Waking Pains

Jewish Currents

I’ve often suspected that my wife does things to hurt me while I’m sleeping. I wake up sore, not every night, but often. There are no cuts, abrasions, swellings, burn marks, or redness on my body, but there’s almost always some part of me that hurts like hell, and occasionally a black and blue mark. There can be no other explanation. I don’t walk in my sleep, bang myself against the headboard, or fall out of bed. I occasionally have dreams, but rarely remember them, and almost never have nightmares. All of the doors are double locked so no one can be getting in and the kids are all grown and out of the house. The dog? No. It’s not the dog. It’s Helen.

Have I accused her? Not exactly, but I’ve tested her. I’ll tell her what hurts and she’ll say something like, “You must have rolled over on your hand and bent your finger.” She’s too quick with a theory for every hurt—her responses must be planned in advance. I’ve tried to catch her. I woke up one morning and my knee, the right one, felt as if someone had kicked it. I walked into the kitchen where she was making the morning coffee and told Helen that my nose hurt. “It feeld ad if someone punched me in the node,” I said, making a convincing face.

“Maybe you had a boxing dream,” she said, “and punched yourself in the face. By the way, is something wrong with your right knee?”

“I twisted my knee when I got out of bed this morning,” I tell her, dropping the hurt nose voice, and she tells me to be more careful how I get out of bed. “You shouldn’t leap up. Sit up and swing your body around so your feet are just above the floor.”
Helen sounds sincere—so sweet, caring and solicitous. That’s the side of her I see. We rarely argue and since this is the second marriage for both of us we try to be more open and thoughtful. Then, at night when I’m sleeping, the devious, spiteful and mean Helen comes out.

Why do women do this to me?

I talk in my sleep. Need I say more? My mother was the other person that hurt me in my sleep. This I know for sure. I heard her talking about it to her sister, my Aunt Leah, more than once. I have no doubt that my mother passed on ‘my secret’ before she died.

I can imagine her whispering to Helen at our wedding. “You want to know what’s going on with Teddy—ask him questions while he’s sleeping. He talks in his sleep. He’ll tell you everything.”

When we are very young we think that all adults, especially our parents, are omnipotent, and their confronting us with a misdeed is not all that unusual and unexpected. However, when we get older and know better, and are more cautious about covering our tracks, we don’t expect them to know our secrets.

My mother was different. I was into my early teens and still couldn’t understand my mother accusing me and doling out punishment until I heard her on the phone with my Aunt Leah. They spoke every night.

Once I woke up in the middle of the night with my big toe throbbing. Eventually I fell back to sleep. On the stairs the next night, I listened as my mother told Aunt Leah that I was the one who messed up the neighbor’s flower garden. “He was making believe that he was a football player kicking field goals, whatever they are,” she says, “and one by one he kicked the tops off her flowers. He told me in his sleep. No, I don’t think it’s a fertile imagination,” she told Aunt Leah, “I think he’s destructive. Why can’t he be more like his brother? I grabbed a Hardy Boys book from his bookcase and whacked his big toe with it. Yes. Real hard.”

There it was. I’d been duped. My mother couldn’t read the guilty looks on my face as she’d been telling me, and there were no neighbors or relatives snitching on me, as she also told me. She was picking my brain while I slept.
Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night with a pain and the next morning there might be a black and blue, and my mother always said that people who lie break out in black and blues when they sleep. I believed her because I was always lying about something and always black and blue somewhere.

That night I lay in bed thinking about getting even. I plotted and planned and then worried that I’d tell my mother about it in my sleep. My brother Billy and I weren’t allowed to close our doors all the way, “Just in case, God-forbid, something happens to one of you, “she said, “then I’d be able to hear and come running and take care of you.” So, breaking another rule, I closed my door all the way and wedged the chair under the doorknob so it couldn’t be opened without making a lot of noise. That’s how I slept at home until the day I left.

My father worked the swing shift, four til midnight, at one of the factories in town. He never was part of my mother’s nightly ritual with me and I’m sure that he didn’t know the extent of it. He did question my closing my bedroom door at night because he always looked in on “his boys” when he came home from work. I told him that I’d become a light sleeper and any little noise from downstairs woke me up. He accepted the explanation, but probably figured that I needed the privacy to do what all teen-age boys do.

I guess he never talked in his sleep because he and my mother got along fine.

I woke up with a pain in my eye—the kind you get from a poke. I’d had a very silly argument with Helen earlier over dinner at a restaurant. She accused me of looking at other women. Helen’s a “looker” and takes great pride in keeping in shape. She’s tall, with shoulder length blonde hair, and long shapely legs. She had no reason to worry. But, she has no tolerance or understanding of my desire to look at another woman. “Of course I look,” I told her. “Just because you’re full doesn’t mean you don’t look at the dessert menu.”

“That kind of looking can hurt your eyes.”

“Is that like the hair on the palm theory?” I asked.

“Worse,” she said. “More like the horse head in the bed concept.”

The eye pain woke me. Groggy, it took me a few minutes to realize where I was. Rolling over, I saw a sliver of light at the bedroom door and through the slight opening I saw Helen and my mother. They were a little blurry and I watched them as they took turns jabbing their thumbs towards each other’s eyes and laughing. It was as if they were exchanging techniques. I got out of bed and walked towards the light sliver. I opened the bedroom door into the hallway. No one was there.
Later I got to thinking that unless I could stop talking in my sleep I couldn’t get even with Helen. She’d know every time and would probably start hurting me more. After thinking about it for several days I decided to call my dentist and tell him I was grinding my teeth and ask him to make me an appliance. With that in my mouth I wouldn’t be able to talk.

“Helen told me you’d most likely be calling,” he said.

“Forget it,” I told him. Coises. Foiled again, I thought.

The next morning I called my father in Tampa and asked him if he’d like a visit. “Everything okay?” he asked, since this was not my usual visiting time. “Sure,” I said. “Just feel like seeing you and chatting.”

“Need a little father-son stuff, hey? Throw the old apple around, drown a few worms, have that talk we really never had. Sure.” Dad’s well into his eighties but hasn’t lost any of his sharp wit. That’s part of the reason his freezer was full of casseroles, or “widows’ offerings,” as he called them.

I told Helen that I was flying down to Florida to spend a few days with my father and she seemed genuinely surprised. I don’t know how this slipped by her—I’d expected her to hand me the airline tickets.

Even though I told my father I’d rent a car, he picked me up at the airport. He could no longer drive but kept his old Caddy polished and at the ready. Walking off the ramp into the terminal I spotted a homemade sign reading TEDDY. It was held by a pair of identical twin elderly ladies, both sporting reddish pin curls, blue-eyeglass frames, and silver nail polish. The only difference was the color of their jogging suits—one red and one blue. They had the same smile as they moved the sign back and forth and then held it over their heads for a bit. With my carry-on I walked over to them and together they said, “You must be Teddy.” They giggled a not unpleasant old lady’s giggle. “Right. And you are . . ?”

“We’re Shirley and Pearlie,” they said in unison.

“Of course,” I said, not asking which was which. “Is my father here?”

They nodded and slow-walked towards the exit ignoring me and chattering to each other. I found it hard to walk that slow and wanted to scoop them up, one in each arm, and carry them. I smiled as I remembered the call I made to my father on his eighty-fifth birthday and asked him what he wanted for a present.

“Same as you, Teddy.” he said, “a pair of red-headed twins.” Helen, who’d been talking to my father on the other line, hung up the phone and grilled me about his comment for weeks. She didn’t believe that my father and I never had that discussion before.

One night she came to bed with a red wig and I can’t say it wasn’t a good time. She wears it once in a while. If I see the wig on her pillow I know she’s apologizing for something or we’ve gone too long without sex for one reason or another. She calls it our acrylic foreplay.

Finally I spotted my father’s Caddy and opened the back door where he was sitting. After giving him a hug hello, I noticed two baseball gloves and a softball on the seat. I walked around the car and got in while the twins were still chatting on heading towards the car.

“What do you think?” he asked. “I make one wear red and the other blue so I can tell them apart, but I forget who I assigned which color to.”

He smiled proudly as the twins opened the front doors and got in. Red jogging suit drove, rejecting my offer to do the honors. She drove just a little bit faster than she walked, so Dad and I got to catch up on family news.

The four of us had dinner at Marty’s Eatery. Along with the check came a small peppermint patty and a Marty-Pack®. Each person at the table got one which contained packets of salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard, saltines, and a half-dozen coupons (Sunsweet, free blood pressure test, etc.) and a Marty-Star which was pasted on a Marty Card which held twelve Marty-Stars, and when filled, could be traded in for a free Marty Meal. Shirley and Pearlie eyed my Marty-Pack, but of course I passed it to my dad who gave them both a smug look.

By six forty-five Dad and I were alone back in his condo. We watched the ball game, made small talk, and at eight on the dot Dad said good night and went to his room.

In the morning Dad was dressed and having coffee when I got up. I joined him.

“What’s bothering you, son?” He asked. “Bagel?”

I nodded and he pointed at the freezer. The door tray was lined with a sentinel of Saran wrapped bagels. “Take from the left,” he said. “First in. First out. I haven’t had to buy a bagel in years. The Bagel Kingdom always gives a free sample and I stop in anytime I’m in the neighborhood.”

“Isn’t that the Bagel Kingdom on the corner?”

“That’s the one,” he said, and winked.

There had to be two dozen and against my better judgment, but not wanting to hurt his feelings, I took the oldest. It was hard to ignore the freezer burns after I eventually got it unwrapped. I nuked it before popping it into the toaster oven and it tasted exactly like it should.

“Tell me.”

So I told my father of Helen and my mother. He’s a good listener and “hmmed” or “uh-huded” while I told about my talking in my sleep and the pain it’s caused me over the years. He felt a kinship with Helen. She called him often and they laughed and teased each other a lot. She got a kick out of his telling her what he considered risqué jokes, and she often mailed him cookies when she baked.

