The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Once, when I was eleven, I shared a bed with my favorite grandmother, Baba Baila. It was Passover, and Baba was sick. I didn’t know what was wrong with her exactly, just that her heart wasn’t quite right, as if it needed to be moved a little to the left or the right. We always spent the first Seder at my other grandmother’s house. In the past, that visit had sometimes been fun, but I was glad to give it up when my mother asked if I would mind sleeping over with Baba Baila instead, to watch out for her.
I embraced my caretaker duties with the excitement of a social worker on her first case. When my mother called me at Baba’s apartment, I assured her: Yes, we were fine. Yes, the chicken she’d left was good. Yes, I’d done the dishes — washed and dried. I liked the apartment better than a house. I could see myself living alone in a place just like it someday.
When it was time to go to sleep, Baba and I had to share her double bed. As I turned down the covers, I saw pale flakes covering the sheets. They looked like bugs. Then, as my grandmother lifted her legs into the bed, I saw that the flakes were really pieces of her parchment-like skin. They floated like dust motes in the air, coming to rest on the bed’s surface. I lay down slowly, saying over and over to myself, almost in song: These are the pieces of Baba Baila, whom you love, love, love.
Baba was a good-sized woman, and the soft mattress tilted in her direction. I had two choices: cling to my edge of the bed, or roll up against her. I unclasped the edge and let myself roll, knowing that I would not sleep, but hoping the touch of my warm young body would help keep Baba alive.
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
In high school, I belonged to an elite crowd, wore a letter jacket, and had a series of pretty girlfriends whom I dated mostly to maintain appearances, denying my true attraction to my fellow teammates and drinking buddies. I knew I needed to leave my small hometown to freely explore my sexuality, so I applied to two big universities. I figured that, at a school with tens of thousands of students, I’d find the anonymity I needed.
By the end of my first semester in college, I’d had countless sexual encounters with men: in locker rooms, on rooftops, in cars and video arcades, in stairwells with flickering lights, behind stacks of Russian books in dusty library corners, and against the badly grouted tiles of bathroom stalls. I never went out on a date or exchanged phone numbers with any of them. For a year, I “slept” (in anything but a bed) with guys whose names I rarely learned. One, whose name I did know, was mentioned regularly in the campus newspaper’s coverage of the fraternity council. I ran into another in public, accompanied by his wife and kids. Gay men seemed lonely, terrified pariahs, doomed to lead clandestine lives full of guilty sex without love or respect.
Then I met Brian. He and I spent time studying together, riding our bikes down narrow streets, laughing, and talking. It was weeks before he invited me to stay over at his house.
In Brian’s bedroom, I casually petted his black cat, but I was fixated on the bed: I was actually going to spend the night with this guy. After all that I’d done, I was finally, quite simply, going to bed with a man.
I was married to a three-hundred-pound drunk who sat in his chair most nights and drank a quart of bourbon before passing out. I’d put the kids to bed and face another evening all by myself, with only my fantasies of love and companionship for company.
For years I felt it necessary, at the end of the evening, to drag my giant of a husband out of his chair, down the hall, and into bed, where he would snore loudly and keep me awake. Then someone suggested that I simply step over him and get a good night’s sleep.
I’ll never forget that feeling of going to bed alone that first night and sleeping soundly until 4 A.M., when my husband finally stumbled into bed. That simple act — going to bed alone — was the beginning of my journey toward freedom.
One May evening when I was eleven years old, my mother took my brother and me for a walk on the beach. It was dark out, and we walked a short distance through the beach grass and wild roses, then stood on a rise. I figured something was up because of the late hour, but the last thing I expected to hear was that my parents were getting a divorce. My mother put her arms around our shoulders, and we walked back to the car in a clumsy, huddled mass, as if she were afraid to let us go.
