I never was that fond of Kafka.
We had to read “The Metamorphosis” in high school, and I just couldn’t feel sympathy toward the main character because all I could picture was this giant bug scrabbling around a pitiful room full of shabby furniture. I mean, insects are pretty gross. June bugs thumping against screen doors on summer evenings give me the willies. Japanese beetles fornicating in disgusting insect orgies while turning my crabapple leaves into brown lace make me positively murderous. I have no problem grabbing the pickle jar full of bleach and water and knocking as many of the sex-crazed creepers into it as I can. Even moths, with their squishy-looking bodies and limp wings make me shiver.
Plus, you know, I never really got the point of the story. Who writes a story about a guy who turns into a giant beetle? And then he dies? I like a story with a happy ending.
Which made my situation that much more ironic.
Okay, so I tripped on the stairs while carrying a ginormous plate of éclairs out to my car. I’d promised to contribute to the refreshment table at Steffie Costigan’s wedding shower, so I’d spent the day piping filling and melting chocolate and arranging the éclairs just so on a big silver-plated tray I’d picked up at a flea market somewhere for cheap. The tray was inscribed “Best Female Athlete, 1986, Flynn Consolidated High School, Meghan Peabody,” but that was easily covered with a paper doily. I’m not sure Steffie’s mother expected such a tower of pastries, but once I’d begun that morning, I hadn’t been able to stop.
I love making desserts. If I had the guts, I’d quit my corporate job and open a bakery next door to a bookstore or stationery shop or a place that sells touristy gifts like wreaths decorated with dried-out starfish, oven mitts shaped like lobsters, and cocktail napkins printed with ladies from the 1950’s holding up martini glasses and smiling those big, red-lipped smiles. I’d live in the apartment over the bakery, and the entire street would be scented with the sweet essences of sugar and vanilla and butter and chocolate wafting from my store. I’d sell my car and buy a bicycle, one of those big sturdy kinds with a basket hanging beneath the handlebars. In the winter, I’d walk to the grocery store on the corner. In summer, I’d make friends with all the vendors at the farmer’s market, maybe trade some of my signature chocolate-peanut butter fudge for vine ripe tomatoes and baby greens.
But I knew I’d never actually do those things. I’d keep my accounting job in the city, commute an hour each day from the suburban condo development I was foolish enough to buy into the first year I started making some real money, and channel my epicurean fantasies into baskets of oversized muffins for the corporate break-room, brownie-movie nights for my gaggle of single girlfriends, and platters of pastries for special events like Steffie’s wedding shower being held in the condo association community room in building C.
My first mistake was wearing my four-inch heels. I was running late, of course, and figured I could navigate the two wide steps down from my doorstep to my parking space with no problems despite the wobbly Jimmy Choo look-alikes and a tight skirt. I could barely see around the platter, but I could see. Which is why I have no idea how I half-missed the step, rolled my ankle, and landed on my knees on the cement walkway. From my cat-cow yoga position, I watched the tray of éclairs free-fall into a giant heap of gooey mess two feet from my car. The yell that came out of my mouth is unprintable.
Knees burning and bleeding, I wriggled around to a sitting position, took off my shoes, and stood up. The weird thing was, my foot didn’t even hurt. I had felt it pull, maybe even pop, but surprisingly there was no pain. All I really cared about at the moment were those éclairs. My second thought, after a quick assessment of my physical condition, was, “Thank god I made extras.” I’d slipped another three-dozen pastries into the freezer just before dressing for this shindig. They would be cold, but edible.
Leaving the mess outside, I limped into my condo, called my best friend, Becks.
“You wouldn’t believe what just happened,” I said when Becks picked up her cell phone. I told her the story, and she laughed, which I don’t blame her for doing. It was kinda funny to imagine those éclairs flying through the air like sweet torpedo bombs.
“Are you all right?” she asked, once she’d stopped with the hyena impersonation.
“Yeah, yeah. Just can you come over and pick up the extra desserts and take them to the party? I’m gonna be a little late.” Actually, my foot was feeling kinda funny, loose and numb at the same time. I began to suspect all was not well after all.
Becks arrived wearing her favorite white halter top and a long skirt I’d never seen. “Nice outfit,” I told her. “Shows off your tan. What are you wearing for shoes?” She lifted the skirt to reveal flat gladiator sandals. “Thank god. Now be careful on the steps and call me later. I think I may have to see a doctor.”
We both looked at the foot which was now definitely swollen and turning a distinct shade of purple on the edge.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay?” Becks frowned at me. “I could drive you to the hospital now . . .”
“No way!” I flung out my arm, waving her off. “Steffie will kill us if neither of us shows up. Tell her what happened and that I’m so sorry to be missing her party.”
Becks made a face and whispered, “What about the wedding? What if you can’t walk?”
“I don’t know. It’s in two weeks. I’ll probably be all better by then.”
“Hope so. I don’t want to be the only aging bridesmaid pretending to be oh-so-joyful about Steffie’s marrying King Kong.” King Kong is what we called Steffie’s fiancé, a pediatrician whose luxuriant dark hair did not end at his head but covered his entire body in what could only be described as a pelt. We’d asked Steffie if this bothered her.
“No. And I don’t want to talk about it.” She pulled her sunglasses from the top of her head and clapped them over her eyes.
That’s how we knew it did bother her. But Steffie was tired of being single, Josh treated her well, he made a better-than-decent living, and they both wanted four children in five years. Eh, what’s a little hair, I thought. She could always give him a gift certificate for a total-body wax job sometime down the road. That didn’t mean we would stop calling him K.K. or King, or the Kong whenever we had the chance.
“K.K. isn’t so bad. At least Steffie found someone,” I said, hobbling over to the couch and plopping onto it with a moan. “Would you mind getting me some aspirin before you leave?”
I spent the night watching sappy made-for-television romance movies and chastising myself for trying to move pastry in a pair of high heels. The next day, Becks drove me to the health clinic in town where my foot was x-rayed and declared broken in two places. I was fitted with a cast, given some crutches, and told to keep off it as much as possible. I called work and took a week’s leave of absence. Co-workers sent condolence IM’s. I made myself comfortable on the couch with water bottles, aspirin, and snack food all within easy reach.
The next day, Becks stopped by with take-out Chinese food and watched a movie with me. “What do you mean, you didn’t take the pain meds?” she said. “Are you crazy?”
“It doesn’t hurt that much,” I said. Of course, it really did hurt that much, but I was trying to be brave.
“Well, you could’ve given them to me,” she said, half-joking. “I coulda sold ‘em downtown. Money’s a little tight this month with all the bridesmaid expenses and all.”
I groaned. “Don’t remind me. Steffie’s flipping out.”
Becks bit off the end of a spring roll. “Big surprise there.” I had to turn away because she was talking with her mouth full of shredded vegetables and rice. “You’d think this was the Royal Wedding or something.”
“Well, for her it is,” I said. “Hand me some more of that lo mein, will you?”
I was a little hurt that Steffie hadn’t come by to see me. She had called the night before, thanking me for the éclairs and trying to be subtle about asking whether or not she needed to find a replacement bridesmaid.
“Maybe you ought to ask you cousin, Simone. She’s about my size. I bet she could fit in the dress. You know, just in case.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Steffie sounded relieved. “I’ll ask her. I still hope you can at least come to the wedding.”
“Yeah. Okay.” I threw the cell phone into the other corner of the couch. It was times like these you really know who your friends are, I thought. But then I tried to put myself in Steffie’s shoes. My friend had this one shot at the dream wedding, so who was I to resent her understandable preoccupation with all things nuptial.
After Becks went home, leaving me with the cartons of leftover Chinese food to finish off at my convenience, I settled deeper into the couch and propped my foot up on a couple pillows. I was so comfortable, I decided to sleep right there.
I spent the entire week on that couch, getting up only to hobble to the bathroom or grab some more food or drink from the refrigerator. Becks stopped by twice, but she was busy with the pre-wedding planning with Steffie, had a pile of casework at her job as a social worker, and managed to score an actual date with an actual grown-up. She’d been having happy-hour drinks with her coworkers when a good-looking guy bought her the third of her four raspberry mojitos of the evening. They got to talking. He was in finance. The both liked horses. He asked her out on a date.
I got to hear all the details from my couch where I was beginning to feel sorry for myself. Why did these things always happen to me, I wondered. How was I going to find a guy if I was stuck hobbling around on crutches all summer long?
By the end of the next week, everyone stopped calling, and I’d grown very fond of the couch. I was able to drive myself for a follow-up visit to the clinic, but I told the doctor I didn’t think I was quite ready to go back to work. I called in sick for another week. My boss said, “Fine. Let me know if you think this will be an extended leave, though. Work’s piling up.”
Like I cared. All I really wanted to do was get back home, draw the shades, and binge-watch Sex and the City on Netflix. The next week, I didn’t bother to call work, and notice of my termination arrived by registered mail. I signed the green card, hobbled back to the living room, and plopped into my comfy spot on the couch.
