Bed Check: A reclining writer celebrates the ups and downs of getting horizontal | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Bed Check: A reclining writer celebrates the ups and downs of getting horizontal


Published February 6, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

  • Michael Tonn

Every 16 hours or so, most humans simply wish to do one thing: drop. Down we inevitably go, spending our nights in that rasping, dreaming, snoring state of sheet-trapped flatulence and night sweats known as sleep. Ever adaptable, we can essentially drop anywhere — in a car alongside the freeway, on a small fragrant fluff of pine needles in a forest, at a dinner table alongside the soup, on the couch or on a ledge, in an igloo or an office chair, under the desk or a bridge. Yet given a choice of where to sleep, most of us will take the bed.

A chillingly simple description of Western lifelines is easily sketched by the bed that accompanies each stage: cradle, crib, single bed, bunk bed, dorm bed, futon, double bed, childbirth bed, family bed, king-sized bed, death bed. Whether public or private, beds are obviously for sleeping. But they’re also for reading, eating breakfast, lovemaking, doing crafts, being ill, drinking coffee and wine, listening to the radio, watching television, talking on the phone, nursing the baby, telling stories to the children, telling secrets to lovers, paying bills and writing poetry. Beds are small islands tucked away in their own rooms where any and all of these activities may occur. Glassblowing, jam making and carpentry are among the few things that can’t be accomplished in bed.

Hell, Massachusetts governor Jane Swift campaigned from bed, confined there last year while carrying her twins to term. Southern novelist Flannery O’Connor wrote some of her most acclaimed work while in bed, crippled with lupus. Forced to return to her mother’s Georgia farm, O’Connor sat up in the sticky sheets notating by hand while peacocks screamed outside in the heat. From that isolated territory, her imagination caressed the heartbreaking and the grotesque.

My great-aunt Mabel took to her bed when she was 67, determined to die. A hale and healthy Christian Scientist, she decided to let God have her — and soon, please. Four years later she still sat there, a fierce set to her jaw and wearing a variety of begrimed satin bed jackets. Too greedy to starve herself, she finally wasted away from an early dementia that was unattractively satisfying to close family members.

While beds indeed host the sick, the pregnant, the reader, the toast eater, the artist and the insane, much of the time they remain just one uncomfortable point of inquiry away from intimacy. We will ourselves not to imagine relatives — especially our parents! — having sex or producing babies on those mattresses; we avoid considering an uncle’s hairy back and how it might catch on the chenille. It’s one thing to giggle over tales of your best friend’s new lover; it’s quite another to consider that stuffed-animal-strewn comforter under which he performs. We will put our jackets and purses on beds at dinner parties, or lay visiting babies there to nap. But we formally ignore the bed’s private functions in our public lives.

Yet an intensely private and personal place it is, for either the celibate or the lusty. Thomas Moore, the savant priest who writes extensively on sexuality, suggests in his book, The Soul of Sex, that a bedroom should be a sanctuary, with the bed itself an opulent altar. One’s own personal notion of opulence — be it silk, sleeping bags or organic cotton — dictates.

A self-professed epicurean, Moore insists that in order to give and receive pleasure, one must eat well, laugh often, and make the best use of the bedroom. Even if no one shares this space with you, it should offer comfort, voluptuousness, safety and beauty, however you define those. A spray of $3 daffodils and a well-washed comforter from the thrift store handily fill this bill. One needn’t splurge on 600-thread count Egyptian sheets or a bedside fridge, though they do sound grand.

Just as lovers evolve their own language, so too do they create a personal iconography. Images that hint at shared times, in-jokes or sexual proclivities can fill the walls, bespeaking the private slang of one’s own marriage or love affair. I once returned from a business trip to discover that my lover had painted our bedroom cabinets a deep mustard color, purchased a bouquet of red tulips, put a favorite photograph of us in an inexpensive faux silver frame and remade the bed in new sheets. It was like coming home to our own intimate version of the Ritz. His ministrations made the bedroom, and the bed, a wholly new and richer expression of our shared lives, though they were probably unimpressive to anyone else. The children, for example, were stoutly unmoved.

