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The Gulf Between Us

Sunday, May 28, 2023

By Julie Chavez

Illustration by Rebecca de Araujo

Distance was the enemy, and I believed a smaller bed would bring us closer—literally and figuratively.

We purchased the king-size bed when we moved to California, an upgrade from the queen we’d slept on for the first fourteen years of our marriage.

Married at twenty-two, I took to heart every tiny piece of advice I gathered: a perfectionist’s approach to relationship satisfaction. Don’t go to bed angry; don’t have a television in the bedroom; greet him at the door with a martini and a smile.

Check, check, check.

I believed that the strict adherence to a collection of well-chosen directives would insulate us against the bitter, freezing winds of distance. Distance was the enemy, and I believed a queen bed would bring us closer—literally and figuratively.

In the summer of 2016, we found ourselves wandering through a mattress store, sweaty and weary. After six rejected offers on homes I’d moved into in my mind, we were finally in escrow on a small, overpriced single-story house with a neglected lawn and a rusty swing set in the backyard.

As my husband, Mando, tested one of the beds for firmness, I tapped on my phone, my fingers sending yet another detail to our mortgage broker. I waited for the confirming swoosh before I tucked the phone into my purse. I looked out the floor-to-ceiling windows of the cavernous retail space, gazing at the freeway and the cars zipping by, the blistering sun reflecting off their windshields.

I hoped—fervently, reflexively—that we were making the right choice. I still labored under the illusion that each choice, no matter how small or seemingly inconsequential, was dualistic — presenting an obvious right and a catastrophic wrong: the perfectionist’s approach to happiness.

Mando rolled over to his side, bouncing slightly on the tight surface of the bare mattress. During the early years of our marriage, our queen bed in Seattle hadn’t provided the magical insulation I’d imagined; it merely served to lower our quality of sleep with one of us often choosing to sleep in the guest bedroom like a wanderer in search of rest.

But our marriage hadn’t crumbled under the stress of sleeping apart. Instead, we found that sex and closeness were entirely separate from our sleep. Distance may have been the enemy, but space was a paradoxical necessity. I had misunderstood the difference.

Distance was a result of the accumulation of tiny resentments, the swallowed frustrations that are an inevitable part of coexistence between two imperfect humans. And if there was a barrier to be bypassed in our intimacy, it had nothing to do with the size of our bed and everything to do with our two kids—first infants waking in the night, and later unremitting toddlers. Nothing kills the libido like pint-size tyrants who cannot be reasoned with.

We wanted sleep, but couldn’t find it. Many of our conversations revolved around this scarcity: I was up at 3 in the morning; I couldn’t stop thinking about work; I kept remembering items to add to my to-do list. We spoke these mundane phrases throughout the day, the type of words that make sense but fail to connect. We were unable to convey the heavy, unspoken, necessary words: I feel lonely; I’m worried about the future; I don’t know if moving here was the right choice. Our conversation was voluble, but empty; we sought sleep, but we needed rest.

I believed that the strict adherence to a collection of well-chosen directives would insulate us against the bitter, freezing winds of distance.

I scanned the mattress outlet to locate our two boys—ages nine and seven. They bounced happily on a mattress in the corner and I feigned ignorance of an employee’s scornful face. I was exhausted and sad: we had uprooted these happy, bouncy boys and now existed with them in a bland corporate apartment, our only acquaintance the faceless, angry downstairs neighbor who banged on his ceiling throughout the day, incensed to have children living above him.

I chose an extra-firm mattress and tried not to think about lice as I lay down. Mando joined me on his side of the bed and we were still.

“What do you think of this one?” I asked.

He didn’t open his eyes. He simply responded, “I think this one would be good.”

Our conversation was voluble, but empty; we sought sleep, but we needed rest.

We purchased the Sealy Posturpedic and an upholstered bed with storage drawers at the foot. We scheduled the delivery for the first Saturday in September, the day after we expected to receive the keys to our new home.

I fetched the boys from the opposite corner of the store. They had started chasing each other around the mattresses, little Tasmanian devils whose parents were too taxed to fight another battle. I don’t think I imagined the look of relief on the employees’ faces when the bell above the door chimed as we exited.

. . .

Over the next few years, we would luxuriate in the extra room afforded by the king-size bed. We would spread out like starfish and laugh at ourselves for waiting so long to give ourselves the extra sixteen inches. We would settle into our California life; we’d find our people; the boys would join a swim team. We would find our happiness again and it would be worth the wait.

But what I couldn’t have known is that the upholstered headboard would also be the one I’d lean against when I’d have my first panic attack in April of 2018. I didn’t yet know that in spite of all my perfect preparations, despite my very best efforts to shield us from disappointment and tragedy and fear, Mando and I would finish up some of the worst days of our marriage on the edges of that mattress, each of us tucked into opposite corners, the distance between us like an interloper in our bed. I couldn’t have known that I would begin to sleep on that mattress in a tight, tiny ball, my shoulders hunched forward and my arms crossed across my chest.

A few weeks after the panic attack, I walked into the office of my new therapist, Kim. I was a shell of myself, my confidence having abandoned me. Depressed, depleted, and anxious, I sobbed through my first appointment, talking in rambling circles as the minute hand made its way around the clock. At the end of the hour, it was clear I’d continue therapy with her weekly. Looking at the days stretching out before my next session, I asked, unable to dissemble my mounting panic, “What should I do until then?”

“I think it’s a good idea to take care of yourself and find space where you can,” she said.

Mando and I would finish up some of the worst days of our marriage on the edges of that mattress, each of us tucked into opposite corners, the distance between us like an interloper in our bed.

When I consider it now, I know the perfectionist’s approach was always doomed to fail.

I pulled into the driveway after my appointment and walked into the house where Mando stood at the kitchen sink, washing dishes after feeding the boys an early dinner. I put down my keys and purse and stepped up to wash my hands. He looked at me and asked the question that had no precise answer.

“How did it go?”

I paused. “It went fine. I think it’ll be good. I made an appointment for next week.”

“Okay,” he responded, waiting for more.

I shrugged, feeling a vague pressure from him to say I was okay.

He held back, trying to remain patient yet hopeful. Mando knew the land of tragedy firsthand, but he didn’t yet speak the language of the broken. He didn’t have the vocabulary to inquire about what I was experiencing, nor did I have the words to accurately convey it. We were both lost in translation.

Instead of explaining that I felt unmoored from everything around me as if thin panes of glass surrounded me on all sides, instead of telling him I needed love and warmth from my people and from him, instead of saying that a solution for this felt so far away that it was nearly invisible to me, I said, “Yeah. She seems good.”

“I’m glad you went to see her,” he said.

The simple words were the only ones we could find. We were doing our best, both knowing something was lacking, deficient, that nothing was solved or understood, but also trusting that we’d get there. And we would, but it would take time.

When we went to bed that night, we abandoned our individual sides and lay together in the middle, zipped from shoulders to tailbone on the Sealy Posturpedic mattress.

Kim had suggested I find space for myself but, paradoxically, the space I needed was here, with the reassurance of connection. Mando and I pushed the emptiness out to the edges of the king-size bed. We fell asleep that way, because we love each other, and because on that day, it was the best we could do.

Julie Chavez is an elementary school librarian in Northern California who writes to explore the joys and impossibilities of modern motherhood. Her memoir, Everyone But Myself, will be published on January 2, 2024 by Zibby Books. Julie lives with her husband and two tall teenagers in a house where she arranges her books by color.