The birches lined the sloped street, canopying the road in a yellow sheet, swagged and puckered, dipping low like a child’s fort. They shed saw-toothed teardrop leaves—golden and pointed but still soft, like leather—freed by a sharp, short autumn gust. These flakes of fall fluttered and spun past a dark figure, a man wearing a black pea coat that was a bit too long, formal charcoal trousers, and shoes that were at one time shined slick. Lounging at an aesthetic angle against the papery peeling bark, he smoked; the languid curls of breathy smog obscured his pale face before a breeze smeared the wisps into the air. With fingers clenching a hand-rolled cigarette, he swept his hair out of his eyes, but the unnaturally black hank swung back like an obstinate raven wing. He looked up when he saw her approach, but did not smile, and instead lowered his beard-shaded chin and stared up and out at her from under thinly lashed eyelids.
‘Mommy, Mommy, look at me! Look at me, Mommy!’ After coming home from the hospital, Cassy’s mother did not look at her. Her mother with a half-shaved head, with bird-bone shoulders was not the same after going away. Her mother now stared into the bright patch of mold growing on the living room wall where the showerhead on the other side sprayed the wrong way. She stared at it, into its depths as she would a wishing well, searching for answers in a mass of oozing apricot-colored fungus; her eyes glazed over. Cassy’s father told her that doctors removed part of her mother’s brain and that she wouldn’t be okay for a while, but Cassy was little and didn’t understand. While her mother was staring vacantly at the mesmerizing peachy glob on the wall, Cassy would sit on the couch beside her and touch her soft buzzed head, fingernails catching on the staples holding it together. She imagined the doctors fixing it with the stapler that her father used to hang Christmas lights. Chack-a, chack-a, chack-a.
She did not smile at him. She preferred him to be silhouetted against red brick, grey snow sky, green-grey-black moving water, the black-red leather of their couch, and she still panted from the walk up the steep hill. She hated fall when she had to take the birch-lined mountain of a street to get home instead of her usual route along the smoothly graded road lined with maples and oaks and beech. She hated autumn, and wished that she could afford to skive off in September and return in November, but she couldn’t.
“You didn’t take my picture,” he said with mock indifference; she knew he was pouting.
She slid her hand Napoleon style between the large black buttons on the front of his coat and pulled him to her. He barely reached her eyebrows.
“You’re the photographer, Fagan, not me,” she said.
He shrugged. “How did the appointment go?”
“Fine,” she said.
“Also fine,” she lied, wrapping her bare hands around his wool sleeve; he smiled.
They made idle small talk about their day: his professors, her students, her professors. Navigating around the alley shredded with fresh construction, dotted with road cones and workers in florescent vests, they walked to her apartment. She thought her shoes looked clumsy next to his; even though scuffed and holding the faintest hint of soon-to-be peeling leather, he moved them in a way—sliding them over the stone sidewalk like a Thai dancer, or Norse pond skater—that seemed, to her, worldly. She liked that about him, even if he had never left the States. He could always be someone he was not—he was quirkily normal everywhere—and that was what had attracted her. In the library, he sat reading the obscure wriings of long-dead French poets and eating Skittles, in the dim and shrouded cherry-paneled window alcoves on the fourth floor, where she herself liked to escape after meetings with students. He had smiled and offered to share the shaded window seat; she had pulled the heavy sage-green curtains back from the window to protect his lovely emerald eyes from strain. That was two years ago.
Her mother wasn’t the same after she came home from the hospital, or after her hair grew back. When he thought he had come home to no dinner too many nights in a row, Cassy’s father scraped the gunk off the wall with a snow shovel and fixed the showerhead, and her mother blinked and looked around for the first time in weeks. That night, she burned her dresses in the backyard, danced around the flaming pyre, her skin flashing and glowing and writhing with light like ambrosia salad and crystalline maraschino cherries. She only wore her carroty-colored dresses after that, wrapping her waspy waist in a terracotta-red apron, cinching her lower figure into an inverted flowerpot. Then she started painting, every wall, ceiling, cabinet—a different shade. Amber. Titian. The floors were replaced with Mango carpet—an overstock from the 1970s—tile from the same era, and wood painted the color of a hunter’s cap. The house pulsed and glowed, almost radioactively, almost like lava, and after spending even a short time in its confines the longing for the normality outside the clownfish door was overcoming as volcanic fumes, as radiation poisoning. It was a perpetual sunset, numbing, suspending, and time never changed inside it.
At the kitchen pass-through, Fagan fiddled with his new antique Minolta, prying up the fickle rewind crank with a chopstick.
“Take my picture, Fagan. Show me what you see,” Cassy said, angling her head over the back of the old, dark leather couch. She had found it abandoned or lost outside a dormitory, and brought it here. She liked to think that she rescued it; Fagan, at times, agreed.
“It doesn’t work.”
“Then stop playing with it. Come here,” she said, rolling herself deep into the warm, mashed-potato cushions; they engulfed her, folded her under their comforting lumps, letting her melt like a glob of butter. Its mushy covering was torn in spots and had been patched with electrical tape that faded into the material, or the offending cushion had been turned over and poked into the corner of the sofa. It had flaws, but hid them gracefully and accepted flawed others without judgment. A blanket was not needed with this couch. The green driftwood fire threw fish-tank light across the room, washing over her face in unreal light.
Fagan obeyed, and sat beside her on the potato couch, his sweater, himself, identical to the cushions; she picked out his clothes. From the confines of the bottomless couch, he pulled his tin of cigarettes and matches and a thin book of Hemmingway’s poetry, rolled into a tube and secured with a rubber band.
“I wish you wouldn’t smoke,” she said, glaring at his soft, long fingers holding a glowing match to the tip of the cigarette, poised before his face.
“You smoke a pipe,” he said, snapping the rubber band from the book and letting the stained, curved pages flop open.
She tucked her legs beneath her, letting the couch take them away, leaving her feeling like a medicated amputee. She thought of getting out her pipe—old, carved bone with a lid over the bowl like a beer stein—and her flint lighter, but could not.
‘You killed him! You killed him, killed him, killed him—’ Cassy’s father had to drag her mother inside as she wrestled and scratched and screamed like a belligerent harpy. Cassy had just picked a marigold from the garden, her mother’s newest colorization project. Honeysuckle, tiger lilies, cosmos, African daisies, poppies ravaged the backyard, snarling over the fence and invading the neighbors. The fiery ivy crawled up the side of the house, scaly feet burrowing into the “Arizona Dreaming” siding; it avoided the roof. Her mother had wanted to replace the roof when she switched the siding, but Cassy’s father refused. The siding needed to be replaced; the roof did not. The house glared out of place on the street, blue shingles contrasting over the saffron siding. It was a house Dr. Seuss would envy, complete with a Lorax. Swathed in a jumper with stripes like the Grand Canyon, Cassy sat on the bare clay ground of the yard; her mother had removed the grass. The fence surrounding the rusty clay basin was slathered in thick, globby clearance-rack outdoor paint. Cadmium 72. When she was sure that her mother had been sedated with one of the light-blue, triangle pills, she pulled away the heavy swath of honeysuckle and pumpkin vine, hanging like a prickly stage curtain, and kicked the loose board open. Exit stage right.
“Why do you like that stuff? He kills himself, you know,” Cassy said. “I’m sure you think that’s ‘because of his environment,’ ya?”
“More than likely,” she said. “It won’t impress people, you know? Knowing his writing. Figure out how to use antiautodefenestrationism, locupletative, or veteratorian in a conversation. That’ll impress people.”
“…it is the spirit of the thing that will count.”
“Stop reading that book, please. Let’s do something,” Cassy said, wading through the couch to be closer to him, to fall into his sweater that was the couch and be a part of him. It was soft; it was easy. Her skin reflected the flickering, green pool light of the fire.
“Do you have any great ideas?” Fagan asked. He wrapped his arm around her head, touching the lines that had faintly begun to split her forehead, and pulled her deeper.
She plunged an arm into the couch, looking for something to save the evening, so that they would not sit stupidly on the mound of couch and stare at the fireplace. She had papers to grade and a paper to write, but did neither. He had exams to prepare for, but had already done so. It was a typical evening. They would reach the point where they could not possibly do less and then venture to the bedroom, make love, and fall asleep.
