C.O. Moed
 
   
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Miscellaneous Short Stories and Writings    
 

HOW INSOMNIA SAVED MY LIFE UNTIL THE NIGHT IT TRIED TO KILL ME

 

Before any of this ever happened, Sleep was a horrid sorrow - the day fading into some dusk, the trains going by and sounds of children being smacked giving way to sounds of adults being smacked. All I knew was there was heartbreak in that pink thing called the sky. Before I could think more about what made a soul hurt, someone would be shaking me awake and another day would begin, offering up its perils into my face and other punching spots on my body.

But like middle-age weight that creeps onto your thighs, insomnia crept into my life. It was the night of November 28, 1972. I was thirteen. Oh, now I understand the studies out of Minnesota that say something about teens needing to develop melba something or other and school needing to start later. But that's not what was happening. My insomnia was truly the stroke of a genius god who said, "You wanna know why this night is different from all other nights? The space to grow up as a person is officially and completely shot to hell, what with your junior high school's homicide rate (1 - well, 1.5), your friends beating you up because they hate themselves, your mother unraveling into rage and your father's suicidal breakdown. But look, if you stop sleeping it will be the only time of the 24-hour cycle you don't get the shit kicked out of you by anyone. So is it a deal?"

And other than the couple of dozen times my nocturnal safety zone was interrupted by my father screaming his nightmares into a soft little pillow because his father came back in a coffin to yell at him, Night became the heaven I always dreamed about.

It was a win-win situation. With my record player, a pair of headphones and my small collection of cherished long-playing vinyl albums, I finally got the peace and quiet to imagine what I would have been like if only my real parents, those rich people from some big castle with ponies in New Jersey , had finally found me after that terrible mix-up at the hospital.

The fringe benefits of my new Night life were terrific. Besides beginning a life-long love affair with non-instant coffee, my daytime exhaustion became the legal and slightly less addictive tranquilizer I needed to not register how furious I was each time someone hit me with a word or a fist.

This perfect arrangement worked for several decades. I crashed through a lengthy adolescence of melodramatic self-sufficiency, and my twenties were filled with huge meals from the diner run by the holocaust survivors on Tenth and Second, seventeen entry level jobs, ten years of undergraduate classes and an apartment that had twenty-six broken windows and - in the winter - no heat. As the years bled into one another, the space between my Night Girl and my Day Girl widened. It didn't matter to me that between the hours of 8am and 11pm, I was a lumbering mess of social gaffes hidden in huge men's shirts and beat up jeans that wouldn't become fashionable for another fifteen years. Night was when I became who I really was. Like Cinderella with a different curfew, Night Girl had a voice like Ethel Merman, a sprint like 007, Jean-Luc Ponty's musical abilities. And power. Oh yeah, lots and lots of power. Deep in New York 's night of lonely neon and the shouts of lonelier drunks, I slipped on the old headphones and as the needle touched vinyl, God's finger touched Adam and I became.

Oh, I made brief stabs at sleeping - the anxiety about the world blowing up in a nuclear war interrupted my nights for a month in the mid-80s. I didn't want to be awake when they pushed the button so I listened to a Muszak All Night radio station hoping it would knock me out. It didn't. In fact, the only real sleep I ever remember getting in twenty years was one night at the home of the elderly Hasidic Jews in Boro Park . They had invited me for Seder not knowing I was raised a Reform Jew and had, once during a summer stint at a New Age commune, accepted Christ as my lord and savior (a decision well worth it at the time - the food was fantastic).

My observant hosts didn't want me traveling on a Shabbas-Yontif night and I had to sleep over in a basement room that had no windows. I suspect guilt for not enduring the faith my hosts had fought to save from Hitler was the reason I fell dead asleep for twelve hours. That or God knowing I couldn't start an argument about Zionism if I was unconscious. So. That was it. One night. One night out of 7,280 including leap year.

And then it all changed. On October 15, 1993 I fell in love. After a disastrous three-month attempt at domestic lesbian bliss, a smoking habit run amok, and a forty-two-page suicide tome in which my dead ex-boyfriend repeatedly said it was my fault he was dead, my day world shattered the minute I saw the face of our new addition to the PR department. My dual existence came to a screeching halt.

And this love? He looked like an experimental Gene Kelly movie. He was an avant-garde tap-dance across the tundra of Mongolia . He was the softer colors of a Matisse. He was what I'd dreamt of all those seven-thousand-plus nights. However, here in Day world, he was dating one of Voltaire's descendents, and within seconds of our introduction, it was blatantly obvious to all present (the boss, three supervisors and the other secretaries) he couldn't even stand my presence.

