To Get To Sleep
Words By Benjamin Kinney, Art By Enrica Angiolini
Most nights, I turn off the lights in my apartment solely to avoid the mess. And in bed, where I can feel dirt between the sheets, where I sleep next to my computer or a pile of laundry, I pretend that I can go back to being a new freshman at Central Michigan University and do things over again. As I recall, the utter promise of life was visible in the empty sidewalks, the sleek buildings, the swaying trees, the koi ponds. In this fantasy, I stop wearing cargo shorts and lose my virginity that first semester.
And I manage to put that lonely first semester in perspective. I never plug in my twelve-inch Hitachi television with its rabbit ear antenna, and I am never so scared of everybody that I survive on vending machine snacks for two days. Instead, I make my bed each morning as soon as I wake up. When I eat in the dining commons, I try the curry and chickpeas and every type of panini they make, instead of living off of make-your-own waffles and pre-sliced pizza. I drink plenty of water. I start flossing. When I go out in the sun, I always apply sunscreen. I read all the online articles about how often you’re supposed to wash your hair, and I never wash it more frequently than that. Others interpret my vanity as a certain admirable asceticism, and I tell everybody that for me, it’s less about how I look than about how I feel.
In my classes, I am the student who makes brilliant comments born from hours poring over textbooks, sipping green tea in a comfortable library chair. My professors love the way I write, and a few of my essays get published in peer-reviewed journals—quite a feat for an undergrad, they say. I make an average of seven Facebook friends in every class, and after lectures we socialize off campus in a trendy pub, where my appetizer of choice is something tasty but relatively healthy, like pita chips.
I hit the gym at least four times a week, a frequency that my roommates, all of them good-natured baseball cap-wearing heterosexuals, mock playfully, but which yields broad shoulders, toned arms, and washboard abs. I figure, when else am I going to have a free gym within a mile of my dorm? Once I get into the habit of going, the sessions actually fly by. Sometimes I listen to podcasts, so I leave the gym feeling both physically fit and a little more educated. Because of my outgoing personality, I befriend most of the staff, and during the next university recruitment effort, they ask if I wouldn’t mind being filmed doing some deadlifts for a promotional video. The video clip remains on the university website for four years, and I am occasionally recognized in public as “the weight-lifting guy from the CMU website.” In this fantasy, fashion comes effortlessly because I take the time to iron the clothes that need it, and my shoulders make even the cotton baseball shirts from Target look refined.
And I realize that while I admire K-12 teachers, the field just isn’t for me, so I switch my major to English, knowing it’s an impractical degree but so confident that I have something to say, I never let a day pass without writing at my desk. I realize that the books I’m reading—the Jonathan Kellerman, the high fantasy, and whatever the hell you would call Dean Koontz—are starting to hit a point of diminishing returns, so I invest more time in the classics: I finish Moby Dick while sitting in the Larzelere Hall living area, feeling a chill on the back of my neck as I turn that final page, and a month later in a local coffee shop I finish David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which allows me to discuss with some cute grad students wearing thick glasses how much I admire his sheer passion. I buy Charles Dickens novels because sometimes I find sentences I want to highlight. There’s a month when I plod through Tolstoy while eating toffees. I make a habit of reading a few poems every morning, and throughout my life I find lines surfacing in my memory, winsome words that perfectly contextualize the given moment.
I drive home to visit my parents once a month. I’m the son who walks through the door with a beaming smile, who does his laundry without being asked. My parents are a little worried that I’ve changed too much at college, and I assure them during a whole-family embrace that I’ve been very busy, but I’m okay and, really, everything’s okay—that I’m not religious but the world seems to have some benevolent quality to it, and I haven’t been able to shake the feeling that we should all just feel lucky to be here. My mom tears up. While driving down Highway 127 on my way back to school, I notice that the trees along the freeway are all glistening with frozen dew, the branches adorned with an icy tinsel. In this fantasy, I have a disposable camera in a cup holder for occasions just like this one. I pull to the side of the road to take pictures.
And my soul is a verifiable, almost concrete thing that I consult for guidance. I can practically see it shimmering in my body: a pond into which I can cast questions, concerns. Some of my friends start to embark down bad paths. A few are binge-drinkers. One of the heterosexual roommates cheats on his calculus final, another on his girlfriend. When they rush to me for advice, I manage to find the solutions they had missed, or maybe I convince them of the solutions they had known were correct but were trying to evade. I am never called “honey” or “sweetie” or “buddy” but am instead told by friends how worldly and wise I am, at which I give a little chuckle but never refute.
And amidst the many guys darting through the periphery of my life, one of them stops. But who? Maybe the blonde guy at the GSA booth who handed me a pink Frisbee. Maybe the face-painted guy at the rainy football game who wiped my brow with a towel and laughed. Maybe the Asian guy who, one morning as I was putting dishes on the cafeteria conveyor belt, gave me an unbidden smile that went unreturned. Maybe the pudgy chemistry major whose pudginess I could never overlook.
Things escalate with the guy who stops. We start slow, eating our free meals together in the dining commons. Then we go to a lot of the events that are advertised on flyers around campus. He always smells really nice, and I become enamored with things like the shape of his smile and the way he says “melk” instead of “milk.” The university t-shirt he wears is always the most current version. Thanks to him, the minutiae of life take on a new tint: when I think of my first viewing of 300, I now remember not only the movie but the sensation of our hands mingling in the popcorn bucket. Of course, all the time we spend together means that we have to cut loose a few of our least interesting friends: maybe the girl who is always blathering on about changing her major, maybe one of the roommates who never got past his drinking, about whom I whisper to my boyfriend in my small dormitory bed, “It’s so sad what happened to him.”
