Chuck calls out of the blue. “I’m coming over,” he says. “To get my couch.”
No Hello, how are you, sorry for taking off like that, just an announcement.
“I’m not home,” I say.
“Wendy, this is your land line.”
“I won’t be home by the time you get here,” I say, looking around and spotting my purse and keys on the kitchen table.
“I’m pulling up to the building now, Wen,” he says.
I throw the phone down onto Chuck’s couch, fuming. He always has to leave a wormhole, a way to wriggle back into my life.
I rub a nubby cushion through the flowered sheet covering the couch. The couch has survived a lot—the fire Chuck’s Grandma Gigi started when she put her dentures in the toaster oven, a flood in Chuck’s basement apartment, the four times Chuck and I have broken up, and the three times we have gotten back together.
The couch stinks, too, like moldy hot sauce left uncapped in a four-hundred-degree oven. I would have thrown it out myself the last time Chuck took off, but I can’t lift it. It’s an ancient sleeper sofa with an internal frame like a Stegosaurus skeleton. The morning I found him gone, along with my vanilla candle set and quesadilla press, I got down in a defensive lineman’s stance and pushed it as hard as I could with my shoulder, over and over, and all I got for my effort was a sore arm.
I pull the sheet back from the corner of the couch. It was once a vivid red-green-and-orange plaid over a cream-colored background. I remember sitting on it in Gigi’s house on Friday afternoons when Chuck was supposed to be watching his cousins. We’d set the twins up in the other room with the Atari, and then we’d go make out on the couch. Now it’s covered with large brown water stains from when the pipes leaked in the basement apartment Chuck shared with Red Boy. They were taking restaurant and hotel management classes at Bad Luck Lake Community College and delivering pizzas at night. They didn’t know the pipes had burst, and by the time they got off of work at two in the morning, things were floating—but not the couch. It was like a boulder with eddies full of underwear and beer cans swirling around it.
I pull the sheet back even further. The couch’s faded plaid background is interrupted, for some insane reason, with a series of four large diamonds, one at the center of each of the back cushions and two on the armrests facing out. In the center of each diamond is the face of a playing card—the King and Queen of Hearts on the back cushions, and two Jacks on the armrests. On the only surviving throw pillow, a saucy Joker winks at me from under his tricolor hat. The couch would have been at home in a badly lit lounge in Las Vegas circa 1971, still ugly, but at home.
Chuck is at the door: Knock-knockity-knock-knock! I don’t move.
“I know you’re in there, Wen,” he says.
I get up, and the couch whines in protest. I stop with my hand on the lock and look at him through the peephole. He has new hipster glasses with thick, black frames and a reddish-blonde beard. The glasses are all right, I guess. The beard is awful.
When I open the door, Chuck eyeballs my black t-shirt and torn jeans, then brushes past me, saying, “Stan lent me his van, so if you’ll help me carry it downstairs.” He stands expectantly at the uncovered end of the couch, interlacing his fingers to make a sling.
I have no idea who Stan is, and I have no intention of helping Chuck lift the couch.
“I’m not helping you carry that thing,” I say.
Chuck raises his hands and looks at the ceiling as if he is imploring the cracks in the plaster for divine help.
“Help me to help you get rid of it,” he says.
“Who says I want to get rid of it?”
“You hate this couch.” He points at the King and Queen. The King looks smug and self-satisfied. The Queen looks a little put out. “You’ve smothered the King and Queen with this sheet so you don’t have to look at them!”
“I covered the couch with this sheet to protect it!” I hiss.
“You covered it to protect yourself. From reality.”
“You’re full of shit!” I say. “And so is your couch!” I ball up the sheet and pitch it at his head. “You want it back so badly, you go ahead and move it yourself.”
Chuck claws at the sheet, trying to get it off his face and untangled from his glasses.
Just then the door swings open; it’s my roommate, Gina, from the Pic-n-Save. She’s register 8 and I’m 9. I had to get a roommate when Chuck ran out and left me with the rent. Gina was a logical choice, since I already stood next to her for eight hours a day. Let’s just say I was used to her. Now she has walked smack into the middle of my Fight of the Century with Chuck. Gina has heard about him, as in Sorry about this couch; It’s my ex-boyfriend Chuck’s, but she’s never met him.
Gina stands there scrutinizing Chuck while I do the introductions, her brown ponytail twitching the way it does when she is counting up the money in her register. I can almost hear her brain adding up the facts: mid-thirties, stocky, sandy blonde hair, atrocious beard, semi-cool glasses, plaid Gap shirt, faded jeans, Converse shoes.
Chuck puts the sheet down over a tear in the arm of the couch and begins to charm Gina. “I just dropped by to get this couch out of your way,” he says, sitting down on the arm of the couch and patting the cushion behind him as if he is the hero in a Western and the couch is his trusty horse. Gina pulls up one of the kitchen chairs and joins him.
I grab some Diet Cokes from the refrigerator and pass them around. Chuck hates Diet Coke. I sit down on the other end of the couch, as far away from Chuck as I can get, pop the tab on my can, take a sip, and smile to show how much I am enjoying it.
“So,” says Gina, in full-on gossip gathering mode, “How did you two meet, anyway?”
I start choking on the swig of Diet Coke and jump in to try to steer this conversation. “In high school, I got a job at the Dairy Queen in the mall for the summer, and Chuck got a job at the—”
“Orange Julius,” interrupts Chuck in his ominous movie voice-over voice.
I glare and Chuck and continue my story. “We carpooled, and Dairy Queen faced the Orange Julius, so I had to watch Chuck over there in the Orange Julius store with that stupid Orange Julius hat on all day long.” He’d looked better then. Without the beard. He has kind of a baby face with a dimple on his left cheek.
Chuck puts his hands behind his head and leans back, with a distracted, I’m-remembering-the-best-days-of-my-life look. The couch cracks and pops in protest. “We got into an argument on the way to the mall,” Chuck says. “I don’t remember what it was about. And then, out of the blue, Wendy picks up the red Dairy Queen phone and calls me, so I pick up the orange Orange Julius phone—”
“Shut up, Chuck,” I say.
“And she says—”
“Don’t say it,” I say.
“She says, ‘Do you want to fuck or do you want to fight? Because I’m getting off work in fifteen minutes, I’m tired, and I don’t have the energy to do both.’”
I pick up the Joker pillow and begin to beat him to death with it. The seam has come loose and gray stuffing is coming out of the corner. The Joker laughs up at me with his surly smile. I’m going to kill Chuck and the Joker. It will be a double homicide, right here on Chuck’s ugly couch.
“Ow! Jesus—you said it,” he says.
“I said it to you; I didn’t say it to the whole world! That’s the difference between you and me. I think a relationship is between two people, Chuck, not two people and everyone else on the planet.”
Meanwhile, Gina is genuinely interested in this story. “What did you say?” she asks Chuck.
“Well,” says Chuck, scooting forward and causing a metal-on-metal shriek from the innards of the couch, “There I am at the Orange Julius. I’m seventeen years old, and I’m weighing my options.” He holds his hand out palms-up, like the balances of a scale. “Fuck or fight? Fuck or fight? Verbal altercation or sexual intercourse?”
“Shut up, Chuck!” I say, hitting the cushion between us with both hands. The couch doesn’t move, but there’s a twang as a spring pops loose somewhere deep inside.
“OK, OK,” he says, leaning back. The couch makes a weird groaning noise, like a ship being wrenched apart in a storm.
“Did you know,” he says, “that Dairy Queen bought out Orange Julius, and now you can get a Dilly bar and an Orange Julius at the same counter? It’s like our getting together twisted the space-time continuum, melding the fates of the two eateries and changing the landscape of the mall food court forever.”
Gina’s mouth is hanging open. I cover my face with my hands and mumble, “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life.”
Gina shakes her pop can to show that it’s empty, looks at her watch in an exaggerated way, and says she has to go to work. She grabs her black vest with the red Pic-n-Save pin and says some bullshit about how is was such a pleasure meeting Chuck.
“Nice roomie,” says Chuck after she leaves. He stands up and walks to the end of the couch, cracks his knuckles and bends his knees. “Ready to lift when you are,” he says.
I know he is baiting me, so I decide to call his bluff.
“OK, Chuck,” I say, standing at the other end of the couch. “I can see how important this couch is to you, so let’s go ahead and move it.” There is no way we will be able to lift it, especially since I’m not going to try very hard.
“On three,” says Chuck. “One . . . two . . . three!”
He’s stronger than I remember. I don’t even get my end off the ground, but the couch stutters sideways towards me, a metal bar pokes out from the fabric and scrapes hard across my leg, so hard I swear I can hear the flesh rip on my thigh. I shriek and begin hopping on one leg over to the table where my purse is.
“Oh, God, Wen,” says Chuck. “Are you OK?”
I don’t answer him.
“What are you doing?” says Chuck. “Just stand still for a second!”
“I’ve got to go the emergency room, you moron!”
“Just let me look at it,” says Chuck.
The last thing I want right now is Chuck looking at my thigh, but I really do need to sit down for a minute. I drop my car keys back in my purse, sit down on one of the kitchen chairs and gingerly stretch my leg out in front of me.
My jeans are more ripped than they were before and blood is trickling down my leg. “My leg’s not going to fall off or anything. It’s just a cut.”
“It’s more like a gash!” Chuck says, backing away and sitting down on the couch. Chuck has never been good with blood. The Queen of Hearts sits next to him with her lips pursed as if to say I told you so. This would be just typical for me to hurt my leg and Chuck to pass out.
I stand up and let out an involuntary whimper. It hurts to walk.
I hobble over to the bathroom to get some Band-Aids. Chuck springs into action behind me.
“You’re not coming in with me,” I say.
“What if you pass out and hit your head on the edge of the tub?”
“Chuck, you’re the one who was about to pass out ten seconds ago, not me!” I shut the door behind me.
