By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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On Saturday afternoons, after working all morning at the farmers’ market, I go home and take a nap on the old wood-frame sofa in my office. It sat in my late husband’s downtown office for twenty-five years, but now it lives in mine. The color of the suede-covered cushions is perfect, because it matches the orange dust on my clothes from the clay of Piedmont North Carolina.
Saturdays are long days for me. I leave for market at 5:30 AM, and when I get home around 3 PM, I am exhausted. Strangely, no matter how much I sold that day, I feel sad, lonely, and dissatisfied with my life. My five children are all grown, and my husband is dead. My house and yard look shabby and unkempt, the fields seem full of bugs and weeds, and I need a two-dog nap on the sofa to revive me. Here’s my recipe:
Serves one farmer
One old, comfortable sofa, preferably imbued with memories of family or friends.
Two small dogs of your choice. I have used Jack Russell terriers: the elderly Ms. Peetie and the young Re-Peetie — or Reap, for short.
Open the back door and let the dogs in to drink thirstily from the bowl of water in the hall. Wonder again why they don’t drink the water you leave for them in their pen.
Go directly to your office. Move anything on the sofa carefully, or not so carefully, to the floor. Sit down, pull off your boots and any excess clothing, and fling these on the floor, too.
Set the alarm so that you will wake up in time to meet your friends for dinner.
Using one of the sofa’s arm cushions as a pillow, lie down on your side and position yourself so that one dog fits behind your knees and the other in front of your chest. Feel the warmth of Ms. Peetie’s head on your thigh. Feel Reap’s breath on your neck. Fall asleep.
When the alarm goes off and the dogs lick your face, wake to a house and farm that suddenly appear attractive and well cared for, and be happy to have plans for later.
This recipe can be modified for one small dog on the sofa and one large dog on the floor within arm’s reach, but two large dogs is not recommended.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
I was the director of a children’s summer camp, and some of the kids were on an overnight trail ride when I got a call that a male horse had been hitched too close to a mare in heat, and she’d become agitated and kicked him, shattering his shoulder. I made my way to the accident site and arranged for the counselors and children to return to camp. While the wranglers brought the other horses back, a cowboy and I stayed with the injured animal, who was quivering silently in pain. It took the vet almost two hours to reach our remote location and confirm that we had to put the horse down with an injection. I’ll never forget the vibration in my feet when his body hit the ground with a thud.
After four hours of phone calls, I was able to coordinate the removal of the body from the forest. By the time a backhoe finally loaded the horse into a rancher’s truck, he was so stiff with rigor mortis that his legs stood straight up like those of an upside-down stool. Rubbing tears from my eyes, I wondered what the motorists on the freeway would think when they passed the truck.
Back at the camp, on the porch of the staffers’ cabin there was a flea-ridden, smelly old sofa. I had asked the caretaker many times to dispose of that eyesore. When I returned and saw it was still there, something in me snapped. I dragged the sofa into a nearby field and took a hatchet to it. Some of my staff came running, but they stopped a healthy distance away once they saw how crazed I was. I chopped that sofa into pieces, and the others helped me throw the wreckage into the dumpster. Nobody said a word.
Granada Hills, California
“We live in a duplex,” Ma explained to me when I was small, a cigarette clamped between her teeth. I asked what a duplex was, and she said, “Half a house.”
“It’s not half a house,” Dad interrupted. “It’s a whole house. We just live next door to the Johnsons; that’s all.”
Dad had grown touchy about our economic status ever since the mines had closed and he’d been laid off. “We’re not poor,” he’d say. “We don’t take handouts,” even though our couch, which sat against the wall we shared with the Johnsons, had once been Grandma’s. It was faded and worn, and its springs stuck out from when my siblings and I had used it as a trampoline.
The couch wasn’t our only hand-me-down. People sometimes gave us boxes of funny-looking clothes my sisters and I couldn’t bear to wear. Ma shoved the garments into the downstairs hall closet, where they grew musty and moth-ridden. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in any of those things,” said my oldest sister, Karen. Then she went back to admiring herself in the Johnsons’ old discarded vanity, which Dad had retrieved from the trash.
“You’d better get off your high horse,” Ma often said to Karen. “Just who do you think you are anyway? Keep it up and I’ll knock you right into the middle of next week.” In our household these phrases were as familiar as the Our Fathers and Hail Marys we recited before bedtime. We rattled through our noisy, messy lives — doors slamming, dogs barking, parents fighting, seven kids screaming and crying — with no way to turn down the volume.
