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The Luxury of Sleep

a short story
by Andrew Hook

Clarissa carried the breakfast tray into the bedroom where she assumed I was fast asleep. She smoothed down the blankets on the right-hand side Beyond Each Blue Horizon by Andrew Hookof the bed--do all women sleep on that side, analogous to the right side of the brain which rules the attributes of intuitiveness and subjective behaviour? -- and placed the tray onto the covers. I could smell the sharp aroma of the coffee, the butter sinking into the warm toast, and the wake-up tang of the orange juice. The mattress indented when she sat down and I could feel her fingers trace her love across my bare arm that lay exposed outside the blanket. I could almost hear her mouth open as she deliberated whether to wake me up. Then I fell asleep.

I can't remember the first time that I pretended to be asleep. No doubt it was in childhood, a safety mechanism triggering the despatch of the dinosaurs and other monsters that were congregating around the edges of my bed, but I can remember when pretending to sleep grew into a habit.

In my late twenties I developed insomnia -- or at least, I believed that I had. The fact was that there were long periods of time spent trying to fall into slumber, punctuated by equally arduous waking moments throughout the night, meaning that each morning I awoke exhausted as though I had been battling with one of those self-same monsters from my childhood.

Internet sites and visits to the doctor gave rise to several possible solutions. The most common were to take a warm bath prior to going to bed, to avoid any product containing caffeine (coffee, chocolate, cola -- all the c words), to keep the bed as a place for sleep rather than for watching television, reading or doing crosswords. Sex or masturbation often seemed to help, but I didn't always have the opportunity to indulge in the former, and the latter was permeated with such a deep sense of loneliness that I rarely touched myself unless it became imperative that I did so.

Counting sheep seemed like an urban myth. What can be more active than a procession of woolly animals leaping over a fence? And my dynamic imagination always found a way to trip the sheep as they approached the hurdle, or had them pole-vault it, or perform somersaults, or some such ridiculous acrobatics. When I got really tired, I sent a farmer out into the field with a shotgun.

The lack of sleep began to affect my work, my dreams, and my relationships. Invariably anyone I went to bed with became disturbed by my own disturbances, to the point of exasperation. Heidi, Dawn, Nicole...all were lost to the demon that perpetrated midnight wakefulness. I became so desperate to regain control over my sleep patterns that every bedtime was fraught with the fear of not being able to lose consciousness. Which, of course, exacerbated the problem immeasurably.

I can feel Clarissa now. Her lips are by my ear and she's gently trying to nudge me from my reveries. I think I'm genuinely asleep this time, and my befuddled imagination cannot distinguish between Clarissa really licking around the lobe of my right ear or a sleep-fuelled desire that she might be. Whatever, whether dream-induced or natural, it does prove that I've remained a physical body. Whether she can actually see me or not is another question.

The lack of a steady girlfriend compounded by my tiredness at work which was affecting my heartfelt promotional prospects, led me to increasingly bizarre attempts to regulate my sleep. I rearranged my bedroom furniture so that my head faced North when prone on my pillow, thus aligning my body with the magnetic fields of the planet and bringing my energies in harmony with those of the Earth. I closed my eyes imagining the most peaceful place I could visualize. A vista of bright green hills populated by cedar trees gently swaying in a cool summer breeze. This latter method almost worked until the field became invaded by sheep attempting to jump over a fence that I had somehow projected into the corner of the image.

From envisaging somewhere peaceful I tried the alternative of visualising somewhere boring, but the production line at the meat packing factory parcelling sides of mutton gave me too much satisfaction to be really tedious. I enjoyed the job, and frequently put in for overtime.

One of my most successful remedies was stomach rubbing, a formula that soothed the digestive system to bring about a deeper relaxation. Lying on my back, I would place my hand over my navel, and then begin to make small circles as I gently glided my hand over my stomach. The idea was to gradually increase the circles until my palm reached the outer edge of my stomach, and then to decrease them until I reached my navel again. This worked for a period of four or five nights, as I slipped out of consciousness and into a blissful dreaming, until I read that food material moves through the colon in a clockwise direction and that you should make all your circles clockwise if you have trouble with constipation. Counter-clockwise circles could alleviate diarrhoea. I subsequently became so focussed on the direction of my circles that sleep became impossible.

Eventually though, despite all the aborted attempts, I found the definitive answer to my insomnia and I never became troubled by it again. Although, and this was inevitable in hindsight, this led only to a greater and more destructive obsession.

"You fell asleep."

"Did I?"

"You know you did." Clarissa slipped the fingers of her left hand through my hair that had been thinning of late. "Your coffee's cold."

"I like it cold."

"I'll warm it up."

She moved away from the bed and took the tray with her. I glanced across to the digital clock on the bedside cabinet that showed the time as 08:43. Illuminated clocks were supposed to be eradicated from an insomniac's bedroom, as they inevitably drew the eye towards their display during the unholy hours of the night, but since I was cured I had invited them back into my house again. I enjoyed their accuracy.

I had been seeing Clarissa for six months and she spent most nights with me in my terraced house. Things were on track for life. There were a few details to sort through, such as whether to rent out her apartment or to sell it or to move in there ourselves and rent out my house, but there seemed a permanency to our relationship which meant that there was no hurry to rush into anything in fear that it might not last.

I hadn't revealed to her my insomniac past which seemed irrelevant to my present, but then I also hadn't revealed to her those obsessions which ran through my waking hours either. Sometimes I felt guilty about that. But then I also made her complicit in my secrets every time we shared a bed. Surely it was only a matter of time before everything came to light all by itself?

I could hear Clarissa's footfalls on the stairs and I deliberated whether to pretend to sleep again, then realised that it was rather childish and the chances of me actually drifting off were so remote that it would be a pointless exercise.

Pretending to sleep. That's something all children do in order to avoid the nighttime terrors that accumulate in the shadows once a parent has left the room. But that isn't the only connection between what I do and the innocence of children. They also believe that they are invisible when they can't see themselves.

And then there are the cats.

In the 1960's experiments abounded over the nature of sleep. Of what causes us to sleep, of the distinctions between light and deep sleep, of whether animals dream in colour, and other suchlike musings. It became widely accepted that evidence of deep sleep, described as paradoxical sleep, occurred most regularly in those animals higher along the evolutionary chain. Michel Jouvet's experiments with tortoises, for example, suggested that reptiles in general were only capable of light sleep. Among birds, however, the instances increased; albeit still negligible compared to mammals. In pigeons periods of paradoxical sleep lasted no longer than 15 seconds, and made up only 0.5 percent of the total sleeping time, as opposed to the 20 or 30 percent of the higher mammals. It seemed then that paradoxical sleep was a rather late evolutionary development, which then raised questions over why we needed it in the first place.

Studies were undertaken which involved cutting the brainstems of cats at certain points along their length. Depending on whereabouts the knife fell, cats would either exhibit no signs of paradoxical sleep or would still fall into a deep sleep evidenced by the disappearance of tonus in the muscles of the neck. From this it appeared that the controlling structures for paradoxical sleep were located in the dorsal part of the pons (a broad mass of chiefly transverse nerve fibres conspicuous on the ventral surface of the brain at the anterior end of the medulla oblongata), which give rise to the spontaneous excitations that travel mainly to the brain's visual tracts. It seems possible that it is this excitation that is related to the formation of the images that one sees in dreams.

I had inevitably become interested in such experiments following the discovery of my cure for insomnia. Firstly my dreaming had increased due to the uninterrupted nature of my sleep patterns, but also because I had decided to investigate whether any experiments had been conducted on subjects such as myself who had found a way between the conscious and unconscious states. And a lot of that determined on whether I would reveal what had happened to myself to the rest of the world.

Clarissa entered the bedroom with a plate of fresh toast and a steaming cup of coffee.

"Just the way you like it," she said, with such a lovely smile that I drew myself away from the covers and awkwardly kissed her as she tried to balance the tray on the bed.

"I love you," I told her.

"I love you too," she kneejerked back; but it was a genuine reaction and it made me smile as she had done.

"So, what are we going to do this Saturday morning," she asked.

"I think we should go to PetMall," I said. "I've decided that I want a kitten."

She clasped her hands in delight and gave a little squeal. "I love cats, but I'm not allowed one in my apartment. I didn't realise you had an affection for them."

I didn't. Not particularly anyway. Her obvious joy stabbed me with a pang of guilt. I just hoped that I'd be able to bring the cat back from wherever it went to after the experiment.

Like most things it was quite simple once I'd thought of it, and was an extension of some of the insomniac-beating systems that I'd tried in the past. Thinking of a peaceful or a boring place, focussing on sheep or other repetitive tasks, all these were intended to condition the brain to keep to a common path and not allow the imaginative scope that stimuli such as books or television prior to sleeping would imbue it with. One evening, laying on my back--as suggested for a good nights sleep because it allows all your internal organs to rest properly--I imagined myself floating up and off the bed, out of the room, and across the street towards Beacon Hill which was a local landmark I could see from my window. This had a negative effect, however, because I couldn't stop myself from interposing other people into my waking dream and their amazed reactions to a body buoyant in the air above them, which then kept me awake.

