?”
She asked if he wanted to help fill out her gift registry. “It’s boring to do it alone.”
“Okay, but I don’t want any trouble with your pre-husband.”
“Don’t worry, he's skinny and bookish—like you.”
They went to the customer service desk and the IKEA people congratulated them on their engagement. Then they were given gun-shaped scanner thingies to point and shoot at various items. You know what Chekhov says about gun-shaped scanner thingies: “One must never bring a gun-shaped-scanner-thingie into a story if no one is thinking of buying anything.”
At first they only pointed the gun at things they wanted. But very quickly they realized it was more interesting to point to the things they didn’t want.
“I’ve always wanted a light fixture that looks like the moon,” she said.
“I’ve always wanted seven light fixtures that look like the moon,” he replied. Click, click, click, click, click, click, click. Somewhere a computer was recording their imaginary wishes.
“Oh, honey, these stuffed platypus are just darling!” she said.
“Better ask for nineteen,” he said. “In case we lose eighteen of them.”
They were part of that generation, the one between X and Y, that gave up on cutting irony and settled for harmless whimsy instead.
“Let’s name our first child Kraftig,” he said, “After that butcher’s block.”
“If it’s a girl, we’ll call her Slitbar,” she said, pointing. “For the knives that goes with it.”
After a while the Swedish words began to blur: molger, galant, envis, akut, braver, favont, mixtur, lustifik, prompt. He wanted to stop and rest on one of the sofas, but she said they had to push on.
“The invitations go to the printers on Monday,” she said. “People need to know where to shop.”
He felt two things very strongly then: 1) she wasn’t interested in him; 2) she didn’t want to get married. She was testing her feelings with him, she was wondering how easy it would be to start again, and if it was worth it.
Before they left the store, he bought her a metal tissue box as a wedding present.
“You shouldn’t have,” she said. “Now I’m going to think of you every time I have a cold.”
On the ferry ride home, he realized he’d forgotten to buy his bookshelf. At first he thought, Oh, well, and then all at once he was angry. What a stupid waste of an afternoon. He remembered the way she pulled him onto the ferry and that made him feel even angrier. He turned to her and said, “Are you going to tell your pre-husband about me?”
“That’s a trick question,” she said. “If I say ‘no’, you’ll think I’m attracted to you, but if I say ‘yes’, then I’m lying.”
“So you’re not going to tell him.”
“That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Everything means something.”
“No it doesn’t.” Her cheeks were flushed with emotion and that made him happy.
“I think the lady doth protest too much.”
“I think that’s a corny line.” She turned away from him and looked out the ferry window.
He felt this was his moment to do something definitive, something dramatic, but instead he stood up and left her there, staring out the window. From a short distance away, she was just a girl with a messy ponytail and a dress that was a little bit tight around her breasts. He was probably only attracted to her because she was unavailable.
Out on the deck, the wind felt cold and fresh on his face. Whenever he began to hope she would come out and join him, he would remind himself that his desire for her was completely sentimental.