In contrast, we barely heard a peep from the Johnsons. Sometimes we could make out the faint sound of their TV or their daughter Nora plunking out a tune on the piano, but for the most part their secrets were safe from us. They kept their half of our postage-stamp lawn manicured, and everything in their house was always in its place. I often wondered what it would be like to live on the other side of that wall; to be Mrs. Johnson, sitting primly and quietly on her high-backed sofa, sipping tea and doing needlework.
We didn’t have a sofa. We had a crappy old couch.
“What do you think would happen if I lit this in the house?” my older brother asks, a leftover Fourth of July firework in his hand.
“Nothing good,” I reply dryly.
This isn’t the reaction he was hoping for. He holds the “Ground Blossom” in one hand and flicks a lighter with the other. I still don’t flinch. I know he’s not dumb enough to actually light a firework in our living room.
He inches the orange flame toward the fuse until they’re almost touching.
“Don’t do it,” I say.
Pleased to have finally gotten a rise out of me, he pulls the flame away from the fuse and quickly brings it back again several times. Then he gets too close, and orange sparks leap.
Like a cartoon character with a stick of dynamite, my brother jumps from his chair and starts to move toward the fireplace, then the door, then the window. All are closed. In desperation he throws the firework on the floor and tries to stomp it out, but it goes off anyway. Red, green, and blue sparks shoot from under his sneaker for a minute, then fizzle to a stop.
Once the smoke clears, we survey the damage. The melted shoe sole will be easy enough to hide, but the smoldering eight-inch hole right in the center of the living-room carpet is another story.
“What are we going to do?” my brother asks, as if I were suddenly an accomplice.
We consider trying to trim a piece of carpet from elsewhere in the room and place it over the burned spot, but quickly rule this out.
My brother sighs in defeat and says, “Do you think they’ll notice if we move the sofa?”
For ten years my elderly mother slept on the sofa in her living room. When she complained about a sore hip and back, I pointed out that the sofa was sagging in the middle and suggested she sleep in her bed. “No,” she said without explanation.
I assumed she wanted to fall asleep in front of the television. So, while she was out running errands, I moved her single bed into the living room, thinking this would make her happy. When my mother came home, she cried, “What did you do?” She still didn’t want to sleep in the bed.
I asked her to at least try; it would be much better for her back. She sat on the edge of the mattress, her once statuesque figure now shrunken and birdlike. Then she lay down on her side in a fetal position, but quickly sat bolt upright. I asked what was wrong. She said she was afraid of falling out of bed while she slept. The sofa was lower to the floor, which made her feel safer. I put the bed back.
Over the next year my mother’s memory started to fade, and she had to move into assisted living. She agreed to go only if the staff would let her sleep on a sofa, which they did. My sister got her a new one that didn’t sag.
Just before our mother’s ninety-second birthday, we had to transfer her to a nursing home. When she saw the hospital bed in her room, she became agitated. By then her memory was mostly gone — she had even forgotten my name — but she hadn’t forgotten her fear of sleeping on a bed. We told her the nursing home didn’t allow sofas, and she groaned, “Oh, God.”
A week later my mother fell out of bed, hit her head on the floor, and never regained consciousness.
After my husband and I moved to our new home, we needed to buy some furniture. I found a blue-velvet designer sofa on sale that we both loved, but when we went to purchase it, the salesperson warned us that the store had sold it three times already, and every time the sale had fallen through because the customers couldn’t get it through their front door. We reluctantly passed on the deal.
When my husband’s birthday came around, I was determined to get that sofa for him somehow. While he was out of town for a few days, I hired a handyman to remove the picture window in our living room, pass the sofa through the opening, and then replace the window.
The night my husband came home from his trip, he walked into the living room and jumped. I don’t know which surprised him more: the unexpected appearance of our dream sofa, or the sight of his naked sixty-three-year-old wife stretched out on it.
Bay Shore, New York
In 1958, when I was ten years old, my mother married her third husband, and we moved to a row house in San Francisco. My mother and stepfather took the occasion to get rid of my beloved dog, who had been my best friend and constant companion for three years, because they wanted to have “nice things,” and dogs, they believed, could not coexist with fine furnishings.
