Nathan was the first boy I ever slept with—and I mean that in the most literal sense: for a few hours we slept side by side in a king-sized hotel bed. I was in ninth grade, he was a year older, and we were on a school trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee—a town of airbrushed t-shirts and kettle corn and laser tag, the kind of place where, at fourteen, you could run around safely and the world might seem open to you for the first time.
Some kids were hanging out in his room and Nathan had to be up early the next day, so he knocked on our door and asked if he could stay. I said yes, thrilled. I remember the next few moments like a scene from a movie: He neatly folded down the blanket, leaving the top sheet in place. He told me he would sleep on the sheet and I should sleep under it. Then he pulled off his shoes and climbed into bed, still in his jeans and t-shirt. I shrugged, as if whether he slept in our room or his, above or below the sheet, were minor details to me, as if I already knew what it was like to lie so close to a boy with my eyes closed.
I didn’t have a crush on Nathan, at least not before he knocked on our door. And any lingering attachment I might’ve felt after quickly reverted to friendship. The real thrill of that night was in the domestic intimacy of the moment, the way it was both taboo and comforting to lie there beside him. Even now as a card-carrying adult, I still love that—the warm mass of another body under the covers, a companion in the ordinarily solitary act of coming to consciousness.
Growing up, friends were only allowed to stay over on school nights if their parents were away. These sleepovers seemed special, better than the Friday night pajama parties, as if it was the most extraordinary thing to go about picking out clothes and eating cereal and catching the bus—all in the company of a friend. The mundane rituals of morning were somehow transformed by the presence of an outsider.
I’ve always wondered why “to sleep with someone” is a euphemism for sex, when so often sex has little to do with sleep and sleeping is very unsexy.
One night when J and I had just met, he called and said, “You should come over.” I was already in my pajamas, but I went anyway and after chatting for a few minutes, he looked at me. “Do you want to stay?” he asked, as if it was something people did, as if we’d spent more than a few hours in each other’s company. Just like that a habit was formed. We slept together—on the futon in his apartment or the twin in my dorm room—for months without so much as a kiss. We never talked about the sleeping or the not kissing, we just kept it up.
A few years later when we were living in DC, I decided it would be a good idea to write about the moment I fell in love with him. I was writing about love then too, as perhaps I have been all my life. I described riding a bus through Ecuador in the middle of the night. We were descending from the Andes to the jungle. He slept in the seat beside me and his dog Buckley snoozed at our feet. But I sat awake, sweating profusely in the humid air and watching as the leaves that brushed against the window seemed to get bigger and bigger. I was as terrified and enchanted by the idea of the Amazon as I was by the sweaty twenty-two-year-old beside me. In a moment of half-sleep, he reached over and grabbed my hand and pulled it into both of his. It was an unusually public display of affection for us, though it was night and no one was awake to notice. We were still sorting out the nature of a relationship that had already spanned two years and three continents.
It had seemed like a good moment to fall in love with someone. It had the iconic quality of all pivotal moments in love stories: a little bit of terror, a whole lot of hope. But I don’t think that’s really how it happened. I think it happened earlier, in his basement apartment off campus, when he would throw and arm and a leg across my torso and we spent the night like that, two, maybe three nights each week. I loved the weight of his limbs in the dark. I loved the skin behind his ear where I tucked my nose each night.
What is it about sharing a bed with someone that’s both a secret and a revelation?
We’d just moved in together when J got a consulting job that took him to remote parts of the province for days at a time. I didn’t mind him being gone until the moment I got in bed. I’d gotten used to dozing off to whichever tv show we were watching, never quite lasting the full forty-four minutes. But without him I read books or surfed the internet and the quiet of the night unnerved me. I was alert, restless, staying up late as if it might postpone the moment of waking to an empty bed, making coffee and oatmeal for one. (Much later, after we moved apart, I’d finally relent to the unique pleasure of stretching across the surface of a queen-sized bed with only a down comforter for company.)
I bought the bed I sleep in now with a boyfriend. We went to Ikea and picked it out, he loaded it in his truck, and we spent one long Saturday night putting it together before climbing in and falling deep asleep. Something about that process, shopping for and hauling and assembling a bed together, seemed to authenticate us as a couple. As if investing in a place to sleep was investing in each other. It seemed right to want sleep beside someone who could so competently furnish my room. Yet our sleep was never sound. The bed couldn’t change it.
Hunter S. Thompson says, “We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.” I guess this is true, and—if we are honest—frightening for most of us. But sleeping beside someone allows us to sustain the illusion that this somehow isn’t the case. Seeing the same face upon sleeping and waking provides a kind of continuity between the night before and the day to come. No one can enter or leave the world along with us, but there’s something about falling out of consciousness and then returning to it—skin against skin, back to back or limbs to limbs, two bodies blinking out of dreaming and into daylight—that lets us pretend, at least for awhile, that we won’t have to be alone, that the night is as welcoming as the day.