A sofa, the site of a family’s history, receives and gives a second life.
My parents conceived me on a sofa in a department store. My mother worked in the underwear section and was a second-year nursing student. My father worked in the household appliances, hardware, and gardening section and was a fifth-year social sciences student. They’d hardly been dating a month, and they’d never worked the same shift. Until that morning in May, no one saw them enter the warehouse holding hands—the store wouldn’t open to the public for another hour. No one heard them either, despite the fact that the sofa still had a plastic covering on the cushions to protect it from any stains. The sofa was more cream than yellow; it had solid wood legs and fit three people comfortably. Though my parents didn’t intend it, that morning there were already three of us.
As soon as my mother knew she was pregnant, she bought the sofa. It was the first thing my parents got on credit, and the only piece of furniture that was delivered to the house they rented with an option to buy in Levittown’s Second Section. My father hauled the rest in his Mazda pickup to save on delivery charges. Not that it mattered much that my father hauled their bed in his pickup; my mother slept on the sofa for most of her pregnancy, because of awful heartburn. “It was worth it,” my mother told me, because I took my first steps clinging to that sofa. Sometime later, I used the cushions as steps to get onto the TV stand and jump to the floor, like someone demonstrating the laws of gravity with his chin.
When my younger sister was born, the sofa was my nuclear bomb shelter—the lamp on the side table was the mushroom cloud after the explosion. Other times it was the Death Star where Luke Skywalker fought with Darth Vader, and so many other times it was the dugout where I was sent when I wasn’t doing well at baseball. That’s how I became a fan of the Boston Red Sox. Not only was it my father’s favorite team, but I liked to listen to the blows he gave the sofa every time Boston failed to get past the league finals, when even Ted Williams—the best player of all time, according to my father—couldn’t save them, because “now all players used steroids” and only wanted to rack up home runs.
I saw the best concerts of my life on the sofa: the only time my father picked up the broom was to turn it into an electric guitar, and on the few occasions my mother held the TV remote, it was to use it as a microphone. I don’t know how many times I saw them dance a bolero on the tile floor and give the longest kisses in the world, after not speaking to each other for a week. I found my mother sleeping on the couch only once, because she had bought a high-priced vacuum cleaner without consulting anyone. But, honestly, my father held the record for sleeping there: once because he came home with lipstick on his neck; another time because he arrived at five in the morning, drunk; and the last time because my mother caught him kissing a cousin who was staying with us because her husband had given her a black eye. My father slept there for an entire month. Until my grandfather peed on the couch. That was the first sign of his forgetfulness. We had to move the couch to the patio because of the stench. We had to wash it with Clorox, and some of the color came off. When it dried, they got it reupholstered and my mother had no choice but to let my father back in their room. “If you had made him cover it with plastic like I told you to, this would have never happened," my maternal grandmother said; she never liked my father.
When the department store where my father worked closed its doors, the sofa was our ally. I don’t know if he ever realized it, but sometimes—without him seeing me—I slid coins between the cushions for him to find. During that time, I stopped eating candy, only to save money and leave it for my father. I was never chubby, but I lost a few pounds and even got a girl to notice me. I told my father about my teenage love affairs when I’d go to the grocery store with him to buy half a gallon of milk, or a pound of bread, a beer or two, a gallon of concentrated juice, and cigarettes.
His lie was restrained, even glorious—a tender and honest way to hide the failure that I had brought to his world.
I think my father always knew that I was the one who left him the coins, because when I started college, I took the sofa with me to the Río Piedras residence hall. I still remember how hard we worked to carry it up the stairs. After moving it into my small room, we had a beer to celebrate our success. Sitting there, passing a cigarette back and forth, he told me about his university adventures, about the rocks he threw during the strike, and about his eventual expulsion. I knew he was lying a little, that he exaggerated. I knew because my mother had told me about their arguments, about the times she’d pressured him to stop wasting his time at the university and start working. Yet his lie was restrained, even glorious—a tender and honest way to hide the failure that I had brought to his world. It was then that I saw him at peace with himself. Or so I thought. “Your sister is pregnant, and your mom and I are going to get a divorce,” he told me that same day, looking at the circle of water the beer had left on the arm of the sofa. After that he stayed with me in my dorm room several times and slept on the sofa or spent his time reading books I was assigned as if he’d never read them, and he even made me read an essay about Ted Williams.
