I remember my summer in Israel when I was 16 years old as being one of near-orgasmic bliss. I wasn’t dating anyone seriously, but I did have a lover. My lover was sleep. And he was hot.
Every Friday afternoon, I would take the bus from the small town where I was living to my parents’ friends’ apartment in Tel Aviv. They were an American couple my grandparents’ age who were in Israel for the summer, long-standing family friends whom I loved as much as my grandparents. Fortunately, the feeling was mutual, because every week, after Friday night dinner, I would go to the guest room in their apartment and fall asleep. I would fall the way a skydiver falls out of a plane, with wholehearted abandon. And I would sleep. And sleep. And sleep.
I would sleep sweet, deep, dreamless sleep. I would sleep far beyond what was normal, or reasonable, or even polite, for a regular weekend guest. I would sleep until 2 or 3 in the afternoon, until the white hot light of July Tel Aviv burned through the slits in the Venetian blinds. I’d stumble out of the room apologetic, every time, to my incredulous hosts.
“We went into the room a few times, just to make sure she was still breathing,” my parents’ friends once recounted to my mother over the phone after Shabbat was over.
It’s 25 years (and five kids) later, so I suppose I shouldn’t be too upset about the fact that at this point, my lover, sleep, is clearly seeing someone else. It’s been a long time…it makes sense. After all, we’ve both changed. Oh, fine—I’ve changed. Sleep, on the other hand, turns out to be that jerk ex-boyfriend who mysteriously, infuriatingly, doesn’t age. He’s still hot, and he only likes younger women.
At this point, my nights—once a sweet dark expanse of velvet rest—have been reduced to an irregular series of two-hour naps. It’s the start-stop sleep of being on an airplane, in economy, without the crutches of alcohol or Ambien. It’s like being stuck in that tired place where you are always woken by the crick in your neck, or the steward hitting your elbow with the drinks cart.
My brief nighttime siestas in my seductively comfortable bed end abruptly in various horrible ways. One reliable sleep-ender is the piercing shriek from the 2-year-old in the crib down the hall: “MY FEET! MY FEET AREN’T UNDER THE BLANKET! HELP ME! HELP ME!” Another winner is the breathless 3-year-old girl who sneaks into my room at 3 a.m. Inches from my previously-sleeping face, she informs me that she is “going to the bathroom to pee, ALL BY MYSELF!” Or, of course, there is always Old Reliable: The Teething Baby. Twenty baby teeth to pierce those soft little baby gums, which equals at least 20 nights of fruitless cuddling, soothing, and pacing.
But even on those rare nights where no one interrupts my slumber, I seem to be my own worst enemy. I wake from horrible dreams in a sweat, or from sweet dreams for no reason whatsoever. I go to pee and return to bed, unable to find that position of comfort, flipping the pillow again and again as though to find it.
And then, the Parent Thoughts start. It’s hard to turn your brain off into the appropriately-named “sleep mode,” but once the thoughts start coming, it’s impossible. Has my son adequately studied for his math test? Should I be considering sending him to private school next year? Do the kids have lunch at school tomorrow, or do I have to pack them as soon as it’s morning? And never, ever check your phone or laptop. Once those screens bathe your face in that eerie light, your night is officially over. I’ve learned that the hard way.
I can’t tell if it’s because I’m a woman (my husband’s love affair with sleep is still going strong), or a parent of five kids (again: my husband seems unscathed), or some mysterious estrogen-flavored combination of all of the above. I don’t get it, but damn it, I’m exhausted. I am a prime candidate for sleep. Put me on that living room couch in the evening, and it’s like an Olympic event in which I’m a gold medalist: I can doze off in under 10 minutes no matter how suspenseful “Homeland” may be.
But the sad truth of the matter is that I may no longer even be capable of submerging into sleep’s deep, dark sea for more than an hour or two at a time. Those longer dives are now nothing more than photograph-less remembrances of days past.
Instead, I float just above sleep every night, helpless. I bob up and down on the waves of the passing hours, in this sad approximation of rest. A whole unbroken night of sleep? Now that would be orgasmic.