A Brief History of Unabridged Insomnia
Some women pass heirlooms through generations—jewelry hidden underneath worn dresses on immigrant ships—my woman inherit insomnia. This was the way of the world to me, the inheriting and the hiding, before I left the house that never slept. Now, it’s just me, alone, who lies awake in the cubby of my lofted bedroom off Broad, while everyone in my building sleeps. Now, watching my fiancé slumber, tumbling with eyes closed and mouth open, I’ve learned we’re a special kind of creature, us insomniacs. We, the guardians. We, the nocturnes. We who break clocks, walking the house while the others curl into night’s length.
As a child, I frequently left the bed in which I refused to sleep to sit on the steps of our townhome on Castle Hill. Grease could be heard playing from a tiny t.v. at the foot of my bed. But even as John Travolta sang on an abandoned swing set, I’d have already bolted to the top of the stairs. It seemed my parents were always down there, in the living room, watching a movie of their own. And so I would sit like a watchdog, the carpet matted underneath my white nightgown with the little red hearts, my mouth fighting back sound. On any given night they must have told me to stay put, but still I eased down one stair at a time until I could see their feet, legs, shirts, faces. Usually, I’d been put to bed at least four times, and I wasn’t willful as much as I was terrified. If my mother caught sight of me the firth time, fury. One night she chased me up the stairs with words like, if I catch you I’m going to…, but I was under the covers before the last word hit. I remember the door slamming open, shut—crying myself to sleep.
I’ve never trusted alarm systems or locks, I’ve seen too many movies that proved them wrong—too many casts on the nighttime news. I once saw a movie on Lifetime where a girl got stolen clean out of her bed while her parents slept peacefully in their master bedroom. Nights since I was a child, I’ve slept with my t.v. tuned to my safe show of late: Gilmore Girls, Golden Girls, Friends, The Nanny—it doesn’t matter as long as it’s sure to play on loop—repeating, our father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name, instead of counting sheep. It used to feel like every sound in the house was coming to get me. Each creak of the house. Each time the cat came to visit, I was sure a faceless he was coming with a knife to find me in my bed. Our father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name… it didn’t matter there was a pole wedged in my window, two extra locks, plus the screen. I was convinced it was going to burst open at any second.
For years, I opted to lay on a cot on my father’s side of the bed, instead of toughing the night out alone, while he read Anne of Green Gables to me late into the night when I feared what would happen if I shut my eyes too tight. If I close my eyes even know, I can hear him reciting the chapter in which Marilla has banished Anne to her room until she apologizes for her latest offense. And these days I feel I have so much to apologize for, in my room alone in this waking. If I try hard enough my father’s voice comes back to me low, patient. When Matthew finally comes to Anne’s room with all that love in his eyes, I can finally fall asleep.
Even at seventeen, I wedged myself into the twin bed of my Nana’s room, her skin papery thin. We would turn the t.v to Cheers, while I white knuckle gripped my phone. Even if I vowed not to be caught spending another night in my parent’s bed, but nights would finds me there, wedged next to Nana’s lumpy body while she mumbled something like sorrow in her sleep. I would stick it out to around six, when I would climb back into my own bed swearing that tomorrow was another day and I would sleep in my own room.
I still won’t sleep in front of exposed windows, won’t go to bed without checking the stove three times and the locks on the front (and back) door four, have to check: behind the clothes in both closets, the shower curtain, the doors of each bathroom, the porch. I might be older, but I haven’t escaped the terrors of night, just gotten sneakier about my fears. Most nights my fiancé doesn’t even notice the obsessive checking, can’t hear the obsessive worries in my head that haven’t left since a child, only gotten more complex with age.
It’s not out of the ordinary for my mother to run a bath late at night. Dip herself in the tub to quiet skin that wants to jump right off its bones, and might if she lets it. Her eyes are quiet, droopy in these hours. Back on Nighthawk, I can hear the water surge through the house on one of my many trips to and from the bathroom. Many a night I would have given any number of things just to join her, sit on the edge of the tub and read her stories of women in faraway places who nightly, fall fast asleep.
Sometimes my mother forgets to sleep at all, playing a casino game late into the night. Seconds passing with each ding of coins collected until the fake money runs outs and the dreams will be too weary to come. Sometimes she wakes from nightmares before the sun is out, nudging my father to watch a movie, please. Join her in the tub, please. Be her friend, please. Love her until she can fall back asleep, please. I refuse to wake the fiancé, so I hide my nightmares reading my tablet into the early hours of the morning with old Golden Girls videos playing on youtube on the dresser. Next to me, my fiancé sleeps soundly on his back sleeping the sleep I had not realized possible until I moved in. When I finally am able to fall asleep, I lay half my body across his—arms grasping around his waist and one leg slouched to the other side of his form, head buried into the pillow beneath his head back to the our father chanting.
We used to tell nightly time by reruns on Nickelodeon, my mother and I. You know it’s late when George Lopez comes on for the second time, she says to me even now. Just wait until you’re up for Everybody Hates Chris, I would wager. We laugh, but even tonight we will lay awake long enough for both. She will leave her marriage bed and lay on the couch with the t.v. turned real low. Tonight both our faces will be lit with the television light, in separate rooms we will take part in this light like ceremony, hoping to hide well enough from our loneliness.
And sometimes on nights we find ourselves alone in the house, my mother and I have sleepovers in the king size bed. Between the two of us we wake every hour, we keep watch over the other’s brief bursts of sleep. We grow fond of the other’s waking, our communal sleep ebbing and flowing like a hot, humid wind oscillating from one to the other.
My Nana’s job begins when she senses our eyes have closed. If I listened close enough I could hear her slippered feet waking. Hear her shuffling against carpet—hallway, living room, dining nook—and up to the thermostat pushing air to clamp shut, hot air to fizzle forth. Hear her shuffle under the dark of night hitting light switches left on in her path, out to save a buck-an-hour for the remainder of the night. Sometimes I would wait till she was inches from the t.v. I turned to nearly mute in my room before I’d turn to face her and tell her to go back to bed.
One night when I refused to spend any longer at my Aunt’s hotel because The Sixth Sense came onto t.v., Nana stayed up with me in the living room watching Friend’s on VHS until it was light. I nodded off regularly, but every time I closed my eyes the lady with the thick cigarette burns on her arms spun behind my eyes and I tortured myself awake. But the t.v., its calming glow, that made things better for a while. My Nana and I laid on twin couches facing each other, the curtains to the backyard pulled tight and our legs tucked under long night shirts. She, mourning the loss of her mother, and me morning the loss of what I don’t yet know.
Occasionally, Nana converses in her sleep. She has dreams so real she wakes up expecting her sister, nine years old again, sleeping by her side. She wakes and swears my dead grandfather is standing at the food of the bed, asking, does she wants him to make her coffee, some toast, maybe an egg. And some days she answers back to the air. Yes mother, I will drive you to the mall today. No Jack, I couldn’t think to eat a thing.
Sometimes Nana would wake before the sun was even up, padding to the kitchen to heat coffee in the microwave, string crumbs across the tile like a breadcrumb path to something like distaste for having slept alone. She would bang cabinets just loud enough for me to hear, in my room across the house where maybe I had managed to engage in a fitful sleep. Even now I can hear her banging cabinets to sing the song of her loneliness, hoping someone will crack her an egg and sit with her while she eats. Some nights I’ve walked the stairs to the kitchen in almost a trance banging my own cabinets in hopes my fiancé will wake just long enough to ask me what’s wrong and coax me back to sleep.
Benedryl, Tylenol, Vistaril, Xanex, Motrin PM—all friends to those with a deep need for somnolence that resists satisfaction. We the insomniacs make a habit of any cocktail of the above, whenever we can. Nightly the drugs lead us to the fridge for cookies hidden in foil under the cover of the breadbox, a can of diet coke, raw dried rice or pasta hidden in boxes under the covers of the bed. We take turns conversing in a nightly dance to the kitchen, feet fitting the same path minutes apart. Soft pads on the carpet, cold marks on the tile floor. We break the vacuum seal of the fridge. We break diet vows made by day. We break bread in the wee hours, spoonfuls of peanut butter in solitary communion, handfuls of crackers dry in the mouth. When sleep comes we greet it with our mouths wide open, the three of us. Our breath crying out in moans, snores, or mumbles as if reassuring ourselves that we will not lose our voices, remembering there is a world on the other side of dreams. We sleep hard. Bouncing, rolling, swaying from side to side as if we were dancing with the covers, dancing with each other, dancing with ourselves. I miss my insomnia sisters, now, on these nights we’ve broken apart.
About the Author: Amanda Buck is an evocative, collaborative, and brave writer in the Greater Philadelphia Community with a passion for education and the arts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rutgers University-Camden where she received Thesis with Distinction Honors, and a BA in English and Theatre Arts from the University of South Florida. During her time at Rutgers, she served as President for the MFA Student Organization and Co-Chair of the 2014-2015 Rutgers Student Reading Series. Her writing can be seen or is forthcoming in Four Ties Lit Review, The Bleeding Lion, The Slag Review, Split Rock Review, and more. Currently, Amanda is Artistic Director of Chasing Windmills an eclectic bi-monthly creative reading series that promotes community while showcasing local artists in Philadelphia community. In addition to her work as a writer, Amanda has performed both on and off stage in over 100 full-length plays and musicals. Find more information on her here or follow her on twitter.