I was convinced our mattress was the problem.
“Flame retardants,” I told my boyfriend. “Borax. Antimony. That stuff is toxic.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” he said. “We should have paid more. Found something organic.”
We didn’t acknowledge that eight hundred dollars was already a lot to spend. The extra firm mattress plus box spring had depleted nearly a fifth of our moving allowance. The rest had been sunk into a Macy’s living room set, furniture assembled from the Ikea boxes that now crowded our recycling bin, plates and cups to replace those that hadn’t survived the journey from Ithaca.
“Bromine,” my mom said when I described the odor wafting up through the mattress pad. She was a chemical engineer turned stay-at-home mom turned substitute teacher. “Who knows? Maybe you’re sensitive.”
Over the phone, the mattress salesman asked me to list my symptoms.
“Fatigue. A sore throat. Headaches. Congestion.”
“Sounds like a sinus infection,” he said.
There would be no return despite the company’s one-year Comfort Policy. The warranty covered defects and errors in workmanship, not chemical sensitivities.
My boyfriend and I were on our own to arrange a makeshift exchange: our new mattress for a twenty-year-old model that belonged to his parents. It was the bed he’d slept on throughout his childhood, the one he’d used to have sex with his first girlfriend.
On the highway to the suburbs, we pulled over three separate times to tie down the toxic pillowtop.
“It’s symbolic,” I said, tightening the nylon cords. “It’s intent on destroying us.”
When I merged back onto the road, it was at thirty miles per hour in a sixty zone. SUVs bedecked with Jesus fish honked as they whizzed past, angry, not at the off-gassing flame retardants, but me—the twenty-two-year-old with the red eyes and swollen lymph nodes.
“Good riddance!” I said when we finally made it to his parents’.
I helped shove the mattress up a flight and a half, loaded the vintage Simmons Beautyrest onto the roof rack, and tied the square knots I’d learned in Girl Scouts all over again. In the driver’s seat, I felt vaguely euphoric, either from the promise of a good night’s sleep or overexertion. We cruised toward the city with the windows down, still ten miles below the speed limit, but free of our shared burden, boundless with possibility.
At our apartment, we positioned the Beautyrest and washed the contaminated sheets. Spent, we lay on the new-yet-old mattress. We looked to one another as if to say, So, what next? Together, we had conquered our first big challenge, but when my boyfriend rolled toward me, his palms clammy with sweat, I still flinched.
“What’s wrong now?” he asked.
I propped myself up on an elbow and scanned the newly installed carpet, the mass-produced nightstands, the air vents that hadn’t been cleaned since god-knew-when.
“I’m not feeling up to it,” I said.
My boyfriend locked himself in the bathroom and I waited for the dryer to buzz, for my sinuses to clear, for whatever toxins had accumulated in the tissues of our relationship to unloose through our sweat.
Jess E. Jelsma is a PhD candidate at the University of Cincinnati, where she works as an Assistant Editor for the Cincinnati Review. Her recent work appears in The Arkansas International, The Normal School, The Southern Review, and Quarterly West. Find her online at jessejelsma.com or @jessejelsma.
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