In the hallway, my mother held me while I sobbed. “I’m just so tired,” I said. “I can’t sleep, Mom. I’m so tired. You can’t even believe how tired I am.”
My Grandmother leaned over my mom and rubbed my back.
“She’s not feeling well,” my mom said. “I don’t know what it is.” Then she whispered, “Something is really wrong.”
Grammie said she was worried about the insomnia. “She’s up at all hours, typing all night long—I try to make her hot toddies but she won’t drink them.”
“I don’t know if I like the idea of giving her alcohol,” my mom said. “Maybe half a Halcion would help.”
I knew some of the residents of the nursing home took them from all the times I lined up and counted everyone’s medication bottles. I also knew my mother liked them almost as much as M*A*S*H and Jesus Christ. That one time I snuck one from her purse, it did help me. I couldn’t deny that. But now it was being discussed as something that would no longer have to be kept secret. How was I supposed to respond to that?
I rubbed the snot from my nose and said to my mom, “Maybe you’re right.” That felt weird. Secret things were all I knew: the embarrassment I thought I would die from if anyone found out about my obsession with Ethiopian hunger spreading to America and killing everyone in my family; how Gorbachev would let loose his missiles if I didn’t keep writing down song lyrics with the word war in them; my new way of shaving my legs hard and fast so that each bloody scrape along my shinbone represented one person in the world who wouldn’t succumb to famine or war.
Now the 8pm med round would include me and my sleeping pills. I’d wait like everyone else, ticking off the minutes until peace floated in as pure as a changeling through the window. I would get excited about shows that came on at six o’clock because that meant I only had two hours left—the evening news meant one hour—and so on. I would never again be able to associate the opening music to Punky Brewster with anything other than T-minus thirty minutes to blastoff.
At first it was easy. At first Halcion was gorgeous. All warm eclipses and moon breath. I would lie in my bed and wait for sleep to cover me. These weren’t the Bible flames I was used to, no Devil bombs being cast down to crush the skulls of the non-believers. These were slow blooming candle flowers. This was the word b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l lined up across the sky.
My pills actually gave me three days in a row of good sleep. I took a shower like a regular person, stayed out of the nurses office in school for a full week and completed all of my math homework. I even finished a long division quiz in class (only got a 46 percent but I finished it).
Then, just like that, the pills stopped working. I downed my little 8 o’clock half, laid in my bed with some Edgar Allan Poe or my taped reruns of Bewitched and waited for my fading.
“Sometimes they do that” my mom said, but more than half a pill was never offered.
One night, while waiting to see if my half pill—and the whole one I took from the medicine cabinet—would kick in, Marisol caught me coming out of the bathroom with my eyes all puffy and full of my familiar woe-is-me-will-this-ever-end tears. “Joo come here, honey.” She clutched my arm, sat me down on her bed, and told me all I needed was a giant gulp of Nyquil. “I never in my life have good rest with no somesing to help me.” She opened her nightstand drawer and pulled out an econo-size bottle of bright green slush. The light caught the liquid inside and made me think of magic trees and enchanted bugs. I took a long swig. Tinkerbell was all lit up in my mouth. Under my Strawberry Shortcake comforter I was a little flying thing—then a great big flying thing with my own wings and ambitions. A leaf sparkled from the ceiling then dripped into my face. I caught it under my eyelash then blinked it into two leaves, then ten, then a hundred. I did this until I couldn’t count anymore, until I was so smart and glowing you could have made a whole woodland poem out of me. One that you would eventually know by heart and want to hear again and again.
Pretty soon the only thing I wanted was Nyquil. One capful every night. Eight o’clock. I promised myself that this much happiness would have to stay at one capful, and only at bedtime, and even if I could divide fractions better with two capfuls I made myself say it out loud: “Only when it’s bedtime.”
Then I got a lead role in my sophomore class production of The Matchmaker and I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking or my stomach from turning or my throat from tightening every time I thought about passing out on stage.
It only took a week for me to change my mind about that one capful.
My only real panic attacks had been limited to a sharing circle in the sixth grade when someone threw a Lando Calrissian action figure at my face while I read a poem about my cat, and once at the Burger Pit with Mom and Grammie after realizing I had already eaten half my cheeseburger before noticing the middle of the meat patty was so uncooked even a zombie wouldn’t be okay with it. Running to the girl’s bathroom with Lando’s body indention bright red on my cheek, scampering under the restaurant table to hyperventilate and throw up in my napkin—it didn’t matter where I was or what circumstances had whipped me up into a panicky spaz, the attacks always began the same way: everything dark and shrinking, shadow gnomes laughing at me through the filthy periscope lens of my brain. Sometimes my whole body would tingle, sometimes only my chest and hands, but each time it was the tightness that would never let go. Like the whole of me had been wrapped in an Ace bandage. I could actually feel the valves in my heart open and close, my pulse spewing out my blood, taking it back.
In and out.
Hiss and growl.
They’re going to see you faint. They’ll know what a loser you are. When my dad found me in the bathroom of the condo he was now sharing with his girlfriend, I was breathing into the paper bag I carried around in my purse.
“What’s this all about?”
“I feel so sick,” I answered. “My burrito tasted funny. Did yours taste funny?”
Ask questions. Take the eyes off you. Say something clever.
“I think Mexicans are in some sort of conspiracy to spread diarrhea to everyone in all bordering states.”
He laughed a little, but I could tell he didn’t believe me. When you’re used to falling apart, you start to get really good at that sort of acting.