Sleep in the Bed You Make

by Sonya Zalubowski


Milwaukee, Wisconsin, circa 1974

The noises wake me in my new apartment. A regular kind of squeaky rhythm. Could it possibly be my upstairs neighbors, making love right above me?

The muscles in my thighs and lower back tighten. I sit up in my single bed, my shoulders cold. Tilt my head, listen harder. No question about it. Bed springs are going up and down, up and down. Who’d have thought the separation between our units could be so thin? Especially in this brand new place, my dream home with its shag carpeting and floor-to-ceiling windows.

The sounds come even faster. I flip under the covers onto my stomach, pull the pillow over my head. A yelp and then some low moans penetrate to my ears, right through the feathers.

Now, there’s only the ticking of my clock, on the night table next to me. I pull off the pillow. Neon hands show half past midnight. Five a.m. will come quickly enough. I roll on my back, punch the pillow behind my head and yank the covers up around my ears. My feet form little tents at the bottom of the sheets. They pull against my toes.

My head buzzes. Who are these people? What should I do? Ear plugs? Never worked for me in the dorms. Too small an ear canal, one doctor said. Insulation? The only thing I know for sure, I don’t want to move again.

* * *

The next day at work, phones ring and ring. Cracking through to my weary head. I yawn as I reach out and answer, “Associated Press.” More stupid prep football scores from the night before. I wonder how anyone can get so excited about gangly adolescent contests. Serves me right for taking this job with the wire service, a name that dates to the telegraph wires that once connected everyone.

When I tell one of my friends where I work, she thinks it means I roll up spools of wire and put them in drawers. At the newspaper, I got to go out all the time and report. The Nixon recession ended that for me. Here, we’re a cooperative, the Cuisinart of journalism, taking the news from everyone — sources, member papers and broadcasters and putting it out “on the wire” for publication.

“How’s your new apartment?” asks my co-worker Jim from the desk next to me. Brown hair, cheeks still red like a boy. He has to yell above the bank of teletypes clacking away around us. Pork belly futures, daisy cheese wheels coming in. All part of being the Dairy State. Jim told me that his heart now beats to the same sixty-word-a-minute rhythm. A Vietnam vet, he doesn’t even mind, he’s so happy to be back and whole.

“My apartment? At least it’s close to work.” I count the rings of another phone call, five, six but our news editor, Ed O’Reilly, keeps his head down, ignores it. A running joke how he can avoid work. I finally reach for the phone. “Tell you about the rest later.”

“We’re both off tomorrow. How about meeting me for once?”

Tuesday, Wednesday, at the AP, you take your weekends when you can get them. I’ve got appointments and tons of stuff to do.

“Okay, but brunch is all I can manage.” I start scribbling more prep scores.

* * *

Jim opens the plastic encapsulated menu, almost a foot high, rests it against the counter. “I’ll have the ‘farm-fresh eggs, lightly fried sunny-side up in a pool of creamy butter from Wisconsin’s finest cows’,” he tells the waitress, this plump lady with greying hair in an untidy bun at the back of her neck. “To drink, your ‘best freshly ground coffee from the mountains of Columbia’.”

His favorite greasy spoon in downtown Milwaukee. The waitress standing with her pad and pencil on the other side of the counter isn’t even rattled by his order.

“Yours?” she turns to me.

I stifle a laugh. “The same,” I say. She goes away.

“Have pity on the poor woman,” I tell Jim. This is the first time I’ve agreed to see him away from work. He’s so easy to talk to, I feel like I can tell him anything. Funny though, I’ve never told him about Fred.

“It’s okay,” he says, closes the menu and slips it into the metal stand at the back of the counter. “She knows I’m just funning. So, what’s the deal with the apartment?”

“It’s kind of embarrassing,” I say.

The waitress returns and pours hot coffee in my cup and then his before she heads farther down the counter to another customer. Jim puts some cream in his cup, the steam rises. “Mmm,” he says, “it’s good, just like the copy promised. Anyway, what could be embarrassing about an apartment?”

“The other night, I was fast asleep in my new place when something woke me up, this squeaking noise.”

Jim reaches for the sugar, pours out a teaspoon and stirs it in his cup. “Squeaking, from where?”

“I couldn’t tell right away but there was this kind of rhythm to it,” I sip from my cup. “Then I realized it was from upstairs.”

