THE RED COUCH
102 inches long. Red faux fur. Sloping rolled arms. High back. Covered buttons in corners of attached seat cushions. Frame built on top of two low cylindrical pedestals—also covered in red faux fur. Big enough to sleep or party on when in the mood. Old enough to have a life of its own.
I reprimanded myself.
“Be an adult. Don’t gush out loud. Don’t use baby talk and for heaven’s sake, suck in your tummy.”
I stopped at the mirror in the hallway and stole a peek. My eyes felt sore and I looked tired. My new daughter played quietly on the pale yellow blanket on top of the purple rug. I was crazy in love with this beautiful baby but love wasn’t the issue. I had taken more time with my hair and make-up. Carefully, I dried each short strand and applied mascara with a steady hand. My friends were coming to see my four week-old baby girl and I was intent on wowing them with my composure.
I gave the living room one last glance and walked over to the red couch that hid the lower half of the papered wall behind it. The entire surface displayed a mural featuring a man and woman dancing with hands joined and arms extended in a sweeping gesture that matched the movement in their legs. The man had jet-black hair. A single dark eye on the side of his face turned outward towards the couch. His partner had no face. There were no drawn eyes or nose or lips. Only a massive head of outlined hair faced a lion’s mane in the far right corner. Black ink sketched dancers surrounded by a collage of trees, birds and butterflies and the sun, the stars and the moon. A lion’s head stared into the living room over the rolled arm of the couch. It hid a silhouette of a deer’s face. Across from the two animals was a cat, drawn with a thick neck and thin pencil like whiskers. A duck with an exaggerated beak sat comfortably on top of the cat. Its webbed feet gripped the cat’s full back. Huge shaded butterflies flew around the dancing couple. There were at least four of them. I had grown accustomed to this colorful wall.
I hardly noticed it as I walked from the kitchen, down the short hallway, and into the bedroom.
The couch balanced perfectly against the unusual wall covering. Its faux fur material mixed together shades of hot pink with purple and fiery red. The contrast against the black lines in the art on the wall drew a comment from everyone who saw it. It worked well positioned across from the 1972 silver arc lamp. A circle of light fell onto the purple rug in front of the couch.
I placed Jenna in the yellow plastic baby seat that quieted her wobbly head and moved the seat across the room, away from the couch. A good spot, I thought. Far enough away from the adults. I was determined to be the sophisticate I thought I was in order to impress my friends.
Ginny and Billy were late as usual. I knew they would both arrive dressed in the latest of fashion. Something in leather with wide bell-bottomed pants. I was nervous about having them see me with a baby. These were friends with no children in sight. What would they think of me? Had I changed since the birth of Jenna? Was I now a tired, milky-breasted new mama, pretending to be exactly as I had been ten months ago?
The doorbell rang and my husband went to greet our friends with me a step behind him. I had thought about this entrance and decided to leave Jenna on the floor. Mustn’t seem too anxious, too pushy, too new mother-like. We exchanged hugs and kisses and the four of us walked into the living room and crouched down on the floor to come to Jenna’s eye level. After the appropriate “oohs and ahhs,” we moved to the other side of the room. Ginny and Billy and my husband, Tom, sat down on the red couch while I sat on the floor and allowed my back to rest against its rolled edge. Things were fine until I felt my back gradually stiffen as I leaned against the couch. The discomfort startled me. It was as if the couch had taken on a life of its own.
I began to split in half as it pushed against me.
What before had seemed to be a distance of four or five feet from the couch to the seat where my daughter was napping, now seemed a football field away. The discomfort increased as I tried to carry on a conversation. My determination to be the same pre-birth woman shattered when I looked across the room. During my pregnancy, I was skeptical about what was ahead of me: baby carriages, swings in the park, and countless sleepless nights. But at that moment, I was too far away from what mattered the most. A year before, I had tried to explain to the choreographer for whom I was dancing that I wanted to leave the company to begin a family and to present my own work in a concert in New York City. Two beginnings with little attention to timing. I wouldn’t know until much later that ignorance is a much-underestimated pleasure. So I indulged in both. Tackling two lives at the same time as I passed by the red couch on the way to the bathroom.
I uncrossed my legs and moved away from the couch. As the adult conversation whirled around me, my inner dialogue grew louder. I was weary and wanted no part of the grown-up conversation. Although a steady stream of words continued, sounds stopped. I wanted to push aside the lady with no face and step inside her partner’s embrace. But how could I dance on the wall and hold my baby at the same time? I scrambled over to the other side of the room and gently picked up Jenna and walked back on my knees to my previous position on the floor. As I snuggled up against the couch, I realized that as I held this tiny baby in my arms, I was more connected to the dancing couple on the wall than to the hip couple sitting on the couch.
My eyes wandered above Ginny’s head and rested on top of the outlined man dancing behind her. Ginny and I used to smoke Parliaments as we carpooled home from college classes. The cigarettes were hers; she was the serious smoker. In college, I had continued studying dance; I was the serious dancer. But on this night, there was no smoking allowed. However, I could feel movement in the room. The dancing man on the wall did not know me but I recognized his rhythm, his easy way across the floor with his partner—the lady with no face. As I held Jenna close to me, nothing stirred but her eyelids.
With the birth of my first child, it was inevitable that things might change. I had not counted on everything. My heart sank when my mother-in-law announced at Jenna’s christening that a woman’s body never returned to her pre-pregnant shape.
I wondered where I was going on the day I found myself wheeling the red baby carriage down the street. After I walked two blocks, I stopped and entered the grounds of a small private college where young men and women appeared to glide from building to building with their feet off the ground. This was the same college where two years earlier, I had received permission to use the theater’s stage as space on which to choreograph and rehearse my first solo dance. I parked the carriage under a large shade tree, scooped up Jenna and placed her on the blanket I had spread over the ground. I picked up a blade of grass and tickled her cheeks and let her feel the smooth ride of the grass along her chubby arms as her dark eyes lit at attention. At that moment, as Jenna’s eyes did not let go of me, my fear of baby carriages vanished. I had no idea what was ahead. I was a new mother, a young wife and a 27 year-old woman who wanted to keep dancing. As my world shrunk and my vision narrowed, I thought about what I wanted.
I withdrew to the red couch to rest and to stretch out my legs and even though my toes did not reach to the other end of the couch, I knew I had grown. Over the next two and a half years, the couch dominated the apartment. Before it had been lovely to look at but rarely enjoyed. Now all that had changed. I leaned against it as I sat on the purple rug, slept on it naked when too hot to breathe, made love when the mood hit without a care to pulling down the sheets on the bed in the next room. And in between I kept dancing.
We had fun playing with the camera when I had a New York concert and Tom photographed the publicity photos. I had a thin dancer’s body with my hair cropped close to my head. When I had gone to the doctor’s for a severe muscle spasm by my left shoulder blade, he had unwittingly told me I had the body of a teenage boy. Even so, when I stretched out naked on the couch under the make-believe clouds and Tom draped me in a long, hot pink scarf with a border of eight inch fringe, the couch’s covering on my clean skin made me feel sensuous. I enjoyed playing to the lens under the make-believe mural’s hot sun. When I slept on the couch, my head rested easily on the gently sloping arm that felt like an old grandmother’s full thigh. On Saturday afternoons, when my husband fell asleep on the red couch, I often found our baby daughter resting on his chest, her little hiked up bottom sticking straight up.
As a dancer, I had many late night rehearsals for concert performances and when I was away from home, Tom had Jenna to keep him company. On Friday evenings, he watched Wonder Girl and The Dukes of Hazzard on the color television in the living room where the red couch turned into a plush movie theater seat. Tom would tuck Jenna into a furry corner with her tiny body propped against the side of the rolled arm.
They sat there together.
Sometimes, when I passed by the red couch and looked at the dancing lady with no face, I wondered about my next steps as I looked up at the wall and tried to fill in the dancing lady’s missing features. There were times when I longed for the familiar. When I wore a low ponytail half way down my back, wore loud stack- heeled boots and carried my stage make-up in a brown paper sandwich bag. Back then, the couch was as soothing as a warm bath.
The couch’s faux fur warmed me in the winter and made me sweat in the summer. Its vibrant color matched my life during a time when I was young and things happened. Arguments erupted and ended on the red couch as the sound of late night grown-up conversation floated by the dancing couple on the mural.
We were three now. And I knew life would not be the same as when we were two. I could never go back.
The red couch came with us when it was time to move into our first home. Once again, it was relegated to the inside wall of the living room that faced the front door entrance. Now there were two children. Life had turned more seriously casual.
More rooms meant more furniture. The new naugahyde loveseat in the den—a small wood-paneled room behind the formal living room—replaced the activity of the red couch. With no dancing couple behind it, the couch withdrew into the wall. Stories were lost as routines took place in the kitchen, the bedrooms, and the den. Important conversations resumed on the red couch. The decision whether to have another child was made on the red couch. Within the year another girl joined our lives.
Eleven months after the conversation, I was back on the couch, tucked in on both sides by two curious children. Tom had opened his law firm fourteen days before the birth of our new daughter. He was worried about money. He never took off his winter coat on the day he brought me home from the hospital. He had carried his new daughter into the house as I walked inside hand in hand with our two other children. We sat on the red couch for a few moments. Then he handed me our baby, got up, walked out the door, and returned to work. I stared down at the sleeping baby in my arms as I sat on the edge of the couch. Secret tears appeared in the far sides of my eyes. Some tears come at the wrong time and wait inside the bottom of the eye to sneak over the rim. Only to be brushed away with a quick back of the hand. I cried for a few seconds because I didn’t have time for more.
I did not lean on the couch or snuggle in to one of the deep corners. I perched on the rolled edge. I sat at attention. I knew I should stand up but I feared not having any idea of when I would sit again.
Days sprung loose from nights and it was five years later when I sorely needed the comfort of the couch. I was tired. So tired that my eyelids closed when I chewed. My three young children begged me to open my eyes. They hated to see me with my eyes closed. They wanted me to love them but with my eyes open. One evening, after coming home from rehearsal in New York City, I could hardly speak. I was thirty-eight years old and I knew my performing career was ending. My dancer’s muscles wanted to stop and rest. As I sat at the kitchen table, I looked down at the plate of chicken and broccoli and hungered for a huge pillow to place over the dining plate to rest my head and sleep. I did not want to speak or dance or open my arms wide or eat chicken and broccoli. That night, I gave in to the voices of my bones and I curled into the furry corner of the red couch. It was soft and its smell was sweet and reassuring like a fine red wine. I had weighed 110 pounds when I first bought the red couch; now, fifteen years later, I was almost twenty pounds lighter. The couch hardly recognized my body when I lost myself in its corner.
For two weeks, I slept in my bed at night and I napped during the day on the slightly worn out couch. My mother-in-law flew in from Florida to watch me sleep. During the day, she shepherded my children to school, swim lessons and to religion class. She cooked chicken and broccoli and ate with them around the kitchen table. Loving them with her eyes open. In between, she’d peek in and see me sound asleep on the couch. I snuggled up to its rounded furry back. With my arms held close to my chest, I drew the light summer blanket tightly around me as my mother-in-law, Betty, tried to wake me. With eyes closed and arms and feet hidden, I’d reply, “Fifteen more minutes.” I repeated these words throughout the afternoon as Betty tried to stir me from my haven on the couch. I never thought about going upstairs and to my bed. Resting, sleeping, dreaming on the couch in the living room, I could still be near everyone and yet I was far away. My children drifted in and out of the living room and planted kisses on my cheeks. When they left, I touched the spot and swallowed it.
In the beginning, I had been tired inside and out but after a while, the inside healed and the outside strengthened… One day when I could sleep no more, I walked hand in hand with my young daughter to the bookstore. My 5 year old made me feel safe and with her chubby fingers interlaced with mine, I felt held onto. I knew I would not lose my way. Soon, I passed by the red couch without a touch or a glance.
This year, the red couch celebrated its 37th birthday—in the unfinished basement of our second home. Now it sits against the gray cinder block wall on the far side, away from the steps that lead to the dull gray cement floor. There is no dancing couple framing its sloped back, no butterflies overhead sweeping beyond the rolled arms, no lion’s head staring at us from across the room. And although its blazing color still dominates the basement, no one has sat on the red couch for seventeen years.