The Couch Surfer
Sometimes she sniffed the couch cushions after he left for the day, disguising her fetishizing as obsessive cleanliness in front of her family. His smell was complicated and uncatalogued, heady with sweat. In her fantasies that played in her mind like reruns, he worked with his hands all day and enjoyed rough sex, but he could also be soft and sensible, eschewing deodorant because it caused cancer.
And today she was going to meet him at last.
The alluring scents of her early-morning reveries were eclipsed by something putrid, and she stirred a little, making tiny fists under the covers and preparing to go to war on the harsh battlefield of Wednesday. Hump Day. She didn’t need to open her eyes to know the stench emanated from their youngest son in the crib, which had been stowed in the walk-in closet because they’d sacrificed a nursery and garage in the suburbs for a decrepit two-bedroom in Brooklyn.
Her husband Ken snored slowly and methodically with his mouth open, stale breath filling the air between them. His half a head of hair looked greasy and clung to the white pillowcase. She sensed Matty, her toddler, at the foot of their bed. He’d just finished tickling her feet judging by the lingering itchiness on the soles. He giggled and ran off to the living room, and she sat straight up in a panic. But when she located the alarm clock under the bed and saw that it was already 7:15, she relaxed back into the mattress. The couch surfer was gone for the day.
It had been three years since she’d woken up naturally and every day it got harder to function, as if she were a bucket of water with holes that could only be plugged with deep sleep. She shook Ken a little roughly. “Shitty baby diaper or rogue toddler? Which one you want?”
He answered, “Coffee.”
Sitting up in bed, woozy, she caught her reflection in the antique dresser mirror. Her dark hair was piled into a big bun atop her head like she was wearing a hat with an enormous pom pom. Her baby weight still hadn’t shifted and her double chin drooped unappealingly. Her eyes had folded into their bags and she had a bad case of acne on her chin.
The dizzy spell passed. She couldn’t remember how much she’d drank the night before, but she'd started long before making dinner, and the family had to put up with frozen French fries and chicken nuggets for the fourth night in a row. It had been easy enough to pull the meat and vegetables out of the fridge. But on her granite kitchen counter, the raw ingredients had seemed to band together in abject rebellion.
She tiptoed past baby Geronimo in the closet. He was sprawled luxuriously on his back, legs wide. His poo would have shot straight up his back, overstepping the diaper by a few inches and forming a big brown spot on the crib sheet, the under sheet, and probably the mattress.
She crept up to Ken who had fallen back asleep and whispered in his ear, “OK, I’ll chase Matty and make coffee. You’re on poop patrol.”
In the living room, Matty was sitting on the floor flipping slowly through the latest edition of The New Yorker, lingering on each page to earnestly scrutinize each cartoon. His blond curls shot out from his head in every direction because he’d gone to sleep with wet hair after his bath last night—that much she remembered.
She eased herself quietly onto the couch, careful not to disturb Matty’s rare silence, and unfolded the first blanket on the pile that the roommate had left behind. She pulled the woolen comforter over herself, letting the fibers caress her. She inhaled the exotic smells and even detected warmth in the fabric, left by his body when he vacated the apartment not even half an hour ago.
She had 15 hours to go before he would return.
Ken would be upset if he saw her on the couch. He’d deemed it a no-go zone, which enraged her because it had been his idea not hers.
When he told her what he’d done, she said, “A couch surfer?”
“Yeah, I think that’s what they call it.”
“In our living room?”
He sighed. “Kate, we’re barely making rent with Matty’s preschool fees. You told me to take care of it so I did.”
“I meant broker a deal or kiss some client’s ass. Whatever the fuck you do at work.”
He shook his head. “You didn’t used to talk like this.”
“So crass and—.”
“A stranger, Ken. You’ve invited a stranger to sleep on our couch every night and you want to talk about my potty mouth?”
“Look. The place is set up for it—with the ensuite bathroom and the connecting doors in the bedrooms. You have a better idea?”
She glared at him.
He shrugged. “Money is tight.” He said this with the hint of a smile. Their relationship had moved into a new realm: inflexibility and vindictiveness had long replaced compromise and compassion. Instead of not going to bed mad, they welcomed it and grew high from the hostility. Anger was easier to deal with than whatever else it was they were feeling. Plus he blamed her for their financial problems, for moving to Cobble Hill and pushing the boundaries of their comfort zone. She had insisted on this neighborhood because it had one of the city’s best elementary schools and living in a brownstone townhouse had always implied success to Kate—even if they only rented one sloping floor of it. Her rationale had been that it was cheaper to pay high rent than put two kids in private school, but he’d been satisfied to move upstate and commute. She told him the suburbs would make their kids fat and sheltered and boring.
