Sleep Back to Conversations & Essays

by Colm Toibin

I know what you will do when morning comes. I wake before you do and I lie still. I might doze lightly, but mainly I am alert with my eyes open. But I don’t move, I don’t want to disturb you. I can hear your soft calm breathing in sleep and I like that. And then at a certain point you turn towards me without opening your eyes; your hands reach over and they touch my shoulder or my back. And then all of you comes close to me and it is as though you are still sleeping, there is a not a sound from you, just a need, almost urgent but unconscious too, to be close to someone now. This is how the day begins when you are with me.

It is strange how much history has brought us here, how the engineers and software-makers and hardware-makers could never have guessed as they made their plans and laid out their strategies and sought support and investment that the thing they made – the internet – could cause two people to lie in the half-light of morning holding each other. Had it not been for them, we would never have met.

One day you asked me if I hated the British or the English and I said that I did not. All of that was over now. It was easy being Irish now. Easier maybe that being Jewish and knowing, as you do, that your great-aunts and uncles perished at Hitler’s hands. And that your grand-parents, who you love and see sometimes out in Long Island, lost their brothers and sisters; they live with this catastrophe day in day out.

It is a pity that there is such great German music, you say, and I tell you that Germany comes in many guises and you shrug and say: Not for us, it didn’t.

We are in New York on the Upper West Side and when I open the blinds on the window of the bedroom we can see the river and the George Washington Bridge. You don’t know, because I will never say, how much it frightens me that the bridge is so close and in full view. You know more about music than I do, but I have read books that you have not read. I hope that you will never find a copy of James Baldwin’s ‘Another Country’; I hope that I will never come into the room and see you reading it, following Rufus through New York to his final journey up this way, on the train, to the bridge, the jump, the water.

There is a year missing in your life and it makes everyone who loves you watch you with care. I asked about it a few times and saw the hunched shoulders and the vague, empty look and then the shrug and the silence. The nerdy look that comes on you when you are low. I know your parents dislike the fact that I am older than you, but the knowledge that I don’t drink alcohol or take drugs almost makes up for that, or I like to think it does at least sometimes. You don’t drink or take drugs either but you go outside to smoke, and maybe I should take smoking up too so that I can watch over you casually when you are out there and not have to wait and then feel relief when I hear the doors of the elevator opening and your key in the lock of the door.

There is no year in my life that I cannot account for, but there are years that I do not think about now, years that went by slowly, in a sort of coiled pain. I have never bothered you with the details. You think I am strong because I am older and maybe that is the way things should be.

History comes to us as freedom. No one cares in this apartment building that we are men and we wake often in the same bed. No one cares that when we touch each other’s faces we find that we both need to shave. Or that when I touch your body I find the same body as I have, or one like it anyway, in better shape and twenty and more years younger. I touch your dick and you are circumcised and I am not. That is a difference. We are cut and uncut, as they say in this country where we both live now, where you were born.

Germany, Ireland, the internet, gay rights. Jewish, Catholic. They have all brought us here. To this room, this bed in America. How easy it might have been for this never to have happened. How unlikely it would have seemed in the past.

I feel easy, happy, rested, ready for the day as I come back from the shower and find you lying on your back with your glasses on, your hands behind your head. Your voice is almost accusing, there is a quiver in it.

-You know that you were groaning in the night. Almost crying. Saying things.

-I don’t remember anything. That’s funny. Was it loud?

-Yeah. It was loud. Not all the time, but just before the end it was loud and you were waving your hands around. I moved over to you and whispered to you, but then you fell back asleep. You were all right then.

-When you whispered to me, what did you say?

-I said it was all okay, there was nothing wrong. Something like that.

-I hope I didn’t keep you awake.

-It was no problem. I went back to sleep. I don’t know what you were dreaming about, but it wasn’t good.

