When I was a kid, I’d see severed heads floating in the dark. Every night my mother would scratch my back, kiss my forehead, say I love you, then shut off the lights. It would usually take a long time to fall asleep, and sometimes the dreams were good, but once or twice a week, the heads would squeeze through the cracks in the walls or descend from the ceiling. They’d surround me, wan and stiff and misshapen. They liked to watch my skin change color, from calm olive to tousled red to chilly white, and the way my lungs would seize up when they drummed their stumpy necks on my chest. They liked even more that I’d weep, silent and catatonic, hapless in the fog of my unconsciousness.
They’d loom for a while, the heads, weighing my horror in their jaws, but they’d eventually fade. And then I’d wake up. I’d be in my parents’ room, sweat-soused and wheezing, and around me lights would be blaring, the antique one on my mother’s nightstand a cutting, crusty yellow, the ones drilled into the ceiling more like paralytic searchlights than fluorescent bulbs. My mother’s arms would be throttling my waist as if she were trying to restrain me, and my father, if he wasn’t still out working, would be standing a few feet away, his eyes a slick purple, his lids drooping, his lips wrinkled wryly as if to say, Can I ever get some fucking sleep in this house?
* * *
Things got worse when my parents started fighting.
It was only verbal, as far as I know. My father wasn’t the type of person to touch my mother, and beyond that, he was a merciful surgeon respected for his work on domestic violence victims. Even though at times he wasn’t so merciful with me. And even if he did hit my mother at some point, I wouldn’t have known, because they reserved their kitchen shouting bouts for after my sister and I were asleep upstairs.
I remember almost none of my episodes around that time, even though to this day, my parents re-recount the visions I would describe to them once I came to. Still, I know they worsened, because I’d wake up every morning in their room, and a series of lucid dreams and half-conscious hallucinations would unfailingly precede that spatial jump. Two of these I’ll never forget: in the first, a demonic clone of my mother chased me through the house with fangs gritted and claws bared. In the second, I was under a spell of sleep paralysis, and I saw rattlesnakes all over the walls, slithering and hissing and coiling into each other’s tails. Some fell from the ceiling and wriggled clumsily through the bed and the whole time I could do nothing but watch. I don’t remember feeling terror as much as a loneliness so weighty that not even a crane could have lifted it.
In more recent years I’ve tried to psychoanalyze the episodes, as anybody would. Maybe they were a result of my turbulent relationship with asthma or the scary shows on television I’d sometimes catch my parents watching after dark or the ghastly premonition of their split. Then I learned that there are millions of similar kids whose parents have to practically tackle them to the ground to stop them from scuttling about and screeching like they’ve lost their arms. So maybe there was no reason for my nightly troubles after all.
* * *
The episodes abated when my parents started sleeping at opposite ends of the house. I’d like to say, for the sake of narrative cleanliness, that this was a decisive indication of personal triumph, a reflection of some greater spiritual purge, but the truth is that I probably neither quite knew in which bedroom I could seek solace at the time, nor which parent I felt more comfortable sleeping alongside, as I’d gotten so used to absorbing the heat of both at once. So I went to bed most nights mentally urging myself to stay in my own room, to not get up yelling and sprinting and frothing at the mouth. And it worked.
Somewhat. Though the sleepwalking stopped, the fear of at some point re-encountering it did not. I’d find myself staying up well past my bedtime and watching the darkness. And if not watching, then listening to it. Even if I did get a few hours of sleep, I’d still wake up early after a series of nightmares and watch early morning Nickelodeon programs on the television set in front of my bed to pass a few hours before it was time for school. My favorites were Full House, Everybody Hates Chris, and one other whose title I can’t remember.
My father moved out when I was eleven or twelve, maybe ten. Trying to chronologically visualize that amorphous period is fairly difficult, and I don’t think my increasingly sporadic sleeping habits much helped to solidify my concept of time. But he moved, and on weekends, he’d take me and my sister and toddler brother to his new apartment. The place was in Manhattan, so it wasn’t very far from Long Island, and it was cozy. There was a huge flat-screen television in the living room, tall windows that let in beams of sparkling sunlight, and a small, vibrantly lit kitchen that we’d soon fill with pictures of our trips to Coney Island, Six Flags, and even Chuck E. Cheese.
In terms of sleeping arrangements, my sister and I were to share a bunk bed across the hall from my father’s room, where he and my brother would sink into the king-sized mattress, but neither of us used the flimsy thing more than twice. Some of my fondest memories of that time are of waking up in my father’s bed and looking around at our four intertwined, variously-sized, snoring bodies splayed about the sheets.
I remember the safety in that warm contact. The feeling that even in abject loneliness I somehow belonged. And the promise of sweeter dreams, even if that promise was rarely ever kept.
