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Only the Drunk Can Sleep

Only the Drunk Can Sleep

This piece by Maggie Hill appeared in Issue 1 of The Lakeshore Review.

My husband and I are amazed we’re still together. Eleven years. The longest decade of my life, so far. Except maybe for the next ten years. Sometimes I look at him and think, what was I thinking? 

He has his moments. Sometimes when I see other husbands and how they act, I tell myself to count my blessings. Doesn’t really work for me, though. If I was married to one of those husbands, one of us would be dead. 

There are some marriages where it’s all about one of them. It’s usually the husband, but I’ve seen enough all-about-hers in my time. Carnie’s marriage was all about Gus. They moved to New York because of Gus. They live in Long Island now because Gus wanted to live in the suburbs. All arrangements for social functions have to be run by Gus first. Money has to be gotten from, and budgeted by, Gus. 

I have to be really drunk, or have the promise of getting really drunk, to hang out with Carnie and Gus together, like as a couple, like without kids around, like adults. A few drinks in, I’m usually getting signals from my husband to stop antagonizing Gus. If I was a guy, I’d be a prick. But I’m a woman, so I’m a bitch. Really, I’m just a drunk. My body takes to booze the same way those plants do that suddenly come fully alive with a few drops of water. I bloom after a drink. 

Carnie and I met in the hospital on the day we both had our first children. I had my son in the morning; she had her daughter at night. I had a regular childbirth, after hours of epic grunting and pushing. She had a C-section, after hours of the same. I was still stunned twelve hours later. She was unconscious when they wheeled her into the room. 

In the middle of the night, she woke up and said to no one in particular: “Shit.” Her voice sounded like the good witch in The Wizard of Oz, or like Marilyn Monroe singing Happy Birthday Mr. Pres-i-dent. It tinkled. I said, “Want a lollipop?” wanting to share the secret of how my life was saved almost one day ago. 

“Oh, yes, God, please,” she crooned. 

Then she whittled the word—shit—hundreds more times between licks. I fell asleep, like a child being read a fairy tale. 

The first months of taking care of an infant, Carnie saved my life. I thought of her when I was up breast feeding at 3 a.m., watching ancient episodes of Ben Casey, followed by Dr. Kildare. Followed, on unusually long and cranky nights, by The Twilight Zone. Once or twice during those first few months, I even saw the first half hour of Bonanza. All the time rocking in the uncomfortable cane rocker, soothing a slow-to-burp baby. Wishing I could sleep, wishing I was drunk. 

When I thought I couldn’t take it anymore, I’d think of Carnie because I knew she had the exact same time on the job as I had. She’d call late in the morning, and say, “What did you watch last night?” It wasn’t her conversation that lightened me up, so much as that insane voice. She could say, “What the fuck was he thinking?” about something Gus did, and it would sound like, “Long ago, in a kingdom far away…” My infant motherhood felt like tightly strung wires across my chest. Her daily princess voice wrapped itself underneath them in thick, cushy velour. 

Her apartment was a wreck; there were dishes in the sink up to the faucet, beds were unmade, magazines and newspapers strewn over every table and chair in the living room. She was always in the middle of making a party-size batch of moussaka or pastichio. The place smelled great, the baby was delightful, and Carnie rarely changed out of her pajamas. Gus was “incredibly” busy at work, so Carnie spent most days and nights alone with baby Cristina. She was gorgeously content. 

I was always jangled up. One part of me was just getting into the swing of motherhood. The schedule was easing up a bit, my son was showing early signs of genius by doing the incredible sleeping-through-the-night feat, and I had taken to the rhythms of slow morning preparations, then taking brisk walks in the fresh air as baby napped. I especially loved walking around during the weekdays pushing the stroller, feeling calm and in control of things. The streets were quieter and cleaner during the week; even the light seemed gentler, more bathing than illuminating. When the baby was asleep, I eased up on the walking speed, and simply meandered. It was my own lullaby to myself. I couldn’t wait to get back to work. 

Once in awhile, on two hours sleep, I found myself outside the big apartment building where Carnie lived. I’d park the stroller, pick up the baby, ring the bell, pop up to the third floor for a visit. She was always home and had no plans, ever, of going back to work. She’d be a mess, hair uncombed, rank pajama shirt, sweatpants, dullish cast to her face because she hadn’t washed yet. 

I usually had on a matching outfit, mascara, and neatly pulled back hair. Back at my apartment, the dishes were put away, bed made, living room sofa cushions plumped and staged at a casual angle. I enjoyed my efficiency. 

Carnie enjoyed her baby. They played constantly, cooing at each other every time they caught each other’s eye. Yet, she was careless with the baby. She’d place her down on the sofa and turn away from her, dipping into a laundry basket to half-heartedly fold a shirt, or gather together a bunch of newspapers on the floor. She didn’t place one hand on the baby to keep her in place, just in case. There were a couple of close calls. One time I ran out of there, swearing I’d have a heart attack if I witnessed one more disorganized threat to the baby’s life. 

I stopped hanging out with Carnie because of Gus, though. Seriously, he was such a controlling husband that it wasn’t good for me, or my marriage, to be around him. I always wanted to take him down, wrestle him out of his self-satisfaction, kick his smug ass. Then my husband would turn it around to my drinking, my attitude, my problem. See, in my marriage, it’s not about anybody. It’s just about staying alive, every man for himself, and now every flaw highlighted by a perfect miniature human whose eyes must have seen God recently. 

* * *

We’re here at the cemetery, about 25 of us, huddled inside a patch of shade created by two maple trees wrapped around each other. There are no shadows because this shade is complete; no sun peeks through a leaf, no opening in the trunk bends a slant of light our way. Outside of this patch, it is broad daylight, brilliantly lit, high noon. I can see it, as if I were viewing it on high definition television, right past the ruffled boundary line created by the umbrella of curving trees. None of us, the 25 of us, are part of that day. 

I am standing to the right and a few feet behind Carnie’s husband, who is at the center of this gathering. Though some would say—myself among them—that it’s Carnie’s mother who is the most aggrieved, I have chosen to stand behind Gus. Carnie would have liked that. My husband and children are surrounding me, creating a right flank for Gus. Another of Carnie’s friends, an easygoing woman, moves into position with her daughter on the left side, slightly behind Gus. She and I exchange information-packed eye contact for the briefest of moments, a blink, an eyelash tickle. I imagine she is now looking as resolutely forward as I am, waiting for the Greek priest to arrive and begin the ceremony.

The morning Carnie called me to tell me the results of her tests, I didn’t tell her that I forgot she was even in the hospital. Each day was a recreation of what happened the day before. I knew, vaguely, that she was following through on some mysterious pains in her legs. She had told me about the pains, and I had said, “Go see a doctor, already. Get the thing figured out.” That was back in January. 

I hadn’t seen her in about six months and when she came to visit in early April with her kids, she still hadn’t gone to the doctor. I sent the kids into the yard and sat with her on my sofa in the sunless living room. 

“Carnie, I have to tell you this,” I said. “You look really bad.” She looked like someone had made her up in shadows, but overdid the glisten on the stretched skin of her cheekbones. 

“Oh, I know, I didn’t get a good night’s sleep,” she said, straining to put the bright back in her eyes. I recognized the signs, I wouldn’t be fooled. It isn’t only the drunk who can sleep all night and wake up horrified. 

“Come on,” I said. “What’s going on.” I braced myself to hear anything, because of Gus. He wasn’t a serial killer, or a wife beater, or anything you could point to exactly. There was just something about him, something that accumulated as you got to know him. 

“Honey, I still have that pain in my legs at night. I know, I know, I should go to the doctor. I want to. I will. I’m going to,” she said. 

I got up, got the phone, handed it to her. “Not now,” she laughed. “I’ll call as soon as I get home. I promise.” 

“Tell me about the pains. What are they like?”

“They’re like stabbing pains, and they go up and down my legs. Sometimes my muscles feel cramped, like I’ll get a charley horse but it feels like needles, knives, it’s sharp.” Her legs were slender, hairy. I briefly wondered when why she wasn’t shaving or waxing. 

“Does your back hurt? Sounds like sciatica, you know it can send shooting pains down your legs.” 

“No my back is fine, but maybe I should go see a chiropractor.” She had taken on the same determined look I was giving her. Her shoulders were too close to her body, as if they couldn’t wing back. It was as though she were holding herself braced against being shoved by some unknown force. She seemed frozen. 

“Go to a chiropractor, too. But definitely go see a regular medical doctor and find out what the hell is hurting you. It’s ridiculous! All this time and you could be on the mend already.” 

“You’re right,” Carnie said. She took a deep breath and tried to adjust her posture. She couldn’t. “I just have to take care of this. I have been doing everything else, just hoping it would go away. Okay. Right. I’m going to take care of this right away.” She didn’t sound like herself; she sounded tough, impatient, with a tinge of fuck-you in her voice. She sounded like me. 

A few weeks later, when she called me from the hospital, I realized I hadn’t spoken to her, probably since her visit. We’d been in the drifting away phase of our friendship for couple of years. So her calling me that night meant she was really calling to me. I knew she needed me to be regular, calm, when she told me it was cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Whatever that was. 

Where is the priest? We’re all in place. No one is talking, and we’re all looking expectantly at the pearly white, marble-veined headstone. This cemetery is lush, with arbors surrounding each and every one of the uniquely designed headstones. On the way here, we passed horse farms and entrance gates to fabulous mansions, miles apart from each other. 

Carnie’s headstone looks elegant in this shaded arbor. Her name is tastefully carved, in clear block letters:


Just under the birth/death years lay a simple flower whose petals splay out from the stone, in miniature bas relief. Gus ordered an epigraph, several inches above the name, in lower-case italics: 

Like double cherrie pie

That’s it. It looks like it’s missing punctuation. The phrase means nothing to me. I am pretending that I think it’s cool, and that I know where it’s from—it has to be a song, right? I can feel myself nodding my head at Gus, looking at him with blank, palpable sympathy. I am literally willing my face to exude warmth and wisdom. In truth, I am so aggravated that the marble carver spelled cherry wrong that I feel my eyelids chafing each time I scan the gorgeous arbor and the cold white headstone and the TV day 30 feet away from us. I would like to lay down right here and go to sleep. 

