17 January, 2020
FOR A WHILE, I forgot that I was a sleepwalker. I went a few years without an episode, to the point that my wife only learned about it after we’d been married. It was unavoidable: one night she found me forcefully removing every item of clothing from my dresser.
“I tried to talk to you, but you wouldn’t answer,” she said. She wanted to know if she should wake me up next time, by patting my shoulder or slapping me or something.
“No, don’t ever do that. They say that’s the worst thing.”
“Then what should I do?”
I didn’t know. “Keep your distance, I guess. Stop me if I try to jump out the window.”
I’ve since read up on it. When I say “read” what I really mean is “I’ve read the first three results for ‘sleepwalking’ on Google.” It turns out you should wake the person.
They also say the causes of sleepwalking are sleep deprivation, stress, and alcohol. They don’t seem to understand that I drink alcohol because I am sleep deprived and stressed. Something tells me they’d find a problem with that.
“When someone sleepwalks, they might quietly walk around their room. Or they might run or attempt to ‘escape.’”
— WebMD’s page for “Sleepwalking Disorders: Sleepwalking Basics” (Google result #3)
I also talk in my sleep, usually just garbled nonsense. Sometimes a few words are strung together in the cadence of a sentence. One night my wife heard me taking stock of my unconscious in the voice of the Count from Sesame Street: “One, two, three…four Al Gores!”
I don’t ever remember sleepwalking, though sometimes I regain consciousness in the middle of an episode. The first time was jarring. It wasn’t like waking up; it wasn’t gradual in the least bit. I suddenly recognized that the task at hand, one that I had been working at diligently, hadn’t been my decision.
It was inspecting door knobs in the hallway of a hotel. This was my wedding night. I was naked.
I’ve spent the past year working for a travel agency. Most people don’t realize travel agencies still exist. I didn’t until I responded to a Craigslist post seeking an “Interpersonal Communication Specialist — MAKE $$$ QUICK!” In the phone interview, the man on the other end asked how often I traveled.
“Rarely,” I said. “I try to make it to my dad’s a few times a year, but next to that I mostly stay local.”
“Where does your dad live?” “Across town,” I said.
“Employment of travel agents is projected to decline 12 percent from 2016 to 2026. The ability of travelers to use the Internet to research vacations and book their own trips is expected to continue to suppress demand for travel agents.” — The Bureau of Labor Statistics’s Occupational Outlook Handbook
We mostly cater to older women who have recently lost their husbands.
A lot of them tell me that they don’t really want to go on vacation, but that their children assured them that they’d “earned it.”
There are a few widowed men, and some recently retired couples. The common denominator seems to be age. And wealth, I guess. And an inability to use the internet. Maybe that one was obvious.
My boss’s name is Michael Dagostino, but he asks everyone to call him “Papa Mike.” If you call him Mr. Dagostino, he tells you Mr. Dagostino is his father’s name. If you call him Michael, he tells you to step into his office and asks why you’re being so resistant to the organic culture of the office.
Mr. Dagostino says he’s a “former hippie.” His favorite band is the Grateful Dead. He was at Woodstock and said it was a “perfect utopia,” which is redundant. He lived in San Francisco in the 70s, but he always makes quotation marks with his fingers when he says “lived.”
“I didn’t have my own place. No one did in those days.” If he couldn’t find a place to crash, he’d sleep in the park. Apparently they used to give out free food there — the “hippies,” I mean.
In 1976 he was arrested for selling cocaine to an undercover cop. He beat the charge, mostly because “he knew a few people.” After that, he moved back east and opened the travel agency in 1980 as a way to “go legit.”
“I was on the wrong path. But what I’ve learned in my life is that we all have a path towards our true selves, and the cosmos has a way of kicking in your door and saying, ‘let me help you with that.’ My dream was never to own a travel agency, but now I can’t imagine anything else. Sometimes it seems like someone else’s story that was told to me. You know what I mean?”
I didn’t really, but I nodded yes. This was during my interview, and I really wanted the job.
The proper term for sleepwalking is “somnambulism.”
