Sleep to Wake

sleep
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Kate Haas

I’m stopped at a busy intersection when it happens: My eyes close, then open, and for a few long, blank seconds, I can’t fathom how I got here. I can see the red traffic light swaying above me, the plastic flags fluttering brightly over the used car lot. But everything feels remote. I could close my eyes again, I think, and the world might disappear. I’m tempted to let it.

Fatigue presses on me like a weighted blanket. From beneath it, a thought emerges: No. I am on a four-lane street, at the wheel of a one-and-a-half ton vehicle. Soon the light will change. I need to wake up.

“Stop,” I say aloud, suddenly afraid. “Just stop this.” I don’t know who I’m talking to. But at the sound of my voice, the unreality recedes infinitesimally.

I switch off the radio, stilling the soothing saxophone music. The light changes. “Turn right,” I instruct myself, clutching the wheel like a terrified old lady. “There’s the Safeway, keep driving.” I narrate myself home like this, the sound of my voice tethering me to the car, the road, the world. When I get inside, I climb into my son’s bunk bed and close his blackout curtains, but I don’t sleep. I can’t sleep. That’s the problem.

•••

“Are you anxious about anything?” asks my doctor, not for the first time. She’s a bit younger than me, a mother; I like her. What I don’t like is this focus on my anxiety. I am untroubled by anything except my inability to sleep. Admittedly, it’s making me crazy.

“Nothing going on at home?” she presses.

My beloved grandmother died. I endured my parents’ bitter, protracted divorce. My Peace Corps journal was stolen, along with my backpack, en route from Casablanca to Dakar. A man I loved didn’t love me back. I had a terrible time breastfeeding. That’s it. Those are the worst things that have happened to me. My litany of woe is minor. My life, relatively speaking, has been a cakewalk.

“Nothing,” I tell her. “I’m a very lucky woman.”

But ten days ago, three hours after I went to sleep, I felt myself swimming unexpectedly up to consciousness. Beside me, my husband slept on. Out in the backyard, the wind stirred the heavy dark branches of the fir tree. Any moment now, I thought, I would dive down, back into sleep. Instead, I lay stranded on the surface.

We all have our strategies for this. Mine is reciting “Kubla Khan” in my head. Invariably, I’m asleep long before I get to the damsel with the dulcimer. This time, depressingly, I made it all the way to the end. There was Coleridge, ecstatically drinking the milk of paradise, while I watched the red numerals of the digital clock progress inexorably from two to three to four to five. Wakefulness felt like a door jammed open, and I couldn’t shut it.

It happened again the next night, and the next, and the next.

For years now, whenever my friends and I kvetch about our kids, someone always puts things in perspective: “Yeah, but at least they sleep through the night.” There’s a collective shudder. Like our memories of labor, the subsequent sleep deprivation is still disturbingly vivid. But that was a decade and a half ago. I was too old for this. By the fourth morning, I was queasy, snappish, fumbling for familiar words like a stroke victim. After ten days, during which I averaged three hours of sleep a night, I went to the doctor.

And really, I assure her now, nothing is troubling me. I explain about my loving husband, my healthy children, the work I enjoy, our generous health benefits. Even in my present affliction, I am fortunate: I work from home, so neither my freelance clients nor my bosses at the literary magazine can see me, haggard in my pajamas every afternoon, laboriously improving sentence flow.

My doctor prescribes a sedative and tells me to take it for a week, in the hope that this will re-set my system. At home, I shake one of the tiny white pills into my palm. It looks harmless, but I regard it with trepidation. I enjoy a glass of wine, but except for that one time with the marijuana cookies—all right, and that other time with the mushrooms—I have avoided mind-altering substances my entire life. Not out of moral qualms, but because they make me uneasy. This little pill is going to do something to my brain, something I can’t predict, and that scares me almost as much as the prospect of not sleeping. But I’m desperate. That night, I take the pill and go to bed. As always, my husband falls asleep in three minutes. I wait in the dark, listening to him breathe. Fifteen minutes later, I feel an unclenching in my body. A heaviness steals into my mind. Then it’s morning.

A week later, well-rested, I go to bed without taking the little pill. “You’ll be fine,” says my husband. Three minutes later, he is asleep. Three hours later, I am not. I try again the next night. But nothing has been re-set. Like a record with a skip, my brain wakes up at one a.m. each night, and nothing I try moves the needle back into the groove.

•••

“This medication can be addictive,” my doctor emails, when I report back to her. She tells me I can take up to three doses per week, and we arrange a follow-up two weeks from now.

“So that’s it. I’ll only sleep three nights out of seven,” I tell my husband.

“You don’t know that for sure,” he says.

I am too disheartened to believe him. But I pull myself together and try to think strategically. Which nights to take the medication? Sunday, for sure, so I can drive my son to cello on Mondays without killing anyone. Friday and Saturday, for a good weekend with my family? Or midweek, so I can work a few days with a clear head?

“It’s the Sophie’s Choice of insomnia,” I wail.

Immediately I feel guilty. Somewhere in Syria, a woman like me lies sleepless, wondering if the bombs will fall on her house tomorrow. I should think about her. But the insomnia has demoralized me with unnerving swiftness, shrinking my focus to my own exhaustion, and little else. If the universe is testing me, I am failing.

•••

A few days later, driving home from the grocery, I nearly hit a biker in an intersection. Appalled, I register his shocked face through the windshield. After that, I stop driving. My husband drives me to book group and picks me up. He arranges to take a morning off work for my next doctor’s appointment. One evening, I overhear him telling the kids to be extra patient and not argue so much, Mama’s having a hard time. I should be grateful. I am grateful. But I’m sick of feeling so damn pathetic.

I dread going to bed now, knowing that three hours is all my brain will allow me to rest. The moment of waking is the worst, the defeated awareness that it’s happened again; and then the despair as the dark hours pass, and the sky lightens, and the birds start up. If I could just make it to two a.m., I think, instead of one. But I never do.

I get used to moving sluggishly through the days, dazed and bewildered most of the time, yet performing basic functions all the same. I make school lunches, cook dinner. I don’t feel hungry myself, though. On a hunch, I try on a dress that’s been too snug for a while, and it zips up effortlessly. I stare at myself in the mirror, at my hips and breasts, outlined by the thin green fabric. Despite my pallor and unwashed hair, and the thick, smeary glass through which my brain seems to perceive everything these days, I look hot. I’m too tired to decide whether this is hopeful or disturbing.

•••

One night, after lying sleepless for three hours, I sit up and begin to cry with exhaustion. My husband wakes up and puts his arms around me. “Fucking Dick Cheney,” I sob. “He’s sleeping through the night. Why can’t I?”

At our house, when anyone is stricken by mysterious, troubling ailments, it is the custom to bitterly invoke the architects of America’s middle eastern wars. It began years ago, when my husband threw out his back while reaching innocently for a sock under the bed. “George Bush is killing thousands of Iraqis every day,” he railed then. “Why isn’t he immobilized on the floor with an ice pack?”

I nodded in commiseration. W. was undoubtedly enjoying robust health, the bastard.

Now, my husband reaches over and turns on the light. “Let me make you some warm milk,” he says.

“I tried that last week. It won’t do anything. Just go back to sleep, one of us has to feel normal around here.”

“Nope,” he says, undeterred by my grumpiness. “You’re my partner. If you’re awake, I’m awake. I’m going downstairs, and you can’t stop me.”

Five minutes later, he returns with a mug of milk. It is sweet with honey, and I tear up again, grateful to be married to such a mensch. Then I lie awake the rest of the night.

•••

Who pays thirteen dollars at the hippie mart for a tiny bottle of organic passionflower extract? People like me, that’s who, desperate people who’ve heard that this elixir will make them sleep. Dutifully, I dispense forty drops of the amber liquid into two ounces of water and down the mixture at bedtime. It tastes grassy and unpleasant, but that, I tell myself, is a small price to pay if it works. It does not work. Neither do calcium and magnesium, melatonin, multivitamins, sleeping in a different room, napping during the day, hot baths, or staying off the computer before bedtime.

“Maybe you need to relax,” says my husband. “Come on, let me just…”

That doesn’t work, either.

•••

One morning, after my usual three hours of shut-eye, I pause in the doorway of my twelve-year-old’s room. He’s reclining on his beanbag chair reading Origami Yoda, his floor littered with dirty socks, old Spanish worksheets, a couple of remote controls, a hot glue gun, and innumerable bits of other detritus. A surge of annoyance slices through my fatigue. “For the love of God, clean up this damn mess,” I snap.

The insomnia has produced two regrettable side effects: Everything irritates me, my children most of all. And while those children have long been forbidden to utter even the words “crap” and “suck,” in my presence, much less their saltier four-letter brethren, I myself now curse like a motherfucker. At first, the boys are impressed by the impact of sleeplessness on my formerly prim vocabulary. But soon enough they become amused, and then—to my aggravation—patronizing.

Now, my son looks up at me pityingly. “Did you forget to take your pill last night? Jeez, you need to chillax.”

If anything is more infuriating than intractable insomnia, it’s being told to chillax by a sixth grader.