The next morning, in our bedroom, my father pulled my brother and me to him on our bed and cried. I had never seen my father cry before, and it made me feel confused and embarrassed. Later, when I was alone at the house, I opened my father’s dresser drawers and was shocked to find them empty except for two round, metal buttons, the kind with pins on the back and slogans on the front. One read, NO NUKES, and the other was from a B.B. King concert.
I took the buttons, and that night, when I went to bed, I lifted my pillow and pressed their pins through the sheets and into the mattress. For two months, I kept the buttons there, reaching under my pillow to touch them during the night.
When I was a child, my father would sit up late eating great bowls of porridge or thick slices of cake or bread and watching comedy reruns on TV. He enjoyed the shows so much that he would laugh and stomp his feet despite my mother’s shushing as she brought my sister and me up to bed.
My father grew up in the West Indies without a television, so I supposed his late-night TV watching was his way of catching up on American culture. His howling mellowed over the years, but every night, when I came to kiss his rough cheek before heading off to bed, I found him in front of the television with his plate and cup.
After I’d turned twenty-one — the age at which my father considered me an adult, and therefore allowed to question him — I went to him one night where he sat eating a slice of banana bread and drinking a cup of milky decaf coffee, and I asked what kept him from going to bed.
Turning from the TV, my father looked at me for a moment, as if deciding whether or not I was ready to hear the answer. Finally, he said, “As a child, I watched our supply ships get blown up just outside the harbor. You know, there were eleven of us, plus your grandmother and the old man. I can’t tell you the number of times I went to bed hungry.”
Placing one hand on his spreading middle, he went on: “I know the doctor and your stepmother think I should lose some of this, but I can’t.” He held my gaze. “I can’t lay my head down on the pillow and go to sleep hungry. Not ever again.”
Cynthia Medford Langley
Brooklyn, New York
Today a nurse’s aide has to take a three-month course to become certified, but back then it was just on-the-job training. The director of nurses was on the new girl’s case right from the beginning: “It’s not your job to listen to their problems, read to them, or hold their hand,” she said. “We’ve got social workers and volunteers for that. Your job is to empty bedpans and get the clients out of bed, washed, dressed, and down to the dining hall. And those things won’t get done if you spend your time mollycoddling just one.”
But the new aide felt sorry for the lost souls in the nursing home, many of whom had few or no visitors and seemed to be just waiting to die. She hurried through her duties with some so that she could furtively give individual attention to others who needed it more, and her monthly evaluation reports were always unsatisfactory as a result.
Finally, she was dismissed for “outrageous behavior and neglect of her duties.” What she had actually done was this: she got into bed with an elderly man who was dying all alone, with no family or friends to comfort him, and she held him until he died.
For the first three years of my life, I shared a room with two of my brothers. Then my parents expanded our house, and I got my own room. The deep sense of security I had enjoyed until then disappeared abruptly. I struggled for the next ten years with going to bed.
Until I got too big, I went to sleep each night in my parents’ bed. After I’d drifted off, my dad would carry me back to my own bed, but in the morning they’d often find me asleep on the floor of their room. They tried everything to help me feel secure, including an intercom system, but nothing worked. For a while, I shared a room with my sister, who was in college. She went to bed hours after I did, and I would stay awake waiting for her, then pretend to be asleep when she entered the room.
Then my grandmother came to live with us, and she had an extra bed in her room, so I began sleeping with her every night. Before bed, she’d tell me stories about her life. As a teenager in Russia, she’d been a part of the socialist revolution, and as a young woman, she’d worked in the sweatshops of New York City. I now wish I had listened more closely, but at the time it was the sound of her voice, not the details of her stories, that made me feel safe.
For my bat mitzvah, my aunt came to visit from out of town, and she was to sleep in the spare bed in my grandmother’s room. The upcoming celebration was supposed to mark my transition into adulthood. I was almost fourteen and didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t sleep in my own bedroom. So, the night before my bat mitzvah, I just did it. For the first time, I went to sleep by myself.
