Writing Ourselves Into Bed
I do most of my writing, this essay included, at a kitchen table I’ve had for about 20 years. Pockmarks and scratches are etched into its white surface. Chrome legs hold it up. Though it wobbles and squeaks, sentimental attachment makes my table hard to get rid of. It was one of the first biggish household items I bought after moving out of my parents’ house and I’ve eaten countless meals at it. I’ve laughed, cried, and argued with friends and family gathered here. I’ve iced gingerbread cookies on it, and I’ve climbed this table and balanced on it to change lightbulbs.
Several years ago, this guy that I dated, broke up with and then reunited with used my table to fuck my face up. We were having a conversation and something pissed him off. After stomping over to me, he grabbed my hair and slammed my head against my table. He pressed my face against it using all of his weight.
The things this man did to my head terrified me because people in my family have died from violence done to their heads. After someone slammed my cousin’s head into a sidewalk, his brain quit working. He was 15 and his was the first funeral I ever attended. I was 13. I remember approaching his coffin to say goodbye and I remember thinking that he looked very handsome. I noticed fluid leaking from his ears. I wasn’t sure what to say so I said nothing.
Those of us who’ve endured “domestic violence” (I mark the term to indicate my distaste for it; it fails to capture the full scope of harm which battered women are subjected to) understand that in a misogynist’s hands, everyday objects become sublethal weapons. They also become instruments of torture. The guy who bashed my head against my table also suffocated me with pillows and pillowcases. He beat me with kitchen tools. He strangled me with one of his belts and attempted to lift me into the air with it. In imitation of a baseball player, he hurled books and shoes at my face, head, neck, and breasts. During these pitching exercises, he’d order, “If you move, I’ll have to do it again.”
As a consequence of his calculated brutality, a freeze response replaced my fight-or-flight instinct.
One evening, I heard him call my name. I went to the bedroom to see what he wanted. When I opened the bedroom door, the room looked empty. I took several steps and felt something knock me in the back of the head. I don’t know the reason for this attack. He had a lot of rules and I couldn’t keep them all straight. Maybe I made the bed wrong. Maybe I smiled at him the wrong way: one of his rules was “No fake smiles.” Maybe I wore deodorant that offended him. He hated that I wore Old Spice.
He dragged me to a large plastic trash bag he’d arranged in the corner. That’s what you call pre-meditation.
He was an eco-conscious misogynist. He avoided plastic bags. In the kitchen, he meticulously sorted the trash, making sure to separate recyclables, placing them in re-purposed paper bags from Trader Joe’s.
He brought out a plastic bag for my flesh and blood.
After yanking me out from it, he further assaulted me. When he was done, he ordered me to bathe myself.
After showering, I saw myself in the bathroom mirror. Evidence of his violence was already spreading across my face. I hated the marks and covered them in makeup. From that evening forward, I wore makeup 24/7. Even to sleep. I couldn’t stand to see the damage he did to me.
So much of his violence was directed at my face.
It’s difficult to “move on” after being put in a trash bag by someone who also professes to love you. In fact, it’s so horrifying that you ask yourself, “Did this motherfucker really put me in a trash bag?”
In the year after that “incident,” the sight of trash bags scared the shit out of me. I knew what it was like to fear for my life inside of one. I knew the sound my breath made as plastic crinkled toward my nose and then away from it. I don’t know how long I was in that bag and clawing my way free wasn’t an option. After he’d beaten me to the ground, metal had encircled my wrists: handcuffs.
Time proverbially stopped as I inhaled and exhaled.
With hands locked behind my back, I curled into a fetal position and waited.
Camus was a problematic motherfucker. I do, however, appreciate that he wrote, “The absurd is lucid reasoning noting its limits.” That is some wisdom.
Being forced to occupy a trash bag remains, hands down, one of the shittiest moments of my life.
I’m glad I survived but I must admit that a part of me remains in that trash bag.
I’m working on retrieving it.
The same fucker who put me in that trash bag also assembled my bed.
Things that I wish hadn’t happened happened in that bed.
When battered women “move on,” sometimes, we “start over” in a new home that’s, in many ways, a reconstitution of our old home. We might not be sharing walls or a roof with the piece of shit who fucked us up but the weapons he used remain. They don’t look like weapons. They look like ordinary things. That’s what’s so frightening about them.
Physical escape isn’t the same as psychic freedom.
Like a ghost or a bedbug, memories of him will follow you.
Memories of what he did will continue to make the hair on the back of your neck rise.
Eventually, the memories will dissipate.
But it takes a while.
For most of my life, I’ve had trouble sleeping. Nightmares bother me. Restlessness does too. I envy people who fall asleep with ease. I wish I could do that and people who sleep in public inspire my awe. I can hardly sleep in private and I’ll never trust the general public with my unconsciousness. I know how certain men behave around sleeping women.
The bed that that asshole assembled was one of the items that came with me to the place where I “started over.” I’ve tried my best to sleep in it but I often wake up, just after midnight, engulfed by fear. I look over my shoulder to make sure no one’s there. I tell myself that any spooky shapes in the room are just spooky shapes.
That’s my robe hanging from a hook.
That’s the chair my grandmother Esperanza reupholstered.
That’s a shadow being cast by blinds.
He’s not here.
It’s impossible, however, to successfully self-soothe in a bed built by someone who put you in a trash bag. No amount of hot cocoa or chamomile tea can undo that association. Lavender oil can’t fix it.
I’ve been wanting a new bed for a while but beds cost money and money is something I worry about a lot. Beds add up. There’s the frame, the mattress, the delivery, and the assembly. I trust myself to assemble some furniture but not a bed.
Some nights, I escape my bed by sleeping on the floor. The floor feels safe. Much safer than the bed. I loved sleeping on the floor during childhood slumber parties. I went to teenage slumber parties too and there was this girl at one slumber party who got popular by teaching everyone to queef. The vacant noises she could make with her pussy inspired everyone to go home and practice.
Do “big purchases” make you anxious? They make me anxious and I think that’s fairly standard.
Buying a house is stressful.
Buying a car is stressful.
Buying furniture can be stressful.
Buying a bed can be really stressful.
Okay, so super recently, I acknowledged to myself that my personal finances are such that buying a new bed is now doable. Still, my determination to get one stays tempered by emotional hurdles. Because the last person I went bed shopping with put me in a trash bag, repeating this activity is going to trigger memories of him. Another thing that makes me apprehensive is the notion of negotiating a salesperson’s questions. I really don’t want to be asked, “And what qualities are you looking for in a bed?”
I imagine myself answering: “I’m in the market for a bed that you can guarantee I will never be raped in. Do you have any in stock?”
Have you ever been labelled “difficult” for being honest? I have.
I bring someone I love with me for moral support and we go to check out a bed frame and mattress I found online. I want to experience my new bed and mattress “in person” before I hand over money for them. I don’t want to buy something so important sight unseen. I want to see what I’m getting myself into. I want to touch what I’m getting myself into.
Buying the bed is easy. The salesman doesn’t give me any weird, gendered shit but since the furniture store is out of the mattress I want, we go to a nearby mattress store where we confuse a salesman. Instead of directing his questions at me, the bitch with the purpose and the money, the salesman repeatedly addresses the shy man I’ve invited to stand at my side.
He’s there so that I’ll have somebody to cry to in the parking lot once we’re done. He’s not there to speak on my behalf. I can do that myself. I don’t need an ambassador.
While I cry in the parking lot, it rains. I appreciate the symmetry.
The old bed is gone and a new one occupies its place.
I won’t describe it. You don’t need to visualize it to get how much having it matters to me, how important it is that this new piece of furniture now holds me.
I paid for it with money that I earned writing.
I wrote my way into a new bed.
I love its smell.
It smells of not him and that happens to be the best smell in the world.
Beds are important. We spend roughly 33 years sleeping, 33 years in bed.
When I turned 33, a poet I loved very much told me, “Happy birthday! You’re the same age as Jesus when he got crucified!”
The poet and I laughed and laughed. She’s dead now. I wasn’t there when she died but I think she died in bed. I couldn’t attend her death because I was in México, where my grandmother Arcelia died in her bed one day later.
A lot of us are born in beds. Once, when I was hanging out in Yorba Linda, I got bored and so I went to see the birthplace of Richard Nixon. A docent took us to the very bed the dead president was born in. There’s nothing special about it. The bed doesn’t look evil which, of course, makes it creepier.
When my grandmother Arcelia died, I was eating a tamal for breakfast.
My uncle entered the dining room and announced, “I no longer have a mother. I’m an orphan.”
Everyone followed him away from the kitchen table, down the hallway, to the bedroom.
We assembled around my grandmother’s bed. Her mouth hung open. Her eyes were closed. She was still the way only dead people are. She looked beautiful. Pain no longer contorted her expression. Seriously, it looked as if she’d had Botox. She was 90, wrinkle free, and free.
Three generations stared and cried. My uncle grabbed his camera and began snapping photographs.
In my family, deathbed and sickbed portraiture is common.
My aunt, who was also my godmother, began to pray. She spoke to God, telling them that it was time to receive my grandmother’s spirit. She explained to God what her mother had suffered on earth.
As my godmother addressed God, she wailed.
Spirit inhabited her wailing and ours. The spirit was tangible. An icon of la Virgen de Guadalupe which hung from a nail a few feet above my grandmother’s bed shyly looked away from us.
Two men dressed in black arrived. They wheeled a gurney into the hall and I watched them place a bag containing my grandmother on it. They loaded her into a van and drove her to a funeral home.
We buried my grandmother and afterward, I got sick. I felt like I was going to vomit. I stayed home while my family attended a mass. Its purpose was to pray for my grandmother’s spirit, that she might experience peace during her first night in a tomb with my grandfather.
During sunset, I felt my grandmother’s presence in the house. I felt it in the amber light. My grandmother helped to raise me. She enjoyed drawing and painting and she’s the reason I take art so seriously. She’s the reason I was able to write my way into a new bed. Writing is an art form.
I didn’t want to let go of my grandmother. I wanted her to hold me and so I walked to her bedroom. Her bed hadn’t been changed since she’d died in it. She spent the last years of her life living in the bed where she took her last breath. I stood at her bedside, contemplating life in a bed. Wanting to see what my grandmother had seen the last years of her life, I climbed into it.
Her smell engulfed me. I pressed my face into her pillow and inhaled. I looked up at the ceiling, the ceiling she stared at for years. She was with me in that moment and she’s with me now. She’s the reason I’m able to write here, at this table. We used to sit together and make art at tables in the United States and in México. I think it’s likely that I will always make art at tables. I continue to make art for her.
Myriam Gurba is the editor-in-chief of Tasteful Rude. She is also the author of the memoir Mean, a New York Times editors’ choice. O, the Oprah Magazine, ranked Mean as one of the best LGBTQ books of all time and Publishers’ Weekly describes Gurba as having a voice like no other. Her essays and criticism have appeared in the Paris Review, TIME.com, and the Believer. Gurba has been known to call shitty writers pendejas and has no qualms about it. Along with Roberto Lovato and David Bowles, she co-founded Dignidad Literaria, a grassroots literary organization that seeks to revolutionize publishing.