by Jeff Oaks
It is 12:30 am on Friday and I’ve just gotten to bed after picking up the dog at 5:30 pm, taking him to the park for an hour, coming home, making dinner, watching about an hour of TV, falling asleep on the couch (I almost wrote “dead asleep” there), waking up at 11 pm (having missed the Eileen Myles reading I wanted to go to), stumbling outside again so the dog could pee one last time, then stumbling upstairs, out of clothes, into pajamas, and finally here. The dog sleeps peacefully to my right, keeping one paw against my leg so he’ll know if I move. I try not to.
Sleep has become a complicated state of late. I’m not even sure how far back I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, somewhere around 2 am, being “up”, unable to fall back down out of myself. It’s been at least a year, and I think it stretches back about two years now.
At first it was just an inconvenience, I thought. Tried to watch movies on my iPad, on Netflix. Sometimes I raged at the late night people who yell and cry on the street, as if we weren’t trying to sleep here! Idiots.
Right now, in fact, two idiots are talking loudly right below my window, slamming their car doors, as if it isn’t 12:45 am and they aren’t in a densely populated area where people are sleeping. They’re almost certainly drinkers, this man and woman, and they’ve likely spent the last few hours drinking and yelling at each other and friends in a bar just two blocks away. You can hear the drink and the bar noise they’ve escaped in the way their voices are elevated still, beyond normal need.
At some point, though, this time awake became so regular I wrote in it, hoping to exorcise whatever stress might be giving rise to my falling out of sleep’s saddle. I wrote poem after poem about darkness, about the dog breathing, about the sound of the trains audible in the distance, about the little voices in my head that I could almost make out, as if some part of me were in fact dreaming and I was merely locked out of it, like a man locked outside a theater who could hear the play going on inside, though not enough to make out anything sensible, enjoyable. I wrote nearly every night inside my little bubble of shadow, and even began to enjoy it until I began to worry that I was enjoying it too much, that I was going slowly mad and losing touch with reality.
I tried a number of different tricks: eating differently; earlier, later; less, more; exercising before sleep or more during the day; old guided imagery/stress releasing visualizations; absolutely no napping during the day; no caffeine after five, after three, after noon. But nothing seemed to do the trick. My mother said, welcome to my world.
The only thing that seemed to help really was playing the numbers game. If I needed seven hours of sleep, and I’d likely wake up at two am anyway, I started going to bed at 8:30, sleep until 2, which meant 5 1/2 hours, then writing from 2 to about 4:30 or 5, at which point I’d usually get tired enough to let myself fall asleep until 7 am. Viola: seven and a half hours of sleep accomplished! It became almost a game.
But the whole choreography was based on a fragile premise: that no one would really need me and that I wouldn’t want to leave the house for anything after 7 pm. I just stopped going out to events after five, frankly, events that I had been a regular part of for decades–friends’ book launches, dinner invitations, readings. Tonight’s reading, for instance, was at 8:30 pm and would mean I’d likely be out until 10 pm, cutting into the first couple hours of the best sleep, the most vital sleep in the system. And it comes at a “bad” time of the term, just when I’ve run out energy, winter still holding on, spring not yet begun throwing hope and warmth into the air.
I said to myself that since my work life was so social I didn’t need to go out and do more social stuff at night. I said no one would miss me. I said anything to make it easy to go to sleep early. I’ve even said all this is a form a grief, having come on just about the time my mother got her terminal cancer diagnosis. It could be.
Tonight, though, I’m feeling the ropes I’ve tied around myself, how constricted my life has become because I’ve had to make such negotiations with sleep, with worry, with this thinness I feel like I’ve become. I like my friends and colleagues. I’d like to be out there with them, laughing and drinking, talking in ways that are more human and humane than the professional ways work requires. I want to be free!
But there’d be my face in the mirror the next morning to face. With its dry skin and squinting eyes. With its bags and wrinkles and matted hair. The awful face of age I keep trying to hide and hide from, my portrait of Dorian Gray that doesn’t lie. The one I hate so much I refuse to get involved with anyone lest he too see it and run from it. It is so much easier to face it in the dark of 2 am, in the mirrorless room with the big dog who doesn’t understand vanity or age, only kindness; in the dark room above the young shouting couples on the street who don’t know I’m here. Like a sheet of darkness myself, I listen and listen for whatever it is the night is, I wrote somewhere at the beginning of all this sleeplessness, so when the last night comes I’ll see it coming.