Culture

How to take control of your life, one toothbrush at a time

In an excerpt from her book ‘Beyond Measure,’ Rachel Z. Arndt looks for domestic paradise at Bed Bath & Beyond.
Culture

How to take control of your life, one toothbrush at a time

In an excerpt from her book ‘Beyond Measure,’ Rachel Z. Arndt looks for domestic paradise at Bed Bath & Beyond.

I never lie at Bed Bath & Beyond. This toothbrush stopped vibrating. This hair dryer caught on fire. This comforter is no longer puffy. This Cuisinart shot out smoke. These sheets got small in the wash. I am not a good liar, only a good editor. There are rarely follow-up questions.

The electric toothbrush was the most recent in a series of successful, self-edifying exchanges made at Bed Bath & Beyond, a store whose Beyond, I like to think, refers to its liberal return policy on top of its already paradisiacal domestic promise of having finally made it to adulthood. The toothbrush broke over months of me knocking it off its charger, precariously balanced between a towel bar and the wall; my bathroom had no counter or power outlets, so my toothbrush sat as far as its cord stretched, woven through a notch in the door threshold to the nearest outlet in the other room, where it burst forth in a tangle of too many cords like the hair of a cartoon who’s stuck her finger into a light socket.

The final blow came on the third and last night of a fling with a man who liked whiskey and J. D. Salinger. It had seemed promising the first night and doomed by the second. As I tried to fall asleep before the man came back in from the bathroom, I heard the familiar crash of electric toothbrush against tile. The sound reminded me, as always, of the foreboding plastic crack a TI-83 Plus calculator makes when it slides off a desk onto a thinly carpeted floor, a sound that would make my high school calculus teacher say, every time, his beard framing a curmudgeon’s grimace, ‘That’s not a very good thing to do to a calculator.

SELL MORE STUFF

An hour after the crash, after brushing my teeth the normal, old-fashioned way, the man was asleep, and I wanted him to leave. I wanted it to be tomorrow, when I’d go to Bed Bath & Beyond to get a new toothbrush.

I had not bought this Philips Sonicare DiamondClean Rechargeable Electric Toothbrush in White; it came courtesy of Philips’ PR department, which wanted me to review it for the tech magazine I used to work for. It was one of many perks of the job, the primary being the job itself — the people, the work, and the fact that it existed: A few months before the toothbrush landed on my desk, the hostile machismo at the job I’d come to New York for became intolerable, and I quit. I gave myself three days for wallowing. Then I went to a Midtown Aldo and bought my first pair of heels and learned to wobble in them, wearing them only as long as each interview lasted and changing out of them while leaning against buildings. I went to the News Corp. building and the Condé Nast Building and the Hearst Tower and, the day after I got the new job, to the Bed Bath & Beyond on the cusp of where the Financial District becomes Tribeca. I had decided weeks before that I would reward myself for getting hired, for writing ten or twenty or thirty polite cover letters (the embarrassing self-promotion, the stilted language of “skills” and “I welcome the opportunity”) and pretending to want jobs I didn’t by smiling and asking follow-up questions—and that the reward would be a new comforter, something that would fit the queen-size bed I planned to get one day, after leaving New York.

There’s a certain comfort to be found rounding the store’s racetrack aisles, when just buying a new shower curtain feels like taking control of your life, the implied declaration that you’ll get a handle on all your shit, be productive, be happy.

I’d done my research. The Wamsutta Cool and Fresh Down Alternative Comforter was just for me: fake feathers, to avoid allergy-induced congestion, in a thickness and arrangement that would supposedly lessen my night sweats. After I left the tech-magazine job for grad school in the middle of the country, I learned that neither of those things was necessary: It turns out my childhood down allergy had subsided, and my night sweats were a side effect of the antidepressants I was taking, not of my bedspread.

