On the phone, at a gas station, in our dreams
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I dreamt of a new iPad that doubles as a sleeping bag, and I dreamt of a shattered moon. I dreamt I could slam-dunk a basketball, barely even had to jump. I dreamt I’d written a great novel, and when I woke up, the whole of my great novel remained, for a few seconds, right on the tip of my tongue. I dreamt I discovered a way to cure cancer with a specific length of dental floss. I dreamt I was suddenly transported to the surface of Venus wearing only a T-shirt and shorts. I dreamt a lizard lost its tail, resulting in the collapse of the global information grid. I dreamt I finally hired someone to fix every last one of our house’s doorknob problems — over a million dollars, but totally worth it. I dreamt I was doing a huge jigsaw puzzle, every last piece of which was uniformly black. I dreamt I was sleeping. I dreamt I woke up.
I wake at 2:34 AM and lie in bed staring at the ceiling for a couple of hours, beating myself up for having awakened way before it’s time to get up.
I know that my wife will get up at 5:30 to take the dog for a walk, and I know that if she sees I’m awake, she’ll ask me to accompany her. So, if I can’t get back to sleep before 5:30, I’ll pretend I’m fast asleep. But I won’t pretend to snore, because if my wife hears me snoring, I’ll give up my right to refer to her snoring as the main thing that’s ruining my life and preventing me from getting a good night’s sleep.
At 5:27 I will splay my arms and legs, turn my head to the side, and open my mouth wide to get some saliva accumulating on the inside of my cheek, hoping that it will begin oozing onto my pillow, creating a drool stain. Then, after my wife wakes up at 5:30 and begins ever so quietly opening and closing dresser drawers and gathering the dog-walking gear, I’ll affect an exaggerated startle response and jump up from my fake sleep to say, “I was fast asleep after so many hours of effort, and now you’ve ruined it all with your insensitive racket!” She will then either apologize or ignore me, depending on how convincing my fake waking-up act has been.
Once she’s left the house for her walk, I’ll continue to work on getting to sleep. On those mornings when I succeed, I often do so by imagining the path that she and the dog are taking around the neighborhood. I picture myself walking a few paces behind them, focusing on my irrational anger toward my wife, as well as the steadiness of her footfalls. The anger eventually gives way to guilt for having deceived her and for feeling such irrational anger toward her, and I focus on that, as well as the steadiness of her footfalls. The guilt eventually gives way to unbounded love for her, and I focus on that, as well as the steadiness of her footfalls. If I’m able to continue focusing on unbounded love and the steadiness of her footfalls long enough, I’m occasionally able to fall back asleep before she returns from her walk, and a few hours later I’ll wake up feeling that those hours of sleep were a total coup, that I’ve finally triumphed over my sleeplessness.
Our daughter claims she doesn’t sleep at night, but she is either lying or misinformed.
Her bedtime routine involves first protesting and then obeying my command to brush her teeth, get in bed, and begin her required half hour of reading an age-appropriate book. Not a minute longer than half an hour later she calls out from across the house that she’s completed her required reading and asks me to come sing her Mocking and give her Tickle. Upon seeing me enter her bedroom, she rearranges her cuddlies — those dozens of stuffed-animal sleeping companions — so that when I lie down next to her to sing her Mocking and give her Tickle, I won’t inadvertently asphyxiate a cuddly. Next she positions the fuzzy white bunny eye mask over her eyes, turns on her side to face me, raises her right arm toward the ceiling, and announces that she’s ready for Mocking and Tickle. At this time I sing the following song, employing my best country twang, while gently moving my fingertips up and down the length of my daughter’s outstretched arm:
Hush, little Fifi, don’t say a word
Dada’s gonna get you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird don’t sing
Dada’s gonna get you a diamond ring. . . .
Hush, little Fifi, don’t say a word
Dada’s gonna get you a mockingbird
And if that mockingbird don’t sing
Dada’s gonna get you a diamond ring. . . .
When I’ve completed all seven verses and performed one last shoulder-to-fingertip caress of my daughter’s arm — which has, over the course of the song, incrementally descended from its outstretched position until it lies against her torso — I notice that her breathing has slowed and deepened. And when I speak the words “Good night, my love. I know you will dream the dreams of angels, because you are one,” she offers no reply, because she’s already fast asleep. I may or may not check on her a couple of times over the course of the night to find her in the same position she was in when I left, bunny eye mask still on her face, alert cuddlies dutifully standing guard.
Our son has a markedly different bedtime routine from his sister’s.
At 8:30 PM we say to him, “Time for bed.”
“Just a few more minutes,” he replies.
We give him these few more minutes and say again, at 8:35, “Time for bed.”
“But that wasn’t a few minutes,” he replies.
