Edited by Andrea Spofford | Barry Kitterman | Amy Wright
Beds, a Reverie
Earliest coveted bed: my brother’s. A three-quarter bed, larger than a 39”x75” twin, smaller than a 54”x75” double, and more exotic for the oddity. The maple bed frame was inlaid with scars, scratches, nicks and gouges, plenty knocked about before becoming my brother’s night coach. Like much of the furniture in our house, the bed had been passed along by relatives who had traded up and for reasons of kindness or spite gifted us with their discards. An entire bedroom to himself my brother possessed, another flashpoint of envy. Both room and bed faced fields, not swamp. An expansive view from the refuge of sheets. While my brother was out and about, I’d sneak in not to finger his arrowheads or BBs or bird nests, not even to try on his baseball mitt—tempting pastimes, all. I’d sneak in to sit square in the middle of his bed. I should have realized the intensity of the attachment amounted to a fetish in the making. I should have expected, eventually, that fetish to turn on me.
Name every bed you’ve ever slept in, alone or with company, the spatial location of that sleeping/unsleeping platform, what can and can’t be seen from its point of recline, above, below, left, right. Describe in full the cast(s) of light, the angle of shadows. Remember and reanimate the precise emotional tenor of that lying in. It’s a game I would win every time. Every time.
In thirteenth-century France, the coute or coquette set atop another mattress, draped with a linen sheet. Very likely my Aunt Clara’s twentieth-century featherbeds were also covered with sheets in summer, but I don’t remember summer overnights at Aunt Clara’s, only winter overnights, and in that season Aunt Clara’s featherbeds were topped by blue and white striped wool blankets that smelled of mothballs. In the twentieth century, Aunt Clara’s house was heated by a single woodstove located in the living room. To persuade a heat-seeking child to leave warmth for instant chill required calculation, sneaky stratagems. On Aunt Clara’s count-off signal, how fast could I race across the hall, leap, dive and sink, sink, sink into the featherbed in the far corner of a frosty bedroom? Fairly fast, and I got faster. One last burn-defying brush against the woodstove and off I’d go. A cold nose by morning, but the rest of my package still snug, still toasty.
Egyptians pharaohs recognized the advantages of elevating their sleeping pallets above the damp and drafty ground and made it so; the Romans contributed headboards. The hippie’s fave, the waterbed, was an idea recycled. Thirty-six hundred years ago in Persia dream seekers filled goat skins with water and nestled in. The impetus behind the Murphy hideaway? More room to entertain. In the early 1900s, Mr. and Mrs. Murphy lived in a one-room San Francisco apartment. A bed took up dancing space. Mr. Murphy’s now you see it/now you don’t fold-up design solved the problem without requiring a change of address. Air bed, box bed, bunk bed, captain’s bed, chamber bed, daybed, Murphy bed, platform bed, sleigh bed, sofa bed, state bed, trundle bed, waterbed…. A lilting list, the bed list. Almost a lullaby.
In Levittown tract houses, the sofa bed became a must-have furnishing. As went Levittown, so went post-World War II America. When our Virginia relatives arrived for a multi-night visit, they slept altogether on our living room “convertible.” When snowstorms or hurricanes deprived us of our electric blankets, we slept huddled there as well, breathing in the noxious fumes of a kerosene heater. No power outages, the night eight of us girlies watched the entire broadcast of Return of the Crab Monster crushed together on a sofa bed. We could have turned on the light when the Crab Monster’s mighty claw crested the sand dune, but instead we kicked and screamed and squealed and jumped. It held up well to pajama party abuse, the sofa bed in Shirley Simpson’s living room. Shirley Simpson’s parents held up well too.
It’s a story, a scene, a set piece, beloved by Wharton fans. The authoress, propped on pillows, still in her dressing gown, writing furiously in longhand, page after page of brilliant prose fluttering to the floor to be scooped up by the maid and typed by the typist. A good morning’s work accomplished before Edith and houseguest Henry James motored around the Berkshires. American aristocrats, Edith and Henry. Jarring, therefore, to enter Henry’s guest bedroom at The Mount with a docent guide and see sleeping bags on the floor and a Che Guevera poster thumbtacked to the wall. It was the mid-1980s. The theatre troupe that performed on the lawn slept in-house for the duration of their summer run. Sleeping bags and posters of Communist heroes in Edith’s country manor, in Henry’s room. Multiple choice: which would have irritated The Master more? A) sleeping bags, B) Communist martyr art, C) the presence of a theatre troupe. In Henry James’s failure dreams, there must have been actors, scores of them. I vote C.
A bad, bad stretch that urged instant relocation. But where to go and how to get there? Short on funds, I imposed on a childhood friend who lived in a basement apartment in Somerville, Massachusetts. Her wicker loveseat was too short, so I slept on the floor. Courtesy of streetlights, before I slept, between bars on the street-level window, I watched snow fall and the feet of people who knew where they were going be on their way. Before class each morning, my friend dropped me off near Harvard Square where I spent the day evading my future by drinking endless cups of coffee and browsing books. She was a good friend to put up with the uninvited, an even better friend to take on the task of running interference when the man I’d fled began, nightly, to call. I could claim now (and who would bother to contradict?) that I fled the man’s bed, a Goodwill mattress on the floor, but that would be an ad hoc lie. The bed itself I had no quarrel with.
In graduate school myself, too drunk to drive North Carolina’s Interstate 85 safely, another friend let me overnight at her place in town. In her furnished apartment in a once single-family Victorian, she had the beds and bedding to spare. A double bed in her official bedroom, another double, plus chaise lounge, on the sleeping porch, a commodious couch, a sleeping cot. The bathroom was certainly large enough for a divan but stored an overstock of dressers instead. Those nights I stayed over we stayed up talking and, dangerous to neither pedestrian nor motorist, continued to drink. When finally we did stretch out, tired or drunk or tired and drunk, we always left the doors between rooms open to extend the conversation to its last trail-off sentence. A fine way to drift off to sleep, arguing books and their composition. A fine primer for dream.
In the overheated Brooklyn apartment, mice lived in the pot of ivy beside the bed. At night they dug in the plant dirt and scuffled about. Still under 30, I didn’t worry about mice infestations or sleep interruptions. Neither kept me awake for long. The resident cat (not mine) wasn’t a mouser or perhaps the heat sapped her hunting strength. All day and all night she dozed at the very bottom of the bed, as far from the humans who fed her as possible. If she left that spot to eat or piss, returning to starting point required no great exertion. The bed, low and wide, rested on filched brick pallets. The cat probably didn’t care, but eventually I got tired of looking up at a bare light bulb and hung a paper umbrella, painted turquoise with red flowers, above our heads. Gusts of radiator heat set it spinning. The motion disturbed neither female nor feline. When we wanted to sleep, we slept.
On Martha’s Vineyard, in Edgartown, I first slept at Mildred’s Rooming House on a twin bed covered by a plaid spread. Then on a chintz-covered twin across from the Old Whaling Church. Then on another plaid-covered twin off Curtis Lane in the home of two proud Republicans who rented out the upstairs bedroom during the tourist high season. Soon enough, though, I began sneaking down the stairs to share, midnight to near-dawn, the bottom bunk of a bed assigned to a Harborside Inn employee. Always, before either the sun or my censorious landladies rose, I biked back through deserted streets to my Curtis Lane twin, fog rolling in from the harbor. A lovely, lovely ride. But prior to it, in that shared bunk bed, I’d sometimes wake, arms above my head, hands gripping the iron headboard. Fairly blatant, as distress signals go. Yet I paid no attention. It was summer; I was young. Supposedly I was in love.
In Asheville, to support my futon mattress, my brother sawed and screwed and bolted together an extra high, extra sturdy edifice. To get off that platform I had to ease off; I couldn’t just swing my legs and go. The night of my birthday celebration, a high bed worked to my advantage. My brother got me up the stairs and within bed range so that when I keeled forward I had less distance to fall. Face down, contact lenses in, party clothes on, I slept with my mouth open, drooling on the sheets and the futon. Neither held a grudge. When Hurricane Hugo blew through, I watched its wind effects from that futon. On it, also, I opened the mail packet that contained my first chapbook. On the eve of a California departure, every piece of furniture sold except the futon and a portable TV, I watched, reclining, the Loma Prieta earthquake shake up Candlestick Park. But to California I went regardless and there rode out aftershocks on futon number two.
