I was nestling into bed one night when my boyfriend observed, “Look at that grin. You never smile bigger than when you’re lying down in the bed at night.”
At that point, although I didn’t yet have the perspective to see it, I was wading through my least-favorite decade of life: my twenties. Before my boyfriend–that difficult, lovely, angry, generous, wounded man–pointed out that I smiled every night, I’d never noticed the easy joy I felt when slipping into bed each evening. I’d never consciously realized that climbing into bed gave me permission to shed the day, turn off my brain’s lights, retreat deep inside myself. Of course, I knew that beds can be havens, places where life’s best releases take place, oases of comfort. Naturally, I also knew that climbing into bed didn’t necessarily assure that the day would be shed or the brain’s lights would shut off. Some nights, even surrounded by the forgiving softness of the bed, I would feel tears slipping down my cheeks and running into my ears. On such nights, I would watch the clock through the dark hours, lonely, anxious, nervous, unable to find peace.
However, for the most part, the allure and promise of the bed are fulfilled. As attorney Johnny Cochran once quipped, “When you need to rest your head, the quest ends with a beautiful Bed.”
Over the course of my life, I’ve lost count and memory of all the beds that have brought smiles to my tired face. Pictures remind me of a few, like the crib that held me during my earliest months.
As this photographic evidence proves, I didn’t start out as a smiley bed person. Early days taught me that when it comes to sleep, I LIKE MY SPACE, PEOPLE.
A few years later, my sister and I shared a room, sleeping each night in our parallel Big Girl beds. Does anyone else wonder about the symbolism and significance of my always sleeping under a Russian balalaika?
If nothing else, it explains my love of potatoes, vodka, and grim suffering.
At some point, those beds migrated to a bedroom down the hall. My strongest memory of my time in that room involves falling out of bed in the middle of the night, awaking rudely, full of screams and cries, as my body hit the floor. It would be thirty years before a bed would again betray me so profoundly, and in the latter case, the bed that failed was an air mattress with impressive packaging and a slow leak.
After my sister and I moved down the hall, our previously shared space morphed into the den, a place where my dad would nap in his recliner while the television broadcast episodes of “Family Feud” and “Wheel of Fortune” in front of his dozing eyes.
Once adolescence hit, my sister and I both wanted our own rooms, and so she stayed upstairs while I moved down to the basement and into a new bed.
A water bed.
I didn’t actually have a private room in the basement, but we cordoned off one end of the orange-carpeted “rec room” with screens and a tall armoire, and that space became my bedroom for several years. In that faux-walled space, I spent one afternoon calling the local radio station a hundred times, trying to win Billy Joel tickets. In that bedroom, I had an ear infection so fierce that my only recollections of that night are a warm washcloth on the side of my face, my parents’ concerned faces looming above me, and my mother’s body crawling under the covers with me as I sobbed through the slow-ticking hours. In that bedroom, my friend Lorri woke up early one morning after sleeping over, surfed a wave out of the queen-sized ocean of water, and sat on the floor reading a book while I continued to dream about helping Kelly, Jill, and Sabrina escape from a women’s prison on Charlie’s Angels. Just as my brain had me hand-cuffed to my fellow undercover private detectives, running across an open field while barking dogs chased us, Lorri—in the waking word—soundlessly watched two white mice emerge from under a table and nose around, looking for crumbs from a Twinkie. Fortunately, Lorri found them cute; had I been the one sitting on the floor reading a book, my rodent-fearing self would have shouted for the nearest warden to come toss me into his prison, a place where I would ingratiate myself into the white-girl “family” and beg the alpha female, Red, to make the others provide mice protection in exchange for my smuggling eye shadow into the joint inside my multi-talented private parts.
Then, when I was fifteen, my brother headed off to college, which meant his bedroom and water bed in the basement—a real room and a twin-sized bed—were poachable. Triumphantly, I propped my stuffed Fozzy Bear on a shelf and ticky-tacked my Journey posters to the wood-paneled walls. Each night, our two poodles would hop up onto the bed with me, and we’d all gurgle around for a few minutes before they’d pin me under the covers with their bodies. Fortunately, the dogs were out of sight, and my heavy clogs (much like Sabrina Duncan might have worn while piloting a plane) were near at hand late one evening when a scorpion wandered into my room. No idiot in a crisis, I snatched up a clog and bashed the scorpion a few times; once it stopped moving, I left the corpse moored under the shoe, started shaking, and ran upstairs to find my dad. When I told him I had just killed a scorpion, he was doubtful, but when he came down and examined the evidence, my mild Finnish father was amazed to the point that he cut loose with strong language: “Well, would you look at that.” Although my ears were already on fire, he punctuated his outburst with a firm “Huh.”
When I left home and went to college, the beds were longer and lonelier, host to “sleeping it off” and study sessions. On a series of industrial mattresses that had supported scores of students before me, I learned of Balzac; I watched the ceiling spin after drinking seven Long Island Ice Teas; I encountered the writing of Thomas Mann; I woke up surrounded by buddies from my floor acting as alarm clock by singing their special “Good Morning, Jocelyn” tune; I plowed my way through Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays; I listened to the Cowboy Junkies on repeat through the night; I sat agape as I read about female circumcision; I considered Howard Hawks as a cinematic auteur; I tried my first bites of Ramen noodles.
Post-graduation beds were similarly clinical, in that they showed up in an assigned room, whether it was a rental in Minneapolis or a former hotel-cum-graduate-student housing in Idaho. Over the years, I sat on these beds and watched Chuck Woolery facilitate the “Love Connection,” and I woke up in such beds with a swollen jaw as I experienced the first bouts of TMJ problems. Occasionally, a table was set up next to the bed, and guests would use the mattress as a bench while they ate fettucine and shared tales of past indiscretions. One graduate school pal, an Italian-American from Rhode Island, his body creating a dip in the edge of my bed, shoveled food into his mouth while simultaneously re-enacting the moment he jumped out of an apartment window, landing in a dumpster, to escape an angry husband who had come home early and discovered my friend making a cuckold of him with his wife.
When I finished graduate school and got my first full-time teaching job, I celebrated my “arrival” into the working world by purchasing a futon. I slept on it in the rickety cottage I rented behind a drug dealer’s house (the only place in Colorado Springs I could afford on my new salary), I slept on it in my apartment in the divided-up Victorian, it lived in the guest room in a more suburban rental, and eventually my boyfriend and I drove it from Colorado to Minnesota and tossed it onto the floor of the only house for rent in August of 1996 in Austin, Minnesota.
A handful of months later, the futon softened our fall as a couple—no longer did he remark on my smiles at bedtime—as we cried and cried and cried our way to break-up while reclining on the floor. Even eight pillows and a feather bed couldn’t cushion us from that necessary pain, and after he moved out, I took to sleeping on the couch and falling asleep to the company of late-night television voices.
Just more than a year later, I lay in the smoosh of that futon on the floor, waking up, when Byron crawled into the room on his knees, holding a plate of pancakes and a woodcut by artist Betsy Bowen. The evidence was clear: yes, I would like to marry such a man.
By the next day, I was pregnant. After some months, we got married, bought a house, lofted the futon up onto a frame; it was a “real” bed—one with legs, up off the floor. The rub was that Byron had built the bedframe to suit his 6’ 3” frame, not mine, which was eight inches shorter and getting rounder by the day. I struggled to hoist my bulk up onto the mattress, often getting a running start before beaching myself on top. Once aboard, I’d struggle all night to get comfortable on the futon, to find a spot where my aching hips could relax. Then one day I came home to find seven inches had been sawed off the legs of the bedframe, and a new mattress had been delivered. Impending parenthood finally moved our bed habits out of the ‘70s.
More recently, now that parenthood is old hat, we bought a new bed. In this case, the issues weren’t the aches and pains of pregnancy but, rather, the aches and pains of aging. We needed a bed that would provide good company as we grow old. The problem was that my hips and shoulders wanted a soft marshmallow cloud at night while Byron’s back required a more board-like surface, causing him to head downstairs some nights and sleep on a piece of fairly rigid foam. Although we were harmonious in every other way, sleep needs were making divisive demands.
We needed a diplomat to solve our problem.
The answer we arrived at—the diplomat–was even more cheesy than a water bed.
We went to the Sleep Number store in the mall, a place where the salesmen wear nametags advertising, “My name is Norm. My number is 45.”
If you’re not acquainted with the Sleep Number System, you live a wonderfully sheltered life, and my guess is that your garden and bookshelves are more full than your DVR. Basically, the Sleep Number System divides a bed so that it each side can be controlled or “set” by the person who sleeps there. The bed is plugged into the wall and runs off a compressor. There is a remote control.
The entire idea of the bed makes me cringe.
With the Sleep Number, Byron is able to make his side of the mattress to a high numbers so that it’s very hard, and I’m able to set my side of the bed on the low end of the scale so that it’s very soft. One time, Goldilocks stopped by when we weren’t home and nearly broke the damn thing before she declared it “juuuuust right.”
When we first got the bed, Byron’s setting was at 70, and mine was at 35. Given time and bodily changes, though, his number went a bit lower, and mine tipped a smidge higher. In recent months, my setting has been closer to 50. So has his.
Despite ourselves, we met in the middle.
The whole number thing feels a bit ridiculous, yet the ability to adjust the feeling of our “landing pad” each night so that it is responsive to nuances of mood and body makes each of us smile as we tuck in.
So does the occasional presence of Paco’s stuffed Ducky Mo-Mo.
At its best, bed should be a place of joy, release, conversation, departure, relaxation, and fun. They are one of life’s best theatres, as was demonstrated a few weeks ago, when, early one morning–too early, before the birds had begun their rousing twitters–Paco drifted into our bedroom. Soft and fluffy from sleep, his body fighting strep throat, he clutched at his head and said, “My ear hurts so much. I can’t sleep. It hurts so much.”
When the kid who has had approximately thirty-six ear infections in his life along with two sets of long-term tubes in his ears complains of such pain, sleeping parents come to with rapidity.
While I found him some painkillers, Byron dug in the closet for the heating pad, and eventually, we got the ailing boy back to bed.
As we all resettled into the dark hours, sleep was elusive.
I lay there, eyes open, worrying. Was he getting an ear infection? The doc that day had said his ear looked okay. Did we need to take him to the clinic in the morning? Was he developing a fever? Was he awake in his room, alone, in pain? Should I go in and check?
Then I felt Byron’s hand move across the bed, our shared bed, and settle into the dip of my waist. I lay there, letting my eyes drift shut, comforted. That hand on my waist reminded me. Everything was going to be fine. That hand on my waist assured me. This little pain was nothing in the larger scope of life. We were safe. Warm. Fortunate.
That hand on my waist.
It was an intimacy without peer.
I flipped my pillow over, laid my cheek down on the cool fabric, stared out the window by my face, and smiled at the rising sun.