He even made me read an essay about Ted Williams.
One day I found him asleep with a photocopied book of poems open on his chest. When I picked them up, I saw that they had been underlined. And that’s how he passed his time, underlining everything he could, until one day he came into the dorm room and found a naked girl on the sofa. He apologized a thousand times, and from then on, if he wanted to see me, he left a note on the door or waited for me in a bar close by: in El Refugio, in El Boricua, or anywhere else that had a pool table.
When I earned my degree in business administration, I returned to Levittown along with the sofa, and I went to live with my father. My mother had moved and was about to marry a retired PE teacher; I hated him as soon as I saw him. I spent months jobless, and the only things that came up were temporary jobs that didn’t pay enough to rent a studio. “It’s not worth it. Come work with me,” my father said when he saw me in one of those ridiculous uniforms. And so I did, joining him cleaning patios. Over time, we secured a contract with the Municipality of Toa Baja to clean and cut the grass of the Levittown baseball fields. Those were the best times we spent together. When we finished with the grass and picked everything up, we played baseball. He batted and I threw, then he threw and I batted, and meanwhile we talked. He told me that things had changed, that people no longer respected the baseball fields, that they used them as if they were garbage dumps, that he had come across dry Christmas trees, moldy washing machines, toilets, and even horses grazing. Other times he said that he still loved my mother, he had failed as a father, and all the things that a parent can tell a child when they begin to grow bald together. Once the election year was over, the municipality didn’t want to renew our contract, and my father was devastated. Months later he was diagnosed with cancer.
He spent his last days on the old sofa, watching baseball games with me, documentaries on wildlife, fishing, Nazis, athletes, cooking, giant squid fighting with whales, and even one on space debris. We made lists of classic movies that my father wanted me to watch with him, until he died on the sofa watching the All Star game that paid tribute to his favorite player: Ted W. Williams. I had gone out to buy his diapers, milk, and beer, and when I arrived, Ted Williams was on a golf cart, waving his cap and receiving a long round of applause. That applause was so long, even God had to be envious. I thought my father had fallen asleep, and I put the things in the refrigerator. I opened a beer and sat down beside him to see how Tony Gwynn helped Ted Williams, already blind, throw the first pitch of the game. “Papa, you have to see this,” I told him to wake him up, and it was also time to change him. When I touched him, he was cold. Years later I found it interesting to learn that my father died of the same cancer Tony Gwynn suffered from.
The smell of my father never left the sofa. The cleaning products I used gave only momentary relief. The sofa was old and had begun to produce lint moths. I took it out to the curb, beside the dumpsters, so the garbagemen would take it away. But when the truck came, they emptied the dumpsters and didn’t even look at the sofa. When I asked, they said that I had to call the Office of Solid Waste in the municipality. Furious, I never called. The neighbors started to complain: they said they’d seen rats crawling out of it, addicts sleeping or shooting up, and all kinds of other lies that later turned out to be true. Every time they knocked on the door, I told them to go to hell. But for the most part they left me alone when I told them my father had died there, that the municipality was out of money, or the garbage truck wasn’t working. Of all my neighbors, those in front were the most insistent. Their baby was starting to walk, and they said that they didn’t want to raise their kids in front of a dump or get up in the morning and find criminals sleeping there. It was then that I started my own war. I got up early, and if I saw someone sleeping there, I’d take him coffee and cookies. One of the addicts turned out to be a famous boxer from Toa Baja, or so I thought. The other was a schoolgirl who’d run away from home and carried a gym bag filled with clothes and a volleyball.
Tired of the looks from my neighbors, I bought a chainsaw to cut the sofa up and throw the pieces into the dumpster. But the morning I was going to do it, I discovered that a cat had given birth to her kittens under the cushions. There were three: two white and one with black-and-white spots. I gave each one the name of a dead baseball player, except the mother. Morning and afternoon I’d put out food for them on a small plate and then drive my father’s pickup to clean patios. Sometimes, when I’d get home, I’d sit on the sofa to pet them and watch them play with the wadding of one of the cushions that they’d started to pull out with their claws. One fine day the three cats disappeared and with them my closest neighbors. So I wouldn’t feel alone, I cut the front lawns of the nearby abandoned houses.
