A common dilemma, its currency: a notion, panic. Something that sounds like the ridge of a gnawed-at finger nail; sounds like memory, when it coalesces along the rat-tat-tat of the number line. It sounds like a dream, like gravity if it made a noise, crushing down on the ridge of proper sigma, poised at the start of an infinite sum infinite sum why does each addition sound like a crash why does it keep getting louder why does infinity sound like a scream scream SCREAM—
The first thing I see is the pane of an open window, but only an outline glints enough in the cooled down street lights. It’s quiet. I roll over to feel that cold sweat has leaked deep into my sheets, deep into the old t-shirt I’ve gotten used to wearing every night to sleep in. I throw it off and feel the damp sheets pressed close against my spine. A reminder.
A reminder that no, I don’t have a photographic memory, but when I study for a math exam too close to bedtime I see the numbers in some kaleidoscopic nightmare. The louder the numbers are, the harder I’ve studied; or, the reverse, and the loudness is just the panic of not having done enough to prepare.
Sometimes I think about the dreams I’ve had: most of them beautiful, some not so much. I don’t know how to classify these ones—the ones about series and summations—but I’m picking the skin on my cuticles as I write this. Perhaps I should make a new category: dreams that hit too close to home. Dreams that get too close to curious notions, like infinity.
I have a CPAP machine that drones loud and proud between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. When I was seventeen, I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, and before that, I never questioned now many times I woke up in a night: twenty or thirty on good nights. At a sleep study, I once impressed the working technician with how many times my airways became obstructed in one night: one hundred thirty-two. It’s a record that’ll hold until my next sleep study.
If I wake up because my airways have collapsed, I don’t usually remember gasping. I only remember my eyes opening, glinting window panes. Never a sound. I’ve gotten used to waking up in the middle of the night; the CPAP only does such a good job at pumping air into my trachea.
To die and be reborn between the hours of 11 p.m. and 8 a.m. That’s how I’d put it if I were to wax poetic.
When you work out an infinite sum, it never looks quite like what you might expect. Usually too clean, chalked up to a formula (see: infinite sum of a geometric series). There’s elegance there, but it’s something deeper, something scarier. To peek underneath the cover of mathematics and get a look at the mechanisms of endlessness. Maybe that’s what it means to have sleep apnea, to have a license to travel so close to the edge that if you were to teeter you might slip and—
I wonder how close I’ve gotten to infinity in the past before the oxygen in my blood reached low enough levels to catapult me out of addition and wake me up out of a slumber that felt just a little bit too—
Dream, 28-29 January 2017:
After hanging off the side of a freight train for as long as I can remember, I arrive. I’m on the thirty-ninth story of a giant art deco Gothic skyscraper. I believe this is home. I have a general spatial awareness of the room, although I have no idea what any other floors in the building look like.
In the apartment, I’m hanging out with someone who at times—I think—is my sister. She leaves and I go to take a shower, then carefully clean and replace all the items in the shower. The shower is in a multi-layered beige tub, recessed somewhat into the wall and the floor. It’s big and spacious, low to the floor but full of nooks and crannies on which all sorts of shower items are stored. It’s dark: there’s a dark green curtain and no light from above.
It feels like I’m in the shower for a day, but this also feels normal. I’m wearing clothes the whole time but the water doesn’t get them wet. Now I’m not sure I took a shower. My sister returns. There is also a young guy who is my brother, I think, even though I don’t have one. I have some anxiety about a family gathering that’s about to happen. My mom has an announcement. Something negative. My sister and I are skeptical since nothing, in our opinions, could be a bigger negative surprise than dad being about to die—unless mom is about to die, but we think it’s probably just something new about our family schedule.
I remember to measure the space: twenty paces from the elevator to the main room, maybe ten to the other hallway, which terminated at another lateral hallway, which I never entered.
I also remember tasting chocolate-covered cherries, the syrupy kind.
Dream, 9-10 February 2017:
Tornado careens in slow motion through a warehouse, made of wood paneling and has no windows but has light creeping in through cracks. Hit my head on a tree, explaining as it happens to a bystander in a blue shirt. I write in Sharpie on dual sides of one small, oblong glass container held against another, “I like this. I think my character interprets it as the first move in a power struggle which I [rub it out and start again] power struggle. I’m not equipped to fight because I don’t have your political know-how, but I have fought before,” and lose blood, not applying pressure, it’s dark but not totally so, go to a medic, tired and pale but obviously helps. Shines a flashlight at the back of my head. Says, “What happened? What happened?”
