by Annabeth Leong
I can still hear the singsong chant in my head, in the dramatically deepened voice of a friend from school: "Don't go to sleep. Freddie Krueger's gonna get you." I can't remember if that's exactly the way it's said in the movie Nightmare on Elm Street, but the concept frightened me so much that I didn't actually watch the movie until at least ten years later.
I'm very aware of my helplessness while asleep—it's something I fear and fetishize in equal measure. The concept of a killer that attacks through dreams made deep instinctual sense.
I don't think I have any actual phobias. Not the sorts of wrenching tales Daddy and Spencer have told. But I won't get caught up in analyzing the clinical line between a phobia and a fear.
Sleep bothers me. I really wish I didn't have to do it. There are nights I try to fight it, sitting on the couch wrapped in a blanket, playing games designed to present one mesmerizing pattern after another.
Ani DiFranco sang, "Sleep is like a fever. I'm glad when it ends." So many mornings, I sigh in relief as soon as the clock flips to what seems like a decent time to be awake and climb gratefully out of bed. Other mornings, I mutter, "Fuck it," and get up even though it's only 2 a.m.
It's the dreams that get to me. I have long stretches of nightmares, night after night, until it feels as if sand is ground into the backs of my eyeballs and it seems so fucking cruel that my body needs to do this thing that gives my mind a chance to torture me.
At this point in my life, I categorize my bad dreams—only the very worst rise to the level of what I would call nightmares. I have practiced various dream techniques so that in most cases I know I'm dreaming, and I've got some ability to change the nature of a dream or wake myself up if things are getting too terrible.
In one recent nightmare, I walked into a shed with my brother (I don't actually have a brother). As soon as we entered, I realized we were in horrible trouble. A man waited there beside a looming chair, a variety of sharp implements laid out on a table beside him. I flashed to a dream I'd had earlier that night, of myself in a wheelchair, and realized that this man planned to amputate my legs. I ran out of the shed and found myself in a green, daisy-covered field, something from the sunny childhood past. Outside the shed, I was young and safe, but my brother was no longer beside me. I realized I'd abandoned him to undergo the amputation without me. Feeling guilty, I returned to the shed. "You can run into the past," the man told me, "but I'll always be waiting here for you. For all the years it takes you to grow up again, you'll know what's here." I wanted to run away anyway, but I felt like a murderer leaving my brother, who was already strapped into the chair, legs bloody. I struggled to wake myself, but that felt like another type of running away, another abandonment that came with moral implications. I was trapped in the dream, spiraling through my own mind, stuck in that terrible shed watching the man cut off my brother's legs.
I could go on and on about the terrible dreams. There was the one where a doctor performed surgery on me over and over, cutting and recutting the same scarred spots along my abdomen, refusing to listen to my pleas that I needed to heal. There was the one where I found a strange movie theater in the middle of the woods only to encounter a blind projectionist who forced me to share his terrible visions and promised to follow me into my waking life. There was the one where my ex-husband committed suicide and I was the one who found the body.
There is the one where I am trapped in a broken-down car with my mother, and a gunman orders me to step outside. He promises that if I allow him to shoot me three times, he'll let us go, but otherwise he'll shoot her in the head. He promises he'll shoot me so it won't hurt too much. This has been a recurring nightmare throughout my life. Sometimes, he grazes my arm three times and it's okay. Other times, he shoots me in the heart, or in the gut.
My father was an insomniac. Typically for him, he took things to an even more intense level than I do. He slept two hours a night, from midnight to 2 a.m., and drank pot after pot of coffee the rest of the day. From 2 a.m. until sunrise, he worked out in his garage, doing hundreds of situps, hundreds of bench presses, anything to keep the sleep away.
When he was alive, I enjoyed the silent fellowship of this. Even hundreds of miles away from him, when I sat alone in my living room, too tortured by dreams to stomach a minute more in bed, I knew I wasn't alone. There was a warm place in the bottom of my belly, as if the early morning hours closed the distance between us. I used to be able to call him anytime, never worrying about time differences. He was always awake.
And I'll never forget the force of his dreams. Sometimes he fell asleep on the couch while watching Vietnam War movies. He ground his teeth like a demon, howled, and screamed. I could hear him from the backyard.
I had a roommate once who had a nightmare. She woke up in tears and cried most of the day. She asked me to pray with her. For hours, she refused to speak of what had happened in her sleep, and I was left to spin my own terrible imaginings.
When she finally confessed the dream, her story was simple. She had suffered a heart attack and been taken to a hospital in an ambulance, where she died. I tried my best to be compassionate, but within I was bemused. You've never died in your dreams before?
I mentioned that sleep isn't only a fear—it's also a fetish. In fact, it's a gold-standard fetish, one that works for me every time, one that never bores me no matter how repetitive the script.
I am sleeping, and someone comes in and touches me.
I recognize the many disturbing implications of this fetish, so it only appears in my work by accident—I've never had the courage to approach it head on. Still, it is in The Good Brother, and there's a hint of it in my story for Like a Chill Down Your Spine.
I ask my lover to do this as often as I dare. Strange that I spend so much of my life fearing the night, fearing the moment when I no longer have any choice but to lie down in bed, and yet I will lie down so eagerly to enact this particular game of pretend. I turn out the light and breathe slowly and deeply. Actual sleep fills me with tension, but in fake sleep, I find peace.
I don't always enjoy being touched when I'm awake. Sometimes I am like my character Celia, happy to touch myself but overwhelmed by the touch of another. When I pretend to be asleep, though, I can snatch pleasure in the darkness, uninhibited by the need to respond. I am so turned on my body buzzes.
I hate the labyrinths of my dreams, but when I fake being asleep, I relish the privacy. My body appears helpless. Perhaps it seems as if it's being used. In truth, it's more my own than when I'm awake.
In the strange in-between of the fetish, I am safe in the self-made darkness behind my eyelids, not subject to my brain's diabolical inventions, but also not tasked with the work of being aware and active. I come so easily, silently, drifting off into orgasm instead of sleep.