“Don’t you say that to me!” It’s the wrong battle to pick, but I can’t stop myself. “Chillax? That’s not even a real word. Goddammit, I’m an English major! We have standards around here.” (I actually say these words.)

My son waggles a reproving finger at me. “Don’t be a swear bear,” he says sweetly.

A what kind of fucking bear? I am way too tired for this, but getting mad at him makes me feel less catatonic. “Clean up your room,” I shriek. “Now!”

He regards me solemnly. “Anger and hatred to the dark side only lead.”

•••

Because I know exactly how suggestible I am, I do not seek advice from the Internet about my insomnia. Until the day, a couple of months into it, when I do. And there, buried deep on the fourth or fifth page of results, I find it: proof that this was indeed a terrible idea. It’s a reference to a New Yorker article I read fourteen years ago but have forgotten until this moment, the story of an old Italian family, some of whose members lose the ability to sleep in middle age. For generations, no one has been able to predict who will be stricken by the rare condition, and there is no cure. After several excruciating years of sleeplessness, each victim dies.

I try hard not to dwell on this horrible story. It’s a very unusual condition, I remind myself. Also, I am not Italian. Although I am middle aged. And sleepless. When I tell my husband about the Italians, a look of mingled alarm and unease appears on his face, an expression whose specificity, after eighteen years of marriage, I have no trouble interpreting: He thinks I am losing it. I need to get a grip.

•••

I tell my doctor that I’m depressed. She perks up. “Oh? And was this a problem before the insomnia?”

Patiently, I explain that I am depressed because I can’t sleep.

“We could think about an anti-depressant. Sometimes it’s hard to pinpoint whether insomnia is a symptom, or the main issue.”

Do I really have to explain my perfect life? Again? I take a breath. She’s trying to help, she wants a fix for me, and I want one, too. But depression didn’t make me stop sleeping.

Maybe I’m cursed.

•••

My doctor refers me to a psychiatrist specializing in sleep disorders.

“That’s great,” says my husband, when I tell him about the psychiatrist. “You’re in the big leagues, now!”

“How can you be so damn cheerful all the time?”

“I’m sorry, did you want gloomy? Let me try again: A psychiatrist. Whoa. There is definitely something wrong with your brain.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“I see that smile.”

•••

At four in the morning, three weeks before my appointment, it occurs to me that this hopeless, unrelenting misery is what people contemplating suicide must experience. Suddenly, I cannot bear lying awake in the dark any longer. I get out of bed and email my doctor: “Three nights of sleep a week is unendurable. When I don’t take the pill, I lie awake all night in despair. I can’t work. I can’t write. I nearly hit a biker with my car.” (The biker was weeks ago, but what the hell.) “I cannot go on like this.”

My email must have struck the correct note of desperation. Four hours later my doctor writes back, instructing me to just take the pill every night until I check in with the psychiatrist.

•••

At my HMO, doctors work out of small gray rooms with florescent lighting, the only décor a queasily pinkish illustrated chart of the human body. Despite this, I cannot help picturing Dr. Sleep—as he is quickly dubbed in our house—behind an imposing mahogany desk. I’ve never even been to therapy, let alone a psychiatrist. If the pop culture of my formative years is to be believed, Dr. Sleep (aka Judd Hirsch in Ordinary People) will want to unearth some long-buried trauma that wakes me at one a.m. every night. Or he’ll want to put me on drugs. Neither prospect is appealing.

As it turns out, Dr. Sleep operates out of a windowless gray room, just like everyone else at Kaiser. He has sandy hair and an air of mild-mannered bemusement, reminding me forcibly of the hapless Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Dr. Sleep evinces little surprise as he takes my history. “And tell me about your mental state when you go to bed,” he says, tapping at his keyboard.

It’s been over three months since I have slept soundly without pharmaceutical assistance. Surely a bit of drama is permissible. “I feel like the Titanic heading into that final night,” I tell him. “Doomed.”

Dr. Sleep looks up from his keyboard, taken aback. “Oh, dear. That’s not good.”

I wonder what he expected me to say. His other patients must desperate, too. Or am I an extreme outlier? I renew my resolve not to mention the Italians.

Dr. Sleep scoots his rolling stool over to face me. I prepare for an inquiry into my murky past, or perhaps an evaluation of drug options. Dr. Sleep pursues neither of these avenues. “Do you bake bread?” he asks benignly.

I stare at him. As a matter of fact, I bake bread every Friday. But what can that have to do with anything?

“Think of your sleep as a ball of dough,” Dr. Sleep says, cupping his hands as if he’s holding one himself.

“Okay,” I say hesitantly. I imagine my challah dough: warm, heavy, eggy. Is this some visualization mind trick?

“You want your sleep to be compact, like a ball of dough,” says Dr. Sleep. “You want it to be compressed into just eight hours.” He moves his hands, as if firmly shaping the dough into an eight-hour ball. “When you stretch it out”—he moves his hands apart—”going to bed early, sleeping late, it’s like stretching the dough too far. It gets thin, full of holes, loses its integrity. That’s what you’ve been doing.”

Dr. Sleep is going to put me on a behavioral plan to compress my sleep, he tells me. That will fix everything.

“But I barely have any sleep to compress,” I protest.

He waves this away and explains the plan. Its main point involves breaking my mental association between wakefulness and being in bed. I am to stay away from my bedroom, except between the hours of eleven p.m. and six-forty-five a.m. At night, I am not to lie awake longer than twenty minutes at a time. After that, I must get up, go to another room, and engage in a “non-stimulating activity” until I feel sleepy. Then I can return to bed again. I am to repeat this as many times during the night as necessary. Also, I will cut my medication dose in half. The plan sounds implausible and exhausting, but I nod as if Dr. Sleep is handing me into a life raft, because maybe he is.

“You can read during your waking periods,” he tells me. “But nothing engaging. Do you have any boring books?”

I picture my biologist husband’s shelf of science texts. Yes, I tell Dr. Sleep, I certainly do.

That is how I find myself in my office at one-twenty a.m., headlamp shining on Mammals of the Pacific States by Lloyd G. Ingles. The first section of this heavy tome is devoted to teeth. I read about the tribophenic theory, which posits that our ancestral reptiles had molar cusps that migrated somewhere else in the jaw. I wait to feel sleepy, but even though this is possibly the most boring material I have ever read, I am wide awake. Eventually I yawn and go back to bed. I lie awake for another twenty minutes, then return to the office, and Ingles, and his damn teeth. This goes on for the rest of the night. By dawn I have gotten up and down a total of six times and advanced to the marsupials.

That morning, I fill in the chart Dr. Sleep gave me to track my progress: time in bed, number of times awake at night, final morning wake time, and so on. “This is the one you want to watch,” he told me, pointing to the space on the chart marked: TOTAL minutes/hours awake during the night. I pencil in four hours, forty-five minutes. In the box for notes, I scrawl: depressing and pointless.

But what else do I have? Half the medication is not enough to knock me out, so every night I follow Dr. Sleep’s plan, waking at 1, reading about mammals (Pacific shrew, vagrant shrew, dusky shrew, water shrew, marsh shrew, Inyo shrew, masked shrew, ornate shrew, pigmy shrew, gray shrew), not allowing myself to lie awake more than twenty minutes, scribbling my notes in the morning.

That first week, I run into an acquaintance in the park. We don’t know each other well, but I find myself telling her about the sleep plan. “More like the Guantanamo plan,” I grouse, demonstrating yet again the effect of sleep deprivation on my sense of perspective.

To my surprise, she confides that she, too, was prescribed this technique for insomnia. “It took a while, but it absolutely worked,” she says. “You have to hang in there.”

For the first time, it occurs to me that the plan is not some quixotic regime cooked up by Dr. Sleep, but an actual thing. A thing that might work.

On the sixth morning, I record something startling: although I got up to read four times, my total time awake was only two and a half hours. Even with half the medication, I got an astonishing five hours of sleep. By the end of the second week, my time awake has shrunk to one and a half hours.

My acquaintance was right. Dr. Sleep was right. Over the next month and a half, my sleep steadily improves. I go down to a quarter of a pill, then to no medication at all. By the end of June, nearly six months after the insomnia struck, it has vanished. The sleep plan was a life raft, after all, and now, incredibly, I am back on the mainland, with its rested, cheerful inhabitants, the weight of exhaustion lifted at last. This outcome is the result of science, I realize, in the form of a proven behavioral therapy. But it feels like something else.

It feels like luck: as random and inexplicable as the sleeplessness was.

•••

I will never know why I suddenly stopped sleeping, just like I’ll never know why cancer struck my grandmother, or my parents’ marriage ended the way it did, or why my first baby wouldn’t gain weight, no matter how much I nursed him. Possessions are lost, and love is sometimes unrequited, and we don’t always get to know why. I don’t believe that everything happens for a reason, not in the cosmic sense, anyway. If I did, I might conclude that insomnia was supposed to teach me something. Or maybe I would be less troubled by my knowledge that the Syrian woman is still lying awake.

I think about her now. I think about her every day. I think, too, about all the people who manage to meet hardship with dignity and grace and courage. Maybe the Syrian woman is one of them. Or maybe she isn’t. Maybe she’s more like me. Because when it came right down to it, I wasn’t one of those people. Confronted with adversity, I was irritable, profane, despairing, and self-absorbed. In a real Guantanamo scenario, I would never be the gutsy captive, steadfastly refusing to betray her comrades. Deprive me of sleep, and you can have the plans to the Death Star.

But then, no one expected me to be a hero, least of all myself. I’ve stood on the other side of that line. I’ve been the one to hold it together, to carry more than my share of the weight. This time, someone did those things for me. Wherever she is, and whatever she’s facing, awake or asleep, I’m wishing the Syrian woman the same luck.

•••

KATE HAAS is a senior editor at Literary Mama. Her essays have most recently appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe Magazine, OZY, and the Washington Post. She’s a regular contributor to Full Grown People and lives in Portland, Oregon with her family. Read more of her writing at www.katehaas.com.

Read more FGP essays by Kate Haas.

 

Pin It

Under the Bridge

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Matthew Salesses

A Korean adoptee, I had just spent a month in my birth country teaching English for a school that wanted me to be white. In order to quit, I had to spend a day overseas, so I was in Japan because of visa laws. I figured I’d make a little trip of it. For three days and two nights, I wheeled a suitcase around Fukuoka, temple-watching and feeling sorry for myself.

I had only a hundred dollars in my bank account. Since I’d broken my contract in my first month, I hadn’t gotten paid. On the first night, I headed to the beach. It was still warm in October, and I lay on the hard sand and tried to sleep. After a few minutes, I moved to a bench instead. I was there for less than an hour when it started to rain. My clothes stuck muddily to my body, but when I unzipped my suitcase, I realized that the reason I could change outfits was because I was dragging my life behind me in a piece of luggage.

I had nowhere to go. I asked myself, What would a homeless person do? I made my way under an overpass. There I laid my head on my suitcase and attempted to cry myself to sleep. I wasn’t even thinking yet of how I had been left under a bridge in Seoul as an infant. I wasn’t ready to confront my adoption. I had only been in Asia for a month, and it was the first time since I was two years old. I didn’t make the leap to thinking that my birth mother might have left me under a bridge for the same reason I found a bridge in Japan—rain. I stayed under the overpass until the rain faded to mist, and then I dragged my suitcase back into the streets, planning to empty my bank account on a hotel room, call my parents, and tell them I needed to come home.

I might have done just that if I had found a single hotel in my one-hundred-dollar budget. When everything was too expensive, I made my way to a bar. In Korea bars stay open until early morning and I hoped the same would be the true in Japan. I took a table in the back, low to the floor, where people could sit cross-legged. I parked my bag there and ordered a single beer. I used the table as a pillow. Whenever anyone came by, I took a tiny sip to make the beer last. It had cost something like ten dollars.

Someone must have taken pity on me and let me sleep.

•••

In truth I might be mixing this memory up. I might have started in the bar and ended under the overpass. I wonder why I remember it in this order. Maybe I want to think that when I hit bottom, a stranger helped me—because that is how I have always thought about my adoption. Maybe I want to think that I made myself move on from the bridge, and not that I ended up there because I could go nowhere except my past.

•••

When I woke in the early morning in a closing bar in Fukuoka, I returned to the city with my suitcase and my shame, and I temple-watched again in a sleepless haze. I hated the city’s artificial cleanliness. My legs hurt—that was real pain. The malls were full and the temples empty. The desire to fly back to Connecticut grew stronger and stronger. But I didn’t call my parents. The real reason was that I had left a new girlfriend in Korea and I wasn’t ready to throw something away before I knew what it was.

I searched again for a hotel until I found a room that maxed out my account. As sad a place as it was, the hotel held plenty of wonders—there were slippers, a heated floor, a bidet built into the toilet seat. I had never seen a bidet before. I used everything in the room and took a long bath and got ready for bed. It was maybe six in the afternoon. Before I slept, I tried to find perspective. I wasn’t truly alone, of course—I could call my girlfriend and ask her to wire money, or I could call my parents and ask them bail me out. I didn’t know what it was to be truly alone—or I hadn’t since I was an orphan.

With a calling card, I phoned my girlfriend so that someone would feel bad for me, someone other than myself, and I told her about sleeping in the bar. I didn’t tell her about sleeping under the bridge—that seemed too much. She was more shocked than pitying. And soon I was defending myself. I couldn’t appear to be so poor that she wouldn’t want to date me. The phone shook against my ear. I said I had to go to sleep, and I listened for a minute or two to more shock that I would sleep before sunset. Eventually my girlfriend shamed me into actual perspective. I was simply being cheap or punishing myself. I wanted to appear as if I had a pitiable life, but I was just making choices she couldn’t understand.

She never wanted to save me. I let that sink in, in that hotel room in Japan, sleeping naked in a borrowed robe. Rescue hadn’t drawn my future wife, a Korean woman, to me, a Korean adoptee. That was my expectation. Those were my rules for myself. I felt oddly relieved—and oddly disappointed. I harbored the half-hope that she might still change her mind and I wouldn’t have to save myself. But of course I would.

•••

MATTHEW SALESSES is the author of The Hundred-Year Flood, which was named of the season’s best books by Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Gawker, and others, and was a Best Book of September and a Kindle First pick at Amazon. He has written for NPR, The New York Times, Salon, Glimmer Train, The Millions, and The Rumpus, among others. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Creative Writing & Literature at the University of Houston.

BabyShusher

By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com
By Gina Easley www.GinaEasley.com

By Natalie Singer-Velush

To become a parent in a hospital in a city somewhere in the United States you hear: Beeping machines, the institutional whir of apparatus such as a metal birthing bar that automatically lowers from the ceiling with the click of a switch, the squeak of rubber-soled shoes on linoleum sheen, the medical snap of a glove pulled on, the growl and roar of a woman who you are later surprised to learn is yourself, the knuckled clenching of her hands on the metal bar, a pause of silent fear, the bleat of an up-to-the-minute new, miniscule person.

To raise an infant you understand that you must become the owners of mountains of items, gear, devices, such required equipment as strollers (newborn carriage; upright jogger; portable umbrella stroller; add-on car-seat click tray with SafeAssure™ technology), vibrating bouncy seats, bottle warmers, feeding timers, car-seat adapters, and automatic milk pumps. This gear helps you transport, feed, comfort, but it also must be parented in turn—assembled, folded, stored, charged, disinfected, adjusted. You have a whole catalogue of new children now, littered around the house.

You hear: The din of advice from family, advice from friends, advice from co-workers, advice from your husband’s boss, advice from mommy bloggers, advice from elected representatives, advice from newscasters, from grocery clerks, from Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, the hated Pinterest, advice to slow down to rock her to sing louder sing more softly to bathe once a week at maximum to vaccinate right away to wait to let her cry try gluten free soy free dairy free to switch detergents, but whatever they say you infer what they all really mean is, never let anyone see your nipples.

As you learn a new, completely clock-worked dance with your partner, there sounds the tinkle of a very old tune, perhaps a Scottish fiddle song, to which couples have been swirling for centuries and the days roll into nights that collapse into days that become nights and you realize at some point that you are not really sleeping or even touching each other at all because she eats and cries a lot and life while beautiful is not really a Scottish fiddle tune but now more of a platonic Metallica marathon.

Someone advises you buy a white noise machine. You learn this is a lunchbox-sized device, available at all baby superstores, takes four AAA batteries. On one end of the cloud-colored box is a speaker, on the other end is a dial that adjusts to the settings: BIRDS, OCEAN, WIND, RAIN, HEARTBEAT. That night after swaddling the baby in the style passed down to you by the ancient tribes, you lay her in her bassinet and your partner switches on the white noise machine, which he is calling the noise maker (this would be funny to you—he never gets the names of things quite right—except that you are too exhausted for funny). He moves the device to the loudest setting and the baby’s crepe paper eyelids leaf down obediently.

In your own bed you lay flat on your back like the mummies, arms by your sides, and you hear the white noise of the noise maker floating down the hallway and into your airspace, sidling up to your ear, rolling in, an auditory fog that lulls you quickly into your own twilight sleep. Next to each other, holding your breaths, your pinkies brush.

It works. Your daughter is approaching a trimester old now, and she can get her frequency turned up pretty good (colic, they say, or reflux). The magical combination, you have finally discovered, is to turn the bath tap on as soon as the fall sun sets. You sit on the edge of the tub with your tiny person and your sore, flappy body parts, listening to the rush of the bath filling. Her face is out of this world, from another place you’ve never heard of. Her eyes are open more often these days; she looks like an endearing alien, all shock and pucker. In the tub, you cradle her sideways and latch her onto your breast. The tap is still gushing, baby gulps drowned out. It must sound to her like she is eating inside Niagara Falls, or somewhere more familiar, her former planet.

