For some people, couches are badges of honor, souvenirs of a hitchhiking trip across America or partying all night and crashing at a friend’s apartment. For others, they’re battle scars, emblems of yet another marital war. “Yeah,” you hear them say, as if they’d taken a bullet for a comrade. “Slept on the couch that night.”
Aspiring musicians tend to maintain the most sentimental remembrances of time spent on couches, crisscrossing the country from one dive bar or coffee house to another, counting on the kindness of strangers for a warm meal and a blanket in the living room. I was a singer-songwriter in my previous life, or at least what feels like another era, but I have no romantic tales of couch time on the road. Not because the bookings failed to come, or the records failed to sell, but because I couldn’t do it. I had spent too much time sleeping on couches, and nothing about it was romantic.
Feeling a bit homeless, I called up my older brother, who lived in the suburbs, and asked if I could live with him. He had a couch.
I was nineteen when my parents divorced, and with the dissolution of their marriage came the selling of the family house in Jersey City. I wasn’t young, but I wasn’t old enough to live on my own, either. Commuting to college and working to pay for tuition, I couldn’t afford my own place. My parents each rented a one-bedroom apartment in the city, and at first I went to live with my mother and her Victorian-style plastic-covered couch. But it was she who had filed for divorce, who had wanted out of the marriage, and it was clear she wanted to be alone. After a few months, I moved in with my father, whose apartment was in a fairly new building conveniently located down the block from the club where he liked to play cards. A pimp occupied the penthouse apartment, and every night there’d be different women climbing or descending the stairs. This arrangement was problematic only once—the time my car got towed. It was registered to the address where both my father and the pimp lived, and, putting two and two together, the cops accused me of being the pimp. I tried to convince them I was a college student. When they asked me if I had anything to with the “ladies down there,” I thought they were talking about Margie in the financial aid office. How my Datsun 280 ZX wasn’t proof I wasn’t a pimp is beyond me.
My father didn’t want the divorce, and everything about the situation made him bitter. He was miserable, and he would start arguments and then kick me out. Many mornings I would lie on the cardboard-colored couch that came with the apartment and pretend to be sleeping until he left for work, just to avoid dealing with him. I was missing a lot of my early classes, though, so I went back to live with my mother. It wasn’t long until she, too, kicked me out. I moved back in with my father, who now made it a daily ritual of kicking me out. I slept at my girlfriend’s house sometimes, but her mother and stepfather were alcoholics. One time she and I both slept in the Datsun, parked in the underground garage of my father’s building.
Fed up and feeling a bit homeless, I called up my older brother, who lived in the suburbs, and asked if I could live with him. He had a couch.
Smoking may be bad for you, but it’s a great excuse when you need to walk away from something.
At first we got along fine, but he was going through his own brand of misery involving a married woman. Already a cigarette smoker, I took up cigars and a pipe, just to justify spending all my time outside in the courtyard. Smoking may be bad for you, but it’s a great excuse when you need to walk away from something. Finally, about a year later, my father called and said he’d found a two-bedroom apartment, one with a basement apartment attached, and asked both my brother and me to move back to Jersey City to live with him. By this time, I was nearing the end of college, and my goal was clear: graduate, find a full-time job, and get my own place.
Within a year I had done it; I was out. I had spent close to four years living on couches, but those days were over. I had a bed of my own, and I bought a chartreuse-green couch with a pull-out bed from the Salvation Army, just in case a friend needed a place to stay. For a while, a musician friend did.
Through it all, I was playing my songs throughout New Jersey and New York. When I was twenty-six, I moved to Nashville to try to make a living with music. But I wasn’t a fool. I took a full-time job and worked a part-time job, too, to make ends meet. I met a woman at work and fell in love. Three years later, I was married. I continued to play and write songs, sometimes with my wife, and put out a few independent records that got some attention. In 2005, I released a record with some of Nashville’s finest musicians and a few guest singers. It was the closest thing I had to a breakthrough. There was critical acclaim, in the states and overseas, healthy airplay on college radio throughout the country, and gigs that actually paid. After months of discussion, my wife and I agreed that the time was ripe to give music a proper shot. And so I hit the road, playing gigs in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, D.C.
I didn’t want it enough. I missed my wife. I missed my bed.
Then I woke up one morning on another musician’s couch, and I realized I couldn’t do it. After working so hard to make something of myself, I just couldn’t spend any more time sleeping on other people’s couches. It’s a game you have to play if you want to sleep, some day, on tour buses or in hotel rooms, and I realized I didn’t want to play the game. I didn’t want it enough. I missed my wife. I missed my bed.
So I stopped touring, and then I stopped taking even the local gigs. I felt paralyzed. My dream had collapsed around me, and I needed to rethink everything I thought I wanted to do, everything I wanted to be. Forging a new self takes a while. I managed it, in time, but my marriage suffered.
In 2011, my wife and I separated. I rent a house now in West Nashville, with a bedroom and a small office, and I have the beat-up leather furniture my wife didn’t want. There are nights when the loneliness is too much for me, and I find myself sleeping on the couch. But this time it’s strangely comforting, reminiscent of a time in transition, when the couch is merely a stop on a journey toward something more permanent, and more my own.
Copyright © 2013 by Joe Pagetta. All rights reserved. Joe Pagetta is a writer and publicist in Nashville.