@

Wedding pics 383This is the second installment of my column, CNF 500. The column will deal with topics related to anything and everything creative nonfiction, and will be 500 words. As essays editor of The Nervous Breakdown, I’m always ready to consider essay submissions of any length for publication. Please email essays to ekleinman at thenervousbreakdown dot com.

Facebook is a bitch.

I never figured out how to post status updates and links to specific people. When I publish an essay somewhere, I usually just email friends and family I know would be interested, if they can tolerate the topic. For example, I love my cousins in Arizona, but would they really want to know about how I got my cherry fisted as a young dyke in Seattle? Probably not.

NYWe pile into grungy lofts along lower Broadway, far off on Avenue B, over by the West Side Highway, where our calloused feet turn black from the dust and grime caked on the wooden floors, where we steam up the tall windows with the ecstatic force of our efforts. We are all bargaining for space in these crowded dance classes—an opening in which to toss out a leg, an arm, always negotiating for that extra yard of floor. There is never enough of it, all of us hungry for more emptiness, more attention, more air in which to stretch out our limbs and spines and hearts, to rip through space.

Not long ago, I stood in the office of Records Management in the Indianapolis City-County Building and watched as a man with crooked glasses punched my name into his computer. It was spring. A bright blue sky, sunlight danced between the glass and steel of the taller buildings. I was there in the sub-basement to search for criminal records—my criminal records.

Outside it was sixty-five degrees. The landscape was turning green, flowers were blooming—everything was being renewed, coming back to life, starting over.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.

What falls away is always. And is near.

 

At a resort spa in the mountains of southern Utah once, a woman I’d never met before named Betina told me I was tired of fighting.

She lay me down on a bed of furs and wrapped a blanket around me. She held crystals over my body and struck them. The sound was meant to be a healing vibration.

I don’t really buy into this stuff.

But earlier, when we sat facing each other, she told me to close my eyes and think of the person who held all my questions. She pulled a small stone buffalo from her basket of animal talisman and said, “Is this him?”

And it was.

It was around 9:30 P.M., and I was waiting for the bus in Hollywood after being momentarily paroled from my job as a so-called telefundraiser. When I applied for the job, I didn’t think I stood a chance of being hired at that company or any other, having been out of the mainstream work force for the majority of my adult life, which I’ve spent eking out a living as an actor and screenwriter. The entertainment business used to be said to be recession-proof, but if that was ever true in the past, it’s true no longer; the minute the economy went to hell four years ago, I received fewer and fewer offers of acting and screenwriting jobs, until finally I received none at all. Even production-assistant jobs were, in my case anyway, scarce, though I did manage to PA for a couple of days on a teenage space musical financed by NASA, as well as on a Disney Channel spot in which Miley Cyrus was interviewed alongside her achy-breaky father to mark the end of Hannah Montana.

On February 4, the Brooklyn Detention Complex (formerly the Brooklyn House of Detention) held an open house for 400 members of the local community. As visitors, we were instructed that cellphones, video cameras, and electronic devices were not permitted, and I complied. But here’s what I would’ve photographed had cameras been allowed:

*Author’s note: Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise–warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day–I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics and writing a short essay–about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

 

What is one of the worst things that people do to one another?  Explain.

 

 

Every time my mother talks to her brother he reminds her that he is the “sole trustee and executor of the St. George family trust.”

 

When I was a boy I used a magnifying glass to burn insects.

 

I once shot my brother with a BB gun when he was walking into the yard, coming home from school. He spun, looking for cover, finding nothing, while I took aim, and waited, lining up the sights, before I squeezed the trigger. When he cried I called him a faggot.

 

I once burned alive a San Francisco alligator lizard with gasoline then dissected its cooked remains.

 

My best friend is what Nietzsche described as a “free spirit,” and I get pissed at him because he cancels classes, gets in trouble at work, runs out of money, and lounges on his porch drinking beer when he should be writing poems.

 

This classmate of mine and his buddies wouldn’t do calisthenics in PE one foggy day in our freshman year, so our teacher made everyone run the cross country course and I waited for this kid and broke his arm.

 

“Paul Broussard (1964–1991), a twenty-seven year-old Houston-area banker and Texas A&M alumnus, was beaten and stabbed to death in a gay-bashing incident outside a Houston nightclub on July 4, 1991 by ten teenage boys. The youths had driven from the northern Houston suburb of The Woodlands to the heavily gay area of Montrose solely to “beat up some queers,” in the words of one of the convicted teens.”

 

Once, when my wife and I fought, I threw an empty Budweiser bottle at the wall.

 

Sometimes when my mother calls and rambles on about nothing I can’t hide my boredom and desire to get off the phone and get on with my day even though with said rambling it’s obvious that my mother only wants to talk to her firstborn, hear my voice, know that I’m alive, the baby she brought into the world, nursed to viability, watched grow up safe and happy.

 

In high school I took this girl out who liked me and I knew that she liked me and I didn’t really like her back but still I took her out and I knew that I could and that I could take her shirt off and I did and I knew that I could and that I could not talk to her afterwards and I did and all of this I knew.

 

The uncle mentioned above, a gay man, suffers the chagrin of most family members for his admittedly pompous behavior. However, these family members repeatedly make light of this uncle’s sexuality and often comment on “how hard” his parents had it, dealing with his homosexuality, never once considering how hard it might have been for this uncle, brother, son, etc., to have “come out.”

 

Last week a college police officer calmly and without any apparent remorse pepper sprayed at point-blank range a group of students who sat on the ground with their arms linked in solidarity.

 

Some estimates say that as many as 78 million—nearly twice California’s population—died as a result of World War II.

 

The gravel pit was fifty feet from the front door of my trailer house on the outskirts of a small town in rural southern New Mexico – a nowhere town with an oil refinery in the city center, making the whole place smell like methane and brimstone. I don’t know why it was a gravel pit or what it was meant for. Measuring at least ten square acres, empty and flat, it was bordered on three sides by trailer homes. The main road ran along the fourth side.

The gravel pit was my sanctuary. My friend. My wonderland. It was my holodeck – the place I went to escape into a safe world where my imagination was free.  Dead pets were buried there. Dead washers and ranges, too. I would squat in the middle, digging up pillowcases full of bones on windy days and swear I was surrounded by the lost souls of animals, all of them trying to communicate with me. I could envision anything in the gravel pit – ghosts, monsters, the old west. A life outside of that suffocating town.

Students in the University System of Georgia must take and pass a Regents’ Exam in writing. I’ve taught a Regents’ Exam prep course, and in freshman composition I have generally been required to teach students how to pass this test. There are 635 approved essay prompts. When a student takes his Regents’ Exam, a random selection of four of these prompts shows up on the test instruction sheet. From these the student chooses one prompt.

As a writing exercise—warming up before jumping into whatever book I’m working on each day—I’ve been randomly selecting a prompt from the list of approved essay topics (http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwrtp/topics.htm) and writing a short essay—about the same length that an actual Georgia college student might compose—when taking this test.

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing 635 essays, but this is a start. I’m calling this project “Writing Sample.”

 

What are the most appropriate ways for people to show anger? Explain.

 

In the late 1990s I lived in Reno, Nevada and bartended at a college pizza joint and had a girlfriend who also worked at this bar and me and this girlfriend tried living together for about six months and although that didn’t work out, we stuck together for something like three or four years. Our relationship did not blossom beyond boyfriend-girlfriend because (and here I would like to say that it was because she’s a crazy bitch—and I still think she is—but I’m going to be honest with myself instead) but we both drank way too much and she had some anger management issues and these things combined brought out the worst in me, too. I remember the first time: I knocked that desklamp so hard it flew across the office in her house (the little Victorian I had just moved into), the bulb shattering against the opposite wall, the aluminum shade flattened, sparks floating to the carpet then darkness and silence. This happened because a friend had called to invite me to her birthday party and my girlfriend accused me of having fucked this friend, accused me of still fucking her, or of at least wanting to, and none of these things were true and my girlfriend wouldn’t shut up and listen to reason. We destroyed almost everything we owned. Before I moved out, three guitars ended up splintered on the street’s asphalt during violent attempts to leave; knives slashed, and bare hands ripped to shreds, an Oleg Cassini gown and cashmere dresses and a Hugo Boss suit; about ten window panes were replaced in the house and one on the old lady’s pickup; a thirty-six-inch television hissed and spewed smoke out its vents after I threw it; I had black eyes and bloodied lips, and the cops knew us by first name, and I’d attempted suicide twice, both times with pills, and I had walked barefoot out of the hospital in the middle of a winter’s night after doctors pumped my stomach, because the girlfriend in her visit said I wouldn’t come home but would instead go to the state mental health facility.

A few years after this, not long after the 90s sealed closed for good with the selection of a new president by our Supreme Court, some people I’d never heard of flew planes into buildings in New York City and Washington D.C., and into an empty field in Pennsylvania. Living on the west coast, as I did then, I learned of this long after most of the people involved had died, after the sites of this wreckage were smoldering and smoking apocalypses. A friend from high school woke me with a telephone call. He said, “The Twin Towers, dude, they’re gone.” I drove to the bar, this same college bar where I had once worked with my ex-girlfriend, the bar where my butt still perched to suck down one-dollar mugs of PBR. There my friends gathered around the screen like flies over a kill and we watched the devastation repeat, repeat. I was teaching at the university by then; I cancelled class. On the payphone outside my father’s voice shook and I said, “I’ll go to war. I’ll sign up for the Army if they need me, or if I’m drafted.” Dad said, “You may have to.” The next few days the sky was untouched canvas, devoid of jetliners’ trails brushed across it. American flags sprouted in bungalows’ front yards, from the windows of passing Fords and Toyotas. God Bless America became hello. The president said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” American air support secured Kabul; the Taliban fled to Pakistan.

More than a decade has passed. My ex-girlfriend tried to start a fight with me when I returned to Reno to give a reading. I ignored her, arching my eyebrows with incredulity while I signed a copy for the woman who’d kindly purchased my book. Somewhere between 14,000 and 40,000 civilians have died as a result of war in Afghanistan, and add to that the 3,000 dead civilians here in the United States. The last time my wife and I fought it was over who changes more diapers, who has to get up at four AM to feed our daughter, who has to be stuck inside the house all day while you get to leave for work, who has to work all the goddamn time and cannot spend the time he’d like with his baby. I stepped away, took a deep breath, returned, and said, “What can I do to help?”

“You’re paying, right? Remember you promised to take me out the other weekend, but we didn’t go so this can be to, like, make up for it.”

She pulls the crust off of a piece of garlic bread and dips it into her pasta’s sauce.

I resist the urge to slap her and call her a cheap bitch.

She takes the piece of garlic bread she’s de-crusted and squeezes it. The oils run together and dribble onto her fingers.

The waitress drops the bill on the table, smiles and goes back through the swinging doors into the kitchen.

“You were totally checking her ass out.”

It doesn’t seem worth denying.

“So you know that internship I applied for in New York, at the advertising firm? Well, I got it.”

I take what is left of my potatoes and flatten them out on the rim of the plate. I want her to acknowledge how smooth I’ve gotten them.

I smirk.

My silence has no motive.

“Well, I accepted it. I’ve always wanted to live in New York, and it’s a really good agency. It’s such a good opportunity for me.”

The power in the relationship long ago shifted to her, meaning she has less to lose if it ends. To me, being in a relationship makes it feel like I somewhat have my shit together. At least I’m a capable enough male to attract a mate.

I look at the bill and try to calculate the tip in my head.

“Seriously, are you even like, listening? Do you have anything to say about what I just told you?”

I can’t be sure if I do or not. The emptiness I feel seems to be aware only of itself.

“I was also thinking it’d be best if I did this on my own. I don’t want to be tied down to anything. It wouldn’t be fair to me or you. I mean, maybe you can come visit me. It’s not like I want to stop talking. Let’s just see how we both feel when I get home.”

I carve a geometric pattern into the potatoes. It looks a bit like Sumerian runes.

“I leave for New York in two weeks. I don’t want to not see you, but it may be harder, you know? I mean, it’s not like we can pretend I’m not going away, that things are normal.”

She hasn’t used the words ‘breaking up.’