After the bath meal, drying off, the laying of hands, lotioning, swaddling, rocking, shushing, she is placed in her cradle with the noise maker on high. You have become loyal to the OCEAN setting. It works every night, despite the creeping feeling that this enchanted solution could in fact fail any minute, leaving you back in Metallicaland. You and your husband steal into your own bed down the hall. The synthetic, looped surf pipes in through the crackling baby monitor, which has a transmitter in the baby nursery and a receiver placed three inches from you on the bedside table. A fake ocean filtered through a transmitter carried by invisible radio waves, pushed through a plastic speaker into your ear, soothing you all, with a manufactured quiet, into the natural state of sleep.

One night at the end of that first trimester of parenting, you lie in the bed and think suddenly it must be time to give your body back to your partner, to yourself. You hear the faint remembering of a previous system of connection, long slow sessions of fusion,   swift slam of thirst-slaking, rustle     knock     tear     knead     soft moan     all that fucking. As the battery-powered waves roll onto their radio beach you reach for each other, sift around, try to be the way you’ve been before. But your body is an alien, come from a place as out of this world as your daughter. It is in its inchoate state, too, a nautilus. The lull of the ocean of rest is so loud that you cannot hear your foreign body at all. You return to your arrangement as mummies, bound together, and drift off.

More weeks pass. The baby settles in, acts more and more like she might stay around. You hear everyone tell you how to navigate—buy this brand of sippy cup, ask these questions when interviewing day cares, lay her down at this angle to prevent unexpected crib death. A turbulence. But quiet, too, is terrifying. Alone at home with the baby all day, you use as many devices as you can. The TV is turned up. The Internet always there. Tea kettle, radio, coffee pot, the toaster’s glowing coils and companionable ding. A swing that oscillates. Tesellating mobiles.

The energy of the earth is a circuit from pole to pole, you realize: zings and jolts supplying the system, sometimes knocking things out, towers and wires strung over the hills, in and out of houses, of hearts, of tiny pink mouths, an electrocuting love.

One night sleeping to the looped white noise of OCEAN, you dream a memory of the real ocean. You are a girl, about eight, visiting your grandparents in Florida. You have your own bedroom facing the Atlantic, which is about 150 feet from your windowed wall. You lie in bed at night, the giant breath of the sea inhaling, then crashing, in the black just outside. This, the ocean’s waves, its body, shushing, thunders over you, three-dimensional sound, wet and gaping. You remember.

Your daughter a couple of months older now. The world is still talking at you about how to be her mother. The strollers and wipe-warmers have made room, too, for toys―blocks that play “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and baby dolls that go “waaaah.” It is getting busy in the house. You pack a box, items you feel you should let go of, to make room for other items, board books, doorway bouncer, something called a play mat (monographed)—the catalogue children helping you to raise the organic one. You place the noise maker on the top of the storage box.

That night the three of you lie in the mysterious new quiet. The sheet bunches. The baby whistles unconsciously down the hall. A neighborhood dog howls. You hear the zzzzzzt of desire click on, like the buzz of conductivity when a wire in the dark canister of a device brushes against its charged opposite, the sound of a current in a bedroom somewhere in the United States in a house in the suburbs.

•••

NATALIE SINGER-VELUSH is a journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Her creative work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Washington Post; Brain, Mother, the blog of Brain, Child magazine; Literary Mama; Alligator Juniper; Clamor; This Great Society; Huffington Post; and the 2015 anthology Love and Profanity. Natalie is the editor of ParentMap magazine, where she also writes about parenting issues. She is earning her MFA in creative writing and poetics from University of Washington and lives in Seattle with her husband and two children. She can be found @Natalie_Writes.

Fear

horror
By Gina Easley www.ginakelly.com

By William Bradley

“Fear of fire, fear of lightning, fear of fire caused by lightning, fear of falling trees, and of those people who drive their cars into houses or gas stations because they confuse the brake with the gas. Once on Central Park West a man reached for my wrist as he said, “Can I ask you something?” but I didn’t let him. Fear of unasked questions that will never be answered. Fear of Rumpty-Dudget a character in a book, ‘Rumpty Dudget’s Tower,’ that I have never read, but whose worn blue spine I can sense on the bookshelf in my parents’ living room at all times, even now. Fear of women in high heels; fear of Mrs. Stein, my second grade teacher; fear of other people’s carelessness. Fear of small but deceptively sharp knives, like the Swiss Army knife that cut my brother’s finger so deep only one of my mother’s maxi-pads, with wings, could hold the blood. Fear of sirens, though only when I am driving and cannot tell where they are coming from; fear of North Korea; fear of visiting Turkey, where I was born, and not being allowed to leave. Fear that there is something really really wrong. Fear that there is nothing that can fix it.”

—A. Papatya Bucak, “I Cannot Explain My Fear”

 

My wife and I each paid twenty dollars to attend the one-night-only twenty-fifth anniversary screening of the original A Nightmare on Elm Street several years ago. This was at a point in our marriage where we probably couldn’t afford to blow forty dollars on a movie, but I had just started my first academic job and, for the first time, we had an annual household income of over $25,000, so we felt rich. More importantly, I love A Nightmare on Elm Street and was excited for the opportunity to see it on the big screen.

If you asked me for my favorite horror movie, I would honestly tell you that it’s The Shining. Kubrick’s use of tracking shots, Bela Bartok’s score, Shelly Duvall’s performance as an abused woman trying to survive in an icy, opulent hell—it’s all amazing and remains unnerving every time I watch it. But if I have a few beers tonight and decide I want to watch a scary movie, I’ll probably put something like Friday the 13th Part 3 in the DVD player. You can watch it in 3D in the comfort of your own home, you know. But more importantly, I find that cheesy slasher movies from the seventies and eighties just have their own sort of goofy charm. Yes, they’re violent, and more than a little misogynist. But it’s so hard for me to take them seriously at this point. Even though they were rated R, they seem, in their simple-minded black-and-white morality, childish to me. Not of the morally complicated adult world I live in, that’s for sure. So watching movies like these reminds me of my childhood, keeps me tethered to the dorky, horror-obsessed kid I was, and—I sometimes like to imagine—keeps me young.

•••

Even before I saw my first horror movie, I found them fascinating. When I was a kid, my parents were diligent in shielding us from movie gore and anything remotely scary; the idea, I know, was to protect our impressionable minds from anything that might upset or disturb us, but I’m afraid it didn’t entirely work. In fact, as I got closer to my middle school years and realized that most of my friends had seen Halloween and Silent Night, Deadly Night, I became acutely aware that my parents had been sheltering me: there was a whole world of supernaturally-powerful serial killers and blood-thirsty demons out there. And though I understood, rationally, that these things only existed in movies, on some level I think I perceived something menacing about the adult world as a result of my parents’ zealous protection. After all, if there were nothing to really be afraid of, then why would I need to be protected?

But maybe that’s not quite right. Maybe my brother and I detected menace before becoming aware of these movies, and that’s what caused my parents to try to shield us from multiplex mayhem. I know that the witch in the Wizard of Oz scared me when I was a kid; so too did Dr. Banner’s transformation into The Incredible Hulk on TV. And my brother couldn’t stand to be in the room when The Electric Company started—the voice that yelled “Hey You Guys!” would cause him to cry if he heard it. And, truth be told, he was well into adulthood before he could force himself to watch the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where the villain rips the guy’s heart out of his chest. So, perhaps my parents—realizing that their sons were high-strung and easily frightened—understood that they had to be on their toes when it came to shielding us from big-screen frights.

Or, maybe I’m over-thinking the whole thing, and responsible parents just don’t let their kids watch R-rated movies full of naked breasts and chainsaw-wielding madmen who want to turn teenagers into barbecue sandwiches.

The bottom line is, by the time I was in the fifth grade, most of my friends had seen at least some of these movies, and I had not. I was fascinated by the very idea of these forbidden movies, what they said about the adult world, and why my parents felt the need to shield me even while my friends’ parents did not feel a similar need to shield them. Plus, there was that nagging suspicion—then, as adolescence was just on the horizon—that there was something more than a little lame about not knowing anything about these movies that were so important to my classmates. I was already beginning to understand that I was a dork—a label that would stay with me at least through the beginning of high school—and part of that dorkiness came, I understood, from my naïveté when it came to these elements of the popular culture that were so important to kids in the eighties.

I found my entrance into this world of horror that my friends knew so well one morning in the cafeteria before the first bell rang to send us to our classrooms. A kid I knew, Jeremy, had a book in front of him—The Nightmares on Elm Street, the official novelization of the first three Freddy Krueger movies. The films’ logo—which looked like it had been scribbled by a madman with a nerve disorder—was splashed across the cover, with Freddy’s razor-fingered glove hanging down, blades partially obscuring the title with the blood that dripped from them.

In all of my eleven years, I had never seen a book that looked so cool.

“Good book?” I asked him.

He nodded. “Yeah. The movies are better, though.”

Of course they were, I thought. “Why are you reading the book then?”

He shrugged. “I just really liked the movies.” I think he must have intuited my interest, because he said, “I’m almost done with it. I’ll bring it tomorrow, if you want to borrow it.”

