Erasing The Room


The hallway outside my room in Indiana was narrow, well lit, and tiled in every direction. Most nights, I was terrified to enter it. I knew where it would take me: into the kitchen, past my bathroom and the laundry nook. There were forty-one parallel tiles on the other side of the door, a cat, two dogs, and five family members coming and going. I stood on my side of the door, imagining it held back the world, all day filling with halved distances, closing the gaps between places where I felt safe. How many steps would it take to summon our old apartments in Bucharest, Chicago and Miami? The mountain where I had watched Katie die?

A lamp near my window reached a shadow most of the way to the closet. Someone had always just mowed their lawn, and with the darkness the scent would fill my room. It smelled nothing like Romania. I could imagine, then, that Katie had died months, even years earlier, or that she had died someone else’s wife, or that we were again visiting Indiana together, as we did most summers, and in a few days would leave together and resume our interrupted life. I would lie on the bed and wait for the room to fill with thick fog: quieter sounds, deeper breaths, a sense of fumbling toward familiar places.

Once, after I had taken a sleeping pill, I stumbled into the hallway, and then the laundry room, locked the door, and caught my breath. I stood there awhile. It was hard to open this door, too. I imagined that I was playing a video game, stranded on a floating tile, waiting to time my jump back to safety. I understood that there was a finite period of time to get myself back into bed, before the pill erased the room entirely. So the room, too, was part of the game. Get inside before the clock runs down, and everything falls off the screen.

Summer mornings in Indiana were humid and sunny. Dampness took off the chill as I awoke under a sheet, earplugs in, my two cats nestled on either side. I felt relief to see light under the blinds and to hear family members watching television in the kitchen. I had disappeared for the night and did not have to think about death, grief, what would happen next. I became adept at holding in my mind this first instinctive reaction to the world. Fractions of seconds, a few seconds. I awoke grateful and happy to be alive.

Sleep during the day was impossible. My mind was always snapping my body to attention just as it shut down. I would sit on the screened-in porch, under the ceiling fan, and try to read one of Katie’s favorite books. There is a passage near the end of The Razor’s Edge where the hero, Larry Durrell, cures his friend’s crippling migraines through guided meditation. The friend holds a Tibetan coin until it drops from his fist; the pain subsides, and the friend is restored to health. A few times, I held a Romanian coin in my fist and imagined a great ball of light opening out into the room and consuming, gradually, me, my grief, Indiana. Nothing.


My whole life, I have feared sleep. My earliest memories of sleep troubles are benign, but persistent. Lying in bed, listening to my older siblings and their friends play tag in the cul-de-sac. Wondering when I would fall asleep, and if I did, whether I would wake up. In the fourth or fifth grade, I mimicked my father’s sleep anxiety, especially his frustrations with ambient noise, how a closed door or running faucet could snap him from a sound sleep and ruin a whole night. I devised rituals to format an anxiety I did not understand. Touching doorknobs, Dixie cups filled with water on the bedside, flipping back and forth on the bed. Later: earplugs, antacids, tucking and untucking the sheets a certain way, pulling the blanket just past the sheet and up and over my right shoulder.

My first waking dream happened after a middle school football game. We had played that evening at my brother’s high school, under the big lights, and I arrived home, exhausted, and went straight to bed. A few hours later, I found myself on the field again. I was dressed in my pajamas, and alone. The corners of the field—I’m not sure how else to say this—resembled the out-sized corners of my bedroom. Dresser, baseball pennants to the left of the uprights. My CD/cassette stereo near the concession stand. I squatted into a crouch and waited for a snap that never came. Periodically, I flashed in and out of action from the game: a random play, standing in the huddle, drinking Gatorade on the sidelines. I spent most of the night in a dull haze of half-sleep, occasionally sitting up in bed to reach across the sheets for something. I woke, slept, woke, slept. The dream kept repeating. I remember that it felt so curious to dream this way. A few weeks later, after a school dance, the sequence began again: the partial change in the room, enough to believe that I was both in my room and back in the gymnasium, by myself, waiting for people to arrive.

I dreamt like this, off and on, in no particular pattern, through my late teens and into my twenties. Alcohol magnified the frequency of the experience, but not always the scale. I knew that I was dreaming. I struggled to hasten the transition back to the waking world. For a while, I believed that if I could slow down my mind, I might manage the dreaming effect, but trying to address the condition head-on only made it worse. I would dream that I was awake, or I would wake up to find the night half-over. One common variation on the dream was to linger too long wherever I had been that day. Why hadn’t I left yet? To whom did I feel accountable for my lingering? I kept a journal and made a schedule of hours slept. I became more particular about my bedtime rituals, my caffeine and drinking, when and what I ate for dinner. Earplugs, especially, became my first sleep crutch. I could sleep anywhere, I liked to tell friends, on anything, as long as I had a pair of Flent’s Quiet Please! Noise Reduction Category Three’s.


Before Katie’s death, my sleep rituals were elaborate and particular. I would rehearse and anticipate them wherever we went. After her death, sleep became a kind of enemy I could not confront directly. I ceded all of the middle ground in a tactical retreat. I managed one side of consciousness vigilantly, meticulous about therapy, recovery, and understanding how trauma affected the body and brain. But the other side of consciousness—sleep—remained vulnerable to unwanted memories and intrusions. I could not guard against or control them. Sleep was a transaction whose terms I negotiated daily. What did I need to sleep. What would make it less scary. Transitional spaces lost their boundaries. Often, I would dream in some symbolic interchange with the circumstances of Katie’s death: trying to pull a nephew out of a sinkhole, catching our son before he fell off the bed.

Sleeping medication altered the terms of my grief. It diminished my sense of need, absolved me of guilt and anxiety, and threw a broken switch, which stuck. It was comforting to take a pill, complete the routine of each day, and then transform the coming night. It was terrifying to think about the dreams that I had when I didn’t take the pill. How would my mind accommodate its obligations to memory and imagination without the filter of chemistry? However hard I thought about it during the day, come bedtime, it didn’t matter. Sleep was made to seem, again, inevitable.


I have two recurring dreams about Katie’s death. In the first, a pack of wolves arrive slowly from a great distance to attack someone I didn’t know. I can hear them whimpering, they move quickly, their bodies are lean and mangy. They seem to come at once, full of implication, never-ending, like ants toward a sugar dish. Sometimes, I wake before their arrival, or just after the attack begins. Other nights, I try to make an emergency call on a cell phone that doesn’t work, or I follow the wolves to reclaim the body. It is mangled and bloodless, smooth to touch. I carry it through a city.

In the second dream, I am again a Peace Corps volunteer, back in South Asia after Christmas. The staff, teachers, and superintendent from the teacher’s college greet me and take me to my old room. My bed, radio, ceiling fan, bamboo table and bookshelf are exactly as I left them. There is a yellow quality to the light, and dust everywhere. Or, it is evening and there are only a few hours to arrange things, and then get to the market to buy food and water. Katie is coming the next morning on the overnight bus. She is thin and young, tired but smiling. I can smell the baby powder deodorant that she used to wear, the sweat dried on her skin after a long bus ride. This part of the dream is brief, but also the most fully present; the sense of time is uneven and particular, the feelings urgent but unfocused. I need to explain things, I think, and quickly.

We sit on the bed, or she sits on the bed and I sit at my desk, or we walk together across the lawns of the school, deserted now. No cows, mosquitoes, or students. We are alone on the small campus. The hostels are boarded over and the grass is thick. We do not have to watch for sinkholes and snakes. We can walk a great distance in no particular direction.

Katie is amused that I have fallen in love again, and so quickly. A son!  She listens to the details of my new life. Sometimes, she has also married, or she is still dating the man from her hometown who she was seeing that first year. There is never a moment of dramatic confrontation, and this almost always disappoints me: in the dream, neither of us seems especially determined to fight for the life we had together. It does not occur to me to warn Katie about her death, its violence, the few and simple things either of us might have done to prevent it.

