the couch: a final version

an essay about that thing when people call their apartment "my house"

big thanks to griefbacon reader and friend Sean Mullins, who sent me this image in a time of great need last week. it is the thing I wish for all of you who are also very tired.

this essay is the final installment of a thing I’ve been experimenting with in the last month or two, in which I tried writing an essay in pieces (one, two, and three are here at these links) and then pulling it together into a big final version at the end of the month. I figured this would be an easier way to approach this newsletter; it was not! It was harder! Now I know. I might continue to do some things where each month I write pieces loosely gathered around a particular theme (August might still vaguely be Basketball Month, and September might have some sort of back-to-school theme), but it will likely be much more informal. Also, having to produce a final version of something kind of goes against the idea of this newsletter being somewhere to play around with ideas and throw stuff at the wall and see if it sticks. And, I don’t know, I think this newsletter is more fun when stuff comes a little out of left field. But anyway, here’s a final, longer piece about couches (and a lot of other things), using some of the material from last month, and some new stuff. Check it out, and ignore all of this if you’re new here, you can read it on its own without knowing any of this stuff. It might be better that way! I promise to never talk about couches again after this.

Also! griefbacon subscriptions are briefly on sale! For a few days or a week or however long I feel like it! Tell your friends, tell your enemies, tell yourself if you’ve been considering subscribing but weren’t sure about it.

Okay. Couch time.

When people in New York (and probably in other big cities) talk about their apartments, they call them “my house.” We could just hang out at my house; we don’t have any food in the house; we’re having some people over to our house. I’ve always found this verbal quirk incredibly endearing. The “houses” that people, myself included, refer to are often tiny, smaller than five hundred square feet, composed of just one or two rooms plus a bathroom. They are little slivers of other buildings, and those buildings are themselves decidedly not houses. Apartments here lack almost all of the comforts of an actual house, such as driveways, garages, yards, or multiple bedrooms. 

But the verbal shorthand that trades “apartment” for “house” insists none of that is what makes a house a house. Instead, a house is the simple fact of living somewhere, going back to the same place every day, falling asleep in the same room every night, making dinner and making coffee in the morning, throwing parties and sleepily watching television, having friends over, accumulating furniture and pets and plants. A house is the place where you make a life, where you repeat patterns and accumulate habits. Get home safe, we say when people leave at the end of the night, or the shorter version, simply safe home. A house is where you feel at home, and a home is a place where you are safe when you’re there. 

New York is an untenable place to live. It is filthy and crowded, too small and too expensive. Life here is heavy with unspoken rules, weighed down with the sense that somewhere someone else is throwing the better party to which you weren’t invited. But those rules are also the strategies by which people manage to build lives here, carving out love and home and comfort in a place that does not seem suited for any of them. One of those rules is that an apartment, or even just a room in one, is a house if you insist that it is.

This insistence, the verbal self-delusion that builds houses in a place without room for them, also means that the signifiers of home— such as, say, couches— take on a magnified importance. In a small frame, each object gains outsize meaning. The first time I owned a couch was eleven years and ten apartments after I moved to New York. I was twenty-nine, and buying a couch — my own whole entire couch!— felt like a miracle. Couches were something other people had. A couch meant having your shit together. A couch would prove that my apartment was my house.

When I was in my twenties, I was precarious in a way that meant I slept on my friends’ couches a lot. Sometimes I was in a fight with whomever I was living with at the time, sometimes I got too drunk at a party, and sometimes I wasn’t really living anywhere at all, and needed somewhere to stay at the end of the night. Many of my friends were in long-term relationships. They had routines, they had file folders full of their important paperwork and knew where those folders were. They had kitchens stocked with nice olive oils, they had schedules and systems and strategies for getting through life. They had a carefully tended support system, optimized over time. I was the opposite of this and, from my perspective, what might have seemed boring or prematurely middle-aged about their lives was enviable and warm. It seemed as though they lived inside the yellow windows I saw from the street when it got dark in the city and the place lit up like a beehive of inaccessible homes. Their apartments were houses; their couches proved that they had made coherent lives for themselves. Safe home, just like the old saying. I could leech a little bit of that safety by sitting on their couches, and sometimes sleeping on them for a night or two. 

