While Steven and I, still in our pajamas, sat in front of the television watching Looney Tunes, a man in a green truck pulled into the driveway. We ran to the window, prying the blinds open with our fingers, watching a man exit the truck, his jeans dirty, his beard thick, a cigarette dangling between his lips. He turned to say something to his passenger and then approached the door, ringing the bell twice.
“Go sit down,” my mother barked as she came down the hallway.
Rodney, her new boyfriend, was on her heels, racing her to the door where they argued over who would open it. Steven and I stood frozen as they tussled. When the door cracked open, we hid in the hallway, daring each other to steal glimpses of the bearded man, find out why he was ringing our doorbell at 9am on a Saturday.
“I called about the couch…” he greeted, extending a folded up newspaper with an ad circled.
“Oh, that’s right,” my mother grumbled, opening the door.
“What couch?” Rodney probed, a scowl crumpling his face.
“The one in the den,” my mother explained.
Steven tried to hold me back, digging his dirty fingernails into my pajama top, the faded pink My Little Pony one I loved so much because Natalee gave it to me.
“Wait,” I yelled. “That’s where Natalee sleeps.”
“Not anymore,” Rodney taunted. “We’re gettin’ a pool table.”
“Mom,” I complained.
“You and your brother go back in your room,” she scolded.
“No,” I defied, changing my mind when Rodney reached for his belt.
“Should I come back another time,” the man asked, his cigarette smoke wafting into the house.
“The couch is in here,” my mother said, leading him into the den as Steven and I went to my room.
With a ten year age gap between my oldest sister and me, I rarely saw her. And I knew very little about her, except that she attended the university about an hour away because we had dropped her off, Steven and I waving, waiting for her to turn around and see us as we drove away, but she never did. Her dad, Ivan, was there to greet her with a stiff hug and a few one-hundred dollar bills. She folded the money and stuffed it in her back pocket, breaking from the awkward hug to grab her bags, glance once more at both sides of her family–a mother and a father, whom she knew only through a court ordered visitation schedule, and their children produced in subsequent loveless marriages, an unhappy Brady Bunch she was thrilled to escape, hoping it meant the strangers she’d meet felt more like family.
On occasion, she returned, and we surrounded her, showing off our best cartwheels, new dance moves, and artwork, blushing at her compliments, watching her live out of a suitcase, never thinking we weren’t the reason for her visit. I sat on my bed listening to Rodney and the man shout directions at each other as they lifted the couch and moved outside.
“Turn a little to the right…”
“Watch your step…”
I hugged my knees, remembering the last time Natalee had been home. She arrived on a Friday evening, a couple weeks before Christmas, while my mother and Rodney were at the pool hall.
“It’s me,” she knocked on the door three times. “Audrey…Steven…”
We let her in, jumping up and down, squealing as she threw a black duffle bag on the floor, giving us each a hug before she slumped on the couch a few minutes with her hands covering her face. I went on an on about school, showed her my new shoes, played with her hair, ran through a list of games we could play after she rested. She hopped in the shower, trading the black turtleneck and red corduroy pants ensemble for a baby blue, cotton sweat suit.
“Hard day?” I asked, plopping next to her on the couch.
She brushed her wet hair, making faces when it ripped through a patch of tangles. Her eyes were red, tired, weepy. When she was done, she put her brush back in her bag and grabbed a stack of index cards, reading one side and then the other before stuffing it somewhere in the middle.
“When’s your test?” I pulled her hair into a ponytail and made a loose bun.
“Monday morning…” she exhaled.
“Do you want me to quiz you?”
She read a few more cards and then handed them to me. I stood in front of her, flashing each card and waiting to see if her answer matched the one on the back.
“Keep trying…” I said, but she shook her head and curled up on the couch.
I sat on the floor next to her, building small houses from the cards, matching them by color. She slipped into a fitful sleep, and I covered her with a moth-eaten blanket from the hall closet. Steven and I lay on the floor in front of the tv, sharing a bowl of dry cereal, laughing at a boy wearing overalls and oversized glasses, a teenage witch, twin girls playing tricks on their parents. Just before midnight, Natalee turned off the tv, woke us up, tucked us in our beds, and then disappeared. I heard the usual arguing sometime later, Rodney’s baritone roar rumbling through the whole house. We sat up in our beds and stared into the darkness until it was safe to close our eyes again.
It was quiet in the house now, Rodney and the bearded man’s voices faded, meaningless. I tipped into the den, the front door wide open casting bright light on the empty space, and began collecting the items we had long forgotten, items covered in layers of dust. From Happy Meal toys, Legos, and puzzle pieces, to pills wedged in carpet fibers my mother never found, stretching manic episodes into what felt like eternity.
I heard the man’s truck gate slam, my mother and Rodney coming up the walkway. Steven was next to me, gathering Lego pieces while I collected the pills in my palm. First her nails scraped the back of my neck, and then they dug into the back of my scalp gripping me by my hair pulling until I was face to face with her and spit raining off her P’s and T’s freckled my face. Steven’s screams amplified her slap, the sting of her skin on mine a reminder that home wasn’t home. I let go of the pills and ran outside to find the bearded man checking the ties across the couch one last time.
“My sister sleeps on that couch,” I approached.
“Maybe your mom is getting a new one…” he turned his gaze to the woman in the cab staring back at us.
“She’s not going to,” I wept.
He offered a sympathetic smile and hopped in the truck next to the lady with bright pink rollers in her hair.
“Have a good day,” they said and turned up their music, Marvin Gaye’s I want You.
I chased the truck, running as fast I could, the cold air numbing my skin, the song like silk, suspending me somewhere between sadness and exuberance. And even when the truck was out of sight, my legs heavy, I kept running, laughing, giddy at my newfound freedom. But in between the buzz of weed whackers and birds chirping, I heard Steven call my name and I stopped, touched my hand to my face, the burning a reminder that I was his couch, the place he could lay when there was chaos all around us.