It was a strange couch for a therapist’s office. It was so tall, a grown man sitting on it felt like a child, his feet dangling inches from the floor. The cushion was so soft it swallowed large women, prolonging their stay. Though covered in raw silk, the seams were frayed and exposed crumbling foam inside. Each time a patient climbed on, ancient springs groaned. Penelope would not have chosen such a couch, but she had inherited it from her grandmother just as she was starting her practice twenty years before. For lack of money she had installed it and over the years, though it deteriorated and her practice grew, she couldn’t bring herself to replace it.
At two o’clock Penelope stuck her head into the waiting room and greeted Estelle Markowitz. Estelle started seeing Penelope after the death of her husband, a man she hadn’t cared for and whom she had spent forty years berating. Rocking back and forth on the couch, the older woman wept because she missed her husband and because she had wasted her life with someone who picked his teeth until he had no teeth left to pick and then switched to adjusting his dentures, a habit Estelle found even more repulsive. She told all of this to Penelope who clucked and nodded and said, “What a terrible shame,” and “I’m so sorry.” Thinking about her own failed marriage, Penelope let out a deep sigh that startled the older woman and started her sobbing once again.
Penelope sat across from Estelle in a swivel chair that allowed her to reach for the Kleenex on her desk and roll to the couch all in one continuous motion. Although Penelope never would have admitted it, and was hardly aware of it herself, she enjoyed rolling around the office even if it was to deliver tissues to a client who was crying. She was a short, heavy woman, and rolling around made her feel light. She allowed the client a single tissue, never surrendering the box, so she might have an excuse to swivel and roll several times during the session.
The couch caught a number of Estelle Markowitz’s tears, just as earlier in the day it had absorbed Jack Green’s, and the day before, Roger Barber’s. Over two decades so many tears had landed on the couch, the cushion was shot through with salt. In the summer, patients experienced a mysterious burning sensation on the backs of their exposed legs, but they never bothered to mention it. At $180 an hour, it didn’t seem worth mentioning.
When her fifty minutes were up, Estelle shoved the soggy tissues into her purse and wrote out a check.
“Same time next week?” Penelope asked.
“Yes,” Estelle answered, because she still felt like crying. Estelle Markowitz had been riding the 104 bus down Broadway from her Upper West Side apartment to Penelope’s office every Tuesday afternoon for two years, but it was as if her husband had died yesterday.
She had a difficult time climbing off the couch. She felt for a moment—but knew it was ridiculous—the couch was restraining her. When she finally pushed herself off, she heard a loud groan as the worn-out frame contracted.
“Everything all right?” Penelope asked.
Estelle wondered briefly whether Penelope was addressing the couch. “I had a bit of trouble getting my footing.”
“You’re not dizzy, are you? Perhaps you’d like to sit in the waiting room until it passes.” The chairs in the waiting room were from an office supply store and, to Penelope’s knowledge, had never given her clients any trouble.
At three o’clock Penelope met with Tara, whose boyfriend Axel had given her herpes before taking up with her best friend. Tara played with her tongue piercing when she wasn’t crying and related all the nasty things Axel had said about her, only half of which were true, she assured Penelope. She picked at the bandages on her wrists and said she still loved Axel and couldn’t go on without him.
“Tell me about your childhood,” Penelope said, thinking about her own past and the heartbreak she experienced each time her father had chosen her delicate sister to ride in the truck with him as he delivered cartons of Pepsi to soda shops on Long Island. Penelope dabbed at her eyes. Then she rolled to Tara and offered her a tissue but the young woman preferred to wipe her leaking nose on the sleeve of her black spandex shirt, which was no fun for Penelope. Large tears splattered the couch, and the girl tried to wipe those with her sleeve, too, but only succeeded in spreading them. It was Tara’s third session, and Penelope had the feeling she’d be coming for a while.
After Tara left, Penelope opened the door to her office closet and regarded the gym bag she’d packed ten weeks before. She hadn’t scheduled a four o’clock so she could beat the after-work rush at the health club. She’d never experienced the after-work rush, but she had imagined it: svelte twenty-somethings in leotards pedaling in unison to earsplitting hip-hop. Designer breasts to match their designer running shoes. Penelope hadn’t been to the club at all since she’d signed up at the end of a tour given by a half-naked bodybuilder who complimented her eyes and touched her lightly on the back while handing her a pen. She grabbed her coat and quickly shut the closet door before the bag could escape, leaping into her hand and dragging her off to the place.