Jackpot. Jeremy had allowed me to find a loophole in my parents’ “No Horror Movie” rule. They didn’t make R-rated books, after all—and weren’t my parents always on my case about reading anyway? Even if they found the book, I could always use their previously articulated arguments in favor of literacy against them. Finally, I had won. I would learn exactly what was so scary that my parents had felt the need to protect me.

I felt certain that reading the Nightmare on Elm Street book would allow me a deeper understanding of the real world.

•••

I didn’t just read the book—I devoured it like a Romero zombie devours brains.

As I read it, I realized that books, too, could be scary. I had an imagination vivid enough to picture what it must have been like for Rod to see Tina’s sleeping body rudely lifted from the bed by an invisible force, shoved to the ceiling, and split open by unseen razor fingers. I could see Tina running from Freddy, his arms somehow long enough to stretch across the entire alley, affording her no escape. I could imagine Jesse’s dread as he came to realize that Freddy intended to possess his body in order to kill in the waking world.

The irony is, I probably would have been better off watching the movies, as far as my own fear went. When I finally saw the movies, I did find them scary, but I also realized that Rod and Tina were obnoxious and older than they should have been—they spoke the way people in their thirties think teenagers speak (“I woke up with a hard-on that had your name on it.” “Tina’s a four-letter word—your joint’s not big enough for four letters.”). The scene where Freddy chases Tina down the alley looked so fake that it made me giggle when I finally saw it for the first time. And Jesse was just an irritating whiner—if Freddy wants him so badly, let him have him, I’d later say.

But that’s not how I responded to the novelizations. No, the novelizations were simply terrifying, and—since Freddy Krueger killed kids in their sleep—I promptly resolved to never sleep again.

I didn’t actually make the decision consciously, of course. I may have had an overactive imagination and very little idea about how the real world worked, but I wasn’t an absolute moron. I knew, logically, that child murderers do not come back from the dead to haunt the dreams of the children whose parents burned them alive in their own boiler rooms. It just didn’t happen—and if it had, it would have been all over the news. No, if people could come back from the dead and hang out in people’s dreams, I was fairly certain that my grandfather would have checked in from time to time. The premise of the movies was not grounded in reality—it all came from this guy, Wes Craven, who wrote and directed the first movie. And, I could convince myself during the day, that guy probably lived in a mansion in Hollywood, surrounded by movie stars and supermodels, and hardly ever thought about this creation of his that was haunting me so.

That was my rational mind. But how many perfectly rational eleven-year-olds do you know—particularly when they’re in a dark room and the rest of the family is asleep and the house is making weird noises?

My parents realized pretty quickly that I seemed groggier than usual at breakfast, and that I was falling asleep while watching TV in the afternoon. And I eventually had to tell them that I wasn’t sleeping much at night anymore, and why. I can’t say my parents were angry with me, but nor were they particularly pleased. When all is said and done, I think the situation kind of annoyed them. “You’re not sleeping because you’re afraid that a boogeyman in a fedora hat that you read about in the adaptation to a movie you’ve never seen is going to kill you?” I don’t think that’s the type of question any father wants to ask his son.

As stupid as they surely found the situation, I have to say that my parents bent over backwards to help me to sleep again. No more drifting off in the afternoons. A big glass of warm milk before bed. God love them, at one point they even took me to our family doctor, apparently hoping that there was a pill or something that would make me forget to be such a neurotic coward. The doctor, for his part, seemed confused about what his role in this personal drama was supposed to be. “I would say,” he eventually concluded, “he needs to get over it and start sleeping again.”

Which is exactly what happened. As time passed, my terror over what I’d read faded. In a few weeks, it all seemed silly, and I was quite embarrassed by the whole episode. Scared by a movie character? How dumb. I promised myself that I would never mistake supernatural fiction for reality ever again.

I kept that promise, too. For several months. Until the USA Network showed Children of the Corn one afternoon when I was home sick, and the process repeated itself. Just as it would a year or so later when I saw Halloween for the first time. And then again with Friday the 13th. These movies terrified me as a kid, but I couldn’t stay away from them.

•••

As an adult, it’s a rare and special thing to find a horror movie that’s genuinely scary. The Shining, The Exorcist, and Alien still retain the ability to unnerve, and I’ll occasionally find an older movie, like Bob Clark’s original Black Christmas, that really freaks me out. But too much of what passes for horror these days seems watered-down, or too outlandishly stupid to be taken seriously, or just not scary. I can’t imagine anyone watching the recent A Nightmare on Elm Street remake and actually getting frightened.

Of course, part of the problem is, I’ve found new things to be scared of. As it happens, my parents were shielding me from the menacing adult world; it was just the nature of the menace that I’d misunderstood. There are no doll serial killers or leather fetishist demons with pins in their heads—instead, there are religious extremists with bombs. There are factories dumping carcinogens into streams. There are people who think a life devoted to literature and art is simply decadent. There’s waterboarding.

I fear that my writing is mediocre at best. I fear that my wife no longer finds me as physically attractive as she used to. I fear that I’ll never realize my dream of becoming a tenured professor. I fear impotence. School shootings. Stand your ground laws. Getting drunk and revealing how offensive and obnoxious my internal monologue actually is. Cancer. Being revealed as the academic and artistic fraud I’m pretty sure I am. That my parents will die. That my wife will decide she no longer loves me.

These are the things that terrify me. Sometimes, the only way to calm my nerves and quell the fear is to turn my brain off and watch a madman with a butcher’s knife stalk and then kill some babysitters.

•••

The twenty-fifth anniversary screening of A Nightmare on Elm Street was kind of a bust, actually. I had this idea that the theater would be filled with aging Gen-Xers excited to recapture the experience of being a child of the 1980s again. And there were a few of us like that in the audience. But there was also a group of about fifteen teenagers sitting down in front, and they were pretty rowdy—shouting things at the screen, giggling, running around the theater, making and receiving phone calls. My shushing got louder as the movie went on; a woman roughly my age sitting nearby eventually shouted at the kids, “Shut the fuck up!”

“This is ridiculous,” I kept whispering to my wife.

“Do you want to go complain?” was her constant reply.

I didn’t. I didn’t want to be the type of person who gets annoyed with young people. I didn’t want to be someone who gets angry at the sound of teenagers laughing. I hated the idea that I was the type of grumpy old man who said things like “Get off my lawn!” or who had groups of teenagers thrown out of places because of shenanigans and tomfoolery.

Towards the end of the movie, as Nancy is setting her traps for Freddy, one of the teenage girls came walking up the aisle, gabbing into her phone.

“Oh I know,” she said, “it’s soooooo stupid, but funny…”

As she walked past me, I leaned towards the aisle and shushed her as loud as I could.

She stopped and adjusted the phone so that it wasn’t near her mouth. I was expecting her to whisper “Sorry,” but instead she looked right at me and shouted, “Shut up!”

I was shocked, startled both by her viciousness and the phrase that entered my head immediately: “My God, I would never have spoken that way to an adult when I was her age.”

When I was her age. Back in the day. The good old days? The grown-ups I knew when I was a kid didn’t think so—they thought we were out of control, with crack cocaine, gangs, drive-by shootings, casual sex, and N.W.A. Of course, their parents thought they were out of control, with their LSD, free love, campus protests, left-wing radicals, and The Beatles.

Unexpectedly, I did experience fear that night—the fear that comes from knowing that, somewhere along the line, you became old without realizing it, and you’ll never know the reckless energy of youth again.

•••

WILLIAM BRADLEY’s work has appeared in a number of magazines and journals, including Utne Reader, The Normal School, The Bellevue Literary Review, Brevity, Fourth Genre, Creative Nonfiction, and The Missouri Review. This is his second essay for Full Grown People. He lives in Canton, New York, where he teaches at St. Lawrence University, and he has recently completed a collection of essays that link to form an unconventional memoir about love, loss, and pop culture obsessions. He also recently found a very cheap used copy of The Nightmares on Elm Street novelization, which he thinks he might re-read this summer. He’ll let you know if he ever sleeps again.

The Love of My Life, The Thief of My Sleep

sleepy dog
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser

When he first started to stay over at our house, my then future-stepfather brought my mother a curious gift. It was a rather large brass horn, used by hunters, he said. The brass curled around itself; the flare of the horn was handsome. But it was odd, this object. We all stared at the horn and then at him when he presented it to her. The gift wasn’t romantic, nor did it have to do with dreams of hunting trips. It was supposed to be practical. “If I snore too loudly,” he explained, “just blow the horn.”

My mother practically giggled at the gift. She certainly blushed. She mumbled something along the lines of his snoring being “not that bad.” She was happy, that much was clear, and I was relieved and pleased for her.

By rights, though, he should have brought me a kazoo—or a foghorn. His snores traveled through the ceiling of what had been her room and quickly became theirs right through my bedroom floor. He was, indeed, a loud snorer—the loudest, in fact, I’ve ever known. The sound resembled a cross between a drone and a series of honks. You could picture some cartoon character with a big bill or an outsized schnozz.

