Midnight in the Garden of Women
by Adrienne Celt
It’s been said your relationship to sleep is a mirror of your relationship to yourself. This is certainly a truism in crime novels and TV shows: the guilty party, once behind bars, sleeps like a baby. He knows he’s been caught, and so he takes his rest where he can get it, while the innocent party, the falsely accused, stays awake in the next cell over and frets.
I’ve always been an easy sleeper, and given the criminal metaphor, I’m not sure what that says about me. My husband tosses and turns almost every night, getting up routinely an hour before his alarm, or telling me – when I compliment him on a rare instance of sleeping in – that it’s only because he was awake from two to five, or that he isn’t actually sleeping, it’s an illusion. He’s an anxious person, so maybe that’s why; a difference between us that combines the chemical and the emotional. When I climb into bed, I might read for a little while, but generally I get sleepy and drift off. New rooms don’t faze me; if I’m tired enough I can sleep on the couch or the floor. Airplanes used to be my waterloo, but not anymore. I can sleep anywhere.
I tend to dream abundantly, too, and during the day I actually crave the feeling of those dreams, the light and dark of them. They seem to be telling me important things, and as a result I have trouble prying myself awake. Don’t you like sleeping? I ask my husband. No, he says. Sleep is the enemy. Which seems insane to me. Sleep is the most cherished friend. Sleep is the constant companion. Sleep is where you go when hope is lost in waking, whether by your own hand as with a novel’s captured cat burglar, or by the hand of fate, as with my current everyday life.
The state of the world diminishes, and each night I sleep more and more.
In high school I developed a phobia of writing about my dreams (which is, as a writer, probably a good phobia). My psychology teacher had assigned us to keep rigorous dream journals, dedicating ten or fifteen minutes to the practice every morning and immediately jotting down anything we remembered if we woke up in the middle of the night. Apparently this practice had been shown to improve dream recall in clinical experiments, but I didn’t buy it. Dreams, to me, were unpredictable and nervy as animals: they came to the still and outstretched hand, not to the clinician’s notebook, and I thought that if I wrote them down they’d get spooked and stop coming. But I was a good student, so I did it anyway. Unfortunately, I was also right.
After a week of dream journaling, I stopped remembering any dreams at all. In fact it felt like I stopped even having dreams, but my teacher assured me that I’d have gone insane if that were the case. Still, I was upset enough that she gave me permission to quit the journal project and make it up with short essays, which I happily did. It took another month before my easy relationship with sleep resumed.
I used to have a lot of flight dreams, and occasionally I still do. Jumping from a building and swooping low over a river, skimming the water before sweeping back up. All the best ones involve this kind of downward glide before I hit altitude, sometimes with a running leap, sometimes skinning my knee on the pavement before tilting up. I practice catching gusts of wind so I can avoid hitting telephone wires and treetops, and I’m always better at it than anyone else in the dream. Most often I’m perfectly happy, and alone.
I ask my husband what kind of dreams he has, if he remembers, and he says things like, The high school dream where I didn’t go to class all semester, or, cryptically, Another Whore of Babylon dream, which is usually followed by a genuine shudder. Here it is again: he sleeps poorly, and I sleep well. I wonder how it could be possible that he, a white man in America, has the unsteady sleep of the innocent while I, a woman, am given the easy rest of the condemned.
That’s not fair, of course. My husband is a good person, and I love him. But every day, more and more promises are broken to my body by the public. I am catcalled, or my health care is dismissed by a statesman as superfluous even where it might help me have a baby, or a man caught on film bragging about the sexual assaults he’s committed is elected to the presidency. Meanwhile, no promises ever seem to be broken to my husband’s body at all.
Last summer I got good at waking up in the six-o’clock hour, so I could go horseback riding before the Arizona sun reached its punishing zenith. Six isn’t that early, I know, but rising before seven goes against my body’s internal clock, and I was proud of the way I felt I’d matured, doing something a bit difficult, making a choice. Through September, I stopped sleeping past seven-thirty even on weekends, and I was getting a lot done. Riding, sure, but also writing and drawing, not to mention the work for my day job in marketing. I walked the dog, I cooked a lot of dinners, I arrived on time for weekly breakfasts.
Throughout the election cycle I was terribly anxious, but it was a productive and forward-looking anxiety. Women were writing blithe articles about fashion as self-realization, we were all thinking about ways that health care might be improved, and about how satisfying it was to watch progress punch and kick its way forward. What a time to be alive! The first woman president! Each evening I got into bed by ten o’clock, and fell asleep most nights by eleven. In the mornings I didn’t press snooze: I swung into action the moment my alarm started blaring.
Then November came and went. A moment of narrative pause, a question: did that really happen? I’m still not always sure. The night of the election I texted my father, “Daddy, I’m scared,” and though he was confident enough at that point to shoot me a message saying I should keep my chin up, some part of me already knew. The election took something from me. A thing I might not get back. I think about the photos I saw online of nonagenarian women, women born before suffrage who got to cast their vote for Hillary but then – and this part went largely undocumented – woke up the next day to the same old shit. I honestly didn’t think that American democracy would allow for us, the women, to be so deeply humiliated, or that the American public would so thoroughly abrogate their moral duty to the poor, to the disenfranchised, to the sick. But I was wrong.
These days I routinely sleep past my alarm.
Maybe it at least makes sense now that my sleep is, less than ever before, the sleep of the innocent. Each day as I read the headlines, I feel more accused. You believed that things would get better and better. You believed you deserved to make choices for your own body, your life. You were so naïve. You were such a fool. I feel more like a soldier, now. To my own disappointment, I feel more suspicious of everyone’s motives, less willing to smile at neighbors on the street. Every night I find myself so exhausted I can barely keep my eyes open past nine p.m., and in the mornings there seems to be no limit to how long I would stay in bed, unconscious, if life would allow it.
As a writer, I’ve never been a fan of the idea that fiction is escapist. That isn’t to say I don’t love fast-paced, topsy-turvy storytelling, or that I don’t look to stories as an opportunity to be immersed. All the hallmarks of escapism are there for me, I guess, but I just don’t agree that the “escapist” tag should carry the sort of moral judgment it always seems to. I’ve never thought that stepping outside my day-to-day existence is bad, or that doing so carries no benefit for me. I think that, as a reader and a writer both, I’m hopping between realities, defying science. I’m engaging in radical empathy, and forcing the world to swell beyond its known boundaries.
I also feel this way about dreams. Maybe that’s what my relationship to sleep really says about me: not that I have a guilty conscience, but that I have a deep experiential greed. Or, to put it nicely, a hunger. I want things to be better than they are. I want them to be more. And I’m willing to work hard for that, to bleed for it, but I’m also willing, when the situation demands, to simply relinquish myself to it. To fall inside the deeper world and look around. To see what mad life might be possible, and to let that possibility feed me.
Adrienne Celt is the author of The Daughters, a novel, which won the 2015 PEN Southwest Book Award, and Apocalypse How? An Existential Bestiary, a book of comics. Her short fiction has appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories, Epoch, Ecotone, Zyzzyva, Esquire, Prairie Schooner, Electric Lit, and many other places, and her essays and comics have been published by The Rumpus, The Toast, the Tin House Open Bar, Catapult, Electric Lit, and elsewhere. She publishes a webcomic (most) every Wednesdays at loveamongthelampreys.com.