After Dark

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IMG_5447The night is only a sort of carbon paper
Blueblack, with the much-poked periods of stars
Letting in the light, peephole after peephole—
A bonewhite light, like death, behind all things.
Under the eyes of the stars and the moon’s rictus
He suffers his desert pillow, sleeplessness
Stretching its fine, irritating sand in all directions.

Sleep carries with it its horrors.

The gnashing of teeth, the tremors I’ve carried through adulthood, and the abrupt cycles between sleeping and being awake. It’s never Neverland; but ever since the gnashing became harder, the tremors became shakier, and the hours of sleep have shortened, I’ve somehow thrown the body clock out the window.

Insomnia’s kind of strange.

*****

You look up to the bedroom ceiling, staring at a seemingly infinite void, and wrestle with solitude. You think of things: work, passions, loves, abominations, smiles, tears. You grind your teeth in the dark. You lie on your hands and cross your legs to keep yourself still enough for a moment of sleep. Once you’re there, you wake up minutes later, still fighting the hours ticking by.

You hear popping noises, from overworked veins in the back of your head. Your body gets entangled by invisible limbs in the dark, taking you away to dream. Yet at the same time, they never really take you there, but leave you grasping for them. Dreams: fond memories, perhaps hopes and desires, visions of the future, or maybe an alternate universe of all of them combined.

You yawn, but your jaws stay open. You welcome a sure sign of sleep as your eyelids get heavier, but for a few seconds you lie gaping in the dark, frozen in a yawn. The darkness can feed you nightmares through your mouth: the writhing tentacles of sea monsters, the horrifying sight of a burning hand, or premonitions of a disaster. Or worse, those memories: the ones best left ignored, never remembered, never revisited. Those ones that deserve to be thrown into—and swallowed by—the void.

Panic ensues. A few short breaths later, you’re able to close your mouth; but once again, your eyes stay open. Your hands continue shaking. You lie awake in the dark, the faint red glow of the smoke detector indicator blinking every minute or two.

You stay riveted on it, fixated. If your eyes could burn a hole right through the solid darkness, the smoke would have triggered the alarm. You would be drenched, but still awake. Sleep eludes you like a never-ending cat-and-mouse chase. You leaf through books for a good few hours, and still remain as wide-eyed at the final chapter as when you began. You breeze through mindless TV getting to know more about stone pots and double-pans, and know the latest news on Africa a couple of hours later. There’s the work you brought home, and you take your time with the old salt mine.

And then there are the pills: taken in with trembling hands, gnashed between the teeth, all in darkness. It’s all become routine: the dream of a good night’s sleep, and the nightmare of staying awake. In the dark are memories, fears, hopes, and the many barbs of dread. When the active ingredients kick in, you can only hope that you’ll be taken along by one of the good ones. Ones that don’t remind you of things. Ones that don’t stoke your fears. Ones that would just allow you to rest your eyes a bit. Ones that don’t give you a really bad sense of deja vu.

But mostly the sleep comes after dark: when the sky turns a brighter shade of blue, and the birds start chirping to herald a new day.

I guess that’s what insomnia is: it’s not the inability to sleep, but the long and wakeful journey to get that bit of slumber after dark.

*****

Nightlong, in the granite yard, invisible cats
Have been howling like women, or damaged instruments.
Already he can feel daylight, his white disease,
Creeping up with her hatful of trivial repetitions.
The city is a map of cheerful twitters now,
And everywhere people, eyes mica-silver and blank,
Are riding to work in rows, as if recently brainwashed.

(Poem: the first and last stanzas of “Insomniac” by Sylvia Plath)

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