“Separate, But…” by Terry Barr

Secrets are opened in moments like this:

“Daddy, why are you and Mommy sleeping in different bedrooms?”

The befuddled Daddy stares at his six-year old son, a boy not old enough to understand that he wasn’t supposed to ask this question, though he feels the disruption to the natural order of his life.

I watched this boy’s face wonder and wonder, and I felt all of his confusion.

I felt his age.

However, this was only a movie about a madman threatening to “pick the little kiddies off one by one” as they rode their daily school bus. If the madman is a zodiac, then what sign hovers over separate bedders?

What’s wrong with us? We tolerate brutal violence in our media on a regular basis, but one day we decide that we can no longer tolerate someone we’ve lived with longer than we’ve lived with anyone else. All the years that we loved: where do they go?

I remember the day I first heard Carly Simon’s “That’s the Way I Always Heard It Should Be,” a song that had about as much popularity as I did back when I was fourteen.

Most of my friends blasted Deep Purple, Black Sabbath, or the Stones. Fourteen year-olds flee intimacy and inner truth as passionately as they plot to sneak out of houses on late summer nights. Intimacy drew me, however, in the same way that I had to look more closely at the objects stacked in a certain order on the top shelf of my father’s closet. When I first heard Carly’ song, I moved up in my seat, leaned toward the car radio, and turned it up. My mother was driving us to the mall where I would meet my friends and hang out somewhere between Musicland and Expressions, an actual head shop with black-light Mr. Natural posters and coke snuff. At first, it was Carly’s voice I heard, eclipsing the story she was revealing. It was one of those songs that like any other ballad should have caused me to look down, look away, look anywhere but at the car radio, the person driving, or in the eyes of anyone who might understand and agree. I should have pushed the button on the dial to the next station down the kilohertz path, seeking “Honky Tonk Women” or even “Smiling Faces.”

But I didn’t push a button on the day I first heard that song. I listened on in part because I trusted the DJ’s on WSGN (“The Big 610”). And in part because a girl who could sing like that was somebody I wanted to love.

The song wasn’t in “heavy rotation,” so I didn’t get to hear it often, and even when I did, I probably pushed my preset WAQY or WVOK buttons because my buddies Jeff or Jon might have been riding with me and of course Carly wasn’t boy-cool. Of course, I couldn’t show them that I had any room in my adolescent life for someone else’s pain.

I remember, though, listening to it late at night, on the hand-me-down Magnavox AM radio sitting on my night table. I remember sinking deeper into the covers of my bed as Carly sang about the house she had to call home.

Life, and songs, force even fourteen year-olds into a consciousness outside themselves. On another summer day I’m riding in a green Volkswagen with a young woman seven or eight years older than me—someone I’m supposed to trust. She sings in locally-produced musicals and loves Streisand, Joni Mitchell, and Carole King.

And Carly, whose song, after the weather update, soothes its way into our conversation. She turns the radio up and sings knowingly:

“My father sits at night with no light on
His cigarette glows in the dark…
I tip-toe past the master bedroom where
My mother reads her magazines.
I hear her call ‘Sweet Dreams,’
But I forget how to dream.”

I hadn’t thought about it until then, until I heard the twin voices: separate bedrooms. That’s what the song whispers—a secret that the singer is admitting, sharing. A secret that, as I look at the woman by me who’s lost in her own reality, isn’t such a secret anymore.

Picturing the images and scenes that the story conjures: that’s my generation’s experience with pop music. My parents never got this. Periodically, withstanding as much of my radio tunes as he could, my father would complain: “They forget about melody and harmony, because all they want to do is tell a story.”

That was my Big Band era father, a jewelry salesman, a man who thought I studied English because I loved the finer points of grammar.

“He’ll never understand Carly or James or Neil,” I thought. Back then, I didn’t completely understand their stories either. But they all felt true.

They felt true because the young woman in the green Volkswagen started having affairs with boys my age, and her husband, I assume, followed suit. For a while they stayed together in their little house with the screened-in porch where I once went to a party and drank too much Canadian Mist. But there wasn’t enough mist to prevent me from seeing clearly their two bedrooms.

And from remembering all I had seen before.

Through adolescence I often spent the night with Dickie, one of my best friends. His family lived outside of town on a remote stretch of road in the country where they had built their own house. They had a private lake and a swimming pool that even in the middle of our sauna Alabama summers would turn a hearty person blue at the mere toe-touch of water.

Dickie was an only child and so staying with him meant that we had uninterrupted hours of playing board games, wandering in the woods with his white German Shepherd, and staging desperate but orderly car races with his Hot Wheels set.

At night, things were so quiet at his place that, even though we slept in bunk beds and Dickie let me have the top, I often got scared and homesick and begged to be driven home. Their house had been burgled before, but Dickie’s mother reassured me that everything would be all right. That we were safe. And as much as I continued to worry, she was right: everything was all right. For me at least.

Dickie’s Dad was a musician in his spare hours, playing Shriners Club affairs and wherever else Big Band music was desired. He loved Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, just as my own Dad did. But unlike my Dad, Dickie’s wasn’t always around at night.

Also unlike my father, when he was there with us, Dickie’s Dad wore silk robes, ascots, and while my Dad didn’t smoke at all, not only did Dickie’s father smoke, he also used a cigarette holder for his Carltons. He was also the first person I knew to drive a Porsche.

Still, my friend’s father was always nice to me, just a bit formal, stand-offish. My own mother described him as having a “quick temper,” but I don’t remember ever seeing it displayed.

Dickie’s mother, though sweet, was rather plain looking: short, somewhat bow-legged, with the thinnest hair of any woman I knew. She was the first woman I knew, too, to buy a wig. I suppose it made her feel prettier.

But it must not have helped, not where it really counted. After all, the evidence was right in front of me.

We were eleven or twelve then, and on the morning after one of our sleepovers, I walked down the extended hallway to Dickie’s room to get something for one of our games. Passing by the “guest bedroom” on the left—where my grandmother had slept on the one occasion she came with me in order to paint the beauty of the woods and lake around Dickie’s house—I noticed that the bed had been recently used.

I looked across the hall at Dickie’s parents’ bedroom, and that bed had been slept in too. That’s where Dickie found me, stuck between two former lovers: “Uh, Dickie, don’t your parents sleep together anymore?”

“I guess not, not for a while anyway.”


And that’s all. What else was there for us to say? We returned to our Hot Wheels double-elimination tournament with our diecast-metal and painted Firebirds and Mustangs and Deoras.

But every time I had to go to the bathroom at the far end of that long hallway, I passed those facing bedrooms and considered again and again what it all meant.

Despite my absorption in pre-adolescent games, the secret world kept finding me. My sixth grade teacher was a very young woman, straight out of grad school, who formerly belonged to a clique of high school girls who sunbathed with our next-door neighbor, Nancy. I used to watch them from my bedroom window in the room next to my parents’ bedroom whose own window faced a different side of the house, the back end. From their double bed, you could see pecan trees, and in the distance the brown stone South Highland Baptist Church. But from my window, all I saw was a white stone patio and several teenaged girls in two-piece swimsuits. Sometimes Nancy, and Beth, my future teacher, waved at me. I was just this six-year old boy looking out a window at four or five or even six high school beauties.

I thought of this scene as Beth, now Mrs. Thames, explained to our class the intricacies and beauty of pop culture: the complexity of “Sgt. Pepper” and her favorite song, “She’s Leaving Home.” And the romantic pathos of her favorite new film, The Graduate. She especially loved the ending when Ben and Elaine take that bus to nowhere. From her words, I fell in love with the film, too, though it took another twenty-five years before I finally saw it on a home VCR.

However, it kept its real secret from me for an even longer time.

My profession today allows me to teach a course on Film and American Culture, and in it, I invariably assign The Graduate as essential 1960’s viewing. What better example of American culture than plastics, age-inappropriate adultery, and the aimlessness of privileged college grads!

This last semester, one of my students wrote her major essay on the film, and in her excellent analysis she discussed the scene where Mrs. Robinson confesses to Benjamin that she and Mr. Robinson have been sleeping in separate beds for some years.

I discovered then that there are some secrets that I’ve forgotten I remember.

So in the privacy of my office, I re-watch that scene.

In Benjamin’s face I see the flickering of other scenes, other memories, and maybe a dawning truth. I wonder what my sixth-grade teacher thought when she saw that scene—if it spoke to her too? But as I gaze at the empty spaces this time, I do something that I can’t believe now that I never did before: I begin adding up all the separate beds in my past.

When I tell my wife about my hauntings and countings, she tells me that my reaction to separate beds has always been dramatic: “One night apart, and you’re OK. But let it go onto the second night and you get anxious and have to remind me that you don’t want to end up like your parents!”

“Yeah, it’s definitely one of my primal fears, up near the top with ‘angry white men,’ pictures of open hearts, and the Book of Revelation.”

She laughs at this and so do I. But these fears are just the ones I’m telling.

We don’t sleep apart often, but the reality is that I’m a very light sleeper, and my wife has trouble breathing through her nose. So on occasion, one of us hits the couch or, now that they live away from us, one of our daughter’s beds. But I find that sleeping apart doesn’t really help me sleep.