All month, I sank lower and lower into the couch cushions. Let me tell you about this couch. It was my one big splurge when I graduated with my master’s degree in accounting. Even though it was on sale, I really couldn’t afford the designer piece with its white, suede-like covering, its round bolster cushions on the ends, the fluid line of its low, cushiony back.
Now the softness of those cushions cradled me, and I could feel myself growing heavy and round from inactivity combined with near-constant eating.
Then something weird happened. A small tear in the couch cushion developed beside me, and when I pulled a bit of the white fluff from the hole, I suddenly had an irresistible desire to put the stuffing in my mouth to see what it tasted like.
I pinched it between my finger and thumb, held the white cottony material up to my eye, inspected it for a moment. My tongue slipped out from between my lips, gently tapped the fluff experimentally. It was sweet. Not exactly like sugar, but melty and grainy. More like cotton candy. Spun sugar but with more heft. I put the entire piece in my mouth. Chewed. Swallowed. Delicious.
“That was weird,” I muttered to myself, washing the stuff down with a swig of water from the bottle on the coffee table. Trying to push the incident out of my mind, I called Becks’s cell phone, but all I got was her voice message.
“Hey, Becks,” I said, trying to sound chipper. Truth was, I was having a hard time forming sentences. Talking, I realized, is a skill you lose if you don’t use it regularly. “Just wanted to see how your date with Bernie Madoff went.”
She called me later. Fisher, a financial planner, had taken her to the horse races, and they’d had dinner while watching the action on the track. He was funny and smelled like good cologne and after dinner they stopped by Dairy Queen for soft-serve. “I think I’m in love,” she whispered.
“After one date?” I squeaked. “With Bernie Madoff?”
“So what?” she said. “And don’t call him that, okay?” I could tell she was serious.
“Sorry. Okay. I’m happy for you.”
“Thanks.” The line went silent.
There didn’t seem to be much else to say, so we hung up. I absently pulled out another piece of fluff from the couch and stuffed it into my mouth. I’d swallowed it before I knew what I was doing.
By the end of the following week, I’d eaten out a large chunk of that couch and had sunk down to my chest. My legs felt weird, shrivelly. My foot no longer hurt, though, and I found I no longer craved real food, just the couch and the occasional sip of water from the case of bottles Becks had dropped off for me early on in my recuperation period. I knew the television schedule of my favorite cable channels by heart. My hair sprang from my head in a froth that felt strangely damp and sensitive to the touch. I could tell I’d gained weight. Plus it seemed as if my arms had shrunk.
Taking much effort, I wriggled myself from my comfy spot in the couch, rocking back and forth, loosening the area around me so I could plop onto the floor. I couldn’t walk. In fact, I couldn’t even see my legs over the white roundness of my belly. There was no pain, but something told me things weren’t quite right.
Cursing my decision to put in laminate flooring instead of wall-to-wall carpeting, I rolled myself across the living room floor to the hallway where the floor-length mirror I’d installed usually came in handy for last-minute clothing checks. Now, gazing into the mirror, I blinked.
My god, my hair’s changed color, was my first thought. It was a dull, brownish green sticking up from my head in a strange, stalk-like formation with the ends curling out in fronds. I tried to remember the last time I took a shower . . . and couldn’t.
Trembling, I met my own horrified eyes in the mirror. My head had sunk into my chest, neck gone save for some strange rolls where my chin used to be. But that wasn’t the worst. My chest and stomach bulged out, round as a ball, and what remained of my legs fused together and tapered down to a squat, pointy end. My clothes were mere tatters, hanging by some strange thread like hairs. My chest was purple. The rest of me a pale, creamy white.
Like Kafka’s insect-guy, I’d been transformed. I wasn’t a couch potato. I was a couch turnip.
“How could this have happened?” I tried to scream, but I’d lost my voice. I hadn’t noticed because no one had called me in days, and I had been too absorbed in my television watching to pick up the phone and dial out.
I tried to summon the requisite terror such a situation would normally produce, but instead I felt weirdly calm, stoic even. Okay, so I was now a turnip. It must have been something in the couch stuffing that triggered a metamorphosis. What’s done can probably be undone, I reasoned. I will stop eating the couch. I will drink more water. I’ll find some real food to eat, take some aspirin, lie here on the floor, and when I wake up, I’ll be back to normal.
Lacking legs, I could no longer reach the upper cupboards, but I was able to get to the cereal and a box of low-fat wheat crackers on the lower shelf of the pantry. I sat there on the kitchen floor gobbling processed carbs and trying not to leak tears all over my neck-rolls. I didn’t quite know what I would do once that food was gone. Maybe exercise?