I’m in love with the anxious spaces I see in my sleep:
An Italianate staircase, wrapped around an obelisk, leading into a deep, black indoor pool. A meandering parkway in the sky. An infinite beachfront, where I attend ocean swim class with my high school girlfriend. A sleek, copper-covered hotel in Oslo, where I sit doodling and listening to someone beg for money on NPR.
I run into C___ as we get in an elevator. I ask him if he’s going down and he jokes that he’s going up. The elevator, gilded and red-walled, shoots down. We step off in 1903 Hall.
the anesthesia is strong in this one! welcome to the wing of mccosh that doesn’t exist, the wing everyone passes on their way to late meal but never really thinks about. it scares the shit out of me, especially because they’ve got me all strapped up to this bed like a mummified pharaoh. they think i’m going to die but i think that’s stupid. all i want to do is sleep. my therapist keeps asking me these questions though—questions that won’t let me sleep. questions like tell me more about how you’re feeling and how often do you you hurt yourself? i tell him i don’t ever really mark it down on my calendar. like okay, i have lecture from 1:30 to 2:50, then i have to split open my wrists from 3:30-4:30, then i have to go to a nassau weekly meeting at 5:00.
welcome to suicide watch! sleeping is the only thing to do here besides play candyland and i’ve been bored of living since i finished the harry potter series for the first time. but i can’t sleep—there’s a persistent beeping noise that haunts me, because once i went to the emergency room and it never shut the fuck up. but that’s beside the point. the point is the beeping. it pinpricks my skin, leaves little red bubbles. i can’t sleep like this. not when the guy next to me is watching judge judy on the white hanging television. not when i just want to know what i am. but if i can’t know that, i’ll settle for sleep, because sleep is the second best thing.
i told you that you can always reach out to me if you’re in a moment of extreme distress, my therapist says.
ha! i barely know you. all i know is that i want to throw this cellophane-wrapped tray of food across the room. ten points if i hit the plastic hibiscus. thirty points if i hit a nurse. a million points if i hit my therapist in the face.
i slip into sleep because my hands cannot keep holding up reality in their cat’s cradle game. it isn’t strong enough, there aren’t enough triangles. triangles are strong but i am not. this is why i sleep, because the ceiling of clouds is crushing, it pushes down on my shoulders. maybe this is what atlas feels like, holding up the earth. if there is enough in my system i sleep with no dreams. when i wake i don’t remember your face, the semicircle curve of his upper lip as he looked at me, the sounds in the boxes of my childhood dollhouse that made me clap my hands over my ears. this is why i sleep, because i can’t keep everything out with two hands. when i sleep i am not a person anymore, i am just a thought and if i’m lucky i will mix steadily into black and blue like the bruises my mother left on my brain. so i sleep like a child, a child that was never a child.
when i wake up my dorm room windows are open, it is storming, the water is all over my bedsheets, the wind is screaming. it is screaming wake up you piece of shit that’s not how you not exist. you can’t just turn your phone off and your light off and put your face into a bunch of pillows. you’re still going to wake up during the next thunderstorm. you’re still going to exist in the morning. sleep is a temporary fix.
sometimes i’m jealous of her, the sleeping girl on the train, only about eight or nine years old. her cheek is squished against the window as we rattle along, and, not for the first time, i wonder if her dreams are beautiful. i hope they are.
It now takes at least two cups of coffee just to make my morning headache go away; three if I actually want to feel at all alive. My mind is cloudy, still trapped in the fog of sleep. When my alarm goes off, I am thrown from one universe to another; from the silky night of my dreams to the blackout-blind-induced darkness of my bedroom; from an alternate world where every day is the first day of my life, back to my own where it’s just another day. Eventually I have to wake up and learn how to be myself again.
