We met Officer Hughes the first day Henry had a “Bad Sleep,” that’s what we call it, because it sounds a lot less menacing than “night terrors.” Henry was about two hours into his nap. I was working out back in the studio when he screamed so loudly that Tabitha Peyton, two doors over, called 9-1-1. The weird thing is, I ran for the house like a bat out of hell, not because my child was screaming—I didn’t realize it was him, yet—but because I was worried that the animal cry coming from the front yard would wake him and he’d be scared.
Of course, once I got in the house, a new level of terror set in. For some reason, as I opened his door, I was convinced I’d find a coyote eating Henry’s face. I actually stopped to pick up the toilet brush before I went in, as if I could’ve fought off a coyote with a toilet brush.
And then, there he was, all alone, his beautiful face in tact. Eyes opened wide, yelling, “Go away!” pointing at the window. I went to hug him, but that only made him more hysterical. So I just stood close to him, but not too close, with the toilet brush at my feet, crying until I needed to answer the door for Officer Hughes.
Sometimes, when I’m feeling impatient with Henry, when I can’t muster any of the sympathy I know I should have in endless supply, I think back to that moment—running through the grass at full speed; muscles and lungs burning with love.
For some reason, it’s always Officer Hughes who comes to our house when there’s a “noise disturbance.” That’s their polite term for “when the weird child screams so loudly that people think his parents are killing him.” Officer Hughes is not understanding. When he came out the third time in a month, I nearly lost my shit. Had he heard the dog on Evensworth? That thing didn’t shut up. They could at least bring their dog inside and the whole neighborhood wouldn’t have to hear its yip yip yipping. My kid wasn’t tied to a fucking pole in the back yard. The dog on Evensworth needed a good old-fashioned valium hamburger, rare!
“Is that a threat, Mrs. Bennett?” Officer Hughes asked, scrawling notes on his pad.
This year, we spent the night in a hotel to avoid the trick or treaters. When some asshole in a hockey mask escorted his five kids—their fake entrails spewing forth—around the lobby at dinnertime, Kevin just looked at me like it was some bright idea I’d had, as if we could hide from Halloween for the rest of our lives. But Henry hadn’t even noticed. He was pointing at the turtles in the fake riverbed with his chubby little index finger, yelling, “Toi-tle! Toi-tle!”
That one night we spent in the hotel was totally worth it, even though he woke at 3:30 screaming so desperately that we were given a coupon for free Omaha Steaks and asked to leave. Earlier that night, we had dinner in the lobby near the turtles. Henry played with the pink paper umbrella from my frou frou drink. We swam in the skanky pool and showered in the room with the mini soaps, which endlessly pleased Henry—even more than the turtles. We drew funny faces on the steamed up mirror and then all three of us piled into the bed and watched The Weather Channel—Henry’s favorite—until we fell asleep.
If we had been at home, it would’ve been tense. We would’ve been waiting for it. But there was something hopeful about that night at the hotel, all of us going along with our evening—smelling of bleached linens, white soap, and air conditioner— like everything could be normal.
On the car ride home, I joked to Kevin that we should spend the night in a hotel every Halloween, but he didn’t even laugh, he just looked at me. And then he said, after we had pulled into the garage and Henry was asleep again, “Are we still pretending this is about costumes?”
Nephrology has the best play area. Sometimes we stop there and Henry plays for a bit. Then we sit and people-watch the blood lab across the hallway. There’s a painting I’ve been wanting to work on, of a group of children on a playground, each with different blackened organs—I’m thinking charcoal with water color. I picture my Henry in it, too, he’s coming down a slide and there’s a coyote riding on his back, eating out of the top of his head. Henry, like all the children, is staring into the distance—pointing at something just off the page. The trick will be to make their eyes look terrified while their mouths are smiling.
One time we saw Officer Hughes at the lab with a little girl who must’ve been his daughter. I almost didn’t recognize him, without his uniform and snarky expression. The little girl was a few years older than Henry. She was sitting on his lap, sucking her pointer finger. He was smoothing out her hair and patting her knees. Of course, Henry wouldn’t recognize him at all. He doesn’t recognize anything when he’s in a fit—not me, not Kevin, and certainly not Officer Hughes.
He looked over, Officer Hughes, right before he got called into the back, and offered me a weak smile. I like to think that when he comes to our house on a call, he conjures up that image of me and Henry sitting on the floor across the way in Nephrology, quietly lining up trains on the track—like a normal mom and a normal kid, which we are 9 hours out of the day. Because the minute I hear his knock on our door, I try to focus on the image of his daughter’s face, and of his big hand patting her knee. That’s how I keep from wanting to offer him a burger.
