Once Upon a Mattress

She ain’t heavy, she’s my sister

Illustration by Peter Arkle

There is a mattress in my dining room again, which I consider a bad sign because it’s a heavy thing, and not only do heavy things weigh you down, but you’re supposed to reach a point in life—aren’t you?—when you’re past mattresses being dumped on you where they don’t belong. I thought I’d reached that point, but to make matters worse, this is not even the only mattress in my dining room. Technically there are two, if you count the large daybed in the bay window.

I bought the daybed at a garage sale because I’m like my mother in that I can’t resist furniture with a dual purpose. This is because I’m constantly imagining the need to accommodate overnight guests, who are usually imaginary, because the only overnight guests I have are my sister and my girl’s slumber partiers who sleep under the end tables in the den. But still I have that daybed ready for one of my many close celebrity friends—i.e., movie stars I’ve stared at from across the foyer while visiting my agent at the Creative Arts Agency—hiding from the paparazzi while passing through Atlanta or, more likely, one of my regular friends wishing to hide from the police while they nail down their alibi for when that dead hooker was discovered in their hotel room.

But back to the big mattress. It belongs to my sister Cheryl, who came to visit two years ago and stayed so long that I eventually got a bigger place so she wouldn’t have to sleep in the dining room. We moved across the street into the house my neighbor Amy abandoned on account of how a burglar broke into it and tied her hands to her headboard. Luckily, due to the absence of a footboard, her feet were left free and she was able to use them to open her laptop and then, with her toes, type for help on the Internet. I swear this is true.

Amy left her bed frame behind in the house, understandably, because the thought of keeping it weighed her down. I personally considered the headboard bad luck, but my sister saw it differently. “Just think,” she smiled, “if this thing had a footboard, Amy might be dead right now.”

I never in a million years would have thought of it that way, but now it’s hard to think of it any other way. My sister is talented at presenting the positive light. I remember when I got my own uncharacteristically luxurious bed as a gift from my boyfriend at the time. I emailed her saying it was a bad sign because, in the past, such a display of commitment was a heavy thing. And plus, I told her, that day not one but two—two!—black cats had crossed my path.

“Maybe the mattress is not a bad sign,” she replied. “Maybe a heavy thing can be an anchor as well. And two black cats are good luck. The one cat cancels the other out.” Years later she emailed me to say she was leaving her husband again, so could I arrange for a plane ticket and pick her and her own two (nonblack) cats up at the airport the day after next?

I considered this proof of the delayed wrath of the black cats, especially since this time she assured me she was here to stay—and to prove it she promptly got a job off Craigslist, selling discount sides of meat from the trunk of her car. I demanded she quit because, for one, she didn’t have a car and expected to use mine. After that I felt obliged to help by tutoring her on my secret formula for getting hired as a flight attendant. (Hint: You have to be bilingual, or at least say you are.)

It worked. Her new job took her out of town a lot, which was part of my plan. But it turns out I missed her. For one, the house always smelled like sauteed onions when she was home. I liked that smell. It made me proud that this was a place where meals were made for more than two. Ironically I had thought that her constant presence would weigh me down, but it was proven over time that her absences actually did.

Looking back, I realize my mistake: I should have been prepared for the eventuality that when you help someone back onto their feet, they may walk off without you. Cheryl’s life has always been a big pair of open arms, and now she’s embraced an opportunity that takes her away. She’s moved out, but her mattress is still here. She says she’ll be back to get it, and that she’s not going far, and that if I need her she’ll be there at the drop of a heavy thing. But in the meantime this makes two mattresses in my dining room. Oh well. Maybe it’s not a bad sign after all. Maybe the one mattress cancels the other out.

This article originally appeared in our June 2013 issue.