Since I was very young, I had a hard time going to sleep. I’ve also often had a hard time getting to sleep even after I go. The mind wanders. The darkness is inviting and vast, but floating into it can be scary and sometimes I just cannot get out of my shoes.
By that I mean I remain anchored in consciousness, awake despite my best efforts to let go of the day. And sometimes it doesn’t matter if I’ve been up all night. Even as a child, I pondered the big questions: What are time and space? How expansive is the universe? What happens after death claims the mind?
There’s always something to do, or worry, or concern oneself with. Of course, it’s even worse if I need to get to sleep because tomorrow is a busy day, or I’m to be up early for something important like a plane flight.
Sometimes I drift into sleep’s sweet release, only to be terrifyingly awakened into anxiety, now mixed with exhaustion. Great. Was it a bad dream? Maybe I just had to urinate. Or it could just be the sounds of the city, my solace during the waking hours, injecting itself into my private quiet time. That can be fun.
It’s why I do not sleep with ear plugs, no thank you. I don’t like headphones, either. Give me nature’s static, the white noise of wind though leaves, waves cascading in the distance, or best of all, consistent light rain. Sometimes jazz is good.
I enjoy soundtracks and, without a doubt, there’s something about the empty silence that challenges my will to slumber. So, yes, it’s nice to sleep beside someone whose soft breath can entice me into the peaceful rhythm of sleep…
But still, I awaken. Not so much anymore, but it used to be a real problem. I did not sleep the night I discovered Magnolia had been lying and cheating and all that. It wasn’t unusual for her to find me in the living room some mornings, so she did not fear I knew anything. I’m always impressed by how well the guilty can sleep.
Sleeping with Birch was unpleasant. The sex was amusing at first, but the sleeping was never good. She’d plug her ears and roll onto her back with her arms thrown out to either side like a drunk hobo. Goats cuddle better.
Some months after Birch and I went our separate ways, I found Ash, who was a much better bedmate for me. Except that she had such sensitive ears that she could name the movie the neighbors were watching from the score, when I could barely hear the loudest sound effects (like explosions) coming through the walls.
Apparently, I snore sometimes, and Ash would jostle me enough to wake me up whenever I did, throughout the night. Our sexual chemistry was excellent, and so I was nicely exhausted when it was time for sleep, but these interruptions left me zombified. Finally, I had to tell her she’d have to find somewhere else to sleep if she could not figure out how to do it with me.
If I find myself sleeping next to someone who snores loudly, I roll them onto their side facing the other way. It’s never been a problem, and nobody had ever told me before, or ever since, that they could not handle my snoring.
So, Ash figured it out, I guess. She’d evidently rather fuck me and then sleep with me than fuck me and then go home, so she found a way to make it work. By the way, if she’d have said she could not do either anymore, I’d have been prepared for that, too.
Although Ash was far kinder than Birch, her personal life was just as hectic. Maybe more. While Birch was narcissistically manipulative, Ash was passive and self-defeating. In the few months that I knew her, she dropped out of school (community college on her way to a PhD in archeology), she lost her lease, and she was terminated from her job for an easily avoidable offense.
She was also a Born Again Christian who’d been won over by a children’s book that highlighted the historical relevance of the bible. Ash kept kosher, she said, because, “He knows our bodies and what’s good for them.” She spoke of God as if he were a rich uncle who’d pay off her college loans.
The really crazy part is that I tried to manage all of this because the sex was so good. Despite the absurdity of her lifestyle, what really turned me off was her lack of conviction. Her dietary restrictions, she said, were really born from a decision to battle an unknown gastrointestinal issue, but then she ate processed junk food sometimes (like cheese puffs).
And although becoming pregnant would have been insane at that moment in her life, she refused to utilize any form of hormonal birth control or take any other form of contraceptive measures. She actually begged me to remove the condom while in the midst of intercourse on more than one occasion. How she justified to herself sleeping with a faithless Jew was incomprehensible to me.