Another book of dark, angry poetry by someone who should have stuck to novels. An empty thermos with dribbles of wine—she had searched for that before, in this couch that ate things and time. A deck of cards, missing a full suit, could still play rummy. Rabbit fur cat toy, from the cat that ran away, or was eaten by the couch; Fagan didn’t like it anyway. A hooded, green fleece pullover, hers. A DVD documentary. A cheese puff.
The adjacent yard was so green, comparatively, that she felt she had put on glasses made of wine-bottle butts, a corrupted vision distorted by odd mold marks and the backwards imprint of where it was made. Normal, platonic flowers grew, harmless in the neat flowerbeds; hyacinth, violets, roses poked from the subtle, slithering groundcover. Goldfish-colored siding did not wrap the house next door; it was a yellow two-story. Cassy crouched like a garden gnome in the triangular gap in the fence—the neighbors’ side stained a natural brown—and watched the yard, the house. She watched the family, as they ate food that was not salmon, roughy, cantaloupe, on plates that were not the color of orioles. She watched as they played with their beagle, Fritz, and as the boy not dressed in prison garb ran after his smiling father. The boy’s mother called him inside, touching him on the head before following him with a swish of a blue floral skirt. Cassy wanted to touch the fabric, wanted to touch something not doused in curry, in tiger fur.
“What the hell is this?” Cassy shrieked, flinging herself off and out of the couch, her safe zone, stumbling into the black coffee table, throwing the offending ball of puffed corn and hydrogenated fat at Fagan.
He fumbled to grab it before it was lost again in the depths of the sofa.
“How did it get there? Is it yours?” she said, scrubbing the palms of her hands on her jeans.
“I don’t know; I didn’t put it there. It may have been Donny. He was over last week; we studied together. Remember?” Fagan said gently, holding his hands before himself like a pacifying shield as he shifted his hips off the couch.
“Just get rid of it, okay? Please.” She continued to back away.
“Alright,” he threw it away in the can in the kitchen. “Look, babe, it’s gone. You want a beer?” he asked, pulling a bottle of Halloween lager from the stainless steel fridge and peeling the festive label off into the trash.
She shook her head, no.
Fagan frowned at her, forehead crinkled in confusion, and shrugged, his face melting smooth. “Are you alright, love?”
“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine,” she told him, shaking her head in a neutral gesture; she patted the mushy cushion next to her. “We need to talk.”
“Are we okay?” He approached the sofa hesitantly, putting the bottle to his mouth.
“Um, yeah, I think so, I-I hope so. Well, um—oh God, there’re more!” She jumped off the couch again, and crossed paths with Fagan, pushing him towards it.
“What?” he asked.
She pointed towards the crevice between the cushions.
“Seriously?” he sighed, stepping around her. He clean-and-jerked the cushion off its base, exposing a graduate-level sociology book with the receipt stapled to the cover, an undeveloped roll of Kodak T-Max 100 film, and half-crushed cheddar puffs rolling about like ants under siege.
Fagan held the sagging pillow above his head, quiet, unsure of how to proceed. He looked at his girlfriend. She was older, more knowledgeable; she had helped him get this far. But she looked heartsick and nauseous.
“We have to get rid of it,” she said flatly.
“Ah come on, not the couch, babe. We need this thing,” he said desperately, lowering the cushion, unconsciously holding it like a shield.
“I don’t know what else is in there. Please, can we just get rid of it?”
Clenching his teeth, Fagan nodded. They hauled the bulky, creaking, groaning sofa to the open hallway outside. The beastly thing sucked their hands into its soft upholstery, lapping at them with cool, textured leather like an apologetic dog. Cassy dropped the piece of furniture on the balcony and walked away, pausing as she reentered the doorway to look back. Fagan leaned on his end of the couch, staring at her, his blue-black hair falling in his face like a drooping puppy’s ear.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she went back inside.
I’m Hiram, but people call me Hi. You can call me Hi. Hi Hi, hi Hi, hi Hi. Everything was a singsong or dance or giggle to her, but not at home. Only through this creamsicle color-changer, did real things live. This had become her real world, where she could see the full spectrum, instead of one narrow fissure. Hi handed her a purple gerbera daisy. Hi’s mother invited her in for a snack, dinner, breakfast, for whatever meal Cassy happened to emerge through the portal in time to join. She laid out vegetable platters, handed out cookies; Cassy ate everything except for the carrots. My god, child, you’re tangerine. Hi’s mother touched her head with soft, gentle fingers that did not smell of macaroni and cheese, sending them back out to play. Fritz barked erratically at Cassy. She did not know how to approach an animal; her mother had gotten rid of their grey cat soon after she had begun to worship the fungus. But Cassy liked Fritz, and he eventually came to like her. It was a varied little world, just one yard over; she could see the top floor of her own habanero house looming over the fence, always watching her when she left. She hated going back through the color distorter, when her father came home after dark and noticed that she was missing and bellowed, Cassandra, until she reappeared. Bye Hi.
“So what did you want to talk about?” Fagan said hesitantly. He tapped his cigarette in the glass ashtray on the bedside table.
Cassy leaned against the headboard. It did not absorb her, hide her the way that the couch did. But she was not about to forgive the sofa, and she could not stay in the living room without it.
“Um—” Cassy shifted awkwardly against the bed. This was not the evening routine, and she didn’t quite know what to do. Without the couch’s soft support, she felt lost.
“You’re not pregnant, are you?” Fagan said, dropping his cigarette into the ashtray; the glowing tube dissolved into a shapeless glob of warm ash. He paled further, and the few freckles across his nose became visible.
“Oh God.” He snapped the grey cotton sheets and the green and blue and purple quilt back like an ill wind, and strode out of the room, smooth hands pulling his hair.
He walked flatfooted, heel toe, heel toe, like a German soldier, she heard him pacing in the kitchen, humming the Auld Layne Syne as he did when he was nervous or anxious or confused. Groaning inwardly, Cassy wadded her side of the covering and pulling on a pale pink robe, shuffled out to the main room. Fagan paused mid-march, wide-eyed.
“What are we going to do? What do you want to do? Can we keep it? Do you want to keep it? He-her, it sounds weird, doesn’t it? I don’t know. I don’t know.” He dropped his arms, and stood looking like a sad, naked white scarecrow, a skinny snowman. “Cass, what are we going to do?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
He approached her, and peeled back the layers of the robe, exposing her bare belly. “What can we do?” he asked, placing his hands on her flat stomach.
She pulled away, seizing his wrists. “Don’t do that. I hate it when people do that to…to pregnant ladies’ bellies. Especially now—it’s no bigger than a peanut. You’re feeling for a peanut, sending thoughts to a peanut. You can’t love a peanut.”
“So what are you going to do, Cass,” he said, his voice flattening, thinning. He seemed taller; he needed a shave.
“We can’t possibly keep it. Not me—definitely not me, or you, for that matter,” Cassy said, scratching at her face.
“Why not?” Fagan tipped his head sideways. “Why couldn’t we?”
“You’re so young, Fagan. You just don’t understand. I can’t have a kid. I just—
“I think I understand perfectly, but you’re not the only one in this. I have a say too.”
“Actually, you don’t, Fagan, nor do you understand what this would do to your life. It would never be the same. You would never get to be that dark man smoking on a Parisian street corner, or the regular at the café in Florence, or the man on the mountain in Mahalangur. These dreams of yours, they won’t come true if I keep it.” Cassy’s shoulders fell as she spoke; she was tired of holding them up. “We aren’t discussing this; I’m not keeping it.”
Fagan let out a loud breath halfway between a groan and pleasured moan.
“Trust me. I’ve always done what’s best for you, for us, okay? Just trust me.” Cassy touched his shoulder, but he rolled his upper body away.
“I’m learning what’s best,” he said, “what’s right. Don’t treat me like I’m stupid and incompetent, Cass. I’m not. No one is the same person forever; we all change.”
