LIVING To Sleep, Perchance

An insomniac endures the hour of the wolf a piece of Fontina cheese, and one tired chicken wing.

The glowing turquoise digits on my clock radio tell me it’s 3:55 a.m.. Ing-mar Bergman’s hour of the wolf. My body is riddled with disgust at being seized by an anxiety that can only be called “free-floating” Had I just end-ed a relationship, missed a work deadline, or single-handedly sabotaged a personal or professional Golden Opportunity, this inability to sleep might be explicable.

But all is well, or at least all is standard. My thoughts are tortured, though pedestrian: failures on parade. Real and imagined mistakes of my past stroll by me. mocking me just loudly enough to keep me unsleeping. And the future: mortality, inevitable separation and loss, myriad new and untried ways to fail. I crush my face with a pillow, attempting obliteration. A bad night’s sleep is one of nature’s crueler tricks, and I resent it bitterly.

The turquoise digits say 4:09. I toss the pillow at the wall, wondering if any prescription sleep aids left over from past diagnosed traumas might still lurk in my medicine cabinet. A Valium? Dalmante? When my friend Roger’s mother died last year, Roger and his father and sister took Valium for ten consecutive days to keep from bouncing off the walls in their pain. On the tenth day the three of them sat in the living room and made up a song called “My Pal, Val.” Roger sang it for me once.

My medicine cabinet is disappointing: dental floss and Pamprin. Even if I did have something to take, the time is now close to 4:15, and I don’t want to wake up feeling like Judy Garland without the musical talent. I swallow a couple of L-Tryptophan capsules, “nature’s” sleeping aid, which might work as a placebo. It was recommended to me by Bentley, a man who thinks a tall glass of milk (all that calcium) is calming. “He whose sleeping problem is solved by milk has no sleeping problem to begin with,” I told him.

Maybe Bentley’s glass of milk would help if it were laced with a shot of brandy. I’ve also read that eating protein can help induce sleep. I look in my refrigerator and extract three forms of protein: a hard-boiled egg, a piece of Fontina cheese, and a tired chicken wing. 1 arrange these mythical sleep aids on a small plate and carry it along with my questionable cocktail to the couch. I switch on the TV. hoping for hypnotic stupidity. It’s 4:30 (so report still more turquoise digits, those on my VCR’s clock) and I am watching the world’s oldest movie. I plunge my egg in mustard and pray for calm.

Waking up at 4:00 a.m. is. I’m told, a classic sign of depression. It happens to me rarely these days; it happens to my newly divorced friends with annoying regularity. “I am so tired of being tired.” my friend Wendy, newly divorced from Phil, keeps saying to me.

“You’ll get used to it,” I advise.

I know of what I speak; I was tired for most of 1984. The more I balked at getting four hours’ sleep a night instead of my usual eight, the more tired I became. Finally, I resigned myself to this continual state of exhaustion, no longer feeling resentful or surprised when I awoke each morning blurry and irritable. My life, like Wendy’s now, was in upheaval, and I knew that one of upheaval’s consequences is disruption of sleep patterns. “I guess I’ll just have to be in a bad mood this year,” I told myself.

No one else seemed to notice. “You look so healthy,” a friend’s mother told me. “What’s your secret?”

My secret? “I sleep four hours a night, I eat nothing green, I never exercise, and I drink too much.” It was all true. When sleep abandoned me, I abandoned good health habits. I was driven by terror; it gave me that certain glow. “I don’t smoke, though,” I added, trying to appease her.

I assure Wendy that she’ll be sleeping again by 1987 because she, like myself, is lucky enough not to be a true insomniac. We are both blessed with a natural talent for sleep; we lose it only when our lives are suffering a specific loss, spinning us into disorientation. We know it will pass eventually. The true insomniac, his loving wife beside him, his two healthy children asleep down the hall, his job secure, his mortgage paid, is far worse off than Wendy or me. He has everything and still fights the sleep bat-tie on a nightly basis. Encircled as he is in adoring arms, peace remains elusive.

The movie on TV is old and obscure. I recognize none of the actors in it. But I realize they must surely all be dead by now. and this makes my pulse quicken with fear. Intimations of mortality, I conclude, have woken me tonight. Bergman-esque visions. I reject my chicken wing as too cold and greasy and eat the cheese instead. Living alone is so strange, I think. And living with someone so much stranger. 1 weep slightly; this makes my pulse slow down. I wonder if Wendy, alone five blocks away, is sleeping.

“1 hate to drive when I haven’t slept,” she complained to me recently. “I’m always afraid I’m going to crash the car. But then I get so tired that I don’t care if I do crash the car. Sleep deprivation turns your brain into garbage.”

I sip the brandy and milk. The clock’s digits say 4:57 and I am missing the richest dreams of all, the ones that come in the early morning. I am an avid dreamer, and can recall details of dreams and childhood nightmares from thirty years ago. They are classic, archetypal: running in desperate slow motion from an evil force, falling off tall cliffs. It is said that the dreamer always awakens before hitting the ground after falling off said cliff. All my life I have landed first, then woken up. No one believes me.

’I know four things about men,” Wendy told me years ago, her observations all based on Phil. “They prefer showers to baths, they never need as many bedcovers as women, they can always get a good night’s sleep no matter what happens, and they don’t dream.”

“Everyone dreams,” I’d corrected her. “Men just don’t remember their dreams. Except for the men who like baths and get insomnia.”

Phil had once told Wendy that he’d never lost sleep over anything in his life.

“I wouldn’t brag about that if I were you,” she’d said. Phil always fell asleep in the midst of a heated argument, leaving her incensed, listening to his peaceful snores as she stared at the ceiling, fantasizing the argument’s resolution.

“Why is it that men can sleep through anything?” she’d ask me. But asking me did no good. The men 1 knew tended to be troubled sleepers, bath-takers, dreamers.

It is now 5:16.I pour a tiny bit more brandy into my milk and watch the movie’s lead actor and actress embrace. They’re dead now, I remind myself morbidly. I’m watching a posthumous romance-indeed, a cinematic romance, one that never actually existed. Have anyone’s romances really existed? I ask myself. Once they’re over, how can you be sure you didn’t just make them up?

I used to believe that one of the most romantic aspects of sleeping with someone was. in fact, sleeping with someone. I envisioned a slumbering couple, their respective dream images dancing together above their still heads, psyches bonding in some subconscious, irretrievable way. I used to be convinced that all those hours of sleeping side by side, limbs and brain waves entwined, had to signify something.

Wendy tried to train Phil to remember his dreams. She set their alarm ten minutes early each morning so they could compare dream notes before the memories evaporated. She succeeded. Phil began to dream prolifical-ly. He set the alarm twenty minutes earlier, and spared her no detail.

“Now he’s dreaming about blondes,” Wendy complained. “I think he’s become too intimate with his subconscious. And anyway, what good is it? He still falls asleep during fights.”

The TV movie has become very gloomy, depicting a rainy night with nerve-wracking thunder that makes me turn the volume down. I drink more brandy, eat the chicken wing against my better judgment. I don’tknow if dreams are the chaotic spewing of psychic overload, or revealing teleplays that can heal and instruct. During my sleepless year, I ex-perienced what Wendy called a “compensatory dream.” Devoid of action, my dream was a far-reaching panoramic vision of a brilliant blue sea glittering with sunlight and huge, majestic ships, from another century, ready to set sail. The white sails were fullblown, the masts tall and indomitable. The scene was fraught with promise and possibility. I awoke filled with hope, and the mood stayed with me through the day.

“Your psyche drummed that up for you to keep you from jumping off the bridge,” Wendy said.

It worked. Maybe sleep had temporarily abandoned me, but had my subconscious been trying to make it up in some way? Apology? Compensation? Maybe I’d eat a vegetable and show my faith in hope reborn.

My clock says 5:42. Death, Lady Macbeth proclaimed, hath murdered sleep, and I am here to say that brandy and Fontina cheese do little to restore it. It is almost six, the movie has become a test pattern, and soon I’ll hear the thud of my newspaper connecting with my front door. I long to hear it; it signifies life, daylight, a proud sailing ship preparing for new vistas.

My head aches with its need for sleep. There’s no accounting for it. “I guess I’ll just be in a bad mood today.” I tell myself, seeing on my calendar that a ten o’clock dentist appointment will accomplish this anyway.

The newspaper hits the door. Birds outsideare almost delirious with song. This hour ofthe wolf has passed and I feel confident I willsleep like a baby tonight. And if not like ababy, at least like Phil.


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