Originally I’d bought the bed for another girlfriend, the one before C. She’d insisted I get a king-size, one with enough space to guarantee a good night’s sleep, one where she could lay on her back, her arms crossed over her chest in a death pose, insurance against my slow creeping during the night to slide my hand under her pillow, happy to feel the weight of her head through down and feather. I slept on the right side (as I do now with C.), the side nearest the bathroom, my path a sliver of wood floor and wall, the same tightrope walk I still make now in the dark, the wall to steady me as I negotiate dog-in-dog-bed, bench, rug, dresser, and door. Most nights I arrive at the bathroom unscathed, but others produce bruised ankles, calves, and tails. The bed is too big for the room, no question; the bed has been too big for every room.
In part, I am to blame. I chose an Eastern king, a choice only Californians must make when sizing up from a queen. The California king is a longer (+4”) and narrower (-4”) bed than its Eastern counterpart, an implication we’re taller and skinnier here in the Golden state. More likely, it’s a product of our constant need to be original. I explained the difference to my girlfriend, the one before C., rattling the tape measurer across the room so she could appreciate the extra width I was willing to sacrifice. She waved me off and told me it was my bedroom, my house, so I should be the one to decide.
But the bed’s size wasn’t my girlfriend’s only complaint. Noises, even small ones, would wake her. She would sit up, put in her earplugs, and announce she was signing off for the night. I waited until then to tell her things I was too scared to say when she could hear me. Once, just as she was falling asleep, I whispered, I’ve been praying that you’ll stay. Her eyelids flickered, and for a moment I thought she’d heard me.
I picked out a new bed frame for the Eastern king, a simple platform style (no box spring, no footboard) made of solid American cherry in the Shaker tradition, all wood joinery, modest, utilitarian. Maybe this was the problem, rather than the size: such a plain bed was puritanical to the point of prudish. There were other choices, other woods, even upholstery, sleek European designs with matching nightstands that would have suited the small space. I had such a bed once, a wedding gift from my parents, the one I held onto after the divorce, a queen-sized covered in black leather, with upholstered backrests that could be moved, slid in anywhere along the bed frame: at the head, as one would expect, for reading or watching TV; at the foot or sides when a hip needed support, or a thigh, or a pair of knees, clipped over the padded edge; and at those times when an angle needed opening or closing, raising or lowering, or whatever the case may be. This was the bed my girlfriend before C. found too confining, the bed I’d replaced with the Eastern king, and with its departure went the escapades and the experiments, the excitement of my prime.
Reason tells me lesbian bed death has nothing to do with the bed, but then again, we refer to our sexual history as whom we’ve slept with or (though somewhat dated) whom we’ve bedded, slang far tamer than the current hit or tapped, verbs that suggest an aggressive, adventurous spirit the bedroom cannot contain, terrain I’d explored (and hit and tapped) many times in my 20’s and 30’s: the living room rug and the kitchen counter; the shower and the pool; the front and back seat; the park and the beach. Then the time comes when we want only a bed, a soft, ample plain to roam, foregoing the hard edges and sticky surfaces and itchy detritus of more exotic locations.
A few months ago, I went mattress shopping with my parents. We rode the escalator upstairs to Macy’s home department and took turns stretching out on acres of pillow-tops. They refused my suggestion to move up to a king, worried they’d lose each other in so much space. For sixty-four years they have slept in the same queen bed, with its carved, velvet-paneled headboard and matching nightstands. If I spend the night at my parents’ house, I tiptoe downstairs the next morning, gently knock on their door, and wait for my father’s mumbling, the okay sign for me to poke my head in and find them on my mother’s side, huddled in a heart, my father’s arm draped over her shoulder.
A salesman finally approached us, our guide through the varieties of quilted damask, some filled with silk on one side, wool on the other—two sides for two seasons, spring and fall—and others with memory foam, a heat sensitive material that molds to the body, originally developed by NASA for its astronauts, the salesman emphasized, a detail meant to conjure a sense of floating, weightless, in the dark.
We spent our first night together, C. and I, in the living room, in front of a fire, on a sofa as deep as a twin bed (perhaps that’s the answer). On our sides we just fit, face-to-face or nestled like spoons. And yet, I fell asleep on top of C., my dense, muscled mattress, a living, breathing cushion for my long, bony frame, my head resting in the small triangle between her neck and shoulder, her arms around me, to save me from slipping to the floor. Just as I drifted off, I heard her whisper, I hope this lasts. Later, when I asked her what she meant, she denied saying anything.
Within a few months, the Eastern king became our bed. C. credits it for the best rest she’s ever had. The mattress’s latex core cradles our bodies, reducing pressure points, extinguishing friction and unnecessary heat buildup, the essentials to a healthy sex life quickly smothered by material too resilient, too accommodating. C. sleeps on her back and rarely moves; I roll side-to-side, plumping my three pillows to fill in the empty spaces, though there was a time when I, too, slept like the dead.
Latex also provides motion isolation by preventing the movement of one person from traveling across the mattress, potentially waking the other. The goal of motion isolation is to create harmony in the bedroom, similar to the contentment expressed by the couples featured in those late night TV commercials for remote-controlled beds, with variable sleep numbers and articulated positions that cater to the individual’s needs and desires. Motion isolation could explain why, when I reach for C. during the night, she rolls away from me onto her side, or when I lean over to kiss her while she’s sleeping, she turns her head, almost involuntarily, with no trace of disturbance but for her softer snores. She never feels me get up during the night when I can’t sleep, when I try to get to the bathroom unscathed, but if I wander across the mattress’s vast, empty center to press against her warmth, her grumbles about my trespassing push me back to my side of the bed.
In the morning, C. asks me if I slept well. All else is forgotten. Perhaps if I had paid closer attention to the mattress’s promise of isolation, I might not be where I am now.
Fortunately, the latex mattress has one considerable drawback: the impressions left by our motionless bodies, dips and depressions which can limit our natural movement, trapping us in the holes we dig while we sleep. To avoid this, C. and I keep to a quarterly schedule; it takes both of us to turn and flip the mattress in our earnest attempt to forestall the ruts we make for ourselves.
It’s getting cold now, as cold as cold gets in Southern California. I pull out the Dick and Jane flannel sheets my sister bought online for my birthday a few years ago—thick, white cotton printed with scenes from the storybooks of our childhood. The corners of the pillowcases are dog-chewed and frayed. I shake out the fitted sheet and turn it so Dick and Jane are right side up—playing hopscotch, eating ice cream, pulling a red wagon of puppies. Happy to be together. The pattern irritates me (as do the other sheets stacked in the linen cabinet—the sock monkeys and the cowboys and the three sets of polka dots), makes me wonder whether my tendency towards kitschy playfulness has gone too far, has ventured into territory best reserved for adulthood. A few years ago, when I suggested we buy more grown-up linens—organic cotton in colors like sea salt or pebble or rosewater—C. shook her head. I pressed her to explain, but she couldn’t find words for her objection. I understood this reluctance, both hers and mine, as though the presence of such serious bedding might finally demand our serious attention.
Once I get the Dick and Jane top sheet even, I fold haphazard hospital corners and leave the rest untucked. I check a corner of the bed on C.’s side that has pulled apart, post from rail, a gaping half-inch exposing raw wood and double dowel joinery. The right thing to do would be to disassemble the whole lot: headboard, rails, and slats. It would take both of us to carry the Eastern king out, to navigate the tight corners down the hallway, through the living room, and out to the garage where C. has a work bench, fitted with a vise and a pegboard of tools. Normally, I can rely on C. She knows how to fix things, how to do things the right way. Anytime she catches me cheating, trying to cut corners in my chores around the house, she takes over and does the job herself—e.g., I am no longer allowed to do her laundry. So when I told C. about the bed, she promised she’d take a look at it. But that was months (maybe years) ago.
If we wait any longer, collapse will be inevitable. No bed can stand on three feet. I dig into my closet. Way in the back is an old wooden clog—perfect for a hammer. I start banging on the post to close the gap. Just as I get one dowel in, the other pops out. I chase the fracture back and forth, beating at it whack-a-mole style, leaving crescent-shaped dents in the golden cherry. Finally, I throw down the clog. I give up. I’m done hammering. I lie down on C.’s side and close my eyes.