Back when I still had plans to marry, I thought of coupled life as an endless exercise in moving furniture. I pictured Alexis and I tumbling through the years replacing malfunctioning lamps, securing couches for safe travel, slicing through packing tape with pocket knives. Marriage was an opportunity for infinite remodeling.
So when life canceled my wedding, I sold the majority of my furniture and drove to the Midwest. I wandered around department stores, staring at couches I’d never buy while the clerks rocked on their heels and awaited my exit. They didn’t trust me because my hands shook like a scoundrel’s. I kept a tight rein on my tear ducts, but my manic fingers I couldn’t control.
My nights I spent in diners, eating eggs and tipping heavily because I thought it’d make my servers happy. I wrote a poem on the napkins once, but it felt like sounding a gong for attention, so I never bothered again. I ignored my sister’s calls, but I dutifully answered text messages to prevent her from dispatching police in search of my remains.
After three months of wandering, I stopped my car in front of a memory. I was over a thousand miles away from the Philadelphia suburb where I’d grown up, but I’d found a house that bore a remarkable similarity, on the outside at least, to the home I’d shared with my sister and parents before their divorce. It was the same size, shape, trim, and color. Even the two trees in the front yard aligned with my vision of youth.
I wanted to see if the inside would match up, and a sign on the front lawn advertised an open house. Oblivious to the passage of time since I’d left Philadelphia, I checked my phone calendar. I had two days.
I rented a room in a nearby motel. I shaved and cut my hair. I bought a new suit and practiced smiling in the mirror.
I arrived early to the open house, and the realtor gave me a personal tour.
“A lot of counter space in the kitchen,” she said.
I saw my parents fight over the grocery bill while standing in front of an open refrigerator door.
“Beautiful backyard, lovely trees.”
My Dad had carved our initials into one of them.
“It’s such a treasure to have a fireplace in winter,” she said.
My sister had smashed her head against the wall next to it after leaping off our couch in a swashbuckling mishap.
While the realtor used the bathroom, I took out Dad’s old pocket knife. I still carried it around with me. Listening for the realtor’s footsteps, I etched a small line in the wall by the front door. It represented my height the last time Dad measured me in our old house. I moved away from the marking before she returned.
I placed an offer the following day. The price favored the seller, but negotiation didn’t interest me. Before long we shook hands at the closing table.
“My parents used to own a house just like this one,” I told the seller.
“What are the odds?” she said, and the question hung there without a response.
I entered my house six weeks later, moving in with only my clothes and a carton of eggs. With the keys dangling in the lock, I crouched on the floor of the living room and touched an outlet where we’d plugged in the lights for our Christmas tree. As a boy I’d lost entire evenings watching the colors dance across the ceiling.
I drove to a nearby hardware store.
“I need Christmas lights,” I asked the first shelf stocker I found. “The big ones. The blinkers. But not the ones where all the lights blink in unison. Asynchronous blinking is critical. Otherwise, don’t bother.”
“I think there’s some in the back. Should I check?”
“Yes,” I said. “And how about trees? Any Christmas trees left?”
“This isn’t a joke,” I said, startling myself. I apologized, and the boy, red-faced, found a string of lights.
I visited two other stores and purchased an evergreen scented candle and a coat rack. Once home I strung the lights along the coat rack and lit the candle. It reminded me of Mom. Not as she looked in her final days, but the Mom of my childhood, before time made a stranger and then a skeleton of her. To light a candle, she would lean over the table, humming as she touched match to wick. The teardrop shape of the flame blossomed and illuminated her face.
Staring at the lights, I remembered the Christmas my parents bought us the C.S. Lewis Narnia books. Dad read them aloud while I sat on the couch in his lap. I hadn’t heard those stories in years, and it felt lovely knowing how much they’d stayed the same.
The next day I went to the nearest book store. On the way I passed a church. I hadn’t entered one since eulogizing my fiancée. Religion had carried Alexis in dark times. She died without many doubts. The hopelessness was left to me.
