Issue 2 / Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Courtney Kersten

Awake Next to the Snoring

1:54 a.m.

Remember: the great thing about this situation is that now you’ve got all this time to think. And so far, this is what you know:

The snore has many dialects.

There are plugged snorts, floppy exhales, whistling librettos, and sounds akin to a toilet-paper-stuffed trumpet struggling to be heard above the band. There are fine-china delicate snores, where each vibration of the inhale and the exhale smear together in an audible drone where you can hear nose hairs trembling, the uvula jiggling back and forth, a sound like Tibetan monks chanting. There are those that blurt like stubborn furniture being pushed around a room, growing ever more obnoxious as they moan against the floor. And, all the while, you lie awake, waiting for the next inhale.

The snore you meet in this Oslo sleeping room is a sloppy shipwreck: a loud crash, boards slamming into one another, and then tiny exhaled gurgles, small waves crashing on the deck. This accident has been occurring for the past twenty minutes. You wonder if you need to call the coast guard. You worry about your most fragile carry-on: a small mustard jar of your mother’s ashes stowed in your luggage, nestled among your underwear and swimming suit, awaiting their final burial in turquoise waters far south of here.

The snorer is sleeping, her back turned to you, in the bunk parallel to yours. The most obvious solution is to wake her up and tell her she’s snoring and ask her to roll over. Yet doing this seems invasive; you feel anxious thinking about touching her shoulder, waking her up to say she’s snoring. Now you’re really itchy thinking about it—you couldn’t do that. There’s no way you can wake this girl up. She might not speak English. She could be deaf. What if she just had surgery to fix a life-threatening nasal blockage and that’s why she’s snoring? She might be offended. This would be very insensitive of you. She’d tell stories about you once she returned home: This girl in Oslo woke me up in the middle of the night to tell me to stop snoring. I mean, are you kidding me? I couldn’t help it! She should’ve considered that I just had surgery for my life-threatening nasal blockage. What an inconsiderate bitc—this option is cancelled out. You have no ear plugs, your pillow too thin to smash over your head, and you are without a thick sweater or towel to use as a makeshift sound-blocker.

You decide you can ignore it.

You decide you will mentally transform her snores into a thunderstorm slapping around in the distance, into the gentle cries of yearning-to-be-counted sheep, and into the music on cassette tapes played during yoga classes, meditations, and hot-stone massages. You close your eyes and imagine waves. You remember that you have been in this position before: awake next to the snoring.

You had a boyfriend once who snored. It was a cacophony that sounded as though it could only be produced by a creature with a long thin snout and green pleather skin who permanently clasped a scum-crusted, wooden club in his left hand and used it to crack the shells of snails and slurp their gummy bodies for protein. It was a circuitous snore that produced a thin whistle of inhale at the moment when most snores are silent. It was a congested drain being relieved of its plug and then flushed away. You would lie next to him, awake and irritated and numbed by this monotonous soundtrack and think, I am living with a garbage disposal.

You dismiss your previous tactic of mentally transforming her snores into the stuff of fluffy creatures hopping over a fence and midnight tides. This, you decide, is delusional. You discover that, instead, if you thrash around in your bunk, throw your head against your pillow, and twist the sheets around your body as if you are wriggling into a bean pod, such rowdy rolling about will momentarily wake the girl up so that she stops snoring for about ten seconds.

You believe you are brilliant.

You do this repeatedly.

You never once spent the entire night in the same bed with him. You would wrap this worn crocheted blanket, with what seemed like hundreds of pills clinging to the maroon yarn like fleas, around yourself and creep away to the couch or the floor. There, you would dissolve into a beautiful, exasperated, instantaneous slumber only to be awoken by his feet on the floor, his voice asking, “Why did you leave? I wake up and you’re always gone.”

Cue your line: “You were snoring.”

His line: (scoff) “I do not snore.”

And your favorite line: (blank look) “You make demon noises.”

He bought a package of those little strips you put across your nose like a crowning wreathe on the winning racehorse: Congratulations! Your snores are the very worst! He smiled at me with the stiff strip crinkling over his grin. You fantasized that the strip was actually for a rhinoplasty. This way, beneath it, the strip would conceal pain.

That night, you watched the white strip glow against his face, illuminated by the streetlights outside, and listened to his continual draining and clogging up: an infomercial on repeat for a new toilet cleaner product.

Somehow, you were delighted that the strip didn’t work. It provided an excuse to leave. Because this is what you knew but wouldn’t admit then: both of you were there for selfish reasons but both of you were ultimately there for different reasons. Your paths could only cross so long before the differences between the selfish reasons became too obvious.

And one night, you grabbed an already packed suitcase and left him making his noises. And you left not to sleep on the floor or the couch or even further away in the bathtub but gone, to the train, a plane, friends’ beds and floors, and then home where you sat across from your mother as she asked why you had left Florence; it sounded like it would’ve been so fun—a vacation to Italy—why would you just leave that?

