When I was a kid, I’d see severed heads in the dark.
Before bed, my mother would scratch my back, kiss my forehead, shut off the lights. It would take a while to fall asleep, and sometimes the dreams were pleasant, but most nights the heads would descend from the ceiling and surround me, wan, bug-eyed, and misshapen. They liked to watch my skin change color, from calm olive to tousled red to chilly white, and loved how I wept as they drummed their bloody necks on my chest.
The heads would loom for a while, weighing my horror on their tongues, but they would eventually disappear. And then I’d wake up. I’d be in my parents’ room, soused in sweat, lights blaring all around, the antique one on my mother’s nightstand a cutting yellow, the ones drilled into the ceiling as white as stadium floodlights. My mother would be throttling my waist, trying to restrain me, and my father, if he wasn’t still out working, would be a few feet away, eyes ringed with bags, pursing his lips as though to stop himself from saying, Can I ever get some fucking sleep in this house?
Things worsened when my parents started fighting.
It was only verbal, as far as I know. My father isn’t a man to throw punches; he is a merciful physician who performs pro-bono surgery on domestic violence victims. Even if he did get out of control and hit my mother at some point, I wouldn’t have known, because they reserved their shouting bouts for after my sister and I were asleep upstairs.
I remember few of my night terrors from around that time. Still, I know they worsened, because I’d often wake up on my parents’ bedroom floor screaming, a series of lucid dreams and half-conscious hallucinations preceding that spatial jump. Two of these I’ll never forget. In the first, a demonic clone of my mother chased me through the living room with fangs gritted and claws bared. In the second, laying under a spell of sleep paralysis, I saw snakes all over the walls, hissing and squirming and coiling into one another’s tails. Some fell from the ceiling and slithered over the comforter and the whole time I could do nothing but watch. I don’t remember feeling terror so much as a loneliness so weighty not even a crane could lift it.
I’ve tried to analyze these episodes recently. Maybe they were a result of my turbulent relationship with asthma, or the violent television shows I’d sometimes catch my parents watching after dark, or a ghastly premonition of my family’s split. Maybe there are millions of sleepless kids out there whose parents have to practically tackle them to the ground to stop them from scuttling around and screeching like they’ve lost their arms. Maybe there was no real reason for my nightly troubles after all.
The episodes abated when my parents began sleeping at opposite ends of the house. I’d like to say, for the sake of narrative cleanliness, that this was a personal triumph, a reflection of some greater spiritual purge, but the truth is that I probably neither knew in which bedroom I could seek solace, nor which parent I felt more comfortable sleeping alongside. I’d become so accustomed to absorbing the heat of both at once. So, I went to bed mentally urging myself to stay in my own room, to not get up yelling and sprinting and frothing at the mouth. And it worked. Somewhat. Though the sleepwalking stopped, the fear of re-experiencing it didn’t, so I found myself often lying awake well past midnight, watching the darkness. And if not watching, then listening to it. Even if I did fall sleep, I would still wake from milder nightmares and watch early morning Nickelodeon programs on the television set in front of my bed to waste time before school. Full House, George Lopez, and Everybody Hates Chris—my favorites—offered a special kind of consolation.
My father moved out when I was eleven or twelve, maybe ten. Chronologically visualizing that period is difficult, and I don’t think my sporadic sleeping habits helped to solidify my experience of time. After he moved, he’d take my younger sister, my toddler brother, and me to his new apartment on the weekends. The place was in Manhattan, not far from where we lived on Long Island. It was cozy. It had a flat-screen television, tall rectangular windows that looked out over the busyness of Mott Street, and a small kitchen that we soon filled with photographs of trips to Coney Island, Six Flags, and Chuck E. Cheese’s.
My sister and I were meant to share a bunk across the hall from my father’s room, where he and my brother would sink into a California king, but neither of us slept in our designated beds more than twice. Some of my fondest memories of that time are of waking up in my father’s bed and looking around at our four variously sized bodies splayed about the sheets.
I remember the peace in that warm contact. The feeling that, even in abject sorrow, I was somehow safe. And the promise of sweeter dreams, even if that promise was rarely kept.
My parents dealt with their separation quite differently. Out of neglect, my father grew a beard that made him look five years older than he actually was, and on weekdays he’d work until well after nightfall so he would have more free time on weekends to spend with my siblings and me. My mother, on the other hand, would obsess over her already meager weight and scour nightclubs for young men, either while my siblings and I were in Manhattan or on choice nights during the week, when I’d be charged with placating my siblings’ separation anxiety.
Despite these differences, my parents shared in common a tendency to launch into hour-long diatribes against each other. To my father, my mother was a stupid bitch for playing the fissure that split apart the family he’d auctioned off his soul to create; to my mother, my father was a self-interested prick who yelled too much and was more invested in financial gain than the well-being of the people he supposedly loved. But as any child of an “amicable” divorce would attest, when they were together, they were nothing but cordial.
I didn’t know whose account to believe. The uncertainty was only compounded by the fact that I successfully repressed the contents of some of their earlier fights and tuned each of them out when their mouths spat words faster than their heads could censor. I hoped that things would stay that way, and that I’d be able to stay ambivalent, but my father’s outlook eventually won us kids over; almost every time we saw him, he would grumble about the woman who’d ground his heart to sand and left us to suffocate in the dust storm she’d spawned. So, I can’t help that my memories of my mother are distorted by a perspective that was forced on me.
When I think of her back then, I remember how she used to pass her burden of parental care onto me and justify herself by claiming that I, The Man of the House, was mature enough to handle the task. I so wanted to prove right her faith in me that I would try to counsel my sister through a sprouting maternal hatred, rock my sobbing, toddler brother to sleep after she left for the club, and disregard the pain of my increasingly fractured sleep cycle. All of this because I had to be strong and vigilant, a pillar of stability, since my mother was too blinded by grief to pretend to be those things for us.
Part of me will always resent her for that. And part of me will always marvel at how she made up for it. Days she’d prepare chicken cordon bleu and yellow rice and sit with us at the kitchen table and talk about everything but the divorce to remind us that life existed beyond adult disarray. Nights she’d lie with my sister and brother and me and remind us that she felt just as formless and adrift as we did. Golden spring afternoons and balmy summer evenings she’d lope around the backyard and spray us with a floppy garden hose or mix dish soap and water and teach us to blow bubbles with Easter egg dippers.
I often think about her fickle brand of resilience. Maybe not all the good she did has been lost on me.
As my parents settled into their respective comforts, finding new loves and better hobbies and easing their anguish with the strange sorcery of time, I grew, and made my first steady high school friends. Much of what I enjoyed about them then, I no longer do; they dismissed common decency as personal frailty, degraded each other then hid behind the excuse of affectionate teasing when confronted, and spouted the foulest of sex jokes in public despite the fact that most of them were virgins and would remain so throughout college. But for a group of uncouth and pent-up adolescents, we were keen on sticking together. There was hardly a day I wouldn’t join them to devour greasy food, shoot hoops behind the school gymnasium, or play video games until sunset. And, when I became the first to get a driver’s license and a car, there was scarcely a night I wouldn’t have them roughhousing in the back seats, their throats thick with laughter, their eyes glowing with the promise of new adventure.
We were, above all, indefinite moments. We were habits built and snapped, promises made and snuffed. We were nocturnal cretins running stop signs and red lights and bounding a hundred miles an hour down empty highways at three o’clock in the morning, chattering and chortling and secretly feeling at each other’s hearts, trying to hoodwink ourselves into believing, even for a moment, that we were more than just a flock of stupid kids searching for unattainable meaning. And though for the remainder of my youth I returned at four or five o’clock every weekend morning and was exhausted and jittery and constantly itching for our next blind excursion into the night, my bed was always warmer, my dreams more serene.
My parents didn’t mind my frequent absences. They were happy that I’d finally found people with whom I was comfortable. I still don’t care that I didn’t sleep much at all. In fact, I gradually developed a deep love for the capers and mysteries of nighttime.
I just loathe that, at some point, the world decided that we had to grow up.
The night of senior prom, my closest friend in the group raped his on-and-off girlfriend in my basement bedroom. He was drunk, she substantially more, and he stuck his dick in her mouth while she was half-conscious as the rest of us played beer pong just beyond the closed door.
The following day, when he called to confide in me what he’d done, said that she was looking to press charges, then begged that I take his side, I didn’t know what to say. Back then, when I thought of rape, I’d never imagined that someone I loved could do it.
Word got out quickly, and the group split into two halves. One wanted to forgive him and the other wanted to disparage him whenever possible. Unlike the others, I tried my hand as a mediator like I’d once failed to be with my parents and, much like then, I ended up acting more like a length of fraying rope in a nasty game of tug-of-war. When his detractors dragged his supporters into the mud pool between them, I fell on the winning side, largely against my will.
Like any good friends would, they cleaned me off, comforted me, then armed me with vitriol. They told me what to cry at him as he passed in the school hallways: scrawny-ass sex offender, dirty fucking Asian rapist, look, it’s the guy who couldn’t get pussy without molesting it. I didn’t want to say these things because I still cared for him, wanted to forgive him no matter how wrong I knew it would be, but I pointed and screamed and cursed anyway, and my other friends seemed to have such a good time doing it all that I actually came to enjoy it.
Then, one night, he called me while I was in the middle of an impromptu basketball game with the others. I broke off into the nearby parking lot to answer. Heavy breathing, an unsteady voice. He had told his parents what he’d done and that he was considering killing himself, and they’d replied that they wouldn’t care if he did. He asked if he should do it. I said no, he shouldn’t, because people loved him, even his parents, and so did I. He cried on the phone for a while, thanked me, and hung up. I went back to the others, nearly in tears, and told them what’d happened. They laughed. One of them said I should’ve told him to go through with it.
He didn’t commit suicide. But he did block everyone in our half of the group on every possible social media application. Even Skype.
The summer before college, I took nightly trips with the friends I’d chosen, and when I got home, I’d lie quiet in bed, wondering why I’d been forced to pick a side. Asking myself why I’d done what I’d done. Why I wasn’t stronger, and couldn’t have stopped the tug-of-war altogether. And I wondered what I could’ve said to reconcile with him, even though it would have been impossible.
I don’t remember sleeping much during those three months. I do remember how black my room came to look, and a nightmare in which he walked away and I couldn’t run fast enough to catch up to him. I’d like to say that things have gotten better since, that time works for everyone the way it has for my parents, but I don’t think that would be honest.
A good story normally resembles a well-wrapped present upon its finish. I apologize in advance that this one does not.
A week before I wrote this, I was diagnosed with PTSD. Most people have come to associate this mental illness with war veterans who’ve watched their comrades die in explosions. A counsellor I’ve been speaking to over the phone has informed me that, among other things, the aforementioned incidents have contributed to my diagnosis. She has also said that writing about them would help me heal.
Has doing this helped? I don’t know. I don’t suppose I feel different. Perhaps it’s only deep down that I do. That I feel freer. That I feel as though I have a somewhat clearer notion of my relationship with unconsciousness. Perhaps the counselling has helped me realize that the reason I feel as though I never had a childhood—and that I can’t remember much of it—is because I was in an effectively permanent state of trauma during my formative years, stuck in a place of split uncertainty, and was forced to mature long before I was meant to. Or perhaps it has helped me understand that the reason I sometimes distrust everyone and everything is because one of my sturdiest interpersonal support networks was destroyed in a few weeks. My counsellor tells me that these are all normal responses to trauma, and so is distrust, and of course, I believe her. But that doesn’t mean these consequences don’t disturb me.
An open question to close with: how strong or fragile are we that pain is something we never entirely remember?