By Charlotte Hollingsworth
I was pretty down the day my cat popped my air mattress.
Alright, I was way down. Down on the floor sobbing mindlessly in to the phone to my best friend who, at 1600 miles away, must have wondered what strange dying creature had taken over her dear pal, so traditionally strong under pressure. I was sobbing the kind of heaving sobs that wrack your entire body and leave you incapable of forming words beyond “why?!?!” and “OWWW!!!” The whole sum of my heartbreak had collapsed on me and I was a goner. It was then, lying on my floor, finally getting my breath under my control that I heard it.
I looked up to see my cat, my only companion within the states borders, triumphantly licking at a dead bug while the air escaping from my bed softly caressed her fur.
“Fuck.” I whispered.
“FUCK!” I shouted.
“What?!” asked my friend, happy I was saying something new.
“Zosie just popped my FUCKING bed.”
“Oh my god.”
And we laughed. I laughed harder in that moment than I ever have. The wracking sobs were replaced with the most uncontrollable fit of laughter my body had ever undergone. I laughed so hard I started crying again. If, in that moment, it had begun to rain inside of my house I would not have been a bit surprised. The absurdity of how badly my life was going could do nothing more than amuse me.
That night I slept with my head against the holes in my bed. I woke up encased in sheets and plastic, in a deflated bed-taco having to claw my way up to go about my life. The literal necessity of crawling and scraping my way out of my pit was a metaphor stronger than any I had come up with in therapy. If I had to drag my way out of my bed, I would have to drag my way out of the mess my life had become.
I bought a second air mattress a week or so later. I promised myself that I would protect my bed by investing in a foam topper and protect my heart by committing to being the only one to sleep on it. Unfortunately, loneliness is a powerful force, an unstoppable one when presented with temptation and alcohol. I kissed strangers, I kissed my heartache, I let myself blow right over the protective walls I had built and invite all that ache right back in to my sheets. Now, I technically kept my promise by not allowing any actual sleep to occur in my bed, so one could say I had made progress towards healthy emotional boundaries. But the damage done had no respect for my sketchy use of rules.
I needed to get out. I needed to get physically out of that desperately symbolic air mattress, out of the room where so much crying had happened, out of my own pit. I was writing the same chapter of my life over and over, hoping the ending would somehow change. My plans for moving forward with my life had less substance than the filling in my bed. It was time I stopped waiting for the plot of my life to be swayed by some other protagonist, and stop being an extra in someone else’s story.
Once I made the decision to move to the city, a small avalanche of emotional intelligence fell over my head. I was moving for me, I was making the decision myself, and I was going to get a fucking bed. I found a place with kind, quiet roommates and started getting my money/boxes/shit together to move. After all the horrid that had happened to me for a year and a half, I had a string of luck that felt like a universal apology. And the best part? A bed. A real actual bed was waiting for me in my new apartment, free of charge, and constructed of mattress and metal.
The day I moved I saved the air mattress for last. For a few brief seconds I considered keeping it, for guests or posterity, but quickly realized it was full of too much baggage to be worth keeping, not to mention I wasn’t going to have the space to inflate it in my new room so there was really no reason whatsoever to keep it in my life (what a metaphor, right?) I sat next to the pump as the air was sucked out of this symbol of sadness I’d been spending my days on. The sharp seams cut in to my arms as I folded it in to a small trash can sized ball. I have never had a more satisfying feeling than shoving the bulking, stinking, horrible plastic in to the trash and walking away. I left behind the last memories of his skin, the last morning of regret, the last time my cat could add so much insult to injury. I stared at the mattress in the trash can for fully 3 minutes, letting everything it meant wash through me. Then, I went back inside, closed the door, and started to move on.
It’s been three months since then. My bed is made of mattress and metal, practically cat-proof. I haven’t cried on a floor in days, and before that weeks. And the thing is, nothing has gotten easier. Nothing has gotten better. I’ve just gotten better at handling it. I’ve gotten better and clawing my way out of the taco-pit-air-mattress of life’s blows.
The lesson here, I have found, is not about romance. It is not about moving on, and it is not about finding any more fish in the sea. What I’ve learned, the most important thing I have learned, is how to be lonely. When I was at my worst I was so afraid of being lonely. Being alone is something I excel at, something I enjoy with enthusiasm. But being lonely, that’s when alone feels wrong. When you want someone there so much you can’t help but ache, physically ache. And it happened a lot, that ache. And you know what? I got through it. And I woke up the next morning, in a bed that had held me up through the night, and I got on with my day. I reached out to friends I trust, who rose to such incredible heights to help me, but I also let myself simply exist within loneliness until it became easy. I proved to myself that feeling desperately lonely would not kill me, would not even maim me, and was something I could get through with little collateral damage.
I still get lonely. But I am no longer afraid of it. And I still bring up those air mattress memories in some gross from of self-torture. But I do not push myself in to relationships and social situations I don’t want to be in simply to escape the chance of feeling lonely, or to escape the fragments of memory demanding my attention. I figured out something huge, and that’s that being lonely is better than being with the wrong people. I spent so long being terrified of what would happen if I was lonely that I spent too long with the wrong people. The culmination of all the advice people give to the recently broken-hearted tends to gloss over the fact that being lonely is part of the process of learning to be picky.
My cat popped my air mattress and I dealt with it. A few people broke my heart and I dealt with it. I was alone, desperately lonely, and I dealt with it. I hope we can all learn not to fear being on our own, because as soon as you do you learn how much your time is worth. Do I wish I had learned this lesson when I was in my early 20’s? Yes. Do I wish I hadn’t probably permanently ruined my neck by sleeping on an air mattress for six months? Absolutely. Do I regret a single thing that led me to this? No. Not at all. Because I’m not afraid anymore.