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Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere
By Hank Stuever
PicadorCopyright © 2004 Hank Stuever
All rights reserved.
The Couch That Warped Space-Time
First the love story, a love-in-Washington story, a love-in-Washington story that is also about space and matter and furniture. For a while they loved each other, then didn't, then did, and still do. Sometime after the period when they first fell for each other, she would drag him into those "commitment" discussions. There was the background music and the way that Sunday afternoons can collapse on themselves. There was a period of puppy shopping, and there were the hockey games and the long, sometimes weird phone calls, all of it, all of it.
Into this came two sleeper sofas:
1. The Jennifer Convertible.
2. The Hecht's Department Store Special.
But right now let us turn our attention to the size of the universe. Theoretical physicists would like very much for the cosmos to fit nicely into the mathematical space they've calculated for it, only, of course, it doesn't. There is an indescribable longing to know what we're dealing with here, and in how many dimensions — a tidy "final theory" explaining both the subatomic and the celestial. You could go mad trying. Einstein died without resolving the scale issue, and so the universe goes on not quite fitting. Some physicists have deemed it larger than previously thought; others see it as smaller. One day it is older than they ever estimated; the next day, younger.
This does not mean that occasionally someone won't come along with another TOE, which stands for "theory of everything" — a superstring theory, for example — to explain away the heavens above and the atoms within. Everyone grabs a corner of the universe and lifts. Papers are presented at Los Alamos.
* * *
By now you may have figured out the problem. Neither sofa — the Jennifer Convertible nor the Hecht's Special — will fit up the stairs of the couple's three-story row house in Mount Pleasant in Northwest Washington, which was built about 120 years ago, shortly after the supposed Big Bang, when things were small.
"Of course, we've tried," says Sanford "Sandy" Ring, thirty-eight, husband of Jamie, thirty-three, when asked if he's tried — oh, the ways he has tried — to get either of the couches up the stairs. He's a lawyer who works in international trade, and he will be the first to tell you how much he doesn't know about furniture, or physics, or the exact science of heavy lifting. Jamie will tell you of Sandy's misadventure the other day during the simple act of hanging a mirror. He has his side of the story about this, but both versions end up the same, with four significant holes in the wall. Oh, how she laughs at him. Oh, how he laughs at himself, laughs and laughs. Sigh. But the sofas: That would be funny, too, if it were funny anymore. For five years it has bugged them, like a low hum off in the distance. The sofas are not where they belong. What is chaos, after all, if not the sum total of a trillion slight disorders, of things not having happened as much as those that are happening? Is the most complicated concept in fact terribly simple? Is there a man who can make a couch fit up the stairs? (Yes. And we shall know him by his DeWalt power tools.) Is there a secret to everything? (Absolutely. But you have to take it on faith, and just start believing in all those equations scrawled across all those chalkboards.) Stars colliding. Sofas in wide orbits.
* * *
Our first exhibit, the Jennifer Convertible. She remembers that they were dating when she helped him pick it out for his apartment, but she thinks they had broken up by the time it was delivered. In any case, she is sure they were together again by the time the dog had messed it up, because by then they were married. He now looks at this sofa and remembers feeling a little taken in, not only by the gravity of life's unfolding but by advertising: "You know, the big Jennifer Convertible ad on the side of the bus? The ad that says, 'This Sleeper Sofa: Only $499,' but then you get there and there's the basic foam mattress that no one would really be able to sleep on. ... So, okay, let's get the better mattress, so right there it's $599. And not in this upholstery design in the picture, but this one, this one is nicer, so now we're up to, what, $699? And oh, do you really want to protect the fabric? Pretty soon that's added on, and then delivery. ... Before you know it, it's an $800 sofa."
She looks at the Jennifer Convertible now as if it is a refugee object from some other time: "Well, look at it. You can tell exactly when it was popular, and that's when we were dating or, actually, when we were in one of our 'off' periods," she says, and she is at least right about this phenomenon, that every sofa has its time, its story. This one has light blue stripes on white, and big cushions. There was a name for this style, then: "Mattress Ticking." Let us say 1989.
* * *
Next we have the Hecht's Department Store Special. This other sofa was hers. It was hers because she had all these cosmopolitan ideas. She imagined people were going to be visiting her and needing not only a place to sit, but also a place to sleep. She lived in one of those cozy apartments on California Street Northwest, the kind in which you want to put potted ferns and funky shower curtains, and then wait for life to catch on like a sparkler. (Theory: The universe is simply your own little sitcom.) This apartment was passed around among her law-school girlfriends, who each lived there until they met the man of their dreams, moved out, and got married. The previous occupant would toss the lease like a bouquet — what luck to catch it. In the time she was living there, single, sometimes loving him and sometimes not loving him, she went to the Hecht's department store and picked out her sleeper sofa. She did it fast and sure. Also, she seems to remember, it cost around $700 — "which was, like, such a big deal at the time, right? This major, major purchase, real furniture that you don't assemble." The Hecht's Special is cream-colored and modular and ultimately unremarkable. No one, her husband claims, ever spent a night on its foldout mattress, not ever. The Hecht's Special sits in the basement under a pile of boxes, old baby clothes, hockey pads, picture frames, next to the punching bag that Sandy had hung from the rafters and punched a few times until it seemed that by doing this the ceiling might collapse on top of him, so he unhooked it from the rafters and did not punch it again.
