“One of these days,” a friend said when my daughter was two months old, “you’ll wake up in the morning and realize you’ve slept through the night.” Half crazy with lack of sleep, I couldn’t even imagine it.
When the baby cried at night, I would get up, back aching, feel for my robe, and walk across the unswept floor to nurse her. I’d rock her a little. Then, in the quiet, I would hear a voice in my head whisper, Remember this. Pay attention. And I took it all in: the baby’s warm, trusting weight; her head in the bend of my arm; her little hand on my breast; her eyes shining up at me.
Twenty-five years later, it’s my bladder, not a baby, that wakes me in the night. But I remember those nights when I would hold my daughter, nearly overcome by fatigue, and I’m grateful for the voice that told me to pause and appreciate the moment.
As the mother of three teenagers, I looked forward to the late hours when the house was quiet and I could reclaim the computer, the television, the kitchen. I would pour a glass of wine or make a cup of Earl Grey tea and grade papers or read the New Yorker.
But this night I went downstairs and looked over my calendar, my teaching schedule, and my church and PTA commitments, deciding what could be canceled and what could not. Then I looked up my surgeon’s number. Why couldn’t I have found the lump during business hours, as I had last time, instead of in the middle of the night?
I climbed the stairs and looked in on my sons, whose long, awkward legs poked out of the covers, and then my daughter, her lovely face dotted with acne medication. I brushed my teeth and eased back into bed.
It would have been comforting to wake my husband and have him wrap me in his arms and tell me it would be all right, but it seemed cruel to interrupt his peaceful sleep. Besides, I’d been through this so many times already that I felt like the Boy Who Cried Wolf. So far the biopsy reports had always come back benign. The last time, my husband had even forgotten to ask me about the results. After each good report, I tried not to lose that initial sense of gratitude for normality.
I longed for normality now as I slipped out of bed, walked softly back downstairs, and curled up on the sofa. Our dog Cozy jumped up and nestled next to me. Together we would get through the night.
I grew up in a California housing tract on the border between Burbank and North Hollywood. Because the neighborhood had no sidewalks, the other children and I walked in the street along the curb. We went barefoot a lot in summer, and when the curb heated up, we walked on the neighbors’ grass. Nobody cared except Mrs. King, who shouted at us to stay off her lawn and threatened to call our parents. We ignored her. Even the grown-ups didn’t like her much. Besides, my mother had said that the grass near the curb belonged to the city.
One day we noticed Mrs. King planting bushes along the curb. They formed a solid barrier, making it impossible to walk on her grass. I called Ginger and P.J., my two best friends, and we hatched a scheme.
For two sweaty days, we dug holes in a vacant lot nearby. Then we arranged a sleepover at Ginger’s house, because her aunt was hard of hearing and wouldn’t catch us leaving. After the aunt had gone to bed, we gathered shovels and boxes and flashlights and sneaked over to Mrs. King’s.
It was tougher work than we’d anticipated, but we dug up all the bushes and carried them down the street to the vacant lot to replant them in our holes. Then we smoothed over the gaping pits in Mrs. King’s lawn and were back in bed by 4 A.M.
Of course we were caught. We were the only ones who had the motive to pull such a prank. Mrs. King threatened to call the police, and my mother said if we couldn’t replant the bushes, I’d have to pay for them out of my allowance.
When Ginger, P.J., and I went to Mrs. King’s to begin the hedge repatriation, we were stunned to see that she’d dug new holes — set back two feet from the curb. After we’d put the last bush in place, we apologized. Mrs. King just nodded and disappeared into her house, then came back with some lemonade for us.
She never so much as smiled at us again, but we walked in peace on her grass. Out of gratitude, we also stopped ringing her doorbell at night and running away.
Patricia Wheat LeVan
I blamed my insomnia on my marriage. Night after night I climbed from the bed, went into the living room, and huddled in a barrel chair, watching the city lights below. Sometimes I played “crystal ball” with a distant traffic light: I closed my eyes, and when I opened them, a red light meant “Get divorced,” a green meant “Work it out,” and yellow meant “Proceed with caution.”
While I played this game, my husband’s snoring strengthened my resolve. Tomorrow, I promised myself each night. Tomorrow, I’ll tell him. But my courage faded in the light of day.
My middle-of-the-night ritual went on for five years. Finally one night, I woke him and told him the truth. He sat in that worn barrel chair as we talked, then shouted, then cried.
I’d thought divorce would cure my sleeplessness. It didn’t. Now I wonder if my insomnia caused the end of my marriage.
Susan Reuling Furness
In the middle of the night, besides sleep, I have done the following:
Watched an armadillo dig a hole underneath a camellia bush, extract a grub, and devour it noisily. Waited for an unfaithful lover to come home smelling of someone else. Danced to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” with another woman in a redneck cowboy bar and barely escaped with my life. Searched for bats in the Australian rain forest. Dropped a cold, wet washcloth on my sleeping sister’s face and run like hell. Written bad poetry. Decided to join the convent. Decided to leave the convent. Lain in wait for giant cockroaches, armed with a beer, a brick, and a can of extra-strength Raid. Felt angry hands over my throat and mouth. Listened to Mozart’s Requiem in G all the way through ten times. Talked nervously at length with an angel of the Lord who, in the morning light, turned out to be a cloth-draped upright vacuum.
It was the middle of the night, and I was staying in a campground across the street from Graceland, Elvis Presley’s mansion-turned-tourist-attraction in Memphis, Tennessee. Beside me in the tent, my friend and sometime lover Kristi was asleep and snoring loudly. We were moving cross-country, and I’d insisted on stopping at Graceland on the way.
Sometime after midnight, the rain came down hard and heavy. The tent was soon soaked through, and my down pillow and quilts were a soggy mess. I inched closer to Kristi and thought of the safe life I was leaving behind, in a town where I had family and was greeted by name at the sandwich shop. I thought about the great unknown ahead. I didn’t know a soul in San Francisco and worried about finding a job and a place to live.
I’d made many changes over the previous few years: I’d started to eat meat again after a decade of vegetarianism. I’d left my boyfriend for a woman who’d later broken my heart. I’d graduated with a master’s degree at the top of my class. And I’d decided, against all advice, to move to California instead of applying to PhD programs. Now I began to question all of that. The siren song of the familiar was loud in my ears. I knew if I didn’t head west now — right now — before I changed my mind, I never would. I woke Kristi.
“We need to go,” I told her.
“Now?” she asked groggily.
“Now,” I said.
We were packed and on the road by 5 A.M. I never toured Graceland. Three years later I am still living in San Francisco.
Dietlind J. Vander Schaaf
San Francisco, California
While my wife slept at home, I sat in my office and hacked into her e-mail account. In a folder she’d named for our dear departed cat, I found her letters to her lover: declarations of loyalty, rendezvous plans, appreciations after sex. Everything I’d feared — and she’d angrily denied — was true.
With the letters were a few voice-mail messages from him. I listened on my computer’s tinny speakers to a rambling, pointless message; an erotic message; and finally a message left from our own phone number, dated two days after our thirteenth anniversary, while we were on vacation and her “friend” was feeding our cat. My cat.
Six months after that trip, I had found that wonderful cat lying cold and stiff on the kitchen floor, and I’d sat weeping and stroking his fur. Now, in the background of the voice mail, I heard his sweet, bemused meow again. I played the message over and over just to listen to it. I imagined this was my cat’s way of coming back to comfort me in my despair and suggest that all was not lost, that the marriage may yet have another life.
In the early seventies I was an elevator operator in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Its cramped offices were assigned mostly to junior and minority members of Congress. My shift was 5:30 P.M. to 1:30 A.M., and most members were gone by the time I came to work, but there were exceptions.
One well-known Republican senator, the apotheosis of moral rectitude, was then an up-and-coming young representative. He invariably entered the elevator with a retinue of pretty, doe-eyed interns hanging on his every word. A flamboyant Democrat from the Bronx who wore a pinkie ring and a Rolex watch would often show up around midnight with a beautiful woman on his arm. He eventually ended up in Sing Sing, but back then he was riding high.
I’m a liberal, but oddly enough my favorite members were all Republicans. Gene Snyder from Kentucky had the common touch. He knew me by name and treated me with genuine warmth and friendliness. And Pete McCloskey from California reminded me of my late father, working long hours and schlepping home an overstuffed briefcase every night. It was McCloskey who derailed Pat Robertson’s presidential ambitions by revealing that the future televangelist had avoided combat duty in Korea, thanks to intervention by his senator father.
