Thomas Cregan

Spencer pulled back the duvet to let Barbara climb into his bed. He watched her naked body disappear underneath the sheets. They had been making out on his couch when she had suggested they move to his bed. Once before they had had sex, but not at his place.

“How old’s this?” Barbara asked, tapping her hand against the mattress.

Spencer had a huge erection. Although he was not so bad looking, tall, over six-two and on the scrawny side, and wore old-fashioned black-plastic-framed glasses that gave him a definite retro look, he hadn’t had a girlfriend in over a year. Nor had he slept with a woman in over a year, except for Barbara five days before. Her question about his mattress didn’t seem like foreplay, it seemed more like an accusation. While she had slipped out of her skirt, shirt and underwear like an Olympic-level stripper, he still was on the edge of the bed, untying his sneakers.

“The mattress—I’ve had it for a while,” Spencer said, and leaned over to caress Barbara’s shoulder. She was cute, cuter than the women he normally tried to date.

As for the mattress, well, indeed Spencer was still sleeping on his college futon. He had bought it his senior year when he’d moved off campus. Back then it was a thick, cushy thing, which had impressed his housemates and the few women he had managed to bring back to his place. Now the futon was over nine years old. From the two-family clapboard house that he and his housemates had rented at Wesleyan to the fifth-floor tenement walkup in the Lower East Side of Manhattan , where he lived now, the futon had rested in several different locales; bedrooms and living rooms, even an office alcove. Sometimes sitting regally on a frame, other times plopped on the floor. Before Spencer went to college he didn’t even know that futons existed. He had heard about water-beds, but they were exotic pieces of furniture that he imagined were only found in a place like Las Vegas, not Wilton, Connecticut, where he grew up. Yes, by his senior year of college, he was clued in enough to buy a futon. Besides, it was a lot cheaper than a traditional mattress and box spring.

There was no denying that over the years the stuffing had compressed and become hard. Periodically, Spencer would rotate his mattress, turn it over or upside down. Sometimes he would bang at it to redistribute the bumps and depressions, though mostly he’d come to like how the mattress had molded to the contours of his body. A slight indentation by his shoulders with a larger bowl by his butt. At night his body slipped comfortably into place, like a hand into a worn leather glove.

Most mornings, however, after Spencer woke, his body, long and lanky, would creak like an old wooden ladder. Also, his job as a documentary film editor fed his childhood habit of slouching to blend in with the shorter boys—hunching before a computer everyday did not keep his neck and shoulders loose; nor did the worn-out mattress help. The imprint of his body in the matted stuffing was shorter on his left side, where his neck and shoulder muscles had contracted over the years. When Spencer stood upright his left side drooped, like those women who always carried an impossibly large purse on the same shoulder.

“You’ve had this mattress since college,” Barbara suddenly remarked.

How did she know that? True, when stripped of its sheets more than a few stains marked the years. A large brown stain in the middle of the mattress looked incriminating at first glance, but it was not scatological, just a coffee stain. Alexis, a woman he dated one summer, had gotten nervous about a mug of coffee Spencer placed on her stomach as she lay naked late one Sunday morning. Somehow this mug of lukewarm coffee and milk tipped off her and was immediately absorbed by the cotton stuffing. Then there was a bloodstain from Sandra—it got there just before they broke up; she said she had been surprised by her period. Although as a kid he personally had wet his bed, there were no pee stains, he believed. The various yellow stains on the mattress he attributed to sweat and semen. All in all, his bed was comfortable, he’d felt—why change it?

When he had tried to sleep at Barbara’s place, it didn’t work out. Her bedroom was on the second floor facing a busy avenue in Brooklyn. It was unbearably noisy on the weekend and unpredictably noisy during the week. The night he spent there, he couldn’t fall asleep. It was Saturday night, actually Sunday morning. He had taken her out for Thai food in her neighborhood. They both drank a lot—he several beers, she cosmopolitans. He’d walked her home. She invited him up. When he started kissing her, she yawned and suggested they go to bed. After minimal foreplay, they had sex. She fell asleep, he didn’t. Maybe he shouldn’t have eaten the chocolate cake for dessert because he felt wired and still horny. They’d had sex with a condom and he didn’t come. While she breathed peacefully, the traffic sounds became increasingly annoying. Right outside her window was a stop-sign. Cars kept screeching to a halt and then peeling out. It drove him crazy. A week later, he tried to spend a second night, a Tuesday. The cars were worse—they were drag-racing. When his neck started to ache, he gave up. At 3 in the morning, he took a cab home. That was the last time he tried to sleep there. It wasn’t a problem, because Barbara liked staying in the City.

