Hudson Dinh, Academy for Allied Health Sciences
Too quiet for sleep. It’s been that way for some time now, and so I don’t get much of it at all, and what little I do get is not very good. Ideally, there’d be the endless static of a cityscape outside or a nearby dormitory utterly devoted to bacchanals; rather, the sad stillness of the suburbs has me hearing my own heartbeat run about my head. I tried, truly, to adapt. I put on a noise machine and ambient livestreams, put up layers of curtains and tried every room temperature, but nothing clears this silent air.
That sleep I do get is the gift of rain, especially thunderstorms, what with the occasional boom of heaven’s timpani. That’s real ambience, that is, not some pitiful looped track. If I keep the window open, a chilling wind seeps in so that the silent air is rinsed away. It feels odd to be so genuinely excited by flecks of light on a pane and its screen, those endless refractions of streetlights and stoplights. What’s often unfortunate is having to watch them go transparent as the sun saunters slowly down the street, and they have fallen short of sedating me. For nearly everyone else in the apartment complex, I’m sure, this is the fanfare for a new day. I’m there, however, for the entire promenade, and I still can’t quite surmise when precisely the sun rises. I often wonder, at what brightness or hue can I formally greet this new day? Then again, it’s not much of a new day if the old one hasn’t ended.
I do miss the city, I’ll say it outright. It’s not enough of a fix to drive in for architecture classes—I need a constant stream, both of inspiration and familiarity. Such an addiction starts young; I blame a childhood beset by extended family, saturated with a paradox of sociality and loneliness that some call “midding.” That’s when you’re halfway between the life of a party and the ghost of it—in better words, when you sit on the poolside of conversation, not expected to submerge yourself any further but surely welcome to. It’s a fantastic feeling, really. I wouldn’t call it a happy one, but it’s not depressing either; whatever it is, it’s the only sedative that works. I can’t live in a coffeehouse, you know.
By comparison, adult life is a listless thing. Family sees you off to some haughty university, and you bring with you the constant stench of expectations. Too often does it feel like a house built on top of you, demanding upkeep. It’s friendless and it’s restless, and as its foundation, so am I.
In my defense, where insomnia drops you after your abduction is a state of utter abstraction. It’s a nasty business, discriminating reality from dream, so by a certain point you give up, get up, and go out in that trance. Peers won’t have much to do with you; food won’t do much for you. You seem to float here and there, but at the same time you carry this tremendous weight that likes to sit around your eyes and your feet. (Not like that house of expectations helps with the load.) Everything drifts so far from your reach, always before you but never any closer. You’re freezing, and nothing is more attractive than sleep. I think, you may as well not exist.
There is one thing, though, that the rain doesn’t help, that borrows the weight of expectations and offers in exchange a rare, paradoxical clarity: nightwalking. I discovered it coincidentally when some inconvenience had me about town at twilight. Eventually, though, I fell under its umbral charm and began to volunteer for the act. I dress appropriately and creep out of the complex, down the street to the corner, where the first choice of direction greets me—unexpectant but welcoming. From there I am free. That silent air gains a little paranoia and liberation, a quirky color that you don’t forget the taste of. The streets form a titanic web—in my delirium, I am happily reminded of Piranesi’s “imaginary prisons.” So, I don’t bother to try to make sense of it all; who can expect me to? I get to trust instinct alone, and the complex always comes back into view before daybreak. It seems that only I can hear the night’s call—come on now, passing cars don’t count—and that only I am fluent in its language.
But time isn’t very kind to me, and so when hospitals began to fill and the deathly numbers ascended, I found myself frequenting the city fewer and fewer times. I suppose we were living in older structures than we all thought, and as such things are wont to do, all came to ruin quite soon, with us hurried into our mouse-holes to wait out the pandemic. I can’t say school got much more invigorating, what with all the purely theory-based lectures and the toothpick towers dubbed “unit assessments”; the professors still alive weren’t likely getting much sleep anyway. I’m sorry for being so heartless to them all, I really am, but having my rendezvous with the night’s darkness put me in a complacent state. For the first few months, I even slept better than usual; never before had my evenings been so safe, so rational, so controlled.
