I am staying overnight in my oldest daughter’s apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It was a quick trip—in on Sunday morning for a bridal tea in the East Village for one of my fabulous nieces, a little shopping at the Eileen Fisher sale annex on E. 9th St., coffee with a beloved colleague from the girls’ school where I taught for 20 years. Then, home to Miranda and Sara’s apartment for Mexican food—delivered to their door and delicious. We chat and laugh. Miranda cleans the miniscule bathroom; Sara folds laundry. I do the dishes then sit on the couch reading a novel. Finally, we turn in for the night. I sleep in the living room, making a nest with pillows and a blanket, turning on the fan to move the hot still air of a New York apartment in early March.
In the middle of the night, I wake, thirsty, and feel my way to the kitchen sink, fill a Hamilton plastic cup with water—NYC tap water is my favorite—and look out the window. Across 95th Street, lights glow in several apartments. I fall backwards through time. It’s the fall of 1995. Cordelia, our second daughter, is a terrible sleeper. When she was about six months old, we moved into a new apartment on East End Avenue—literally on the other side of Manhattan from where I stand in Miranda’s apartment. The birth of a second daughter had motivated us to get serious about moving; I couldn’t manage the four-story walk up, with a toddler by the hand and an infant in the Snguli. Seth drew a circle around Carl Schurz Park, and our amazing Realtor found the perfect apartment—next door to my school, across the street from the park. We couldn’t really afford it, but our parents helped, and, by autumn, we had moved in, a new lovely home, enormous compared to the tiny duplex in which we began our Manhattan chapter.
Moving, even when it’s around the corner, is dislocating. I remember waking up in the cavernous freshly-painted space wondering when it would feel like home. Adjustments to new apartments and new babies take time. Our living room windows faced E. 83rd Street, and we lived on the fourth floor—but this time, with an elevator. Cordelia preferred sleeping with us to sleeping with her sister in a crib. She was never effectively “Ferberized”. She would cry so hard upon being left that she would throw up—already, her will was evident. Though I was a fierce schoolteacher who took little guff from my students, I could not manage my baby’s furious shrieks. Nor could her sister who was forced to share a room with her. So, we walked. No lights. No books. No songs. No rocker. Just pacing back and forth in the living room as I tried to work a charm that could send her into a sleep that would last more than 15 minutes.
I often found myself at our large window, a new view that looked right into an apartment across the street. It was an old building, lower than ours, friendly-seeming at 2 a.m. Directly across and slightly to the left, I would watch a man fill a kettle, put it on the stove, set out cups on the tiny kitchen table and make tea. Another man would join him, unwrapping his muffler, hanging up his coat. Someone involved in theatre, I pondered? Who else kept such late hours? A doctor, back from a long shift? A jazz musician?
“Hello,” I’d whisper, “I’m over here. I like that you are up, like me. I wish that you would wave to me.”
I spied on them night after night. I loved them, spinning their narrative to please me, their lives distracting me from my baby who neither fell asleep nor stayed asleep—ever. I grew to understand why sleep deprivation is employed by torturers. I was groggy from bad-mother guilt, exhausted, grim. Surely, a good mother could get her daughter to sleep—our first daughter slept easily and deeply, minutes after we arrived home from the hospital. What was wrong with me this time?
“Sleep, please, baby. Sleep.”
Brown eyes unblinking, she gazed at me, no more able to answer my entreaties than the men across the window.
I’d find myself in our living room, hoping “my” men would be across the way, in the kitchen, living their lives. This kind couple soothed me—anonymous, tender. Some days, I would scrutinize the faces of men I saw on 83rd wondering if they were my middle-of-the-night company. They were white, dark-haired, middle-aged (by which I think I meant they were older than I was two decades ago). I think one had a dark beard, but though I was an enthusiastic voyeur, I could not quite discern their features. I felt slightly guilty that I spied on them but more grateful that they were there to be spied upon. Their evening ritual reassured me that I was not all alone on the earth with a fretful child. Their calm allowed me to find calm, to breathe in the dark, bare living room, to quiet my baby.
Now, long after those sleepless nights, I find myself a visitor in New York, a traveler from another part of the world. I recognize everything, yet much is unfamiliar. The city pulses; my own blood pumps echoing the rhythm I recall instantly.
In those evenings when that apartment felt so new, I could not know another baby would join us many years later, another chapter in another place—one that is took us all away from that spacious once-new apartment. What was the same was another child who hated sleeping almost as much as his big sister, but there was no apartment to peer into, no sense that there were people up late at night living their lives as I walked him up and down the corridors of a house that also felt gigantic and unfamiliar. Visions and revisions.
On this evening, after our first daughter is old enough to have returned to Manhattan to make it her own, I find myself awake again in the middle of the night, gazing across the way. I miss those neighbors I never knew. I miss the drowsy weight of an infant who wanted her mom. The contours of my life were taking shape around me. Mothering tiny ones feels so impossibly uncomplicated once they grow too big to cuddle.
The lights across the way comfort me.