One early April night they cuddled in his bed. It was late. She had come over after work, past midnight. Her drawing class was at 9AM. She was staying over Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays so she could walk to class in the morning, and often Friday and Saturday nights because she didn’t want to take the subway to Brooklyn after going out in downtown Manhattan. Even if they had much less sex now, Spencer had grown used to Barbara. Used to her body lying next to his, used to her clothes stuffed into his already-full closet, used to her sketchpads and colored pencils scattered around his apartment. Although he never said it to her because she didn’t want a relationship, he considered her to be his girlfriend. She had grown on him.

“What’s this?” she asked, rubbing his T-shirt. She put her palm on his stomach, which even while he was lying down protruded like a pitcher’s mound. Since they’d met, Spencer had developed a gut, a paunch, a beer-belly. He was still drinking beer like he was in college—three or four on a weeknight and more on the weekend. And hadn’t he been exercising. After months of complaining to Barbara about his neck, she suggested he try the Alexander Technique. He agreed, but all he did was sit on a folding chair while this Alexander lady kept telling him to relax. First he relaxed his neck and then she told him to relax his shoulders. Immediately afterward she told him again to relax his neck. She kept touching his neck and shoulders. The more she told him to relax, the tighter his neck and shoulders got. He bailed on Alexander. Next, he was supposed to start swimming, but there wasn’t a pool in his neighborhood. The outdoor pools didn’t open for a few more months. While the rest of his body remained lanky, his stomach had sprouted a paunch, while the ache had spread to his lower back.

He didn’t know what to say. She just noticed now? “It’s my reserve,” he’d said.

Barbara drew her finger across his stomach toward his back. She grinned before she poked him in his sore spot.

“Ow.” She had caught him off guard. It took him a second to register what had happened. Annoyed, he grabbed her wrist. “Hey, that hurt,” he said.

“It wouldn’t, if you had a better mattress.” With her knuckle she pretended to knock on the futon as if it were a door. “But I’ve had this since college,” Spencer said, as if professing loyalty for a pal from then. “Exactly. Besides being worn out, it’s kind of lame.”

He squeezed the side of the bed; it had no give. The mattress was old. Maybe it was time to get a new one. Spencer didn’t want to admit that she might be right. Even if she was so emotionally distant and more or less indifferent about their relationship, she sometimes had good suggestions.

“My Alexander teacher—”

“Agh,” Spencer moaned.

“No, listen,” Barbara caressed his stomach, “she said latex mattresses are amazing.”

Spencer frowned at her. “Well, why don’t you get one?”

She laughed. “You know I can’t afford one just waitressing three nights a week.”

After checking to make sure she wasn’t looking, Spencer tried to stretch the ache out of his lower back, but it didn’t work. “We’ll see,” he muttered.

That night Spencer dreamt about sleeping in a new ergonomic deluxe latex bed. He dreamt he woke up feeling refreshed and ache-free. Instantly, his life was transformed. Barbara called him her boyfriend. He felt better about himself. He felt happier, confident and started to make his own movie. Like all good dreams this one ended abruptly when the alarm went off—morning! The radio was blaring an ad about Tylenol. Spencer reached over and shut it off. Barbara continued to sleep, she didn’t have a class to get to. As Spencer straightened his arm to get up, a piercing pain shot through his left shoulder up to his neck. He froze, afraid of triggering another muscle spasm. He tried to concentrate on breathing deeply. Not at all as restful a night as he had dreamt.

As he stood in the shower, letting hot water scald his back, he decided she was right. He was getting sick of the constant aching and the awful spasms. He had had enough. He’d go mattress shopping after work.

The new latex mattress was a dream, but an expensive one. Spencer spent a lot more than he had expected because of Barbara. She came to the store with him for the final test. After lying on the white foam top for a few minutes, she tried the mattress next to it with a thicker white top, and then she tried several others, all with pristine white tops, until she announced that the one he had chosen wasn’t the best. She was sprawled on a latex mattress with a removable wool quilting. While staring at the ceiling, she announced that this was the mattress. Spencer lay down next to her. There, on the second floor of the showroom, with the steady drone of Holland Tunnel traffic outside, they lay together, alone. The salesman was downstairs filling an order. The mattress section was in a corner, blocked by dressers. Spencer felt flushed, horny. He wondered if they could have a quickie. Maybe sex in a public place would turn her on. It had been a long time, too long. He rolled on top of her and began to caress her hair. He leaned in to kiss her, but she wrenched her head to the side as if he had bad breath. “Get off,” she hissed.

Was he hurting her? No, he’d only straddled her hips, kneeling on his knees, and kept most of his upper body weight in his arms. He rolled off of her and tried to relax with several long sighs, pretending he was alone. After several minutes, he almost fell asleep. When he came to, he spoke to the ceiling, “Somehow, this one’s softer than the other, but it gives more support.” While she lay sprawled on the bare mattress, now grinning, he got up to look at the price tag hanging from the corner of the bed. “Queen Ultra Plus Latex Mattress—
$1095.” And that was before tax. He gulped. The mattress was five hundred dollars more than the one he’d picked. And that one was already more than he could afford.

