Day to Night
When I was fifteen, my suburban Pennsylvania high school hosted a fundraiser in the form of a 24-hour dance marathon. They wanted to raise money for diabetes research—or maybe it was cancer?—but that was not the part that seized my attention. For me—a nervous, religious teenager who was just beginning to push against her own prudishness—the appeal lay in the idea of staying up all night, or rather of having no choice but to stay up all night. From noon on Saturday until noon on Sunday, we would have to dance—to raise money, yes, to help people with diabetes or cancer, sure, but also to take the control of our bodies into our own hands, be puppet and puppeteer both.
I had been entranced with the velvety mystery of all-nighter since childhood, when I’d stay up past midnight to read by the bathroom nightlight. We had no pets or insomniacs, and so the house’s stillness was absolute besides my own shuffling form. Outside, the shadowy pit of our lawn was striped with moonlight, and, kneeling on the toilet seat, I’d press my face against the chilly windowpane to see how silver and darkness altered that familiar terrain. There were also the strange hours I saw when gripped with illness, or night terrors: the two a.m. through fever, the four-thirty in the morning crouched over the sour haze of vomit in a miniature plastic garbage can, the unknown hour during which I’d been ripped from a nightmare and was too paralyzed to even tilt my head to look at the clock.
Sleepovers with friends, when they happened, became a way of learning the late-night landscape of other people’s houses—the dark gaps of doorway into unknown rooms, the peculiar details of strangers’ carpets, whispered conversations that slowed down by the minute, sleep, and then dawn. By my teenage years, I could, in a way, piece together these individual fragments into a single, patchwork all-nighter.
But I had never been awake during those hours while moving, or in public, or both. A dance marathon seemed wild, wonderful—hadn’t people jitterbugged and Lindy-hopped and twirled and slouched their way through dance marathons during the Great Depression? Didn’t they do the Charleston until they’d won money or fainted dead away?
On the afternoon the dance began, English and chemistry and P.E. instructors and vice principals all stood cross-armed in a semicircle around the cafeteria, like spectators in a gladiatorial contest. It was here that the veil between faculty and students was the thinnest, those weekend hours when we were each temporarily released from our identities. The teachers were there not in their capacity as teachers—instead, they were dressed casually, comfortably, watching with the sort of glazed disinterest you’d probably see on their faces while they watched TV and sipped from giant glasses of Chardonnay in their living rooms.
And we, the students, we danced. At first, we had real energy, and the DJ’s music kept us going through the afternoon light. Around dinnertime, we flagged a little, as if we only then understood the monumental task ahead of us. But once the sun set, we caught a second wind, as if our bodies now recognized the night and the music both, and reached for that school-dance feeling.
When the hours persisted, the slumps of exhaustion returned, greater than before. If they noticed signs of rest—slackness, nodding off—judges could tap participants on the shoulder, and then they had to leave the dance floor and the building. I bounced from foot to foot. I windmilled my arms forward and back. I bobbed my head and shook my hips and imagined marionette strings tugging at my joints. I was determined to avoid their gaze, their judgment, the terrible shoulder-tap that could send me home.
Every ninety minutes, we were given a ten-minute break. For some of these periods, I stood with other girls in front of the bathroom mirror and slapped my face until it stung. For others, I slid into a booth at the edge of the cafeteria and lay my head down, allowing myself the sort of surreal catnap—wherein one did not so much rest as lose time entirely—that would later become a staple of my college years.
By two in the morning, I was becoming familiar with the physicality of the all-nighter: the exhaustion that wreathes your spine and leaves you nauseated, the ache that mounts behind your eyelids. As this fatigue-creature climbed onto my back and refused to leave, I sat down for one of our breaks across the table from a girl named Allison Beech.
Once—many years before, when we’d both been children, still—Allison and I had been friends, or something like it. We had the same teachers, and went to the same church. We’d written a musical around Amy Grant’s Heart in Motion , acted out in her basement. And she’d once given me a makeover that straddled the line between middle-aged divorcée and demented clown, though whether the makeup’s caking and color were on purpose or accidental I’d never exactly known. We hadn’t had a real conversation in years, but now she sat there, serious. She didn’t look tired at all—or if she did, it was with a world-weary glamour that wouldn’t have been out of place with the stem of a martini glass pinched between her fingers.