That said, I once fell into an accidental swoon of fiercely pointed jealousy when searching for the bathroom at a dinner party. Stumbling into the host’s bedroom, I discovered that the bed itself stood some four feet from the ground, an incredible monument that one had to scramble up into. Above the headboard, the hostess was immortalized as a gorgeous Athena in a six-foot acrylic nude portrait. The lighting was dark and red, the furnishings plush. Helpfully following, the hostess giggled at my surprise. “How do you get in each night?” I asked, like the pallid suburban frau I suddenly felt myself to be. “Oh, he throws me in,” she said gaily.

I bit my lip. Bitch, I thought unkindly. “Thanks,” I said, turning the bathroom knob.

My earliest knowledge of such sanctuary also came when I once used the master bathroom in a friend’s house. On my way out I glanced briefly at her parents’ bed. It was long and narrow, with unlovely sheets and a single thin blanket marred with age balls. At the tender age of 12, I instantly understood that they no longer loved each other, shook my head sagely and went to rejoin the Yahtzee! game.

On the lighter side, my friend Margaret once slept with a man she barely knew simply because he phoned and an-nounced that his new feather bed had just been delivered. No further seduction, no candlelight meal, was needed. Custom-made? she purred. Yes, he oozed. She was in his bed like a shot.

Another friend, Richard, careened through the last of his college years and into his mid-twenties as a “Couch God.” He explains that a Couch God denies the personal burdens of domesticity — he just borrows them. Surfing his friend’s couches, sleeping as he went on the lumps and springs and crumbled potato chips and loose change of borrowed sofas, Richard believes that a Couch God is among the last free men in the Western world, particularly if he’s young, educated and white. This hobo of the living room attains his liberated status essentially by refusing to own a bed. Along with such blanket rejection, of course, comes a denial of long-term intimacy, mortgages or visiting an Ikea outlet.

For my buddy Dennis, a bed is a symbol of yearning. For years he endured the chaste penance of sleeping upon a foam yoga mat, refusing to purchase even so much as a futon until he had a suitable lover. He thinks he’s found her now, though, and last we spoke the happy couple were on their way to get lunch and price queen-sized mattresses.

“Hooray!” I shouted a bit too heartily, knowing the lengthy prelude to this shopping expedition for a proper bed.

“Thanks,” he said with shy pride, then added with lowered voice, “we plan to break it.”

Actually, I know lots of people who have broken their beds — or someone else’s; curiously, one rarely seems to break one’s own. I myself have broken my sister’s bed, and she broke our mother’s guest bed.

My cousin Diane took advantage of her gay father and unhappy mother’s 20th anniversary weekend away to break their bed with a variety of partners. “Someone has to use it!” she hissed in furious late-adolescent rebuttal across the dinner table. The family sat in silent awe, considering not so much her flamboyant sexuality as her flamboyant disregard of the sanctity of the marriage bed — however arid it may be.

While we may spend early adulthood frolicking indifferently across squatters’ mattresses on the floor, the marriage bed has an impermeable dignity to it. Even the most adulterous spouse knows better than to foul it. The average 60 by 80 inches of a queen-sized mattress has been both the wrestling mat for arguments and for buoyed forms enjoying the sweetest times. It has felt both the warm rest of two relaxed sleepers and the icy elbow-shove of those too restless to cooperate even when dreaming.

My parents maintain a vacation home with an appropriately masterly kind of bed, but they’ve very carefully designated it as a small, private Switzerland — anyone may sleep in it. At their everyday house I’d never even consider sitting on their bed. But at the “cabin,” I can idly pick their hairs off the blanket and climb right into the sheets without thinking twice. We’ve all tacitly agreed to avert our eyes from the specter of lust — theirs or ours.

But all is not necessarily happy times and pheronome funk. Our good friend Sharon, whose husband died last summer, insisted that my lover and I use her bed when we recently visited. We protested, and she insisted. “It would be nice,” she said softly, “to have happy people in it once again.”

So we slept in it, made quiet love in it, and hoped to heal it. All we really did, of course, was to produce more laundry, but we did so realizing that a bed is more than just a place to lie down. It’s a place for one-third of our lives.