The first piece of furniture my mother and her new husband bought together was a nine-foot-long French Provincial sofa. It was covered in a delicate brocade fabric, and its narrow wooden arms were intricately carved. Nothing about it was comfortable, but my mother explained that this sofa was to look at, not to sit on. When they watched TV, my mother curled in her beige club chair on one side of the living room, and my stepfather stretched out in his brown recliner on the other. On the rare occasions that I was allowed to join them, I had to sit on the floor. The message was clear: I was too heavy or too dirty or too uncivilized to deserve the sofa, which was to be admired only from a distance.
One time my aunt and uncle were visiting, and my mother served them coffee in china cups on the sofa. My uncle was a contractor, and his big, calloused hands fumbled the dainty cup and saucer, splashing coffee on the upholstery. The screaming and panicked blotting that followed were enough to cause my aunt and uncle to make an excuse to leave. My mother bought throw pillows to cover the stain, and no guest was ever invited to sit on the sofa again.
Years later, after I had left home, my stepfather died, and my mother moved to the country. I was living in a farmhouse of my own by then with three large dogs, a cat, several horses, and not much furniture. One day my mother offered me the sofa, saying it was too formal for her new place. I accepted.
I hauled that French Provincial monstrosity 250 miles in an open pickup truck and installed it in the woodshed attached to my dog kennel. My three German shepherds lounged on that sofa for many years, tearing the threads with their claws, chewing the buttons from the tufted back, and occasionally gnawing the wooden arms. The dogs drew great satisfaction from my mother’s old sofa, but I think my satisfaction was even greater as I watched that reminder of my childhood slowly splinter and bow and collapse.
Captain Cook, Hawaii
The sofa was big and green. You and I wondered if it might have bedbugs, but, more than a little tipsy, we decided that we didn’t care. We carried it nine blocks in the pouring rain to our third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn. When we arrived, dripping and laughing, it was too wet to sit on, so we lay on the linoleum floor and watched the L train trundle by outside the apartment window in the fading summer light.
We were two friends in our early twenties living together in the city. That fall we painted our walls to match the couch, and I bought a large painting of a hummingbird to hang above it, though I could tell you didn’t like the art. I threw dinner parties and learned to make egg foo yung, and you started dating a tall and beautiful boy who would later break your heart.
Friends since the age of fourteen, we had made a pact that if we were both still single at forty, we would marry each other out of convenience. I actually thought this might be a good idea, even though the one time we had drunkenly kissed, we’d agreed that it had been like kissing your sibling.
A year later you moved out and took the green sofa with you. I felt as if we were breaking up. While you and your boyfriend carried boxes of your belongings downstairs, I sat on the sofa and smoked cigarettes and didn’t offer to help. Finally you stood in front of me and said matter-of-factly, “We have to take the couch now.” I got up, walked to my bedroom, and shut the door, letting you and him carry it down the narrow stairs on your own. It was three years before I was able to tell you I was sorry, and another three years before you forgave me.
This winter I will turn forty. My husband and I bought a house last year. When I last visited you at your bungalow in Santa Cruz, where you live alone, you complained that you had nothing to hang above your blue couch. I still had the hummingbird painting stored in my basement, and I asked if you wanted it. You said yes.
After we moved to Virginia, three cats showed up at our new house. We persuaded a neighbor to take in one, and we kept the other two. The sweet orange male we named Bert. He wouldn’t allow us near him at first. We’d just leave bowls of food and water outside, and he would wait for us to go back into the house before venturing over to gobble down the food. After several months Bert allowed us to pet him, and then he came inside.
Bert had strange behaviors: He seemed afraid of anyone wearing a dark jacket. He would cower if we brought a box down from the attic. He refused to use a litter box. An animal behaviorist told us that Bert had clearly been abused.
Though we had several scratching posts throughout the house, Bert would sharpen his claws on the sofa instead. We tried to discourage him by putting sticky tape on the upholstery, but he’d just find a part of the couch that wasn’t covered in tape and claw there. Finally we gave up and allowed Bert to remove the upholstery down to the wooden frame. He scratched the couch with such gusto we could hear it at the other end of the house.
Bert’s health declined suddenly, and the vet diagnosed him with pyothorax, a fatal condition he had likely contracted while living outdoors. There was no cure. We had to euthanize him.