‘We should play this. I could be the bandit, and you: Johnny Law.’ Cassy and Hi lay on the floor before his parents’ television watching an old black-and-white sitcom. The neutral colors gave her a look into the outside world without overwhelming her. Hi’s mother stood in the doorway to the den, drying a red Fiesta dinner plate on her blue-checked apron. ‘Cassy child, is your father home yet?’ Cassy wrapped her thin arms around Hi’s neck before ducking back though the distorting portal. Under the cloudy night sky, only the faintest tinges of snow-fence flowers and yam vines were visible; the Fanta had been drowned in darkness. The windows of the mandarin house were angry black squares; one light was on in the kitchen, shining jack o’lantern light onto the patio. ‘Mommy? Daddy?’ The house was quiet. Oddly. Her mother always hummed a high-pitched, off-key noise. ‘Mommy?’ The burgundy pool had not yet reached the CAUTION sign her mother used when she waxed the kitchen floor, and Cassy was able to slip into her mother’s butterscotch lair. ‘Mommy?’ The caramel bucket was upended, translucent kumquat goo mingling with the sticky, seeping crimson. Her mother lay on her left arm in the middle of the merging mess. Under her fox-fur dyed hair, her mother’s head had split open along the fissure. As the men in white carried her mother out the front door, Cassy’s father, who did not smell of her mother’s citrusy perfume, sat with her on the copper carpet of the stairs. Neither cried. He said that her mother had slipped, had fallen, had hit her head on the maple syrup Formica, right on the fault line running across her skull, shattering it. The skimming pool of dark maroon in the kitchen contrasted violently with the nectarine room. It was the first bit of life the house had seen in years.
It was a week before Fagan spoke to her again. He avoided her, staying at a friend’s apartment, and finally walked back in, sturdier than when he left.
“It is your choice,” he said softly, swinging his tan-and-burgundy messenger bag over his head and onto the grey granite countertop.
She stood before him, in the doorway to the bedroom, shuffling papers, saying nothing. He kicked off his black shoes; a wet, brown leaf clung to the gentle curve of his left heel.
“You know what I think, and where I stand. I may not like your choice—hell, I don’t like your choice—but I will support you in it,” he said.
“So, um, where are we?” Fagan said, sidling into the apartment uncomfortably; the missing couch left an awkward, mammoth void in the heart of the room.
“We’re okay. I-we don’t have to make the decision right now. We don’t have to talk about this for a while,” Cassy told him gently.
He walked over the grey and black and yellow wool rug separating them. “Good.”
They faded from the lake-light of the fireplace as they fell back into the bedroom.
Later, Cassy leaned against the headboard that still did not feel right; Fagan was curled against her chest, sleeping soundly. His black head wedged against her armpit. She wanted her pipe, but not the complications.
“Ah, Fagan, I don’t know,” she said, making no sound, just pushing air through lips formed to words. The warm breeze of her voice ruffled Fagan’s dark hair like the last brittle leaf of fall. In the movement, she saw a flash of the past. Combing through his dark scalp, she unearthed the ginger roots of his unnaturally black hair, and knew that she could not stay with him. She would not look upon him again without seeing that reminder, the color of bittersweet berries.
Shrugging out of Fagan’s pale arms, Cassy gathered what she needed about the apartment; there was not much. She did not want reminders of what would now become another of her past lives. Her classes would go on without her. Fagan would go on without her, and she without him. She always hated leaving, but it was sadly getting easier. At least she was consistent to herself.
She glanced in the dusky bedroom a final time. He lay curled on the bed in the hollow left by her body. His face no longer slackened into a boyish look of neutral peace; he had grown up. It had been a quick and painful growth spurt that would ail him for the rest of his life, but he could handle it now, just as he would handle her leaving.
