Coffee Table

HEMNES, rectangular, light brown

Your father says you’ve always made good choices in the end, but, for all its practical solidity, you never did like the couch table you bought eighteen years ago. You thought the storage shelf beneath would rescue you from clutter. But papers, mail, and boxes kept on breeding out of sight, crept from shelves and piled on dressers, counters, floors, until it took all of your energy just to look away. You learned that two people in one room see different things. Someone’s clutter is someone else’s convenience. Someone’s friends are someone else’s imposition. You can feel loved and feel unseen. You can love and disappear. 

HEMNES, named after the Norwegian word for “home,” left with your husband when you asked him to move out. All through the days and weeks that followed, you pushed remnant furniture across hardwood floors, liberated desks and armchairs from parallels, and right angles, arranged rooms for friends who didn’t yet exist. Before, and after, and in between, you cried. 

LISABO, square, ash veneer

Chairs found their places, friends found the house, and you learned that balancing an orphaned outdoor table top on a sauna bench your parents discarded twenty years ago carries some risk. “Ah, college furniture!” one visitor guffawed when you dove for his wine glass, yelling warnings that the table top he was trying to pull toward himself was unattached. You took his point. Time to grow up. 

You fiddle with the tape measure, spooling out shorter and longer lengths of metal to conjure up tables from IKEA’s catalog. Nineteen and five-eighths might be high enough to play cards or a board games with a friend, while you curl into the hoof-shaped armchairs your great- grandfather bought for his Herrenzimmera century before. You’ve looked it up: Herrenzimmer, a “gentlemen’s room.” Your husband asked to split the chairs, take one with him. You said no. 

LÖVBAKKEN, triangular, brown

LISABO’s smooth surface begs for a game of cards. But you can’t picture its light-footed ash veneer against the plump cognac leather of your couch. You’ve angled the sofa more than ninety degrees away from the nearest Herrenzimmer chair—not staunch formality, but open invitation, like flocks of word-lovers descending to discuss books and films and poetry, wine glasses propped somewhere within reach. More triangle than square, with those of you overflowing from upholstered furniture lounging on cushions across the wool-weave rug, closing the loop, consorting with the dog. BAKKEN is Norwegian for “ground,” LÖV Swedish for leaf. You imagine one country’s leaves settling, for a moment, on another country’s earth. 

LÖVBAKKEN’s 1950s guitar-pick shape conjures up a photograph someone snapped of your mother. She walks through woods with friends and sings, all while strumming her guitar. You asked what came of the guitar. She said your father didn’t like it. You’ve seen another picture from that year: be-suited men around a triangular table; your mother, in a little black dress and apron, training for perfect married life, serves drinks to visitors of the family where she lived for a year to learn how to keep house. She has started calling you, now that she no longer worries about disturbing your husband. You yearn to hear your mother sing. 

VEJMON, round, brown

Because the Herrenzimmer chairs curve their plump arms to hug a back, snuggle friend after friend into careful conversations, at a casual angle, leaning in, tea cups in hand, seeking each other’s eyes, then looking at the fire, listening, letting the other wander in search of words inside her head. An arrangement that exposes the ear, with slight turns and probing glances reserved for moments, just enough to ease a knotted truth. You stretch out on the couch, dangle the tape measure, imagine a wine glass added to eighteen and a half inches: too high to see the fire when your head rests on the sofa’s leathery arm. 

TRULSTORP, rectangular, black-brown

For thirty-five minutes you believe that once, just this once, you can have things both ways, tall and short. But TRULSTORP’s lift-top is rectangular. You cruise onward from IKEA through Amazonto no avail: all those rectangles, poised to raise two dinners side- by side, all this commercial calculus that equals comfort with two pairs of eyes gazing in parallel from one couch to one TV. Take note: Furniture designers across the globe agree that one dinner propped in front of one upholstered chair constitutes mathematical abomination, something no one wants to think about. 

Unlike HEMNES, TRULSTORP hasn’t made it into Wikipedia orGoogle Maps. But, if you zoom in far enough, LISABO appears on a satellite image in Maplandia. It is a forest, with no house in sight. Your living room exactly, on a winter’s day: pathless darkness closing in, long hours spent alone. Since your husband carried his bicycle away from the unused fireplace’s hearth, and since the contractor installed the glass-doored stove, you have written yourself across six winters here, your eyes shifting from back-lit words within your lap to glowing logs. Summers, you act all sensible, perch in good posture at your office desk, glance from ergonomic eye-height screen out over roofs and leaves. But winters drive you down to ground. You curl in, fire-bound, and crunch your neck. Friends say your living room feels cozy; one called it a womb. Is it time for clever table hinges to un-pinch your cranial nerves, to liberate your skull from its slow-simmer aches? Must rectangles be accepted in your quest for well-aligned vertebrae, a view raised from downcast toward straight ahead? You stare at metal edges and industrial gray, imagine pop and squeak of gears and springs, unwilling to commit to ugliness in payment for deliverance from winter’s fetal stance. 

CATHARINA COENEN is a German immigrant to Northwestern Pennsylvania, where she teaches biology at Allegheny College. Her essays are forthcoming or have appeared in Appalachian Heritage, Christian Science Monitor, Bird's Thumb, and elsewhere. More about her work can be found here.