WHEN YOU CAN'T FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO YOU GO?

On a dark and stormy morning…

 

I woke early

4am

drank tea and lay down on my acupressure mat 

 

my lover calls it a bed of nails

 

to relieve a headache that’d been brewing 

all night interrupting sleep 

 

I wavered half-in, half-out 

a dream world suspended in ugh

 

everything a cloud as wet and heavy as cement.

 

Golden oblong leaves fell

I watched them

cover the backyard table and chairs

 

cover the hammock

wind-tossed and wet

 

rain came through the window screens 

soaked the kitchen counter

watered the windowsill succulents 

got in the salt bowl. 

 

Sometimes my bathroom smells like a hotel. 

Sometimes my whole house smells foreign. 

Sometimes I cannot cope. 

 

There is violence outside. 

Wind whips.

 

Rusty leaves propeller through a snow white sky. 

 

Wind rushes in stereo static through the bedroom window 

damp and salty from the sea.

 

Rooftops, matte against the Snow White sky, 

loom as Chris Ware panels. 

 

A dog barks. Will I sleep again?

 

My mother says waking at 4am is full of horrors 

because we’re on the edge of sleep, 

slipping out of dream and sliding into being

where anything imagined is possible

even a monstrous version of a nothing event, 

especially that. 

 

My lover says we are at our most rational at 4am, 

we are most clearheaded stripped bare, 

silent and alone, closer when naked to truth.

That smell? Not a lemon rotting in the basket 

but time. Tooth decay and muscle rot,

liver spots and age.

 

My friend says when she wakes at 4am 

she watches The Golden Girls and drinks genmaicha tea. 

“It’s real sweet and simple,” she says. 

She is good at making things better.  

 

I’m told you can never make up for lost sleep

that it’s bad for your health, it ages you,

and makes you a creep. (I Googled this: 

“what makes a person a creep”

The Internet said, “Thin, pale people with long fingers 

and bags under their eyes are creeps.”)

 

I am a surefire creep. When I get this tired 

my eyes pulse, my head hurts, my belly aches

my tongue feels coated in foreign saliva

and late night obsessions pop up 

 

to pass the time 

these days

that’s Phoebe Bridgers.

 

It started when Tim Heidecker said he doesn’t like new music,

but he likes Phoebe Bridgers. 

 

Then I heard Phil Elverum is a fan.

So now I listen to her

like this: 

 

4am on a bed of nails

drinking tea, hoping for sleep. 

 

I was quick to dismiss her pretty girl dream pop sound

but her content’s bewitched me. 

 

Serotonin, suicide pacts, dead kids, emotional numbness,

scaring yourself, serial killers — all feature in her songs. 

 

She wears a skeleton suit and tells people to, “Fuck off.”

When asked how someone gets to be her friend, 

she replied, “Unconditional love and support.”

 

I will love you, I say in the morning. I’ll support you, Phoebe. 

 

People who sleep

like people who don’t get headaches

treat people who don’t sleep

like they do people who get headaches:

You’re lying. "What’s really going on?”

 

People who sleep

like people who don’t get headaches

don’t understand the pain of a sleepless night

let alone a series of sleepless nights

just as they don’t understand the fury of a migraine

punching fire in your mind.

 

When you tell people who sleep that you did not sleep

they say, “Late night?”

(wink)

 

When you tell people who sleep that you did not sleep 

they offer suggestions:

“Watch your caffeine intake.”

“Don’t drink alcohol before bed.”

“Get blackout curtains.” 

 

Some say, “Have you tried meditating?”

Others say, “Just take an Ambien.”

 

I took an Ambien once, but knew of the Ambien Walrus

so I didn’t throw my keys (or body) out the window.

I recorded the affair instead. 

The recording includes lines like:

My face is melting. 

My dog is a spy. 

They’re in the walls. 

 

When I was 23, after two weeks of sleepless nights, 

I was deemed a danger to myself or someone else

and endured an involuntary stint in the loony bin.

Among the inpatients during intake they asked,

"Do you like the boys or the girls?" 

I laughed.

They asked if I had a problem with my sexuality and told me to change my T-shirt. 

"It’s too revealing," they said.

I asked, "Do you have a problem with your sexuality?"

and they called me argumentative.

 

They asked, “Why are you so angry?”

I said, “Because my heart weighs like a burden and sometimes I cannot breathe.”

They said, "Your blood pressure is high. Take these.” 

Two pills. 

I played chess in the dayroom and the board expanded, my mind erased

and I could not recall the difference between a bishop and a rook. 

I stood up and stumbled. My opponent whispered,

“Are you seeing the pink elephants?”

 

A nurse said, “Sit down and drink this.” 

Cold water in a Dixie cup. 

 

A woman told me she killed her boyfriend, 

gave him OCs when he asked for aspirin. 

A woman thought I was her sister-in-law Barbara and demanded I pay up. 

A woman loved Jesus and sang from a hymnal she carried in her armpit. 

I liked when she sang but I couldn't tell her without making her cry 

so when she came around I sat quietly and hoped.

