Monster Under My Bed
The exact details are hazy. I was in college, my junior or senior year, and it was a creative writing class. We were in the computer lab that day, working on our personal essays, but many of us were stuck. “Take a snapshot from your life,” our professor told us. “Select a good one- a hard one, a happy one. Take your pick. And then write about it. How hard can it be?” Behind the glib tone, however, a smile; he was heckling us, and we returned it with equal fervor. Mock fervor; pretend outrage. Our relationship with him was easy, comfortable. An older man, tall and slightly stooped, he occasionally read us the stories he’d written himself; and sometimes- ridiculously so, now that I think back on it- he’d pass them out for us to read, giant stacks of them, with the option of censored copies (black Sharpie streaked across whole paragraphs); and uncensored ones, rife with…I can’t remember, exactly. Sexual stuff? Gore? What else could it be? So funny how this professor, teaching a college level class, was so parsimonious, even protective. Sweet, really.
Anyhow, it was with this sense of ease that we’d brainstormed out loud, volleying ideas back and forth, our voices clambering over each other. A snapshot then; not the curated sort with placid smiles and stiff postures. Candid ones. Microexpressions of rage or joy; the authentic ones.
With unusual brashness, I announced, “At night, my sister used to hide under my bed and grab me. She’d do it almost every night for…” I thought for a moment. “Gosh, for like a year.”
This stopped the class. They laughed and grimaced in equal measure. Every night?
“Yes,” I said, laughing with them. “Almost every night. I’m not exaggerating.”
They asked the obvious question: But wouldn’t I expect it, night after night?
I kept my tone light, but the attention made me feel warm; flushed. “It wasn’t only under my bed. She’d cram herself into my side table. Like really contort herself. Or she’d hide behind the clothes hanging in my closet. She once even tried to hide under my mattress, but she couldn’t manage it.”
But why, they asked?
“She loved to scare me. It made her laugh. And it always worked. I’d scream every time. I’d check, of course. I’d look under my bed, but I swear, I couldn’t see her. And then,” my hands reached up and clenched into fists, “she’d grab me.”
That’s crazy, someone said. Your sister was messed up.
And then we moved on. I wrote my essay, and inspired by such a receptive audience, I titled it “Monster Under My Bed.” A facetious title, as it was all in jest. A prank on a younger sister, an endless loop until she tired of it.
But why now, all these years later, sitting at my computer on a random Saturday afternoon, was I thinking about it now? Why did this memory awaken and move through the corridors of my mind, crystallizing into this thought: That my sister, hiding under my bed, night after night, was indeed messed up? What provoked it, benign as it was, said by someone I can’t remember, a singular discombobulated voice?
Because my sister wasn’t the type to be messed up; such a thing was inconceivable. In fact, she was now a proper mom of three. If only my creative writing class could see her now; in fact, they could see her now- in real time; she had, to date, 354,000 followers on her Instagram and even more on the mothership, Youtube. (Or was it the other way around?) At any rate, she was a vlogger of some merit, an influencer of beige playsets, nurseries with muted colors, casually slung swaddlers reminiscent of ancient Mami’s, pointed acrylics, a sparkling rock with sliding bands on slender fingers.
Her husband was a dentist; a decent guy, devoted to college football and beer-soaked bratwurst. He shied away from the camera, but when encountered, he smiled affably, offering token words with his usual good nature; complicit to the narrative of his wife, my sister, a harried mother of two little girls, with their high-pitched voices and adorable hijinks. And yet, on their vlog- Babymoon in Hawaii!- he was, in my opinion, from the eight years I’d known him, rather disingenuous. He didn’t seem the type to…well, hold the camera, only an arm visible, wearing a white linen shirt (when had he ever worn linen?); and my sister, gingerly stepping over rocks, a wispy sheath of white dress, hair flowing behind her, reaching for him, hand extended, laughing, her mouth wide open, rapturously happy. A filter which made it soft around the edges, plaintive music in the background, John Mayer, or perhaps Michael Buble; a husky croon.
The babymoon was seven months ago, the baby having since been delivered. A boy. The vlog- Gender Reveal!- was quite the to-do. You can see me, there in the background, rounder in width than my sister’s tight drum of a belly; I was wearing dark jeans and a sensible blouse; she was wearing a dress of indiscriminate color- a sort of urine-colored prairie dress with a simple baby-blue headband; a wink to the viewers of what she really desired. She didn’t care, of course, they both didn’t care, but she’d lean into the camera and whisper intimately to her best friends, aka her viewers, that she really hoped it was a boy. Wink, wink.
Was I a tad bit disappointed when the giant firecracker (or whatever that tubular device was), emitted the blue powder, cloaking everything with its residue? Everyone roared with joy. Even me, I must admit- quite the dopamine hit.
It took me a while, but I found the paper. Some digging was necessary, deep in the bottom drawer of my cherrywood desk. But there it was. I felt the old thrill of seeing the title, “Monster Under My Bed,” and the professor's faded red pen: See me.
When I did see him, at his office the next day, he asked if I’d sign a waiver form. The university was offering a new online course, and would like, with my permission, to use my personal essay as an example.
I was flattered, dimly wondering if my essay was to serve as a template of terrible writing. I never checked, not wanting an affirmation either way. But reading it again, with the wisdom of years behind me, I discovered that my memory belied me. It wasn’t the jocular tone I remembered; it held a bite to it. It was the proof I needed. For what, exactly? I couldn’t say. Such a thought hadn’t articulated itself, just a deep sense of being wronged.
I took it with me to our next family gathering, which happened to be Thanksgiving at my parent’s house. Only rarely did my sister vlog there. She also never called to warn me (maintaining that vlogging was best when done spontaneously- although the bigger her daughters’ bows, and the more aesthetically pleasing her outfit, contradicted this), I took greater care, blowing out my hair and wearing jeans that would inevitably feel constricting.
No bows on the girls. My sister in sweats, sans makeup: thus no vlogging. Was I disappointed? Goodness no. I felt miffed, however, as, once again, it would have been nice to have known beforehand. It was useless to ask my mom, as she took the attitude of come-what-may. She never cared if the house was messy or how frumpy she looked. I don’t think she ever watched the vlogs.
The air felt heavy with the smells of turkey; oily and pungent. And there was my sister, sitting on the couch, tiredly nursing her baby. Ben was happily watching football with my dad; he looked relaxed, his scruff longer than what was normally deemed acceptable.
Sitting next to her, I found with increasing annoyance that I could not catch her attention. Every time I started a conversation, she’d half-heartedly listen, and then: “Emmaline! Don’t touch your sister!” Or: “Addy, go grab the diaper bag for Mommy.” And so on.
Finally, after dinner, when my mom offered to give the girls their bath, and during another round of nursing, I thrust it at her. “I wrote this about you.”
“What is this?” She looked at it dubiously. “You wrote about me?”
I tried to sound casual. “I just found it going through my things. I wrote it back in college.” I couldn’t help myself. I added, “It was published, you know.” Ah, what a simpering fool I was! To downplay such hubris, I quickly said, “Obviously, it was forever ago.” Not even true. Was an online publication for educational purposes considered published? Hardly a matter to equivocate, as she didn’t take notice. What was being published, even to a top literary magazine, in comparison to the shiny jewel of social media?
“But why did you write about me?”
She took the baby off her nipple, red and shiny, before covering herself- laconically, in my opinion. I’d have been mortified.
“Just read it,” I demanded, which made her look at me in surprise. I grabbed her warm loaf of a baby before she could protest. “I’ll burp him.” She eyed me warily at my fumbling attempts of holding him over my shoulder.
“No,” she said, “not like that,” And then a tutorial followed: his body hunched over, his face settling into his multiple chins, staccato-like pats against his back.
I gestured for her to read, and with a sigh she complied, her face slightly pinched. And when she was done, she put the paper face down onto her lap.
“It was messed up, right?” I said, echoing my classmate, this voice of validation. “Hiding under the bed like that?”
“Yes, Anna,” she replied, in a clipped tone. “It was.” She regarded me evenly.
Bravely I stared back at her. I felt triumphant. My face must have glowed.
She removed the paper from her lap and set it onto the coffee table, and then gestured for me to hand back the baby. With expert deftness, she leaned him forward and patted his back with such efficient swiftness, he promptly belched, loud and reproachful. A viscous bubble grew from his puckered mouth. We both watched until it popped.
“So then why did you do it?” I pressed. My voice held a challenge. Now that I had an admission, I wanted more: atonement, prostration. But truly, a simple apology would have sufficed.
To my astonishment, she asked primly, “What did I do?” She used a baby cloth to wipe at his mouth, the popped bubble now forming a drool down his chin.
“Hiding under my bed and scaring me like that? It was weird, right?” My voice grew in provocation. “And remember, you’d hide in other places, too.”
“Well, that’s exactly what I want to know, Anna.” She let the sentence hang for a moment. “Because it was you who scared me.”