With Bert gone, we decided to get a new sofa and put the old one out at the curb for the city to pick up, but not before I combed it for the husks of Bert’s claws. Those I could not let go to the dump.
When I agreed to be my friend’s sperm donor, I never intended to live with her or help raise our daughter, but that’s what happened.
Now, eight years later, they are moving out of state and taking with them all their furniture. I had always envisioned myself living with a bearded architect in a house filled with Danish Modern designs and clean lines. My friend’s deeply worn coffee table; her hand-painted, folksy coat rack; and, most of all, her oversized, curvaceous, purple-velvet sofa had seemed to represent every way in which I had failed to fully live my life as a single gay man. While my friends were dancing all night, making out with handsome strangers, and stumbling home from bars, I was surrounded by straight couples with babies, that awful Rubenesque couch filled with chatty doulas and midwives and their stories of vaginal home births.
Never mind that I had chosen to move in with her. Never mind that the house was also full of loving friends and acquaintances, some of whom slept soundly on that very couch before being awakened by my daughter tap-dancing across the living room at 6 AM. Never mind that my parents came over every week to sit on that couch and drink wine with us and get to know their only grandchild — by their gay son, no less.
Now that I will finally be rid of that offensive piece of furniture, I am suddenly sad to lose it and all that it represents.
El Cerrito, California
My therapist has a black-leather love seat where his patients sit. I joke to friends that it’s cruel of him to ask me to sit on a love seat, given that I’m in love with him. He knows all about my romantic feelings. They are the subject of a lot of our sessions. I’ve considered switching therapists, but he says I’d probably just develop a crush on the new one.
A friend, who knows I once had an affair with a married man and has always felt a maternal concern for me, worries that I will act on my attraction to my therapist. Yesterday she sent me a news story about a lawsuit against a therapist who had an affair with a patient. The article said that it’s illegal in some states for a therapist to conduct an affair with a patient, past or present, which I think my friend wanted me to know.
I had been fantasizing that my therapist, too, longed to move our sessions to a nearby hotel room, and that the only thing holding him back had been uncertainty over whether or not I was serious. Now I can console myself that it’s just the legal barrier that causes him to hesitate and keeps him from joining me on the black-leather love seat.
My mother was hospitalized with tuberculosis when I was in the first grade, and it was two years before she was able to come home again and take care of my younger sisters and me. I remember her sitting on the front porch of our house in California, smelling the roses and talking with the people passing by.
Then the Air Force reassigned my father to a base in Kilmarnock, Scotland, a cold climate where our house had a coal-burning fireplace in the living room and ineffective electric-coil heaters in the bedrooms. When my mother’s health deteriorated, she spent her days stretched out on a sofa bed near the fireplace. A little side table held a lamp, her pills, usually a cup of tea, and always several books. On wet winter days we three girls would sit on the bed with her to read, play, and nap. I knew my mother was sick, but I liked having her on the sofa all the time. Our family probably spent more time together that year than ever before.
Summer came around again, and school let out. My father had hired a maid to do the cooking and cleaning. We had just finished dinner one evening when my mother called out, “Kirby, come quickly!”
My father found her slumped against the sofa’s arm and told the maid to call the doctor.
Despite my father’s urgency I was not alarmed. The doctor was a frequent visitor at our house. I was outside swinging on the gate when he arrived.
A short while later, after the doctor had left, my father called me inside. I followed him to my sisters’ bedroom, which was empty. He asked if I knew where they were, and I said they’d gone to a neighbor’s to play. He stood in their doorway, hands pressed against the frame, and said, “Your mother just died.”
I cried and wrapped my arms around him. He started to cry, too, then said he shouldn’t be such a “baby.” I told him he wasn’t.
That night I was sent to stay at a friend’s house. Her father was kind and did his best to make me feel welcome. No one talked about my mother’s death.
The next day, in my friend’s living room, her family was passing around smoked oysters as a special treat. I had never had oysters before and decided to try one. It was mushy and tasted like mud. I could not bring myself to swallow it or to tell my hosts that I didn’t like it. When I thought no one was looking, I took the oyster out of my mouth and stuffed it between the sofa cushions.
I left their house the following morning. I have often wondered how long it took them to find that oyster, and whether they ever got the smell out of their sofa, and what they thought of the motherless girl who had put it there.
The sofa was his bed and his throne. It was the place he would sit and screw up his eyes at me, slurring, “Fuck you!” It was the place he would recline and reach for me to lie beside him and watch TV — the epitome of intimacy in our marriage. It was the place he would pass out and piss himself, and I would have to heft his wet, stinking body and wrestle him into clean clothes. Later I would unzip the cushions, wash and dry the covers, and then cram the sanitized foam inserts back into them.
When we were shopping for the sofa, he’d tested each model by lying down to see if it was nappable. And could I lie down next to him? We’d been so in love then, before babies and marriage and hidden bottles of vodka. When the sofa was new, it had been mine, too, the place where I nursed my newborn daughters and changed their diapers, where the children and I cuddled and sometimes cried together.
I finally moved out during his sixth or seventh stint in rehab. The sofa was one of the items I took from our house. By that time I had a new boyfriend. (I was imperfect, too.) I deposited the sofa in my boyfriend’s backyard, and we smashed it apart with a sledgehammer. He did most of the work, because the hammer was too heavy for me. I couldn’t raise it above my head and slam it down the way I’d imagined. I wanted to reduce that sofa to splinters, then light the splinters on fire and watch them burn, but I could only lift the sledgehammer waist high and drop it on the sofa with a disappointing thud. It was a futile effort, not unlike the effort to save that broken marriage.
Durham, North Carolina
It was easy to sell the lie to my mother. I walked downstairs to the kitchen on the morning of a school day and found her on her stool, drinking from her linda coffee cup in the dusty morning sunlight. Making myself appear weak and faint, I said, “Ma, I don’t feel good.” She didn’t even turn around, just exhaled cigarette smoke and said, “Go back up to bed.”
Pleased with my success, I passed my sister on the stairs, and she pushed me against the wall. “Where are you going, faker?” I smiled and continued on to my room, but there wasn’t much to do there. Sleep was out of the question. I could either read a book, get out my Matchbox cars, or play Monopoly with my stuffed animals, none of which appealed to me.
I grabbed my pillow and went downstairs to ask if I could rest on the couch in front of the television. My mother agreed and brought me cool sheets and extra pillows and sugary tea and cinnamon toast. The morning was filled with Sesame Street, The Electric Company, The $25,000 Pyramid, and The Price Is Right. Somewhere in the middle of all that, my mother delivered two aspirin with a warm glass of water and told me I had to take them. This terrified me. I hid them between the couch cushions after she turned around.
In the afternoon I ate salty chicken soup, watched more TV, had a nap, and then read my Encyclopedia Brown book. At 3:30 PM the school bus stopped in front of our house, and my sister barged through the door and asked, “How was your day, faker? Feeling better?” She took over the television, and I went back upstairs and played Monopoly with my stuffed animals. At dinner my mother said I couldn’t have dessert because I was sick. My sister ate brownies and teased me.
I repeated this deception many times during my school years. I wonder how many aspirin fell out of that living-room couch when it was thrown away.
After my hysterectomy, when Bill came to see me, he brought a gardenia — my favorite, and not easy to find in February in New England. I said I would try not to kill it, but ultimately I did.
He sat opposite me in the living room, and I asked whether he would mind if I stretched out on the sofa. “I don’t mind whatever you do,” he replied.
Bill and I taught at the same school and had been dating for a few years. He was separated from his wife and had two children, both a little older than my nine-year-old son. Bill’s hair and beard were graying, and his eyes were sky blue. He wasn’t a handsome man, but he was charismatic and warm, with a booming voice. He acted in community-theater productions, directed school plays, and shared his season tickets to shows in Boston with me. When my birthday came around, I would get a card from Bill every day for weeks in my school mailbox.
Some Saturdays Bill would come over for dinner, and we would watch TV afterward. I loved feeling his shoulder next to mine and holding his hand. After Bill left, I would go upstairs to tuck in my son, who would sleepily ask whether Mr. Smith had gone home. And I would always say yes. I kept Bill at arm’s length sexually. Though we were both around forty and not without desires, the truth is the attraction was somewhat one-sided. I didn’t feel any chemistry with Bill, though I wanted to.
One night in the early spring Bill and I went shopping and then stopped for dinner. We held hands at the table. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember how comfortable and relaxed it was. When we arrived back at my house, we sat and had a beer together, and then he went home. Both of us had school the next day, and Bill was playing basketball early in the morning with some friends.