There was only one solution to that. Make myself invisible.

The studies with cats had suggested that differing electrical impulses in the cortex and subcortical structures occurred during periods of light and deep sleep. Electrical impulses cause reverberation. Stepping out of the scientific theory for a second I postulated that at some point those reverberations could be the same frequency as those at which the air vibrated around me. It was a short deduction from there which involved the manipulation of those electrical impulses to bring about a certain state of existence; to tap into the elusive period which exists between consciousness and unconsciousness before we finally drift off into sleep -- and then instead of following it through, to shift sideways and enter a new sphere of being.

Lying on my bed, experiencing the last ditch attempt feeling of trying to conquer my insomnia without really trying to think about it, I imagined my body gradually turning insubstantial and becoming more ethereal, my skin, organs, biological make-up melting away. I had closed my eyes, realising that we're invisible to ourselves when we do so, and that by regarding my body I could only trash my imaginings, when -- in a state of deluxe relaxation -- I fell into the deepest sleep that I had experienced for several years.

Continuous recordings around the clock in a soundproofed cage show that cats spend about 35 percent of the time in a 24-hour day in a state of wakefulness, 50 percent in light sleep and 15 percent in paradoxical sleep. In most cases the three states follow a regular cycle from wakefulness to light sleep to paradoxical sleep to wakefulness again. An adult cat never goes directly from wakefulness into paradoxical sleep. Therefore it appears that the two states of sleep have well-defined and clearly distinct electrical signatures. All is fine and well when nature's pattern is adhered to, but what I increasingly wanted to know was whether I was indeed invisible when I had my eyes closed and wasn't able to view myself, and that led me to investigate what happens when such natural sleep patterns were interrupted. Or, more specifically, when states resembling insomnia are introduced in cats.

PetMall was busy for a Saturday morning, although I guess I hadn't really expected it not to be. Hoards of children congregated around the rabbit and guinea pig enclosure, poking fingers through chickenwire despite demonstrations from parents that the animals might bite. Looking at their faces made me relish the irony that I'd eaten guinea pig once in Peru. It tasted like a cross between rabbit and chicken, and whilst I wasn't averse to trying it again, I'd already decided that I wouldn't get my supplies at the local pet store.

Clarissa gingerly held the fingers of my left hand with the fingers of her right hand. I liked the security that she felt by not needing to clasp my hand tightly, and again I got an awareness that we were destined to remain together for a very long period of time. Then I got that creeping sensation of unease when I remembered the reason why we were in PetMall in the first place, and I sought out a stronger grip on her fingers myself. I wondered how Clarissa would feel if she knew I was intending to make the kitten that she was now regarding affectionately, disappear.

The apparatus had already been installed in the spare room which I kept locked with a key and the excuse -- should I need it -- that there was so much stuff in there it was in danger of falling out should curiosity strike Clarissa into opening the door. Not that it resembled the lab of some would-be Frankenstein. On a level tabletop I had set up a small pedestal in a pool of water with the pedestal barely topping the water surface. It was here that I would deprive paradoxical sleep in the kitten that Clarissa was now taking towards the checkout, a smile across her face similar to the one that I had kissed earlier in the morning, and one that I hoped would continue throughout the remainder of our lives together.

For a child, the playing of hide and seek walks a tightrope between exhilaration and fear, with the terror of discovery barely tempered by the knowledge that it is often a parent who is doing the finding, and therefore of no threat to their existence. Yet the act of hiding is often so obvious as to be farcical, usually with the complicit understanding that should the parent see the child they must acknowledge that they cannot actually see them at all. In some cases, hiding can be as simple as the child holding their hands in front of their own eyes. By not seeing, one achieves the act of not being seen.

As I conquered insomnia each evening by making myself invisible I became increasingly of the opinion that I was actually invisible. Yet to open my eyes would destroy the illusion, and I always drifted into sleep with the utmost belief that I had achieved an insubstantial state. Without that belief, I probably wouldn't have slept. And as a by-product of this, my dreams became vivid, more real. As though I had in fact stepped out of the corporealness of my body and entered into a new, unexplored zone.

In the experiments conducted by Michel Jouvet and others, cats were placed on small pedestals surrounded by water. Each time the cat slipped into paradoxical sleep its neck muscles relaxed and caused the animal's head to drop into the water and wake itself up. Cats that had been deprived of such paradoxical sleep for periods of several weeks showed no profound disturbances, apart from a modest speeding up of the heart rate. This was the fact that I found the most interesting, because I equated the speeding up of the heart rate to the reverberation of the electrical impulses within our bodies and the air surrounding us. What the notes from the experiments failed to state was whether any cats disappeared during the studies. I had no doubts that the suppression of such information was for political purposes, and was not surprised to find that it wasn't covered by any of the websites that I visited.

Of course, if it was a lack of deep sleep which created the circumstances by which increased heart rates could cause such a slight shift in our body's alignment with the molecules in the air beside us that we could slip within them and become invisible, then that didn't necessarily explain how becoming invisible had cured my insomnia rather than enhanced it. That was why I needed the cat, and latterly, why I needed Clarissa.

"I want you to watch something," I said, a few days after the cat had disappeared.

Clarissa was mooching about the house, looking a little despondent, and because I knew it was the cat she was grieving over I felt that I had no option but to let her into my research.

"Shouldn't you be off to work," she said. "McDonald's will miss you, you know."

I grimaced and continued: "This is a little more important than the late shift for once. I want you to watch me fall asleep."

"Exciting stuff, huh?"

"Seriously exciting stuff," I said.

The day the kitten had disappeared I had wired it up to a machine that measures heartbeats. The computer it was attached to automatically took a reading when it became invisible (at the push of a button from me, after I'd kept vigil for three days and was close to a insomnia-nostalgia trip), and re-calculated the heartbeat proportionately to determine the rate that a human heart would need to beat to reproduce the same reaction. The same apparatus, plus a little contraption to induce the heebees into me to increase my own heartbeat, was now wired up beside my bed.

"Just what is this?" Clarissa said, when she saw what I'd been up to.

"Nothing to worry about," I said. "It's perfectly safe. I need you to be an innocent bystander, that's all."

"This is sexual, isn't it?" A smile took shape around her lips, although I knew she realised it went deeper than that.

"It isn't that simple," I said.

I brought one of the chairs up from the kitchen and placed it beside the bed. "All you have to do is sit there and observe," I said. "And under no circumstances should you touch anything."

"So it is dangerous."

"Only if you touch something."

She put her hands underneath her thighs and sat still.

I kissed her mouth and she closed her eyes. I wondered whether she was invoking a state of invisibility. Then I moved onto the bed and reached across to the dial that would gradually induce an electrical current through my body. I switched it on.

I closed my eyes. I released the tension around my closed eyes and I kept my breathing still. My arms lay beside my body and I imagined them slowly losing their substance, seeing through the skin, the muscle, the capillaries, the bone. My legs followed suit. Then my chest, my head. Just at the moment when I achieved the apex of my imaginings and would ordinarily drift off into sleep I got the weird sensation of the electricity humming through my body and I heard Clarissa say: "Oh my God."

I'm pretending to sleep. I hear Clarissa come upstairs with the breakfast tray and I can smell the distinct aroma of fresh coffee and the warm fragrance of bagels or possibly croissants in the air. I think that if I close my eyes then she won't see me, but that's a pathetic fallacy because I know she can't see me anyway. I feel her presence as she sits down beside me on the bed, and smell her perfume as she leans over me, almost engulfing me with her scent. Smell is the sense most directly linked to memory, and I wonder whether she is sniffing me in, remembering how I used to look from the olfactory stimuli that I exude. When she kisses me her mouth hits my cheek rather harshly, and she apologises, tries to follow a line from my cheek towards my ear but ends up tonguing my left nostril instead. She soon realises her mistake and I open my eyes, see her facing away from me on the bed.

My hand reaches out and caresses the area beneath her shoulder blades that she used to love me touching so much. Now I can feel her muscles stiffen. I sigh and open my mouth, but the three words that I want to say just won't come. How can they in the face of such selfish behaviour? Instead I reach for my toast but my hand hits the object that has just leapt up onto the bed. The kitten mews and knocks over the orange juice and just for a moment its shape is defined by the moisture spilt onto its fur.

There are tears on Clarissa's face. As they are on mine should someone have the ability to see them.

© Andrew Hook 2005.
This story was first published in Beyond Each Blue Horizon (Crowswing Books, June 2005).
Beyond Each Blue Horizon by Andrew Hook
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