 

A woman was dopesick and wanted an Ativan but didn't get one 

so she screamed, “I’LL FUCKING KILL MYSELF!” 

over and over again. 

 

A woman said she was class president then sighed, “Now look at me.” 

A woman stayed in bed all day and only got up to use the bathroom. 

 

A woman picked her skin, her cheek, her right cheekbone, and stared. 

One day she turned to me and said, “It is important to have female friends.” 

A woman watched Law & Order reruns with her arms crossed.

Sometimes she laughed and sometimes she said, “Hmpf.” 

A woman slit her wrists with a wine glass and was admitted 

in the middle of the afternoon with bright white bandaged arms. 

She said her sons found her when they came home from school. 

She was sitting in an armchair

watching a game show 

when the idea to break a glass and drag it across her arms

overwhelmed her. 

Her husband came to visit her. He was a fireman. 

She sobbed, “I didn’t mean to.” 

“I know,” he said.

 

Outside the dayroom was a giant tree fenced in by a concrete wall 

topped with glistening coils of barbed wire. 

If you smoked cigarettes you could stand outside by the tree 

three times a day for the duration of your cigarette. 

I bummed menthols from the woman who killed her boyfriend.

We sat together beneath the tree and talked.

 

She told me the problem with these places. 

“The people running things? They’re book smart, 

they don’t know shit about life.”

 

One night all the women (except The Woman Who Sleeps) 

sat together and watched American Idol

They said things like: 

“He reminds me of my son.” 

“To have a body like hers.” 

“This song makes me cry.” 

“Do you think it’s rigged?” 

“I like her shoes.”

“She’s so beautiful.”

 

I did puzzles in front of the nurses’ station and asked for crayons to draw. 

I went to every group meeting and finished every meal. 

I went to bed without issue and woke up without a fight. 

My mother told the doctor, “She is playing you.” 

And my mother was right. 

I can charm the pants off any charlatan when freedom’s the prize. 

 

When insurance ran out I took home a prescription goody bag

that included a bottle of Trazodone for depression and sleep. 

“Oh, a multi-tasker,” I told the discharge nurse

but she didn't smile. 

 

Trazodone made my nose stuffy.

My therapist said a stuffy nose was a common side effect.

“Don’t think about it,” he said.

 

I thought instead about kicking him in the shins,

sharply in the center of each tibia

with steel-tipped boots I do not own. 

 

He took notes on a yellow legal pad 

and one week asked the same questions he asked the week before.

I answered verbatim because his pad was flipped around,

I could read his notes. 

 

He learned his error when he flipped over the pad.

I watched his face loosen. He glanced at me. 

“Something wrong?” I smiled. 

He gave me more meds. 

 

This time, Abilify.

I told him it gave me tunnel vision.

He said, “Tunnel vision is not a side effect. 

But if you’re concerned, cut your pills in half.”

 

To cut pills in half you need a pocket-sized guillotine.

I love the precision of this device.

I love the crunch of a pill and the dust it creates. 

 

I stopped seeing this therapist and taking these meds

when I showed up one week and he wasn’t there.

He didn’t work there anymore. He’d moved offices. 

 

“He didn’t tell you?” the receptionist said. 

“He was supposed to tell you.”

 

“As I get older” is a phrase you start saying in your thirties. 

 

As I get older I’ve come to understand

communication is one of the hardest things we do. 

In recent years I’ve adopted a blunt honesty approach,

but still, there are misunderstandings. 

 

A wise man once said: 

A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.

 

As I get older I’ve come to understand

that hearing is our real enemy, not our words. 

It’s our failure to hear that distorts our most straightforward lines

from “I love you” to “Give me your soul”

and “I don’t want to do that” to “Leave me alone.”

So the boy runs away and the girl’s heart splits in two.

 

As I get older, birthdays gather dust.

Soon I will be 36.

I have always loved the number 36.

 

As a child the magic of nine blew my mind.

9 x 2 = 18, 1 + 8 = 9

9 x 3 = 27, 2 + 7 = 9

9 x 4 = 36, 3 + 6 = 9

9 x 5 = 45,  4 + 5 = 9

…and so on, but I liked 36 the best:

3, 6, 9 fall neatly in a line.

It’s semiperfect and that’s perfect enough for me.

 

Unsurprisingly, last year I turned 35

and spent the day at MASS MoCA.

I went to see Laurie Anderson’s Chalkroom. 

Afterward I took myself out to dinner

to a French restaurant at the top of a hill.

 

It was raining.

 

The centuries old building was small, an old farmhouse

with low-hanging beams and wide creaking floorboards. 

The fireplace roared, wood cracked and spat. 

 

I ate grilled salmon with hollandaise, drank a lavender Collins,

and listened to the people beside me discuss wicking socks. 

I read: Every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

 

Then I drove in the rain singing Patsy Cline till my throat hurt

and checked into a deluxe king suite at a nearby hotel 

and took a bath in a clawfoot tub made for two. 

 

I slept scrubbed clean and naked in a king size bed and missed my dog.

In the morning I went to a diner and got fried eggs, 

hash browns, coffee and toast for $3.35. 

 

I sat at the counter and the man at the grill said, “I like your ring.”

“Thanks. I just found it.” 

It was in my backpack.

I have no idea where it came from. 

When I left he said, “It was a pleasure serving you.”

And I felt seen in a new way. 

 

I got in my car and began the drive home

through the Berkshires with its turning leaves —

red sugar maples, yellow oaks, lit in vibrant orange

pretty enough to run your hands through.

 

Once I built a teepee in these woods 

with a couple of friends I no longer know 

and later that night we had a party at the teepee 

but then some asshole burned the teepee down 

so I walked home pissed-off 

with a couple other friends I no longer know 

and when my lover crawled in bed beside me 

we pressed against each other like scaredy cats. 

 

Later I’d learn he’d fallen in a bush

that was crawling with poison ivy 

so our desperate midnight hugging 

left us covered in blistering, poisonous rashes. 

 

I had to go on steroids. 

I had poison ivy in my eye. 

But I’d do it all again.

 

That was the year of The Beatles 

when everyone said, 

“This is the best day of my life.”

 

It was the first hot day of the year.

We spent it outside on a hill.

There was live music and food cooking on portable grills.

 

I walked to the top of the hill with a guy who felt the holy moments

and when we laid down on the grass he told me,

“I always carry a copy of the White Album.

That way if I wind up at the bottom of a river

at least they’ll know I was a good guy.”

 

He and I spent the rest of the afternoon in his room

naked, in bed, talking, doing other things, 

and as the sun went down we walked back to our friends on the hill.

 

The air was still warm and the grills were still going,

the music was still playing and everyone was still saying,

“This is the best day of my life.”

 

It is eight o’ clock in the morning 

soon I will have to go to work.

 

My head is pulsing and I’m lying on a bed of nails,

occasionally sipping tea. I am on my third cup.

When it’s gone I’ll take a shower and switch to coffee.

I have slept 18 hours in six days 

 

The other night I wrote a spiritual

but I think it’s someone else’s song. 

 

The lyrics are simple.

It is the opposite of free jazz,

which was recently explained to me as:

Music without repetition. 

 

My spiritual is nothing but repetition.

It is chant, it is meditative, it is repeating the words:

 

I don’t know where I’m going

I don’t know where I’ll go

 

over and over again.

 

I don’t know where I’m going

I don’t know where I’ll go

 

Getting loud then soft 

 

I don’t know where I’m going

I don’t know where I’ll go

 

loud then soft

 

I don’t know where I’m going

I don’t know where I’ll go

I don’t know where I’m going

I don’t know where I’ll go

 

loud then soft, loud then soft, 

then loud and so soft your voice creaks 

and croaks

 

I-I-I

 

comes out like a stutter 

 

d-donn knnooow

 

real soft like you’re crying and don’t want to

 

wheeere I-I-m goinnn

 

and slow, slow like you’re choking, short on oxygen

 

I-I-I don know wheeere I-I-I’llll go-o

 

until finally the breath you draw is your last gasp 

and the words come out like a question 

 

I-I-I-I d-don knooo whe-eerre I’m goinnn?

 

then it happens

you let it out 

unleash it. 

 

Belt out the closer with everything you got:

 

But I suuure knoooow wheeeere I-I-I’ve been!

 

Because I can see it

like movies

broken splices

cut film 

sepia tone

technicolor

super 8

16

65

millimeter 

overexposed

digitized

black and white

and silent

all these memories splash together

water in a whirlpool

sucked down the drain

a mother’s love

a lover’s kiss

a friend’s laugh

(Where have you gone?)

I play you on repeat

until the film degrades

that slow collapse 

no pain, betrayal, injury. 

No, “No you can’t! 

And no, you never will!”

So all that’s left is the happiness of a warm gun

I can’t put down and I can’t get back. 

 

Sometimes life gets to a point

where you’re okay with either outcome

over easy or over hard

and you wait, just sit back and wait

in a lawn chair before the fireworks display

wait, there’s only so much psychic wonderings the mind can do

before it turns to nonsense.

 

Drape the curtain there. Make sure she dances before noon.

You’ll do your best to get back to me, won’t you?

Promise me this, just promise me this one thing:

Don’t make it happen, let it happen.

Ha! A prelude to tonight’s firework events:

A Conversation with Daisy: A Soap Opera in Three Parts…

 

(The mind creates and desecrates 

cycles and concocts

stamps footprints on gray matter

and what's that matter to me?)

 

I have to shower and I should eat

something is where this one goes

one day there’ll be less of me

and I will mourn something lost

so long ago it’s silly

to remember you existed once

a boy in black jean cutoffs laughing
my de-facto brother 

dead longer than he lived

it’s bizarre to think of

like missing a childhood toy

you need but have no use for

the dread of falling back in time

travel, that’s the danger of 4am —

you never know where it’ll take you.