Beds We Slept In by Nellie Hildebrandt

The easiest bed we ever left was in Quebec City, an apartment on the fourth floor of a rundown complex where the old women stood on balconies outside and smoked in their nightgowns. My sister and I didn’t know the man we were staying with, Guillaume—we had booked him online for eight dollars a night, the cheapest bed we could find. The interior of the building was painted a milky green color, each flight of stairs blending into the next. Guillaume didn’t answer the door but shouted what we believed to be an invitation to enter, and wore nothing but a headset and a pair of boxers covered with Family Guy characters. He hid behind a computer monitor on his kitchen table, eating sausages, speaking French we didn’t understand. He gestured to a curtain, in the hallway beyond which we would find our bed for two nights. We had forgotten towels—we brought T-shirts into the bathroom and used them to dry ourselves after showering. The curtain separating the futon from the hallway was a sheet through which we could see the outline of Guillaume’s body as he walked to the bathroom in the middle of the night, and the bed was a futon with edges we couldn’t sit on without the whole thing collapsing. We slept pressed together in the center, her blond hair fanned over the pillow, her breath hitting my cheeks in rasps, our bodies flinching when we heard people rush in and out of the front door. She whispered, “Once it’s morning, we’ll leave. I promise.”

Countless other nights we made our bed inside a tent—the two-person, three-season tent we bought in orange, with aluminum poles we learned to assemble in moments, from memory, with lightweight flies we could pull over the tent seconds before a rainstorm. It’s called the Quarter Dome 2 and it’s incredibly strong despite the minimal material that constructs it. Many times, we cursed as the wind blew it down a hill or, once, into a nearby lake, and just as many times, we marveled at the Quarter Dome’s ability to keep our boots and packs of food and thermal sleeping bags dry.

We made our first bed in Iceland an hour after we landed, the only sunny day we experienced of all seventeen we stayed. We slept with the tent unzipped, sweating through our thick jackets and knit sweaters and wool socks, unaware of how quickly the interior would warm with both of us inside. When we woke, we stripped into swimsuits, the locals gaping as we jumped into the neighborhood pool, frantic to cool our heated skin.

Then we learned to make and dismantle our beds anywhere, to jolt from sleep in the early morning, to bend the aluminum poles apart with our freezing fingers, to reach for each other’s hands as we folded the tarp in a manner that might prevent rain from pooling inside. We made our beds on a volcanic field long overdue for eruption. We made our beds beside a glacial pool, listening as we lay awake for the sound of icebergs rocking in the water. We made our beds and then woke panicked in the middle of the night realizing we had left a canister of butane open—which we’d used for cooking on the stove—inside the tent, the fumes dizzying us as we crawled out into the wet grass, and then we made our beds for the rest of that night clutched together in a campground bathroom stall. And because we had no cell reception to call our parents, camped out in the center of some Icelandic ranch, we fell asleep believing that we would suffer no permanent brain damage, that we had rushed out in time, that we would still wake in the morning to splinter apart that tent and squeeze our sleeping bags into their compression packs and load our portable home onto the next bus.

In Montreal, there was the widest bed we would ever sleep in, high above the ground and plush with red blankets, and below an open window through which white curtains fanned in and out. We spent more of our days in that bed than we did exploring the city, speaking little French and feeling flustered any time someone stopped to talk to us at cash registers or while navigating the Metro. The woman who hosted us departed on a camping trip, leaving us alone in her apartment with a set of keys that worked only occasionally. We spent our nights wandering the markets and restaurants and pink-lit shops in Chinatown, drinking through the festivals, attempting to translate advertisements we saw in flashes. We walked to our apartment from the Metro uphill the entire way, and one night, unable to find a bathroom so late, we stumbled into an alley. My sister peed behind someone’s car, in a patch of grass against their fence. When we finally got the keys to work, and we finally collapsed in bed, we fell asleep instantly. In the morning, she asked, “What did we do last night?” I said, “I think you peed in someone’s alleyway,” and we made breakfast on our camp stove, too scared to use any of our host’s pots and pans, eating on the red sheets under the open window.

The least amount of time we slept in a bed was in Ottawa after driving for two days straight through Nebraska and the Canadian border and the outskirts of Toronto. I had vomited the entire way into a bag that had once been full of popcorn. We arrived at 6am—checkout was 9am—our host, a bodybuilder, our bed, a soft white thing beside a stoop, where we could see it rain during the three hours we slept. We took off all of our clothes, something we’d never done in someone else’s bed before. I slept on my stomach, my nausea finally dimming. Our host ran up and down the stairs, dropping weights, making something in a blender, and still this sleep consumed us so wholly that when my sister woke and helped me pull my clothes on and crept us from the house, we remembered it as one of the most refreshing beds into which we’d ever collapsed.

We stayed only one day in Ottawa. We toured the blue turrets of the Canadian parliament buildings. We found shelter beneath a memorial sculpture with a family from China, trying to find words we knew in each other’s language. We shouted the prime minister’s name through the streets. I asked my sister, “Could you ever live here?” and she said, “No, never. It’s too small.”

It was a city with trolleys and art galleries and boats wavering in the canal, populated with 800,000 more people than the town we came from. Chateaus and cottages hidden in wildflowers dotted the outskirts of the city as we drove from it, and we didn’t find a single mobile home like the yellow one we had grown up cramped in, and still no place we stayed from then on felt big enough.

The first time my sister slept in a bed outside the country, she was 19, and she traveled using all of the money she had saved during her two years as a waitress. She flew to Portugal and Italy and France. Her beds were cots and sleeping bags and bunks in hostels. She called me from England, from a yurt in the middle of a forest where no one could hear her for miles. It was not a cozy bed—it was a mattress on the floor, the blankets chewed by rats while she slept, a porthole window above her, through which she saw men’s faces in all of her nightmares. The hosts had left her in the yurt while they traveled in Spain, and by then, she’d run out of money to stay anywhere else. From England she sobbed, pausing when she heard the rats come in, fantasizing about the bed we shared at home and the meals we’d eat when she returned. “If I survive tonight—” she started, because in sleep, she’d be so vulnerable, because in sleep, the rats could gnaw off her toes, because waking she could find everything had changed.

The bed I slept in for the first seven years of my life was a bunk fitted for a thin mattress, which my parents built in their closet after clearing out their coats and socks. The more years passed, the more the bunk creaked under my weight, a flimsy panel below a rectangle of popcorn ceiling I’d stuck glowing stars to and stared at until I fell asleep. I concealed all the things that belonged to me in the space beneath that bunk—a dresser, a desk covered in finger paint, a cube to learn long division that I held to my ear like a telephone. Sometimes, my parents needed the extra room and tried to see how many items they could fit on the racks above the bed, so I slept with my father’s tweed jackets or the plastic sleeves of my mother’s special-event dresses brushing my ankles.

A single wall separated my sister’s room from the closet I slept in. I could hear her classical music and the things she said to her friends and the creak of her bed when we lay down at the same time during the night. I could hear her argue with my parents about moving into a bigger house—even just another double-wide trailer with more rooms—so she wouldn’t be forced to share a room with our brothers, so I wouldn’t be forced to sleep in their closet. I could hear at night the two knocks that translated to hello, so firm and quiet and close to where I rested my head I almost felt her knuckles graze the paneling, the code that kept us awake in sleepy and imprecise conversations, the language that kept me from being swallowed by the 2×5 closet where I spent my nights, awake on the bed where I didn’t sleep.



Nellie Hildebrandt‘s work has appeared in Litmus Literary Journal and Rum Punch Press. She will attend University of South Carolina in the fall and she collects travel guides.




(Front page image via)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *