David Burr Gerrard

I am often asked if I miss sleep. The answer is that of course I do; every recovering addict misses the drug he has forsaken. For a long time, the thing I loved most about life was the daily extinguishing of it. One falls asleep as one falls in love—with the expectation that the constituent parts of life will disappear, to be reconfigured into something that might be wonderful or might be terrifying, but will not be dull. When in fact all either sleep or love results in is a more crowded, constricted life, with more dishes to do per conscious hour.

To be awake is to be on fire. To be on fire is a loose metaphor that mostly means to be awake.

I used to start my mornings at the Romanian bakery down the block, rising early to stake my claim to two of the croissants that often sell out by what was once the punishing hour of seven, bringing one back for my still-sleeping wife, then eating mine over my laptop, groggily swatting the flakes from the keys, typing what I could before reporting to what is vexingly called my day job, writing marketing copy for a pharmaceutical company. This part of my routine is unchanged save for the number of croissants, which is now one, and for the swatting, which is no longer groggy, and for the fact that it is no longer accurate to say that I start my morning this way. Rather, this is how I continue my endless day.

To be awake is to be on fire. To be on fire is a loose metaphor that mostly means to be awake.

Starting no later than adolescence I was a fitful sleeper, prone to waking up with the sense that I just had been dreaming about the mistakes I had made and the mistakes I would make, but it was fatherhood that brought me my first taste of what is commonly (and, now at least, erroneously) called sleep deprivation. My infant daughter screamed so much and I slept so little that some of her screams, I think, were only my hallucinations. I’m certain that other things that passed between us were only my hallucinations—when she offered opinions on Proust, for instance, and when she told me I was a good father, and when she bragged that she could make croissants better than those at the Romanian bakery.

Through my work I heard about a clinical trial for an experimental sleep-replacement pill. Though she worried about possible side effects, my wife was happy enough to have me take the pill, so that I could take care of our daughter as she screamed through the night. At least one of the three of us will be able to get some sleep, said my wife, or possibly my daughter said this when I was hallucinating.

My daughter’s screaming was still unpleasant, but did not feel like the unceasing assault on my body that it had before. I could take her down to the laundry room and put her on the washing machine on a car seat, and this soothed her, and I could write with as much energy and focus as if I had just awoken from eight or even nine hours of sleep.

Soon she started sleeping through the night, and I started doing what once seemed impossible: I came home from work, put my baby to sleep, and wrote until dawn. Or I stared out the window or into the Internet until dawn.

At least one of the three of us will be able to get some sleep, said my wife, or possibly my daughter said this when I was hallucinating.

Stop taking the pill, my wife said once the baby started sleeping through night. I will not remain married to a man who takes pride in chronic sleep deprivation. I objected that, due to the pill, the term “sleep deprivation” now made as little sense as the term “smallpox deprivation.” If I was failing to reach the end of my novel, that was a flaw in my character or my talent, not in the pill. My wife’s decision to leave me and take the baby—that was not the pill’s fault either.

To be single and awake for the first time in years appealed to me as much as it might appeal to any man in his waning thirties. A few women contacted me, curious about what it is like to sleep with a man who does not sleep. A couple of them favorably compared me to other partners who fell asleep right afterwards, or sometimes during. Problems arose, as they tend to, once we both felt finished with sex. (The asseverations of popular music aside, no one can or wants to have sex all night.) Most of them wanted to “stay up all night” with me, not understanding that staying up all night is no different for me than staying up all day, and so they were disappointed to discover that I spent my nights either working or procrastinating, the two things from which sleep provided them a break. Much worse were the women who did not want to stay up with me, but who did not want to leave my apartment, or who did not want me to leave theirs. There is no clearer way to feel one’s isolation from the universe than to be awake while someone else is sleeping. And I couldn’t help but feel humiliated when I started sobbing because I missed my daughter and I woke a woman up.

There is no clearer way to feel one’s isolation from the universe than to be awake while someone else is sleeping.

So I just don’t date anymore.

What do I do with my hours, now that I have so many of them and, in truth, I write hardly anything? I do read a lot. I have read the thousands of pages of Proust, or possibly I have read the first few pages thousands of times. The result is the same: the intense attention to the tiny, permanent percentage of the world that is available to the waking, rather than the hazy glimpses of the entire transitory universe that pass before the dreaming. For a long time, I went to bed early, and now I never go to bed. A conversion narrative, a redemption narrative.

The FDA has recently approved the pill, and soon my time to write will be taken from me. There is talk at my company of requiring eighteen, twenty, even twenty-four-hour days of its employees, as such days are now possible, and no one could argue that capitalism does not, to the greatest extent allowed by technology, seize the day. I will spend every waking hour crafting praise for the pill that has made the phrase “waking hour” redundant. I will have nothing but the job I took to support my daughter, and I will not have my daughter. But I have made the choices I have made, and for the first time in my life I can say that my regrets do not keep me up at night.

This piece is part of an ongoing partnership with Cabinet Magazine. Every month, the writing and editing team at Cabinet will produce articles surrounding our monthly Seminar Series, Homo Sapiens, I Hear You - a yearlong workshop based on reinterpreting and reimagining man's essential needs.

David Burr Gerrard is the author of the novels The Epiphany Machine (2017) and Short Century (2014). His fiction has appeared in PlayboyGuernicaNY TyrantJoyland, and elsewhere. He teaches fiction writing at the New School, Catapult, and the 92nd St. Y, and lives with his wife in Queens, New York.

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