I rolled around and around the kitchen floor, noticing how dirty it was close up and vowing to get out the mop and bucket as soon as my legs grew back. I rolled until I was out of breath and sore, but after rolling back to the couch and replanting myself in my spot, I fell into a deep and untroubled sleep.
I was awakened by the doorbell but couldn’t yell for help. Luckily, Becks used her spare key to open the door. I watched her step over the empty cereal cartons I’d left on the kitchen floor. I waited for her to see me, dreaded her reaction.
Her eyes scanned the sad, dim condition of the room. Her nose wrinkled. “Smells like compost in here,” she said.
“Mmm-hmmm,” I hummed, still unable to talk.
She swooped around the room, scooping up take-out cartons, pizza boxes, candy bar wrappers, and empty water bottles. “I’m getting worried about you,” she said, pulling the vertical blinds open to let sunlight pour through the patio doors. “No one has heard from you in days, your boss says you quit, you didn’t even try to make it to Steffie’s wedding.”
Where have you been, I wanted to ask her? If you were so worried, why didn’t you come before now? I knew I was feeling sorry for myself, but would it kill her to really look at me? To notice how wrong things were in my world? How lonely I had become? I’m sorry, I wanted to say. I’m sorry and I need help.
Did she sense my anguish? Can turnips, perhaps, telepathically communicate? Becks finally swung her dark hair and stared at me. Her nose wrinkled again. She put a hand on one hip. “You really need to get out more,” she said. “Let’s get you off this couch, Ms. I’ve-Turned-Into- A-Turnip.” She pulled me up by the roots of my green hair and shook me a little, dislodging bits of white couch fluff from my pale and purple self. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d swear you did this on purpose.”
Becks rolled me into the bathroom, turned on the taps full force, and filled the tub before plunking me into it. “I’m calling the doctor and taking you in so he can look at your, er . . . foot.” She sounded a bit uncertain for a moment but pushed valiantly on. “Then we’re going to the spa. Don’t argue with me,” she scolded, scrubbing me with a washcloth. “We need to do something about that hair. It’s positively wilted. And you need a good wax.”
If I’d been able to talk I would have told Becks I loved her. I would have promised to pay her back every penny she was going to spend at the day spa. But I couldn’t talk. I just sat there, like a turnip, and let her take care of me.
When Steffie got back from her Maui honeymoon, she and Becks took turns helping me with my exercises, preparing healthy human food, and making sure I stayed away from any furniture cushions. I regained my speech within a month. My legs began to grow by Christmas. In May, just as the lilacs began to bloom outside in the tiny postcard-size condo garden, I looked at myself in the mirror and knew I had returned to normal, whatever that was.
I invited Becks and her boyfriend, Fisher, and Steffie and Josh over for dinner. I pulled out my favorite recipes—baked, stuffed haddock with cream sauce, braised asparagus, artichoke cheese dip with toasted baguette slices, and, of course, éclairs for dessert.
After dinner, I raised my glass of champagne and looked at the faces around me. Becks with her dark hair and long nose. Steffie’s shaggy blond locks and perpetual tan. Josh’s hairy arms (he resisted all waxing offers), Fisher’s glasses and strong chin. I felt a rush of affection for all of them.
“This year,” I began, but my eyes filled with tears and my throat closed up. For a moment, I panicked, but then I realized I was emotional, not regressing to turnip-hood. “This year, I almost lost myself. Given much more time, I may never have left the couch again. But because of you, my dear friends, I’ve been given a chance to start over. Thank you so much. I love you guys.”
I blinked though the tears and everyone yelled, “Here-here!” There was laughing and sipping of champagne.
I continued. “And here’s to Steffie and Josh. I can’t think of any two people who would make better parents.” Baby Kong was due in September. Steffie and Josh looked at each other and smiled while the rest of us drained our glasses.
“And I’d like to propose a toast to our hostess,” Becks said. “To the former Ms. Turnip and her new venture!”
“To Baby Cakes!” Fisher said, raising his glass.
I smiled. The bakery was almost ready for its grand opening. I’d sold the condo and would be moving into a new apartment in three weeks. I was keeping my car for now, but I already had my eye on a snazzy pink bicycle advertised on the community bulletin board.
A thumping, buzzing noise erupted outside the screen door that led to the patio.
“Ew,” I shuddered, standing and sliding the glass door shut. “I never did like June bugs.”
This speculative fiction/chick lit story was first published in The Katherine Press Review in October 2011. Rights have reverted back to me. Thank you for checking it out!
Photo by Tom The Photographer on Unsplash