* * *
My parents dealt with their separation very differently. Out of sheer neglect my father grew an unruly beard that made him look five years older than he actually was, and on weekdays he’d work until well after the fall of night, so he’d have even more time on weekends to spend with me and my siblings. My mother, on the other hand, would obsess over her already meager weight and scour nightclubs for attractive young men, either while my siblings and I were at our father’s apartment or on choice nights during the week, when I’d be tasked with placating the swelling separation anxieties of my siblings.
Despite these differences, my parents shared in common a tendency to launch into hour-long diatribes against each other when I was alone with them. My father would label my mother a stupid bitch for playing the fissure that split apart the beautiful family he’d auctioned off his soul to create, and my mother would paint my father as a self-interested prick who screamed too much and was more interested in financial gain than the well-being of the people he claimed to adore. But as any child of an “amicable” divorce would attest, when they were together, they were nothing but cordial, sometimes even forgiving of each other.
I didn’t know whose account to believe. That uncertainty was only compounded by the fact that I both successfully managed to repress the contents of many of their early shouting matches and tune each of them out when their mouths spat words faster than their heads could censor. I thought things would stay that way, and that I’d maybe be able to maintain perfect equanimity, but my father’s outlook eventually won me and my siblings over, as almost every time we saw him, he’d vocalize his opinions about the woman who ground his heart to sand and left us to flounder like ants in the dust storm she’d spawned. So I apologize if any of my past or soon-to-follow memories of my mother are distorted by an outside perspective over which I had no control.
When I think of her then, I remember how she used to pass her burden of parental care onto me and justify herself by saying she was only doing it because she thought I was mature enough to handle the task. I was the Man of the House, after all. I so wanted to prove her faith in me right that I’d unflinchingly hold my brother as he sobbed himself to fitful sleep after she left for the club, counsel my sister through emotions of maternal hatred already bubbling into her consciousness, and find little worry in the way my sleep cycles became increasingly fractured, twisted, sporadic. All of this because I had to be strong and vigilant, a pillar of stability, since my mother was too confused and blinded by grief to even pretend to be those things for us. Part of me will always resent her for that.
And part of me will always marvel at how she made up for it. Days she’d prepare chicken cordon bleu and yellow rice and sit with us at the kitchen table and talk about everything but the divorce to remind us that life existed beyond the world of adult confusion. Nights she’d spend hours lying with me and my brother and my sister to forget that she probably felt just as formless and adrift as we certainly did. Golden spring afternoons and tepid summer evenings she’d lope around our backyard and spray us with a floppy green garden hose or pelt us with water balloons she’d laced with food coloring or mix dish soap and water and teach us how to blow bubbles with our humble supply of half-bent silver forks.
Most days I think about her fickle brand of resilience. I wonder if that means not all the good she did has been lost on me.
* * *
As my parents settled into their respective comforts, finding new loves and better hobbies and easing their pains with the strange sorcery of time, I grew, and gradually developed a deep love for nighttime.
I have no real conception of how or when this fascination began, but because I’ve always had a penchant for romantic reminiscence, I’ll say it was around the time I made my first set of steady friends in high school. Much of what I enjoyed about them then I admit I no longer do; they were the kind to dismiss common decency as an indication of personal frailty, degrade me and each other and hide behind the weak excuse of affectionate teasing when confronted, and spout the foulest of sexual jokes in movie theaters and supermarkets despite the fact that they were all virgins and would remain painfully so for the majority of high school.
But for a group of uncouth and sexually-frustrated adolescents, they were surprisingly keen on sticking together. There was rarely a day I wouldn’t join them to devour greasy food or shoot hoops behind the gymnasium or play video games in one of our basements until sunset. And, when I became the first to get a license and a car, there was scarcely a night I wouldn’t have them roughhousing in the back seats, their throats thick with laughter, their eyes glowing with some new, outlandish adventure in mind.
I won’t recount specific times with them as much as I’ll illustrate fast-paced developmental periods that roil into what’s always felt to me like a supremely long dream. Not because I don’t have stories, but because it wouldn’t feel right to tell them.
What I mean is that we were indefinite moments. We were habits built and snapped, promises made and snuffed. We were village idiots, nocturnal cretins running stop signs and red lights and bounding a hundred miles an hour down empty highways at three o’clock in the morning, chattering and chortling and secretly feeling at each other’s hearts, trying to hoodwink ourselves into believing, even for a moment, that we were more than just a flock of sleepless kids searching for unattainable meaning. And though for the remainder of my adolescence I returned at four or five o’clock every weekend morning and was exhausted and restless and constantly itching for our next blind excursion into the night, my bed was always warmer, my dreams lighter and more soothing.
I don’t think my parents minded my frequent absences. The few times I asked for their opinion, they seemed encouraging, even happy I’d finally found people I was comfortable with. I don’t care that I didn’t sleep much at all.