Most of that was true, but there were deeper and stronger allures to positioning Ken in Brooklyn, just a ten-minute subway ride from his office in Lower Manhattan. A long commute would afford Ken space and autonomy, while she languished in some cookie-cutter subdivision and spent her afternoons trapped in an SUV, shuttling her kids between strip malls and play dates. Her biggest fear was that he’d become addicted to the freedom. It would start with after-dinner drinks with colleagues and then graduate to, “Work was nuts today. Think I’ll just crash at a hotel in the city.”
Most aspects of her life were slipping out of her hands, but the reins on her marriage were firmly in her grasp. She would not, under any circumstances, let them go.
After Ken had left for work, Matty had been safely deposited at his preschool a block away, and baby Geronimo had gone down for his first nap of the day, Kate consulted her to-do list. This always revitalized her, as if seeing the items that comprised her week reinstated the control she’d lost after having kids.
The first three tasks were already checked off. Call PS 29 and ask, yet again, if the status of Matty’s application for pre-K in the fall had been successful. Done. The second and third involved cleaning, which she had already finished in the morning while Geronimo sat in the bouncy chair and sucked on a hair scrunchy.
Next up was laundering the couch surfer’s linens. She picked them up, one by one, and breathed in the fantastic smell. Although she’d only heard him coming and going, and once caught a glimpse of his profile as he headed out the front door a few minutes late, she felt like she knew him. He was tall and thin, while Ken was short and squat. The evidence he left behind in the garbage suggested that he used Crest and ate Clif Bars. Once there was a used ticket stub for a concert in Bushwick, and she dug it out and tucked it away in the drawer of her bedside table.
Something about the way he folded the blankets and stacked them, with the ends facing out, rather than the smooth round parts, intrigued her. He was unabashed about leaving the toilet seat up. She was determined to meet him tonight.
The weather was nippy for April and Kate was already counting the minutes until she could leave before she’d even unlatched the heavy gate to the playground. She kissed Genevieve’s cheek and smiled at her son Bernard, who was several days younger than Geronimo but somehow bigger and more engaged in the world.
They maneuvered their strollers into the play area and secured their children in swings. Once Geronimo felt the wind on his face, he beamed, and Kate began to relax a little. She asked Genevieve, “You up for lunch today?”
Genevieve’s high-pitched baby voice rambled in French and Bernard nodded yes.
“OK let’s just give them a sec on the swing. Tire ‘em out,” Kate said.
She got into the rhythm of pushing the swing and sunk deeper into her thoughts. Genevieve chattered about all the restaurants in the neighborhood and this and that dining review. She was into a high society; she could match celebrities with the local café or restaurant they frequented. Even before having children, the only work she did was hosting and attending galas and fundraising events with her husband, Jimmy. Despite her lack of conventional beauty—she had a big nose and her eyes were spaced apart too far—Genevieve was the perfect dinner party companion because she was well spoken, worldly, and intelligent. She had a masters degree in international development policy.
Kate said, “You decide the restaurant.” She was anxious for Genevieve’s incessant chatter to stop so she could figure out a game plan for later. Genevieve knew nothing about the couch surfer. None of her friends did. Neither did her family back home in Indiana. She’d never admit financial trouble or that it was a mistake to leave her copywriting job to be a stay-home mother, just like she’d avoid mentioning that she sometimes fed Matty Cheetos for dinner. Or that she knew that the three hours between playschool and Ken getting home equaled 18 episodes of Curious George.
Genevieve took them to a slightly upscale sit-down restaurant on Smith Street that served ironic twists on comfort foods—at exorbitant prices as the menu in the window indicated. Geronimo fell asleep in the stroller just before they entered. Kate’s joy at anticipating a lunch without having to rock and entertain a whiny baby eclipsed the fact that she couldn’t really afford to eat anything.
When the waitress came to take their drink order, Kate said, “Do you have lunch specials?”
The waitress’s smile faded slightly and she put a little too much pretend empathy into her reply. “Sor-ry, we don’t.”
Kate waited for Genevieve to order, using the extra time to scour the menu for something meal-like, but appetizer-priced.
Genevieve said, “You know it’s my birthday?”
“Oh yeah?” Kate tried to remember if this was new information or something she should have been prepared for. “I didn’t know?”
“I kept it secret because I was sort of dreading it.”
“It’s the big 3-0!”
Kate’s mouth fell open slightly. She had always comforted herself with the fact that Genevieve was older. After all, she owned a whole brownstone and hired a nanny, a housecleaner, a man to do the garbage, and a second man to move her car when the street cleaner came. Kate assumed she was closer to 40 and immaculately preserved because she was French and glamorous. Kate swallowed the realization that Genevieve was actually five years younger and it settled in her stomach like indigestion.
Her voice trembled a little in the effort to sound convincing, “We should celebrate.”
Genevieve, impervious to Kate’s inner turmoil, pounced on the opportunity to brag. “Oh no, Jimmy have big plans!”
In an effort to change the subject, fast, Kate said, “Really. I insist. How about a glass of champagne.”
“Oh no. It’s really expensive.”
Something about the way she lingered over the word expensive and let the corners of her mouth curl up just a little triggered a defensive reaction in Kate.
“You know what?” She said more to the waitress than Genevieve. “Make it a bottle.”
“Kate, it’s too much.” Genevieve put her hand on Kate’s.
Kate pulled her hand out and placed it on top of Genevieve’s and patted it gently. “Nevermind. Nothing is too much for my playground buddy!”
Kate tried to instill the word buddy with the same level of hostility, bitterness, and derision as Genevieve’s expensive, but Genevieve only clapped her hands together and giggled, “Fun fun fun!”
Genevieve fussed over Bernard, while Kate grew gloomy over the fact that she had just overcommitted financially to someone who was barely a friend. Despite the sun streaming through the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, lighting up the bottles behind the bar and the modern art on the walls, there was an unfathomable darkness all around her. Every day she sunk deeper into it. At first she thought it was jealousy, then shame. Or was she just sleep deprived? Wanting to meet the couch surfer felt urgent like a full bladder, and relieving it would somehow fix everything.
When Geronimo stirred in his stroller several hours later, Kate’s champagne buzz had already started to wear off. Bernard had been sitting up in Genevieve’s arms through the first half of lunch, then, for the second half, slumbering against her chest like he was an extension of her body. Of both her children, only Matty had fallen asleep and stayed asleep on her once and that was only because she’d read the bottle incorrectly and accidentally given him too much Advil.
Kate let Geronimo fuss a little while she checked her phone. There were 17 missed calls and 3 texts and she realized her ringer was off. She silently fumed at Matty for playing with her phone again and putting it into silent mode, but then felt instantly guilty when she realized she’d forgotten to pick him up from preschool. The phone display said it was almost 5 pm. She scrolled down to the last text message from Ken.
Got him. Almost home. Where are you?
She texted back quickly the name of the bar and then immediately regretted it.
Geronimo was growing more agitated in the stroller. She pulled him out and held him tightly. It was too soon, though, and he was disoriented and angry. His flailing limbs knocked over her water glass. When he began howling Kate burst out in tears. Genevieve reached her hand across the table and said, “What’s wrong?”
“I forgot Matty.”
Genevieve let out a cinematic gasp. “I assumed that Ken was home today.”
There she went annunciating again. Kate bubbled with anger. “Why would you assume that?”
“I just thought—.” Genevieve balked from Kate’s tone.
“Because Ken’s job isn’t as important as Jimmy’s?”
Genevieve dabbed her napkin against the sides of her mouth even though they’d finished eating an hour ago. She maintained her composure. “I think we had better get going.”
“I’m not going anywhere.” Kate said.
Genevieve stood up and tucked Bernard into his bunting bag and zipped it up while he cooed softly. She said to Kate, “Do you want some help? Can I take Gerry?”
Kate’s hands gripped the side of the distressed wood table. “His name is Geronimo. Not Gerry or Ger-Ger.”
Genevieve whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Kate caught a whiff of Genevieve’s perfume and it sobered her up a little.
Nausea and fatigue hit her hard. She squeaked out an apology but she knew it was too late.
Genevieve brushed past her on the way out of the restaurant and said, “Thanks for the birthday drinks, ma chérie.”
Ken and Matty showed up two cocktails later. It was dark outside. She could tell by the way the door chime jingled in that hesitant manner that they were behind her, entering the restaurant, and looking for her table. She could sense Ken’s apprehension and hear his deep intake of breath in her head, as he prepared himself for battle. The restaurant was busy by this point and Geronimo had settled into a slow but steady wail. A few diners looked relieved to see Ken arrive, hoping he was the more sane parent, who would shush or rock the baby to calm him down rather than just sit and drink and stare.
“What the heck?” Ken said.
Kate passed Geronimo over to him. “Take him. That one, too.” She pointed at Matty. “And go away.”
Ken hissed, “You’re drunk, I get it. But pull yourself together.”
“No thank you. Good bye.” She kissed Matty mechanically and whispered in his ear, “Mommy’s not feeling too well. Go with Daddy."
Ken stood mouth agape for a few seconds, but Kate went back to hunching over her drink and sipping it slowly until they left. Then she ordered a shot of tequila from the waitress and waited for 10 pm to arrive.
Kate thought it was quite remarkable, how one little rip and life could fall apart at the seams. She couldn’t imagine Ken putting the boys to bed without her. He usually came home after they were asleep, crack open a beer, and then watch some spy drama on the iPad mini with his headphones on.
