How to Build a Bed

My bedroom is a strange shape. The apartment was added to the house sometime in the last century and the bedroom walls are made of barge board, from the house’s original construction over 200 years ago, when they took apart boats unable to return upstream before the advent of the steam engine.

The door to the bedroom was made by opening the wall and allowing it to fold like an accordion. Because of this the door juts into the room, radically interrupting what should be a rectangle. There’s only enough space for a full bed, and I have to squeeze between the bed and the door when I get up in the middle of the night. Most of the space in the room is wasted, and uncomfortable, the way life is sometimes.picture 1

It seems like the only way the bedroom could work is for the bed to be horizontal, otherwise the space will always seem unintentional, which I suppose it is. I mean, it was intentionally built when they divided the house into two units, but the intent was to build a small apartment, nothing more. And in that way it’s already a success. I live in it.

I’m 47 and my apartment is 325 square feet. Of course, if you measure your life by the size of your apartment you’ve got bigger problems than squeezing between the door and the bed to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. Bigger problems than spending too much time playing video games and an inability to love. If you’re going to judge your life by the size of your apartment then you’re better off not thinking of any of it. Just watch some docu-series on Showtime about prison breaks and plug into your twitter feed and let the time pass peacefully. Because the size of your apartment does not matter. Or it does, but it’s not a statement on whether or not you’re successful. But then how do we measure success? Or a better question might be, why?

The house is two units, a divided Creole cottage consisting of my small apartment and a larger, two-bedroom. It’s one of the oldest houses in New Orleans outside of the French Quarter, built down river from the old city limits between 1810 and 1820, on part of the plantation owned by the family of Bernard De Marigny.picture 2 According to a local historian the house was probably occupied by freed slaves, possibly even an interracial couple. By 1840 standards New Orleans was a progressive place.

Most of the house is original. Even the shutters and the french doors. Fate left the original bathroom with its brick lined tub to the smaller unit where I live. It’s not a fancy house, and it needs repair, but it has character and a history worth plumbing.

I rent out the larger unit to pay the mortgage, but things are tight and I’ve been eating into my savings. A little over a month ago someone spray painted SCUM in bright pink letters on the shutters in front of my house. So that’s part of my life these days, too.picture 3

I’ve been corresponding with S., who is nice and beautiful and ready to be in love (though she wouldn’t say so). She lives almost 2,000 miles away in the city I left to move here. She didn’t decide to like me until I was already gone and that’s for the best; I am old enough to know we won’t work out. If I allowed myself to fall in love with her, I would end up falling out of love and it wouldn’t make sense to either of us. Just that at some moment my feelings would be replaced with new feelings, as if the originals had been stolen and the thief, in an effort to avoid apprehension, left behind a cheap imitation that was somehow less an approximation than its exact opposite.

She sends me pictures of herself trying on dresses, getting ready for dates with men. She can’t decide if they’re boyfriends or clients. The way she undercharges is the strongest argument for pimps I’ve ever heard, but I don’t want to be involved. I respond with pictures of planks and salvage bins. S. is nurturing but not motherly. Old fashioned in the sense that she was an immigrant, literally raised by her grandparents in the jungle in Cambodia. She likes to paint. She likes bright colors and has effortless style. But her ambitions aren’t about making art; it’s just something she does in her spare time.

“Why don’t you make more money so you can be my sugar-daddy,” she asks.

“Not likely,” I reply. I tell her she looks amazing in every dress she wears.

“I know,” she says. “I’m fabulous.”

She was 20 when she moved to America with her parents 14 years ago, all of them sharing a room in her uncle’s apartment. She enrolled in English courses and began an affair with her teacher who said he was going to leave his wife, but never did. She wants to be financially stable one day. She wants to provide for her parents and brother. But she also wants love and she’s uncommonly good looking so she meets a lot of guys who also think they want love but don’t know themselves well enough to separate something temporary from something more permanent, and perhaps don’t know what they’re incapable of.

I have to fix the bed, or train myself to accept things the way they are. I’ve heard that one way to solve life’s big problems is to start small. But a junkie I used to know told me it doesn’t actually work that way. “That’s just a saying,” she said. “Like ‘one day at a time’ or ‘keep it simple.’ The upside is that it can be distracting and sometimes that’s enough.”

I spend weeks looking at beds online, watching videos, downloading plans for attic beds, platform beds, Fuji beds. The problem is that the space, if the bed is horizontal, is 77 inches by 70 inches, which would seem Ok for a full bed, since full mattresses are only 75” by 55”. But it’s not that simple. Most of the bed frames are 80” by 60”. And even just the mattress on the floor wouldn’t work because of 5 inches of base trim. Also, I’m not very handy. I don’t know how to build things. And things never look how I think they’re going to look. I approach interior design the way I approach writing. I put furniture in a room and move it around until it looks right. Sometimes it never does.