“Do you know anything about blow jobs?” she asked me.
I blinked and rubbed my fingers on the linoleum table, meditating on the question. Unable to come up with a suitable lie, I shook my head. There was little I knew less about than blow jobs.
Her hair was chestnut-brown and glossy, like a horse. She swirled her ponytail into a tight, gleaming rope and released it.
“Here’s some advice,” she said. She leaned so close to me I could smell her Big Red gum. “It’s rude to spit it out. Unless you’re in a hot tub, and the guy won’t notice you doing it.”
Years later, I would revisit this conversation in my memory, with friends, even in fiction. Years later, I would be able to sit on this exchange and unpack it—its humor, weirdness, and sadness, this being the final convergence between us before we spun into our respective orbits.
But then, with a teacher shouting that there was only a minute until we had to start moving again, I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know what question to ask first. Why was she telling me this? Why now? Where’s the blowing part? Does your head go under the water in the hot tub? The hot water? The scalding water? Spit out what?
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. That makes sense.”
She nodded, satisfied, and then stood up and walked into the expanding crowd.
I returned to the dance floor and started up again. This new information, about which I knew not what to do, clattered around in my head. The songs changed, and changed, and I bounced and swung and tried to knock that fatigue-creature off my back. I’m a-WAKE , I said in my head, a mantra. I’m a-WAKE I’m a-WAKE I’m a-WAKE. People were tapped on the shoulder and sent away, but not me.
By noon on Sunday, the marathon was down to seven students, including me, and a dance-off was used to pick the winner. When my turn came, I tugged my long hair out of its ponytail and closed my eyes. I didn’t know the song—a hip-hop number whose beat I can feel but whose identity is lost to me—but I began to move anyway.
In retrospect, my dance was probably little more than contrapposto mixed with wiggling, the sort of dancing I did in my room, flipping my head from side to side and making sex eyes at myself in the mirror before bounding away from my reflection like a startled deer. But in that moment, I felt astonishing. I was a live wire. I was a performer! For the first time in my whole life, dozens of sets of eyes watched me. Had no choice but to watch me.
After I lost, my father would come and pick me up. I would go home and take a bath and fall asleep in the tub, waking up an hour later with the water chilled around me and my mother banging on the locked bathroom door, certain I’d drowned. I’d discover I’d hurt my knee from all the dancing and hop around on crutches for a while, developing half-moons of raw skin underneath my arms where their cushions rocked against my body. I’d see Allison at school, but never know what to say to her, or if I should say anything at all.
But what I would remember more than anything, long into my own future, is the way the world outside the cafeteria was transformed. There was darkness behind the tall glass windows. Where you could, during the school day, see the curving expanse of trees and hills behind the building, or the tundra of the parking lot, there were now cars bathed in tungsten light, and on the other side, nothing but darkness.
In college, and the few years afterwards, I stayed up all night for the reasons you’d expect, and more besides: to finish papers about female political leaders and photography theory and Lucille Clifton; to talk to friends about dating or school or other friends; because I was crying, or because someone else was; to marathon Firefly or The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air with my roommate; to walk through the flat-lit fluorescent aisles of grocery stores, the interior lights of the freezers illuminating as they sensed my passing; to play truth-or-dare with a friend, leaving notes for strangers and running the length of our dorm halls; to wait until the campus McDonald’s opened, so I could eat a biscuit sandwich on a concrete barrier and drink steaming coffee water; to be there to open up the store for Black Friday customers; to get in extra hours in the darkroom; to sleep with men and women I only sometimes trusted.
“What peaches, and what penumbras,” Ginsburg exclaimed in his poem “A Supermarket in California” thirty years before my birth. When I first read it, I assumed a penumbra was a fruit unknown to me. It sounded full and crisp, like a cross between cucumber and plum, maybe, a mouthful of water and blunted sweetness. Later, I looked it up: It is a partial shadow cast by the earth as the moon loops around us; the slight dimming of its luminescence before a full, blood-red lunar eclipse. To me, this poem is the Platonic form of the all-nighter: the oddness of a late-night supermarket, a lonely wandering through the witching hour, observations about the shadows and streets, the return to a house still with pre-dawn, and a trickster Walt Whitman hovering at the periphery. The gradual loosening of rules and reality as one descends into the deepest shadow.
Ordinary sleep bookends waking: Eight hours of slumber lops off the end of one day and births another. But late-night, all-night, is liminal; it is interstitial; it is duty-free. It is time travel. It’s a space where you don’t belong. Like a journey through the underworld, it is removed from reality, aside from it, a footnote; anything can happen there, and whatever happens there can be remembered or forgotten at will. And on the other end, you are spat back into the land of the living. Whether or not you drank from the River Lethe—well, that was your choice, wasn’t it?
Night to Day
In graduate school, I tumbled together with a woman who made me laugh and weep in turn. She was gorgeous and jealous and adoring and cruel, though not all at first, and never all at once. Our relationship was a living manifestation of the anecdote about boiling a frog in water—which she took more as advice than warning. A few months in, I was cooking in a beaker with a thin smile on my face.
One fall—our only fall—I drove from Iowa to Connecticut to meet her at the Harvard-Yale football game. It was a favorite tradition of hers, and she’d flown there for the occasion, but we needed to be back in Indiana, where she lived, by Monday.
And so after a day of autumn chill and flask-sips and people in furs and expensive bottles of champagne rolling around on the muddy ground like Budweiser cans, we slept hard in an uncomfortable hotel bed. The next afternoon—after delays, and brunch with her friends, and more delays—we prepared to leave. She was a reckless driver, and had been as long as I’d known her, so I got behind the wheel of my car without asking.
We pulled away from New Haven alternating between Beyoncé, conversation, and silence. We scooted down through Connecticut and New York. In Pennsylvania, the light dropped away early, and rain glossed the pavement. Somewhere in the middle of this state, the one I’d grown up in—its endless, hilly length—she stopped midway through a sentence. “Why won’t you let me drive?” she asked. Her voice was controlled, measured, like a dog whose tail has gone rigid; nothing was happening, but something was wrong.
“I, just—I’m okay driving,” I said, dread coalescing between my shoulder blades.
“You’re tired,” she said. “Too tired to drive.”
“I’m not,” I said, and I wasn’t.
“You’re too tired, and you’re going to kill us,” she said. The timbre of her voice hadn’t changed. “You hate me. You want me to die.”
“I don’t hate you,” I said. “I don’t want you to die.”
“You hate me ,” she said, her voice going up half an octave with every syllable. “You’re going to kill us and you don’t even care, you selfish bitch.”
“You selfish bitch. ” She began to pound the dashboard. “You selfish bitch, you selfish bitch, you selfish—”
I pulled off at the next exit, and parked at a gas station. She threw open the passenger door even before the car stopped moving, and stalked around the parking lot like a teenage boy who is trying to cool down before punching a wall. I sat in the driver’s seat, watching her pace. The urge to cry was present, but far off, like I was high. When she started walking back toward the car, her eyes fixed on my face, I hastily unbuckled my seatbelt and ran to the passenger seat. I didn’t want her to leave without me, and I wasn’t sure that she wouldn’t.
We drove, framed by the wet, dark mountains. I remembered coming through Pennsylvania near Christmas the year before and seeing eighteen-wheelers overturned on the side of these same roads—their engine blocks blackened by extinguished fires—and cars, too, on the highway’s shoulder, casually burning. She went eighty, ninety miles per hour, and I had to look away from the climbing needle. The shadowy shapes of deer passed in front of us through the curtains of rain. I am going to die, I thought. I prayed for a cop to pull us over, watched the side mirror for blue-and-red lights that never appeared. I clutched the door when she accelerated, or when the car whipped weightlessly over a hill. “Stop that,” she’d say, and go even faster. “Sleep,” she commanded, but I could not sleep.
