It wasn’t too late at night, maybe six or seven. There was a warm breeze slowly moving into the unfinished room, and the sun was peeking behind a family of trees huddled together nearby. A soft, orange glow painted the room, and I could feel the heat of the night on my face. It was early September, and summer hadn’t quite yet died out. I could smell the faint, alluring scent of a barbecue nearby, and I stopped to soak in the last remnants of the sunset.
I walked across the room, where the walls were barren and covered in cobwebs. The floors were similar, but I couldn’t quite see them, because they were covered with a well-worn canvas drop cloth. I turned to the corner and peeled open my bag. I pulled out my small bluetooth speaker, and I delicately placed it on top of a faded countertop. My music filled the open air, which meant that it was time to begin. I navigated the small hallway nearby, and opened up a door to the supply room. I picked up a small brown can, a woolen pad and a green plastic tray.
I moved into the opposite room; it was entirely empty, save the wooden planks that would act as my canvas. I opened up the windows in the room, and I let in the sounds of the neighborhood–children playing, cars whirring by, distant conversations in the night.
I took my shoes off, and I left them by the door. Before I turned around, I grabbed a sticky tack cloth from my pile of supplies. Methodically, my hand caressed every crack and crevice in the floor, lifting up any remnants of dirt and dust. Satisfied with the newly cleaned floor, I took the woolen pad, and attached it to a thin wooden pole. I put it aside, and opened up the brown can, letting a thick, transparent liquid ooze out into the tray. Before I got started, I secured my respirator and mapped out the room in my mind.
I dipped the woolen pad in the liquid, and traced the sides of the room, watching in awe as the wooden planks became shiny and brand new. It was addictive–watching the wool caress the floor in the particular pattern that I set out.
I came back to the apartment every night for the following week, adding coat after coat to each floor in the house. I felt a sense of achievement as I watched the floors that were once scratched, worn down and dirty, become new again.
It felt as though at that point, this was the one tangible accomplishment in my life, and I grasped onto it for dear life. Every day, after school, I would come back and complete another project. One week, I painted the walls in the house, and the next, I reorganized the storage room. Each time I would return, I would ensconce myself in the apartment, play music on my speaker, and complete my goals one by one until the sun hid behind the trees, gently reminding me it was time to go home. I would purposely avoid friends, dodge texts and leave school in a hurry to be in that apartment.
Of course, the orange glow, the warm breeze and the sounds of the neighborhood kids died away as the seasons changed. I could no longer keep the windows open in the apartment. Although the magic died a little, I still returned to the apartment every day, seeking a new task.
Naively, I assumed that I would always be able to keep coming back, day after day, and paint the walls or refinish the floors. It didn’t take long, however, for COVID-19 to spread across the globe and shut down our world. I never went back to that apartment, and I likely never will.
Despite this, that apartment solidified what contentment looks like to me. Polyurethane, what is really a vile, repulsive chemical, is framed in my memory as something that gave me peace.
Every day, we are saturated and overstimulated by technology. Whether it is the endless, repetitive and mindless pit of short videos on TikTok, or the constant flurries of “friendly reminders” from colleagues, we are never given a chance to be alone with ourselves. Many of us are never truly given a day off, or even a night off. Our cell phones are an extension of ourselves, and we use them in the same way we use our voices.
Although I’m grateful for the opportunities I am given in college, there are times when I yearn for the quiet that was afforded to me in that apartment–times when I wasn’t expected to respond to each and every communication that came my way every few minutes; times when I wasn’t spending more time looking at a screen than the world around me.
I’ll never be able to go back to that memory, and the sun will never shine in the same way it did that night–I accept that fact wholeheartedly. Upon remembering that night, however, I hope to go forward in life remembering that peace and satisfaction can still be achieved in solitude, and that it’s okay to find joy in the little things.