Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Bed

“A man and a woman
Are one.”
—Wallace Stevens, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”


1. Traveling by train, I carried lightly: clothes, toothbrush, deodorant, makeup and books on the Tudor monarchy. It was all I owned; everything else was in my mother’s ownership: the desktop computer, large mirrors that covered half of a wall, and the most comfortable queen-size memory foam bed that came with a memory foam pillow and down feather blanket. I was moving into my boyfriend Brandon’s condo in Seattle to start building our life and empire together with many children.

The condo was decent. Outside was a balcony that overlooked interstate-5 traffic that went over 10th and Jackson. The living room had a sectional sofa, a faux leather ottoman, a glass dining table that seated two people and a flat screen television. There wasn’t much I wanted to change, just a vase of flowers and bookshelf to store my books. There was one thing about the condo I refused adapting to—the bedroom. There wasn’t a bed. I insisted that I couldn’t live there without one.

2. In the 16th century, the first Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick—the second most powerful woman after Queen Elizabeth I—built a series of ostentatious rooms in their Chatsworth estate, located in Greater Manchester, England. They hired celebrated artists to paint the ceilings with hundreds of partially naked angels floating divinely in the sky. Below were long, thick red curtains, threaded with gold, hugging a large four-poster bed, which cost more than $100,000 in today’s money. The couple only had six children to share over thirty rooms with, but the lavish beds were a way to showcase their economic and social standing.

3. “Speaking of sponsor whores did I tell you how much I love my mattress from Sleep Country?” said Jubal, a host at Movin 92.5 radio station. He and his cohost were terrible promoters. They’d stop midsentence or interrupt guest speakers to talk about mattresses at a store called “Sleep Country.” They stated that Sleep Country was in a “mattress-war” with its competitors, and that listeners needed to support this “war” by buying a mattress with 0% interest for three years.

4. Brandon preferred to sleep on the floor with a pillow and thin blanket. Its cold hardness wasn’t physically comfortable, but he was at ease. The floor was a place of security where he didn’t have to worry about falling into a deep sleep and having dreams that would bring him back to Afghanistan. He’d walk in the heat for days, sweating in his socks and boots, which he hadn’t taken off for two weeks, constantly watching for anything that would endanger him and the men who he claimed as brothers.

He told me a story when he and an ex-girlfriend visited an aunt in Colorado for Thanksgiving. They slept in her guest bedroom with a king-size bed. Brandon woke up the entire house in the middle of the night when he almost suffocated his ex-girlfriend to death, trying to defend himself from an American enemy killing him in his dream.

5. An intricately carved four-poster bed, dumped in a hotel parking lot and auctioned for £2,200 in 2010, was estimated to be worth £20 million. DNA swabbed from the timber confirmed that the bed belonged to Henry VII and his wife Elizabeth of York, rulers of England, 1485-1509. The bed is carved with Tudor roses, lions and of Henry VII and Elizabeth as Adam and Eve. The bed was reportedly made for the couple’s marriage ceremony. It was likely that this was where they conceived their six children: Arthur, Prince of Wales; Henry VIII of England; Margaret, Queen of Scots; Mary Tudor, Queen of France, Elizabeth; Katherine; and Edmund, Duke of Somerset.

Amazing how a bed survived over 500 years, but I wondered what made it so valuable. Whoever decided to toss the bed saw it as a worthless disposal piece. It has moved from place to place, and cradled numerous people to sleep. The highnesses’ presences were long gone, but were we so obsessed with their power and rule that we’re willing to pay to be somehow spiritually connected to them?

6. Not having a car large enough to transfer a mattress from Sleep Country to our condo, I settled for the mattress stored in the downstairs’ storage—it belonged to Brandon and his ex-girlfriend, Krista, who he had a relationship with for almost three years. The mattress was a painting of their love, heartache, hate and “what-ifs.” I allowed this to bother me for no more than a minute. I had to sacrifice the right to be bitter and jealous if I wanted a bed. I helped Brandon carry it upstairs to our condo on the seventh floor.

7. The New Otani Kaimana Beach Hotel was located in Honolulu, away from the busy tourist area with its own private beach. As I was jerking my suitcase up the concrete stairs, there were these other female guests exiting the hotel. Speaking to one another in Japanese, they all wore gloves, long-sleeve cardigans, long slacks, and leather boots. Standing out of the group, one woman had a fedora with a clear plastic face guard and another woman had a black lacey umbrella. I wondered why they paid to vacation in Hawaii if they couldn’t enjoy the sun it offered.

