I lie sleepless in the apartment that was the stage for the second half of my childhood. In daylight, it is my brother’s family’s home. It is colorful and vibrant. My brother, my sister-in-law, my nephew, they are living lives here, and it shows. It is beautiful.
When I close my eyes I see books, and I smell smoke.
My mother has lit her last cigarette of the day. She is reading four books at once. Books are stacked precariously under and around three sides of the bed. It is far too late for me to be awake. There is no one to notice, no one to tuck me in. Maybe my mother is busy tucking in the daughter on the page.
She did not live her life in this apartment, though she inhabited it for thirty years. The living was done inside those books, each bookmark or fold of the corner of a page the passing of a minute, hour, day in her interior life. I stood outside of her life, her time. I wanted in, if only to be with her. My flesh, warmed by the blood coursing nearly transparent under my city skin, was my invitation, as potent as I could manage, but somehow less captivating to her than all those words. Her look abstracted: “What?,” she’d say, without checking for injury. “I’m reading, can’t you see?”
And in the morning, smoke, again, beguiling me. Each and every time I traced its trail to her bedside, where without having spoken I heard a wounded retort: “I’m still sleeping. Come back later.”
Your eyes are open, but you’re sleeping. At first it was a conundrum. Later it made absolute and terrifying sense.
The rooms in my brother’s house have been baptized. Light rushes in as if to compensate for years and years of shuttered neglect. Fresh air crowds out the stale. One room, used only at Christmas and even then begrudgingly, is now for play. High, happy voices fill it whole. Its walls breathe contented sighs.
My mother has been dead for six months. My mother has been dead for at least thirty years. I cannot hear her. I am not privy to her objections to this remaking of her space.
Yet I lie sleepless. She is here after all, here when I close my eyes.
So. Eyes wide open is how it shall be. Eyes wide open, and awake.
*the title of Truman Capote’s 1948 novel