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Insomnia Days


“If we don’t ever sleep again, so much the better,” José Arcadio Buendía said in good humor. “That way we can get more out of life.” But the Indian woman explained that the most fearsome part of the sickness of insomnia was not the impossibility of sleeping, for the body did not feel any fatigue at all, but its inexorable evolution toward a more critical manifestation: a loss of memory. She meant that when the sick person became used to his state of vigil, the recollection of his childhood began to be erased from his memory, then the name and notion of things, and finally the identity of people and even the awareness of his own being, until he sank into a kind of idiocy that had no past.

—Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude


I read this, appropriately enough, just after four in the morning, in that languishing time of night when falling asleep is depressingly unlikely and sunrise is equally depressingly far-off. But my insomnia, as I’ve come to know it over the past few years, is not like the sickness Márquez describes. It’s not so much a process of forgetting, as it is the saturation of the present with the past that I experience just after four in the morning, when the silence of the night is broken only by the sound of a garbage truck idling on Dewolfe Street, as it does every morning at precisely this time.

As the boundary separating yesterday from today, or maybe today from tomorrow, becomes blurred, the distant crashes from the street start to seem less real than the gestures and faces of people I haven’t seen in years. They drift past my glazed eyes: Kate, my best friend for several summers, sharp-shouldered and dear to me by the dubious distinction of being the only person I’d ever met who spoke less than I did. My almost equally taciturn grandfather, whose heavy hands had veins of an astonishing violet and whose blue eyes are my father’s eyes and my brother’s. Then there’s my blue-eyed brother, him at five years old, building a fountain in the back yard out of pots and pans and the garden hose. And my mother, as she was then, standing on the shore of a lake and holding my baby brother on her hip, her fingers laced around the base of his spine. The heaviness of sleep, it would seem, is the marble slab on the tomb, the earth in the grave: without it, ghosts walk freely.

Past four in the morning, things float without anchors, unmoored from their times and places. Maybe Márquez is right after all, because the funny thing about my insomniac memories is that, for all their unexpected vividness, they’re orphans, like pearls without string. As the insomnia has grown more frequent, I’ve become notorious for telling the same stories to the same people, each time with the same perplexity at the astonishing psychic powers of my friends. My record: five times, the story of the reindeer stew. Past four in the morning, time turns in a circle and eats its own tail. Have I told you this before?

I guess there’s no way to tell if sleeplessness is the cause, but I’ll blame it for the scrambling of my past. A night without sleep begins with a wide-eyed anxious feeling that always makes me think of the phrase “the watches of the night,” although I wish I knew just what I’m keeping watch for. It ends not with waking up, but with the effort of getting up, which usually feels less like waking than like the beginning of a strange and depressing dream. In the mirror in the cruelly well-lit bathroom, the skin around my eyes is gray tinged with pale pink, through which the blue of the veins is strangely visible. I’m reminded of my grandfather. Time turns in a circle.

It takes a while for my nerve endings to awaken from their sleep-deprived stupor. The journey back from total unconsciousness, which seems like it would be a longer crossing to make, is easier than bringing myself out of this semi-conscious haze. Cold water on my face and the steam rising from a cup of tea are shocking, then miraculous. The solidity of objects is somehow unexpected, outlines seem cut with greater vigor, colors contain an electric charge. The winter sunlight is sharp and clear. Everything is more visible than usual. The present reasserts itself.

I know that this strange elation will vanish by early afternoon, when I’m groggily slumped over black coffee, but I can’t help it. Maybe this is why sleeping pills and earplugs and the nine different herbal supplements I’ve tried so far haven’t worked at all—because I’m in love with these insomnia days. I’ll take these brief lucidities, these scatterings of pearls.