In the summers, I play an opera festival in Central City, an old mining town in the Colorado mountains. The evening performances end around 11 P.M., and with the one-hour drive down the winding canyon road back to Denver, I usually arrive home near midnight.
I drive with the top down, a cool breeze in my face. About once a summer, I pull out a cigarette I’ve bummed from one of my fellow musicians, light up, and suck in deep. I know I’ll be nauseated afterward, because I smoke so infrequently, and I’ll be a bit weak when I run or hike the next day. But that first intoxicating combination of smoke and air fills me with a sense of wildness and danger. After all, smoking can kill you, right? And I’m holding fire in my hands, a minor act of magic. And maybe it’s the connection with my father, who has never been able to quit, and whom I love fiercely. Whatever the source of the thrill, I feel momentarily connected to the night, to darkness, and to death.
Sarah Briggs Cornelius
Since the onset of menopause, I often find myself lying awake at midnight. At first, this was distressing. I’m a busy woman and need my sleep. And the sheep I counted inevitably turned into a parade of all my failures: Why didn’t I go to acting school; tell my father to go to hell; buy my son those cowboy boots; let my daughter have a cat? And why, when I had the chance, didn’t I run away to Marrakech?
So it went, at least one night a week (usually two or three), until finally it occurred to me: perhaps I’m supposed to be awake. Lately, I’ve begun to give in to my midnight insomnia, slipping from my bed to sit at my kitchen window and gaze at the moon. And I find this moonlit world suits me: quiet, mysterious, shielded from the harsh light of day.
In my younger days, I saw this hour many times while drinking with friends or holding a baby in my arms, but once the friends had gone home or the baby had fallen asleep, I was eager to get to bed. Now that I’m middle-aged, however, being awake and alone at midnight seems safe and right. At forty-seven, with my loyal husband sound asleep in our bed and my children resting happily in theirs, I look out my window and know the same moon shines on Marrakech.
For too many nights, I’d been sleeping lightly, staying half awake so I’d hear my eighty-two-year-old mother-in-law when she called. Her decline was quick, and each night she cried out more frequently for help. Once, she yelled until she was nearly hoarse. We found her sitting on the cold tile of the bathroom floor, her legs blue and her nightgown soaked with blood from an abrasion on her arm. I bought her a bell, and, from then on, it rang throughout the night.
My husband and I were both working full time and rising early to get our two young children off to school, and we soon began to resent the ringing of the bell. We tried to take turns responding, but neither of us wanted to go down the cold stairs and see my mother-in-law hanging over the edge of the bed, panting to get her breath. Mostly it was her fear of being alone, her panic at not being able to breathe, and her unspoken questions about life and death that made her call for us.
In my husband’s opinion, she was ringing the bell for no good reason. “Mom,” he pleaded, “you sleep most of the day, but I get up at five and have to work. Don’t call me unless you really need me.” I could sense her trying not to ring the bell, trying not to displease her son, trying not to be a burden. More and more, in his exhaustion and his reluctance to see his mother so weak, vulnerable, and in pain, my husband failed to hear the bell. So it was I who pushed through the fatigue and resentment and went downstairs three, four, five times a night.
When my mother-in-law decided to terminate all medical intervention, we summoned her daughter from England and set about making her as comfortable as possible. With her daughter caring for her during the day, we could now pay her daytime caregiver to be with her at night. And for the first time in months, I fell into a deep sleep.
I awoke at the sound of the bell, as I had so many times before, and was almost out of bed when I remembered that I was off duty. Nevertheless, I couldn’t go back to sleep. I knew that bell was ringing for me, telling me I needed to be with this woman who had lived in our house for three years and now was dying.
I gently touched the caregiver’s shoulder and told her to go lie down. Sitting alongside the bed, I checked my mother-in-law’s oxygen levels and glanced at her drug chart. She opened her eyes, focused on me, and said, “Good, it’s you.” I nodded and lifted water to her parched lips, adjusted her pillows, smoothed the creases out of her blankets. “What else can I do?” I asked her.
She looked deep into my eyes, and in that moment I felt three years of resentment lift: resentment over her blaring television, her demanding too much of my husband’s time and energy, her insistence that the house be kept stiflingly hot; over the countless doctor’s appointments, hospital visits, and pharmacy trips, and all the accidents I’d mopped and laundered. Suddenly, all of that didn’t matter anymore.
