Red-checkered Couch This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

July 12, 2011
By , Hillsborough, CA
When I was five years old, we bought a red-checkered couch from a garage sale. “It’s so old,” my father had complained, eyeing the torn fabric in disgust. “If you want vintage, why can’t we just head to the antique store?”
“I like it,” Mother declared. “And it matches the walls. It’s perfect.” Before my father could open his mouth in protest, she waved the seller over and announced proudly, “We’ll buy it.” I remember that the seller was a heavily mustached Italian man, and I remember how ecstatic he was that someone was actually buying from him. His greedy brown eyes lit up like lanterns as my mother shoved bright green bills in his face.
My father crossed his arms and stared at the pavement. I reached for his hand, but I don’t think he noticed.
Mother loved that red-checkered couch. For hours and hours she lay on the stained cushions and talked on the phone. She twirled the cord around her spiky fingers and giggled like a lovesick schoolgirl. I sometimes pressed my ear to the wall, closing my eyes and straining to hear the one-sided conversation. “Who’s she talking to?” I whispered to my stuffed kitten Rita. But Rita never answered.
Occasionally, I’d muster up the courage to wander into the living room. I would plop down on the opposite side of the couch and balance Goodnight Moon on my knobby knees. I couldn’t read a word of it, but Mother liked it when I looked at books. She said it was good for my brain. Every few minutes, I would scoot a few inches closer to Mother.
“Hold on just a second,” she muttered into the phone. Raising her eyebrows, she turned to face me. “Abigail, do you need something?”
“No, Mama.”

Her lips stretched into a tight, thin smile. Eyes glazed with exasperation, silently begging me to leave. “Why don’t you go upstairs and play with your toys?”
“I like it here.”
“Mommy needs to be alone right now, okay?” she insisted, her voice as sour as the lemon juice she soaked in her stringy hair. “It’s Mommy’s alone time right now.”
“But you’re not alone. You’re with that person on the phone.”
“Abigail. In a few minutes, we can bake cookies like I promised. Chocolate chip, your favorite! Doesn’t that sound good? Now run along.”
I closed Goodnight Moon and sulked out of the room, head hanging in defeat. On my descent up the staircase, I paused to listen.
“She’s not a baby anymore,” Mother hissed into the phone. “She knows something.” Pause. Nervous laugh. “You’re right. I’m just being paranoid. How are you always right?”
I was young. But old enough to notice that Mother always sounded different—happier—when she was on the phone. The tinkling of her laughter filled the house like the drifting aroma of freshly baked cookies. What did that person on the phone say to make her laugh? They brightened her face, flooded her deadpan face with sunshine. I was so jealous of that person. Envy flowed over the brim of the cup and made puddles of hatred. Puddles that never evaporated; that clouded my thoughts and flowed down my cold, cold cheeks.

Long after I was supposed to be asleep, I’d hear loud voices coming from my parents’ bedroom. I was old enough to know that these were not happy voices. One night, I awoke to a deafening crash and sat straight up in the darkness, eyes glowing with fear. My feet pattered across the wooden floor of the hall and crossed the threshold of their sacred space. The door flew open, revealing a scene that I never forgot. My mother’s face was as swollen and red as a strawberry, and my father was breathing heavily. Boxers in the ring, they stood at opposite corners of the room. The rug was scattered with a million shards of glass.

Dumbstruck, I looked up at my parents for an explanation. My mother dissolved in tears at the sight of my disheveled hair and footie pajamas. She flung her arms around me and we hugged for a long time. Then she pushed my hair back and looked me straight in the eyes, which she didn’t do too much. “I love you, Abigail,” she breathed hoarsely. “Don’t you ever forget that.”
My father stood by the window and looked out at the night sky. He loved the night sky, always telling me that it was a black blanket dotted with glittering diamonds. That’s why people sleep at night—the blanket wraps around them like a cocoon and comforts them. In the reflection, I could see the tears sliding out of his eyes and glistening in the wiry hairs of his beard.
In the morning, Mother was gone. Her side of the closet was empty, her makeup drawer was empty, the red-checkered couch was empty.
“Where did Mama go?” I asked my father. I don’t think he heard me because he didn’t answer. “Where did she go?” I raised my voice and tugged on his plaid flannel shirt. “When she’s coming back?”
My father waited a few minutes before he answered. He stood stone-faced in the dead center of the living room, staring at that red-checkered couch.
“She went to the store.”
It was the longest trip to the store I’d ever seen. There must have been lots of interesting things in that store, because Mother never came back.

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