A Handful of Sand
I try to relax my body. Rest, I whisper to my feet. I spread my toes as wide as they will part, then drop the effort and wait as they dissolve. Fall away, I tell my legs. They are absorbed first by the mattress, and then the carpeted floor of my bedroom. I imagine the cracked foundation of the building pulling my ankles far down into the tender earth beneath us all. Then I travel up my body, asking each part to soften. I slide over the mischievous hips that have tucked away years of aches. I wind around the twisted stomach and glide over the hills and valleys of my ribs. I ask nothing of the dark ocean between my shoulder blades. All I have yet to say simmers in the cauldron at the base of my throat. I open my mouth wide and stick my tongue into the darkness of my bedroom, hoping to taste the first breaths of sleep. I close my eyes. They need no convincing; they are heavy, begging for release. With my body tucked away, I then try to coax my mind and my heart. It’s time, I say.
Later in the night, everything stirs awake. The mind and heart climb out of bed and spin around and around, shrieking and gasping. They hang from the ceiling and chatter their teeth. They tear apart decades of layered memories and sensations and recast them as glimpses of experience. It feels simplistic to call these dreams. These are frames of somatic films projected deep into the intense stretches of nighttime. They are flares of insight that are brighter than dawn and darker than the space between stars. When I wake up, my chest is tingling. The muscles in my legs are in spasm after running so far between the warm, twisted sheets.
During these hours, I exist, but I am forgotten. I become a traveler, a witness. I am the bystander eyeing the rusted knife on the kitchen counter, waiting for it to jump. I am the shadowed one stepping across the roof of an abandoned building underneath a waning moon. I am also the moon. When I run through the city streets late for an appointment, only my tip-toes touch the pavement. I have no traction. My arms and legs pump furiously and flail around me, stretching and reaching to connect with something solid.
I follow former lovers into secret worlds, doors to which do and do not exist in the bedroom closets of my childhood home. I veer white Cadillacs off the Golden Gate Bridge and tumble grill-first down the steep cliffs of an apple orchard. I masturbate by rubbing myself against a golden doorknob in a tiny, red-tiled bathroom. I scream. I kick wide-eyed, mustached men who are standing too close to me. I ride in subway cars with dozens of cats and dogs. From my bed, I watch a younger version of myself stoke a wild bonfire in the center of my bedroom—the same room in which I am actually sleeping. When I wake up, I sniff the silent morning air for smoke. Sometimes, the air over my bed seems hazy, like the remnants of something I destroyed a long time ago are still drifting about like dust. Most mornings though, as the soft blue light folds in through the tall windows, I can see that all is clear.
In 1987, there was a fire in my childhood home. It was December. It was nighttime. The fire started in the kitchen. I was little then, and I remember the flames leaping high up over my head, stretching all the way from the stove to the ceiling. My mother became a blur as she darted around the kitchen table toward the phone. I stood in front of the open closet watching the bottoms of large, heavy coats sway in the hot draft while my mother guided my arms into my round, thick jacket. I followed the backs of my brother’s knees as we ran down the hallway, out the front door, and into the winter night.
Later, I climbed onto our neighbor’s couch and peered through the living room window to look at our house across the street. I saw two or five or 50 fire trucks parked at the curb, splashing the bare trees with bursts of red light. I wondered what was stopping them from rolling down the hill and crashing. I did not want to know. Over the great expanse of pavement, I could see that our house was still white. The windows were black and had no glass.
I was then looking at my father standing at the foot of the neighbor’s stairs. He was wearing black dress shoes, grey suit pants, a black fireman’s coat, and black helmet. It was not his coat. Bright yellow letters on the back of the coat spelled another man’s last name. He stared up at me and my brother at the top of the stairs. His eyes were crystal blue, bright with fear. He had arrived home from work to the sea of fire trucks in front of the house. Someone told him that we were safe, that the fire had been contained, but he wanted to go in anyway. He needed to walk through the ashes and breathe whatever air still lingered between the charred walls.
These are not dreams. These are memories.
When all of this started, a person I love once told me to write down all of my dreams. “It’s important,” she insisted. The first time I practiced this, it was 5:14 in the morning. In the half-light of dawn, I scrawled single words, phrases, half-sentences.
An explosion rocks me.
Is he okay?
Face seared with black something.
My hand tried to keep up with my mind. The memories of the dream were slipping through the cracks and falling away. I know where the bits of dream go once they’re forgotten, but I can’t remember.
At first, I could only write down the contents of one or two dreams.
Trying on white pants in a brightly-lit dressing room. There is no entrance or exit.
The glacier calves. The giant chunk of ice lands in the water, creating a frozen wave that carries me very far away. I cannot move, but I need to, and I know this.
Later on, I could write down whatever remained of six or seven dreams.
Mom casually mentions that he hooked up with another co-worker. I am furious. So pissed. Stomping through the house.
It was December 17th and I still hadn’t bought Christmas gifts for anyone. Anyone!
I reach down the front of his underwear and grab onto something. When I pull my hand out, all I have is a handful of sand.
Hyper alert dream. Felt like someone was trying to pull the covers off my chest.
I got a ride to the airport. I peed in the car a little.
Uncle Jesse from Full House comes into my bedroom, climbs on top of me, and starts kissing me. I pretend to be asleep. I’m being tested and so are the other little girls.
For the past year, I’ve tried various strategies before falling asleep in an effort to stop the dreams from coming. These included: taking 1mg of melatonin, shoving earplugs into my ears, drinking tepid water, sipping lemongrass tea, reducing my water and tea intake so I didn’t have to pee in the middle of the night, increasing the melatonin to 2mg, burning sandalwood incense, framing Atwood’s poem Variation on the Word Sleep placing it on my bedside table, rubbing lavender oil on my neck and chest, arranging fresh lavender on my bedside table, drinking a glass of white wine, eating less dark chocolate, drinking less black tea, installing blackout curtains, counting my exhales, ingesting an assortment of Ayurvedic herbs, experimenting with setting the thermostat to 67, 68, and 69 degrees in order to discover my optimal sleeping temperature, adding layers of clothing, deadbolting the apartment door, ramping up to 5mg of melatonin, switching to red wine, journaling, taking a steaming hot shower, singing, politely asking the guardian angel I invented for a deep and dreamless sleep, seated meditation, guided relaxation, quiet crying, reducing digital screen time and time spent reading WebMD articles and online chat forums about psychosis and trauma, sipping a glass of warm milk, drinking cherry Nyquil, reading spiritual poetry before bed, locking the door again (after deadbolting it), repeating to myself out loud “the door is locked and he can’t come in,” begging my guardian angel for a deep and dreamless sleep, restorative yoga, adopting a dog, buying new sheets, buying a warmer blanket, buying a bigger bed, buying a softer mattress, sleeping with a heating pad, sleeping with a stuffed teddy bear, masturbating, buying and arranging nine golden pothos and angel plants around my bedroom, begging the dream catcher hanging over my bed to please do its job tonight goddamnit, listening to recordings of dear friends reading a soothing passage or poem, self-massage with sesame oil, reading my old journal entries, drawing tidal waves with black and red and orange crayons, sobbing, closing the door of the closet so I can’t see myself in the mirror because I just couldn’t bear the thought of waking up and seeing my shadoweed reflection and believing for an instant that he was inside my bedroom, listening to one or two of the nine sleep playlists I created, buying a nightlight that glows like the full moon, screaming into my pillow, shoving my phone and clock and wristwatch between the living room couch cushions so I couldn’t check the time when I woke up in the middle of the night, eating Raisin Bran while sitting on the kitchen floor leaning against the dishwasher, watching the first half of The Little Mermaid, watching that I Love Lucy episode where Lucy gets drunk on Vitameatavegemin, wishing on the nightlight full moon or the actual full moon or the just-rising sun or the dirty penny I found under the couch that my nighttime experience will soon revert back to something innocent and silent and empty, trying to understand what it is that I am waiting to understand, accepting the clearest and most promising truth: this is just how things are right now.
If I tell you that that nothing is wrong with me, do you feel relieved or afraid?
Some of my dreams are lucid, which is a byproduct of my meditation practice. In lucid dreams, I am more watchful and have an awareness that I am dreaming. I have agency. I can make decisions. Instead of the dream controlling me, I control what I want to happen. If I happen to be in a lucid dream a wild-haired man is pushing me up against the wall with his hand around my neck, I can jab his eyes out instead of letting his white-knuckled fingers squeeze out my last breath.
If my memory of the fire ever appears in a lucid dream, I would walk down my neighbor’s stairs, stand face to face with that sad reconstruction of my father, and remind him that he did not save me.
I was 28. My first serious relationship. We only dated for four months. I dreaded our nights together. I could never fall asleep next to him in my bed. I could never fall asleep next to anyone in my bed. I only felt safe when I wore layers and layers of clothes—thick wool socks and sweatpants and a t-shirt and a sweatshirt with the hood pulled over my head. He would nestle next to me, wearing only boxers, and fling his arm on top of me. It felt like a steel beam had fallen on my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I could never, ever breathe.
After we had sex, he would fall asleep and I would lay awake for hours. I would imagine slathering my body in gasoline and asking him to light the match. I could picture myself standing outside of my burning childhood house, my naked body ablaze in the bitter winter air. I would beg the firemen to turn their hoses on me. I needed to get rid of everything: his body, our bodies together, my body. Whatever he left inside my body.
They told me the nightmares I had as a kid were about the fire. This always confused me because in all those years, I only remember having one nightmare about the fire.
Well, you used to wake up in the middle of the night, they said. It was because you were afraid.
Afraid of what? I asked.
It wasn’t your fault, they said. You were so little. You couldn’t reach the coloring book on the top of the pile, so you reached for one in the middle of the pile. You were too young to realize that would cause the whole stack of papers to slide onto the stove.
I know that, I said. I don’t feel guilty. So, what was I afraid of?
They didn’t respond, and I couldn’t remember.
Until now—until the dreams—I couldn’t remember.
Adrienne Rich once wrote, “To lie habitually, as a way of life, is to lose contact with the unconscious. It is like taking sleeping pills, which confer sleep but blot out dreaming. The unconscious wants truth.”
Dear mind, dear soul, dear spirit. You are rising. I am here, waving my white-flag heart, listening. I can no longer lie.
She pulled him into the living room and slammed the door. I heard her yell, “Don’t you dare touch her!”
I’m trying to attack the man standing in front of me. Right when I am about to push him away with my hands, he disappears like a ghost.
In the dream, I’m on my back. I am little. My left arm is bent overhead and my head is turned to the left. My right arm is nestled alongside my body. My hand is next to my hip, kind of tucked under between my hip and the bed. He’s in bed next to me. He starts kissing the right side of my neck. I am aware of it. I’m lucid. I consider waking up, but I decide to stay in the dream. I am aware of a sensation of my body getting pulled down the mattress. Everything in the front of him is leaning against my hip and my hand. Then he stops kissing me and reaches his hand into his underwear, pressing everything against my hand. He starts rocking back and forth, pressing himself into my hand.
My body becomes warm and tingly. I am on fire. I am falling away.
I say wake up.
And I finally do.