For the sleep study, they attach a bunch of electrodes to Henry and then he goes to sleep, eventually. They monitor his heart rate, his brain activity, and his oxygen levels. I sit crumpled on the chair, and curse him for the good sleep he inevitably has. But then I make myself stare at the wires attached to my kid and trick myself into believing that he’s suffering from a terrible, terminal disease; that this peaceful rest will enable him to draw breath for one more day.
I’ve offered to bring in video of Henry’s bad sleep nights, but the people running the study just tell me, “That’s not necessary,” and focus on the boy a few doors down who screams half-heartedly every time we come in for a visit. Nothing’s terrorizing that kid, I want to tell them. You want to hear a scream? Henry can show you a scream! But, of course, he never does.
It’s weird. I don’t dream. I know I must dream, but I don’t remember what I dream. So it’s hard for me to truly understand what Henry must be going through. Kevin has crazy vivid dreams. He once told me he has a recurring nightmare in which he’s in the bowels of a subway system of some city. He’s just missed the last train and is searching for a place to wait it out until morning, which irks him, because subways don’t stop running—ever. He ends up walking the streets—which are deserted—looking for a cab, but there are none. When he tells me about the dream, he looks at my impassive face and I can tell he starts embellishing parts to try and impress upon me how utterly terrifying it is. “That must be frustrating,” is all I can think to say.
I used to wonder what Henry was dreaming about. I started sketching notes for a series on what Henry could be pointing at outside that window. In one, the pageant princess toddler was sitting on a branch, smiling, fondling her falsies in her hand. In another, the tree is embroidered in red vine licorice. Kevin and I hang from licorice nooses. There was one I was trying to work out where there was a tiny white bird that seemed to be resting and grooming, but when you got in close, you could see that it was picking out its own organs from beneath the snowy plumage. The final image I wanted to make in the series was of Henry outside the window pointing back at the Henry inside the window—both equally terrified and wanting the other to go away.
We go on “dates” every third Saturday morning, before nap time, just so that we can have some time alone together without the worry of a sitter putting him down. And although neither of us will admit it, we’d rather have the time to ourselves. Kevin thinks we should move to Utah and take on a sister wife. Or that we should hire an au pair as a live-in. I chuckle in his direction. Mostly, Kevin’s stuck in a brooding mode, where he gawks enviously at all the “normal” people living “normal” lives around us. I want to take him to the hospital with us; park far away and make him walk through the wings of catastrophic wonders.
“They’re going to think I beat you,” he complained, pulling down the neck to see just how bad it was.
We both stared at the tiny purple hand marks around my neck.
“Like I have a choice?!”
Henry had had a really scary episode and when I went to hug him, to restrain him—that’s what we were trying out, lately—he started choking me. I know he didn’t think it was me. But it’s really hard to separate it emotionally. It’s hard to even separate it intellectually. I was scared to be alone with my kid—my preschooler!
I was gathering my hair into a neat ponytail, when I resolved to finally call the soundproofing company we researched a while back. If we couldn’t stop the bad sleep, at least we could contain it. It felt good to think of something concrete to do, although I wondered about all the inquiries we’d have to field when they realized they were soundproofing a child’s bedroom. I took down the ponytail, smoothed out the lumps, and tried again, deciding the best thing would be to move all his stuff out before they even came for the estimate. If they asked, I’d tell them it was going to be a sound studio—a birthday gift for the husband. I must have been nodding approvingly at my genius plan, shared by god knows how many child abusers, because Kevin said, “What?”
“They’ll think you gave me a hicky, if you play it right,” I joked. But Kevin was biting his lip and I know he was thinking what I’ve been thinking: If Henry’s this strong now, what are we going to do when he’s 16?
I tried to lighten the mood, “What do you think 007 and her husband are going to bring? Martinis?”
A new family had moved into the house across the street with the pink shutters. The wife walks the baby three times a day in something that can only be described as a pram. I’m convinced there’s actually no child in there, but an Uzi; that she’s in touch with her handlers via a microphone embedded in her never ending scarf.
“Have you noticed her ramrod posture, or the way she breaks that stroller down in two seconds flat,” I asked, changing my top and trying out a sparkly scarf. “In the event of the Zombiepocalypse, don’t run for the basement, run for the house with the pink shutters!”
It was quiet for a while, and I thought I’d succeeded in shaking him of the sourness, that he’d say something really funny. He could be really funny. But then he said, “I think they’re going to bring a fucking potato salad.”
