"A dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the
dawn before the rest of the world."
I remember the dark purple carpet, matted and fading in the shape of frequent footprints. I try to match them, step within them so as not to disrupt the remaining fibers that are fighting to be vibrant. Dad tugs my hand, dragging me down the last few steps into the cold basement. I sigh, prolonging the moment before I have to inhale the smell of cold. Some say cold doesn't have a smell, but it does. It smells like Fran's basement. It's dark down there, but not in a scary way. It's supposed to be in a peaceful way. It's supposed to be a sanctuary.
We wait on the bench. I still think she took it from a church. It feels like a church bench: not soft enough, and having the ability to tie back muscles into knots. I wonder if Dad hates it too. He probably does. He hates lots of things. Especially waiting.
But he waits here, on this bench as Fran leads me back into an even colder room. She sets me down in a chair, a big recliner like dads on TV have. My dad doesn't have one because he lives in his office. Recliners don't go in offices.
Settled in, swallowed by the cushion, Fran tucks a thick afghan around me and I hold my breath again. I don't want to smell it. I know the smell, have it memorized. It smells like Fran and about a thousand other people who have sat in that chair, molting and waiting to be released. Their dreams and breaths have seeped out of them into this blanket and wrap around me now, holding me still.
Fran parts my blonde hair in weird places and dips the tips of wires in an abominable waxy substance that Mother and I loathe. I'll have to take a warm bath later and soak my head for a long time until the remnants of today's wax soften and fall away like leftovers on Tupperware. Meticulously, Fran places the doused wires across various sections of my head, aligning them with who knows what lobe, pressing them down firmly so the wax will set and keep the wires in place. Even at six years old, I understand what brain lobes are. I've always been good at stuff like that. Fran remembers I am a wiggler so she holds the wires down for a very long time. I know not to turn and look at her because I always get scolded for it, but I do it anyway.
"How many times do I have to come here?" I ask innocently. She glares slightly, but relaxes her face quickly, covering it with a mask of patience.
"Until you're better," she coos, straightening my head again.
"But I'm not sick." She was already gone by that point, leaving me to watch a screen alone in the dark.
It was a strange thing and I never understood what it did, and I still don't. I was supposed to watch a little circle, curiously resembling Pac-man, find his way across the maze on the screen. At least a hundred mazes would go by before Fran came back for me, each a different combination of colors from the Beatles' palette. I try to hold still, breathe evenly and guide the plagiarized Pac-man through the lines, help him eat the digital circles. My toe begins to wiggle, twist around and entangle itself in the yarn of the afghan. Suddenly, I'm not looking at the screen anymore. I'm staring at the wall, carving my escape in the peeling paint. Suddenly, it becomes a little more real and oddly resembles a Pac-man. I jump and remember I'm supposed to be watching the screen. I immediately return my head to its designated position and breathe deeply, trying to relax and accept my imprisonment. The Pac-man has paused and turned a weird color, frozen in mid bite. He returns to his gorging as soon as I turn to look at him again. He needs my attention to move, to eat, to live.
Days of my life seem to be swallowed up in that basement. I wait and wait for Fran to return, but she doesn't come. I celebrate a birthday or two in my mind. Still breathing. Still acting as a tour guide for a hopeless circle. The mazes aren't difficult. If he would just follow the other circles, he would find his way out all on his own. Stupid circle.
The final rainbow maze appears and I lead my sole companion, the Fake-man, along the trail. My eyes burn and my face feels like a bee sting from a dentist. Fran finally returns and begins taking off the wires one by one. A strand or two of hair is taken as well and I briefly worry she will try to clone me using the DNA in the follicle. After I am freed from the spider web helmet, she leads me out of her basement back to my father. My anxiety slowly began to rise and peaked when we rounded the corner to the foyer area.
My heart quickens as my eyes fall upon the final maze. Two women stand in front of my father, separating me from him. One is older and wears loose blouses and what I deem to be grandma-pants. Her face is soft, quiet. She reminds me of my mother, terrifyingly fragile, but I know better. The second woman is younger, the daughter of the first, but much older than me. She must have been about thirty or so. She wears the same camouflage outfit every time I see her, matching long sleeve shirt and baggy pants. Her eyes are big and blue. They stare wide at me like watery gates threatening to swallow me. I would have to pass both of them before I could get to Dad, go home. I take a deep breath and try not to look at either of them.
Camouflage-woman stares at me as I pass, saying nothing.
For a moment I thought I'd gotten off lucky, but then she reached for me. I sprinted to Dad and hid behind him as the woman's mother grabbed her. Her frail arms were suddenly pythons that refused to release the wild cat caught in her coils. The woman lashed at me and yelled all kinds of obscenities. I peeked out from behind my father, shaking, but curious. I stare back at the wildcat, my eyes locking with hers and I can't look away. Dad tells me not to stare, but I can't help it.
"I HATE YOU!" she roared. "I HATE YOU FOREVER!" I didn't understand what I had said to her, or done. I just swallowed and continued to stare at her wide-eyed and afraid. Something inside me worried we were at Fran's for the s ame reason, that I would someday become her. That's why they brought me here.
* * *
Years later I sat under the shade of a tree, textbook in my lap and a highlighter in both hands. I had forgotten my headphones so studying was a real challenge. Too many sounds. Too many people. Campus was packed. Spring had finally made its way to Cache Valley and it seemed as though every student wanted to take personal advantage of the atmospheric change. After a pause that lasted over ten minutes I finally gave up and pulled out a notebook as I headed toward the shuttle stop. I sat on the bench and waited, scribbling down random thoughts as they flowed into my mind like feathers on a breeze.
