The World According to the Bottom Bunk

We didn’t have beds when we first moved to the US. The four of us shared two small chair beds my parents got, probably from Goodwill. (I should really ask them about that.) Both were broken, so instead of folding out into a bed they sort of split into two pieces. The lucky one that night got the end with the pillow/back attachment. Between my brother and me, I was usually the lucky one. Anyway, he was a lot shorter, so he needed less space. Still, it wasn’t long before getting real beds became a priority. 

A few days after our arrival, we picked up a couple of wooden-frame bunk beds from either a garage sale or some of my dad’s friends, I can’t really remember, although I still remember–vaguely–the neighborhood from where we picked the beds up. To me the area looked like the typical American neighborhood: large yards and two-story homes with gabled roofs, wooden accents, no window or carport bars, and neutral colors, mostly browns. This in contrast to the flat-roofed, bright colored cement houses with, tiny yards, barred porches and car ports we had been used to until that point. It was the kind of place I would see on TV, not one where I expected to find myself in, riding a bicycle around, which I did.

Even before the beds were in the house, I was excited. It wasn’t because the mattresses themselves were blue with a spaceship theme. It wasn’t even because we finally had full beds again. It was because these were bunk beds! Bunk beds! We… had bunk beds! I always wanted to sleep in one of those. Having seen them on television and at friends’ houses, I always imagined they were a world of fun.

While it seems to be customary to fight for the top bunk, I was always more interested in the bottom. My brother lept to the top bunk and claimed it for himself, while I was more than happy taking the bottom. In fact, I’ve always preferred the bottom, for which I can think of only three reasons: First, I like small, enclosed spaces, provided they’re at least tall enough to let me sit comfortably. Second, I have a fear of heights. No, let me rephrase that: I have a fear of falling. More than once, I envisioned myself falling from the top bunk during my sleep, even though it had a guard rail. Third, I’ve always been bigger than my younger brother, and was afraid that my weight would one day snap the bed’s frame and in the process kill him. A fat kid’s worst nightmare. It also almost came true, though not because of me.

My younger sister and brother were either playing or fighting once (I don’t remember which, and one eventually led to the other anyway), with her at the top bunk and him at the bottom. With his legs, he was lifting and dropping the top bed. During one push, the bed became dislodged and fell on to the bottom. A yell went out, and mom, my older sister, and I raced into the room.

“I din’t kill him!” my younger sister yelled. “I didn’t kill him!” She was crying, shaken, repeating the innocence plea. My mom raced to the bunk and we lifted the fallen bed. Because it had fallen at an angle, my brother was able to roll into the empty pocket between the edge of the bed and the wall. He came out of there laughing.

The thing about the bottom bunk is that it was my own space, my room within a room. Here I covered the walls with drawings of the Ninja Turtles and the various starship Enterprises, decorated the bed frame with action figures, and stacked the space below the bed with books. In a three bedroom apartment of four kids and two parents, this personal space was priceless.

After we moved from our first apartment into the house where we’d spend our second and third years in the country, the bunk beds were sawed in half in order to make two separate beds. We always thought about putting them back together, until the day I broke the frame by tossing myself onto the bed, trying to imitate a move I saw Razor Ramon do on WWF. The damage was irreparable. That bed frame was eventually replaced with a box and a wooden frame which would last me until college.

The next time I had a bunk bed setup was in college, where I roomed with an old friend from high school. The bed configuration changed on a regular basis, so that sometimes we would have bunk beds, and others he would have a bunk-desk setup, with the bed on top and the space below it occupied by a desk. I, on the other hand, never once spent any time with the bottom of my bed higher than about a foot from the ground. Again, fear of falling, fear of breaking the bed. (Fear of breaking furniture comes with being fat, and by now I was fatter than when I broke the other frame a few years earlier.)

My college roommate was in the Naval ROTC program in high school, graduating the most decorated member in our school’s history. That always stuck with me, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether he’d one day end up in a submarine. What would it be like to be in one of those tiny rooms, where the bunk beds had barely any headroom? I wondered about this for years, even after he switched from Navy to Army. I remember seeing how many of them kept pictures, books and lights in there, some even keeping curtains in order to have some proper privacy, in addition to being somewhat self sufficient. I tried, therefore, to decorate the bottom bunk in such a way that I could do almost everything I needed in that tiny bedroom (by which I mean a room that is also a bed). I built a magazine rack, kept my books and instruments under the bed, and… well, really, that was about it. I never got to adding a curtain, and everything else, other than eating, was done outside of the dorm.