Before I left for work, I received a call from the school: Bill had collapsed on the basketball court and been pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The doctors said he’d had an undiagnosed congenital heart defect.
I walked around for days in disbelief. No one close to me had ever died before. In a quiet moment a close friend of ours, who must have known about Bill’s feelings for me, said, “Bill loved whatever you could give.” I thought of Bill’s own words to me as I sat on the sofa: “I don’t mind whatever you do.”
While traveling in Europe, I tried staying in the homes of strangers who advertised lodging online. I’d never done this before, but I had exchanged messages with a pleasant-seeming man in Brussels who had good reviews on the website I was using, and he met me at the airport. In his car were five other women in their twenties, all foreign travelers who were also staying at his apartment that night. I squeezed in next to them and made small talk.
The man’s name was Josef, and he provided us all with copious amounts of wine and became more flirtatious and grabby as the night wore on. He showed us pictures of previous lodgers — all young, attractive women.
Late in the evening I escaped to the bathroom, and when I came back, the other women had claimed all the beds for the night, leaving me to negotiate with Josef alone. It was the exact sort of situation parents warn their single daughters about.
“We can share the couch,” he said.
I told him firmly that I would sleep on the double bed with the woman from China.
Halfway through the night I woke up to find my bed partner spooning me.
“So sorry,” she said. “I miss my boyfriend.”
It was still better than the couch.
Durham, North Carolina
When I was young, Dad had two matching sofas custom-made for the red room where my family watched TV: one for him and one for Mom. He always said that when you buy something of real quality, it lasts a lifetime.
Dad died five years ago. Mom came back from walking the dogs and found him lying peacefully on his sofa with the TV remote resting on his chest. She cried hysterically and kept repeating that she’d been gone only fifteen minutes.
Since Dad died, my mother hasn’t slept in her bed once. The sheets haven’t been changed, and a few times she has mentioned that she can still smell Dad in them. She sleeps in the red room, on her sofa, across from his empty one.
Ithaca, New York
I was born in 1940 and have only a few memories of the war era: having cake only as a birthday treat because of sugar rationing; hearing that, as a postal employee, my father was exempt from service abroad; seeing him stand with his elbow on our Frigidaire and talk with my mother about when the war might be over.
My most significant memory from the war years is of the blackout drills. A blackout would supposedly protect us from air attacks, the theory being that if enemy planes overhead could not see the lights of towns below, they wouldn’t know where to drop their bombs.
For a specified period at night we switched off the lights, sat in our darkened living room, and waited for the all-clear siren to sound from the water tower down the street. That time on the rough brown sofa was special to me. We were all together: my mother, my father, my little brother, our dachshund, and me. We talked and sometimes sang songs in the dark. The streets outside were quiet. I did not know that elsewhere in the world people were screaming in fear and dying.
“Yes, I still live alone,” my eighty-seven-year-old mother tells the hospital social worker, who is assessing what sort of additional care Mom will need when she returns to her home of sixty-seven years.
What my mother has said isn’t entirely true. She would never outright lie, of course, but her desire to hold tight to her independence has caused her to omit the fact that I, her daughter, spend every night on her sofa.
It began innocently enough. She would be hospitalized once or twice a year, and each time she was released, I would sleep over for a few nights, to make sure she could navigate her daily routine. Then, as the hospitalizations became more frequent and her frailty became more apparent, I just stopped going home. We never even discussed it.
My mother’s rambling old farmhouse has a half dozen bedrooms, and for me to move into one of them might seem a logical next step, but if I did, we would have to acknowledge that I spend every night at her house, and what would that say about this woman who “lives alone”? The cancer has already taken so much from her. The least I can do is allow her this shred of independence. Though a bed might make me more comfortable, I’ll continue to sleep on the sofa.
Wingdale, New York
In the early sixties my family depended on the rabbit-ear antenna atop the TV to capture images from the air and transfer them to the screen so we could watch Bonanza and The Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday nights. Because the signal also bounced off our bodies, good reception depended not only on the rabbit ears but also on our ability to stay still. We all had our assigned places on the couch, as fixed as the order of the planets in the solar system, and heaven forbid someone might scratch or, worse, actually get up and move around, because it could throw the TV out of whack and leave us wondering whether that blur on the screen was a horse, a person, or a talking building.
