“The Social Phobic’s Guide to Interior Design” by Sarah Grey

"This is the real me: I am the kin of armchairs and baseboards and clever lighting. I am indistinguishable from the scenery." Photo courtesy of Paul Stringer on Flickr.
“This is the real me: I am the kin of armchairs and baseboards and clever lighting. I am indistinguishable from the scenery.”
Photo courtesy of Paul Stringer on Flickr.

This is the real me: I am the kin of armchairs and baseboards and clever lighting. I am indistinguishable from the scenery.

Tonight, I am wallpaper, deep crimson with a black scrollwork pattern. I am dark but for the single incandescent lamp to my right. I am the backmost corner of a posh tavern on the west edge of town, one that still serves its top-shelf bourbon in crystal glasses.

She sits at the bar on a brass-legged stool. Her feet dangle beneath her, as if she’s a child on a swingset. She wears a wool coat the color of cigarette ash and drinks a cocktail and fiddles with a paper umbrella. The stripes on her scarf stagger, blues and greens weaving like a stream over stones. It can only be hand-knit; a gift from a loved one, perhaps.

If she glances my way, it is only to admire the décor–the oil-painted landscapes in baroque frames, the antique leather furnishings. If she walks past me, if her scarf brushes my fingertips, it is only because I stand between her and the marble-tiled restrooms.

She smells like cherries. I smell like wallpaper paste and smoke.


Late in the night, when packs of Friday-nighters in tailored suits descend on the bar, she slips onto the sofa beside me. Our shoulders press together, casually, like a pair of warm eggs in a nest.

That is, if I had shoulders. I do not. I am aged leather upholstery, walnut brown, polished to gleaming. I am brass bolts and the scent of spilled gin. I am a well-tended ficus on a claw-foot end table. I am nothing else.

“What’s your name?” she asks.

She is looking at me, at my eyes, beneath my leather, beneath my leaves.

I have no choice but to answer. I hold my breath. I have no breath.

I can’t tell her. I am scenery. I don’t have a name, not one that matters, not one that isn’t ordinary, isn’t wholly forgettable. I don’t have a hometown, a career, a tabby cat, or an apartment three blocks south of here. I don’t have any interests, any stories to tell–none that won’t make her eyes glaze, that won’t send her to the bar for another drink, or out to the curb for a cab.

I’m burying myself, begging the leather to hold me closer, but it refuses. I open my mouth. My breath smells like old martinis and furniture wax.

A man in a silver tie answers her, and I realize abruptly that she’s not talking to me–that she never was. I am an inanimate object, after all.

“Matteo,” he tells her. “It’s Italian.”

She laughs aloud. “How sexy!” she tells him.

All at once, the press of voices is too much. I stand to leave. The sofa releases me, passes me gently into an embrace of scrolled wallpaper. I am the parquet floor, the hanging copper lamps. I am the stained glass, I am the glasses staining the cherrywood bar.

I am ambiance. I am setting. I am not a character in her story.


My therapist lent me a book once: The Social Phobic’s Guide to Finding Love. It offered trite little lies like “No one can resist the real you.”

The real me. I am not a Matteo. I am unintrusive, unexciting. A piece of interior design. Could anyone find wallpaper irresistible? Does anyone really fall in love with the drapes, or feel a rush of lust at the sight of a well-crafted dinette?

No one writes books like The Arachnophobic’s Guide to Feeding Spiders or The Acrophobic’s Guide to Falling Off Buildings. I understand why now. Those people can rely on affection, on words of kindness, to fight their fears. They are human; they have others to love them, to carry them when they fall apart.

I have only the furniture.


Tonight, I am shattered brick. I am old gum on concrete. I am neon beer logos reflected off a puddle of frozen urine.

My hand waves like a torn flag, but the cabs pass me by.

The door of the bar opens behind me; the Friday-nighters are leaving in packs and pairs. I hear laughter, jokes about places I’ve never visited, books I’ve never read. Off-key songs from movies I’ve never seen. Human conversation; human affection.

I smell cherries.

She leans against my broken brick, kicks the snow off my concrete. “I was asking for your name,” she says. “I’d still like to know.” Her smile is wide and softer than the ragged edges of her scarf. The steam on her breath passes close to my lips. Her shoulder presses close to mine.

My name is crimson wallpaper or marble tile or antique leather sofa.

She waits. The bricks push me away, even as I cling to them; the concrete refuses to shield me any longer.

I find my breath. It is as warm as hers.

When I tell her my name, my voice sounds almost human.


Sarah Grey is a mother, an attorney, an art historian, a medievalist, an aggressive advocate for the disabled, a militant vegetarian with an unshakeable passion for cheese, and, of course, a writer.  Her flash fiction piece, “Beholder,” was featured in the February 2013 issue of Flash Fiction Online.  Her most recent work has appeared in Lightspeed and Daily Science Fiction.  She lives with her family in Northern California, and can be found online at sarahgrey.net.