You didn’t tell her about the snoring or the duplicitous nature of the man you never really slept with or about temper tantrums and phones thrown across rooms inches from skulls or about an immediate knowing upon arrival that you’d made a very, very bad decision. Instead you told her, with complete sincerity, I missed you so much.

2:29 a.m.

After four respites of thrashing-induced silence being thwarted by brunette girl’s expert ability to drift off to sleep again within seconds and return to her “better-call-the-Coast-Guard” slumber, you do the thrashing routine once more. Then, this time, she wakes up and rolls over to face you instead of the wall. You are now paranoid. You think she knows it’s you: that girl in bunk 4B who keeps writhing around like some weirdo and waking me up. She could put things in your shoes, poke you with an umbrella from across the space between your bunks in your sleep, start snoring louder as punishment for your egocentric, purposeful thrashing. You feel guilty. Feel selfish. Get up to pee. Consider sleeping in the bathroom to avoid snoring. Consider sleeping in the hallway and throwing a towel over your face to block out the light. Poke at and scrape yellow substance (mold? crusty soap? dried puke?) off the place where the sink hits the wall with your thumb. Decide these options are all bad ideas. You return to your bunk, stepping slowly, in rhythm with her snores to avoid waking the snorer; you pretend it’s a modern dance of repentance. Your mother would think that you trying to sleep next to the snoring, obsessing and tossing and thinking and thinking and turning and thinking, is hilarious. She would giggle behind a clasped mouth, her eyes wide and devious, and would provide no sympathy.

You remember your stepfather snoring once, a whiskey-induced, phlegmy drone that you could hear through the wall. You were eight, maybe nine, and had passed out on the living room rug. You heard your mother hiss at him, You’re snoring! Roll over. A fight erupted, yelling about bottles of whiskey and crushed beer cans and this and that in the trash each weekend, about being a drunk, about no, you’re the drunk, about being disgusting, and the yard work never being done.

You stayed very still, a chameleon mirroring the grainy rug, and once their voices drifted away to silence, you pattered away to your room and shut yourself behind the door.

You remember watching your mother put milk and sugar into a cup of coffee the next morning and hand the cup to him before drifting back to make a cup for herself as though the entire scuffle the night before had never happened. You put your ear to your cereal bowl and listened to the bits crackle.

You have concluded that humans have snored throughout time. This is a normal thing, a noise that is a mere consequence of our anatomy. What other sounds are you supposed to make when you have creatures with soft palates and the ability to sleep in various places and drink various things, creatures that have weak throats and misshapen jaws? You yourself have snored on many occasions. You theorize that there is perhaps some adaptive tolerance buried deep within your instinctual self that will allow you to fall asleep next to shipwreck girl. Eventually, your body will lull itself to sleep, you will be pulled into unconsciousness by pure exhaustion, and you will sleep soundly. You glide your hands behind the back of your thighs and then draw them up your torso, clasping them in front of your chest. You wait for this intuitive exhaustion to kick in, counting the seconds between her breaths and feeling your heartbeat vibrating against your thumbs.
There is another kind of snore.

It has a specific name, a real name, not “demon noises” or “whiskey-induced drone” or “bunny coos.” It’s called the “death rattle.” It is the snore, the breath really, of the terminally ill. It is the noise that happens when one loses all control over swallowing or coughing, and saliva creates a lagoon at the back of the throat. And with each breath, the person’s inhales and exhales seem to produce a “rattle.” This is the sound of a body shutting down, a body saying goodbye, a body dying.

You and your brother stood behind the back of the couch watching your mother rattle below. It seemed as though you could’ve heard her breathing from anywhere in the house—it was so loud. You had been listening to her for the past day and had drawn yourself into a nightmare where you imagined you would hear her breathing from the mailbox, the forest, the stars. It was a sound so eerie that you panicked: you were living in a real haunted house. You fantasized that you would hear this noise wherever you went from now on, a continual flashback to this moment behind the couch, where you stood watching her, unable to further delude yourself about what was to come and knowing that you would be unable to pretend that this whole thing had never happened—there was no turning around once you heard this sound. Your brother went around to the front of the couch and kneeled next to her, sliding another pillow behind her head. He kissed your mother’s face and held her hands. He whispered “She’s just breathing; she’s okay.”

“No, that’s the noise,” you hissed back.

It was both.

3:42 a.m.

You are still awake. Curled up, you stick your hands in between your thighs like a prayer, a question to the cosmos: Why am I still awake next to this snoring girl? What is the cosmic purpose of this induced insomnia?

Sleeping next to the snoring has benefits. In the time you spend awake, you can accomplish many things: catch up on your reading, contemplate how different objects can take on new appearances and hypothetical functions in the dark, and gain a new appreciation for that certain brand of glorious fatigue that allows you to pass out in non-bed spaces such as floors, car seats, and bathtubs.