Like my previous bunking experience, this had not just ups, but also downs. One of the downsides of taking the bottom bunk in college is hearing your roommate and his girlfriend at the top bunk do things they hope you don’t know about because they think you’re sleeping. The noise level was low, but there’s no mistaking the bed’s rocking. Although she was a looker–and I mean seriously, the guy did far better than I expected–I still considered this one of the biggest downsides to having a bunk bed, mostly because I didn’t know whether I should have been offended or mounting a camera. I never said anything, thinking that maybe, eventually, I’d stop being so sensitive about such things. I never did. Still, it didn’t matter: their relationship didn’t last long, and eventually it was just me and him in the room, watching Patton, burning popcorn, and prank calling the university radio station, pretending to be Bill Clinton or quoting lines from Full Metal Jacket.

I wasn’t all alone in there all the time, mind you. That bottom bunk was where I first slept with a girl. No, I don’t mean sex. I mean actual sleeping. A friend, I’ll call her Brandy, had this thing about going to sleep hugging. She didn’t sleep around, mind you–coitus or otherwise–she was just really, really friendly and very touchy-feely. The first time she asked if I’d ever done that I answered with a quick, “Uhm… no. I wish.” So she invited herself to stay over at my place. She felt like hugging and just wanted to lay down and hug. Of course, I decided to give it a try. The fact that she was beautiful, tall, slender and shapely had nothing to do with my saying yes. I just liked hanging out with her. Really. Stop laughing.

Before that night she had warned me of one thing: “I tend to be a spider in bed. I just sort of take over and end up in weird positions. The only person I don’t do that with seems to be my boyfriend.” Wait, boyfriend?

As you can probably guess, I didn’t sleep very well that night, waking up 37 times, each time in a strange, usually uncomfortable position. She seemed to do fine, a bit like a rock with arms and legs. At least that’s what I thought, until I woke up at about five in the morning. She was gone, with a note that said, “Sorry, not enough room here. Hope I didn’t disturb you. I’m going to my place to be a spider.” Next time I saw her she apologized for leaving, and invited me over to her place “sometime”. I never took her up on that offer. Couldn’t help but wonder of sleeping with someone else on the bed would always be that uncomfortable. I wondered, too, if it was the height: she was almost 6-feet tall, just a couple of inches shorter than me. Or maybe it was my girth.

Two days of marriage would later teach me a valuable lesson: never try to spend an extended period of time sharing a bed with someone if the mattress is either a single or double, not unless both of you are very slender. If both of you can’t be described as “skinny” and also “short”, you should at least make it a full size. Queen is preferable. Also, when you’re still getting used to having someone on your bed, depending on how much you move around, there’s a fair chance you’ll end up in different Y-axis positioning than when you first stared, so make sure you have both head and foot room, something I didn’t have at that point. But yeah, back to bunk beds.

It was during that semester that another one of my fears regarding bunks almost came true. My roommate was trying to get down from his bunk, not totally awake. A sudden thump followed by an “Aw, crap!” woke me (and his girlfriend, who’d been in his bed) up in an instant. He was OK, limping a little, but had it been me, I might have broken my knee. Again.

After that semester, I moved back in with my parents. My exposure to bunk beds was incidental from thereon out. The only place I steadily encountered them was at J & A’s  dorm. (J was my best friend during college, and A was her roommate.) J was the artsy, lively kind and A was a free and calming spirit. This combination made for great room ambiance, including individualistic, but subdued decor; incenses of a hundred different smells, and a constant soundtrack that included Tori Amos, Dead Can Dance, DJ Shadow and Loreena McKennitt. Of course, I never slept over at their place, so I never again slept at a bunk in college. In fact, only visits to my then girlfriend, a long-distance affair that lasted about two years, would have me sleeping in a bunk, always the bottom.

Everyone fights for the top bunk. Everyone but me, it seems. The fact is that although the top bunk gets all the glory, the bottom bunk offers a room within a room, a quiet place dedicated to only one person, and can also double as a couch in some cases. I’m a fan of small offices and private spaces, and without a hesitation I will state that almost nothing beats a well designed bottom bunk. At least, that’s what you realize if you take the time to look at the world according to the bottom bunk.

2 thoughts on “The World According to the Bottom Bunk

  1. I always preferred the bottom bunk too, but since I was the only girl out of three children I never got to use the bunk bed. My children now have one. My daughter takes the bottom bunk because it is a full size and she is a violent sleeper.

    The top bunk was always given to my middle brother. A lot of things were determined by age in our house. I think it simplified a lot of arguments since it couldn’t be changed.

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