Midnight came. We entered Ohio, a state that I’d always found terrifically boring to drive across, but now my adrenaline—which I was sure would run out eventually, though it hadn’t yet—made my hands tremble on my lap. We drove past dead animals by the dozens: raccoons blasted apart by speeding tires, deer whose muscular animal bodies were contorted like fallen dancers.
The rain slowed, then stopped, and we entered Indiana.
In the final stretch, as we left the main highway and took a two-lane country road south to Bloomington, the car began to yawn to the left, kissing the double line, surpassing it, and then to the right, where the door passed within inches of a metal barrier. When I looked over, the back of her skull was touching the headrest, her eyes closed. I barked her name, and the car righted itself.
“Now you’re too tired,” I said. “You’re falling asleep. Please, let me do this final stretch. We’re almost there.” I had never been so awake.
“I’m fine,” she said. “My body is my bitch. I can make it do whatever I want.”
“Please, please pull over.”
She curled her lip, but didn’t say anything else, and didn’t stop. Every so often, the car would swerve drunkenly. We passed a religious billboard that asked me if I knew where I’d go after death. In full daylight, this sort of manipulative propaganda would make me roll my eyes. But now, it tugged on some old, childhood fear, and I whimpered and then tried to swallow the sound.
When I first came to Bloomington—when I’d helped her find her little house that abutted a golf course at the edge of town—I remember how bright it was. It was late spring, and the trees were electric, new-growth neon green. Now the leaves burned reds and oranges, and brown ones spiraled away from the branches. The season was dying and we were dying and I was going to die, I was certain, this night.
We pulled into her driveway around four in the morning and sat there in silence. I felt like I was going to throw up. The leaves dropped onto the car’s roof and the wind snatched them away with a papery scrape. Finally she reached down to unbuckle her seatbelt, but I was watching the lawn. Two dark shapes were crossing it: like dogs, but not. It would have been a lovely sight at any time, but in contrast to this night’s terrors it was so beautiful my face tingled.
“Look,” I said softly, pointing.
She started, as if I’d struck her.
“Fuck you,” she said. She leaned toward me and spoke directly into my ear. “You say ‘look’ without saying anything else, I think you’re fucking pointing out someone who’s going to fucking kill us. It’s the middle of the night. What the fuck is wrong with you?” She kicked open the car door; the coyotes bolted for the trees. I watched her stomp inside. Her vignette was thrown up against a series of illuminated windows—the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom—and then all the lights went out.
I got out of the car and sat against the side of the house, putting my winter coat on backwards like a smock. The coyotes came back, after a while, trotting casually across the lawn. Deer, too, and foxes, all paying me no mind, as if I was part of the scenery, as if I wasn’t there at all.
I could have gone to bed . Or, I could have sat at the table in the kitchen and watched the scene from behind the windowpane, but that, I thought, would be like putting this night in a museum—removed, too-soon forgotten. I wanted to experience it. Sit with this , I thought. Don’t forget this is happening. Tomorrow, you will probably push this away. But here, remember.
My butt went numb in the ice-cold grass. The lawn was a theater of wildlife. My little car, stalwart as any stallion in a story, sat silent and bright in the driveway, finally cooling down after her long drive. Birds tittered early-morning Morse code from the trees. A gaggle of drunk students crested the hill at the edge of the golf course and stood there looking at me—perhaps believing me to be a ghost—before shuffling down onto the street. “Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love,” Ginsburg wrote, “past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?”
And in the same way that the wrist rotates faster when the door latch is about to release, and, I imagine, the way a knife twists before it’s pulled from where it’s landed, the pre-dawn night sped up a little just before the day came. And though it would not be until just before the summer solstice when I’d be free from this woman, though I would spend the season’s precipitous drop into darkness alongside her, on this morning, light seeped into the sky and I was present with my body and mind and I did not forget. I have not forgotten, still.
In the morning, the woman who made me ill with fear brewed a pot of coffee like nothing had happened. And, as if I’d slept, my day started all over again.