Their romance began near the end of my high school career and my leaving for college. The snoring served as a tiny sign to get out, a harbinger. Things were changing in the household. That was fine—I was ready to leave. Most of the time, I found the incredibly thunderous sounds from below more amusing than annoying. It was loud, but it was at a safe remove.

•••

Years later, I met the love of my life. It turns out that Hosea, too, snores. His snoring is a honking, snuffly, schnozzy, start-and-stop affair. Sometimes, it reminds me of a monologue, comedic to the listener, dramatic to the performer. Except the performer sleeps through it and the listener finds herself in a tragedy, the one of being awake to hear it in the middle of the night. I can’t say whether he snored less early in our relationship or whether I was so entirely smitten for the first decade and a half that I just didn’t care. I care now.

My boyfriend-turned-husband displayed an uncanny ability to sleep through anything. Hosea snored and he slept, the one never disturbing the other. At the beginning of our relationship, in fact, I was in the midst of a kitchen renovation that required some work on the roof just beneath my bedroom. Think hammers that pounded loud enough to seem as if the work were going on inside your bedroom. He slept right through the ruckus morning after morning, long after the sun rose high in the sky. My usual wakeup time was more in the dawn hours and so I’d go about my day, incredulous that neither heavy construction nor full sun woke him. He often worked into the wee hours; he wasn’t a slacker. Our opposite tendencies had advantages from the perspective of an early riser: Hosea didn’t bother me when I did my best work, because he was fast asleep during my most cherished work hours.

When we became parents, his natural night owlish tendencies cut both. Chicken or egg, the first baby was a night owl, too. They hung out—and the baby slept in, once he was old enough not to wake up all day and night long. We had to wake him for preschool. On the positive side, the middle-of-the-night stuff could fall to my dear husband before he’d actually want to go to sleep. On the negative side, every early morning waking—with each child, the hours got more “kid normal”—fell to me and my precious early mornings evaporated. Back on the up side, Hosea can drive teenagers at night and recently chaperoned a cast party at our house that began at one a.m. and ended at four. I slept through the entire shebang. Also on the up side: I tend to go to bed before he does. Often, he’s in bed, reading, and turns the light off for the two minutes it takes for me to drift off. That’s sweet—quiet and sweet.

I’ve come to imagine snoring is much like the ripeness of high school and college-age males. Back when our bodies first discovered one another’s, the funky ripeness became part of the appeal. A strong scent was a strong sensation. Their funk was, when we were together, mine in a way.

At some moment over the last few years, when the very dear and lovely and loud husband’s snoring woke me, I ceased to be charmed—or forgiving. I went from unflustered to fully furious with flip-of-a-switch speed. I’d poke him. “You’re so loud!” I’d call out, not quite yelling but certainly not whispering. Whispers had no impact at all. I needed to put more muscle into my voice than was readily available in the middle of the night, which is part of why I got so enraged. Ginger prods did not rouse him either. I had to poke or shake. This required effort. The act of attempting to get him to roll over or shut up woke me up more, after I’d already been awoken by his sonorous snores. This was a recipe for a trip to nowhere good and quickly.

Every next snore that he snored once I was awake and trying to get him to stop snoring just pissed me off even more. This assault on my sleep, after years of babies and toddlers and anxiety over the babies and toddlers, was kind of a final straw. I didn’t want to be bothered by my husband. All those parenting hours that had chipped away at our alone time and our romance time were compounded in the middle of the night by his being the one to steal my rest from me. It was the opposite of romantic. It was burdensome and enraging.

Still, divorce did not enter my mind.

I began to fantasize about separate rooms. Sometimes, when it gets bad, Hosea shifts to a kid’s bed or the couch in the room off our bedroom. Sometimes, if a kid has already moved into our bed, he’ll simply take the kid’s bed. Mostly, though, he prefers our bed and his position beside me. Lucky me. I mean that, you know, except for the sleeplessness.  “Would separate rooms help?” he asked one morning after I hadn’t slept much at all. “If that’s what it takes, let’s do it. It’s not like we’re doing anything in our bed at night surrounded by all these children other than sleeping.

“Sleeping,” he added, “if we’re lucky.”

It was practically the most romantic offer ever made under the circumstances. I felt cared for and understood. Our romance remains alive, despite all those children. Our love is strong. Partners in exhaustion (and often in anxiety, too), we both covet ever-elusive sleep. Regardless of whether I’d like my own bedroom—and I know I’m not the only woman to want one—the truth is we don’t have an extra bedroom.

•••

After years of practice, Hosea responds pretty well to being jostled. I don’t have to shake so hard or poke so pokily or yell so loud. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles whenever I have to do so. He is, I know he is, as he slumbers on and I lie awake for a while. Unromantic as snoring is, insomnia is pretty much of a mood dampener as well. Some nights I lie awake, perplexed that I’m awake and that what bothers me are such silly things as snoring—or teenagers’ socks strewn across the floor or loads of other things I never thought I’d be bothered by, for that matter. I don’t know what I thought would preoccupy me. It just wasn’t stuff like this.

Rather than simply have me furious at him every single night, we began to seek solutions. Hosea wears anti-snoring nose strips when he sleeps. They resemble band-aids. Some nights, they really help; other nights, they seem decorative, like the Dora the Explorer band-aids my daughter insists on wearing. After years of my badgering, Hosea finally visited an allergist. The allergist identified allergies and prescribed new medication. The snoring has decreased in frequency and audibility.

The white noise machine I bought to help drown him out helps some, too, although not once I’m in awake and especially not once I’m kicked into worried mode. My mother’s white noise machine is the public radio station, which drones on all night long—and serves the secondary purpose of distraction if she wakes up anxious. Also, my son notes her hearing isn’t quite what it used to be. We got into her car recently—the radio blasting—and I’d have to agree with him. I guess I’m still hopeful that, like my mother has somehow done, I will eventually reach a state of accepting accommodation in regards to my husband’s snoring. She continues to insist it’s “not that bad.” Hosea hasn’t gotten me a horn, and I haven’t begun to lose my hearing, not even selectively.

•••

SARAH WERTHAN BUTTENWIESER is a writer living in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and four children. Her work has appeared recently in the New York Times, Salon, and Brain, Child. Follow her on Twitter @standshadows.

Waking Bad: One Wife, One Husband, Two Beds

coupleinbed
By Cosmita/ Flickr

By Eric Williamson

This essay contains spoilers about Breaking Bad, so if that matters to you, bookmark this baby. —Ed.

I have something of dire importance to say to my wife, Sheryl, but she’s on the phone. So I grab a beer and mill about.

When she’s finally off, she tells me that she went to Zumba, how tired she is, how her cute dominatrix instructor from the Ukraine encouraged her to up her weight limit, what her dom wore to class, what she wore to class, what the other people wore. Sheryl knows I hate this kind of conversation, because it’s not really meant for me—unless, perhaps, as punishment.

When she’s done, I say, “There’s a new theory floating around about Breaking Bad.”

She doesn’t respond, just stares at me. This is significant because, for the past several years, the one thing we could agree on, without fail, was that show. Following the saga of Walter White—the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher who transforms into a drug kingpin—was inexplicably therapeutic for us. The rule was we had to watch every episode together, without cheating, or there would be serious hell to pay from the other. Afterwards, we would discuss.

We got married, in fact, because we liked talking to each other.

Here’s the gist for those uninitiated into the series: Walt needs to earn money for his family before he dies, so he enlists the help of one of his former students, Jesse, and together they secretly cook meth in an RV out in the desert. But Walt’s plan is complicated by the fact that he excels at his new cottage industry. His blue meth is the purest around, which puts him both in competition, and in league, with some of the most ruthless members of the criminal underworld. Ultimately, his megalomania endangers the lives of everyone he loves, including his wife Skyler, his teenage son Walt Jr. and his newborn Holly.

“The theory,” I continue, “is that what we saw wasn’t the real way the show ended, and that the last episode was all in Walt’s head.”

Sheryl looks around the room, at the color of the walls that she’s not satisfied with, at a stinkbug pioneering a stretch of molding.

“The idea goes that as the police close in on Walt in the snow-covered car he’s trying to hotwire, he changes up the game in his head. The cops pass him, he magically finds a set of spare keys behind the visor, and rejuvenated by his sudden good fortune, returns to New Mexico to settle his final scores.”

She stares at me again. At least it approximates eye contact. “But what does it matter?” she asks. “He dies anyway.”

Her comment feels like a kick in the nads, but I catch my breath and soldier on. “Well, it’s important because it determines whether he’s able to die on his own terms. It’s about being a man, you know? And then you’re left to ask: Well, is that just after all he’s done? Is that right?”

But she persists in her take—which is not to have a take, I guess.

“I’m just saying, what’s the point of even talking about it? The show’s over now.”

“You’re right,” I say, deflated. “What’s the point?”

•••

Sheryl and I met as undergrads at the University of Georgia, reunited on Facebook twenty years later, flirted by phone for several months, and then finally began our bi-coastal dating relationship.

