I’ve never been a good sleeper. As long as I can remember, I have simply needed less than other people. Before I was old enough to have things to wake up for, before I had to force myself to rest, I wouldn’t sleep any more than absolutely necessary. My family would all be snoring, drifting carelessly through that stop-motion world, and I just couldn’t. So, I mostly just didn’t.
On the more restless nights, I’d stalk our hallway, counting the paces between my bed and the bathroom, my bed and the refrigerator, even though I had long before known the exact numbers by heart. I would plan fire escape routes or stage dry-run battles against home invasions that never came. Sometimes, I’d sit in the front windows of the loft and look out on the part of New York that always stayed awake, with or without me.
One long summer, I studied a drug dealer who camped out on the corner opposite ours, every night for weeks until he got arrested and never reappeared. Night-shifters dragging themselves home or couples sneaking in some extra love would happen by, each wrapped in their own blanket of darkness. I could tell exactly when they noticed him because they curtly waved off his entreaties, picking up their pace or gripping each other a little more closely. He wasn’t really interested in them, though. He only stepped boldly into the hazy, yellow circle of street light when there was real work to be done.
There were certainly plenty of fish nibbling his bait. Good drugs sell themselves, after all. After the hook, the haggle, and the exchange of raw capitalistic ideals was done, he would retreat once again to the shadows, visible only as the dancing red spot marking the tip of the cigarettes he chain-smoked one after another. I didn’t personally want his wares, but I truly wondered who he was. I wanted to go down there and talk to him.
I imagined myself asking him if he worked nights because he couldn’t sleep either, or did he crash during the day, matching my vampiric cycles merely out of a distinct professional necessity? Maybe I could be his assistant or his accountant, at least, an intern at his firm of addled infirmity. Looking back, thank god, I never actually did. But, I genuinely considered it more than once. No one would know. My parents worked hard and slept hard. We certainly needed the money. I had the time and could clearly handle the hours. Fear, masquerading as common sense, was all that really kept me inside.
Luckily, I had things to keep me busy. I had my beloved Atari 2600 and my dirty mistress, ColecoVision. I saved entire universes until my brain itself felt pixelated. But, most of all I would read. Book after book after book. Then, the same ones, like safe and familiar friends I visited again and again. After a while, my parents learned to use my low-grade mania. Once they had tried everything short of tying me to the bed, we never spoke of it, really. My mom, in particular, approached my insomnia as a potential strength.
As long as I didn’t complain about getting up for school the next day, she pretended not to mind. I think maybe she envied me in a way, even if she couldn’t quite understand why I was like that. I certainly wasn’t hurting anyone. It was pointless to try and stop me, once they realized it wasn’t some act of defiance. It was no act at all. It was just me.
When I got old enough, Mom quietly started leaving novels on the breakfast counter. Newspapers on the coffee table. Magazines by the toilet. She said they were for her or my dad, but we both knew the truth. She was always so tired when she came home from work. Then, there was always the cooking and washing up to be done, as if my father’s fingers were broken. Even during the time when he couldn’t find work and had nothing to do all day but brood and worry. I think I learned to love cooking in order to occasionally relieve her of that one burden. No, the reading selections weren’t for her because she would be asleep well before there was even any time to pick them up.
Zonked out in that same rocking chair, knitting the same scarf that never seemed to get finished. She wouldn’t admit it until I was much older, but we both knew those books were for me. She knew I favored the science fiction, the magical realism, the vanish of physical laws as rule and theme. So, once every few weeks or so, a new Tolkien, or Herbert, or Asimov-Heinlein-Borges-Garcia Marquez would casually appear. It was like a game we played.
I was the bespectacled mouse who came out after the house went quiet. I nibbled these proffered hunks of literary Camembert slowly at first. Soon, I devoured them whole, along with the inevitable sleeve of Chips Ahoy and practically a bucket of milk. This was how my brain found its rest. My mother used to say that I liked to dream while I was still awake. It was true then and still is. Many nights, I watched television until it was an out of body experience.
I openly worshipped the syndicated, late-night pantheon of Ralph Kramden, Oscar Madison, and Captain Kirk. I belonged to them and they to me. They never questioned the fact that it seemed like I was never tired. Not like now. I was fine for school on four hours or less most nights back then. If I had a test the next day, I’d fight myself to get six. When I could, I still did so grudgingly, mostly to please Mom. She worried and I knew she had enough other reasons to do that.
Yet, an all-nighter was hardly rare. I didn’t like or miss sleep. It seemed, at best, a waste of time. I knew in my heart that I was stronger than sleep. That small, quiet slice of the world was often sad and still, but it was all mine. It was the only thing I truly owned. It was my time.