My mother and I stole the little green couch, or at least we took it with a self-righteous surreptitiousness that suggested it was owed to us but that we weren’t sure everyone else would entirely agree.
It was the summer before my last year in college, the last summer I lived in the house where I’d grown up in Chattanooga. That summer, too, the parish hall at my family’s Episcopal church was being emptied out to be razed and rebuilt in the fall. I was feeling sad about it. I hadn’t gone to regular services in years but I’d known the old place since I was small and loved the smell of it, the year-round frigid hum of the air conditioner, what the white tile floor did to the thrum of voices and the screech of rubber-soled shoes, that one little cross hanging up on the far wall like it was always afraid of butting in. I was preparing to leave town, maybe for good this time, and it seemed like everything I’d once known was already crumbling in my wake.
My mom was helping pack up the parish hall one July afternoon and called me to say there was a couch in the youth-group room I could probably have if I wanted. The couch was a two-seater, but in its prime it had held up to five or six youth-groupers, their bodies cascading en masse across its cushions like so many sexually-blighted barnacles, their eyes half-hooded in listless Sunday night prayers. It was upholstered in Naugahyde, which she delighted in explaining to me. “Naugahyde!” It had been decades since anyone had gotten excited about Naugahyde. It was just vinyl mottled to look like real leather, but in the 1970s there had been an ad campaign that imagined up these little creatures, these Naugas, whose skin, shed snake-like, was employed cruelty-free in mass-market furniture. The Naugas whose skin had been given for this particular piece were the color of a dill pickle viewed through the stagnant brine of a lonely jar on a deli checkout counter.
The couch was ugly and old and free. Did I want it? Of course I wanted it. I met Mom at the church that afternoon, and we hauled the thing out of the parish hall, green and squat like a corpse excised from a condemned house.
I would repeat this story again and again over the next six years. “Where did you get that thing?” friends would ask upon seeing the little green couch for the first time, and I would tell them — sometimes with pride, sometimes with a heavy sigh. The couch became my airbag, my handmaiden, my craggy stronghold in the midst of the weird choppy sea of my twenties. The couch was not actually great as a couch, but as a painfully obvious symbol of my life it was everything — small yet ungainly, a placeholder for something greater I hadn’t yet apprehended, my ownership of it inarguable but almost entirely unearned.
The little green couch’s first new home was down in Atlanta, the apartment where I had convinced my parents I should spend my senior year in lieu of my university’s overpriced dorms. The apartment, two bedrooms, was on the third floor of a building in a sprawling complex a few blocks from campus, the kind of place with a security gate and a weight room and professional landscaping maintained with greater frequency than I sometimes personally bathed. I could have walked into any of the dozens of other third-floor units and mistaken it for my own, the walls and floors inside all beige and smooth, all cut out of the same buttery dough. Each unit was revirginized between tenants, repainted and scrubbed and steamed and caulked back to perfection.
My roommate was a couple years younger than me; it was her first apartment too. At first it all felt like a big game of pretend, and not just because our parents were shuffling money for rent and bills into our checking accounts at the beginning of every month. Moving day had the air of a playdate, like we were two little girls dumping out the jumbled contents of our shoebox storage to furnish some dollhouse we’d come into joint custody of.
Her half of the pile was the equivalent of those craft-store furniture kits I had lusted after as an actual child obsessed with my own actual dollhouse, those tiny dinette sets and chaise lounges and armoires assembled from parts popped out of factory-stamped balsa-wood sheets. As an actual child, I had no inkling one day I would feel the same way about a place called Ikea. Every bit of my roommate’s furniture was straight from the warehouse floor, placidly Scandinavian, clean-edged and birch-veneered and new. The existence of it all seemed baffling, radical even. The concept of Ikea itself was not strange. I was more than familiar with the store, had myself ogled those same displays and catalogs like some heavy-breathing letch. But in my world all that merchandise existed only as abstract potential. I supposed someone bought it, many someones, yet I did not know those someones — at least until here it was, all that furniture factually acquired, assembled, arranged in my living room.