She spoke of her faith toward the end. I pressed a cold compress to her forehead in the hospital bed and I don’t think she felt it. We had planned our first dance as bride and groom even though the doctors had told me Alexis wouldn’t walk again. “There’s not much we can do,” they’d said. The bed looked like it might swallow her body. A tube with liquid in it stuck out of her forearm. Sometimes I pretended the tube was her killer, and I had but to rip it out and carry Alexis home. Her hair would grow back, she’d fit into her wedding gown, and when she smiled it would be for joy, not bravery.
“I mailed the save the dates,” I said.
“I’m going to see my father,” said Alexis. The man had died before I’d met him.
“Do you think we should sit my sister’s family with your brother’s?”
“I see the dimples in his cheeks,” she said. “I hear the change jingling in his pocket when he runs to my room after I wake up with nightmares.”
“Will your brother bring his kids? They’d make a full table with the kids.”
She held my hand to her chest. “We’ll dance again. You don’t believe me now, but you might find faith someday.”
“I need more than faith,” I said.
“Faith starts small. It’s a sign at first. But it grows. When you’ve got it you’ll know.”
“I don’t want it,” I said. Alexis knew what I wanted.
“I’m supposed to tell you to find someone else,” she said. “To give you my blessing. I know I’m supposed to but I’m only so strong, babe. I know you’ve never wanted to hear about it before, but please, please let me tell you about faith, and never that other thing.”
I read all seven Narnia books, breaking only to eat my eggs. I used the illuminated coat rack and the evergreen candle as my light sources. After finishing them, I took stock of my living room. The work ahead was massive. I needed the furniture, but also the imperfections by which a house becomes a home. Where was the ugly couch, the true center of our living room? Or the dent in the wall where my sister had slammed her head? Plus the candle looked stupid flaming from the floor. I needed the end table on which my Mom had lit it, and the lamp which she’d used for more practical lighting. And what of the entertainment stand, the television, our VHS tapes? Where had I misplaced my collection of Disney films?
I purchased the VHS tapes from a specialty store in the mall. Peter Pan, Cinderella, The Jungle Book. Alexis used to call me Mowgli when I scrambled around in our bed, clawing my way through the sheets to tickle her toes.
One time, in the midst of this game, she shouted “Apartheid!” and I stopped.
“What?” I asked.
“Apartheid. Isn’t that something people say to surrender?”
“Apartheid was a system of separating the races in South Africa.”
“Right,” she said. “Wow. I did know that. I did. Wow, babe. That’s horribly insensitive of me. I guess Apartheid doesn’t have much place in a tickle war.”
“But, it got me to stop.”
I remembered the day my parents had purchased the end table and lamp from a popular chain furniture store. Their website confirmed they still manufactured both items, and they arrived by delivery several days later.
I bought a hammer to mark the spot where my sister had bashed her head against the wall. It was a marvel that she didn’t get a concussion after denting a wall with her skull. I thought about calling my sister to confirm the specifics of the accident, but discounted the idea because I knew she’d take me for a madman.
I hit the wall with the hammer, creating a dent which could have been the work of a ten year old’s forehead. There had been a little bit of dried blood around it, so I pricked my finger with my pocket knife and rubbed along the perimeter of the hole. Yes, that looked right.
The entertainment stand eluded me for weeks, but I purchased an unfinished near-replica from a small furniture store. I stained it in my garage, and after it dried I dragged it into the living room. Once I’d mounted it to the wall, I put a TV on it and I stacked my collection of VHS tapes, adjusting the order until it seemed correct.
I needed the coffee table my Dad had built, the one into which he’d carved a pattern as a finishing touch. I still owned it. It was one of the few items I hadn’t sold from the condo Alexis and I had purchased back “home” in Philadelphia. While most of the furniture I’d sold off, there is more to a home than furniture. Her clothes were piled in the bedroom. Her aprons hung in the kitchen closet. Her collection of snow globes lay wrapped in a bag on the living room floor. The box of save the dates sat by the front door.