Once, between jobs and homes, I house-sat for six weeks. Answered an ad in the newspaper. Showed up on the doorstep. Came off reliable enough for a pair of barely-weds to leave me their keys and cats while they spent six weeks in Europe. One of the mothers of the pair was an interior designer and had applied her craft to the dwelling. Everything matched. Sofa to curtains to bookshelves to table lamps to cookware to bath towels to throw rugs to toothbrush holders to the toilet brush—all shades of blue, brown, or blue/brown commingled. The elder cat lived on top of the refrigerator but would, for sport, swan dive, claws extended, on passersby. The couple warned me about that cat trick, clarified plant-watering instructions and asked that I not sleep in their bedroom, beneath the brown and blue duvet. I was to sleep on the trundle bed in the spare bedroom, along with the younger cat. I promptly and fulsomely agreed, waved them on their way, and come nighttime ensconced myself in their deluxe king-size bed. Deceitful, duplicitous behavior and incontestable proof that the raging paranoia of absentee property owners is fully justified. But for six glorious weeks, my oh my, this girl was one extraordinarily well-rested scamp.
For the first four months I shared the Goodwill mattress, my parents refused to speak to me. My (former) professor and the father of two under the age of 11 had bought the mattress following his first divorce. Wherever he moved, the mattress moved with him. During the period when my parents refused to speak to me, he, I and the mattress occupied a dingy, cramped house in Durham County. Instead of curtains, we covered the bedroom windows with Goodwill sheets, further muting the effects of weak, winter sunlight. Weak—the opposite of what I considered my defiant self to be. At the end of four months, my father, not my mother, telephoned. Until that call, we had never spoken on the phone, communicating through my mother, the relay station. “This is your father,” he said that afternoon. He never referred to himself as my “father.” We’re Southern. He called himself, and I called him, daddy. “I just want to know if you’re all right,” he said, and I said: “I’m all right, Daddy. I’m all right,” ostensibly the winner in a battle of familial wills. Except I didn’t feel like a winner. I felt like an obstinate daughter who had forced her phone-phobic father into an emotional conversation neither participant wanted to have. And for what? To share a mattress that reeked of indulgences not my own.
Georgie Sword sublet her Provincetown A-Frame every winter and took off for more clement seaside towns in Mexico. Smart girl, Georgie. Her P-town A-frame had no insulation. The pipes froze constantly. What warmth there was came from a gas wall unit—very expensive to run. A double bed subbed as a couch, where I could have slept, but on the theory that heat, however little there is, rises, I slept instead on the mattress that filled up the balcony/loft. While living at Georgie’s, I typed wearing gloves, slept swaddled and slept remarkably well, all things considered, until the season’s first snow. I’d never heard the rake and rumble of a snowplow before. If there hadn’t been another, Northern-bred body in bed with me at the time, I would have continued to believe Provincetown had been invaded. The Night of the Snow Plow and nights thereafter, it was assumed that I, a married woman living apart from her husband, was sleeping alone. But that was not the case. For a considerable little while before the Night of the Snow Plow, that had not been the case.
Already plenty to ponder: Emily Dickinson’s sleigh bed and the “restless nights” she spent there. But one can’t help one’s associations and where they lead. Covering the poet’s single bed, a crocheted spread, its pattern remarkably similar to my Aunt Rosa’s guest bedspread, though less than half its size. Because Aunt Rosa taught my cousin Linda and me the rudiments of chain stitching, I have a vague idea of the effort it took her to crochet such a thing of vast and intricate beauty, complicated stitches meticulously interwoven with other complicated stitches (i.e., painstaking labor and lots of it). Two reasons to love and ache for Aunt Rosa. When Linda and I stayed overnight at her house, we were dirt and grit girls; no single bath before bedtime got either of us completely clean. And yet we slept in the guest bedroom and before sleeping roughhoused on that exquisite bedspread without a word of caution or reprimand from Aunt Rosa. Reason number two: she gave the bedspread to the widow her husband, Uncle Herman, was actively courting. A peace offering? A bribe to cease and desist? Unsuccessful, if so. Her rival kept the bedspread and continued to see Uncle Herman for afternoon trysts. “Probably thought that bedspread was meant as a thank-you,” someone said, but the speaker was not my Aunt Rosa.