Why is it that we only remember dreams when we wake up in the middle of them? I wonder if that’s even true, or if it’s just some pseudoscience that I always believed. Does our brain only try to remember whatever was so cruelly torn from us, trying to piece together the rest of the story, or is it trying to regain those initial moments, that feeling of being born and that first gasp for air? I dwell on the dream world too often, thinking about dreams for more time than I actually spend dreaming. I am fascinated by them, or at least by the image I have of them as a window into your own subconscious, where you can wake up one morning with an entirely different understanding of yourself. Too much Freud and not enough going on in my waking life means I am constantly searching for something strange in my dreams, something interesting to talk about and analyze to death. I try to understand my own subconscious, which remains as much an of enigma to me as any other. But I’m not lucky enough to get the good dreams. I had a dream the other day where I was taking a history exam. I woke up feeling stressed and exhausted after the long test, and I swear I even felt a cramp in my hand. Or how about when I dreamt about spending hours filing paperwork in some gray office building devoid of any sound, color, or sign of human life? Fuck my subconscious—even in my dreams I’m boring.
I am laying on the couch, feeling myself melt into its musty form. I close my eyes; I know this is dangerous, but I do it anyway. Soon enough, I find myself sinking into sleep. I don’t even try to fight it—the pull is too strong, and I just let myself sink. The music softens around me as I fall deeper under the water, further and further from the light, until I lose all sight of the surface and the world above. I am floating, suspended in the nothingness.
A flash of light, or a tap on the shoulder, or a voice a bit too loud—I am jolted awake.
I surface too quickly, with not enough time to decompress, and water fills my lungs. I don’t know where I am, who I am, for a moment—until finally my vision clears, and I can see the familiar fabric of couch, with its yellow flowers and bits of stuffing peeking through, and I can feel its scratchiness against my skin. It takes a while for me to start breathing normally. I had grown so used to life underwater.
Some nights I wake up what seems like every hour. I find myself all twisted up in the covers: the straitjacket holds me firmly in place, halting my escape back into dreams. If I spend too long untangling myself, too much time outside the dream world, it is impossible to find my way back. I lay there with my eyes scrunched up tight, but it doesn’t work. Sleep becomes a distant, unreachable place, fading too quickly out of my view.
We linger in the sea as long as possible, until we are forcibly pulled out, till human voices wake us, and we drown. But what if I don’t listen to the voices, don’t let myself fall victim to their tricks? I tune them out for as long as I can, hold my breath for a little longer, until I know it’s time to swim to the surface.
When I was a kid and people told me that dragons did not exist, I knew that they were lying. I had seen them, the dragons, and the fairies; the monsters, and the angels. But the others were not so easily convinced.
“Seeing is believing,” they would remark derisively.
“Believing is seeing,” I would reply, entertaining their cliché.
Yet no matter how much they mocked or scorned, I knew that somehow my dreams had to be realities.
They told me not to pretend. Thanks to movies nowadays, my friends were all realists. Films ruin everyone by revealing that Santa isn’t real, that the unicorns don’t exist— oh yeah, and remember that dog that went to live with Uncle Jim? Well, he died. They said these things with an air of precocious certainty that I could not accept. I saw these movies too, of course, but I chose to believe in something greater. And even as time passed, my philosophy hardly changed.
Growing up did mean that the creatures of my mind transformed. It meant that the dragons turned into actions like acing tests, and finding love. Slowly, I became less fond of the daylight, and looked eagerly towards the night, when all my ambitions would be realized. Night was my escape. I began to associate these late hours with endless opportunity, while day was synonymous with restriction and restraint.
I stopped sharing these dreams with the others; their reactions cast shadows of doubt on my aspirations. Even so, I knew that I would have to bridge the gap between us. Not because I wanted to make them see what I saw, but because I wanted dawn to bring all the pleasures of my sleep.
The others only believed what they saw. But I was always different.
With age came less sleep; less sleep meant fewer dreams. As the volume of my dreams dwindled, I clung to them ever so tightly. Somehow, just knowing that they were there gave me comfort, as if at any moment, they could burst forth into the daylight.
And they did: slow at first, and then, all at once. It wasn’t that I stood idly, waiting for my truths to become realities, but rather that I began to work hard to achieve them.
This transition that ensued was different from the one that came before. Instead of moving from childish images to more mature ones, the shift was from sight to action. The humors of my adolescence were no longer aspirations; finally, they were attainable.
No one knew why my successes began to emerge. The others were blinded by their own naïve cynicism. They would not learn that it took time for ideas to become thoughts, to manifest into beliefs, to result in action. What they could achieve, if they only knew.
