“I thought I was just getting a metal frame,” the young woman named Ana said, smiling shyly at me. “But this is so…beautiful.”
She was talking about the auburn-stained wood bed frame with headboard I was helping her load in her car, the one my husband and I had stored under our bed for years. It was too big for our space — as it is, our queen box spring and mattress take up most of our bedroom — and sending it on its way was part of an overall effort to purge unused belongings, sparked by two weeks of having our whole house repainted and carpeted inside.
We’d bought the frame in San Francisco. It had seemed so grown up, this bed, with its clean Mission-style lines. But it wasn’t really practical from the beginning. As soon as we bought it we’d moved into an apartment on College Avenue in Oakland that, like our current place, was built for efficiency and economy, not sprawl.
So I had been fine with parting with it, and had wanted to avoid what I’d thought would be the hassle of trying to sell it by using my local Freecycle network. But when I saw Ana’s excitement, I had a pang of doubt. Her admiration made me uneasy. Maybe we should keep the bed, I thought. Maybe I’m not being savvy. Ana loaded the last pieces into her car and slammed the door shut and as I said goodbye and walked back to the house I felt the doubt begin to gnaw, felt the self-judgment start: I hadn’t exploited the situation to my best advantage.
But I had accomplished what I’d set out to do, right? I’d found a new home for a gently used, 12-year old bed frame, and in fact had given it to a young woman, who, I imagined, was just starting her adult life. Hell, I could remember those post-college days of cobbled together kitchenware and milk crate bookshelves — and how having a nice piece of furniture made all the difference.
A few weeks before I’d taken my boys out to lunch at a local burger joint. It was a Friday and they didn’t have school; the restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived just at noon. The hostess seated us at a table for four against the wall, to the left of a couple already eating next to the window. I caught the woman’s eye, and we smiled companionably at each other — me a bit sheepish because my two boys had significantly shifted the quiet lunch vibe as they’d plopped down on the bench seat and started bickering over the menu.
We ordered our favorites, including a large serving of curly fries to share. While we waited for our food, the couple on our right finished theirs and left.
When the waitress came with our first course, a mocha milkshake split three ways and the fries, she set it all down along with a pile of napkins and turned to me.
“Your meal is paid for,” she said.
I stared at her, not understanding. “What?”
“Your meal is paid for,” she repeated. “The woman at that table” — she pointed to where the couple had been sitting — “she paid for you.”
The boys and I looked at each other. “Wow,” my older son said.
“Seriously,” I said.
“You know her?” our waitress asked.
“Nope,” I replied.
“Wow,” she said.
After Ana left with the bed frame I sat at the kitchen table, feeling uncomfortable. Did she know what a great deal she was getting? Did she know I knew what a great deal she was getting? Heaven forbid she drive off thinking she’d gotten away with something.
Then I realized that I could see giving the bed to Ana as one way of paying forward the free lunch the boys and I had received. I could let go of the false belief that being generous meant I was naive, that there was some perfect way of handling this situation and that I had blown it. I could remind myself that I’d chosen to use Freecycle in the first place, for goodness sake, and how I hadn’t even posted an ad, but had just signed up and in the first email digest had seen Ana’s post: “WANTED: Queen bed frame. I just need a bit more room under my bed.”