Soon after my son left for college, after I picked up all the clothes he left on the floor, cleaned all the gum wrappers out of the car and put away the football and tennis racquet he decided not to take with him after all, I felt myself running out of things to do. I liked the feeling of restoring order, so I even went on to put my things away. After all that was done, I had two things left over.
One was an 8-pack of wooden hangers from IKEA. The other was a shrink-wrapped set of plastic ware – 17 individual containers with green lids to store leftovers, also from IKEA. Neither took up much space because they were all wrapped up but you could see how they might quickly overtake a kitchen or closet.
My son bought both these items for school but took neither with him. I told him he would need smaller, thinner hangers and that his refrigerator would probably only be able to accommodate two storage containers, not 17.
I vacillated about returning the items to IKEA. I think I’m the only person on earth who doesn’t worship that store. I find it big and confusing, and even though it’s only 15 minutes away, it always feels like it’s a whole-day trip. Plus, my son didn’t keep the receipt.
I could have easily given both items to a friend or neighbor but something in me kicked in after my son left; I needed everything back where it belonged.
I put the hangers and the plastic ware in the car along with five other things I had to return (including my son’s rented snowboard). I had a three-hour window – plenty of time to make all my stops – and off I set with my list and my optimism still intact.
I know it sounds like I’m making this trip for the sole purpose of returning the IKEA merchandise, but in fact, the snowboard was late and I was about to be charged for it. IKEA was sort of a happy afterthought. A side trip that would put everything right in my world. I looked up the address of a Ski Barn near the IKEA store and was almost giddy about how efficient I was about to be.
I spent my first hour trying to find the Ski Barn on a treacherous, unfamiliar highway and finally gave up. I also couldn’t find the “nearby” Bed, Bath and Beyond even though I had their street address, a GPS system and my iPhone. Ultimately, I decided to just head straight to IKEA.
Although I’d never returned anything at IKEA before, there were two things I should have recognized as harbingers of doom: First, the Returns Area has a seating area that can accommodate 100 people and second, they have one of those machine where you “take a number” just like at the deli counter. My number was 28. They were on number 2.
For 30 minutes, I watched the woman on the next bench (Number 25) crawl out of her skin while I daydreamed about what it would be like when my son came home for Thanksgiving. Would he be heavier? Hairer? Taller? Smarter? Would he still feel like this was home?
When it was finally my turn, the clerk said she couldn’t give me a refund, only store credit. I begged, but she wouldn’t relent. She handed me a gift card for $9.60 and took my merchandise.
Tired and dejected, I could have just returned home. I had already been there an hour. Instead, I forced myself to enter the Swedish labyrinth that is IKEA and spend the gift card. If I didn’t use it now, I never would.
I snuck in by the check out registers and made my way back, through the shelves of boxed furniture parts, to the “showrooms.” I thought I would get myself a new teacup or some candles, but nothing struck my fancy. I wandered aimlessly for 45 minutes, picking up cheap little knick-knacks with umlaut-laden names and placed them back on their melamine shelves. At one point, the urge to leave became so intense that I actually considered re-buying the plastic ware set and the hangers, thinking they were not that useless after all.
Eventually I settled on a pair of pot holders in a color I didn’t really like, displaying two Swedish words I didn’t really know, simply because they were $4.99 each and I could use up my whole gift card.
I looked up the words when I got home: Almhult Smaland. It’s the town where IKEA was founded.
Disappointed that I bought potholders that commemorate a store I have no affection for, I decided to make up a new meaning for Almhult Smaland: A nuanced phrase conveying that almost everything is back where it belongs.