Forum — From the August 2013 issue

Restlessness

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I am a sleep hunter. I track sleep through my house. I track it with a flashlight, and a bottle of pills, and two pillows, and a blanket, and a book for killing time in the blind before the dark herd comes. I wait until I’m sick of waiting. Then I pack my gear and move to better hunting grounds, to far-flung reaches of the house where sleep has been spotted at two a.m., at three.

The obvious place to hunt for sleep is beds. This house in Maine, where we live three months of the year, has no shortage of them. Each has its virtues. The Husband Bed is recommended because of the Husband who’s frequently in it; the mattress was once decent, and the room hums and hisses with many colored noises: brown, white, whatever color the dehumidifier’s noise is — purple. But this bed is perpetually damp like the berths aboard a boat are perpetually damp. The pillows smell of the dirt basement located just beneath us. There’s a whole second floor pressing down above this bed, and the ceilings are already low. Brown, white, purple, damp, lowness. Also gnats. (The windows are not so committed to the walls.)

It’s 12:20 a.m. I pack my gear. I move.

Upstairs are the Children’s Beds. Child One sleeps on a slim futon puffed in the center like a dinner roll. There is no lying on this bed. There is only falling off. Child One is wedged against the wall; I cling to the futon’s outer edge. Still, sleep can be found here on the brink. Child One and I have a long history of sleeping together in the least sleep-friendly spaces. We’ve slept together on concrete floors. We’ve slept together in the same wooden chair. We’ve slept together angry, sometimes at each other.

Not tonight. It’s 12:51 a.m. I pack my gear. I move.

Child Two sleeps perpendicular to Child One. He is smaller and has lower standards; he sleeps on a twin air mattress. Night is one big camping trip for him. He wears blue jeans to bed. He, too, has a collection of night gear — he hunts sleep with actual weapons and Japanese fighting tops. He gets angry when I move my gear into his territory. He grumbles and kicks, and his weapons roll off the mattress. Twin air mattresses are not ideal even for one person. They are basically pool toys for houses. But I sleep with him when I’m worried he’ll be killed. I’m worried the ex-con Vietnam vet who spray-painted pirate ships and whales on the sides of my neighbors’ barns, and who was very skilled at making gravity-defying cairns, and who might have been driven out of town for, rumor had it, psychologically imprisoning an old woman and hitting on teenage girls, and to whom I once made darkly comic reference in an essay, is going to break into our unlocked house and stab everyone but me.

This fear, pushed to its logical conclusion (funerals, unbearable grief, my joining a gently coercive self-help cult run by a Katie Couric look-alike), can put me right to sleep.

Not tonight. 1:12 a.m. I move.

Across the hall is a guest room. This room is unheated. Additionally it is haunted. The ghost is female, harmless. She is the girl, I’m fairly certain, who pasted pages from early-twentieth-century fashion magazines on the walls of the storage space reached via a cupboard-like door next to the bed. When I want to be watched, I sleep in this room.

I lie in the bed. I am so awake that I experimentally knock my forehead against the wall. If I knew Morse code, I might be saying something. But I don’t want to appear unhinged, especially in front of a ghost. I don’t want to be watched, not tonight. The struggle to sleep is like being sick, or in labor, or maybe dying. I want a dark place to do it alone.

1:48 a.m. I consider the couches. We own two. I sometimes sleep on the old living-room couch, but only in winter when the moon is full and there’s a layer of ice atop the snow and the whole yard gleams. The new living-room couch is wool. It itches. No matter the season, I do not bother hunting there.

2:00 a.m. I return to the Husband Bed. I think, “This is where I belong.” That was just a larky bit of night tourism I got up to! I was not seriously considering a move. I try to slide under the blanket without disturbing anything, not even the wet air (which, when bothered at this hour, makes a loud sucking sound). I lie stiffly and wonder how the Husband has achieved what he has achieved. How does he do it, just sleep like this? How does he find sleep without looking for it, how at night does he travel so light? I become jealous. The Husband has it so easy. He has no idea how much work I do while he sleeps. Keeping Child One and Child Two from dying. Hanging out with the ghost of that dreaming girl who probably never in her whole life made it out of this town, who needs a friend like me to say reassuring things to her like, “Seriously, New York isn’t all that.” I protect the dead and the undead of this house. I am guarding against the “good” odds that lull a person to sleep. The 0.000000000000000000001 percent chance that an ex-con Vietnam vet reads literary anthologies to identify his next target. The 0.000000000000000000001 percent chance that Child One and Child Two’s propane space heater will malfunction and they will die like Vitas Gerulaitis in the Hamptons. The 0.000000000000000000001 percent chance that tonight a mouse will nibble through the old wiring and make homeless our ghost.

2:45 a.m. I give up on the house. I track sleep outside. It is hard to maneuver through the snapping screen door with all my gear. The blanket catches on the latch. The flashlight lands on the deck. I fumble the pill bottle into a bush. I swear and get really fucking mad and throw every fucking thing I haven’t already fucking dropped onto the grass. Then I reassemble my stuff and my cool and head for the chicken shack. Or what was formerly a chicken shack or a tool shed and is now a place for the guests we try rarely to have. There is no heat and no water; the bed is covered with blankets that could be rugs. To lie in this bed is to feel like there’s a body on top of you. But not a body to which you owe anything — no love and no worry. I watch the ceiling seam where the wasps climb in and out and ask myself the hard questions. Why must I exile myself to a stand-alone building? A place built for chickens or tools? I tell myself it’s a virtue, my failure to sleep in my own house, or at all. I tell myself that I spend more hours than most people aware that I am alive, and that over a lifetime this adds up to more living, more aliveness. I am more alive than the rest of my family. Which is my greatest night fear. Which is why I hunt. I don’t ever want to be more alive than they are.

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is a founding editor of The Believer and the author, most recently, of The Vanishers (Doubleday).

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