I didn’t become truly comfortable with being alone at night until I bought a house of my own. I lived there for ten years, and at some point, the silence stopped being frightening and became soothing, even filled with peace.
For the first twenty years of my life, going to bed was a nonevent. I climbed into bed around eleven, and within a few moments, off I went. The night to me was an unknown territory that I crossed as Lenin was supposed to have crossed to the Finland station: secretly, in a sealed railroad car. About 7 A.M., I would open my eyes and sit up almost instantly, fully refreshed and ready to start another day.
I knew some people who had problems with sleep: a graduate student who woke very slowly, needing two cups of strong coffee to prepare himself to face the day; a poet whom I would sometimes find sitting at his desk around noon, having just awakened, still in his pajamas. Their experiences were alien to me, and I could not imagine what strange inner processes could have so disabled them — for that’s how I viewed it then, in my unconsciously condescending manner.
When I married, my sleep patterns remained much the same. I did notice, though, that I sometimes woke in the morning with my arms folded across my chest and my hands tucked tightly under my armpits. A strange posture for awakening, but it did not occur to me then to look for a meaning.
After six years of marriage and two children, my wife developed agoraphobia and became highly dependent on me. As her illness became more and more burdensome, and our sex life ceased entirely, my original doubts about the marriage began to haunt me.
Then, without warning, my father died at the age of sixty from a coronary. I went into a tailspin. An old childhood neurosis returned, and I became obsessed with thoughts of my own death. I needed guidance. I’d never imagined I would seek professional help — the idea contrasted with the stoical, self-sufficient character I had proudly tried to fashion for myself — but I couldn’t avoid the conclusion that it was time for psychotherapy.
In my first year of therapy, I came across a quote from Freud that somehow made me feel better: “The man who has troubles, has brandy also.” I had just begun turning to alcohol to ease the road to sleep. This was an unfamiliar choice for me, a light social drinker, but I didn’t know where else to turn. While my wife went to bed, I sat up with my Drambuie or bourbon.
Not much later, I fell in love with another woman and had a heart-opening experience of a sort I did not know was possible. My therapist, a devoted Freudian of the old school, distrusted my sudden love affair and warned me that continuing it would have dire consequences for my progress. Young and wishing to believe in the older man’s wisdom, I abruptly called a halt to the relationship and endured an excruciatingly painful breakup.
Thus ended my period of normal sleep. For more than twenty years, I have experienced one degree or another of insomnia. The dreams I never attended to as a young man now inform my life. I approach sleep as one might approach the exploration of a sunken shipwreck, going deeper and deeper with each intensive therapy. (I’m now on my third.) Sometimes the discoveries are startling, but not often. It is slow, difficult, discouraging work. The pad and pen wait at my bedside for the latest reports. Over the years, I’ve filled dozens of legal pads with dreams and thoughts.
I would give almost anything for a few nights of simple, uninterrupted sleep. Occasionally, when I’m sick, it actually happens. I wake at 7 A.M. and realize that I have not been prowling around at night; I haven’t even opened my eyes. Amazing! I feel almost as if I’ve missed something.
As a teenager, I loved going to bed, because that’s when I masturbated while peering from my darkened bedroom into my neighbor’s bathroom window, only fifty feet away. A newlywed couple lived next door, and the wife had been my high-school classmate only a year ago. Now she was a young married woman discovering the joys of sex.
Each night, all the lights in the neighbors’ apartment would go out, and I’d know that they were “doing it.” Then, fifteen or twenty minutes later, their bathroom light would pop on, and she would march in, oblivious to the fact that her window shade was partly up.
She would disappear momentarily as she used the toilet. When she got up, she would face the mirror and slip her nightgown off her shoulders. Then she would examine each of her breasts, squeezing them gently one at a time. (This drove me bonkers.)
All too soon, she would sigh and reach up for the light cord. Snap! Darkness. The show was over. I would go back to bed, holding tight my swollen member, reluctant to let go.
The youngest of twelve children, I feared that I was missing out on something when I went to bed. So I would sneak out of my room and lie in the hallway at the top of the stairs, listening to the voices rising from the living room. The darkness in the hall where I lay made the yellow-orange glow of the living-room lights seem comforting and warm. I would often fall asleep at the top of the stairs, listening contentedly to the hum of voices from below.
To break me of this habit, my parents tried tying me into bed by my ankle, using one of my mother’s discarded nylons. Still, I would drag myself over to the door of the bedroom to listen to the voices and see the glow of the light coming through the crack under the door.
To this day, going to bed seems to me like a surrender. After my children are asleep, I awaken, regardless of how tired I am, to the possibilities of the night. Perhaps tonight I will begin that novel, finish that poem, finally think the thought that will calm this spirit, so restless with itself and its own limitations.
Francis X. Baird
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania
Every night, I put B. to bed. First, I take him to the bathroom, where I give him his pills and fiber, brush his teeth, and do his arm exercises. Then it’s on to the bedroom. As his wheelchair rounds the too-tight corner into his room, it makes a certain sound that I know I will remember long after I have left here.
Once in the bedroom, B. backs his chair up against the side of the mattress, turns it off, and waits. We joke as I work. It’s easy to joke with someone you love. B. shows me how he feels with a brush of his fingertips against my cheek as I kneel down to remove his foot from the footrest. He shows me with the way he looks at me, and by the things he says. I feel the same way about him, but I do not show it, because if I did, everything would change. He would leave his girlfriend of five years, and I would have chosen for myself a life of catheters and urine bags, an existence restricted to places that are wheelchair-accessible. Also, I want to have children, which is physically impossible for him.
After I unbuckle the waist strap, a sudden spasm throws B. violently forward, then straightens his spine, causing him to slide nearly out of his chair.
“You’re scaring me,” I say, powerless to help him.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he answers, flashing his toothy grin, which never fails to make me smile in return.
I lean him forward until the weight of his body is on my back, then gently transfer him to the bed. He watches television as I undress him, do his leg exercises, and attach the night bag to his catheter. I bind his legs to the mattress with folded sheets to keep the spasms from throwing him off during the night. The last thing I do is cover him with his electric blanket and gather up his dirty clothes and the urine-filled catheter bags to be washed out and hung up for tomorrow.
“What time are we getting up in the morning?” I ask.
“We should start no later than seven,” he answers.
“OK. Good night.”
“Good night. . . . I love you.”
I stop and look at B., fighting the urge to lie down beside him and stay there all night. “I love you, too,” I say, and quickly leave, shutting the door softly behind me.
I pull back by bedsheets, step up on my footlocker, and hoist myself into my top bunk. My cellie on the lower bunk quietly smokes his last cigarette of the night. The day room is just outside our door, and I can hear the inmates there cheering the football game on television. I roll on my side and face the wall. I will eventually drift off to sleep despite the noise, but before I do, I touch the wall, caress it with my fingers.
The wall of my cell is tan and smooth, like a wall in a real house. The wall in the county jail where I began my time thirteen years ago was gray-painted cinder block. Back then, it took me several hours to get to sleep. I kept touching that wall, knowing I was facing a lot of time, yet still not believing where I was. I had to feel the cold stone to convince myself it was real.
Now touching the wall has become a sort of ritual for me. It reminds me that I’ve made it through thirteen years. It reminds me that I can adapt. And it reminds me that I’m here for a reason, that I committed crimes worthy of this time, that I victimized someone, and I will carry the memory of what I did always.
Bowling Green, Florida
I used to work the evening shift at a hospice-care center. As the sun went down each night, patients who seemed perfectly fine during the day would become confused and agitated. Dignified grandfathers would begin demanding the keys to their trucks, which they were sure they had parked outside. A number of men would loudly call meetings to order, then wait impatiently for someone to second the motion. Many residents demanded that taxis be called for them. If we didn’t watch them carefully, they might take off out the door and into the night.
