I have always avoided silence more than the dark. The spaces I grew up in were safe enough, stable enough, that I knew with the certainty of consistency that nothing lurked in the shadows. There was no fear of the unknown keeping me up at night. The things in my head did that. Consequences of being an introvert, I suppose.
The silence was a void, an endless distance without the friction of distraction to slow my thoughts down, without fences to keep them from escaping. In the silence, my thoughts were not under my control, and they seemed to know it. Unchained, they picked up momentum until they were crashing around my head like a physical force, building and building toward a disorienting crescendo that left me reeling and dizzy.
So I knew what waited for me in the silence, and I looked for a way to keep it away.
When I was a little older, my budding interest in music earned me a lightweight CD boombox as a birthday gift, but it wasn’t long before the only use I had for it was the AM tuner. Radio was the first tool I found to combat the silence and my own mind. As soon as I had it, I never slept in silence again if I could help myself. Listening to overnight call-in shows about ghosts and alien abduction and secret government projects to enslave the world was a far, far less scary alternative to being alone on a train of thought that had no breaks, even for someone still young and impressionable enough to want to believe a large chunk of what I heard.
Which isn’t to say that I found it any easier to fall asleep. I’m an insomniac born, there’s no getting around that. Yet, sometimes I wondered, because desperation will make you do that. Does listening to that endless chatter, even at a low volume, hurt more than it helps? When it’s the fourth night in a row that I’m promising myself an hour and half of sleep is all I need to see me through the day, if I could just pass out right, right this very second, I reach the point where I’m willing to chance the silence.
That’s why, a half hour from when I had to be out the door, I was staring at the dawn sky outside my window with eyes that felt like lead balls set into my skull and preparing myself for a day without any sleep at all. For some reason, all I could think about is that hoary cliche in sports statistics, the regression to the mean. I’d been feeling pretty good the last few days, all things considered, and the big sections of my brain devoted to keeping me in check had me waiting for the other shoe to drop. Little whispers, thoughts like liquid pictures. The little man inside wanted to remind me that contentment and I were as fit for each other as Icarus and the sun, and he’d been doing it all night long.
Surviving a day on no sleep is about expectations and goals. Expect it to suck and plan accordingly. Step one: caffeine. I don’t like coffee, so it’s not an option. I once stayed awake for seventy-two hours straight in a marathon gaming session with a friend, and even after that, I couldn’t force more than a sip of the stuff. I’d recently read that Diet Coke has something like an extra twenty percent caffeine compared to Coke Classic, and I’d been building a tolerance to the taste of aspartame as an alternative. The first thing I did that morning was to grab the biggest bottle of Diet Coke I could find and convince myself it could also double as a breakfast supplement.
There’s a clumsiness that comes with the lack of sleep, and it’s not only sluggish reactions. It’s the need for sleep itself. The day soon becomes a hierarchy of needs in a microcosm, where everything else becomes secondary as the id tries to take control. It wants to sleep. It wants to eat. It wants those things almost more I care about what’s going on around me. By ten, all I can think about is lunch. By eleven, the biryani place a few blocks over is the only reason I haven’t downed tools. I concentrate on what I’m listening to, old radio shows I bring with me everywhere in the flash drive of my MP3 player. At half past noon, I’m finally free, and I begin shuffling up the street toward salvation.
As I stagger into the tiny strip mall parking lot, I squint against the glare of a sky so clear and blue it could convince me that Satan is real and see that the neon “Open” sign in the restaurant’s window is unlit. Neurones spark, trying to bridge connections while my stomach turns watery. What day is it? I know this place is closed on Tuesdays. Or is it Thursdays? I’m almost sure that today is Thursday. What time is it? Almost one o’clock. Stiff legs, but there’s no stopping now. I get close so I can read the faded sign in the window, which confirms they’re closed only on Tuesday and open at noon on Thursdays. I try the door. It’s locked. Check the sign again, look at the calendar on my phone. They should be open now, but they aren’t.
Turning away, I weigh my options as I walk slowly toward the street. There’s a little Jamaican place another block north. I could get a couple patties. That’s better than nothing. I tell myself to move on. It’s all I can do now.
I turn toward the voice. A man jumps out of a car that has just pulled into the spot in front of the biryani place. He waves at me to stop. In the shadow of the hair dresser’s awning, through the blurry filter of my exhaustion, his tan is dark enough that the little man inside wants to convince me he might be Indian. Might be the owner of the restaurant. I’m a regular and I know he recognizes me by sight. Maybe he’s here to open for lunch. He’s calling out so I can be first in line.
The man hops into the sunlight, and he’s not Indian. He comes at me with frazzled hair and beady eyes, starts waving something in my face. “Look at my parrot,” he says.
“What?” I ask.
“My parrot,” says the man. I try to focus on the thing he’s thrusting toward me. It’s a small, green parrot plushy on a swing perch.
I’m about to walk away when he pulls something at the toy’s back. The parrot coughs out a squawk, then starts yelling. “You suck,” it tells me.
The man cackles. “Isn’t he great?”
He yanks the chord again, and the parrot shouts, “You’re the worst person I’ve ever met.” The man laughs along as the parrot begins to beep out its own expletives.
“Thanks a lot for that,” I tell the man. “Really making my day.” One last look at the locked restaurant, the dark sign, and I force myself to move on.
I ask for a pair of spicy beef patties. The hand-written note on the side of the heating unit tells me the price has gone up. I haven’t had a sugary drink for nearly three months, but I buy an Arizona as well. I can feel the Diet Coke’s carbonation going to work on my digestive system and I’m not ready to give it reinforcement until there’s something solid in my stomach,
Crossing the parking lot of the local liquor store, seeing the loose group of grey faces loitering in what’s left of the grass next to the sliding glass door, my mind wanders. I remember the time a morbidly obese woman fell off her mobility scooter there and everyone stood around, cigarettes fixed to lips like vestigial digits, to watch me wrestle the heavy machine upright and chase the rolling empties through the rain. It could be worse.
On my walk back, as I wait for the light, I watch the parrot owner pull out of the parking lot across the street, revealing the now-flashing “Open” sign. I take a long pull from my can, swallow, and ask the guy standing next to me for the time. He looks up from his text and tells me it’s ten past one. The light turns green. I shrug and keep walking.
It could still be worse, I tell the little man inside. If this is the other shoe dropping, I can still be happy.
That night, while making a sandwich in a dark kitchen, I drop the heavy wooden cutting board on my foot, crushing my big toe. I stagger to my bed, pull off the sock to make sure I’m not bleeding excessively, and fall asleep before the first commercial break.