I knew this was a mistake. Not mine but his. Twenty years of seeing him in the dark had to account for something and it was up to me to make things right. If I showed him my true being, Night-Girl, then he would recognize me from the cosmic planes we lived on between 1 and 6am - and he would eagerly give up the legacy of French literature that people only read because it was going to be on the midterm.

But I was completely stymied to how I would accomplish this. His arrival into the world of sunlight left me incapable of going to the ladies room - which was right next to my cubicle - without detouring to the other side of the block-long office where he sat to ask if I could get him some coffee or herbal tea from the lunch room (a rotating selection each week!). His taciturn replies only left me yearning for more and the tittering symphony from one hundred and thirty staff dedicated to your corporate health didn't stop me from damaging my bladder and ruining whatever hope there was that beneath the folds of my second-hand Brooks Brother shirts there beat the heart of his true love - a woman he must of dreamt about. Especially since he rarely had insomnia.

The human resource supervisor called me in to review my drop in productivity and my increase in socializing. Still I couldn't stop. Finally, I was given my third "warning" before suspension or being transferred to our offices in Queens (a place I hadn't been back to since that Mets game in 1986 where they won in the twelfth inning and then the strike happened ).

But in need of food and shelter, I adhered to the written-in-stone rules which I had to sign in front of the vice president and the company lawyer that I would not, under any circumstance, converse with my love unless it was business, he initiated contact or it was a medical emergency. (I insisted on that last part because medical and emergency were open to interpretation and I felt mine would hold up in court.) My compliance lasted several days until hidden in a stall I overheard the human resource supervisor telling the office manager that she couldn't wait until the love of my life got married and moved to the San Diego office. The wedding was in a week and a half. By two Mondays from now, he'd be gone, I'd be back to producing massive amounts of word processing and she could cut back to only two bottles of Malox a day.

My foot almost slipped into the toilet in shock. If this came to pass, my life would be over. I had to find a solution and I had to find it fast. Within an hour I was leaving work because my grandmother had died (again). I ran all the way to the East River and sat frantically trying to come up with an algebraic solution. If this guy equaled my real life and my real life was me divided into the night but I only saw him in the day (fractions) and my day life was me minus my night life then I had to add my night life to my day life. Which would eventually equal him equal me squared divided by nine. Well, six if you were in base eight. (Thank you, Tom Lehrer for the math lesson.)

The extra forty-five pounds I didn't have at Night and my firm belief once I lost my day weight I'd look like Emma Peele were minor points. There were efficient pills out there and leather was only a second hand shop away. I'd be ready in no time. It was my personality I was concerned about. See, at Night I was Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo only less verbose. In the Day I was a fucking canary. Chirp chirp chirp chirp until even I wanted to shoot myself. But I knew, knew that deep inside I had less to say and better words to say it. My true love and I had had devastatingly brilliant conversations for many years that if I had written them all down it would have brought back the film noir comedy. Could I shut myself up? And could I do it before he walked down the aisle?

That night as the records played, I stepped back and watched Night Girl. There she (or I) was - thin, dark, alluring and funny. We were perfect. But where was the invisible force field that separated Day from Night? Where was the hidden portal?

And then at exactly 2:37am in the depths of a rendition of 'Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch' by Steven Sondheim the mystery revealed itself. Night Girl was rested. She smiled like liquid chocolate pouring out of a vat. She moved like melting butter across a lukewarm skillet. She husked like she smoked two packs of unfiltered a day. So comfortable with herself, Night Girl could sit on an old wicker couch on some porch I had only read about in WASP literature and do nothing. The solution was obvious. In order to shut up I would have to sleep. At least one night.

I immediately cancelled all my weekend plans. Which wasn't hard. I had none.

But how could I make myself sleep? Pills were out because Jacqueline Susann never lied and all her heroines died from getting a good night's rest. The Religious Jews in Boro Park were out because not only were they dead they had found out from a neighbor who knew the cousin of a friend of my sister's accordion teacher that we used electricity seven days a week and played Wagner on our wooden recorders (but only once at the music school Christmas Concert). So even if they weren't dead it wouldn't have worked out.

That left hot baths and warm milk, both liquids that made me break out in hives. There was exercise. That made me PMS no matter what time of the month it was and the last thing I needed to be doing instead of sleeping was crying and eating. That left booze.

Well it worked for teething babies and drunks. Except for the fact I hadn't taken a drink in years.

It had all started with the fourth grade science project. It was Melissa's idea, really. After all she had the white mice. Jennifer could get wood, hammer and nails from her brother Eric, who unbeknownst to his parents, was building a space ship in his room. And I? I had Mother's secret stash. One bottle Manischevitz Grape Wine. The theory was that the white mice would make their way through a maze sober but would get lost if drunk. Pretty brilliant for a bunch of nine-year-old girls. Eric built the maze but only because Jennifer blackmailed him with the threat that she'd tell mom and dad he was trying to run away from home via Mars.

That fateful fall day we carefully unpacked our tour de force in the school library. The mice were set carefully down in their obstacle course and I carefully brought forth the stolen wine. It was then that we realized we didn't have a way to feed our micies the booze. Melissa found a Dixie cup. We put one mouse up to the cup, but Stuart Little wasn't having it. The cup was too full but we couldn't pour it back because we had already stuck the mouse's face in it. There was only one thing to do. I drank it. We tried to pour another cup down the mouse's throat, but that only soaked the mouse and Melissa's best shirt. I drank the rest of that too. Then we soaked a Twinkie in the cup. I drank that too and ate the Twinkie because the mouse didn't. By the time all our mothers and out-of-work fathers showed up to see our great progress in Madame Curie Land, I was legally intoxicated several times over.

My mother screamed at me in public that I was a drunk just like Bubby and how dare I steal my father's wine. I puked all over her B. Altman brown pumps. She never forgave me for that and I never drank again.

Until this night.

Why was this night different from all other nights? Was it because I was giddy like a bride before the piano started banging the wedding march, frantic like the Hebrews getting the hell out of Egypt, or running like a Monkey for the last train to Clarksville. All I knew was I had three nights to get sleep and five working days to stop my man from marrying the wrong woman, even if she did speak fluent Mandarin.

From what I gathered about the habits of night drinkers through my binoculars, 2am was a good time to pass out. For the first time in several decades I turned off my record player and stepped out into the world I only knew from looking out my window. With a pounding heart I headed to the all night bulletproofed plexi-glass liquor store down on Fifth Street . I dashed, I skipped, I scampered. I danced by two drunk guys in the midst of an existential discussion that consisted of the single word "dude." I whirled around the six exhausted kitchen workers stumbling out of the over-priced delicatessen clutching leftovers for home and beers for the subway. I scuttled through the rats commuting from the construction site to the sewer. I hopped over the homeless guy who slept every night on the block he grew up on. And there I screeched to a halt. I stared at him huddled in the sleeping bag he got from the local born-again Christian. Maybe he had dreams too. Maybe he dreamt he's wake up in his former home. Maybe I would wake up as Night Girl. Maybe, finally, we would both wake up as ourselves. Sleep as the cocoon from which the butterfly emerges.

There's a lot you can get with $23. I went for variety rather than quantity and the end result was an international medley of bottled sleep. Would I start with the Italian red, the Kentucky gold or the Russian clear? Would I sip or would I guzzle the German Rum? Would I float into a bundled bliss or like Bubby, crash to the floor oblivious and drooling? I broke every seal, grabbed all the coffee mugs I had gathered from all the stupid jobs I had lost and I started swallowing. If I got lucky I might even sleep a whole day AND night. Why, I'd not only be rested, I'd be thinner!

But the very thing that had harbored my dreams, had been the hidden room for my Anne Frank, the only place in the world where I saw myself loved and loving, the only time I ever felt like a person, not the freak show bull lurching through china shops - my one and only talent - My Insomnia - -turned around, ground me into the floor and screamed in my face "you fucking want to sleep are you crazy are you fucking crazy after all I have done for you?" And then with the rage of a woman who had been married to that sonofabitch for the best years of her life only to be told he was leaving her for his twenty-year-old secretary - that rage - picked me up and slammed me against the wall and let me tell you from that point on I was wide awake.

Wide-awake and completely wasted. Walking a semi-straight line to the bathroom in the hopes of puking and passing out would have been a miracle out of Lourdes . Instead, my attempt at traveling one end of the apartment to the other became a modern dance of smashing into different walls in different rooms. My homage to Fred Astaire with a coat rack was when in a feral leap to avoid yet another crash I grabbed the twelve foot bookcase and pulled it on top of me. It being 4:30 in the morning two nights and one day after I had actually started drinking, my downstairs neighbor who hadn't spoken to me in seventeen years called me to tell me to stop making so much goddamn noise before slamming the phone down, aborting my desperate cry of help which sounded something like "arrrgguuhhaaaaa" but really meant they shoot horses don't they?

Figuring the bathroom was a safe place to camp out for the duration of this new vicious awakeness I managed to crawl out from under the many unread and very heavy books my father kept mailing me and drag the phone into my empty tub. It was the closest thing to a bed near the toilet just in case my insomnia decided to surrender my body. Hope springs eternal.

Nothing but a massive alertness needed for microsurgery on severed limbs arrived, so I drunk-dialed every single person I knew telling them how much I loved them. This included the pedophile camp counselor who got fired for visiting me at bedtime. I found him in Calgary where Canadian TV shows were much more polite to sex offenders, and I thanked him for his courage to risk his paycheck over my twelve-year-old company. He was touched but uninterested since I was now too old for him, fourteen being his cut-off date. The main goal - to sleep and to emerge anew like that Greek chick Persephone - didn't happen even with repeated doses from every bottle and the more time ran out the more I drank.