Jet-setting between my home in Los Angeles—the entertainment capital of the world—and her home in Charlottesville, Virginia—where nothing much happens but the weather—was super-romantic. She was the one who wooed me. She sent me handwritten love notes and little gifts (including a cast iron skillet) that evoked pleasant thoughts of domesticity.

When we were together, we were always on vacation.

When we were apart, we talked on the phone almost every night, about the old times, the status of mutual friends, the unspooling of our lives. Unspoken was how she became more conservative with the birth of her son, how I became more liberal from my five years of living on the Left Coast.

What didn’t seem like a match two decades earlier gradually came to seem do-able.

The difference in time between Eastern and Pacific meant my stories were often bedtime stories for her, and I could tell by the long pauses between affirmations when she was nodding off. Neither of us minded so much that I didn’t always get to the ending, though.

Some stories—the ones we truly love—we don’t want to end.

•••

I never meditated too long on why the writers chose the name “Heisenberg” for Walt’s alter ego. I knew his namesake was a scientist and that it had something to do with the atomic bomb, but I figured they would either explain it more or I could look it up later. Well, I finally looked it up.

Warner Heisenberg was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, which not only led humanity down the road to atomic weaponry, but it also led us down the road of quantum theory in general, which includes quantum chemistry and quantum physics.

Just like with Walt, good intentions could be viewed as having gone astray (although in the real Heisenberg’s case, it was a more complicated matter). The real Heisenberg had terminal cancer, too.

Now I’m not a scientist, and I understand the show’s creators had very little scientific background as well. But there is a concept called Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which states that the more certainty you have in measuring the position of a particle, the less certainty you’ll have in defining its momentum—and vice versa.

Subsequent theories in the quantum realm express similar dualities. Just like that old chestnut about the Deep South, it’s all relative, right? The truth and how well it can be defined are sometimes dependent on your perspective.

At least two realities exist in Breaking Bad. One is the TV ending we can live with. Walt finds a way to transfer his ill-gotten gains to his son, exacts his revenge on those who crossed him (who were conveniently more evil than he was), and rescues Jesse from the meth dungeon, where he had been forced to cook for the thugs that Walt had previously allied with.

I still need that ending. It may not be quite as logical, as “real,” but I cannot live in a world in which Jesse at least doesn’t get away. He doesn’t deserve that fate.

But I’ve also come to accept the implicit ending, that what Walt thinks he experiences is actually a fantasy he concocts in his own rotting brain. He’s still aware, of course, of the logic of how people will react to him, based on how they’ve reacted to him in the past, and this knowledge keeps him from spoiling his own illusion that he has continued forward, even though he has really gone nowhere.

With a generous nod to postmodern film criticism, which counts viewer interpretation as being as valid as the filmmaker’s conscious or stated intent, it simply feels more like real life.

In reality, bad things happen to good people, and some mistakes can’t be taken back.

•••

One of the reasons Sheryl and I fight is sleep. If one of us sleeps well, the other can’t seem to get a wink. Sleep is the aspect of a loving relationship you can’t really work on. It’s a zero-sum game, and we are both greedy in bed in that respect.

When she sleeps, she sprawls diagonally, points her long legs all the way down to her big toes, and kicks like the professional dancer she aspires to be in her next life. I’ve often suspected, though, she doesn’t do her Rockettes performance in my absence, and that she’s passive aggressive even in REM state.

But I admit that I am more disruptive. I scream unexpectedly in the middle of the night, for example. It isn’t always a nightmare. Sometimes I simply fall asleep on my arm, and my arm follows, and the alarm in my subconscious goes off, bleating its warning from the murky depths that a part of me is dying.

This all led to Sheryl’s decision to finish the basement. It would give us more space, she explained, and we could move her son down there, freeing up a bedroom for when we both really needed our sleep.

My stepson T. is fifteen and already six-foot-two. His haircuts alternate from Ziggy Stardust, to hippy-dippy, to high-and-tight. He’s currently trying to grow a mustache, and so far, he’s already doing better than I’m able. He’s a good human being. Better than me on that front as well. He’s also quite possibly a genius—just ask his mother.

So she drew up plans—she once dreamed of becoming an architect—and oversaw the contractor. She did all of the finishing touches herself. Throughout the process, I was supposed to praise every new wall erected, every sign of progress, but to me it felt like we were going backwards.

The pending change in our sleeping arrangements felt like the demise of our romance.

•••

Suspense, of course, is essential to telling a good story, and one aspect of Breaking Bad that fascinated us both is that it jerked you around in time. An unexpected flashback or flash forward would create a tantalizing mystery that begged to be solved. Like the pink teddy bear with one eye that ended up in Walt’s pool.

The puzzle pieces didn’t always make sense right away, but you knew by end they would all fit together.

The bear, we learn, was a result of the fictional Wayfarer 515 air collision, in which a bereaved air traffic controller accidentally sends a commercial airliner into the path of a chartered plane, killing 167 people. One act of un-kindness—in this case, Walt letting Jesse’s girlfriend die—kicks the next domino, which is her father, the air traffic controller, whose distraction leads to the mid-air collision.

With so many lives affected by the tragedy, your imagination is left to extrapolate how bad energy will just keep multiplying.

•••

The flight from Los Angeles to Virginia is about seven hours. If you fly non-stop. Plus, you have to take into consideration the three hours you lose. My flight was further complicated by a stop-over and a bump, which meant staying in the Philadelphia airport an entire sleepless night.

Walter White did many unforgivable things over the course of the show. He even poisoned a child. All I did was try to get some sleep.

For my first official day home, Sheryl planned a party for all of her friends to welcome me. But as the time crept closer for her to trot me out, I was still in bed, which was still “our bed” then. She rudely shook me awake.

“Would you stop?” I begged. “A man needs his sleep!”

“A man needs his sleep?” she repeated, outraged—as if my exhaustion was an affront not just to her and her own need for sleep, but to all women’s need for sleep.

“A human being!” I said and covered my eyes with a pillow. “Now go away!”

She left in a huff, telling me I had five more minutes and then I’d better get up. When she returned, she brought her son in to double-team me. He was much littler then, but together they were a force of nature.

“Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!” they yelled as they jumped on me and bounced the bed.

I bolted upward and threw out my hands in self-defense. Once I remembered where I was again, I was not amused.

“You’re lucky I didn’t hit you!” I snarled and rolled over.

Despite the obviousness of the context, I knew that didn’t come out quite right. Sheryl confirmed as much when she responded, “If you ever hit me or my son…”

Unfortunately, that fight stretched out for several days. The welcome-home party took on a turd-in-the-punch-bowl vibe when I hardly spoke to anyone, inviting retaliation from my wife afterward. The drama culminated with me on my cell phone in tears on the Downtown Mall, still trying to explain myself, but needing to be anywhere else but in the same house with her.

As teenagers rubber-necked, that’s when I said it. That thing you can never take back.

•••

After the never-ending home construction project was over, I finally had that sleep study done, the idea for which had originated months earlier at Sheryl’s request.

It was awkward. The tests are conducted in a hotel, which seems to me more tawdry than medical. The technicians put electrodes all over your body, they let you watch a little television until you’re sleepy—I caught a repeat of Breaking Bad—then they observe you while you sleep. You really can’t move around much. You’re tethered.

I didn’t feel like I slept much during the testing. I kept going under and then resurfacing. They call these “arousals.” I was relieved to learn that they didn’t mean the other kind, because they said I had a lot of them during the night.

In the morning, they fed me a sumptuous breakfast in the hotel lobby. I ate second helpings, with the assumption that I had no obligation to tip.

I felt good about that decision because the bill from the test was a killer. Another source of animosity between us. At first she said she would pay a portion of the damage, but then she reneged. Choosing to have the test done was ultimately my decision, she said.

At my follow-up appointment, the doctor said there wasn’t anything dangerous about my sleep. I didn’t need to strap on one of those S&M space masks—an assortment of which he had on Styrofoam heads all around his office—but I could still get one if I wanted. He would just have to make up an excuse for insurance purposes.

I returned home triumphantly from the doctor with test results that proved I fell “within a range of normal.” To which she only sneered.

But I had done what she wanted, and I asked, “Can I come back to our bedroom and sleep?”

“Now that we’re in separate rooms, I feel like the problem has been solved in my mind,” she said. “I’m getting the best sleep of my life. But maybe you can visit once a week?”

I think a part of her wanted me to beg, as penance for some past sin. But I was too proud.

As our standoff unfolded, she actually faulted me for not being more loving, for not catering more to her needs. She grew increasingly confrontational, and she justified her actions with the non sequitur that she could behave that way because she was the girl in the relationship.

Silently, though, I agreed with Sheryl. I believe that all girls should be told they hang the moon. They should be told that they are pretty and smart and that they are loved, without condition. But that’s not what happens in every girl’s childhood.

And that’s not how I responded. What came out of my mouth instead was, “I can be just as much of a girl as you can.”

•••

So here we are. Breaking Bad is over, and the only show that even comes close to replacing it for us is The Walking Dead—a metaphor I’d prefer not to contemplate.