No, I couldn’t go back.
Alexis and I had eaten dinner off the coffee table. Alexis cooked dinner most nights, and I prepared breakfast on the weekends. Alexis didn’t eat eggs, but she enjoyed watching me crack them. She kept an eye out for two yolks emerging from the same shell.
“It’s good luck,” she explained. “Plus I’ve never seen it happen before.”
“It’s more a value proposition than luck,” I said, and she punched me in the shoulder.
I asked a friend to ship the coffee table, and when it arrived I situated it in front of the television. I set two plates of eggs on the table, one for me and one for my ghosts, and then turned on the television. I barked at Jeopardy! questions, laughed at sitcoms.
With the table in place, I could no longer ignore the final bit of furnishing. I needed to find the couch my parents had purchased before my birth.
I called my sister. She answered the phone while screaming at her daughter.
“Kids,” she said, ignorant of the hours Alexis and I had spent naming half a dozen hypothetical children of our own.
“The couch. The one Mom and Dad had. Dad got custody of it, and then Alexis and I had it.”
“You finally call and it’s to talk about a couch.”
“You’re older than me, do you remember how they got it? The manufacturer, maybe?”
“Did you hit your head?”
“No,” I said, touching the space in the wall where my sister had hit hers.
“I suppose I can find the receipt. You know Mom never threw anything away. It’s probably with her tax files. I’ve got those in the basement. I’ll look and get back to you. Now, what are you doing? How are you coping?”
“What do you mean? This must be worse than when Dad died.”
I got off the phone shortly after the reference to our father’s passing. Alexis had accompanied me to Dad’s funeral. It was a cloudy day, and wind yanked the curls from her hair. When they lowered Dad into his new home she took my hands and squeezed them to stop the shaking.
I screamed at her a week later when I came home and she’d replaced my childhood couch.
“The delivery men took it away,” Alexis said. “It was hideous. So awkward and heavy. It’s only purpose was a painful memory.”
“But it was my memory,” I said. “Why would you do this now?”
“Let it go, babe. Let it go and try, try to open yourself to a higher power. I know you don’t believe in God and I love you anyway, but faith would help.”
“Now’s not the time for religious conversion. I’m in mourning.”
“Now’s the perfect time. Think of your parents, together.”
“My parents were divorced.”
“But they were friends. Friendship lasts longer than love. I know it’s sad to admit, but it’s true. They reconciled before your Mom passed. They may fall for each other again.”
“It doesn’t matter once you’re buried,” I said.
“Your heart would hurt less if you let go of all that anger.”
“My couch was sturdier than any fucking heart.”
She slapped me. I yelled, we slammed doors, and I christened our new sofa by spending the night on it. I cooked my eggs alone in the morning, as I have done many times since. I don’t recall how Alexis and I made up, but we did. In the end, we bury our domestic squabbles, along with the rest of our bad memories of a loved one, when they’re gone.
A few days after our phone conversation, my sister emailed me a scan of the couch receipt. Mom’s hoarding hadn’t disappointed. I scoured the internet until I located a single model of the old beast. The wife and husband selling it lived three hours away. No matter. I rented a U-Haul to retrieve it.
It was in a spare bedroom that smelled musty with its lack of use. The couch looked young, surrounded by the junk of someone else’s memories.
“What are your intentions with her?” asked the seller.
Upon first try, the couch wouldn’t fit down the third story stairs.
“Don’t remember how we got it up there in the first place,” said the owner.
“Maybe we could lower it off the third floor balcony?”
“Long as it’s gone by the end of tomorrow. You should’ve seen my wife’s face when I told her we’d found a buyer. She’ll kill me if it’s still here when she gets back from her trip. If you ever love a piece of furniture, don’t let no spouse talk you into ditching it. They don’t understand. They think remodeling often enough makes their other problems go away.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I said. “I’ll get it out tomorrow one way or another.”