In my life, furniture had always been something that simply appeared, something that provided itself somehow. On moving day, my contributions to the apartment more closely resembled the actual contents of my actual childhood dollhouse, a creaky assortment of tiny stuff culled willy-nilly from all over, and in that way it resembled the houses I’d grown up in, too. I had the little green couch; I had the low, wide armchair I hadn’t yet realized was a Heywood Wakefield, which had sat on my father’s mother’s screened porch for years and years, its once-foam cushions now packed with a half-century of dust and dirt and dandruff. In my bedroom, there was the spindly writing desk that had belonged to my great aunt Ida, and a three-drawer oak dresser that had once been my mother’s and, before that, her own mother’s, one corner sawed off to make it fit behind the door of my grandparents’ newlywed apartment atop the garage of my grandmother’s childhood home. The dresser had been mine since I was a baby; my diapers had been changed upon its flat, wide top, the smooth plane of wood pocked with ghostly black singes from my grandfather’s long-ago cigarettes.
And paired with the little green couch in the living room was the orangey wood-grained Parsons table my mom had picked out of someone’s curbside trash while she was in college in Florida. “That thing is so ugly,” she said to me that summer as I prepared to move. “Don’t you ever get rid of it.”
This bowerbirding is a family habit. For most of my childhood, my parents acquired furniture almost exclusively by death or attrition. One of my dad’s mother’s many cousins would pass away and my parents would leave town for the funeral and come back with my dad’s white pickup truck loaded with her old creaking sideboards and rickety wooden chairs. My grandparents would rearrange a room or clean out a closet and send my mom home with bookcase or kitchen stool from her childhood. Furniture was passed down the genetic line like knobbly pinkie toes and tendencies towards depression and the spaces between our teeth.
But occasionally the vagaries of taste and age did not line up with our domestic needs. When I was nine, it came time for my parents to purchase our first-ever new couch. The model at the time was on the newish side, but horrific: a rough tweedy brown loveseat handed down from my grandparents when they upgraded to two plushy rocker-recliners — itchy and creaky, its stiff wood frame barely padded out by a thin layer of upholstery so palpably synthetic it seemed likely to burst into flames if the sun cut through the window just right. I have no memory of my six-foot father ever laying or sitting or flopping on that couch. He did not fit. He mostly just spread himself out on the floor.
We needed something bigger, something we could all sit on at once, like The Simpsons. And so we found ourselves at a place called Rhodes, a chain furniture emporium that had just installed itself in town, my sister Sarah and I brought along not for our sophisticated consumer aesthetics but because we were too small to be left home alone. At this point in my life I had seen the inside of a furniture store so few times that this visit became somewhat of a mythic event, the memories even more vivid than those of my one trip to Disney World. The place was dark and low-ceilinged and unfathomably vast, its walls receding into infinity. A salesman led us around the showroom like a safari guide chartered on the vague hope of commission. I had never been in as many real living rooms as there were fake living rooms staged throughout the store, precisely-angled couches and overstuffed side chairs and lacquered coffee tables all shining under the track lighting. On various flat surfaces Pledged within an inch of pure light refraction were positioned tipped-over containers of what looked like milk or chocolate syrup or mustard, made to look like some tragic lunch accident, but really just hardened resin convincingly dyed and pooled just so — even the messes imbued with a certain unreal perfection.
My parents seemed bent on looking at every stick of furniture in the place, as if perhaps what they wanted was not a couch after all but an armoire or a settee or a very large ottoman. What possessed me were the bunk beds, the half dozen different formations of them staged in cut-away halves of fake kids’ rooms, each as empty and tidy as if their angelic inhabitants had just been called away to dinner. Some of the bunk beds seemed built from giant Lincoln Logs, but my favorites were wrought from thick metal pipe, red paint shining like a hard candy shell. I tried to imagine what it would be like to lay down in one of the beds; could I even bear to sleep? Would I just lie awake all night, my small body inchoate with ecstasy? Or would I be transported somewhere beyond sleep, into the land of pure ambient bliss? Naturally I would always pick the top bunk; the bottom was meant for nothing more than humoring sleepover guests, little girls who would quaver at the very thought of being allowed in the same room as such a marvel of human accomplishment.
