New Pedagogy for Sleeplessness | Helen Hofling


At bedtime, I wasn’t in the mood for stories, so my caretaker read me a story within a story. She called it a “mise en abyme” and brought up Velázquez.
  After much tossing and turning I said, “This is what it’s like, learning not to sleep.” It isn’t too often you pause in life and name its movement so successfully; you should relish this recursion. So I said it twice and licked my teeth. It’s what I was there for, after all.
  Sleep deprivation had been proven to cure all kinds of maladies—weight fluctuation, epilepsy, environmental panic, misery. The clinic had developed a new method for teaching sleeplessness, one that didn’t require electric shocks. It was highly exclusive and had a waiting list longer than the Ivy League. I was lucky to be there.
  “What is it you’re doing,” my caretaker asked me.
  “I’m relishing, relishing this more than meat loves salt.”
  “Salt is the most common preservative,” my caretaker told me. She was already going off in a different direction. “That’s where the expression derives from. Not fairytales. Not gourmets. It’s not about flavor; it’s about prevention of rot. You can pickle almost anything. All you need is salt water and something to soak in it.”
  She put so many thoughts in. “What about a jar?” for instance.
  I already wanted to stay up all night curing vegetables and making potions, narrating a cooking program to an adoring audience. I yearned for the release of it, for the apparition of myself who stirred air each night while I lay with my arms fixed to my sides, my body wriggling like a nocturnal eel.
  “Did you ever go to the Museo Prado?” I changed the subject. “Did you ever see Bosch’s earthly garden? The infanta and her nursemaids?” I could already see myself flying through the dark sky in my trundle like a train of thought, greeting constellations, “pilot O pilot,” landing in Spain, front of the museum line.
  My caretaker adjusted her eyeglasses. “Stop tossing! Don’t wiggle your feet! Art isn’t an unmade bed.” She tucked me in with pin straight folds, twirling and screeching extravagantly. I was impressed. A practiced insomnia tutor, she had a lot of wonderful tactics for keeping me up. She acted like a kind old woman who was pretending to be a witch in order to teach misbehaving children a lesson. “Art isn’t an unmade bed and I don’t care if you’re in it.”


The next night, painfully exhausted, I tried to run away. The clinic wasn’t for me. I didn’t like what I was learning. The benefits of sleeplessness weren’t worth it. After one night I felt like I was disappearing into infinite pools of myself. One theory held that the treatment was so effective because the misery of insomnia replaced or refocused all other miseries. Another held that it was because the profound desire for sleep replaced or refocused all other desires. I barely made it past the front hedges before I was spotted.
  After she’d secured me, my caretaker told me the “Parable of the Cook.” The cook was famous for her weasel dumplings. She seasoned them with leeks and used tears for salt. She ran a café out of her houseboat, down by the harbor. The café had a poor Yelp rating but was nonetheless a favorite venue for children's birthdays. The cook, an old woman, had a long front tooth.
  Everyone knew that under a new moon she joined a chorus line of lobsters in naked dancing on the beach. The townspeople assumed this made her a witch, but really that is just how she went fishing. If her methods of collecting shellfish were misinterpreted as occult practices, and if resulting excitement drummed up extra business, well, she couldn't help all that. She employed a loyal local sea doggie with sleek whiskers and a shiny pink nose to serve customers as she prepared the meal. After 40 years spent on ships, the fool was hooked on liquor and more seal than man. If the cognac bottles were an inch lighter now and then, she looked the other way.
  The birthday party was heating up. A child had turned seven that week and invited the whole class. They started with dumplings and had lobster pizza as their main. The child's mother had to put in a special advance order for the pizza. It was one of her three wishes. The cook prepared the crust in a secret way using crushed-up lobster shell for added texture. The children crunched their pizza dutifully and tried to peep through the kitchen porthole to steal a glimpse of the cook's tooth. The old sea doggie staggered around, refreshing their little cups of punch. Dessert was sticky bread pudding with horsehair and marigold. For entertainment, the birthday boy's grandmother demonstrated the mambo. My caretaker watched it all through a telescope, from her bedsit across the wharf. I promised myself I’d visit that night. The minute my eyes shut, I’d do it.


