Still on the Couch

XX Files
LAURA MCGINNIS is a 28-year-old writer living in College Park. (Courtesy Author)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Laura McGinnis
Sunday, July 5, 2009

For her 60th birthday, my mother rents a house by the beach and asks the family to join her there. The house is designed to sleep eight, but we are nine in total: my parents, two siblings, their spouses and children. And me.

We settle in, which for me means stuffing my duffel bag into the utility closet and stashing my pillow behind a lamp.

"Hey," I whisper to my sister. "Do you think if I got married they'd stop making me sleep on the couch?"

Sixteen years earlier, we'd rented a house in the same neighborhood with my mother's sister and her family. I had a bed then, in a room I shared with my sister. In fact, I shared beds with my sister and female cousins for nearly two decades of holidays and vacations, while my brother -- the only boy -- got the dregs of the sleeping accommodations.

Then, one by one, they got married, and I was bumped from bed to bed and, ultimately, to the couch: the couch at the beach house for my mother's birthday, the couch in my aunt's den at Thanksgiving, the couch in my parents' living room at Christmas. On Christmas Eve, when my sleeping quarters were deemed too close to Santa's chimney, I was upgraded to the spare bedroom, where I slept on the floor between the crib and a tower of wrapping paper.

"You can nap in our room if you need to," my sister offers, and my brother says the same. But napping isn't the problem. The problem is being extra. In a family of families, I am the odd number, the solo unit, the spare.

For years, my brother and sister and I hit our milestones together. We were students together, then graduates, then young adults. I suppose I'd always imagined we would raise our kids together, sharing holidays and vacations the way my mother and her sister have. But now my siblings have spouses and mortgages and kids, and I'm still sharing a bathroom in a College Park group house. They've left that life, my life, behind. I may not get weepy at the thought of matching dinnerware and onesies, but I understand the appeal of commitment and family. It's a lifestyle I admire and appreciate. It's simply not the one I've chosen for myself. Not yet, at any rate.

In the morning I wake up to what sounds like a herd of bison ransacking the kitchen, a few feet from my pillow. It turns out to be my sister, who'd risen to feed the baby and then tromped downstairs to bang out breakfast for the rest of the family. I'm positive she woke me on purpose so she'd have someone to talk to, but I grumble and stomp out the door to jog and sulk about the injustice of my slumber being cut short.

It occurs to me that my sister probably hasn't had a night of uninterrupted sleep in more than two years, but for the moment, moping suits me more than sympathetic reflection.

But it's a beautiful morning, blue and green and gold, and it's hard to stay angry as my sneakers beat a soothing rhythm against the asphalt. I run past palm trees and sun-tipped marsh grasses and packs of women with strollers: one giant loop that leads me right back to the house, where my sister is scrambling eggs.

In the afternoon, we go to the beach. My brother and his wife coax a kite toward the sun while their baby dozes on a blanket. My parents carry the toddler to the water and teach her to splash and make sand castles, and I sneak off to finish my book. Summer sounds wash over me: the soft rumble of the waves, laughter and gulls, and my niece's voice, suddenly above me, saying, "Noooooey?" Her name for me.

She is crouching in the sand, her round face inches above my book, smiling expectantly. When I sit up, she slips her pudgy fingers into my hand and leads me back to the water where my family is waiting.

"Did you send her to get me?" I ask, but my sister says no.

"She just started up the beach," she says. "She knew you were missing."

So I sit on the sandbar and reach for a shovel. We make castles until it's time to go home.

I've always pitied people who resist transitions -- like the college graduate who keeps popping up on campus years after receiving his diploma -- and I would never consider myself one of them. It's not that I'm resisting that next step; I just haven't taken it yet.

And so, here I am. In their bedrooms, my siblings are sliding their children into cotton pajamas. And I'm tucking a yellow bedsheet between the cushions for one more night on the couch.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company