My bed at home was nothing to envy. It was a hulking, ugly thing — an old thing, of course, carved from some dark, nameless wood, all brutal right angles and stabby corners. I wasn’t sure where it had come from but I felt reasonably confident that someone had probably died in that bed. No one had ever died in a bunk bed from Rhodes.
A few days later a big white semi-truck backed into our driveway and some burly men heaved an overstuffed plaid monstrosity into our living room through the sliding glass patio door we otherwise never used. The print was dark green and navy and maroon with little slivers of cream running through it. We could all sit on it at once.
I never got a bunk bed, but the couch was still our family couch the summer I moved out of the house and into my first apartment. The big plaid couch had once been a new couch and now it was an old couch. The little green couch had once been an old couch but now it was a new couch.
The little green couch forced somewhat of an impasse in the living room of that first apartment. Two people could sit on it at once, but it required an uncomfortable closeness. The loveseat sagged slightly in the middle, and gravity plus the slick surface of the cushions meant bodies were always sliding to the center despite themselves. One person could sit on it quite comfortably, half-settled into the crack between the two cushions, an alienating arrangement in a two-roommate situation, but in a two-roommate apartment that seemed a little rude, a little monopolistic. The couch was also loud. It crackled when it was sat upon, rustled and smacked when any weight was placed upon it. Bare skin was a major hazard. Uncountable times I sat down upon it while wearing shorts or a skirt and stood up a while later only to feel as if the backs of my thighs were being ripped from my body; when I looked down, I always expected to see shreds of skin and fat left on the sticky green cushion, like baked chicken melded to the bottom of a casserole dish. Even just shifting around, the fundamental act of trying to get comfortable, often yielded the same results as trying to go down a metal playground slide on a hot day in short-shorts, that horrible moan of flesh against some flat, stubborn expanse.
I anticipated none of this when I first moved in, but I soon grew to feel both deeply annoyed and deeply possessive about the couch — like it was an old pal I could barely tolerate, but who I endlessly defended against other friends’ gripes and jeers. My roommate, more often than not, chose to sit on the floor. She would lie for hours on her stomach on the nothing-colored living room carpet, chin propped up on one bent wrist, the other hand flicking and tapping at her laptop, silent and spread out like a polar-bear rug. For a while I felt miffed on behalf of the little green couch, but then realized it was nothing personal. She had a desk she never worked at, too. She had a bed she rarely slept in, not because she was somewhere else but because she just rarely slept. A low wave of sadness had rolled in and settled around the apartment and she lay on the floor and disappeared into it. I spent most of my time in my room, typing at Ida’s old desk. By the end of the school year, when I was about to graduate and she was about to transfer, we were sitting on the couch and speaking to each other with about the same frequency, which was not very often at all.
The little green couch’s second home was across town from the first, a square brick building neighbored on one side by an elementary school and another by an Episcopal church, just like the one it had been stolen from. The landlord told me Ray Charles had lived in my building at some point, an assertion I initially distrusted but which ultimately seemed so pointless of a lie I eventually decided to believe it.
My apartment was on the second floor, a corner unit with an embarrassment of windows. It felt more real than the first, the rent paid and the lights kept on and the cabinets stocked by my own tiny magazine-job paycheck. Dozens of people, maybe a hundred, had lived there before, and this was clear. The baseboards were thick with strata of paint; the floorboards were marred and the bathroom tiles cracked in a way that suggested healthy use. I didn’t know the stories of the place but at least it seemed to have some, somewhere, and I took comfort in this.