We walked down the street holding hands—me holding Henry’s, Kevin holding mine—and to anyone looking at us in the three minutes it took to walk toward the party, we were the picture of domestic bliss. Our dysfunction insulated. The party was fun. We drank home brew and ate hot dogs and potato salad, waiting for the couple in the house with the pink shutters to show, but they never did. Henry played in the bouncer with the big kids and screamed with absolute glee.
It was a beautiful sound. It was dark when we walked home. Henry, with his fluorescent necklace, walked a little ahead of Kevin and I; trying to catch fireflies. I was feeling peaceful watching that circle of green bobbing up and down in the dark air in front of me, but Kevin was watching the houses—aglow with lamplight. I ran to catch up with Henry at one point, when he’d drifted too far ahead and was chasing a firefly into Mrs. Ellison’s yard. When I looked back, Kevin was standing in front of a Victorian we often admired. In the third floor window, two girls were on their knees playing with dolls. Downstairs, a man was reading a newspaper in a leather chair. One could only assume that there was a woman in the kitchen washing dishes or prepping pie with homemade whipped cream. “It’s like a dollhouse,” Kevin said, when he finally caught up with us. At one time, a comment like that would’ve been totally contemptuous. But the way he said it, I could tell it was totally envious.
That night Henry had a bad sleep. I was walking down the hall to the room painted in Sherwin William’s Tranquil Night—it was my turn—when, suddenly, the screaming stopped. When I got to Henry’s room, he was lying under his covers peacefully, and I wondered if I’d imagined it; the screaming. I stood there for a while, to be sure, and it was nice, watching my child’s chest rise and fall; his rosy sleepy kid cheeks. Like a scene in a movie when they were trying to show how worth it it all was.
On the way back to our room, I stopped in the den and opened the French doors to the balcony. Through the trees, I could see the Victorian dollhouse, now dim. I could see all the other dollhouses, too—the patchwork of their lit windows. And all through the neighborhood there was the chorus of garbage cans being rolled to the curb. Across the street, there was one light on in the house with the pink shutters. I could see the husband walking and bobbing back and forth across the room. I could hear the baby crying—if I concentrated—or maybe I just filled it in.
As I squinted into the dark, I saw the wife rolling the can to the curb, with the same rigid posture that she rolled the pram. But she didn’t turn around once she left the bin at the roadside. She sat down and pulled something from her pocket. I stood there for a while, concentrating on the place where she was sitting, my heart pounding, thinking that maybe there really was something interesting going on in the house with the pink shutters, but then a car passed and I saw the glint of silver wrapper. The spy mom was sitting on the curb eating a goddamn chocolate bar.
I looked back at the Victorian and started thinking about painting a series of bisected houses, with the people inside doing dastardly things: A man with a corn cob pipe in his mouth, reading the paper with one hand, jerking off with the other. A woman ironing American cheese slices onto her children’s hands. A baby painting Picasso’s Starry Night with its own shit. A little girl having a tea party with bound and gagged dolls. I was thinking that maybe Kevin and I could even collaborate on a sculpted piece—he’d been wanting to get back to sculpting. That’s when I heard Henry cry—and there was no mistaking it this time. I rushed to close the doors and walked to his room, thinking of our own bisected dollhouse: husband on toilet with hands over ears, staring at feet. Wife in kitchen painting a plate with ketchup. The kid in his room, sitting straight up in the bed, mouth open, like he’s going to eat the moon with his scream.
The night after that, I lay down with Henry and didn’t stop myself from falling asleep. It was nice cuddling with him. As the room grew dim, he put his hand on my cheek and I put mine on his, but after a while he didn’t like that, so he turned to face away from me, then backed his butt up all the way into my chest. And that’s how I fell asleep breathing in his sweet sweaty hair; listening to his deep, even breaths.
I woke up in the middle of the night, and Henry was tucked under my chin. I pulled him in closer, instead of walking down the hall back to my room. I put my arms around him, as if we could huddle together, bear down, and fend off the bad dreams with our love. And we did.
That’s how I’ve become part of Henry’s bedtime routine: put on jammies, brush teeth, go pee, have a story, turn on night light, find Bear, and cuddle with mama. Kevin tried it one night, too, the laying down with Henry. But I’d been on duty for seven consecutive days while Kevin had been sick; Henry wasn’t having it. Kevin kept trying over the days it took for me to recover from the cold: put on jammies, brush teeth, go pee, have a story, turn on night light, find Bear, and cuddle with dada. But it just wasn’t quite right. Even out back in my studio, with earplugs in, I could hear Henry screaming my name. Of course, I couldn’t really hear him. Just like I couldn’t see Kevin, but I could tell his jaw was about to crack from the clenching.
When I was better, I just resumed bedtime responsibilities and Kevin never offered to trade off. I got pissed off when he made some offhanded remark about me just being “better” at it, but the next night, I noticed him by the door, making careful note of everything I did, shaking his head, like, a kid who had all the answers right but still didn’t get the “A.” That’s when Henry saw him and started freaking out. “No, Dada! No, Dada!” Kevin pushed the door shut before I could even shush Henry. Then, after just about enough time for someone to put on their running shoes, the front door creaked open and clicked shut.
At first, I would try to leave the room once I was sure he was asleep, but Henry’s hand would snap out like an alligator and clamp my wrist. He was like something “other” in those moments. There was none of the hollow vacant otherness of his screaming episodes. He was “other,” but also sentient; unrelenting.
Some nights, now, the light is barely off and I hear the front door creak, then click. Sometimes as I lay there with Henry, trying not to fall asleep, I can hear Kevin’s feet hitting the pavement. It’s just for a few seconds, and then he’s past the Emersons’ and heading for the stop sign and not slowing down, not even for a moment. The first few days I was happy for him. But now that quiet, apologetic, creak open and click shut fills me with rage.
All I wanted to do the other night was paint. I had a brownie when we were downtown, and a cup of coffee when we got home, for good measure. During the day, I make notes on the backs of receipts about the paintings I want to work on; sketches on the bigger scraps, if I can find them. That night, I was determined to outsmart the hum of the humidifier, the warmth of the heat, the intoxicating smell of my sweaty sleepy boy. I was going to stay awake and work on the piece about the Ostrich in the graveyard, which I’m really excited about. I heard the door creak then click, and thought, without a trace of sarcasm, Have a good run. I was going to paint—we’d all be happy. But then, Henry was picking at my back again.
“No pick! No pick Mama.” I whispered, pulling away, thinking about the placement of the ostrich—foreground or background? But eventually I relaxed into his hand. I knew it would help him fall asleep. And while he was in deep concentration, patiently flicking his fingernail over and over again, trying to excavate the tiny bump, I whispered again, “No pick,” fingering his scalp to see how his dandruff was doing. As I started to think of the ostrich turning into an emu, turning into a Flamingo, turning into Chrissy from Three’s Company, there was a fleeting moment where I knew I was falling asleep, but I let Chrissy morph into a Talking Tina doll and didn’t fight it, convincing myself I could use it for another painting. And so we fell asleep this way—me and Henry—picking at each other like the Bonobos at the zoo.
There’s a stuffed giraffe in Henry’s room. He calls it Lucinda, after some character in some story I’ve clearly forgotten. It’s huge. And it stares at me with contempt. I can’t tell if it’s the marble eyes, or the realistic eyelashes. But it’s smug and I think I might hate it. It looms over Henry’s bed, as if merely curious, but I know Lucinda’s been judging me for my sub-par parenting.
“I fucking hate you, Lucinda,” I whisper as I try to slink out of the bed, even though I know better. I swear, when Henry’s hand clamps down on my wrist, I jump like I’m watching a horror movie and the dead villain just came back to life—again— to terrorize the main character. And then I settle in next to him and sort of cry.
I haven’t painted in two weeks and don’t bother making notes anymore. There’s so much to work on, anyway, the ideas were just beginning to pile up. Of course, half of them I’ve worked—and reworked—in my mind. Somewhere in this revision process, I decide most of it’s shit and convince myself I’m better off not having wasted the paints and canvas. Move on to another idea. A better idea. So now, when I’m laying with Henry, letting myself drift off—I don’t bother fighting it anymore—I dream of the checkout lady at the Safeway, try to figure out if she changed her hair. See if I can remember the name on her tag or what she was ringing me up for when the other cashier came over and told her she could go on her break. As my muscles are going slack, I see the name “Jeanne” on her tag, and tomatoes on the scanner underneath the grip of her mannish hands. I fall asleep, pleased with myself.
The night terrors are gone, but now Henry fights us on going to sleep. Today, for nap, I lay with him for 40 minutes while he cried. As he wailed—flinging his arms and legs all around—I found myself nostalgic for the night terror days. There was no way to be clinically removed from this crying and screaming. Finally, exhausted from the effort, he leaned his face into my cheek and fell into a deep sleep for half an hour. I tried to move his head and he threatened to cry some more, so I just let him stay there. As he slumbered, I thought about the ostrich painting again, trying to remember what I was hoping to achieve with the bird in the background, or was it the foreground? And what was going to be under the earth? I remember the color palette—stark browns and greys—but the details eluded me. And so my mind went to discrete, accomplishable tasks. Call the pediatrician to schedule annual checkup. Arrange birthday party at library. Think about goodie bags. Ask the cleaning lady to get the baseboards. It felt good to make the list in my head of all the things I was going to accomplish. Grocery store: we need eggs, milk, butter, ice cream, pita bread, cheerios. I started to think about what I would make for dinner that week, and before I got to Wednesday, Chicken Gumbo, Henry was crying again. Nowadays, he wakes up just as cranky as he goes down.
Lucinda is staring at me again. I can’t decide if the giraffe thinks I’m an asshole because I’m screaming at my child to go to sleep within the confines of his sound proofed room, confident that no one else will hear me. Or if it thinks I’m an asshole because I’m stomping my feet like a child. Either way, Lucinda is right. I’m an asshole.
Kevin’s training for the marathon and has increased the amount of time he spends running. I tried to talk to him about making an appointment at the sleep clinic to see if we can figure out how to address Henry’s new sleep problems, but I can tell he’s thinking about gel packs and breathable shorts and about whether or not he has time to break in the fancy pair of shoes he got over the weekend. “Maybe we should wait until after his birthday to make any big changes,” Kevin suggests as he laces up his shoes for his morning run. But I know what he’s really saying is, maybe we should wait until after the marathon.
“Besides,” he adds, “it’s not like they were able to tell us a whole lot about the night terrors anyway, ‘Thanks for participating, your kid is not having seizures, therefore is not technically having terrors, therefore we can’t treat him, good luck?’” I want to tell him about the judgey giraffe and the way I’ve started to think about our kid as the undead baddy in the horror movie. I want to tell him about all the paintings I’ve painted in my head and trashed. I want to tell him about the checkout girl at Safeway, who always squishes the tomatoes when she weighs them. But I say, “Yeah, maybe you’re right,” and start parceling out Triscuits into snack sized baggies to put at the foot of Henry’s bed so I can have a snack during nap.
Earlier, I spent two hours over email with a customer service rep from Cutie Booties, where I was trying to order this adorable outfit for Henry because it was on sale for 80% off. They sent me a size 3-6 mos. instead of 3T and wouldn’t refund my money. If I wanted to “exchange” for the 3T, I’d have to pay full price, since the sale had ended. I asked the customer service rep, Stacy, if she thought that was asinine, and she just said, “I’m sorry, I don’t know how to answer that question? Can I help you with something else?” “Are you a robot, Stacy?” I asked her. “Can I tell you about our cutie booties boogie woogie club?” Stacy replied. “Lift up your shirt,” I implored. “Do you see a belly button? Anything to suggest that you are human?” Finally Stacy typed, “Thank you for being a cutie bootie customer. I hope you have an adorable day.” Or maybe she just copy and pasted it. And then she stopped replying.
I did not have an adorable day. Janice, the cleaning lady, hid all of the things I need, again. Kevin thinks she’s trying to be helpful, but I think it’s her way of telling us we’re shitty people to think she should have to clean up our mess. Last week, she hung the shower nozzle sideways so when I went to take a shower, it sprayed me full in the face and soaked the bath mat. Before she came today, I turned the showerhead on its side. I meant to turn it back, but forgot. I wonder if she got wet? All this thinking about the Stacy the Robot Customer Service Rep and surly Janice are getting me riled up, which is terrible. All I want to do tonight is go to sleep.
I start to go through the alphabet and think of a name for every letter. Soon enough I’m back in my second grade classroom, watching Miguel throw up on my shoes. Then I’m in high school staring at the back of Naveen’s beautiful neck. By the time I get to Peter from the summer program in Italy, I’m feeling drugged.
Suddenly, I’m on a subway platform waiting for a train. I lean forward and feel the dirty wind in my face, the kind that whips up right before a train comes into the station, but the candy wrappers keep swirling around in the air; the used condom pulsing on the rail. I turn around to ask Kevin if we should switch lines, but he’s not there. Instead, there’s a coyote in a pageant dress standing behind me eating red vine licorice. I jump onto the tracks and start running through the tunnel. I’m stumbling on the wooden slats, and tripping over huge rats. They scream when I step on their tails, and I swear it sounds like someone saying, “Go away!”
I see someone around the bend. It’s the lady from the house with the pink shutters. I run to her, try to ask her to help me, but she’s just pushing her stroller and walking away. Finally, I scream “Stop!” and she turns around, points at me, and starts yelling, with her pointer finger stretched out, “Go away!” She repeats it, over and over again. Her voice is hysterical, but her face is absolutely blank.
And then, I feel someone’s arms around me. My face is wet. I’m awake. Henry’s there. He’s cradling my head and shoulders, patting me calmly. “It’s okay, mama. It’s okay,” he reassures. And then, to the giraffe, as if embarrassed, “Mama have a bad sleep.”