“Mostly you would mumble but it wasn’t understandable unless Mother told you to stop mumbling and speak clearly. Then you would. You had to be prompted to speak and probably still do. I wouldn’t call it speaking freely,” he said. “Answering questions is what you did best. Whenever Mother engaged you in a conversation you wouldn’t wake up.”

“Did you ever talk to me or question me in my sleep?”

“No. Not you,” he said.

“If not me, who?” I asked. “Billy?”

“Mother,” he said.

“Mom talked in her sleep?” I asked incredulously.

“Yep. But I never told her. I heard her on our wedding night and it continued until she died—forty-two years later.”

“Did you ever question her or use the information?”

“Of course,” he said. “But like any true super hero, I only used my power for good, never for evil.”

“Like what,” I asked.

“Oh, everything from picking up my clothes instead of leaving them on the floor, to finding out where she wanted to go for vacations. She also talked about her upcoming birthday or our anniversary and that helped me to never forget a present. Things like that. Later on, as we got to know each other better there was sex talk and our sex life became more creative and enjoyable. Not that it wasn’t enjoyable at the beginning, mind you.” My father blushed. “She’d mention something she’d read in a book, or heard from a girlfriend, and I’d wait a bit and try and fulfill it. I always waited a while so she’d never suspect, no matter what the issue. And she never did,” he said proudly, wiping away a tear.

We sat quietly sipping our coffee and I flashed back to a conversation I had long since forgotten between my mother and Aunt Leah. I was very young and eavesdropping from my regular step near the top of the stairs as they talked. I looked at my father and in his cataract eyes saw him going through memories, most probably fond ones of he and my mother. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that my mother didn’t talk in her sleep—she just made believe she was sleep talking to get what she wanted from him. That’s what I heard her tell Aunt Leah.

“So who do you like more—Shirley or Pearlie?” I asked, breaking the moment.

In the afternoon my father left me alone and took off with Shirley and Pearlie for a couple of hours on a planned bus trip to an ostrich farm. I browsed the museum and took a nice stroll back to the apartment. On the way I cut through a park and sat on a bench people watching and thinking about my mother manipulating my father just as she manipulated me. I realized that my father wouldn’t agree that she was wrong, even if he knew she was faking.

That evening while we waited to leave for dinner my father took out a bottle of Canadian Club and two shot glasses. We sat at the kitchen table and he said, “Pour.” I did and realized that this was one of the few times in my life that I saw my father have anything stronger than an occasional beer.

“Listen, son,” he said. “I’m going to let you in on a secret I promised never to tell. Your mother didn’t give you all those black and blue marks—you gave most of them to yourself.”


“I’m not telling you that on occasion you didn’t anger your mother and tell her things in your sleep that made her feel some discipline was necessary. I didn’t agree with her and that’s one of the reasons I stayed on swing shifts. Every time I got seniority and was about to go on days I would leave that factory for another. The changes were good for me and good for our marriage.

“You would argue with you mother or someone else while dreaming and pinch or punch yourself while playing the role of the other person. That doesn’t excuse mother for her occasional treatment of you, or for letting you believe it was always her. That’s the only thing we really ever fought over, and my way to resolve it was to hide from it.

“And Helen?”

“It’s the same thing. Do you think that after years of poking or pinching yourself you’d suddenly stop?”

“But she talks to me while I’m sleeping just as mother did.”


“And the pains when I wake up?

“What do you think?” He asked.

Shirley and Pearlie called and—they were waiting in the lobby for us. They were dressed identically. Their hair was also a different shade of red. They had mischievous grins and pretended that nothing was unusual in their dressing alike. My father acted as if he didn’t notice, but several times in the restaurant I looked at him and saw that he was enjoying their game. When they left the table to “tinkle” my father asked me if I liked the new color he picked out. “Sure,” I said. “Why the change?”

“Adds zip,” he said, and I nodded. I drank too much and one of the twins drove home while I dozed in the back seat.
Later that night on the way to the bathroom I stubbed my toe on a chair. It hurt like that Hardy Boy’s book whack. I don’t remember moving the chair near my bed when I got home. Who else could have? I passed my father’s room and thought I heard voices and pressed my ear to his door— wondering if it was Shirley or Pearly, or both. I felt like I did listening in on my mother and Aunt Leah. It was only my father’s voice I heard, his words muffled by the door. I heard him say, “Helen,” and forgetting about the bathroom I went to the kitchen where I none-to-gently grabbed the wall phone. There was a sudden silence on the line. Finally I went back to bed, leaving the phone dangling.

I woke up in the morning and packed, not knowing if I dreamt my father’s phone murmurings or really heard them, but I knew a hangover when I felt one. When I lifted my arm to brush my teeth I felt a discomfort in my forearm and checked in the mirror for a black and blue mark. I also had a pain in my right ear, the one that I had pressed to the phone and to his bedroom door.

Shirley and Pearlie, back in their blue and red outfits, sat on either side of my father while I drove to the airport. They each gave me a kiss on the cheek. I hugged my father goodbye and he asked me why my ear was all red. I shrugged and then winced when he clapped me on the arm—right on the sore spot. He smiled at me, and Shirley and Pearlie waved as I walked, bag in hand, into the terminal.

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