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Our Waking Life

By Mag Gabbert

Essay

Ty and I were asleep. We were in my new apartment, the first place I’d ever lived in on my own. We’d gone to bed exhausted after a full day of moving my belongings from my grandmother’s house in Dallas to my new place in San Antonio, where I was about to begin my junior year of college. The apartment was still empty, but for a few stacks of boxes in the living room, a wicker trunk that was to serve as my coffee table, and a futon, laid flat in my room, that was to serve as my bed. I remember opening my own front door for the first time, the rushing smell of fresh paint and wood.

I was excited, but also nervous about living on my own—I’ve always been anxious about my safety—and I hoped that Ty would protect me. We’d been dating for about six months and were still feeling the rushes and tingles of fresh love. It felt like it was real this time, like the kind of love that would finally last forever. As I’d watched Ty moving boxes and furniture earlier that day, beautiful and sweating in his muscle shirt, so capable and supportive, I’d imagined the day we would move into our first house, the day we would get married.

Sometime in the middle of that first night, from the depths of sleep, I felt a sharp pain in the palm of my hand. A moment later, I came crashing awake. My head slammed into a wall. I opened my eyes. I stumbled up from a slumped position and steadied the slant of my vision. My bed was now across the room.

At first, I thought someone had come in to attack us. I looked around for the shadow of a stranger. But, as I began to remember myself, and my life as I had known it, I realized there was no intruder.

In front of me crouched Ty; his eyes blazing with fear. He was screaming so intensely that the tendons in his neck had become grotesquely plain, as if they were cables supporting a heavy canvas. Just as I found him with my eyes, Ty lunged at me again. I winced and braced myself. He gripped me by the shoulders and shook me, pulling me up from the wall and then slamming me back into it. I tried to keep myself stiff.

I knew that I couldn’t run from him. If I did, it might get worse. Ty was having a night terror.

I couldn’t do anything that might excite him or make me appear threatening. I steadied my breathing and looked into Ty’s eyes, which were hollow and showed no recognition of me. His hands still gripped my shoulders with the kind of adrenaline strength that can’t be willfully summoned. He kept screaming and pushing me into the wall. I’d watched Ty have these episodes many times before, but this was the first time he’d touched me. It was my absolute worst fear.

“Ty, baby! It’s OK! Ty! It’s okay. Do you hear me?” He didn’t seem to hear me at all. “Ty, baby, it’s me! Do you see me? It’s OK! Everything’s okay, Ty.” I continued on, loudly and persistently, while keeping a steady cadence in my voice. It was the way I’d seen his mother wake him up when we spent the night at their house once.

Then, the terror ended. My body was released. My back found the wall again, gently this time, as Ty opened his hands and stumbled backwards. Something—a memory—washed over his face. He blinked himself into recognition, and horror. He slipped onto the floor in a pile, leaving me standing, breathless, above him.

Ty pulled his hands down over his face and started sobbing. “What did I do? God, what did I do?”

I sank with my back against the wall until I was sitting on the floor with him. I reached out and took both of his hands. “I don’t know. I think you were having a dream…”

“Are you hurt?”

I looked down at my hands holding his. The palm of one was bloody, scraped from an attempt to steady my body against the texture of the drywall. I could feel a similar burn on my elbow, and one of my toes was throbbing.

“No, I’m not. But I’m scared.” The initial shock of being thrown into the wall was beginning to settle into a steady trickle of fear, a fear that would become constant for the next two years. As my body began to register that I was okay—that I was at home, awake, sitting on the floor with my boyfriend—I started to cry uncontrollably. Then he and I cried together. We cried until we couldn’t speak.

I slept on the couch for the rest of that night, not wanting to make Ty feel punished for something that he couldn’t control, but not wanting to sleep with him either. I assumed things would return to normal the next day.

The morning descended on us, like a fog.

I woke to the sound of my bedroom door opening. I remember the intricacies of Ty’s expression as he stood there in the doorway. The wet-heavy sadness of his eyes, the defeated embarrassment. For a moment, he just looked at me. He looked at me as if I was a projection of myself—a shadow, a memory, a ghost. He expected me to leave him.

I thought about leaving Ty that day, but I didn’t. I wanted to be with him more than anything. Dating someone had never felt so easy or natural before; I didn’t ask questions about where Ty had been or why he didn’t answer his phone; I didn’t worry about what he would think of me. Ty was nothing like some of the immature, wandering men I had been with in the past. He taught me how to trust, how to be appreciated, and how to truly, truly be loved. I didn’t believe the universe would have allowed me to become immersed in such pleasure only to have it cost me my safety. I didn’t know a lot about the universe. I believed things would get better.

Weeks pressed on. We talked about that night again and again, and each time we imagined we had put it to rest. Ty made endless apologies and assured me it would never happen again. But the wheels of an unspeakable machine had already been set in motion. I could hear its gears turning at night, in the quiet, as I lay with Ty sleeping by my side.

Sleep began to elude me. I knew that refusing to share a bed with Ty would break his heart, and I wasn’t willing to do that to him. He was already so ashamed. Aside from that, despite all my fears, I still wanted to sleep with Ty. I wanted to feel warm next to him. I don’t know why, but sleeping with my partner felt mandatory to me; it was something that couldn’t be compromised. I knew that the day I could no longer stand to sleep with Ty would be the beginning of the end. I wouldn’t marry a man I couldn’t sleep with. I wasn’t ready to accept that there might be an end for us, so I continued to share a bed with him. But each night I found myself shooting upright at the slightest hint of movement. I would move to the furthest corner of the bed to avoid touching and rousing him. Then, my fear began to compound itself, and I worried that my reflex of jolting awake would send him into a terror.

I began staying up until five, sometimes even six in the morning and collapsing at the first breath of daylight. When Ty asked why I hadn’t been coming to bed, I would say that it was more fun staying up; this was my first time living out on my own and I wanted to inhale the freedom. I said I didn’t like schedules and wanted to be spontaneous. In a way, I sort of believed myself.

Some nights, when I refused to sleep, Ty would pile me into his truck in my pajamas, a glass of my favorite peach tea in my hands, and drive us out into the country. Ty had grown up about an hour south of San Antonio, on his parent’s ranch in Whitsett, and he knew the back roads like a fish knows the rivers. We would drive for hours in the dark, looking for the glimmer of eyes in the headlights, watching airplane signals pulse. And sometimes there, in the comfort of the truck’s rickety cabin, and the familiar smell of Ty’s Marlboro 27’s, I would find a moment’s rest.

On one of these nights Ty drove me all the way to Corpus Christie, two hours east, so I could see and smell the ocean. I remember how we drove into the sunset, how Ty set his hand on my thigh. I let my head rest against the window and watched the fields move past. We exchanged glances, never speaking. We let each other dream.

I was tired, and anxious, but I was determined not to let a medical issue—one that I knew Ty had no control over—drive me away from a person I loved. I decided to begin researching Ty’s condition, which I knew nothing about, to see if I could find a cure. None of my friends had any experience with adult night terrors or knew anyone who had them. I found several support groups online, but they were more frightening than heartening. Members chatted about how they had broken items in their homes, terrified their children, and even severely hurt themselves by falling or cutting themselves. One website claimed that only two percent of the US population suffered from adult night terrors, which meant that research and funding were almost non-existent. It suggested possible remedies, like St. John’s Wort, an over-the-counter diet supplement, but stated there was no proven cure. I began moving sharp and heavy objects out of my room.

I called a hypnotherapist, who I had been to years before, to see if he could offer some treatment. He said that he did not accept night terror cases, as one of his daughters had nearly been killed by a former husband that had night terrors. I tried to forget that I’d called.

Ty looked to find medical help, too. He enrolled in several overnight sleep studies, but never suffered a night terror during the time he was being observed. He tried several prescription medications, which doctors thought might help—one for anxiety, one for restless leg syndrome—but they only increased the vividness of his dreams.

Night terrors pushed Ty and me away from each other at night, but during the day they had a way of bringing us together. We hated them together. We fought them together. Perhaps, during this time, it was easy for the terrors to stand in for any other problems we might have had as a couple. We didn’t seem to notice any other problems between us, because the terrors demanded all of our energy and frustration. I can’t say what our relationship would have looked like were it not for the night terrors; I don’t know whether things would have been difficult or easy. But at the time, as we railed against our inability to find out, it seemed like we were missing out on perfection.

Ty began trying to document what he saw in his dreams. He’d never before been able to remember anything about his night terrors, but his renewed desire to unlock a cure—some secret riddled away in his psyche—had him feverishly writing in the mornings. One of his notes, dated 11/12/09, said this:

“I had a dream last night. I was in a conference with a professor in his office on this campus I keep returning to. I was smoking a bong – Robert Redford – while he spoke. A girl in business slacks opened the glass door and said it smelled like someone was smoking.

“You know…” she said.

“Weed?” I asked. I left the office and my bong and straw hat and rounded the corner just as campus and police officers arrived. I hooked my thumb towards the office and stepped away.

Then, I was climbing black rafters in a darkened auditorium. Voices above said Nate, Kaitlin, and Sylver were climbing, too. I negotiated through stories of rafters and suspended black ceiling tiles. The top floor could not hold my weight and I fell, terrified—felt my stomach lurch.

I held a rope and wheeled through the air hundreds of feet above a clearing in a green and yellow forest. A girl swung with me as we determined the others’ flight plan.”

I found this note on my pillow one morning after Ty had already left for work. That night Ty had flown out of bed, sometime after three o’clock, and run so quickly into my bedroom’s large window that he fell straight backwards and slipped back into sleep where he lay. It was a miracle the glass didn’t break. Next to the words on his note was an illustration, drawn without ever lifting the pen from the paper, of a tree with a line of clouds above it. Beside the tree was another, closer tree trunk, and below that was a hand balled into a fist with one thumb protruding out to the side, as if it was trying to hitch a ride. A rope stretched out from the tip of the thumb to the top of the closer tree trunk.

I began to feel relief at the sound of Ty screaming and smashing into things. The sounds meant that it was finally over for the night, and I could allow myself to sleep.

*

On a summer Friday in 2011, Ty and I spent the weekend with his parents at their ranch. The ranch was really just a square mile or so of empty land, with Ty’s parent’s house on one side and his grandparent’s house on the other side of a small hill. In the spring the land grew so thick with wildflowers that the family’s mule, Rosie, would leave petal-lined trails through the brush. For most of the year it was an empty, peaceful place, exquisite in subtle ways.

Ty’s little brother, Jake, who was now beginning his junior year of college, came along for the weekend too. Ty was still experiencing regular episodes of night terrors, but he hadn’t laid a hand on me in several months. The incident on the night I moved into my apartment had been the worst one, and that was now nearly two years in the past.

We arrived at the ranch sometime late in the evening. The sky had already turned to a deep sea blue by the time Ty’s truck rolled on to their gravel country road. Twilight always made the ranch seem somewhat surreal to me. It felt like we had driven into space and were somewhere just beyond Neptune. Ty, Jake, and their father, Rick, all gathered together outside the house to grill steak and drink a few beers. I stayed inside with Ty’s mother, Rhonda, and talked about making jewelry over a glass of wine. I had never mentioned the night Ty threw me from bed to her, or the stress that his night terrors were causing me. To Rick and Rhonda, his night terrors were a part of life, something easy to deal with. They would sometimes tell jokes about nights when they had discovered Ty running naked outside, or jumping on top of his dresser. I didn’t think Rhonda would understand why I had become so afraid.

When the boys came in from the grill, we all sat and ate dinner together at the table. We had more beer and wine and the conversation stayed light and easy. After dinner the table was cleared and we played a few rounds of Yahtzee. Then we sat around the living room for a while, drinking coffee and talking, while a movie played in the background. A few hours later, once the rooms were quiet, the lights were dimmed, and Ty’s parents had gone to bed, Ty, Jake, and I packed up some coolers and flashlights and ventured out into the night.

We walked through the pastures behind the house until we reached an open, high field. We set down a blanket we’d carried with us and built a small fire nearby. We each cracked open a drink, and Ty and Jake rolled themselves a spliff of tobacco and weed. They passed it lightly back and forth. Ty smoked a lot of pot at the time; it was one of the things that helped him sleep. We sat around the fire and talked, watching green streaks of space matter sear through the atmosphere, breathing in the warmth of the summer wood burning. The sky was so densely speckled with stars that I couldn’t find Orion, or any of the patterns I was so familiar with.

I loved being out in the wilderness with Ty. I loved hearing his stories about snakes and bobcats, and listening to the laugh of nearby coyotes carried by the wind.  He and Jake told me stories about how they used to sneak away from home as kids, stalking the fields of their property at night, searching out creatures in the brush. They always made it back to their beds in time for their parents to wake them. Ty knew the habits of life in the country; he recognized the sound of each rabbit or fox, he knew how to travel in silence. It was a life that I had only fantasized about. To be free among nature, to understand the movement of nature. Out there, in the midst of the wild and unknown, I felt safe and happy in Ty’s presence.

Very late that night, once the drinks were gone and the fire was no more than a simmering glow, we stomped out the embers and headed back across the fields. The floors of the house creaked softly as we moved down the shadowy hallway. Jake whispered goodnight and disappeared into his room; I went into Ty’s room with him. We collapsed together in bed, still tipsy and exhausted, and fell asleep in an instant.

I woke to a ringing in my ears. Then I felt a pain in my head; it was dull and pulsing. I opened my eyes. The room before me was rushing backwards, and my body met a wall behind me with force. My muscles were still limp from sleep and could not support my weight. I sank helplessly down to the floor. In the midst of the chaos, I felt a hand try to pull me back up by my tank top.

It was Ty, who was having a dream. I could see his tall, slim-muscled silhouette towering over me. He was muttering angry nonsense. He would later tell me that, in his dream, he had seen my body crawling with beetles next to him and he was trying to shake them off.

I did not move to touch him, which could easily have provoked him. Nor did I risk screaming for help. I didn’t know whether he would recognize me, or imagine that I was a threat. Instead, I spoke to him, as I had done before, in the hopes of waking him up. I didn’t manage to fully rouse him, but after some time I was able to get him back into bed. I was thankful that I hadn’t been seriously hurt.

In the morning, at breakfast, Ty’s mother noticed a large tear in my shirt.

“How did you do that?” she asked. I glanced over and saw Ty drop his face into his hands. He remembered the night before.

“I’m, um, not really sure,” I mumbled. “I must have just snagged it on something.”

“Oh, well I can sew it up for you if you want me to,” she said.

“No, that’s alright. It’s just a pajama top. I don’t really care what it looks like.”

Later that day, when I came in from reading a book on the front porch, I found the tank top folded neatly on Ty’s bed, a thick band of pink thread stitched across the hole.

“I hope your mom didn’t feel like she had to do this,” I told Ty.

“She didn’t, don’t worry,” he said quietly.

“Well I’m gonna go in and tell her thanks anyway…” I said, as I began to move towards the door.

Ty shrugged his shoulders and blushed. “Actually, I sewed it up for you…I’m sorry about last night.” He walked away, embarrassed and unsure of what to say.

After dark, Ty and I sat together at the edge of his truck bed, looking up into the sky. After some time in silence, he spoke. “I think you should leave me.”

I looked over at him and saw that his eyes were full of tears. My heart began to sink.

“I don’t want to leave you,” I said. “I love you.”

“But I’m not going to be able to stop hurting you, and I’m not going to let myself do that to you.” Ty’s voice dropped into heavy sobs. I put my arms around his shoulders, letting him lean into my lap.

“It’s not your fault,” was all I could get out.