Often, before she arrives, I remember all at once: I am remarried now, thirty-three years old, we have a son. I panic. A feeling of intense loneliness intrudes into the dream. The geography of the dream shifts to California. I am standing in the entryway of the large house where my second wife and I live with our baby, my in-laws and my wife’s grandfather. My second wife’s name is Caitlin, and her family calls her “Caitie.”  I always called her “Cait.”  Katie, Cait, and I met in the Peace Corps. Cait’s bank was in Katie’s town, so they saw each other every few weekends. To explain, in the dream, that I must return to South Asia to see Katie causes much confusion among Cait’s family. Caitie is downstairs. Caitie has gone for a walk with the baby but will be home soon. When she gets back, I will explain to her about the Peace Corps, how I didn’t really finish my service and now I need to go back. Cait never arrives into this version of the dream.

As I wake, I lie in bed thinking how simple the story is, how easy it will be to retell. I believe that I am committed to a single fidelity, a sequence, and that a sense of continuity is preserved from the waking world. This is tidy and only partially true.

There is an act of withstanding that relocates violence entirely within the realm of imagination. There is a locus to violence that, like grief, makes a single point in time stretch in every direction. It can be named, managed, and witnessed. In the first dream, restoration—claim the body, take it to the proper place—precedes my obligation to the dead. Katie is the occasion for a dream into which she never enters. In the second dream, Katie is recognized but not accommodated, welcomed but not invited. I am grateful to see her, and even to seek her out, but only on another continent.

When I meet Katie in the dream, I explain myself without worrying about the consequence to either the past or present. When I do not meet her, explanations are made to whoever is listening. In both versions of the dream, an account is rendered in the negotiated terms of a witness and a survivor who is married again. It is my mind and heart that resist complication. Whoever expresses them to me, they are my terms and my corrections.


A room lacks the certainty and ambition of a dream. It is composed of objects that are constantly either taking shape or disappearing. Light defines a room. Corners shape it. Doors open and close into other rooms, light enters or leaves a room depending the time of day and the arrangement of the sky. In one year, a room will change entirely without surrendering its objects—bed, dresser, crib, side tables—while a dream will stabilize its significances and symbols while obscuring indefinitely their meanings. A dream accommodates even obligations. It destabilizes and precedes relationships. Anyone can enter and leave a dream, however frequently, whatever the permissions it delegates. The mind tics through a list until it quiets the room. The body wakes from a dream and orients itself.

During the Peace Corps, we took mefloquine pills as a guard against malaria. The medicine was mildly psychotropic, and had the effect of making our dreams more vivid. I jerked the wheel of my car hard to the right and turned donuts in the parking lot of a grocery store near my high school. It was raining, and the tires had the effect of changing the color of the water. Or, I walked the near-North neighborhoods of Chicago, in winter, until I arrived at the Music Box Theater. I could never make out what was playing on the marquee and I did not go inside. I would stand by the ticket window, waiting for a friend to arrive. I would wake feeling young, overwhelmed, homesick. I did not want to have these dreams, or I wanted to dream about Chicago and my hometown but feel ambivalence, not nostalgia. Anxiety was the hinge that I could turn, back and forth, like a child’s toy showing two faces behind a plastic screen. I imagined each time that I was seeing the real thing.

I cannot verify the true dream state; when I understand that I am dreaming, the dream itself becomes a medium. I can play with it, manipulate it, but a corresponding freedom destabilizes the terms of the dream. Walls push through, gravity stops. I drive on a highway that turns like a ribbon, and struggle to keep my wheels on the road. I bounce in the air, or fall slowly from a great distance. The sensation is not one of plummeting, but rather of being conveyed. I have no weight. I am tethered to something fixed and active.

The grieving mind works out a series of ideas, and assigns them memories. Those memories are translated, in dreams, into images. The images are independent of fact. No one will verify them. In dreams, knowing one person can be the same as knowing another. The roles in a lifetime become finite and fixed. They require assignation. It becomes the task of the griever to distinguish moment from archetype. The longer the timeline continues, the more difficult it becomes to make such distinctions; at the end of a life, the dead are made subordinate and assume great figurative potential to those who survive them. Victim, hero, symbol, mystery. Wife, sister, daughter, aunt, cousin, friend, stranger. The priest who gave Katie’s eulogy ticked through the latter list and left off “wife.” There was no way to correct him until after the eulogy and mass were finished, at which point in no longer mattered.

During our Peace Corps training, I lived with a host family, near the train station. I would walk with my friend Eric to the college where we took language and culture lessons. We followed a train track as we cut across the city. We shared a love of movies, and passed the time by quoting or reenacting our favorite scenes. Once, passing through a sparse winter vegetable market, he looked at me, smiled, and said, “This might be the garden spot of the whole country! People may travel hundreds of miles just to get to this spot where we’re standing now!” I knew the movie—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid—but could not remember the end of the quote. I wanted to participate, so I thought of another line I knew, from earlier in the movie. “Can’t swim? Hell, the fall will probably kill you!”


Sleep requires new accommodations, as it always did. I do not need to avoid or control sleep, except because I have forgotten how else to do it. Where, once, I sought to insulate myself against a certain kind of sleep after a specific tragedy, now, my fastidiousness about earplugs, sheets, and medication sustains a habit independent of necessity. Eventually I will learn some new sleep practice, with its corresponding adjustments and, in this way, even the instance of a very specific reaction to trauma and loss is a continuation of a larger narrative about anxiety. In fearing sleep, I practice a ritual of grief whose rite has long since exhausted its solemnity. I diminish the interruption of one life by making it symptomatic within the life that preceded and now follows it.

Or maybe that is wrong. Maybe the willed interruption of sleep is, by itself, a ritual that practices my sense of obligation to Katie: a confined space made sacred by association and memory, the enactment of a symbolic death and its resurrection? I remember serving mass as a boy, watching the faces of the elderly practice and continue daily rites through disciplined repetition, perfection in the daily execution of closely defined tasks. The goal seemed not to consciously choose the grace of God, but to ready mind and body for their eventual transformation. Here was the practical undertaking of divine sequence, the surrender of will to received wisdom within the secular realm.

Cait and I are young parents now, with careers, hobbies, and obligations that run down the day quickly. We have many reasons to worry and to sleep well, and corresponding rituals of whose significance, most nights, I think we are vaguely aware. Running the humidifier to prevent colds. Checking the temperature of the bath. Readying for bed with diaper rash cream, the extra-absorbent nighttime diaper, and the double-layered sleep sack. The last bottle of the night, books and songs, bouncing in a certain way. Stopping by the crib to check that the baby is not hurt and sleeping well. We are doing all we can to prepare our son to sleep without interruption through the night. Night after night, we wait until he exhausts himself, loses interests, or just konks out. Who knows, in the end, why he finally falls back asleep, or if he will again the next night, or the night after that.

The sleep position our son has chosen recently is simple and counterintuitive. Bottom up in the air, head angled from the neck into the corner of the crib. He kicks off the blankets into the opposite corner, or he rolls out of them as from a cocoon, until he is asleep. After we found him one morning reaching his hand up to the rail, we dropped the crib to its lowest setting. From this new angle, I watch his shoulders rise and fall, shrug. The hair on his head is thin and beautiful. Sometimes I notice bits of fuzz stuck in it. This was the first thing I remembered noticing when he was born, how random bits of gummed fabric seemed stuck to his head, before the nurses cleaned and prepared him under a heat lamp. Whoever gives him the last bottle of the night pulls the covers back up over him, and they stick until morning. He sleeps in that position, in spite or because of us, until it is time to wake.

John W. Evans is the author of the chapbooks, No Season and Zugzwang. His essays and poems appear in The Missouri Review, Slate, Boston Review, Gettysburg Review, Poetry Daily, and elsewhere, and his poetry manuscript, Young Widower, was a finalist for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Evans is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University, where he was previously a Stegner Fellow. More from this author →