The Jennifer Convertible is in the front sitting room on the first floor, where Jamie thinks it looks fine but not quite right. When they looked at the house, they were impressed by the size of the rooms. So much space — three floors and a basement! They gave no thought to the stairwell, which at its hairpins has about two or three feet of maximum leeway. (Let the stairs equal x; let y equal the facts previously overlooked.) "First the movers tried, and it just wouldn't budge," Sandy remembers, "and I suppose they tried everything, although I pretty much accepted it without really challenging them on it — I just took it as a fact that they couldn't do it." A couple of friends tried to help Sandy move the couches up the stairs, which quickly led to defeat, and beers. Over the years there were other delivery men — strong men, sometimes not speaking English — bringing various new purchases into the Ring household, and Sandy would tempt them, with cash and certain subtly flattering indications, that maybe they were smart enough, strong enough to get the couch up the stairs. And they would try, perhaps out of a sense of pride. They'd look at the stairwell, look at the couch, give it a go: "They'd get up to that first turn," Sandy says, "then couldn't get any farther."
What is it the Rings want, exactly?
"The sofa in the basement needs to be on the third floor," Jamie says.
And that is because?
"The baby is due May 4."
Of course. Later, in confidence, Sandy says it's all about his mother-in-law. Yes, the sofa has always needed to be on the third floor, but now time is a factor. Not just space, not just matter, but time. The mother-in-law is coming when the baby — Sandy and Jamie's second child — is born. (Pushing sofas through narrow stairwells! Birth metaphors!) They don't want to put the mother-in-law on the Jennifer Convertible in the living room because that's not good enough. There is a perfect third bedroom on the top floor, with its own bathroom, and this is where Sandy Ring would like to put his mother-in-law, at last, after five years: "Unless she sleeps in the basement, which I like to joke about," he says, and then backtracking a bit, lowering his voice, wondering if I can strike that last comment from the record, which, I assure him, I cannot.
Of the couch, people said: You could hoist it up outside and through the windows.
People said this because they were drunk. "What did people do one hundred years ago?" is what Jamie wants to know. "Didn't they have furniture?"
A hundred years ago people sat on tiny striped Victorian settees and waited to succumb to fevers. In another incarnation, the Rings' place had been leased as a group house, shared by members of the futon generation who probably did not own any furniture that could not be squeezed through the window of a Volkswagen — a disassembled tribe of disassemblable things, living in and out of various dimensional realities.
* * *
Fact: 99.9 percent of a single atom is just empty space.
Problem: Tell it to anyone who ever moved a chifforobe, a sectional, a refrigerator, a pool table.
* * *
On a Sunday afternoon last month, Sandy gets up from the football game he was watching and walks down to the basement to again confront the sleeper-sofa problem.
"What are you doing?" Jamie asks.
"Looking at the couch," he says, disappearing down to the darkness, flicking on the light in the cold concrete hole, pulling some of the benign, piled excess of their lives off the Hecht's Special, revealing it in its dingy cream-coloredness, and then pulling slightly at the fabric on the back. Pulling, until it rips loose a little with a tearing sound, and he can see that up inside there, a couch isn't much at all. He continues ripping the upholstery seam away several inches, until he realizes that to go any further than this point will mean setting down his beer.
* * *
It should be said that there is yet another couch in Sandy and Jamie Ring's lives, a more perfect third couch, a recent purchase. It's expensive: a caramel-color leather couch, a behemoth, not a sleeper, and Jamie is happy about its arrival. Perhaps, you're thinking, the other two couches now don't belong in the house at all.
Jamie disagrees. True, the leather sofa represents the kind of thing a lawyer and his wife and their darling daughter and imminently darling infant could and should have in the house. But maybe they are not ready to say good-bye to the other sofas. Maybe they will fit in other rooms of the future house they've not yet moved into.
* * *
Fact: Astronomers, peering into the farthest reaches of the known universe, have discovered a halogen floor lamp that belonged to your ex-girlfriend.
* * *
Somewhere in this, there is mythic talk of a sofa surgeon. Sandy hears about these miracle workers who come to your house, cut the sofa apart, put it where you want it, and then put it back together. This blows his mind. Here, all along, after five years of living with this problem, is a solution. He turns to his neighbors, to furniture store owners, to the Internet. Jamie calls the furniture store in Rockville where a "sofa knockdown specialist" is alleged to sometimes work on special cases. She is told that she can leave her number. For days nothing happens. "And why does it have to be so clandestine?" Jamie wonders. Sandy tries his luck at getting a message through to the sofa surgeon via the furniture store, and this time emerges with at least a name: John Errico.
One hopes against hope that the sofa surgeon would look exactly like Sigmund Freud. (Or Einstein.) He doesn't.
