A Field Guide to Pharmacological Sleep Aid Utilization
By Isaac Simons
That icy shimmer hit my stomach seven minutes after the sublingual tab dissolved
but it was a comforting feeling, if only as a precursor to unconsciousness. Unconsciousness being the greatest comfort of all.
Way different from the head-trip of Advil PM. That was a much simpler experience. Advil PM was a blanket. Something to lie all cozy beneath. But Ambien was unpredictable
it didn't block the light, it filtered it through a carnival prism. Bounced it off the walls. Made time skip, running in all directions simultaneously.
By morning, the spike had dulled into exhaustion and I sat at my desk and watched Mrs. Corbin move her mouth in the shape of a lecture. Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein was on the menu, and was I the only one who thought ‘Frankenstein’ sounded decidedly Jewish?
(Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hydenburger)
(Flowers for Algernussbaum)
“Some things are Jewish always,” Aunt Lydia told me. “Your father was Jewish before he was born. Probably measuring the square footage of the uterus and wondering what he could get for it in rent.”
She went on like this, her gelled nails smacking gibberish morse code across the tabletop. Then she’d ask me to play piano and I’d hop on the seat with my pulse already in ragtime and play a twelve-bar blues while she applauded with splayed fingers.
It was a sudden summer fever that led me to Advil PM, or Advil PM to me
just as Jessica Graham was preparing the row boat and Dad was inside having a beer with Lydia. He had asked me if I missed home, but home was the farthest thing from my mind.
“You want to ride to the island?” Jessica said, her future cleavage flat and flawless, her teenage legs like a rungless ladder to the moon. “Come on. It’s not far.” And I sat next to her all rigid and staring forward, wearing my fear like a neck brace
as we pedaled with our feet and steered with our hands and the plastic ship cruised atop the lake like God himself was guiding it.
“There it is, up there,” she told me, indicating the pine covered rock ahead.
I hadn’t spoken since leaving the shore. There was nothing I could say that wouldn’t give me away
and at the island I stubbed my toe but said nothing. The water was still and the pines didn’t make a sound as we skipped rocks and never kissed at all.
“He’s a natural at the piano, you should hear him,” Lydia said between bites of corn. The table nodded its casual consent: my father, Jessica Graham, and the floppy creature she called her mother.
In bed as the hot wind blew, I sweat right through my sheets and spiked a temperature somewhere north of a hundred.
“Two of these,” my father said, handing me the green gel caps. “And say Shemah.”
I intoned all three paragraphs of the meaningless prayer before the pills sunk their teeth in.
Only then did I realize that I had never truly slept.
“A common condition,” the doctor told me. “Generalized Anxiety Disorder,” and nodded as though the thing was now all squared away.
Aunt Lydia seemed proud of the diagnosis, “Your father had the same. A very Jewish condition.”
I took two Lunesta at his funeral, riding the silent waves of impulse and melancholy. Jessica Graham had gone off to a second rate college in the Midwest, and the lake was placid as ever. Perhaps more so owing to our absence.
They lowered his coffin down
and those so inclined recited the Kaddish. I knew all the words, so had no choice but to hear myself join silently, in my mind, while the Lunesta worked its wonders, taking me high and low and leaving my stomach roller coaster happy. The sun glinted off the casket’s polished mahogany in a thousand prickled splinters, and I wondered how much Aunt Lydia had spent on the thing. She’d never asked me to chip in.
“Now, along with the disorder can sometimes arrive sleeplessness,” the doctor said, his grammar like an encryption device. “This can be part of the condition. It can become an occasionally learned pattern.” He riffled through a drawer of pamphlets but found nothing appropriate. “I’d recommend practicing good sleep hygiene to counteract the trend. That means using no electroni8cs an hour or two hours before bed and trying to get to sleep at a regular time each night.” So I’d eat in the kitchen and rub one out in the bathroom and stretch on the floor until my hamstrings sang, before taking a novel and my cell phone to bed, and maybe a foil package of pills. Just in case.
I’d wait the requisite forty-five minutes
(fourty five/forty four/forty three…)
before diagnosing myself with an “occasionally learned pattern” and popping two of the little blue easter eggs to counteract the trend.
The words on the page began to swim, as was custom. The darkness in the empty room flickered. The shadows that vibrated by that single lamp I’d purchased when I first got the apartment just wouldn’t stand still.
But who’s cut out for solitude at such a young age? Solitude was a thing for the old, I decided. A thing for the wilted. So I pulled out the cell phone, opened a dating app, and began to text women at random. One named Jessica whom I’d contacted on account of her name alone. Had tits to Manhattan and legs like the Mississippi and was nothing at all like the Grahamcracker of my youth.
— You up?
— Well, obviously.
— Whacha wearing?
But then I was out in the car and thinking about my father. My forehead pressed to the leather of the steering wheel
with the insignia’s imprint cold against my skin. A halogen security bulb from the neighboring apartment flickered on, ruining the dark.
The clock on the dashboard read 4:16 AM.
Possible side effects: dizziness, anxiety, hallucination, memory loss…
Par for the course then. I checked my cell phone. Discovered strings of lewd texts to various women who wouldn’t be speaking to me again. I’d have to delete those dating apps. That or use no electronics an hour or two hours before bed.
The insomniac’s high was wearing off and my senses were coming back to me strong and angry. Grit against my teeth. I’d stuck the pills between cheek and gum like a wad of chew, I remembered. Just for variety.
“Get high on prayer! Get high on God!”
But the colorful posters seemed to encourage getting high first and foremost. Prayer, God, pills… whatever you had to do.
Ruti leaned against the wall below the posters and sang like a committed dope-fiend, though she was straight and narrow as the law. Her eyes would close and her cheeks would slacken as the notes soared into a range typically reserved for small birds.
“Coloratura Soprano,” she told me. “Though there was a time when I was considered a Sopranino.” The little Israeli with the Curly Sue hair who hit the high notes and higher still when rubbed right. She sat, sandaled foot draped over a leg, strumming the old hand-me-down that she’d brought from the holy land to the unholy land so that she might sing religious songs to non-religious children.
Spreading the word of God in the highest register possible.
“It’s good for them, you know? To have a sense of God, to connect to Him. They’re Jewish, yes? So they should feel like it.”
My father would have loved her.
That night I took four Advil PMs and sat on the lawn in front of the darkened cafeteria, stroking Ruti’s stomach. My own stomach quivered the way it did nights in grade school, and I welcomed the familiar sick feeling like an old friend. Those hefty green gel caps were photo albums. Time capsules. Within them I found regret and deep slumber, and when I awoke alone on that hill with the groggy campers all meandering toward their breakfast of burnt eggs and pancakes, I decided to allow myself to fall in love with her.
I didn’t take another sleeping pill until after the wedding, and even then it was only a half bottle of pinot noir and a spare Vicodin for the ankle I’d jacked up on the hike. The mountain had stretched beneath us in rolling greens until a cliff brought it down to kiss the burnt Pacific.
“It’s beautiful,” Ruti said. And it was.
We were high on honeymoon and wine and God and prayer, which I supplemented with a Vicodin, just to double down on my luck. Plus Vicodin wasn’t really a sleeping pill, was it?
Ambien was the one that brought it all back. That fountainhead of slippery amnesia
that took me full circle. I’d forgotten all about them, to tell you the truth. The pills and the worry. I’d been visiting collages with Jack all month and was shocked at the number of stairs required to get a good education. Everywhere in concrete, stone and marble they led upward to terraces and doorways and offices. Curving right, dog-legging left. A spiraling ascension of disintegrating cartilage.
After he scoped my knee, the doc prescribed pain killers, which reminded me of Ruti. And after the pain killers, he prescribed Ambien, which reminded me of my father.
When the knee had finally given out halfway up the entrance to University Hall, I had no concept of the treatment it would entail.
“You alright, Dad?”
Little Jack, ever thoughtful. Just like his mother.
I nodded and hobbled on — his limping father, the aging autodidact. Failing to hide either his injury or insecurity.
At home, light shone molten through the stained glass that Ruti had insisted on installing. The house had expanded since she had left it, and I used the crutches to cross between patches of sunset and fields of carpet in rooms made new by her absence.
The Ambien were small, white, and unassuming, and I phoned Jack once more before grinding the pills down to a pulp between my molars.
He was fine. School was fine. His girlfriend was fine. Everything was fine.
I closed my eyes for an interminable period and thought of Jessica Graham. Of Aunt Lydia. Of my father.
In the hospital, a nurse offered me a sublingual to help me sleep, and I asked her if she had the little green gel caps I had so enjoyed in my youth. I’d become increasingly nostalgic of late. This could be owing to all the visitors I’d entertained: Jack and his wife Sarah, both stroking her bulging belly as they stood beside the hospital bed, speaking in the hushed tones reserved for infants and the infirm; Ruti, her innocence hardened into a proud defiance, her hair pulled tight against her shiny scalp; and nurse after nurse after faceless nurse rotating through their cartwheel shifts.
The newest nurse didn’t have the green gel caps. Just the sublingual. Sorry.
“Do you remember the words?” Ruti asked me, the back of her hand stroking mine, our purple veins bumping against one another while that new wedding ring she wore scratched against my knuckles.
“Shema yisroel, adonai elohainu…”
Of course I remembered the words. I remembered them just as they’d come out of my father’s mouth: In satiny monotone. Omniscient and plain.
I recited all three meaningless paragraphs and let the sublingual tab dissolve. It would be seven minutes before the icy shimmer hit my stomach. I stared up at the dissolving ceiling and reflected on how long it had been between these little voyages. How many hours and days and months and years.
I closed my eyes
and let my head collapse against the starchy pillow.
Perhaps now I would finally get some rest.