How to Sleep


September 1, 2014 by The Citron Review

by Vivian Witkind Davis 


Lie on your left side, fitting yourself to your sleeping husband’s back. Slip your right arm under his right arm and bend your wrist so your hand is on top of his. Put your left arm under your pillow but not directly under your head. Mustn’t cut off the circulation.

Realize your mind is retreading how you should have handled that comment your dinner guest made about Hillary and the politics of entitlement. If you could just remember David Brooks’s typology of conservatives and liberals, you could have thrown out a good line. There was something about Hamiltonians.

Recite to yourself all the poems you know, starting with “Jabberwocky.” Find yourself trying to do “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in Yeats’s voice, as recorded at the National Library in Dublin. It’s almost in a monotone, just changing pitch the way you can do on a kettledrum by moving the padded drumstick toward or away from the edge.

Lie on your right side, farther away from your husband because that was too hot. Watch out for the dog, who is probably at the end of the bed, or at least somewhere in this direction. You might encroach on his territory, and he will growl and snap. Frumious Pomeranian.

Repeat “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” but this time imagine keyboarding it from “The sun was shining on the sea” straight through to “because they’d eaten every one.”

Realize that the dog has curled up close enough to your head that mothlike strands of fur are tickling your nose. Become aware that your whole body is stiff as the oak headboard.

Pull down the comforter and move onto your back and try relaxing each muscle from head to toe: abs, pecs, and all those unnamed muscles in between. As you order the muscles to loosen, name breeds of dogs from A to Z. Don’t forget the Japanese Chin, the komondor, the vizsla, and the Weimaraner. Skip the “P.” Don’t worry about Q, Y, or Z.

But what if there were a Quebec spaniel, a Yemeni yapper, and a Zanzibar zapper? Fail to recall the “X” breed. Where is it from? Xanadu?

What if there were “X-hound,” a secretive superhero like Wonder Dog. Wasn’t there a Wonder Dog? With a cape? What about Rocky and Bullwinkle. Rocky was a squirrel, right? Did he have a cape?

You’re cold. Snuggle up to your husband again, spooning from chin to shin, and try to match his breathing. In. Out. Slowly. In. Out. Really slowly. Like a beached walrus.

Does he always breathe this slowly when he sleeps? You’ll die like an asphyxiated Afghan, or—you’re hot again because somewhere along the line you pulled up the comforter—airless under an abominable afghan.

The theory here is that going to sleep isn’t like walking up to a ticket booth and saying, “I’ll take sweet dreams in theater two.” Nor can you lure sleep as if you were going crabbing, standing knee-deep in the estuary with a fish head on a line waiting for the crab to sidle over, and then scooping it up with the net and tossing it in your bucket, blue and flailing. I know there are other remedies, like drugs from Ambien to ZzzQuil. My prescription is lists and patterns sufficient to confine attention, but tedious enough that wakefulness abandons hope and yields.

So bear with me, and try one more time.

You imagine everything in your bedroom covered in purple velvet. Every piece of furniture, every tchotchke, subsumed in purple so dark it seems black. Try it, placing the velvet carefully, making sure it’s purple and soft and tucked in. Wrap the TV set in deep purple velvet. Wrap the remote control. Wrap the bureaus, his and hers. Wrap the mirror in dark velvet. Oval velvet. Wrap the windows and the door. Wrap the wing chair in deep purple velvet. Purple velvet. Deep velvet. Deep. What are those oysters doing here?



Vivian Witkind Davis is trying her hand at creative nonfiction after retiring from the Ohio State University, where she was a public policy analyst and researcher. She has been a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly magazine and a restaurant reviewer for Columbus Monthly magazine. Her memoir, Paper Heirloom, will be out this fall. She lives in Blacklick, Ohio, with her husband, Jack, and a Pomeranian, Scooby.


3 thoughts on “How to Sleep

  1. Dear Vivian, this is superb!

  2. “Recite to yourself all the poems you know, starting with “Jabberwocky.” Find yourself trying to do “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” in Yeats’s voice, as recorded at the National Library in Dublin.”

    I’m laughing, nodding my head and marveling at your evocative “prescription”, hanging on every word and wide awake. Loved this.

  3. Now look at that– it’s a lyric essay. I think everyone can relate to this.

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