Dreams Upon Waking by Angela Boswell

Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Dreams Upon Waking by Angela Boswell
Illustration by Sue Babcock

My first memory is probably standing in line at the university bookstore. I don’t think I ever bought books there, just school-branded stuff. They still had books–this was probably before you were born–though most of us just got the downloads because it was cheaper, or free if we were currently ahead in the copyright-infringement arms race.  Honestly, I don’t know how this library is still here. It’s like, how many times have we declared print media–but, well, that’s a rant for another time. At any rate, I only went to the university bookstore to brand myself as a college student. I was trying to do the whole college experience thing, going to games and parties and stuff. Yeah, didn’t really work. I was studying to be a market AI coordinator, and that took all my time. At least it did before I got introduced to Antisomex.

It was my History of Robotics TA who first gave me some, during a tutoring session before finals my first semester. I’d been aware of it for a while. It was on the shelves a few years before that–the FDA approval caused a lot of buzz. With my interests, I’m sure I followed the news stories back in high school. One pill equaled an hour and a half of sleep, one full cycle of REM and all. There was some catchy phrase about that on the commercials.

You couldn’t miss the commercials. The airwaves and the bandwidth were just infested with ads for Antisomex. The pills were safe, totally safe, because rats and cats and wombats had been able to go through mazes and solve food puzzles running on pills instead of sleep.

There was a lot of debate about the ethics of it all, the Pope telling all good Catholics to stay away and Muslim leaders declaring it an affront to God and nature. People gave it nicknames like “super coffee” and “night owl” and other stupid things. There were pop songs about how it made more time for sex and partying. That got the parents all upset, which of course made it more attractive to the kids.

Not that everyone was dosing the night away. At first it was pretty expensive, and people would just use it for emergencies like a crazy deadline. The only people who could justify taking it more often were college students, because all their time and money was borrowed anyway.

So when my TA gave me a couple pills to help with finishing a paper, I knew more or less what I was in for. You were supposed to take them before going to sleep, and you’d wake up after only a few hours, feeling like you’d gotten a full night’s sleep. I worked until three in the morning, popped the pills and got up in time for my eight o’clock class without needing any coffee.

Now, coffee would’ve been cheaper, but this stuff made me feel so much better. I wasn’t being jolted awake with extra energy just to compensate for the fatigue. It didn’t give me a headache. I woke up refreshed, like somebody in a coffee commercial who’s all stupid smiles and clearly doesn’t need any coffee.

I hadn’t realized just how competitive things were in market AI, and after talking with my guidance counselor the next semester, I decided to start taking Antisomex on a regular basis. At first it was one pill every night, which got me an extra ten hours a week for homework–and the occasional partying. Then one night my computer crashed and I had to spend a good chunk of time recovering my project for pattern-recognition. It was due in the morning, so Antisomex came to the rescue. Four pills and six phantom hours of sleep later, I was bushy-tailed as a lab rabbit’s butt, and I’d managed to reconstruct my presentation.

I toned it down to three pills, but sophomore review pushed it back up to four. When I went home over the summer, I stopped taking them and actually felt guilty about sleeping. What was I doing, wasting all that time comatose when I could pop a few pills and be productive? My summer job sucked up a lot of time, but thanks to modern medicine I was able to take a few credit hours at the community college.

I was on the fast track. By then the generics had come out and the price had gone down, so my secret weapon was available to pretty much everyone I was competing against for an eventual job. Junior year, I worked part-time in addition to an unpaid internship, on top of my studies. Senior year there were two internships, one of them actually paying something more than “experience,” though not much. The entire amount went towards keeping my eyes open.

By the time I graduated, job offer in hand, I hadn’t slept in over a year. Don’t look so skeptical–that was actually pretty normal, at least for those of us who ended up employed. People wrung their hands about “emotional wellbeing,” then failed to be rehired at evaluations.

The people I worked with were definitely not in that category. Doing market AI takes a lot of hours, and there was always the threat that someone else might be willing to put in more than you.

At this point, a real sea change was happening. The whole thing faded from popular consciousness. With the drugs no longer the subject of songs or the butt of jokes, religious leaders and psychiatrists alike lost interest. Even Europeans were taking them, afraid they’d lose their jobs to Americans or Asians who never slept. Actual sleep was a crutch for children, the sick, and the elderly. It was prescribed like a drug.

The real drug was sold in many forms, though it became most common to combine it with coffee, its primitive ancestor. A good night’s sleep was available at Starbucks for the price of six dollars and the time it took to fill and then empty a cup. An eight-ounce, eight-hour drink came in exotic flavors like dragonfruit chai, rambutan, and of course, durian spice. You could buy it at the five and ten, five bucks a can or ten for a three-pack. They had ridiculous names–Queen Mab, Sandman, Morphine Delirium. They sounded like drinks to induce dreams, not drive them to extinction.

But driven to extinction they were. And with the extinction of dreams came the need for a replacement. Once somebody had that realization, psychedelics were everywhere. No more legal than they’d been before, ‘shrooms, LSD, and anything else that yanked your subconscious into the limelight were on every tongue.

I remember taking a weekend off with some coworkers, after we’d finished a big project, and going to an old-time rave. It was held in an abandoned mattress factory–mattresses just weren’t as necessary as they’d once been–and consisted of drugs, music, and crowds of people who were mostly unaware of their surroundings. We danced, or more likely ran around yelling, through a mess of dusty old machinery. Pallets of unsold merchandise were stored in a sort of warehouse at one end, and I vaguely recall somebody leaping from the top of the stack, though I might have been hallucinating–at any rate, one of us was.

Afterwards, a group of us were sobering up in this coffee shop, drinking our durian spice superlattes and talking. Somebody brought up the topic of grade school crushes and asked about mine.

That’s when I realized there was something wrong. Now, it’s not uncommon to have a hard time remembering the name of the classmate you were sweet on in first grade, but that wasn’t the only thing I couldn’t call up. For the life of me, I could barely recall more than a vague impression of the building my grade school had been in. If there had been anyone who especially caught my eye, or even anyone who’d been a particular friend or foe, you couldn’t have proven it by me. I tried to remember the names of teachers, whether I’d taken the bus or walked, anything at all. But I came up blank.

When my tablemates asked what was wrong, I admitted I had forgotten some things. More than a few. I was trying not to panic, but then each of them turned their thoughts back to their childhood and found the place strangely empty.

It wasn’t that we were total amnesiacs or anything, it’s just that certain things, older memories, weren’t heeding our call. We racked our brains, trying to remember when a younger sibling was born, when we moved into a new house, when our parents got divorced. Some of us could remember a date or fact, but it was like reciting stuff from history class. We had no actual recollections of these things happening.

By now we were totally freaked out, so we went back to the mattress factory hoping to get some info on where the ‘shrooms came from, but we found the cops cordoning the place off. They told us there was nothing going on, they just had to clear the area. Sure. We heard on the news the next day that they’d found some bodies. We didn’t know what to do. Go to the doctor and say, “Hey, man, I think I took some bad ‘shrooms”?

So we did the only thing we could think of that wouldn’t get the law on our tails. We detoxed. Swore off tripping, alcohol, that kind of thing. Not our sleep replacement, of course. Couldn’t work without that. But we took apple cider vinegar, carrot pulp, all the good stuff people thought would clean you out. I even tried those magical socks with the copper thread in them that’s supposed to draw out toxins through your feet. Really all it does is draw out money from your account. You seen the price of copper? Anyway.

Nothing worked, of course. We felt just as sober as we had when we’d walked away from the police cordon, but the weird holes in our memories did not clear up. I figured the damage was permanent and tried not to dwell on it.

But it was hard. The more I tried to ignore the holes in my memory, the more I felt around, like how you poke your tongue into the spot where a tooth was. And the more I poked my tongue around, the more missing teeth I found. It was like this haze had settled on the first fifteen or so years of my life. There wasn’t a definite cutoff, but things just got fuzzier and fuzzier the further back I went.

Now, I know it’s normal to have that kind of thing, especially about your childhood, but I was twenty-four, and this was severe. I mean, when I dug out some old pictures, it was like they were pictures of someone else, someone who maybe looked kinda like me. I had to check the data and the tags–yeah, that was me, that was my family, taken on my dad’s phone on whatever date. But it just didn’t feel like it was me in that photo, like I’d ever been there.

Well, I kept this weirdness to myself for a long time, and apparently a lot of other people were doing the same thing. Nothing’s going on, nothing to see here. Everything’s fine.

Then it exploded. Screaming headlines, panicked news anchors, everybody disabling the comments section. A real “where were you” moment. One day we were all trying to hide these private fears, and the next day they were public, confirmed everywhere.