She went to Murphy’s instead where the bartender poured her a double Scotch without her having to ask. He was young and handsome, with red hair and blue eyes, and he made Penelope feel old. She didn’t know why she kept coming back. It was a place she had come to with her ex-husband, one of the few things Dion surrendered in the divorce. She often imagined his face reflected in the beer steins the waitresses carried to off-duty cops who huddled in antique oak booths.
Before the divorce, Penelope would rush home after work to take their German shepherd out. Freud would drag her through Central Park, peeing on every leaf and branch, sniffing the Great Dane who wore custom sweaters and the bichon frise who needed a haircut, sniffing their owners too. She wrenched a creased picture of Freud out of her wallet and laid it on the bar.
Although Dion didn’t know it, Penelope still had a key to their old apartment, and she sometimes stopped by in the middle of the day. She would check Dion’s e-mail and rifle through his drawers. She would feed Freud leftovers from cloudy Tupperware, spooning just enough onto the plate so Dion wouldn’t notice, but might finish dinner feeling a bit hungry. Penelope knew she should get another dog—the ASPCA was crowded and her heart was empty—but even five years after the divorce she couldn’t imagine replacing Freud.
The next morning, halfway through a session, the couch collapsed. The silk ripped down the middle; the cushion crumbled; the frame snapped in two, each half pressing down on a trembling Brian Walston who, as it happened, was describing a dream in which the walls were caving in on him. Penelope didn’t know what to say. None of her standard phrases seemed appropriate—not “Of course you feel that way,” or “It’s okay to feel sad” or even “that must have hurt you,” though that one was by far the closest. When she regained her composure, she got out of her chair and helped Brian up. She fed him several muscle relaxants she retrieved from her purse, rescheduled his session, and set off to find a new couch.
She tried Macy’s first. If she had been looking for a leather couch, she could have had her pick, in orange or topaz or several shades of grey. She had to restrain the impulse to pinch the floor manager’s fleshy arm when he persisted in steering her from one modern couch to another when—hadn’t she told him?—she wanted something traditional. But when he showed her fabric couches in neutral tones, she hated them. The fluorescent lighting made her eyes tired. No matter where she looked the view was the same: row after row of empty living rooms, cardboard books and television sets masquerading as the real thing, and a salesman whose comb-over told her everything she needed to know—he lived alone and ate TV dinners.
The problem, Penelope admitted to herself over a double latte and a plate of Italian cookies, was she wasn’t keen on a new couch at all. She wanted her grandmother’s couch back. But it had crumbled from the inside out and was beyond repair.
She spent the afternoon combing through SoHo boutiques filled with furniture from the 1960s and 70s. She sat on a black leather couch, its cushion no thicker than a slice of pizza, its chrome frame reflecting the dark lines that stretched across her brow. She ran her hand over a wavy plastic couch, but she couldn’t picture it in her office. Tears would pool on the surface.
She had all but given up when she entered a secondhand store on Fifth Street in the East Village and saw it: rattan frame stained deep brown, brocade cushions the color of sea foam. She removed a Tiffany lamp from one of the cushions and stood up a statue of Saint Paul that leaned against the arm. She tried to walk around it, but ran into a rolltop desk and a banged-up dinette. Had she sat on the couch, she would have discovered the seats were firm and her feet fell squarely on the dusty plywood floor. But she didn’t sit. She gazed at it, taken with how sunlight streaming through the store window—sunlight that should have been blocked by the townhouse across the street—glanced off the fabric.
“Hello?” she called. Although the door was open, no one seemed to be minding the store. “Anybody here?” She took one of the cards from the scratched glass counter. The oddest thing: the name of the store was Penelope’s Closet. The card was worn with age, the edges perforated and imperfectly torn.
“Hello!” she cried out, louder this time, but without the desired effect. No one emerged.
Frustrated, she kicked Saint Paul, chipping the wood and leaving a dent in his robes.
She returned the next day and again the door was open, but no one was there to assist her. She was surprised they didn’t worry about theft. She left a note on the counter asking someone to call her. Although she gave the number for her home, office, cell, and pager, she didn’t hear from anyone.