Still looking me in the eye, she said, “I love you.”
Then she slipped into a peaceful, contented sleep. And I sat there, feeling the thin wall between this world and the next.
It was 12:05 A.M. when I heard Mom say, “He’s not in his room!” The police officer on the phone had explained to her that my brother was in custody, but she’d gone to look anyway. Now she picked up the phone again. “What is it?” she said. “Drugs? . . . What? . . . I don’t understand.”
The police had responded to a report of a possible prowler, and their searchlight had revealed my brother cowering naked in the bushes beside a neighbor’s house. Now he was waiting at the station in a blanket for Mom and Dad to collect him.
Mom worried that the neighbors had come outside when they heard the sirens. Dad said he’d have to lie about why he’d left his shift at the fire station in the middle of the night: “I sure as hell can’t tell them the truth.” I secretly hoped that my brother hadn’t been arrested near the home of Matt Anderson, the handsomest boy in fifth grade. Maybe we would have to move far away, I thought, where no one knew us. Just in case, I mentally prepared goodbye letters to my three best friends.
Later that night, my brother returned home, red-eyed, ashamed, and terrified. “I won’t do it anymore,” he said, but he never said exactly what he’d been doing or why, not even during the ensuing rounds of psychological testing and therapy. Having no testimony, the experts delivered a verdict based on circumstantial evidence: he had no friends, performed far below his potential, succumbed to anger and violence when other kids taunted him, and liked to play fantasy games like Dungeons and Dragons. Therefore, he was “schizotypal, though thirteen is too young for a concrete diagnosis.”
No one ever found out about our family secret, but for years after my brother’s arrest, I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night and lay awake, waiting to hear the sound of his feet on the creaky stairs.
My brother is now a lonely, unhappy man, and my parents blame his “strangeness” for it. I wonder, though, if the conspiracy of shame surrounding his behavior, along with my father’s chronic violence toward him, might have more to do with his present suffering.
I once dreamed that I was running naked in the streets of our subdivision, the asphalt cool under my feet, the orange mist of a San Diego night playing around my body. It wasn’t so strange or perverted or shameful. It just felt free. Maybe it was the only time my brother ever felt that way.
As the New Hampshire highway climbs toward Franconia Notch, red spruce and fir appear among the sugar maple, beech, and yellow birch. Mount Lincoln looks down from the east. Tomorrow, I’ll be hiking up there with friends. Right now, I turn off at a scenic overlook: The Old Man of the Mountain.
There is only one other car in the lot — a Cadillac limousine with whitewalls and smoked glass. I wonder what a car like this is doing up here in the mountains. It would be more at home on the rain-soaked pavement outside a downtown nightclub.
When I get to the observation point, I find a man standing there, looking off into the distance, shading his eyes with his hand: middle-aged, sunglasses, potbelly, wide white belt, white shoes. The Cadillac must be his.
I read the information marker, which points out the silhouette of the Old Man of the Mountain among the peaks. There he is, all right, his nose touching a cloud in the blue sky. I glance over at the Cadillac man and find him looking at me. I can see myself in his sunglasses. “I’m off to the White Mountains to meet some friends,” I say, trying to be polite.
“We’re here on vacation,” he says. “Two weeks. Drove in from New York.”
I don’t reply, unsure if a conversation is starting. He’s looking at the Old Man of the Mountain again.
“My wife and younger daughter are hiking,” he continues. “My older daughter has to stay inside all day. She has a rare disease: xeroderma pigmentosum. She’s allergic to sunlight. She spends all day indoors with the shades drawn and only goes out at night. We came here so she could hike the trails at night. She loves to run.”
I look down at the white Cadillac in the parking lot below us.
“I take her for drives during the day,” the man says. “That’s why I got a big car with dark windows.”
The conversation is over. I walk back to the parking lot, glancing at the darkened windows of the Cadillac as I pass by. I picture her running along the trails in the moonlight, above the tree line, racing against the dawn.
For a time in my midtwenties, I gave up one vice each year: alcohol, credit cards, caffeine. I struggled only once — the year I gave up chocolate.
Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve 1995, I ate what would be my last chocolate for the next 365 days. I savored it, telling my friends that I wouldn’t indulge again for a year.
All year long, I resisted chocolate ice cream, candy, cake — anything with even a whiff of cocoa. I never stopped craving chocolate, but I kept my vow.
For New Year’s Eve 1996, my boyfriend and I scheduled a romantic weekend at a little inn near the beach in Mendocino. We reserved a room with a fireplace, a hot tub, and a big bed. The plan was for a leisurely drive to the coast in the afternoon, followed by a romantic dinner, then off to bed. And, of course, a gooey, decadent chocolate dessert at 12:01 A.M.
Unfortunately, Bob and I had one of our more memorable fights that afternoon. We argued at my house for hours and didn’t leave until around dinner time — far too late to make it to our reservation at the restaurant. We continued to bicker in the car on the way to the coast, and between rounds, we blamed each other for how late our fighting had made us. After several hours, we started to talk reasonably again and began wondering where we might eat once we arrived.
Just after eleven, Bob was pulled over for speeding. He got a sixty-dollar ticket and insisted I split it with him. I refused, which enraged him anew.
Midnight came and went, and we were still some distance from the inn. When we finally arrived, the sleepy proprietor told us there was no food to be had. Every cafe and restaurant in town was closed. There was, however, a jar of cookies on the counter, so we miserably helped ourselves to a few while we registered. Exhausted, hungry, full of remorse and confusion over the lost evening, I had been chewing the cookies for several minutes when I realized they were chocolate.
San Martin, California
I grew up hearing frightening tales about the “other world” from my mother and grandmother. “The dead walk at midnight,” my mother always told me, and she described how they rose from their graves, extended their arms in front, and wandered haphazardly about the earth, harming only those who got in their way. I believed every word she said.
One morning, while waiting for the school bus, I spotted a dog lying on the shoulder of the road, its blood and guts spilled in the dirt. I knew it could mean only one thing: the dog had gotten in the way of one of the walking dead. So that’s what happens, I thought. Well, I’m not going to let those monsters get me.
Every night thereafter, before crawling beneath my flannel comforter, I checked under the bed and in both closets to be sure none of the dead had risen early from their graves. My nightly check completed, I would lie in bed with one eye open, always alert to the danger that midnight would bring.
When my daughter Natasha was born, I knew right away that I would spare her the scary tales of ghosts and the spirit world passed on by the women in my family. Last summer, however, my aunt (my mother’s only sister) happened to mention the ouija board in front of my twelve-year-old daughter. “What’s a ouija board?” Natasha asked.
Clearly taken aback, my aunt looked at me in disbelief and said, “Don’t tell me the granddaughter to my only sister — and the great-granddaughter to my psychic mother — doesn’t know what a ouija board is.” I explained that Natasha knew nothing about séances or talking with the dead. (My spooky mother and grandmother were both long dead by the time she was born.) “She’s never really expressed much curiosity about the other world,” I told my aunt.
After that, the conversation turned to the stories my grandmother used to tell — in particular, one about a man who went down to his basement to get a cold beer out of the icebox and was startled by the ghostly figure of a woman, motioning him to come closer. Later, when the house was torn down, a grave was found in the very spot where the ghost had stood that night.
“And do you know who the man in that story was?” my aunt said, lowering her voice to a whisper so Natasha wouldn’t hear.
“No,” I told her.
“That was your great-great-uncle Arie. He was accused of killing that woman, you know, and burying her in the basement of that house.” My aunt didn’t lower her voice quite enough, however, and Natasha caught every word. “Now, Natasha,” she said, turning to my daughter, “do you know about midnight?”
Kim M. La Brake
We slept in musty, army-surplus sleeping bags on the hard floor of Grandma’s small living room, nestled in between the TV console, the huge black vinyl recliners, and Grandpa’s prized hi-fi. Next door to Grandma’s house was a bar called the Driftroom, its façade covered with lava rocks. Every night, a live band played, and restless patrons gunned their cars in and out of the small parking lot. I’d lie there on the floor half expecting one of them to lose control and crash right through the wall.
