“Couch” was my nickname in college.
Don Peters was a junior when I was a freshman on the rowing team at Wesleyan University. The summer after my freshman year, a friend and I decided to hitchhike across the country and spend the summer at UCLA. I had never been west of New York State at the time, so laying eyes on the Pacific Ocean sounded like a noble adventure.
The plan was to present ourselves as Beta brothers, one of the most popular fraternities on the Westwood campus, even though we were not. My traveling companion had a relative who had showed him a few secret handshakes, but after a few days of free room and board we got tossed out as the imposters we were.
I got a job at a movie theater playing the Matthew Broderick film War Games and bought a heavily used moped to get to work and the beach on my days off.
As an aspiring athlete, I figured out how to sneak into the Pauley Pavilion, the famed UCLA athletic complex, to lift weights. One day at the gym, I heard my name shouted from across the room. The well-muscled, fast-talking Don, blonde hair in his eyes, came over to shake my hand. He was going to summer school and had randomly showed up 3,000 miles from our normal confines.
In those days, my ability to deal with social interactions had its limitations. The lark that was the trip out West hadn’t changed that any, to my chagrin. I walked around UCLA looking at all the beautiful people and feeling sorry for myself a lot of the time.
Don lived in a high-rise dorm and invited me to a party in his room soon after we met up in the gym. I tried to participate in the conversation but was intimated by the whole scene, so I wandered down the hall in a funk fueled by too much beer. I found a balcony with an open slide door and soon had a loveseat over my head in a scene from The Incredible Hulk, my internal pain manifesting itself in superhuman strength.
Don came looking for me just as the couch left my hands as I projected it off the balcony and into a dumpster some eight floors below.
“Woo there, Couch,” were Don’s words. He was laughing but also honestly concerned for the maniac that was throwing furniture out the window of his dormitory lounge.
From that point on, Don was my big brother. When we got back to school, I made the varsity boat; even though we weren’t that good, Don pushed me to improve. We spent plenty of time together away from the boathouse, getting into trouble and generally carrying on. But each time my behavior got near the edge of self-destruction, Don would call me by that nickname, in that tone of voice that he had used back in LA, when he saw me at my most distraught. He was always laughing like it was funny how crazy I really was, but the tone also was intended to calm me down and keep me somewhat in my right mind. “You really don’t need to jump out the window after the couch,” was the implied message.
Well, after Don left, our rowing team got serious under our first real coach and finished second in the nation. Don and I had lost touch by then. But after 25 years he showed up in my backyard, his kids at the very same school as mine. By that time, he’d become a professional poker player, at one point winning a €1 million purse in Dublin when he stared down an 18-year-old female card shark to win the final hand.
But the first time I saw him after all those years at some school parents’ meeting, all he said was, “Couch.”
He said my name in the same tone of voice he had the very first time, some 30 years ago now. He said it with so much affection that it made it impossible for me to believe, as I often did then, that I was alone in the world, without a friend.