What happens now that we can’t offload our marital tensions vicariously through Walt and Skyler anymore? What happens now that we know the whole story—that Walt Jr. won’t become a meth addict, as we once feared, and that poor Jesse indeed makes it out alive, if not unscathed?

What happens now that we’ve reached an end?

We have been sleeping in separate bedrooms for months now, with fans to knock out any impromptu noises in the night. During this particular night, which is actually early morning, I’m so mired in the old lumpy futon mattress I sleep on that my arms get pinned to my sides and one of them falls asleep. By instinct, I cry out and wake myself. It’s loud, but maybe she didn’t hear?

A few seconds later, the hall light shines in through the door cracks. It’s 3:30-ish a.m.

I fall back to sleep and get up at my normal time. When I peek into Sheryl’s bedroom, she’s already downstairs. Her bed is made. And I verify the situation with our wedding pictures is status quo; she’d taken them down, despite the therapy we both agreed was helping.

I have to hand it to her. This is her passive aggressive masterpiece.

You take for granted the images you see all of the time, until they’re gone. I’m trying my best to picture the cluster of three 11 x 14 photos, but it’s a challenge. All three portraits are of the two of us at the ocean in our wedding clothes—a destination wedding in Guanacaste, Costa Rica.

In the picture that comes most readily to mind, Sheryl stands on the black rocks in her red cotton Victoria’s Secret dress, looking statuesque. I sit in diminutive silhouette, staring up at her like a child might.

The second-easiest to recall is the one of us prone in the volcanic sand, and you can see us both clearly in this one. I wear a white shirt and have my tan britches from Old Navy rolled up mid-calf as I nest in her arms. We both look stupidly happy as we stare off towards the ocean, like a scene from our remake of From Here to Eternity, the last blush of sunset still clinging to the bottoms of the clouds.

But the third picture is the hardest to remember. It doesn’t come to me right away, but it will later. It’s a close-up of us in silhouette. Our arms are entwined yet free-flowing, like some statue from a Hindu temple. A beast or a deity with a shared torso and two distinct heads. Even in shadow, both of us are clearly recognizable as our individual selves.

That’s the one I’ve always liked best.

I had waited a while before calling her out on taking the photos down. She claimed it was because I referred to her clustering of art as “junky,” which isn’t quite right, because she also removed the stand-alones of us propped up around the house.

Who was wrong first? I don’t know. Sheryl’s always had her fears, and she’s always made them a reality. I’ve always reacted in knee-jerk fashion, turned tail and ran, but being married isn’t about that. It’s about sticking.

Yes, technically, I was the first to cry uncle on the bricks of the Downtown Mall. To say in a fit of anger that I wanted a divorce. I’m ashamed to say I’ve said it more than once, but I’ve always taken it back. And she’s taken me back.

Finally, she said it, too. And while she also took her words back, the photos are still down.

But we are not over yet. In part, because I don’t want us to be. I’m still hopeful she feels the same.

As I get ready to take my morning shower, I overhear a conversation between mother and son. He apologizes for having been grumpy the night before—he lost his favorite calculator.

“It’s all right,” she tells him. “We’re all working on becoming better persons.”

Soon after, T. leaves for school. Sheryl sips coffee on the couch and writes in her journal. I eat a quick breakfast and throw together my lunch, all in purposeful silence. My episode of night terror still hangs over us like blimp.

But before I leave the house, like she does for me each weekday morning, she rises from the couch to give me a goodbye kiss. Sometimes it’s not a real kiss. Sometimes she only receives, on her cheek or on her forehead. But it’s something, and probably more than I deserve.

This morning, just like always, she meets me half way at the barrier that separates “shoes on” from “shoes off.”

Suddenly, with her right hand, she balls up her fist and rears back like she’s about to hit me.

But with her left hand, Sheryl pulls me forward and kisses me on the lips. Which tells me that an ending isn’t always an ending, and that we might just be okay.

•••

ERIC WILLIAMSON is a journalist and communications professional who has recently begun exploring personal essay.

The Insomniac’s To Do List

A guide to getting things done at 3 a.m.

googly eyes
By Gina Kelly www.ginakelly.com

By Jody Mace

1. Keep close track of exactly how much sleep you’ll get if you fell asleep right now. Repeat every half hour.

2. Ponder why you said the dumb-ass thing you said today. If you didn’t say a dumb-ass thing today, revisit one you said sixteen years ago, at a job you used to have, to people you don’t know anymore. Consider how badly those people must think of you.

3. Resolve to use this time wisely. Think about cleaning the bathroom but then remember that you hate cleaning the bathroom and, plus, the cleaner is in the other room and you wouldn’t want to wake anyone up. Instead, decide to do some serious writing, unlike the stupid writing you do for a living.

4. Berate yourself for doing stupid writing for a living. Imagine the disgust that the seventeen-year-old you would feel for you if she knew the kind of writing you’d end up doing.

5. Imagine the disappointment your high school English teacher would feel if she knew.

6. Wonder if your high school English teacher would remember you anyway, despite the brilliance you demonstrated in class when you wrote that farce about archetypes. Consider the notion that perhaps you were not as brilliant as you always thought you were and that maybe you were really just a smart-ass.

7. Remember the mean thing that one person in high school did to you that one time. Look that person up on Facebook and feel vindicated that he is recently divorced, not because, obviously, being divorced is evidence of a character flaw, but because clearly in this case his wife left him because he was an asshole who did mean things to people. Haha.

8. Wonder what the fuck that noise was.

9. Entertain an extremely disturbing thought: how many insects are in this house right at this very moment?

10. Become convinced that there is a microscopic bug crawling on your leg. Challenge yourself to not scratch. Dammit.

11. Remember about bedbugs. Google how to check for bedbugs. Feel sick. Seriously disgusted.

12. Read a book.

13. Realize that you’ve lost your attention span for reading. Or maybe it’s your rapidly worsening short vision that’s the problem. In either case, consider that it may be caused by a brain tumor.

14. Google brain tumors and learn that you definitely have one.

15. Think about making a video for your children with all the advice you’d like to leave them, like how to choose a mate, how to set goals and stick with them, how to do the right thing when their friends are doing the wrong thing, and just how to be a kind person. Then remember that they don’t listen to you anyway so fuck it.

16. Instead, plan the music you’d like at your funeral. Start a “Funeral Playlist” on Spotify. Include some Morrissey because every funeral should have some Morrissey songs.

17. Give some serious consideration to how much further you’d be in your career if you hadn’t majored in the wrong thing in college.

18. Compile a list of all the people you know who are younger than you who are more accomplished in a similar career.

19. Fantasize about doing something inappropriate with someone you shouldn’t think about.

20. Resolve to be more patient with your elderly father, even when he tells you about his dispute with the phone company for the hundredth time, or when he answers the door wearing just a carelessly tied bathrobe despite expressly promising on the phone that he would put on pants.

21. Reflect on what a shitty person you are because you know damn well you will not be more patient with your father.

22. Make a list of all the things you’ve been neglecting to do. Make sure to include the oil change that your car is 1,560 miles overdue for and your mammogram.

23. Panic.

24. Find a bottle of expired Ativan and wonder if expired Ativan will just not work or if it will harm you.

25. Do something productive. Plan menus and a shopping list for the week. Start with eggs.

26. Notice that you’re really hungry.

27. Deny yourself food because it’s 3:30 a.m. and people who eat at 3:30 a.m. are either teenagers or have a big problem.

28. Think about your own teenagers and compile a list of all the things that worry you about them. Start with your older one, who’s in college. Is she eating enough? Does your younger one spend too much time texting, playing video games and watching Dr. Who reruns?

29. Move onto things that they don’t do but might do someday, like binge drink, drive recklessly, and smoke crack. If people still smoke crack. Research what the popular drugs are with the kids these days. Feel nostalgic about smoking pot in college.

30. Check your spam folder in case a really good writing assignment ended up there. Read about how you can get a sexy body that sizzles, rock-hard abs, and lose fifteen pounds in four weeks with just one brand new product. Also read a nice message from a hot Ukrainian girl with beautiful eyes who is ready to “correspond to erotic themes.”

31. Consider what the chances are that, in your forties, you’ll actually lose weight and decide that all your exercising has been a waste of time. Think of other people in their forties who are skinny and hate them. I mean, seriously, seriously hate them because they eat whatever they want and don’t exercise and look at them. Assholes.

32. Read an article about how lack of sleep can make you gain weight and can also adversely affect your mental health. Freak out about how you will never sleep again and you’ll end up the size of a house and also deranged and when you die they’ll have to take the door off its hinges to carry you out, and they’ll put you in a double-sized coffin and that’s all anybody will think about at the funeral, not the playlist you put together for their enjoyment.

33. Have a sudden, searing realization that one day your dogs will die. Cry. Because dogs are the best thing ever, especially your dogs. The way they look at you with those big eyes and wag their tails so hard their butts slide back and forth on the floor. The way they sigh and lean their bodies against you when you take a nap. My god, why do they have to die?

34. Calculate the very latest you can wake up and still get your son to school on time. Set your alarm.

35. Don’t think. Don’t think. Don’t think.

•••

JODY MACE is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.