The bed will have to float. That’s the only thing that’s obvious. If it doesn’t float it will never clear the baseboards. And if I never clear the baseboards I’ll never be happy.

I buy sheets of birch plywood and have each cut to 35”x77”. I consider hardboard. It’s $40 cheaper. But I don’t like the look of it, and I’m worried about the chemicals. Which doesn’t make sense as I also buy a tin of walnut stain and a pack of 3/8” joint fasteners.

picture 4I spend the day on the back porch sanding the planks and applying stain. At the salvage yard I buy a gallon of recycled green paint for $10 and brushes for $1 a piece. I consider cinder blocks for the base, but they’re shockingly heavy and there would be nothing outside of a very thick carpet that would protect the floors. And even a thick carpet would wear over time. Instead I buy an old 72”x46” pallet for $5 and tie it to the top of my car.

Back home I paint the boards and sand around the edges to give them a weathered look. I send S. pictures while I work. I send her pictures of the pallet tied to the top of my car. I send her links to songs I’m listening to. She says she’s quitting her job and starting a new business. She sends me pictures of her dog, a Japanese Chin with a pink tail.

I don’t love the color of the painted boards, but it’s fine. I go back to the hardware store where they give me free samples of expensive chalk paints. I buy a thicker sandpaper and, impulsively, a jar of finishing wax.

S. encourages me to paint one side red and the other honey. I think about flying back to visit her, to make soup together and walk the dog. But there’s the price of the plane ticket. I keep painting layers and sanding the wood. It doesn’t make much sense. How much will I even be able to see with a mattress on top of it? But I don’t feel like stopping.

I go to the café in the morning and try to write but my ideas feel unformed. At the same time, I can tell they’re coming into shape. Over the last year, I lost most of my friends. And I began to question everything I thought I believed. I thought I was going crazy, or everyone else was. It seemed like the world had turned its back on reason and culture had turned its back on art. People who had chosen politics based on kindness had become intolerant and unkind. Artists were expected to pass a morality test or be denied platforms. Without a tribe I’m free to reinvent myself, or stay exactly as I am, which is also a reinvention since everyone else is different.

“Everything you do is art,” S. says. “Do you know that?”

picture 5 and 6 combo.pngOnce the boards are painted, I sand the edges with 60 grit sandpaper so you can see the green paint underneath, and the stained birch under that, and in some places the lighter birch under the stain. Then I coat them in a layer of satin wax.

The next day I join them together, but there’s no space that will fit them side by side, except for the place they’re meant to be. The screen porch is too small.

picture 7I take apart the old bed and lay the boards out. They fit perfectly, but, because of the baseboards, they’re 3/4 of an inch off the ground. I put a block of wood underneath so I can pound the joints to connect them, but they’re clearly meant for softwood like pine. I call my friend Roger to talk about it. I’ve known Roger since 3rd grade. He still lives in Chicago. I’m living in my fourth city in five years, but it’s the only place I’ve ever owned a house so it seems unlikely I’ll be moving again.

“It’s all learning,” Roger says. “This is how you figure out how to build things.”

“I guess there’s only one way to learn anything,” I say. “The hard way.”

picture 8I go back to the hardware store and purchase drill bits and screws. J., who cut the boards for me, is outside smoking pot and listening to music and I hang out with him for a little while. I feel like dancing but just sit and listen to the music. It’s like a party.

Back home I flip the panels and attach the base from the old bed, a 3/4 inch thick slab of plywood, 75’’ long and 55” wide. But now the piece is too heavy to lift, so I leverage a 2×4 to stand it up. Then I place the pallet to give the bed 5” more of height. I flip the platform onto the pallet and pour wood glue into the seam, wiping the excess. I put the mattress on the platform and dress it. I think it’s beautiful, though you can barely see the panels I spent three days staining, painting, and distressing. Up close though you can see it, whether or not it means anything to you.


Stephen Elliott is an author, editor, activist and film director. Follow him on Twitter: @S___Elliott.

Illustration by Alex Felter @afelter.


  1. Umberto Turturro says

    I was unaware this was a haphazard DIY website.

  2. Stoic Realist says

    I think it is the author’s musings on finding a place in life through the metaphor of fitting a bed into a space in the stream of consciousness style. Interesting on some levels but it seems an odd fit for Quillette.

  3. Heike says

    Huh? Please, this kind of stuff belongs on blogs. I’m not here to read about someone’s feelings.

    • Winston Smith says

      “Huh? Please, this kind of stuff belongs on blogs. I’m not here to read about someone’s feelings.”

      @heike If only someone could have given that exact feedback to the author of the infamous “White Privilege” paper.

  4. 2 suggestions: Japanese sliding door, and Japanese futon or a tatami thrown down out of the way of the door.