Mostly, though, the building was empty, and there was little for me to do. I read voluminously and smoked marijuana with my co-workers. (One security officer wanted to bust us, thinking it might get him a promotion, until his superior explained that their real job was to keep members safe from embarrassment.) One co-worker and I even shared a joint on the Capitol steps in the early-morning hours of October 21, 1973. It was the height of the Watergate scandal, and President Nixon had just put the country on some kind of bogus security alert. We expected soon to see tanks rolling down Pennsylvania Avenue and the onset of martial law. Occasionally, when my shift ended, I’d sit lotus style in the center of the Capitol Rotunda and pray for peace.
I quit that job after I was accepted to graduate school in California. When I told Representative Snyder, he was aghast. “You’re moving to Berkeley?” he said. “My God, you’ll become even more of a leftist!” Then he wished me well, adding, “Nothing better for our side than good competition.”
Santa Fe, New Mexico
At 11 P.M. the phone rings. My husband, Pete, and I are already in bed, but he answers it. It’s my sister Valerie. Naturally.
This is the pattern: Valerie and her husband have a fight, he leaves, and she calls and asks me to come over. Sometimes I end up sleeping on her couch.
“Are you coming back this time or staying the night?” Pete asks with a frown as I get dressed.
“I’ll just stay an hour,” I tell him, irritated that he isn’t more sympathetic. Before I leave, I put my son’s soccer gear in the foyer, just in case I’m not there in the morning.
As the older sister, I was taught to look out for Val. If someone teased her, I made sure they never did it a second time. If she got in trouble, I defended her. As we got older, I continued to rescue her: picking her up when she got a flat tire at the mall, lending her money, baby-sitting her kids, listening to her problems with men.
Tonight my sister falls asleep exhausted after three hours of talking about her marriage. I lie on the couch and make a mental note to take her trash out in the morning and set up a dental appointment for her daughter. It occurs to me that maybe I like being the responsible sister, the one who has her life together, the one who doesn’t need saving in the middle of the night.
When I was twelve, I had an afternoon paper route. We lived in a poor neighborhood, but my memories of it are like a Norman Rockwell painting. I knew my forty-seven customers by heart, and as I pedaled my bicycle through the streets, kids would yell out my name, and adults would thank me and smile.
Then the paper switched from afternoon to morning publication. No more friendly salutations — I was the only one awake. Seven days a week, 365 days a year, I got up in the middle of the night, put on five layers of clothes, and hopped on my bicycle to deliver a bag of papers in the predawn chill. Monday’s papers were thin, but Sunday’s were big and heavy. The Thanksgiving paper was the size of a phone book.
In high school I sometimes stayed out late drinking cheap beer, and it was harder to get up for my route after those nights. Delivering papers with a hangover was murder. But I continued to do my job, if not always on time. Neither snow nor rain nor dry heaves could keep me from my appointed rounds.
Now, at thirty-five, I have a paper route again, and I love it (except on Sundays and holidays). As the want ad promised, I “earn extra income while getting paid to exercise.” I get up in the dark and cover my route the old-fashioned way, by bicycle, even when it is cold and raining. Sometimes it seems the whole country is shrouded in darkness. Maybe someday I’ll have better news to deliver.
When I was five, I wanted a water bed. My parents had one, and so did my eight-year-old sister Susan. I asked my father again and again why I couldn’t have one, and he always gave the same answer: “Because we don’t want you to drown.” To get around this unfair rule, I often slept in my sister’s room. We would jump vigorously on the water-filled mattress and pretend we were walking on the moon.
One night Susan woke me and held a flashlight below her chin, giving her face an eerie look. “I have to tell you something,” she said. “Listen good.” She lowered the flashlight a bit, creating shadows around her eyes. “I’m an alien.”
“Shut up,” I said. “That’s not funny. Just go to sleep.”
“No, seriously. I’m an alien.”
“Stop kidding. I’m going to tell Mom and Dad.”
I took a deep breath, preparing to yell for my parents, but Susan put her hand over my mouth and whispered, “Don’t even bother. They’re aliens too. That’s why we sleep on water beds and you don’t.”
Scared now, I ran to my room and hid in the closet. I heard footsteps approaching, and the closet door opened. “Get away from me, you stupid aliens!” I screamed at my dumbfounded parents. Then I saw my sister laughing quietly behind them and realized I’d been duped.
I didn’t talk to Susan all the next day.When we crossed paths in the bathroom before bed, she asked if I wanted to sleep in her water bed again that night. Hesitantly, I agreed. We pretended to walk on an alien-free moon for a while and then fell asleep.
Now I’m almost thirty and haven’t spoken to my sister in seven years. I wish grudges were still as easy to let go of as they were when we were kids.
Long Beach, California
When my cousin Lillian came to visit, she and I would pull down the shades in my room and turn out the lights. Then she’d switch on her toy planetarium, and dots of light would appear on the ceiling. Lillian introduced me to Andromeda the princess; Orion the hunter; Cygnus the swan; and Polaris, the North Star.
The summer Lillian turned fourteen and I turned ten, her parents got a divorce, and Lillian and her mother moved from New Jersey to California. For our last star show, Lillian splashed the Big Dipper on the ceiling — seven bright stars: three forming the handle and four forming the bowl. She explained that long ago, when Africans were kept as slaves in the South, many escaped in the middle of the night by following the Big Dipper north to freedom.
After Lillian left, I learned to conjure up the stars when my mother’s angry voice rang in my ears, or when my father’s face looked like it might never smile again, or when my stepfather’s hands moved like spiders across my body.
Lillian and I grew up and fell in love with men who had roving eyes and loved themselves more than they did us. On the few occasions when I saw my cousin, she drank Scotch and spoke in a quiet, controlled voice. Neither of us mentioned the stars. We lost track of each other after a while.
Last summer I went to the beach with a friend and her fifteen-year-old daughter. One night the daughter and another girl came running into the house to say that they’d been looking at the stars. I went outside to look with them. We stood under the sky, and they pointed to the Big Dipper — seven bright stars — and to Polaris in the north, which Lillian had said shone all year long. Feeling a familiar excitement, I walked toward them in the darkness.
New York, New York
In my last year of college, I worked the graveyard shift at a convenience store. I hated that job, but the store was near my apartment, and I didn’t have a car, so the location was . . . well, convenient.
I worked from ten at night to six in the morning. After eleven, the customers thinned out, and some were there to steal rather than buy. A pair of young men, so stoned their eyes were slits, would shuffle in. One would try to distract me while the other grabbed beer out of the cooler and sprinted out the door. An old homeless man who hung out at the nearby bus station would wait until I was busy, then sneak a half pint of booze under his shirt.
The paying customers were mostly enormous women wearing muumuus. The store had no shopping carts, so these women would make several trips to the register, piling up candy bars, Hostess pies, chips, and soda.
I felt well protected behind that counter, with the beef-jerky displays and the low-hanging cigarette rack. I was tall and had to bend down to see under the rack and into the customers’ faces. There were times I didn’t want to make eye contact: the later the hour, the blanker the stare.
At the time, I considered most of those late-night customers human debris. Now that I’m middle-aged, I feel ashamed that I once looked down on them, or didn’t look at all.
At 3 A.M. he shakes me awake to tell me about his bad dream. He has them every night. I roll away from him and mumble, “Tell me tomorrow.” I feel guilty, but I’m tired of hearing about the horrors of his childhood, and I know he is tired of telling me about them. I move away from him. I don’t want his bad dreams to contaminate my peaceful sleep. I don’t want to deal with child abuse, poverty, and injustice tonight. I don’t want to kiss his back or lay my hand on his heart.
When I first got to know him, I couldn’t believe how sad his story was. His parents were both alcoholics and drug addicts, and he bounced around to fourteen different foster homes in twelve years. He was abused in all of them. After shooting at his teacher’s car (no one was in it), he was institutionalized and heavily medicated. He eventually ran away to live on the streets and sell drugs, and was in and out of jail for most of his youth. I sometimes imagine him at sixteen, camping along a river with hobos, searching for a father figure, a warm smile.
I read once that we should do what makes us feel alive, because the world needs more people who are alive. His struggle makes me feel weary and disenchanted. But the world also needs fewer neglected children and fewer victims of injustice. Do they ever get to feel alive or have a moment of peace?
Asheville, North Carolina
In the seventies the tidal marshes of the Jersey Meadowlands were home to huge piles of garbage, black Hackensack River sludge, and miles of dirt roads constructed from urban rubble. There, just off the New Jersey Turnpike and within sight of the Empire State Building, it was legal to hunt small game: rabbits who miraculously eluded the dump dogs, slimy muskrats, maybe even a very lost pheasant. For the other juvenile delinquents and me, it was a place to get high without being hassled by the police.
Late one winter night I had turned my car onto the dirt road beside the turnpike, looking for an out-of-the-way place, when I saw an injured sea gull, its wing jutting up at a crazy angle. Some bored hunter had no doubt shot into the flocks of gulls that circled the dump. Then I saw another with its eye shot out, sitting in a pothole, too stunned to move. And another hobbling across the ice. And another, its breast feathers smeared with blood and one wing trailing along the ground. Bird after bird after bird: mangled, blinded, crippled; shot out of boredom, or cruelty, or sick fun.
The strangest part was the silence. Gulls are always screeching, but there wasn’t a sound from them that night, only the howl of icy wind and the hum of traffic as drivers raced by on the turnpike, oblivious to the pitiful creatures silently waiting for death in the Jersey Meadowlands one winter night.
It’s 11:30 P.M., and everyone’s asleep. Finally I can do what I love and hate the most: drink.
My drinking is a secret that’s no secret at all. It’s simply never mentioned. Neither are the bruises from the falls.
I fill my glass with vodka and grapefruit juice, then begin my nighttime activities: washing and folding laundry, paying bills, and sometimes making late-night phone calls to friends. Thankfully, I haven’t lost any of them yet.
I also watch sitcom reruns with the volume down and think of how, when I was little and couldn’t sleep, my dad would let me stay up and watch the game show What’s My Line? If I’m feeling sad, I’ll turn off the TV and listen to John Prine. He has sung me through some rough times.
I fall asleep just as my husband and son are waking up. After a few hours, I will get up, too, ready to fulfill my duties and pretend I feel OK. All day I will promise myself I won’t drink again tonight. But I always do.
As a little girl I didn’t see much of Dad. He worked nights during the week and usually found some excuse to be out of the house on weekends. When he was around, he seemed uneasy and bewildered by my siblings and me.
Then, when I was twelve, Dad began visiting me in the middle of the night. He’d get home from the bar where he drank after work, and he’d creep into my bedroom and touch my breasts and put his hand under my panties. He’d kiss me with his beery lips and groan my name over and over. It sounded as if he were drowning and calling to me for help.
When I finally got up the nerve to tell my mother, she acted as if she didn’t hear me, but the late-night visits stopped after that. A year later I told my parents I wanted to become a nun. My mother was jubilant. Dad looked stricken.
I got a scholarship at a boarding school with a reputation for being the first step toward the convent. In my junior year, however, I got caught sneaking off campus to go joy riding with some boys and was expelled. Mom was furious and yelled at me the entire way home. As we pulled into the drive, I braced myself for round two with Dad.
Dad was sick with sinus cancer at the time. His body was shrunken, and his head was bald. Radiation treatments had blinded him in one eye, and he had stuffed cotton behind his glasses on that side. Yet his good eye fixed me with a clear, penetrating gaze. Ignoring my mother, he put his arms around me and said, “It’s all right, honey. Put it behind you. It’s in the past already. Just go on from here.”
Six months later he was in intensive care. We all knew the prognosis wasn’t good, but we never talked about it. One night I saw my mom lying on top of the blankets in her bedroom, fully dressed, staring at the ceiling. The phone rang a few hours later.
For years I attended support groups and told my story about being a sexual-abuse survivor. Sometimes I implied that my father had raped me. I traced my difficulty with intimate relationships back to his abuse. Now, in my early fifties, I don’t think about it as much. Perhaps I’m finally ready to take the advice Dad gave me after I was expelled from school.
In the fall of 1966 I was stationed in Vietnam. One night I was awakened by the sounds of explosions and someone yelling, “Mortars! Get out of bed!”
I was slow to rise. I’d been up until midnight with some buddies, drinking beer, smoking reefer, and singing Motown tunes. As the explosions got nearer, I realized I was in real danger and reached for my clothes, but they weren’t there. In my underwear, I grabbed my rifle, flak jacket, helmet, and gas mask, and took shelter in a sandbag enclosure. I’d never been so scared. I could see the rounds exploding, hear soldiers shouting, and smell the overwhelming odor of gunpowder. Then another soldier pulled me to a safer shelter.
I was a loudmouthed young black man from Brooklyn who shared a tent with a half dozen white GIs from the South. There was no love lost between us. But as I lay on the damp ground shivering and fearing this might be the last night of my short life, one of those Southern soldiers put his arm around me. All thoughts of race vanished as we lay there and listened to the scream of rockets and watched tracer bullets whiz past.
The next morning we surveyed the damage, cared for the wounded, and counted the dead. When I returned to my bunk, I found my clothes in a neat pile by my bed. I figured my Southern tentmates had hidden them after I’d fallen asleep, hoping to have a good laugh at my expense in the morning. It was morning, and no one was laughing.
Wallace E. Bohanan
Hendersonville, North Carolina
Ten years ago I was a college-radio DJ working the overnight time slot. Alone in the station, I felt free to experiment, play forbidden songs, and dig through the record stacks.
At that hour it was easy to imagine no one was listening, so it was always a shock when the phone rang. Most callers were drunk or high and wanted to hear a certain song. I’d torment them by playing their request at the wrong speed or cutting it off after the first ten seconds. But occasionally I heard from the mysterious listeners who found the strange music I played beautiful. I’ll always remember one man who said that he was listening with his ear against the speaker, and it was sublime.
Farmington, New Hampshire
Alex often kept me up most of the night. He claimed exhaustion was conducive to transcendent experiences. On nights I surrendered to his plan, we rarely left the confines of his one-room apartment. A painted banner above the bed read, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” By day I was a first-grade teacher. At night my job was to break up pot for joints, be good in the sack, and not complain when he wanted to do coke.
Alex was twenty years older than I and had traveled the world and directed music videos. He wanted to save me from my rigid upbringing and break down my limited idea of who I was. And over our fourteen-year relationship, he did. For that I am grateful.
After Alex got lung cancer, nights took on a different tone. His medication caused psychotic episodes. He once woke up around 3 A.M. believing he had to protect the house from space pirates. He scrawled a note in red marker and taped it to the front door: “I, Captain Thomas Eagle of Lady Corbel’s Panties, declare this ship quarantined. No one may come aboard. We will evacuate and meet at Daniel’s Sloop.” The intensity of his madness scared me.
Other times he woke me in the wee hours and requested a grilled ham-and-cheese sandwich or an orangeade. I might have to make three or four orangeades a night. I didn’t mind. I liked being awake when everyone else was asleep.
But Alex couldn’t accept that he was dying, and his fear came out as anger. After three months of his yelling, I couldn’t take any more. I left.
Of all the people I’ve known, Alex brought out the most love in me, as well as the most frustration. Even now I sometimes hear a new piece of music and wish I could share it with him. I can still picture him, lying back against the pillows, smoking a joint and reaching an arm out for me to join him.
Los Angeles, California
On a frigid March night I lay awake and tried to rally the courage to kill myself. I already knew how I would do it: walk downstairs to the airtight garage, turn on the car motor, and let it run. I was alone in the house; my husband and son were on a school trip. I’d already talked myself out of a previous plan to jump from a ninth-floor hotel balcony, but this time my resolve was strong.
My life was a mess. My eighty-five-year-old mother had collapsed yet again and expected me to take care of her. My grumpy, tired husband and I weren’t getting along. Although I’d written twelve books, I couldn’t seem to sell another manuscript. I’d hurt my hip and knee in a fall, making it painful to sit or lie down. And I was on Prozac, which left me sleepless and unable to concentrate.
I switched on Nightwatch, Christian Family Radio’s program for insomniacs. Through my fog I heard the announcer say, “Are you lonely, depressed, upset? I have a message for you.”
I listened intently.
“ ‘His grace is sufficient for you,’ ” the announcer said, quoting the Bible.
“What the fuck does that mean?” I asked out loud. Sufficient for me to do what? God damn it! But perfect anger drives out terror, I discovered. I began to laugh.
I hobbled downstairs to iron my son’s school shirts and my husband’s handkerchiefs and trousers. Laundry was about the only thing I had any control over. I ironed until dawn, then opened the garage door, backed the car out, and relocked the door.
Soon after that, I phoned my counselor and changed my medication. I found a chiropractor who eventually got me walking and sitting without pain. I wait-listed my mother for placement in a nursing home. I picked up a new batch of proofreading work and got a book-reviewing assignment. I visited my best friend. And I joined two worship groups.
Do I hear God laughing?
Carole Spearin McCauley
In college I rented a room in an old Victorian with five other students. It was small-town Vermont, and none of us ever locked the front door.
One summer night I got up to use the hall bathroom. So as not to disturb my housemates, I didn’t turn on any lights until I had reached the bathroom and shut the door. When I pulled the string on the bare overhead bulb, I saw a strange face not eighteen inches from my nose. The intruder was six feet tall with greasy black hair, but I saw that he was only a kid, a few years younger than I.
“What the hell are you doing here?” I yelled.
“I need a place to sleep,” he said.
I ushered him out the front door and locked it after him.
The next morning I called the police. When I described the boy, the officer recognized him from other complaints. He was seventeen and newly homeless; his alcoholic mother had left town two weeks prior with a new boyfriend.
Would a night on our living-room couch really have been such an inconvenience?
Iris, a cancer patient, was admitted to my hospital ward at 2:30 A.M. She’d come there alone, in the middle of the night, to die. I talked to her, moistened her lips with ice chips and glycerin, and listened to her last coherent statements before she slipped into a coma. Iris died peacefully in my arms, surprising me with the strength of the bond we’d formed in our few hours together.
Another 2:30 A.M. brought Emily, a delicate two-year-old who had nearly drowned in a wading pool. I stayed at her side for hours, nursing her, stroking her hair, and willing her to wake up. Her mother entered the room only once and stood at the foot of the bed, her face betraying no visible emotion. Emily’s strong heart was still beating at 7 A.M., when I finally left her side to go home and gratefully kiss the faces of my own sleeping children. When I returned the next night, Emily’s bed was empty.
Grant, too, came to me at 2:30 A.M. Cancer had reduced him to a gaunt apparition. He hated being that way, he said, and was ready to die. He was in dreadful pain, and his doctor had ordered morphine as needed, to ease his suffering. I asked if he wanted some extra morphine and explained, quietly and carefully, that it might inhibit his respiration. The intensity of his “Yes” has stayed with me to this day. As I administered the morphine that would send him over the edge, he gripped my hand and whispered, “Thank you.”
Two-thirty in the morning was also the hour I found the courage to die to the life I was living and make the leap into a new one. My children, I’d realized, had the right to a relatively carefree childhood unburdened by the sight of their mother being beaten. That quiet time of night gave me the determination to leave my abusive husband, and the fortitude to live in my car if I had to. It brought me to the simple realization: My life has to be worth more than this.
Palm Desert, California
After twelve years I am back at the university where I was a graduate student, only this time I’m sober and teaching English. At a boring faculty party, the department director turns to me, grins, and says, “You were more fun when you were drinking.”
I remember a Christmas party in that same department twelve years ago: appetizers, wine, a recorder ensemble. I didn’t really want to be there, but I thought I should attend. I was nervous in the formal atmosphere and jittery from drinking coffee all afternoon, so I headed straight for the wine and stayed there, chatting and refilling people’s glasses. While I had the bottle in hand, I refilled mine too.
Apparently someone took me home, because I came to in my own bed in the middle of the night. I staggered into the kitchen and saw on my table all the leftover snacks from the office party: crackers, pretzels, cubes of cheese, ends of sausages. Oh my God. Had someone given them to me, or had I just grabbed them as I’d staggered out? I never got the answer to that, nor to many other mysteries surrounding my alcoholic blackouts.
Now, if I get uncomfortable at a party, I leave. And I keep memories of my past episodes handy, like snapshots in my wallet: that’s me passed out on the lawn; here I am in bed with a perfect stranger. It reminds me that, no matter what others may say, I wasn’t more fun when I was drinking.
At my college the men’s dorms were on one side of a small lake, and the women’s dorms were on the other. Arched wooden walkways led to an island in the middle of the lake, where there was an old wooden gazebo. Once a week the literary types would gather there in the middle of the night holding candles, like druids performing some secret ritual. Each would read aloud something from the canon, or else a piece he or she had written.
Though I wanted to be a writer, I had difficulty coming up with something of my own to read at these events. Inspiration finally came to me when I heard of an old schoolmate’s suicide.
Charlie had been a large, awkward boy, and so smart that he’d had trouble fitting in even at our boarding school for brainy kids. He was the son of a judge, and his older brother, a stellar athlete, had garnered all their father’s attention. This led Charlie to do odd things, like sign up for wrestling, then deliberately overeat before matches so that he’d get disqualified for being overweight.
One of our teachers asked me to take Charlie under my wing and boost his self-esteem. I’d been raised by verbally abusive parents, and I gave Charlie the same treatment, thinking it was what he needed. His self-esteem did not improve, but mine did.
Once, Charlie described to me his vision of the afterlife: a place on the far edge of the universe where all souls merged into one body, and no one was lonely ever again. Was he thinking of that place when he pulled the trigger?
In the poem I wrote about his suicide, I pretended that he and I had been good friends. In a way, if you can believe it, I really did think I had been his friend. When I look back, it is my ignorance of what it meant to be a friend that shames me most. I can see this now only because I have walked through my own dark valleys and have met people who have been much better friends to me than I was to Charlie.
When I read the poem at our weekly literary meeting, I cried, and a few women comforted me. There was applause, but some part of me sensed the wrongness of what I’d done. I had not seen Charlie nor made any effort to contact him in two years. Yet here I was acting broken up over his death.
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, usually after a day in which I have been particularly judgmental, I think of Charlie. I wonder if he reached that place he described, where there is no loneliness.
This was not the new beginning I had planned. I’d just gotten out of prison, and my father had suggested I stay with his friend Manny, who was seventy-five and needed help around the house. Manny could barely walk and spent night and day in his tattered La-Z-Boy, watching TV, drinking whiskey, and smoking cigarettes.
I began by cleaning up the cat shit on the floor; the blackened, bug-infested bananas in his kitchen; the dust and cobwebs everywhere. Manny’s old bedroom, where he no longer slept, was a rat’s nest of clothes and magazines, and in the bathroom I found a broken toilet half full of black water that stank like hell.
Manny hogged my time with his demands: “Get me another pack of cigarettes.” “Empty the ashtray!” “Look at this commercial on television!” One night he woke me at 1:30 A.M., calling from his chair in the living room. I turned on my lamp and saw six inches of water on my bedroom floor. The house was flooded.
“What happened?” I asked.
“How the fuck should I know?” Manny screamed. “Look around! There’s got to be a leak somewhere!”
I shuffled from room to room, checking the kitchen sink and the hot-water heater. Manny’s cussing grew more colorful all the while.
As I passed his bedroom door, I thought I heard running water. The light in there didn’t work, so I got the flashlight. In the bathroom I found the broken toilet overflowing. It had mysteriously begun working again and now wouldn’t stop. I knelt down and turned off the valve: one problem solved. Now to figure out how to get rid of all the water.
Something floated by my leg, and I picked it up. It was a framed black-and-white photograph of a dozen uniformed men in front of a World War II–era B-29 Flying Fortress. I carried it into the living room, where Manny sat in a cloud of cigarette smoke.
“It was the old toilet in your bedroom,” I told him.
“Don’t be stupid, that toilet’s broken. . . . Wait a minute. Did you do something to it when you were in there last week?”
“Stop trying to blame me.”
“Maybe you bumped something.”
I’d had enough. I told him I was going to bed. I had to get up at 5 A.M. to go to work.
“But what about all the water?”
“Fuck the water,” I said.
“Wait! What’s that under your arm?”
I wiped the picture off with my T-shirt and handed it to Manny.
He examined the photo. “Where did you find this?” he asked, his voice suddenly softer.
I told him it had floated out from under his old bed, and I’d rescued it before it had gotten water-damaged. “I figured you might want it.”
Manny took off his glasses and wiped tears from his eyes. “I’m the only one still alive,” he said. “Every one of these men was a true friend.”
I sat down in a folding chair and watched him study the photo. The night had been a disaster, but for a moment it didn’t seem too bad.
St. Petersburg, Florida