Lost in a dreamless sleep, my dreams have become my realities. The distinctions between night and day have withered as I have taken ownership of my life, a life in which anything is possible.
I have learned how true it is that we do not live in a sea of blacks and whites but in an ocean of grays; how the shackles of truth that we chain ourselves to only prevent us from feeling the fears of our own reality.
Because ultimately, what more is our reality than that which we choose to believe?
I don’t remember all of my dreams, but I promise I know each and every one. They are hidden in my mind, deep in my unconscious psyche. They are my hopes, my goals, my wishes.
But more importantly, they are real. Despite what the others said, I have found the “A”s and the boys with my unrelenting belief and unending faith.
I still believe in the dragons. I know that someday, I will find them too.
I don’t remember much about the summer of 2014, other than that it had been hot as hell. It had been one of the worst summers yet, when the grilling heat of the Korean metropolitan summer—worsened by the heat trapped by the dense grid of skyscrapers—had made it impossible to stay outdoors without your makeup melting off and dripping onto the collar of your blouse. Old people and dogs in the countryside died off on a daily basis, and in the city we weren’t really alive either.
I was working in the heart of Seoul, the city center. I was cheap labor with a fancy Ivy League sticker— which, to be honest, didn’t mean much given my undergraduate status—but it made me a somewhat reliable data entrant. The sheer repetitive nature of the work, more than the hours themselves, put me in a mode of perpetual thoughtlessness, and I found myself passing out every morning and night. The commute itself took nearly two hours by express bus, one of those red buses that carried sleep-deprived, suburban workers in and out of the capital. The bus seemed like a zone of semi-life, where middle-aged men slouched with their mouths open, their neckties hanging loose around their necks like ropes, and young women with wet hair in the mornings who had yet to put on their makeup. The bus was silent, except for the low drone of the radio in the background; even the bus driver himself seemed to be driving on autopilot, with half-open, glazed eyes.
I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sleep as soundly as I did back then, on that shaky bus with the A/C on way too high. Having no thoughts, as I learned that summer, beats any sleeping pill.
When I was seven, my paternal grandmother used to sing “Home Sweet Home” to lull me to sleep. Something about that song had always made me want to cry, even at that age when longing and melancholia must have been such “hard, grown-up” notions. Even though at that moment, I did not know that she would be the one to make my mother’s life a bit of a personal hell, I would drift off easily to sleep next to her, with her fleshy arms as my pillow.
Recently the melody hit me out of nowhere as I lay next to the body of my ex. That makes it sound like I was in bed with a corpse, but that’s what it had felt like, as he slept peacefully, unknowingly, while the song kept playing in my head.
I used to sleep to forget my hunger—or rather to put it off until morning. There is a sense of hollow accomplishment as you lie in bed, when the last rays of sunlight are tenaciously seeping into the room, even though you have pulled down the blinds as low as possible. You just feel a little removed from your shell of a body now, but all will be well in the morning.
Reason(s) for insomnia: unresolved questions from the day, the week, my life; fears about my thesis (shit); an untimely, imminent need to learn, read, talk, do things that I will not regret having not done later on …
I wake up with a knot in my back, unsure if it’s the stiffness or unfamiliarity of a pão brasil bed frame that had resisted the flex of my spine. Its only 6:15 a.m., but television soundwaves have slipped beneath the crack under the bedroom door and confused my dream of home.
When Vinicius was three years old, he woke up with spinal tuberculosis. The following week, he woke up unable to move. A state-licensed physician’s attempt to extract damaged tissue from the central nervous system only extracted his capacity to feel: Vincius became a quadriplegic. For the next thirty-three years, he slept next to his biological (and my homestay) mother Roxa, unaware that she was squeezing his hand. I think she feared that he would otherwise float away.
I watch the ceiling fan twirl in slow motion above me, its blades slicing the stifling tropical air. It’s 6:28 a.m. now, and there are two voices coming from the living room. Curious, I slip out from under the sheet and press my ear to the thin wall. A tinny voice recites the Lord’s Prayer and Roxa repeats the televised words.
Pai Nosso, que estás no céu
Santificado seja o Teu Nome…
I wait for silence to tiptoe across the living room and slip into the bathroom. When I step beneath the cold stream of water, I’m reminded that I’m here. I’ve spent six nights in this house, but have yet to roll out of bed knowing which side of the room I’ve landed on.