  5. Stephen Phillips says

    5 mins of my life I will never get back.
    Absolute Drivel!

  6. It reminds me of listening to my niece’s stream of consciousness and asking myself ‘is this going somewhere’ Nope.

  7. Ian from Toronto says

    Thanks for writing! I thought it was beautiful, but possibly because I think in a similar way.

    It’s nice to read something on Quillette that doesn’t make me disappointed in humanity for a change.

  8. Carl Geier says

    As a happily married retired physician I think I am better off than Stephen Elliott but I wouldn’t be willing to bet on it. Humanity is something else isn’t it.

  9. Jezza says

    This article is a diverting way of saying “I don’t know who I am or what I’m doing here. I am just casting about trying to find out where I fit into this world.” The metaphor is obvious.

  10. (not being sarcast)

    So glad I skipped to the comments to save 5 min of my life. LOL!

  11. PaulNu says

    I liked it. I’m sure some others will too. Some of you need to lighten up. Not every article is for every person.

    • fyodor hitchens says

      Maybe you should lighten up on those that you think need to lighten up. They didn’t like the article and you did. So what!

  12. Payton Holland says

    This piece is catching a lot of flack, but I understand it on both an intellectual and emotional level. I love every angle of it.

  13. Morgan Foster says

    The part about the hooker girlfriend is way more interesting than the story about the bed.

  14. Andrew Worth says

    I suspect some of the denizens of the Quillette comments section that don’t get out and about very much need this sort of article to bring a little variety and balance into their lives, perhaps after reading this they could go on to other challenges like eating out or even a walk on the beach.

  15. Morgan Foster says

    That pink car. Is it electric?

    The lack of toxic masculinity in this article is making me dizzy. Like there’s not enough oxygen.

    (I’ve just read the APA piece.)

  16. Unexpected. Not something I would ever seek out with intention. Thank you.

  17. Great piece of writing.

    But wow, don’t get romantically involved with that woman…

  18. Stephanie says

    Strange article, no explanation for the “scum” graffiti. I don’t get the point. His intimate relationship with a gold-digging hooker who’s clearly not actually interested, and living in a closet in a tiny house seems to mean he doesn’t have his life together. Interesting you can publish an article with such a premise.

  19. peanut gallery says

    Stop talking to that woman before you do something dumb. Or not. I’m not your dad.

  20. Diocletian, when retired from being an emperor, was taking care of his cabbages, and taking pride from that.

    Stephen is building his bed, after finding himself almost 50 years old, without love, and virtually excluded from his profession.

    The story is somewhat a reflection about the tiny slice of “now”, a bit hazy like a postmodernist painting, with an aftertaste of early 20th century writing.

    A good and unusual read, in my opinion.

  21. Man.k says

    Perhaps the author means to say, “You make your bed, and you lie in it”…

  22. Dear Mr. Elliot,
    That was painful to read. My heart goes out to you. Never forget that you have AGENCY. The bed is beautiful and you are taking steps to reclaim your agency and set your life in order. I have two pieces of advice/encouragement. First, stay away from that woman. Second, lift weights (seriously). Third, learn the basics of game. You can do this, and everything is going to be fine because you can take radical responsibility for yourself.

  23. To follow up on my previous comment, at the risk of being presumptuous: Mr. Elliot, your awkward and graceless attempts with women have damaged your life because you struck women as creepy. When you understand game, you will understand how to STOP BEING CREEPY with your “sneaky-fucker” male feminist romantic strategy. This will benefit you and the women you encounter. I very sincerely wish you good luck in what you’re facing.

  24. Tersitus says

    I feel ya, Stephen— though my challenges are somewhat larger— I bought a hundred year old former funeral home— it’s a rambling, shambling place, and nothing is level or square or plumb or flush, Like you said, kinda like life. Sleep well.

  25. Ray Andrews (the dolphin) says

    Everybody bug off. You could have stopped reading, and if the piece did waste five minutes of your invaluable time, then why did you waste another few precious seconds complaining about it? I enjoyed the piece, it was a still life in words and very well written. Dunno, perhaps for the entirely serious among us there might have been a trigger warning: “Beware! This article has no obvious didactic intent, read at your own risk!”

    As for me, I hope for more just like it.

  26. Pingback: How to Build a Bed | 3 Quarks Daily

  27. Smithereens says

    Nice piece of writing Stephen, and thanks to Quillette for posting

  28. I enjoyed the article. Light and breezy but hits you with something heavy every now in then that makes you think. Nice break from the heaviness of the politics.

  29. UsuallyJustALurker says

    Long time lurker, very rare commenter.

    I appreciated this piece for its different levels. It left you, I can imagine very purposefully, with questions. It queued a slight emotional response from different directions and it was very illustrative both with its pictures and its word play/descriptions.

