Sometimes I think there cannot possibly be a lonelier collection of hours than those that tick away lethargically in the still of the black night, when only the distant sound of a lone car engine can maybe be heard as I’m lying in bed, fully awake. Sometimes I feel like I must be the only one aware of what 3:17 looks like when it appears on the face of my clock and I see it when I am trying to flip my pillow so it will feel cool against my cheek once again.
When you are not a great sleeper, you become cued in to everything else you’re not so good at doing. In the deadness of the night, when you look outside and can see darkened homes and only your home is lit up and you’ve even turned on your coffee machine and you can hear it begin to whir to life, it’s hard not to take yourself to task for the other things you have failed at besides the art of an almost unconscious slumber. It’s in those pre-pre-dawn hours that I think about the people I might have hurt along the way and the tasks I’ve allowed to go uncompleted and the fears I won’t acknowledge once the sun rises high in the sky and the rest of the world joins me in the day.
I rarely turn on the television when I can’t sleep because to do so feels like I’m giving in, accepting that I’m awake for good. I also won’t pop some sleeping pills around that time because I probably have to go to work in just a few hours and I think it’s best to show lucidity while explaining to students the eternal youth and cool that is James Dean. Time slips by so quickly that many of my students no longer have even heard of James Dean – and if they have, it’s probably the porn star version and these are also the thoughts that also keep me awake, that the cultural lexicon of what I think is important is dying a quick and painful death.
I guess it’s pure physiology that explains why I don’t sleep particularly well, but it’s undeniably psychology that explains what then keeps me awake. It’s the fears that manifest in a sharp stab of panic and the moonlight shining a silvery beam on all of my regrets. And regrets? I’ve got a few.
I have these little games I play in my mind, these weird counting games, that I’ll launch into in the hopes that the practice will soon make me feel woozy, that sleep will be within reach. I’ll count the books Hemingway wrote that I can recall off the top of my head. I’ll put Salinger’s work into chronological order. I’ll count the Best Picture winners I can remember. I’ll be up for an extra hour when I can’t stop myself from grabbing my phone and reading an article about how Midnight Cowboy was the only X-rated film ever given the Oscar and I’ll type myself a reminder to explain to my classes how the X-rating evolved from something well-intentioned to something viewed as positively smarmy.
I’ll look over at my dog, curled into a tight ball and nuzzled into the curve of my waist and I’ll think about how I don’t have much time left with her anymore and that maybe I’ll be okay when the time comes, when I have to return to a home she won’t be a part of anymore, and I can almost convince myself that I’m really strong, but then I think of the actual moment of letting her go and something cold grips my throat from the inside and I can no longer swallow.
If I’m in bed beside someone, there’s a lot of different thoughts that drift through my head as I decide in the instant whether or not to stay silent so he can sleep or shift around a few times so he’ll wake up and I can have somebody to play with during the time when the rest of society is down for the count and just being awake with someone else feels kind of mysterious. I’ll almost always just let him sleep because sleep is nice, but I can’t help realizing that I always find myself beside men who lightly snore, who sleep flat on their backs until morning, who never get under the covers, and who do not change their sheets nearly as often as they should. It’s always the blanket thing I can’t get over and I wonder if there was some lecture given to prepubescent guys during the time the girls were locked in a gym learning about the beauty of getting our periods when some expert came in and told the boys that blankets, quilts, duvets, and comforters are for suckers.
I used to have this horrible habit of having dreams of someone I used to care about while I was lying in bed next to someone new. It happened constantly and it made me feel guilty every time, though it wasn’t a conscious practice and I never moved through my days longing for the person who came to me during the times I was able to sleep. That odd practice stopped about a year ago and it’s not come back since, but I keep waiting for those haunted and haunting memories to break through as my feet wind around a person beside me in the dark.
