Phil Gulley: Room for Debate

Some see opportunity in a vacant bedroom. I see another place to lie down.

The first nine years of my life, I shared a bedroom with my three brothers. Craving privacy, I would nest inside closets and packing crates, underneath pine trees, anywhere that promised solitude. This yearning for a space of one’s own is universal. Our dog Zipper would occasionally soldier-crawl under our kitchen woodstove and snarl when we tried to pull her out. I know just how she felt. When I’m working in my office, I bare my teeth at anyone who dares enter.

When our older son turned 13 and no longer wanted to share a bedroom with his little brother, he seized our guest bedroom like Germany grabbing Poland. One day he was massed on the border; the next day he had taken Danzig. The landscape paintings came down, pictures of young women in bikinis went up, and my mother-in-law got bumped to the living-room couch when she came to visit. Then he moved away from home, and my wife claimed the room for herself. She moved his furniture to the basement; repainted the blood-red walls with a soothing yellow; placed a desk in one corner, a comfortable chair in another, bookshelves in the closet, and a quirky rug on the floor; and brought the landscape paintings down from the attic.

This past spring, our younger son graduated from high school, joined the Army, and left home at the end of July, leaving behind another vacant bedroom. He gave us explicit directions not to tidy his room in his absence. He was never one for housekeeping, and he wants to return after basic training, see it with changed eyes, and whip it into shape. A before-and-after bedroom. So it’s just as he left it, his backpack leaning in the corner, his Three Stooges clock (now still but retained for its artistic merit), the detritus of a teenage life covering the floor, some of it moving, shifting, pulsing, as if alive.

Our son’s empty bedroom has become a source of interest to our friends, who seem determined to remake it. They bombard us with options—a sewing room, a home office, a man cave, a love shack, a prayer room, a library. A man down the road, Roger, has taken up a wacky religion and believes the end of the world lurks just around the corner. He advises us to stock the room with food, water, guns, and ammo.
“When Jesus comes, your neighbors will turn on you,” Roger says. “You’ll need to protect yourself.” Note to self: In the event of the Second Coming, stay the hell away from Roger.

A cousin wants us to turn our son’s bedroom into a guest room so he won’t have to sleep on our old couch when he visits. His plans are very specific. He wants a TempurPedic mattress with Egyptian-cotton sheets and a small refrigerator stocked with beer.

“No guest room,” my wife tells me. “If people are desperate to see us, they can sleep on the couch.”

Our couch sits under a pendulum clock that tolls on the half-hour and hour. Our guests are startled from their slumber every 30 minutes, get up jangled and bleary-eyed, and seldom stay a second night. It is a fine arrangement.

One of our friends, who sent his children off to college, took them back in after graduation and hasn’t been able to shed them. That is a strong argument for emptying the bedroom once the child has left and turning it into something else. No other offspring in the animal kingdom, once it has departed, returns to live with its parents. Toss out that bed, take down those posters, strip the closets bare, rent it out to gypsies if you must, but do not give your grown children a toehold back in.

Toss that bed, take down those posters, rent the room to gypsies if you must, but do not give your grown children a toehold back in.

I like guests in theory but go to great lengths to avoid having them, including taking vacations so I can say, “Oh, we would love to have you stay with us, but we’ll be out of town on vacation that week.” I eat breakfast and read the morning paper in my skivvies. If we had guests, I would have to dress before going downstairs, which would throw my whole day out of kilter. Plus, I’m a bath man, and the best bathtub in our house is in the guest bathroom. I couldn’t soak in the tub knowing a guest was waiting to use the facilities. Turning the empty room into a guest room would pretty much ruin my life.

I’ve given some thought to turning our son’s bedroom into my own. I would start the night sleeping with my wife, and then slip down the back hallway to my bedroom when she started snoring, which she does now with some regularity. She wakes up at 5:30 each morning, so at 5:25 I would need to hurry back into bed with her to be there when she woke up. Her alarm clock would sound, she would turn it off and roll over, and there I would be, appearing to have slept faithfully by her side the whole night long, like a trusted dog.

Or perhaps I could use my son’s former quarters for storage. Our bedroom has two closets. Naturally, my wife claimed the big one, so I got the small one by default. We have about the same amount of clothes because I don’t throw out old garments when my wife buys me new ones. I have to shove aside my old clothes with one hand while cramming in the new stuff with the other. My son’s old bedroom would be the perfect solution. I could spread out my clothes and tell at a glance what was available and what wasn’t. When I changed, there would be enough room to throw my dirty clothes on the floor, which is my preference and a clear signal to my wife that they need laundered. She says that with our sons gone, I will now be doing my own laundry, so I’m just going to wear my clothes until they stink and fall apart, and then throw them away.

I never realized that having an empty room would be so much work. At one time, in my yearning for privacy, I viewed an empty bedroom as a veritable Promised Land, but now the sight of my son’s empty space grieves my heart. I find myself wondering, as I walk past his old bedroom to get to mine, where he is laying his head that night, hoping he is safe. We have decided to leave his room alone for now. A couple of times a week, I take an afternoon nap in there. Per his instructions, we haven’t washed the sheets, so they still smell like him: chlorine from his lifeguard job at the Y, tinged with Old Spice deodorant and Suave shampoo.

Our neighbor Roger reads the Bible, predicting the death of one era and the start of another. I walk past the rooms where my children once slumbered and do not have to consult Scripture to realize the life I’ve known has ended, and another one, yet unknown, is being born.  


Illustration by Ryan Snook

This column originally appeared in the October 2013 issue.