When I was a child, I trained myself not to sleep. I was an only child, and my parents never understood why I was so afraid. I suppose in those days it was easy to believe in the resilience of the young. Now that I am a father myself, I have a lot more sympathy for my mother and father. From the moment of birth, a child begins an unbearable journey towards becoming a stranger to their parents, and in that process there is unimaginable pain, a physical rending that has no cure. It is a miraculous thing to watch a child grow, but it is also a tragedy.
I stopped sleeping because of a deep, lonely fear that I can smell and taste even now, like metal that’s been sweated on, like ammonia, like a car running too hot, like a sharp sting right in the cavity of the nose where scents normally linger. I was afraid of so many things: the wind, unseen murders committed in the night, my parents abandoning me, of bleeding faces, even the boy from the street across from us who once threatened to tear me open and swing me over a power pole.
That first night I went without sleep I pissed the bed. Later, in the morning, my father gently washed me in the bathtub. He must have wondered at how he had raised such a timid boy—he was a tall, broad man, with a strong body accustomed to work. He seemed invincible but at the same time fragile, as if anything could take him from me. I knew more about his body than my own, it seemed: his weak knees, his frequent migraines, his bad back. I was particularly afraid of the coughing fits that would seize him occasionally in the mornings. I remember tiptoeing out of my room in the middle of the night and climbing up the shelves in the hallway cupboard to the very top where I knew he hid his cigarettes under the stack of bedsheets and towels. I would stare at the packet for a long time, turning it over in my hands gingerly, reading the warning labels, before throwing it in the bin. He must have known what I was doing, but he never reprimanded me or even mentioned the cigarettes.
I’ve carried a cold certainty with me my whole life: that I will die and the people I love will die, and that in between we can all be hurt by an infinite array of things. My beautiful boys could fall any moment from a small defect in a single cell out of billions. Sara could call me one day while I am in traffic and say, ‘Goodbye,’ and she could drop dead; or worse, much worse, she could simply disappear, and I wouldn’t remember the last thing I said to her.
I have recently begun writing a play about a boy who trains himself not to sleep. I don’t know what will come of it: all my life, I have feared the future and all the terror it could bring, but to fear the past? It’s a new and unsettling feeling.
My friend Simon, who is a psychologist, told me about the specific ways we prepare ourselves for becoming parents, and how feelings of destabilisation are normal. When he had his first child, a few years before the birth of my own sons, I confided in him that I didn’t think I could ever be a father.
‘No one thinks so, but there are parts of us primed for it,’ he said, and gave a shrug.
A few weeks later, I stopped by their house to drop back some tools I had borrowed. His wife, Yasmin, opened the door and said, ‘This must be your first time seeing the baby.’ I held their sweet child, so small and so strange, and I felt for the first time a stirring of affection that was not tainted by cataclysm.
My father died not long after I stopped sleeping. I thought I could save him by staying up at night and thinking of all the things that could take him from me, naming them and robbing them of their power, but I had not anticipated the driver drunk at the wheel who broke my father’s neck.
In the nights that followed, I imagined the driver’s face, bloated with the fever of his crime, bulging white, with teeth like piano keys. I would have fantastic visions of disaster. I would imagine what it would be like to live in the deep past, and all the ways I could die in the wilderness, or in the villages of my ancestors, or in the belly of a slave ship, or out there in the weather, or swept away by rivers, or illness, or cut down by men. A storm would be raging, and the earth would be a mire, and hail the shape of daggers would fall from the sky. It wasn’t until my father’s death that I truly realised how terrible a thing death was: how profane, how inconceivable, how inevitable. And my aunt would recite a prayer and repeat the words, ‘Inna Lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.’
In the months after my father died, my mother fell into a deep silence. Friends would come by with hot meals while she sat staring out the window, seeming to breathe only occasionally. At night, she would sometimes glide into my bedroom and grab me by the shoulders and hold me close. I was afraid of her hands: by then she’d lost so much weight that they were like bones, but her grip was hard, nails digging into my shoulders.
One day I was in the kitchen watching her cook. As she reached for the high cabinet above the oven rangehood, her back arched, arm outstretched, then she sighed and, as the breath left her body, she collapsed. Later that day my aunt took me to her house and held me for a long time.