On the third night, I still hadn’t slept. My caretaker had poisoned me into permanent wakefulness. I suspected that her stories replaced my body’s need to dream. She refused to discuss her methodology and chided me to trust in the process. She decided to spin me a love yarn, to distract me from my paranoias. This is what she said:
  We met on Halloween. I was the iceberg that sunk the Titanic. I wrapped my body in tin foil and bubble wrap and built an ocean liner out of two pieces cardboard and some house paint. The boat hung over my shoulders. The effect was remarkable; people kept spotting me and freaking out. I worried they thought my costume in poor taste, as all the icebergs are gone now. Like dressing up as someone who died before enough time has elapsed since their death. But I’m iconoclastic by nature, so I say, rip off the band-aid and let that controversial baby out to play!
  Aby dressed as a set of Russian nesting dolls. She made suits of unbelievably intricate paper mâché shells that stacked one over the other, each painted with her likeness. The first time I saw her I couldn’t even see her face, just her own interpretation of her face as a nesting doll, rendered on hardened newspaper. Anyway, one glimpse at those rosy cheeks and I was hooked. We hovered around each other all evening not talking. I knew a lot of other women at the party from grad school; I tried to pay attention as they summarized the plots of their new novels, but Aby was very distracting. She took off a layer of doll about every half hour until she was just herself, barefoot, wearing doll makeup and a babushka. I decided to make my move.
  “You’re a mise en abyme,” I whispered in her ear seductively. “You contain infinite copies of yourself.”   “Tell that to my homunculus!” she giggled. “She thinks she runs things around here.”
  I removed my Titanic so we could grind on the dance floor as iceberg and matryoshka. I took off my shoes so I wouldn’t stamp on her toes. A disco ball revolved above us slowly, breaking up our reflection into a million parts.
  The plastic wrapped around me didn’t breathe well so I started sweating a lot. Aby made a really twisted joke about glacial melt; I was obsessed.
  Towards the end of the night she started telling me secrets, she’s that kind of drunk, and babbled all about how she was the queen bee in her high school but all that drama is behind her now, and she has body issues from her years as a dancer, so sometimes she can’t stop eating tomatoes instead of regular foods. She was a virgin, she’d never had a girlfriend before. She’d stolen two of the college’s antique telescopes, right out of the case, and replaced them with lobster tails. The secrets kept coming—under each veil, another. The sudden intimacy was charming at the time, or something, but of course what I learned that night became alternately maddening and bolstering to our love as it grew.


Things were getting desperate for me. I didn’t know how many days I’d been at the clinic. I was wired and ravenous for rest. My vision shivered violently, and I wasn’t always sure when I had stopped talking and my caretaker began. My caretaker appeared unaffected by my deteriorating condition. She was too committed to her work, consumed by her persona as a self-styled Scheherazade. One night she asked me:
  Have you seen a cartoon where a woman had a geometric shape for a face? Not like a rhombus, but misshapen, and pale green, an irregular trapezoid, if that’s a thing. Flat. Well imagine that character when I talk about Doris. In this story, the whole world is tinted. Muddy green. Not just Doris, everything, murky, like the inside of a pickle jar. It will come as no surprise to you then, that Doris has very little to look forward to.
  Doris works in admissions at a midsized college. The students she accepts have unremarkable test scores. She accepts them by stamping “yes” on manila folders. She rejects them by stamping “no.” She waitlists them by stamping “wait.” If she can’t decide at first, she stamps “maybe.” The stamps are so old they barely function. They are worn down in places and gunky with ink. Sometimes “no” even looks like “wait” and “maybe” looks like “yes” because of the smears and faint patches. Doris suspects that they are responsible for more than a few dud students and worse, eggheads lost to more forward-thinking institutions. Still the college won’t replace them. No one makes the stamps anymore except as novelties, so they are outrageously expensive, like typewriters, turntables, telescopes, snow boots...
  She’s having an affair with a married man in the same office. His position is technically lateral to Doris’s but for some reason he approves her vacations. Or would, if she planned any. Remember, she doesn’t look forward to things. Besides, who would feed Rosebud? Doris is as free from desire and as flat as can be. Doris and her coworker give each other blow jobs in the car every day at the same time. They don’t look forward to it. After, they have dry sandwiches while he rubs her feet. She is extremely embarrassed by her toes. Doris doesn’t even look forward to a nice, relaxing lunch, do you see?
  It isn’t hereditary, her parents were both highly excitable.
  It isn’t that Doris lives in the past, she doesn’t care for reminiscing.
  She wears an itchy checked skirt that is too tight around the middle and a top with a high ruffle around the neck.
  She makes herself go to exercise classes and hobby classes and happy hours, hoping that something will catch. She joined a hiking group and a birdwatching group and a classic cocktails group and a pinch pot group and a life drawing group and an aperitif group and a digestif group and a group of whalers and a wife swap and a den of survivalists and a cult of personality and a gang of narco traffickers and a political caucus but she never found a thing she didn’t have to force herself to go to before giving up after a few weeks.
  Rosebud is a little mutt that she adopted. The shelter wouldn’t take Rosebud back when Doris had tired of her. Doris named her as a proxy for unfelt longing. She doesn’t care if it’s a little on the nose. She takes Rosebud on boring walks in an undeveloped area behind her apartment building several times a day.
  There are a series of empty doorframes set up in an overgrown field like a long hallway. Each time Doris and Rosebud pass through one they change shape. She passes through doorway #1 and is a black-and-white Ingrid Bergman in a nightgown; Rosebud is a flickering gas lamp. She passes through doorway #2 and becomes an elegant lemur, draping its grey furred limbs here and there, with decadent malaise; Rosebud is her child. Then a Ziegfeld girl in gold tinsel, flashing like a sparkler; Rosebud is a sparkler. Then a barrel of soda bread, like to give substances to a ship of fools; Rosebud is a pickle. Then a Saint Sebastian, riddled by arrows; Rosebud is an arrow. And so on and so on until she returns to her original, that muted mint hexagonal (was it?) form; Rosebud is a fuzzy mutt again. Every day some version of this recurrence.
  Doris has a motto: Nature insists on altering itself.


I cried to my caretaker. I cried and I begged. She was unmoved. I bribed her with boxes of Leibniz crackers. She had her own supply. I tried to seduce her. She denied me. I plugged my ears with cotton. She plucked it out.

I told her a story:

Three of them set out to look for it. The Golden Net.

They were told it had many wonderful uses. That it would allow them to catch unlimited shellfish. That it would unlock many doors and strengthen their friendships. That it would give their hair luster and add years of happiness to their lives.

They were told that placed on a table it would provide bounty. That it would enable access to all the coins from all the eyes of all the dead.

They were told it could cure certain ailments. That it would restore chill to winter, love to the loveless, sleep to the sleepless. That it could change apples into birds. That it might gather up their dispersions.

They were told that, if they chose cleverly, each seeker might be granted one request.

Of course one asked for the gift of beauty. Another—the gift of health. The third wanted the gift of gold.

They followed a map carved into a slab of marble. It was dreadfully heavy. They took turns carrying it. They walked day and night.

Late one night, deep in the forest, they came across a circular clearing filled with shining pools of water. They dove into one of the pools. Then they dove into another. All of the pools led to the same place. At the bottom of the pools there was a box.

She spoke over me:

To protect humans, the angels hid the most merciless form of desire in a box in a pool in the forest. This happened a very long time ago, but it’s still exactly where they left it. Inside the box is another box. Inside the box is a pair of lost shoes and inside the left shoe is another box. Inside the box is a bed and inside the bed is another box. Inside the box is an expensive painting leaning against another box. Inside the box is lobster-crust pizza served on top of another box. Inside the box is Rosebud the dog chewing on another box. Inside the box is a fern growing in the shade of another box. Inside the box is a pristine set of telescopes and inside one of their lenses is another box. Inside the box is a snifter of cognac twirling around on another box. Inside the box is jar of brine and floating inside is another box. Inside the box is a real iceberg and frozen within it is another box. Inside the box is a birthday party and the present is another box. Inside the box is a painted doll making eyes at another box. Inside the box is a disco ball hanging from another box. Inside the box is a vial of poison seeping into another box. Inside the box is a blow job happening in front of another box. Inside the box is your true love holding another box. Inside the box is everything you’ve ever wanted and another box. Inside the box is everything you’ve ever done wrong and another box. Inside the box is a dream about an angel balancing another box on its wings. Inside the box is a dream about the golden net and caught in the net is another box. Inside the box is a dream about making a phone call and on the other end of the receiver is another box. Inside the box is a dream about going to work and on top of your desk is another box. Inside the box is a dream about lying in bed and you look up at the creepy mirrored ceiling and realize that you are a box.

Helen Hofling is a Baltimore-based writer, editor, and collage-maker. Her work can be found in Barrow Street, Berkeley Poetry Review, The Columbia Review, Electric Literature, Hobart, Prelude, and elsewhere. She is a member of the PEN Prison Writing Project’s poetry committee and teaches writing at Loyola University Maryland.