The Princess and the Pea

It's a sleepless night, and I don't know why.

Fred is beside me, occasionally shifting, but otherwise completely asleep, making a sound that could be could be described as one part snoring, one part choking, and two parts blowing in my face. It lacks the proper cadence of proper snoring, the kind you can eventually find comforting and drift off to.

The air filter, though freshly cleaned, is making its own barely rhythmic wheezing sound, as though just recapturing its breath following an electric asthma attack.

The dogs seem to have found the Everlasting Gobbstopper of rawhide strips. The small gnaw treat we give them at bedtime is generally devoured within 15 minutes as part of a brief nightly ritual that ends with their sprawled black forms overlapping at the foot of the bed. Tonight, they seem to be savouring their small strips of petrified cow-skin. They scrape their teeth on them a couple times, then growl at each other as they steal them from one another, then proceed to suck on the rawhide in an endlessly grotesque chorus of slurping and shucking sounds. At least, that's what it sounds like in the dark, as a lay there demanding sleep from myself.

It's rather cold out tonight, and yet under the blankets, I find myself sweating. This grows uncomfortable. I throw off the covers and Fred, allowing myself to breathe, and yet I know in my far-from-shut-down brain, that this will not do. If I do fall asleep, although I'm growing convinced that's not about to happen, I will undoubtedly wake up in a few hours, shivering uncontrollably at the union of the cold night air and the habitually lowered body temperature of my sleeping body.

I used to pride myself on being able to sleep anywhere, under any condition. What happened? While I'm not a clinical insomniac, I've become a bit of a primadona over my sleeping conditions.

I remember sleeping in all sorts of uncomfortable places, curled up inside of the bottom of closets, or underneath my bed. I was a frequent camper and backpacker. During one strangely ascetic period in my life, I used to eschew my mattress for sleeping on a blanket on the tile floor of my kitchen. For a short while, I was more or less homeless, commonly sleeping on the street or a nearby beach. As a child, I commonly slept sprawled across the excessive luggage or camping gear that filled the back of the family station wagon on long or not-so-long road trips.

Once, I actually fell asleep standing up, while helping a customer at work. I was employed that this fine-coffee cafe/greasy-food diner, but had a career as a late-night club rate. It had been a long night out, and I had developed the theory that you couldn't get a hangover if you went to sleep. This was based on the idea that you only ever wake up with a hangover after going to bed drunk. Therefore, I decided to just stay awake those couple hours I had between last-call and clocking in. Much to my horror, and the disdain of my customers and coworkers, I discovered that mother nature is kind when she puts you to sleep, so the leathery tendrils of an oncoming hangover can slowly lash your body while unconscious.

As I stood behind the counter, the noise of the morning rush swirling around me, and my head felt like the Golden Gate Bridge in that Ray Harryhausen movie with the giant octopus, I greeted this woman with a groggy, bleary eyed, "Good morning. Can I help you..." At this point, my chin apparently dropped to my chest. I was then awakened by that same customer banging her hand on the counter to wake me up to take her order. It was not my proudest moment in customer service.

Still, I'd fallen asleep. Standing up. In front of a loud oven. In a busy cafe. Actually just after offering to serve some woman. But not tonight.

The worst I ever was involved needing to fall asleep on my back. However, when Fred and I first started dating, I had a twin bed and a 100 pound Rhodesian Ridgeback that wanted to sleep in my bed with me. Needless to say, on sleep-over nights with Fred in those early days, I was not going to get to lay flat on my back in a twin bed with Fred and the dog. I had mostly gotten over it.

I twist over onto my side, trying to ring another yawn out of my body, only to have my mind remind me that in my Psychology textbook last semester, it said that the body yawns as a means of waking up. Needless to say, the mental debate over the biological function of the act of yawning is enough to make sure that I continue to retain full consciousness. It feels so good to yawn, and I feel as if sleep is that much closer. But if I'm tired, why am I yawning? To wake up? Gah!!!

"No you don't, Mind. I'll think of something pleasant. Like..." but there my mind goes useless. It can't seize on anything useful, but it grasps blindly into the night with equally sleep-denying desperation. It contemplates that overdue apology I owe a friend of mine for standing him up in the madness of last week, when I wrote my lunch-date with him on the calendar and then proceeded to look at the wrong week. It reminds me that I really should get the dogs in to the vet for their shots and how much I should go see the chiropractor, if I could only find the time. Hell, if I could only make the appointment at 2 in the morning! I lay there and wonder about the process of pasteurizing milk products or how to build a carport. I don't think about this in the hazy, conjecturally academic way that allows me to doze off. It comes to me in the aggressively self-loathing "Why don't you actually already know this? I know you're too lazy to ever actually pursue learning this." Sometimes I go into full fantasy, wondering if a tiny alien race is amassing an army in my foundation, awaiting the numbers necessary to rise up and conquer my homestead.

Finally, I start measuring my breaths and focusing on something neutral and devoid of detail, like a crudely drawn waterfall. It doesn't make a sound and is too general to have specific detail on which I can zoom for a closer analysis. I feel myself grow heavy.

A tickling hair falls across my nose. Then a tiny itch develops on the back of my knee. I reach to scratch it under the covers, but it jumps to my other thigh, then around to my butt cheek. I suddenly am aware that my tshirt has scrunched up under my back, and I must dance around horizontally to get it straightened out. At this point, I notice that the sheets have become uncomfortably bunched up as well.

What happened to curling up on the landing of the stairs, sitting in a plastic chair at school, or leaning against the wall in a subway station? What about those nights where I slept on the street, curled up under an insubstantial blanket on top of a piece of cardboard behind a dumpster or on some stranger's porch. Is a bit of slightly unmade bed really going to ruin a night of sleep?

Apparently. Of course, my mind returns to thinking about these things, and other more inconsequential topics, such as the sneaking suspicion that spray-can pancake batter may be the best thing I've ever tasted.

I realize I have to pee. I rise out of bed, replacing the covers to the area recently occupied by my body in hopes of retaining the warmth I've managed to generate for my return. I stumble through the dark, over the twisted forms of my now catatonic canines, and begin my trek across the house to the bathroom. I squint my eyes against the night lights, due to a theory that photons entering the eye inhibit melatonin receptors in the brain...damn you Psychology 101!

Maybe now, freshly emptied, feeling my way through the dark to my still-warm, smooth-sheeted bed, with my tshirt tucked into my pajama pants with more crisp attention than I ever gave to a boy scout or school uniform, I may finally drift into that unknowable misty darkness populated by the surrealist associations of my unconscious mind, and sleep.

My throat is dry. I need a drink of water.