"Man, I'm exhausted!" a guy in gym shorts huffed as he and two companions slowed to a stop in front of me.
"You're tired?" a second grumbled. "I only got three hours of sleep last night!"
"Yeah, I got like zero sleep last night," said the third as the shuttle pulled up.
I've got them all beat because there's a difference between "like zero" and zero. No one ever believes that though. Actual zero. It's not possible to function on zero.
Whenever I tell anyone I'm not like them, they try to convince me I'm wrong by saying things like "Oh yeah, I have that too!" or "It can't be that bad." I don't know which comment bothers me more. The one that straight-up infuriates me is this: "I wish I never had to sleep. That would be awesome."
It's not that I don't have to—it's that I can't you idiot. The only way I can think of to convey what it's like not to sleep is to compare it to summer vacation. All the days run together until you can't remember exactly what day it is; you disappear inside a pocket where time doesn't exist. I get the same feeling, but for a less nostalgic reason. To me, it's all the same day, merely separated into alternating moments of bright light and blue tones. It is anything but awesome.
Others try a different tactic of dealing with the information they don't know how to process. They're the people who think they know you and suddenly become an expert with a Ph. D. in your business. "Have you tried melatonin? Or Benadryl?" they ask. The tips of my fingers burn white like the wick of a candle as I clench my fists. I nod my head yes and normally try to leave the all too common exchange. Next they will try to tell me about Essential Oils or some other home remedy that they think will change my life and rid me of a problem I've dealt with for twenty years.
It's a little more complicated than that, but no one wants to cognize it. For some reason I simply cannot understand, people don't believe me when I tell them I really don't sleep. Not just waking up early or not falling asleep for a long time. I don't sleep. Ever.
How is it possible? Everyone has to sleep. You'd die if you didn't, right?
* * *
Another set of wires covers my head at sixteen. There are more this time. They cover my face and arms, down to my chest. I look at my reflection in the mirror, though it isn't a mirror really. It reflects me in all my copper and plastic splendor, but on the other side sit technicians and scientists watching me like one of Jane Goodall's chimpanzees.
I keep staring, pretending they aren't there. It looks like a rainbow spectrum is erupting from my body, fireworks frozen midstream. The weight of the wires bears down against my skin, making dents that will last for hours. As if that isn't enough to keep me in place, my middle has been strapped down to the bed. There is another set of straps to keep me from fiddling with things that aren't meant to be touched by prodding hands.
My eyes follow the rainbow cords to their gray box source. The machines sing to me, trying to lull me to sleep with whirring vibrations. I stare at them apathetically. They don't know what sleep is. They know ON and OFF. No other life is their own. They are slaves to a switch that decides their fate. For a moment I envy them, knowing that there is likely nothing to unite us in unconsciousness for more than a few moments.
A sigh tries to escape the cavity of my chest but is submerged beneath the pile of wires and straps. I fight the urge, the need, to wriggle myself free. Instead I swallow hard and close my eyes. I can almost feel the technicians hiding behind the darkened windows take a deep breath, thinking their jobs will suddenly start making sense again, but they won't. Embarrassment floods my cheeks and I try to keep my breathing regular. I don't like knowing that they are watching me, observing every wave of thought that radiates inside of me. Those are supposed to be private, hidden. Yet, they are being painted across a screen full color. They know I'm thinking. What if it starts to paint words, secrets?
A thought rises to comfort me. With them behind the window, awake and staring as I stare, I am not alone. Not tonight. My mind glides on the icy road to the past. Along the way, my legs and arms shrink as does the rest of my body and suddenly I'm six years old again. Another day at Fran's has left me restless deep into the aperture of the night. Mother lays next to me breathing out a soft melody. She pats my back to the rhythm of a song about a lost bird. I don't know why she thinks it will comfort me into repose. I've heard the ballad before. The bird never finds his way home at the end. The song grows faint as it betrays us, tucking her in instead of me. The pats become lighter and words relax to a hum until there is only silence.
I don't mind that she fell asleep, just like I no longer mind that the technicians are staring at me, waiting for me to do the same. At least they're with me.
"Well, you're not sleeping," a technician announces as he opens the door. I feel a flood of heat course through my body. It took them seven hours and cost me more for them to tell me something so painfully obvious I almost cry out like an animal. I don't understand why people can't just believe me when I say something the first time.
* * *
Now I sit in my apartment with the lights off and the TV on mute, but the subtitles keep me up to date with the action packed sitcoms. I lay on my side, eyes wide open like mouths hungry for stimulation. Infomercials are longer at night because the advertising companies know that those of us who are awake are far too lazy to change the channel. We are forced to listen to their entire business plan. I blink to sooth the desert within my irises.
A familiar jingle plays in my mind as I watch the Good Morning America logo flash across the screen. That's my cue to get in the shower. I hear my roommate's alarm arouse her from a deep sleep. She staggers out of her room, following the familiar path to the refrigerator. I watch as she pours a cup of milk, staring at me through swollen eyes. Both are bewildered at the other, but neither utter a sound. It would disrupt the morning, the balance that exists between her world and mine. She retreats back to her room and I hear water sputter and spout from the pipes in the walls.
I rise, calmly and gracefully. The dark hallway seems longer than normal, but I embark on the journey anyway. The continuation of a lifelong day is upon me. I'll greet it with a smile and a dose of patience that I hope lasts through the day. It's all I can do to bear the punishment I traded for the dreams I dream.