Some nights, a person can’t sleep. Some nights, even the sweet presence of a mate in one’s bed doesn’t soothe.
Around three in the morning, I rise and go to the window to watch the dark buildings stand along West End Avenue. There they are, blind-eyed and massive, like so many silhouetted elephants on the African veldt. I stare down at the brownstones along 101st Street, at the rooftops with their dark, sloping skylights, at the lamplights and the laddered water towers and the distant lights of a misted Empire State, blurred green or red or white, needlepoint aspiring to the clouds-cold chrome and steel hiding behind a wash of electric color. I listen for the sound of car wheels and watch as an occasional figure rounds the corner: a drug addict out for a fix, a drunk coming home, a worker who has ended a shift making bread or taking highway tolls. I know by now which neighbor is apt to leave a night light on, burning till dawn. I know that the distant projects, with their regular tiny prison windows evenly spaced like the stones in a well-kept graveyard, will start to light up early-4:30, 5 a.m.-as someone turns off an alarm, pushes away a cover and heads for the shower. I wait for those signals: a sudden blink, a small but insistent square illumination over Amsterdam Avenue.
Why can’t I sleep? I’ve missed the hour to take a pill. I don’t like pills anyhow. They drag on into the next day, a woolly muffler on the mind. I move to the other side of my apartment and, pressing my face against the glass as I grab my sliver river view, I see the moon headed down over New Jersey and the dark water rippling against what appears to be a parking lot on the far side of the Hudson. The night in New York is not black. It has a soft blue tone, a reflection of white street lights, downtown neon, traffic lights sending rays up into the sky. The night is soft, and as the hours pass it turns from the color of ink to the color of someone’s eyes, threaded with cloud or mist, sparked by an occasional star or a passing plane visible for a moment and then invisible on its way to Kennedy or LaGuardia, home from India or Japan or China. I watch for comets or falling stars. I have yet to see one.
At times like this, I brood. I am a heavy-sighing, brooding woman, awake when she should be asleep. My brooding takes the form of repeating myself, revisiting the thing that has grieved me during the day, during my lifetime. I turn it this way and that, trying to find something else, something better in the story, but finding only the same matter and beginning again. Sometimes I think about all the things that I have done wrong in the past years, weeks, days-wrong in that they were stupid or careless, wrong in that they failed in their end or because I shouldn’t have done them and so deserve whatever trouble awaits.
As the minutes pass, like drops in water torture, I turn to fantasies of what I would like to happen. I think of weddings to be and babies not yet born and plan details of flower arrangements and birth announcements. I think of trips I would like to take and imagine myself walking with my spouse on far-off beaches and letting warm sand cover my toes as I stare out at turquoise seas or coconut-heavy palms. I wait for an owl and a pussycat and a pale green boat that never arrive.
And then finally, as it gets near dawn and I have imagined the details of my funeral (both as burial and cremation) and I have fought off tears at the prospect of loss of life-my own, my loved ones; after I have imagined the conversation with the doctor in which I receive the fatal diagnosis or perceive the rushing car as it is about to run me down, I realize that I am awake because I am angry at someone or something. The anger works like caffeine and keeps my wires buzzing despite the ache in the back of my eyes.
Sometimes I am angry at a simple thing: a slight, a piercing glance, an unrequited admiration. Sometimes I am angry at someone I love. Such unpeacefulness is usually the root of the insomnia. How can you love without being angry sometimes? Is there a way to love that doesn’t cause a grinding of teeth, a cracking of knuckles, a tear or two in the dark at least once in awhile?
And then I do it: I go over the debate and fill in what Al Gore should have said but didn’t. I tell George W. Bush that it was the Republican Congress that held up progress on medical care and prescription drugs. I tell Mr. Bush that his cliché about giving the responsibility back to the people and taking government off their backs has been a traditional dodge to allow some to suffer while others frolic in the hay. I tell Mr. Bush, right on network TV, that there are many moral people who don’t belong to churches and some immoral ones who do. I rehearse in my mind the Joan Didion piece in The New York Review of Books that explains Mr. Bush’s links to the religious right, and consider how to let everyone in America know what Ms. Didion researched to the bone that has scared me so much I can’t sleep-or is at least one of the reasons.
And then, as I see one or two more lights come on along my street and watch a few taxis headed downtown along the avenue, I turn to Chairman Arafat and I scold and I pray and I admonish. I pull on his head scarf. I beg. I turn to the Israeli hawks who think they called it-strike three!-and now are feeling justified. They stalled, objected, predicted violence for so long that they have contributed to the situation on the ground. If there were no settlements, there would be no soldiers to throw rocks at. If peace had been made 20 years ago.… If? It’s a long argument. By the time I’m through, the sky is spilling milk, my mate is stirring, ready to rise with the alarm, my heart is beating fast and nothing, nothing is well-nothing that I know of, anyway.
I hear the slam of The New York Times against the door. I turn on the flame under the kettle for the coffee. I look in the mirror. My nose seems swollen. There is a strange crease in my cheek from the seam in the sofa’s pillow, and my eyelids make me look like a Tartar from the mountains of the East. But now there is a pink band at the horizon’s edge-a beautiful, mysterious rose hue above the projects. This is the color of joy. Tomorrow has begun, and I can always sleep tomorrow night.