I extended my U-Haul rental and hired a family moving service. The next morning two brothers with thick arms arrived to help. They rigged an elaborate pulley system by which they meant to lower down the couch using a line of rope on each side.
I watched from ground level. Suspended in the sky was my childhood. I would let the years seep out of me until I became a boy, and death became a consequence in a story.
With the couch hoisted well above the sidewalk, the rope on one side unwound. The second side then unraveled, and the couch smashed into the earth. The frame split in the center, creating two halves of a couch as opposed to a whole one.
I examined the remains like a proper coroner. The once-sturdy back had detached from some of the padding and resembled an oxen yoke which had split in half.
“Sorry, man,” said one of the brothers, scratching his head and looking like a funeral attendee. “I’ll have to check with the owner about what to do. It’s his business. He’ll probably offer you money.”
“I don’t want money,” I said. “I want you to load my couch into the truck.”
“It’s broken,” he said. “There’s not much we can do.”
“Not much we can do,” I echoed. “I have nothing left.”
“You have your health,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. His assumptions were ignorant and cold. He had no right to decide my couch was damaged beyond repair.
I shrugged his hand from my shoulder.
“Put it in the truck,” I said. “Please.”
I drove home. I moved the two parts of the couch from the U-Haul into my living room. I went slowly, careful not to further damage the furniture. Spending so much time with my face pressed up against it, I became aware of its awful smell. It carried the odor of the bedroom in which I’d found it, the mustiness of the abandoned.
Once I had it in place, the two halves of the couch threw ugly and jagged shadows on the wall, lit by my lamp and coatrack of Christmas lights. I remembered climbing the couch to peer out the window and watch snow fall as a boy. I stroked the fabric of the couch cushion, flicked the lamp off and on. I didn’t trust either side of the couch to support my weight, so instead I stared at them. The smell seemed to grow in intensity. I lit the evergreen candle, but it didn’t help. I had to get away from it.
I went into the kitchen to make eggs, to eat and calm down.
We’d lost the house following my parents’ divorce. How different, the emptiness in a place when you’re moving in compared to moving out. After we’d packed the last of the boxes, I discovered a piece from an action figure set in the corner of my bedroom. I ran outside and hurled it into the woods. My Dad found me hunched over in the backyard, and he wiped away my tears with a tissue.
He led me to a tree. He took out his pocket knife. He etched a small heart, and in the center of it he engraved our initials. We shared the same name. He considered etching another set of initials, and even another heart, but with dusk coming we had to move on. I’ve often wondered if he carved deep enough into the bark for the marking to last.
My hands quivered, and I dropped one of the eggs. It was nothing, a minor accident, a dead thing on the ground. What did it matter, how it looked, what it had been before? I opened the carton and threw an egg at the wall. It splattered, and yolk slid down, pooling into a viscous substance on the floor. I threw another, and then I dropped the rest one by one onto the kitchen tile. Each egg’s burst satisfied less.
I snuffed the candle in the living room. Then I hurled it at the wall. It left no dent there. I kicked over the end table. The lamp fell on the floor. It shined a dull light on the ceiling. I flung the VHS tapes from the entertainment stand. I put my foot through the TV. I stabbed the knife into the coffee table. I stabbed and stabbed until it stuck there. I lifted the coat rack, then smashed it against the floor. The Christmas lights exploded like fireworks.
I turned to face what remained. The couch. Already in pieces. But when I squinted I could still see what it had been before. I could see it whole. I could see it, but I could never sit there again. The tragedy of the past is that it never leaves you, yet it refuses to be touched.
Afterwards while cleaning in the kitchen, I noticed two yolks huddled together. I’d already disturbed the shells, and there was no means of telling if they’d come from the same egg or not. I cradled the yolks in my palm, then slid them into the embrace of a bowl by the sink. I prodded with my finger until one broke.