I think about what the waitress with the nice ass is doing and realize how a restaurant is all these different worlds depending on one’s role: patron, wait staff, cook, dishwasher, manager, hostess, but nobody ever really considers another’s because they’re wrapped up in their personal universe.

Nobody’s reality can be felt by anybody else, which goes a long way towards explaining human relations. I have all of these ideas in my head, but to somebody else I’m just a body. A lump of flesh. Not them.

“I don’t know what else to say right now. I should probably go. Just think about things, OK? Let’s talk in a couple of days.”

She stands up and puts on her coat. As she walks by she puts her hand on my cheek and looks at me sadly, then leans in and kisses me not quite passionately, but more than a peck. “I’m really going to miss you.”

It’s not until I get home later and lay down on my bed that I start to cry, and even then it feels like my body is doing it on its own, as if I have no say in the matter.

New Harmony, Indiana.

The serene boondocks.

A girl named Katie.

My ninety-six year old grandfather has returned to us. He was away for a few months there, physically present but mentally checked out. The pain medication he was given for a broken arm reacted badly with his anti-depressants and he began having delusions.

“The Nazis are coming,” he told my father. “Who will protect me?”

My father brought the security guard up to visit my grandfather. The broad-shouldered man showed my grandfather his gun.  “Look,” my dad said. “This is the man who will protect you.” My grandfather eyed the guard suspiciously, but said nothing.

When he and my father were alone again, my grandfather said: “I’m afraid that man is not up to the task.”

“I’ll protect you, dad,” my father assured him, the university professor with a penchant for anti-aging face creams.

“Okay,” my grandfather said, calmed for the moment. He settled back into his flimsy hospital bed.  “Okay, then.”

After the injury, my grandfather wasn’t allowed to go back to the assisted living facility where my grandmother still resides. The home informed my family that my grandfather’s needs now exceeded their capacities and he would have to find somewhere else. My grandmother was devastated. She fretted when she had to be away from her husband for an hour or two to get her hair colored and styled. Now we wanted her to sleep alone?

“It’s inhumane,” she told us.

A week into my grandfather’s hospital stay and he was still refusing to walk. He languished in bed, growing weaker. He was barely five feet and one hundred pounds to begin with so it seemed like he might just disappear altogether. He began verbally abusing the kind nurses, calling them all sorts of unpleasant names. Once in a while he threw a metal tray at the wall. My charming grandfather was gone; someone angry had moved in. This new person was downright nasty, even to my grandmother when she visited.

I called my grandma one night to check in. She didn’t have time to chat. “I’m going to the movies with the neighbor,” she said. Her neighbor is an Italian widower with blue eyes.

“Is she dating now?” my dad asked.

“I think her motives are pure,” I assured him.  My glass half-full grandmother was not the kind to seek out fun and I was glad she had found some.

My grandfather started accusing my father of trying to steal from him. He wanted to see the accounts. He wanted to talk to lawyers. Most of all, he wanted to be left alone. That’s what he said but when my father got up to leave my grandfather began to cry.

Meanwhile, my dad was searching for a new nursing home to park his parents. This would be the third move in six years, as my father had been moving them alongside him and his wife as they moved for their careers. There were waiting lists everywhere, or places that would take one of them but not the other. My grandfather stopped eating. My grandmother became despondent again. I wondered how it could be that two people in their nineties who had spent the majority of their lives together might possibly be forced to die apart.

And then one day, for no reason at all, my grandfather woke up from the waking nightmare he had been lingering in as he recovered from his injury. He agreed to physical therapy. He agreed to eat the runny chocolate pudding the hospital staff warily placed in front of him each afternoon. He began dressing himself again, looking tidy in cuffed khakis and buttoned shirts. He was always stylish.

My father and his father have a new joke now. Each morning my dad says: “You look sharp as a matzo.” My grandfather responds: “I feel twice as crummy.”

My grandfather is a man of few words and fewer expressed emotions. Yet three days after his return to us he told my father about a dream he had. “I was dying,” he said. “I knew I was dying and that I was supposed to let go.”

“And how did you feel?” my father asked.

“Scared,” my grandfather whispered – a word I have never heard him use before. “I’m not ready to go yet.”

We are not ready for his departure, either, though I’m not sure we ever will be.

 

My common law stepdaughter decided she too wants to be a writer and I can’t help but feel a little proud, like it’s because of me. This nice and very human feeling is quickly overshadowed by jealousy; what if she ends up being better than me? What if she makes it and I don’t? Yes, I have professional jealousy of an eleven year old. That’s pretty pathological.

I’m typically jealous of everyone everywhere at all times. This probably stems from insecurity. I’ve occupied about every position on the social stratosphere as you can imagine; I’ve been sought after, ostracized, ridiculed, praised, told I was beautiful, assured I was ugly. I was approached by two drunken men one evening. The first declared I was pretty, one of the prettiest girls he’d even seen, while the other was less than impressed with me. It’s telling that I can’t remember exactly what he said, but it was basically the polar opposite of his buddy’s heady acclaim. 

Now what would you make of that? I mean, how do you process that information? Does one cancel out the other? Are they both right? The opinions of strangers mean less and less as I get older, but still that anecdote is a pretty good summation of my life. One part praise plus one part ridicule. Earning your begrudging respect one word at a time, if at all. It’s a constant uphill climb and I am a lazy asshole.

It’s a cliché but people really do either love me or hate me. There is no middle ground. I’ve had people (parents, teachers, peers, etc.) hate me on sight, and many of the people I’ve counted as friends confided that before we became close they too hated me. I take this as a source of pride. Anyone can be pleasant and kind and have people like them. To take someone with genuine ill feelings towards you and bring them around seems like an accomplishment I didn’t think I was capable of. But it’s also a bit depressing. I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not all that likable and charm is far out of my realm of capability.

After reading Hitch 22 I decided to take the Proust Questionnaire (which you should take as well: http://hoelder1in.org/Proust/fill_questionnaire.html ). The second to last question asked my current state of mind and I wrote ambivalent. After thinking it over I decided I’m in a constant state of ambivalence. I’m in love with the world and hate it miserably. I think humanity is awesome and grotesque. I think I am the worst person in the world while also believing that I’m better than everyone else. Is this inability to choose an indicator of severe mental illness or a healthy way to cope with an ever changing, fluid life? I’d have to say it’s both.

Here’s the deal:

I want to marry you. I do. I can’t find the words to explain why, but yet at the same time I can. Am I confusing you already?

You know, it’s just you. The shape of your eyes. The way you walk. It’s because you didn’t like that song. It’s because you’re smart and like the color green. It’s because you always know what’s best. It’s because you turned me onto cheesecake.

It’s the small things.

It’s always the small things.

Here’s some things you ought to consider before you decide on marrying me: I like books and Mt. Etna. I can cook and uncork wine. I can be an asshole. I like the Beatles over the Rolling Stones. Rain over religion. I like pastrami sandwiches more than I do clam chowder. In fact, I fucking hate clam chowder.

I’m addicted to vitamins. Fish oil. Super B-Complex. Iron. Vitamin D. This dope is the protégé of whiskey and weed. I’d like to think I’ve moved up in my using career. Prettied it up a bit, you know? Out of the gutter and over the counter. But I can’t say for sure.

I prefer a quiet house. I guess you can read this as me actually saying—you guessed it—I don’t like too much drama. And, well, I don’t. I know this world sucks. I know your boss sucks. And I definitely know your sister sucks. I know. I know this. So just grab a beer. Relax. Call a hotline. Do something about it. I promise I will.

I like both cats and dogs. I like them both because, well, there’s more for me to enjoy. I’d like to see it as getting more out of the day.

I also like dresses and skirts. So I won’t hassle you when you wear one.

I really don’t like sweet breakfasts. So don’t give me waffles or pancakes any of that shit. I don’t like it. I don’t like the colors, the presentation. Reds and purples. A twirl of whipped crème. A dash of powdered sugar.

I like eggs and country ham, hash browns, and wheat toast. I’ll take a buttermilk donut if you have one in the cupboard.

And: I like you.

I also like Sunday. Because Sunday doesn’t mean Jesus or the dreaded family dinner. I like Sunday because it means football. And football means happiness. And happiness means life can be navigated better.

It means the broken A/C has us sweating like pigs. But we still have the TV and Ignatius J. Reilly on the shelf. We still have heat.

It means some are innocent, but live their days guilty.

It means your boss will always suck because he’s miserable. You’d be miserable too if you woke up in his house. We all would.

It also means your sister’s a maniac, the Devil, a horrible cook, and her constant bitching about how her world is tumbling down carries the substance and weight of a baboon fart. How she’s a married woman is fucking beyond me. Oh. Sorry. Did I just say that?

It means it’s going to rain right after you washed your car. It means we’re gonna lose a parent or two. It also means the Vikings will probably never, ever, ever, win a Super Bowl.

(Sorry, Franny.)

It means that’s all right. Everything’s going to be OK.

Trust me.

It means I love you.

So. Hey. Will you marry me?

 

 


I’m blinking nonstop. Blink, blink, blink, like a forgotten movie reel that has run out and is now flapping around and around in mindless circles. And then I’m trying hard not to blink at all, holding my eyes open until they are dry and exhausted. My mother peers down at me.

“Stop that right now,” she snaps.

She pulls my fingers away from my face then sighs deeply when I immediately start rapid-fire blinking again.

My father leans down. His mustache is black and prickly. He shaved it off a few weeks ago but my mother dropped the groceries in the driveway when she saw him so he’s growing it out again. He puts his hands on my shoulders then blinks back into my six-year old face. He stands and pats one of my mother’s stiffly crossed arms, telling her not to worry.

The problem is that I’ve recently noticed that people blink. Oh man, people blink all the time. I am blinking all the time. And now I cannot stop noticing, can’t seem to get back into normal eye rhythms. All I can do is consider over and over again how many times I am blinking per minute, count them, and then blink some more.

It turns out blinking isn’t all we do. We also breathe. In and out, all day long. Soon it’s all I can think about. I take long exaggerated breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale again. I watch other people breathe then attempt to match their pattern. My mother tells me this is unnerving. The last thing you want to cross paths with on an otherwise uneventful Sunday morning at the market is a hyperventilating seven-year old staring maniacally at your chest.

“Get a grip,” she whispers though clenched teeth. We are in an expensive restaurant downtown, me exhaling all over my lukewarm pasta. I stare at my lap and consider what I am meant to be gripping. On my mother’s lap, her napkin is folded neatly in half. There is a small lipstick smudge in one corner. One of the white linen edges is fraying a little. I watch her gently squeeze it then swiftly rip off the offending string with her free hand. She balls it up between two fingers before flicking it on the ground.

“Lighten up,” my father tells her. He’s working through a piece of ham, cutting off a chunk then dipping it in his mashed potatoes before finally tacking on a single pea and popping it into his mouth.

Later they argue in their bedroom with the door not quite closed. My mother suggests we get her some help since she seems to be becoming rather eccentric and my father says she’s fine and all you’re worried about is what other people think and who gives a shit about that. My mother says how dare you I’m worried about our daughter and my father tells her to just relax which she cannot, will not, stand for. She’s not the child is what she tells him then slams the door and storms into her study.

When I’m eight I stop sleeping. Each night I shuffle into my parents’ bedroom, the sounds of my mother’s snoring leading me like a scent to her side. I nudge her gently until she makes room for me. Other nights I cross to the far side of their canopy bed where my father is sleeping on his back. He always leaves a little room at the edge so I don’t even have to rouse him. I just sneak under the covers, pushing him even further towards the middle in the process.

“This too shall pass,” my father tells my mother.

“Have anything a little less vague to offer?” she says.

My parents cannot bring themselves to lock the door, as the child psychiatrist has instructed them, but they do dutifully return me to my room most nights. I stare at my ceiling for a few minutes — it’s covered in those plastic glow-in-the-dark stars — then kick off my covers. Back in their room I now know better than to try and get in the bed. Some nights I sleep in the closet, once in the bathtub with my comforter wrapped around me like a cocoon and our old Beagle wheezing contentedly at my feet. But mostly I curl up on the floor at the foot of their bed. Here I wrap myself in the very edges of their heavy winter comforter, gently tugging it inch by inch by inch until I’ve got enough material to cover my whole tiny body. In the morning they will shiver groggily in their light cotton sheets before they realize I’ve pulled the covers almost completely off them.