Healthcare workers call these people “sundowners.” It wasn’t until I retired from that job that I realized I am a sundowner, too. A certain mood comes over me as the sun sinks low in the sky and the twilight deepens into darkness. I feel lonely, sad, and vulnerable. To distract myself, I often take a walk, drink wine, watch TV, or call a friend. But it’s better when I can just sit and be with these feelings.
In nature, the places where two different climate zones meet are the areas richest in life. I think of waves crashing onto rocks, creating tidal pools. Could it be that sundown is such a meeting place? So much of our inner life goes on at this shore between conscious and subconscious, waking and dreaming.
I spent my high-school years in a Catholic-seminary boarding school, where I slept in a large dormitory with some sixty other boys. More often than not, night would find me discreetly masturbating, despite the fact that “self-abuse” was a mortal sin.
In the morning, I’d be faced with the choice of either waiting in the short line for confession before morning Mass or receiving Communion in a state of sin — an even more grievous offense than masturbation. Nevertheless, I often chose the latter, because going to confession before Mass essentially proclaimed to everyone what I’d been up to the night before. The hidden guilt was easier to bear than the public shame.
I tried to stop, but if I did manage to keep myself from sin for a night or two, it would only increase the temptation the next time I went to bed. Finally, I gave up thinking or feeling anything about the situation.
Although some sort of inertia kept me in the seminary for four years, I gradually realized that I was not cut out to be a Catholic, much less a seminarian. It has taken me years to recover my feelings of spirituality, which now have little to do with the religion of my youth.
Paul and I approached sex as a joyous celebration of our bodies and spirits. Our lovemaking was wild and uninhibited, and we’d often fall asleep exhausted and happy in each other’s arms. I had never experienced my own body or another’s in such a deeply caring and pleasurable way. The damage from years of sexual deprivation and emptiness was starting to heal.
That was six months ago. Lately, Paul has become moody and withdrawn and often seems angry. He says it’s got nothing to do with our relationship, but he is gradually spending less and less time with me, and when we are together, he says he’s tired.
We’ve started seeing a therapist, who has encouraged Paul to talk about his anger. Though Paul admits that he’s been angry at his mother since childhood, he doesn’t believe it’s affecting him now, nor that there’s any point in talking about it.
In the past two months, Paul and I have made love four times, and I’ve had difficulty reaching orgasm. I don’t feel safe with such an angry man in my bed. Recently, I suggested that he might be going through some kind of midlife crisis. He told me to fuck off and then ground his teeth all night.
I love Paul, and I want to support him during this difficult period, but his increasing hostility toward me makes me wonder how much longer I can go on. These last two years with him have been the happiest of my life. Now that happiness seems to be slipping away. I don’t know what to do. I’m afraid to hold on, and I’m afraid to let go.
It started some years ago as a fantasy. Then, after much discussion, my wife and I got up the nerve to invite another couple to share our bed.
We met Paul and Mimi on the Internet. Like us, they had been married for a good while. (Pam and I just celebrated our forty-seventh wedding anniversary.) The first time the four of us got together, we were all a little nervous, but we were determined to see this new adventure through.
We’ve been meeting with Paul and Mimi about once a month for three years now. Pam and I also enjoy intimate relations with other couples and a few singles ranging in age from late twenties to midsixties. (We are both seventy-one.) Our partners must be nonsmokers, physically fit, and free of venereal diseases. We always get together at our home, in our king-size bed, never at a motel. We make a day of it, usually starting at ten in the morning. Sometimes, after a midday romp on the bed, we serve a light luncheon. As intimates, we feel we can discuss anything with our guests: sex, money, religion, politics, problems with kids, personal aspirations — all topics that may be off-limits around our “regular” friends.