It’s just a different kind of wakefulness—a state that finds me wondering why I’ve chosen to sleep separately from the woman I love. So I return, for nothing feels quite as good as slipping back into our hand-crafted bed and listening to her breathe, even though she may be doing so in very irregular rhythms.

Sleeping apart doesn’t necessarily mean your love has died, and I know ours hasn’t. But as my friend “George” puts it, “It doesn’t help,” intimacy either. So despite knowing how sound we are and that we don’t live in a separate or secret world, on those fitful mornings after, I worry.

“The couples cling and claw, and drown in love’s debris.”

I believe that I was intimate with Carly’s words before I ever heard them.

Shortly after we were married, my wife and I were visiting my parents. When we got there, I saw that my mother had redecorated my old teenage bedroom—the one I moved into after my grandmother died–with Civil War battle prints, Confederate swords mounted over my former bed, and the faces of Lee and Jackson staring at me from my past-life dresser. I wondered if I had ever occupied this room. Where was my deep-orange suede trunk, my old stereo that sat on it, and all those vinyl LP’s that used to collect dust in the corner of the room?

And that radio?

“I’m sleeping in here now,” my mother said, her voice taking on the accusatory tone that had now become its default position.

“When my elbow was operated on,” she continued, “I had to wear a cast, and I was just too uncomfortable to sleep in that double bed with your Daddy. So I started sleeping in here until the cast was removed. But your Daddy never said a word to me about coming back, that he missed me, kiss my foot, or anything. So I just decided to stay in here. Do you like it?”

Figuring that the “it” meant the décor, I said “Yeah” with as much enthusiasm as one normally finds in that word. Besides, Nouveaux-Confederate just doesn’t grab me.

Knowing, too, that the “it” was probably not an invitation for me to comment on my parents’ sleeping arrangement—although how can I be sure that she wasn’t asking for sympathy, or agreeable outrage on her behalf?—I tried to mask my feelings of horror. I tried to recall all my visions of my parents sleeping side by side and let them overwhelm this new and indifferent reality.

I envisioned those years when my childhood bedroom adjoined theirs. When I’d pass through it some early mornings on the way to the bathroom, sometimes I’d see them lying with their arms around each other. Getting back in my bed then I felt warm and safe. Comforted.

Once, long ago, I thought they were so happy.

I knew that hadn’t been true for some time, but I still had this illusion, this comforting image: this illusion that their marriage wasn’t an illusion. This illusion that at night, despite a day full of disagreement that kept them emotionally apart, they would end the evening together.

In the same bed.

Staring at a room, at a configuration that I no longer recognized, I began thinking of all those TV sitcoms from the 50’s where married couples slept in twin beds. I couldn’t understand it then: why didn’t they sleep in the same bed like my parents did? Weren’t they in love and happy?

I thought my parents were the standard, that the marriage bed wasn’t merely symbolic. That a home was a home, and everyone kept to the script of his and her assigned places, just as we did at the supper table. Just as we did with all of our closets, our dressers, our bathroom towel racks, our seats in front of the TV.
And, of course, with the bedrooms that separated us all, equally.

When I think of these revealed secrets, the separate realities that I’ve put together, I envy the innocence of the little boy in Zodiac because without any understanding of why, he could invent reasons, could convince himself that his parents’ sleeping arrangement was only a temporary reality, that it didn’t mean anything, that nothing was truly wrong, and that the reason for this uncovered secret might be as simple as that one of his parents had hurt an elbow; that one of them was snoring too loudly.

He might not understand completely, but he might just go about his business then, and if a spend-the-night friend asked about his parents’ bedrooms, he would simply shrug and explain that it had been going on for a while, that it was nothing big, and then go back to his Hot Wheels or Carly Simon records hoping that this horrible reality would fade.

And it will fade with time, as we get used to the arrangements we’ve made. Or the ones others have made for us as if we have no concern in the matter, no feelings, no voice. As if we can make a lasting peace with the secret world that found us on the radio dial, in the theater, or in the form of a woman sitting too close to us in a cramped Volkswagen car.

As if we can make peace with the reality that we’ve forgotten how to love or why we ever did so in the first place.

That we can sleep peacefully through the night in removed spaces, waking up refreshed and with a newfound sense of purpose.

That, though there may be another person in the house, we aren’t clearly and utterly alone.

Since being published in Steel Toe last spring, Terry Barr has also had essays published in The Museum of Americana, The Montreal Review, Orange Quarterly, and Scissors and Spackle. He is also a regular contributor to the web-zine, culturemass.com, where he writes on pop music and memory.