 

                       *

 

The fear comes on Saturdays, and it comes too if I am staying anywhere, in a hotel room for example, and there is shouting in the street in the night. Shouting under my window. I keep it to myself, the fear, and by doing this sometimes I keep it away, at arm’s length, elsewhere. But there are other times when it comes as sharp feeling, something close to dread, as though what happened has not occurred yet but will occur, is about to do so, and there is nothing I can do to stop it. The fear can come from nowhere. For example, I am reading as I often do on Saturday while you practice or go to a concert with your friends, texting me at the interval to tell me how things have been going. I am reading and then suddenly I look up as though disturbed.

What happened enters the pit of my stomach and the base of my neck like pain, and it seems that nothing will lift it. Eventually, as it came it will go, but not easily. Sometimes a sigh, or a walk to the fridge, or the making myself busy putting clothes or papers away, will lift it, but it is always hard to tell. It could stay for a while, or come back as though it had forgotten something. It is not under my control.

 

                     *

I know where I was and what I was doing when my brother died. I was in Brighton in England and I was in bed and I could not sleep because there were drunken crowds shouting below my hotel window. Sometime between two and three in the morning he died in his own house in Dublin. He was alone there that night. If I had been sleeping then I might have woken at the moment he died, or stirred in the night. But probably not. Probably I would have gone on sleeping. I suppose it might have registered somewhere in me, but not in any place that I could have located or ever come to know about.

He died. That is the most important thing to say. My brother was in his own house in Dublin. He was alone. It was Saturday night, Sunday morning. He called for an ambulance before two in the morning. When they found him he was dead and they could not bring him back to life.

I have never told anyone that I was awake in that room in Brighton in those hours. It hardly matters. It matters just to me and only at times.

                      *

On one of those winter evenings when you are staying here we go to bed early. Like a good American, you wear a t-shirt and boxers in bed. I am wearing pyjamas, like a good Irishman. Chet Baker is on low. We are both reading, but I know you are restless. Because you are young, I always suspect that you are horny when I am not and that is a joke between us. But it is probably true; it would make sense. You must be horny when I am not. In any case, you move towards me. I have learned always to be careful when this happens, to pay attention, never to seem distracted or tired or bored. As we lie together, you whisper.

-I told my shrink about you.

-What about me?

-Your crying in the night and my coming home on Saturday to find you looking so frightened or sad or something so you could barely talk.

-You didn’t say anything to me on Saturday. Was it this Saturday?

-Yeah, it was Saturday. I didn’t know want to raise the subject.

-What did your shrink say?

-He says that you have to do something about it. I told him you said that Irish people don’t usually go to shrinks.

-What did he say?

-He said that explains why there are so many bad Irish novels, bad Irish plays, bad Irish movies, bad Irish singers and bad Irish bars. I made him say it a few times so I could remember it.

-There are some good Irish plays.

-He doesn’t think so.

We lie there listening to Chet Baker singing ‘Almost Blue’ and I move to kiss you. You sit up and lean on your elbow and look at me.

-He says that you have to get help but it has to be Irish help, that only an Irish shrink could make sense of you. I told him that you didn’t hate the British, and maybe you could get, like, a British one, and he said that sounded like you needed help even more urgently.

-Do you pay him for this rubbish?

-My dad pays him.

-He sounds like a bundle of laughs. Your shrink.

-He told me not to listen to you. Just make you do it. I said that you were okay most of the time. But I told him that before. Hey, he likes the sound of you.

-Fuck him!

-He’s good, he’s nice, he’s smart. And he’s straight, so you don’t have to worry about him.

-That’s true. I don’t have to worry about him.

 

                *

The spring comes and nothing can be predicted. It is cold and then warm and then very cold. But gradually it gets better again and something that I had forgotten begins. Near the back of this apartment building is a lane, or an opening between two buildings and if it is warm at night some students gather, maybe the ones who smoke. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, but you hear it and it becomes part of the night, like the noise the heating makes, until it fades. It has never bothered me all the time I have been here, and I have no memory of you ever remarking on it. It is quiet here, quiet compared to downtown or the apartment you share in Williamsburg on the nights when you do not stay here. These noises up here don’t happen much.

Nonetheless, I should have known that some night they would hit a part of my sleeping nervous system. Maybe if I had found an Irish shrink, as your shrink suggested, he would have warned me about this, or I would have come to warn myself after many meetings with him.

I don’t remember how it begins, but you do. I am whimpering in my sleep, or so you say, and then going quiet for a while. And then when there is more shouting in the side street behind the house, I start to shiver. You say it is closer to someone shuddering, recoiling in fright but still I have no memory of this. When you try to wake me, you become afraid. I know that everything you do, how you manage your day, is about your never becoming afraid.

When I finally wake, you are on your cell-phone and you look frightened. You tell me what happened and then you reach for your shirt.

-I’m going.

-What’s wrong?

-I’ll talk to you in the morning. I’m going to get a cab.

-A cab?

-Yeah, I have money.

I watch you dress. You are silent and deliberate. Suddenly, you seem much older. In the light from the lamp on your side of the bed I can see what you will look like in the future. You turn as you go out the door.

-I’ll text.

Within a minute you are gone. It is three forty-five when I look at the clock. When I text you and say I am sorry for waking you, you do not reply.

The next evening you come round. I can tell that you have something to say. You ignore me when I ask if you have eaten.

-Hey, I am going to take my clothes and stuff.

-I’m sorry about last night.

-You frightened me. There’s something wrong with you. I don’t know what it is, but it’s too much for me.

-You don’t want to stay here again?

-Hey, I never said that. That is not what I said.

You sigh and sit down. I start to talk.

-Maybe we should...

-No, no ‘maybe’, and no ‘we should’. You have to go and see someone. You can’t do this on your own, and I can’t help you, and I’m not staying again until you have done that. It’s not because I don’t want to, but it’s frightening. It’s not just once, just one bad dream. I don’t know when it’s going to happen next. It’s intense. You should hear it. I thought I should record it on my phone for you, so you would know.

I imagine you holding the phone out in the dark with the record button on and me having a bad dream I can’t wake from.

-Why don’t we talk during the week?

-Sure.

You go down to the bedroom and after some minutes re-appear with a bag.

-Are you certain you want to take your stuff?

-Yeah.

You have already taken the keys to this apartment from your key-ring and you leave them on the hall table. We hug and you go with your head down. I stand with my back to the door and my eyes closed as I listen to the elevator arrive and open its doors for you. It shuts and you start going down. And all I can think is that I would never have done that to you, walk out like that. And all I can think then is maybe that is what is wrong with me. You have learned something that I don’t want to know.

 

              *

There is always that sense of being released from somewhere once the plane gets going from JFK to Dublin. Everyone Irish who gets on that plane knows the feeling; some, like me, also know that it does not last for long. I sleep a bit and then read and then wake again and look around and go to the bathroom and realise that most of the passengers are sleeping. But I don’t think I will sleep again. I don’t want to read. There are almost four hours left to go.

I doze and wake and then fall into the deepest sleep in the hour before we land so that I have to be woken and told to put my seat in the upright position.

There is a hotel on Stephen’s Green on the opposite side from the Shelbourne and I have booked a room there for four nights. I have told no one I am coming here except the doctor, the psychiatrist, whom I met years ago when he came to help a friend of mine who was suffering from bad depression and could not sleep and could not handle anything. The doctor knew my friend’s family. I remember the time he took with my friend and how he came back again and again. I remember that I made him tea on a few of those nights and we spoke about the late Beethoven Quartets and he told me which recordings he favoured as my friend lay next door in a darkened room. I remember that he liked jazz and that he found it strange that I did not.

When I called him from New York, he remembered that time and mentioned also that he had read a few of my books. He said he would see me but best not when I was jet-lagged. He told me to give it a few days between landing in Dublin and the appointment. He was living alone now, he said, so he could see me in his own house. He gave me the address and we agreed the time. When I asked about payment, he told me I could send him some jazz cd’s from New York, or my next book.

