The Napoleon Bed

Cusi Cram

 

Before my sixth birthday, Mum, my sister Kate and I moved eight times. With us came Napoleon's campaign bed, a bold reminder that, though we might not have a lease or a mortgage, or the funds for these American necessities, we had something far rarer on this continent: a glorious past.

My mother's second husband, Jackie, left the bed to Mum. One day, close to my birth, he went around the corner to buy a pack of cigarettes and did not return. Jackie Cram came from a long line of WASP-y eccentrics; one of his aunts was expelled from the Colony Club for washing her money in the pool. I have Jackie's name, though he is not my father. I now also have his bed.

My first memory is of Prince Alexander Romanoff, one of the Romanoffs who somehow managed to escape the fate of his family name, sitting on the edge of the Napoleon bed with a TV tray. He cracked his soft-boiled egg as if it were priceless, his rouged lips pursed in concentration. I was hypnotized, first by the tapping of the silver teaspoon and then by the profile that protruded from the wooden carving of the bed. It was a gargoyle with a Gallic nose and a swirling beard. I pointed to the gargoyle and then to Alexander and screamed my first word, "Bacon!"

If it were a person the bed would be a show-off. I have often imagined it speaking to me in a French accent: "See how ornate I am? I just don't quit. Have you ever seen a bed with a canopy made of wood? I may be small and narrow and unfit for the average over-fed American, but I make up for this with my story. Think about my story!"

I was conceived on Napoleon's campaign bed. My father was a tall man. I think he might have been the tallest man in Bolivia. My mother was also tall. I cannot imagine the mechanics of their limbs, or how they rested after they made me. Perhaps if they'd been on a larger bed their love would have lasted longer.

Sometimes the bed was a sofa, piled high with purple and orange silk pillows. Sometimes it was Mum's bed, where she lay in her stockinged feet and read Auden poems aloud. Sometimes, defying physics, my sister, Mum and I would all squeeze into the bed together. I loved the creamy softness of my mother. She smelled of roses, lavender and lemons, never perfumey—I once saw her empty a bottle of Joy perfume a suitor had sent.

I wrote a play about the bed, except in the play it was Simon Bolivar's campaign bed and it levitated to reveal an angry Inca. The Inca was pissed, pissed at history. I was pissed at my dad when I wrote the play. I am less pissed now.

My mother played dangerous games from her bed. The last time I saw her with a man, all of us and Napoleon's bed had settled into an apartment on East 72nd Street. I was eight. I barged into her room as I did every morning, and saw an unfamiliar head resting against the slope of her freckled shoulder. I shuddered and slammed the door. I wanted him out, out of our bed. We had been on our own campaign to make a home, a home where we lived for more than six months, where the furniture wasn't borrowed, and where I could have people over to spend the night. And that was not the kind of home where someone's husband shared your mother's bed. Mum was 47. He was her last overnight visitor.

This afternoon, my marmalade tabby snoozes at the foot of Napoleon's campaign bed. My whole family agrees that there is nothing quite as relaxing as putting your feet up and sinking into the embrace of the bed's dark wood. This is a place to read Russian novels, speak of better days and plan a trip to Paris. It is a place to drink tea and forget the small hurts of daily life. I have been consoled in this spot with sherry and toast and will console others here with sherry and toast. It is comfort and home and the part of my life that is forever a tall tale. It is a bed that saw the battles of someone made emperor, and a mother with a battlefield of a past.


Cusi Cram is an award-winning playwright. Her work has been produced by LAByrinth Theater Company at The Public Theater, The Williamstown Theater Festival and Barrington Stage, as well as theaters and festivals in New York and across the country. She is a graduate of Brown University and The Lila Acheson Playwriting Program at Juilliard. She teaches playwriting at Primary Stages.

Issue 2


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