Real Sleep No Icebergs

Does not my heat astound you! And my light!
All by myself I am a huge camellia

Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.

— Sylvia Plath, “Fever 103°”

Even the darkness was hot. The motorized fan on the shelf stirred soupy hot air. My eyeballs ached beneath my skin. The fever was on its way out, but it had left me weak, slow-moving, spacey. The back of my neck hurt to the touch; my skin was tender and itchy. It was a doozy of a fever, 103.2, and I had no health insurance. It was the heat wave in Chicago when hundreds of people died. Look it up. The heat still trembled up in the high 80s and 90s when I got sick. I was in a show and I had no understudy, so I had to perform every night. I remember walking home from the theatre at the height of my sickness, and I couldn’t feel my legs, my feet floating above the sidewalk, body dissolving in and out of focus.

I was leaving Chicago in a month, beloved city of my heart, and moving to New York for grad school. I was not dealing at all with the repercussions of the upcoming move yet. I was denying reality. Nothing was changing. Oh ho no. I was FINE.

Naturally I got sick.

For two days, I lay prone on the green velvet couch in my living room, facing the front windows. I couldn’t move or think. My eardrums had apparently taken liquid form. I guzzled aspirin. I drank gallons of water. I had chicken broth with whole cloves of raw garlic. Shots of whiskey. I was desperate. I was young, hearty, and I had always bounced back. Not this time.

When I got sick, everything started breaking down. My veneer, my willful oblivion, was ripped away. I had been living as though I would not be moving in a month. I had not packed or planned. I was not allowing myself to grieve or to be fully present. Fever 103 was the jumpstart. The green velvet couches enveloped me and I would wake up from feverish sleep to find hot tears boiling down my face. The two worst days of it were in July. Much of it blends together in my memory.

On the 103.2 day, things got scary. My eyeballs were tiny slits in my mushy liquidy head. Objects started disintegrating around me, the light breaking into shimmering drops like mercury, the rug washing away like the tide. Then I saw ranks of icebergs, huge and white and blue, coming towards me. There was a midnight-dark sea, and I could feel how cold that water was, the frosty air, the mountains of ice towering around me, as far as the eye could see. It was a treacherous landscape, and yet it looked so beautiful, so cold. I yearned for that ice, I ached to plunge into that midnight ocean, the fever hissing off me in a burst of steam.

I called Mitchell, who was at work at the dentist’s office. I told him my temperature was 103. He said, “That is bad.” I said, “The icebergs are so pretty!” and he said, “I’m calling Maureen.” and hung up. Maureen was the doctor girlfriend of the dentist whom Mitchell worked for. I only have a vague memory of Maureen at my apartment door, but Mitchell must have called her and told her the situation, because she came straight over. She was a doctor making a house call, in this day and age. I remember lying on the velvet, melting into it, as she administered to me. I do not remember what she gave me. All I know is that she was there and that I would get better.

I remembered, somewhere in the haze, that my Chicago flame – whom I will refer to here as M. – called me during my sickness, but I couldn’t remember what I said to him. Things were happening, important things, but I floated above them. Mitchell told me M. had called a couple of times.

A day or so later, emerging from the luquidy-hallucinations, I was out getting coffee, legs still wobbly, and I saw M. in his battered blue muscle car at the intersection of Southport and Addison. We lived a couple blocks from each other. I know that I wasn’t quite myself yet because of what I did when I saw him: I plunged into the street to run over to his car, without looking both ways, or even one way, and I remember him leaning out his window, shouting, “Careful!” as a car slammed on its brakes to avoid smashing into me.

The fever had pulled back in the last couple of days, enough to leave me clear and aware. M. loomed in my mind. Did he know? We weren’t big on language, although we talked all the time. But we didn’t speak the language of emotions. We probably spoke about how we “felt” maybe 2 times in the entire time I knew him. Our dynamic was mysterious to others, and it worked for us. We joked, messed around, played pool, and of course spent tons of time in bed. We told stories to make each other laugh. Ours was a casual “Hey, whassup” vibe, but not casual like performative casual, but casual as in relaxed. Maybe it’s a Gen-X thing. Or maybe it’s just me, but then again, I am Gen-X so I am open to the possibility.

