Meryl Williams
September 12, 2015 12:00 pm

In the weeks before my 27th birthday, I planned a ’20s-themed birthday party for myself. Gatsby was big at the moment, and I wanted an excuse to wear a flapper dress. But more than the dress, the feathered headband, or the jazz-infused Spotify playlist, what I wanted most of all was an elaborate photo booth for my guests’ Instagramming delight. I didn’t want just any photo booth with a curtain and fake mustache props. I wanted a very specific one I found on Pinterest. It was a tall, temporary wall made to look like a real one, but with rectangular holes cut into it where picture frames would normally go. I wanted to stick my leg through one frame and wave out of another.

My boyfriend of two years was skeptical, but he agreed to help me build it. We had the space to work on it together, sharing a cavernous apartment that had both a dining room and a living room, but too little furniture for either.

He needed a project and I needed a distraction. We both already knew a ring wasn’t coming this birthday, and to me, building this perfect structure was the next best thing. It became an obsession. It took the entire weekend before the party to cover two 6×4-foot panels of foam insulation with white, brocade-pattered wallpaper and connect them with hinges. We, or really he, painstakingly sawed holes in each side for the holes where the frames would go. With every step of the project, he became more and more anxious about accidentally destroying this thing into which we’d each invested time and money —this thing that was so important to me.

He built frames customized to the sizes of the holes he carved for the openings. At last, after hours of swearing at the structure and at each other, we had a completed photo booth. It stood several feet tall and opened at its hinge, creating a false corner of a false room. We stood back and admired what he’d lovingly built.

I told him I loved it. He went back to his place on our couch with a book but I stayed, staring at it. I reached out to it, carefully running my fingertips along its raised patterned front.

“What are you going to do with it after this?” a friend asked at my birthday party.

I said I wanted to leave it up, and maybe use it like a Japanese room divider. It would be whimsical and beautiful at the same time. But after the party, the photo booth stayed where it was. We folded it up after a while, its undecorated, duct-taped back showing. There it remained, shuttered.

Sometimes when people came by for other Saturday nights, I’d unfold it and attempt to dress it back up. I’d re-tape the parts in disarray, spot-checking the tiny tears in its fragile, wallpapered facade.

“It looks great,” someone said to us at a party six months later. I stared at it, unimpressed. It didn’t look great to me anymore. I turned to ask my boyfriend what he thought, but realized he was wasn’t there.

By then I was resentful of the fake wall, as I’d taken to calling it. It took up space, and it served no purpose. It was in shambles and could only be temporarily restored for special occasions.

So I stopped trying.

My boyfriend moved out of our apartment two months before I turned 28. In his wake, he left too much space where his things used to be, but the wall remained. It glared at me from the dusty corner it now occupied in a too-big apartment. I moved it to the dining room.

I knew what I had to do, but I couldn’t stand it. Maybe someone else would want it for a party? Maybe they could fix it up when needed? Maybe it still had some life in it? But I knew it was dead.

Weeks after he left, I dismantled it, piece by piece. I broke it, snapped it, and ripped away the wallpaper I’d taped and re-taped so many times. I balled the tired wallpaper up in my fists. I put the pieces of the once-beautiful thing we made together in the dumpster by the apartment, knowing the next day the city would pick it up and take it away from me. It took minutes.

I felt relieved and saddened at the same time. It’s not every day you have to do away with a fake wall you once spent an entire weekend building, and another year trying to salvage. The emptiness of the apartment had surrounded me since he’d left, yet the absence of the photo booth managed to make it seem slightly fuller. I tried my best to fill the space but it, and the cost of staying in an apartment meant for two, began to swallow me. I decided to move.

I threw myself a going-away party that spring.

“Whatever happened to that wall you used to have?” asked a well-intentioned guest, offhand.

I smiled.

“That old thing?” I laughed, waving off the question. “Oh, you know. It just didn’t really work for the place anymore.”

[Image via iStock]

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