Sometimes, in our role as human antennae, we would contort ourselves in the quest for a better picture, turning our bodies or holding our arms out in front of us. During that same era the televangelist Oral Roberts became famous by claiming to heal sick people who placed their hands on their television screens. It occurs to me now that it might have looked as if the five of us, crowded together on the sofa, were reaching out for God’s mercy, when, in truth, all we wanted was a clearer image of The Rifleman.
I met Mimi at a party for the faculty of the junior high school where I taught for twenty years. It was 1988. We were both in our forties, divorced, and wary of new relationships. I noticed she had a limp on her right side, which endeared her to me.
When I called a week later to ask Mimi out, she said, “I don’t think you want to get involved with me.” She explained that she had MS — multiple sclerosis. I heard no self-pity in her voice, and that, along with the memory of her beautiful eyes, dispelled my wariness. We began dating.
Mimi and I made love for the first time five months later, on my futon. When our arms and legs intertwined, on her sofa or mine, that right leg of hers didn’t always cooperate.
After three years we moved in together, and I gave MS a new name in Spanish: monstruo silencioso, the “silent monster.” Its invasion was incremental, almost unnoticeable much of the time. But her occasional need for a cane eventually gave way to a constant need for a cane, and then a walker.
On winter solstice 2012 Mimi fell and couldn’t get up. After that came nurses, at-home care, nausea, incontinence, diarrhea, a second fall, a catheter, a hospital bed, a transfer chair, a wheelchair. With physical therapy Mimi has learned to get herself from bed to transfer chair to toilet and finally to the sofa — the same sofa where we once kissed and made love.
Hospitals back in the late 1960s were not welcoming places for parents interested in natural childbirth. Doctors ruled with absolute authority, and couples’ wishes were largely ignored. Our first two deliveries were frightening and mechanical. For our third we chose natural childbirth but still went to the cold, clinical hospital. We had our fourth child at home in the bedroom. The experience was disappointing, however, as the bed wasn’t an ideal delivery table. So we decided to have our daughter Sarah on the couch.
It was just the right height for my husband, Dan, to sit on a footstool in front of me and watch the progression of the delivery and catch our daughter. It was easy for me to get into a good birthing position, using the seat cushion as a backrest, and the couch did not give as I pushed. Mark, Ruth, Carrie, and Julie would be born on it after Sarah.
The couch had been secondhand to begin with, and with time it deteriorated further. After Julie’s birth we put it on the burn pile. I was sad to see it go, a part of our family’s history turned to ashes.
My father was mild mannered in most respects, but when I got into trouble — for being fresh, talking back, or taunting my older sister — I got the belt. As soon as he’d start to pull it from the loops of his pants, I would take off running.
Our apartment in Queens, New York, had only four small rooms, so there weren’t many places to hide. My preferred spot was between the couch and the wall. I’d squeeze back there and close my eyes. Sometimes my dad would get on his hands and knees and swing the belt under the couch, but, with his bad back, he couldn’t keep this up for long. When I heard no more swearing or huffing, I would slip out. More often than not I avoided a lashing.
My dad’s been dead for years. I wonder now if he really wanted to whip me or whether he was merely playing the role society had given him in the 1950s, when corporal punishment was the norm. I know this: he never pulled the couch away from the wall.
Loudonville, New York
For several years my parents took holiday photos of my three siblings and me sitting together on the living-room couch, looking like the perfect all-American family we were not. It was rare for us to be allowed on that piece of furniture. Usually the living room was off-limits unless our parents were there watching television or we had company, which wasn’t often. Eventually we got another, smaller television for the den, and we were told to watch there.
Once, after our parents had divorced and we were all teenagers, our mother went out for the evening. One of my brothers rode his bike to a nearby store and got a forbidden bottle of Pepsi and some junk food, and we settled down to watch television in the off-limits living room. When my brother opened the bottle, caramel-colored liquid sprayed all over. Either the bike ride had shaken up the Pepsi, or one of us had. We didn’t bother to figure it out as we scrambled to get wet towels and scrub up the sticky soda, which had even gotten on the ceiling. After the cleanup, we washed and dried the towels to destroy the evidence. We were so thorough that our mother never found out.
More than ten years later, one of us shared the story of our escapade with our mother, assuming she would find it humorous in hindsight. Instead she became furious that we had disobeyed her. She couldn’t let go of her role as a disciplinarian, or her image of us as the perfect family.