We had been doing our thing for almost four years when I plunged into traffic to get to his car, and it embarrassed me later to think of how I clung to his neck through his car window in the middle of the intersection, saying, “I’ve been so sick! I need to see you!” Was I breaking an unspoken rule? But M. just laughed at my frenzy of love and need and patted my hand like I was a halfwit, saying, “We’ll see each other. You just get better first, okay?” The light had turned green. I was afraid to let him go. He said, gently, and there was something soft about his smile, a look I rarely saw on his usually cranky face, “Let go of my arm. You get better. Okay?” “Okay … But I need to see you!” Cars started beeping at us. He said, “We’ll see each other. Please be careful. You’re going to get hit by a car right now.”

M. knew that I was essentially crazier than he was although I was rather buttoned-up socially. He, on the other hand, was a maniac socially – there was very little he wouldn’t do in public – but inside he was stable and calm. I never put this together until years into the thing. He never judged me for being a little bit crazy. He had a Pavlovian effect on me (not a power you give to just ANYone. He earned it.)

I would have cringed away in revulsion from a man who wanted to dig into my issues with me. Too much pressure. No, he let me alone. But he provided a perimeter around me, running interference, all without rolling his eyes at how high-maintenance I was. I had had many hurtful experiences when a man was drawn to what he would call my “intensity”, and then he would find out that “intensity” also meant I was a little bit crazy, and instead of saying, “This is what I signed up for”, he would scorn that aspect of me, belittling me, recoiling from me altogether. M. would certainly tell me to calm down if he thought I was over-reacting (“Okay, wait, what’s the problem now? I don’t get it.”), but he did it in a way that was not contemptuous. He wouldn’t even think to treat me with contempt. Totally foreign to him. He would wait it out, and then we’d watch a Kung Fu movie at 4 a.m. Or he’d just throw me down on the bed and get to work.

Early on in our knowing each other, I found myself in a sketchy situation on a deserted L platform one night. A group of guys had been harassing me for about 20 minutes on the train, and when I got up to get off at my stop, they followed me, telling me they were “gonna rape me” when I came down the stairs. Later, when I told M. this story, it all had become funny to me (since I got away from the potential rapists, with the help of a drag queen friend of mine who lived nearby and came flying to the rescue wearing a cocktail gown, stiletto heels, all while wielding an actual stiletto in order to murder the guys threatening me – do not mess with the queens. They are the toughest motherfuckers on the planet.). Anyway, I started out to regale M. with this story, thinking he would find it amusing. He did not at ALL find it amusing. He was furious. Some of you might call it victim-blaming and that is completely your right, although maybe listen to the woman who’s actually telling the story? If you’re gonna #believewomen maybe believe them all? Him getting so upset about this story was my first inkling, despite … well, all that we had already done … that he actually, you know, liked me. I mean, I knew he liked kissing me, but he was so pissed off at me for the L platform thing he wouldn’t talk to me for about 20 minutes. He was shouting at me at Southport Lanes: “This is BULLshit, what the fuck were you doing on the L train in the middle of the night wearing fishnets?” I got quite meek. He loved my fishnet stockings. But he was scared. And the thought of me being scared made him nuts. I was actually flattered that he was bitching me out. Nobody had ever even GIVEN a shit enough about me to yell at me. You see what I mean? He GAVE a damn. I said, “I’m sorry … I wasn’t thinking.” “No shit you weren’t thinking. Why didn’t you call me?” “I … well … ” At that early time, it would never, in a million years, have occurred to me to call HIM in my moment of need. (And now I know that if I had called him, he would have dropped everything and drove to get me at Fast and Furious speed levels. But I didn’t know that THEN.) So here was something else, and it snuck up on me, and surprised me. He said in an almost threatening (not scary threatening – just emphatic) way: “If I ever find out that you’re almost raped on some fucking L platform and you don’t call me to come get you, I’ll never speak to you again.” “Okay. I got it. I’m sorry. I thought it was funny.” “It’s not funny.” “Okay, okay.”

This was when I realized: “Oh. We’re actually in a relationship right now. Who knew.” (I’m smart about some things but not so smart about others.)