Before this trip, you read about energy work, about the connection between thoughts and emotions and how these thoughts are woven into the body as an invisible thread tightening and loosening muscles, joints, and cells with tiny needles and knots. You read about diseases linked to thoughts. You read about a war between cells: where the good cells die against the bad cells and how those bad cells live and fester, fueled by guilt, sadness, and anger. You tried to diagnose your mother, to discover how she had been eaten away from the inside. Who caused this? What caused her to feel this way? You also read about the path of souls after death, about who the soul meets and where it goes. You read about the souls of babies who are extracted—you read that, according to some, there is no anger or resentment toward the mother, but that the soul of the baby waits in line, acting as a guide to the mother until the soul is called to another mother or is called to reincarnate again upon conception.

You do not know if this is true or if it’s a bunch of horse shit.

When you read this, you played out the scenarios of your mother as a young woman, alone and pregnant. You knew she found out when she was on a class trip to Spain at seventeen.

You imagined her lying awake, listening to her classmates snoring and connecting the dots between her nausea, fatigue, and unexplained aversion to pringá and huevos rotos and powdered meringue milk. You thought of her contemplating her options. You thought of her wandering through markets and past Cathedrals in a daze, a trip that should’ve been pure adventure and delight tainted by an onerous decision.

You learned about the baby she put up for adoption, and, soon after, about the baby she aborted. You imagined her as a middle-aged woman, a soul with a small candle of guilt lit inside her, throwing off a dim sadness only to those who saw her when she was darkest. You imagined the bad cells gaining legs, buttoning up their coats, grabbing rifles, and attacking. You saw the strands and fibers of shame from the child she gave up and the other she never met stitched inside of her, creating a tapestry too complex for a wax-paper pattern. You wished you could have ripped open the threads, turned her quilt into dish rags, and told her, Mom, that baby? Maybe that soul is me. You looked at pictures of high school her and her then-boyfriend. You thought of their initials scratched into a bathroom wall with a heart around it. You saw the card and flowers he sent when she was ill. And now, you know if you think long enough you can weave a thread between this man as a seventeen-year-old and the babies your mother gave up fathered by him. You can stitch in her sadness as a direct link back to him and this sadness, infused into the tissues and fibers of her body that revolted against her, back to him. And if you’re using a thimble, you can work long enough to connect her death back to this man and seventeen-year-old decisions and then you can say, That boyfriend you had when you were seventeen? He did this to you because he fucked you. Because if you could create that line, roll out that fabric, and cut the appropriate corners, you would have someone to blame. And if you had someone to blame, you think her death would be easier. If you had someone to hate, a name to look up in the phone book and despise, a person to bitch about, you think this would be less traumatic. Well, hell, all of that? All of that might even be fun. And then, backing away from that creation, you force yourself to consider, maybe, your mother and this man, maybe they didn’t know, couldn’t have known, any better. Maybe they loved each other. Maybe you would’ve made the same choices. You’re taking her out of the equation. And it’s not up to you to stitch the lines spelling the should’ves and could’ves. And the only reason this obsesses you is because now she’s dead and you are left to examine the evidence.

There is a reason you did not bring these books with you.

You turn on the light, flatten your body out, and read about Saint Teresa of ávila who you’re sure wouldn’t ever think any of these thoughts about abortions, cursing seventeen-year-old boys, and wanting something to blame.

Within minutes, you are asleep, night-light flickering, your book fanned out and collapsed on the floor as though it is as exhausted as you. Your body rolls over into a twist like a forgotten garden hose, bent and knotted in an overgrown backyard. You dream of nothing.

9:02 a.m.

You see her in the dining hall: that brunette girl with the snore. She sits in the corner, eating a bowl of Corn Flakes. You try not to stare. Or glare. Or catch her gaze as you observe that she has no bags beneath her eyes and looks rather crisp and energetic and healthy in the morning sunshine. Of course she does. She slept for eight hours. You hate her. You hate her very much. This girl—ugh. She’s selfish and ignorant and totally un-self-aware; this girl is a—you tell yourself to stop it. Stop it. Stop it now. You’re not above snoring; you can do it too. She didn’t know she was snoring, how could she know? She was unconscious. Feel both righteous and guilty at this notion. Smile slightly to yourself. You jab a butter knife into a jar of Nutella and smear it on a piece of bread. You stand, waiting for tea to steep. You observe the gentle curve at the bottom of a tea cup, breathe, and think of the ashes nestled in your suitcase next to your underwear. You look back at the tea cup and, for a moment, you pretend that the whole thing never happened—the snoring this time, the snoring that time, the snoring last night. And in that moment, you store the memory deep inside yourself, an experience that will have to be coughed up, picked through, and examined soon—ugly, exposed, and candid—like a sound that can escape only when you are unconscious.


Courtney Kersten’s work can be found in or is forthcoming from River Teeth, DIAGRAM, and The Master’s Review, among others. She lives and writes in Moscow, Idaho. This essay was selected by Maya Sonenberg.

Image ©Anthony Easton via Creative Commons