For the remainder of the week, patients sat on a folding chair she brought from home. They squirmed. Their bottoms grew sore, their tempers short. No one felt comfortable crying, and wasn’t the very point of going to a therapist’s office to weep without apology? A few cancelled sessions, clients claiming to be ill or too busy.
Over the years, without quite realizing it, Penelope had come to believe her grandmother’s couch was responsible for her success. New patients had to wait six months to see her, and few ever left. Some died. A handful moved. But it was rare for a patient to feel relieved of the psychological malady that had brought them to her. It was little wonder, then, no matter how worn out the couch became, Penelope had been reluctant to get rid of it.
The third time Penelope visited the store, she was greeted by a woman whose white hair was tied in a neat chignon. The woman wore Lee overalls and was dusting the old fashioned cash register.
Penelope was so relieved to find someone there, she got right to the point. “I want this couch. How much is it?”
The woman looked hard at Penelope and then at the couch. She shook her head. “I’m afraid it’s not for sale. Perhaps I can interest you in some antique coins or a first edition Hemingway?” The woman resumed her cleaning, using the sleeve of her cotton shirt to remove fingerprints from a crystal vase.
“What do you mean it’s not for sale? It’s right here in the middle of the store!”
Penelope’s hands formed fists, and it was all she could do to keep from stomping her foot.
The woman set down the vase and turned grey eyes on Penelope. “You are very observant. You will note, the statue of Saint Paul is also in the middle of the store. So if it is something in the middle of the store you want surely the statue will do. Think how much easier it will be to transport.”
Penelope approached the woman. “I don’t want a statue or a book or antique coins. I need a couch for my office and I want this one!”
“Yes, I can see you want it. But the question is, does it want you?” The woman began unpacking a large box of books, lining them up on a shelf that had been full a moment before.
If Penelope hadn’t wanted the couch so badly she would have broken something, perhaps the Tiffany lamp, and if they had met under different circumstances she would have given the woman her card, as she was clearly suffering from some sort of mental disease. As it was, Penelope shouted. “It’s just a couch!”
“Well, yes, but a very special couch, I’m sure you would agree. And it seemed to lose a bit of its sparkle when you arrived. If I’m not mistaken, it got a little sad.” The woman replaced a book on top of the box and turned back toward Penelope. “Let’s be honest. You make people cry.”
“How do you know—”
“Oh, let’s not worry about that.”
“And I don’t make people cry. I let them cry. There’s a big difference.”
Penelope sank into a rocker. She dug a crushed tissue out of her purse and began to knead it. “I lost my grandmother’s couch. I’ve looked all over the city for a replacement and this is the only one I’ve found.”
“Yes, yes, of course you want to replace it. I should have known,” the woman said, half under her breath.
Penelope rocked back and forth, touching the tissue to her nose.
The woman walked over to the couch and ran her hand along the top, caressing the fibers. “Have you tried Macy’s?”
Penelope rocked harder.
“No need to get upset!” The woman patted the back of the couch and sighed. “I’m not an unreasonable woman, you know. And I’ve a fondness for stories with grandmothers. Perhaps I’ve been too hasty.”
Penelope yanked her checkbook from her purse.
“It will not be an easy couch for you. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather have Saint Paul?”
“I’m sure. How much is it?”
“In honor of your grandmother, you may have it. Perhaps you will make a contribution to the ASPCA. Just one more thing.” The woman rummaged through items on a shelf in a glass display case. “You might need this.” She held out a silver business-card holder.
“Oh, I have all the business I can handle.”
“You never know.”
Not wanting to be rude, Penelope took it and dropped it in her purse, already thinking of who she could give it to come Christmas.
When Estelle Markowitz first saw the couch, she regarded it suspiciously, poking the cushions and sniffing the fabric. But when she sat on it, she realized it was a definite improvement. Her back was supported and her feet rested comfortably on the carpet. She told Penelope she was thinking about going to the senior center, to play mahjong, which she had enjoyed when she was young. And she said she might fly to California to see her youngest son’s new house. She didn’t know where these ideas had come from. All morning she had been stewing about the way her husband used to complain whenever she bought a hat. He begrudged me my one pleasure in life—hats! she had planned to tell Penelope. But she was so pleased with everything she now had to look forward to, she forgot to complain. And she didn’t cry once. Not even when she talked about Sol Markowitz. “He couldn’t help losing his teeth,” she said. “And he only played with his dentures because they were never a very good fit. He wasn’t a cruel man.”
