The Couch

Zanta Nkumane

I

The couch is a living thing – did you know? That’s why I can’t take it with me. I can take the fridge because it’s not a living thing. It breathes cold air. I can take the cutlery or maybe the washing machine for practicality and to save money. I can’t take the couch. I recall how it gulped our coins or the remote every other day, then quickly spat them out when we least expected. Or how I tucked my feet in its buried warmth when I was cold. It cried with me when I slept on it after you corrupted our bed with the dew of you and him. Yet it grinned when we came home wet from torrential rain following unplanned dancing on a weeknight, digested our twinkling embrace while rapt in our books – you another celebrity memoir, me another self-help title. I clearly see it almost shattering its spine when you jumped on it in excitement after your deserved promotion, your black socked feet lithely lifting off and back on to its brown skin, while I poured you a glass of wine to celebrate. But I can’t take it because that’s where we made our most urgent love. Our couch was lived in, wide and comforting. 

Yet you insist. I agree to take it with me to end the conversation so I can focus on packing.

I take the couch into my next apartment. Which means I take you too. You wouldn’t live here. Maybe that’s why I choose it, a space I know you could never fill up with your youness. It’s in a repurposed building, the walls are a hospital white. A ghost white similar to the wall you first kissed me against that night in May, years ago, as we walked back to your car after an amusing first date. The ceilings are the height of sky, only disfigured by tunnel clouds of exposed pipping – both electrical and plumbing. I trace their metal length against the blank white sky with a hefty, semi-modern central light fixture, a moored cloud to hang over me. I can hear you say how awful, which makes me say yes to it. The kitchen is a quarter of the one you made me dinner some nights. Its counter tops line the wall then sprout out to form a small L. The slothful posture of navy blue cupboards shadows over the sink and granite slabs. The littleness of the kitchen, matches the size of my culinary skill. A bigger one would have been wasteful and my I-can-only-fry-an-egg skillset could never do a larger kitchen justice. The counter tops demarcate the cooking space from the living and sleeping space. Soulless cemented floors enclose everything in one grey swoop. The studio apartment is oddly elephantine. Enough to fill with things and my own-ness but I choose not to. When the movers carry the couch through the door it is too wide. They twist and turn, my inexperienced direction from inside not providing much assistance. We decide to screw off its bottoms and only then does it enter albeit with much struggle still. But now it is swathed in scratches it never wanted, in a place it never wanted to be. Once I’ve unpacked the little of my everything I left with, the silence of living alone after so long finally thorns my sides. I plunge myself into the couch. Sigh. I look around at this new life. The couch feels different here. I am different here. I press against its brown leather for a few seconds with my fingers, checking its turgor. I watch the dent snap back with the sluggish pace of dehydrated skin. Sigh. We will be okay, I whisper as if it will respond. I fall asleep on the couch that night, I dream of a garden with hissing pink snakes and plump black apples that deliquesce when I try pick them off the trees. 

*

I bring many men to that apartment. The couch doesn’t welcome them the way it did you. The way it did us. Night after night, the camber of their bodies does not align with the creases and length of the couch. I never let them have me on the couch. Never. That is still your honour. Regardless of how drunk I am, I ensure I supine myself on the new bed. Always. At 2am one night, one of the men asks me where I bought it, while he undresses. I lie and say, I don’t remember. He tries to press further, but I quiet him by covering his mouth with mine. The couch breathes a sigh of relief when I lead him to the new bed.

The couch quickly becomes my kipuka. When unendurable volcanic eruptions of memory destroy most of my days after you, I fold myself into the safe corners of the couch and watch the lava incinerate everything while I passively binge – on food, Netflix and a variety of intoxication including men. My true sustenance in these moments lies within the hollow metallic helix braids of the couch that hold me up. That’s how viscous flames do not end me. These are the days I relearn the intimate taste of tears. After you. Many think tears always taste like the sea, but I know they taste different depending on what caused them to fall. For example, they taste malignantly corrosive when you cry after he ejaculates, especially when you promised you wouldn’t partake in another hollow tryst to seal your own cavernous hole. They taste saccharine like cherubs dancing down your cheeks when he makes you laugh while holding your hand in the park on your many afternoon walks. Sometimes they taste like nothing. Like all the salt and all the density has been evaporated out of them. Sometimes I enjoy crying. It reminds me that I am alive, to touch my face and feel the damp sad and briny happy. A good cry they call it, because some of the bad emotions condense into streaks of rain that taste like the ocean. They evaporate and leave the good emotions behind.

