A Mattress That Will Muffle the Screams

"A Consumer's Guide to Shopping With PTSD," a short story by Katherine Robb

A Mattress That Will Muffle the Screams

A Consumer’s Guide to Shopping with PTSD

Last week at our annual condo meeting I was informed if I keep playing loud music at night it will become a legal issue so I’m on my way to Mattress Emporium. The line at the Chipotle in midtown slinks out the door and forces me to weave through a tangle of noontime professionals. I overhear one woman with expensively highlighted blonde hair say to another with expensively highlighted brown hair, “I swear to God I have PTSD from that time they ran out of guac,” which makes me consider how if all the people with actual PTSD went to war against all the people misusing the term this blonde-haired woman and her ilk would lose and yet we, the victors, still wouldn’t be able to enjoy a mediocre burrito. Lord I miss enjoyment.

The Mattress Emporium sign means I get to practice returning from a flashback. I understand the giant, stoplight-red block letters aren’t blood but somehow that’s the connection my mind makes. I focus on one particular spot of mashed pink gum on the sidewalk while identifying three current sounds so I can stay here and not go back there. If only I’d picked a mattress store with a blue logo. Eventually I enter and air conditioning blasts my face. Goose bumps rise on my arms and I stand very still while reminding myself these goose bumps are from cold, not terror. I take five breaths, inhaling on a four-count and exhaling on a six-count. As I finish doing this a short man with a thick mustache sidles up and asks if I prefer firm, medium or soft.

“Which one muffles the screams of haunting nightmares the most?” I say.

“Probably soft,” he replies, so that’s where we start. I fall face first onto the paper towel the salesman places on the mattress for hygienic purposes and then I scream. It turns out the advanced baffling techniques really do help muffle the sound and only a few people scramble out through Mattress Emporium’s sticky glass doors.

“Sorry,” I say.

The salesman shrugs. Then a few more people exit the store and I wince, regretting my actions, but the salesman just bobs his palms up in a gesture of resignation. “They didn’t seem like committed buyers anyway,” he says.

I explain that I am a super committed buyer because I haven’t had a good night’s sleep in eight months. Maybe if Brenda’s children in 3F didn’t spend two hours every night running up and down the hallway like chubby racehorses, I could properly relax before bedtime. Then maybe I wouldn’t get the nightmares. But Brenda doesn’t think that’s my problem. “Do you know what she said to me at the condo meeting?” I say to the salesman. She said, “Listen, the political climate is so terrible right now I think we all have PTSD. You’re just the only one making such a big deal about it.”

The salesman nods his jowly face and says, “That Brenda sounds like a real bitch.”

I’m really starting to like the salesman so I go ahead and ask about restraints. From the corner of my eye, the place where I catch all movement since the shooting, where I can now observe even whispers of potential movement, I see an old woman turn. Glasses slip halfway down her nose and she snorts with disgust before hobbling toward the exit. “I don’t mean in a sexual way,” I call after her, but it’s too late. She’s already opening the glass doors.

“Old people never buy mattresses anyway,” says the salesman. “Not a good investment that close to the end, you know?” Then he tells me about a sex shop up the way that sells rubber sheets. “If you tuck them in real tight, I bet they’ll keep you from jumping out of bed when you hear a noise.”

It seems like maybe the salesman also has PTSD and I hear myself myself start to ask this question aloud before abandoning the query for a ramble about the condo meeting when Charlotte in 5C stood up, actually stood up like the annual meeting we hold in the hallway of the converted-schoolhouse building that’s been parceled out into 47 versions of home was some kind of Oxford lecture hall, and said, in front of everyone, “On behalf of the Board, I just want to say we didn’t know you had PTSD when you applied and it might have been helpful to know because then we could have discussed whether this building would be the right fit for you.”

“Woo-boy,” squeals the salesman while tipping his head back in a kind of shocked excitement. “What did you say back? You said something back, right?”

“You bet! I said, ‘Well Charlotte, I didn’t have PTSD two years ago when I sent in my condo application, just like you didn’t have an Airedale named Thad who everyone knows is the one shitting in the begonias every morning when your husband walks him, and maybe if you stopped sending condo-wide emails about picking up dog shit and instead directed them at your husband, the begonias might still be alive.”

“That’s it my friend!” says the salesman. He throws his hand up for a high-five, but the motion is too quick and I flinch.

“Sorry,” I say. “That happens sometimes.”

The salesman goes quiet. He sits down on the edge of the bed and pinches the bridge of his nose for an uncomfortable amount of time. I scan the sales floor to see if anyone is watching. There are only three others still present, a couple and a tall angular saleswoman who’s reciting facts about foam and how hot it sleeps while the couple listens intently.

I take a seat on the mattress beside the salesman and to break the awkwardness I say, “They should make a hinged mattress, like an oyster. It’d be like Temple Grandin’s cow squeeze thing, but for humans. No way could I fight night terrors sandwiched between two twelve-inch layers of all-natural latex foam.”

“What about breathing?” says the salesman with alarming sincerity.

“It’d have to come with a mask, like a long snorkel kind of thing.”

The salesman nods his head. Then he says, in a tone slicked with so much kindness it makes me uncomfortable, “Why is it you think you need a new mattress?”

I take a deep breath before saying, “It’s an ineffectual loop, the not wanting to go to sleep because of the screaming I hear when I close my eyes—” I pause because I accidently said too much, because the explaining is always wrought with saying too much or too little or people getting scared or upset or having no reaction at all, and each of these responses only makes things worse.

“I understand,” says the salesman, surprising me. “Go on.”

“Okay, well I started playing the loud music to drown out the screaming, but now my neighbors are complaining and, honestly I wish I could just move, pack up and leave the city, but the whole not sleeping has kind of affected my job situation, so now’s not the right time.”

“And you think a new mattress will fix this?”

I shrug. “I heard those vibrating bases are really nice.”

“They are. If anything, you should get one that does heat. More expensive, but the warmth is nice.”

“Okay,” I say, rising. “Can you show me one of those?”

“But friend,” the salesman says as he begins to rise very slowly, something I realize he’s doing for me, which is a nice gesture, trying to keep me from flinching, but it also makes me frustrated, the need for such a gesture. “I don’t think what you need is a new mattress.”

My cheeks flush with frustration. This guy doesn’t understand how hard it was for me to drag my ass down to Mattress Emporium in the first place and I don’t have a back-up plan.

“I think what you need,” he continues briskly, seemingly wary of the way my eyes are darting about, “is headphones. Noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones. Expensive, yes, but cheaper than a mattress.” I don’t know how to reply and the salesman walks slowly to the glass doors. I follow and he points across the street to a Best Buy. I have to admit their blue and yellow logo is soothing.

I select the over-the-ear type and before I step back into the rushing streets of Manhattan I tear open the packaging. When I place the soft black foam over my ears the light compression against my skull feels like the kind of calming touch I’m not yet ready to accept from people. I hold down the noise-canceling button and the background hum of the world disappears. In its place arises a creek made of flowing static. All the way home, I wade.

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