Sunday Stories: “On Means”

"On Means" image

On Means
by Karleigh Frisbie Brogan

The master bedroom, fulsome and delicately lit, had the illusion of being near water: a ceiling that rippled with sunset, the coolness of dim afternoon. In here we put our bed, a large ship of blonde wood, of brimming pillowtop. This was an adult bedroom, correct, decent, full of secrets kept in nightstand drawers and concealed between smoothed sheets.  Rooms like these are recreated for catalogues and showrooms, Platonic forms on which our dreams are based.

The other room, a small and harsh square, was for the rare guests, my desk, for things that didn’t fit neatly elsewhere. My old mattress was dropped onto the floor, a concave Craigslist queen, its insides jutting, ribby as a sick horse.

One night I had a strange idea. I suggested to my partner we sleep in the other room. Squinting the bland bright, I unburied the mattress, pushed the crap from our past lives onto the surrounding floor. The blankets were cool-damp, had captured the scent of the musty baseboards, the old carpeting. We buried ourselves in this mess, our bodies conforming to the mattress’ contusions. 

Sleeping in the other room, the little room, was a perversion of sorts. It was the wrong room. The clutter, the bedsheet curtain, tacked and tacky, the skinny, frameless mattress we had to dive down into—it was the one room whose door we kept closed when company came over. Though we continued to call it the other room, it became the room. There was something comforting about sleeping in a sloppy nest, about having the floor heater tick next to my head and being eye level with the gap under the door. This was the kind of bed I could forget to wash off my eye makeup before crawling into, the kind of bed I could eat corner-store snacks in even after I’ve brushed my teeth. Or maybe I don’t even brush my teeth.

Our “real” bedroom was a façade. It looked nice to outsiders, to us. It stayed tidy and tight, not even a cat around to upset the quilt. My partner suggested turning the master into the office, since we never used it for sleeping anymore. But I needed my “real” room, its lonely presence a breath, some white space to return to, return return.


The coziest beds were improvised. Sleeping bags on a living room floor, my blurred eyes dragging the flickering action of a television set. In my teens I transitioned out of my parents’ house by way of the garage. My bed was mere feet from the still-hot minivan, from the washer and dryer and stores of toilet paper and motor oil. Bicycles hung above me. The garage was cold and loud then quiet. It smelled like car, not even the dryer sheets or my Nag Champa could mask it. It was impersonal in décor and mostly not private. It wasn’t mine. 

There’s stability in the temporary. No rug to yank out from under. The hours of sleep caught on a makeshift bed are in meantime, different than regular time that measures that which is not in-between. Meantime is not settled place but is movement, transition. It’s the middle of came-from and going-to. Regular rules don’t apply in meantime because it’s a provisional space. Hence, I eat a gas station snack cake under covers, flakes of rubbed mascara in my eyes.


Mean comes from the Old French word meien: the middle, or “the halfway point between extremes.” Another application of the word is from the twelfth-century word mēne, or gemæne, meaning “shared by all” or “common.” By the following century, the word had also come to describe those “of low origin,” the common class. The conflation of the numerous with the vulgar is evident in this 1660 definition: “without dignity of mind.” All of these definitions apply.

Familiar and procreative animals—pigeons, rats, squirrels—are dirty and pathogenic, hostile and disruptive. The Columbian black-tailed deer, once elusive, was the flash of motion in our yard, a graceful being hard to pin with the eyes, an omen. Now my stepdad throws rocks and poisons the beds. What is common tips into infestation. The great unwashed. 

My mom and stepdad strived not to be common, hovering a half step above, precariously. They purchased above their means much like the jeans I bought one size too small—optimistically, denying reality. We had a Mercedes Benz and a paper-doll house with paper walls. Then we had the good zip code but the mold problem. Then it was the pre-fab mansion with the unreachable ceilings. My mom carried an empty status purse. 

I was friends with girls whose mothers didn’t carry purses. Single mothers who worked on assembly lines making eyeglass lenses, or sold crank in little glassine envelopes, or pumped gas graveyard. I felt at ease in these female households. Clutter revealed the absence of housewife or stay-at-home mom. Evidence of betterment: in-progress projects and dog-eared books and chair-tossed work aprons. These moms knew their daughters, or at least wanted to. They wanted to know me, too. Asked me questions, valued my opinions. They knew what was me—a ring, a dress, a boy. “This is so you,” they’d say. My own mom didn’t know what was me. I did, however, know what she wanted me to be. I wasn’t close. 

I spent a lot of time at Sarah and Stacie’s house—sisters I went to high school with. They lived with their mom, Jan, in a small flat-roofed box with an attached carport. There we talked over and to the television. Jan smoked, laughed, got in healthy debates with her daughters. I often made a bed on the couch, in the TV afterglow. Molly, their half-blind herder, yawned and settled at my feet, her pink belly expanding with heat and heartbeat.

My mom preferred I befriend those who lived up on the hill. She’d often suggest girls I hardly knew and who never showed any interest in friendship. “What about Jodi? She seems nice.” When I told her I was going over to Sarah and Stacie’s or Christy’s or Jen’s or Lynne’s she’d make a concerned face. Hers wasn’t a fear of inadequate supervision or exposure to recreational drugs, for this was all commonplace in the hilltop chateaux—hers was a fear that my associations would moor us into a class she pretended to be above.


Throughout my twenties I crashed on the floors of those I had music or drugs in common with. It was a decade of meantime: coming from kid, going to grown up. These years felt inflamed and raw, like I had just molted. I was exposed and searching for shade from scorching elements. If I wasn’t yet settled in my skin, how could I settle down? 

My incidental hosts assisted me on my crossing. Like the old blues standard, they provided me with a place to sleep at night. “Make me down a pallet on your floor/ Make me down/ Make me a pallet down, soft and low/ Make me a pallet on your floor.” This pallet conjures goose feathers, evokes goose pimples: a hardened man made soft, made down. In an early recording by Mississippi John Hurt, down is the province of warmth and comfort and up is the “cold sleet and snow” of the country. The singer is only passing through, requiring the hospitality of another to continue. 

One time I ended up at Boyd’s* house. He was in a band I had gone to see earlier that night. A bunch of us slumped around in the kitchen where the lighting was better, fixating on hitting veins. Later, Boyd made a bed out of couch cushions and throw pillows for my boyfriend and me. At some dark hour the thin light of the refrigerator woke me up. I found Boyd sniffing a half-empty package of off-brand breakfast links. “Chop this garlic,” he said, handing me a knife from the sink. There, between the fuzzy evening and the sick dawn, he and I made an Italian pasta. I recall it being the most delicious thing I had ever made. I haven’t forgotten the recipe, all pantry finds and a bruisy beefsteak tomato.

I found comfort in unlikely places because of the very unlikeliness. I could cozy up a kitchen floor or the backseat of a car if I had to. And I’ve had to. In my mid-twenties I lived with my boyfriend in a shoe store. We hid our bedding with the back stock and at night made a cloud of comforter between rows of fragrant leather. This was our secret home. Not ours but ours. Like the garage of my teenhood, this place was shared, impersonal. But for eight hours we transformed it into something unknown and unlikely. The low pulse of unconscious life was not limited to designated rooms. Perhaps sleeping, that most vulnerable and passive condition, required a conscious preparation, a daily reminder of the comfort I was supposed to take for granted. Eventually, the police discovered us dreaming between racks of sandals. After an hour of running our IDs and radioing the precinct they made us leave in the cold middle of night. 


Pigeons, the warble and flap of the city park, build their flimsy nests in the drainpipes of crumbling high-rises, above the boulevard in a windy sway, in the hum of electricity. They keep their squabs safe and out of sight as they forage under café tables. They recognize human faces, the regulars who read news on their phones as they eat their Panera lunch, brushing their laps before standing, inadvertently feeding. Pigeons see more colors than humans. They understand the alphabet. They are considered one the most intelligent animals. They are also considered the number one pest in the nation. Flying rats. Trash birds. Trash. 

 I’d always identified with what I was told was trash. Trash had a way of dismissing civil conventions and conformity. Trash wasn’t so concerned with what anybody else thought. Trash didn’t seal up their seven deadlies inside a pretty smile or a proper home. 

From my vantage point it looked good. So honest and real. But the view is always heartbreakingly romantic to a lonely teenager gazing out the window of a beige suburban chunk, the plushy, window-warmed carpet pushing up between her toes.

I’ve had the luxury of meantime, but what was my privilege was also my pain. I chose one kind of suffering over another, I suppose. 

Perhaps all I’ve known is meantime, the middle-class American dream my mom subscribed to: coming from rags, going to riches, the story goes. Always a new house, a new school, new rules. I had a new dad and eventually new siblings. Nothing stayed the same as we upwardly climbed, our family a self-reliant unit that never called on the kindness of neighbors or strangers.

There was a single year, 1986, when the only man in the house was my five-year old brother. My parents divorced and my mom, as if on a Twister game mat, flexible and misshapen, struggled to keep everything from falling apart. It felt as if the walls of our home were being held up by her hands. I have a vivid memory of walking to my friend Christy’s house, across the junior high’s baseball diamond, up through the thicket behind the shopping center. I was ten years old. This moment sticks out because it is the first time I felt valuable. I was beaming as I walked alone the path I knew by heart. 

My mom, though panicked, had a new wild in her. She tried on jeans, skintight and acid washed, tags still on, and asked my opinion as she moved from side to side in front of the full-length mirror. She divulged her crushes and her fears to me. She trusted me with my younger siblings, with her wallet. She let me sleep in her bed with her. 

When, a year later, my mom met my stepdad, she tucked all her loose edges inside, smoothed herself taut and prim. 


My toes, pointed like a ballerina’s beneath the sheet’s tension, searched for warmth, scritched my partner’s fuzzy leg. The amplified highway, the oozing streetlight, the raccoons in the side yard kept me from dozing. Nothing to absorb the excess energy that fizzed around the cavernous room—too much air in here. My body, too, buzzed and tossed. What could absorb me?

Moving full-time to the other room would deem it no longer other. I suspected its appeal would vanish if I didn’t have the perfect master bedroom to hold against it. One couldn’t exist without the other. I’ll find some rest between the two.


(* Name changed for privacy)

Karleigh Frisbie Brogan is a writer based in Portland, Ore. Her work appears in Lana Turner, NAILED, Entropy, Water~Stone Review, Zaum, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a memoir about wildfires and addiction.

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