Downstairs at the cash register he hesitated, but Barbara insisted it was worth it. Spencer slid out his credit card. Stalling, he studied the series of worn plastic numbers. He was still frustrated about her telling him to get off of her. In slow motion he handed his card to the smiling salesman.

“Couples just love this one,” the salesman said and winked. Spencer wasn’t sure if he was being mocked.

On that long-awaited morning after his first night’s sleep in the new bed, the alarm woke him at the usual time. When he opened his eyes, he didn’t move. He shut them again and, after mentally scanning his body, his whole face filled with delight. A miracle. Neither his neck nor back bothered him. He felt rested, deeply refreshed. Lying on his new bed full of vigor and potential, he had a feeling of déjà vu: he was in fourth grade and lying in the thick spring grass in the backyard, soaking up the sun. Then it clicked. In a flash, he saw how to segue from the intro to middle of the film he was editing at work. He had been worrying about it for the past week. The solution was so simple! He felt elated. Barbara, still asleep, put her hand on his stomach for a moment before rolling away. He was hungry for her, but they had inaugurated the bed last night and, sadly, he knew there was no chance of a morning session. These days she was hardly interested in sex. They rarely did it. She was like a camel in the dessert; one drink satisfied her for weeks. He hoped it was just temporary. At first, it had been a little frustrating, but he trained himself not to get too bothered. If he got aroused, she let him masturbate. It wasn’t as fulfilling as the actual deed, but it was better than nothing.

Spencer had become attached to Barbara. Even if she didn’t consent to be his girlfriend, they were spending a lot of time together, as if they were a couple. Well, at least there at his apartment. She worked nights and when not waitressing, she would hang out with her own friends. Spencer would meanwhile do his thing, see movies alone or with a buddy from work, but he wasn’t interested in meeting anyone else. He didn’t want to. He liked Barbara.

One Sunday morning Spencer woke up with a throbbing erection. He let Barbara sleep. His erection wouldn’t go away. Finally, after lying around forever, waiting for her to wake up, he spooned her. In the beginning he used to do that in the middle of the night, and she would receive him happily, but then she complained that she had difficulty getting back to sleep. So he’d stopped. Then when he initiated anything early in the morning, she complained about him waking her up when she was dreaming. Now he waited until she’d woken before touching her. This morning he was too far gone to wait any longer, so he snuggled into her backside. And, much to his delight, her hips writhed with his and he grew more aroused. He reached between her legs.

“I’m not ready,” she said suddenly, with her eyes closed and shifted away from him toward the wall.

He didn’t get it. She seemed interested. “You’re not?”

She lay with her back to him, silent.

I am,” he said, and brushed her lower back.

She moaned, not from excitement but from annoyance. “Why don’t we race?”

Not again. “Racing”. That was her excuse for not having sex. They hadn’t had any in four, no, five weeks. Since he had gotten the new mattress. Instead, she would suggest they “race”. She would put her hand on her crotch and pretend to massage herself. He would masturbate pressing into her side. Though if he tried to touch her breast or kiss her nipple, she would wince and say it distracted her. Anyway, the race didn’t matter. He always “won”. Once he came, she would pretend to have an orgasm. He knew the routine. She would shut her eyes, arch her head into the pillow and wiggle her hips for a bit before collapsing with a fake moan. And that was it. She would kiss his cheek. That was the extent of their sex life. Today he really wanted to do it, he wanted to have real sex—they did it so infrequently he knew his body would convulse, like a teenager’s doing it for the first time.

“How come we don’t do it anymore?” he asked her.

She cupped her hand on his cheek. “We’re beyond that.” He gave her a blank look. She stretched and smiled, but she didn’t smile at him, she had shut her eyes, snuggled her back into the bed and smiled a sleepy, dreamy smile. “Aren’t you glad you got rid of the futon?”

It would be different, he thought, if they were married. But they weren’t. If being “beyond that” meant sleeping well but not having sex, Spencer wanted his old futon back. “No,” he said.

“Don’t be silly. I’m going to take a shower.” She threw back the covers, slipped on his bathrobe and traipsed to the bathroom. Feeling like a fool, Spencer rolled around on his new mattress alone.

Thomas Cregan is a sommelier and the owner of the New York City restaurant Rouge et Blanc. His stories "Welcome to the Hamptons!" and "Yoga, He Thought" are also on, as is the opening of his novel-manuscript "My Garden", which won the 2009-2010 Anderbo Novel Contest.

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