There the little green couch and I finally found ourselves, like lovers just waiting for the right time to begin an affair. I discovered that that the ideal way of sitting on the couch was not upright, and certainly not side by side with another human, but horizontal, half-fetal. I went to work every morning and when I came home, to unwind, I wound myself up — like a fiddlehead, like a pill-bug poked with a stick — and just lay there.
As it happened, this was the perfect position for riding out the wave of sadness that rolled in a few months into my lease, the wave that soon crested over me, the wave that I let myself float within, anchorless and tumbling. I lay there on the little green couch and read, at least when I could muster the focus. I lay there and watched terrible television — edited Sex and the City reruns, the local evening news — drinking a tentative single beer that grew warm before I finished it, for some reason preoccupied with becoming an accidental alcoholic in all my solitary melancholy. I lay there and thought about food more than I actually ate food. I lay there and thought about Joe, my boyfriend, still in school in our hometown a hundred and twenty miles away. I lay there and picked at my fingernails, my toenails, ripping them all down to the quick, my knees bent and legs twisted up and back like a yogi with no answers. I lay there and I closed my eyes but I could not sleep, not on the little green couch. Mostly I just lay there, quiet and alone, not even knowing I was waiting for something, let alone what I was waiting for.
I lay curled on the couch because I felt it was a healthier alternative than laying curled on my bed, five feet away, where I spent so many other hours of the day. If I divided my time between the two surfaces it somehow seemed less sedentary. The couch at least offered something to curl into — its tufted backrest, its low sturdy arms, solid under and around me. Sometimes Joe would visit and at night in bed when I was curled into his real arms I felt that kind of deep comfort and safety, too. But on Sunday afternoons, after I kissed him through the rolled-down window of his little silver car, after I watched from my building’s parking-lot as he drove away, after I walked back up the stairs and down the hall to my little studio, smelling all the smells of other unseen couples starting dinner and laughing from within their little locked worlds, it would be the little green couch that was still there waiting for me, unmoved and unmoving.
In that first apartment, everything I had and everything I was or owned came to seem insufficient. I had nowhere to eat; I had to buy a kitchen table. I had piles of books, most unread, and nowhere to put them while I was not-reading them; I had to buy a bookshelf. I tried to fill the gaps with Ikea, with things called EXPEDIT and VIKA and LACK. I thought it would be a new way of living in the world; I thought I might feel free, free of everyone and everything that had come before me, all the hands that had rubbed oil and skin and sweat into the maple, the mahogany, that lined the other rooms of my life. Instead I felt accused by the new pieces’ blankness. They came with their own names but they were all so helpless, so entirely dependent on me to make them whole. When you bring something without a story into your life, it becomes your task to give it one — and quickly enough its lack of story becomes an indictment on your lack of your own.
In the mornings I watched the kids at the school across the street, watched them swarm the front lawn and file inside the building, screaming and laughing. They were gone by the time I came home from work, all at home in their houses with their families. Once I woke up in the middle of the night to lights flashing somewhere beyond my blinds, and when I got up and looked out I saw the school sitting there, big and empty, the strobes of its alarm system firing in every single one of the wide-windowed classrooms, the bulbs stuttering and blinding, helpless and desperate, unseeable from one another but all visible to me. I could imagine the alarm’s sickening bleat echoing down the empty tiled hallways but could not hear it, as if I was trapped underwater, watching it all from below.
I knew all along I just needed to kick my feet and let myself float up to the surface. But it was hard. It was just so hard.
And then it was no longer hard. I got some little pink pills in an orange bottle and little blue pills in another orange bottle and in my bloodstream they did battle against the off-balanced serotonin and the diffident thyroid that had conspired against me, left me naked and vulnerable against that wave of depression, made me so easy to knock off my feet. One day walking home from work I felt the sidewalk shift under me, become firmer, pushing up against me now instead of sinking under my every step. Slowly the wave receded.
I moved again, moved all my old things and all my new things into a smaller apartment a block away from that place where Ray Charles had perhaps once lived. At the new place I forced the little green couch into a corner by the door but I did not sit on it much. I wanted it there, but I wanted it not-there. I threw my bags onto it when I came home at night, threw my groceries onto it before shunting them into the fridge, piled clothes upon it when I undressed at night, let junk mail and magazines accumulate between the cushion cracks.
