In touch, sound, and smell, dawn gives a sense of triumph. It’s a golden feeling of awe and optimism: trumpet blasts and peachy whiffs and caresses. It’s not always so. There’s another side of dawn, a side that has nothing to do with hope or gold. There’s the dawn defined by dread, when your eyes are open too early and the light turns gray and mustardy.
This is the dawn when you’ve been awake all night, when the fanged and hungry muskrats of insomnia have chewed the corners of your mind. They’ve spent the night whispering lies about the small pink blotch of skin on your chest that will bloom into cancer and seep through your flesh and into your heart, or reminding you of every false, infuriating word your father said, or giving you a close look at the soundless black abyss that waits for you.
This is the dawn when you’ve been up all night drunk, on drugs, a lunatic. The taste is sour. It is stale. It is the rotting tang of summer dumpsters. It tastes like sucking spilled whiskey from the sleeve of a wool sweater. It tastes like things you want to forget about yourself. It tastes like the amoxicillin you drank as a child to cure the infection in your ear. It tastes like dust, like desiccated residue, like skin and shit and heavy, metal particles that linger in the air. It tastes like regret. And it tastes, too, like fear.
Toothpaste doesn’t help, or it helps only a little bit, because the taste is not just on your tongue, but down your throat and in your belly, coating your lungs, lining the sick, wet crannies of your poisoned guts.
The taste of fear comes from the knowledge, as the sky begins its shift, that you have murdered this next day, one that hasn’t even lived yet, and no mouth-to-mouth will bring it back. What have I done?
As Clarice Lispector writes, “It is important to be awake in order to see. But it is also important to sleep in order to dream about the lack of time.” I do not think you need to be asleep to know that night is atemporal. The hours bend differently in the dark; there are times in the night when the concept of an hour doesn’t make sense. In a state of late-night debauch, one exits time, in fragmented fireworks of conversation, in kissing, in another drink, in another, in the desperate press against another body to confirm the insatiability of desire. Dizzy, thrilled, dissolved, spent. Time gone.
And then dawn shows up like a cop, like an angry neighbor, like death itself, and the clock starts ticking again. The damp cold come down begins, a new day wrecked from the start. The mouth is dry and sour. All you want to do is eat, or else that is the last thing in this world you want to do.
Nan Goldin captures this mood like no one else. To look at her images from the eighties, from The Ballad of Sexual Dependency in particular, is to taste the cigarettes, the beers, the waxy lipstick licked and smeared, the nights that go and go and go until they can’t go any longer. Take the image “Nan and Brian in Bed, New York City.” The light is yellow. He sits up, she lies looking wary. Both look troubled. This is not the hopeful gold of early morning. The next step is to close the curtains. Let’s forget last night, we can talk about it later, let’s try to sleep it off.
Or consider a later image, “David H. Looking Down, Zurich, 1998,” of a young man, with features a little less delicate than Timothée Chalamet’s, shirtless, looking down his bare chest. He is thin and strong and shame seems to run down the back of his throat. What have I done?
Or take any of her images of beds (“Empty beds, Lexington, Massachusetts 1979”; “Suzanne in yellow hotel room, Hotel Seville, Merida, Mexico (1981)”; “My room in halfway house Belmont, Ma.”), but especially “My hotel room, Valencia, Spain.” The tasseled yellow bedspreads are frayed; the carpet is worn, stained; two scuffed red shoes lie as though they’d been stumbled out of in exhaustion, in despair. The two beds, pushed together, are littered with papers, books, a white phone, a role of paper towels, a belt like a snake. One can almost hear the hum of the fluorescent bulbs in the ceiling above. There is no sense of, Thank god I’m home. It’s more: who am I, what is this place, where am I, what day is it, what am I doing, will I ever feel home again?
In this dawn, one is jagged, raw at the edges, sick with doubt, and so, so lonely. A cosmic kind of alone that registers as nausea. It tastes like dirty-footed demons stomping on the back of your tongue.
I lived in Philadelphia for a time. Toward the end, I spent some weeks staying up late, staying up most of the night. I’d find myself with this person or that person, sitting on the stoop on Baltimore Avenue as night disintegrated. The first sign of morning was the Amoroso’s Bread trucks that rumbled by on their morning deliveries. We were out there enough that we’d wave to the drivers and I had a wish that one of them would stop and hand us a loaf, just once, just for being awake with them, and that we’d sit on the stoop and we’d chew the warm, soft bread without talking because it was not a time for language then, either. They never stopped. The drivers waved back though, some of them.
If you’ve been up all night, you know that there is a divide between people who’ve seen the whole of the night and those who have slept through it. It is as though, for a time, they are two different species. When it got to be tomorrow, we’d watch the first people walking down the sidewalk on their way to work. Freshly showered, cereal eaten, minty mouthed, wearing clothes they’d put on just an hour before. There is no communication between these two species. Each knows something the other does not.
On the stoop, the options were two: bed or diner. Sometimes the sun comes up in an all-night place while you are pushing waffles into your mouth. Day breaks, but your attention is on the plate in front of you, on the thick-lipped mug of coffee. Yellowy waffles with pale, melting butter pooling in the squares and sweet, tree-blood syrup pouring in that beautiful way from those stainless steel vessels. There are okay tastes at dawn for those who’ve seen all of the night. It’s a way of re-establishing order—it’s morning, it’s breakfast, it’s normal, we’re all okay.
For the narrator in Hiromi Kawakami’s breathtaking novel The Briefcase (the best book about eating and drinking that I know), dawn finds her mushroom hunting with three men. In the woods, they clean the mushrooms, tear the big ones into small pieces, sauté them in a pan on a camping stove, and use water from a stream to make soup, adding miso, and letting it simmer. Once they finish the soup, one of them pulls from his pack “dried mushrooms. Rice crackers. Dried smoked squid. Whole tomatoes. Canned bonito.” And saké. “My stomach was already warm from the mushroom soup, and the saké warmed it even more.” Mushrooms from the floor of the forest, an impromptu soup, and provisions pulled from a pack. It is another way to start a day. It tastes good.
After the night, it can be the act of eating, the return to our senses, that steadies what’s ill and jangled. It’s a new day, after all, and what can you do but hunger for it.
Read the other installments in this series here.
Nina MacLaughlin is a writer and carpenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts.