The straw that broke the camel’s back of getting Catherine and I together was that Catherine offered my grandmother the use of her bed.
Nana was in town for the occasion of my little brothers’ 19th birthdays, 30 years ago next month. She brought her mandolin. She was staying the weekend. She needed a place to sleep. I was living in an attic hovel in the house next door to Catherine at the time, accessed by a ladder, and was in no position to offer her my bed.
I may be only realizing tonight that Catherine set up the entire pageant: offer Nana her bed, then, once the night had worn on, ask if I’d like to kiss her, and then, oh, look, she had no place to sleep.
She anticipated my chivalry. Up the ladder she climbed
I was so pleasantly naive.
Despite the conniving build-up, it was a chaste coupling that night, in part because the conditions in the attic hovel caused Catherine to have an severe allergic reaction, in part because I was shy. Or chivalrous. Or chivalrous and shy.
But, from that night onward, we were seldom apart in the overnight hours, relocating from the hovel to Catherine’s considerably more comfortable, accessible, and hypoallergenic bedroom next door. The chastening lessened.
We slept on futons during the early years; it wasn’t until we relocated to Prince Edward Island, and my selfsame grandmother was coming to visit, that we secured, at her insistence, an actual bed. It’s the bed that, 25 years later, Olivia is sleeping on tonight. It’s the bed Olivia was conceived on, New Years Eve 1999.
Shortly after she was diagnosed with incurable cancer in 2014, Catherine moved from the bed we’d shared for many years into the bed in the spare bedroom: her sleep was fitful, she was often in pain, she’d started to use a CPAP machine, and the last thing either of us needed was our moving about the bed to wake up the other.
I don’t think we ever admitted honestly how much an effect that move had on our relationship. We are the generation that grew up with Rob and Laura Petrie sleeping in separate beds on The Dick Van Dyke Show, and evolved to Bob and Emily Hartley sleeping in the same bed on The Bob Newhart Show. Sleeping in the same bed was our cultural birthright, willed to us by the sexual revolution, and not doing so seemed like the end of something vital.
And it was.
But sleeping in my own bed is what kept me going, all the years Catherine was in bed across the hall: being able to get a good night’s sleep, every night, and, almost as important, being able to shut the bedroom door, every night, and create a (thin) airlock between me and the roiling, gave me just enough rest and peace to keep me going.
Across the hall, Catherine could gather herself in her infinite palace of pillows, sleep when she could sleep, get up when she needed, and have no worry that she’d keep me awake.
It’s strange how, even having lived the benefits of having my own bed through those years, it still seems divergent when I hear of other couples who sleep apart. “I wonder what’s wrong?!”, I silently whisper to myself, assuming there must be trouble in their coupling. Sleeping in the same bed has become a semaphore for relationship health. And that is a shame, as I think it’s possible to have a perfectly healthy, deep, and committed loving relationship with someone, and still maintain two beds. Indeed I think for many, cancer or not, it may be preferred by one or the other or both.
I wrote to a friend the other day that I wasn’t looking to get “redomesticated” as my life evolves into its next chapters. It was a blunt way of expressing that there are a bunch of habits and practices that I lived inside for almost 30 years, some of them active expressions of patriarchy, some of them simply generally accepted relationship principles, that I’m reluctant to swallow whole again.
I don’t mean to suggest that I’m moving into the Burning Man phase of my life, simply that I’m better positioned to recognize and do what’s actually healthy for both parties to a couple, and not just what’s expected by others, or intuited from inherited semaphores.
Which is all to say that should I, at some point, enter into a less chaste friendship with someone, it will take a lot to separate me from the pleasures of retiring for the night to a bed all my own.