Sometimes I drink until my emotions are bigger than me. On the couch and in random bars. In the company of strangers that don’t see you when they meet me.  I feel outside and inside of me when I’m drunk. You hated me for this, until I also hated me for this. That’s when I text ex-lovers I shouldn’t or cry in the middle of the dancefloor, while music rampages through black bulky speakers. That’s when I miss you. That’s when I miss the viscosity of being loved. That’s when I want to evaporate the most because the defeat thumps in harmony with my heartbeat and I want it to stop. But Beyoncé says she ain’t sorry, so I put my middle finger up and dance like my heart isn’t upside down. Many drink to forget but I drink to remember over and over. I remember how we fought about the colour of the couch, you wanted the black one for its subtlety and I, the white one for its elegance. The brown was our compromise maybe that is why you insisted I take it with me because I will always carry your compromise with me into my next life. Lovely colour says the lady who helped us at the store, in her jolly voice. I wonder if she really likes brown or it’s just what she has been trained to say in that voice. We say thank you and walk out. The couch is delivered two days later.

It fits through our door with no trouble.  

*

It’s three winters after you and I’m less cold now. I have moved with the couch two more times, each time it never fits through any door. It now bears a burn. I was ironing on it because I was running late for work one morning and lazy to fold out the ironing board, in my rush I placed the iron on the armrest. While putting on my shirt, the iron lost its balance and singed it. My friends have asked me many times to get rid of it. The glaring shadowy shape of an iron against brown hide perturbs them and because they know it used to be ours. I refuse, the burn gives it character. A birthmark of sorts. To me, it marks a new beginning. That things can happen outside of you, are happening to me and to the couch. I bought a very expensive leather care kit afterwards, I felt guilty for searing it with my disorganisation. I lathered it with every soap and oil in that kit, as my atonement. Quietly and profusely intoning my apologies. It glowed like severely coconut oiled skin basking under canals of light for a few days after. The glisten of being cared for gives the couch a sense of newness, regardless of the unmissable scar on the armrest. You wouldn’t recognise it now, with all the scratches from the moving, the sinking craters that used to be sturdier against our weight. This unfamiliarity to you renews my love for the couch and explains why I have kept it so long, maybe.

*

All I remember is that I let him come around more. This was anomalous with my methodology over the past few years. The rule was to never see anyone more than thrice. That’s how far my emotions stretched now, a heartbreak metric of numbing oneself. Even that three depended on how good the sex was, if it was good then under the duress of boredom or lack of options, another time was possible. But that was rare – there were always options with better strokes. Yet, I saw him more than twice before I even had sex with him. All I remember was he made my laugh crescent differently to when I was with you. We had many “hang outs” as I liked to call them, instead of “dates”. “Dating” was too formal, too hampered with responsibility for me, I avoided calling it that even though I felt otherwise. When he unexpectedly yet tenderly kissed me goodnight one evening, he saw the panic flush my eyes. The boy with mahogany eyes calmly placed his hands on my arms, tucking them to my sides as if I was a bird threatening to fly away and he wanted to keep me still until his words were heard. Before I spread my wings and headed up away from what his mouth was saying, had just done.  He told me to not overthink the kiss and we would speak the next morning.

Breathe, he said.

He left without another word. I watched him drive off and he didn’t look back. I fixated on the red of his back lights against the black of the evening to distract my mind. I knew he would turn left at the corner but I still counted how many times the light flashed to indicate which direction he would turn:  one, two, three, four, fiv- and he turned left. I stood there for a while in reverie until the cold chafed me back to my senses and I headed back upstairs. That night I slept on the couch, but this time I dreamt I was a thousand flapping butterflies and he was trying to catch as much of me as he could without shattering our wings.

He is someone whom the couch has welcomed it seems. The couch allows the boy with mahogany eyes to snuggly cradle himself unlike the others. The couch has not complained by groaning too loud when he plunges himself on it. We stew on it differently from when you and I did. He doesn’t read celebrity memoirs like you. I don’t read self-help titles anymore either. I have self-helped long enough, the self-help was finally in practise. Even though the couch smiles at us, it is a different smile now. It smiles with the tilt of flowers following the sun’s face in the day, savouring each ray for night smothers light and monsters roam free. He also doesn’t understand my attachment to the couch. No one does. To be truthful, I have never understood it myself, some days I need to look up and see it there. He even offers to purchase a new one for me if only to be rid of this old thing he calls it.

I decline obviously.