    I felt compelled to leave this comment due to the backlash I saw. So many people that from my point of view apparently believe writing has to be literal or satirical to exist in the space that is Quillete. Essentially saying that they are the dictators of what writing/essays should exist in this space. Which is interesting given the about section reads “Quillette is a platform for free thought. We respect ideas, even dangerous ones. We also believe that free expression and the free exchange of ideas help human societies flourish and progress. Quillette aims to provide a platform for this exchange.” I think this essay fits perfectly. With the above statement Quillete has said they accept essentially well written thoughtful pieces for an exchange of ideas. I definitely think this article fits within those confines.

    The only reason for posting this is to throw a little encouragent into the mix because breaking orthodox is, from my understanding, what this site exists for. Not that I imagine the author needs the encouragement for I imagine they have a stronger shell than a few negative comments would break. I just figured it was fitting to write “Don’t let the turkeys get you down”, it seems fitting.

  30. Constantin says

    This is clearly a well polished and skillful short story. I looked up the author, and believe Mr. Elliott to be this one:

    It looks as if Quillete is running a test for expanding the scope of the journal. For a moment, it felt good to be taken into an unexpected direction, however, I would caution against such experimentation. I cannot say whether all readers of Quillette read it for the same reasons I do, but as far as I am concerned I seek carefully selected, high quality intellectual debate relevant to the cultural and social strife of our time. It saves me a lot of time to have access to a reliable and consistent source of material that I find interesting and engaging. I fear that changing the scope and focus of Quillette would diminish the time saving return I got used to expect and appreciate. If we were asked to vote on whether we would appreciate quality literature interspersed with solid intellectual enagagement, I would decidedly vote “No”.

    However, lack of context prevented many readers from appreciating the rich context behind this contemplative story. I believe that some commenters failed to realize that this piece reveals a contemplative, conservative, and loyal world outlook of an otherwise quite accomplished and hard working writer and film creator at the receiving end of the #MeToo mob justice. It was indeed comical to see some offering life coaching advice (such as exercising and seeking more useful social relationships).

    Wikipedia offers a clear hint as to why the pejorative was spray painted (likely by rabid feminists) on the shutters of his house: “In 2017, Elliot was included on the “Shitty Media Men” list, a crowd-sourced Google spreadsheet containing allegations of sexual misconduct against men in the media industry[10]. The allegations against Elliott included “rape accusations, sexual harassment” and “coercion”[11]. In October 2018, Elliot filed a lawsuit against the person who started the spreadsheet, journalist Moira Donegan[12]. In November 2015, Claire Vaye Watkins published an essay in Tin House describing an incident where Elliott was sexually aggressive and left her uncomfortable[13]. After Elliott filed the suit against Donegan, former Rumpus managing editor Lyz Lenz, described on Twitter an incident where Elliott hounded her about watching a movie he was editing[14]. ”

    Mr. Elliott writes: “Over the last year, I lost most of my friends. And I began to question everything I thought I believed. I thought I was going crazy, or everyone else was. It seemed like the world had turned its back on reason and culture had turned its back on art. People who had chosen politics based on kindness had become intolerant and unkind. Artists were expected to pass a morality test or be denied platforms. Without a tribe I’m free to reinvent myself, or stay exactly as I am, which is also a reinvention since everyone else is different. ”

    I think that true creativity cannot be smothered by social mobs of any kind and, like a life giving water source it will always find itself into the sun. Those shutters, no matter how artistic presently, could use a fresh coat of brilliantly white paint! If you have read Soljenitsyne, you would know that you are neither the first nor the last member of a leftist progressive tribe that got discarded like garbage once caught under the illiberal orthodoxy grind stone. America is still a free country and without your tribe, you are indeed free – free like a bird – to be yourself and have your creativity speak for itself. I hesitate to offer relationship advice with the opposite sex, but my advice is that a mostly platonic friendship with a promiscuous, clearly unreliable, but still very good looking former flame is an infinitely superior option to courting a hateful rabid feminist driven to spray paint the house of the “public enemy”. Also, it is never too late to join forces with those who do not want America to become a dystopian SJW wasteland similar with the Communist experiments some of us escaped not so long ago, and where fear and careful self-censorship defines everyone’s existence when not asleep. I am glad that you refuse to live in fear and move on! That is the American way!

  31. Akehorn says

    Nice article, but if you don’t put enough holes in the boards for the mattress to breath they will get moldy

  32. V 2.0 says

    1. This was a delightful read on a slow Friday afternoon
    2. All you people who are baffled as to why Quillette would publish this should read it again. Hint: something about solving problems appropriately for the given circumstances (as opposed, perhaps, to countering one prefabricated solution with another)
    3. Now I want to build some shelves from reclaimed wood to match the table I made.

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