A noisy hotel too close to the Massachusetts turnpike. I was sleeping in, curtains drawn, head beneath the pillow. I’d earned sleep-in rights because, the day before, instead of refilling the stock of bras and panties at two discount stores, I’d managed to restock three. The fire alarm catapulted me from deep dream to deep panic, so my grab and dash wasn’t well organized or orchestrated. Boots, coat, the manuscript I planned to take to Copy Cop on Boylston Street went out the door with me. The rest of the hotel guests herded outside by the firemen were already dressed for the business day and I among that crowd of the professionally attired: breath foul, hair tangled, hugging a box of typing paper, two feet or so of flannel nightgown showing between the hem of my coat and the tops of my boots. The upside? I now know how the mad are looked at. I will recognize that look if directed my way again.
The beds of a grandmother (actual). On the Saturday nights my parents went dancing, I went to sleep in Grandma Dora’s bed. Very plain, that one. Simple headboard, hard mattress covered in white sheets line-dried and starched. They smelled divine, those sheets, but they scratched. After Dora, in a snit, moved out of the house she’d raised nine children in and into a trailer parked in a field, on overnights with Dora I slept in a built-in bed of cedar that matched the paneling on the trailer’s walls. That bed I adored. The passageway between it and the built-in dresser, also of cedar, barely accommodated Dora’s hips. Not that she passed by often. Dora was no coddler. She didn’t tell stories, bedtime or otherwise. The bedtime hour arrived and to bed you went, lights off, no “messing.” To lull myself to sleep in Dora’s non-mobile mobile home, I liked to pretend I was on a train, a sleeper train, going places. I’d instigate a self-induced sway, call out a choo-choo or two for added effect. Never one to tolerate “nonsense,” Dora somehow tolerated my extreme attachment to her built-in trailer bed. Who can say why? Maybe she thought she’d lit out for the territories herself, going from house to trailer, yard to field.
A grandmother’s bed (rumored). Grandma Luna out-birthed Dora by four, turned invalid, crawled in bed and stayed there till she “passed,” age 54. My mother scarcely remembers her mother upright, unsupported by pillows. I walked the rooms and hallways of my mother’s childhood home the last time it came on the market. It wasn’t by then a house my mother recognized or approved of and our breeze-through depressed her, but I appreciated the opportunity to stand in the empty room that had been Luna’s and take a bead on the ceiling, windows, corners, cobwebs and dust motes from a variety of bed-likely positions. Never knew the flesh and blood Luna, but my imagination has no trouble concocting a clone. A woman exhausted by children and the hard knocks of country life, a woman enervated by the very idea of rise and shine, much less its reality. A woman uninterested in forcing forward a body and mind both eager to quit. To her bedroom and bed she repairs, never again to leave. A sad ending? Not really. Not to me. And not, I imagine, to Luna.
The bed I wouldn’t have minded dying in was situated next to a cracked picture window with a view of desert, ocotillo, mesquite and, farther out, Indian Head peak. At dawn, the mountains and the desert below them turned the color of a blood orange. Just before sunset, those same mountains out-blued the sky. In that well-placed, well-angled bed, you could count fly-by ravens, listen to coyotes caucus and, when the wind picked up, to the clattering of palms. Leave the front door open after the rare rain and the whole house, bedroom included, filled with the perfume/stench of creosote. And when night finally arrived, full-on night, you could rest your cheek on a pillow and gaze at a patch of sky so crowded with stars, so saturated with light, it made the darkness of earth seem the sham. A tiny house, built the year I was born, cinderblock walls a foot thick, swamp cooler to beat the heat. Blue floors, white walls, a rafter ceiling. Straw rugs and tamarisk twigs in tins. A hot plate, a mini-fridge, two cups, four plates. A rocking chair painted yellow, a footstool painted green. For whole days and nights, for a stream of days and nights, sleeping in that house, waking in that bed, I forgot everything forgettable, including my goddamned self. But that bed is no longer mine. Bed, view, house—all of it gone. Given up, left behind, parted with in an act of reckless arrogance back when I still could sleep.
My family and I moved from North Carolina to Tennessee and into a world of confusing adolescent needs and expectation. The prepubescent eleven-year-old girls I left were still trying to decide whether it was time to wear deodorant. Here, in a suburb of Memphis, the girls were already shaving their legs and priming and concealing, risking the tender parts of their necks to create corkscrews that framed their faces.continue reading >