There is no pressure to perform. We use lots of imagery, toys, lubrication, and “dirty talk.” I don’t need any help to enjoy sex with Pam, but if a couple is visiting, I may take a Viagra pill, which keeps me “pumped” for hours. There are times when Pam and I share ourselves with same-gender guests. We also like to watch, kiss, cuddle, and massage. We are amazed at what poor lovers we have been most of our lives.
Pam and I are happier today than ever before. We credit the intense sex we’re having. When I was a young married man, I had numerous affairs that left me feeling guilty and ashamed. Now our secure marriage allows us to “cheat” together. It has brought renewed sparkle to our love life, and even a measure of good health: my urologist says staying sexually active is good for my prostate.
There are people who will call us disgusting old fools doomed to hell. But we think we’ve rediscovered love: love for each other, and love for other human beings. I told a friend that, at our age, having sex so often and with so many people may be likened to the old oak tree that drops an inordinate number of acorns just before it dies. We think it’s a wonderful way to go.
When I was nine years old, sleep was a hazardous territory full of monsters, witches, and evil talking reptiles. I developed a going-to-bed ritual to protect me from my nightmares.
First, I would read a few lines from the small Presbyterian prayer book I’d received at Sunday school. (I was not a particularly religious kid, but invoking God when you were up against monsters seemed the obvious thing to do.) Then my mother would come in and sit on my bed, and I would question her about my many waking worries: How often did kids who played peewee football get paralyzed? If you ended up in hell, was there any way to get out? Could picking your nose too much lead to nose cancer? Mom’s answers were very reassuring: paralysis was extremely rare for kids my age because we had nice soft bones; Presbyterians weren’t big on hell in the first place; and picking your nose was perfectly safe, but not something you did in public.
Then she’d kiss me goodnight, and I’d sing a hymn — “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Stand Up for Jesus” were my favorites. As long as I remembered to perform all three parts of the ritual, I believed, I was safe from the monsters.
And it worked, until one night I woke up terrified. In my dream, the dreaded Carrot Lady — so named because the skin of her hideous face was as hard and bumpy as a carrot — had come after me once again. Then I remembered that, just hours earlier, I had performed my bedtime ritual in its entirety. And it had failed to protect me. From that moment on, the night was different.
Growing up, I shared a bedroom with my younger sister while our older sister, Carrie, had her own room with a double bed, frilly white curtains, and a matching bedspread. Carrie didn’t allow us to borrow her things or go into her room. Her tantrums and tattling ensured that we obeyed her wishes.
Ironically, Carrie rarely spent the night in her precious room, because she was afraid to sleep by herself. Almost every night, she would sneak into our bedroom and squeeze into one of our twin beds, never asking if it was OK, knowing that her meek younger sisters would never complain. I spent many cramped nights with my face two inches from the wall, trying to make room for Carrie.
Carrie’s fear of being alone never went away. During college, she moved in with an abusive man, and she married him shortly after graduation. I think of them sometimes when I snuggle with my husband in bed. I picture them in their king-size bed inside their half-million-dollar home. Rarely does a kind word pass between them.
Bedtime used to be hellish in our house. As I carried one twin into the bedroom, the other would run out. They did this over and over, like a silent-movie comedy routine. Meanwhile, my daughter, barely four, needed some quiet time with Mommy after having shared me with those two wild boys all day. Exhausted, I wanted to be tucked in myself. But I brushed their teeth, sang to them, read to them, kissed them in the ritual way — first forehead, then each cheek, then chin — and sang to them again before collapsing into bed.
Gradually, the kids started to brush their own teeth and get into bed without a fuss. They might want a chapter from Peter Pan and a kiss on the cheek, but after that, I was free. I started reading novels and writing again.
Now bedtime is hellish in a whole new way: they don’t need me at all. They don’t want songs or books. They set their own alarm clocks and turn off their lights when they’re finished doing homework or writing in their diaries. Sometimes I’ll be on the phone or cleaning up downstairs, and suddenly I’ll realize that the house is completely quiet. They haven’t called me; they haven’t asked for water; they haven’t even said good night.