The night before my college graduation, I sat in front of the on-campus student apartments with Julie. Beer cans and pizza boxes filled the yard. The next day everyone would move out, and people had already dumped their junk on the patio: old kitchen appliances, last semester’s books, soggy beanbag chairs, and sofas that looked like beached whales.
Julie and I were on one of the sofas. It was early morning by then, and most people had gone to bed. Throughout college, she and I had often stayed up late on school nights, sitting outside our dorm rooms and laughing until we got shushed by one of those girls who always got exactly eight hours of sleep.
Julie was a good listener. If I had a bad weekend or bombed a test, she’d cheer me up with stories about her summer job holding a sandwich board in Los Angeles or give me advice in the form of David Bowie quotes. Once, I borrowed her Dodgers baseball hat and told her I’d gotten a lot of compliments on it. The next day I found the hat on my desk.
Sitting on that sofa, Julie and I spent a while feeling sorry for ourselves because we had no job prospects or future plans. But before long we were cracking jokes about who had looked more awkward in that photo from freshman year and which one of us was more likely to trip onstage going to receive her diploma.
In the morning we’d be new graduates, marching toward our uncertain futures, but that night we were still just two friends staying up too late, aware that not everything is replaceable.
Sixty years of cigarette smoking caught up with my mother as she entered old age, and she became dependent on an oxygen tank. The tube to her nose couldn’t entirely relieve the fatigue from her emphysema, and she spent a large portion of her days on her eight-foot-long, white-leather sofa. As she developed congestive heart failure, her feet swelled, and doctors instructed her to elevate them. So she laid her head on the sofa’s armrest and propped her feet on its back while her overweight orange cat slept on her chest.
I had always hated my mother’s cigarette habit, and my father’s, too. Whenever our family drove somewhere, the car was enveloped in smoke, and we arrived at our destination reeking of it. It was especially embarrassing to show up at church smelling like an ashtray.
Over the years I had many discussions with my parents about their smoking. My father, a physician, steadfastly maintained that the dangers of smoking were exaggerated. Then he got lung cancer and managed to quit.
After my father died, my mom tried multiple times to break the habit and finally ended up addicted to nicotine gum, which gave her diarrhea. When I visited her senior apartment, I would sometimes have to clean up her accidents. I tried to convince her not to chew so much nicotine gum, but I reluctantly continued to buy it for her, because it was one of the few pleasures she had left. Meanwhile I struggled with my anger toward the tobacco companies — which made (and still make) smoking so attractive — toward my father’s complacency about smoking, and toward my mother’s lack of willpower and her firm belief that Western medicine would fix any condition caused by her bad choices.
As my mother became more frail and dependent, I was able to move beyond anger and care for her out of a sense of love and compassion rather than grudging obligation. Then Mom died, and my siblings and I had to decide what to do with the huge white couch that held so many memories. One armrest was darkened where her head had lain, the cushions were filthy from spills, and the crevices were filled with orange cat hair. I proposed we dump it, only to discover that everyone else in my family apparently loved the sofa. It was extraordinarily comfortable, they said, and long enough to grant a good night’s sleep.
To add to the irony, the sofa turned out to be too big to fit in anyone’s living room but mine. So that is where it lives today. Every time I sit on it, I am reminded that all of us are marching toward the same destination, and healthy choices won’t prevent the inevitable.
J. Roye Ely
Coeur d’Alene, Idaho
I majored in art history in college, and after graduation I was fortunate enough to get a job at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. On my first day of work I took the bus and noticed a handsome young man getting off at my stop. Riding the bus to work had its benefits, I thought.
I found my way to my office in the National Collection of Fine Arts and was surprised to see the man from the bus seated at one of the desks. We chatted, and I learned that his name was Mike, and he had just graduated from Yale — which meant that he was both too smart and too young for me. (I was twenty-four!) He did ask me out, but we went to a concert with his mother and her boyfriend, so I decided it was definitely not a date.
Although Mike and I continued to go for walks, and to the movies, and to have lunch together, I believed we were just friends. Whenever we went back to my house, I was sure to sit on a chair, while he always sat on the sofa.
One evening Mike patted the cushion beside him and said, “Come sit over here.” I did, and he kissed me.
I have been sitting next to him on the sofa for almost fifty years.
Blue Hill, Maine