“Oh, yeah? A rhythm?” his lips widen into this big smile and his dimples, these deep c-shaped holes, one in each cheek, appear. “Would that be a bedroom above you?”

I put down my cup. My face starts to flush. The heat’s rising all the way to my center part. “I guess. There were bed springs going up and down.”

He reaches over and pulls at one of the pigtails I wear on my days off. “You’re blushing.”

“Come on,” I brush his hand away.

“Pray tell, what could it have been?” His eyebrows, the same brown color as his hair, are flying high. He’s going to force me to say it.

“Okay, the big Dirty.” I pick up the salt shaker on the counter in front of me and turn it in my hands. Greasy fingerprints all over the glass container.

“Doing it.” He winks at me. His face is redder than mine feels. “So, how about some details? Like how long did they go on? I mean how long did you listen?”

“Go away,” I say. My lips are smiling. I can feel a little spit in the corners. “All right. Just a few minutes. I didn’t have much choice. Earplugs don’t work for me.”

“A few minutes, hah.” He swivels toward me, on the green formica padded chrome stool. “How did it end?”

“There was this little yelp.”

“You’re kidding.” He slaps his thigh.

“No, really.” I’m laughing. “This is serious. I can’t go without sleep. Besides, it just doesn’t seem right to overhear them like this.”

He straightens up on the stool, rotates back toward the counter. It squeaks. “Okay. I’ll try to help. Any of the same last night?”

“No, nothing. I slept all night, not a problem, but if it happened once, it’s sure to again.”

“Maybe not.” He picks up a spoon, stirs some more sugar into his cup. “Maybe it was a one-night stand.”

The waitress comes with our two plates of fried eggs. She slides mine in front of me and moves over to Jim with his. They smell all buttery and warm. She returns with a platter of toast.

“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be more than one night.” I reach for my eggs.

“How do you know?” Jim is spreading butter on his toast, poking his eggs till they run. “You mind if I sop this up with the bread?”

“No, that’s the way I like to eat them, too.” I stick a crust into the wet center of a yolk, watch the yellow spill out. “On the neighbors, I went downstairs to the mailboxes, figured out their apartment number and checked the building directory. It’s a couple, Joe and Sarah Drake.”

“Talk about voyeur.” He’s munched through half his eggs, slops up some gelatinous white that’s pooled on the plate with his bread.

“That’s not fair,” I say. I crunch on a corner of the crust covered in yolk. “I just wanted to know what I’m up against.”

“Well, I’d wait and see what might happen next, what kind of problem you might have.” He’s finishing off his eggs. “Then maybe you could talk to the apartment manager.”

“Like I said, embarrassing. Anyway, what could anyone do?” I put my napkin on the counter, slide the plate away. One egg is enough for me.

“Sound proofing, white noise?” Jim starts to get up. “You said you have appointments?”

He walks me to my car and I get in, roll down the window. He stands next to the door, smiles at me, kind of rocking back and forth on his loafers. I fumble around with the keys. When I look up, his head’s poking into the window and before I know it, he lands a kiss right on my cheekbone, below my eye. His lips are warm, soft. He turns and walks off, then looks back and gives me a big wave. I rub the spot where he kissed me, moist on my fingertips. Then, I reach down and slip the key into the ignition.

* * *

Two nights later, I hear the Drakes. Sounds like they’ve just flopped on the bed. It’s early and I’m still awake. I roll on my other side. Try to think it’ll be over soon enough but now, somehow, it’s even worse. I know their names.

One of the covers slides off. I let it go. Why does it bother me this much? Maybe it’s all those years of shared rooms. Finally, I have something all my own. Still gobs of student debt to work off. It’s quiet upstairs. I turn onto my back, feel lightness in my chest, around my heart. They could just be going to sleep.

I stare up at the ceiling. Fred, blond, blue eyes, firm jaw. Five whole years since we first met, back in West Bend where I worked on the paper. He still lives there, a whole hour away. With his widowed mother. The one and only time he had me to his house, he barely introduced me to her, this white-haired lady wearing a tiny tea-apron, all lacy like maybe she wanted some company.

Fred whisked me right past her, into his little room, chucked full of boyhood junk, old schoolbooks and even the picture he painted of a springer spaniel, the numbers still showing through the light pink sections. His prayerbook, Wisconsin Synod Lutheran, was sitting next to the painting on top of his bookcase. They’re so strict they don’t even dance or join Boy Scouts. I’m Catholic. Something his mother disapproves of.

A slow regular squeaking begins upstairs. I stick my fingers in my ears, squeeze my eyes shut.

Fred. He was proudest that day at his house of the square aquarium that kept blipping in a corner of his room from its aerator hose. “Look, there it is, my prize.” He ran his finger along the glass, following a gold angelfish that darted with its high dorsal fin behind the tip of a plastic fern. Darker molly fish, their tails all furly, floated around below.

He partially closed the door, looked at me and said, “My mother depends on me.”

The skin around my temples tightened like it does right before the start of a big headache. “I know,” I said.

My ears hurt. I take out my fingers. The squeaking upstairs has stopped.

That aquarium. Fred tapped some food out of this box into it. Little flakes floated on the top of the water. The angel fish rose to the surface with a big air bubble, beating the mollies to the top. It snatched up most of the food before the other fish could even get there. My head pounded like a linotype shooting out metal pieces of type by the time Fred finally took me home.

The rhythm from upstairs begins again, the tempo now quick. I pull the pillow over my head. Fred. For cry-yie, he doesn’t even come to see me on Fridays, no TGIF for us, because he says he’s got to write and produce the weekly church bulletin then. Instead, he comes on Saturdays even though I have to work real early the next day.

My mother says it’s all baloney and I should quit wasting my time with him. Her friend Florence told her maybe I’m afraid I won’t find another boyfriend. All that just makes me more stubborn about seeing him. The thing is, I lost my virginity to him.

From up above, there’s the little yelp and the squeaking finally stops.

The next day I find the Drakes’ number in the phone book.

* * *

It’s Saturday night finally. Fred shows up as usual, apartment all cleaned and stocked with his favorites — Pabst, ruffle chips and clam dip. Me made up fresh and ready to go out. I never know exactly what we’ll do. Fred swings in the door and I start to bubble, fueled by a glass of wine.

Fred flips at a piece of my hair, bouncy from my new perm. “You’re looking good.”

I beam back at him. “You like it?”

“Yeah, baby.”

Before he even gets nearer, I know what’ll be next. We’re not going out for a little while.

He twirls me around. “How about it?”

“Yeah.”

He follows me into the bedroom, to my single bed. My corner apartment’s on the first floor. No one below or on either side will be hearing us. And, it’s way too early for the folks upstairs.

Afterwards, we lie there quietly and he starts. “You know when you didn’t have a job and moved back to your folks?”

“Yeah,” I’m interlacing my fingers with his. Six horrible months without a paycheck, back in my old room at my parents in Kenosha. A three-hour trip for Fred and I’d seen little of him.

“I have to tell you something.” He squeezes my fingers hard. “I went out with someone else.”

“What?” I pull my hand away, start to sit up.

“I met her at church.” He doesn’t touch me further. “Her parents live in West Bend. She invited me on this boat they own, to cross Lake Michigan.”

I lean back down, now on my side, quiet, my back to him. My chest hurts, right around my heart.

He pulls me toward him. “I have a conscience. It’s been bothering me. I had to come clean.”

“You went out once?” I roll flat on my back, my arms straight next to my body.

“More than once, but nothing like us.” He tries to rub my cheek but I push his hand away.

“What do you mean? Is it still going on?”

“No, no. It isn’t. But I had to tell you, had to try to be honorable.”

I lay there quiet. Why does he have to do this?

“What do you want from me?” I finally ask.

“Forgiveness, that we carry on like usual.” He’s pulled my face toward his, his eyebrows, pale as his blond hair, up high like he’s hopeful.

I wait a long time. Then I say, “I need to think about this.”

* * *

A week later at work, Jim’s face is all shiny, his cheeks redder than ever. He tells me all about meeting Betty, this single woman who moved in next door to him. He’s asked her on a date, a real date, no eggs at brunch.

When I go to bed that night, the noises from above begin again. I wait until the tempo rises and I turn on the light. Reach into the drawer of my night table, pull out that scrap of paper where I’ve written the Drakes’ phone number and wait. At just the right moment, I dial. The phone rings and rings. The squeaking stops.

I hang up before anyone can answer.


Copyright © 2008 by Sonya Zalubowski

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