“Just don’t lock it,” he says, “or I’ll have to break it down when I hear your head hit the floor. Try not to get wedged between the toilet and the tub.”
I don’t answer him, just rummage in the drawer under the sink for Band-Aids. The first thing I pull out is a dusty box with a picture of a pee-on pregnancy test stick on it.
It was a 2-for-1 box, and there’s still one test left. I sit down on the toilet and remember how I sat in the exact same spot and waited for the blue plus sign to appear. Chuck was outside the door then, too, saying Don’t worry and I’ll stencil yellow ducks on the wall in the small bedroom. He had it all worked out. Yellow ducks and the night shift at the Holiday Inn and a Diaper Genie. Thank God that plus sign never showed up.
“I’ll get Stan to come and help me move the couch,” says Chuck through the door.
“No way,” I say, shoving the pregnancy test back in the drawer and pulling out the peroxide, “it’s evidence.”
“Evidence for what?”
“Small claims court, where I’m going to sue you for dropping that deathtrap of a couch on my leg and causing me pain and suffering and God knows what medical bills.” I’ve got blood all over my jeans. Great. I shimmy out of them, soak some toilet paper with peroxide and dab at the jagged line on my thigh. It hurts like hell.
Chuck is still trying to make his case on the other side of the door. “I was trying to haul it away. You dropped your end—”
“Shut up!” I am standing there in my black panties with my foot propped up on the toilet, my thigh burning and stinging. There are no Band-Aids. Gina probably used them all up on her belly button ring. I grab some more toilet paper, tear it into strips, and gingerly stick them to my bleeding thigh.
“You’ll need a tetanus shot,” says Chuck.
I grab a towel off the bar and wrap it around my waist. I push the door open, push past him, and hobble over to fill a plastic Pic-n-Save bag with ice from the freezer, then wrap it in a dishcloth and hop over to the couch.
“I just need to lie down for a minute,” I say.
“I’ll sit with you.”
“No, Chuck! Just go away. I need to rest.”
“I’ll elevate your leg.” He sprints past me, picks up my ankles and scoots underneath them. He sits down heavily, and the whole side of the couch tilts, then gives way with a clink-clank-clunk! The armrest is still in the right place, but the seating bench is on the floor.
“Jesus Christ, Chuck, you’ve broken it!” I wail. “You break everything!” I can’t help it. I start to cry. My leg is throbbing, and ice is all over the floor.
“I can fix it,” he says, bending down and staring at the inner workings of the couch as if it is an alien spacecraft that has just landed in the middle of the apartment.
“You can’t fix anything,” I say, tears running down my cheeks. “You leave without warning, you show up again out of the blue, and now you’ve gone and broken the couch. Gigi’s couch, Chuck. Our couch.”
Chuck lies down on the floor and lifts up the flap of upholstery in the back and studies the couch from the bottom up. “Flashlight,” he says, holding out his hand like an emergency room doctor.
I hop on my good leg over to the kitchen and get the flashlight out of the drawer and hop back over and hand it to him.
I kneel by the Queen of Hearts and he kneels by the King of Hearts.
Chuck lifts up the broken end of the couch and peers underneath it. I can see the muscles in his arms flexing.
“I can’t believe you can lift that,” I say.
“I’ve been going to the gym,” he says, turning and shining the flashlight right in my eyes.
I flinch and turn away. “Jesus, Chuck!”
“I’ve got it!” he says.
“You do?” I can’t get my eyes to adjust back to daylight. Black spots float between me and Chuck and the couch.
“Well, I can see what it is,” he says, pointing the flashlight beam at the inscrutable innards of the couch. “It’s this thingy here that connects the bed frame to the couch body.”
“Is it snapped off or what?” I say.
“I think it’s just slipped out of the guide,” he says. “Here, help me. If you hold on there and pull this way, and I lift this up, and push it over—”
We line up our hands and try, but it doesn’t work.
“We’re not doing it right,” I say, “we should fold it out and take the mattress off so it’s lighter.”
“We can take these cushions off,” says Chuck, pushing the seat cushions onto the floor, “but we can’t unfold the bed with this thingamajig off its whatzit. We could bend the whole frame that way. Then we’ll never get it straightened out. Let’s try it again.”
There’s a wrinkle above his left eyebrow, and I can tell he’s really working now, not faking it, not trying to be difficult. But the part he wants me to lift is impossibly heavy, and my arm is twisted at an awkward angle and the towel has slipped off of my waist, and I don’t have a lot of leverage because I can’t lean on my leg.
“On three,” says Chuck.
I brace my leg against the side of the couch and try to get a better angle. Chuck counts to three and I pull as hard as I can. I can feel a metal spring scraping my arm. I really am going to need a tetanus shot, I think, tears welling up in my eyes again. I am moving the bar. I can’t tell yet if it is going to reach or not, but at that moment, with Chuck’s shoulder pressed against mine, I am desperate to believe we can put the couch back together, make it work just one more time.