One afternoon a strange woman knocked on the door and asked if she could use the sofa—or what was left of it—to train. She wasn’t fat, rather stocky, her face oily, full of acne scars, and a kind of fuzz grew from her neck and sideburns. She was dark-skinned, had tattooed eyebrows, her hair closely cropped: she was short, muscular, wore exercise clothes, and carried that air of happiness of someone who had been unhappy. She said that she didn’t like how people looked at her in the gyms, and it seemed to her that the sofa would be good for punching, practicing for her fights. Women boxers were popular, and I imagined that’s what she did. I was quiet for a bit, thinking about her proposal. To convince me—or maybe because it was true—she said that it was the best couch she’d seen in all Levittown and that she’d pay something weekly as long as the sofa held up. I told her I wouldn’t charge anything, that I’d been trying to get rid of the sofa for a long time, and she smiled. She had a broken tooth, chipped diagonally.
The first two days I thought I was watching an animal. I peeked out the window and saw her pummel the sofa. Sometimes she put the cushions between her legs and threw her fists as if at an opponent. She even bit the cloth, pulling out the wadding and then spitting it out. On the third day I offered to help. I held a cushion, like boxing trainers do, so she could throw her punches and kicks. She was really strong, and almost every time she knocked me to the ground.
She came four days the first week, and, when we finished training, I put a blue canopy over the sofa so it wouldn’t get wet. She only trained twice the second week. On Saturday I asked if she wanted to watch one of those fights on pay-per-view. She said yes. That same day, when I was coming back from the grocery store with beers and snacks, I saw a sofa in front of an abandoned house and I felt jealous. I imagined the worst. I tried to calm down. I went home and waited for her. When I realized she wasn’t coming, I decided to look for her. I didn’t know where she lived—one doesn't think to ask these things while someone's punching a cushion—but still I got in the pickup and drove all around Levittown. When I didn’t find her, I started going to the places where I thought abandoned sofas could be.
I sensed that all the shitty things that had happened in life would never happen to me again.
I went to the mouth of the river, stopped the pickup in front of the abandoned houses in the Third Section, in front of the ruins of a school and an abandoned gas station you can see from PR-165. In all, I found three sofas: one in the Fourth Section, another in the Third, and another on Playa Cochino. The one from the Fourth had small flowers, the one from the Third was made of microfiber, and the one on the beach seemed like it had molted its skin. I assumed the surfers sat on it to put on their flippers before entering the ocean so they wouldn’t cut their feet on the trash. I went to a gas station, filled two containers, and burned all the sofas. I watched each one burn in the rearview mirror as I drove away in the pickup. Since it was daytime and the mirror long, the flames looked like butter on a table knife. I’d never done anything like that. It was wonderful. I sensed that all the shitty things that had happened in life would never happen to me again.
Two days later, she knocked on my door. She said she couldn’t come before and asked me to forgive her, that she had a bout within a week, and that she needed me to help her train. I said yes, that I wasn’t upset. I held up the cushions and resisted her blows better than ever. While she punched and kicked, I felt like maybe I could become her assistant: I imagined going to the fights with her, that I’d inject steroids into her butt, that I’d shave her sideburns and part of her neck, or that we would sit on the bridge under the flags and look at the power plant.
In a moment of carelessness, she knocked me down. She put me in an anaconda hold, cinching her thighs around my chest. I tried to free myself, but I couldn’t, because of the imaginary blows raining down on me. Seeing that I wasn’t giving in, that I was fighting, she got closer to my face and pretended to bite one of my cheeks. I imitated cries of pain, hit the ground, and gave up. She raised her arms in victory, and when she finished exhaling like the noise of people screaming her name, she looked at my face between her thighs and smiled. I didn’t mind her diagonally chipped tooth. Soon it would be night. Beneath me, freshly cut grass, and in the sky the moon was also missing half of itself.
Translation from the Spanish
Editorial note: First published in The Common, issue 16 (2018). Reprinted by permission of the translator.