During the height of the 103-degree fever, I had drawn a picture of a phoenix in my notebook and I liked the almost-Catholic look of it. I decided to get a tattoo. I was not quite better yet, but I walked down to Belmont Tattoo in the middle of the day. The place was empty, and I showed the tattoo artist my drawing and asked him if he could put it on the back of my shoulder. He hesitated at first. “Are you sure?” This was before everyone and their grandmother had a tattoo. But he did what I asked. It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, I remember it feeling good. A sensation other than loopy fever. I walked home from Belmont with a big gauze pad over my tattoo. It was hot. My legs were still achey, and the sun beat down on the concrete. Sickness trembled in my veins and there was still a spacey-ness to my experience, but health was now at least conceivable. I could imagine being better. Not only that, but I could now imagine myself in New York. The old selves dissolving, “whore petticoats”, and I was ready to rise up and accept the new life.

The icebergs were already strangely psychedelic in my memory, like something from a dream. I had gone through a crucible.

Four weeks left in Chicago.

Can life be held onto? Can one be totally present?

M. called me that night. I was lying on the green velvet couch and I felt a leap of warmth at the sound of his voice. It was about 11:30 p.m. and it was still breathlessly hot.

“How you feeling?” he asked. “You feel like coming over?”

Are you kidding me? After our breathless train-station-scene-in-Reds moment at the intersection?

“I’ll be right over.”

I grabbed a bottle of wine and walked to his place four blocks away. I didn’t walk on Southport, because that seemed too public. I walked a block west of Southport on a shadowy tree-lined street, quiet and dark, lined by brownstones. The gauze pad on my back itched. I hadn’t even put the bottle of wine in a bag. I strolled down the dark sidewalk holding it by the neck, like a wino.

Somewhere during the short walk to his apartment, I got it.

It wasn’t a particularly special or notable night, except for feeling healthy again. There was nothing out of the ordinary about any of it. He and I were always traveling in between each other’s houses at all hours of the day and night on a moment’s notice. But suddenly, it was as though my perspective expanded, pulling back, and I could see myself, like in a movie, walking down that dark street in sneakers, shorts and a halter top, with a gauze pad taped to my shoulder. I could see myself holding that wine bottle in my hands, and I knew that my life was about to change. Not just because of the move to New York. I could see now that my life, July and August of that final summer in Chicago, would be remembered in the future as a highly specific time, completely unlike any other in my experience. This time would never come again. Instead of it being terrible that the Chicago phase was ending, it became joyous. I could actually feel my own life, for a couple of minutes on that walk, and it didn’t come in a moment of great accomplishment or a dream coming true or a wish being fulfilled. It came in the everyday, the banal, the regular. It came because of the leafy darkness, the familiarity of the walk, and the thought that soon I would be with him, and I couldn’t wait to see his cranky face, because now I was healthy again, and I had four weeks left to soak him up and now I was aware of it and so I could now be with him and be aware of our thing together and how much it – and he – meant to me.

I yanked the cork out of the wine bottle and took a swig as I walked down the street. What a beautiful life.

I climbed up the rickety back staircase of his apartment building, like I always did, fumbling in the dark, opening the door to his kitchen. His apartment was pitch-black but he had lit a candle and put it on the kitchen table. He was not, to put it mildly, a candle type of guy. Hell, he barely had a fork, so I was touched. I moved out into the apartment only to see that he had placed candles everywhere. There was a trail of them on the floor down the hallway, glimmering breadcrumbs through the dark forest, leading me into the living room. It was freakishly romantic of him, and so out of character I thought I might have entered the wrong apartment by mistake.

I came out into the living room and he sat in a chair in the middle of the room, in the dark, smoking a cigarette, and grinning at me. He had pulled out the couch-bed and covered it with sheets and pillows. Candles were everywhere.

“What the hell is going on?” I said.

“What’s your problem?” he replied.

We had exchanges like that all the time, and to me, the message was always clear. What a thing it was to never be misunderstood. He got up and took me into his arms. We hadn’t been together in about two weeks. I was always jones-ing for him, let’s face it I was a junkie, but this past two weeks had felt longer than usual. I told myself, still in the afterglow of the moment on the street on the walk over: revel in him, revel in him, be in the moment, this is it, the moment is almost gone, this life is almost gone… so I stood in the circle of candles like some Wiccan priestess in hi-tops, looking up at him with his crazy black hair, gleaming eyes, his pale skin.

