Jon’s apartment is the top floor of a four-level brownstone in an aging beauty queen of a neighborhood in the heart of Washington DC. The kitchen, living room, and the small glass table in the bay window that makes up the dining area are all one space, filled with odds and ends that mostly only make sense to Jon: photos in mismatched picture frames, Argentinian love masks, decorative candlesticks, an oversized poster of a 1950s Spanish motorcycle festival, and a small flock of tourist-shop Buddhas sitting happily in scattered locations. The tiny coffee table is littered with the wanderings of a mind that can’t make itself up: a biography of Bill Belichick, Gibran’s The Prophet, Shape magazine (“for the exercises”), a reference manual on management techniques, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes, and endless notes to self. And in the middle of it all is a small L-shaped sofa.
The sofa is actually the Blake combination love seat and chaise from West Elm, a swanky furniture store for yuppies who’ve outgrown IKEA. The love seat can sit no more than two side by side without getting intimate—it is after all a love seat—but there’s room for another on the chaise next to it. Technically the chaise is a “fainting couch,” because it has a back and an arm, but West Elm’s customers are would-be-metrosexuals like Jon, not the heavily corseted ladies of Victorian times, so it’s a chaise. It’s hard not to want to faint into it, however. The flow of the room, the giant welcoming down-filled pillow behind you and the long expanse of the chaise coaxes even the most excited of guests to lie down and take a moment.
This particular West Elm combination is putty gray in color, with chocolate-colored legs, and a slightly rough, though not uncomfortable “basketweave” finish. In all honesty, it seems a pretty ordinary sofa, until you sit on it. Only then do you realize how ridiculously comfortable it is. Not in that cheap Swedish way that feels right only in one position and only in the showroom, nor in the overgenerous softness of a reclining, swiveling, drink-holding, faux suede All-American sofa. The Blake is firm, yet giving, and feels snug whether you sit upright or lounge haphazardly. It’s nothing less than a favorite lover wrapping arms around you and whispering stay awhile.
More often than not the love seat becomes the guest’s, while Jon and his partner JJ stretch out on the chaise together, her head falling to his chest, sometimes in sleep. Conversations between friends will continue on in to the night, and become increasingly dream-like. When eventually the stories and half-awake debates have ended and sleep is taking everyone together, the couple departs wordlessly, and the guest is left with the whole sofa to stretch out on.
As comfortable as the West Elm is to sit on, it is literally a dream to sleep on. It’s wide enough to roll from side to side without the gymnastics of most sofas, and it’s thick, firm padding would shut any princess up about a pea. This is the city, so there’s no true dark and no true silence. But the street light, which stands mercifully below the window, scans patterns through the treetop onto the old plaster ceiling above that are the envy of any child’s mobile, and with the window open, the distant sirens, car horns, and shouts are as reassuring as any summer’s breeze. To sleep here is to sleep like you’ve never slept before.
The record for residence on the West Elm is nine months, held by my friend Zach. After wandering around the world—fighting wildfires, acting in a “ghost town,” working as a carpenter—Zach came out of the blue to stay with Jon. He had no job, no money, and nowhere to go, though that did not seem to be a huge point of concern for either man. At one point, Jon found Zach a job painting the walls of a nearby dive pizza joint. The owner told him he could paint what he wanted. He meant white or cream. Zach instead painted a mural that took three months to complete. When he was done he refused any payment except the original fifty bucks he’d been promised. Later he was asked to fix a shelf by one of Jon’s friends who’d heard Zach was a carpenter. Zach created a small library of built-in bookshelves, and this time refused payment of any kind because it was for a friend of Jon’s.
When Zach finally moved on, his record remained. Despite many guests—family visits, travelers passing through, friends in need—his record stood for years until Sherpa arrived for “two or three days, a week at most.” Sherpa is Taiwanese not Tibetan and has never climbed any mountain, but he’d been given the name the first time we met him, the way boys do, and kept it forever. He followed a stellar college career with a high-paying Capitol Hill job, which he parlayed into entrepreneurial success, buying three townhouses in a rundown DC neighborhood that gentrified overnight and quintupled in value. For years he was the successful one while the rest of us were still finding our way. Then he fell in love with the wrong girl and his life imploded. Within a year he was heartbroken, bankrupt, and homeless, his properties having been signed over to her in a final futile act of defiant love.
At first Sherpa was concerned with being the perfect guest. He’d lost his high-paying job, but found work stocking shelves, and he’d steal steak and bottles of wine and cook dinner for his hosts as a way to thank them. He’d make sure to regularly go out for long walks to give the couple some time to themselves. But as the weeks wore on, formality gave way to familiarity. By month two, anyone walking into the apartment was less likely to find him cooking and more likely to find him in his underwear studiously working his way through a 24-pack of PBR. He stopped going out for walks and told Jon to “fuck whenever you want, it doesn’t bother me.”
By the time nine months had passed, Sherpa had gotten his life back to a semblance of together and was ready to move on. But he stayed anyway, joking that he needed to break Zach’s record. Every evening Jon would come home from work and yell, “Still here?” in mock outrage, but, in truth, Sherpa had become both sidekick and mission, and he was happy for him to stay. It was ten months before Sherpa went on his way.
When it was I who was lost, and my turn to take the West Elm sofa came, I thought of its previous occupants and where they had gone after their respite with Jon. Zach wandered for years until finally he fell in love, married, joined the Rangers, traveled to Afghanistan—where he said he’d never felt more alive or satisfied with his life—and died in a firefight at age 31. Sherpa wandered too. He packed everything he owned in a tarpaulin sheet and traveled to Argentina, studying for a month in Buenos Aries before setting off on foot across the Patagonian Mountains. I heard from him next in Paris, living in a room as big as a closet in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, and sharing a corridor bathroom with a continually passed-out drunk. From Paris he walked for months on El Camino de Santiago—the old pilgrimage route to Galicia, Spain, to visit the remains of the apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He’d Facebook from the churches he stayed in along the way, surrounded by other glorious lost souls, as happy as I’d ever seen him.
I stayed three weeks with Jon, receiving his blunt, good-natured counsel every evening, and soaking up the West Elm’s restorative powers every night. Then I followed Zach and Sherpa back into the world. Both had come back to Jon’s sofa for far shorter stays at various moments over the years, as have I. It is the haven we have all shared. Other sofas are a place to crash. The West Elm is for those uncertain times when you don’t know where the next step will take you. Watching the lives of my friends spin off from here, even if tragically as in Zach’s case, is always heartening, because I know a similar road lies open for me.
When Zach died, Sherpa and I returned to travel with Jon to the funeral in Cape Cod. That night, we drank heavily and happily, and told endless stories of Zach. When Jon finally took his leave, Sherpa and I were left alone on the West Elm in the awkward silence of an unspoken question. Who sleeps where? After a few moments, I took the guest’s love seat, and left him the chaise. He was the record-holder after all.
David Alasdair earned an MFA from Eastern Washington University in Spokane, WA, has seen the Loch Ness Monster, been in the world’s longest chorus line, and occasionally makes Shrek-like noises with his right ear.
Read an interview with David here.