I learned too, via firsthand experience and reviews on the Bed Bath & Beyond website (and some Amazon reviews for validation) that down-alternative fillings tend to bunch up, leaving wide expanses of sheet-thin fabric interrupted by sudden lumps, a topography not unlike that of the Upper Midwest. So of course that first grad-school spring, when life was no longer novel, just different, I headed out for an exchange at the nearby Bed Bath & Beyond, conveniently located not next to a Whole Foods, like the one I went to in New York, or a Trader Joe’s, like the one I went to growing up in Chicago, but next to I-80. Inside, they’re all beautifully the same. No regional distinctions change layout: Kitchen gadgets are always to the right when you walk in, bath stuff to the left, picture frames in the middle, and SodaStream accessories throughout. There’s a certain comfort to be found rounding the store’s racetrack aisles, when just buying a new shower curtain feels like taking control of your life, the implied declaration that you’ll get a handle on all your shit, be productive, be happy. It’s the certain comfort of the domestic possibility I learned from my mother and that first promising exchange, sans receipt or packaging, when I was ten or twelve, of the best toaster either of us has ever used.

The man at the customer service desk in the I-80-adjacent Bed Bath & Beyond hardly peeked inside the bag I’d stuffed the comforter into; he didn’t notice or didn’t want to mention the drool stains; he said, Go pick out a new one. My new one is filled with real feathers and was cheaper than the original; using my credit I bought some toothbrush heads, 20 percent off with an expired coupon.

This was pure fantasy — but in real life! The dream of ergonomic spatulas and finely gridded cheese graters and other unnecessary (but necessary) kitchen gadgets I let myself indulge in once, twice a year max. Hence the exchanges, which feel so close to actual purchases but require no extra money, just a half hour or so to give me the illusion of being the kind of person who can buy a new Cuisinart once a year — the kind of person who calls such a purchase frugal because it was made with a coupon. Does it count as conspicuous consumption if I need that Cuisinart because I like to make pesto and I like to make pesto because the mindless process of it, like very few things, makes me happy? That cooking in general is one of the very few things that makes me happy? With that kind of justification, Bed Bath & Beyond became not just normal but crucial.

The beauty of living this way is that the objects are simultaneously temporary — they can be exchanged often — and permanent — they can be exchanged infinitely, each time for a replacement so indistinguishable from the original that often I’ll forget how many times I’ve exchanged a thing and, eventually, that I’ve exchanged it at all. Replacements can happen forever, stretching into a future when I’ll swap the old for new just to keep things the same. I never have to say goodbye; my fantasy life accumulates. And so does the illusion of permanence in my life — that I’ve reached a stage when I can stay put. Of course that’s not true. Of course there’s a Bed Bath & Beyond in every state.

But I did not buy this toothbrush at a Bed Bath & Beyond in any state. I now lived in a place where I said “run errands” and I ran them in a car. It was my second winter in the middle of nowhere. Still, I had hope. I put the toothbrush in what little packaging I had, coiling the charging cable and securing it with a twist tie — it looks real this way, I thought — and drove toward the highway, where, merging, I caught a glimpse of myself reflected in the salty windshield and saw the face of a grown-up. I still was not lying at Bed Bath & Beyond, but the omissions were getting larger. The store had become a place of aspirational exchanging, not aspirational buying, the hope for a better future replaced by the hope for one that’s exactly the same. It’s an unacceptable hope, but what else to do besides pretend and hold onto the receipt. There was no problem returning the toothbrush. I waited in line for what felt like too long but only in the deeply selfish way that standing in line for something you don’t deserve feels too long the moment you start doing it. I handed the customer-service man the toothbrush case, toothbrush nestled inside, and the charger, and told him about the vibration problem. Someone else brought me a new toothbrush from the storeroom, and I left. No one ever checked to make sure the toothbrush was actually in the case.

I marched out into the anonymous parking lot proud and jubilant. I told myself, as I do after every Bed Bath & Beyond trip, not just the exchanges, how responsible an object owner I am, how responsible a consumer! I am the type of person who takes action when there’s something wrong. I act promptly. I speak politely yet firmly with the people at customer service. I even smile and make eye contact when I say thank you. I dress, sometimes, like a real adult.

Rachel Z. Arndt's essay collection, Beyond Measure, is forthcoming in April 2018 from Sarabande. She received MFAs in nonfiction and poetry from the University of Iowa, where she was an Iowa Arts Fellow and nonfiction editor of the Iowa Review. Her writing has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Quartz, Pank, Fast Company, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago.