by Isabel Murray
To be betrayed by one’s body is perhaps one of the vagaries of female experience. From a young age I learned that it was better to be small than large, lighter rather than darker, poised and silent rather than and loud and wanton. The subsequent years have resulted in efforts to corral my body and disposition into pleasing acceptability, despite the latter’s ceaseless attempts thwart my efforts. At my Methodist nursery school, I was a swarthy toddler in a sea of towheads of invariably Scandinavian extraction. The advent of middle school hastened a smattering of pimples across the bridge of my nose and forehead. I learned words like “sebum,” “salicylic acid,” and “benzoyl peroxide”, and developed a “skin-care routine” (thanks Proactiv Solution). For the four years the coincided with college, the hormonal oil slick that had taken up permanent residence on my face during adolescence receded. Undaunted by the vat of beer I was imbibing three to four nights a week and the ubiquitous mozz sticks that formed the bottom of my personal food pyramid, I embarked on a dogged pursuit of being sylph-like and untroubled both in countenance and appearance. I would be effortless. Breezy. Plausibly French.
Three-and-a-half years out of college, I have continued this project with variable success. But approaching my mid-twenties, I have became aware of barely perceptible shifts in my appearance. The crone of old age is hardly knocking on my door, but mothers now tell their children to refer to me as a “lady” rather than a “girl.” My hangovers are debilitating all-day affairs and recently two thin lines have developed on either side of my mouth like maddening parentheses. These days, I often times think of my great-grandmother who, in lieu of laughing and acquiring the resultant lines, would form her mouth into a neat “o” and emit a high-pitched and owly hoot. In this spirit, I pile on cheap cold cream at night, more empty gesture than anything else. It’s an easy talisman, a bushel of garlic to ward off the vampiric specter of aging. I know this is ridiculous; I am very, very young. This exercise has as much to do with my vanity as it does my desire to affect a Faye-Dunaway-as-Joan-Crawford-in-Mommie–Dearest look before bed. It’s nice to feel as though one has a modicum of control in a world dominated by relentless chaos, inscrutability, and despair. This scaffolding of propriety collapses, however, when I sleep.
I am a disgusting sleeper. I know this despite the impossibility of ever witnessing myself sleep. I know I am a disgusting sleeper because I often wake up in a veritable Hoover Dam of saliva on my pillow. I know I am a disgusting sleeper because my sister has taken pictures of me while I’ve slept (a personal favorite is one of me in a blue bikini splayed on a bed. I’m indulging in a post-lunch snooze, mouth agog. She titled it “partied 2 hard” and snapchatted it to fifty people.)
I know I am a disgusting sleeper because I’ve witnessed the angelic slumber of my female friends who are able, in their somnolent state, to remain almost rigidly still. Most of them look beautiful, as if crystallized mid-swoon, their lips slightly parted, their hair mussed but untangled. If I were to place a feather underneath their noses, their breaths would hardly disturb a bristle. The other night, after consuming several glasses of red wine, I collapsed into bed of my best friend. I sensed the weight of her body as she gingerly inserted herself next to me in the double mattress. The inky wash of drunk-sleep descended and I awoke to register her absence in the bed. She had fled to the living room couch. “I was snoring egregiously, wasn’t I?” I winced and, in the gentle and benevolent way in which women lie to each other, she shrugged and said she was a light sleeper.
But I really know I am a disgusting sleeper because the men I sleep next to delight in telling me as much. With childlike exuberance, they breathlessly relate the play-by-play of my ceaseless tossing-and-turning, the way in which my mouth hangs slack and lubricious, emitting prodigious snores all the live long night. I try to remain unflappable while listening to them; however, it’s difficult for me to laugh these little asides because they shine a light into the fissures that wrack my self-presentation. Women are ideally silent; my sleeping self precludes the possibility of my attaining this ideal. I like to think that I have a tenuous grasp on the way in which I look and act in my conscious life. But I cannot control how I am when I sleep. Recently, a friend told me that a new beau had told her she was a cute sleeper. I was very envious. No one will ever say this to me.
In the past I tried to mitigate my propensity to be a disgusting sleeper by simply…not sleeping. Third dates were particularly fraught. When a man slept over, I would skim the surface of unconsciousness and purposefully wake myself when I sensed the hint of snore approaching. I would pantomime unturbulent sleep. I would labor under hours of wide-eyed wakeful silence and emerge, in the morning, bleary-eyed, wholly unprepared to face a day at the office, let alone an onerous commute on the 3 train. This is a senseless way to live. But such was my commitment to not being disgusting.
In the past few years, it’s become fashionable to practice what is termed “self-care,” a project that does not include imposing Guantanamo-style sleep deprivation techniques on oneself for the sake of maintaining illusions of prescriptive femininity. So these days I have tried to practice begrudging self-acceptance. I try to exercise each morning and incorporate a punishing amount of spinach into my diet. I’ve stopped shaving my legs and I’m trying not to drink too much. When yet another half-assed non-relationship disintegrates after a measly five weeks I try not internalize it and blame my uncouth sleeping. And although my ideal marriage slumber scenario would be separate rooms or at the very least I Love Lucy-inspired twin beds, these days I sleep, if not blissfully, then through the night.
Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns