t is 1:47 a.m. and I am in bed thinking about that diagram of the human body I saw on the wall in Dr. D’s office yesterday morning. I’m picturing the veins in blue, the arteries in red, snaking and weaving around the center of the chest, through the heart, behind the collarbone, and down the arms. I’m wondering about the liver and the stomach, partners in their yin and yang shape, tucked in alongside each other. The stomach I know intimately, but the liver? A stranger. The lungs — symmetric and still — flank the heart, which is two shades darker than commercial hearts, valentine hearts, cartoon hearts.
Dr. D was running late. I hadn’t seen him in nine years. I sat on the paper-covered table in the exam room, biting the inside of my lip and picking at my cuticles, my legs shaky and dangling. I didn’t know if he remembered me. I was there for a physical, a systems check. I hadn’t slept well in over a year, and with all the eye twitches, stomachaches, and shivering, I figured my body was starting to break down. My friend Sam urged me to go.
“Everyone needs sleep,” she said. I had called her in the middle of the night the week before. “I read that in one experiment, scientists didn’t let rats sleep for days. You know what happened? All of the rats died.”
Sam isn’t one for subtlety.
I looked back up at the diagram. The thyroid, the pancreas, the spleen, all neatly arranged. I started to wonder about what doctors see when they peer into the ears, glance up the nose, and down the throat. I thought about how dark the inside of the body is, how crowded it must be with all the churning organs and trained muscles — all those hard, unmoving bones. I heard footsteps approaching. Should I tell Dr. D what happened? I took one more look at the diagram. Right before the door opened, I noticed there was no rib cage. Nothing at all protected the heart.
A few months earlier, I was sitting on the couch in Marjorie’s office.
“It happened again,” I said to her. “I couldn’t fall asleep next to Molly.”
I cared about Molly and trusted her much more than anyone else I had dated. The first time we tried to sleep in the same bed, she wrapped her arms around me and whispered that I was safe. And yet, after she drifted off to sleep, my legs cramped up and my breath grew shallow. My feet were cold and almost numb. Whenever Molly shifted in her sleep, my heart pounded and my hands started to sweat. I was still for hours, listening to the low hum of traffic and the curtains brushing against the window. Eventually I turned toward her, swept her hair out of her eyes, and asked her to go sleep on the couch. When I was alone in my bed, I took slow, deep breaths and stared out the window. I fell asleep watching blinking planes soar silently over the city.
I had shared this story, or something like it, every time I tried to fall asleep next to someone. I was quiet for a few moments, and Marjorie sat with me in my quiet.
“I had a new thought the other day,” I blurted out. My stomach dropped like I had betrayed it.
“Oh?” Marjorie shifted her weight and took a sip of tea.
“At the beach.” I pictured the seagulls and their marble eyes, the honest waves, the cloud gauze blanketing the sun. While I was swimming, this thought startled me with its newness, like it had emerged from a dark, hidden space in my body, a crevice I hadn’t discovered yet. Maybe one of the small spaces around my heart that hadn’t been filled up with sorrow.
“I thought that I could meet someone and love her so much that I’d want to sleep next to her. I wouldn’t dread it. I would look forward to it and feel protected by her — not afraid of her or what she could do. And I would sleep well. I’d sleep like I’ve always wanted to.”
I thought about how dark the inside of the body is, how crowded it must be with all the churning organs and trained muscles.
I held my breath and waited to die. Instead, something hard in my stomach unraveled. I felt my throat open, like I was holding a small lantern and peering into my own mouth.
“I like that thought very much,” Marjorie said. She smiled. Right then it started to rain, and we sat and listened to water pour out of the sky and soak the streets around us.
Hudson Valley, 1997. I’m at a sleepover at Katy’s house. We’re both in the living room and she’s fast asleep on the opposite end of the couch. The police scanner is in the den, and I’m listening to crackles of static and strange men’s calm, measured voices. Gray light from passing cars splash across the ceiling. I’ve been awake all night and the grandfather clock, which chimes every fifteen minutes, helps me track the time: 2:30, 3:15, 3:45, 4:30.
San Diego, 2012. I’m sharing a bed with my college friend Elise. We’re at her childhood home because her mother is throwing her a baby shower. I don’t remember falling asleep. Over eggs the next morning, she says, “It was like you were frozen in bed. You didn’t move an inch the entire night.”
Brooklyn, 2014. I fall asleep next to my new boyfriend Cole only long enough to have a nightmare: he has me pinned against the wall of his dark bedroom with his hands around my throat. I wake up gasping for air. It is 1:21 am. I turn over to see him curled next to me breathing small, precious sighs.
Bahamas, 2017. My first night on a yoga retreat at the ashram. I’m close to falling asleep when I feel someone slide into my bed and breathe in my ear. I’m so startled I fall out of my bed. No one is there.
When Dr. D came into the room, he smiled.
“Sorry, I’m running behind,” he said. “It’s nice to see you again. It’s been a while, huh?” He looked at the chart in his hands. “Oh. Nine years?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve been busy.”
He looked down at my hand. The nail on my thumb was bleeding. I had ripped off most of the cuticle and some of the skin around the nail.
“Let me get you something for that.” He pulled a small bandage out of a jar on the counter, peeled the wrapper off, and placed it on my thumb.
“What can I do for you today?” He took a seat next to the table. His fingers hovered over the laptop.
“I’m here for a physical. I haven’t slept in awhile and I feel like shit,” I said. My throat started to constrict.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Are you dealing with a lot of stress?”
“I am.” He glanced at the computer screen and typed something. My stomach hardened and tensed in the same way it has my entire life. I looked at the diagram on the wall, at the liver and stomach nestled together beneath the heart — the yin and yang. In that moment I remembered: it is the liver’s job to get rid of toxins.
“I’m having all of these nightmares,” I said. “About all of this terrible sexual stuff that happened to me when I was a kid.”
He stopped typing. My stomach felt a lot bigger and heavier than it appeared in the diagram on the wall. I knew my nail was bleeding underneath the bandage.
“It all happened when I was asleep, or half-asleep,” I said. “So now, when I try to fall asleep, I freak out.”
I looked away from him and stared at the diagram of the body. This time I noticed that the skin was also missing. What kind of body doesn’t have ribs or skin?
“I’m so sorry,” he said. We sat in my quiet for a few seconds or five minutes or an hour. I stared at my covered thumb and tried to breathe. When I raised my head, he was looking at me. His eyes were soft and kind.
“How about we listen to your heart for a minute?” He stood up and pointed to the stethoscope around his neck. When I nodded, two tears fell from my chin and splashed on the top of his polished brown shoe.
I once heard that matter — everything we can touch and see and feel — only makes up about four percent of the universe. Everything else is dark matter and dark energy, hypothetical forms of energy that cause the universe to expand. If I am a small, tiny universe, everything in my body — the bleeding fingers, the fossilized stomach and muscles wired to react — is only a tiny fraction of the whole. The rest of me is dark energy, expanding and growing.
It’s now 2:04 a.m. I rewrap myself in blankets, warm and snug. I listen to the wind chimes singing on the patio and I think about how much space there is in me, in my body, more than I can ever imagine. Churning oceans, rolling hills, skies with no edges. In this space lives everything that hasn’t yet happened to me. I settle into this vast expanse, where nothing is defined, and wait for sleep. Sleep, or something like it.