“You need to do something about your sleepwalking,” my wife said. I wanted to correct her, but I knew I’d mispronounce it.
She told me I should keep track of my dreams in a journal. She thought that certain dreams might lead to sleepwalking. “If you write them down, you might find a pattern,” she said.
She even bought me a tiny spiral-bound notebook for the bed stand. I’m supposed to write down whatever I can remember, as soon as I wake up. The first and only entry reads, “From what I can remember, I was lying down.”
A psychiatrist told me that there’s no consensus in the field on the function of dreams. Carl Jung believed dreams were a representation of the unconscious. Sigmund Freud believed dreams displayed unconscious desires. But some psychiatrists believe dreams serve no purpose at all.
“They call it brain urine,” he said.
Personally, I don’t think it has anything to do with dreams. I think people get sleepwalking confused with night terrors, which is probably why when I mention that I’m a sleepwalker people tend to look at me with concerned eyes. Pity, I guess.
I don’t know much about night terrors, but I’ve read that they’re caused by emotional distress that goes into overdrive during sleep. A waking nightmare. Sleepwalking is the opposite — it’s a physical body steered by a vacant mind.
“My goal with this place has always been to give back to the larger community,” Mr. Dagostino told me on my first day at the travel agency.
At the time I thought he was talking about our town. He’s pointed out since then that he meant the “hippie” community, but I don’t think anyone really uses that word anymore. Well, maybe they do, but I haven’t heard it lately.
All of my co-workers have pasts similar to Mr. Dagostino’s. Jade followed Phish for a few summers in the 90s, selling nitrous balloons out of the back of her pick-up. Ethan hopped trains across the country for six years, chasing warm weather and scavenging meals from the dumpsters of vegetarian restaurants. Desiree studied holistic healing and witchcraft with a wiccan earth-goddess in Asheville. She still has the certificate pinned to the wall behind her computer.
“I think you’d be an excellent addition to our team,” Mr. Dagostino said at the end of our interview. “You might balance us all out a bit.”
Complaints about co-workers’ behavior I’ve emailed to Mr. Dagostino:
- “Jade’s kombucha mother is on the top shelf of the snack pantry and looksfar too heavy to be placed that high. I politely asked Jade to move the jar. She said she would, but it is still there. That was one week ago to the day. The shelf appears to be buckling.”
- “Desiree’s ‘employee teach-in’ on Friday included non-staff members who appeared to be paying Desiree for presiding over the ‘healing ceremony.’ While I do not object to Desiree’s religious beliefs, I believe this is both an improper use of the office and an insurance hazard, especially considering the amount of sage that was burned.”
- “Yesterday I found Ethan rooting around the refrigerator and noticed that he was removing all of the meat products. This included removing the turkey from my turkey and swiss sandwich. When I confronted Ethan, he suggested that his actions were an animal rights protest and he was thereby protected by the First Amendment. ‘Maybe you’d know that if you actually read it rather than blindly accepting what they taught you,’ he told me. I have since re-read the First Amendment and respectfully disagree with his interpretation.”
- “The jar for Jade’s kombucha shattered and brought the entire pantry down with it. As you know, Jade took a mental health day today. As such, I spent my lunch cleaning up shards of glass and globs of her mother. On a related note, we are out of snacks.”
Mr. Dagostino’s responses always begin the same way: “I want to thank you for your email.”
“Clearly this kind of behavior is unacceptable and I’m sorry you had to go through that, especially considering the numerous conflicts you’ve been dealing with in the past few weeks. I’ve talked to Jade and we’re working on a plan to correct her tendency towards these sorts of actions.
Whenever I’m frustrated with someone, I ask how I might be able to use that situation as a moment of personal growth. How might this be an opportunity?
Throughout my life, I’ve come to the realization that nothing is ‘accidental’ or ‘mistaken.’ The cosmos try and point us towards our destiny, but we must be willing to accept that direction and use it to our advantage.
So ask yourself: what are the cosmos trying to tell me in this moment? I hope this helps.
Several times I have drafted a response that reads: “Mr. Dagostino: This does not help.” I never press send.
At the office’s annual winter solstice party, Mr. Dagostino stood on a chair and asked for silence.
“I feel immense gratitude every day that I’m able to work with you all. Your generosity, your openness, and your commitment keep me energized and enlivened,” he said, oscillating his head as he spoke, making eye contact with each of us. “More than anything, I feel so privileged to be a part of an organization that values individuality, creativity, and free-thinking. I’m humbled to be in your presence, and I thank you immensely for your gifts.”
With that, he poured us all paper cups of dandelion wine. I saw Desiree drop a pill in hers. When she caught my eyes, she sneered. “You going to send an email?”
“Do you see yourself as a Travel Agent? Is this who you are?” my dad asked.
“I’m not defined by my job,” I said.
“When you meet someone at a party, what’s the first question they ask?”
I didn’t respond. He knew he was right, and so did I, even though I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been to a party.
“It’s a good job,” I said. “Stable.” He turned back to the TV and let out a deep breath, the way he always did when he knew I was lying.
My dad used to sleepwalk when he was a kid. He lived in the Bronx, in a two bedroom apartment on the 30th floor of a towering brick building. He shared a bed with two of his brothers, but he never seemed to wake them. “Heavy sleepers,” he said.
When my grandpa’d hear my dad stirring around the apartment, tripping over chairs and running into end tables, he’d follow him, fascinated. He’d open doors and press the button for the elevator. Once they made it all the way to the street before my grandpa decided they’d gone too far. He threw my dad over his shoulder like a burlap sack and walked him up the 30 flights of stairs, back to bed.
Maybe it’s genetic. My dad says he doesn’t do it anymore, sleepwalking. But my mom isn’t around, so how would he know?
One morning a typed note was waiting on my desk. It read, “No One Wants You Here.” I grabbed it between my thumb and index finger, worried about compromising the culprit’s prints, and delivered it to Mr. Dagostino. I spent the rest of the morning making cold calls to senior centers, trying to distract myself.
Later that afternoon, Mr. Dagostino called me into his office and told me that Jade, Ethan, and Desiree had all denied writing it.
“Then who did?” I asked.
“Now, see, that’s what I’m wondering,” he said.
That Friday, Mr. Dagostino emailed the office to explain that we’d be spending Saturday and Sunday at a retreat center outside of town. “An environment that’s not authentically open is a flawed environment,” he wrote. “I apologize for the short notice, but I think we can all agree that this is imperative.”
“I had plans with my dad this weekend,” I wrote him.
Rather than respond to me, he replied-all to his original email. “As I mentioned, we are working on being OPEN. That includes your calendars. Anyone who fails to attend will be terminated,” he wrote.
He signed it with one word: “Peace.”
“You need to quit,” my wife said.
“But I love my clients,” I said. I think it sounded convincing.
“We could make it work.” She mentioned picking up some overtime, texted a friend who had heard of an opening at a call center outside of town. “We have options,” she said.
I tried to imagine starting a new job, all of the training and paperwork and general discomfort that I had already worked through years ago. Ice-breakers, name tags, handshakes, sexual assault presentations, “learning lunches.”
“It just feels like I’m too old to start over,” I said.
She stared at me for a few seconds, perplexed. “You’re 27,” she said.
Mr. Dagostino began the retreat by leading us through an hour of restorative yoga, followed by a silent breakfast. “We need reflection before action,” he said. “We need processing, not prosecuting.”
I tried to use his mindfulness techniques while I ate my fruit salad, but I lost my appetite at the amplified sound of my own chewing.
The day dragged. There was scream therapy, transcendental meditation, a video on harnessing positive vibrations. I learned that I am a Capricorn, and that the stars are to blame for my negative actions. “Unless you choose to ignore that knowledge,” Jade told me. “Then that’s on you.”
At dinner, Mr. Dagostino said that he believed we were making progress, but that we needed to cut to the heart. “If we’re going to improve the culture, then we first need to interrogate it.” He suggested we name what we believed were the core problems of the office. Everyone turned to me.
“I’m drawing a blank,” I said. “I love working here.”