I mark days on a calendar until graduation. I know I won’t miss the collegiate brand of socializing or the collegiate version of work or, least of all, the strip-mall aesthetic of the town. I can envision more beautiful and interesting places, and I’m anxious to reach them. We graduate, though we don’t have much time to revel in it because he has gotten a job on the East Coast doing whatever he does—something brainy that I hardly understand—which gives him a huge salary but which requires me to move thirteen hours away from my family. I bid farewell to Mount Pleasant, Michigan, to that whirlwind of people and books and commerce that managed to form something meaningful in the middle of nowhere, and I vow to call my family as soon as we arrive. In this fantasy, I can’t wait for us to get on the road.
And the courtship and the engagement and even the wedding are always a little hazy, the one important detail being that during the reception we dance in perfect time to the first song that plays—something fun but deep, something nobody in the audience has heard but which everyone loves. The much more important part is the honeymoon, which we take in Sicily, meaning that for the rest of our lives we will tell people “we honeymooned in Sicily.” I know nothing about Sicily, but in this fantasy it is about the size of Mackinaw Island. There are stuccoed buildings and cobbled streets and balconies overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. My new husband and I gorge ourselves on bruschetta and drink too much grappa, and we get to know the local residents: a woman who in a gesture of goodwill gives us the shawl around her shoulders, which we later hang in our house, and an old man in a suit and fedora who gives us love advice in Italian we can barely understand.
Sicily is full of scenic trails on which we hear nothing but ambient nature sounds, and during one excursion, strolling and eating our granola bars, we discover some weird natural phenomenon that nobody else in the world has ever seen—maybe some omnicolored bubbling quicksand, maybe a majestic rainbow-feathered bird, maybe, simply, a perfect sunset. My husband and I stare at it, and as we’re walking back to the hotel he promises to never tell anybody about what we saw as long as I will not tell anybody either. I agree to the promise, a beautiful little fragment of the world that belongs only to us, and in this fantasy I never consider breaking it.
Then a relative of his dies—a homophobic aunt who everybody always thought was too simplistic in her tastes. This causes him to cry in bed for three or four days while I sit in the living room drinking cans of Coke and watching Netflix, knowing that he needs his space. He eventually emerges to recount some fond memory of her—something that seemed ordinary at the time but which he has retrospectively deemed formative. We throw all of the Kleenexes he has used into the trash. The next day, as we stand at the viewing over her powdered corpse, I whisper into his ear, “Those condemned to death and those condemned to life watched how smooth and sweet a white cloud glides.” A line from a Sandra Cisneros poem.
The years after that moment are never vivid, because I know in my heart what they must constitute: thousands of days doing menial tasks at work, thousands of evenings when we simply don’t have the energy to treat each other the way we thought we always would, thousands of random temptations and errant thoughts and feelings of doubt. For a few years, our lives are so hectic that in order to remember all the things we need to do, we write reminders on a chalkboard in our kitchen. But we use our love to wring something out—something that endures and sustains us. We perform all sorts of loving gestures that don’t take too much time from our own schedules: lots of encouraging notes and meals delivered to work. Retirement funds slowly accumulate in the Roth IRA we open, and I sometimes imagine the account as a coffeepot with money dripping into it. We spend days at our laptops discussing finances, and in this fantasy they culminate in a trip to the bank to take out a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage.
And after purchasing a house that is a little bit above our means, we tell our less affluent friends that home ownership is not all it’s cracked up to be, that we just had to pay a thousand dollars to replace a water heater. But secretly, it’s an expense we can more than afford, and, more importantly, we get to paint all the rooms in our house. And there’s one room in particular where one day I stand, a little light-headed with a roller in my hand, and my husband walks in and says, “This is the perfect color.”
When we get invited to weddings, we are always the first to RSVP “yes,” and in the rare event that our schedules don’t allow us to attend, we send a hundred dollars and a handwritten card with a heartfelt message. Our jobs allow us to splurge on things like a coffee grinder and a pizza stone, and we spend most weekends relaxing around the house. We have this neighbor, a widow in her sixties who drinks lots of dry Riesling and invites herself over more often than we would like, and one day as we are having drinks on the patio, she says, “You two boys just live right.” I can distantly hear the dishwasher going, and we have taken all the chair cushions inside because it is beginning to rain, and I tell her that everything worth having takes a lot of work.
Later, I lie in bed next to my husband, who is snoring, but tolerably. I look at him with his crow’s feet and receding hairline and realize that for the rest of my life I will be able to look at that face and see the college kid I fell in love with. I think about all the pictures on the walls and above the fireplace, think about how each picture chronicles an event we lived through—that because of the sheer volume of all that has happened, we need mementos to remind us of that year we coordinated outfits for Halloween and the week we took a little getaway to Portland.
That first semester of college is faint in my mind, but I can dimly remember impulses to hide in my dorm room instead of venturing outside, to busy myself by replaying Final Fantasy VII and doing all the assigned readings until my eyes glazed over. I shudder to imagine where those wasted hours would have led me over the years. To a cheap, dirty apartment in a boring town? To endless carryout pizzas and video rentals? To nights spent lying in an unkempt bed, longing for another person?
I am thankful that I was smart enough to shape the clay of my life before it began to harden, that if the rest of my life looks exactly like this—my beautiful husband, our beautiful home—it will be just fine. I burrow into our fresh sheets. In this fantasy, there is an alarm clock on our nightstand with electric blue numbers that read 11:48 p.m., and I have to get to sleep because I have so much to do the next day.