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Personal Essays

PHOTOGRAPH BY HUNTER WILSON

Unexplained Phenomena Associated With Suede

The universe has odd ways of tying fates to fabrics, destinies to a swatch. Just when he and his girlfriend were moving north, a writer recalls an odd series of events all relating to a single material.

Every so often I have this nightmare of having to move again, and renting another U-Haul, and discovering that the seats are upholstered in ultrasuede, the dashboard is covered in precision-cut luxurious brushed suede, and the shoulder harness is red suede—it’s not a shoulder harness, it’s a guitar strap.

It was a very strange time, involving suede. We were moving from Albuquerque to a part of the country that has been described as a “concave corner.” We had mixed feelings about suede. Suede was very important to Shauna, my girlfriend. “Suede is very important to me” was an entry I found in her journal at around that time, the time when the strangeness was beginning. The very next day I happened to glance at the notepad of the stranger sitting across the table from me in the research wing of the library, and discovered exactly the same phrase: “Suede is very important to me.”

The suede couch had outlived its welcome. We brought the couch to the section of the Wal-Mart parking lot that functions as a public marketplace. We attached a price tag and contact information. The very next day we went back to the Wal-Mart to buy some packing tape. Stopped at our couch and noticed approvingly that one of the tear-off tabs on our contact flyer had been removed. Entered the Wal-Mart and purchased our packing tape. Swung by our couch again and found that every one of the remaining tabs had been removed. No evidence of rough treatment of the flyer or careless strewing of tabs to indicate a prank or outright vandalism.

Packing up an apartment that was bursting at the seams with junk, both suede and non-suede: it took an entire week. The whole time, I’m thinking to myself, what does this feel like? What’s the metaphor? Finally it dawned on me: it felt like a long, drawn-out mugging, a mugging that lasts for an entire week. And then the very next day I was heading home down the alley that runs behind our apartment, less vigilant than usual because I was meditating on how it wouldn’t be long before I’d be nostalgic for the alley’s sweet music of pizza and paint fumes, when suddenly I’m jumped from behind, beaten to the ground, and forcibly separated from my personal property. The loss of a little hard-earned cash was no big thing; what stung was being made to hand over my suede kicks, the vintage Puma Clyde originals that Shauna found for me for my last birthday. That’s not an alley you want to be walking down with nothing on your feet but socks. I bled.

Maybe we were so shaken by the tab incident, we needed a diversion to regroup and get our focus back. We obsessed over our next couch. Shauna ordered swatchbook after swatchbook. I was browsing a promising swatchbook one morning while standing in the crowded aisle of the bus that would take me to class. (Shauna had banned my alleyway commute.) The word “Ultrasuede!” rang out from just behind me in a tone of surprise and delighted recognition. Astonishingly, the stranger reading over my shoulder turned out to be someone I’d been hearing about from Shauna for years, a designer “in the top 2 percent worldwide in suede footbags.” I had been worrying for weeks over finding a birthday gift for Shauna that would be the equal of those hard-to-come-by Clydes, and here I was, making a connection with someone who was a god in the very sport (hacky sack) in which my girlfriend was a lifelong aficionado.

Hard to know how much was the strangeness involving suede, and how much the stress of moving, but we had been arguing a lot.And then: Shauna skated over to the Gap one afternoon to pick up a pair of rubber sueded flip flops for the trip north, or maybe some weaved suede wedges, or braided suede sandals…and the Gap was no longer there. The doors were shuttered. And Shauna had been at that very Gap just the day before, purchasing a pair of the chambray cargo shorts she practically lives in. One day a bustling, thriving Gap with suede figuring prominently in the window display, and the next day not even a sign pointing the way to the nearest non-shuttered Gap.

It was getting very, very strange. We thought at great length about the strangeness, and how we did not want it to follow us north, to our new lives as graduate students. After much thought, we decided that what was necessary was a ritual banishing of suede from our lives. We gave deep thought to which of our possessions would be most appropriate for such a ceremony.

We buried the guitar strap in the desert. That was the last stop we made before we headed north, hoping to leave behind us the series of unexplained phenomena that had turned our lives upside down during our last few weeks in Albuquerque.

The guitar strap: it had great sentimental value, but truthfully, it had also become associated with the stress and strangeness of those last few weeks. Hard to know how much was the strangeness involving suede, and how much the stress of moving, but we had been arguing a lot, and at one point I did something unforgivably tactless. I was improvising a ballad about Shauna’s exes (which was bad enough—I get kind of manic whenever I’m faced with packing up and moving), and I sang a line about Shauna’s exes and the connection between surfers and firefighters that should never have been sung. But just that very day I’d been enlightened about the connection between surfers and firefighters, a connection I’d totally failed to see my entire life, and the connection was still buzzing in my head.

Despite banishing suede, I was able to give Shauna her birthday gift. The designer was all too happy to take on a new challenge. Shauna now has a 64-panel beauty filled with environmentally friendly tungsten and covered in exquisitely stitched spandex corduroy. (And crafted in a workshop never associated with the manufacture of suede or any suede-related product.)

Then we were graduate students. I mention this only because the theft of my Pumas eventually led to the first mature work of philosophy I wrote as a graduate student, an extended analysis of the relationship between scatology and the rhetoric of commodification that I titled “Any Word on My Shoes?” I say “mature” not to imply that there was anything special about the paper, because there wasn’t, but it did mark the end of one phase of my life in the same way that burying the guitar strap in the desert marked the end of another.