He comes by Volkswagen Jetta through the deep snow on a January night. He is thirty-three, burly, goateed, with his long, wild hair held back in a ponytail. He has a kind smile. "I'm John," he says, and the Rings' half-husky, half–Great Pyrenees, Max, sniffs at him and approves. Their darling two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Molly, leaps up and down excitedly upon the perfect leather sofa. "Let me get my tools," the sofa surgeon says. He does not look at the stairs. He does not look at the couch. He does no math, no sizing, no fretting.
* * *
What is the universe if not the random chitchat between chaos and order? Sandy plays it cool in the presence of the sofa surgeon. Sandy wears a gray sweater and snow boots with his jeans rolled up ("Is this your macho guy outfit?" Jamie asks him) and he watches reverently as the sofa surgeon drills the bed frame out of the Hecht's Special and then gently tears off the upholstery on the backside. Jamie laughs at the absurdity of it, a bit dejected by the sight of her sofa peeled open: "You pay all that money and it's made of cardboard inside?"
There is brief fascination with the power tools. There is good noise, productive sawing noises and hammering noises and the sound of something being taken apart, and wipings of the brow. A parade of sofa parts makes its way to the third floor, along with much clomping up and down the stairs. The sofa surgeon breaks into a heavy sweat. There, on the third floor, the Hecht's Special is reassembled, the frame screwed together, and slowly, the Herculon upholstery stapled back into place. All the while, the sofa surgeon tells his tale: Thirteen years of moving couches through space, and only once has he ever been defeated, by a two-piece sectional and an impossible doorway. One time he peeled all the leather off a sofa and put it back on. Sometimes the customers cannot bear to watch. "The initial reaction is that they don't want to see it, they don't believe it can be done," Errico says. "They think sofas are constructed like tanks. Most people are quite astounded when it's all over. Like you turned water into wine."
* * *
"And what of the ultimate fate of the universe?" asks Wendy L. Freedman in "The Expansion Rate and Size of the Universe" in the March 1999 issue of Scientific American (which you no doubt missed, or left in the wicker basket by the toilet): "If the average density of matter in the universe is low, as current observations indicate, the standard cosmological model predicts that the universe will expand forever."
Of course, and how comforting. Also, Jamie will go on loving Sandy, and there will be more furniture, more dense matter, but no more than a universe could conceivably hold. The Hecht's Special is now where it was cosmically meant to be. (The Jennifer Convertible is but one slipcover from transformation into a new sort of matter.) At least in this universe, though, wherever this love goes, one sofa will not be moved again. (Unless by cataclysm. Which is always possible.)
The sofa surgeon drinks two glasses of water and chats politely, then packs his tools and leaves with his check for $125, the smell of his sweat lingering, the darling daughter up way past her bedtime, the dog lying low. His Jetta climbs the icy asphalt hills of Mount Pleasant and disappears in the night, a night so uncharacteristically dotted with the available stars that one is compelled to hesitate for a minute, on the walk home, and wonder.
Every day, and more frequently on weekends, Dorito chips suspended midway between bags and mouths, some 5 million people watch Trading Spaces, a hit cable television home-improvement show. It's the one where friendly neighbors swap houses and redecorate a room in two days, each with a $1,000 budget and the gently dictatorial help of a professional interior designer, usually one from New York. The neighbors reveal the results to one another at the show's climax, with reactions of shock, glee, weeping, or the clenched and polite grimaces of barely suppressed disgust.
Not very deep down, Trading Spaces is about human insecurity. The idea here is that your house might not look as good as someone else's — which is to say your life, your marriage, your everything else might be inferior, too. Even early man lamented the conditions of his surroundings, wanting badly to have etchings like the etchings in Dak's cave. Trudging back from the Ikea of his day, he slipped on the cusp of a glacier and turned up five millennia later, frozen solid, looking depressed. Trading Spaces is about that longing within. Comparison, envy, the conflicts around matters of taste. The show, in attempting to assist us in simple room makeovers, transmits covert information on the real biggies: friendship, fidelity, change, window treatments. Its producers hope that it is a show that will teach people things they didn't know about paint or power saws. But it can also be seen with whatever vicarious urges feed the amateur porn and vice-cop ride-along genres. Trading Spaces is an ongoing attempt to salvage the American dream, and brighten up the dreamers. It shows what happens if you let someone else decorate your world. It shows that sometimes people have to take a stand on who they really are, whoever that is.
Excerpted from Off Ramp by Hank Stuever. Copyright © 2004 Hank Stuever. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
Elsewhere, Next Exit: A Preface,
The Couch That Warped Space-Time,
The Josie Problem,
I Don't Know How to Love Him,
Wonder Woman's Powers,
Everything Must Go,
Other People's Stuff,
The Faster Lane,
Spirits Having Floated,
Notes on Kamp,
Service Is Needed in Layaway,
Where Credit Is Due,
Could It Happen Here,
Blonder Heads Prevailed,
What We Talk About When We Talk About Chandra,
Snipers 'n' Things,
Praise for Hank Stuever's Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere,