By Mark Haber
MY WIFE AND I sit at the table eating dinner. Lately she hasn’t slept well because of my snoring. I never used to snore. It was something she bragged about when we’d first moved in together. “Quiet as a bird,” she’d tell people at parties and I half-wondered the sense in her comparison, for birds are one of the animals people hear. Then again, birds are light and I suspect that’s what she meant. Anyway, telling people that their partner sleeps as quiet as an otter sounds strange.
Last night she recorded my snoring as if to prove a point. I never said I didn’t believe her. I only mentioned that I had a hard time imagining myself doing it. When a person sleeps it’s difficult to picture themselves. There’s something uncomfortable, exposed, naked in sleep. You might as well be back in the womb.
“Please don’t play the tape.”
“I want to.”
Before I could stop her she pressed ‘play’ and the sound of approaching armies—Russian, German, Japanese—could be heard. It wasn’t me. It couldn’t be me. Wood was getting sawed. Trees were being felled. Mucus, like the boots of a nation’s citizens gathered and stomped in fury.
“Wait, it gets worse.”
We are seeing a counselor now because my snoring reminds her of her first husband’s snoring. He was a large mammal of a man with a bushy beard who always wore plaid and had an angry tempestuous relationship with my wife, mainly because he liked the notion of staying married a lot more than my wife did.
“I think somehow he acquired my ex-husband’s snore” she tells the counselor.
I expect the counselor to sympathize with the insanity of this claim. Instead he jots something on a pad and nods. “It’s happened before.”
“Wait a sec.”
“We’re not blaming you.” My wife says, brushing my knee. “It’s not your fault.”
“In no way are we blaming you,” the counselor assures me. “But sometimes men who have never snored, because of stress, acquired habits, workplace relationships, whatever, end up with the snores of complete strangers or, at the very least, acquaintances.”
But my wife’s ex-husband wasn’t an acquaintance. We’d spoken once (actually I’d only listened) and even then I felt the need for an interpreter. It was late, too late, and he showed up outside our apartment, drunk and disturbed, bad energy radiating from his person like the low grade alcohol emanating from his pores. There were threats, promises of violence, a call to the police and three or four weeks of anxious living, concerned that every truck pausing outside our building was the oath of pain he had promised when he unsheathed the tire iron.
“Just last month,” the counselor goes on, “I had a gentleman with the worst case of insomnia. He had to be sedated. Turns out his wife had begun snoring like Albert Einstein. Asleep, unconsciously, the husband realized this when she began mumbling his theory of relativity.”
“That’s absurd.” I say. “How do you even know what Einstein’s snoring sounded like?”
From nowhere my wife produces a tape she claims she made when married to her first husband, the big lumberjack fella.
“How long have you had that?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Borrowing the counselor’s cassette player, she proceeds to play my recorded snores alongside the snores of her ex-husband. I sit in paralysis. They are in complete accord. There is a brief rise in the rumble and then it subsides. My snoring, unless all of this is a cunningly executed joke, carries the same cadence as her ex-husband. Same rhythm, same pattern. It’s exact.
At the center for sleeping disorders we sit in a circle and people talk about their thorny relationship with sleep. I never realized sleep was something, actually a thing. But these people talk about sleep like it’s out there, waiting to be abusive or allusive, subversive even. One man stands up and looks out the window: “I know it’s out there, big silent motherfucker. It won’t let me in. It just stands outside my window laughing, taunting…fuck you!”
The man has purple crescents beneath his eyes, as if he’s been socked in the nose. People try to console him, share their own stories, some which are worse, some better.
One woman pretends sleep is a nightclub and she’s the bouncer. She coaxes herself into believing she controls who goes in and out of the club—hours each night she does this—and finally when the night is ending she lets herself in. The last guest. Sleep. There are people even worse off than the sleep bouncer; ones who are afraid to sleep because they feel the tusks of irate elephants penetrate their torsos.
I feel silly discussing my problem, which seems rather benign compared with these insomniacs, some who abstain from (or abuse) coffee and amphetamines, or meditate or endlessly gaze at the deadening buzz of televisions or climb the stairs of high rises in their quest for sleep.
One morning the following week my wife is staring at me when I open my eyes. The gleam on her face tells me something’s happened.
“I didn’t snore?”
“No, you snored but it was…different.”
“It wasn’t Danny’s (her ex’s) anymore.”
The counselor leaves a message on my phone that he wants to see me. Across the desk he brandishes a tiny cassette player like the ones that have begun to haunt my existence. Last week he urged my wife to spend over a thousand dollars on recording equipment to get the cleanest, most pristine recording of my snoring. Our bedroom has eggshell foam across the walls, wires interspersed with the electric blanket and an enormous reel to reel camera the counselor was emphatic she rent from the local junior college.
“The snore you’ve acquired needs to be studied further.” He tells me.
“That so?” I say, irritated. “I don’t think so. I think you, this place, all of this is a load of shit.”
“I have a fondness for skeptics.”
“I have a fondness for privacy.”
“I wish it were that easy. It seems you’ve begun snoring like a very important figure in history. You need to be studied.”
“I notified a historian friend of mine and he’s most interested.”
“In my snoring?”
“I’m afraid it’s a little more than that.”
“More than my snoring? What? Do I sleepwalk and murder children?”
He laughs. “No, of course not. But the snoring…”
“What if my snoring is just that? Mine. Mine and nobody else’s?”
“I’m afraid it’s not.”
With utter confidence he presses play and I listen to what I can only assume is my wife’s most recent recording. After a brief lapse the snoring begins and then I hear my voice speaking in a foreign tongue.
“What is that?”
“You. We had your sleep talk evaluated and it’s Mandarin.”
“Yes. And it’s archaic. Somehow you’ve acquired the snore of Genghis Khan.”
“Yes he ruled the Mongols…”
“I know who he is. What am I saying?”
“You’re instructing a tribe to attack on horse without saddles. Genghis believes it’s quieter that way.”
He opens a drawer and extracts another miniature cassette which he places into the player. “This,” he says, “is Josef Mengele snoring.”
He presses play and I hear a soft rumbling belonging, I’m supposed to believe, to the evil doctor who experimented with all of those Jews in Auschwitz.
“Notice how peaceful it sounds? That’s the sound of a man with no conscience. A true asshole. And who do you think garnered Mengele’s snore?”
“A sweet ninety year old lady. She was taken aback by the news of who she had channeled in her snoring. But her husband, a Holocaust survivor, he wouldn’t get near her until the situation was fixed. You can imagine…”
I try to protest but the counselor tells me how good I have it. “Lot’s of Mengele’s survivors are still alive, or at least the survivor’s children. Think about that. People don’t care one way or another about Genghis Kahn. It’s been much too long for anyone to be bitter. Really, who hates Genghis Kahn?”
Too exasperated to speak, I begin tapping my feet. A new habit.
“We had a young boy who snored like Czar Nicolas.” He says boastfully.
I say nothing.
“What if God’s vocation were in dreams?” He asks. “In the beginning He spoke directly to man, one on one as it were. Today, however, there’s too much…traffic. Isn’t it more logical that he transmutes His will where He exists most? Many in my field believe God speaks through the lyre’s strings. We all know he shapes the boulders, smoothes the stones. Think about God’s intuition in dreams. Think about…”
Here he insisted I think about things I had no interest in thinking about. My larynx was beginning to swell. The counselor—I wasn’t sure if he was a doctor or professor or even a specialist— called in his secretary.
“I didn’t know you had a secretary.”
“Only half days and only half the year. We keep her on the payroll for sentimental reasons…husband’s in prison for serial-killing. Both sons,” he taps his skull, “dim-witted…dense as stones. Anyway her name is Sarah but we call her Angela.”
Before I could ask why, Angela or Sarah opened the door, a strapping brunette in heels and skirt, a roomy blouse boasting cleavage some doctor obviously had a hand in creating.
“You must look at snoring as a formal, almost tribal speaking- in-tongue.” He tells me as Sarah or Angela places a manila folder on his desk. “Thank you Eileen.”
The secretary leaves. Outside the noise of the city is muffled and distinct both at once. Car horns are blanketed by fog but the sounds of humanity—shouts, bellows, arguing—are bizarrely acute. In the midst of this spiel my wife calls. He puts her on the speaker.
“Hi honey.” She says, distant and eerily cheerful.
“Hi.” I say loudly. “I’ll be home in an hour.”
I stand up to leave. The counselor tells my wife he’ll call her back and hangs up.
“It’s too late, really. I’ve already sent my report.”
“You didn’t think I did all of this without someone overseeing me? We have funding to consider. Sponsors, donations, the like. What did your wife tell you?”
“That I snored like her psychotic ex-husband.”
“Oh dear.” He clicked his tongue. “The tip of the iceberg, truly. Just the tip. Please sit down.”
I protest again and that’s when the men in cloaks and ear pieces come inside the office and sedate me with injection.
At the center here there are streams and brooks and the weather is always perfect. The grass is short and doesn’t itch and never needs cutting. Once I almost woke up and got a glimpse of a white room where a nurse and a team of doctors huddled about my bed, chuckling at some joke made at my expense. But then I came back to the center where I’m leading a tribe of Mongols up a mountain to attack. My officers think I’m crazy but are loyal and have survived thus far, so they trust me. They fear my overconfidence, for we are severely outnumbered. Our men are dozens and the foe thousands. However I have Einstein, some German fella who joined my ranks only yesterday after alluding Josef Mengele by crossing a trench. He seems to have a grasp on this whole numbers thing and tells me we’ll be just fine.
Haber, Mark. «Punto de Partida.» Las barbas de Melville. Traducción de Efrén Ordóñez, Editorial Argonáutica, 2017.
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