Two years ago, I attended a professional writing workshop. One of the editors buying short stories for that workshop was putting together an anthology of stories about people’s passions. She wasn’t talking about romantic passions, but about subjects that were emotional, i.e. visceral.
So, I asked myself, what am I most passionate about? And why? And the answer, for me, was that I am most passionate about being an American. Because I wasn’t born one.
I knew then what I had to write about. This was the hardest story I’ve ever had to write. And no one was more surprised than me, when it was bought. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the publication date was pushed back, and I decided to pull it from the anthology and publish it myself.
As I was going through the manuscript, two years after I wrote it, I decided to give the story a more fitting title: Pretending to Sleep.
It’s interesting the details the mind chooses to remember. Decades later some moments are still so crystal clear that you can see them as if they were happening right now. Your gut tells you it’s happening. The sweat on your skin tells you it’s happening. That hammering inside your ears—the one that the distant logical part of your mind insists is just your heart—tells you that it’s happening.
It wasn’t a dream, not in the sense that I was sleeping, but it was a nightmare. An extended, living nightmare, that came alive thanks to unguarded moments like, “Renata, that’s a nice story,” spoken by a stranger from across the table. She said it in a tone that implied that what I just told them was something I made up, rather than something that really happened. Either those words, spoken in that tone, or a shattered piece of china always take me back.
They happened together—those words and a broken cup. Maybe that’s why it felt so visceral. The cup, or a shard of it, bloodying my fingertip. The waitress, apologizing, scurrying for the first-aid kit like it was her fault. I saw it in her eyes, the fear that it was somehow her fault, that she must make it right, and no matter how much I insisted that it wasn’t a problem, that it was indeed my fault, I could tell she didn’t quite believe me. Or she would not, not until we were gone without asking to speak to the manager or leaving her without a tip.
It was her hunched-over look, that scurrying, whipped-dog demeanor that I regretted the most. It added to the nightmarish feel of it all. This was not how things were supposed to be. Not here anyway, and I kept myself from weeping because I knew that doing so was only going to make it worse.
I stuck my finger in my mouth. Copper and iron. Salt. It kept me from saying what I wanted to say. It kept my passions from using my voice. It kept my thoughts to myself, for there is one thing that I have learned, that the decades have taught me, sometimes casually, sometimes painfully—you cannot wake a man pretending to sleep.
I don’t quite remember the first time I read that. It’s a Navajo saying, one coined way before I was born, perhaps even before my country-of-origin was formed. Before I learned a word of English. Before I’d even learned there was such a place as America…
You can buy Pretending to Sleep: A Communism Survivor’s Short Story in print or at your favorite ebook retailer, by clicking here.