He tried everything. A glass of warm milk before going to bed. Valerian tea. Melatonin tablets. Anxiolytics. And nothing. He’d push back his bedtime to collapse onto the mattress exhausted, and it would work. But at three in the morning he’d wake up restless, bathed in cold sweat, unable to fall back asleep.
“What you need to do, Mateo, is go see a doctor. Stop taking that garbage and find a specialist.”
Sibila was right. He spent his days tired, yawning in the corners, in a bad mood. Closing his eyes for ten, fifteen minutes, between classes at the university.
“I promise you, if I continue like this, at the end of the month I’ll make an appointment.”
“I don’t know if I should believe you, Mateo. With the excuse of being allergic to doctors, you don’t do anything about it. Everything irritates you. You forget things. Last week you didn’t take María to gymnastics. And you wake up on the sofa, next to the dog.”
He had to do something. It wasn’t okay at forty to be plagued with the insomnia of an old man. To suffer nightmares every night and wake up screaming. Thirsty. With chills and his heart agallop.
“What kind of work do you do?”
He didn’t want to tell his wife that at last he’d made an appointment.
“I’m a journalist,” he answered curtly. “I teach at the university.”
“And what’s your area?”
“I can’t sleep,” he responded, ignoring the question. It was enough making small talk with other parents every time he took his daughter to the park; he wasn’t about to waste more time with this doctor with disheveled hair.
“I’ve seen your file. I need you to tell me what you do, what you research, how you spend your free time, to understand if any of that affects your sleep.”
That’s why he hadn’t wanted to go earlier. He knew that in the twenty-minute consultation they would rummage through his life only to send him off to a shrink. And that was out of the question. Not a chance would he sit on a sofa and tell his life to some stranger. Even though he’d spent years in this country full of therapies and exercises to nourish the mind and spirit, he still thought, as did his mother and his entire family, that only crazies go to psychiatrists.
“I investigate civil disturbances, demonstrations, protests in Latin America.”
“And do you have to travel down there?”
“Sometimes. During vacations, in the summer. To interview other journalists or the leaders of a movement.”
He spoke slowly. Not with the desperation of an addict that urgently needs a supply of meds.
He complained about too much work. Of his long hours in front of a computer and the agony of correcting essays at the end of a term. Embarrassingly bad, poorly written, full of spelling mistakes. Arrogantly wishing to change the world of those who don’t know how to govern themselves.
“I’m going to prescribe some pills so you can sleep these next two weeks,” the doctor pacified him. “Enough time to make an appointment at our clinic for sleep disorders. If it were a more recent problem, I wouldn’t be so worried, but you have a chronic condition.”
“Couldn’t you give me a prescription for those pills for a couple of months? I’m writing an article. Work’s piling up. Two doctoral defenses. Exams. A trip.”
“Your health is first,” he answered, grabbing the door handle. “Try to not use your computer an hour before going to bed. Avoid TV at night. Don’t look at your phone.”
Easy for him to say. Offhandedly. Nineteen minutes after having entered the doctor’s office. At what other time should he answer his messages, check the news, or sit and watch something with his wife? At what time with a five-year-old who woke up at the crack of dawn and didn’t stop dancing until late into the night? Dressed as a princess, tap-tapping up and down in a flamenco outfit and heels. Asking him to take her out to ride her bike. Or to sit and build a castle with her.
He had to tell Sibila about his visit to the sleep clinic when they told him that he’d spend the night there, connected to sensors to analyze his sleep cycle, study his snoring, see if he had restless legs syndrome, or if his breathing was interrupted after falling asleep. Apnea.
He put on a long-sleeve shirt, faded and frayed at the collar, and pants with a bicycle print. He placed his pillow at the head of the bed and sat down to wait for the medical staff’s instructions.
“Is it really necessary to strap a sensor to my jaw? With surgical tape?”
“Just relax, sir. It’s the only way to have a complete log of your movements. To know if you clench your jaw or grind your teeth.”
The nurse continued what she was doing. Connecting the sensors from his nape, forehead, index finger and legs to a machine. Humming a song.
He’d read up on the basics of sleep studies, but it would be torture sleeping with those cables and patches all over his body. Or with that camera on the wall that would record the number of times he rolled to the right or left, if he woke up every three seconds without realizing it.
He suddenly recalled that he hadn’t answered a student’s message about her final project. That he’d forgotten to kiss his daughter before leaving the house. That the chicken had been thawing in the sink since four that afternoon, and it was going to spoil if Sibila didn’t put it in the fridge. Shit. He’d forgotten to pay the registration fee for the car, and now they’d charge him a fine. Again. Because he had so many things on his mind.
He lulled himself like that, going over pending bills. The list of things he had to finish. Before falling asleep, he tried messing with the sensors so they’d send the wrong waves to the computer, and he thought about the trip to the border he’d take at the end of the month to investigate the role of women in different protests.
“Do you remember your dreams? Take a look at the video. See how many times you wake up.”
It was true what Dr. Cowell was indicating, with his eyes on the screen. His sleep was restless. He covered his forehead, his fists fought the air, dodging punches. And he wept. From four until five thirty he’d been awake, thinking about other errands, drinking water. Until he fell asleep again and opened his eyes at seven in the morning.
He didn’t remember anything with precision. Only loose images. Recurring ones. A variation on the research he did in the mornings. Women holding signs. With pink crosses. With photos of their daughters. Disappeared. Or dead. He was the brother, the father, the policeman. He’d find human remains in a closet. A girl’s body in a bathtub. The cadaver of a pregnant woman. Bruised. Her feet mutilated. Hands tied.
“That’s what you dream about? My God, Mateo. Why didn’t you tell me? No wonder you sleep so poorly.”
“It’s my job, Sibila. There are people who can leave their worries at the office, but I keep thinking about them.”
“And what’s the solution?”
He tried a little of everything. Behavioral therapies. Sessions with a specialist who had him fall asleep thinking about a deserted beach. Running with María alongside incoming waves. Or walking with her and Sibila down a path of towering trees, following a stream.
He claimed to be sleeping better, but it wasn’t true. Not even after all the money he’d spent on treatments. And yet he smiled more in front of his wife and his students. He walked the dog every afternoon. He made the effort to lie on the floor with his daughter and read her books, even though he was dead tired. He’d tell her stories about when she was little, and they’d swear to love each other infinitely.
“From here to Perú, Papi?”
“From here to the moon.”
As a last resort, he consulted a therapist interested in deciphering his dreams.
“You’re not going to regret it, hermano,” his Colombian colleague reassured him. The only one he considered a friend. “That Chinese guy is a genius. He helped me break my behavioral patterns and understand why I always dated the same women. El Chino hypnotizes you, turns you inside out. Trust me, brother. You’ll see.”
It bothered him that he insisted on talking about his childhood. It seemed absurd to waste an hour every week talking about how his father abandoned the family, his troubled relationship with his mother. What did that have to do with the corpses that slipped into his dreams? With the mutilated bodies and the girls he unearthed with his nails, night after night, never able to revive them?
“Everything is connected, Mateo. You chose this profession. Don’t you think it’s interesting that you dedicate countless hours to documenting gender violence, the protests of these women in Peru, in Mexico, but you can’t speak with your mother for more than five minutes on the phone?”
The Chinese guy was wrong. Even if Ortega had tried to convince him otherwise. He was wrong. It wasn’t true.
He knew that his parents had separated when he was a kid. So what? If he didn’t even remember how they got to Brownsville, what did it matter what had happened on the other side of the river? What “absences” was this Chinese doctor talking about? Nobody misses what they don’t have. When they landed at his aunt and uncle’s house, he must have been five, six at most, more or less the same age as his daughter now playing at Humboldt Park. His mom worked all day and he was looked after by relatives and friends. Knowing he had to behave, eat his vegetables, and be a good boy.
He had been thinking awhile about Dr. Chen’s Jungian theories when he heard the first screams several yards away from the swing where he was with his daughter.
A boy, barely four years old, had fallen from the top of the slide and wasn’t moving. “Call an ambulance,” his mother begged. “My son isn’t responding. Help me, please. Help!”
When he got closer, holding María’s hand, her shrieks of terror were now only a murmur of pleas, a stifled sob, an outpouring of prayers.
If only he were a nurse, a lifeguard, a paramedic. To resuscitate the child. To take him far away. But he couldn’t do anything.
“Is he going to be alright, Papi?”
He suddenly felt a swift cut. A deep gash in the fabric of his dreams.
From amidst the commotion of people, he saw his mother on the ground. Her face, black and blue. Her broken ribs. A dislocated arm. He heard her terrified screams. And also her prayers.
“Is he going to be alright?”
The little body started to move. Eyelids first, then fingers. Saving them all from their mortal fears.
He wished for ignorance, to stitch back up with a needle and thread the thin cloth that was tearing before him. But it’s too late, and he sees himself. Under his bed, with his little hands stuffed in his ears, his knees pressed to his chest. Squeezing his eyes shut to fall asleep again.
“What’s wrong with him? What’s happening, doctor?”
He’s in a room with white walls. It’s him. He has sensors on his body. His mother kisses his face. And he blinks. Fearing that his father will appear in the door and he won’t have time to run. That he’ll grab her by the neck. Or him.
The Chinese doc is a genius. It pains him to accept that. There’s nothing to be done.
“He’s like that because of the trauma he’s experienced,” an older man wearing a white coat with an instrument hanging around his neck explains to her. “The good thing, señora, is he’s very young. Children are natural survivors. Fighters. Go look for your family. Take him far away. Very soon he won’t remember any of this.”
Translated by Sarah Pollack