Sleeping with the Enemy
It’s 3:47am. Now there are only two hours left before the alarm. I flip the pillow; cool-side-up. I kick one leg out from under the duvet. I even my breathing and will the parade of words and images to lie down in some distant corner of my mind. I grope through the darkness, looking for a place where I can disappear into sleep. The sliding door to the terrace has been open to the night air, and I hear the first streetcar of the day rumble past on King Street. The birdsong begins — a single robin warbling, then two, and soon a chorus. I do math in my head, totalling the time I spent crumpled on the couch (I’m just going to watch the news, I tell myself) with what I might still reasonably expect to squeeze in now as a nap. I peer over my shoulder at the wall and see the creep of grey light. I illuminate the screen on my phone for the time. 5:26am.
When did the night become this, a game of chase between me and sleep? There was a time when being awake for most of the single-digit early hours would have been unfathomable. I never understood it when people said they had trouble sleeping. After a full day, didn’t their bodies simply demand rest? I may never have been a prolific sleeper — my natural tendency for night-owlishness coupled with being an early-morning-before-work runner-with-a-dog has meant I have done mostly on six hours per night. But, oh, how deep and sound those six used to be.
I remember a time when I tumbled into the silent blackness almost immediately after turning out the light. I would wake with hardly a wrinkle in the bedsheets. That was how skillfully sleep held me in its embrace. Those hours I spent with my eyes closed were quiet and still. And yet, they were possessed of a fullness — they had body and weight. They were succulent.
The slide from there to here, this place of thin rest snatched in ragged handfuls and fatigue perched, ever-present, on my shoulders, happened in stealthy increments, almost imperceptibly. It began, ironically, in a place of super-charged energy. He had brought me to life. With adrenaline pumping my heart into a staccato beat, words danced. I wrote them down to tell my stories — where I came from, what I saw, how I dreamed, why I cared. Who I was. That conversation with him would spool through my head all day as I worked, walked the dog, grocery-shopped, ran, had drinks with friends, did laundry, cooked, and lived my life. It was in the evenings that I captured it all on a screen.
“How can you do that with your thumbs?” he asked me once, telling me he read each novella I wrote to him multiple times while marvelling that I had keyed it all on a phone. What he didn’t know was that I often wrote longhand first so that my mind could stroke each image and word, knead and pull the pieces into place. Once my thoughts were fully formed I could make them digital, pushing them out to him paragraph by paragraph.
While we communicated snatches of the day in real-time short sentences, it was in these nighttime missives that I gave myself to him. Over time, their complexion became more complicated. The revelatory vignettes transformed into running conversation, sometimes fraught debate. There were raw, explicit expressions of need and desire. There were tender shows of love. There were bombshells: “I have a plane ticket”; “Choose me”; “I’ve been seeing someone here and we’ve come to describe our relationship as primary.”
That time I spent with him at night left me, by turns, exhilarated and lonely. While in the beginning I could hit “send” and then put myself to sleep, as I sunk in deeper with him, that ability began to decline. Some nights I would wait for his read receipt with anticipation, knowing that what I had sent would bring him joy, or pleasure. Some nights I checked anxiously for that proof he’d read my messages, knowing I’d bravely asked hard questions that needed answers. The nights I dreaded most were the ones in which no receipt or reply came. When it finally did at 9am his time the next morning, upon his arrival at the office, I knew — I knew it meant he had spent the night with someone.
It was on those nights I couldn’t bear to be in my bed. It was on those nights that the space beside me felt like an ocean I was drowning in, the extra pillows weights instead of life preservers. It was on those nights I remembered how his skin had smelled and his lips had tasted. “I’ve never wanted to fall asleep in your arms more than I do right now.” I had written that to him once and I whispered it to him again through the ceiling. Hollow and adrift, I would curl myself into a knot on the couch and try to occupy my mind. I read. I stared at terrible late-night infomercials. I watched the moon track its way across the sky and looked for the stars in Orion’s belt.
On nights he did reply, he often did so before he himself went to bed. There were three hours between us, so his midnight was my early morning. My phone vibrated as his messages arrived, and my body became attuned to that sound cue. Buzzzzz. Buzz buzz. If it was a night when I had managed to fall asleep first, my eyes would fly open. As the synchronicity between us matured, I’d often wake moments before his words would appear. I’d find myself lucid with a start, blinking in the dark. A minute or two later, I would hear it: Buzzzz. Rarely did I read his messages in the moment. I saved them until later in the morning. The longer I left them unread, the longer there would be a notification beside his name — proof that he had been thinking of me.
It took almost two and half years for the drama to play itself out. It ended the exact same way it began, with a woman urging a man to join her in a brave leap, and that man leaping at everything except the very thing he said he wanted most.
What is no longer the same is me. In many ways I am stronger than when I set out on this path with him. I have learned my capacity for courage, for challenge, for perseverance, and, most of all, for love. But I am also broken in ways I wonder if ever will heal.
I struggle still with sleep. It’s a year after the end finally came, and I grapple yet with the emptiness of my bed. While I crave those succulent nights tucked between crisp sheets, and even achieve them now and again, more often than not I fall into fitful slumber on the couch bathed in the light of the floor lamp, clothes on and contact lenses in. When I awake somewhere around 3am — because I still do more nights than I care to admit — I drag myself to the bed, shedding what I’m wearing along the way. My phone remains still and silent, and the clock-watching begins until the sounds of morning tell me it wasn’t this day that I managed to break the cycle. Morning tells me I’ll have to try again.
In the time that has passed, the vice grip on my heart has eased. The hands around my throat have loosened. I am no longer a walking raw nerve. But somewhere deep within, viscerally, I know that sleep is the last piece of healing I need. I know that when I can glide peacefully through the night, consistently and well, it will mean my mind and my heart are once again my own.
Until then, I stride through my days a free woman knowing full well that by night, I’m still sleeping with the enemy.