She drank more to steady her nerves, which had begun to fray by 9:30 pm. When the server refused to sell her more alcohol, she declined to argue. Instead, she retaliated by leaving a small tip after she’d gotten over the shock of her credit card not being rejected. When she rose, she wobbled a little and the candle on her table, which she couldn’t remember the waitress lighting, blew out. A diner at the next table got up to help her.
“Can I call you a cab?”
“I don’t think you should walk.”
She leaned over as if to pat his shoulder and reassure him she’d be fine, but she lost her balance and crashed into his chest. When he tried to steady her, she reached up and grabbed his face, her lips lunging for his. He pulled away quickly, turned her around, and pushed her out in front of him. He guided her toward the door at a safe distance. She began to cry and mumbled, “I have to exit.”
The man said, “Yes, let me help you outside. I’ll flag down a cab for you.”
She sobbed, “Don’t you see? I have only one exit.”
It was well after 10 when she turned the key in her apartment door. It was dark, but she could smell the couch surfer. The front door faced the back of the couch and she could see the glow of an electronic device on the other side, shooting up toward the ceiling like a spot light. She heard a male voice and her heart began to beat even faster. All she would have to do is turn on the light or speak. It was the moment she’d been waiting for all day.
He whispered, presumably into a phone, “Hold on a sec.”
She was breaking all the rules, invading his space after 10 pm and her hands trembled as she unzipped her jacket and eased off her running shoes. The glowing device shifted, casting a flash of light around the room.
He murmured, “I’ll call you back.”
As the glow dimmed to darkness, she stood for a long time holding her breath. She was just a few feet from the couch and he was on it. She tried to propel her body forward, but couldn’t. She waited for something to happen to her. Her entire life hinged on this one moment, but she couldn’t make her feet move.
She said as loudly as she could muster, “Sorry.”
He answered her with silence and the rejection stung. It wasn’t what she’d expected, but then again, neither was motherhood—or marriage for that matter. The couch surfer shifted on the couch and breathed through his nose, but stayed quiet.
Despite the darkness, she could feel her cheeks flush, angry and humiliated. Ken always teased her when Matty burst in on her in the shower and she shrieked about privacy. Fart jokes made her eyes roll. Ken told her she’d better toughen up because she was raising two boys.
She ducked into her bedroom, a few feet from the front door of the apartment. Geronimo was asleep in the crib and Matty was curled up in the crescent formed by Ken’s body. Both of them were snoring softly. Her family was like the vegetables and meat on the kitchen counter, only they had assembled themselves, despite her dereliction of duty. Knowing they could survive without her was such a relief that she had to lean against the wall to keep from falling down.
She scooped up Matty and took him to his bedroom. Instead of using the door that joined their bedrooms, she carried him through the living room. The adjoining door squeaked and she hated to disturb Ken and Geronimo who were sleeping peacefully.
Kate felt her way along the walls and averted her eyes from the couch surfer. She was no longer eager to fill in the missing pieces of the puzzle, nor was she going to remain quiet and timid in her own home.
In Matty’s room, she tucked him into his racing car bed and sat beside him. She held his hand and stroked his curls, breathing in the familiar smells of his bedroom. When she kissed his lips, she tasted Cheetos. Ken must have fed them to him and then forgot to brush his teeth. It brought tears to her eyes knowing that she wasn’t the only one making mistakes. As she closed his curtain, she caught a glimpse of a nearly full moon in the sky.
In her own bedroom, she peered in at Geronimo, the light from outside casting a glow on his crib. The top sheet had been changed and it no longer smelled like a dirty diaper. Now pink monkeys on the fabric’s pattern surrounded her son, hugging him and keeping him warm.
She left Geronimo and shut the closet door. Then she undressed and crawled into bed. She got on top of Ken and pulled down his underwear. He moaned in his sleep when she took him in her hands and she smiled. As he was no longer her enemy, she was eager to please him.
Moving around on top, him inside her, he finally reached some kind of consciousness. He wiped slobber from his mouth and said, “Kate. Stop. We have to talk.”
“No we don’t.” She stroked his chest.
“What about protection?” He was out of breath.
“I think we’re ready.”
“Ready for what?”
He tried to slow her down, but he was far too excited. They hadn’t had sex in almost a year. She covered his mouth with her hand and then pushed her naked breasts into his chest, rubbing them against his white Hanes t-shirt. He came quickly, and when she flopped back on to the mattress beside him, she lifted her legs up and rocked back and forth on her tailbone for maximum fertility. That was how she’d gotten pregnant with Matty and Geronimo—both of whom had only taken one try.
They didn’t talk, but almost an hour passed before he fell back asleep. Only when his breathing sunk into a deep, methodical rhythm could she say for sure that she was alone again. She put her hands on her stomach and kneaded her flabby flesh like dough, as if she had the power to affect change within her body.
Sarah Richards is an MFA Candidate at the University of British Columbia. She also works as a core writing mentor for Booming Ground and serves on the PRISM international editorial board.