*

We are dancing. A flurry of rainbow lights flash across the face with the mahogany eyes as we whirl around like dandelion churning in the wind. When we finally stop, he wipes strands of sweat off his face and gulps the last of his beer. Let’s get a refill he says and he pulls me to the bar, manoeuvring around hordes of people and haphazardly placed tables. He never lets go of my hand. At the crowded bar, I am behind him as he orders while I attend to pleasantries with people I have seen or pretend to know. An awkward nod here, a forced wave there. A sweaty hug somewhere too. Someone taps me on my shoulders. I turn but don’t see anyone I recognise. I assume it’s someone passing by in the packed club but I feel the tap again. I turn around again and it’s you. You, whom I left. I have not seen you since until this moment in the disarray of hedonism and stuffiness. It is no mistake that I have not seen you since. I surprise myself and smile then proceed to hug you. You tell me you are well and are here with your boyfriend. I nod mostly, my mind frantically assessing how to act, but mostly disappointed at my apparent courtesy. Courtesy always felt like something you didn’t deserve after I left.  I do not share much about myself, I am not the same. My answers are cold and slight.

How are you? Good.

How’s work? Fine.

How’s the family? Great.

I give you nothing, not because bitterness gurgles in my chest but because you are a stranger. Then you ask about the couch, if I still have it. I lie and say I gave it away last year, sometime. I notice you crumple your face in disappointment then your eyes promptly bulging in surprise. Is the disappointment because you think the one part of you I had is gone? Is the surprise being proven wrong about me? I collect one of the many nagging questions I have wanted to ask from the tombs of my mind and bring it to my mouth: why did you let me take that couch when we broke up? You pause. You pull my face towards yours, cover my ear and say, you loved that thing. I’d come home, to find you sleeping on it as if it was your best friend. Now I’m surprised. It’s not the answer I expected. Parts of me expected a more conceited answer, something about not wanting it in your house. You letting me take the couch as an act of love is a tragic comedic turn I did not expect. I laugh and thank you. Maybe that was the closure I longed for, I am not sure. It all feels immensely anti-climatic. After carrying these thoughts and feelings for so long, their extent grating every experience, felt wasteful.  I turn back and reach for the boy with mahogany eyes. He mouths are you okay? And I nod.

I take him inside me on the couch for the first time that night. 

II

The moment he makes love to the boy with mahogany eyes on me and not the new bed, I know he is finally free of him. The other him he bought me with. I also know my time with him is almost over.

I held him tightly in my brown trunk after we left the big house, with a bigger kitchen. Some nights, I didn’t think he would survive. His tears were hot and unrelenting, well at least the droplets that landed on me. But he was heavier than his body weight, when you carry hurt in your chest, you are heavier than your body. I almost crumbled under him then. I was not as young as I was when I first came to him.  I was all he had, something from his past that had not betrayed him. When he looked at me, he saw the good of the time spent in the big house, with the other him. Familiarity is consoling. He barely slept on his new bed. If he felt sleep come, he would get up, pull the blanket from the new bed and come sleep on me. Even the new bed was confused because it was rarely used for sleep, for rest. Just vacuous sex with men we never saw again. Until him. The bed was feeling cold cause of it too, emptiness is icy and contagious. I think the bed hates me for rendering it useless or for being the favourite. But I was here first. I remember the day he burnt me with the iron. He had barely slept and had nightmares, calling out the name of the other him and his mother. When the iron fell on my arm, it sizzled loudly as if I was being deep-fried in blistering oil. Now I was more special than my other siblings scattered across the country, in living rooms, bedrooms or patios because the scar meant I had lived. When the boy with mahogany eyes sat on me, I shifted and jerked so he could fit on me properly. I made sure he would stay.

I was getting old and rickety. The constant moving had not been kind to me. My skin was a collection of scratches and cuts. My bones had weakened as friends threw themselves on me, the liquor that had seeped into crevices they never reached when they cleaned me was causing rot. I knew I had to leave soon. I had lost my charm. When he allows him to buy a new me a few months after sprawling himself for the boy with mahogany eyes on me, I was not surprised. The bed was secretly happy when I was carried out – collecting the last batch of scrapes at the door. He donated me to an orphanage, where the children draw funny shapes on me, where some of them pee on me when their caretaker isn’t looking. It’s uncertain how long I can last around all this frenzied activity. Mine has mostly been a quiet life in a big house, then an apartment with white walls. Then it was temporarily the apartment with a blue wall in the living room, then a homely one with red brick walls and a medium sized kitchen. I stay at the orphanage as long as it is opened until one day, I am sent away to a second hand store. A young couple comes in one afternoon, one of them sits on me, shifting and pressing me. He calls to his partner to “come see this”. They both decide to buy me for my “character”. I laugh.

I’m not sure how long I will last but here we go again.

Zanta Nkumane is a writer, journalist and ex-scientist.

 

*Image by Jon Tyson on Unsplash