“You’re right,” we say. “It was more than a few.”
“But I only asked for a few,” he replies, “and you gave me several. So now you still owe me a few.”
What kind of tautological bullshit is that? we say in our heads. In our mouths we say, setting the timer, “You have exactly three minutes until bedtime,” and when the iPhone’s obnoxious alarm sounds, we say, “Get in bed. Good night. We love you.”
“OK, good night. Love you, too,” he replies. “But first I have to fill up my water bottle.”
We listen attentively as our son takes way more time than is necessary in the kitchen to fill up his water bottle.
At 8:45, just as we’re settling into our own bedtime routines, there’s a knock at our bedroom door.
The door opens. Our son stands there in his underwear, sipping from his water bottle. “Just wanted to say good night,” he says. “And I love you.”
“Good night. Love you. Get in bed,” we reply.
“OK,” he says. “Love you, too.” He closes the door. Then, at 8:52, he opens the door. “By the way, I need you guys to sign a permission slip for me. It’s due tomorrow.”
“Why didn’t you ask us to sign it earlier?”
“Because I forgot.”
“Give us the permission slip,” we say.
“OK, but first I have to find it,” he replies, closing the door. At 9:01 he opens the door and says, “I can’t find the permission slip.”
“Did you check the table?” we ask. “The bench? The ledge?”
“Hold on,” he says, closing the door. Opening the door, he says, “Found it.”
“Hand it over.”
He hands us the permission slip.
“Where’s the pen?”
“Hold on,” he says.
At 9:06 he hands us the pen and eagerly watches as we fill out the permission slip without reading a single word of it. We hand him back the permission slip, and he holds it up to the light, scrutinizing our signature. Closing the door, then opening it, he says, “Good night,” and, closing it and opening it again, “I love you.”
“Night, love, bed, now.”
He closes the door.
At 9:55, after we’ve finally settled into our bedtime routines, there’s a knock at our bedroom door.
The door opens. Our son stands in the doorway in his underwear, sipping from his water bottle. “Finished my reading,” he says. “Just wanted to come in here and say good night. And I love you.”
“You’ve already said that a few times. Maybe even several.”
“But this time I was hoping to get a couple of juicy goodnight kisses before heading into bed.”
He walks across the room, leans over the bed, and puckers his lips.
At 9:56 we kiss him grudgingly but lovingly.
“I love you guys,” he says. “I love you guys so much,” he says. “You guys are the best parents,” he says. “How did I ever get so lucky to have parents as good as you?” he says. “I only hope that one day I can be—”
Get the fuck to bed right now, we say in our heads. In our mouths we say, “We love you, too.”
“OK, good night,” he says at 9:59. “Love you.” Closes the door. Opens it. “But first I have to fill up my water bottle.”
My own bedtime routine begins with three pillows stacked on top of each other, wedged between my back and the headboard. I sit cross-legged on the bed, MacBook Air resting on my lap, earbuds in my ears, eye mask at the ready on my forehead. I shuffle between Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu, watching the most somniferous documentaries I can find. Multiple times now I have scraped the bottom of the Ken Burns barrel. After an hour I close the MacBook Air and place it on the nightstand to charge for the following day. I remove one pillow from the stack behind me, toss it to the floor, and retrieve my iPad from the nightstand. I lie on my back with two pillows beneath my head, iPad on my chest, earbuds in my ears, eye mask at the ready. I shuffle between Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu, watching the most somniferous documentaries I can find. Multiple times now I have scraped the bottom of the David Attenborough barrel. After an hour I place the iPad on the nightstand, on top of the MacBook Air, to charge for the following day. I remove one pillow from beneath my head and toss it to the floor. I remove the earbud from my right ear, leaving the left earbud in position. The eye mask remains on my forehead, at the ready. I lie on my right side, retrieve my iPhone from the nightstand, place it on the bed beside me, and shuffle between Netflix, YouTube, and Hulu, watching the most somniferous documentaries I can find. Multiple times now I have scraped the bottom of the Werner Herzog barrel. After an hour my eyes begin to water — they’re on the verge of surrender, I can tell — and my eyelids begin to droop. I place the iPhone on the nightstand, on top of the iPad and the MacBook Air, to charge for the following day. I lower the mask over my eyes.
Will I now charge myself for the following day? Or will I stare into my eye mask for an hour, two hours, three, maybe even four or five or six, continually making small adjustments to the position of my body in the bed, to the trajectory of the thoughts in my brain, clinging to the false hope that all these meaningless little adjustments will somehow be more conducive to a good night’s sleep, a full charge — and, later, at 2 AM, to a mere half charge; and, later still, at 4 AM, to a paltry quarter charge; and, finally, as light begins creeping around our bedroom’s blinds, to no charge at all?