And then before I could count backwards from one hundred, it was Sunday night. My plan had failed. My one and only act, since that night in 1972, had utterly and unequivocally failed. I watched the moon hazed by permanent pollution rise. With each Night air molecule collapsing into yet another imaginary life I couldn't touch with my hands my desperation blasted out of every orifice I had, clawing up my throat, pounding through my eyes, pouring out of my hair follicles I will never be loved by the man of my dreams I will never be loved by the man of my dreams I will never be loved. What exploded through my body that night, was but the soundtrack of all I had lived between the hours of 1 and 6am from the age of thirteen to the age of thirty-four crushed into a single long yowl of a life never accomplished in daylight. The wasted years and the lie I had become, a monster incapable of being who I really was, detonated and my head become a bomb slamming repeatedly against the bathroom wall and that's all I remember until I awoke three days later in a hospital bed.

The ICU nurse explained that neighbors above and below heard this scream, a keening they said that went on for hours. Since I had been such a quiet loner for so many years they assumed that a) I was finally getting laid or that b) somebody had died. And either way they didn't want to interfere. It was the huge thud sound abruptly interrupting the wailing that gave them pause. So they called the police. Who broke down the illegal fire escape window gates and found me bleeding to death from a huge leak in my cracked skull.

My alcohol level was in frat party range, so medication and surgery were not options. I was put in the ICU under observation by a couple of interfaith chaplains ready to give last rites of any kind just in case I died which was what they were all expecting.

They couldn't find any family information on me but one of the cops discovered a pay stub under my bed and a social worker called my job looking for next-of-kin. That explained the generic bunch of carnations and get-well balloons from human resources next to my respirator. I guess if they thought I was going to live they would have sent real flowers.

There was a brace around my head to keep my brains from moving. The ICU was dark and quiet and the rhythmic machines that kept the heart attack guy stable and the organ donor alive long enough for harvest were soothing and after waking up and getting the facts I stopped remembering anything until the next time I opened my eyes and it was five days later. Without checking the date I knew the wedding was happening right then and there on some estate I should have grown up on but didn't. Instead I was in some dark room with more machinery than a NASA rocket. This was my life. This was my stupid life.

The organ donor was gone, off to be disseminated I guess. The heart attack guy was still there, this time conscious and complaining to his wife who cried all over his face, telling him over and over again, "I love you, Morty. I fucking love you." I couldn't take my eyes off of them. As I watched true love for Morty, a kid arrived. Her family was nasty to the nurses, mean to the doctor, angry at her, but this kid just stared, like she was watching TV on some other planet. She stared like I had stared all those nights and I could tell she was beginning to weave her own great escape and it was going to last as long as it was going to last. It was then and there I knew my days and nights of being swaddled in fantasy and fear were over. I knew this because finally twenty-one years, three months and sixteen days later I felt rested. I sent her a silent bon voyage. Good luck with your new world. Just don't stay too long or you might not get out alive.

Even with all the sick days I had accrued, I was fired for excessive absences. They sent a telegram to the ICU and the priest read it to me. Better than last rites he assured me. For several days I cried to whatever chaplain was on duty about how I had lost the love of my life because my love never met me after I had gotten a good night's sleep. The Episcopal reverend told me that if this was my true love he would find me again when the time was right and she knew because that's what happened to her and her wife when they met in seventh grade but then got married to the football captains of opposing teams in high school and didn't see each other until a class reunion game years later. The Buddhist monk told me the Universe never says no. It says Yes. Yes, but not now. No, I have got something better. That's all the monk said. And the rabbi reminded me about how in the concentration camps many often had to eat out of the same bowl they shat in and that sometimes life is like that. You eat and shit from the same bowl.

The social workers arranged lots of things and I didn't get evicted. I came home to a bathroom smeared with aged blood, old medical debris, and an apartment that been raked over by the local crack addicts who slipped through the gates the minute the cops left with the ambulance. The crack heads finished the booze, left behind the jewelry, the TV, my binoculars and many empty vials.

However, as I stood before the empty entertainment center I remembered what the monk had said about the Universe never making a mistake. Because the only things the crack heads had taken was my record player and every single one of my small collection of cherished long-playing vinyl albums. I stared at that sudden empty space for a long, long time. Finally, I cleaned up the blood, fixed the gate and in the space I had once lived I put the wooden bowl Bubby had grabbed the night she fled the Cossacks to a new world. Then I got into bed and slept.

   
         
   
 
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