‘Oh, you dear child, I am so sorry,’ she said.
For every age there is a crisis that we are unequal to, and by the time mine took hold I had stopped eating. My aunt and uncle sent me to a doctor, who wrote down everything that I had said and said very little in return. This doctor would sometimes ask me an absurd question, and whatever my answer would be she’d always say, ‘Hmm,’ and scribble something in her notebook.
‘You must tell her the truth,’ my aunt insisted on the long drive home. ‘She wants to help you.’
I didn’t want to talk to any doctors, but I soon learned to accommodate my aunt, who saw through me in a way my parents never had. Sometimes I wonder if I have some sort of complex where I am drawn to people I can’t deceive.
When Sara and I started seeing each other, I thought that it was such a selfish thing to want her in my life, knowing that I would bring her nothing good. But I didn’t account for the pure joy of falling in love: how it turns you into this selfish and selfless creature, how it makes you wretched in their absence, and how the feeling of being wanted is greater than any drug. I forget sometimes that there is light to be found in others.
I remember having lunch with my friend Amira one afternoon. She had just left her job at the ABC and was considering a move to London. She saw her future clearly, which is the strangest thing to me. I told her I was working with a new theatre director, a woman who made me feel known. Amira said to me, ‘If you were anyone else, I’d say that you’re interested in her,’ and in a moment of boldness, I said, ‘Maybe I am?’ And it was not two weeks after the final show when Sara emailed me to say that she thought we should see each other, and I emailed back saying, yes, we should. When I called Amira I was almost out of breath with joy and worry and complete, paralysing clarity. ‘Can you see it working?’ she asked me, and I told her that I could.
When Sara’s grandmother died, we drove to Ararat to help pack up the small house where she’d lived alone for the last twenty years of her life. We had only been dating for a few weeks and it was one of the first trips we had taken together. I had been feeling sick the whole morning, a thick knot of anxiety that I could not name. That feeling grew in intensity as soon as we exited the freeway, and Sara began to worry.
‘We can stop if you’d like?’
It was a cold day, and the tall gumtrees that lined the two-lane road were being thrashed by the wind. Sara slowed down and indicated to pull over.
‘It’s okay,’ I said. ‘I’m alright. Keep driving.’
‘Are you sure?’ Her eyebrows were knotted with concern.
‘I’m sure,’ I said, and she began to speed up again, and just as she did a thick branch the size of her small Hyundai tore off a tree ahead and fell onto the road. Sara gasped and slammed the brakes and the car lurched forward, coming to a stop just in front of the branch. There were no other cars on the road. I felt like I had just been punched in the gut.
‘If you didn’t slow down…’ I began to say.
‘Don’t say it. Don’t.’
The rest of the journey was silent, except for the very end when we pulled into her grandmother’s driveway, and Sara squeezed my hand and said, ‘We’re okay, we’re okay.’
This event consumed my thoughts for weeks, and I began to brood over it. Simon called me one afternoon and asked me to meet him at a bar. His marriage had been suffering ever since his daughter was born and he’d taken to staying at hotels and friends’ houses. That night, he confessed that it was over between him and Yasmin.
‘There’s only so long you can keep telling yourself that things will get better,’ he said.
I told Simon about the incident with the tree on the road. He was sceptical about attaching significance to it.
‘Sometimes things just happen and we find meaning in it afterwards.’
‘Isn’t the meaning the point, though? Isn’t that more important than the thing itself?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘But it can’t be healthy to dwell on it.’
I felt a stab of envy towards Simon, in spite of his troubles. To go through life like that, where things just slip off you, where tests of your resilience don’t buckle you. Simon then began to eagerly tell me about a woman he’d met on a dating website whom he had gone out with the night before. I asked him if he thought she and Yasmin would get along. It was a cruel question, and I immediately regretted it, but he just smiled tightly and said he hoped so.
Just before our eldest was born, Amira was back in Melbourne for a week. We had made plans for her to join us at The Journal Café on Flinders Lane. It was our old lunch spot back when Amira and Sara both worked in the city and I had that studio in the Nicholas Building. Amira was telling us about her most recent disappointment in love.