It’s funny to think that something like that can be forgotten, but it won’t be long. I mean, everything gets forgotten eventually, but this is going to disappear before its time. Me, I was at work when I found out–what are the chances, huh? The intern practically breaks down my door, he’s so upset. He’s going around telling everyone in person, because text and emoji cannot adequately convey the intensity of his alarm.

I know the kid had to have been off sleep since high school at least, because that’s just how it was. Most parents didn’t want their kids taking it, but you didn’t need to be eighteen to get it. And high school, like everything else, was getting more competitive.

Since then, they’ve discovered the younger you are when you start taking it, the harder it hits. I can just imagine this kid, staring at the screen in the middle of the night, looking up the symptoms of Alzheimer’s or schizophrenia. He must have been terrified.

Anyway, the findings about this widespread memory-loss thing–I don’t even know who started it, but someone must have done a poll or something–they came out and of course everyone realized they were having the same problem. It wasn’t like with cigarettes and cancer, where you just increase your chances. No, this was direct, a one-to-one ratio. You took the drugs, you lost your memories. You took more, you lost more.

Of course they tried to cover it up–who wouldn’t? They said, no, that can’t be what’s causing it. At first, you know, they tried to say it wasn’t happening, but nobody was having that. There’s only so far you can go in trying to convince the public they don’t know what they’re talking about.

So they started trying to say that sleep deprivation itself was causing the memory loss. It was like arguing about whether guns or bullets are to blame when you’re in the middle of a shootout.

Eventually–and this really started a firestorm when it happened–the companies that made the drugs were cleared of any wrongdoing. Seems they never actually violated any rules or laws. All their research and testing and advertising had been up to code, with nobody to blame but the consumers. We shouldn’t have taken so much.

So after working round the clock became the only way to put food on the table–or more likely the desk–we were thrown out on the street anyway and told it was all our own fault. Now, I think it should have been declared the fault of every boss who encouraged this stupidity in the first place. But no one asked me, and I wouldn’t even be acceptable as a witness in court. I know my words might sound angry, but anger is something tied to the memory of being wronged. And to be honest, I don’t remember being wronged.

In fact, I’m not sure how much of my story I really do remember. I know you get tired of my coming in here all the time and telling you and anyone else the same story over and over again. But telling the story is the only way I can hold onto it. What I told you about my first memory, in the university bookstore, might not really be my first memory. It was probably the oldest thing I could remember when I started telling my story. But now I wonder if I’m only remembering telling the story.

And isn’t that the same thing? If I can’t clearly picture it, but I can tell you what happened, don’t I remember it? Isn’t it like those people long ago, Homer and whoever, who repeated stories to each other around a campfire?

See, I don’t even know if I remember that from school, or if it’s something somebody told me, some counselor maybe, when I started telling my story. Maybe that’s why I started telling it, because someone told me about Homer. He is something they talk about in school, right? I’m not sure.

There’s so much I’m not sure of anymore. You, you go home at night and you know who you are, you know who you were and you know what’s happened in your life.  You have the context. But me–and I’m sure there are other people trying the same tack, like maybe whoever told me about Homer–we don’t have that context. The only way we have to hang onto any semblance of a background, anything to anchor us from drifting off into nowhere, is to keep recalling, retelling, and remaking the memories, the story.

Now I know I’m probably going to get kicked out of this library sooner or later. Heck, maybe they’ve already kicked me out dozens of times. I’ve got a little bit of memory, but I honestly don’t know if they’ve told me to leave, or if they realized I don’t remember it and gave up. Eventually, I’ll probably be yelling on street corners, to whoever can hear me, and then when they arrest me I’ll tell the other people in jail. Maybe they’ll be telling me their stories over and over again. We’ll just sit there, in our cells, and tell each other what happened, keep feeding the fire so it doesn’t go out.

Yes, I know it will probably go out. And I also know that you’re probably only being polite. I’ll leave you be. But I can’t promise that I won’t tell you my story again.  Yes, I know, I’m sorry. I know you have places to be, things to do, all that.

Nice kid, that one. Sort of reminds me of myself at that age. I think. Can’t really be sure, of course. What? Oh, just talking about the past. If you have a minute, I can tell you about it. Sure.

My first memory is probably…


BIO: Angela Boswell is a writer and artist who spends most of her time making things and making things up. She also works in a public library.