We were just here a month ago. Some had come from other states, other countries even, and are now gone home. This is a Greek custom, or a religious practice, of gathering a month later to say—what?—let’s celebrate the headstone? I’m going along for the sake of the tradition. We are here because it’s for Carnie. Really for Carnie’s mother and father, whose grief craves ceremony. 

Gus has done all the arranging—the headstone is in place, the feast is ready, the tables set back at the house, the guests accommodated in various rooms in the basement and on the main bedroom floor. He has maintained his successful career, and has continued to work through all of this—all of it. Eight and a half months in total, a lifetime of suffering, and who can count how many junk bonds he brokered during this time. He bought two spanking new cars, on the same day—a Mercedes and a BMW SUV—one for him, one for Carnie. The day he brought the cars home, one at a time, Carnie’s doctors, really the pain management consultants, were counseling her to go home and make her final arrangements. 

We were, Carnie’s friends, her team, desperately researching everything we could find, to continue fighting. We visited every conceivable site on the Internet, applied for any and all alternative or experimental treatments and did not eliminate a single one due to its risk factors, called and interviewed people who had survived this disease from leads found in the small print of testimonials addended to remote documents buried deep in the literature we had amassed. No stone would be dug in the ground if we had our way. Eureka! We were successful! We found a place in Houston where amazing results were being achieved! Carnie, slaphappy on morphine, instructed us to make all the arrangements—she was going to Texas! 

She ended up staying at Sloan. One night, my scheduled night to sleep over, Carnie had what the team called a “shake and bake” reaction to the medicines. Her body shook in ways that didn’t seem corporal, as if something inside her was spinning, causing her legs and arms to flail. One nurse lay across her legs to steady them. I lay across her torso, my head on the pillow facedown beside her, trying to command her convulsing body to stop. Her temperature rose to 104, melting the water right out of her. Every piece of cloth in, on, and around the bed had to be changed when it was over. I’ve never seen anything like it. 

What did we do when it was over? How did we move from this febrile violence, to one monster conversation after another? Our philosophies about life, death, marriage came shaking, truthfully, out of us. Carnie was wise; she knew a lot about marriage—about normal marriage, not the clear victim-clear wrongdoer, he-beats-you or you-cheat-on-him scenarios. In the normal course of loving, to be fair, we agreed that both men and women do not automatically know how to be good spouses. It’s a trial and error thing, with a lot of pushing and shoving along the way. In the bad cases, there’s a lot of holding back, or holding out. In the absolute worst cases, there is shutdown or indifference or both. She knew exactly, all the time, who her husband was; she knew what he needed, and she knew what to give him. Her generosity overwhelmed me. Her acceptance humbled me. 

Gus would drop Carnie off for treatment, but it was she who made arrangements for one friend or another to be with her. He never stayed overnight with her in the hospital. Or sat outside during full-body irradiation talking to her over an intercom because she had to be alone in the room during these intense, daily nuclear barrages. He went to a Sting concert on the first day of Carnie’s reverse isolation—when visitors had to don a mask and gown to be in her room. He had bought them online the week before. She had encouraged him to go. 

I tried to follow Carnie’s lead, and take the high road, looking up, out, and forward to what was most important: her beating this thing. It galled me, how Gus was not expected to be anything more than what he was. Why did I have to stretch myself so far from who I am, if he didn’t have to? The answer was flat, with a surface as smooth as stone: Because that’s how it is. 

Gus’s behavior led to a number of fights with my husband. I’d be aghast with something Gus had not done, and my husband would try to see the relative logic in his actions. We’d start out having an intellectual, what-if conversation about what one does when their partner is quite ill, dying even, and it would end in emotional outbursts (me) and infuriated frustration at being compared to “that jackass” or lumped into the broader category of “all men” (him). There isn’t enough make-up sex in the world to justify those arguments. 

Now Gus stands alone, spaced a few feet ahead of us. His head is bent, as it always is because most people are shorter than him. I will idealize his situation, embrace him in sympathy, a man who just lost his beautiful young wife, left alone to raise two children. I will indulge him. 

The priest is shaking Gus’s hand, with one hand squeezing his shoulder. I stare at the headstone—Like double cherrie pie—and squeeze my cheeks between my back teeth so I can bite them. Nothing is in my control. Besides, really, how important is it? It is what it is. 

I am reluctant to go. I know that I will never come back here, and that when I turn to leave, that’s that. I’m not a cemetery visitor. I linger even after Gus leaves, asking me, no, telling me, that we are coming back to the house. I assure him that, of course, we are. 

My husband has moved my children to the daylight and is walking slowly, calmly with them, arms around each, so at home in his fatherhood. I love him. I love him. Inside her shaded arbor, with her misspelled headstone, and no other grave occupying the space, I say goodbye to Carnie and ask her forgiveness for all the things I will do wrong in the next 20 years. I tell her I will be there for her children if they reach out for me. But I am saying goodbye to her husband, and in doing that, I know that I’m also saying goodbye to her children. “I can’t submit,” I tell her. That’s how it is.