*

One year later, I sat in my apartment, single and back in Dallas, opening a package. It was a birthday present from Ty. In the months since I had moved away, Ty and I talked little but lovingly. I knew that he was still hurting. In many ways, the end of our relationship had brought peace to my life, a return to a kind of normal that I had forgotten existed. But at night, in the city, I would look out from my fourth-floor apartment into the stretching horizon. I would remember driving with Ty through the country, searching out an adventure to pass the night. And I would remember our waking life, the one in which we were in love.

From the package Ty sent me, I pulled a small, round basket, that fit in the palm of my hand. It looked like a little nest. The basket was filled with tiny down feathers, and in the center was a tan suede pouch. Inside the pouch, I found thirty small twenty-two-caliber bullet casings, each with a tiny hole drilled in the top, and several foreign coins. Ty used to wander his parent’s property collecting bullet casings for me – and drilling holes into them – so I could use them to make jewelry. A few months before receiving the package, I had used one that I still had left over to make a necklace to send Ty for his birthday. Along with the basket I found a note, written on paper Ty made by hand in a book binding class in college. It read:

“Dear Mags,

Thank you so much for the necklace! It brings me aquamarine power and peace. I remember firing that Russian ammo with you in Whitsett. I wish so much that we had been shooting crystal skull vodka bottles in beautiful Jourdanton, rather than tin cans in a smelly old dump. I wish I would have done a lot differently. I remember watching you shave your legs; I felt very special to witness such candid moments, the kind I’ve shared with no one else.

I can’t yet explain what drove me to smoke so much then. To behave so selfishly. To be so self-destructive. I was too blind to realize what a despicable, devious miser I had become. You were the best friend I ever had, and I’m so sorry for trying to take you down with me. Please forgive me. Please understand that I was hopelessly lost.

You make me wanna do tricks. You make me want to punch holes in bullet shells in the middle of the night. You look so beautiful with your new tattoos. Your kindness amazes me. I know the stars will shine special birthday powers on you all month long. Enclosed are some treasures I found walking through the brush, and some coins I owed you.”

I cried as I read the letter. I wished I could tell Ty how I cried, but I couldn’t. I told myself that keeping my distance, giving him time to heal and grow, was the right thing to do. I told myself I’d done the right thing. Ty’s letter made it seem as if he knew that our relationship was never perfect to begin with, and a part of me knew that it was meant to be over, too. I could already feel my life shifting towards a less fragile version of happiness. But I couldn’t help but feel sorry for Ty, and I couldn’t help but wonder. I resolved not to cry to him, not to let myself move backwards.

In this world, I now realize, we are all just swimming against our own currents. It may be that life is an exercise in understanding why love is conditional, or why the right thing is always the hard thing. Or why, so often, there doesn’t seem to be a right thing at all.

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Mag Gabbert MAG GABBERT is a contributing writer for The Nervous Breakdown, where her essays regularly appear. Her essays, poems, and poetry reviews have also been published in The Rumpus, The San Antonio Current, and the San Antonio Express-News. She received her MFA from the University of California at Riverside and is currently the associate poetry editor of The Coachella Review. Mag and her two dogs live in Dallas, where she spends her free time making travel plans and jewelry.

4 Responses to “Our Waking Life”

  1. Kate says:

    Really moving and well written, Mag. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Michelle says:

    Beautifully written.

  3. Caitlin says:

    This is an incredibly moving piece. So much raw emotion.

  4. Miguel says:

    I like your writing! Very nice!

    I feel compelled to comment on this particular piece because of the ex’s night terrors condition–the comedian Mike Birbiglia has this condition, its called rapid eye movement behavior disorder and it is treatable with medication. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rapid_eye_movement_behavior_disorder#Treatment

    Additionally, Mike B. has mentioned in one of his standup skits that he sleeps in a zipped-up sleeping bag with oven mitts on his hands to prevent himself harming himself (I don’t think he ever attacked anyone, that he mentions, but he did jump out of a second story window in a motel. One of his recordings is understandably called Sleepwalk With Me).

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