The Sage Couch


nonfiction by Jill Talbot


A friend once told her, “When you live in someone else’s house, you’re one word away from being asked to leave.”  She had been given a book advance, but it wasn’t enough to live on, and she couldn’t survive in Boise on her adjunct salary, so when Anna called and said, “You can live here,” she backed up her Escape to the front door of the one bedroom apartment, loaded it with what she could not do without, what her daughter had asked to take.  She left the black bookcase and the loveseat in the living room, the mattress and her Mac Classic II in the storage shed.   Of all the things she has left behind, this is the one that lingers.   What she left behind was her words—the essays, the poems, the dissertation—all saved on that computer, all locked in a storage shed on a back shelf.   She thought about someone finding it, pulling it down from the shelf and turning it on, clicking through the documents of her twenties to read the roads she was writing and navigate her wrong turns.

She left the front door open as she burdened the Escape with suitcases and boxes, stacks of clothes on hangers, her daughter’s stuffed animals.    At the bottom of this condensation, the vintage trunk, the one she bought at a flea market ten years before, the one she used as a coffee table.  The inside of the trunk musty, stained, and she imagined some traveler in a hat getting caught on a platform in a sudden downpour.  She pictures this traveler carrying the trunk on trains, its size cumbersome, the lock on the right side not yet broken, the way it is now.

In Utah, she knew a woman who kept a green suitcase by her front door, a sustained act of almost leaving.   This past year, she has carried her suitcases in and out of too many doors, repeated acts of almost staying.

She had met Anna in college.  And Anna’s husband, Jack, introduced her to the man she would love too early, the man who would leave too early.  They had all lived together just after graduation in Fort Collins, during the years they were younger, more free, before any of them knew that the life they were waiting to live was never going to rescue them from the ones they were living.

In that Fort Collins house, Anna and Jack had a sage couch, where she’d nap in the afternoons after working the breakfast shift at the restaurant or where’d she sit with Jack’s friend  late into the night, the two of them telling each other their stories.   When she looks back now, she sees how they created a shared narrative based upon the collection of those stories, the very ones they came to know as made up, embellished, or the most disturbing ones, the stories they never told.

Anna and Jack also took her in years later when he left,  when they cleared out an upstairs office so she could have a place for her daughter’s crib, changing table, and the rocking chair where she read to her every night, where she sang to her before dragging her saddening heart down to the basement to sleep on a futon to the rushing of the washing machine, the whine of the dryer.    He would show up sometimes, make love to her and stay the night before getting into his blue truck and driving away before dawn.   Such duplicity.  These were the months she’d find the stack of dishes that Anna and Jack accumulated in the sink.  They built a fragile architecture, and she feared that if she were to disrupt their balance, something in her would rupture.  She spent her days checking messages and the driveway.

These were the months he rented a small cabin at the base of the Foothills in Boulder.  They snuck to each others’ houses, their interactions like borrowings.   One night, after she settled their daughter to sleep, she walked into his bedroom to notice the nightstands, one on each side, the water bottles, one on his side, one on another.   She felt as if she had walked into a scene arranged for someone else, felt the presence of a stranger, and knew that it was the role she had been cast to play.  She moved to the kitchen, flipped on the light to survey the pattern, the two wine glasses on a shelf above the sink, the two coffee cups on the counter.    She left that night, drove through the dark and back to her borrowed rooms.  Quietly, she carried her daughter upstairs to her crib, then stepped out into the hallway and only got as far as the top step before she surrendered to it.  Staring into the dark of the living room below, she could see the sage couch, the same one that had been in the house in Fort Collins, and she knew she needed to move from here if she were to ever complete the separation.    She would stand it for two more months before loading the Escape and pulling away as Anna and Jack stood in the driveway, smiling and waving.

Four years later, the sage couch showed up like a recurring image, a symbol in a story.  That time, the couch sat in a living room in a corner house in Laramie, Wyoming.  That time, Anna and Jack did not clear out a room or offer a spacious basement.  Instead, they greeted her with one room that she and her daughter could share.  A room with the same futon and a built in desk, where she would spend most of her time, writing about him.

In this, the third house they shared, they were all disheveled, as if they’d gone through unexpected rapids and were still catching their breaths, pretending they weren’t being pushed along by a current after misreading the water.   Anna and Jack were now heavy with the weight of perfunctory careers and student loans.  And in the years between there had been the affair, and even though it ended, the mistrust between them smoldered.   She stepped around the distance of their tension, sat at their table during mealtime, followed the schedule of their routine.  The two of them still leaving stacks of dishes in the sink, their habit, and each morning, after he left for the restaurant and she went to teach her painting class, she’d carefully pull each plate, each bowl from the sink and wash it, rinse it, set them all in order on the dish rack to dry before she sat down to write him more.

No fragile architecture or gentle empathy, the house a tempest of strained conversations and phone calls taken in another room.   What they let pile up—the dishes, the secrets—threatened to crash down with every utterance.  Only her daughter roamed unabashedly amidst the clutter of such captivity.  She was too young to know the history, the houses that had come before, the story that tied them all together.    Her daughter was too young to know that Jack’s friend was the father who had abandoned her when she was four months old or that the television they all watched had once been his.

It wasn’t nearly enough room for people who would prefer to live out their struggles in private:  the role playing game that Jack locked himself up in the back room to play for seven, eight hour stretches; Anna’s former lover in the living room as if he were a student dropping by to pick up some brushes and not the man who wrinkled this canvas.  Then there was her nightly Chardonnay, the ubiquitous bottle on the bottom shelf of the fridge, always on display.  Each of them knew they could not hide there, and in the end, they raged against the way their secrets reflected like a mirror floating in front of them as they shuffled in and out of the kitchen.

She was two chapters away from finishing the book about him.   She used his real name as a matter of record and a way to return his betrayal.    It would be years before she realized that the man she was writing was not the man she missed, even more years before she understood that she had never been the woman on the page.

Writing the fiction of her past,  she could not see how Anna and Jack might misinterpret the story, and when they sat her down on that same sage couch and asked her to move out, she wondered how she got there:  to Wyoming, to being asked to leave before leaving, to that couch.  Again.

She thought of her friend’s words, the ones about being one word away.  There would be a comment made about an early promise to keep her wine consumption to two glasses an evening and a question about the discrepancy, but she suspected it wasn’t the reason for her sudden eviction.  It was the stories she had come to know too well, the ones they’d rather not have told, and every time she sat down to write at the desk in that room, they hovered, leaned into the frame of the open door, terrified that the story she was writing was theirs.

She packed up the Escape for the fourth time that year, the vintage trunk and the suitcases, the boxes, her daughter, now five, in the passenger seat.   That time, no one watched her go.



Jill Talbot