Insomnia – K. Augustus

I am awake. It’s two a.m., and I am still … awake.  I calculate how many hours of sleep remain. My alarm is set for seven a.m. Seven minus two is … five.  I double check the math with my fingers. Five. Five hours of sleep. That is, if I fall asleep right now. I listen as a couple of noisy trucks barrel down Lexington Avenue. I am painfully awake in the city that never sleeps.

How appropriate.

Sighing, I pull out my phone and push my thumb into the fingerprint reader. The phone lights up, bathing my face in artificial blue. I know the light from electronic devices is bad for insomnia, but I’ve followed all the rules, and they haven’t done me a damn bit of good. I’ve shut down my phone and computer two hours before going to bed. I’ve limited my caffeine intake. I’ve exercised. I’ve read in bed. I’ve done yoga and meditation. I’ve tried the melatonin, the warm milk, the deep breathing exercises. None of it has ever made any difference.

Scrolling through the phone, I find nothing interesting on my email, Facebook, or Instagram. There might be if I had more friends in different time zones. Chastising myself for not having more of a global social media network, I sit up and decide to put my mental state to some use. I’m midway through a graduate degree in math, and mid semester exams are approaching. I have all the theorems and proofs I need written and organized on blank paper; I just need to get them in my head.

I drag myself out of bed and throw on a tee shirt and a pair of jeans. My bones grate against one another as I trudge into my living room. I feel like a machine whose gears haven’t been oiled in a very long time. Using my whiteboard and my collection of weathered dry erase markers, I practice proving theorems in the dull light of my living room. I get stuck in the proof of Weirstrass’ factorization theorem, a result from complex analysis that permits entire functions to be written as products of their zeros. It’s a generalization of the fundamental theorem of algebra, something many first see in high school. I smile warmly as I recall seeing these ideas as a teenager. I’m still studying the same material. Plus ça change …

My mind feels cloudy and tired. I check the time.

Three a.m. Great. The sun will be up in a few hours …

Deep down, I know I’m not sleeping tonight. I can’t stand the thought of being awake in bed when the sun rises, streaming rays of misery filtering in through my bedroom window. I’ve been there more times than I can count. Dawn is the greatest moment of failure for any insomniac.

Not tonight, I decide. If I’m going to be awake when the sun rises, I’m not gonna be here.

Grabbing my jacket and keys, I take to the streets.

Manhattan has an eerie calm in the late night/early morning hours. It’s as if the city is holding its breath, waiting for the day to arrive. I wrap my arms around myself as I walk, guarding against the cool, autumn air. The sound of my boots striking concrete is the only sign of life for blocks. The street lamps keep me company, looming stoically as I pass.

Instinctively, I walk south. I pass the boutique pet stores, mansions, and myriad of luxury high rises of the Upper East Side. Everything in this neighborhood is beautifully maintained and everything shuts down at ten p.m. I always thought of it as the wealthy suburbs of Manhattan within Manhattan. The buildings are mostly dark, save for a handful of lit windows that pop out against the blank, night sky. The city lights replace the stars in the Manhattan skyline. I don’t totally recall what the real night sky looks like; the light pollution of the city obliterates any starlight whatsoever. I think I prefer it that way.  Many stars are sufficiently far from Earth such that in the time it takes for their light to reach us, they’ve long since expired. Looking into the night sky is therefore looking into the past, a graveyard of stars, millions of light years away.

Whenever possible, I try to avoid thinking about the past. At least looking into the lights of Manhattan is looking into the present.

As I pass 72nd street, I contemplate the people in the handful of lit apartments. Who is awake? Are they like me, plagued by lack of sleep? Hope of being in similar company flickers in my chest.

Some probably just left their lights on, or are working from home …

New York City is a place where the obsessive worker is elevated to a god-like status. In turn, our culture centers around work. No one I know has anything even resembling a “nine to five” schedule. Many, if they’re lucky, have something more like “eight to seven”, and most I know are on a “seven to eleven (possibly later)”. As a working graduate student, I have more of an “if I’m not sleeping or eating I’m working” schedule, which, while less structured, resembles the “seven to eleven” schedule of the finance and executive crowd.

Is that what I’ll end up doing? Will I even be happy there?

Questions I ask in the late hours of the night that have no real answer.

I stop briefly at 68th street and smile.  Hunter College. Looking up, I see myself studying physics during my undergraduate years. We’d pull all-nighters in the physics department conference room, keeping ourselves awake and focused with coffee and Advil. We’d sneak to the roof to take breaks and gaze out at the spectacular views from the top of the North building. Bittersweet memories of electromagnetic theory well to the surface.

“Hey, guys, is the divergence of the gradient zero or is it the gradient of the curl zero?”

“They’re both zero. Hey, K., what’s the speed of light again?”

“2.9979 times ten to the eighth meters per second.”

“Jeez, why don’t you just round it up to three?”

“Because three is yellow and I hate yellow.”

“Ok, weirdo, whatever you say … ”

I do hate the number three. I also dislike the number five. Three is yellow; five is red. They’re brazen yellows and reds too, the kind that sear the mind like nails on a chalkboard. I much prefer the cool, light blue of the number four and the soothing lavender of six. I always loved Plank’s constant for that reason – all sixes, twos, and fours with only one three.

How are they all doing?

I sigh.  I don’t keep in contact with any of them anymore. I’ve never been comfortable with how pieces of our past fall away as we live on. Even the loss of insignificant things, like study friends, feels too heavy to bear at times.

I start walking again, yanking my mind out of the past. I attempt to focus on a current problem to pull me out of my nostalgia. Weirstrass … you messed that up earlier tonight and it’s probably going to be on your test. Focus. Entire functions are holomorphic across the complex plane, and any entire function can be represented as a product of its zeros …

I try to recite the proof in my head as I walk. It’s not a terribly long proof, but my mind doesn’t want to stay in the math. I shudder. The temperature is rapidly dropping.

It’s getting cold; I wonder if it’s a good idea to stay out … maybe I should head back …

I check the street sign and silently curse my feet.

Of course I’d end up here, of all places. 54th and Madison. Wonderful.

I try to resist; it’s no use. His voice, his smell, his laughter flood my mind, clear as day. His name was Brian; he worked for Verizon. We’d known each other for some time, having met through a mutual friend, but it was that warm summer evening we walked down Madison Avenue everything changed. After months of aloof distance, he opened up about past trauma and attempted to connect to me.

“I got involved with this … woman. She stalked me, blackmailed me for money. She called my family; threatened my brother’s kids … I eventually had to get a restraining order.”

My heart wept a little at his confession. “Wow, I am so sorry; that’s horrible.” I let the gravity of his revelation sink in. After a moment I asked, “What on Earth could have fueled all that?”  

He paused awkwardly, then shook his head.

“I have no idea. She drank a lot and was pretty unbalanced, generally speaking …”

I decide to take our walk down Madison Avenue once more. I take my time, letting his words from that evening bubble to the surface.

“If it’s ok, tonight I just want to hold you. We can get a hotel room or go back to my apartment, either way. If it’s not a good night for this, or if it’s too soon, I’ll understand – “

“No, that sounds good. I can do that.”

I pause in front of the Palace Hotel, a grand establishment whose massive structure and ornate decor live up to its name. It towers over me, indifferent to my reverie. A gentle breeze picks up some leaves. They twirl around in a mini vortex, tattering on the concrete sidewalk. I feel his hands caressing my skin.

We entered the suite and were blasted with refrigerated air. He cracked open a window. The room was plush and impeccably maintained. I felt bad disturbing its perfection by pulling back the duvet. We crawled in bed together, slowly, painfully aware of one another. He wrapped his arms around me.

“Well, thank you for this, for tonight,” I said. “It’s been wonderful, even if I wake up tomorrow and never hear from you again …” I gave a nervous laugh. I was only half joking.

He seemed genuinely confused. “Relax,” he said, “No one’s going to do anything mean. No one’s going to do anything like that.”

I closed my eyes and inhaled in the warm, wet summer air as he reassured me, his voice dripping liquid gold down my neck.

I slept that night. I always slept with him.

Of course, he did exactly that, not all at once, though – slowly, painfully, over the course of months. He faded away and eventually disappeared entirely. I never got a reason why. I always blamed myself.

I linger in front of the Palace Hotel a moment more, the weight of the unanswered question hanging heavily in the air. I sigh, deep and long, as if I can somehow exhale the grief I still feel at the loss.

Manhattan is full of ghosts.

I loop around 50th street and begin to walk back uptown. My analytical brain kicks into overdrive, still trying to find an answer to a question that never had one.

He was a wealthy advertising executive; you were a broke student. He was a decade older than you; he likely found you immature and boring. Hell, you were young and naïve. Maybe he was secretly married …

We talked about everything – our childhoods, our fears, our failures, but never about feelings; he’d clam up the second anything hinted near that. There were times he seemed nearly afraid of me – he’d approach, then jerk back, like a wounded animal.

“So, wait, you actually think that guy from Kelly and Michael is Mike Tyson? You know that’s totally racist.” He laughed at me, good naturedly, finishing the salmon on his plate.

I tried to explain myself through my own laughter. “No, no, no, I misspoke. I know that’s not Mike Tyson; I know his name is name is Michael Strahan, I meant to say Michael Strahan – “

“Right,” he said sarcastically, clearly enjoying my embarrassment and guilt. His eyes sparkled with humor. The waiter came and took our plates. His expression and demeanor abruptly changed. In less than a second his mood became sullen, crestfallen, almost panicked. I was about to ask what was wrong, but didn’t get the opportunity.

“Um, so I need to get up early for work tomorrow, and it’s already ten. I think I’m just going to call it a night.”

I was taken aback, not as much by his statement, but how suddenly uncomfortable he became.

“Ok, no problem,” I said, keeping it light. “Do what you need to do. I had a great time, and certainly wouldn’t expect anything from you.”

We left the restaurant and walked together towards sixth avenue, chatting lightly. He hailed a cab and got in with barely a goodbye.

I was always too afraid to ask what was wrong. He slowly faded away; I was powerless to do anything to stop it. There were no midnight phone calls, no text messages demanding an answer. His correspondence with me became increasingly less frequent, and after not hearing from him at all for a little over a month, I sent a text message, “Hi, I hope you’re well,” and never heard back. I gracefully let him go. It was a simple enough problem – I loved someone who (most likely) did not love me back. And yet, this simple enough problem continues to plague me with so many unanswered questions.

The emotional pain propels my legs forward. I walk briskly, focusing on putting one foot in front of the other while staring at the sidewalk. The city is stirring; the early risers are leaving for work. He was always up at five a.m.; he had one of those “seven to eleven (possibly later)” schedules. He told me he grew up very poor, or as he said it, “on the wrong side of the tracks.” I always thought part of the reason he worked so hard was to try to distance himself from his childhood.

“You’re from Texas?” I asked him.


“Why don’t you have an accent?”

“I moved there from Michigan when I was eleven and hated everything about it, so I determined I wasn’t going to have one.”

“So, you just decided you weren’t going to have an accent? At eleven?”

“Pretty much, yeah.”

I shake my head in awe at the memory. I’ve never met any eleven year old that could will themselves out of an accent. He had a force of will that could obliterate anything in its path. It was one of the things I admired most about him.

I arrive in my neighborhood and make a right, heading towards the East River. I stand on the edge of the water and inhale deeply. When there aren’t many cars present you can actually smell the scent of the water. It smells clean, innocent perhaps, not at all like a river adjacent to an island holding ten million people. I catch a whiff of his scent in the air and smile sadly.

I check my cell phone. Quarter past six. The sun will be up soon. I gaze at the black water and wait patiently.

They’re not kidding when they say it’s darkest before dawn.

An orange bubble appears distant on the horizon. I watch as the sun slowly enters the sky, its rays kissing the water as it rises. I recall discussing the speed of light with my study partners … 299,790,000 meters per second. It’s the speed limit of the universe – nothing can travel faster. It’s also constant, meaning it always travels at that exact speed, no matter what. The sun rises higher in the sky, illuminating everything in its path.

Why can’t everything be so straightforward?

The laws of physics and mathematics are simple – the speed of light is constant, holomorphic functions can be represented by products of their zeros. In those realms, one can answer questions using experiments, reason, and logic. I often wish people’s behavior followed a similar kind of empirically explainable paradigm. I wish that I could reason out the logical inconsistencies of people’s actions. I suppose, then, if people were predictable in such a way, they would be far less interesting.

The sounds of honking and car engines crescendo to a conspicuous level. The night is over; the early morning commute has begun. I take one last glance at the water and turn around, heading back to my apartment. People are awake, bustling about, buying coffee and fighting over taxis. I am exhausted. I drag my feet as people quickly navigate their way around me. Dawn can break the spell of insomnia; the sun rising has often been the point where I finally fall asleep. Unfortunately, this usually occurs about half hour before I need to get up.

I climb up the stairs in my apartment building and make my way to my bedroom. As I flop on my bed, still in my clothes, the alarm goes off. It’s seven a.m. I reset the alarm for ten a.m. and tell myself I’ll make up the study time later in the day. Rays of sunlight filter in through my bedroom window, illuminating random patterns of light on the hardwood floor. I watch the shapes slowly morph until my eyelids feel too heavy to keep open.

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