My Evenings Reading Alone

By

It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane.

–W. G. Sebald

One night, out of nowhere, he started snoring: laboringly so, the walls bending away from his exhales, so that even the cat crept off to sleep somewhere else. I lay awake reciting the Rime of the Ancient Mariner backward to no avail; try as I might, I couldn’t map my breathing to his.

For nearly ten years I had lain beside him: the snoring was a blow, but looking back, it was also a necessary portent, an etch in our story, the fuzzy spot on a picture frame you can’t tell is from the photograph aging or a fingerprint that left its caressing mark on the glass. The doctors had no news to give, so instead they gave him pills. When the pills didn’t help him, I started taking them instead—blacking out in the stairwell of the complex in which we lived; waking hours or moments later to find myself sitting on the balcony with an ashtray strewn with half-a-dozen cigarette butts. Time moved slowly, when I remembered it, or else sped toward a dawn of some kind. I submitted myself to rigorous questioning to ascertain whether I was asleep or awake, hearing all the while his jagged breathing rock the walls through the open windows: belligerent albatross, always ruining the silence.

They fitted him with a CPAP mask that made him look like an astronaut in a B-movie; we joked about this while awake, but when the lights are out bets are always off. Through the hissing darkness, I would roll over and see a massive shadow with a tentacled snout, my first hazy thought of the boa constrictor swallowing the elephant in The Little Prince. The first few nights this vision scared the fuck out of me, but I’ve slept with such a cast of frightening creatures that I viewed it as an inevitable, inescapable burden.

I can’t recall whose idea it was to use the spare room. It was either my idea, so frenzied from lack of sleep, angry that his sudden onslaught of snores appeared now, of all times, and kept me conscious, or else it was his idea out of guilt or frustration or shame or how perhaps one night he went to pee with his mask still on and scared himself half to death, looking like Gregor Samsa in the mirror above the sink.

Whosever idea it was, I began sleeping in the spare room. We had lived in the flat for four years, and the spare room housed a jumble of things: its closets filled with items we’d collected from living in three countries, things we couldn’t ever bear to part with for ineffable reasons; dismembered computer parts like a high-tech murder scene at one end of the room, hard drives smashed to shreds with a rusty sledgehammer; a lone single bed for guests we rarely had and which the cat appropriated as her own. And lining each wall were our bookshelves. Sets that didn’t fit against the walls in the living room we had stacked up there, in a room that first felt like no room at all to me, lacking the personality or scent or feeling associated with most rooms. For don’t all rooms have their own personalities, even if they’re at variance with our own?

I slept surrounded by books we’d shipped by freighter, and some nights I imagined (my nights were all fantasies; I had escaped the from the epicenter of snores but I must have known we were living out a metaphor) that I could still smell the water on their spines, long since sloughed away. I would open them when sleep eluded me and see scribblings in the margins from a hand I once used years ago, a hand I no longer recognized as mine. In the bedroom there had been nothing; it was sparsely furnished with a bed, a night table, and a hassock. In the spare room, though, I would spend night after night combing through the books we’d even forgotten we had—and how desperately dumb we had been to rescue them all, thinking we would always want them—falling finally asleep among such giants, such treasures, that I began to wonder how the constrictions of that bedroom hadn’t done us in earlier. I found I needed to be surrounded by things, especially by words.

So that is how I began to sleep without him, and instead began to sleep with others: Proust, Mann, Borges, Woolf, Akhmatova, Dickinson. If I couldn’t sleep it wasn’t because he was snoring, the great beast that “stamps, and stamps, and stamps” and terrorizes Louis in The Waves, but because some poem was keeping me awake, its rhythms bouncing against the edges of my skull like electroshock therapy. I thought at the time that sleep was a paltry excuse to not be open to everything, to not be fully conscious; I began to lament the fact that each day must end with its night. I would pass the bedroom door, which was now his room (although we didn’t start calling it that until later), to go out on the balcony and see stars, jutting out my index finger as if I had an audience toward bodies like Lepus or Orion, continuing to play words through my head, finding them always an exact fit for that time, that purple mood of night.