‘The real issue between me and Asif, apart from the fact that he’s the poshest Pakistani boy I’ve ever met, is that we never really understood each other,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I really wanted to be happy with him, but I guess the part of me that couldn’t stand him won out in the end.’
‘I get that,’ said Sara. ‘It’s impossible to find everything in another person.’
Amira stirred her coffee, had a sip.
‘I can’t imagine the two of you ever being frustrated with each other.’
‘Well, it helps that we both went to public schools,’ I said.
Amira grimaced and Sara squeezed my hand under the table with a look that said, Don’t worry. Her face had softened with pregnancy and she had recently begun wearing her hair short. She had one hand resting on her belly. A memory came to me of the first rehearsals for the play, when Sara had sat down next to me and said, ‘I spent a long time questioning the violence in the play.’ It had taken me by surprise because I supposed people always had a different reaction to my plays; where they either understood my intentions with the grotesque displays of violence, or they assumed it was all political.
‘It’s a compulsion,’ I told her. ‘That sort of stuff: it’s all I think about.’
I had felt naked there beside her, but I was beginning to realise what a comfort it was to be around someone who could skin me with a glance.
‘I suppose I can accept that,’ she said, and I’ve always been thankful to her for making space for the idea that I might be a better person than I think I am, and over time I’ve become aware of this possibility too.
My aunt spoke often of my mother, her youngest sister. They didn’t always get along; my aunt was a decade older than my mother and saw her more as a wayward child than a sibling. A few times a year she would take out a large plastic Bananas in Pyjamas-branded pencil case from under the lowest shelf in her bedside cabinet and pull out a thick wad of small photographs from within. My mother was always very thin; in some photos she looked like she might disappear into her clothes.
My favourite photo was one where she was pregnant with me, sitting on a sofa, looking away from the camera. She was wearing a forest-patterned grey and white garbasaar, and her cheeks were full, her eyes wide.
‘Your father was telling a story,’ said my aunt. ‘He could be such a comedian.’
Whenever she spoke about my father, it was only ever in generalities. She would say that he was tall and laughed easily; that he had a voice that was at once deep and soft, so that you had to lean in to hear him speak; that he was a great storyteller. I remembered little about his height or his voice. All I had were a few searing memories: the way he smelled like motor oil and tobacco, the weightlessness of being carried on his shoulders, the way his smile sometimes looked pained—almost like a frown—while other times it looked so bright.
As I got older, I would occasionally meet extended family members and people who knew my parents. You could see in their eyes that they expected me to take after my father, who was so lively, so boisterous. But to my aunt, I was her sister’s son, right to the bones.
I called Sara once during her lunch break, and she answered immediately and said, ‘Fucking hell, I’m having the worst day, tell me something to distract me from it,’ and I told her that I was thinking about giving up the play about the boy who couldn’t sleep.
‘You need to write this play,’ she said.
‘Maybe I should.’ But I thought to myself: Dear God, if I do this, I’ll stay a child forever.
‘Do you want me to leave dinner in the microwave for you?’
‘No, no, I’ll be home too late. Give the boys a kiss from me before you put them to bed,’ she said.
As I was pacing around the kitchen that evening, waiting for the kettle to boil, my youngest boy waddled in sleepily, his nappy hanging heavy, and wrapped his arms around my leg. I crouched down to his eye level and held him. He filled me with wonder: so beautiful, so perfect. There is such grace in the simple love between a parent and child, and it left me weak in its wake. Had I known that my parents, in their own way, loved me and feared for me just as fiercely?
I picked him up and took him to the laundry room, changed his nappy and settled him back in bed. He fell asleep immediately next to his brother. Outside, it was raining heavily, and the wind shook the trees. All the terrors of the night, as wild and unknowable as weather to contend with, but here it was quiet. I looked at my sons, fast asleep, and I envied them, while at the same time I wanted more for them than I ever had.
Later Sara arrived home, and without a sound came into their bedroom and hugged me from behind, and we stood there for some time, watching our boys.
‘They’re so small,’ I said, and Sarah squeezed my hand.
‘Come to bed,’ she said.