I informed him, excited, “I got a tattoo!”

“While you were sick? Sheila, that is so stupid.”

Ah, the fondness. Can’t you feel it?

I showed it to him anyway, peeling back the gauze on my shoulder. I felt him tentatively touch the tattoo and make a judgmental “tsk tsk” sound.

The heat was still heavy and oppressive, and I was far from well, so he had set us up in the living room where there was a miniscule cross-breeze. He had also drawn a cold bath filled with ice cubes (and this was a man who had no kitchen appliances. He had had to PLAN this.) and made me get into it, so I could cool off. It was freezing and not romantic and I didn’t want to get in there but he made me. I merged with the ghostly eerie icebergs. When I got out I felt so much better. We climbed into the creaky pull-out bed, springs and bars pushing up into my body. The mattress was as thin as a tissue, but I felt I had never been in such a comfortable bed. It was the same hot night that it was four blocks away at my apartment, but I was soft and floppy and relaxed.

We ordered food. I ate 153 French fries. I couldn’t stop. I was amazed that my appetite was back. That tinfoil-wrapped greasy food was so delicious. Health. Returning.

We turned on the TV and ended up watching The Verdict. I had taken out my contact lenses, so I was blind. I lay there under the cool cotton sheet, looking over at the fuzzy grey television, on my way out into sleep. Real sleep, no icebergs. He sat next to me, watching the movie as intently as if it were a Kung Fu movie. Paul Newman would say something, and I’d hear M. say, “You tell ‘im, Paul.” His running supportive commentary went on throughout. He smoked, the ashtray resting on my hip, and he talked to the movie, saying stuff like, “Yeah, fuck him, Paul. He’s a dick”, and occasionally he would lecture me about why Paul Newman was so good.

We did not talk about my impending departure and what that might mean for us. We did not talk about career moves, our relationship, if we would keep in touch, or who we were to each other. Words were completely unnecessary. It was always like that with him. From the very beginning.

My eyelids were heavy, and he was going on and on about Paul Newman, and his words blended together. I would murmur, “Mm-hm,” in response, having no idea what opinion I was agreeing to, but I was so happy, and so aware of my own happiness, that I wished he would never stop talking.


The next morning he took a photo of the tattoo that he judged so much. He grew to like it.


A couple days later, he took this, me and my cat Sammy, sitting on the front steps of my house. I was almost fully recovered at this point.


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17 Responses to Real Sleep No Icebergs

  1. kathy says:

    Chicago Guy sounds like my first husband. Very random, casual. I enslaved with love. Always waiting. Good Catholic girls wait for the boy to call! We moved to Vermont. I couldn’t let him answer the phone-parents. might. find. out! We married. Had precious baby girl. I grew up. Unhappy. Separated. Cheated, sort of. Got back together. Trying for baby girl. One year later, he died. Now I’m very happily married for 23 yrs. This one was the right one. But…never will I forget how much I loved him. Wouldn’t change a thing.

  2. sheila says:

    Kathy – wow. What a … just amazing how things happen.

    I have so much to say about this guy (he said to me once, “Sheila, you could write a novel about the last 5 minutes”), but it’s best to go at it in pieces. We just fit together. It was a good match. Nobody was left hanging, nobody was left miserable … I didn’t ache by the phone, we didn’t try to make each other jealous. We also somehow resisted seriousness – we were young enough still to get away with that. But in a way, it is the most serious relationship I’ve ever had.

  3. sheila says:

    He’d hate me for saying this, but he was a caretaker. I wasn’t even aware then how much I needed to be taken care of – not financially or anything, but emotionally. He picked up on it. And he took care of it without ever making a big deal out of it. And that’s as mushy as I’m gonna get. :)

    • kathy says:

      When we got married, he was good to me. When he realized he loved me,it was all out. I changed. My mad infatuation died. I married too young, without knowing how serious it is. He was older and more mature. I left college to be with him and told my folks I was going to Vermont with girl friends to live. They went bat shit! I couldn’t lie for long, so he proposed. We moved to Florida and I’m still here. Hate it. Circumstances. New husband’s job. Having no family near didn’t help the situation. I loved Boston and didn’t really want to leave. He was the boss. I wished I had been as casual in the beginning, like he was. Next year me and my guy will start spending part of the year in Massachusetts. He had to retire this year. Way early. Another long story. I cannot wait! All my family is there. God, I’m chatty today! Sorry.

