My parents’ house is designed to make a person as tense and edgy as possible. In every room clocks tick like time-bombs, and in the living room a grandfather clock clangs out the passage of every fifteen minutes, as if to remind you of your imminent demise. There are nightlights in every room, so darkness never falls to ease you into rest. The furniture is small and cramped. They bought their first full-length sofa when I was in my twenties; otherwise, they’ve been sitting on the same tiny loveseats their entire married life—he on one, she on the other. The house smells of potpourri, mothballs, and the knock-off brand Pine-Sol that my dad buys at the dollar store. You set down an empty glass and it disappears almost magically, like they have an invisible butler. And the doors are always locked. Always. Even on a perfect spring day, you won’t find downstairs windows open. Somebody might break in.
I was reminded of all this when I spent the night with my mother while my dad was in the hospital. I don’t remember my parents ever sleeping in the same bed. They’ve got two twin-sized beds, like Lucy and Ricky, that are high up off the ground so that you feel like you might roll off into the mothball-scented abyss at any moment, and the mattresses are as hard as slabs of marble from the city morgue. “Good, firm mattresses,” my mother insists. She’s been more or less disabled for a year and a half due to back surgery necessitated by severe arthritis and a broken hip from a fall taken doing something she shouldn’t have been doing post-operatively. The smartass in me would like to point out a possible connection between the good, firm mattresses and all the bone breaking, but I am already on the lifetime shit-list for innumerable crimes against decency and normality, so I dummy up.
For the twenty-some years I lived with them, on and off through college, I never slept. Maybe two or three hours a night. During daylight hours I walked around like a jittery, bug-eyed cartoon character. I stayed in my room a lot and read books. The consensus was that I was “different,” maybe a little retarded. I thought about this as I was lying in my mother’s bed (she’s moved into the one “big” bed in the house—a double in the guest room that is, hard as it may be to believe, even more “good and firm” than their regular beds), and it occurred to me for the first time ever that maybe the reason I was such a mess growing up had something to do with the small, hard furniture and generally astringent lifestyle. Even though I had turned out all the lights and drawn the shades, I was still aware of all the pictures of Jesus that my mother keeps lined up in the frame of her dresser mirror—Jesus looking at me, watching me, daring me to close both eyes at the same time. And that fucking ticking clock. Then the grandfather clock would bang out another quarter-hour. I could feel my hip bones and ribcage digging through my flesh against the hard mattress and knew that even if I did sleep for a few hours I’d wake up aching.
My mother complains constantly about how my dad is a “nervous wreck.” My dad says my mother “worries about everything. She never stops worrying.” Mentally flipping through the pages of my life in their house, I see images of myself, nervous and worried. Every time I have to call them, I feel nervous and worried. Is it the house, or is it the people in the house that set the tone for a life? I started sleeping deeply and beautifully in my mid-twenties, in my little apartment with a cat curled up in the crook of my legs. I sleep easily on our big, soft sectional when my husband and I are watching TV. I fall asleep in my kids’ beds, cradling their sweaty heads. Our bed is king-sized and soft—“like sleeping on a pile of butter,” my daughter says. There’s plenty of room for us and both dogs and even sometimes a kid or cats. We open the windows wide and breathe. We accidentally leave the doors unlocked. Nothing bad has happened so far. And we have no ticking clocks.
After lying awake on my mother’s marble slab for hours, I tried the one regular-sized sofa. But that was no good either because my hips kept sliding into the crack between the cushions. Then I noticed dawn was breaking outside. The grandfather clock banged out five. I got up, tiptoed around to collect my things, and drove home. I was greeted by one of our silly dogs, who treated me like a homecoming soldier who’d been gone for a year. Then I went upstairs and slipped into the soft, cloudy bed, like a pile of butter, and slept.