When Joe came to visit he dropped his bags on the couch too and that was the whole tiny room then, bodies and bags. I lived there while he went to graduate school in North Carolina, where he lived in a one-room apartment on the top floor of an old house; he didn’t have a couch at all, barely even had a bed. At his place and mine we watched movies in bed, always, a laptop open and glowing between us, pretending we were in our own bed together. The space between us was always collapsing and stretching back apart, collapsing and stretching back apart, as sad and old as an accordion whine.
That was hard, too, until it was no longer hard. The next spring the little green couch was dragged down the street again and set against the wall by the door of the place where he and I would finally live together. He arrived at midnight on some Tuesday late in May. We unpacked his car in the dark and in the morning he was there, and the next morning he was there, and all the mornings since.
The little green couch became a problem again. “Come sit with me,” Joe would call to me sometimes when he was sitting in the living room and I was across the apartment in the bedroom or the kitchen. That was something we could do now, call out and demand closure of the distance between us and see it happen in real time. But when I got to him I was never sure what to do. It never felt right for us to sit side-by-side; no matter how close we edged together on the little green couch there was an unshakable vintage formality, like we were two strangers waiting for the same therapist some afternoon in 1973. I could halfway lounge on the couch and drape myself across him, or sit on his lap with my legs on either side of his, but there was always this inescapable tangle of knees and more knees.
We would watch movies like we used to live — too far apart. I lay curled on the couch, in my old style, and he would sit in a side chair a few feet away. Sometimes we held hands across the way, our linked fingers hanging like a knot in the air between us.
When I was finally able to let myself talk out loud about replacing the little green couch, it was in an abstract, noncommittal way, the same way Joe and I still talk about the potential future children we may or may not have. First it was a matter of money — I lost my job, then we got engaged, both events joyful and terrifying in their own way and demanding of a certain amount of financial resources. Then there was the matter of physical reality — there was not a single wall in that tiny underground apartment long enough to accommodate a couch that would be any kind of upgrade. And so couches were sequestered, for a time, to the realm of my dreams. I doodled them during meetings, drew them floating in fields of hearts. My internet history became clogged with wistful searches (“couch,” “why do some couches look like naked sumo wrestlers,” “cute couch,” “mid-century couch,” “modern couch,” “couch under $500,” “couch under $800,” “couch under $1,000,” “couch under $1,500,” “why are couches so expensive”). Joe and I plotted a move for the spring and one of the basic requirements for our new residence was, pitifully, “must have wall long enough for a couch.”
When we did move, a few blocks away from the subterranean apartment and into a tiny blue rental house under towering oak trees that gave our new street its name, the little green couch came with us and was arranged against a sufficiently long wall as a placeholder for its future replacement. Its continued presence burned in my brain. Some days I felt if we did not get rid of it soon it would never leave us. Some days I felt we could never let it go. Some days it became too big to think about in any direct way, and so I did not think about it at all.
Instead I thought of KARLSTAD.
I had seen KARLSTAD on the showroom floor at Ikea a while ago, my memory of it instantly submerged only to resurface years later like the face of some old forgotten love. It was tweedy, light gray, clean-lined. A few weeks after our move, the image of the new couch floated into my brain and I could not shake it. Every time I sat on the little green couch I imagined I was sinking instead into KARLSTAD’s nubbly gray arms. It was all so illicit. In July, one Friday after work, I went to the store as if on some secret rendezvous, planning to survey the merchandise before returning the next day, but was convinced by a mild-voiced, gel-haired sales associate to — what cliche did he use? Make hay while the sun shines? Strike while the iron’s hot? Whatever they were, the words struck me as if a spell had been cast. Yes. I would buy the couch. I would delay not one more day, not one more hour. I would buy it now.