How much alcohol should I drink in the evening to help me fall asleep, but not cause me to wake up dehydrated in the middle of the night and/or wake up in the morning with a day-destroying hangover?
How many cigarettes should I smoke, or how many pieces of nicotine gum should I chew, or how many times should I suck on my vape pen during the hour before my head hits the pillow?
Should I take Valium or valerian?
Should I exercise at 6 AM or 6 PM?
Should I stop drinking coffee after noon?
Should I go check on our son and daughter one last time, just to be on the safe side?
Should I get down on the floor and cuddle with the dog? Or should I invite him up on the bed to cuddle with me, knowing that at some point in the night he’ll jump down off the bed and, if I happen to be sleeping, definitely wake me up?
Should I sleep with my right arm beneath or on top of the pillow?
Should I set the swamp cooler to High Cool? Low Cool? High Vent? Low Vent? Totally off?
Should I check all the doors and windows one last time, just to be on the safe side?
Should I sleep with one foot hanging out of the covers, exposed to the air, or should I keep both feet under the covers and maybe rub them together for a little while? Or should I rub my feet against my wife’s feet, knowing that, if I do, it will definitely wake her up?
Is what I’m feeling on my leg a little bit of sheet touching it or the tiny legs of a deadly scorpion?
Should I sleep naked, pajamaed, or some impossibly ideal combination thereof?
Should I watch Netflix, YouTube, or Hulu? Or should I just get it over with and point my browser to Pornhub?
If I do eventually fall asleep — which I surely will, as soon as I stop thinking about it — what’s the chance I’ll never wake up?
Should I continue caressing my nipple using only my thumb, or is it time to get my pointer finger in on the action as well?
Should I go to the bathroom one last time, just to be on the safe side?
Should I close my eyes or keep them open?
A couple of weeks ago my wife went in for a sleep study. Our thinking was that her snoring might be a symptom of sleep apnea. In an act of solidarity with her, I decided that, while she was spending the night away, I would perform my own sleep study, tracking my progress in the little red notebook I use to jot down groggy memories of dreams, when I do sleep, and half-baked ideas on the nature of sleep and sleeplessness, when I don’t.
8:04 — Sang S. Mocking and gave her Tickle. She’s already out like a light.
8:32 — Told J. about my sleep study, emphasized importance of not disturbing me. Told him if he pulls any shit tonight, he’ll lose his iPad for a month.
8:49 — C. just texted funny pic of her with a bunch of wires stuck to her head. Sleep lab looks pretty cool.
9:00 — Lights out.
9:09 — Watching Inning 6 of Ken Burns’s Baseball (MacBook Air).
9:40 — Texted C. a while back. Still no reply.
10:10 — Texted C. many times now to no avail.
10:30 — Desperately missing C.’s comforting presence beside me. Considering going to grab a kid and plop him or her down in C.’s spot.
10:46 — Couldn’t find dog, was freaking out. Finally found him way back in corner of closet, sleeping with his snout inside one of C.’s shoes.
10:49 — Retrieved some of C.’s dirty clothes from hamper and placed them on my pillow by my nose, inspired by dog’s example. Watching Inning 7 of Ken Burns’s Baseball (iPad).
11:41 — Still watching Inning 7 (iPad). Placed C.’s shoe on bed in order to lure dog into bed with me. Tried cuddling him, but he kept wiggling out of my arms. Finally he jumped off the bed and returned to the closet. Feeling very alone now. May try calling C. in a bit. Thinking this was the wrong night to conduct my sleep study. Expecting C. to be very angry if I call. And yet there may be no helping it.
12:09 — Finally got up the nerve to call C. Went straight to voice mail. Her phone is either off or set to DO NOT DISTURB.
12:13 — Desperately yearning for the sound of C.’s riotous snoring.
12:17 — Checked the Find My iPhone app, and C.’s phone is indeed on. Strongly considering pressing the PLAY SOUND button to wake her up. Know she will be very upset if I do. And yet there may be no helping it.
12:19 — Took a Valium.
12:35 — Have moved into J.’s room. Writing this from the bottom bunk. Feeling much better now. Nice and cozy in here. Lights out.
12:41 — As soon as I turned out the lights, J. woke up and said he can’t sleep unless all the lights are on. Writing this from S.’s room.
1:12 — Back in our bed because S. was kicking. Considering taking another Valium.
2:34 — Woke up. Went to the bathroom.
3:01 — Considering watching the end of Inning 7 (iPhone), but I know if I do, I’ll probably be up for the rest of the night.
5:30 — Dreamt about eating at a Taco Bell on the ocean floor with C., J., and S. There were hundreds of heat-level choices among the underwater hot-sauce packets. My indecision concerning which heat level to choose resulted in the drowning deaths of my wife and children.