Just after 10 P.M., the band always played the same song. Through the thumping bass, I could make out a single, long, drawn-out word: love. Or, rather, “LLLOOOOVVVEE,” over and over. I often fell asleep during this song.
While I was growing up, we moved every year or two, which meant I was always the new kid in school and never fit in. Now Dad had left his last job in disgrace and slunk home to live with Grandma. This was the lowest we’d ever been, without even a place of our own. I wanted just to shut my eyes and sleep undisturbed for another year, until we tumbled on again.
Instead, I was awakened by twelve dongs from the glass-domed mantel clock, reminding me where I was: smothered by the heavy sleeping bag on the hard floor of my grandmother’s small, dark house, the night filled with loud sounds — screeching tires, thumping bass, shouting drunks — and the uncertainty of what lay ahead.
Elk Grove Village, Illinois
I’ve been a bit of an insomniac for the past few years. Usually, it’s worry, often about vague, unnamable issues, that keeps me from sleeping. I’ve come to realize, however, that these awakenings are just that: awakenings to matters I have neglected in my daily life. In the dark of night, I see things more clearly.
Though I sometimes try to read or meditate, more often I sit and write notes to the people I love: my wife, my daughters, my friends. In those clear-eyed moments, I am able to tell them how much I love them and how much they mean to me — something I forget to say during the day. My younger daughter, Kate, calls them my “midnight letters.” I feel sheepish about their sentimental tone, but she tells me that she has saved every one of them.
Cropseyville, New York
Growing up, I spent many a New Year’s Eve baby-sitting for my parents’ friends. The scenario was always the same: I was by myself at midnight in front of the TV, watching the ball drop at Times Square in New York City. When it reached the bottom, everyone would begin kissing and hugging. I wanted to be doing that, to be doing something, anything but sitting on the couch watching other people have the time of their lives.
When I turned sixteen, I finally attended my first New Year’s party, at the house of a friend whose parents were out of town. This year was going to be different, I thought. When the midnight hour struck, I would receive a New Year’s kiss. My life was about to change. This was going to be my year.
When I showed up at the party, however, I was the only one without a date. Now, I have never been obsessed with guys. If I have a boyfriend, great; if not, great. But from the start of the party to the end of it, being single was all I could think about. As twelve o’clock grew nearer, I began to feel more and more out of place. I actually wished I were at home.
Then someone turned on the TV, and, seeing the familiar scene at Times Square, I remembered that this was what I’d wanted all those years. I was finally at a party. So what if I didn’t have a guy by my side?
Come midnight, everyone in the house proceeded to kiss the person they’d come to the party with — everyone but me. The only other creature not receiving a New Year’s kiss was the family parrot. So I walked over to its cage and gave it the best peck on the beak it had ever received. My goal for next New Year’s would be to kiss someone of my own species.
Columbia, South Carolina
I woke at midnight to the sound of my father’s voice echoing eerily up the stairs, like the cry of an animal. “Ruth, Ruth,” he called hoarsely. Within seconds, I heard my mother’s feet hit the floor, her door jerk open, and her footsteps coming down the hall.
I lay in bed, my heart pounding, thinking I should go down and offer my help, or at least my support. So I got up and crept downstairs, drawn forward by the murmur of my parents’ voices — Dad’s fragile with pain, Mother’s heavy with resignation.
My father was dying of cancer of the esophagus and slept on a hospital bed wedged between the piano and the stereo console. The tumor was so large that he could no longer swallow, so the doctors had inserted a catheter directly into his stomach. Into this tube, my mother was now trying to empty a can of liquid food mixed with crushed painkillers. It was the morphine he wanted.
My father hated hospitals and wanted to die at home. My mother, who had managed everything from their finances to the family vacations for all thirty-eight years of their marriage, now had been put in charge of his death.
I watched her from around the corner, her hair flattened on one side from sleep, her robe hanging open in front, her tiny feet in quilted slippers. She bent over a body so skeletal it didn’t seem possible it had ever walked upright, danced, laughed, gotten drunk, and made babies. Her hands shook, and the chocolate liquid ran down the sides of the tube, pooling on Dad’s stomach. She swore softly and glanced over at his face, which was surrounded by pillows. “Ruth,” he said again, this time crooning her name like a lover. He reached out his bony fingers and wrapped them around her wrist as if to steady her, and she went back to her task.
Unnoticed, I slipped back upstairs and slid beneath the quilts of my still-warm bed. Not long after, my mother came up, her slippered feet beating the carpeted steps. She paused a moment outside my door, perhaps reassuring herself with the sound of my breath.
That was the last time I saw my parents together.
I was working in the operating room of a small hospital in Florida. The staff there was tightknit; we spent more time with each other at work than with our families. So when Dr. McMann told us that his wife’s breast biopsy had come back positive for cancer, it was as if I were hearing the news about a relative. I stood helplessly by as he cried and told us of her upcoming mastectomy and possible chemo or radiation therapy.
As Martha’s surgery date approached, someone suggested dividing the day of the operation into one-hour shifts; during each shift, one of us would be thinking of Martha and praying for her healing. Twenty-four slips of paper were placed in a jar, and we each drew one. I got midnight to 1 A.M.
I was camping when Martha had her surgery. At exactly midnight, I went to sit at the picnic table. The night was clear and cool, the moon full and bright. I thought of Martha’s three school-age daughters and of the unfairness of her having cancer at age thirty-eight. I kept my vigil until 1 A.M.
Today Martha is healthy and cancer-free. And for me, midnight will always be a time when miracles can happen.
At 10 P.M., our cell lights went out, as they do every night at the Baker Correctional Institution, but my cellmate and I remained locked in a heated religious debate. Country, as everyone called him, was Pentecostal, and I was Zen Buddhist. The night before, I’d been sitting in meditation on the cell floor when I heard him mumbling incoherently on his upper bunk. I asked him about it the next day, and he told me, “I was speaking in tongues to keep away the evil demons you were attracting.”
I know Buddhists are supposed to be patient and compassionate, and Christians are supposed to be loving and understanding. But we were both anything but that night as we railed against each other’s beliefs.
“Buddhism is a Satanic cult!” Country shouted.
“Well, at least we can’t be blamed for the Spanish Inquisition,” I countered.
“You’ve been misled by the devil!”
“You’re just hiding behind your Bible!”
At some point, we stopped and stood in the dark at opposite ends of our cell, like boxers between rounds. I knew we both sounded silly and ignorant, but I was too angry to let it drop. I checked my watch by the moonlight coming through the barred window: midnight. I needed some sleep, but I didn’t want to let Country have the last word. Gazing out the window at the fences, razor wire, and perimeter lights, I saw something move. “Hey,” I said, “look at this.”
“What?” Country snorted, then came up beside me to look.
Two gray rabbits were nibbling grass on the compound just inside the fences. Nearby, an owl was perched quietly atop the inner fence like a sentinel. Then it dove from its perch, and I felt a twinge of fear. But the bird landed away from the rabbits, picked something up with its beak, and flew back to its place on the fence.
“Those rabbits are too big for that owl,” Country said. “It’s hunting field mice.”
“I haven’t seen a live rabbit in years,” I said. “They look so serene.”
“Like Buddhist monks,” Country said.
I glanced at him, wondering if he was being sarcastic, but his smile told me different. We both laughed, knowing our debate was over — at least for one night.
Bowling Green, Florida
Julie and I are twins in name only. True, we were born to the same mother in the same drab delivery room on the same Russian summer night in 1973. Yes, our matching high cheekbones and fair coloring betray our shared genes. But these are mere surface similarities. Underneath we are complete and utter opposites.
She’s a chain smoker; I get nauseous after two drags. She slam-dances at Prodigy concerts; I’m partial to Chet Baker. She is a photographer with a gift for capturing the sublime in everyday objects; I ruin Polaroids.
Jul is obsessed with proper hygiene. When she visits my apartment, the first thing she does is mop my bathroom floor. “How do you live?” she yells upon learning that I have not restocked my refrigerator since her last visit.
Jul has managed to stay a vegetarian for fourteen years by eating almost nothing but macaroni-and-cheese and fettuccini primavera. When I plead with her to try Thai vegetable curry or Indian masala, she replies, “I’m a simple girl with simple tastes.” I’m acutely aware of the current balance on my one-and-only credit card and worry constantly about how to avoid paralyzing debt. Jul is a reckless shopper; when she sees something she wants, she buys it, regardless of cost. Her faith in the future is implicit, while mine depends on realizing goals, meeting deadlines, crossing out items on my to-do lists.
