Wake up sharp in the night and listen to the night spin, sky staring. What is it about the night that can make doubts whirl, can make the impossible simple and the simple, impossible? Out of town on a spring night, the house less familiar in the dark, the creaks and groans all different and alarming, the battering of the refrigerator grinding to life like the sound of a drunk sorting rocks in a wheelbarrow.
Full moon up and yelling, the light bright silver on the water while occasional iceblocks cast long, matte-black shadows that look as though the water actually stops for a moment and leaves a hole.
Down in the yard, last winter’s dead grass stretches all in the same direction like some earthen comb-over, straight lines pulled taut and then pressed down in place by the now-forgotten snow.
What is it about the night that so deeply changes how you look at things? Not the early night, when the windows are black eyes looking in but the yellow of the lights in the rooms is still spilling outside like a party spreading to new rooms. No, the later night, the long-breathing night, the night that is you, absolutely alone no matter how many people are nearby, all of them bed-zombies, breathing slow, breathing the oblivious in-and-out of sleep.
I used to think I’d get over it. When I was really young, I thought I’d wake up one day — or more to the point, go to bed one night — and have any scattered moment of being awake be exactly like it would be in the full light of day. All things essentially rational, all progress understandable, everything stretching ahead in an order that could at least be understood when looked at in reverse, and also that could be fathomed with some success, looking forward. When I was little, I thought it would all change when I was finally big, that, somehow, I’d be infused with all the strengths I imagined my parents or older brother already had.
Like there was some kind of drawn line I’d get to cross: I never saw my father afraid. My mother either, though I saw her gimlet-eyed and aware and ready for the battles, real and imagined, that she saw coming on every horizon.
Later, once I had kids of my own, I realized how much of that was bravado — no, perhaps not bravado, but at least a brave face to make sure that no one else has to be afraid. And still I thought that it would pass, that, with enough nights in, I would realize once and for all that the night was a darker version of the day and nothing more.
I’m still looking for that drawn line, though, if anything, I’m a bit more resigned. And I’m not even sure I would cross it, given the choice I no longer worry that the nightmares and the worries that 2 a.m. is so skilled at weaving will come — I know they will, I expect them, and sometimes, when I lie awake and worry about everything right down to where my kids will be five years from now, I force my self to breathe deeply, slowly, as if I can fool my body into thinking it’s asleep.
The big joke, though, is probably something I played on myself. I never asked my parents if they were afraid, or, if they were, what it was they were afraid of. I know, as a parent, I have looked out their eyes, saw my children the way my parents saw me, and realized that their nights, their worrying nights, were probably not that much different than my own.
Because I never asked, I decided arbitrarily that there must be a point when doubt and fear would stop.
I’ve never found that line, no matter how much I was waiting for it as a kid.
They say that the death of fear is twinned with the death of hope. Perhaps, if you can’t imagine in the dark, you can’t imagine in the light, either.
I’m not sure — not absolutely sure — that I’d want to lose one of them if it meant losing the other, too.
You pay a price for all things, whether you’re willing to admit it or not.
The price of my days is my nights. Not every night, not most nights, but enough.
The full moon bends through the sky, the moonlight shadows walk, and all things shift with barely perceptible sounds. Occasionally I am astoundingly alert, shot through with dreams and noises I may or may not have actually heard, that I may have imagined, and I vibrate like a string plucked.
Packed with boiling, seething something. Holding my breath. Or counting a counting-house worth of doubts.
Hello, 2 a.m., my old acquaintance. I see you’ve worn your usual clothes.
Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.