My Grandpa sits across from me, his large hands fidgeting on the lacy dining-room tablecloth. It is a few nights after Christmas, and the room is decorated with red candles, cotton-ball snowmen, garlands, and wreaths. Everyone else has already gone to bed, and the house is quiet.
Grandpa asks me why I don’t visit much anymore. Unprepared for his question, I shrug. After a long silence, he asks about the winter that I spent camped in northern British Columbia: why was I there?
“We were saving the wolves,” I tell him, and he harrumphs. I continue: “The provincial government was killing wolves from airplanes on behalf of the big-game-hunting industry. We had to do something.”
He inspects his hands more carefully now and smiles vaguely. I brace myself for a sarcastic or belittling response. Many of our ancestors were big-game hunters in Canada and Alaska, and Grandpa is a practiced cynic. It’s obvious that he thinks I’m a foolish, idealistic crusader. Still, he at least tries to understand me, unlike the rest of my family.
The ornate clock on the armoire ticks off the seconds. Grandpa has yet to say anything. So I tell him about the coldest day of the wolf campaign, when it took half the morning just to lace up my boots with my frozen fingers. I recall how, at that latitude, Polaris was almost directly overhead. This is more his language. A former naval aviator, he understands cold temperatures, heavy boots, and constellations.
Finally, I attempt to explain to Grandpa why I don’t visit much anymore: “I feel like an outsider,” I say, and then stop, fumbling for words. How do I tell him that I have diverged completely from the conservative values upon which I was raised? I am a feminist among their autographed Ronald Reagan photographs, an animal-rights activist among their hunting rifles and animal heads mounted on the walls.
But Grandpa’s a bit of an outsider, too. At the big Christmas party, he stayed in the foyer, where it was quiet, the way he likes it. If anyone in the family might understand me, it’s him.
“I’m tired,” Grandpa suddenly announces. I look at the clock and see that it’s after ten. I wait for him to get up and say good night. When he continues to sit hunched at the table in silence, making no move toward bed, I begin to interpret his comment differently.
“I’m hanging on for Grandma,” he says, confirming my guess.
I nod, a little surprised at his candor.
“I’m tired, and I want to let go, but . . .” He lifts his pale, wet eyes to meet mine.
Grandpa dies in his sleep a year or so later, unable to persuade his withered body to outlive his wife. Years after that, at my cousin’s wedding, my aunt reads to the rehearsal-dinner guests some of the notes that Grandpa left every night under Grandma’s pillow:
“Sweet dreams, lovings”; “There is no one more obstinate and more lovable than you”; “I’ll be right up, lovings.” And on and on, one tiny, folded note after another. And I remember the way Grandpa looked at me across the dining-room table that long-ago winter night: a single look that compensated for all the times we didn’t see eye to eye.
Fort Collins, Colorado
My husband and I seldom share our bed the whole night through. I usually fall asleep well before the ten o’clock news is over, whereas he doesn’t come to bed until at least midnight. When he does settle in, I often wake up and wait for the inevitable snoring, which begins within minutes. At that point, I find it almost impossible to get back to sleep. I’ve tried earplugs and pushing my husband onto his side, but nothing seems work. I lie there, upset and frustrated, my shoulder aching from trying to hold a pillow over my head. It’s gotten so that, most nights, I simply get up and move to the sofa.
My husband thinks that sleeping separately is odd and perhaps emblematic of some major dysfunction in our marriage. He says that when I leave our bed, it’s as if I’m rejecting him. He thinks I should be able to sleep right through his snoring. If I were a calmer person, he tells me, and if I truly loved him, then his snoring wouldn’t bother me.
Deep down, I suspect that he’s at least partly right. Attributing our separate beds to his snoring is too easy. Since we started therapy, I’ve begun to see that the divisiveness that has defined our relationship for twenty-five years is the real culprit. This seldom-discussed but ever-present problem simply manifests itself more frequently at night.