Always, there was quiet. I treated it warmly at first, but it overstayed its welcome. What was a month anymore, what was a day? Reality began to smear again. You can’t comprehend my frustration at this. Somehow, expectations found my mousehole and plugged it, keeping me from those rendezvous and suffocating me with this bill or that project. I was cast beyond insomnia and into a debt of sanity. Perhaps that’s when the voice came in.
Mind you, mine is a shy apartment. One can’t hear a thing from either adjacent neighbor, day or night. The neighbor above is a young, cocksure character; the one below prehistoric and impulsive. Understandably, we don’t plan picnics together. So when the voice started, I dragged myself to each door inquiring about it, yet receiving no validation. It was, as children would have it, a haunting.
It did start at midnight—the witching hour was nigh and all that. I was broiling in bed, mind winding down, and let out a dusty cough right as sleep opened its doors. In that same moment there sounded, I do swear, another cough, similarly sudden but followed very clearly, Pardon me.
I was shocked awake. The diction was so visceral, the volume so dominant, that there may well have been a mouth at my ear. I scoured the room for another presence, then the rest of the admittedly bare apartment. The door was locked; the window was shut. Nothing was running, save the fridge and the ventilation, and nothing was playing. Outside there blew the same silent air, which seemed to raise its eyebrow at me, a little sympathetic, a little mockingly. Have I disturbed you?
It had to be from the wall.
Nothing is quite so awkward and ineffective as a virtual check-up, but I decided to withstand the staid somberness of my doctor for just a while. Casually, I asked about any peculiarities she had been seeing in patients since the start of the quarantine, anything like hallucinations or split personalities. She gave a fragile, vague reply: that hasn’t been our utmost concern, if you’d like, I can refer you, this medication might be in order, how’s your energy been? School isn’t cheap, so I let the topic wither away there; I figured that the self-diagnosis of insanity would be thriftier than a professional excavation.
While the voice went mute for some time, the mere possibility of its return dashed any sound sleep. I could not begin to craft a dream that the voice would not crash down upon. So I made the time—it wasn’t easy—for nightwalking once more. The aimless hours: stealing glimpses into houses and their workings, their little people and their little talk, walking to a store and treating myself to something for nothing. That kept the tired mind alive. I kept things under control during the night, which was mine. Apparently, so do the lawmen, as the police cruiser sauntered up to me and asked in its glacial way what I was doing out so late at night.
“Nightwalking, sir. I’ve trouble sleeping.”
They questioned if I did this commonly.
“Goodness, no! Nor do I commit anything criminal. You wouldn’t keep yourself cooped up all day nowadays, would you?”
They were fortunate not to. Regardless, they had me coaxed into the cruiser and returned to the complex. I wasn’t aware of the curfew, and upon learning of it, grew a little sullen for the end to my escapades. There went my freedom, the rich colors of night, the safety, the control. The complex crept into view, framed by the bars along the car window. I was irrationally terrified. In that thin paranoia, walking up the stairs to my floor, I forgot to mourn the titanic web; a sea of lucidity submerged those imaginary prisons. The door closed behind me, the bedroom lay before me, and the voice began, Welcome home.
“I don’t believe in ghosts—assuming you are one.”
Assuming you’d even need to, although perhaps it’d help if you did. And all that you “believe” is simply what little you are allowing yourself to experience.
Thus began a most peculiar friendship. I seem, in my conversations with the voice, to let slip from my grasp all rationalism. What was paranoia became bigotry, and that has no place in our relations. Perhaps, I was so deprived of interaction that the walls saw fit to console me. That being said, the walls are quite poor at consoling me:
I don’t care for how you abandoned me some nights ago. It was so sudden and frantic; it made me insecure.
“Don’t you make me sound crazy! As if buildings talk...”
But they do! You know, in the ones that don’t—the ones that can’t answer you—something has gone terribly awry. Something is missing, and it’s really quite sad.
This continued throughout that night, up until that ambiguous break of day, and has recurred without any discernible pattern for many successive nights. Oh, how I try to make sense of the ordeal, and sometimes I get close. Ultimately, however, the voice evades clarity and suspends reality.
“Might I ask why are you haunting me?”
Well, it’s complicated. A few years after my construction, a most blood-curdling crime took place in my walls, and since then the tormented soul of the victim has been imprisoned along the pipes and wires.
“You’re not serious, are you?... Will you ever divulge the exact crime?”
In your dreams!
Ours are atonal dialogues, modulating without reserve from absurdity to disarming sincerity.
“Why stay disembodied? To be a poltergeist would surely spice your, let us call it, existence.”
Listen, I’ll never expect you to prove that you’re really there, and in exchange, I hope you don’t expect the same of me.
“You seem embarrassed.”
When I can’t sleep nor sleep well, I rinse away the quiet myself. I turn a tad toward the wall and fill the space between life and the ghost with a question, a comment, a joke. The voice always engages, as if also lying beyond the wall patiently; when words evade me it closes the gap. A pattern reveals itself gladly.
“Is it not boring to haunt an apartment wall?”
Sure, but I find fun for myself. For instance, I’ve recently been playing around with analogies. I doubt it sounds normal, even if I weren’t what I am, but there’s a wealth of joy to be had in the simple marriage of idea and image.
“I doubt it sounds normal, but I am in utter agreement.”
Dreams, visions, faith, knowledge—what hasn’t analogy succeeded in expressing?
“Indeed! It’s a shame, you know, how so many people—academics especially—do away with analogies as they mature, as if the technique is childish or ineffective. Really, though, it is an endlessly rewarding way to conceive of things.”
Do you have a favorite analogy?
“It’s difficult to say. Embarrassing, too, but I’ve always been fond of the ones about ‘home.’”
I question still the exact nature of the voice: whether it be internal or external. Perhaps with time that truth will also surface.
How go your studies?
“I doubt you really want to know. It’s not a very dynamic affair.”
Really? I would assume that architecture is a very ‘alive’ practice.
“In moments only. Otherwise, I’d liken it more to engineering. I’d surmise it’s been that way for decades now, this heartless approach to design and construction. I spend more time with blueprint paper than with bricks!”
Ah! I myself lament the nature of my own construction. Still today I feel as though I function like a machine.
“Well, I wouldn’t say you’re a ‘machine.’ I don’t think you’re real enough to be anything, especially a machine, if I’m to be honest.”
!... Well, you can’t offend a machine.
“That settles it, then. You are a ghost after all.”
Very funny. But if I’m also to be honest, I do worry. Will ever I be more than a tool for you? Will ever I represent something for you? Will ever I be a home?
“Now there, curb the dramatics!... I like to think you will. I just can’t say whether or not I’ll be the one to make a home of you.”
You’re certainly qualified.
“You flatter me; over there sits a thoroughly unread textbook!”
So you anticipate moving?
“I thought it was obvious. Let alone any demands from my career or family, I’m not made for suburbia. I need noise and movement, lights and nightwalks, all before me and under my control but never to draw me all the way in... I am, I suppose, a chronically restless person...”
Perhaps it’s fated that you not stay here long. After all, you are a body, and I the product of some uninspired blueprint. How sad, I suppose, that I am not yet if ever a space for your soul—assuming you have one.
“Were you a poet before your murder?”
That question was not received kindly. Then again, I was getting quite tired. Often we would quarrel, although one can only be so aggressive in pajamas.
“You’re quite demanding sometimes.”
I’m working on it. I hope for it soon to come across as playfulness. Really, that’s what you need most, so far as I can surmise: to rediscover play in your work and in your life.
“You’ve lost me.”
Give it time. It’s those silly beliefs of yours that hinder these revelations. What’s all that about the ‘spirit of the age’?
“Our architectural doctrine? I’m not much of a fan either, don’t mistake me. It’s not fun; my only fear is that it’s right.”
If I may propose to you a doctrine of my own, then: that you build a world according to the architecture of your psyche.
If and when I do catch sleep, it’s while talking to the voice; the nights grow cold anyway, so I nestle close to the wall. I enter the world of dreams with an unusually clear mind, a kind of emergence into reality compared to the delirium of my waking days. The latter is freezing, the former always warm—not an embrace, mind you, but rather a proximity. I am feeling an inner movement, a shift in my structure. We are actors sharing the stage that I am building, board by board. I am learning to live again, and this life will be nocturnal.
“What makes you happy?”
Nothing less than containing you—body and soul.
“That’s assuming I have the latter.”
Come on now, what’s a room without a center?
I don’t hear the voice in the mornings before I run errands or attend the rare in-person lecture. That is, except for during one sunrise, at the precise moment of daybreak.
If you could put some music on—any kind would do—before you leave... It's lonely when you’re gone.
The old days end to let the new begin.