This I wasn’t expecting. My body surged with sudden heat. I wanted to strike her. I wanted to erase the smirk from her face. Instead I said the first thing that came to mind. A childish retort. “No it wasn’t.”
She leaned toward me, her baby a shield (her children served as the armor she wore; or perhaps the weapons she wielded; or at the very least, the props), and said, “Yes it was, Anna. You were the one who hid under my bed and grabbed my ankles. You were the one that hid in my closet, and you were the one that hid in every corner of my room. I honestly can’t believe you would blame it on me.”
I shook my head. Now I wanted her to stop. Now I wanted her to shut up. The audacity! This was gaslighting of the worst order. She overused that word on her vlog. So-and-so was gaslighting me; but I’m too clever; I know my truth; I have my voice.
My thoughts skittered. Where was Ben? He’d gone to get diaper cream; my dad was snoring in the living room; my mom, by the sound of it, had finished the bath; the rush of running water through the pipes overhead had stopped.
She continued, “It scarred me. I’m serious. Even now, when I go to hotels, I have to run and then leap onto the bed, so I don’t get too close. So someone doesn’t grab me from underneath. Ben laughs about it.” (How I burned with shame at the image; she and Ben laughing at me.) “You were the monster under my bed, Anna. Not me.” And then mildly, “It was such a stupid thing to do. It wasn’t funny at all. I should have told Mom and Dad, but maybe I felt sorry for you. You really seemed to enjoy it.”
And with that, she lifted the heft of her baby and walked into the kitchen. She was going to mix her formula with her breast milk for his nightcap; I knew this because it was one of the tips she offered her viewers: How To Make Your Baby Sleep Through The Night!
I sat there, furious. I was the monster? Me? But what could I do? I didn’t know how to defend myself. I did not have the arsenal of her words. She was too clever, too malevolent; her verbal acuity would only assail me.
And then Ben came home, and seeing my expression, asked if I was okay.
I smiled weakly at him. “I’m fine.”
I left the couch and wandered aimlessly for a bit. A silly thing to do- wander inside the confines of a house, not take a walk outside where the air was crisp and might offer a little clarity. At some point, I went upstairs to check on my mom and the girls. The bathroom was balmy, thick with the smell of shampoo. Addy was brushing her teeth (just a toothbrush with clear gel, safe for ingesting) while sitting on the porta potty. (My sister would not approve.) My mom was running a comb through Emmaline’s wet hair. I asked her if she needed any help, but she cheerfully assured me she did not. She had it under control.
Fine by me. The care of toddlers was exhausting. I could only handle them in doses, and to be honest, I hadn’t quite found my footing in the role of aunt yet. I told myself that I’d do better when they were older; I’d be a safe haven, I was sure, when they needed an escape from their mother. Not mom, but mother.
I felt unsettled, agitated. I found myself wandering the upstairs. Past my parent’s bedroom. Past the spare bedroom, with a pack n play set up in the corner, a queen-sized bed with the dingy blue quilt. Ben would drive home, as would I, as I only lived a half hour away, but my sister often slept over, she and the girls in the bed, the baby in the portable crib. And why wouldn’t she, as my mom never protested her demands, waking up early and doing the lion’s share of the work. My sister needed her rest, naturally.
Agitated. Up and down the halls. I paced.
And then I paused.
Sudden movement; wildly, impulsively, without thought. I scurried. I slithered. It was tight, tighter than before.
I pressed my face into the carpet to muffle my laughs. Yes. Yes.
Smell cannot betray memory. And while this wasn’t the house I’d grown up in, wasn’t the room, wasn’t the bed, there would always be that smell. Slightly chemical, specific to a place that didn’t bear the traffic of shoes, of feet, of spills. A place of safety; of darkness, like a womb; a sacred place. There under the bed.
She was right, my sister. How had I forgotten this place? Where no one could see me, invisible as I was, entombed.
I waited, there under the bed. Waited as the springs jounced- heavier from my mom as she read the girls a story, lighter from my nieces, as they rolled to and fro. Tears streamed down my face. I shook with laughter, pressing my face, again and again, into the coarse weave of carpet.
The anticipation, the waiting, oh the sweetness. My body thrummed with hilarity. My mom left. The girls giggled. Addy cried. Emmaline soothed. And I cackled into the carpet.
Finally, finally, she came. All was quiet. I didn’t peek, the bedskirt did not quiver. She was murmuring; she was holding the baby. Closer now. Closer.