6:07 — C.’s home. Will try again tomorrow night. Tonight, rather.
At 2:32 AM I wake up to find my left arm asleep. It was under the pillow, beneath my heavy head — for how long? With my right arm, I turn on the bedside lamp. I sit up, my left arm dangling lifelessly at my side. With my right hand, I lift the arm and jiggle it remorsefully, but there’s no bringing it back from the dead. I have murdered my own left arm.
Then — suddenly, miraculously — a tingle. A little bit of life has emerged from somewhere behind the elbow and is mounting a slow but steady campaign. I can flop my arm, move a finger or two, almost make a fist. Wiggling my fingers wildly now, I admire the sight of my resurrected limb. Although I rarely use my left hand to grasp my iPhone, I do so now, and with my left thumb I exuberantly unlock it. I am newly aware of the potential of my left arm, of my entire left side — of the miracle that is my body, and the miracle that is the iPhone. With my left thumb I fire up Netflix and, feeling ecstatic, watch boring nature documentaries for the next three hours.
Unlike my daughter and me, who depend on eye masks to keep the light from our eyes, my wife and son sleep with the sheet pulled taut around their heads like a bonnet, leaving a small breathing hole, in my son’s case, or snoring hole, in my wife’s.
Occasionally I awaken to the smell of dog feces and find that, over the course of the night, the dog has fallen asleep with his snout next to my wife’s face and his butt next to mine.
Both my wife and son are able to sleep with their knees up while lying flat on their backs. When I’m tossing and turning at night and I look over to check on my wife, I’ll find the sheet and blanket propped a couple of feet off the bed by her bent knees. I’ll find a similar bent-knee tent when I get up and walk down the hall to check on my son. I wonder about the nature/nurture etiology of my wife and son’s bizarre sleeping position; they both do it, so it must be genetic, but it’s also the position they both employ while lying in bed and using their thighs to prop up an Apple product. My daughter and I use the same position to prop up our devices, but neither of us, as far as I know, sleeps in this position. It may be that my wife and son simply have a stronger genetic predisposition to it than my daughter and I do, and that the frequency with which my wife and son employ the knees-up position in their waking lives has epigenetically resulted in that same position becoming the one in which their bodies prefer to sleep.
What can I learn from this?
My daughter didn’t sleep well last night. “Because of the full moon,” she said.
“Why didn’t you lower the blinds?” I asked her. “And weren’t you wearing your bunny eye mask?”
She replied that wearing her bunny eye mask or lowering the blinds wouldn’t have changed the fact that the moon was full.
When I was young, falling asleep scared me — like falling into a dark, unknown world. Sleep had to sneak up on me. Now I rush headlong toward sleep, but it’s nowhere to be found. If only I could find a way to fear sleep again, I’m sure it would be all too eager to creep up and scare the shit out of me.
Nothing much came of my wife’s sleep study. When she went back for a follow-up, she learned that her snoring was “idiopathic,” meaning they don’t know what causes it.
I’ve decided to learn to appreciate the musical quality of my wife’s snoring. In the days and weeks to come, instead of kicking her when she snores, I will smile contentedly, take comfort in her snore, treasure the sound just as I treasure her comforting presence beside me.
My sleep troubles began in earnest only when I began referring to them as “my sleep troubles” — only when I began pathologizing my sleeplessness. I remember telling my wife, not long after we met, that I suffered from a chronic sleep disorder. She asked which sleep disorder. I wasn’t sure of the exact name, I told her, but I was pretty sure it was the kind where the sleeper doesn’t get any REM sleep. She furrowed her brow and squinted her eyes. I was so tired all the time, I told her; there must be something seriously wrong with me. Regardless of the exact typology of my condition, I told her, it should have been pretty obvious to anyone I was suffering from some sort of debilitating chronic condition.
As I lie in bed now, in my mind’s eye, I recall how my wife placed her hands on my shoulders and peered lovingly yet dispassionately into my bloodshot eyes. “Yes, Evan,” I hear her say, in my mind’s ear, “you do have a debilitating chronic condition. It’s called life.”
Staring up at the ceiling, I find I am able to match the sound of my wife’s snores to the pitch and cadence of that sentence as I remember it being spoken by her many years ago: It’s called life. . . . It’s called life. . . . It’s called life. . . . And in this manner I am finally able to sleep.
I’m a little worried about Evan Lavender-Smith. Has anyone told him that staring at screens before trying to fall asleep [“Sleep Study,” October 2019] is one of the most common causes of chronic insomnia?
Many people have told me this over the years, and at first I didn’t heed their advice. Not long after writing “Sleep Study,” however, I finally did, and my sleep improved dramatically. Why did it take me so long to listen?