In Dublin I kept to the side streets on the first day. I went to the cinema and then went up into Rathmines and found a few places to linger where I thought I might meet no one I knew. The city at first seemed low-key, unbusy.

There was a new cinema in Smithfield and I went there on the second day and saw two films in a row. I found a place to eat nearby. I noticed how crowded it became, and how loud voices were, and how much moving and laughing and shouting there was. I wondered if it could be true that the city I knew, and had seen the previous day, was once a place which specialised in the half-said thing, the shrug. It was a place where people looked at each other out of the side of their eyes. All that was over now, or at least in Smithfield it was.

I tried not to sleep in the daytime on either of those days, although I wanted to. I went to Hodges Fidges and Books Upstairs and bought some books. In the evening, I watched the Irish news and some current affairs programmes on the television in my hotel bedroom.

And then on the third day in the late afternoon I went to Ranelagh to see the psychiatrist. I was unsure what we would say, or do. I was scheduled to go back to New York the following day. Maybe there was a drug for what was wrong with me, but I doubted it. I needed him to listen to me, or I needed to be able to tell you when I came back that I had done this. Maybe, I thought, he would refer me to someone in New York that I could see in the same regular way as you see your shrink.

There was a long room that had once been two rooms and it was beautifully furnished. We took our shoes off and sat opposite each other on armchairs towards the back of that room. I realised that he did not need me to talk; he had listened carefully to what I had said on the phone. He asked me if I had ever been hypnotised and I said no. There was a guy, I remembered, who used to do it on television or in the theatre but I couldn’t recall his name, Paul something, but I saw him on television once or twice. I thought hypnosis was a party game, or something that happened in black and white films. I had not expected a psychiatrist to mention it as something he might do with me.

He was going to use hypnosis, he said. We would both need to be quiet. It might be best if I closed my eyes, he said. I thought for a second that I should ask him why he was doing this, or if he did it all the time, or what it might achieve, but there was something about the calm way he approached this, something deliberate, that made me feel it was best not to ask anything. But I was still wary. I was sure he noticed this but it did not bother him or slow down his calm determination. I closed my eyes.

He left silence. I don’t know for how long he left silence. And then in a new voice, a voice that was more than a whisper but had still an undertow of whispering, he told me that he was going to count to ten, and at the word ‘ten’ I would be asleep. I nodded and he began.

His voice had a softness but also an authority. I wondered if he had trained in this or if he had developed it on his own with other patients. When he came to ‘ten’ there was no great change. But I did not move or tell him that I was still awake. I kept my eyes closed, wondering how long it would be before he realised that the spell had not worked, that I was not asleep, that I could still think and feel. I knew where I was.

-I want you to think about your brother.

-I am getting nothing.

-I want you to take your time.

I left my mind empty and kept my eyes closed. What is strange now is that I am sure I did this because I willed it, that I could have easily decided otherwise. Nothing was happening, but there was a density in the feelings I had, although the feelings were just ordinary ones. I was oddly relaxed and also uneasy. It was like a moment from childhood, or even adulthood, where I was able to stop worrying about a pressing matter for a moment in the full knowledge that the worry would come back. In this interlude I did not move or speak.

-I want you to think about your brother, he said again.

I know then that I let out a small moan, a sort of cry, but there was no emotion behind it. It was as though I was just doing what he expected me to do.

-Nothing, nothing. I whispered.

-Follow it now.

-There’s nothing.

He left silence, left space for me to moan and tell him where I was going, but I was not sure where that was. It seemed like nowhere in particular. I was moving. I was also awake. He spoke several times more, the voice softer and more insistent. And then I stopped him. I needed silence now and he left silence again. I might have sighed. I know I was puzzled. I could not tell where I was going. I knew that I was sitting in an armchair in a house in Ranelagh and that I could open my eyes at any moment. I knew that I was going back to New York the next day.

And then it came, the hallway, and it was a precise hallway in a house I had known but never lived in. There was lino on the floor and a hall table and a door to a living room, the door slightly ajar. There were stairs at the end of the hallway.

And then there was no ‘I’. I was a ‘he’. I was not myself.

-Do you feel sad about your brother? he asked.

-No. No.

I was lying on the floor of that hallway. I was dying. I had called an ambulance and left the front door on the latch. The dying came as lightness, a growing lightness as though something was leaving me, and I was letting it leave, and then I was panicking, or almost panicking, and then feeling tired.

-Follow how you feel.

I signalled for him not to speak again. The idea that there was less of me now, and that this lessness would go on and there would then be even less of me soon, that this diminishing would grow, was centered in my chest. Something was going down, going out, with a strange and persistent forcelessness. There was no pain, more a mild strain or a pressure within the self, or the self that I was now in this hallway, this room. It was happening within the body as much within the self that can think or remember. Something was reaching out to death, but it was not death, death is too easy a word, it was closer to an emptying out of strain so that it would be nothing, not peace or anything like that, just nothing. This was coming gradually and inevitably. My face, our face, was smiling, or seemed to be content and have no concerns. It was almost pleasure, but not exactly pleasure, and not exactly the absence of pain either. It was nothing and the nothing came with ease and a desire to push things further, not to move.

-Do you feel sad about your brother? Find him, think of him.

I made some sign again for him not to speak. I thought that this was ending, and before it did I wanted to know if our mother might be close now, or have been close then, but that came as a thought only. I saw her face, but I did not feel her presence. I held the thought and found myself longing for some completion of the thought, some further satisfying image, but nothing came. Instead, there was stillness, and then the door being pushed open and voices. I could hear the urgency, but it was like urgency in a film I could not fully see, it was not real. It was in the background as I was lifted, as my chest was pushed and pummelled, as more voices were raised, as I was moved. Then there was nothing, really nothing - the nothing that I was and the nothing that was in this room now. Whatever had happened, it had ended. There was nowhere else to go. I know that I began to moan again and then I went quiet and stayed quiet until the soft voice said that he would count to ten again and when he said the word ‘ten’ I would come back from where I had been and I would be in the room with him.

-I don’t know where you were, but I left you there.

I did not reply.

-Maybe you got something you could work on.

-I became him.

-Did you feel sad?

-I was him. I wasn’t me.

He looked at me calmly.

-Maybe the feelings will come now.

-I became him.

We did not speak for a while. When I looked at my watch I thought that I was seeing the wrong time. The watch said that two hours had passed. It was almost dark outside. He made tea and put on some music. When I found on my shoes, I disocered that I had trouble putting them on as if my feet had swelled during the time I was elsewhere in that room. Eventually, I stood up and made to leave. He gave me a number I could call in a few weeks when I had absorbed what had happened.

-What happened? I asked.

-I don’t know. You are the one who has to do the work.

He followed me in the stockinged feet to the front door. We shook hands as I left. I walked through Dublin, from Ranelagh to Stephen’s Green, passing people on their way home from work.

 

                        *

It is winter in New York and I have not replied to your texts. They come more sporadically and say less and less. It is down to ‘Hey!’ or ‘Hi’ and soon, I think, they will stop. When I go to the Lincoln Center to see a film or go to a concert, I look at the list of upcoming concerts and check and see if your name is there. It would not surprise me on one of those nights if I found you standing close by, looking at me.

I wake alone now. I wake early and lie thinking or dozing. In the morning I carry the full burden the night’s sleep. It is as if I have been tiring myself out in the darkness rather than resting. There is no one to tell me if I make a sound as I sleep. I don’t know if I snore, or whimper, or cry out. I like to think that I am silent, but how can I tell?

There comes a moment when, with my eyes closed, I turn and reach out and run my hands up and down the empty space in the bed. I do not wish you were there. Enough has happened for me not to wish that. The emptiness is a sort of comfort.