At the checkout I braced myself, for some reason expecting the clerk to skeptically request my ID or a hall pass or a note from my parents. I was — I am — 27 years old. Friends younger than me have adopted pets and purchased houses and birthed babies. Yet there I was, holding my breath at the Ikea check-out as the cashier shot her laser gun at all four giant boxes containing my unassembled, totally legitimate, much-pined-for couch, as if I would somehow be found out and scolded and sent home. But all she wanted was my PIN number. No one even offered to help me steer the clearly overloaded cart to the parking garage. I was on my own.
The couch in all its pieces filled up the entire back of my Subaru and the entire expanse of my rear-view mirror and when I arrived home and Joe and I carried the boxes into the house they filled up most of our living room, too. I had not thought about what we would do with the little green couch but soon Joe and I were squeezing it out of the house and pushing it to one side of our front screen porch. It happened so quick, like a door slamming shut and pulling out your loose tooth before you even knew the string was tied.
Standing amidst the newly alien landscape of our living room, Joe studied the wordless instructions and I studied him studying them, loving every slant and curve of his face, savoring what I thought might be the last peaceful moments of our life together before the black pall of Ikea assemblage descended upon us. I preemptively retreated to the bedroom with the cushions and began sausaging them into their covers. “It’s a couch,” I kept saying. “A couch!” I pressed my face into the cloth of the waiting cushions and breathed in deep, smelling cinnamon buns and factory fumes and a total lack of other people. “This is really engineered quite well,” Joe noted from the living room, splayed on the floor, his arm twisted up inside the couch’s wooden skeleton to twiddle some remote screw. We listened to Black Sabbath and spoke not too much and then there it was, suddenly and at long last, a couch emerging from the wreckage of cardboard and plastic wrap.
Joe and I pushed the big gray couch against the wall where the little green couch had sat before. I lay down the cushions. We placed our bodies on the couch gently, cautiously, as if it wasn’t real or as if it would surely buckle under us. The first time I shifted my weight, I found myself bracing for the dull crackle and fleshy ripping sounds of bare thigh moving against Naugahyde; when it did not come I was startled by the absence of that regular noise, now as familiar to me as my husband’s own sighs and snores. The wood frame creaked a little but otherwise it was silent.
I stretched out to my full length and Joe stretched out from the other end. “It’s a couch. A couch!” We laughed and laughed and stroked its arms and nestled in like kittens. We had done it. We had done this. I was proud of us, in awe of our power. These are feelings, I know, that often race through the hearts of parents staring at their newborn children. I am not ashamed to say it is what I felt staring at the newly-built, Scandinavian-engineered, removable-slipcovered couch that I had paid more money for than anything else in my life short of my college education. There had never been a more beautiful thing in the world. I texted our friends, sent photos, and they replied with all-caps congratulations and exclamations of delight. Joe and I did not leave the house much over the next few days. We basked in the glow of the new. We wallowed in it. We wallowed on it.
And for its six years of service, the little green couch lived on our front porch for a month until my parents and sister drove down from Tennessee one weekend to retrieve it. Sarah had just moved into her own first apartment and, in our house style, was corralling all the sticks and bits of furniture that no one else in the family wanted or needed anymore. Joe helped my dad carry the little green couch out and together they heaved it into the bed of his pickup. Later, Joe and I stood outside as my family pulled away, one arm each around each others’ waists and one arm each raised into the air, both of us waving — saluting — as the big white truck rumbled down the driveway and bore the little green couch away.
Joe and I watched the truck disappear around the corner, then turned and walked back inside, back into our house, where we sat down on our couch, our new couch, now the only couch we had. My mom sent me a text message hours later, once they had arrived home from unloading the couch at Sarah’s new place: “Greenie asked where you were!” I felt light but sad, as if I had lost part of myself, as if I had sent part of myself away. That felt true in a certain way. I got another text message not long after, one from Sarah. She was cleaning out from under the little green couch’s cushions. “Already found one of your toenail clippings,” she wrote. And so it felt true in that way, too.