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You Can’t Escape the Alarm Clock

Read and listen to part two of ON MORNINGS, a nonfiction writing & podcast series

It is that ever-present nuisance of modern mornings. No matter what you do, no matter how fervent and terrible your hatred, you won’t escape it. It doesn’t matter how many times you smack the snooze button, how much you plead into the pillow. Your alarm is coming for you.

It can be a phone, a bell, a song, a lover. It can be noisy neighbors or even noisier roommates. It can be as gentle as a hand on your shoulder, nudging you awake; it can be as rough as a piercing gash of noise that grinds itself into something like beep-beep-beep.

Here are five stories from people all over the world, all experiencing their own alarm clock moment. There is only one comfort these stories can offer us: no matter how awful your alarm is when it wakes you up, nothing can compare to how awful it is when it doesn’t. — From the Editor, Evyn Williams

I.

Every morning is a knockdown, drag-out, back-alley fistfight. Human versus clock.

We begin at 7 A.M., the two of us yelling back and forth. The alarm with its grating shrieks and my yeti-like rebuttals trailed by sloppy swings at the snooze button. Every hook I land is another eight minutes of sleepy bliss in my cotton cocoon. We go on like this for an hour — shriek, grumble, slap — before the ref breaks us up.

I feel my husband’s hands close around my ankles. Wisps of sleep-crazed blonde cling to my pillow as he slides me towards the bottom edge of my Tempur-Pedic boxing ring. My arm swings back in half-conscious defiance, crashing into the blinds behind. They clap vigorously. It was a good fight.

One two-armed scoop later I’m on my feet, teetering and yawning (or growling) into his shoulder. When he’s confident I won’t collapse into my cotton coma again, he points me towards the front of the house, pats me on the shoulder, and pads away.

The beautifully tangled mess of blankets behind me coos a silent siren song at my departure. I shush it, slumber-drunk. We had a great night, really fun, but I have to go. I’ll call you. At this point, I’m a confused combination of conscious and not quite. But my body knows the drill.

I move.

Syncopated footfalls carry me towards the kitchen, the thud thud thud of my dog’s happy tail against the oatmeal carpet cheering me out of the room and nudging me into a torpid rhythm. I clip my shoulder on the doorframe, open half an eye and grunt. The nerve.

Then I hear it: amelodic, yet somehow sweeter than every smoky sound out of a Gibson’s gorgeous wood gut. The coffee grinder. It whirs the way a baby chainsaw would, hacking the dark roast beans into medium-fine bits. The kettle follows, announcing my arrival in falsetto.

My husband lifts the white kettle off the burner and offers a “good morning.” He knows there’s only a 50% chance I’ll say words back. I wave and let my hand drop on the back of my black metal chair. Its legs stutter and skip as I drag it backwards across the carpet. I plant myself at the coffee-stained table, facing the bookcase. Books he’s read, books I want to read. Books, books, books.

I smell it before I see it. The second it hits the table, my hands are ready to dart across the white, chipping surface and say hello. They close around a mug, steam rolling in graceful waves up and away from its delightful contents. Three mysterious words sprawled across the ceramic surface stare up at me. “Eat at Max’s.”

Who is Max? Does he make a good scramble? I’ll never know. The mug is a thrift find, and because of that, eternally enigmatic. But it feels more like the Holy Grail than a ten-cent cup when it hits my lips.

And it revives me all the same.

“Good morning!”

II.

I have two natural alarm clocks: a gay bar and a daycare center. I’m in the middle.

Because I work late at night, I sleep in. But not past 9:30 A.M. because that’s when the daycare center sings, “This is how we wash our hands, wash our hands, wash our hands!”

If I fall back asleep? No problem. The gay bar kicks off morning mimosa service at 10 A.M. Then it’s time to get up and brush my teeth — to Madonna.

III.

The alarm clock is not my friend. We broke up a few years ago. It was an amicable split; I thought we could still be cool. Turns out, my new suitor was happy to take on her role, so I was left with no choice but to move on.

I really should let her go, but I’m selfish. We met when I was in high school. I’m drawn to her slim rectangular build. I admire her simplicity. She may not have the bells and whistles available in more current models, but she’s proven to be efficient and dependable at telling the time. I’m not comfortable seeing her with someone else.

Naturally, she’s resentful. She misses the tickle of her buttons being set each night and longs for the gentle tap of her snooze. Instead she sits, untouched, like a trophy on my nightstand. Useless, but for the light of her block-shaped numbers.

That’s where she gets her revenge, shining boastfully in the middle of the night as I tend to her replacement. Taunting me at 5 A.M. as I drag my weary body from bed to start my day. We torture one another in our sick codependency.

