Three Alarms

by Weston Cutter

She starts by tossing the covers back, as if they or she are flaming. Days hadn't always started like this for her. Before, when she'd needed only one alarm clock to wake up, she woke slowly, crutching her consciousness with a snooze-button, strategically placed and oversized. That was before.

Yes, she begins every day of her life by a three-alarm wake up. First is a pre-chosen and selected track from a CD of her choice. She's tried everything--loud rock, quiet jazz, tempestuous classical, even her parents' folk favorites--but nothing works to get her all the way removed from her cushy repose. She's moved the alarm clock across the room, so she now has to literally get out of bed, walk over, and turn the thing off, but her walking, or even cogently acting to silence the music, signals nothing as far as being past slumber. Nothing really.

The second alarm is the local classical station, tuned sharply with the volume set at the maximum level. She's awoken to crashes and thrushes and silences and swells and vibratos and with each has had the same affair: a brief and arching arm smacking, with some resentment, the pimpled off button. She used to rely on the four raised pimples of the button to guide her drowsy fingers as she turned it off every morning, but the geography of the top of the alarm clock is now so familiar that her action precedes thought: she simply slams the thing off.

These two alarms are set to go off roughly twenty to twenty-five minutes apart. Sometimes, when she knows she needs a hasty waking up, she'll set them only fifteen minutes apart, but will never set them closer than that.

Also, there is this: once a body is shocked from deep sleep twice, it cannot simply retire in ecstasy back into said sleep. Deep sleep occurs, according to the latest research, toward the end of the average four-hour sleep cycle. The brain waves during this deepest of sleep, REM sleep, are excited and clumsy, spraying the blue-screens of the dreamer's mind with images and colors and fusions of every in- and conceivable variety. Dreams will not continue if interrupted twice rather consecutively.

She is always shocking herself from deep sleep. It is a tricky game she plays with herself, nightly: she only gives herself between six and four hours a night to sleep. This puts, when kept to for stretches of a week or more, the sleeper in a constant state of exhaustion. All of which is exacerbated by the fact that she, every night, sets her first alarm to hijack her from the deepest of sleep, usually after about 5 hours of sleep--obviously less if she's sleeping a total of only four that night, but still. She willingly, consciously, hijacks herself.

She sets the third alarm and looks at it. The alarm has a green background and the digits are black, or appear so. She remembers a picture of her brother where he stood directly in front of the sun in the photo and he was black in the picture. To this end she wonders, some nights, if the digits are really black. She usually chastises herself, after less than two minutes, for thinking these thoughts.

Sometimes it is possible to slip into lucid dreaming after being jolted from deep sleep twice in less than twenty minutes. Sometimes after she's smacked classical music out of her aural world she reclines again and there appears, wherever dreams appear within us, her father, say, as the merchant marine he claims to have wanted to be. Or perhaps her twin autistic cousins who, while technically not savants, can nearly read each others' minds. They enjoy fountain pens, and when they begin their daily rituals of disassembling and cleaning and reassembling and inking and testing and ordering their sizable collection, one will always wordlessly correct the as yet undone mistake the other is about to make--if one is in the process of forgetting something, the other is in the process of remembering it.

Sometimes she only dreams of colors and shapes, and green triangles make up rules against speaking to purple squares or ochre rhombi, or cubes secede from the party and find physical projects. She once witnessed a clan of cubes build a house, sneering the whole time about those shapes too theoretical to do anything pragmatic.

Or rarely, rarely, she'll have the strange meta-dream, where she dreams of sleeping and dreaming between the second and third alarm of the morning. She dreams of herself dreaming, sometimes from within the dreamed dream, sometimes from without. When on the outside she tries to be more forgiving of the body she brutalizes with too little sleep, too little food, too much exertion. In these dreams she can float down and rub her shin-splints, or pump the knots out of her triceps, or loosen her toes from clumping so tightly. If she looks cold to herself dreaming in her dream, she'll bring the covers up and notice the two freckles under her left earlobe. She's nearly kissed herself as she's dreamt in her dreams.

From the inside the dream of dreaming is trapping, somewhat constricting. So much so that she's woken up before from one of them, moments before the third and final alarm has gone off, with a racing pulse, pupils already dilated, her skin already creasing itself into the usual perforations that signify alert awakeness--eyes and mouth open, nose and ears receiving.

The final alarm goes off and she tosses the covers back, as if she or they are flaming. She feels brave, somehow; at being crutchless so early in the morning, at her ingenuity with the three alarms. The final alarm is a deranged buzzer, blipping and whirring erratically, something faulty set within its wiring. At this, too, she feels brave: enough so to handle the unpredictability of life so early, in something so nonnegotiable as an alarm. She looks at the numbers as she steadies herself, running her hand through her hair and feeling the first need to pee. She looks at the numbers and sees they still seem black.

Every once in awhile she looks at the numbers and actually bends over to scrutinize them. She senses--and maybe it's because it's so early in the morning, or because she wants to think of the numbers as being fragile and beatable--that, were her clock to simply get brighter as she slept, if the green background would magnify, the numbers would disappear. The transference from black to nothing, the ability to destroy through consumption, magnitude. And she wonders then, bent over a clock in a creased nightshirt, hair plumped into dissonant clumps and patches and strands, hands accounted for but not awake--if anyone has seen her all these years, as she throws her body rising from sleep, as she runs to work, as she works, as she speeds through obligations and chores, as she fucks and screams and longs and gets loved, as she loves. She wonders when life will take her over, brighten until she is nothing, until she finds herself living within some other life, still hers but maybe less bright, obscured by some other glory.

2001 Weston Cutter. All rights reserved.