Some nights, after I’ve gone to bed, I hear my husband downstairs, working himself up into one of his night rages: frightening outbursts that can be about anything, or nothing at all. Perhaps he’s discovered a forgotten load of laundry in the washing machine, or his shirts haven’t been hung “correctly” — that is, all facing the same direction, precisely two inches apart.
His rage begins with loud muttering and the slamming of doors and cupboards. The noise steadily escalates until my husband spews forth a vicious torrent of curses: “Goddamn, lazy, fucking bitch! God damn, she’s such a stupid, lazy, fucking bitch!” Each word is spit out deliberately, hatefully, and each is meant to be heard — and to hurt.
Upstairs in our bed, I lie perfectly still, stomach churning and heart racing, like a little girl frightened of the monster under her bed. Sometimes, through sheer force of will, I force myself to block out the noise and fall asleep in the midst of his tirade. Lately, though, I’ve begun confront the truth: that, for far too many years, a very real monster has lived under our bed. I’ve begun to give up hope that someday he’ll just lumber away all on his own.
When I was married and my husband was away on business, I used to enjoy spending the night alone. Now that we are separated, and I am living alone for the first time in ten years, I’m unable to sleep in my own bed. I may start off there or end up there, but I never spend an entire night in it.
I do not regret leaving my husband three months ago. So why am I having this problem with going to bed? Could it be a fear of being alone? Usually, I sleep on the couch, which is comfortable enough for a nap, but sleeping on it all night is not good for my back. I try to sleep in my bed. I have a whole routine intended to help me: I put on my favorite satin nightshirt. I leave the radio playing softly so I won’t hear all the little noises outside. I lie down and try to get comfortable. But, inevitably, I start to cry.
St. Petersburg, Florida
I slide carefully in on my side of the bed and sit propped up on pillows. I hold my book, but I do not read. I close my eyes, but I do not fall asleep. I am thinking of my husband, who died several months ago. I try to empty my mind of everything that is not him. Sometimes I cannot see his face, but I can always remember the way he sounded and felt. Beside me, his unwashed pillowcase still carries his scent. Some nights, I bury my face in it.
I am forty-eight years old, but now that going to bed has nothing to do with intimacy, I feel like a child again. I even wear flannel pajamas. I’ve considered pulling out the threadbare stuffed animal I slept with as a child and pressing it my chest. I wish my mother could come and kiss me good night, but she has Alzheimer’s disease and lives in a nursing home.
In the early day of my marriage, going to bed had everything to do with intimacy. We would come home from a restaurant, fall on the bed, and make love. After we had children, going to bed meant snatching a few hours of sleep here and there before a baby cried. Later, putting the children to bed became a ritual of tucking them in, making sure all the stuffed animals were assembled, saying prayers. “God bless Mommy, Daddy, Nana, Papa, Grandma, and Baba.” From the doorway, I would watch my husband’s silhouette bent over their beds, stroking their hair, kissing their foreheads. Looking back, I realize that all the people our children asked God to bless are dead now, except for Mommy and Grandma.
When the children became teenagers, they went to bed later than we did. Since we couldn’t risk making any noise, sex had to be spur-of-the-moment, often during daylight hours on weekends, when the kids weren’t home.
While my husband was fighting cancer, he would work in the morning and come home at noon to go to bed. I worked at home, and when he awakened from his rest, I’d join him in bed, our two bodies entwined. I would stroke his hairless face and bald head. We were often together this way at twilight.
Tonight, alone in our bed, I feel my body relax as my soul approaches his. I sink down deeper and deeper into the mattress, as if I am falling. My healthy, thick-haired, bearded husband reaches out his hand to me, drawing me gently into his world, though we both know I am just a visitor. In the morning, the alarm clock will bring me back just in time to walk the dog and send our daughter off to school.