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Romancing The Mattress, Or, Our Longstanding Obsession With Beds

I took the opportunity to consider the mattress as a skeleton key to phases of life, or phases of class, or phases of intimacy.

August 23, 2019

July Westhale
sweet dreams
Joana Coccarelli

his morning, while walking my dogs up one of the many-alleyed blocks of my neighborhood in Downtown Oakland, I saw three different mattresses.

One was propped against the smooth side of an underpass, stained and covered in paint, with “CAKE” written on it in loopy, sleepy scrawl. Another mattress was crammed into the back of a pickup truck off Telegraph, the same shape as a tongue folded in half. And the third, most creatively, was leveled under a raised garden bed, soaked through with black soil and topped with splintered pine walls. I’d never put it together before — mattress and garden bed. It seemed either ingeniously obvious or recklessly wasteful. I’m not sure which.

Because the brain loves to make connections, especially when startled, I took the opportunity to consider the mattress as a skeleton key to phases of life, or phases of class, or phases of intimacy. Or phases of most anything, really.

An example — when my now ex-girlfriend and I moved in together, she got rid of her mattress because mine was newer. “This is a big deal for me,” she’d warned. “I kept my mattress in a closet for the entire duration of my last live-in relationship.” She wanted me to know that she had thrown out her ‘out’ option. At twenty-three, it was one of the most romantic things anyone had ever said to me. When we broke up several years later, I left her the mattress as an attempt to be charitable, but mostly because it made everything hurt — the sharp places where my hips met my flesh, the underside of my elbows as I cradled my head, my heart as it spun around the word ours.

It wasn’t, as it turned out, a good mattress at all.

I have no statistics on dispose-ability and mattresses, the number of lesbians who buy beds together (and then supposedly experience the death of their sex life on them, which is one of everyone’s favorite entirely untrue stereotypes), or if the rise of delivery mattress services is actively contributing to the new and creative uses of mattresses all over urban areas everywhere.

What I do know is that our obsession, as humans, with the bed, is a longstanding one, a preoccupation that has shape-shifted in the digital age — one of on-demand consumer goods and ubiquity on social media, but also one that is alive and well and living among us.

Consider the onslaught of advertising around not only mattress delivery services, but also of temperature-controlled, moisture-wicking sheets. The popularity of Ottesa Moshegh’s “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”, which is about many things (including the slippery slope of Rx sleeping pills and the sometimes farcical scope of “self-care”) but largely the voyeurism of mental illness (“Watching Moshfegh turn her withering attention to the gleaming absurdities of pre-9/11 New York City, an environment where everyone except the narrator seems beset with delusional optimism, horrifically carefree, feels like eating bright, slick candy — candy that might also poison you,” wrote Jia Tolentino of The New Yorker).

Consider, too, the way the poor mattress has stood up against the test of time as a literary symbol, the psychological curiosity surrounding mattress proliferation (“Why Are There So Many Mattress Stores in America?” wonders Psychology Today), the moment when you realize that a) you’re too old to sleep on a futon, b) you’re too old to have sex with someone who sleeps on a futon, and then c) the futon becomes a rear view-mirror symbol of youth and invincibility and the never, ever again.

I took the opportunity to consider the mattress as a skeleton key to phases of life, or phases of class, or phases of intimacy.
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To that end (in the gamut of age, I mean), adulthood is constantly being fed to us as a series of things we do well, or for ourselves (juxtaposed, I imagine, against the pantry of things we did to treat ourselves terribly in our youth); enter self-care. Self-care, even, focuses on things that relax the body and promote rest. Stressed? Hate your job? Get an oil difuser, a massage, take a long bath with lots of salts, get rest get rest get rest. The Nap Ministry is an organization that promotes rest and bedtime as resistance to the toxic ills of capitalism, the way capitalism forces us to dissociate from the basic things we need most (like rest). The org promotes art events where people are encouraged to nap as a form of reparation, a form of reclamation, a form of racial healing.

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Last year, a poem of mine was published in bedfellows magazine, a rad literary journal; “​bedfellows ​(est. 2013) is a thematic, Philadelphia-based literary magazine that seeks to catalog contemporary discussions of desire & intimacy (including their lack), with a particular focus on underrepresented & marginalized voices. we publish work that subverts or confronts the stigmas that are often attached to writing about sex & the body.”

When my piece was picked up, the editors asked for a photo, drawing, or other artistic rendering of my bed (mine is the one with the curled-up black cat & the half-finished pomegranate embroidery); the photos or drawings of the beds are click-able — you click them to enter into the piece of whomever’s bed it is.

It’s a wonderful idea, and an intimate one. After all, to enter someone’s art through their bed is how I’ve made a fair number of wise and (largely) terrible relationship choices, and even in my friendships I’ve crawled under the covers of a pal’s duvet a time or two, listened to their grief or elation or poem ideas. And even when I haven’t, they have. The bed is an entry point into our relationship with ourselves — and what is more intimate than the art we create?

When intimate things fail, it’s often traced back to a failure of bed. The lesbian bed death, the headboard pointed the wrong way, the dreams that are constantly metabolizing the parts of ourselves that we cannot sort through in waking moments — the moment of elation when my partner and I moved in together and bought a mattress we both liked, the way we, just last weekend, moved our bed as far away from our contentious next-door neighbors as we could get.

Because the neighbors disturb our ability to get proper rest, we (my sweetie and I, but also all of us systemically) do what we can to reclaim the space of dreams, the unconscious lives we live alongside our waking partnership. An example: above my head — a piece of artwork that shows what the sky looked like the first night we said I love you. That we both vehemently believe that all our animals must also be able to fit on the bed — which is why we have a king.

When intimate things fail, it’s often traced back to a failure of bed.
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What does it mean, symbolically or otherwise, that the mattresses are piling up in Oakland, being creatively repurposed, or thrown away?

The mattress against the underpass feels like a symbol of the wealth gap in this country, the mattress in the back of the pickup feels too intimate — a relationship gone wrong, but in a public way. I can barely look at it, as though someone’s underwear were also present, or the mattress had period stains. The mattress below the raised bed is maybe the mattress in a modern context, but I’m not entirely sure how. Maybe it’s more simple: the mattress as a flag between public and private, and one of the only ones we still honor in a time when, as a friend once told me, “the internet has taken the sheet off the world.”

When I finally shook myself from my internal treatise in the above-mentioned alley, one of my dogs had shit on the side of the garden mattress, turning the silky cotton a murky brown. Come back down to the common knowledge of things as cyclically useful and wasteful, the stain seemed to taunt.

And then there’s that.

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