Illustration by Na Kim.
I can’t fall asleep till my skin—sweaty, sticky, sizzling with bacteria, random fungal itches, swellings, vague histamine eruptions—has been unified by a bath or shower. I wear a white cotton T-shirt softened by age to tame this commotion and to guard my insanely sensitive nipples against the onslaught of, say, the blanket’s edge.
Mr. X. and I read for a while. I’m reading Derek McCormack’s wondrous Castle Faggot, but after a few paragraphs the words stop making sense. I whisper, “Bona nit, estimat.” Xavi whispers, “Bona nit, malparits,” and we kiss. Why do we whisper? Sometimes we whisper “I love you.” I roll onto my right side, and incredibly Xavi slides closer and drapes an arm over me. Ceding bed territory sets off a small alarm. “Sweet dreams, honey,” he might add, amused to be using the English endearment. Thirty seconds later he snores softly in my ear and a toenail digs into my calf. I am on the edge, he gathers the quilt in such a way that I am half-exposed and if I want more space or more covers there will be a struggle. I find this adorable. Everything explains why we should be together in this bed.
I often think about the dead before sleep—saying goodnight to them? Not think about—more like have the feeling of them. Are they my default setting? Is default consciousness what happens before sleep? My mother and I disliked talking on the phone so we spent most of our weekly calls saying goodbye, but now I mentally pick up the phone to say hello, a gesture. I think of Kathy Acker with a pang of love, a welter of unfinished business. When Xavi holds me, he contains these feelings. Tonight it’s simple—I wish Kathy were alive to be held like this.
I move Xavi’s hand from my waist to my hip, free the scrotum skin caught between my legs, and crack my right foot. When I yawn, sleep is near. But I rise onto my elbow to write these notes, or other notes, in my black notebook, by the cell phone light. Xavi sleeps—my efforts don’t disturb him. It has taken most of my life to learn to withdraw into myself, to sleep with a lover’s arm around me. It’s a level of trust, I suppose. The ability to trust.
Going to sleep is so general. Am I most like others or most like myself? I kick the covers off, I run hot, that’s okay. Xavi pulls the covers to him. I photo-documented this at four in the morning one night, every scrap of blanket gathered around him like a cocoon. J’accuse! He goes to sleep so quickly and stays asleep, I suppose. What a wonderful mammal! Sleep is complicated for me. I fall asleep, but staying asleep is a question, because melatonin levels decline with age.
I wake after four or five hours. My heavy body hurts more in the middle of the night than in the morning—why? The taut feeling in my side—liver disease? Pancreatic cancer? Gallstones? Why do my feet buzz? Why does the horizontal hurt my knee? Bruce Boone and I decided we dislike the terms old and older to describe ourselves. We prefer entropic, thus observing a majestic cosmic law. My disintegration enthralls me. I am the pain in my back, stiff, achy. I hope I’m finished when I die, like Great-Aunt Olga. How clumsy I was on the ladder and on our pitched roof when Xavi and I collected the leaves from the massive California pepper next door. Like a toddler. At some point, climbing a ladder onto my roof will be a bad idea. Goodbye, roof! Goodbye, view! I mentally avert my eyes.
Olga had an elegant death. She was ninety-five, I believe. She phoned my mother. “Dorothy, I’m calling to say goodbye. I finished what I was put on earth to do and I am not having fun anymore.” She got in bed and turned her face to the wall. A few days later she slipped into a coma, a few more and she was gone. To Olga’s credit, she used the word fun. Fun fun fun till her daddy takes the T-bird away.
My night is divided by a subtle chronology, first sleep and second sleep. I sit for a moment, groggy, then stand for a moment to assess the situation—back, knees, hands. Entropic bodies move tentatively, trying to avoid a shock. It’s not that every movement hurts, but which movement and how much? My bladder sends a message of necessity. I step into the cold air of the kitchen, it’s 4:22. A swallow of water sweetens my mouth. Pure water from the High Sierras, though now augmented by San Francisco groundwater—worried thought. I take half a trazodone with a second sip. I shuffle to the toilet for a long pee, eyes closed. I aim by sound, a gentle treble. Sometimes it’s a short piss even though the urgency is the same. Do I wake up and sense my bladder, or does it wake me?
During “human history,” people in most of the world experienced periods of biphasic sleep. After a few hours of slumber, we prayed, read, worked, whittled, stared at the stars, fucked, visited one another, busied ourselves in myriad ways. In some accounts, we used the time to meditate on our dreams. Percy Bysshe Shelley: “I arise from dreams of thee / In the first sweet sleep of night.”
I do what I am advised not to do. The bright screen displays what’s new in the world and in my life. It’s like returning home wanting to feel that something happened, something is different. I check email and read the NYT and go other “places.” Sitting at the dining-room table, I try to maintain my posture. If I sink into my body like Humpty Dumpty my back freezes and movement is painful. I twist in the chair, loosening my torso. Stony-eyed, I hunt for images: an auction of modernist carpets, a site where men purvey their nakedness, mid-century decorative art, ceramic objects by Gertrud Vasegaard, Gutte Eriksen, and Edward Eberle. Caucasian rugs. Iznik tiles. According to Temple Grandin, predators feel elated when they hunt—or shop? I turn on the heater and there’s that hiss and smell of burning dust. I might tinker with a few sentences, like this one. Hissing, clicking.
I go back to bed: left side, right side? I like a cool room. The heat comes from our bodies. I rest on the edge of hot and cold, feel both at once. I lie in the dark, eyes closed yet watching for sleep, though of course I don’t see it. It’s not like entering a dark room or a dark box—I am already there. It’s more like an encounter along the way. Xavi moves closer in his sleep. That is a beautiful instinct, is it not? Sometimes he puts his hand on my butt. I can’t believe my luck. Another dead friend arrives, Kathleen Fraser.
Kathleen Fraser at B. Patisserie, San Francisco. May 11, 2018. Photograph by Robert Glück.
At the amazing B. Patisserie, where I liked to take her, she once played with my hat, mugging, and I took her picture with my cell phone to show her how well it suited her. She considered my life with Xavi and pronounced, “Good! I’m glad you have this experience!” Kathleen was like that—she took stock and put it into words. Decades earlier, about a different relationship, she’d warned, “Bob, he’s a cloud. You push, he’ll disappear.” I suppose she was glad that I’d found the kind of love she shared with her husband, Art. Love that is—what?—fulfilled. This was our last meeting out in the world. Our next visits took place at her bedside. This photo is a reminder of our lunch and of Kathleen’s bright eyes.
I wake a few hours later with this dream: I seem to have options—I choose to turn into a grouty cement wall. My gray cratered face looks like Méliès’s man in the moon as I dissolve into thick mortar on the top row of cinder blocks. I’m round as Humpty Dumpty—is this comedy? Instead of turning my face to the wall, I’m turning my face into a wall. Am I the wall Humpty falls from? The wall Olga turns to?
Robert Glück is the author of nine books of poetry and prose, including the novel Margery Kempe and the long poem I, Boombox, forthcoming from Roof Books in spring 2023. Read “About Ed” in our Summer issue.
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