“Awards are fun…” my friend Jen once wrote me in an email. Now I remember that phrase every time I enter a writing contest. It packs an attitude that seems to say, “Go out and play.” I have some fun to report: my non-fiction personal essay has won first place in the Denver Woman’s Press Club In-House Writing Contest. It’s a bit embarrassing to post the essay here, because it is, indeed, quite personal. But writing is communication, and what is communication if it’s not shared? So here’s my story:
SMELLY MAKE THIS BED
by Cara Lopez Lee
I tuck the sheet under my chin and try not to move, hoping to trap it, that smell like spoiled sausage and goat cheese. It’s only a gesture, because already I know it’s too late.
“Sorry,” I say.
“Nice,” he laughs.
“So, this is how love dies,” I say, “one fart at a time.”
I wonder where all my gases hid when we first became lovers. I’ve never mastered the feminine skill of restrained flatulence. Yet the first time we shared a bed, the only scent I noticed was his skin, like fresh-baked bread, peanut butter, and summer sun. I felt relieved not to feel the slats of another bachelor’s futon skittering up and down my back, or to hear the slosh of a waterbed, stuck in a time warp again. Instead his bed was steady and king size, and we used every inch: him flipping me from corner to corner like the martial artist he was, me twisting into positions I could never achieve as a dancer.
When we split up, he confessed, “I didn’t do laundry for a while. I could still smell your scent on everything — the sheets, the pillowcases, my shirts — and I didn’t want to wash it away.”
I remember a joyous reunion on cool, clean sheets stretched taut, just begging to be rendered wet, tangled, and uninhabitable. That’s when king-size comes in handy, otherwise someone will have to sleep on the wet spot. I know — that’s too much information. But when you spend years sleeping with one person, everything that happens in bed is too much information.
Later, he moved away, while I traveled the world. When I rejoined him, after dozens of hostels, pensions, and cheap guesthouses, that overabundant bed alone was enough to turn me on. But size wasn’t all there was to it. It was the way that big bed drew a square outline around our secrets, all the moaning, weeping, screaming, whispering, guffawing secrets of people who know each other too well.
That secret space wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a ring. He was a jeweler; how hard could it be? When he didn’t make me one, I left.
Yet even thousands of miles apart, we found ways to lie in bed together. We talked on the phone, and I cradled the receiver like it was his chest under my ear, his gentle voice buzzing me to sleep. Alone again, I slept in a queen-size bed with a bed-in-a-bag comforter-and-sheet set. The sheets didn’t fit and the wrinkles got on my nerves. For months, I smelled nothing but my own skin, tangy with summer sweat, my only company a cricket trapped in my room. His piercing chirp kept me awake until I found him, lowered a glass over him, and set him free.
When my lover and I landed jobs within an hour’s drive of each other, this time we slept in my queen-size territory. Every time one of us shifted, the other one bounced on the cheap springs with a cartoony “Sproing-oing-oing.” It was the most uncomfortable we’d ever been in bed. That’s when we got engaged. Maybe the bigger bed had kept us too far apart all those years, or maybe the ability to share mutual discomfort was a prerequisite for marriage.
When we bought our house, he wanted a king. I thought it would make our bedroom too cramped. Now I wish I’d said yes. I love to feel him wrapped around me, but there comes a moment when I want to roll away to my private cocoon, and I can’t. This bed… it ain’t big enough for both of us.
We married late, and I wasn’t willing to fuss over fertility. Yet I did fantasize that someday a child might bounce onto this bed at an intimate moment, and we’d laugh about how we had no privacy anymore. But we’ve never known the irritation of such an interruption, the joy of complaining about the inconvenience of children.
Does this mean we make love more often? No.
We still spoon before we fall asleep, we still kiss and flirt and make ribald remarks. “You wanna do me?” “Surrrre.” Yet, too often, when I throw a leg over his hip and nibble on his neck, he pretends not to know what it means, so I pretend it doesn’t mean anything.
You might think that gives us more time to sleep. No.
I often suffer from insomnia, and when I do sleep I sometimes open my eyes to night terrors: hallucinations of hand-sized spiders, shadowy men, or monsters from under the bed. I leap atop my husband, screaming, “Is it real?!” He waits patiently for me to realize it’s not, saying nothing — maybe because I’m crushing his diaphragm. He has more conventional nightmares and whines like a little boy, until I rub his arm in small circles to wake him.
When I complain, “I thought marriage guaranteed me the right to get laid regularly,” he says I’m right. I hate that. “I’m sorry I’m not giving you what you need,” he says. For 24 hours he still won’t, as if to prove he doesn’t have to. The next night he gives me a big enough dose to cure my insomnia for a night — without side effects like sleep-driving. Then the wait begins again.
What bothers me most is that sometimes our shrinking sex life doesn’t bother me. What I really want is to be young again and fall in love. Instead, we struggle with love and sink into it like quicksand. Instead, I feel content sitting on the couch watching House and Fringe and How I Met Your Mother. Not because I can’t recall that old excitement, but because I’m tired and my best friend’s body will still be here tomorrow, as familiar to me as the stains on our sheets.
The last time I had my period, he washed out the blood. The last time his eczema broke out, I washed out the blood. Sometimes these acts of laundry seem more intimate than sex.
When I think about “until death do us part,” I get scared. Not because I fear spending the rest of my life with him, but because I might someday wake to find him dead in our bed.
After he had surgery, I slept on a mat at the foot of the bed, so I wouldn’t disturb him but would still be there if he needed me. As I lay there staring at the dust bunnies, it hit me, “I really am married.” My chest was a hot knot of gratitude. It’s not the sacrifices he makes that are his greatest gift to me, but the sacrifices he lets me make for him.
When I had surgery, we faced the possibility that I might die. But the tumor was benign. My husband didn’t sleep on the floor, but he did take his turn caring for the bedridden spouse. We’ve long since healed, except for traces of soreness where the scalpel took away hip bone and fallopian tube and left scarred muscle behind, reminding us: “‘til death do you part” is still out there.
Sometimes in the middle of the night, I touch him to make sure he’s still warm and breathing. He hates that. “I’m sorry,” he says, “but man, I feel that hand and my eyes just fly open.” So, when he’s sleeping soundly I give him the most difficult gift of all: I don’t touch.
But when morning sun filters through bamboo shades, I allow myself to rub my cheek against those weird little hairs on his back, inhaling the sweet and sour smells of night sweats, morning breath, and musky sleep. Those odors may kill sex drive, but they also offer comfort: olfactory evidence that we still love each other after 14 years. Why else would we tolerate this assault on our senses?
When we do make love in this old sway-backed bed, sloughing off skin cells to feed the dust mites, my husband is still a generous lover. If I have the patience to wait for the big “O,” he’s ready to work for it, until his fingers turn all pruny. Too much information again, yes. But you want a “happy ending” don’t you?
This is how love survives, one hand-cramping orgasm, one resisted urge to touch, and yes, one what-the-hell-did-you-eat fart at a time.