I didn’t know that I would later thank him for giving me the night, or rather the company of night. In Vertigo, W. G. Sebald confesses: “It is thanks to my evening reading alone that I am still more or less sane.” And he’s right: these books, these words that prompt and prod and provoke me so that my mind is too disturbed, too pleased, to sleep—these were more company than his deadweight, snoring body ever was, perhaps even before the snoring commenced so suddenly, like an attack of hives or a grand mal seizure. Our rhythms had stopped being aligned; he wanted external quiet when the lights were turned out—apart from when we fucked, but, because it was him, that didn’t last long—to cultivate a delusional internal quiet so as not to impede the drift into unconsciousness. It was a ritual with him each and every night, one I took part in only by scooping sleeping tablets from a bottle I wasn’t sure was mine or his, hoping to fall hard into sleep: for years it was the only way I knew how to sleep.

And this is why the snoring rattled me so much; all the preparations for sleep, the floss and the face creams, made it feel as if night were closing in on us and we were simply readying ourselves passively to meet it. It contributed to the fantasy that we somehow succumb to sleep, like how a man hanging by his fingers at a cliff’s edge succumbs to the valley below—quick, sudden, acquiescent. It also contributed to the fantasy that consciousness was something he and I welcomed, a state we shared because we both carried it intact; there was no need to chart or measure it so long as we were awake together. Instead, sleep became the only thing we had in common: the plummet into the dark continent a refuge, our bodies lying close to but our dream journeys neglecting, erasing the other. Drinking from the waters of Lethe, moon pills beneath my tongue, it seemed I no longer even welcomed dreams of him, of the life that we had shared. I suppose we cherished and ritualized sleep because it was the only way we could cling to each other; his snoring took my only reprieve from wakefulness away from me.

When I began calling the spare room mine, though, I realized that this wasn’t the way one should look at sleep. Viewed in that way, sleep becomes the antithesis of wakefulness, and, given the proper context, its archenemy. But this isn’t true at all. If I prepare for sleep—if I brush my teeth and wash my face and set the alarm and turn toward him to see if he will turn toward me before we turn away toward our respective walls, praying for Hypnos like addicted dreamers—this does not mean that I will sleep. And when I didn’t sleep in the spare room, I found refuge in the books there: not only because they were books, and books had meant solace and truth to me from a very early age; but because they were my books, forgotten books offering treasures if only I could excavate them properly. They had granted me wisdom before; I had even noted it down, underlining passages, marking pages, dog-earing corners, adding my own commentaries to the ones already printed on the pages.

In the spare room, while my dwindling lover snored so loudly in the next room I feared he would swallow his tongue, I found myself again in these books: the handwriting might not have registered immediately as my own, but if I had suckled at the words once, I could surely do it again. Reading the notes I had written years ago, countries ago, I summoned who I was then; I could feel his breath against mine as we paged through Albertine disparue one August evening when the air indoors was too close and the clematis broke through the window screen to accompany us on our journey. Following along the jottings and scribbled text, I confronted a version of me who, back then, hadn’t wanted to be confronted, except through words and their fleeting registers. In the spare room, we begin to help one another, clamorously so because we both were so certain that we would one day forget.

I learned that instead of clenching your toes and fingers when sleep doesn’t come as if it were an unearned right, you must take refuge in the words, the images, the ghosts you encounter in the shadows, as that is the only time that they appear. At such moments, our paths cross theirs, and theirs ours; those books that have always spoken and will always continue to speak to you are your only creed: you must let them lead you to sleep only when they’re done with you. Words are your ammunition, your Tarot pack, your charm to achieve invincibility. There are still some nights when I wonder whom he’s keeping awake now, but I always circle back to the more pressing fact that I’m awake now—fingering spines, leafing through texts that could once more be mine.

In this extended metaphor, I unearth myself while he snores in a room that used to be mine. I needn’t elaborate here, for any reader will know that this was portentous in how it marked so clearly the beginning of the end. Nights like tonight, as I’m sitting here surrounded by books and unable to sleep, I think back to the spare room, the snores that drove me there in the first place—especially to the revelations I encountered when I read aloud to myself, those two selves somehow merged for the first time ever, his absence causing me to acknowledge that I had been lost. The books were, in many ways and as they always are, the breadcrumbs strewn along the forest floor; the words were the trail, and one trusts the trek forward even if it ends up in a ditch or a quagmire. For even with the supple, potent fact of a breathing body beside us in bed at night, aren’t we all always reading alone?

***

Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.


K. Thomas Kahn’s writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Open Letters Monthly, The Quarterly Conversation, Music & Literature, Numéro Cinq, Berfrois, and other venues. He is Reviews Editor for Words without Borders and 3:AM Magazine. More from this author →