At the end of the session, she told Penelope, “I’m feeling so much better. I don’t think I’ll need any more appointments.”
Penelope didn’t know what to say. “I’m always available if you need me,” she managed.
When Tara came for her appointment, she told Penelope about Jackson, a boy she had met at the health clinic. He had herpes, too. But when her old boyfriend Axel found out she was seeing someone, he came to her house with a bag of pot and they got back together. They even had sex because Axel said they were both tainted, so what the hell. “You know,” Tara said, adjusting herself on the new couch, “Axel is a dickwad. I think I’ll call Jackson.” She told Penelope about the way Jackson stuck his head out of the window of the bus and shouted, “Peace, Miss Tara!” and held up two fingers until she couldn’t see him anymore. She said she liked kissing him even though he had braces. “They’re the soft plastic kind. And he never has food stuck in them.” Then she hopped off the couch and left the session ten minutes early.
Although Penelope waited, poised in front of a full box of tissues, not a drop of moisture fell on the new couch. Over the next few weeks, Jack Green, Roger Barber, and Brian Walston each discovered a brighter outlook and quit therapy. For the first time in Penelope’s career, her practice began to dwindle. She had to dip into her savings to pay her office rent, and some days there was no reason to go into the office at all. She blamed the new couch and decided to return it, but when she looked at the card she had taken from the store she found no phone number. When she made a trip to the East Village to arrange to have it picked up, she discovered the store itself had vanished.
Penelope spent more and more time at Murphy’s, leaning over the bar, cursing her father and Dion, and waking up the next morning with a swollen tongue and little memory of the night before. Months passed in this way.
One day when her appointment book was empty, she lay around her apartment in sweats, the paper spread out before her. She read the same sentence over and over, something about a water main break on Bleeker Street or a break-in on Water Street, she couldn’t quite figure out which. She got up to wash the dishes that had been sitting in the sink for a week, but the hardened food particles clung to the dishes like an industrial epoxy and she gave up. The apartment itself had not been cleaned in months, and dirt from two seasons covered the carpet. Wading through crushed autumn leaves and crystals of Sno-Melt, Penelope felt, despite paying an exorbitant rent, she had somehow ended up on the street. She decided to take a walk.
She found herself at Dion’s building and went up to the apartment. As soon as she inserted the key in the door, Freud began to whine and he nearly knocked her over once she was inside. Penelope buried her nose in his neck, inhaling a soup of fur and dust. She rubbed his ears and scratched his back and played patty cakes on his belly. She kissed him on the muzzle. She fed him treats, delighting in his thick drool and the thumping of his heavy tail on the carpet. They spent the better part of the day napping together on the floor.
The next day she had a ten o’clock, a referral from Estelle Markowitz. In the past, Penelope had always looked forward to meeting a new patient, to commiserating as the patient related a tragic story. She had little to look forward to anymore. Patients so depressed they questioned the value of their own lives, so anxious they rarely left their homes, found relief as soon as they settled on the sea-foam cushions.
That’s how it was with the new client. Penelope doubted she would see him again.
When he left, though it was still morning, tiredness overcame her. Her limbs felt like damp wood; her breath came in shallow huffs. She pulled herself from her chair and for the first time lay on the new couch. It was surprisingly comfortable, firmer than she was used to, but not unpleasantly so. She fell into a heavy sleep. When she awoke she discovered her computer had turned itself on, the silver card holder had appeared on her desk, and the newspaper had opened itself to the advertising section.
That very afternoon she took out an ad in the paper describing her specialty as “very brief therapy.” The next morning she joined the chamber of commerce and attended two meetings, handing out business cards from the silver holder. She built a Web site that featured the new couch on the home page. People whose unhappiness had thrummed below the surface for years happened on the site and felt a deep longing. As fast as she could open their e-mails, new ones filled the screen, each containing a plea to schedule her first available appointment.
She began to view each client’s unhappiness as a puzzle, and as she searched for solutions she briefly forgot her own problems. The box of tissues, now coated with dust, was relegated to the closet. She no longer said things like, “How awful” and “I’m so sorry.” Instead, she had clients draw up “happiness blueprints” and cried, “Try it!” and “Why not?” But, the greater help she was to them, the sooner they left her. Her practice was like a train station, with new people passing through all the time.
She lingered at the door to her closet one afternoon anticipating a visit to Murphy’s, but before she knew it she was heading into the health club, the gym bag pulling her along. It didn’t surprise her at all to run into Estelle Markowitz training on the cardio circuit.
One day, exhausted after meeting with three new clients, she stretched out on the couch with a copy of Techniques in Short-Term Therapy. She read only a few sentences before she became impatient. It was a bright spring day. She thought about how lovely Central Park looked on such afternoons—light glinting off the duck pond, city dwellers sprawled out on blankets, greedily consuming novels and sunshine—and sprang off the couch.
When she opened the closet door to retrieve her jacket, her eyes fell on Freud’s old leash hanging from a metal hook. The leather was worn and cracked, chewed in one spot from when she had tied him outside a coffee shop and lingered over the Times. But it was intact. She wound it up and stuck it in her bag.
She squeezed the key to Dion’s apartment in her fingers, considering how much Freud would enjoy a romp through the park. It had been weeks since she had run her fingers through his ruff. The last time she had seen him, he looked no worse for her absence, his muscles thick, his fur gleaming. Dion would have returned to jogging, Freud bounding alongside, now that the weather was warm. She wrestled the key off the ring and tucked it in the back of a drawer, imagining its origins would become mysterious like the other tarnished and blackened keys abandoned there among paper clips and rubber bands, but in the end she couldn’t bring herself to relinquish it.
She sat on the couch and stared at the key. It was all she had left of a ten-year marriage. She pressed it into her palm, hard enough to cause its impression to appear, but as much as she pressed, no sooner did she lift the key than the impression began to fade. Her palm grew numb.
The sound of a dog barking startled her—high, sharp calls aimed at her office—and the key slipped through her fingers. She hurried to the window, but the only dog she saw—a German shepherd as it happened—was walking quietly by its owner. She looked down at her hands and discovered they were empty, looked back at the couch but the cushions were bare. Though she spent the better part of an hour searching, lifting each cushion and then removing them all, kneeling to peer beneath the rattan frame, and even emptying her purse on the carpet, she finally had to accept that the key was gone. The damn couch had swallowed it.
Sitting among her scattered possessions, she began to cry. She lifted a dried-out mascara brush and two sticky pennies from the carpet and dropped them in her purse, tears following them into the dark interior. A pen sporting her new motto, “Brief is better,” had rolled under her chair. Reaching for it, she pinched her finger under a caster. She cursed the chair and sucked on the bruise. Her wallet lay in front of the couch, and she was about to collect it when she saw the tattered edge of a photo sticking out between two bills. She wept, her breath coming in coarse gasps, her vision clouding. She groped the top of her desk for tissues, and when she remembered they were no longer there, she tucked her head between her knees and rocked.
Finally she stopped. Sounds—the bang and scrape of metal as one car after another hit the pothole in front of her office, the rustle of a pigeon’s wings before it took off from the ledge, the blaring of horns—drifted into her office and surrounded her. She threw open the window and listened.
After a while she put the room in order. Freud’s leash lay unfurled on the carpet. She picked it up and ran her fingers along the rough leather, remembering all at once her promise to contribute to the ASPCA. She opened her checkbook, but it was empty, which was odd because she didn’t remember writing her last check. Empty too was the box of checks she kept in a desk drawer. She logged on to the shelter’s Web site, credit card in hand, but just as she was about to punch in the number, the server crashed. Frustrated, she decided to make the contribution in person.
The walk took her past the Park Avenue tulips. It seemed to Penelope their colors had grown sharper, their edges more defined, since she had last seen them and—was it possible?—they had reversed some inevitable process of decay and stood straighter and more alive.
Arriving at the shelter, sweating and slightly out of breath, Penelope noticed Freud’s leash sticking out of her purse. She supposed she could donate that as well, right after she had a quick look around the kennel. After all, one couldn’t visit the place and not peek in on the animals, scratch one or two behind the ears. Before she did anything else, though, she needed to catch her breath. Glancing around, she noticed an old couch in a corner of the shelter lobby, its well worn cushions lying helter-skelter on an elaborately carved oak frame. It was a strange couch for a shelter.