When people spend any amount of time with us, they remark on how different we are — as if we didn’t know. “What do you expect?” I say. “We don’t even share the same birthday.”
I was born ten minutes before midnight; Jul was born ten minutes after.
New York, New York
I lie awake nights rehearsing what to tell my daughter when she marries someday. (She’s only thirteen, but time flies.) This is what I’ve decided I’ll say: “Husbands fall asleep instantly.”
Jenny will laugh and roll her eyes. Then she’ll notice I’m not laughing. “OK,” she’ll say, “but who cares who falls asleep first?”
I’ll look at my sweet, inexperienced daughter — so sure that the young man she’s marrying will be her soul mate — and say, “Never mind. I was just kidding.”
Later, when she has a few years of marriage behind her, she’ll call to tell me she can’t fall asleep anymore, that she lies awake nights while Joel, or David, or whatever his name will be, falls asleep as soon as his head hits the pillow — before it hits the pillow, if that’s possible.
“Does that ever happen to you, Mom?” she’ll ask. “Do you ever just lie there, listening to Dad breathe, wondering what’s wrong with you because you can’t shut off your mind?”
I’ll advise her to read.
She does, she’ll say, but reading in bed at night makes her feel lonely. And, anyway, she’s afraid the light might bother you-know-who.
Fat chance, I’ll think. Not even a thousand-watt halogen shining into his closed eyelids would wake him. “So drink warm milk and molasses,” I’ll suggest.
She’ll say she’s tried that, but it makes her sad because she remembers when she was a little girl, and I would bring her warm milk and molasses and sit on the edge of her bed until she fell asleep. “Besides,” she’ll say, “I don’t like to get out of bed at night. And I scorch the pan when I heat the milk because I’m in a hurry to get back to bed.”
“Why not heat the milk in the microwave?“ I’ll ask.
“Because you didn’t do it that way. You always heated the milk in a saucepan, stirred in the molasses, and then poured the milk into a cup so that it made bubbles.”
“Do you ever try watching television?” I’ll ask, touched that she remembered how I warmed the milk, just the way my mother did.
She’ll laugh. “Are you kidding? Of course. Did you know they rerun the eleven o’clock news at 2 A.M.?”
Yes, I knew. “Well,” I’ll say, “maybe something’s bothering you. What do you think about?”
I won’t need to ask, of course. I could recite her list myself: First, she’ll worry about money. Then she’ll worry about the kids. By 11:30, her baby girl’s sore throat will have turned into lymphoma. She’ll remember with a start that she forgot to examine the kids for ticks after the picnic last week — is it already too late to prevent Lyme disease?
Then she’ll inventory her own body for signs of illness. This will remind her that she hasn’t examined her breasts for months, so she will grimly pass her fingers over her chest, fearing that her husband will awaken and see her — then realizing sadly that, of course, he won’t.
Around midnight, her worrying will turn into resentment. How could her husband fall asleep so quickly? She’ll turn and watch him as he sleeps. His mouth will fall open, the skin hanging loosely on his face, and she’ll imagine what he will look like dead. Maybe he is dead, she’ll think. And she’ll poke his arm with her finger, cough sharply in a futile attempt to startle him, and examine his chest for signs of breathing: alive, all right, but asleep.
She’ll calculate how many hours she’s been awake. She’ll multiply that by the days of the week, then the months of the year, and decide that she’s in the terminal stages of sleep deprivation.
But Jenny won’t be ready to tell me any of this — not yet. “I don’t think about anything,” she’ll say. “Nothing’s bothering me.”
“So call me,” I’ll tell her. “Call me when you can’t sleep. It doesn’t matter what time it is. I don’t mind.”
“Thanks, Mom,” Jenny will say. “Maybe I will. But only if I’m desperate.”
I imagine making her a cup of warm milk and molasses and sitting on the edge of her bed, so we can talk for a while. I tell her she’ll have a wonderful life. That she’ll never be lonely. I sit with her until she falls asleep.
Carson City, Nevada