A short story by Carolyn Dale
Right now, I’m staring at the readout on the microwave as it heats my mug of two percent milk: 100 percent power, 2:17 a.m., in fluorescent digits. No one else is awake, and I suck a second glob of honey off a spoon. This method of fighting sleeplessness—warm milk and sugar—is supposed to excite the hypothalamus, which then gets busy and secretes something helpful. I’m waiting.
I think we should learn to embrace insomnia. After really getting to know these hours—the persistently friendly 2 a.m. and 3 a.m.—I am convinced that it’s all culturally driven, this expectation that we should sleep a straight eight so we can get up and be bright, alert factory workers. Reasons abound for being up in the middle of the night. Think of all those great jazz and blues songs, such as "Round Midnight," and "In the Midnight Hour." My sleep-resistant malaise was weaned on classical music and honed on rock and roll. In the "small, wee hours," things are happening: cabarets are steamy, the witches are out, and in Colonial days, that's when patriots gathered in coffee shops to talk sedition.
In Medieval times, when people lived by the light of the sun and the moon, they'd go to sleep when it got dark. Since that was at 7 or 8 o’clock, they’d wake up hungry later on. In France, the meal eaten after midnight mass is called the “reveillon,” or the waking-up meal. They’d eat, drink, and be merry in a variety of ways, and then fall back into bed at the first cock’s crow for the “second sleep.” That lasted until the sun was up and the day was bright enough to head off to the fields or the silversmiths guild. That’s historical fact; you can read about it.
I consider calling a friend and confessing, “I just woke up—I mean wide awake. It felt like it was the middle of the morning and I was in some foreign airport.”
More times than you’d think, I mention to a couple of friends that I was awake between 2 and 4 a.m,. and they’ll exclaim, “I was, too!” We joke that we should call each other or go online to chat. But, you never really want to do that when you’re awake at 2 a.m.
Here are some things that you do want to do:
- Keep the lights off and peer intently at your neighbors’ houses, driveways and windows in case someone out there actually is carousing.
- Talk to the cat about everything that makes you feel sad and inferior to everyone else; stroke her silky fur until she demands to be let out.
- Read serious texts or books in foreign languages, where your eye can go over and over phrases in a circular pattern while you wonder what it all means.
- Look in the family albums at photos of your grandmother and great-grandmother, realizing that you will look just like them in the morning, if you don’t get some sleep.
- Fixate on what is going wrong at work, and how, if there just weren’t people who work hand-in-hand with the Dark Side … Oh, well. Do they have bad nights, too—maybe more often than I do? I hope so.
- Accept that you will not get back to sleep again. Probably not ever. People who suddenly lose the ability to sleep—and it’s a medical fact—die within a couple of weeks. It is a rarity, and they do die, sadly, like the young actor who took yet another sleeping pill because the first one or so didn’t work.
- Try not to become one of the people who do stuff while they’re sleeping and don’t realize they are asleep. They’re called sexomaniacs, and that’s a medical fact. I ponder why this condition is a side effect mainly of the most costly new sleep medications. However, those folks are not sitting alone on the couch at 3 a.m. with a lukewarm mug of milk and “Fleurs de Mal” in the original French. I am certain that I am awake.
Some psychologists say that older people—not me, but the elderly—wake up in the wee hours because it is conducive to the kind of philosophical meditating they need to do to prepare for the next passage.
I am awake; therefore, I am.
I recall the presidential campaign ad in which Hillary Clinton convinces us that she’s the one we want answering the phone when it rings at the White House at 3 a.m. I consider calling the White House. After all, two-thirds of American adults report problems with insomnia at least a couple of nights a week. You’d think someone would be working on a solution, and they might be, if it weren’t for the sexomaniacs’ lobby. However, if I actually were to pick up the phone and call, I still picture Dick Cheney as the one who would answer. I am certain he never sleeps. Ever.
People these days who get up and stay up at 3 or 4 a.m. say they’re on “farmers time.” However, I think of it as “rock’n’rollers” time, and I caught the tendency through parenting. Now that I think about it, the friends who say I can call them at 3 a.m. are the same ones who had The Posies practicing in their basement for years. I’m sure I’m onto something.
I recall several years of consistent waking at 2 a.m. because I was waiting for the thump of my son’s refrigerator-size amplifier being dragged up the porch steps after he, a mere child, got the club card that let him play in smoky over-21 venues, where he could hang out hearing crazy jazz and watching everyone else sip vin rouge while he sat anchored to the edge of the stage during set breaks.
No, wait. It started before then. I let the L.L. Bean catalog I’ve been reading backwards slip down on the afghan; the cat and I are no on vigil in the living room, and my eye falls on the baby shower gift I had wrapped in bright but gender-neutral yellow and green just earlier today—make that yesterday.
It’s a two-CD set of baby lullabies, all of them classical themes played to the same rhythm as our human heartbeat. When the Rock’n’roller was a mere infant, many were the nights, or early mornings, that we sat with those melodies playing, from vinyl, back then, supposedly soothing him back to sleep. I would nod off and rouse to see his wide eyes following the syncopated bounce of the light bars marking the volume changes, just like the signal-strength bars on the cell phone he’s now addicted to. Good Lord, did it start back then?
I leap up and grab the shower gift. I tear off the wrapping paper. What was I thinking? This isn’t a suitable gift—where could it lead? I begin to fight my way through the cellophane, happy that the shades are down and my neighbors can’t see me biting crazily at the CD corners. I pry open the jewel case past the little silvery tab, all haste for my fix. Disc 1, disc 2, I don’t care, though I note it should not take 42 sedately played passages for anyone, however young or old, to get back to sleep.
It’s on, it’s Brahms, it’s stultifying, and I am sure it will work. The Rock’n’roller told me recently that back in the day, the classical guys did not even write time signatures or indicate beats on their sheet music because it was considered to basic to mention. I wonder where that grown boy is, at this moment. In his time zone, it’s past 4 a.m., and he has probably finished watching the bouncing signal-strength readouts of his recording software for the night and headed, drowsy and satisfied, off to bed. Or, maybe he played tonight—original fusion tunes only—in some smoke-free venue to a small but appreciative crowd of young people quaffing micro brews.
He plays; therefore, he is. No factory schedule for him.
Something is working: I’m starting to get cold, and this is actually a good sign. I’ve read something about blood vessels dilating as a precondition for sleep, so if my feet are warm and my arms are cold, at least the bed and the down comforter are going to feel very, very good.
I yawn and head back upstairs, and now that my soul is convinced that sleep is coming, I glance outside and appreciate how the light is ethereal; I recall witnessing by chance one night a full eclipse of the moon. The light silvers everything, which otherwise would be a thick, dead gray. It’s actually a special time, and I should try to remember that dream about the foreign airport, or write down the story idea that just zapped into my mind from some unknown origin.
But now, I’m returning to slumber: I slide in between the sheets, and nothing is so delicious as this wedge of pillow, this adaptable layer of Memory Foam.
As I relax, lights come down the street, caroming off the house fronts. A car pulls up and idles, its headlights intent on the bedroom windows. With a thunk, the morning paper hits the storm door. The car pulls out, wheels around, and heads off the other way. It’s not the thump I’ve been waiting for, the one that reverberates in sleepy memory, but it will do.