Perhaps we’ll find a way to work things out down the road. But for now, we are not friends.

IV.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve depended on my parents to get me out of bed.

I’m not proud of this.

Once it was decided that I needed to get myself up as a child, they armed my bedroom with alarm clocks, stationed around the room like a firing squad, preparing to blast at the same time each morning. I’d jump out of bed, turn them all off in a split-second, and fall back asleep before any of them could BEEP twice. My mom would have to drag me out of bed each morning.

You can be sure hers was a thankless job.

As I got older, the problem only got worse. Morning swim practice twice a week was a living hell for all of us. The effort it took to pry me out of bed at 5 in the morning — especially when I knew it would end with me having to jump into a freezing cold pool — was monumental. I would get legitimately mad at my parents for forcing me out of bed — for forcing me to take advantage of the extracurriculars at the school they worked their entire lives to allow me and my sisters to attend. They made life so easy for me, and in turn I made it hard as hell on them.

God, I was a little shit.

My senior year of college, I had a final round interview for what at the time felt like my dream job. I had a great resume, I had prepared like crazy for the interview process, and after a call with HR one afternoon, I learned I had made it through to the final round. All I had to do was show up to the interview at 8 A.M. the next day.

I missed the interview.

Knowing my tendency to oversleep, I had taken every precaution. I set a dozen alarms on my phone. I even had my parents call me in the morning to make sure I woke up. (Yes, I was 21 years old.)

But of course, when my alarm rang the first time in the morning, in my half-asleep state I grabbed it from my nightstand and buried it under my pillows. I didn’t hear the 15 alarms or calls from my parents until it was too late.

I didn’t wake up until the campus police came knocking on my door. I missed so many calls from my parents that they alerted the police because they thought something was seriously wrong.

When I realized what had happened, I broke down. I grasped for excuses, but I couldn’t find any. That morning felt like it lasted a lifetime.

I called my mom, sobbing — “Michael, you realize I had to call the police?”

I was flooded with guilt. That morning was the culmination of everything I had taken for granted to that point in my life. My parents had given me everything — a loving home, a great education, and they’d even dragged me out of bed when I was too ungrateful to take advantage of the opportunities they’d provided for me. And now, when I finally have the chance to prove that all the effort and trust that they had put in to me was worth it… I can’t get out of bed?

My mom assured me that everything happens for a reason. And I think she was right.

That was the first day I fully understood how privileged I was. I had been given all the support any one person can hope to receive. Everyone has to get out of bed, but I know how lucky I am to have parents who pushed me to wake up when I didn’t want to.

I haven’t told very many people about that morning, because I know the amount of privilege in the story is staggering. I feel guilt and embarrassment about it constantly.

But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. Now, I still don’t always wake up to my first alarm. Or second. But I do wake up grateful.

My alarm had been ringing for years. It was about time that I woke up.

V.

I think I fell asleep five minutes before the alarm triggered. It buzzed from my Nokia phone and I knew the time was 5:15 A.M. I knew my wife was asleep beside my daughter. I knew my son was asleep beside his grandmother. I knew from the pain in my hip and neck that I was on the floor.

Everything was silent save the ocean beyond the street outside. I timed my breathing to the tumble in and out of the waves and tried to calm my heart with thoughts of whales rolling in the deep, unaffected by 7:30 A.M. today.

7:30 A.M. Third floor. Children’s Ward. Preoperative drugs. 10 A.M. Surgery.

I walked to the main bedroom and watched them sleeping. My wife, face creased in submerged tension. My daughter, utterly unaware. Her hands bundled in the bandages from the third degree burn skin grafts. The skin grafts that had lead us to discover the holes in her heart. The holes that were to be fixed today.

1 in 100 children has a hole in the heart they’d told us. Gather all of those 1’s into another 100 and then just 1 of them would need surgery. Gather all of those 1’s into yet another 100 and that would be the danger point. That 1 in 100 wouldn’t survive the surgery.

There was no statistic for children who fell into a fire and burnt their hands “full thickness” and then had to have massive heart surgery one week after the skin graft.

My wife blinked awake and saw me standing there. Her mother appeared in the kitchen and the kettle clicked on. Water boiled, tea brewed, toast popped. We left the kids sleeping for as long as we could.

I kissed my daughter awake and she blinked her 18 month old eyes and smiled. We dressed her and her brother tumbled in to kiss her. He said Goodbye and my heart froze. We said See You Soon and walked to the car.

5:15 A.M. was now 6:45 A.M. 7:30 A.M. was racing towards us.


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Here are the full Contributor Credits for ALARM CLOCKS, and the entire ON MORNINGS series.

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