“We’re not being honest with others, which means we’re not being honest with ourselves,” Mr. Dagostino said. “I want everyone to imagine that this is an exorcism. We need to deal with these negative feelings. We need to hear them out so that we can expel them from our systems.”
That seemed to motivate my colleagues. Desiree said that I was prejudiced against her beliefs. Ethan called me a conniving neo-liberal pencil-dick. Jade told me my insecurities around her were based on a strong sexual attraction. Even Mr. Dagostino chimed in: “You seem to relish the act of suffocating others’ positive auras.” He said it as though he were a clinician offering helpful advice. “It saddens me.”
Mr. Dagostino ended the day with guided breathing, telling us that we’d need a good night’s rest for the following day’s exhaustive final spiritual cleansing.
If I was lucky, I thought, my sleepwalking might yield some inadvertent revenge — stomping on Jade’s dreadlocks, kicking Ethan in the forehead, spitting in Desiree’s hemp satchel. I was surprised to find how comforting I found the scenarios, and re-played them, over and over, until the images began to blend together and the room faded.
There was the blinding glare of headlights and the shot of adrenaline in my veins. I turned away, unable to see.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” a voice said. He sounded terrified.
I turned back to the light, my hand in front of my eyes, and asked him to lower the high beams.
He clicked them off in silence and my eyes began to adjust to the night, allowing me to finally take stock of the surroundings. A dead end sign. A few houses with driveways under the cover of tree branches, obscuring the sky for as far as I could see.
He was younger, probably still in high school, his face still scarred from acne. “Sorry about the lights. But when I saw you wandering…” He was uneasy, standing behind his driver’s side door like a cop in a TV shootout.
“How long have we been talking?”
“I’ve been calling to you for about three minutes or so. Are you drunk? High?” I couldn’t tell if he was concerned or jealous.
He closed his door and walked towards me, relieved by my lie. “Just wanted to make sure you were safe is all.” He took out a pack of cigarettes from his back pocket and held it out, raising his eyebrows as if to say want one?
It was a brand new pack, maybe his first. “Thanks,” I said, even though I didn’t want one, even though I had never smoked before, not even at his age.
“I live at the top of the hill,” he said, lighting his cigarette. “It’s mostly old people down this end. And since it’s a dead end we don’t often get people driving down here at night. So, if I see someone walking around here, I usually assume the worst.”
He held out the lighter for me, and I leaned into the flame, the cigarette between my lips. I took a puff and then worried that maybe that wasn’t what grown men did, the lean-in. I had definitely seen it somewhere, but I thought that maybe it was in a movie about teenagers in the 60s.
I nodded and tried to pretend I was enjoying the smoke. “I was at a work event, not far from here,” I said, though I still didn’t know where I was.
“What do you do?”
“I’m a travel agent.”
He squinted, as if studying my face might provide an explanation. I was barefoot, wearing nothing except for my briefs and an undershirt with yellowed pit stains, but I still felt the need to defend myself. “It’s a good job. Benefits, stable income. It’s an honest living.”
He smiled, pitying me, this sad psychotic mess, a grown man who ran around at night in his underwear, who talked about jobs that didn’t exist and tried to make friends with teenagers.
I took another drag and coughed. He tossed his half-finished cigarette on the ground and stomped it out. I threw mine down, too, trying to match his bravado, then realized I couldn’t extinguish it with my bare foot. I kicked some dirt on it and hoped that was enough.
The kid drove off and I started walking, hoping I’d eventually find something I recognized. I imagined Mr. Dagostino and the others waking to find me gone and wondered if they’d be concerned. Even though I didn’t know where I was going, I knew I wasn’t headed back to them. I thought I might be doing them a favor, one less obstacle to their utopia. Maybe I was doing myself one, too.
If all went as planned, I figured I’d get home just before daylight. I’d lift the covers of our bed, and my wife would roll around a few times, mumbling something I couldn’t understand, her eyes shut tight.
“Every thing’s fine,” I’d say, laying down beside her. “We’re finally going to get some sleep.” I didn’t know that she’d be listening. I didn’t know that it mattered.