But then it also wasn’t. She was 26 and I was 33 and these numbers seemed to mean something to her. She often said, “Men begin to do their life’s work at thirty-three.” I suspected this was a reference to Jesus Christ, but I did not want to inquire further.
Ash told me that whenever someone I didn’t know asked her about me, she’d shrug and say, “He’s a Jew.”
American Jewish identity is complicated, especially for the secular. This is a major theme in my new novel, but it was not one of the primary ways I’d choose to describe myself only a few years ago. So, it was awkward that it was thrust upon me in any respect, and particularly that it was applied with such meaning.
Oh yeah, and she loved Spielberg. She thought that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom was nonsense, but she believed Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade were essentially based on facts.
The difference, of course, is the religion.
One night she was gyrating on top of me in the throes of passion. Or something like that. I do believe her manner of sexual congress was so intense partly because – at least inasmuch as I was concerned – it was so totally dismissive of “The Good Book.” But also there was a breathless desperation to her coupling, an immediacy and insistence that she be let in.
It left me deeply conflicted. Here, I’d let her in whenever she asked, and I’d also present elaborate invitations, but I’d never give her a key. I just could not trust her. Though I mostly enjoyed her company, and I completely appreciated her body, I could not be the custodian of her heart. I guess I hoped we could exist on a plane of intimate individuals rather than as a tethered pair.
With her back arched and her hands placed softly on her thighs, she closed her eyes and tilted her chin back, grinding on me through waves of orgasmic seizure. That’s not meant to sound braggadocious; I really did not think I had much to do with it, in a sense. Physiologically, I was there, thrusting my hips upward and caressing her body, but I’d also let my arms fall open on either side and just watch her. More so I believe she was capable of this sensual pleasure because I’d made her feel safe, comfortable, and accepted (physically, anyway).
She was beautiful, but seemed to be almost floating above me, riding a cloud of warm mist between us. Maybe I was pondering this a little too deeply at the moment. Maybe she was right that condoms are barriers to heightened levels of intimacy. But the condom certainly did not seem to interrupt our sexual function. And, really, my detachment had to do with everything else about her and I.
And so I found myself apart, out of body, disconnected. Usually, this sensation gives me a flurry of anxiety because it feels somehow closer to death to be somehow disassociated from one’s physical presence like that. Often it happens when I’m alone with nobody to distract me back into myself and my grounding in time and space.
But to experience this sort of bodily claustrophobia while sexually engaged to another person was novel, blissful, bizarre, outrageous. Rather than sitting inside the bubble of fear, I’d somehow found myself perched on top of it. Probably still caged by the physics of reality as my brain chooses to perceive them, but maybe this was a sort of entry into…
Peace? Nirvana? Zen?
I don’t know, and none of these concepts were articulated in my mind at the moment. There was no way to explain it, even if I wanted to try. It wasn’t exactly pleasant. Not a door I’d been looking to pass through. Maybe transcendent in a sense, but without the desired euphoria.
All I seemed to do was widen my eyes and smile, I assume grotesquely, because when Ash opened her eyes and saw my face, she was horrified. She probably saw cruel, complacent arrogance in my expression. She jumped off me and put her palms to her breasts.
This was a woman who thought nothing of nudity. For her to feel the need to cover up like a Hollywood ingénue who’d just been knowingly used by a director was disheartening. She’d read into my gaze with deep insecurity, assuming (correctly) that my friends had been making fun of her, and now she thought I was laughing in her face. That she thought I was capable of such viciousness both saddens and scares me.
But I did not know how to explain the situation. That, if anything, I was grinning into oblivion.
Transparency: Ash is the only person I’ve ever dated twice, though I’m not sure that’s the right way to describe it. She was struggling with the “status of our relationship” for most of the time we were involved with each other. I was unaware of this until I became aware of it, and then I mostly just ignored it. I’m not proud of that, but I believe even if I’d have explained my reservations better, she’d have more or less heard what she wanted to hear. She was adaptable. When we ran into each other three years later, she seemed to have matured. She was a little jaded, more experienced, confident in a way that wore well on her. And she had picked up some new moves. We only slept together a few times before it became clear we were on very different paths.