What They Call Insomnia

Finding stillness in a restless capital – by R.S.

For three months during my first spring in Beijing, I couldn’t sleep longer than three hours a night.

It was mostly restlessness. Everything I was doing to relax was only heightening my senses, keeping me further and further from sleep. I tried a litany of rituals – meditation, breathing exercises, reading the dictionary, listening to crosstalk comic dialogues on the radio, soaking my hands in warm water. If by chance something finally allowed me to sleep, I would repeat it the next night. It never worked twice.

I guess you could call it insomnia, or what Murakami called “the same as what people refer to as insomnia.” But I never used the term; I just called it having trouble sleeping.

I would count the hours before my alarm would ring. The more time passed, the more panic I felt, knowing that I had less time to sleep. When the light around the curtains softly announced morning’s arrival, like a sheepish guest appearing late at a dinner party, terror seeped in and I knew another sleepless night had passed.

Each night, the monkey of my mind thrashed in a cage of thoughts. I would get stuck in the past, or wander in circles in search of the future. It was unclear if my irritability and panic were the causes or the consequences of my difficulty sleeping. I felt like a frenzied dog chewing on her tail, chasing it in circles.

Interacting with people during the day became unbearable. At work, I would find excuses to lock myself in a conference room and avoid people at lunch. Making small talk was impossible, because I never had a straight answer for the simple question, “How are you?”

At night, I went out to bars in the Gulou district because I could dance the tarantella like a hysteric and no one would notice. The haze of smog and cigarette smoke masked any pretence, and whisky mixed with green tea helped chase any thoughts away. But conversations from the night would follow me back to my apartment. Voices populated my room.

One night when sleep refused to come, I looked up and called the nearest 24-hour massage place in my neighbourhood. Anything to try and relax.

Jade Island Spa Club was on the second floor of a residential building ten minutes away from my apartment. When I arrived, an attendant was sitting behind the front desk, but I could tell from his trainers that he had just changed into his uniform.

What followed was one of the more uncomfortable experiences I’ve ever had. Jade Island wasn’t fancy, but I was led into a room with a massage table, wooden bathtub and two lounge chairs. I changed out of my pajama pants into their flimsy disposable underwear, but when my masseuse arrived, she acted surprised I still had my shirt on.

She was rubbing her eyes, and it was obvious she had just woken up – probably summoned from an underground dormitory nearby. Xiao Hong, or Little Red, was maybe twenty and heavily made up. She was wearing a white miniskirt, and both her eyelashes and nails were fake. I wanted to feel sorry for her; she was probably used to all sorts of shady clientele. But I had chosen jingyou, the aromatic oil massage, and she was demanding I undress.

We negotiated a compromise, and I lay uncomfortably on the table in nothing but the disposable underwear and a towel draped over my front. Xiao Hong was careful with her nails, touching me as delicately as if she were folding napkins. I was too frustrated to complain, but when she got to my legs, it felt like my muscles were cramping up.

I couldn’t help it. Every touch made me convulse. She offered to do the rest of the session on the back of my neck and shoulders. Even face down, I could feel her watching the clock. We were both relieved when the hour was up.

When I emerged, light had broken. It was a peaceful early morning in Beijing, and the air felt cool on my skin. I went to the park, where people were already practicing tai chi.

I watched old men draw calligraphy on smooth concrete tiles, with big brushes dipped in water.

I watched the tiles get warm enough for the letters to evaporate into the dry air.

I watched old ladies line dance in a circle, waving red silk handkerchiefs.

An old dog was following them around, trying to find the end of the circle. But the circle had no end.

Rosalyn S. is from Hong Kong and lives in Beijing