Once things had changed enough that I was able to consider buying a couch, I learned that basically all couches are both terrible and expensive. I had sort of known this before, but confronting it directly, when I tried to figure out what couch I could actually afford with the money from a small freelance windfall, was as though a blacklight had been turned on, revealing a room crawling with price tags. Once you buy a couch yourself, your perspective on all of your friends suddenly changes. Maybe everyone is secretly rich, or maybe everyone knows certain codes and shortcuts that have never been revealed to you, a silent way through the landscape of money. 

“Is everyone else secretly rich,” is of course the whole experience of being young (and also older) in New York (and probably in other places, too). I spent so long trying to figure out if there was something I was missing, if there was something everybody else knew. I spent so long trying to figure out how other people had couches, and homes, and relationships, how people paid their taxes and got up in the morning and made it through another day and didn’t ruin their own lives. Money, and debt, and savings, and security, in all its many forms, are languages that we often don’t even know we can’t speak until we hear other people talking and can’t understand them. Couches were part of that language, just like savings and vacations and homes and even having children; something lost in translation, something that said maybe everyone else knows something you don’t.

I finally bought my couch from Film Biz (RIP forever) in Park Slope. It was a gigantic white behemoth of a thing, not new, with an uncertain history like everything else at Film Biz. It was very cheap because who wants a not-exactly-new white couch? Sometimes I would open all the windows in my tiny apartment and clean it with an overly-strong bleach solution, but it was never really clean. I called it Moby-Couch, and it was objectively terrible, and I miss it every single day. I am extremely tall, but Moby-Couch was gigantic enough to make me feel petite, low-slung and deep-set with a high curving wood-framed back that swallowed me up when I laid down on it; I could stretch out and my feet wouldn’t reach the other end. I had barely any other furniture in that apartment, but I had a couch and it was a universe, an island on which I could safely float away. 

When people in New York call their apartments “my house” even when the apartment is three hundred square feet, it has something to do with another colloquial phrase, safe as houses, in which a house means that you’re safe from whatever is outside of the house. Safe as houses, like safe home and get home safe, shoehorns stability into the structures of instability, making a space bigger on the inside than it looks on the outside. This is not just two half cramped rooms; it is my house, and I am safe as long as I’m inside of it. 

Another phrase in the same category as safe as houses, is who is he when he’s at home? This question can simply mean someone’s real name as opposed to an alias or formal title, but it also refers to the fact that people drop their facades, their public selves, inside of their homes when the door closes. Who we are when we’re on the couch is a self without defenses. It is the way a conversation between old friends supports and holds space for easy silences. On the couch you are allowed to not talk; you are allowed to just look at your phone even if someone else is in the room; you are allowed to fall asleep. In this way, bars and coffeeshops with couches in them have always felt transgressive to me, as though they were inviting me to be too much at home.

One stereotype associated with the couch is that of a relationship gone to seed, neglected and neglectful, two people taking each other for granted through slovenliness, just sitting on the couch instead of dressing up and going on dates. But for a long time, when people talked about this stage of relationship like a threat or a warning, it sounded pretty appealing to me. The friends on whose couches I frequently crashed when I was younger often exemplified that sort of relationship, sunk into the couch, watching TV and eating snacks. Nobody was trying and nobody was dressing up for anybody. In a city where everything is constantly made public, where everyone is trying to prove that their lives are more strenuous, more ambitious, faster-paced and more exhaustingly glamorous than anybody else’s, it felt forbidden, like getting away with something.

A particular kind of socializing that I missed a lot during the year or so when it wasn’t safe to have anyone inside my house who didn’t live there is the thing when someone just comes over to sit on the couch. There’s no real agenda and no plan: Wanna come over and sit on the couch and look at our phones and talk shit? The couch is at once a social orbit— especially in these small city spaces, where an entire house party sometimes takes place on a single couch— and a place where the obligation to perform for a social audience evaporates.

I never had people over for this kind of socializing when I lived in the apartment with Moby-Couch. I didn’t feel settled enough, and I felt greedy about the invisible at-home feeling that the couch offered me. I was working up to it, I told myself. Then I decided to move in with my boyfriend, and the wild-stroke-of-luck apartment that we found was up four skinny flights of stairs. There was no way Moby-Couch would fit inside, short of hiring a crane. When I let myself think about it, I still feel like I abandoned an actual living creature, and not just a big white couch. Maybe for somebody else, finding it on the curb allowed them to have a first couch of their own; maybe they would never have been able to afford a couch otherwise. Maybe the couch turned their apartment into a house, too.

My boyfriend and I eventually bought a brand-new couch we couldn’t entirely afford from CB2. Saying “I bought a thing I couldn’t afford” is of course another a version of being secretly rich. When I couldn’t afford things for my first eleven years in the city, I meant that the money did not exist, nor was there any way to access it. Money was a very shallow pool with a hard floor. Being able to buy something you can’t afford means that you can, in fact, afford it. Buying a new couch because I needed one might have meant that I was secretly rich in the way I had once suspected all my friends were. At the same time, I was still far enough away from being actually-rich that buying a couch because I needed a new couch felt like the absolute definition of luxury to me. It still does.

We still have this couch, and it is my enemy. It is exactly the kind of couch I always dreamed of having all those years I didn’t have a couch and slept on the ones in other people’s apartments. It is the couch that holds all the overdetermined meanings of couches. I hate it with my entire life. 

The couch takes up more room than anything else in the apartment. In mathematical terms, this office-grey couch is where I live. My life, like those of many (although certainly not all) people, folded inward over the last year and a half and has only just begun to stutteringly re-emerge. Because more than a year of my life took place on the couch, the couch and I now hate each other in a close-quarters, familial way, the way privileged teenagers hate their parents when their parents have done nothing but love them, the way people obligated to love each other almost always hate each other a little bit, the clumsy try-hard resentment of up-close love. The couch sits at the emotional center of my life and I resent the couch at every moment I am awake to feel resentment. 

It’s also that it looks like shit now. My husband and I have two cats, and not very much space. The couch is low enough to the ground that it is hard to vacuum underneath it, and large enough that this is a real problem; by the time we persuade ourselves to army-crawl under there with a damp paper towel, we are venturing into an abyss of horrors. I have stripped off the cushion covers and had them cleaned a few times, but not often enough. At every moment, I am haunted by an itch at the back of my mind about how dirty it is really is. Each day I perform a miniature version of the same delusion that allows people to live in New York City, holding the knowledge of filth while at the same time pushing it away, keeping the awareness just out of my peripheral vision. The cats have gleefully destroyed two out of the four corners of the couch’s arms, and the stuffing is visible in both places. We’ve covered one arm with a blanket, but it’s not fooling anyone. It has, however, persuaded the cats not to scratch that arm anymore and instead to focus their attention with military precision on the other arm, which is now so destroyed that it doesn’t even really offer them the demonic joy it once did (cats, like that guy in Fight Club, just want to destroy something beautiful). 

We eat on the couch and we nap on the couch and we put our butts on the couch. A couch is a lot of things but maybe above all it is a record of butts. The substance and meaning of a couch is butts. We put our bare feet on it; we drool on the pillows when we fall asleep, we spill coffee and clean it up but after a certain point when you’ve spilled enough coffee, cleaning it up is mostly notional. 

Love is a kind of habitation, a familiarizing, sinking fingers into the skin of something, knowing and being known. The things we love are always disgusting because they have to hold and encompass our bodies in all our bodies’ impoliteness, leaking fluids, making mistakes, shedding dust and leaving traces. Everything that matters gets used up, gets dented and bruised, gets smudged with fingerprints. It might be possible to say that love is the process of wearing out the novelty of things. It is the opposite of the clean adrenaline a new purchase offers, that sense of starting over, remade and blank with hope. What we love is written on, smudged, made dirty. Love is disgusting, getting its grubby fingers all over everything, keeping incessant neurotic records in spindly handwriting. The couch never really feels clean now, even when I try to clean it, even when I vacuum under it and take the cushions off and vacuum between them, horrified by the volume of human detritus they have accumulated. Even when I send the upholstered covers out and get them back folded and smelling of fabric softener, the stains are still there. In a small space, in the every day repetitive closeness of long love, nothing is every really new again. 

This ground-in knowing, the dirt that doesn’t come off, is also maybe part of what people in cities like New York mean when we call our apartments our houses. We are trying to make the spaces more than they are, trying to equate our cramped lives with the normalcy and tradition of suburbia and garages and driveways and front yards. But the phrasing, my house, also marks out the difference between an apartment and a hotel room, despite the fact that, in this city at least, they are often about the same size. 

A hotel room is a presentation of novelty. It is selling a perpetual newness. It is a place where nothing sticks, where a body leaves no traces, where nothing goes on the record. A hotel room is a space without accumulation. Home is anti-novelty, the thing that accumulates, the growing record, coming back to the same place each day. This gathering of dust and stains is another reason that couches are also sometimes used as a shorthand for talking about the way marriages get stale and the way love rusts without use or polishing, the way a relationship can become a process of taking-for-granted.  

We bought this particular couch because it was the same one a friend of mine had. This friend is extremely successful and put together, and in her apartment, which is also extremely beautiful and put-together, the couch looked like something in a hotel or a design magazine. I convinced myself that by buying this couch, I could transform my life and my apartment into something that resembled those of this friend, who seemed so elegant and secure.

But of course this friend doesn’t feel this way about either herself or her couch; the couch is where she lives, and eats, and spills coffee, and puts her butt. For her, the couch has accumulated similar familiarity, and similar resentments. Other people’s solutions are never our solutions, and trying to make them fit only emphasizes that point, which is one of the problems of couches, and of what we mean when we call our apartments our houses. My attempts to get inside of other people’s lives have only ever ended me up at my own. Hotels promise living in the clean and unmarked idea of a new purchase, where nothing accumulates and nothing reminds me of myself, but that’s why they are by definition temporary, a place to pass through and not to stay. In my friend’s apartment, the couch appeared like a hotel; in my own, it is a house. 

The couch is made of memory foam, and my husband and I tell a lot of bad jokes about how it remembers too much. Memory is another difference between a house and a hotel, and memory is also what we mean when we call our apartments our houses: This is the place that remembers. The couch’s memory foam cushions are weird shapes, the patterns of where our butts have been most often. One of them has a dent in it that makes it a sort of split-level cushion; another one is permanently lower than all the others. The couch has molded so entirely to our patterns of comfort that it has in fact become supremely uncomfortable. 

Our homes grow into reflections of ourselves, which is both highly uncomfortable, and similar to the process by which a memory foam cushion learns to mimic the angles and positions of a repeated body. The couch knows me too well; the couch is a mirror. I’m in this picture and I don’t like it. Live with anything too long, and it becomes a reflection. Memory means keeping records; an unavoidable portrait of myself forms through the patterns I have worn into the places I have been.

But that was part of what I wanted, too, when I stayed on friends’ couches and longed for them to be my own, when I borrowed a couch for a night or two and stood with my nose pressed against the glass of the warm yellow windows of somebody else’s life. I wanted that up-close familiarity, the couch that had memorized where my butt went each day. It was what I envied about those friends’ relationships as well, although I probably would not have admitted that at the time. I wanted the absolute privilege of being too well-known, in its all itchy horrors and dented cushions.

The story of home—and therefore, the story of couches— is a story of taking things for granted. The worn-out accumulations, the not-ever-clean couch, the fingerprint smudges, the dust accruing on surfaces, once represented all the warmth and safety I longed for and didn’t have, the way that my friends lived in houses, and I only lived in rooms. I still marvel at these things. I still can’t believe I am lucky enough to be disgusted and annoyed by my couch, unable to ever get comfortable on it, constantly cursing at it and blaming it for my problems, embarrassed by how gross it looks with the detritus of a settled and repeated life visible in its shape and condition. I hate this couch so much; I can’t believe I am lucky enough to have it.

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