I just loathe that, at some point, the world decided we had to grow up with it.
* * *
During our senior prom after-party, my closest friend in the group raped his on-and-off girlfriend in my basement.
It’s much easier to state it like that than it is to explain. So I’ll only say that he was drunk, she substantially more, and he stuck his dick in her mouth while she was half-conscious in the bedroom beside which the rest of us were playing the third or fourth drinking game of the night.
The day after, when he called, confided in me what he’d done, revealed she was looking to press charges, then begged that I take his side, I didn’t know what to say. I still haven’t found a way to summon up language appropriate enough to describe that sense of shock. Back then, when I thought of rape, I would never have thought that someone I knew could do it. Surely not a best friend.
When word got out, the group split into two distinct halves. One was willing to forgive him, and the other was gunning to disparage him whenever possible. Unlike the others, I tried my hand as a mediator like I’d once failed to be with my parents, and like then, I ended up acting more like a length of fraying rope in a nasty game of tug of war. So when his detractors successfully dragged his supporters into the mud pool between them, I fell on the winning side.
Like any good friends would, they cleaned me off, provided much-needed comfort, then armed me with acidic vitriol I could spit at our newfound enemy at school. Some things they told me to shout at him as he passed us in the hallways: scrawny-ass sex offender, dirty fucking Asian rapist, look, it’s the guy who couldn’t get pussy without molesting it. I didn’t want to say any of these things because I still liked him, and part of me wanted to forgive him even though I knew it would be wrong, but I did anyway, yelling and cursing and pointing as he rushed by, and the group seemed to be having such a good time doing it that I actually came to enjoy it.
Until one night when he called me in the middle of an impromptu basketball game at school with the others. I broke off into the nearby parking lot to answer. On the other end I could hear heavy breathing, his unsteady voice. I could barely understand what he was saying. Something about how he’d told his parents he was considering hanging himself, and how they’d replied they wouldn’t have cared if he did. And then a question. Should he do it. And I said no, no, he shouldn’t, he should never, because people loved him, even his parents, and so did I, and he cried on the phone for a while, said thank you and hung up. After that, I went back to the others, almost in tears, and told them what happened. They laughed. One of them said I should’ve told him to do it.
If you’re wondering, he didn’t end up killing himself. But he did, after two months of our incessant public outcry, block everyone in our half of the group on every communication application possible. Even Skype.
The summer of my senior year, I’d take nightly trips with the group I’d chosen, and when I got home, lay quiet in bed, asking myself why I’d picked a side. Why I’d done what I’d done. Why I wasn’t stronger. And what I could have done to make it up to him, even though I knew I couldn’t have done anything.
I don’t remember sleeping much during those three balmy months. I do remember how black my room would come to look, and even recall a recurring nightmare in which he’d be walking away, and I couldn’t run fast enough to catch up to him and make things right. I’d love to say that things have gotten better since then, that time works for everyone the way it seemed to for my parents, but I don’t think that would be entirely honest.
* * *
A good story normally resembles a well wrapped Christmas or birthday present upon its finish. I apologize in advance that this one does not.
I don’t know why I began writing this, or where I expected it to end. Actually, I expected it to finish in college, with a long commentary on the state of my current sleeping habits, but I figure adding that would make this story even more masochistic than it needs to be.
About a week or two before I had the idea to write this, I was diagnosed with PTSD. That one mental illness everybody’s come to associate with combat veterans who’ve watched their friends get blown up by roadside IEDs in the deserts of Afghanistan. A therapist I’ve recently been speaking to over the phone has informed me that, among other incidents, the aforementioned stories have heavily contributed to my diagnosis, and that writing about them would help me heal.
Has doing this helped? I don’t know. I don’t suppose I feel different. Or maybe I do. Maybe I feel freer, like I have a more lucid idea of where my battered relationship with unconsciousness stems from. Maybe this has helped me realize that the reason I don’t remember most of my childhood is because I was in an effectively permanent state of trauma for the majority of my formative years, stuck in a place of split uncertainty, and I’ve repressed many of my horrible memories to survive, or that the reason I distrust everyone and everything on certain days, sometimes even my friends, is because my sturdiest method of interpersonal support in high school was destroyed in the span of a few weeks. My therapist tells me that forgetting is a logical, healthy cognitive response to trauma, and so is distrust, and I believe her, but that doesn’t mean these things don’t unnerve me.
Why? I’ve built my life around reminiscence, trying to weave a cohesive story out of a slew of disjointed events I’ve only recently begun to understand. I feel like it’s every writer’s goal to do that, or maybe every person’s. But I don’t think anybody comes close.
An open question to end with: how strong or fragile are we that pain is something we never entirely remember?