‘Why didn’t you fix Mommy?’ Cassy and her father sat at the kitchen table; funeral flowers in various stages of dehydration and wilting engulfed the spray-tan kitchen. She fiddled with gnarled blue ribbon she had stolen from one of the bouquets and tied around her wrist. ‘I don’t know, Cassandra.’ Her father stood at the sink, looking out the window trimmed in wavy red-squirrel curtains. The squat square bottle of oaky liquid never left his hand; he kissed it often with a look bleeding guilt and long-awaited happiness. ‘The plumber’s house is never plumbed. The mechanic’s car is never fixed. I’m not that kind of doctor anyway.’ Cassy banged her hand on the persimmon-stained wood table. ‘But you fixed other people. Why couldn’t you fix her?’ ‘We aren’t having this conversation, Cassandra.’ ‘Why?’ Her father walked into the living room; lit by a single, orangutan-colored lamp, it glowed like a bottle of ale set in a window. She had followed, her bare feed unwashed, the sooty funeral veil still tangled around her neck; she had not visited Hi’s house or mother since her own cracked her head that final time. ‘But why?’ He sank deeper in his suede chair. ‘You’re going to go away for a while, Cassandra.’ ‘Why? Why can’t I stay with you? I like it now that you’re home.’ With his middle fingers, he kneaded his temples in deep circles. ‘You’re going to your aunt’s house. You met her at the funeral.’ Cassy began to cry. ‘I don’t want you here. I can’t take care of you, Cassandra.’ Later, when her aunt was taking her suitcase to the car, Cassy ran to the backyard and dove through the hole in the fence, grabbing a fistful of her mother’s flowers and tearing her octopus-colored sweater. ‘Hi! Hi!’ She sprinted over the damp grass laced with brown-spotted yellow leaves. Knocking on the sliding backdoor, she realizes that she has nothing to say; her words were spent on her father. On the other side of the fence, her aunt hollered. ‘Cassandra.’ Tugging the pale-blue ribbon from her wrist, Cassy tied it around the handful of paprika-colored blooms and placed the nosegay on the doorstep, giving him something to remember her. ‘Cassandra.’ She pulled the smoky, pluming veil over her head like a beekeeper’s hood and ducked back into her own yard.
The maple and oak and beech crowns were full again, vibrantly verdant, hanging high and happy over the gracefully scaled street. This road did not jostle or buck, and the blue-wrapped bundle in her tired arms was quiet. Cassy had not spoken to Fagan since that early morning when she left him, but she had left with him the apartment, paid off years in advance with her father’s life insurance. He had killed himself, maybe; it may have been an accident. The police and fire department never came to a decisive conclusion. Either way, something soaked in whiskey within the house went up in flames and took the robin’s-red-breast structure with it.
Despite the fact that he could remain at the apartment without charge, she had not been sure that Fagan was still there until she saw the couch lingering on the porch. It sat, now filled with dried leaves and assorted dark sweaters. The dilapidated thing looked to be moving on. No longer were the cushions high and fluffy; months of elemental suffering had toned them, made them springy and resilient. The leather was no longer butter-soft, but hardened. A stray cat had torn at its arms but not broken the tough skin.
She held the bundle for a moment, and pulled back the blue blanket, exposing sleepy bottle-green eyes, and a pale face topped in a fluffy dollop of strawberry-blonde hair. Thankfully, he looked like his father. There would be nothing to remind him of her, no memory of her in the mirror. She would disappear completely.
Cassy stared at the front door. Swaying with the bundle in her arms, she made a deal with herself. If he cried before she was ready to leave, she would ring the doorbell and wait until Fagan appeared.
She touched the boy’s nose, smoothing over the soft, white skin. “Who could love a peanut?” she said, glancing at the door.
Laying the bundled boy on the couch, she tucked him into the warm, graceful cushions, carefully molding to the boy’s neck and body. It knew what was important, and for this she had loved it, before it betrayed her.
From the inner pocket of her grey wool coat, Cassy pulled her pipe; the bone was warm. She quickly snapped the flint lighter over the sooty bowl and clamped down the finialed silver lid, puffing at the stem. She looked at the apartment entrance again, and at the boy; neither stirred. She laid a finger on his soft squashed nose. A small cloud of smoke hung about her head, like filmy gauze, obscuring and distorting her face. Mauve lips clenching the stem of the pipe. A shadowed, brown eye. Detached earlobe. She rang the doorbell and walked away. All the boy would know of his mother would be his father’s stories and a puff of smoke on skinny legs.