I couldn’t sleep the first night in the new apartment on Park Place. It wasn’t much quieter than the projects, but I could feel we were out of that bubble now, living in the open world. I didn’t know our rank here except to say we had to hide sometimes and pretend we didn’t live there if a fire marshal drove by. The light switch sparked when you flipped it and the drunk landlord with his greasy grey curls and ruddy neck said nothing was allowed to live upstairs, but the rats didn’t mind. The bathroom had a naked, florescent bulb with lime and orange ricky-ticky flowers sprouting off blue-white plastic wall paper. The brown linoleum had intricate patterns for my busy mind to trace. The kitchen was dark, full of boxes and a yellow color. Half of the walls were covered in fake wood panels with the black gritty dividers. The other half had some sort of wall paper with antique drawings of buckets, windmills and fruit.
My mother heard me get up and we sat on boxes in the kitchen. She was wearing a plaid bathrobe. Her feathered bangs hung low and framed her face. She was unusually reassuring, smiling at me in the dark as she poured a bowl of Corn Pops. We weren’t allowed to have sugar cereal except on Saturdays. The cold sweet corn fell into my nervous stomach as I looked behind my mother into my baby brother’s new bedroom. We’d all slept in one room before. I thought about money, furniture, school and what was up the street, who was outside and what the inside of the stone house next door looked like. Some of the houses on this street were really nice, and some looked just like our apartment building. It was cold in the kitchen and my nightgown only came to my knees.
Waking up in the night was not different for me. Something was always haunting my mind like food, people, moving, changes, getting sick or dying, having nothing to wear, fighting sounds, expectations the world had, places to hide, ways to make everything stop, or actual ghosts. A grandmother had died in a kitchen fire in our project apartment. My mother claimed she saw a cup slide down our counter one night. She said it spun in midair then dropped to the floor. I sometimes saw a light surround by a dark outline and called her the kitchen witch. I had to cross her space to get to the bathroom if I had to pee at night, so I usually just stood in the doorway and looked for her before tucking back to bed. That’s when I started feeling for presences in each house we moved to. On the Vineyard we had to call a priest; that’s a real thing. My mother didn’t believe it until she was getting ready for work one morning and the bathroom shook or growled at her or something, and that was enough. She worked for the garbage company and was up very early so there was no one awake to blame.
Ridiculous things would keep me up like certain smells, a paper I had to write, something I said that was tumbling in my head like a sock in the dryer, irregular heart beats and calories would come and go too. On sleepover shifts at the assisted living facility, the sounds of old people creaking would wake me. Buckets of cleaning products, smelling like urine and the discomfort of laying in an unfamiliar bed, with pilled blankets in work-clothes. Knowing I had to face the next day with a house full of people, some workers, some residents and have conversations with them knowing they would look at me. I hate being looked at especially in daylight. It was always an evaluation; the barre, the runway, window glass, mirrors and unsolicited often backhanded compliments, recommendations about how to style my hair or questions about why I insisted on dressing in “over-sized rags”. Wearing clothes that fit was rare so I probably equate it with embarrassment, a fear of being called attention seeking and generally feeling like an inappropriate sex object on fire.
Sometimes I’d wake in blackness from a cavernous sleep and not know where I was. Opening my eyes from those deep sleeps I’d just start crying but not know why. There was an emptiness and separation from my own being, as if I was a collection of thoughts with no matter, name or personhood. I’d see an endless ocean of stars, galaxies and the universe expanding into a great void. The nothing would keep growing and all life would evaporate as if there was nothing tangible around me or within me, like I had no skin, blood or anything or anyone to hold on to. Feeling my own warm tears probably helped. Pain would usher my being back into my body, usually in the form of a migraine.
Later it would be flesh and hunger preventing rest. A compulsive need to count, measure and pulse muscles silently in the dark. Other times it was like I was frozen into my bed, having a vicious fight with the body-mind layers, sweating and cold at the same time. Screaming but invisible and clawing from inside to get out of my own existence. Scraping out the thoughts I couldn’t be rid of with a hook inside my head, like brain plaque. I’d try breathing, praying or meditating. I get what ‘fix’ is. For me it was the right amount of rituals, number of cigarettes, number on the scale, the right prayer uttered the right thousand amount of times, the right alignment of thoughts or simply remembering my brother had a flannel that fit me. The ‘fix’ was either a practical or completely illogical solution which gave me some temporary peace until the sun brought the day full of tasks we perform in the light.