99 Problems

Published on July 14th, 2020 | by Allison Fagan



I live in a house of sleepwalkers. Sleeptalkers, sleepactors, sleepwhiners and criers, too, but it’s the walking that always gets me. Even the dog–who sleepwalks without moving an inch from the matted C his body carves in the carpet, his paws pedaling the inch of air just above the ground–becomes unknown to me. In the dark, everyone has a stranger’s feet.

My daughter yelps in her sleep, and I am more patient with her. If I walk into the room before she climbs out of bed, there she is, fighting every cover she demanded at bedtime, her hair swept impossibly over her eyes and in her mouth, a slow but frustrated swim through her sheets. If she makes it out of bed before I startle at the sound of her, she always plods in the same direction: toward me. 

When she was three, she went toward the open stairwells and so we put up gates, the wobbly and imperfectly fitting kind you slide and pop into place, not the kind you screw solidly into the banisters, because we used to think our fear of her falling was only temporary. But when three became four and then five, her path took on the air of permanence: always to my side of the bed, the whuffling of her flame-retardant pajamas announcing her approach. On these nights my eyes will open suddenly and gaze into hers: if she’s awake, they look back at me. If asleep, they look through me. 

I’ve seen that look before. Once as a teenager I awoke to find my brother staring at the static snow of a television set, sitting straight-backed in the exact center of the couch. I know. I remember being terrified of his dark outline illuminated only by the unending fuzz of black on white, of his heaviness as I poked, then pushed and yelled for him to get out. I thought the volume of my voice could reach him, could connect him to me; I thought my directions were as plainly clear as my fear. But if he heard me it was as though through a wall of water, and I had to wait the million years it took his unfamiliar feet to carry him heavily out of the room. That’s how I know you have to wait for them to break the surface on their own; no use trying to reach down to pull them up.

Image by planet_fox from Pixabay

I do not always hold tight to that lesson: I do not always wait for my husband to surface. Maybe it’s because his legs and feet carry him wildly, not ploddingly like my brother or my daughter. They kick off the covers and leap him out of bed and into corners, where he makes wild digging motions in the laundry basket. I have no patience for his liars of legs, nor the rest of his sleepwalking body when I feel the unnatural lurch, the absolute failed attempt at moving like a human. I scowl and hiss at this strange version of him, whisper-shouting, stupidly, “wake up!” 

My older sister Kelly would get angry when I walked in my sleep, probably for the same reasons, though her troubles were doubled by another sleepwalking sibling. Think of an excited five-year-old (or an insouciant fourteen-year-old, or a tipsy twenty-four-year-old) in a toy aisle, pressing every “Press Here” in reach, the chorus of a purple dog barking and a plastic microphone belting “Let it Go” and a fart noise machine farting. It would be simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, a contained and temporary troublemaking. My little sister and I were the chorus of barking, singing, screeching, farting toys, our buttons pressed by our unconscious minds or maybe God or some dead relative with a sense of humor. At least that’s how I imagine it sounding. I wonder what it sounded like to Kelly, hearing the footsteps in the dark of two little kids who brought the daytime into the middle of the night. 

I’m a grownup now, and I don’t think I sleepwalk anymore. But once a dream came into my daylight and stayed there, which is maybe more of the same.  

I’d been a mother for probably three months. My daughter wasn’t a person yet, not really, just this body of big feelings. We had that not-quite-a-person thing in common. I didn’t know my own body: the stitches across my lower abdomen had dissolved, the scar a raised worm of a thing that felt numb when I accidentally touched it. There was no touch that didn’t feel like a demand, and there was no demand that didn’t feel deserved. This is what I’d given up, of course; this is what I would never get back: myself, my skin. I remember almost none of it.

Image by fujikama from Pixabay

I do remember this: one night I had a dream. We were home, in Chicago, and we were at a party. A good one, in one of those apartments where there are people tucked into all of the rooms, people you want to see, who make you laugh and give the good tight hugs of the newly grown up. Where you lean into somebody, where you feel warm and lifted and loved and yourself. When I remembered that we had brought our baby, the panic exploded within me. I’d left her in the bedroom with all of the coats and purses. I’d put her on the bed. I rushed into the room and started whipping away coats. I’d left her there, alone. She wasn’t there, I hadn’t found her yet. I kept throwing other peoples’ coats to the side, the pile never shrinking, my shriek stuck in silence. I was sweating and shaking; the pile was too big, too heavy, too much. She had been swallowed up, and I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t be held if I was holding her, and I had chosen me.

I woke before pulling away that last coat that covered her. A mercy.

But that dream didn’t stay in the realm of sleep. I carried it with me as though it had happened; there was no relief upon waking that there she was, fitfully sleeping in her crib, near about ready to wake up to eat. There was only the dull and accusatory lingering feeling of what I had done to her, as real as anything. The version of me who would let their own child be buried and the version of me who did not traded places that night, and in the haze of trying to separate sleep from wakefulness, I don’t always remember which one I am. 

Telling the story of that nightmare to a therapist was one of the most humiliating and necessary moments of my life. The unambiguity of its meanings, the hard edges of its lines, the cliché of myself sobbing about a tragedy my brain invented while my daughter, strapped into her car seat, sat sleeping through mommy’s mediation with herself, every privilege and peace in the universe still afforded to her. I unbuckled her right at that moment, pulled her close to me. I held her and I held her.  

And yet the act of telling didn’t shake me fully awake from the sleep of depression; years later, I’m still not sure that I’m all the way there. I told the story, and I’ve never had that nightmare again. I also have it with me all the time. I confessed my fears but my feet are still strangers, my legs still liars. 

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I keep walking all the same. 

I keep walking because my life among other sleepwalkers has taught me this at least: I can’t be shoved into wakefulness. Whisper-yelling or yelling-yelling until I snap to is only an exercise in frustration. It’s not the volume of a voice – even my own – that will reach me.

Besides, I am the sleepwalker and her angry anxious observer. Reaching down to pull myself up is an impossibility. How to pierce the surface while I wait for me to pierce the surface, patient for that moment when I learn better how to balance the work of holding and being held? So I keep walking, trusting that the direction is forward, or upward, or surface-ward, at least.     

I keep walking because my daughter is a little bit older now, sleepwalking less, and I’m hoping that she never carries the night into the daytime. That she never ever loses her awareness of the beautiful and necessary noise she makes in this world. 

If I keep walking toward wakefulness, I think, someday I will break into a run. I’ll be just like my dog, maybe: I’ll gallop in place, carry myself nowhere at all. Then: suddenly and gorgeously, I’ll break into the sharp welcome of day. 

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About the Author

Allison Fagan is an associate professor, a mother of three, and a proud former resident of Calumet City, Illinois. She studies and teaches Latinx and African American literatures at James Madison University, and you can find her academic work in journals including MELUS and Aztlán: A Journal of Chicano Studies as well as in her book, From the Edge: Chicana/o Border Literature and the Politics of Print (Rutgers University Press, 2016). She is beginning to share her personal essays in an effort to teach her children to be brave.

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