One day on the subway coming back from Ikea, I spotted a straight couple carrying a new mattress and was puzzled. They were cute and the nature of their purchase — that emblem of blissful domesticity, the plastic-wrapped mattress — suggested a lasciviousness that augured well for their future happiness.
Yet they did not look happy. I was, as I say, puzzled. The friend I was with, however, was not. On some deep, intuitive level, he understood their pain.
After an extended period of separate-but-together, he and his boyfriend had decided to move back in together. The price of domesticity was not marriage, monogamy or a joint-mortgage, but a big new bed, one large enough to support their separate snoring. They had negotiated all the key issues well in advance — size, price, coil count — and they had managed to buy a new bed without getting into any major arguments. But he still sounded like somebody who’d gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel. The terror on his face was palpable.
Apparently, bed buying is a major rite of passage in newby relationships and a major source of trauma. It was news to me, but I guess I should have known. Over the years, sleep has changed from something I took for granted to something I chase like the holy grail.
In my early gay years, I lived in a small bachelor apartment south of Allan Gardens and slept in a single bed. Lord knows how many men slept in that narrow bed but I don’t remember any of them ever complaining about the size, dimensions or firmness. The case of crabs I gave one poor bugger, yes, but not the single bed. In those days, I went to sleep with ease and so did my sexual coconspirators.
I graduated from the single bed to a single piece of foam on a bare wood floor and then to a badly sprung Murphy bed that squeaked when you screwed. Again, no complaints.
Admittedly this occurred at a time in human evolution when the individually pocketed coil had not yet been perfected and luxury-level thread counts were still a gleam in some canny marketer’s eye. Lumpy cotton futons were still considered beds. Still, I think of this period now with awe.
I used to sleep whenever, however. Now I court sleep with the wiliness of a would-be lover. I black-out windows, stockpile earplugs and deploy white-noise machines. If and when I order a coffee at Tim Horton’s, I watch the clerks to make sure they pour from the orange pot. (For those of you under 30, that would be the one with the decaf.)
More years ago than I can count I started waking up in the middle of the night — each night, every night. If I’m lucky, I go right back to sleep. If I’m not, I discover worries I didn’t know I had. A friend of mine who is slightly older than I has assured me that this is a middle-age thing. It will pass, he said. He didn’t say when.
This is a problem. Not sexually, but emotionally. Thanks to the Internet you can now micromanage your sex life so that the question of “sleeping” with someone never actually comes up. Just schedule it and forget it.
But should you wish to actually get to know someone, the sleep issue suddenly comes into play. Contemporary straights talk of the third date as the pivotal moment in any relationship. For gay men it’s a little quicker and a lot more complicated.
There are no first or second dates in gay life, let alone a third. There is the first time you had sex (also known as the first time you met) and the time you considered each other as human beings; that would be the time you first spent the night.
In the heavily coded world of gay etiquette, sleeping over is tantamount to saying a) I’m really drunk b) I live really far away and don’t have cab fare or c) I’m sort of vaguely interested and would like to see more of you. It’s no guarantee of anything, but without it, you know the relationship is going nowhere.
This is why it’s so difficult to establish relationships when you’re older. It’s not fading sex appeal, attenuated social skills or emotional baggage. It’s the bed problem. You can’t really start a relationship without spending the night and you can’t spend the night without earmarking the next few days for recovery.
There are certain steps you can take as an individual. When, for instance, my newest fling survived the first-night test but complained about the mattress, I immediately booked the next shuttle to Ikea. But the problem is bigger than any one sleeper and it’s only going to get worse as the boomers begin their slow totter into senescence.
For the sake of the community we need to organize, take action, nip this epidemic in the bud. If Egale Canada and other do-gooder organizations were really serious about promoting same-sex relationships, they’d drop the marriage fight and set up a bulk-buying discount with Sleep Country.