I still make rookie mistakes and ask about the weather when the only answer you’ll ever get is calor. But these routine placeholders are eventually filled with Roxa’s longing questions about the snow. She tells me she’s trapped in her purple house.
I wake up to the flight attendant tapping on my shoulder. “Please restore your seat to the upright position, miss, we’ll be landing shortly.” I tap on the monitor in front of me and watch the little gray bird hover over Salvador, Brazil. There’s something unsettling about closing your eyes in one continent and opening them in another. About glazing over the geographical and cultural narrative between two points in space. I’ve slept through the Caribbean and Caracas, and feel like Rip Van Winkle waking up after the Revolutionary War.
So I slide open the window and squint at the equatorial sun. It only takes a few seconds for my eyes to adapt, and I can effortlessly observe the new landscape as we descend upon it.
But come nightfall, I am bewildered by a sky of unfamiliar stars.
I wake up on a deflated air mattress. A thin layer of plastic insulation between my bare back and the cold, hardwood floor.
I gently lift the limp arm draped over my waist, tiptoe across the hallway and slip into the bathroom, stepping under a hot stream of water that reminds me I’m here. I’ve spent six nights in this house, but have yet to roll out of bed knowing which side of the globe I’ve landed on.
I still wake up to silence. No one is reciting the Lord’s Prayer in the living room. And Roxa is not whispering to her son. It takes me a few minutes to remember she’s no longer trapped in her purple house.
That night, she could not sleep. So she drank homemade alcohol to depress the neurons and stop them from firing. She wanted to feel freedom from the constraints of her mind, the endless thoughts that circled back to the start. Sometimes, life felt like an entrapment of obligations, responsibility, and desire. A concoction of dreams and passions. A slow-motion video of past, present, and future that replayed itself, over and over. Stimulation from images, past regrets, lost time, and failed friendships prevented her from sleeping. But then again, even sleep was confining because without it, she withered and became a walking zombie: hollow, robotic, emotionless. She felt like a prisoner in her own body. Her heart quickened and the pulse thumped against her skin, as if screaming to escape. But to where? The room was yet another physical entrapment, so quiet she could practically hear her heart begging to be set free. The only sounds were the soft snores of a roommate: rhythmic, calm, natural. Strange jealousy bubbled inside her. Why was it so easy for everyone else, and so hard for her? All she wanted tonight was to forget everything and produce rhythmic snoring. She wished sleep could feel natural again, and she could relinquish herself to her mind’s unknown depths, unafraid. But the more she tried to force her body, the stronger it fought back. The battle was infuriating. Perhaps it was all a matter of control. Sleep is not supposed to be controllable—it is an act of trust between the mind and the body. A handing of the baton from the conscious to the subconscious. No one remembers the exact moment they fall asleep because that is when the subconscious takes over. Unfortunately, her conscious mind wanted too much control. It could not handle not knowing. She felt quite certain that someday, her body would explode.
Day 5 Breathe, I try to breathe. Count to ten. Then repeat. Focus back on the breath, let the thoughts pass like a rushing highway. Do not run into the highway, just watch it flow by. But damn MindSpace app, what if I am already stranded in the middle of the highway? And I cannot jump out of the way. The cars will crash into me, leaving me bruised and battered, the same color as the skin underneath my eyes after another sleepless night. Still, I try to breathe, just to remind myself that I am still alive. To remember that the earth continues to spin, around and around, like my mind with thoughts that keep me spinning, around and around. The world rotates gently, wooing everyone else asleep but me. I am tangled knots, frantic thoughts, midnight cookie batter. When the monster takes over, I relinquish all control.
Day 16 My brain is exploding and these breaths only make me hyperventilate. The more I try, the crazier I feel. Breathing is not supposed to be this hard. Sleeping is not supposed to be a constant battle. I burn underneath my own skin.
Neurons fire faster than my mind can handle. Time unravels faster than I can scream stop. Life speeds by before I learn to live. Night ends before I remember to sleep.
IV. Day 31 I swallow the Nyquil.
Drugs are the easy way out.
Am I weak for succumbing to them?
The lump in my throat remains.
Now it is time to
How fun it will be to