  4. sheila says:

    Kathy – that’s okay, that’s part of why I post stuff like this. I love to hear people’s reactions.

    I am so happy to hear of your Massachusetts plans – that’s wonderful!

    It would have been – I say with total frankness – a disaster if I had ever married this guy. But that was never really on the table. There were times when I spent 48 hours straight in his presence (although that was rare), and by the end of it I was always like, “Okay, I gotta get away from you now for about 5 days.” It was this cocoon. Awesome, but only in small doses.

  5. allison bennett says:

    Oh, Sheila….How beautiful. And I couldn’t help but laugh out loud at “The icebergs are so pretty.” God fevers are so weird, aren’t they. Did you get my email with the news??

    I miss you!

  6. sheila says:

    I did get your email with the news. I think I was afraid to respond, in case the news suddenly changed. I miss you so much I can’t even fucking deal with it. COME BACK.

  7. Sophie says:

    I can never get over the fabulous impressions you communicate through your writing, and how those impressions come together to create a story! Thank you.

    One of my favorite family stories about fever and hallucination is from when my family went on a ski trip together – we were living abroad, and took advantage of it, so off we went to Norway! Unfortunately everyone in the family fell ill. Everyone but me, that is. Throughout the week we were there, my sisters and my parents all reported seeing the Northern Lights at various times in the middle of the night. There were a few instances where I would be woken up to see them… and there would be none there. The one time I think I’ve ever been disappointed to not be sick. I would’ve liked to have seen them, just to say I had seen the Northern Lights in Norway! (Never mind that they were fever-induced hallucinations!)

  8. sheila says:

    Sophie – wow, what a story!!

    Having a fever that high does make it seem like you are constantly seeing Northern Lights. But it’s amazing to have it be a group-hallucination!

  9. allison bennett says:

    It’s fucking official girlfriend!! One month, 6 weeks at most. There is so much shit we need to catch up on and so much sharing to happen. Jesus, it scares me to even think about our first night together. We won’t even have time to breathe…. btw, did you hear about Mike Starr from Celebrity Rehab?? Very sad news.

  10. sheila says:

    It’s going to be like a first date. With someone you are already in love with. I am so excited, hon, so so excited you are coming back. I can’t even deal with it.

    And yes, I heard about Mike Starr. Fucking sad. He always struck me as kind of a sensitive guy, albeit very fucked up. Dr. Drew must be so upset.

  11. mutecypher says:

    Sounds like you look back on past happiness and still feel the echoes, still find the joy and comfort (amidst the cray-cray). Good for you.

  12. Desirae says:

    I always feel like I’m freezing when I have a fever, and get the urge to cover up and pile blankets on myself. Which is the opposite of a useful survival instinct. I remember my mother putting me in a lukewarm bath when I was very young and had the flu – I shrieked because it felt like she had dumped me in ice water.

    • sheila says:

      Desirae – The chills are awful!! I took an ice-cold bath at one point during the fever in the essay – everything was totally exacerbated by the fact that it was 98 – 100 degrees for five days in a row during the height of the flu and we had no air conditioning. The power went out too. I remember coming home from the show I was doing and every car on my block had the motor running, and people were just hanging out in their cars with the air conditioning blasting. I so wanted to knock on the window and say, “Can I come in there for a while??”

  13. Lyrie says:

    I love Window Guy.

    //July and August//

    • sheila says:

      He really was the best. Not to get too dramatic, but he saved me in a lot of ways. Not a lot of men wanted to put up with me – after a certain point. He didn’t even seem to sweat it. Or even notice. He was a weirdo too.

      and hey – July and August!! Total coincidence – but obviously something must have been going on there! Those months represent possibility – first – and then endings. Mid-summer, lots of time – end of summer, no more “time.”

      I didn’t choose those months deliberately – I just liked how they sounded together as opposed to two other months (I tried them all).

      But I love that you made that connection!

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