Wanting to save money to buy souvenirs for my family, I rented the cheapest room at the hotel. For 173 dollars a night, I stayed in a 330 square feet room with a flat screen television, small kitchen, private lanai and queen-size bed. I jumped and landed on the bed, letting the side of my face sink into the blanket. I opened my eyes, discovering dry black particles lying in bed with me. I couldn’t tell if they were dead bugs or not. I wondered if the sheets were washed after the guests before me. I couldn’t believe this was my definition of a vacation: paying to roll in a bed where a possible man, peeling from sunburn, sweated in it. I jumped off and called room service to replace the blanket and sheets.

8. Brandon moved the computer desk into the living room to make space for the bed. We didn’t have a frame to hold the mattress in so we simply laid it on the floor. We looked poor, but at least guests couldn’t say we didn’t have a bed.

Both sides of the bed were stained with faded menstrual blood. For some people, cramping and bleeding for days was a good sign that they were safe from fattening up with pregnancy hormones and dealing with screaming children and childcare costs. It was the opposite for Brandon and Krista; they wanted children. There was talk that they grew apart from trying so long. Since there was no need for Brandon to own any sheets, I took my pink beach towel and covered the disappointing red blotches.

9. In the 1580’s, writer Carew describes a poor yeoman and working house as having walls made of earth, thatched roots, no ceilings or glass windows and only a bed made of straw, a blanket and pillow. A laborer’s daily wage will barely cover the cost for a meal rather than a four-poster bed.

10. When Henry VIII became king in 1509, he married his last brother’s widow, Katherine of Aragon. In 1511, Katherine bore a son. Henry paid £4,400 for an artist to paint the celebration. The 60-foot portrait showed Henry jousting, breaking the stave into a competitor’s helmet. His armor was covered with the queen’s initials. Katherine was in the picture, too. She was sitting up in a gold-colored bed from giving birth. The son lived a short life of fifty-two days. In 1515, Katherine gave birth to a premature stillborn son. The only healthy living child that Katherine gave birth to was disappointingly a girl, Mary.

Henry soon pursued a lady named Anne Boleyn, who swore not to join his bed until he divorced. Henry annulled his marriage to Katherine and made Anne his queen. She bore a daughter, Elizabeth. The customary jousting celebration was cancelled. The second and third pregnancy ended in miscarriages. Anne Boleyn was executed for adultery along with a musician, a groom, and her brother, George. It was rumored that she bedded these men in desperation for a son.

11. For the past few weeks the fat had been noticeably melting off my bones. I had the perfect cheekbones that women wanted to achieve with vicious strokes of contouring powder. I was too exhausted to wait for Brandon to come home from his late shift. I’d slept most of the day, and only woke up to eat or vomit. I researched online that these were symptoms of pregnancy. Surely Brandon would forgive my distant behavior if we were pregnant.

Although Brandon and I talked about starting a family, I was scared. A baby would affect my schooling, work and relationship. I wouldn’t be able to dedicate the same amount of time and effort to all of these things. I wondered if Brandon would resent me if he had to provide for the family by himself. If I wanted to contribute to the family financially then I’d have to prolong my education. Besides school, I’d have to worry about parenting choices. Did I want a traditional home-birth or not? I worried that something life threatening could happen without a hospital staff and equipment around. It is silly to think I’d be better off being in a hospital bed where people go to die nowadays.

12. After being in labor for three days and nights, Jane Seymour, Henry’s third wife, bore a male—on the opulent bed with a gilt bedstead gifted by Henry—in October 1537. Unfortunately, the birthing bed quickly became a deathbed for Jane; she died from postnatal complications called childbed fever. She was known to be Henry’s favorite wife. He married three more times, but on his deathbed—a place where a community gathered to hear the dying’s last words—he requested to be buried with Jane.

13. A sharp pain in my uterus woke me up. Adjusting my position for comfort, I found Brandon missing from the other side of the bed. I pushed off of my elbow and looked over the bed to find him peacefully sleeping on the floor. I wondered if this mattress was causing our relationship to deteriorate. We were like the kings and queens who slept in different bedchambers.

My uterus tightened again—this time lasting more than ten seconds. I grimaced and fell into a fetal position. I took deep breaths. Was I having my menstrual period or a miscarriage? I slowly peaked under the blanket and found no bleeding. I cuddled in the shallow breast indentations that Krista left behind, and let my tears mark the mattress.