Bedtime Reading: Week #2 of 52 Mini-Essays Project
On insomnia, heroines, and true love
Topic idea: Jill Galvan
Like many kids, I used to fight my parents tooth and nail over bedtime. I dreaded lights out with a white-hot intensity that puzzles me even now, and would usually stay up reading until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., drooping exhaustedly over the pages of my Laura Ingalls Wilders or Nancys Drew. I didn’t stay up late because I was afraid—or at least I wasn’t afraid of monsters or burglars or anything in the dark. (I did spend a memorable week around age 7 sobbing myself to sleep during Fire Prevention Month at school; all the filmstrips of suburban families escaping their flaming houses had convinced me that we were required to set our homes on fire to demonstrate the efficiency of our escape routes.) I simply hated to surrender to sleep; I wanted to squeeze as much experience out of the day as I could, and for me “experience” meant living vicariously through the escapades of a plucky heroine. (And yes, it had to be a heroine. I devoured any and all books with girl protagonists and was left utterly cold by the adventures of boys. Johnny Tremain sat unread in my bedside bookshelf for approximately 10 years, taunting me with his smug pristine dust jacket, old-timey cover illustration, and gleaming gold Newbery Medal sticker.)
My parents hated my habitual flouting of their lights-out curfew. For one thing, it made me impossible to rouse for the early bus that collected students for choir and orchestra practice. (It has never been clear to me why the musical kids had to get up early while the sporty kids got to practice after school. This system does not seem to harness the superpowers of either group.) But perhaps more importantly, my father was a strict disciplinarian who was enraged by challenges to his authority. Over the course of my childhood and adolescence our battles over after-lights reading became more and more pitched. For a while I thought I had a system worked out: I would wait in the dark until he came to the bottom of the stairs to check that my light was out, and when I was sure he could no longer see the glow under my closed door I would switch my bedside lamp back on and read for hours longer. This blissful ruse lasted about a month, until the memorable evening when my father, suddenly suspicious, doubled back and caught me with my light on. He rampaged up the stairs yelling at the top of his lungs, slammed my bedroom door open against the wall (over the years the divot where the doorknob hit the plaster got deeper and deeper), grabbed my book out of my hands and threw it to the floor, and then backhanded me across the face. (My dad was not usually a slapper: he spanked or hit with belts, while my mom, ever the Joan Crawford manquée, preferred the open-handed slap. I imagine he uncharacteristically went for the face on this occasion out of deference to my bedtime déshabille.) That night, and every night thereafter, I switched up my technique and waited until he had gone to bed himself to return to my stories of Pa Wilder serenading the family with his fiddle around the fireside or Carson Drew gently admonishing Nancy not to get into a scrape with her intrepid sleuthing.
My dad had never been a reader, so I assume he was unmoved by a child’s all-consuming desire to keep reading, to find out what happens, to stay awake in the world she lives in order to stay lost in another, immersed in an alternate universe and all but deaf to the heavy footfalls on the stairs. Now when I read in the middle of the night it’s not usually because of narrative suspense but instead because of insomnia. Phase One of middle-aged bedtime reading is the knees-bent, pillow-propped period before first lights-out, when both my partner and I are absorbed by our respective tomes, waiting to be overtaken by (now-welcome) sleepiness. Scott is insane and actually reads work stuff in bed—books on political economy and sympathy in eighteenth-century literature and such-like mishegoss—while I stick to more soothing fare. (One ongoing point of contention in our otherwise perfect marriage is that he underlines his books in pencil as he reads, and the soft shkrih shkrih of the lead dragging across the paper drives me bonkers when I’m trying to concentrate on my own book.) For me, a Phase One reading selection has to hit that sweet spot between too boring and too engrossing: I don’t want to waste my time on dross, but neither do I want to pick something that’s so entertaining it keeps me awake. It also has to have nothing scary, bloody, or rapey in it; nothing politically enraging; nothing uproariously funny or desperately sad. Basically, I am reduced to reading collections of P. G. Wodehouse’s letters to his pet goat and the juvenilia of Thich Nhat Hanh.
Phase Two bedtime reading is different. When I wake up at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and just know that it’s going to be an hour or two or three before I can sleep again, I want a proper companion with me. That is when I usually reach for novels. I want a story to propel me along the road until I reach the turn-off for sleep. I want to think about a different world than the broken, burnt-out one we’re living in—even if it’s another broken, burnt-out place like a women’s prison or a colony on Mars. The problem with novels, though, is that they’re often scary, bloody, and/or rapey, sometimes enraging, and sometimes desperately sad—and it’s usually impossible to know this in advance. I don’t want to use the word betrayal to describe the feeling of being plunged into an emotional hellscape when you thought you were in the British countryside, perched on a mackintosh square, enjoying a light repast (I’m looking at you, Kazuo), but if the word fits.... At least if things take a dark turn in my novel, there are vibrating cats and humans piled all around me to whom I can turn for comfort. (Side question for another day: why are cats’ purrs deeply comforting and humans’ snores deeply irritating? They’re essentially the same sound.) But this is a comfort that only I get to enjoy. Because Scott sleeps with an eye mask on, if I wake up in the night and need to read I can do so right in our cozy bed without disturbing him. But I am a delicate princess who refuses to sleep with anything touching her face or head, so when Scott wakes up to read he has to go into the living room and dig into the waist-high pile of New Yorkers teetering by the couch.
This is not the only way our experiences of Phase Two insomnia reading are fundamentally different, even though we are both inveterate insomniacs. The one to three hours I am up and reading rarely overlap with Scott’s waking shifts. (Our erstwhile “Good Morning!” has gradually been replaced by “When were you up last night?”) We’re plunged into alternative universes after dark, roaming our shared spaces alone, and then come together on the same plane of existence when dawn breaks. I wonder what would happen if we ran into each other during our insomnia stints? Would it be like those TV episodes where a character is suddenly invisible to everyone but the viewer—Geordi and Ro Laren in “The Next Phase” or Xander in “Fear Itself”? I worry that we would rend the fabric of the space-time continuum, and I would be cast adrift in a world of pet goats or desperately sad human clones while poor Scott would be abandoned to the company of Adam Smith for eternity.
I hasten to explain that our discrepant nighttime reading system is not quite as unfair as it sounds. It began years ago when Scott was sleepwalking regularly and would get out of bed to perform complex tasks—badly—all the time; his going to read in the other room is just an extension of this old habit. That said, it is not lost on me that I am essentially forcing my beloved life partner to hide the luminescence of his reading while I get to shine my light indiscriminately in the night. Perhaps this is some kind of unspoken compensation we’ve worked out unconsciously: I will not ask you to do this thing that recalls childhood pain, and in return you will extend an unnamed kindness in the future. I do think this is how long-term relationships work: with an ongoing emotional bazaar of negotiations and exchanges and haggling and gifts operating below the surface, thrumming along sometimes in concert and sometimes at odds with the veneer of everyday cheek pecks and salt-passing that constitutes domesticity.
I’m sure we learn this secret barter early, at the knees of our first caretakers. What to take, what to keep, what to trade away, what to leave in a ditch by the side of the road. If we’re very lucky, we figure out how to shine a light on the good, the tender, and the just, and let the rest crumble away in the dark. We learn to forget certain things, and choose instead to remember the man who sat by our bed, lovingly stroking our damp hair as we sobbed over imaginary house fires. The man who sometimes helped ease us into sleep.