Pieces of Tupperware are hidden all over my family’s house, slipped underneath furniture and pushed into corners. My mother routinely fills the plastic containers with warm tap water, then lays them in various spots on our hardwood floors—beneath coffee tables, under armchairs, in the corner of the coat closet. I first discovered her hidden Tupperware while looking for my cell phone charger; instead, I found a large plastic container full of water underneath our TV stand. “It improves the humidity,” my mother explained to me, “so it keeps the hardwood floors from cracking.”
Our house is full of such surprises. When my mother got promoted and was working more and cleaning less, she started putting baking powder in a little blue ceramic cup in our microwave. She claims that baking powder keeps the microwave clean. “It absorbs the odors from all those tomato sauces and spices and whatever else you people like to eat,” she says.
In our bathroom we keep one extra tube of toothpaste solely for treating the occasional red blemish and pus-filled bump that sprouts on any of our faces. When I was in high school, I considered even the smallest of such spots detrimental to my well-being. My mother agreed that this was a serious matter. She instructed me to apply toothpaste onto any pimples before bed, then to sleep flat on my back and to wash it off in the morning. “It dries the skin and makes your pimples shrivel,” she explained after I woke up with a minty cheek and clear skin. I keep an extra tube of toothpaste even now, years after moving out of my parents’ house, in case my face happens to hatch a little red egg on date night.
I once offered a dab of toothpaste to a friend who had spotted a large pimple on the side of her nose on the morning of her job interview. “Leave it on for a few hours,” I said to her, “and don’t worry if you feel it burning.” She laughed at me for just long enough to suggest that I too should start laughing, unless there was something seriously wrong with me and I actually believed that toothpaste could treat pimples.
In my second year of college, I started using onions to stop my toes from swelling, as they often do in the months when temperatures begin to drop. Typically, the swelling is accompanied by redness and then purpleness and then incredible itchiness. My doctor calls it chilblains and suggests that I wear thicker socks and stay in spaces with regulated temperatures.
I started using onions when my swollen toes started craving wet vegetables. It was the sort of craving I can only compare to the one you feel for fresh cucumbers after eating a tub of French fries. I chopped the onions into thin slivers, then tossed them into a large bowl and slid my blistering feet inside. My friend—the same friend who rejected my toothpaste, subsequently decided I was funny but not crazy, and then became my roommate—once noticed me cutting onions in my bedroom. I assured her that they were intended for a salad. I worried that if I told her the truth, she would think I was one of those women who believes in natural medicine.
My friend studies statistics. I study English and molecular biochemistry. My friend plans to attend graduate school, earn her doctoral degree, and become a math professor. I plan to remain undecided for as long as possible, until someone eventually hires me and I find an apartment and pray to God that I like my job. My friend’s mother attended medical school, played varsity soccer in college, and is an atheist. My mother studied forestry until she realized she hated trees. She had two best friends instead of one, and asked the prettier friend to be my godmother and baptize me in a little church on a Greek island. Naturally, I assumed my friend was less creative than I was, and her lack of creativity had instilled within her a resistance to my—and my mother’s—repurposings.
If my friend wants to treat her pimples, she will buy acne cream—deliberately developed and sold not just as acne cream, but as the solution to her acne problem. If she wants to brush her teeth, she will buy toothpaste. Whitening toothpaste if she wants her teeth to look clean for a work meeting. Anticavity toothpaste if she wants to pass the dentist test. She will buy an air freshener to hide her microwave’s odors. A humidifier to keep her hardwood floors from cracking. Whatever product she buys will necessarily come with a purpose, a job to do that she wants done. Baking powder is sold as a means of inflating pancakes. Tupperware is sold as a means of storing food, equipped with strong lids to keep soup from spilling. Such things are bought not as things, but as means.
My mother’s kind of repurposing is uncommon, because repurposing requires the repurposer to see things as things. To the repurposer, a piece of Tupperware is not merely a means of storing food. It is a plastic thing—often rectangular or circular in shape—with a hollow center and a strong plastic lid. It is a thing that, when filled with water and set on a hardwood floor, can do the job typically assigned to a humidifier.
I anticipate that when I buy my first home, I will likely not use Tupperware on my hardwood floors. I imagine that my pet dog—who I will own not because I like dogs, but because I like men who like dogs—might suspect the water is for him and run around my house attempting to find his hidden water bowls, and I imagine he might get excited and run too fast and spill the water all over my hardwood floors. In any case, I do anticipate that I will buy Tupperware. Tupperware to pack the cold slices of pizza that I will bring to work for lunch, to hold all the glittery birthday cards and hand-written love notes I received when I was young enough to receive birthday cards and love notes, and to store the leftover lentils that I will push into the back of my refrigerator and never finish. But mostly, I will buy Tupperware to have, as a thing. Its only purpose will be to be repurposed.