Doesn’t It Keep You Up at Night?
An eerie feeling. Small noises. Cries and banging. I am awake, and I open my eyes, afraid.
In the middle of the night, the dark can be anything. My mind races. I think of the devil, ghosts, terrible and terrifying unknowns. For a few moments I form the space around me into the worst possibilities: an intruder with a weapon and a black ski mask; creatures of the night snuck in through a window. The horror story where a leaking faucet woke a woman up and someone, or something, licked her hand to imitate the comfort of her dog. The dog lay, dripping blood, in the shower. The owner of the tongue is never disclosed. I can take the dark in and shape it with my teeth into that, or anything. My eyes are slowly adjusting. The full moon streams through the ajar window and begins to illuminate my room, all of my things, and the goosebumps on my arms. There is nothing there. A slight wind.
I don’t know what scares me more: knowing or not knowing what the dark hides.
This has always been my biggest fear. Inside of that black void, the night sky, lies every possibility. There’s no knowing what’s real, what’s true, or what I can claim as my own. There are reasons for the whole universe, or there is nothing. The movements of stars and planets impact who I am, how I feel. Or there is nothing. The dark empty. Lying in an empty room, I know it’s all in my head: the making and unmaking of monstrous selves.
The dark is not a monster. The dark is all monsters. It’s what I’ll never know about myself and that is the reason I can’t sleep tonight, even feeling the moon and her shadows. It’s no use laying here at 1 a.m. I plunge my feet towards the void below my bed, brace myself, and rise.
I ran my hand downwards from her knee. The moon colored skin was translucent above branchlets of green blood. Pulsing and soft skin. When I reached the knob of my mother’s ankle, my child fingers raced up and were bitten by the curt hairs of her leg. They were almost unnoticeable, those tiny black teeth, but they grated painfully against my palms.
The first time I remember Mom not being there, it was Easter and we were eight years old. My sister and I were waiting on the porch of my father’s house. The summer before, Dad had painted the wood green to match the shutters. We lived there. We only saw Mommy, as I called her then, on Saturdays and the holidays of odd-numbered years. It was her year, and she was going to pick us up and bring us to her parent’s house in Levittown. Morgan and I sat on the bench in our brand new clothes. I was wearing a clip on tie and a suit jacket. She had a red velvet dress, and Carol had curled the front strands of her hair. Morgan’s hair was so thin and straight that the curls fell out almost immediately. It was flat against the sides of her head before we were done waiting. My mother never came. We didn’t see her again for three years.
Carol called the period of her absence a falling off the face of the Earth. I imagined her body rising into empty space above the atmosphere and finally settling in the section of the sky neither the sun nor moon illuminated. Mommy, a dark constellation. Did she really fall into the unknown that way? I was a child, so how could I know. Perhaps she was hidden from us. My mother’s mother always claimed our father blocked their contact, which he always explained away—liars. Crazy. Bad people. Absence. Only now, looking back, I see that maybe there was more to the story. But as far as I knew then, my mother was gone and I did not think of her. She only came up in the acknowledgement of her not being there, as a warning. As an inconvenience: Carol would say that having Morgan and me home, that first Easter she spent with my father’s family, was terrible. She so badly wanted us gone, even then.
I was mothered by absence. For most of my childhood, she was not there. My mother was an empty space where a mother usually lives. I am my mother’s child. I learned how to be empty from her. When she died, it surprised people that my sister and I were mostly unaffected. We were trained not to believe in things that weren’t in front of us; when you are raised by a blank space, you are bound to become one.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned from Mom was how to exist where you are not wanted. How to become invisible, just to get by. To hide behind all the things that hurt, to burrow into the shadows.
The thing about empty spaces is that we yearn to fill them with stories of what they could have been. Good or bad, they overflow with ideas and hopes. For years the story we were told about our mother was crazy, was abusive, was liar, was addict, was hopeless, was lonely, was never enough. The insult was you are like your mother. My sister was, my stepmother said. Our father never said a word about our mother. It was always Carol, and we believed her. The worst insult was that we would end up just like her. Carol said that she hoped we would, just so we could see how terrible we were inside. But I was never terrible, just empty. I yearned to be filled. With my eyes and slightly open mouth I begged, make me into something horrible. It’s better than not being. In that way I always hoped to be just like my mother: a monster made of evil and myth.
When my stepmother accepted my father’s proposal, it was on the condition that he get my twin sister and me under control. I know this because she once screamed it at him in front of us. In the months leading up to the ceremony, she looked us in the eyes and told us she would never be our mother.
“Why did you put out all those ceramic figurines?”
“We just wanted to decorate the house—“
“—make everything pretty for Carol when she got home!”
“Yeah! To celebrate after the wedding!”
“But don’t you know how much it would hurt her? To come home to all of your mother’s stuff? You both must have known that.”
“But we just wanted—“
“You did it on purpose. To hurt her. Now she’s mad. So put everything back in the boxes, put the boxes back in the garage. Then go to your rooms.”
It was a rainy Saturday in the middle of the afternoon, and I had just gotten home. The house was being repainted after the wedding. From the foyer, the new paint overwhelmed me like chlorinated water. I entered the house and closed my eyes, held my head under, inhaled. Bland, like unpasteurized milk, and basic. Intoxicatingly, it bleached the insides of my skull. Diluted by the fresh air of the open front door, the scent filled the spaces behind my eyeballs. The rest of the memory is black.
Morgan and I sat on either side of Mom on the bed. We sat straight, filled with energy. Vibrating with it. Mom hunched, her auburn curls cropped short and falling out of their perm. When she got it renewed she smiled, lips curling, “I’m Shirley Temple guys!” The blinds were shut, but we hadn’t turned the light on. The mid-afternoon light crept in enough to see by. It hurt her to sit here like this; she had to support herself with her forearms or else fall completely back. A slight grimace, her teeth gritted. As always, she was wheezing.
In our mother’s lap was her plastic pill case, one of those weekly organizers divided by day. In each section was a handful of pills.
“This one is for when I am too happy, and this one when I am too sad. These three are for the cancer, and these two for the pain.”
Morgan shook the thin strands from her face. It was down, and wild like a worn curtain is wild. “Pain?”
My mother’s face was weary. She wasn’t smiling when she put her arms around both of our shoulders.
“But since you guys have started visiting me here again, I’ve been so happy. Dave even has to put up with me singing in the shower again!”
We all laughed.
I was mothered by pain. Not sharp, not even noticeable most days, but throbbing. A dull ache. It pulsed inside me, through my veins, into my brain. A lusty clawing towards life in one instant, and a hatred of it in the next. Pain is always present. It’s easier to call it sadness, but from my mother, I learned the true name.
I was told that she was bipolar. That she went to several different doctors, detailing whatever symptoms she knew would give her the prescription her body craved. That she treated her body like a carnival, she mixed alcohol and antipsychotics to become an embarrassment at weddings, that she was crazy and out of control, she slit her wrists on several occasions. Unsafe.
A few years ago, my mother’s mother got in touch with my sister and denied everything we were told.
The true name of this sadness is pain. The true name of this pain is I will never know. I will never know where it comes from.
Now that I am awake, I stand in the window. The moon, past its zenith, watches over me. I can ignore the shadows cast behind me when I stare into her face. I am quiet and I think about my mother, the witch. The small fragments I remember. A sun and moon pendant, the light and dark holding each other’s faces. The glint of Mom’s teeth the last time I saw her alive, and the dark circles of her eyes. Wide, gray-blue like mine. I don’t want to create any more heinousness.
A creak in the room. What is it? I hope it’s something unbearable. In the window, one-hundred percent illumination and my body. Tonight, I want to believe in beautiful darkness. An exquisite truth, small wolf in my closet. The stink of her hot breath and grating sound of scratching claws.
Some nights I want to be devoured by the unknown. I will not fight the wolf. Her dripping tongue is inches from my naked spine. I dare her to lick the length of my back. I beg her to comfort me even though I will never see her face.
The trees outside sway, gently tessellating moonlight on the city street. The glint missing from my mother the last time I saw her, sallow in a casket, belongs to the night sky. I press my hands and cheek against the cool glass. The wolf presses her body into mine. The dark holds me as long as I will let it.
I couldn’t breathe. It was the morning session in the dayroom at the adolescent psychiatric ward. I gulped, gulped, gulped but my chest was still empty. I drowned on the air. Flared nostrils wide. I could smell the sterile soap the techs gave out in cupfuls at shower time—not enough to swallow. Ammonia and rose scented. Blood pounded in my temples, neck, and chest. Swallowing the air.
After a minute, or an hour, I could breathe again. I assumed it was because of the new drugs the doctor had prescribed, Prozac and Resperdal, but I didn’t tell any of the techs. Every morning and every night a nurse came around with a cart to hand out medication in the same plastic cups as the soap. She would ask us our mood on a scale from one to ten, and I always said seven. Seven. Seven. I said I was fine, and so I was.
We moved a year and a half after Mom died. We were in the new house in North Carolina, in the garage, in spring. My father and me. I was putting up new venetian blinds on the windows.
“What happened to you Joey?” There was a strained note in his voice.
I pulled the drawstring. Blinds up.
“You were always such a happy kid. Smiling all the time. Laughing.”
Blinds down. When I dropped the string, the plastic end caps smacked the drywall a few inches below the sill because it was slightly too long.
“And now you’re like this. What happened? Why are you like this?”
I looked down at the concrete. I didn’t know. I said nothing and wished I could fall off the planet, or at least hide in the cool dark of my closet.
Group Therapy was held in the dayroom. We pushed the tables to the walls and rearranged the chairs into a big circle before sitting. I usually said very little and just listened to everyone else, but this day I did not. I told the story of the last day I saw my mother, poured it out of my eyes and mouth in saliva, tears, sweat. The counselor told me that none of it was my fault, which I knew. I just needed to tell someone, finally.
They told my parents there was nothing wrong with me. I was kept in the hospital an extra two days just in case.
The last time Morgan and I saw Mom was the day after Thanksgiving when we were twelve years old. It was cold, so the rain had frosted on the path from her door to the driveway. Carol came to pick us up in the green Ford Escape instead of Dad, who usually picked us up. She did not come up to the house, and instead sat in the car waiting. The headlights were ahead of us, and the lit doorway was open behind us as we walked on the thin ice in the night.
I hated that Carol and Mom were there together, so close to each other. I hated the walk between the two sources of light, neither of which was enough to make me feel safe. I felt embarrassed of my mother hunched in the door, watching over us as we left her. I wish she was dead. I wish she was dead. I was so angry, smoldering, that I almost slipped onto the grass.
“Be careful!” Mom called out.
Morgan waved goodbye as she climbed into the car. I did not.
“I’m in so much pain, Joey. So much. Can you help me?”
Earlier that day, the bedroom was dark. One candle was lit. She had bought it in a store for witches. My mother, the witch who worshiped the moon. Her skin looked so pale in the flickering light, and her teeth especially yellow. I could hear the TV Morgan was watching through the cracked door. I wanted to call out to her, but I didn’t.
“Down under the night stand; I can’t reach down there.”
A safe. The silver dial glinted, flickered. The bedroom smelled like a hospital and soup. In the corner an afghan was draped over an adult potty, in case she couldn’t make it to the bathroom alone in the middle of the night while my stepfather was away at work.
“My pills are in there. Dave keeps them down there so I can’t get to them. I know you’re good at mechanical things, so I know you can open it. The combination is twelve, twenty-four, two. Your guys’s birthday, and two because there’s two of you.”
I crawled towards the safe. My chest was tight, pulsing.
“But I don’t know if this is a good idea. What about Dave? Are you supposed to—“
“Don’t worry. What Dave doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”
Her teeth, crooked. Smiling. Her skin almost green. I couldn’t look into her eyes from that angle. I opened the safe and handed up the orange bottles.
Two days later, Dave came home to her dead on the sofa.
I was mothered by not knowing, by pain and by absence. I grew and became the dark pieces of myself, but now I know that darkness is not inherently monstrous. I can choose to live under the moon and the stars.
The most important thing Mom taught me was that the only way to live is to accept not knowing. Not forgetting, but no longer asking why or how. I cannot explain myself away. I can only feel through the pain, even when there are no answers.
The thing about empty spaces is that even as they ache to be filled, I can choose to live with them. I don’t need to fill them with broken pieces of self, family, identity—I can let them be, and live.
Carol, not our father, was the one who told us Mom had been found dead. That’s how she said it, too.
“Dave came home from work yesterday morning and found your mother, on the couch, dead.”
It was a gloomy day outside the sliding glass door, dim and drizzling. Carol stood in front of it, the gray light hitting the left side of her face. Dad was sitting behind her, and he didn’t move, cry, or say anything. Later, Carol told us it was hard for him because he had loved her so much, but she was so terrible. That it hurt him when we were like her. But I never saw him cry for her.
Carol had Morgan and me sit down on the couch before she told us. The cushions felt itchy on my legs. I sat on my hands to feel them fall asleep.
“Are you kidding me?” Morgan laughed nervously.
I cried then, one of only two times for her. After, Morgan and I were silent again. There was nothing left to say.
“At least she’s finally gone. Can’t cause any more problems for us now.” Carol smiled.
We all laughed. And they brought us to the mall as if we were normal. And we went to school the next day and said we were okay, and so we were.
Tonight, I make a decision. I will sleep. Now my eyes have completely adjusted and the dark does not feel evil. The corners of the room, crevices between and under, and the shadows behind still hold the unknowable, the untold. I am no longer afraid. My mind has not been racing, but slowly remembering. I hold each piece of my history in the yellow stream from the moon and turn their oblong shapes over and over. The witching hour is done, and I put them aside. I imagine a soft howl.
Last night, a new friend asked how I could live without knowing how my mom died. I didn’t tell him about the toxicology test nobody told us the results of. I didn’t tell him about the orange bottles from the safe. I didn’t tell him about my mother’s face contorted in a pained smile.
“Doesn’t it keep you up at night? Not knowing?” he asked, earnestly.
I said no. I said it does not.
I turn away from the window and lay down. A moist snout with flared nostrils. I will sleep. Wet tongue. I pull the covers over my head and I am in the true darkness again. I close my eyes. I dangle my hand over the edge of the bed, palm outward and exposed.
Rumpus original art by Lea Wells.