Every once in a while, I’ll go ahead and admit total defeat and say fuck it and I’ll wake up my dog and we’ll go downstairs and I’ll take her outside. She will look perplexed as to why she’s peeing on grass before the day has even begun and I will look around to make sure that there’s nobody in the immediate vicinity who might try to abduct both of us because paranoia spikes in me during those blank and empty hours and I feel a sense of gratitude when I’m able to get us both inside safely. She will help herself to some water and maybe a bit of kibble and I will settle onto my couch and start scrolling through the channels and I will see shows that remind me of other people but there’s nothing on this planet that could get me to watch them when it’s not even four o’clock in the morning yet.
Netflix becomes my savior since I won’t allow Ambien to swoop in on a yellow cape and save the pre-morning. I can’t watch anything too twisty at that hour – that means House of Cards and anything directed by Christopher Nolan are out – but I can slide into a marathon of Parks and Recreation or drift into The Office or even press play and watch Rosemary’s Baby again because, though it’s about being inseminated with a demon, I’ve seen it so often that it’s become like a comfort food to me.
And speaking of comfort food, I will somehow refrain from eating macaroni and cheese in the hours before the light because I’m not in college anymore and I’ll hate myself come the dawn.
I can’t write at that early hour, though I wish I could. Writing just then feels like work and I am still in the frame of mind where writing is a beautiful escape for me and I don’t want to destroy any of that yet. I want to hold on to the things that still feel somewhat pure so I only allow myself to ponder the things that have already become corroded.
It’s during that time of the night when I think about the people I used to be so close to – people who once knew me so well – who are no longer a part of my life except in memory. I think the reason they come to me like brightly lit stars then is because I used to spend a lot of those dead hours with them, just us battling the darkness with only laughter and private jokes as weapons, but it’s also probably that I miss aspects of each of them and it takes a dose of solitude to remember what I usually lock far away.
But I also think about the people I adore, the ones so current in my life that they know almost everything about the person I am now and how I got here. These are the people who know me well enough to accurately pin my mood based only on the sound of my “hello.” These are the people who root for me and know that I root for them too, that my hope for their happiness is unequivocal. These are the people who don’t ask me questions sometimes because they know that I’ll share things when I’m ready and that’s just kind of a character flaw of mine – that I’m not always willing to be an open book and that sometimes I actually want to slam that book shut and stick it in the back of a stuffed bookshelf where nobody will ever find it. These are the people who know that it’s a feeling of weakness that causes me to react in such a way and that I just need some time until I feel strong again. These are the people who know that strength will reappear because time has proven that it only vanishes in me for a short while.
These are the people I will never stop loving.
Since I’ve started power walking and doing mini sprints, I sometimes have the real urge to pull on my workout clothes and take to the streets because I feel so awake, but I stop myself from doing such a thing because the streets here are windy and I don’t want to get plowed down by a car or – more likely – a deer. So I will make myself yet another cup of coffee and decide on some necessary task like cleaning out my medicine cabinet or getting rid of the makeup I no longer wear. Did you know that there are eighty thousand different kinds of mascara? You did not, but I know it’s something that’s absolutely true because I have all of them. Did you know that nobody besides Gwen Stefani looks amazing in matte red lipstick? I can prove such a thing is accurate and I have my own terrifying crimson pout as an example of what true horror looks like because, when I cover my full lips with the red stuff and stare into the bathroom mirror before the sun has come up, it’s scarier than when I once thought I saw Bloody Mary. Still, I will not get rid of that hideous lipstick that makes me look like the dead carcass of a bipolar clown because this is the kind of thought that comes into my head when I have had very little sleep: What if I want to be a dead bipolar clown for Halloween?
When five o’clock rolls in, that’s when I feel the heaviness I longed for earlier as it begins to overtake me. There’s an internal weariness, a weightiness, and I can feels my limbs begin to tingle and my eyelids begin to drift downwards. If it’s not a work day, that’s when I crawl back into bed. My pillows have become cool again and, though there’s nothing I love more than sleeping in a pitch-black room, maybe it’s because of the brightness that I can see washing through the windows that I finally feel relaxed and ready for a quick nap before I face the day.